Europe at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Europe

Donmar Warehouse, 6th August 2019

I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.

I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).

Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.

Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).

The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.

That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.

The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.

BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.

Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic review *****

siula_grande

Touching the Void

Bristol Old Vic, 22nd September 2018

The Tourist had a terrific visit to Bristol recently. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s marvellous Henry V (Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****), the Georgian House, another fine cathedral ticked off, an accidental preview of the refurbished space at the Old Vic and then this, a reminder of just how powerful theatre can be when filtered through the imaginations of first, its creators, and then second, us the audience.

Mind you mountaineer Joe Simpson’s extraordinary, mythic, true-life story of survival after being left for dead on Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes by his climbing parter Simon Yates could hardly be more dramatic. You may well know it from Mr Simpson’s own mesmerising account in his 1988 book, Touching the Void, or from the feted docudrama from 2003 directed by Kevin MacDonald, with Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron and Ollie Ryall. I also recall a separate TV documentary but I may be getting confused. If you don’t know the story I am not about reveal details here: that would be vexatious. Whilst the Old Vic run is over the production will tour to the joint producing houses of the Royal and Derngate Northampton and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, and then on to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness. I would be stunned if it doesn’t get further run-outs thereafter.

For this is brilliant theatre. I can see why some might of thought it a bit nuts to stage it, not only because of the prior, superb treatments, but also because of its subject. How to bring the mountain to the Old Vic deep proscenium? This is after all the oldest continually operating theatre in the English speaking world built in 1764. The Theatre Royal auditorium interior is a thing of beauty in paint and wood, matched only by the Theatre des Bouffes de Nord in Paris IMHO. The new public space based on my quick peek is only going to add to its architectural wonder.

So what have Tom Morris, the AD of BOV and director here, and designer Ti Green, opted to show us here? Well a few tables, chairs and a sign to symbolise a pub in Scotland and a bar in Switzerland. And an immense rotating metal frame, a skein filled with opaque white paper which gradually gets perforated. All of which turn into mountain ranges. Not literally. Don’t be silly. But add in climbing gear, tents, a video backdrop, superb lighting and composition/sound courtesy of Chris Davey and Jon Nicholls and, I swear, we are transported. It is one of the best realisations I have ever seen in a theatre.

However, even with craft of this imagination, that would still not be enough. Which is where the writer David Greig, the AD of the Royal Lyceum, adds his genius. Mr Greig’s original work for Traverse, NT Scotland and Paines Plough is testament to his skill but his adaptions may just be even better. I can vouch for The Suppliant Women which came to the Young Vic last year (The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****), Creditors, Tintin in Tibet, and trustees who rate his contributions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is not just the ability to think through how the story can be converted into this thrilling visual spectacle, to show us where and how this happened, but also how to recast the main characters to offer us a insight into why this happened. This is after all a first person narrative where the main character is largely alone.

David Greig’s masterstroke is to incorporate Joe Simpson’s older sister, Sarah, into the narrative. (Sarah is a constant, goading presence in Joe Simpson’s autobiography The Game of Ghosts. Poignantly she died a couple of years ago.). At the outset she is angry at what seems to be Joe’s pointless sacrifice, we rewind to see her meeting Simon with Joe and being bitten herself by the climbing bug. And it is Sarah who is cajoling Joe, the spirit in his fractured mind, during the darkest hours of his escape. Monologue is turned into internal, and then here, external dialogue Add to this the contrast offered by the wry commentary from Richard, the hippyish Geordie who is recruited early on to man the base camp during the “alpine style” assault on Suila Grande.

Patrick McNamee, maybe because of, rather than in spite of, a couple of musical interludes and some remarkably insensitive dialogue, I guess this was Richard, is on top form and Fiona Hampton as the fierce, bolshie, brother-loving, Sarah is outstanding. Edward Hayter has to be more subtle to capture the more taciturn Simon, especially when he is forced to make his momentous decision and the anguish which follows. This role is a huge ask physically, though it pales a little beside that of Josh Williams as Joe. I don’t recall having seen an actor have to commit so much energy to a performance. Hanging off ropes, hopping across rocks, flying down an icy slope. Frostbitten, dehydrated, hypothermic, He really looked like he was knackered and in agony, partly I reckon because he probably was! On top of this he also has to convey the mental agonies that Joe faced in his ordeal as well as offering us, like Edward Hayter’s Simon, some idea of what drives these seemingly unremarkable blokes to take on such challenges. These fellas it seems have a rather different, more direct and maybe more rational, take on risk than the likes of you or I it seems.

So we have humour, suspense, tension, horror, exposition, explanation, psychological insight, metaphor, tricks of perspective and memory, energy, physicality, music (Boney M can be a motivator), Blimey it even feels really cold and dark at times. And if you have ever wondered what a movement director gets paid for, Sasha Milavic Davies (as in the Suppliant Women mentioned above) shows you, and then some.

This is theatre at its inventive best. It gets to the heart of the “what would I have done” question. I do hope many more people get to see it. If you are one of the lucky people close by to the theatres mentioned above do not hesitate and drag as many of your friends along as you can. I guarantee they will not be disappointed. It is hard to think of anything more gripping than a story of someone who “comes back from the dead”. To provoke our imagination into being there with him by using his imagination to create some-one being there with him is just exceptional.