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.

Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Berberian Sound Studio

Donmar Warehouse, 14th March 2019

I sort of stumbled across Peter Strickland second full length film by accident. Always keep half an eye on what’s coming up on Film 4. Record anything that I recognise as requiring a watch, (on the basis of pretentious film buff recommendations), probably leave it unwatched for months and then likely dump it. Just occasionally though a bit of research and or plain old fashioned curiosity means I end up watching them before pressing delete. And so one rainy Sunday afternoon on went Berberian Sound Studio. The presence of Toby Jones helped but, five minutes in, laptop and phone were switched off and I sat, bewitched, for the next hour and a half. Have raved about it ever since whenever the chance comes up to raise it in conversation. Which, as those of you that may know it, isn’t really that often.

For the film is a critique, or maybe continuation, of the Italian giallo film genre. Giallo, to quote Wiki, is “a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, exploitation, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements“. It reached its apogee in the 1970s and stems from the Italian for yellow, the colour of the paperback mystery novels popular in post-WWII Italy which provided th plots for many plots for many of the early cinematic examples.

Now, to be clear, these films wouldn’t be my cup of tea, though, to be fair, I haven’t tried. Mr Strickland’s film though takes the post-production studio for one of these films as the setting for a surreal mediation on the main character’s dislocation and eventual breakdown. Gilderoy has arrived at the studio to work on a film about horses. Or so he believes. He is a Foley artist whose work has come to the attention of the film’s director, Santini, through the soundtrack to a nature made in Gilderoy’s home county of Surrey, Dorking to be exact, where he lives with his Mum. Out of his depth, and plainly shocked by the nature of the film, Gilderoy nonetheless sets to work on mixing the sound effects for the film’s torture scenes and the voice-overs from session actresses, Silvia and Claudia. He is held captive by a mixture of professional pride, bullying by the film’s producer Francesco, failed attempts to get his expenses reimbursed, (it turns out the flight he came over on doesn’t exist), concern for the actresses and, maybe, fascination with the material. The language barrier, his own lack of worldliness and the material he is dealing with leave him increasingly disorientated and unhinged. A new actress arrives Elisa to replace Silvia who has been attacked by Santini. Gilderoy eventually goes full-on gaga mixing up reality and the film. The end.

Now I can’t pretend that there weren’t times when the film became a little frustrating and, well, just a bit weird but it is so atmospheric, so different and so fascinating that I have watched it again and, as with all good art, have occasion to think on it. Toby Jones is brilliant as Gilderoy, (as he is in pretty much anything he does – most recently on stage as Stanley in last year’s Birthday Party revival) ,as are the rest of the Italian, largely based in Britain, cast. The exposure of the mechanics of film-making, specifically the sound-track, composed in the film by Broadcast, the Foley effects and the voice effects from Hungarian performance artist Katalin Ladik is intriguing, especially the horror genre, and the theme of alienation, on many different levels, is intriguingly explored. Strickland himself was brought up in Reading but lives in Eastern Europe.

So how to put this on stage. Well clearly the first thing you need is a convert which is where Tom Scutt comes in. Mr Scutt is a top drawer designer, (Julie, Summer and Smoke, The Lady from the Sea, Woyzeck, Les Liasons Dangereuses, King Charles II, The Deep Blue Sea, Elegy, Constellations – and that’s just what the Tourist has seen), and Associate at the Donmar, but this is first directing gig. He has teamed up with Joel Horwood, (whose work I don’t know but who I see has previously focussed on pantos !!), to adapt BSS for the stage.

And what a very fine job the two of them have done. The adaptation stays close to the original story, with some changes in chronology, for most of the 90 minutes run time but wisely condenses the breakdown of Gilderoy at the end. This shifts the focus more directly to the relationship between him, Francesco and, eventually, Santini, (a confident debut from Luke Pasqualino), and the actresses, where the characters have been mixed up and changed a bit. Elena/Sara is played by Eugenia Caruso who actually played Claudia in the film and starred in Strickland’s next major film The Duke of Burgundy. Sylvia is played by Lara Rossi, (who I remember well from The Writer at the Almeida), Carla by Beatrice Scirocchi and vocal composer Lore Lixenberg takes on the Katalin Ladik part. All clear? Nope. Don’t worry. there is no confusion in the play. Well aside from in Gilderoy’s mind.

It also lays bare the process of creating the sound-track to the film with two on stage Foley artists in the form of the silent Massimo and Massimo, (Tom Espiner, who has form on this as the on-stage Foley for Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute of which more to follow on these very pages shortly), and Hemi Yeroham), brooding janitor Lorenzo (Sidney Kean) and the voice of Giovanni (Stefano Braschi). The distance between the process, squashing a melon say, and the intention, some unspeakable violence, of the sound is as sharp a metaphor for the illusion of theatre, or film, as you could imagine.

However the heart of play lies with the performance of Tom Brooke as Gilderoy. He initially cuts a more confident air than Toby Jones in the film, determined to show his skill, (which also allows us even more insight into the technological processes). However the constant harassment and worse by Francesco, Enzo Cilenti is superb here, and the entreaties from the women, are what push him over the edge, perhaps less than the content of the film. It feels more like he is lashing out rather than disintegrating as he goes round and round trying to create the “perfect” closing torture scene soundtrack. In the end he is complicit as we see him scare Carla into giving the perfect “real”scream . What is clever though is that large swathes of the dialogue between the Italian characters, except where Francesco intervenes ostensibly to help Gilderoy, are spoken in Italian. Leaving the audience, mostly, in the dark alongside our hero.

It also, of course, means that, in a story centred on sound, the sound design had to match the ambition of the adaptation. It did. Thanks to the go-to stage sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, alongside the aforementioned mentioned Tom Espiner’s Foley, (there is a lot of vegetable abuse here), and Lore Lixenberg’s vocals. Lee Curran as lighting designer, Sasha Milavic Davies (who is one of the best in her field methinks), projectionist Mogzi Bromley-Morgans and even the superb studio set of Anna Yates (with Tom Scutt’s input) all had to take a back seat to the brothers Ringham. Pound for pound I doubt you will ever see a more extraordinary manifestation of the technical craft of theatre-making.

Did it work as a play though? Yes definitely. The team has wisely not tried to go for broke with the more surreal visual conceits of the film and to offer more complexity in the relationships between characters, and, I think, to point up, by implication, the misogyny of genre and industry. The idea that creatives have some responsibility for the material they create also comes through even if the individual isolation of Gilderoy is less explicit. Santini’s twisted justification for the film to Gilderoy, and Gilderoy’s own disavowal of, I think, Elena, “I’m just a technician”, are key scenes in this regard.

There is suspense and direction in the story. There are even a couple of jump-scares. The play also expertly captures the slippery meta elision between play and film within a play, (I note that Jamie Lloyd captured the same vibe in his version of The Slight Ache in the Pinter season recently). To be fair it does sort of just end, there is no conclusion, but that is common to the film. I can see exactly why everyone here wanted to bring this project to life and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand if you weren’t familiar with the film, took a punt and are not nerded up by the technical aspects, then I could see this being a little frustrating.

The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre review ****

harold-pinter-atp

The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter Theatre, 21st March 2018

Look into his eyes. look right into his eyes. Old Harold Pinter didn’t seem that menacing did he? But, as you well know, he created a whole genre of “comedy” presenting the violent and sinister which lurks below the everyday and which still resonates with playwrights today, And some.

The Birthday Party from 1957, which nearly sank without trace, when it came to the Lyric Hammersmith after initially going down well in Cambridge, was Pinter’s second play and first serious outing. (I wonder what I would have made of it had I been one of the handful, literally, of people who saw it in the week before Harold Hobson gave it a rave review in the Sunday Times, which rescued the play and launched Harold Pinter’s writing career.)

The setting and ambience, the parlour of a down-at-heel 1950s South coast seaside boarding house, and the story, revolving around a birthday party for the one and only guest, superficially couldn’t be any more banal, almost a parody of the Victorian drawing room plays still playing at the time and familiar to HP from his decade of rep acting stints. Indeed, for the first few minutes, as husband and wife owners, Meg and Petey Bowles, begin the day with a gentle comic interchange, you might be forgiven for thinking that is exactly what it is going to be. Later, the interrogation scenes, at least if you muted the actors, could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie whodunnit.

Things soon start to turn a bit weird when Stanley Webber, unemployed piano player, hauls himself downstairs and demands breakfast. Lulu, much younger, and one of Pinter’s more sexist female creations, pops in from next door. When the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, turn up we finally enter seriously Pinteresque territory. What do they know and why are they come here? What do they want with Stanley? Are they really here to do him in? Little trips in time and place, reveals, reversals, people saying one thing and meaning another, and even then you doubt what they really think, banal language that seems to imply something more, malleable “facts”, threats, menaces, power games, bullying, sexual tension, sharp comedy, it’s all there. I will never get over the wonder of how Pinter could conjure up these places in his head. The language is the same as in the everyday world, all the attitudes, influences, attributes, behaviours are recognisable, but it is all a few degrees off centre. It is like Pinter swallowed a whole stack of cutting edge research on social psychology and spat it back out in dramatic form.

When it is acted and directed well it is riveting. As here. Ian Rickson, once again, shows he is a Pinter expert, as well as a McPherson, Butterworth, Ibsen, in fact anything you like, expert. He rendered a marvellous account of Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****) and, to cap it all, he even brings the magnificent music of Polly Jean Harvey to life. The Quay brothers design is a triumph of period detail even down to the bottles of Scotch, and one Irish, which fuel the tensions at the party. A marked contrast to Jamie Lloyd’s on-trend Homecoming from 2016, a hit mind you, from this hit or miss director. I see some proper reviewers have denigrated the “period piece” look of the production. I disagree. This makes the “action” all the more unnerving if you ask me.

Zoe Wannamaker is a memorable Meg, mothering Toby Jones’s puerile Stanley, despite his petulant rebuffs. Yet when he is threatened, by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s fraught McCann and Stephen Mangan’s intimidating Goldberg, he bites back. It is sometimes easy to forget just how good Toby Jones can be when the role fits him. This fits him. I have to say though that Stephen Mangan, who here seems to physically dominate the room, teeth gleaming, offers the best of the performances. The way he barks out, with utter certainty, the cliched “memories” from his childhood is perfect Pinter for me. The way words seem to say one thing but mean something completely different. There is an equivocation about Mangan’s Goldberg as if he is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, of his real status. Peter Wright, (a revelatory Polonius in Robert Icke’s Hamlet), and Pearl Mackie have less to work with but you wouldn’t notice.

Can Stanley even play the piano? Is it actually a boarding house? Has McCann ever killed anyone? Who’s actually been to Maidenhead? Why can’t Meg sort out a decent breakfast? Was Goldberg actually an orphan? Is this really Stanley’s birthday? What are Goldberg and McCann’s real first names? Was Meg really so p*ssed she couldn’t remember Stanley seemingly attacking her at the party? Why doesn’t Stanley do a runner? Why does Petey pretend Stanley is still there? Are Meg and Petey really childless?

You see the problem is, you start questioning one thing, then another, then the whole thing unravels. And HP looking down on us, chuckling. After all he swore he once stayed in a place exactly like this, with one lonely lodger who lived there because he had “nowhere else to go”, which is about the saddest/funniest thing I reckon anyone could say.

All this before you get to the heavy symbolism which lies in the apparent Judaism and Catholicism of Goldberg and McCann, and their apparent authority over Stanley, though where this is derived from is never revealed. This is why HP saw this as one of his more explicitly “political” (small p) plays. Why gives some-one the right to exert power over another and why is the latter willing to accept? Basic social contract stuff punctuated by the smell of fried bread and whisky and the cries of seagulls. As Petey says at the end “Stan, don’t let them tell you want to do”. Remember HP refused to do National Service as a conscientious objector. Suspicious of all power. And he was an atheist despite his Jewish heritage.

The programme notes from Mark Taylor-Batty have a quote from Pinter which I had not heard before, probably because I am still a bit of an HP virgin. “A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all of these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.” There you have it. Just as well HP was brutally articulate in explaining inarticulacy.

So why only 4 stars? Not because of the play, cast, direction or design. All top drawer. Simply that, thanks to my penny-pinching nature, we were a little too far back to really appreciate the production in a theatre which is a little too cosy at the back of the stalls. There are some plays where that wouldn’t matter. This isn’t one of them.