The Haystack at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

The Haystack

Hampstead Theatre, 31st January 2020

Al Blyth is not your typical playwright. Having studied Econometrics and Mathematical Economics, (disciplines that spend an inordinate amount of time wishing away the presence of us unpredictable humans), he went on to work as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though the urge to dramatize never left him. Mind you I suspect the encouragement of his missus, Sam Holcroft, also a playwright (Rules for Living), helped. Still heartless policy wonking’s loss is our gain and Mr Blyth’s previous life certainly helped shaped The Haystack, his first full length play.

It is a gripper. Easy to say why HT’s new AD, Roxana Silbert, reserved this for her directing debut in her first season. (In fact she had already encountered Al Blyth’s work from her previous tenure at Plaines Plough). AB is, as we all should be, profoundly concerned about the potential for State overreach in our world, but, rather than serving up a ranting polemic to draw attention to this, he has written a thriller anchored in a love story and buddy banter. The setting is GCHQ, (which probably now knows more about you than you do yourself), where a couple of IT geeks, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) have been seconded to rustle up some algorithm programmes (or some such) to test the efficacy of the agency’s databases. AB’s point is not that this vast network of information is being used for nefarious purposes, just that the UK, uniquely amongst developed democracies, and thanks to the cobbled together “constitution”, lacks the safeguards to prevent abuse.

We are plunged into the lads’ digital world, brilliantly realised through the kinetic set design of Tom Piper, the lighting of HT regular Rick Fisher, the sound design of the Ringham brothers and the video of Duncan McLean, (a line up more suited to this play is hard to imagine). Gradually it becomes clear to both the no-nonsense boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) and us the audience that the boys are on to something, but it is when Neil, against Zef’s advice and the rules, starts stalking Cora Preece (Rona Morison) that things really hot up. For bolshie, but somewhat naive, Cora is a Guardian blogger/wannabe journalist, on the rebound from Rob (Oli Higginson), getting her teeth into a story involving Ameera (Sirine Saba), the ex-wife of a really dodgy Saudi businessman type, against the wishes of her seasoned home affairs editor Denise (Lucy Black). Things unsurprisingly turn nasty, as the boys stumble into the story, with much of the story told in flashback or through ingenious use of contiguous conversations (shout to the precise movement mapping of Wayne Parsons).

OK so, even with the pacy direction and invariant dialogue, it does go on a bit, and there are moments of Spooks like cliche, but the twists in the second half, and the multiple issues AB confronts, do ensure we forgive some of the blatancy of the set-up. And Rona Morison, who regular readers will know I have a very high regard for, manages to squeeze out ambiguity in her performance of Cora that simply isn’t there on the page. I can see why some punters might get snide-y about the play, but I was carried along by plot and direction, whilst still thinking about its message.

Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.