Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.

 

The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios review ****

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The Red Lion

Trafalgar Studios 2, 1st December 2017

Patrick Marber is a talented chap. Directing, adapting, writing screenplays, comedy material. Yet he is at his best when he writes original plays, or maybe even, as in this case, where he remakes his own texts. (Having said that his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal might be his finest work. Zoe Heller’s novel, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Richard Eyre directing, a Philip Glass screenplay. Did the producers have pictures of the SO and I when they were discussing their ideal target demographic for this film?)

I didn’t get to see this at the National in 2015 so was delighted to see this relatively rapid revival, courtesy of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, turn up at the smaller space at Trafalgar Studios. I have to confess I am not the biggest fan of the TS generally, too many imprecise productions relying on cast name recognition to pull in the punters, too pricey and not the comfiest seating. Whilst the seating in TS2, at least where I was, is challenging, the value equation here was sound. It will be interesting to see what happens when the spaces are revamped as is the plan.

So, not knowing the play from first time round, I cannot be sure what Mr Marber has refined here to get it down to 90 minutes or so (from the original 150) but, whatever it was, it seems to have worked based on a quick perusal of the proper reviews this time vs last time. The TS2 stage, with a design by Patrick Connellan, certainly looks the part, a small, dank changing room, kitted out (literally) in perfect detail, you can practically smell the sweat, the grass, the mud, the liniment (actually you really can smell this), the aftershave. Those in the front row are in danger of being picked for next Saturday’s game they are that close. Patrick Marber based the play on his experiences as a director and saviour, with others, of non league Lewes FC, but anyone who has ever played the game at pretty much any level will know this place.

What Marber is able to do here, I gather more successfully than the original, is to use football as a metaphor for life, as so many writers have down in the past, but to avoid the cliche and melodrama that has cursed so many similar of these endeavours. The dialogue is still alive to the rhythms of football, and to the banality of its expression, and there is ruthless dissection of the ugly underbelly of the “beautiful” game. I am always struck by the romantic yet resigned mythologising, the “sporting ideal’ if you like, that some, otherwise rational, men of my acquaintance reserve for their football obsessions. The notion that this is just a very poorly managed branch of the entertainment industry, prone to the worst excesses of capitalist venality and institutional malfunction, just seems to pass them by.

Marber probes these failings but also, as his wont, explores the complexity of male interaction. Trust and loyalty, hopes and dreams, betrayals and deceptions, bravado and vulnerability, all are displayed. Each of the three characters, Stephen Tompkinson’s desperate manager Kidd, John Bowler’s weary retainer Yates and Dean Bone’s talented youngster Jordan, are all flawed in some way, and have misplaced their moral compasses in the pursuit of footballing glory. All of them need to make grubby compromises in order to survive in the world they inhabit. Like I said metaphors abound.

Stephen Tompkinson always seems to bring out the emotional frailties of the men he plays and this is no exception. Kidd is living alone, divorced, broke. He is also a cynical bully, albeit weak and toothless. Football is all he has. It is the last minute of extra time and he needs a break. Jordan’s skill might just provide it. Jordan though harbours a secret beneath his apparent integrity. Dean Bone is on the ball from the opening whistle, asking what’s in it for him. Yates wants a piece of the glory, his own life having collapsed until the club offered a lifeline. He once lifted the trophies, now all he does is clean them. John Bowler’s lines benefit most I suspect from the relocation to the North East in this production. His body may be broken, but his mind, and his words, are sharp enough. Soon enough all three sense an opportunity,  but all three are doomed to see it slide away, but cannot accept the blame for this lies within.

This may sound like an arduous slog. It is anything but. The moral tragedy is leavened with plenty of humour and, under the sure touch of director Max Roberts, the play rattles along to its conclusion (which may actually have been just a touch too rushed).

So a tightly orchestrated production of a now tightly drawn script with much to say about football, masculinity and life. Let us hope that Mr Marber can find another subject which spurs him to write another original play in the not too distant future. His talent requires it.

 

 

 

 

Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Don Juan in Soho

Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd May

Get this. The programme says that since a Spanish dramatist, Tirso di Molina, first brought Don Juan to the world in around 1620 he has appeared in at least 1,800 plays, operas, novels, films and poems. And I bet he appeared as a stock character in stories before the printing presses started rolling in earnest (though I am not away that this anti-hero was a feature of Greek or Roman theatre – but they were a cultured bunch right).

So what does this tell us. That people really like and admire him? Or that an overwhelmingly patriarchal artistic community keep shoving this obnoxious prick down our throats (literally), reflecting their own wish-fulfillment fantasies? Search me. I only really know the story from Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, Don Giovanni (extracts from which unsurprisingly bookended this production). And every time I go into a performance of that, and usually for the first couple of scenes (the rape of Donna Anna for that is what it is, the murder of the Commendatore, and Leporello’s catalogue of conquests on behalf of his master), I think why I am watching this misogynistic clap-trap.

Then Mozart’s music takes over, Don Giovanni does eventually come unstuck and, finally, gets the comeuppance that maybe he deserves. This neatly then absolves us of any approbation we may have had for our anti-hero (and indeed any sneaking admiration some might harbour). All seems resolved except that within minutes of leaving I am once again questioning how I enjoying the tale of a dissolute libertine. I know, I know don’t judge a work of art written hundreds of years ago by today’s moral compass. But what I do often wrestle with is the audience reaction to this character.

Now the play, as interpreted by Moliere, also ups the ante by presenting Don Juan, in some ways, as worthy of our respect because he represents true freedom, the right to live your life as you please. Even more so he exposes the hypocrisy of all around him. This is where Patrick Marber, in this substantial adaptation originally produced in 2006, and which he also directs, pivots his attention with, I have to say, very considerable success. Our anti-hero, now just DJ, is alive and well in contemporary Soho, alongside his put-upon side-kick, Stan.

Now the first thing to say is that David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough end up with the audience in the palm of their hands so adept are their performances. There are times when I get annoyed by David Tennant who just seems to find it all too easy. I was not as bowled over as most by his last major stage work-out in the RSC’s Richard II and some of his TV work grates. And here, at first, I felt he was just too indulgent in his portrayal. But I was wrong and quickly came round. Similarly I felt Adrian Scarborough, at first, wasn’t getting to grips with any of the reasons why Stan would put up with this sort of treatment. Again I was wrong. The power of reflected glory is clearly an overwhelming aphrodisiac for the poor chap.

The same early apprehension I felt about the actors (remember too this is also the point when I am questioning the whole set up anyway) was manifest with Patrick Marber’s text. It just seemed too simplistic at first and inclined to allow the lead actor, ( I gather this was might also have been true of Rhys Ifans in the Donmar Warehouse original production), to lazily tick off the cheap laughs. Well, again  I was wrong as I think this approach means we too are quickly snared by our anti-hero’s charismatic web, which then serves to heighten the subsequent moral dualism. I have noticed this before with Mr Marber’s work. Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion all take a bit of time to get going and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal is similarly unhurried.

So what of the production itself. I am not sure the shoehorning in of Soho, as a symbol for London’s corrupted history, entirely works. It does give us the necessary statue in the form of King Charles II (he was of course the antidote to the cultural scourge of Puritanism). Soho also fuels a short, and not entirely relevant, piece in the programme focussed on the drunken antics of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s (Bacon, Thomas, Freud and hangers on). However, I think its symbolic value as the capital’s continuing den of sexual iniquity now looks a bit antiquated in a world of ubiquitous digital pornography. Anna Fleische’s modern setting and costumes, and the interpolation of dance and snatches of contemporary music (how can I not like a play that has masked dancers in white robes whirling around to Taking Heads’s Memories Can’t Wait!), does though set the perfect tone for this pursuit of gratification.

Mr Marber really cranks up the ambiguity in the scene with the beggar, here a Muslim who he forments, but fails, to blaspheme, the duping of Dad to keep the funds flowing and DJ’s climatic monologue, which I gather has been updated for this production. Here the railing against today’s grandiosity, virtue signalling and all-round attention seeking cant and humbug, induced slightly uneasier ripples of laughter through the audience when compared to the undemanding sallies at the expense of one D Trump earlier on. I’d say this is where Mr Marber really hit the mark.

So, overall, I think the writing, direction and performances richly decorate what remains, at its heart, still a very ugly construction. We are amused, we are seduced, we are instructed, we are chided for our complicity. The emptiness of hedonism that lies at the very heart of our DJ, is revealed and, ultimately, this proves his nemesis. Catharsis indeed.

 

 

 

Travesties at the Apollo Theatre review ****

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Travesties

Apollo Theatre, 13th March 2017

Right then. I clearly have to up my game. The more theatre I see the better I am at appreciating, understanding and enjoying. This is particularly the case with the great playwrights. With Will Shakespeare given a half decent director and cast I can now follow the plot, hear almost all the language and grasp, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, the dilemmas and tribulations that are presented to the characters. Until the last couple of years I freely admit it was enough just to keep up with what was going on and I was often bored. All my fault.

Elsewhere I have had some revelatory Greek experiences (not sure that came out exactly as intended), Ibsen and especially Chekhov are falling into place and the Americans, O’Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee, are all firmly on the go to list.

As for the great Britons well I am finally seeing that there is more to Pinter that menace and now I understand why Caryl Churchill is perfect in terms of form and content. And of course for we live right now in a golden age for new British theatre which only a numpty would ignore.

However, Stoppard until now has been a mystery. I have not knowingly seen any Stoppard plays in the dim and distant past though as we know (and delightfully Travesties reminds us) memory is an active construct of the present so I could be wrong. Likely though Travesties was my first ever. Obviously bonkers good reviews from the Menier Chocolate Factory run and the fella Hollander drew me in as well as the ubiquitous Patrick Marber directing (in order I would say the draw here being Marber’s previous directing assignments followed by the Partridge connection rather than his plays which I confess I need to see).

In short Tom Hollander plays Henry Carr some minor British consul type who apparently got into a dispute with James Joyce over payment connected with a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich in 1917 where Carr played Algernon. Carr is looking back so a kind of imperfect and comedic “memory play’ is brought to bear. From this Stoppard elides Carr’s interactions with Joyce as well as Lenin and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dada) as well Carr’s butler Bennett, Lenin’s wife (I think) and Cecily and Gwendolen characters. Carr and Bennett I gather are characters in Ulysses (of which I am still massively intimidated so have never read or am likely to read I confess).

So how did I fare? Well I thought I had put some hours in having delved into the history of modernism in C20 culture and with a bit of past, and more recent, boning up on Marxism. But I failed to follow vast chunks of Stoppard’s dazzling brain and wit. I can get the plot crossover into the Importance of Being Earnest (thanks mostly to the 2002 film with Everett, Firth, Witherspoon, Dench etc and the Gerald Barry opera which is a must see should it be revived again). But so much of the direct references to the life and works of Lenin, Joyce and Tzara passed me by. (Mind you I can recommend the Soviet Art exhibition at the Royal Academy for an insight into the rise of Lenin and how he shaped art and literature post the Revolution).

Still all the erudition on show does remind you just how important this time was to the formation of ideas in politics, art and literature and how those ideas have (or in many cases have not) filtered through into later decades. I guess some of the debates on the relationship between art and society, capitalism vs socialism and literary form which are aired in the play were more lively in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Travesties was written in 1974) but I still think there was much to feast on here. I just need to work out what.

But no matter it still made me chuckle where I did get it (Tzara whizzing through the inaugural night at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Lenin setting out the correct march through socialism to communism, the p*ss takes on street guides to Dublin) and the zip of the whole thing just carries you along. There were multiple shifts in the form and structure of the play which I thoroughly enjoyed such as a scene entirely in limericks, replays as Carr sees events in different ways, lots of punning, music hall parodies, doors opening/closing in a quasi farcical way as well as verbal sparring generally between Carr and the three main characters as well as moving monologues from Carr on the waste of the First World War.

So if you limber up beforehand with a bit of Wiki action, look at the interview in the programme between Marber and Stoppard (obviously I left this until after – doh) and take it easy on all the brain food on offer here then an enjoyable night is on the cards. Tom Hollander’s ability to capture the bemusement and snarkeyness of the British toff anchors the whole thing and the tone of the other characters was ideal. Freddie Fox as Tzara/Jack/Earnest puts a shift in physically, Forbes Masson as Lenin has a bit less to play with but captures it very well and Peter McDonald as Joyce gets to be Stoppard’s favourite methinks (both in terms of his art and as Lady Bracknell). I especially loved Amy Morgan and Clare Foster in the “no I’m engaged to him” parody bit.

Having said that it is, even with a decent pitch in the stalls, a ridiculously uncomfortable theatre for a big unit like me so beware.

But note to self. Put more effort in for the next Stoppard play.