After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.
I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).
Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.
The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.
The Orange Tree, along with the Royal Court, must presumably be one of Martin Crimp’s favourite theatres. Whilst he has primarily been engaged with writing libretti for George Benjamin’s excellent trio of operas in recent years, Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, and will have his next play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, premiering at the National next year (the Tourist has tickets, yea), many of his early plays started life at the Orange Tree, where he was championed by Sam Walters.
So it was nice to see the Orange Tree hosting English Touring Theatre’s revival of MC’s breakthrough play 30 years after its premiere in this very house. Surprisingly I managed to rope the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into the evening. Now, whilst I have an inordinate amount of time for the opera collaborations and his Chekhov translation, I am still making my mind up on Mr Crimp’s original drama. Mind you this was only the second such exposure, after The Treatment at the Almeida. Now there is no doubt there is something substantial there in his caustic stories which pick away at the underbelly of human behaviours, and in the painfully direct language he employs to tell them, but there is also a streak of irksome pretension which needles me.
Clair (Lizzy Watts) is an estate agent acting for the increasingly loathsome bourgeois yuppie couple Mike (Tom Mothersdale) and Liz (Hara Yannas). Anna (Roseanna Frascona) is their ill-used Italian au-pair. Art-dealer James (Michael Gould) is the increasingly threatening potential buyer. The cast is completed by Gabriel Akuwudike who variously plays Clair’s colleague, a builder and Anna’s boyfriend.
Now the play was originally written a couple of years after the still unsolved disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in Fulham (and who is commemorated in a stained glass window just down the road from the OT in East Sheen). Coincidentally the police were pursuing a new lead in the case as this revival opened. For those familiar with the circumstances of these tragic events it isn’t too difficult to guess where MC goes with the plot. But what he was really trying to expose was the venality of the time, the greed of the property owning classes, as well as playing with his usual themes of power and violence. It could have been written yesterday alas.
Fly Davies has delivered a cube on a raised platform in the centre of the OT stage masked by diaphanous gauze curtains and coldly lit by Joshua Carr. This only serves to heighten the voyeuristic quality that permeates MC’s play. We begin with Clair in her tiny, train-blighted flat on the phone to an unseen caller setting out, for want of a better term, the aggression that underpins the “art of the deal”. Every one of the cast, (even Gabriel Akuwudike at the end), is tasked with drawing out the worst traits in each of the protagonists, (and way more in the case of Michael Gould as James’s sadistic intent is revealed), whilst making sure we know they are still “one of us”. It is an unsettling watch in that respect and, for me, Lizzy Watts, given the truncated part she played, was particularly adept in capturing Clair’s ambitious pragmatism to get on and get the sale done even as her discomfort with James’s behaviour grew.
Clair’s flat also serves as the location for the disturbing, and slightly hyperbolic, ending but most of the action tales place in Mike and Liz’s house which they are looking to trade up from, (see how transactional language now permeates the everyday and which MC cleverly elides with the “business” of relationship). They start off blathering on about their “ethical” stance but their evasive attitudes, their treatment of Anna and the conversations they have behind the backs of Clair and, after his first viewing, James, reveal their true avaricious and condescending colours. Pretty soon they are making jokes about the “crumbling spine” of the buyer they happily gazump and gleefully ramping up the price they will settle for. Hara Yannas and, especially, Tom Mothersdale have plenty of opportunity to reveal the odiousness of the couple which, in terms of their performances, they relish.
Michael Gould as James runs the gamut from curt and business-like, through slightly odd, to Pinteresque menacing, then into creepy, sinister and finally full blown abusive psycho. I do hope in real life he is a kindly uncle type for here, in the scenes with Clair especially, he genuinely made me fell queasy, which is ironic in some ways, given that in a particularly memorable scene, Mike is the one who is actually sick in the play.
So some very fine performances, dextrously directed by ETT director Richard Twyman, of an intelligent play, built out of considered language and symbols, with streaks of dark humour, which deals with the dark side of human nature. So what’s not to like Tourist? Well I think it might just be the cumulative effect of the slightly off-kilter naturalism of the action and dialogue. It feels to me, with the odd stresses and unbroken pessimism, to be about 5% away from where it should be. I appreciate that is a daft thing to say, and I wish to be clear that it is not the subject or the form that I mildly object to, just the tone which I found a little wearing over the 100 minutes. And, whilst I am sure that MC is, like Pinter, merely highlighting the iniquity of misogynistic threat through his characters, thereby to condemn it, it would be reassuring if he this was occasionally made a little more explicit.
Mind you, like all good theatre, the bloody thing has got stuck in my head ever since, and, even with the misgivings, I am looking forward to his new play, so clearly MC is doing something right even as I think he might not be. The SO, hasn’t volunteered much of an opinion on DWC, not one to waste her words, but is happy enough to join me in the next leg of the Crimp journey.
The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.
It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?
Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.
From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.
If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.
I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.
At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.