I remain ambivalent about the work of French playwright Yasmina Reza. I can see why she would wish to lampoon “middle-class” mores in her contemporary comedies of manners. There is, after all, a long and illustrious dramatic tradition of doing so. Especially en francais. Think Moliere. Or French cinema. I can also take pleasure from the set-ups as they develop. That is assuming that the master of French translation, Christopher Hampton, is faithful in his rendition, which I don’t think anyone would argue with.
No the problem lies in the characters she creates and the plots she weaves. Both are subservient to the message. And the message is not nearly as profound as it threatens to be. The plays are short, God of Carnage is just 90 minutes, but, damningly, could be shorter. Put simply, as wiser heads than this have observed, the plays are not nearly as clever as they think they are. In contrast to their illustrious forbears, which are. If you don’t believe me try Theatre L’Odeon’s School for Wives, streaming now, or Renoir’s La regle de jeu, which is all it’s cracked up to be.
Anyway, knowing this, from previous performances of Ms Reza’s Art, about three friends who fall out over a contemporary work of art which one of them purchases, and Life x3 where the comic staple of a disastrous dinner party is replayed three times with slight plot variations, the SO and I settled in at the Rose for this Theatre Royal Bath transfer. I see Billers nominated God of Carnage to appear in the Guardian’s top 50 plays of this century: a rare misstep from the old boy. It was lauded during its original West End in 2008, (it debuted in Germany in 2006), with a cast of Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott no less, and with Old Vic head honcho Matthew Warchus directing, winning an Olivier and packing in the punters, but that, to me, looks generous.
Of course, it could be that this production didn’t do it justice but, with tragi-comedy/satire expert Lindsay Posner in the director’s chair and London émigré Elizabeth McGovern and Nigel Lindsay and Simon Paisley Day and Samantha Spiro as the two couples, I doubt it. (Just look at their combined stage credits if you don’t believe me). Eleven-year old Ferdinand has belted his would be chum Bruno in the playground because he wouldn’t let him join the gang knocking out two of his teeth. The parents meet to chew things over. It starts civilly but once the drink flows and worldviews collide things get tasty. EMG is Veronica the anally-retentive, passive-aggressive American liberal, writing a book on Darfur, with NL, somewhat improbably, her vulgar self-made man husband. SPD is an arrogant lawyer, never off his phone, who sees no value for the meeting, SS his initially reasonable, then increasingly precious wife, a “wealth management consultant”. All then have money and all the attitudes that, at least in Ms Reza’s eyes, come with it. Misogyny, racism, homophobia are all given a run-out.
I can imagine that the changes of tone, from exaggerated politeness to barbed accusation could offer greater heft in another production, (Roman Polanski adapted it with YR’s screenplay, for the cinema and smart punters rate it), but this came across as more outre sit-com, and, eventually farce, than biting satire.
Still, in fairness, we laughed, quite a lot, and, occasionally, squirmed, as the adults regressed into the very childish argument they have come together to resolve. YR can’t but help chucking in some lines of cod-philosophy which become increasingly grating, and the characters have an annoying habit of telegraphing their lines, but, when it does hit home, it is undeniably effective. Peter McKintosh’s set, and props, offer an accurate check-list of bourgeois taste, and sharp colour contrast, though the light fitting which hangs, Damocles-like, over the room is a bit heavy-handed. LP’s direction works hard to match movement to text. No-one sits still for a moment. And, although the Tourist has eschewed the drink for near a decade now, it’s a bit disconcerting to see four people go from a civilised sip to barking shit-faced in the space of half an hour.
The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.
Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.
It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.
So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.
Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.
Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.
Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.
Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.
Another play on the wish list. Not that Laura Wade’s Posh hasn’t had regular outing since it first appeared at the Royal Court in 2010. And, memorably it was made into a film The Riot Club, in 2014 directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig to Ms Wade’s screenplay . A thinly veiled satire on the covert Bullingdon Club, where Oxford University’s finest men get shitfaced and cause havoc all in the name of …. well wankerdom and entitlement I suppose. Open only to super toffs from the “top” public schools. Expensive threads, fancy dining and immediate payment for damage done in whatever venue is daft enough to let them in, Call me Dave and BoJo the Clown were members. Enough said. Apparently as the world moves on, Oxbridge democratises its intake and thanks in part to the play, there are very few dickheads who are up for this now. It may die soon. Hurrah.
Of course BoJo, like so much in his dodgy past, has renounced the Club and is no doubt cracking on with penning vague policy about banging up the real crims who get lashed up and smash things up on a Saturday night.
Anyway Ms Wade’s play is far more than just an excuse for us snarky grammar school types to vent our indignation at those whose confidence far exceeds their ability. As with Home, I’m Darling and The Watsons, Ms Wade dissects misogyny, here it its most repellent incarnation, as well as class. Her early plays show that she can turn her writing hand to just about anything ranging across subjects, concepts and form, but it is the execution that she stands out. Writing plays that are this dramatically sharp, theatrically entertaining and above all, this funny, is a rare gift.
Now the Rose Kingston unsurprisingly made much of the appearance of one Tyger Drew-Honey, the undeniably good looking young man who first appeared on our screens in the comedy Outnumbered, this being his stage debut. He plays Alexander Ryle the villain of the piece, though he has stiff competition, but this is most definitely an ensemble play. I can report that young Tyger did himself proud, especially in the second half when his twisted, fascistic take on class envy fired up his chums, and in the epilogue when Jeremy (Simon Rhodes), the Tory MP uncle of George Balfour (Joseph Tyler Todd) offers him a job despite, or maybe because as the Club, past and present, closed ranks, he was held responsible for the evening’s outrages. Mr Rhodes does a nice line in Establishment privilege and Mr Todd, an ex Cambridge graduate setting out on his acting career was superb as the butt of all jokes, George.
He wasn’t the only recent Cambridge graduate on show. Adam Mirsky who played airhead Guy Bellingfield, Chris Born who was James Leighton-Masters, the increasingly reluctant President, Isobel Laidler who played the molested daughter of the pub’s proprietor, Rachel, are all alumni though I am guessing are a long way from the characters they are playing. If it helps, knowing a few young’uns of recent vintage from that very place, I am pretty sure that the Posh-types are now very thin on the ground there though it is a shame a previous generation has its incompetent hands now on the levers of power. George Prentice who played aristo Miles Richards (Bristol), Matthew Entwhistle who played Toby Richards and Ollie Appleby who played the gay Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Exeter) are all current undergraduates at unis which will also have, potentially, offered some insight into their characterisations. The cast was completed by Jack Whittle as Harry Villiers, Jamie Littlewood as nouveau riche Greek scion Dmitri Mitropolous, Taylor Mee as Ed Montgomery, Ellie Nunn as Charlie, the sex worker who shows up the boys for what they are, and Peter McNeil O’Connor as the pub owner Chris whose trust is betrayed.
No point highlighting any particular performance. The play is written to give everyone an opportunity to alternately elicit the audience’s amusement, fury and sympathy. Will Coombs’ set, the private dining room of the pub, didn’t quite have the measure of the expansive Rose stage but at least this gave room for the histrionics of the Club to play out. Lucy Hughes’s direction blocked well in this regard and she had an eye and eye for the rhythm and pacing of the play. Whilst Ms Hughes has spent many years teaching this is also her professional debut. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t get another gig sharpish.
Posh is, intentionally, a brutal play and Ms Hughes didn’t pull any punches. Maybe a little forced at the beginning but once the ten members of the club are assembled the production caught fire. The misplaced pride in the Club’s history, the portraits of long dead members looking down on them, the pathetic ritualistic traditions, the empty bragging and swaggering, the bullying and exploiting of weakness, the sexual predation, the condescension and contempt All faithfully rendered. The original production featured such luminaries as Leo Bill, David Dawson, Joshua McGuire, Richard Goulding, Harry Hadden-Paton, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Tom Mison, Kit Harington and James Norton. Didn’t harm their careers. Here’s hoping some of the raw talent on show here, which gives the production such energy, gets a similar break.
Of course there is the risk of an ambiguity at the heart of Posh. Are we laughing at, or with, the Club? I think Ms Wade’s intention is clear however and Lucy Hughes, in her direct reading, reflected this. Hopefully if I ever see it again it will be a period piece, such behaviour consigned to the dustbin of history. Somehow I have my doubts.
I am all for revivals of modern plays that have something to say to us right now. Assuming the play was good enough in the first place. And that the director and creative team have a clear idea of how they craft that relevance whilst still staying true to the time and place in which they were written. In my experience texts from the 1970s and before, or those written in the last 20 years, fare best in this regard but those through the 1990s, and especially the 1980s, pose the most headaches. Recreate or update? And this was, remember, a fertile period for drama after a decade or so of artistic stasis. Largely because us luvvies like nothing better than to censure society, politics and culture that shifts rightwards. Thatcherism was a heaven sent artistic opportunity.
This is the context in which Stephen Jeffreys, who passed away last year, wrote Valued Friends in 1989, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre before a West End transfer. The original cast consisted of Peter Capaldi, Jane Horrocks, Serena Gordon, Tim McInnerney, Martin Clunes and Peter Caffrey. Four thirty-somethings, Marion (here Catrin Stewart), Paul (Sam Frenchum), Howard (Michael Marcus) and Sherry (Natalie Casey), have rented a flat in Earl’s Court then an up and coming, (they always are), part of London since meeting at uni. Posh developer Scott (Ralph Davies) wants to ponce up the block and sell on and makes them an offer he thinks they can’t refuse to get out. However the bourgeois Marion sees an opportunity to negotiate and persuades vacillating partner Paul, the relaxed in the paddock intellectual Howard and the impecunious motormouth Sherry to hold out. A few turns of the wheel later and Sherry is paid off, setting out to travel the world and find herself, and the other three have bought the flat at a discount to do it up, with the help of builder and homespun philosopher Stewart (Nicolas Tennant). High flyer Marion eventually cashes out after splitting up with man-child music journo Paul, who becomes ever more obsessed with making money from the property.
Sounds interesting eh. I can certainly see why director Michael Fentiman was drawn to reviving it and what the Rose and co-producer Original Theatre Company agreed. Especially when you consider Stephen Jeffrey’s reputation. The Libertine, which popped up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016 with Dominic Cooper in the lead, is probably his most famous play but Mr Jeffreys was as much teacher, in his roles at the Royal Court, as he was writer. Which, given his skill in pacing, character, structure and language, is unsurprising. Valued Friends is a very well built play, full of telling detail. I am just not sure this production fully reflected that or whether its line of attack would make sense to an audience who wasn’t there at the time it appeared. The nature of their relationship with “property” is rather different.
For trust me the desire to succeed, to get on, to make money, infected us all. And that was most obviously expressed in the delirium of property ownership. Of course that urge, that need, remains but a decade of single digit average price inflation and falling volume of transactions, despite cheap money, doesn’t compare to the madness of the late 1980s, peaking at over 30% in the year before SJ wrote Valued Friends. A group made up of a struggling journalist, a second rate stand up (Sherry), and admin worker (Marion) and a PhD student wouldn’t be contenders to buy a prime flat in inner West London today, but, trust me, there was nothing far fetched about this then for all the money illusion. SJ takes this phenomenon to make broader points about accumulation, credit, greed, the erosion of community, the rise of individualism and the failure of markets. There is more to his dialogue that meets the eye, or ear maybe, sorry mixed metaphors, but this is subtly woven in to a still credible story of friendship and relationships.
It is funny but it is not just a comedy. However it seems that Mr Fentiman didn’t quite trust that reading and decided to dial up the laughs. Now I gather Natalie Casey is best know for her work in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks and West End musicals. All outside my ken I am afraid. She brings a feisty tenacity to Sherry, who keeps knocking at the comedy door despite making no money, but as an actor she is a bit full on and shouty. Conversely Ralph Davies’s reptilian Scott falters as the negotiation lengthens. And Nicolas Tennant’s turn as Stewart, whilst dissonantly amusing, rather distracts from an ending that already forces resolution. Sam Frenchum (so good in The Outsider adaptation at the Coronet), Michael Marcus and Catrin Stewart are much more sympathetic to the characterisation I think but still feel a little awkward at times, especially in the on-off relationship of the couple.
Michael Taylor’s set design, which shifts from student-y squalor to swish minimalism, does the job, and Madeleine Girling’s costume are spot on, but the lighting (Nic Farham) and sound (Richard Hammerton) are a bit too conspicuous.
Happy enough, especially for my tenner investment here, but couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to see a production of a play by Mr Jeffreys that really hit home.
WELL F*CK ME. LITERALLY AS I WAS ABOUT TO PUBLISH THIS POST I SEE THAT THE PRODUCTION HAS SECURED A RUN AT THE HAROLD PINTER THEATRE IN JULY AND AUGUST. EXACTLY WHAT I HOPED FOR. YEAH !!!!!!!
Never read the book. Never seen the film. Had no inclination. Assumed it was some soppy love story which would bring no value to my joyless, ascetic life.
Then I saw that Melly Still was directing and that Rona Munro (The James Plays) had adapted Louis de Bernieres’ blockbuster novel. And I am honour bound to support my local theatre which is about to have its funding hacked away by the philistine local council. Whom I support. Doesn’t stop it being anything less than a twattish decision though. Maybe it was a bit ambitious, and vain, to create such a big theatre space here in the first place, but, in the circumstances, and with no AD on the books, the Rose has done a grand job in producing new theatre of the highest quality in recent years.
Grrrrrh. Anyway Melly Still’s last outing here was the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Again a book, (actually a quartet of books), about which I had, (and still have), no knowledge. It was a triumph. She is an Associate Artist at the Rose now. Hence this production of CCM in conjunction with the Birmingham Rep. Hopefully in spite of the above news there will be more opportunities for her to display her talent in many future years. Both of these productions took well loved books, sharpened their focus, highlighted their messages and turned them into exciting, physical dramas using a barrage of theatrical technique.
Now I recognise that this approach risks annoying the super-fan who wants every scene to be played out in full and every character interaction to be carefully drawn. On the other hand all this razzmatazz stagecraft, movement (George Siena, I need to watch out for him), set and costume (Mayou Trikerioti, like George she is Greek, smart call), lighting (Malcolm Rippeth), video (Dom Baker), and, especially, composition (Harry Blake) and sound (Jon Nicholls and Dan Hunt), might leave some of the audience breathless. But that is what makes this production so thrilling.
For me though this is what story-telling is all about. A book is a book and a stage is a stage. If, as here, you have a big story to tell, that crosses time, place and people, then this is as glorious an example of how to make it work within the constraints of the latter as you are ever likely to see. It’s the onset of WWII on the island of Cephalonia. Learned widower Dr Iannis (Joseph Long) lives with his daughter Pelagia (newcomer Madison Clare) who gets engaged to local lad Mandras (Ashley Gayle). But war begins and he goes off to fight. Italian Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) watches his love Francesco (Fred Fergus) die at the hands of the Greeks in Albania. The Italian and German forces pitch up in the village led by the surprisingly, in the circumstances, happy chappy Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) who is billeted in the Iannis home. Mandras returns, injured, but Pelagia falls out of love with him. Italy switch sides …. and then …. well it really kicks off.
Love. And War. Doesn’t get much bigger than that. So no surprise that I was carried along by the story. But what I didn’t bargain for, apart from the genius of the staging, (again I will refrain from highlighting any of the exquisite details – they just keep coming), is the way the play examined the specific history of the impact of the war on Greece. On occupier and occupied. And the way music, which pours out of this production, is deployed as the antithesis of the carnage of war. As well as what I had expected. What war does to individuals. And what form love can take.
No programmes left at the Rose, (since, eventually, this filled the house), so I can’t be sure if I had seen any of the cast before but most were new to me. No point picking out any individuals. The whole point is that this is an ensemble. Of cast and creatives. Mind you if you don’t fall for Luisa Guerriero’s character I can only assume you are made of stone. And the sound that is spun out from Eve Polycarpou’s voice is devastating.
Apparently Mr de Bernieres is very happy with the result and sees it as faithful to the intention of his novel. (In contrast, I read, to the film which went off the rails big time). I am not surprised. I loved it. I see that some of the proper reviewers felt that the central love story underwhelmed in comparison to the spectacle of the historical context. Not for me. I can report lump in throat, though I am a lachrymose old bluffer.
Hopefully the Rose and Ms Still can alight next time on a text that will pull in the punters from far and wide as well as titillate the local punters to create something that can be flogged in the West End. Mind you if I were a big shot WE producer I would take this on in a shot. As it stands it has the rest of its run at Birmingham Rep, then the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh and finally the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Do go and see it.
Like Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and written at the same time, Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is a comedy which examines the impact when a Hollywood film crew descends on a small Irish community. But where one is sharp, dark and intriguing, this, for all of the sorrow at the heart of the play, is a much slighter affair, and can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is satirises or celebrating the outsider view of Ireland it examines. Maybe it was just the production, but the two hander structure, with both actors jumping incessantly between characters, seems to animate the broader, physical humour at the expense of the message about tired stereotyping which, I think, Marie Jones is trying to get across.
Not that it wasn’t funny in places. Though not as funny for me as it seemed to be for others. Some of the audience at the Rose were doubled up in mirth, others sat near stony-faced. Still there was pretty enthusiastic applause at the end for the efforts of Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie), which was very well deserved. Yet I had expected something more given the reception the play was afforded in its early years as it snowballed from its Belfast Lyric premiere, through a community tour, Edinburgh Fringe, the Tricycle and then into the West End for an award winning run of three years. Though perhaps this reflected the combined talents of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill (last seen by me steadfastly refusing to be out-acted by no less than Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). It has been revived on numerous occasions in Ireland, the UK and around the world. I even note that Kare Conradi, the AD of the Norwegian Ibsen Theatre (who was over here for The Lady From the Sea a couple of weeks ago), did a stint in a production over there. If it works in the land of Ibsen then who am I to argue.
Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn are two friends in a rural town in County Kerry who sign up as extras for the Hollywood film. Charlie, on the run from his failed business, has written a script he dreams will be made into a film. Jake has recently returned from NYC, knows everyone in the village, and is besotted by the star of the movie, Caroline. The producers, directors and crew only care about getting the film done on time with plausibility, plot and accents taking a back seat. The “colourful” locals are initially excited at the arrival of Hollywood but soon tire of the glamour, and things take a turn for the worse when one of the villagers, druggie Sean, commits suicide after being humiliated by Caroline in the local pub. The flashpoint is Sean’s funeral. Jake and Charlie get the chance to pitch the script but it is rejected by the film’s for being insufficiently romantic and commercial.
Easy enough to see the tension between the Hollywood view of Ireland and reality. Martin McDonagh takes more direct aim at the liberties taken by Robert J Flaherty in his “documentary” Man of Aran in 1934, but the intent is similar. This touring co-production (with Bath Theatre Royal), is directed by Lindsay Posner, who has delivered it in NYC recently, and is as safe a pair of hands as it is possible to get, whether in classic or lighter theatrical fare (Mamet, Miller, Ben Johnson and Noises Off being particular highlights in my book). Peter McKintosh’s set is your standard Irish outdoorsy caper (see Rae Smith’s bigger budget version for the NT’s Translations last year), with the two actors manipulating a large chest to simulate the indoor scenes.
Moderately entertaining. For sure. Thought provoking. Nope, Fraid not.
No one could accuse Friedrich Schiller of holding back in Don Carlos. Goethe inspired Sturm und Drang Romanticism, a Kantian paean to the centrality of personal freedom and democracy, the clash of liberty and tyranny, a stab at the sublime, a (loose) history of a turning point in the Spanish Golden Age, a political thriller chock full of intrigue, an (incestuous) love story, an increasingly intense Renaissance style tragedy lifting directly from Shakespeare, most notably Hamlet and Othello, but also Lear, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, which spills over into melodrama: it is big on passion and big on ideas. Operatic in scope you might say. Which is why Verdi wasn’t the only one who espied its potential.
It took five years to write, finally published in 1787, which might also explain its meandering nature and abrupt tonal shifts, and, if you were unfortunate enough to sit through the original, ostentatious five acts of blank verse in their entirety you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours. No one ever has mind you. This is kitchen sink drama. As in Freddy chucked the dramatic kitchen sink at it, not as in a pint-sized slice of domestic realism.
This production, in a translation by Robert David MacDonald, clocks in at 3 hours. Schiller was largely ignored by the English speaking world for a couple of centuries. One reason why he no longer is, as well as Goethe, Lermentov, Gogol, Goldoni and Racine, is Mr MacDonald. Fluent in 8 languages he was the brains behind the Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as an accomplished playwright in his own right.
Nor could one accuse Israeli director Gadi Roll, and actor Tom Burke, whose inaugural production as theatre company Ara this is, of holding back. Ara is intended to bring non-naturalistic theatre to the regional masses (though I am not sure the good people of Kingston, half an hour by train away from the South Bank, qualify as regional). They have started with a bang here. This is stripped back minimalist European auteur theatre which prizes style as well as content. Designer Rosanna Vize, who normally offers just a little more, makes do with the bare Rose stage and a few chairs, and modern dress with a vague Golden Age/Matrix flourish (and a lot of shades). The constantly moving lighting rigs in Jonathan Samuels’s design are dramatic and very effective (he worked with Gadi Roll on the Belgrade Coventry productions of The House of Bernarda Alba and Don Juan Comes Back From The War which is where Tom Burke met Mr Roll). The mingling of the private and public spheres.
The actors move around the stage in stylised straight lines. In the first couple of acts, the cast, notably Samuel Valentine as Don Carlos himself and Alexandra Dowling as the Princess of Eboli, (though with the notable exception of Tom Burke himself as the Marquis of Posa, the cool, calm voice of reason perhaps), spit their lines out with machine gun intensity, requiring the audience to keep ears and brains on their toes as it were. And there is a lot of shouting, notably from Darrell D’Silva’s Philip II. It is very, very, very dark most of the time and black is the dominant fashion. A nod to Velasquez, Ribera, Murillo et al?
I loved it. I see that the proper critics were less enamoured. Maybe the novelty of the play itself has worn off for these cynical hacks? The less than dynamic staging, the delivery of the lines and some of the acting didn’t past muster for many of them. Now I admit that the deliberately non-naturalistic choices made by Gadi Roll, in terms of look, movement and speech, did take a bit of getting used to, but necessary adjustment made, actually helped to see through to the core of Schiller’s text and messages and helpfully circumvent the worst of the melodrama. And it wasn’t just me. The SO, attracted by the history, and Mr TFP, an expert on German literature and culture, and a man who has read Schiller in German, agreed with me. I am guessing though that not all of the audience were as persuaded.
Young Don Carlos, the Infante, has the hots for Elizabeth of Valois (Kelly Gough). The only problem is Dad, Philip II, has married her. Dad also doesn’t trust the hot-headed Prince to get stuck into the affairs of government. And big Phil remember ousted his own Dad to seize the throne. When Carlos’s boyhood chum, the Marquis de Posa, returns to Court he confides his love and de Posa agrees to advance his suit if he in turn will help free the rebellious people of Flanders, oppressed by nasty Spain. Carlos asks Phil if he can go to Flanders (more exactly the Spanish Netherlands). Phil refuses and instead sends the Duke of Alba (Vinita Morgan). Cue bust up between the Duke and Don Carlos. There is a note and a key and Carlos ends up in the Queens bedroom with the Princess de Eboli who fancies him and wants to escape the clutches of the randy King. Thwarted she goes to Domingo (Jason Morell) the King’s Confessor. He plots with Alba to bring down the Queen and Carlos. A trap is laid but the suspicious King enlists de Posa to help uncover it. The Marquis’s enlightened ideas start to persuade the King but tyrants will be, albeit pragmatic, tyrants. There are some letters. misunderstandings, arrests, imprisonments, failed murders, accusations, double crossings, realisations, escapes and then, just when everyone least expects it, the Spanish Inquisition arrives (with Tom Burke doubling up as the Grand Inquisitor). To remind us that in C16 Spain it was ultimately the Catholic Church that held, literally, the whip hand.
Obviously it does get a bit silly but the bare bones of the romantic tragedy are involving and there is a brio to the story which is irresistible. The intellectual set piece between the Marquis and the King, “give men the right to think”, is powerful, affecting stuff, which gets to the heart of the struggle between absolutism and representation, filtered, as it is, through the recognition by Philip that the Marquis, even with his heresies, is the son he really wanted. Especially when you realise that the “real” Don Carlos was an utter f*ckwit. A victim of Hapsburg inbreeding, deformed, mentally unstable even before he underwent a trepanation, he might have blinded all the horses in the Royal stables, and was prone to chucking servants out of windows. Phil eventually locked him up. The despot in Philip is plain to see, but we also see his humanity, and his justifications. And de Posa may have right on his side but boy does he know it and, intoxicated by his own argument, he will manipulate anyone and everyone to get what he wants.
What next for Ara? This was a pretty bold first move. On the assumption that the style, the look, feel and intent of the company is set, I wonder if they might not be better served, at least in terms of critical response, by reviving a more recent play. We shall see. I hope they continue to aim high though.
Now a few words on the “gosh, how did that Greek/Jacobean/Restoration/Spanish Golden Age/French classicist/German romantic playwright create something so uncannily relevant to today” trope. It’s not because they could see into the future or were especially politically prescient. It is because we, as human beings, either individually or collectively, haven’t moved on much. We may have smartphones, good teeth and a colossal amount of debt, but the way we interact with each other in the body politic, and the core of our individual psychologies, haven’t changed much in the pitifully tiny amount of time where we have, to the detriment of other species I fear, “ruled” this planet. So if a playwright can nail these truths, whether in the 5th century BCE or yesterday, we will listen. Don Carlos was first staged two years before the French Revolution: by the time he published the final version in 1805 the dream has collapsed into the Reign of Terror and Napoleon was Emperor. Then Schiller popped his clogs. And you think we live in worrying times.
Having now seen this production, and the Almeida Mary Stuart, I hope to be able to bag another Schiller one day, The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, the Wallenstein Trilogy: all look likely candidates. He makes you work hard for your money, there is a lot, maybe too much, discussion, debate, confrontation and contemplation, but that is what the best dramatists do. And his characters are not just good, bad or indifferent. That is the true test of the playwright, the ability to show us many facets of the human condition, not all of which make sense or stack up. Nuance, ambivalence, enigma, complexity. To be on both sides, and on neither.
Hogarth’s Progress: The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town
Rose Theatre Kingston, 21st October 2018
South West London was a popular place for the cultural, liberal, metropolitan elite in the first half of the C18. It still is. Hogarth, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, Henrietta Howard (the King’s mistress no less), Lord Burlington, Richard Steele, Paul Whitehead, Lady Mary Montagu, John Beard, Kitty Clive, Peg Woffington, James Thomson, John Moody, GF Handel (for one summer), Stephen Duck, John Stuart, Thomas Twining, Augustin Heckel. Oh, and early on in the period, no less than the Queen herself, Anne, at Hampton Court, following in the footsteps of William and Mary. Royalty and the Thames is what made it desirable,
OK so I can’t pretend I had heard of all of these luminaries but some of the big names, Walpole, Garrick and Fielding, play a big part in Nick Dear’s brace of plays about one of the area’s most famous residents, Hogarth himself. The first play, The Art of Success, premiered at the RSC way back in 1986, with Michael Kitchen and Niamh Cusack starring (seen last year on this very stage in the marvellous adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****). This tells the story of Hogarth’s early years carousing his way through Georgian London with Henry Fielding and their mates, Frank and Oliver. The new, companion, piece, The Taste of the Town, revisits Hogarth, now in Chiswick, at the end of his life (1697-1764). His house is now supported by the Hogarth Trust, owned and run by LB Hounslow and can be visited most afternoons. Worth a peak especially if you take in he neo-Palladian beauty that is the recently refurbished Chiswick House just round the corner. And, once in your life, you have to see the flamboyant spectacle that is Strawberry Hill House. This is why interior designers are best avoided.
Now for those who aren’t familiar with William Hogarth, he was a painter, printmaker, social critic and cartoonist in the first half of the C18. This period saw a huge increase in the wealth of Britain, (in full union with Scotland from 1707), built on trade, specifically trade in people, specifically slavery. With this came the rise of the liberal Whigs who took power from the Tories in 1715 and drew their support from the new industrial and merchant classes. It was a period of vigorous political debate. At least it was if you were rich. If you were poor …. well you were still f*cked over as always. Anyway Hogarth and his mates were dead centre in this cultural maelstrom, specifically in criticism of the great and good. Journals, newspapers, pamphlets, clubs, all mushroomed. And these boys were bad to the bone.
Hogarth himself came from a less privileged background, enough to get an apprenticeship as an engraver, but precarious enough to see his teacher Dad have spels in the debtors prison. This is where his satirical edge was sharpened. His morality tale “comic strips”, such as A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, were dead popular at the time and have remained so ever since, and sort of defined the entire genre. Yet he was also a renowned painter, largely society portraiture that being the mode at the time, and the tension between his “popular” and his “high” art is one of the themes that Nick Dear explores in the plays.
Dear also doesn’t hold back on portraying the seedier side of Georgian life. The Art of Success kicks off with Hogarth (Bryan Dick), Fielding (Jack Derges), Frank (Ben Deery) and Oliver (Ian Hallard) lashed up after a meeting of the Beefsteak Club and contemplating their next move, which is going to involve sex for money I am afraid. There is a lot of this sort of thing going on in the first play set in the 1730s. Indeed Hogarth’s relationship with prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), and its discovery by his wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) forms a major part of the plot of this play, such as it is. Alongside his encounter with murderess Sarah Sprackling (Jasmine Jones) who was the subject of The Harlot’s Progress and who seeks to wrest control of her image back from Hogarth after he draws her in prison. This question of who “owns” a representation in art, the observer or the observed, is another central theme of the play.
In the hands of Antony Banks as director, alongside period costumes and a striking, if s;lightly unwieldy, set from Andrew D Edwards, some fine video work from Douglas O’Connell, lighting from James Whiteside, sound from Max Pappenheim and music from Olly Fox, scene after scene unfolds with distinctive verisimilitude. The Queen, Caroline of Brunswick (Susannah Harker complete with comedy German accent) gets a look in, and reveals herself ken to get inside Hogarth’s britches, as does Prime Minister Robert Walpole (Mark Umbers) who reveals himself keen to see a liaison between Sarah and Jane (it’s a long story). Walpole indeed cuts a deal with Hogarth to push through the copyright deal that WH craves to stop his work being ripped off. Yet, alongside Fielding he rails against the political censorship that Walpole introduced to the theatre, a process that persisted until 1968.
This personality parade though gives an inkling into the plays’ problems. The comedy smut becomes a little wary after a while and the crowbarring into the script of biographical and historical fact after fact leaves little room for any change of pace or tone. There is the vulgar, which is fun, or there is the art history lecture, which is a little less so, once you know what is coming. The repellent power of men over women in the Georgian booms out through both plays but to no great end, as the strands are never pulled together..
The second play with Hogarth now retired to Chiswick, and railing against rivals like Sir Joshua Reynolds feels even slighter in some ways. Hogarth is now played by Keith Allen. One word. Irascible. Perfect casting. Jane Hogarth, now played by Susannah Harker, puts up with his grumpiness and abuse, but is a little tired of the suburban life. Hogarth and his mother-in-law, Lady Thornhill, the majestic Sylvestra Le Touzel initially in full on Lady Bracknell mode, do little to disguise there dislike. Things perk up for Hogarth however when old chum, near neighbour and charming egoist David Garrick (Mark Umbers) comes to call and the two go on a road trip. Of sorts. On foot. Down the Thames. Drink intervenes and Hogarth swans off to visit another local celeb, the ostentatious Horace Walpole (Ian Hallard, who seems to be having a lot of fun) who has dissed Hogarth’s painting skills in his stab at classicism Sigismunda (which is. to be honest, pretty limp). They argue, they make up. More misadventure etc, etc.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the history lesson. I really did. It’s not that I wasn’t impressed by the acting, notably Bryan Dick, (who impressed in Great Apes and Two Noble Kinsmen recently on stage and as Joe Orton on the box), and Keith Allen, as the main event. And many of the scenes are, of themselves, striking and entertaining. It’s just that the plot, and the arguments it seeks to explore, seem to have been welded together from the events and the personae that are portrayed, and the bawdy and the pedagogic never quite gel.
There is a book, which we seem to have acquired, which you can find in most National Trust shops. Scenes From Georgian Life by Margaret Wiles. It is a collection of period caricatures and cartoons, including some from Hogarth. From the tamer end of his oeuvre for sure. We wouldn’t want to upset the gentle, middle classes. Nick Dear’s two sketch plays are muckier and cleverer but ultimately not that much more impactful.
Come on fellow residents of the Royal Borough of Kingston and London Borough of Richmond – both upon Thames. Get your collective arses over to the Rose Theatre to see this new version of Much Ado About Nothing, celebrating the 10th anniversary of your local theatre. There are plenty of tickets left for the last handful of performances. It is not perfect but when it is funny, it is very funny, the setting is intriguing, there are a handful of strong performances, including the star turn Mel Giedroyc, and, in John Hopkins’s Benedick, there is Shakespearean comic acting to rival the very best.
Now I will admit that the main draw for BD, LD, myself, and latterly MS, was Ms Giedroyc herself. Obviously she is a national treasure and we have collectively seen her memorably translate her inimitable style, arch covers it, to the reading of Agatha Christie. Play, proximity and support for the local theatre was enough justification for me, but LD especially needed the hook of her off the telly. LD is probably a bellwether teen, suspicious of Shakespeare, unless forced to consume at school, and then normally pleasantly surprised when Dad mugs her into coming along, usually through vague subterfuge. And she thoroughly enjoyed this. It doesn’t mean a trip to an uncut Lear is just round the corner. Just saying that if it is good enough to entertain her it is good enough to entertain anyone who might be dubious about the Bard.
Moreover, this production, jointly staged with Granville and Parnham and Antic Face, rattles through the action so that we are all done and dusted in under 150 minutes inc. interval. That’s including a several minute intro as we are, just so we know, introduced to the resort hotel in a set shrewdly realised by Naomi Dawson. This is modern day Sicily and Leonato’s estate is now a luxury spa to which Peter Guinness’s suitably intimidating mafioso Don Pedro and crew have retired for a bit of rest, relaxation and intimidation. Suffice to say it looked nothing like the bucolic MAAN in the drawing above.
Director Simon Dormandy’s ideas do, fitfully, generate some insight, notably in the way that Kate Lamb’s Hero and Calam Lynch’s Claudio are so precipitously thrust together, in the fancy dress party which permits the romantic plotting, in the wedding scenes and, especially, in Hero’s fake funeral. Here the juxtaposition of modern sophistication with older, deeper, paternalistic traditions is most striking. We love Sicily, (well I do especially), but Sicilians are a wary bunch, unsurprising given colonisations by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Muslims, Vikings, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Italians, Mafia and Tourists. Mind you that is what is makes it endlessly fascinating to the outsider.
On the other hand there are times when the hotel set is a limitation, most notably for the Watch, though frankly that never works, even with Stewart Wright doing his very best as Dogberry. And, let’s face it, most people see MAAN for the comedy, specifically Beatrice and Benedick sparring. Mel, as customer services manager for the hotel and Mr Hopkins, as an unlikely consigliere to Don Pedro, deliver. Ms Giedroyc, is funny, we know that, and exactly the right sort of funny, and doesn’t hold back from mugging to the audience. When she needs to show Beatrice’s independence, and specifically her revulsion at the patriarchal conceits around her, she also shows she can seriously act. John Hopkins however is a cut above, the physical humour matches his brilliant delivery of the text. Their early disdain for each other is done snappily enough, with some evidence of their back story, but it is when they get serious about each other that they hit the heights. Mel’s immediate retort of “kill him” when asked by Mr Hopkins what Benedick could do for Beatrice to right the wrong Claudio has inflicted on Hero, got the laugh, but the audience was palpably nervous. It is their respective eavesdropping scenes which still the show: pure farce, but why not if it makes us happy.
We were taken with young Calum Lynch as Claudio on his professional debut, especially LD, and especially when his top came off. There was a harsh streak in him, where required, to balance the skittish wooing. Kate Lamb presented an initially diffident Hero but bristled wth anger as her reputation was impugned. Peter Bray, rather disconcertingly played Don John as a somewhat dim East London thug; in contrast his Clerk was more Home Counties solicitor. David Rintoul as Leonato, now hotel manager, was alternately brutal and oleaginous. Fine support elsewhere includes Nicholas Prassad as Borachio and Victoria Hamnett as Margaret conjuring up a saucy scene involving Hero’s wedding dress that provides a not unreasonable explanation for the mistaken identity window scene which leads to Hero’s “disgrace”.
There have been, and will be, sharper, richer versions of MAAN, Christopher Luscombe’s recent RSC production for example, but if you want some straightforward easy on the ear and eye Shakespeare comedy, Kingston, for the rest of this week, is the place to be.
Stage comedies don’t always stand the test of time too well. Comedy is elusive enough in the first place and may often be more rooted than tragedy to specific times, places or events. Comedic fashion chops and changes and what is acceptable shifts with the zeitgeist. Repetition does not always serve it well. This is as true of comedy from the last few decades as it is from hundreds of years ago. If a comedy play wins an award, especially an award for “best newcomer”, than alarm bells should sound for any subsequent revival.
Stephen Bill’s Curtains from 1987 won many just such awards, and repeated the trick when it was revived in New York a decade later. Added to that it’s a comedy about death. Set in the West Midlands. The second comedy about death set in the West Midlands I have seen in the last couple of weeks after the Guildhall’s Schools splendid production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. (Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****). Maybe this very specific sub-genre holds a special fascination for me. Hm.
So I approached this with trepidation. I shouldn’t have. This is, by and large, a very smart play, directed by Lindsay Posner, who I assume was keen to revive it, which should be playing to packed houses at the Rose. I may be biased, because it is on the doorstep, but I really do think that, despite having no Artistic Director, the Rose is astutely delivering some high quality, uncluttered, proper theatre, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes, as here I think, off its own bat. Maybe not quite matching the Orange Tree in terms of innovation but streets ahead of the safety first pap that the Richmond Theatre largely relies on.
It’s that old Ayckbourn-ian staple, the family gathering, (which didn’t work as well in my last visit here for Sam Holcroft’s novel Rules for Living, another “best newcomer” – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It’s Ida’s (Sandra Voe) birthday. We are in her threadbare front room, courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. She is stuck in her wheelchair with advanced dementia, her eyesight and hearing fading, surrounded by her two daughters, a splendidly po-faced Margaret (Wendy Mottingham) and a restless Katherine (Saskia Reeves and their respective husbands, the punctilious Geoffrey (Jonathan Coy) and the candid Douglas (Tim Dutton). Geoffrey and Margaret’s son Michael is also in attendance.
Now the somewhat gauche Michael is played by none other than Leo Bill, the son of the playwright. Do not be alarmed though, there is no nepotism at work here. Mr Bill junior is a fine comic actor as I know from his Bottom in Joe-Hill Gibbons’s characteristically bold Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****). Now Bottom is funny. There is a clue in the name. And Shakespeare, who was good with gags, created him. Yet sometimes once you have done the donkey head and Titania fancying him, the belly-aches can ease up. Not so with Leo Bill who, with body, face and words, and a pair of tights, held the whole of the school-kid contingent in the palm of his hand, not to mention us old grumpers.
Dad Stephen Bill is probably much better known for his TV scripts than his plays, but it seems like he retired some time ago. So I think I can be confident that young Bill is here on merit; his performance certainly suggests so. The birthday party is completed by neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates), who, along with Michael who lives in the house, takes care of Ida, and, subsequently by a third sister, free spirit Susan (Caroline Catz) who is something of a black sheep, and winds Margaret up something rotten.
The fussing around Ida, drinks, sandwiches and cake are served in quick succession, and the importing of her reactions by the sisters, is spot on. It soon become clear though that there are tensions over how Ida should be cared for as she approaches the end, amidst the familiar, familial carping. This is the debate that lies at the heart of the play. How should families deal with with end of life, both practically and emotionally? As the population ages, and the cost of social care rises, this is, in turn, an increasing concern, as we have seen, for society as a whole. Mr Bill is a little guilty of shoe-horning various positions into the mouths of his characters, but the writing is still sufficiently airy to withstand this.
There is a fairly sharp tonal shift at the end of the first which sets up the argument in the second act, and which I shall refrain from describing. Suffice to say it works. There are a couple of incongruous moments which show the age of the play, notably some casual racism, a reminder of the mutability of comedy which I have remarked on above. Overall though this is a very well written play, keenly observed, darkly comic and with some trenchant argument. There is a hint of edgy, Orton-lite about proceedings, which is a very good thing, and Mr Bill has a handy knack of making his dialogue sound natural, often funny, but never “sit-com forced”.