Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review at the Royal Court Theatre *****

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

Royal Court Theatre, 30th September 2019

Caryl Churchill is the greatest English language living playwright and, IMHO, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Now I know that many of you would disagree, and that the vast majority of people on the planet couldn’t give a f*ck, but I don’t care. I was, I confess. slightly more miffed that those I hold most dear didn’t agree with me. I insisted that the SO and BD come along to the Royal Court, the scene of most of CC’s dramatic triumphs, for not one, not two, not three but the premiere of four new plays from CC. Their verdict – “pretty good”, “yeah interesting”, “OK I suppose”, “I sort of see what you are driving at Dad”. And thus, despite relentless prodding, (the Tourist can go on a bit when he feels the need), they didn’t share my boundless enthusiasm. Oh well I guess I shall just have to live with it.

You however are made of more discerning theatrical stuff and I feel sure will have snapped up tickets and now share my opinion that these four plays were further proof, if any were needed, of CC’s genius. She is now 81 years old and could easily enjoy a deserved retirement, though let’s be fair this is not generally how the artistic muse plays out. Instead she promised Vicky Featherstone, Royal Court AD, a trio of new plays and instead, a few weeks before staging, actually delivered a quartet, three short and one, Imp, a meatier affair. Pristine and perfect as usual, though also as usual, not without interpretative challenges for trusted long term director James Macdonald, designer Miriam Buether, the cast and the rest of the creative team, (lighting Jack Knowles, costumes Nicky Gillibrand, sound Christopher Shutt), to solve.

For me what is most amazing is how these plays, these narratives, are linked. Subtly, obliquely, so that you only really wake up to it at the end and in the weeks since. There are words, phrases, ideas that are repeated. Nods to Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists. To fairy tales and to the late, great Angela Carter. Things we do believe when we shouldn’t and things we don’t believe when we should. For all Churchill’s experimentation with form, and there is plenty on show here, it is her way with words that makes her unique. And I mean unique not just rare. Her dialogue is now very spare, but still so very rich, with every line burrowing into your brain. Even when you are not quite sure, or cannot pin down, what it actually means. What is clear is CC’s exhortation that, beneath the veneer of civilisation, there has always lurked a much darker side of the human condition, identified in myth, legend and drama, but too often ignored or suppressed.

Glass sees four teenage actors, Kwabena Ansah, Louisa Harland, Patrick McNamee and Rebekah Murrell perched on a suspended brightly light shelf against an otherwise black background. They variously play a girl made of glass, her brother, mother and friend, a clock, a plastic dog and a vase and some schoolgirls. The glass girl, and the others, are traumatised from abuse. Alice in Wonderland for our age. Seven scenes. Ten minutes. Startling sound.

Kill sees Tom Mothersdale as a peevish, chain-smoking god on a cloud recounting a mish-mash of Greek tragedy myths, murder, revenge, incest and the like, barely pausing for breath. Denying responsibility, after all “we gods don’t even exist”, and blaming us humans for all their excess. Below the “people”, us, interrupt with a few random phrases, (according to CC’s text). Here James Macdonald has chosen a small child, playing by himself, to be the people who only speaks at the end to aggressively say “I hate him” and “kill” three times.

Bluebeard’s full title is Bluebeard’s Friends which imagines a group of four well-to-do types, Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi, reminiscing after they learn that their friend Bluebeard is a serial killer – “with hindsight all those weddings, all those failed marriages” – excusing his actions and even working out ways to monetise the brides'”power” dresses. Weinstein, male violence, fridging, commodification, celebrity. All skewered in a satire based on a fairy tale. Surely with undertone given CC’s historical association with Out of Joint and previous Royal Court AD, Max Stafford-Clark.

Imp is more naturalistic, with echoes of Pinter, as a grouchy Toby Jones and a trenchant Deborah Findlay play a bickering odd couple, cousins Jimmy and Dot, who share some sort of violent secret. They are visited by an orphaned Irish niece, Niamh, the superb Louisa Harland, (Derry Girls fans will recognise), and then by the down-on-his-luck, ex addict Rob, (Tom Mothersdale again), and these two subsequently fall in love much to Jimmy’s initial delight. Jimmy staves off depression with jogging and tells stories which echo Shakespeare and the Greeks. Dot, whose nursing career was cut short we learn after she abused a patient, is confined to her chair. She believes in the power of a baleful imp in a bottle she keeps under the chair. The others are sort of sceptical. Niamh and Rob, in the various short, sharp conversations they have with the elder couple, and each other, also reveal something of the disturbing and extraordinary in their ostensibly mundane lives. Fear of their interior lives. Fear of the other and the outside. The set up is pure Pinter, the dialogue couldn’t be anyone else but Ms Churchill. It is very funny.

The acting was top notch, as was the performance of the juggler (Fredericke Gerstner) and acrobat (Tamzen Moulding) who perform front of stage, red curtains and arch of bulbs, during the breaks between plays. Was this CC’s idea or James Macdonald’s? No idea but it was a memorable addition and further reminder of the idea of theatre, the shared experience of story telling that thrills, inspires and warns, in the hands of one of its greatest ever exponents. Theatre that is resolutely in the now, (or then as obviously the run is now over – sorry once again), but also sets off the synapses such that weeks later it still works its magic. Words, actions and ideas all spin off each other. No exposition here. We are asked to do a lot of the work. Allusive and elusive.

Next up the revival of Far Away at the Donmar directed by another CC acolyte Lyndsey Turner. Totalitarian terror filtered through millinery. It was written twenty years ago. Like Euripides we will likely still be working it out two and a half millenia later. If we get that far. I doubt CC expects us to.

Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****

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Nine Night

National Theatre Dorfman, 3rd May 2018

You never quite know what you are going to get at the National Theatre. Mind you the Dorfman has turned into a pretty safe bet. After a painful 90 minutes, (it seemed much longer), sitting through the first half of Absolute Hell in the Lyttleton, I was praying for theatrical Heaven. And I’m an atheist. No review of Absolute Hell because we left at the interval. The SO might have been more forgiving but I can’t recall seeing a worse play. Not a worse production. Design, direction and cast did what they could but I just think there are some “classic” plays, which Absolute Hell purports to be, that are nothing of the sort. A few drunks and sexual libertines careering round a stage, with no plot or message to speak of, might do it for some plummy critics, but it doesn’t cut it in today’s world. We weren’t the only ones to feel that way. The NT has come in for a few knocks in the last couple of years, undeservedly in my view, but why this was revived, and why Joe Hill-Gibbins as director wanted to get involved, is a mystery to me.

And then there was Nine Night. Which is an absolute crackerjack of a play. OK so there are maybe a few too many plot strands spinning around and left unfinished at the end but it doesn’t really matter as there is so much to enjoy from what is wrapped up in just 100 minutes. It never ever drags. In fact I wanted more. Maybe someone could even prevail upon writer Natasha Gordon to create further plays drawn from this milieu and these characters. There is more than enough here to justify it.

It leaves me speechless that this is Ms Gordon’s debut play. I see that she is of Jamaican descent. Which was pretty handy when it came to writing Nine Night. The title refers to the ninth night after a death in Jamaican culture, a celebration involving food, drink, talking, stories, music, dancing (here Kumina rituals from eastern Jamaica) to support the bereaved, pay respects to the deceased and to properly bid them farewell. I understand that many of the traditions have been altered through time and when transposed, as here, into another place, today’s London, but the connections back to the belief systems of an Africa before monotheistic religions can be tracked. These customs are what lie behind the shattering conclusion to the play.

Single Mum Lorraine is caring for her Mum, Gloria. Her brother Robert is an entrepreneurial type married to Sophie, who is white. They are childless. Lorraine’s daughter Anita in turn has a baby daughter with partner Nathan (neither of whom we see). Lorraine and Robert have a half-sister, Trudy, who remained in Jamaica when Gloria, whose husband Alvin left her with the kids, came over to seek work as part of the Windrush generation. When Gloria subsequently passes we also get to see a lot of her cousin Aunt Maggie, and husband Vince. So we have three generations of Britons of Jamaican heritage, and Trudy herself when she comes over, all under the same roof. Celebration and, it probably won’t surprise you to know, recrimination, ensues.

By the way it is a hell of a roof. Or, to be exact. room under a roof in Rajha Shakiry’s beautifully detailed set. George Dennis’s sound design, crammed with off-stage dancehall rhythms is also a delight.

Families coming together after a death, and processing their grief, is theatrical meat and drink. This is different though because of the push and pull between two cultures in the past and in the present, the quality of the writing and the immediacy of the characters. Lorraine’s frustrations at being a single parent and thenĀ  having to give up her career to be the carer, and at having to organise all the celebrations, are universal as are Robert’s thwarted financial ambitions and his sense of male entitlement. Sophie is unconditionally accepted by her relations but still, however well intentioned, manages to say the wrong things. Trudy’s brash exterior barely conceals real pain at being left behind. Anita’s struggles to reconcile her heritage with her home also seemed well crafted to me (though I would have happily heard more from her).

Which brings me to Aunt Maggie. Now it may turn out, when this play is revived, as I am sure it will be, that it transpires that only Cecilia Noble could do justice to the part, though so juicy is the role that I doubt it. Certainly she turns in a performance that, on the face of it, steals not just this show, but every show now on across London. Aunt Maggie is a force of comedic nature who turns out a string of belly-aching laughs. The proper reviews have identified the best of these though you have to be there to really savour the delivery. If you ask me though it is Cecilia Noble’s facial expressions, (even from where I was up in the balcony), her movements and the tonal shift at the end that turn this into a shoe-in for an award if there is any justice. For just a few moments I may just have believed in a a world of spirits thanks to Cecilia. Silly me.

For my money though she is not the best actor on the stage. That accolade belongs to Franc Ashman as the careworn coper who cannot allow herself to grieve. Not to say that Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert, Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince, Michelle Greenridge as Trudy, Hattie Ledbury as Sophie and Rebekah Murrell as Anita don’t deliver, they do, just that Franc Ashman lends a real depth to Lorraine. And she, rather than the prior generation, articulates the shame of a country that, even now, will appropriate a community’s labour, whether freely give or not, but will not fully accept its culture, or even, as we now see, grant it legal equivalence in belonging.

I haven’t seen any of the productions where Roy Alexander Weise was in the director’s chair though I see that he was an Assistant on some masterpieces of the last few years at the Royal Court; X, Escaped Alone, Hangmen and Liberian Girl. He is destined for great things. I cannot know what Natasha Gordon would have hoped for when she finished her draft but if it looked and worked any better than this I’d be surprised. The plot and action work like clockwork. The performances are great and in some cases, as I say, outstanding. By putting the weight on the right lines in each of the scenes Mr Weise turns the slight hurdle of over-plotting in Ms Gordon’s text into a desire for us the audience to know more about these people, their back-stories, and their futures.

Nine Night definitely ticks the National box in the National Theatre moniker. It also, unequivocally, ticks the Theatre box. So now it needs to be seen by a bigger audience. A tour maybe? A transfer? That would count as progress.