With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.
It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.
Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.
Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.
No flies on this. Arinze Kene’s coming of age play which first appeared at the OvalHouse in 2011 is high octane stuff. Which here, under the direction of this year’s winner of the JMK Award, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, and a committed cast of Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde, Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat, got the production it deserved. (I see there are all deservedly up for Offie Awards). Missing AK’s one man show Misty in 2018 has become even more of an oversight on the basis of this but his take on Biff Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman ranks as one of the best in London theatre in 2019.
Joanne carries a lot of swagger and attitude but worries about her mum’s mental health. Kehinde is a sensitive soul with his eye on a mixed race girl. Rugrat is the class clown who lacks direction. All are negotiating their way through inner city life. School, relationships, gangs, parents, emotions, money, ambition. But this is no fulmination of worthy dialogue. Instead AK mixes monologue, poetry, audience address and participation, recollection, history, comedy, physical theatre, dance, song, to tell their, interconnected, stories, notably Kehinde’s search for his now absent twin sister. It is generous, exciting, uplifting, and sometimes a little confusing as these stories overlap and are often left hanging. It starts off with laughs, a lot of them, but ends up somewhere far more contemplative.
If stage acting is about losing the fear then, trust me, these three show no fear. It really pains me to say this, so good are all three, but Rachel Nwokoro, has got IT. I can see that she has no interest in being tied down to a traditional acting career but I dearly hope I see her on stage again.
Tara Usher’s design is admirably straightforward , Bethany Gupwell’s lighting, dominated by an overhead halo, just about keeps up, Nicola Chang’s sound is superb and I hope DK Fashola, as movement consultant, got properly rewarded for his contribution.
Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu has directed a number of his own plays, including Sweet Like Chocolate, Boy, but I think I am right in saying this is his biggest directing gig to date. There are a number of established BME British directors, Indhu Rubasingham obviously, Nadia Fall, Lynette Linton at the Bush, (and who directed Sweat at the Donmar, my choice for best play of 2019), Roy Alexander Weise, about to take up the, shared, reins at the Royal Exchange Manchester, Nancy Medina, Matthew Xia, Beijan Sheibani, as well as up and coming talents such as Nicole Charles, Ola Ince, Gbolahan Obisesan and Emily Lim, all of whose work I have seen in the last few months. There’s a way to go but this, along with the wealth of BME acting, and lately writing, talent getting an opportunity to tell their stories, is encouraging. It permits me to see and hear stories that I would otherwise not. Which, when you come to think of it, is the whole point of theatre.
P.S. The photo of the Orange Tree was taken a few years ago. The sharp eyed amongst you will see the poster promoting the OT’s trilogy based on Middlemarch from 2013. Not, if I am honest, an unqualified success but an opportunity to remind me to implore you, in this, the week of the bicentenary of her birth, to read Middlemarch. Either for the first time. Or again. It is the greatest story ever told in the English language. Even if it is about the middle class in middle England.
Still waiting for that, ha ha, killer production of Macbeth. This unfortunately wasn’t it. Paul Miller, the inestimable AD of the punching-above-its-weight Orange Tree, had money to spend here. An 18 strong cast (with many actors in minor roles that had caught my eye before), so minimal doubling, led by John Simm and Dervla Kirwan as milord and lady, a beautifully designed set from Simon Daw, with lighting (Mark Doubleday), sound (Max Pappenheim) and video (Tim Reid) to match all set with the excellent sight-lines afforded by the Festival Theatre. And a full house boosted by enthusiastic GCSE’ers.
It certainly looked and sounded impressive. A circular glass floor which split open during the murders covering a pit of bodies. Some well tailored costumes in the non-specific militaristic style which defines modern Macbeths. A banqueting table straight out of Heals which would enhance the poshest Xmas lunch. Every lighting trick in the book including overhead “crown”. Atmospheric video signalling ghosts, heaths, blood, clouds, Dunsinane, Birnam Wood. Weird Sisters (Roseanna Frascona, Lauren Grace, Leah Gayer) sporting Strawberry Switchblade chic who keep popping up, again in the modern Macbeth fashion to frame the action. A proper Porter (Harry Peacock). An explicit nod to the Macbeth’s grief at the loss of their child. Dissonant strings and menacing percussion.,
But for all that it was, well, bloodless. Which for Macbeth is not a good look. John Simm especially, and Dervla Kirwan, delivered the verse faultlessly, (even up to my perch at the back which afforded a perfect view of the visual feast). Yet they both lacked a bit of passion, at least until things got going in Act V post the Macduff genocide. They were well supported by Beatriz Romilly as the gender-switching Malcolm, Stuart Laing as Banquo and Michael Balogun as Macduff. Mr Miller’s deliberate pacing, this ran for 3 hours, brought clarity to each individual scene and petty much nothing was left out. However Macbeth is a story that needs momentum. A hurtling towards the inevitable conclusion. We know the story so crack on. Then the repetition and call backs in the text have greater impact and the madness more harrowing.
I couldn’t help thinking that, with these two outstanding actors, half the cast and just the Orange Tree space to play with, Paul Miller might have actually come up with something more visceral if he had stayed at home. Being right up close as the blood flows and the minds unravel. No need for all this overthinking. Mind you I guess directors, like us all, have to follow the money.
Exquisite Sound. Designer Fury. Signifying … well not nothing but not as much as it should have done. Still there’s always tomorrow. And Tomorrow. And Tomorrow. Because the one thing you know is that Macbeth will be coming to a theatre near you soon.
The UK premiere of Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “strikingly original, audacious thriller”. Hmm. Striking yes. Original. I guess so. Audacious thriller. Not so sure. It is a fascinating story with a powerful message but its formal construction serves to distract and obfuscate rather than illuminate.
An Israeli violinist, living in Amsterdam, and about to give birth, receives an unpaid gas bill dating from 1945. From this premise the cast of four, deliberately diverse, tell the story of how this came to happen ranging across time, place and character. They start off bickering about where to start, interrupt, and comment on, each other, fracture and distort their narratives and regularly interrupt to ring a bell to amplify or translate. It takes time to adjust to the structure and the script is packed with details, repetitions, overtones and undertones, which can make events hard to follow.
Maya Arad Yasur (through Eran Edry’s translation) makes sure we understand the complexity and self-fabrication of narrative through her conceit and highlights the corrosive effect of hostility to the “other” but the expansion into contemporary conflict has the perverse effect of blunting the central historical fact. Over 75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was murdered by the Nazis and once the war was over, those returning home were forced to pay the utility bills of their wartime occupiers. The unnamed violinist’s own investigation, and disturbing discovery, and her personal journey as immigrant and mother to be, strike me as more than enough to make the point. Especially when the “scenes”, the arrival of the €1700 bill, the blithe response of the bureaucrat, the paranoiac unease in the supermarket, the birth anxiety, the “discussions” with her agent and the hairdresser, emerge through the conceptual fog. Dramatisation would have equally served as provocation and testament. We might then have been better able to see more clearly what she could see in a “foreign” place haunted by history.
I am all for experimentation and can’t fault the performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas but, at the end of the day, this was harder work than I wanted it to be. Director Matthew Xia, as the new head honcho of the Actors Touring Company, who co-produced this with the OT and Theatre Royal Plymouth, is obviously a true believer in the power of the work though his previous engagements, Blood Knot here, Wish List at the Royal Court and the revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, show his is equally at home in more naturalistic forms. Here though he opts to exaggerate the already contrived structure with lurches in tone and pace, simple staging (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) with dissonant props and constant motion (Jennifer Jackson).
The production will run in Plymouth in February next year before moving on to Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bath. On balance? You should see it.
Directors’ Festival 2019, Orange Tree Theatre, 7th August 2019
The Tourist is a firm fan of the annual Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree which gives students taking the theatre directing MA at nearby St Mary’s Uni, (in conjunction with the OT), an opportunity to try their hand at a full scale production. Unfortunately this year other commitments and a diary cock-up, (entirely my fault I admit SO), left me only seeing one of the four productions. Pilgrims directed by Ellie Goodall.
This was chosen largely on the strength of writer Elinor Cook, specifically Out of Love which appeared here at the OT last year and her adaptation of The Lady from the Sea which Kwame Kwei-Armah directed at the Donmar in 2017. She has a rare gift for lyrical dialogue and elastic character wrapped up in temporally uncertain, non-naturalistic settings. (And, I might say, a wonderful first name). Pilgrims followed the same pattern. Though not quite as effectively as Out of Love it must be said.
It tells the story, well stories since we see all three perspectives, of the love triangle between two mountaineering friends Will (Nicholas Armfield) and Dan (Luke MacGregor), and would be folklore academic, and our narrator, Rachel (Adeyinka Akinrinade). The extrovert, excitable Will and the deeper, introverted Dan are famous in their world for having climbed Everest together aged 18. But their climbing partnership is starting to fray. Rachel falls for Will first but, later, it is Dan with whom she makes a real connection. Not ground-breaking stuff in terms of set-up but from this Ms Cook explores themes such as female agency, gender expectations and male ambition through flash-backs and flash-forwards as the two men face danger on their latest, virgin, climb. In tales of derring-do men usually do the derring and women wait on the sidelines for their return. Not here.
Chris McDonnell’s lighting and, especially, Lex Kosanke’s sound do a grand job in taking us from mountainside to bar to front room which renders the simple props that the cast cart around on Cory Shipp’s set somewhat redundant. All three actors are, moreorless, on top of Ms Cook’s zigzagging text, though Adekinya Akinrinade has the best of the evening (as is meant to be) and Ellie Goodall’s direction shows she has a firm grip on plot and character.
It is just that sometimes Elinor Cook’s eloquent prose, (with its references to the Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey and Mary Magdalene), may just be a little too fractured, trying to do too much, (ideas, image, exposition, dialogue), with too little. Not for one moment suggesting a non-linear, lyrical approach to story-telling is a problem, far from it, that is what theatre is for. Just that in this case the warmth and humour which characterised Out of Love was less apparent and the message, the marginalisation of women in life as well as stories, might have stood a more direct approach and a less compressed structure.
Mind you I am an old bloke so maybe beyond understanding. Though, if it helps, I can categorically stay I wouldn’t be stupid enough to climb a mountain just to prove how manly I was.
OK. So let me get this out of the way at the beginning. Paterson Joseph’s one man homage to Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first Black Briton to vote, sometimes comes across as just a little too fulsomely luvvie. Not over-acting but certainly not holding back. Mr Joseph passionately cares about this project. And Mr Sancho was a big man. In every sense. Who lived a big life. And his story is indisputably worth telling. So I will forgive the occasionally overly exuberant portrayal and tell you why you should seen this if you have any interest at all, which you should, in this subject.
Mr Sancho was born on a Spanish slave ship bound for modern day Colombia around 1729. His mother died very soon after and his father, crushed by this and the Middle Passage, took his own life after they landed. His owner sent Sancho to Greenwich in London to be the plaything of three daft sisters. The Second Duke of Montagu took a shine to the young fella, taught him to read and took him in when he escaped the sisters. He worked as butler for the Duchess and received a pension when she died. He married a West Indian woman, had seven kids and saw service again in the revived Montagu household. He was famously painted by Gainsborough, (the image that first intrigued PJ), and exchanged letters with Laurence Sterne . His writings became a key prop in the abolitionist cause and, after setting up as a greengrocer, Sancho was able to pursue a career as playwright, composer and occasional actor. Financial independence left him qualified to vote. His colourful and forthright letters were published shortly after his death in 1780.
Even if Sancho were of no historical or cultural importance you can see that this life would be cat-mint to an actor looking to create a solo show. The fact that Patterson Joseph was able to tell this particular story takes it into another league. There are now black British actors knocking it out of the park every day on the stage, and in Hollywood, and there are increasingly playwrights of colour in the UK emerging to tell their own stories. But this is something different given Sancho’s place in history, which echoes down the decades through Windrush and into the present day, and the fact that PJ was one of the first black actors to appear with the RSC in the early 1990’s even if you may know him better from his various TV roles.
The play dates from 2015 and has toured on and off since then. This was a one-off at the OT on a Sunday night with a pretty good turnout from the somewhat restricted Richmond theatre-going demographic. Given how much passion and emery PJ commits to his portrayal I am not surprised it was one night only. PJ freely admits to a hefty dose of dramatic licence in the way he has detailed the story, (is Sancho Panza really a namesake?), and kicks off with some break the ice, fourth wall pounding, shop observation of what it is to be a black actor. He never once takes his eyes off the audience. All of the audience it seemed. He has also given Sancho a soft lisp and a fine line in self-deprecation. Which means when it comes to the more harrowing episodes in Sancho’s history there is a real impact. And he packs in a lot of reference.
You never quite lose the feeling that there is an “actor” at work here and, like all one-person dramas, the need to maintain our interest can lead to a surfeit of costumes, props, movements, impressions, comedy turns, pathos and energy. But all this is deliberate and the combination of PJ’s charisma and the story more than compensates. This would be bloody brilliant as a Sunday night BBC mini-series. And I bet the lead, (at least for the older Sancho part – sorry PJ, would do it for minimum equity rates.
Here’s a quote from PJ about how he feels after bringing this story to life. “I now walk the streets of London knowing that probably 30,000 black people were walking these same streets 250 years ago. Knowing that makes me feel solid.” The politics and exhortation embedded in this 60 minute piece are plain of all to see but this is also an uplifting and entertaining piece of theatre and a committed piece of acting.
The Tourist was much taken with Zoe Cooper’s last play, Jess and Joe Forever, also at the Orange Tree, in 2016. A coming of age story which charted the relationship of Joe, Norfolk born and bred, and Jess, posh and up from London for her holidays, but with, quite literally, a difference. In Out of Water she has, on a somewhat broader scale, created another uplifting story of difference and acceptance, this time set in the North East. She has a light and witty touch, but there is something more, an emotional depth that gradually emerges out her beautiful writing which marks here out as a dramatist of genuine talent.
Forthright Kit (Zoe West) is a police officer who returns to her native South Shields with her diffident partner Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is a teacher and is expecting their first child. Kit’s family, give or take, is accepting of the lesbian couple but Claire, a posh-ish Home Counties type, who has landed a job in a local school to facilitate inclusion and work with certain of the pupils, finds it more difficult to adjust. Her attempts to reach out to non-binary Fish (Tilda Wickham), who dreams of the sea, and is regarded with suspicion by her prosaic peers, are received warily and provoke misgivings from others.
These three excellent actors also play a bevy of other characters, Kit’s down to earth Mum, the head teacher that recruits Claire, Brendan, the disciplinarian PE teacher who gets results, a lippy school-kid, amongst others. All turn out to be not quite what they seem as Ms Cooper mines the arguments about how we define who we are. Scenes slide into each other, Georgie folk songs evoke a sense of place, this being the Orange Tree, the parquet floor of Camilla Clarke’s set open up to reveal the “sea” beneath, there is a fish tank in one corner, a ladder in another. In one effective scene Fish lip-syncs to a David Attenborough nature programme. The symbolism is maybe a touch heavy handed and the narration to supplement the dialogue is maybe a little overdone but it does mean Ms Cooper, and director Guy Jones, are able to cover a lot of ground and allows the subtlety of the themes she is exploring to fully emerge.
Time to update my London theatre recommendations. The last list from February 2019 turned out pretty well and a fair few from that are still available for selection. Now I know I go on a bit, and offer too many options, so I have taken the wider selection below, considered quality, certainty, availability (if they are sold out or won’t be extended they don’t appear) and chronology, and picked out the eight very best which should not be missed IHMO. The first four are tried, tested and, Lehman Trilogy excepted, aren’t too pricey. The final four are classy classics with top-drawer creatives in the saddle.
Here then are the selections from the various categories. Enjoy.
ON NOW AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Along with Sweat the play of the year so far. Brilliant text, brilliant direction, brilliant cast. The best version I have ever seen. Of course this was always going to be the case so you should have listened to me months ago. Sold out now so the only way to see it will be if/when it transfers. My guess is, if it happens at all, it will end up on Broadway before coming back to London but don’t hold your breath.
Small Island – National Theatre Olivier. If you know the Andrea Levy epic novel about two couples in post war Jamaica and Britain, (or have watched the TV adaptation), you are in for a treat. If you don’t, well you still are. There are tickets left later in the run and, in terms of scale, stagecraft and story, you are definitely getting your money’s worth.
Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. OK so it probably helps if you are Ibsen trained, and be prepared for the performance from the Stephen Toast school of acting from Tom Burke, but this is a superb production of an under-appreciated play with its finger on lots of pulses – moral, social, gender and political hypocrisies and contradictions . It isn’t jolly though. Plenty of tickets left but try to find a discount.
All My Sons – Old Vic. As with Death of a Salesman I told you so and it has now sold out. Probably Miller’s most moralising play and Bill Pullman’s performance is idiosyncratic for some, but the play is bullet-proof anyway. Will it transfer? Depends on the two Americans. My advice? Make sure next time a classic Miller is reunited with top-drawer cast and creative teams you just buy ahead.
Out of Water – Orange Tree Theatre. A beautifully written and uplifting three hander set in the North East about difference and acceptance. Playwright Zoe Cooper has a light and witty touch and the cast are excellent.
ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. OK so this has already started but I haven’t seen a review yet. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others. It is sold out so you will have to sniff out returns on the day.
BOOKING AHEAD AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year, bar Death of a Salesman, and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre. The impact of de-industrialisation in the rust belt on three women friends and their families.
Equus – Trafalgar Studios. Just announced. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s superb production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play is transferring. You have to get your head around the concept, the relationship between a damaged young man with an erotic fixation on horses and his psychologist, but you won’t see more committed and exciting staging, direction and performances.
The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT last year. If you ignored me, do not make the same mistake twice. An acting masterclass as the three leads take us through the history of the leaders of the eponymous investment bank and thereby the history of America since the mid C19.
Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre. So the tale of Joe Simpson, the mountaineer left for dead by his partner who then survived against all the odds, is a obviously powerfully dramatic, hence his book and the subsequent, superb, film. But the way cast and creatives have then turned this into something that works in a theatre, with just a few props, some flashbacks and some inspired physicality, is marvellous. I saw this in Bristol before it went on tour and can thoroughly recommend it.
YET TO OPEN BUT YOU WOULD BE A MUG NOT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
Blood Wedding– Young Vic. Lorca’s “not quite the happiest day of their lives” for a couple in rural Spain will be directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma. It will probably be atmospheric, stylised. angry and emotional.
Bitter Wheat– Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead. Woo hoo.
Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith. The funniest play ever written returning to the theatre where it premiered in 1982. It may be theoretically possible to make a mess of Michael’s Frayn’s farce in two halves, seen from front of stage and then backstage, but I reckon it is unlikely with director Jeremy Herrin in charge. If you have never seen it you will be stunned by its technical construction and laughs per minute. And just £20 a ticket.
Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse. Branden Jacob-Jenkins take on the dysfunctional American family drama and confront their racist past finally comes to London. No messing with form as in his previous plays (An Octoroon, Gloria) but this young playwright has the knack.
A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic. Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, one of the best plays of the last decade, about the financial crisis. She is finally back with this, based on the real life thriller book by heroic British journalist Luke Harding about the Russian spy poisoned in London. Espionage and power politics. Could be a stunner.
The Hunt – Almeida Theatre. Will probably help if you know the film with Mads Mikkelsen about a teacher who is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse in Denmark. It’s in because the Almeida and Rupert Goold the director rarely mess up.
The Doctor – Almeida Theatre. It is Robert Icke directing. It is Juliet Stevenson in the lead. It is at the Almeida. That’s all you need to know. Based on the classic play by Schnitzler about a doctor in early C20 Vienna destroyed by anti-semitism. Has a trial in it that will be meat and drink to Mr Icke. I am very excited by this.
RISKIER PUNTS TO BOOK AHEAD ON
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard – Royal Court Theatre. Three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. I’ve realised that, like Shakespeare, recommending productions by CC to non theatre obsessives doesn’t always pay off, (the Top Girls at the NT wasn’t perfect I admit), but she is still a genius.
Hansard – National Theatre. Not much to go on. A comedy about a Tory MP and his wife. But Simon Godwin is directing and best of all it has Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in the lead. Obviously I am not the only one to realise that is a classy combination so it has sold out but they will likely conjure up more dates so look out and just buy blind.
Magic Goes Wrong – Vaudeville Theatre. If you are familiar with Mischief Theatre then this, created with magicians Penn and Teller, has to be seen. It will probably run for years but why not treat yourself for Christmas.
When the Crows Visit – Kiln Theatre. Ibsen’s Ghosts revamped and relocated to modern day India. The Kiln in Kilburn, along with the Arcola in Dalston and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, are all on a roll at the moment in terms of repertoire that isn’t too fringe-y but still diverse. This is the most intriguing offer.
To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.
Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).
Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.
Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.
The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.
Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.
Two’s Company is a theatre company which set out to explore plays written at the time of the Great War but has subsequently gone on to stage the English premiere of Hemingway’s only play and some Pinter productions. Here it has revived one of the most successful of James Saunders’s plays which originally premiered at the Orange Tree Richmond in 1977 before transferring to Hampstead Theatre and the West End. This is the first revival in 20 years or so.
James Saunders (1925-2004) was initially a champion of the Theatre of the Absurd, and even in his later work, (he wrote some 70 plays in all), he sought to push theatrical boundaries. He was closely associated firstly with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, (now one of the largest independent amateur theatres in Europe), and subsequently the Orange Tree.
Now I am not quite sure what attracted the prurient me to this intricate tale of wife-swapping in 1970s West London. Actually that snide observation does play and production a massive disservice. This really is a stealthily constructed portrait of marriage which has universal lessons beyond its central conceit.
Anne, on the surface the archetypal bored housewife, and Mervyn, frazzled and erudite English (head) teacher, are the embittered Ealing couple whose barbed conversation is fuelled by Scotch. So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They meet younger couple Helen and David, something in marketing, and become bessies. However we join them a decade after they initially befriended, Helen and David having returned to the seething maelstrom that is Esher from the US. We discover that they left after the couples swapped, the casual affair of Anne and David countered by Helen’s more calculated seduction of Mervyn, and then returned to, their partners, all those years ago. Helen and David have undergone some fairly intensive therapy to overcome the emotional impact, whilst Anne and Mervyn have simply buried it and their other “neuroses”. The therapy in question was a actual thing, Erhard Seminars Training, which the programme explains, went well beyond the usual hippyish 1970s mumbo-jumbo into some fairly aggressive group interventions. Worked for some apparently, though the organisation was dogged by accusations of brainwashing, bullying and extortion.
Anyway it has turned David, and Helen on the surface, into models of emotional stoicism and patronising rejectors of consumerism. Mervyn though is having none of that and, niceties dispatched, starts to pick away, at hypocrisies past and present, culminating in a full-on, pissed-up, stripped-bare (not literally but it might have worked) diatribe. These are all well-read people, they read on stage, which makes their opening expositional monologues, and subsequent conversation and interaction, all the more articulate. James Saunders clearly had a gift for provocative dialogue and the lucid four hander set-up is the perfect vehicle to show this off, especially when contrasted with an off-stage sub-plot of Simpson, a troubled, poetry obsessed, student of Mervyn’s.
Out of the mouths of his morally compromised characters Mr Saunders seems to conjure up rafts of argument that never feel too forced or contrived. Indulgent, middle-class philosophising under pressure can become tiresome in some playwright’s hands. Not here. I’ll admit that the absence of interruption feels a little less than naturalistic at first but is explained by Anne’s hauteur and the younger couple’s therapy. This leaves Mervyn as the apoplectic centrepiece and Tim Welton certainly lets it all come out in his closing heft of a monologue, an impassioned defence of human frailty. Annabel Mullion as Anne may not be gifted with quite the same knockout lines but when she gets her chance she offers a masterclass in waspish scorn from her chaise longue. Peter Prentice’s David, complete with black polo-neck, exudes the priggish certainty of the spiritual convert, and Alix Dunmore cleverly reveals the doubt under the surface of the willowy Helen.
Alex Marker’s set is a faithful Abigail’s Party like reconstruction of a 1970s lounge split by a jagged line, (and some sort of Atomium caper), to symbolise the fissures in the relationships. Costumes (Emily Stuart) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) all expertly capture the 70s vibe and Tricia Thorn’s delicate direction doesn’t even attempt to distract from this excellent text.
I’ll admit that there were a couple of brief longuers across the two hours or so, but nothing to trouble the Tourist’s lardy bum on the Southwark Little’s ungenerous benches. The Tourist has sat through a few “lost classics” in the past few years that were nothing of the sort. This was, give or take, the real deal. It would be interesting to see more of James Saunders work though I doubt it will happen. (I also see that he was responsible for the script of Bloomers, the sit-com which starred the much-missed Richard Beckinsale of Rising damp and Porridge fame, before his untimely death. Never saw it. Mind you it sounds like it was infected by bog-standard 1970s misogyny).