Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

Love and Information at Sheffield Theatres review *****

sheffield_wide_from_meersbrook_park

Love and Information

Sheffield Crucible Theatre Studio, 7th July 2018

So here was my cunning plan. LD wanted/needed to have a sniff around the University. I spied this revival on the very evening. A chance to have a good look at this fine city. And, though not the original intention, time to watch the England game, (thanks Novotel), whilst LD and the SO had the shops to themselves before they set off back to London.

Love and Information is by Caryl Churchill, the greatest living writer in the English language. She would be the greatest ever if it wasn’t for some long dead geezer from Stratford (upon-Avon not Ontario).

Love and Information was first performed at the Royal Court, (where CC’s plays are normally first presented), in 2012, but despite its relative youth, it has already seen numerous revivals around the world. No surprise there. Like everything she writes it is a work of staggering genius, in terms of dramatic impact, formal invention and intellectual insight. OK so sometimes I have no idea why she chose to show specific scenes and exchanges or what they might “mean”, but that’s all part of the “fun”. It just makes your brain fizz – “my head’s too full of stuff” as one of the characters says early on – indeed. It is exhilarating, if very occasionally frustrating, stuff.

There are seven sections in total whose order is specified by CC. Within these sections however the 57 individual scenes/episodes can be performed in any order. Moreover a random selection of some of these episodes at the end of the text can be inserted wherever the director chooses. There are over 100 characters in all but CC offers no detail as to age/gender/race. And as is typical for CC there are no stage directions or instructions leaving it to director, cast and creatives to decide how they are going to stage the scenes/episodes. So the way in which the relationship between text, performer and audience is constructed and mediated is about as loose as it is possible to get whilst still avoiding the trap of pretentious twaddle.

There are two clear themes: er, Love and Information. Each episode has some moreorless explicit connection with, and/or insight into, these themes, though there is plenty more to chew on besides that, (memory, ageing and ecological crisis pop up for example which also inform most of CC’s recent work) . The effect is of a kaleidoscope of interactions and relationships alongside an essay on the proliferation of “knowledge, both pointless and valuable. We are bombarded with information? How does that affect the way we interact? The structure of the play reflects the very questions it seeks to confront. A philosophical variety show if you will.

Despite the absence of context, identities, names, narrative or indeed any “normal” dramatic anchors CC still manages, often in the space of just a few lines or a couple of minutes to sketch character, to serve up humour, longing, sadness, regret, anger, jealousy, joy, in fact the whole gamut of human emotions. Like so much of CC’s work it is an exercise in distilling drama down to its very essence in order to create lasting impressions and arresting ideas. And all because CC knows how to use words.

The original production used 16 actors. Here Sheffield Theatres associate director Caroline Steinbeis cut this down to just 6. Which means she and her colleagues did a lot of thinking about how to put the scenes together. It also means that some of the scenes were very effectively stitched together, most notably the “children’s TV show” near the end, to create a longer arc of meaning. Max Jones’s set, a bare stage backed by six coloured light boxes, also permitted rapid cutting between the episodes. Costumes, movement (Jenny Ogilvie), lighting (Johanna Town) and sound (the Ringmam brothers yet again) were also carefully considered to create far more concrete settings where abstraction might have been more tempting (and easier). I see that some critics found this more precise and considered technical achievement, (compared to the premiere apparently), somewhat distracting. I loved it, though having not seen a previous production, I knew no better.

I would imagine the cast had a ball putting this together. It is hard to imagine a more challenging, though ultimately satisfying, acting job. So thank you very much Debbie Chazen, Marian McLoughlin, Mercy Ojelade, Ciaran Owens, Ian Redford and Sule Rimi.

And thank you Sheffield Theatres. And Sheffield. But most of all thank you Caryl Churchill.