The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sir-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead, Woo hoo.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

My top ten theatre shows of 2018 … and top ten to look forward to

Right even by the standards of the drivel that the Tourist usually posts on this site this is an utter waste of your and my time. Weeks too late, built on flaky foundations of understanding and appreciation and precious little use to anyone. Except maybe me that is, as an aide memoire. You can find my thoughts on these shows elsewhere on this site, if you can be arsed.

I have also appended a list of the top ten plays, so far announced, that I am looking forward to seeing this year in a desperate attempt to beef up the content. Some marginal utility in that maybe. Or maybe not.

BTW you can, and should, see The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre from May through August. You can, and really should, see Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre right now. The good people of Edinburgh can see Touching the Void and it will go to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness before coming back to Bristol. I bet it pops up in London. And, if you are in NYC, and haven’t yet seen Network, jump to it.

  1. Network – National Theatre
  2. John – National Theatre
  3. The Wild Duck – Almeida Theatre
  4. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre
  5. The Writer – Almeida Theatre
  6. The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre
  7. Touching the Void – Bristol Old Vic
  8. Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre
  9. Death of a Salesman – Manchester Royal Exchange
  10. Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Near misses? Girls and Boys at the Royal Court, Cheek By Jowl’s Pericles, The Phlebotomist (now coming back to the main stage at Hampstead – do not miss), Nine Night (at Trafalgar Studios from February), Quiz, Love and Information at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, Copenhagen at Chichester, Henry V from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, The Jungle (support the two Joes in their plan to put this in front of the Home Secretary !!) and The Madness Of George III at Nottingham Playhouse.

What about this year? Take your pick from these if you trust my judgement. Which would be a surprise. No particular order BTW. There’s a few big tickets missing from this (When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, All About Eve, Betrayal, All My Sons). Like I said it’s what I am most looking forward to.

  1. Sweat – Donmar Warehouse. Too late to get in now except for returns but this may well pop up elsewhere.
  2. Mother Courage and Her Children – Manchester Royal Exchange. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Brecht’s survivor.
  3. A Skull in Connemara – Oldham Coliseum. For my fix of McDonagh.
  4. Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court. Finally I will get to see this.
  5. Medea – Barbican Theatre. Internationaal Theater Amsterdam bring Simon Stone’s Euripides to London with best female actor in the world Marieke Heebink.
  6. Berberian Sound Studio – Donmar Warehouse. How the hell are they going to make this work?
  7. Top Girls – National Theatre. Caryl Churchill. Enough said.
  8. Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Best of the Chekhov offerings.
  9. Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Miller, Elliott, Pierce, Clarke, Kene. Best play of 2019?
  10. Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca given the Farber treatment.

Oh and Antipodes, Annie Baker’s latest. Obviously.

Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester review *****

Death of  a Salesman

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 12th November 2018

The greatest English language play from the second half of the C20? Waiting for Godot? All That Fall? Or maybe Beckett’s Endgame? No, too tricky by half. A Streetcar Named Desire? It just about sneaks in time-wise but too narrow in scope. Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Maybe but O’Neill has one tone, though certainly not one dimension. Staying in the US perhaps yu might say Glengarry Glen Ross or Angels in America? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or perhaps you think us Brits top the Yankees. Stoppard or Pinter. Or, my personal favourite Caryl Churchill. Serious Money, Top Girls, Cloud 9 or The Skriker anyone?

Nah. It is pretty hard not to argue that Arthur Miller comes out on top. So then it is just which play. A View from the Bridge? Perhaps though much depends on performance. The Crucible? Bullet proof and the mighty Billers reckons it is Miller’s best. For me though it might just be Death of a Salesman. Mind you I have only seen it once before this, though I see London is set to have a bite of the cherry next year with a new production at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident, Angels in America, Company) with Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda and Arinze Kene as Biff. I wouldn’t hang about if I were you. This will sell out before it opens I’m sure.

Anyway this production will follow the Manchester Royal Exchange production in seeing Willy through African-American eyes. Adding an extra dimension to the unravelling of his particular American Dream, particularly here with a white wife, making Willy’s and the boys “exclusion” even more pointed. The thing about Death of a Salesman is that you get the big picture satire of the “Dream”, the promise that everyone in America will have the opportunity to achieve riches and success through hard work, application and initiative, but you also get a family tragedy, set across just 48 hours, of near Grecian proportions. All filtered through a formal experiment, as time and event overlap in Willy’s head, which demands attention, but is never intimidating, for the audience. From the very first line Willy utters “it’s all right, I came back” you know what these characters are saying and why they are saying it. If you cannot feel the pain of Willy and those around him then I respectfully suggest you go back to your home planet.

Sarah Churchwell, who is a professor of American Literature at the University of London, has written a very interesting programme note which explains that Willy’s failure to reap the rewards he thinks he deserves, the wealth and the status, the “success”, also points to the perversion of an original “American Dream” which was predicated not just on the trappings of consumerism, but was rooted in a “pursuit of happiness” that hadn’t been degraded by individualistic capitalism. If you “win” all the material trappings are yours. If you “lose” then don’t expect any reciprocal duty of care from the society around you. Blimey. Even if you might not entirely agree with this, the point that Miller’s play, and it’s not so sub-by sub-texts, can hold up under the weight of such interpretation, whilst still putting you through the emotional grinder, is testament to its brilliance. 

I’ll spare you, and me, some half-baked amateur analysis. You can do that yourselves. What about this production? Well this was the Tourist’s inaugural visit to the Royal Exchange now that he is a full-time layabout. Mancunians have much to be proud of in their city, but surely the Royal Exchange must rank somewhere near the top. A super space, a sphere plonked inside the Great Hall of the Victorian commodities exchange, refurbished last after the 1996 IRA bomb, with vibrant public spaces and bars/restaurants spaced around the auditorium. Sorry if I sound like a patronising London twat but I was bowled over. Inside is even better. Now I may have benefitted from splashing out on a front row, stalls seat, but this is, by some way the most comfortable perch I have ever viewed from. I am back for the Mother Courage next year, (and the revival of The Skull in Connemara up the road at the Oldham Coliseum). Can’t wait. 

Now obviously this being my first visit to the Royal Exchange this means that I have missed AD Sarah Frankcom’s previous hits as director, notably the collaborations with Maxine Peake. The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet, The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Happy Days. For which I can only blamed personal greed for just like Willy I spent too long chasing money and not enough time feeding the brain. 

Anyway, holding back the tears of disappointment, at least now I was able to see another Royal Exchange regular, Don Warrington, collaborating with Ms Frankcom. I saw his Lear from Talawa Theatre on the telly, which, unlike many others, did not disappoint, but seeing Mr Warrington in the flesh here was mind-blowing. He is a few years older than Willy who is 63, and I assume that Arthur Miller saw Willy as white not black, but as far as I am concerned Don Warrington was Willy Loman. Maybe I am losing the plot like Willy but this for me was as real as theatre gets. It probably helps that I was front row, in the round, with Leslie Ferguson’s stripped back set presenting no obstructions, but this was electric. 

When Mr Warrington was sat in front of me, hunched forward, fingers twitching, the weight of his disappointment weighing down his body, it was as much as I could do to stop myself jumping forward and shouting “don’t do it Willy”. When the inevitable happened at the end I admit to a tear. Maybe Don Warrington is petulant, snappish, irritable and dominating in real life. Maybe he has been crushed by the weight of his own expectations. Maybe he hears things. I doubt it. I reckon he is more like the wry, smooth, relaxed-in-the-paddock police commissioner in Death in Paradise. Either way he is a brilliant actor. Performance of the year so far this year, no question, and there has been some pretty stiff competition. Only wish I had seen him in All My Sons here in 2016.

Mind you Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff runs him pretty close. It has been my pleasure to see Mr Zhangazha’s on a few occasions now, Terror, The Lottery of Love, Human Animals and most, recently, carrying the Public Arts  community version of Pericles at the NT, but again this was another step up. That is not to downplay Maureen Beattie’s Linda or Buom Tihngang’s Happy, or the supporting cast, but the scene where Willy and Biff argue is hair on the back of the neck stiff. It felt like Biff, even in his football days, just didn’t want to believe. Another highlight is the first appearance of Trevor A Toussaint’s imposing Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful, but now dead, brother. Don Warrington’s Willy visibly shrinks when he sees him. Or Howard’s (Rupert Hill) agonising embarrassment when Willy begs him, getting ever hoarser, for a desk job. Or Willy’s pathetic excuses when Biff turns up, in flashback at the Boston hotel, to find him with “Miss Francis” (Rina Mahoney). Or the touching devotion that Linda shows in believing the family’s money problems are on the brink of being solved.

The original title of Miller’s play was, famously, The Inside of His Head. Willy’s interior world and the exterior reality are in constant flux. To stage a production with this much clarity, on a copper disc, with no scenery bar a few branches overhead, no rooms, and few props, in a raised circle on which the non-speaking cast rest.and watch, in a theatre in the round, which itself is in a sphere, could hardly have been more apposite. This staging, together with the casting, may make for a less immediate connection than in other, more “traditional” productions but, for me, Death of a Salesman is as much food for the brain as blood for the heart, if you will forgive the mangled metaphors. And it brings home, from this now 70 year old play, that Willy is still right here, right now in many men. 

A triumph. 

The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

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The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, 4th October 2018

So this was my second attempt to see The Jungle. I had to bail out of the first halfway through as my back wasn’t up to squatting on the floor of the Young Vic. This is not a complaint. Given the subject it is a shameful indictment of just how privileged I am to have come this far in life, and to be this stuffed with entitlement, that I can’t even sit through a couple of hours of theatre without complaining. What a pr*ck.

Given that I couldn’t find a way of getting to see another performance in the Young Vic run I was relieved when this transfer to was announced. This time I was able to secure a more suitable berth in the “Cliffs of Dover” in a Playhouse Theatre transformed by Miriam Buether’s remarkable set. For make no mistake this is a simply marvellous piece of critical theatre. The posters advertising the play highlight the string of 5* reviews. Believe them. There are a few seats left in the remaining weeks. Grab one as I doubt, given the size, and diversity of the cast, that this will be easily staged again in the near future. It is off to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn so any New Yorkers reading this really have no excuse.

Anyone who vituperatively blathers on about “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” should be made to see this. It probably won’t change their minds, lack of empathy often runs deep, but it might force them to consider, at least for a couple of hours, an alternative, and human, point of view. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson have written a “history” of the expansion of the refugee camp at Sangatte to over 6000 people, the eponymous Jungle, in the 18 months prior to its clearance by police in October 2016. (Though there are now still a couple of thousand people living rough in the area).

The two Joes set up the Good Chance theatre in the camp. They are now working in Paris. Read about them here. https://www.goodchance.org.uk/. Then give them some money.

This story is largely told through the relationship of two key characters, Syrian wordsmith Safi, who also acts as narrator, and Salar, the de facto leader of the Afghan community and the founder of the restaurant, The Afghan Cafe, the subject of the famous review by AA Gill, which is the setting for the action. Other members of the various communities, a French official and those who came to help, are also lucidly portrayed. In all there are some 23 named roles permanently occupying the “promenade” stage and its various interstices. With the audience seated around them though it often feels like more.

Directors Stephen Daldry, (who only ever deals in theatrical gold now), and Justin Martin have conjured up a riot of movement, sound, dance, music, video, conflict, language and costume, with the help of some of the best in the business (Paul Arditti, Jon Clark and Terry King for instance). The cast is superb. I would pick out Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Ben Turner as Salar, Rachel Redford as idealist teacher Beth, Nahel Tzegai as the calming Helene and Dominic Rowan as the rational Derek, but frankly the whole ensemble is beyond committed.

The thing is though that beyond the production, the activity, the atmosphere of spontaneity, the performance, the polemic, the vital message of hope and despair, there is a bloody fantastic play here. Vivid human emotions are laid bare in just a few lines. The debate between the “optimist” Safi and the “realist” Mahmoud as to how to respond to their situation is electric. The suffering, and salvation, of the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena, is humbling. The pride and determination of the camp is palpable. The motives of the volunteers are examined. The conflicts between communities are revealed. Individual journeys are graphically relayed. No-one leaves family, work, culture, community, education, society because they want to nick your hospital bed or school place, people of Britain. They come because the alternative is harassment, dislocation, destitution, torture or worse. Escaping a war zone or failed state is an act of desperation not a punt on economic advancement. And Britain is a destination because we are, (or were), tolerant and we have the language. Those should be reasons to be proud. Not running away and seeking two fingers up to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Throughout the play 6 year old Little Amal (Erin Rushidi I think at the performance I attended) flits wordlessly around the action. Apparently we tried, and try, to prevent these little kids getting to relatives in the UK. Breaks your heart.

A (flawed) guide to London theatres

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When I was a young teenager I took to making up some very odd games. I wasn’t lonely, with a handful of very good friends as I remember, and my very earliest encounters with the ladies were amongst my most successful, since my true nature, an awkward mix of the needy and the misanthropic, had yet to be revealed. I was something of a swot, what you might call bookish and then, as now, was sometimes a little confused by what others did or said in social situations. But definitely not on any sort of spectrum I reckon, beyond that of the awkward 16 year old lad with lank, long hair, (despite the advent of punk), robust flares, bumfluff and the ability to make a pint of lager last a whole evening.

But enacting an entire Subbuteo World Cup, sixteen teams, (these were the days when FIFA could just about control its financial appetites – if you want to see what the future, actually present, of human “governance” looks like, like no further than the masters of the beautiful game), then quarters, semis and a final. All stats carefully recorded in a special notebook. All done on my own. That’s right. I played with myself, (no titters at the back please). Which meant that, whilst pretending to myself that this was an entirely objective exercise exercise, I got to see England play Holland in the final. England because that’s the fiction that is most deep-rooted in my psychology. But Holland won. Retribution for the injustice meted outed in the “real” World Cup final in 1974, (and, though I did not know it, but somehow feared it, again in 1978), and an early indication of my rabid pro-Europeanism.

Sounds a bit weird right. Except that PlayStations hadn’t been invented. So I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not a sad adolescent.

Anyway responsibility, albeit of a most shrunken kind, has meant I have had to let go of such childish things but I still like a good list, dictated by me, which purports to be based on “facts” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Though, as you know, (tautology alert), there are no such things as facts, only theories yet to be unproven, and “information” is mediated, and mutilated, by both provider and consumer. Do not believe anything, least of all if it comes out of your own head. Proud to be a sceptic.

So you can safely ignore what follows.

Since theatre is my current passion, I thought I would tot up the ratings that I had given the entertainments I had enjoyed over the past three years, derive some averages, adjust for frequencies and thereby show what London theatres reliably put on the best work. Thereby confirming my own biases, with my own biased ratings, mashed through a filter of spurious statistical analysis. Just the kind of woeful shite that organisations, opinion formers and your governors do everyday apparently on your behalf.

So here’s my top ten (well eleven actually). Turns out that it is a proven fact (!) that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is the best of the bunch, the Royal Court is a thing of wonder, especially when you reflect on the fact that the work is almost entirely new, and the National Theatre under Rufus Norris is not, repeat not, undergoing any sort of existential crisis, despite what some would say. The trouble with all those right-wing cultural commentators is that they are only happy when they have something to moan about; they can only argue the negative. I hope the Theatre Royal Haymarket continues its more enlightened programming under the new owners. The Young Vic remains the most exciting major theatre, even if that means a few misfires, and the one where I learn the most. The Barbican benefits from the RSC and the International companies that come through the door. The Donmar rarely drops a bollock but here you really have to be quick at the gate to get a seat. The Arcola and The Orange Tree get my vote for best of the fringe, and the Gate for those with more adventurous tastes. The Old Vic doesn’t always belt it out of the park but is pretty reliable.

In fact overall I doubt there is anything here that would surprise the seasoned theatre-goer. thus adding a nice line in utter pointlessness to the sins of commission I have already committed in compiling, and worst still, writing up this list.

There are a couple of lessons though for the more casual consumer of drama. Firstly, do not think for one moment that watching a film or series on a tiny screen can in any way match the thrill of live theatre, and secondly, if you want to avoid being the sap who comments that “I would liked to have seen that but it was all sold out before the reviews appeared … ” or end up paying three times the price for a painfully uncomfortable seat in some West End mausoleum, then sign yourself up to the Almeida, Royal Court and National lists and take the plunge as soon as you seen something half-interesting.

  1. Almeida Theatre 4.33
  2. Royal Court Theatre 3.87
  3. National Theatre 3.81
  4. Theatre Royal Haymarket 3.80
  5. Young Vic 3.79
  6. Barbican Theatre 3.78
  7. Donmar Warehouse 3.75
  8. Arcola Theatre 3.71
  9. Orange Tree Theatre 3.67
  10. Old Vic 3.60
  11. The Gate Theatre 3.60

Yellowman at the Young Vic review ****

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Yellowman

Young Vic Theatre, 29th November 2017

From what I can see American playwrights don’t like to arse about too much with the play, either in terms of dramatic form or the subject, the family history in one form or another. Why not, given the history of American gifts to the theatrical world, and if that’s what the punters want. From this apparent straightjacket have emerged some cracking plays, from the C20 masters as well as in recent years. It would seem that a recommendation from the journos and academics which make up the Pulitzer judging panel is as good as recommendation as any as to what to see. And that basically is all I had to go on prior to booking Yellowman.

Dael Orlandersmith’s two hander was a Pulitzer finalist from 2002 which tells the story of Eugene and Alma, from childhood into adulthood, from rural South Carolina to New York and back again, through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Most importantly, as the Yellowman of the title, Eugene is tall and light skinned, like his grandfather and mother Thelma, though not his father Robert, whilst Alma is large and dark skinned like her mother Ophelia. The actors play all the male and female characters (including Alton and Wyce, Eugene’s friends), with rapid, though sharply delineated, shifts between these characters.

The relationship between Eugene and Alma moves from simple childhood friendship, through mutual dependence, to teenage love then sex, engagement and pregnancy. This, on its own, would be enough to enjoy given the quality of the writing, but over the 100 minutes or so we get an incisive dissection of “blackness”, beauty, gender, domestic violence, generational division and abuse, inheritance, poverty and class. Very, very occasionally. Ms Orlandersmith’s writing lapses into saccharine cliche, but more often that not, this serves a colouristic purpose and can be forgiven. The deliberate repetition reinforces the deep-rooted identity conflicts that lie at the heart of the play and ensures the six characters as well as the two principals truly come to life.

About from a mottled, mirror floor and some subtle but effective lighting from Nao Nagai, the Clare studio space in the Young Vic had nothing else to work with for the two actors, bar script and audience. So they needed to be good, very good. They were. Christopher Colquhoun, (a long way from Weatherfield), brought an awkwardness and innocence to Eugene which heightened the tensions in key scenes with Alma, his father, Wyce and, latterly, grandfather. Nicola Hughes, if anything, was even more striking, turning Alma into a woman of power and dignity who rises above the self-hate others would have her internalise, and eliciting pity for Ophelia. One of the fiercest performances I have seen this year. I would dearly love to see her in more “straight” drama roles beyond the musicals she is renowned for.

It is easy to see why Yellowman has been so frequently revived since its premiere and why the talented young director Nancy Medina would choose to take it on. Its setting may be specific in terms, of time, place and community, but its insights are universal and the humanity of its love story is palpable. Yet this, if I am honest can be found elsewhere on screen, stage or page. What makes this really, really special for me is Ms Orlandersmith’s gift for dialogue and image. The five sections of the play are distinct by chronology, but is the skill with which the author paints in the detail that made going to see this one of the best decisions I have made this year. And all for £15.

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****

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The Suppliant Women

Young Vic, 21st November 2017

Before I get started let us just remind ourselves what a marvellous place the Young Vic is. I don’t just mean the quality and quantity of its productions, though heaven knows under the artistic stewardship of David Lan, this has risen to great heights. Not everything works but it is never for lack of trying. Kwame Kwei-Armah has big shoes to fill, though by all accounts he is well capable of doing so, even if the SO and I weren’t entirely persuaded by his latest directorial outing, The Lady From The Sea at the Donmar.

No it is the “feel” of the place that is the thing and the joy of the experience. It is always busy, it seems to thrive on inclusivity and diversity, though what would I know as a middle-aged, white, straight, rich, liberal, hand-wringing bloke, and everyone involved with the theatre is always so polite, welcoming and jolly. I am a right pain in the arse with my seating demands, but the front of house never fails to calmly sort things out, as they did for this performance. So thank you very much Young Vic.

Now I had been looking forward to this production of the from the Actors Touring Company based on the reviews from the run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. (I see the Lyceum has a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors coming up next year – lucky folk). Your man Aeschylus wrote this 2500 years ago, (it was first performed in 463 BCE), but the issues it examines are just as relevant today. How should we treat refugees, the suppliants of the title? What rights do people have to return to their ancestral homelands? Where do we belong? How should refugees be treated in their new home and how should they in turn behave? Why do we have such a deep fear of the other? How can women be forced into marriage? How do women escape sexual violence? How powerful can women’s voices be when they come together?

It is all in there. David Greig, as in all modern adaptions, has to take a direct line translation, here by Ian Ruffell, and make it clear to today’s audience. The wonder is that it apparently remains pretty true to the original. I got the text. It is a beautiful read. The rhythms jump off the page. The chorus here is, unusually for a Greek play, the protagonist and has a lot to say, literally and metaphorically. Director Ramin Gray, together with composer John Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies, takes this structure and conjure up an astonishing feat, and feast, of movement and verse. Percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, who has conjured up a real, live double Aulos (the contemporary Greek pipe), are outstanding.

Really. If you want to see the best “musical” in London then come here. Except that it is now over (oops sorry) and it isn’t the best musical in London, not whilst Follies is still on. Oh and I haven’t seen any other current musicals which I guess makes me a somewhat unreliable witness. BTW I note that if you are a) available and b) a party of one, or two at most, and c) enterprising there are normally returns on most days if you still haven’t seen Follies

The whole spectacle of this Supplicant Women is made even more remarkable by the fierce performances of the non-professional chorus of young women playing the supplicants drawn from the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is not just their verse, their singing and their dance and movement which impresses, but their complete commitment to the story which impresses. All after just a couple of months of rehearsal. Staggering. At the end you could see the pride in the performance of these women felt by the local lads ,who had a smaller involvement as the chorus of Egyptians come back to claim their would be brides, and the more mature amateurs who made up the Athenian citizens who tentatively welcome the supplicants.

Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgos, who agonises before persuading his people to accept the Women and Omar Ebrahim, who switches from Danaos, the “father” of the Women to the brutal Egyptian Herald, in the blink of an eye, as well as acting as our MC, are both excellent. However Gemma May, as the Chorus leader, stood out for me, not just for the clarity with which she delivered the lines specifically carved out for her, but the way she, well er, led the Chorus.

Fidelity to the Greek original includes a libation from an academic, whose name to my shame I have forgotten, which explained, as was the custom, who funded the performances, and a dedication to Bacchus, which involved a mediocre (I hope) bottle of red being poured on to the suitably practical breeze block flooring of Lizzie’s Clachan’s elegant set.

We have Aeschylus to thank for the concept of tragedy, and for the introduction of more than one character alongside the chorus. Only seven of his plays remain including the three that make up the extraordinary Oresteia, which should be seen by everyone at least once. The other two plays which make up the Danaids trilogy alongside The Suppliants are lost. In the Persians he actually had the temerity to warn his fellow citizens about gloating too much over their victories. In fact he fought against the Persians and his military exploits brought him more fame than his playwriting, despite the fact he ruled supreme in the Dionysia through the 470s and 460s BCE. One final lesson we can learn from Aeschylus: don’t stand directly under an eagle in case it drops a tortoise on your head. Unlikely I grant you but this apparently is how he met his end.

So there you have it. All the big questions, one way and another, were covered off by Aeschylus and his mates, Sophocles and Euripides, whilst the best we Brits could manage at the time were a lot of beakers, pointlessly shifting huge lumps of stone to catch the sun one day a year and pining for a decent hairdresser. To be fair, in all these Greek dramas, you do have to get your head around the intervention of the gods. Specifically in the Suppliant Women the somewhat erratic Zeus. For he it was who caused the women to end up being born in Egypt after he got the hots for a cow lady, Io, from whom the Suppliants were descended. And it is to Zeus they turn to help them when they cross the Med. If it was me I might be a little wary of appealing to the very bloke who indirectly got me into this predicament. Mind you that’s the problem with these top gods, especially the monotheistic ones. Simultaneously good cop, bad cop, vengeful then loving, all to keep us on our toes.

I am guessing that this version of the Suppliant Women will engage further communities after having visited Bern in Switzerland. Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester< Hong Kong, as well as London.  If so please seek it out. It is about as perfect a testament to the power of theatre, then (Ancient Greece) as now., and a paean to the collective power of women. It is also the first time the word “democracy” ever appeared in writing, albeit in the form of an arch pun from the Chorus. Precious stuff.