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.

Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Leave Taking

Bush Theatre, 13th June 2018

I confess I had never heard of Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 play Leave Taking until this season’s announcement for the Bush. Shocking for someone who considers themselves to be a theatre obsessive. I still have so much to learn.

Still theatre is always the best way to confront ignorance and so it proved here. Leave Taking deals, amongst many other things, with the Black British experience, and specifically the experience of those whose heritage is rooted in Jamaica. In that regard it foreshadowed, and inspired, Natasha Gordon’s excellent Nine Night at the National Theatre recently (Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****) and, like Nine Night, it used comedy to telling effect to entertain and to make its points about the dissonant experiences of first, and subsequent, generation British-Jamaicans. Unlike Nine Night however, it was not overstuffed with plot-lines and the story was confined to, effectively, one family. It might just be, therefore, a stronger play. Definitely a must see – if not this time at the next revival, for there will surely be one.

(BTW Nine Night is transferring to Trafalgar Studios for December and January and must be seen if you haven’t already).

Also before I start warbling on about the Leave Taking I would also highlight the excellent BBC documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History. I guess it will pop up on I Player one day. If so take a look. You will learn a lot. Black Britons have been part of our shared history since Roman times. The picture above, featuring a black trumpeter is from an illuminated manuscript from 1511.

Enid (Sarah Niles), having emigrated from Jamaica, is a single parent living in North London with her daughters, the studious Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) and the restless Del (Seraphina Beh). Brod (Wil Johnson), Enid’s brother-in-law, (her husband abandoned his family long ago), is a frequent visitor. The play opens with Enid taking the girls to see Mai (Adjoa Andoh), the local Obeah Woman, in her somewhat untidy flat. Enid is looking for help with Del who she fears may get into trouble. Mai isn’t much interested in helping but does make a connection with Del. Brod pays a visit to the family flat and talks of the old days in Jamaica. Del returns from a night out. Brod and Enid have a history. Enid talks a call from her sister whose pleas for financial help annoy Enid. Viv tells her mum she doesn’t want to go to university. Del leaves home and moves in with Mai. Enid comes to see Mai. Brod gets drunk and goes to Mai’s place. Del and Mai have a heart-to-heart. Enid comes round.

Now I admit that it all sounds fairly uneventful when described in such stark terms. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few plays that I have ever seen that get right inside all of its characters, and not just the main protagonists, with such accuracy, using such volitional dialogue. That is not to say that the dialogue isn’t very rich, and very funny, just that Winsome Pinnock had no need to “force” anything out of the mouths of the five characters to tell her story and make her arguments. The eight scenes are so entirely realistic, and naturalistic, that when director Madani Younis felt the urge to play around a bit, with a bit of dripping water and stage puddles, the audience was, rightly, nonplussed. No need for metaphor when the writing speaks for itself.

However fine the play is, it still needed a cast to match and everyone here was on sparkling form. I adore seeing Adjoa Andoh on stage. In Nick Hytner’s recent Julius Caesar at the Bridge she near stole the show, against formidable competition, as a painfully, sardonic Casca. In her hands, Mai was prickly, found of her stout, and her powers uncertain, but her implacable inner strength offered Enid, and Viv, in very different ways, succour. Wil Johnson, with his nostalgic reminiscences of his early years in Jamaica, showed how Brod had never reconciled himself to his new home and offered a clear, and moving, reason why he stayed.

Seraphina Beh was excellent before on this very stage in James Fritz’s Parliament Square (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****) and she repeated the trick here revealing the self-doubt that lay beneath Dels rebellious exterior. Nicholle Cherrie had less overt opportunity to flesh out Viv, (since Leave Taking is drawn in part from Winsome Pinnock’s own North London upbringing I assume this is the character closest to her young self), but still showed us the frustration that can stunt the older, sensible, more bookish sibling.

However Enid is the plum part here and Sarah Niles grabbed it with both hands. I don’t think Enid has buried her heritage, just been forced to sidestep it whilst she gets on with the tough business of bringing up two children, by herself, in a country that was, and is, ambivalent about her presence. In the first couple of productions of Leave Taking at Liverpool Everyman and the Lyric Hammersmith Enid was played by Ellen Thomas. You might know her from her numerous TV, especially soap opera, roles. She is a first-rate stage actor as well, as her performance in Bonnie Greer’s uneven take on The Cherry Orchard at Theatre Royal Stratford a couple of years ago. I would like to have seen her play Edith. It is not as if the theatrical canon is overrun with roles for strong, black, mature women. Indeed the NT revival of Leave Taking in 1995 (the last before this apparently) was the first play by a back woman on our national stage and the first time a black women writer and director worked together there. It is getting better I guess but given the power of this play, and Nine Night, I for one would like to see a lot more.

You would think that honesty was an easy quality for a playwright and a play to conjure up. You’d be wrong. It’s all an illusion, a story, so showing real people grappling with real life in such an eloquent, witty and emotionally powerful way, and with no formal shenanigans, is only rarely delivered in my experience. This play is as fresh and relevant as the day it was written and definitely ranks as a “modern classic” in my book.

 

B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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B

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

I wasn’t entirely sure what to see from the plays on offer in this latest season at the Royal Court. I don’t know enough about the writers and the teasers on the website are exactly that, teasers. Seeing too many is an extravagance, but waiting for reviews risks missing out on some outstanding theatre. Sounds like I’ve already ballsed up by missing The Fall if my friend the Captain is to be believed, and she usually is. And now, with this play B and Victory Condition, both of which had their moments, but were not altogether convincing, I am beginning to doubt my picks. Still first world problems. eh.

B was written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon and commissioned by the RC. Chile has a history of impassioned political protest, which has spilled over into violence, with several hundred bombings since the constitutional changes in 2005. “Noise” bombs, intended to cause damage to property and highlight apparent injustice, are prevalent. This play, which concerns a plot to plant just such a bomb, therefore lost a little bit in translation here in the genteel surroundings of Sloane Square.

It is set in a room in a flat where Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are being comforted by neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles). Marcela’s boyfriend has apparently been killed by a terrorist bomb. This turns out to be a ruse as Marcela and Alejandra are hatching their own bomb plot. Jose Miguel (played by the ever watchable Paul Kaye) turns up with the bomb. Cue a nervous run through of the plan which is played, successfully, for comic effect. As the night wears on though the motives behind the plot are exposed with Jose Miguel advocating a more violent approach to protest than the two women. The tone shifts, the black comedy evaporates, and we build to three impassioned monologues from each participant questioning why and what and why they are doing. Carmen the neighbour returns and is not quite what she seemed. There is a dramatic finale.

Sounds good on paper right? I agree. It also reads pretty well in the text. The problem is that the tone oscillates and the tension, which should build to breaking point given the material, just never seems to ratchet up. I suspect this is not the fault of the production under the direction of Sam Pritchard and designer Chloe Lamford, but lies in Mr Calderon’s claustrophobic and phlegmatic plot. I am not sure that enough really happens, or that we find out enough about the three conspirators, early enough in the play. Which leaves the three, admittedly fervent, monologues near the end shouldering much of the interesting and unsettling debate between the unfocussed, politically naive but heartfelt protest of today’s youth, with the more organised, direct and ideologically informed revolutionaries of previous generations.

I went with the SO. She can write the sort of sharp, sarcastic, Pinteresque (sorry its the only word for it) dialogue that this started off with in her sleep. She wasn’t best impressed. Mind you if she had stayed for Victory Condition I reckon I would have been in real trouble. Such is the danger of picking theatre in advance. Ho hum,