Poison at the Orange Tree theatre review ****

claire-price-and-zubin-varla-in-poison-by-lot-vekemans-orange-tree-theatre-photo-by-the-other-richard-1024x683

Poison

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2017

Sometimes all you want from a play is for it to do exactly what it says on the packet. No sub-plots, symbolism, pointless characters, formal invention, stilted message. Just a powerful and involving story, well told. This is exactly what renowned Dutch playwright, Lot Vekemans, does in Poison. No wonder it has been translated and performed in multiple locations. Another terrific acquisition by Paul Miller and the Orange Tree team. Here it is translated by Rina Vergano who is the go-to for Dutch and Flemish texts.

Mind you this doesn’t make this a play that will have been easy to write, create or act in, and, in some ways, it isn’t easy to watch. Its subject, the loss of a child and the impact it has on a couple, is about as painful a subject as it is possible to imagine, for a “domestic” drama. Yet Ms Vekemans, takes us through all the ramifications of this dreadful event, with such a sure and sensitive hand that every line seems to ring true. A divorced couple meet in an unremarkable chapel building in a cemetery in France. (Blue carpet tiles, the designer’s catch-all for the banal, which Simon Daw wisely embraces here, along with those other staples, water-cooler and vending machine). We never get to know there names as, even after a separation of 9 years, they have no need to employ them. They were torn apart by the death of their son, Jakob, in a road accident, which eventually led to the journalist husband walking out on the millennial New Year’s Eve. They are here ostensibly to discuss what will happy to his body given that the land it lies in is contaminated. No one else turns up though (for reasons that become clear halfway through). They talk. There is pain, humour, tenderness, recrimination, jealousy, goading, misconception. In fact there is everything you might imagine a couple in this situation would put themselves through.

Paul Miller seems to have focussed on the “rediscoveries” in the last couple of years at the OT. Here he reminds us he can do contemporary plays standing on his head as well. Not literally. Like I say at the top there is no attempt to get directorially clever with the text here. There is no need. Movement, gesture, pauses, tensions, as well as words, everything worked.

This needed a couple of top drawer performances which, with Claire Price and Zubin Varla (who I have seen a bit of recently), is exactly what we got. Claire Price showed us a woman who could not move forward. Not because she was not trying nor because she was flawed in some dramatic sense. Just because she couldn’t accept what had happened. Which makes sense I think. She could be funny, she could be scathing, she could be analytical but always brittle and nervous underneath. Zubin Varla’s stilted ex husband had tried to moved on, (a new wife, a move to France from Holland), but was struggling with guilt for doing so. I swear I could hear him thinking at times. His intention to write a book about their bereavement is met with anger and incomprehension by her. The pain of their shared past infects this present but will continue into the future unless they can find some way to make it stop. There is some slight hope of redemption to this end at the end, but it is fragile.

Even beyond the bereavement itself though what is really, really striking about the play, in just 80 minutes, is the way it conjures up the whole skein of connections that a parted couple can recreate on meeting up, both comfortable and awkward, in movement, gestures and words. I was watching two real people, intimate strangers if you will, undergoing real experiences in pretty much real time. You’d think that would be easy to dramatise. It isn’t. This really was very, very good. It is one of those plays that gets better as you remember it.

The Lottery of Love at the Orange Tree review ***

headshots20200x700

The Lottery of Love

The Orange Tree Theatre, 13th April 2017

Apparently there is even a noun for it, “Marivaudage”. Slightly sarcastically applied, but it describes a way of writing that is precious or affected, and is derived from our friend Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (I so wish my name was as replete with syllables), whose romcom Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard was on show here in a translation by John Fowles.

This was my first exposure to Marivaux and all up it was OK. The action has been transposed from C18 France to Regency England. Posh daughter Sylvia is engaged to Richard but has never met him. So she asks Dad if she can swap identities with her maid Louisa and Dad says yes, as you would. But our suitor Richard has the same idea and swaps identities with his man Brass. But Dad knows this having received a letter to that effect from a mate. And brother is also pulled in to the deception to spice it up. Cue confusion, some gentle satire on the behaviour of the toffs and the servants, some will she/he, won’t she/he, fall in love, the reveal and an all live happy ever after denouement.

So I guess not the most incisive or surprising of plots (it is after all rooted in the stock characters and plots of commedia dell’arte), though there is a bit of keeping up with who knows what. In fairness, it gets to the point mercifully quickly and director (Paul Miller), cast and especially translator, in the inestimable Mr Fowles, all apply a delicate touch. Kier Charles as Brass lays it on a bit thick as vulgar cockney playing milord but that does at least ratchet up the gag count. Claire Lams as Louisa (who was very good in Kiss Me at the Hampstead Theatre as she needed to be in a play with a slightly one dimensional premise) was a little subtler.

The standout for me though was Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Sylvia. She was the best thing by far in the Philanderer at the Orange Tree as well last year. Shaw can annoy me at the best of times and in contrast to most of the audience and the reviews I really didn’t like this. Otherwise I confess I have not seen her on stage but she was perfect in this, nimble of speech and movement and well beyond caricature. Surely only a matter of time before she is on the telly as an Austen lead (Emma Woodhouse the obvious choice). I assume, with a name like that, this was her parent’s plan from the off.

So overall a pleasant enough afternoon with the pensioners who make up the OT matinee audience though I might have wished for a little more exploration of the class conflicts at the heart of the plot, as well as the love stuff. Still a decent enough entry point in Marivaux. Now I need some more Moliere revivals.

As an aside for those who don’t know the Orange Tree, it is, in my view, the best “fringe” theatre in London, closely followed to be fair by the Southwark Playhouse, Park Theatre, Arcola and Finborough. Not everything turns to gold under Paul Miller’s stewardship, especially in some of the the OT revivals, but when it gets it right it is outstanding. Recent favourites have included Jess and Joe Forever (a stunningly inventive work by Zoe Cooper), The Rolling Stone (a powerful indictment of intolerance in Uganda by Chris Urch), The Brink (another dark new play by Brad Birch), Winter Solstice (a formally inventive comic dissection of the lure of fascism by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, Blue Heart (a superb revival of Caryl Churchill’s amazing diptych) and Sheppey (Somerset Maugham’s last humanist play). So if you’re not a local it really is worth the schlep out to Richmond.  Look out for the next season – unlike some (here’s looking at you Royal Court) the blurbs give you a pretty good idea of what is on offer.