Posts Tagged ‘Mike Bartlett’

And so another year draws to a close, and it’s time to look back on another theatrical year. Here are the TheatrePunk awards!

So, in no particular order, here are the top ten. These represent the most fun I have had in a theatre this year. They may not be the best things to be staged in Britain this year, but they are the shows that gave me the most pleasure. The shows that I recommended to friends, sometimes saw twice, or the ones that really gave me something to think about. In summary, they are my favourites of the year…

Matilda (RSC)

Just an absolute joy from beginning to end. Intelligent, moving, funny and with a soundtrack that sticks with you and for two hours turns you into a child again. It was one of the best musicals I’ve seen in years, and I’m absolutely delighted that, having already had its sell-out run extended, it appears to be settling down for a long West End residency.

Frankenstein (National Theatre)

Probably the theatrical event of the year, and I’m sure it’s a show that will be appearing in many ‘best of the year’ pieces. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller were incredible in Danny Boyle’s return to the UK theatre scene. I saw this with Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein’s monster and Benedict Cumberbatch as the doctor. They both shone, and perhaps because of that, the piece marked another triumph for the NT Live screenings, which allowed people to watch the cast in their alternate roles.

Journey’s End (Touring Consortium)

As a fan of anything related to the First World War, I was really looking forward to seeing this show. I certainly didn’t expect it to be as brilliant as it was. It was just spectacular. A masterclass in acting superbly staged and sensitively tackled. It was one of those shows that played on my mind for a long time afterwards, and remains one of the best adaptations I have ever seen.

Operation Greenfield (Little Bulb Theatre)

One of the few shows I saw twice this year. I was simply too good to only see once. Little Bulb have been quietly bubbling away for a while now, creating fun fringe pieces which challenge audiences and demonstrate the supreme talents of the small company. All actor-musicians.  The music in this piece is the thing you will take away with you more than anything. ‘Summer Flowers’ was a classic, ‘I am the True Vine’ was another, but ‘Zachariah in the Temple’, Operation Greenfield’s final triumph is the song that left you wanting to leap for joy.

Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer (Weeping Spoon)

If this were a list from ten to one, then there is a very good chance that Alvin Sputnik would top that list. It is, to put it simply, my play of the year. I can’ do justice to it’s brilliance in a paragraph, so I’ll sum up. It is a one man show about a man who dives to the bottom of the sea in pursuit of the soul of Elena, his wife. The story was perfectly executed using a circular screen in centre stage, a wonderful moustache, and one of the best puppets I’ve ever seen. Alvin Sputnik was a white glove and a white foam ball. It was theatre at its very finest and something every theatre fan should see.

Translunar Paradise (Theatre Ad Infinitum)

Sometimes I am so grateful for twitter, as without the buzz I saw on there I would never have spotted this little gem. Theatre Ad Infinitum have created a beautiful little show which certainly gets my ‘Best Show at the Fringe’ award this year. A simple story about an elderly man mourning his wife, it used masks and an accordion so effectively that every single person in the audience was crying by the end. I believe the show is now on tour so is definitely worth a trip – though bring tissues. Many tissues.

One Man Two Guvnors (National Theatre)

It’s about to transfer to Broadway following an extended run at the National and a transfer to the West End, which demonstrates just how popular this show has been. James Corden shines in this traditional farce, and demonstrates that he’s not just ‘Smithy’. Richard Bean’s script is tight, with jokes packed into every single moment. The dialogue is funny, but the physical comedy and slapstick is even funnier. Using traditional Commedia set ups gives the whole thing a structure and clarity that is rarely seen in comedy. Certainly worth the hype it has received.

Othello (Crucible Theatre)

This is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, which means I’m hyper-critical and very difficult to please when it comes to new productions of it. As the first paragraph of my review demonstrates, I hold a grudge. So I was delighted to find that the Crucible’s adaptation of Othello was brilliant. It was performed in a traditional style, allowing Shakespeare’s language to do the majority of the work. Dominic West was the best Iago I have seen, revelling in the maliciousness of the character without ever becoming repellent, a difficult task indeed!

Dunsinane (RSC)

I think this was too quickly dismissed by many. In my view, this represents one of the best scripts I’ve read this year. The writing was really sharp, with relevant points and a pace that made the whole thing trip along quite nicely, despite the strong subject matter. Jonny Phillips was also brilliant in the role of Siward – every time I see him he’s great, which makes me think that anything he’s in next year is probably worth a look.

Wastwater (Royal Court)

As a fan of new writing (though looking over this list, you wouldn’t know it) I am a massive fan of Simon Stephens. This trilogy of tales were all really strong, in my opinion, and provided a lot of food for thought  about relevant issues and social situations. I loved the scenes in the hotel room, and the way in which what was being left unsaid was much more important than what was being presented. It was a really strong piece, and the script has given me many joyous hours of reading and rereading.

If this were a top fifteen, the next five would be…

The Wild Bride (Kneehigh Theatre)

The Heart of Robin Hood (RSC)

Richard III (Old Vic)

Our Private Life (Royal Court)

Frisky and Mannish: Pop Centre Plus (Frisky and Mannish)

The Theatre Punk Special Awards 2011

Best Tearjerker

Honourable mentions must go to Alvin Sputnik, and Love Letters Straight from the Heart, but the winner for this has to be Translunar Paradise by Theatre Ad Infinitum. A play so sad that I ran out of tissues, because I was sharing them with the two people sitting next to me. The term ‘not a dry eye in the house’ is used too often these days. Translunar Paradise demonstrates that sometimes that’s really true. Every single person in that audience was crying.

Annoyed that I paid the ticket price award

13 at the National. Annoying because I had an inkling it wasn’t going to be brilliant, but I like Mike Bartlett and keep ignoring the times he disappoints me. I’d like to think it won’t happen again, but…

Numb Bum Award

Richard III at the Old Vic. Kevin Spacey was spectacular, the show was brilliant. But did it really need to be three and a half hours long?!

Daily Mail baiting award

Marat/Sade at the RSC. Over the din of the anal rape you could still hear Quentin Letts grinding his teeth in fury.

Up and Comers award

Curious Directive. Your Last Breath at the fringe showed real promise , and a style that was reminiscent of Complicite. Definitely a company to watch next year.

 Worst of the Year

This is the one everyone really wants to know, right? Well my award goes to Woyzeck on the Highveld by Handspring Puppet Company. Just dreadful from beginning to end. Badly written, poorly structured, and perhaps the most surprising of all, the puppetry was fairly slapdash. Simply had no redeemable features.

Happy Christmas fellow Theatre Punks, and we’ll see you in the new year!

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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.

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.