Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

 

25/10/11

To me, Mike Bartlett is one of the most interesting playwrights working today. Okay, so he misses the mark frequently, and his style is one that many find irritating – but he’s creating new and innovative work in a period when people are increasingly relying on ‘safe’ old staples.

I was first introduced to his work with Earthquakes in London. It was hectic, anarchic, chilling at times, and descended into a completely ridiculous ending that had many leaving grumbling about a ‘flash in the pan’. I liked Earthquakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was flawed, but it showed promise from a young playwright trying to shine a light on modern Britain. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as Bartlett has now graduated to the Olivier theatre, and now holds the dubious honour of being the youngest playwright in ten years to have managed this.

13 takes on a similar structure to Earthquakes, following different characters as they attempt to grapple with living in modern Britain. This is a society on the brink of a big change – though what that change is lies in the hands of the characters Bartlett portrays. The first half is almost nightmarish in quality, opening with all the characters sharing a single and terrifying dream. Militant protesters, academics, politicians and greasy solicitors are all drawn to a mysterious man named John, who speaks simple sense – offering the chance to reject materialism and greed.  The second half is a dramatic shift as the prime minister addresses John and his followers, and their opposition to an American invasion of Iran.

To be quite honest, the storyline to this is incidental. Bartlett uses the play instead to address modern concerns. This London is incredibly realistic, and far too close for comfort. Public disorder and riots, social media sites, occupying protesters – all are addressed here as Bartlett tries to stress the importance of belief, not necessarily in a God but in something, anything. He argues that this is the reason we dream of a society on the brink of collapse, because we no longer stand united behind one common goal.

This is what Bartlett does best: mixing epic theatre with political insight. There is a whiff of Tony Kushner in his ability to boil down larger issues into his characters personal relationships, and his examination of modern society is unparalleled. I don’t think I was the only one who was decidedly unnerved by his examination of the uncertainly we all face, and the comparison between young people hungering for change and the entrenched elder statesmen of politics clinging to the status quo. There was something incredibly chilling about Bartlett’s world view and the fact that, when faced with such monumental change in the world, none of us really know where all this is going.

The opening to the play is nothing short of spectacular. Laurie Anderson’s ‘Someone Elses Dream’ whispers in your ear as a gigantic cube emerges from the darkness like a monolith. (I had never heard the song before, and assumed it had been written for this play. It is a terrifying and beautiful piece of music, and I’d urge you to seek it out.) The short scenes that follow quickly introduce all the key players and sets the ambitious and hectic pace that continues throughout the first half.

The set is really beautiful in it’s seeming simplicity, using the revolve perfectly and gently moving from one scene to another in a way that seemed totally natural. The cube is used in a variety of different settings, becoming a lawyers office, and opening up to reveal a dark steel structure inside. Additional set pieces are also used in an efficient and clever way – most notably the breakfast bar, which at times has three different scenes taking place on it simultaneously.

There were also some brilliant performances on offer from a company that’s difficult to fault. The standouts were Trystan Gravelle as the prophetic John, whose gentle performances made his speeches totally believable and compelling, and Adam James as the bitter and angry lawyer. Danny Webb also gives a sterling supporting performance as a Richard Dawkins type character, providing an atheist voice to counter a preaching of John. But this performance belongs to Geraldine James, who stole it for me as the compassionate Tory Prime Minister that lost her way.

This show has a lot going for it, and at the end of the first half, if I gave star ratings it would be a solid five, I even ran down to the NT bookshop to buy the play as I was so impressed with what I had seen, but unfortunately, I did not feel the same way by the end of the show. While the first half burst from the stage with energy and passion, the second half descended into a thirty-minute conversation around a table between only three people.

 It was a very good conversation. The writing was dynamic, the exchanges interesting and relevant as John, the Prime Minister and the Atheist grappled with an imminent war – but it bore absolutely no relation to the play I was watching in the first half. To me it seemed as though Bartlett had grown bored of the epic and decided to just write a domestic drama instead – highlighting all his key points in one handy conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could take Bartlett by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. He did this in Love Love Love, and he did it in Earthquakes. He creates a bit of theatrical magic, and then ruins it thirty minutes before the end. It is the football equivalent of scoring an own goal in extra time. There is something enigmatic and incredibly interesting about this play. It brings up the confusion and conflict we all experience in our lives, while shining a light on bigger political issues. I should have come out raving about this show, instead I left disappointed and frustrated, desperately wishing that Bartlett would learn how to finish what he started.

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23/10/11

Marat/Sade is really due to be restaged. With riots in the streets only months ago, and camps springing up in protest of the financial turmoil brought upon us by those in positions of power, the idea of revolution, of a nation rising up against it’s ruling class, has never been more poignant. I was quite excited about this show, not least because it came with a warning email beforehand, a pretty high age limit, and the fact I studied this play at university and knew exactly what was in store.

Saying that, staging a production of Marat/Sade is not without risk. There is something inherently ‘60’s’ about Peter Weiss’s drama, and indeed the Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty style it is presented in. Also, this is the RSC, dahling – and as the Daily Mail has so readily demonstrated with it‘s ridiculously sensationalised summary of this show (which I won’t add a link to for reasons of intelligence and decency) this material still has the capability to shock, and a traditional RSC audience is not used to such outlandish scenes.

So let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, Anthony Neilson’s production is shocking. As someone used to every kind of theatre you can think of, I still balked at the image of a bishop getting sucked off my a buxom midget, or of a cross-dressing Marquis De Sade being tied up and repeatedly tasered, or even of Nicholas Day being stripped naked and gang raped by a giant dildo – but this isn’t shock for shock’s sake, there is a point to be made here.

Set in 1808 in a post revolutionary France, Marat/Sade is almost entirely a “play within a play”. This play is being staged by the inmates and nurses of Charenton Asylum, and overseen by the infamous Marquis De Sade (played charismatically by Jasper Britton). His play attempts to tell the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Throughout, De Sade conducts many philosophical dialogues with Marat about the nature of revolution, and observes the proceedings with detached amusement as the disturbed individuals around him enact scenes of revolution and rebellion.

The most obvious change from the original piece is that Neilson has updated the action. It is still set in the 1800’s, but the physical look of the show has changed. While we are witnessing the fallout of the French revolution, there is a distinct Middle Eastern theme to Charlotte Corday’s costume as she kills Marat with a handgun, and patients are controlled via smart phones.

Speaking of the physical look of the piece, I have to mention Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. I’m not normally one to dwell on scenography, preferring instead to take in the piece as a whole, but Yavroyan’s lighting was a triumph. It set the scene perfectly and used some mind-boggling effects at times – indeed, the moment when the whole theatre seemed to sway and move was so impressive I completely forgot about the spectacle on stage, staring dumbstruck at the balcony opposite me as it seemed to move and shift.

The staging too, is beautiful in it’s simplicity – a bare stage with bare iron ladders curving over the audience, creating a grid and an empty space to create any image the ever-changing story dictates. The whole thing is incredibly well designed and executed, allowing the patients of the asylum to loom over the audience on the ladders, hang off precariously at times, and use the runways to get up close and personal to those seated in the stalls.

The piece is performed admirably by the large cast, with all committing to the play’s strong demands from its actors. I was uncomfortable at first with the idea of an able-bodied cast doing out-dated impressions of patients with learning difficulties, but this aspect of the production is approached tastefully, and no one in the cast has slipped into caricature or cliché, instead portraying these patients subtly when necessary, but also allowing them the freedom to lash out when the script dictates it.

Jasper Britton, as I previously mentioned, stands out as De Sade who is the orchestrator of this event, but there are great performances from all, most notably Imogen Joel as a shivering and narcoleptic Charlotte Corday, and Lisa Hammond who gives a spectacular take on the Herald – revelling in every aspect of the play being performed, especially the more disturbing and sadistic acts.

And so we come to the main flaw in Neilson’s production, and it is a flaw that marred the entire production for me. It all looks very good, and it’s certainly shocking, but in focussing so doggedly on the shock-and-awe tactics employed here, Neilson seems to bypass the main points of the play. Marat’s freedom from oppression is something that could really speak to a modern audience, but it is a message that is lost in the hubbub around it. In the same way, the individualism that Sade champions is something a modern audience can identify with, but that message is only ever drilled home when something utterly appalling is happening on stage at the same time, so is lost in the ether.

This is an insightful play, but the sensationalist staging here means that anything I might have taken away from it was lost. Instead I left as many did, a bit shell-shocked, impressed at the grandeur and ambition of the piece, but totally confused about why it all happened.

07/09/11

I find Headlong a difficult company to be a fan of. For every Enron, there is an Earthquakes in London to convince you that the brilliance of Enron was a fluke; because of this, I had mixed feelings about Rupert Goold’s 9/11 retrospective, however, being a sucker for a site-specific piece, I thought I’d give it a go.

With contributions from 20 different writers, Decade takes an episodic structure, looking at 9/11 itself from a variety of angles and the way in which our world has changed since that fateful day. There is Headlong’s usual mix of movement, drama and striking scenography, as well as some fascinating insights into the effect that one day has had on all of us.

On arrival, we enter the performance space after a surly interview from US border control, we are then sent via a red staircase into a replica of the Windows on the World restaurant. There is something incredibly chilling about Miriam Buether’s design – particularly the walls on either side of the room as we look at the view as it would have been from the top of the World Trade Centre. Buether’s design is such that the audience around breakfast tables, while the cast move around on tables and on the high stage in the centre of the room.

The show is largely a collage of reactions to 9/11, but there are some stories that deviate slightly. The best part for me was Mike Bartlett’s contribution, about a journalist who cynically tracks down Osama Bin Laden’s killer and questions him – the pace is lightning fast and injected with humour and pathos in Bartlett’s usual inimitable style.

Ella Hickson’s contribution is also one of the standouts of the evening – telling the cynical tale of a gift shop salesman at Ground Zero, who exploits distressed and upset female tourists in order to convince them to go to bed with him. It illicited laughs of incredulity on the night I attended, and left me with an uncomfortable feeling as Headlong examine the nature of the Ground Zero tourism.

Perhaps the piece that stood out for me the most was the meeting of the widows, taking the form of ten short scenes mapping the progress each widow made since 9/11 – and in turn how the nation grieved with them. In the midst of this was a short scene from the waitress that served these widows, who discussed the fact that her birthday will never quite be the same again. This rang incredibly true for me, as my birthday is on September 11th, and many of this waitresses sentiments were things I have been heard to say these past ten years.

The episodic nature of the piece means that, inevitably, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sections I found moving and incredibly exciting to watch, whereas others felt a little unnecessary. Simon Schama’s piece embodied that for me, as an historian tries to place 9/11 in a historical context – it was lengthy, academic, and took on a lecture-like form that didn’t sit well with the rest of the show.

In terms of Rupert Goold’s direction there were a lot of positives. The use of the space was nothing short of brilliant. Each scene was treated with discretion and imagination, and Scott Ambler’s movement sequences took on an almost tribal-like quality at times, giving atmosphere to the piece and sometimes a pause to digest what we had just witnessed.

I must admit, I find this a difficult play to review. The piece was performed and directed incredibly well, but I do think that it was too long, and the episodic structure meant that the piece lacked clarity. The contributions of different writers was interesting, but with such a massive task to tackle, a single writer with a single vision would have been much more effective. At times I craved just a simple retelling of events – maybe there is room for exploration with regards to a verbatim piece?

I believe there is definitely a place in theatre to examine the lasting effects of 9/11, but tackling one or two of the issues raised would be a play by itself – looking at ten years of history in one play was just too ambitious. With dozens of different angles I simply felt bombarded, and the issues Headlong were trying to address became muddied and overwhelmed.

07/09/11

First a novel, then a classic Hitchcock film, The stage adaptation of The 39 Steps stormed onto the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and is now celebrating it’s fifth birthday in the West End. To celebrate the occasion, I thought it was about time that I saw it!

 The 39 Steps tell the dramatic tale of Richard Hannay, played admirably by Rufus Wright, who finds himself embroiled in the murder of a suspiciously teutonic sounding female spy. Following a clue left by the woman, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland to clear his name and foil the plans of the dastardly Germans.

Having read Patrick Barlow’s adaptation prior to seeing the show, I knew what to expect. Mixing comedy, satire and parody, Barlow presents the thrilling tale while both celebrating and lamenting the limits of the stage. A long bridge over a gaping chasm simply cannot be recreated accurately, so we must settle for a ladder balanced precariously over some dry ice. Aitken also gives a wink to the audience with little touches as the actors get bored of recreating the winds of the Scottish Highlands, sighing wearily as they shake their jackets vigorously.

Director Maria Aitken deploys her cast of four in an incredibly energetic production. Which involves playing 139 characters between the four of them, often playing two, even three characters at the same time with hilarious comic effect. The costume changes are rapid, sometimes represented by a simple change of hat, and the jokes have been lifted straight from Brighton Pier  – “I’m not surprised,” The sherriff says, as our hero is saved by a bullet-proof hymn book  “Some of these hymns are terribly hard to get through.”

Rufus Wright is fantastic as Richard Hannay, unflappable despite what is thrown at him, and lovingly paying homage to the Robert Donat role of Hitchcock’s classic. Laura Rogers plays mosdt of the female roles in the production, embodying the classic Hitchcock blonde, but also playing a Scottish farmers wife and an archetypal femme fatale. Dermot Canavan and James Hurn (understudying for Sean Kearns during our performance) have the most fun though, playing all the other roles in the show including everyone from underwear salesmen to railway porters, policemen to government officials.

This show is a celebration of the simplicity of the stage, and that is it’s greatest asset. While just round the corner Les Miserables is recreating the barricades of the French revolution with a high tech set, The 39 Steps is creating similar dramatic images on a shoestring, and it’s equally brilliant and just a lot of fun to watch.

It’s not without flaw of course, with all the hi-jhinks on stage, the story is somewhat undermined in places, and the Hitchcock thriller isn’t really all that thrilling, taking the form of a vaudevillian comedy instead. That’s just fine by me, of course, but I think there was a possibility to marry the two together. Saying that, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – and the audience lapped up the tale when we attended.

This show is not the greatest play the world has ever known, nor is it going to challenge your take on the world – but it is an awful lot of fun and a great night out. The 39 Steps absolutely deserves it’s spot on the West End – there really isn’t another regular West End show that gives the audience what this does. A heartfelt story, a bit of murder-mystery, and a spectacular pencil moustache.