One for Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre ****

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One For Sorrow

Royal Court Theatre, 5th July 2018

Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. It takes me so long to get round to seeing and commenting on anything that any post here is worse than useless to the unlucky reader who inadvertently stumbles across it. And all it ever does is recycle far more learned opinions from more talented commentators and bloggers. I can’t be doing with social media so no-one gets to hear about it anyway. I could pretend I like it that way but that would be untrue: my ego needs as much stroking as the next man or woman. I’m just a bit intimidated by this new world of immediate communication.

Sometimes, as here with One for Sorrow, I even momentarily forget what is is that I have seen. Which, in essence, is why I keep going. For there is no better way to learn than writing stuff down and learning through consuming culture is where I am at. So here we go again.

The premise for One for Sorrow was intriguing if not entirely novel – young, privileged, “middle-class”, idealist type invites “victim” of attack in London into the family home despite the misgivings of her liberal family – and playwright Cordelia Lynn was, by all accounts, someone worth listening too. The Royal Court certainly believes in her talent. And I can confirm that, broadly, they are right (no surprise there), and that the play delivers on its promise, even if it does get a little stuck in a cul-de-sac plot-wise towards the end.

Irfan Shamji, who stole the show in Joe White’s excellent debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree (Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****), plays the stranger John. The scene is set with his breathless voiceover as we sit in total darkness. He has a gentle, yet intense, presence that convinces you that he might just be the perpetrator, rather than the victim, of the atrocities that have descended on the capital. Pearl Chanda captures elder daughter Imogen’s air of stubborn righteousness, but also her desire to test her own, and her family’s, commitment to the politics of tolerance. When John turns up after responding to Imogen’s social media invitation to help he is understandably agitated and disheveled but his defensiveness, rucksack and refusal to remove his coat, sow the first seeds of doubt in the family. The sublime Sarah Woodward and the unshowy Neil Dudgeon are perfectly cast as Guardianista parents Emma and Bill, and Kitty Archer, as the breezily self-absorbed, excitable younger daughter Chloe, on her stage debut, also turns in a fine performance to complete the quintet. Ms Lynn has a way of pinpointing not just what this family would say if such an existential threat were posed to them but exactly how they would say it. Shades of Pinter, whose estate commissioned this play.

As the scale of the terror outside becomes apparent, up to and including gunshots on the surrounding streets, and a direct personal connection is unveiled, the tensions within the family, catalysed by John, ratchet up, and the gulf between what they say and how they act, widens. John’s sympathies, and his engineering knowledge, create greater uncertainty and, to Imogen’s disgust, the rest of the family turns on him. The problem is that, in order to maintain the suspense, “is he or isn’t he”, the plot does go round in circles somewhat and the arguments become a little over-extended. However with writing, acting and directing, from the ever reliable James MacDonald, of this quality it is pretty easy to forgive the meandering momentum in the second half.

The culture of fear (and fascination) of terrorist violence, the hypocrisy of the “liberal elite” (that’s me), the impetuosity of youth, the hollowness of hashtag activism, all are eloquently exposed. The title comes from a story Imogen tells about a trapped magpie in the house, bird symbolism being de riguer in London theatre recently. I was reminded of Winter Solstice, the superb play by Roland Schimmelpfenning, which, taking different subject matter also skewered the crisis of liberalism in Western society.

It was a warm day outside, (state the bleedin’ obvious why don’t you Tourist), so I can’t be sure if a dial turn on the air-con, or deliberation, accounted for the streaks of moisture that emerged on the walls of Laura Hopkin’s efficient set but it certainly helped add to the unsettling tenor of the play, alongside Max Pappenheim’s dynamic sound design.

Ms Lynn has the dramatic knack, no doubt about that. I suspect there is much more to come from her pen. She also writes opera librettos apparently and is a mean pianist. She’s only 29.

Act and Terminal 3 at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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Act, Terminal 3

The Print Room, Coronet, 13th June 2018

Lars Noren is considered by many of those who purport to know about these things to be Sweden’s greatest living playwright. He certainly looks the part. His writing is oft compared to Beckett and Pinter. The Print Room is a terrific space. The intimacy of fringe with, if you are careful, a comfortable enough perch and an atmospheric bar. And a bargain on Wednesday night. As a dedicated Scandi-phile I was well up for this.

Mind you I had read enough to realise this wasn’t set to be an evening of Cooney-ish farce. Once again I invite you to look at our Mr Noren above, This was going to be spikey, elusive, provocative, an air of brooding unease pervading the whole, in short proper European “art-theatre”. No conventional narrative of course. Past, present and futures unclear. Cast having to work extra hard to earn their corn (which they all did, admirably). Well it certainly lived up to the billing. Which was both good and bad.

Act sets out to explore the “symbiotic” relationship between State and Terrorist and was originally located in West Germany in the 1970s and the incarceration of Ulrike Meinhof. Director Anthony Nielsen has chosen to re-imagine the play in a near future USA post a Second Civil War where “red” secessionist states have been occupied by an authoritarian, left-leaning government. Interesting, a la mode, but ultimately unnecessary in my view, and not immediately obvious from the dialogue. G, venomously played by Barnaby Power, albeit with an improbable Southern drawl, is a doctor for the regime, holed up in some makeshift hospital/prison full of symbolic Americana. Temi Wilkey is M, the enemy of the state set to undergo further (?) examination/interrogation. They may have had a past encounter. There is little in the way of argument or context in their exchanges which are more along the lines of a psychological arm-wrestle as each takes their own experiences and beliefs to alternately cajole and belittle the other. I guess the overriding aim is, Foucault-like, to show the inter-dependence of captive and captor, and there are some arresting lines, as it were, but it was frustratingly opaque.

Terminal 3, again some 45 minutes or so, was a little more straightforward, but not by much. Two couples emerge either side of a screen centre stage courtesy of designer Laura Hopkins, imposingly lit by Nigel Edwards, and with buckets of dry ice. It transpires that Man and Woman (of course Mr Noren doesn’t dilute his art with names), Barnaby Power and Hannah Young have come to a hospital chapel of sorts to identify the body of their dead son. In contrast He and She (!), Robert Stocks and Temi Wilkey, are in a hospital as She is about to give birth. At least I think that was the set-up. This then becomes the stepping off point for a dense exploration of the impact of the beginning and end of life on the two couples. Mr Nielson’s direction, as the couples seem disorientated by their situations, fumbling in near darkness towards the end, (terminal ?), was unyieldingly gnomic.

So puzzling, inaccessible, provocative. Yes. And maybe just a bit daft. Yep, maybe. But here’s the thing. Like so many of these more challenging theatrical experiences it does stay in the memory, and sometimes for longer than more straightforwardly enjoyable entertainments. I have a recollection that none other than the mighty Caryl Churchill once said that she aimed to create a few lasting impressions in the audience for her plays. Anything more not being possible given the nature of memory. She might not have said this though given she doesn’t say much and my memory is fallible, or do I mean malleable. You get the idea. Not saying these two short plays really qualify but, by making me search for meaning, they might persist.