A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward Theatre, 31st August 2018

My regular reader, (hello), will need no reminding, (OK maybe they will), that I am a massive fan of Mr Martin McDonagh. Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in the last 3 years, indeed one of the best ever, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, amongst the best films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****). I am massively excited about his new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, which will open at the Bridge Theatre in October, with Jim Broadbent in the lead as Hans Christian Anderson and Phil Daniels alongside him as Dickens. It sound like it will plough the same dark furrow as 2003’s Pillowman, (which Mr Broadbent originally starred in), where a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is meta, a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.

Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to  lose our bearings. That is what makes them thrilling. I would be pretty sure that violence is going to be a theme in the new play, as well as the nature of “story-telling”, based on the intriguing Bridge blurb.

Prior to The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the last produced of Mr McDonagh’s “Irish” plays, and the second in the Aran Islands trilogy, (named after the three islands in Galway Bay), and was originally produced in 2001 by the RSC. (The final play in the trilogy, The Banshees of Inisheer, is as yet unpublished). Michael Grandage, the director here, revived the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, to great acclaim, in 2013, at this very theatre, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. It is, you guessed it, a black comedy, this time about the impact on the community, and specifically bookish loner Billy, of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore in 1934. The documentary, like the play, was a sort of pastiche on the “remote” west of Ireland, and there are strong echoes of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh, with his rapid plot reversals, with his fictions and lies, and with that always slippery morality, again sets out to confuse and offend. Here his target is the whole notion of Irish identity, the creation myths if you will. Set it up, then knock it down, shift it on, that’s the method he employs and that’s why his plays and films are so bloody marvellous.

The ink had been dry for three years or so on the Good Friday agreement when The Lieutenant of Inishmore first appeared on stage. However it was actually written in 1994, and is set in 1993, the year of the Harrods, Warrington, Bishopgate and Shankhill Road bombings. Yet by the end of that year British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds were able to sign the Joint Declaration of Peace, the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Now some halfwit Brexiteers public school jape puts this all at risk, amongst so many other things. Remember it is now near 600 days since the power sharing assembly which forms the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and the threat of a return to direct rule looms without any agreement. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Secretary freely admits she knew nothing about politics in the country ahead of being appointed. Anyway, calm down Tourist. Back to the culture.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in common with many other of Mr McDonagh’s works, uses extreme violence to show that violence is no solution to argument or injustice, whether personal or political. “A violent play that is whole-heartedly anti-violence” as its author described it. Mad Padraic is a terrorist who is so brutal that he has been booted out of the IRA and even the INLA. We first encounter him torturing a suspected drug dealer until interrupted by the news from back home in Inishmore that his cat Wee Thomas is ill. Let’s just say havoc ensues thereafter. The play is a satire on Irish terrorism, for sure, on political violence more generally, and especially on the kind of beliefs, and the fanatical rhetoric and sanctimonious moral superiority underpinning them, that justify mindless butchery by the believers.

It is brutal, callous but also very funny. The idea of a revenge comedy is hardly new: I think this is the best way to interpret Titus Andronicus and its forebears for example (Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****). Or the films of Quentin Tarantino. To squeeze this many laughs out of the situation though, whilst clearly conveying your message, takes extraordinary writing skill.

It also needs a skilful cast to strike the right tone and pace. Now I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise when I tell you that I was probably one of the few members of the audience who wasn’t there to gaze upon the undoubted charms of Aidan Turner as Padraic. Indeed, following a late substitution. the SO stood down to be replaced by LD. The LD has not yet been meaningfully exposed to the genius of Mr McDonagh, unlike the rest of the family, nor frankly is she a fan (yet) of that Poldark. But she can see the fella is gorgeous, I assured here it would make her laugh and the political context was right up her academic street. She thought it was brilliant. And that remember from a youth who is very suspicious of both Dad and the “theatre”.

She was right. This is a brilliant production. And that is due in no small part to the charisma of Aidan Turner. Mr Turner’s stage career has been hijacked by the TV roles and this is effectively his first major role outside of Dublin. He is very, very good, toning down Padraic’s sadism and dialling up his childish sentimentality, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next outing. This is not just about him however. Denis Conway as Padraic’s father Donny, Chris Walley in his stage debut as the hapless Davey and Charlie Murphy as Davey’s sister, and budding “freedom-fighter” and Padriac’s soulmate, Mairead, are all mightily impressive. The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram is revealed to be an exact replica of the family cottage in every detail even as it is splattered with lashings of blood.

 

 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, 16th January 2018

Best film of 2018.

Settle down Tourist. We are only three weeks in. Well I am confident that nothing will come along to match this so I stand by my sensationalist claim. You see I spent all of 2016 waiting for a better play than Hangmen, also penned by Martin McDonagh, to come along and it never did. In Bruges is a top 10 ever film for me and The Pillowman is another favourite play. I have not seen all of the five “Galway” plays that Mr McDonagh tossed out in the space of a year in 1994, in the absence of a proper job, but I have read them. I love theatre but trust me, I don’t read many texts, that would be a step too far. But these cried out to be read. Heavens I even think Seven Psychopaths could do with more meta references.

So, as you can see I have a (un)healthy admiration for Martin McDonagh. And now, to cap it all, I read that he is courting the prodigiously talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Even by his high standards though, Three Billboards is a terrific achievement. I believe he has argued in the past that film is a better artistic medium than theatre, (he is transparently wrong in this regard), but the simple fact is, the reason he is such a brilliant film-maker is precisely because he is such a brilliant playwright.

He can tell a story. And he does it in a classically Aristotelian way. Perfect plotting. Take a character, or in this case three characters in the form of Mildred Hayes, the transcendent Frances McDormand, Bill Willoughby, played by a pitch-perfect Woody Harrelson, and Jason Dixon, entrusted to another McDonagh regular, the Sam Rockwell, and present them with problems to solve, or not.

The bitter, careworn Mildred wants justice for her daughter, Angela, who was brutally raped and murdered. The target for her fury is police chief Willoughby, who, we soon learn, is dying of cancer. And one of his officers, Dixon, is a violent racist whose redemption is prompted by Willoughby’s intervention. These major characters, and those supporting the story, could not be more vivid.

Justice, rage and revenge, as we know from other contemporary film directors, (there are echoes of Tarantino and Asian masters here), and playwrights down the ages, are themes that are guaranteed to grip any audience. I think those who have got hooked up on race, the state of America, sexual violence or a host of other themes they think this film should be addressing have missed the point.

Language: well I have no idea how the good and bad people, of Missouri speak, but I know there is poetry here. And you never know what anyone will say next. There is so much small detail to relish in the dialogue. There is spectacle aplenty with a string of WTF scenes and some stunning cinematography. The multiplicity of tone, and “ordinariness” of location, constantly left me searching for cinematic references.

The jerky rhythm that is created from the interplay of plot, character, language and spectacle carries us along breathlessly. What just happened? What is about to happen? Do I like them? Do I hate them? Why did they do that? These are questions you need to keep asking to make a drama come alive. Three Billboards delivers this. Again and again and again. The wonderful score and intelligently curated musical excerpts only add to the story.

McDonagh’s writing is economic and fearless as is his directing. There are multiple occasions where he rushes in where others fear to tread, but he is no fool. Bait and switch followed by bait and switch, but never really stretching credulity, (which is an overrated requirement in naturalist drama anyway). Suffused with violence sure, but also with humanity. And plenty of characters whose primary mode of expression is “f*ck you” which, as well know, is as naturalistic as it comes.

This then is a tragedy full of comedy. Or a comedy full of tragedy. There was another playwright who mastered that art and was unafraid of going straight for the audience’s jugular. Big Will didn’t deal in stereotypes either and the good, the bad and the ugly could crop up on the same page in the same character. And he was wowing them 400 years ago. Further back there were 3 Greek fellows who nailed drama – so good they defined it. All good people to emulate.

Once you strip out the fantasies, the horrors, the rom-coms, the puerile, the childish, the introspective, the experimental, the “real life” dramas, the biopics, the historical, the spys, the super-heroes ….. and so on and so on, there just aren’t that many films that want to take a human story, and make it mythic. I appreciate that those who prefer their entertainment where the violence is frequent, unremarkable and bloodless and the comedy broad, or those who want drama that scrupulously adheres to their world-view of what is just, (best steer clear of Othello then), but, for those of you who prefer your meat a little rarer, (or your tofu a little spicier), then DO NOT MISS THIS.

Predictably I have got carried away. I just think this is an amazing film by an amazing writer. So I’ll stop now. For those of us Londoners who love this man’s work we are in for a couple more treats this year with a revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from end June at the Noel Coward Theatre directed by Michael Grandage, (who successfully revived The Cripple of Inishmaan in 2013), with that sex-bomb Aidan Turner playing Mad Paidrac, and with his new play A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter opening at the gorgeous Bridge Theatre in October. This sounds like it will revisit the dark and twisted territory of The Pillowman. I’ve booked it to replace the usual family panto trip.