Wednesday 25 May 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Pastoral

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 21: Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral (2013)

It would be rude to say this is Jerusalem mark 2. Indeed, there are similarities with this short play, first performed in a co-production with Soho Theatre and Hightide Festival, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, but Eccleshare does something very different. The result is a darkly comic, strange and fascinating play about an ecological catastrophe where nature fights back.

The elderly Moll is sitting in her flat in the south of England, leaves stemming through the windows and grass shooting up through the floor. Her flat is surrounded by chain stores and restaurants galore: Boots, Tesco, Wagamama’s, Zizzi, Costa, Game, Paperchase. It could be anywhere. In the second act, having been too slow to evacuate, her and her grandsons (although that’s not made quite clear) are still there. They have been joined by a young boy (Arthur) with a penchant for cigarettes, and the wildlife has all but taken over. A tree has shot up through the floorboards and the square is now a canopied forest. The army have been sent in but it could be too late for them. Cats have become feral and there have been bear sightings.

The idea of an environmental disaster is fascinating: why is the UK turning into a wilderness and what is the extent of it? It reminded me of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi with the floating island which feeds upon itself and is so green and pure because of it. There’s a vitality to this idea of the country reverting back to nature but Eccleshare writes it in such a way which is scarily believable. He grounds the action with Manz’s and Hardy’s reality checks of how a government might act in such a scenario, sending in the troops and building walls around the newly-sprouted jungles. Eccleshare also conjures how a group of people might act when their survival instinct kicks in – there is a seemingly fitting moment with an Ocado deliveryman!

The echoes with Butterworth, as I read them, play out on several levels. There is the juxtaposition of an English landscape filled with uniform towns and chain stores paired with an English landscape which is wild and unpredictable. Furthermore, in Jerusalem Butterworth prompts you to reflect on and really believe in a mythical England. Here, in Pastoral we see an England with princesses (real or otherwise) and forests and bears and a brave boy called Arthur, akin to the medieval England that Moll talks of with lions and princesses and forests and King Arthur. It’s an incredible debut play with well-realised characters and some very funny and raw dialogue. Arthur’s evocative memory of his first love offers a particularly Philip Ridley-ish speech.

Thursday 19 May 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Play with a Tiger

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 20: Doris Lessing’s Play with a Tiger (1962)

Admittedly, the plain hard back cover and knowing nothing about the play made me apprehensive about whether I’d enjoy reading Play with a Tiger, which opened at the Comedy Theatre in 1962. For some reason I was expecting a stuffy drawing room comedy. And that of course is what Lessing wants us to think it is at the start, before (quite literally) the walls open up and the air is let in.

Set in a London flat which was probably once a mansion terrace – similar to The Deep Blue Sea – Lessing peoples her play with characters who are either single, widowed, recently broken up, or unhappily married. The play is largely a two hander between Anna and Dave. David is a brash American. Anna, an Australian now settled in London with an accompanying well-bred accent, is one of Dave’s love interests. Slightly reminiscent of Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract, the play sees Anna and Dave warring through the night as he tries to convince her to take him back which she struggles to but ultimately resists. It’s a love-hate relationship, and they counsel each other about dreams forgotten and their childhood memories. However, there are some interesting and perhaps unflattering perspectives on marriage. Anna channels her mother who regretted not chasing her dream of becoming a concert pianist and was instead ‘stuck in a dump like this, with two ungrateful children and a no-good husband’ (53). It is therefore understandable to see why Anna decided to travel rather than marry early. Much of this play is a ‘sex war’ as the characters call it, but to say that the play is wholly about gender differences is to make it sound boring and conceited.

It’s actually very meaty. But I want to skim over that to discuss how the play strikingly reflects wider issues of the time. Dan Rebellato in 1956 and All That explores the idea that characters in much of the work of 50s’ playwrights lamented the loss of a big cause, something which is worth fighting for after WWII. In Play with a Tiger, unstable characters who are alone struggle to find their place in a similarly unstable world. Dave complains that on ‘street corners now the kids are not prepared to fight the world… Everyone of us, we were prepared to take on the whole world single-handed’ (42). An idealist, Dave still holds a flame for believing that ‘the state of the world [is] more important than me’ (51) yet it is Anna who has to remind him that ‘there are other people in the world’ (49) referring to his selfish attitudes towards women. The play prompted me to think that it foreshadows issues in Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of Mad Mother from a few years later in its characters’ international reach and adolescent ideals.

All this is cleverly and evocatively reflected in the walls of the flat fading to reveal the enormous, scary, dark city looming above them, something which highlights their insignificance. And is there a tiger in it? Sadly, no. But Anna’s vision of a tiger in the room when imagining something new for the future throws an idea of wilderness and freedom and playfulness into the mix. Is that Dave’s future or is it instead a marriage to a respectable college girl from Philadelphia? Are Dave and Anna living in an age of revolution or on the brink of puritanism? Maybe that’s not what the play is about at all but Play with a Tiger is so rich with ideas that it’s understandable and refreshing for a reader’s mind to wander beyond the usually restrictive walls of an apartment mise-en-scene.

Friday 13 May 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Christie in Love

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 19: Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love (1969)

Brenton’s latest play Lawrence After Arabia, which opened at the Hampstead Theatre last week, has been criticised by some as all talk and no show. As well as being dry, some have also attacked the theatre’s decision to programme a play written by a white man which marks the centenary of the Arab Revolt. Looking back to one of Brenton’s first plays Christie in Love, about the conviction and hanging of murderer John Christie, you can see that it shows the work of a young playwright confidently playing with the possibilities of theatre.

The story is perhaps more famous from Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place, which captures eerie setting of the falsely accused’s hanging and which contains a creepy central performance from Richard Attenborough. But before that, Brenton’s play looks at the brutality of the murders conflicting with the cold professionalism of Christie. First programmed by David Hare and Tony Bicat’s Portable Theatre Company when they were looking for a play about evil, and later performed at the Royal Court, the play is performed in the round in a sort of chicken coup enclosure. The floor is strewn with masses of scrunched up paper, from under which Christie pops out.

This non-naturalistic, fluid space, Brenton writes, is part of ‘the Theatre Machine’ or a ‘fly trap’ with which to draw in the audience. He also plays with the characters being realistic and cartoonish. The two other characters, a constable and inspector, are like a Vaudeville double act recounting filthy limericks whilst searching for bodies in the garden; one of them ventriloquises a doll to represent one of Christie’s victims; Christie first appears with a huge papier maché head. But at other times, characters speak with eloquence and compassion. Christie, for instance, conducts himself with military style duty. And his interrogators speak of how they see the ‘sinks and sewers of the minds of men and women’ as a regular part of their job.

It’s a play which can be visually impressive in its exploration of evil and the morality of capital punishment. And to see how else the play may differ from Lawrence After Arabia, Christie in Love is playing later this month at King’s Head Theatre, London.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Doctor Faustus

Duke of York’s, London
5th May, 2016, matinee

‘This production contains: strong language, graphic violence, nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, sexual violence, strobe lighting, loud music and bangs’. Thus read the caution notices for Jamie Lloyd’s production of Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan’s Doctor Faustus. We are thoroughly warned, this Faustus is sordid, distasteful… and rather confusing. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that we’ve become so desensitised to gore and violence that we’re never truly shocked anymore. So when faced with characters vomiting blood and eating shit the main thought running through my head was ‘how did he hold that in his mouth for so long? I wonder what it tastes of…’

No stranger to a bit of blood and guts, Game of Thrones star Kit Harington plays against his good guy image as the debauched and egotistical Faustus. On stage as the audience enter the auditorium, he slumps, stupefied, a continuous thread of drool issuing from his mouth while clips of the The Jeremy Kyle Show crackle before him on a portable television set. I wouldn’t know where to begin in analysing Lloyd’s intent with this opening tableau, just one of many oddities to muse over.

Rather than conscientiously tweaking Marlowe’s play, Teevan takes a disjointed and less than subtle approach to his modern adaptation. We begin and end with the familiar verse, which are the most successful parts of the production – Tom Edden’s performance as the seven deadly sins is a highlight and I enjoyed the eerie simplicity of the final scene compared with the preceding chaos. Yet plonked between these sections, Teevan’s contemporary additions are quite jarring. Marlowe’s verse is discarded in favour of expletive riddled banalities – perhaps an attempt to be cool and subversive?

Teevan’s filling in the Marlowe sandwich sees Faustus, with his newly acquired powers – or should that be Mephistopheles’ powers – exploit the full rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that accompanies his ascent to superstardom as a David Copperfield-esque magician. Played as a pastiche of cheesy American sitcoms (complete with scattergun sound effects and imposed audience reactions), this black comedy is tonally at odds with the creepy dinginess of the opening scenes.

The magic tricks are simple but effective – producing a rose in a burst of flame; a levitation act – and are a nice modern interpretation of Faustus squandering his skills on a quest for hollow fame and infantile practical jokes (an inflatable penis features – I’ll say no more). It is this sense of waste which perhaps leads to a lack of plot progression and slight confusion in the middle stages, although it’s worth noting that Marlowe’s text suffers similarly and Lloyd at least injects some pizzazz (in a WTF?! way) into these sections.

Still, there remains much to be admired in this production. Lloyd has assembled a fine cast, led by Harington, proving himself with a tirelessly intense performance. The ever watchable Jenna Russell is magnetic as Mephistopheles and the psycho-sexual nature of their bond gives an extra dimension to their relationship. It may seem achingly obvious, but Russell’s medley of hellish pop hits (Kylie, Cliff and Meatloaf – go on, have a guess) is wicked fun and very tongue-in-cheek, bringing much needed light relief from the more gruesome proceedings. Jade Anouka also impresses as the love-struck Wagner. A ray of sunshine and hope amidst the many unsavoury characters, Anouka’s reappearance as Helen makes the Trojan’s brutal fate all the more upsetting – one of the truly shocking episodes, I found it uncomfortable to watch.

If the tonal confusion, plotlessness and general mayhem have a disorientating effect, this is cleverly reflected in Soutra Gilmour’s design. The foundations of Faustus’ room deconstruct and reassemble in differing configurations, progressively shifting and providing freshly skewed perspectives upon its grotty origins before we return to that place for the final countdown. My mind was trying to keep up with what went where and which wall was which, and all this built upon a great sense of theatricality as the caverns and rafters of the backstage space are laid bare. This sense of disorientation pretty much sums up my feelings about this production – a sensation of dizziness, of being not really sure what to think or where anything definitively slots together – a sort of nightmarish cheese dream.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed Doctor Faustus; in terms of energy and creating a convincing aesthetic of pure grubbiness – which from a technical level is very entertaining - it can’t be faulted and is definitely worth seeing for those curious. I’m just not sure how well Teevan’s script and Lloyd’s creative choices hold up to analytical scrutiny. After the brilliant Assassins last year, I have faith that Lloyd’s reputation is based on solid foundations, but he perhaps has a tendency to court controversy where none is needed. So we currently find ourselves at a stalemate – your move, Mr Lloyd.

Doctor Faustus plays at the Duke of York’s theatre until 25th June.

 Credit: Marc Brenner

People, Places and Things

Wyndham’s, London
30th April, 2016, matinee

Duncan Macmillan’s play about a struggling actress who enters rehab with an alcohol and drug addiction points to problems in outmoded rehabilitation processes but also asks much bigger questions about the notion of the self in the modern world. It is given an exhilarating production by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin; even more of a thrilling experience sat front row of the onstage seating.

Macmillan uses theatre to represent the idea of the self being provisional and illusory. The idea of being and seeming which pervade classical plays such as Hamlet, Richard III and Volpone are also at play here; ‘To be or not to be’ seems to hover over the play. The clever craftiness at the centre of it rests upon ‘Emma’ not knowing who she is. We first meet her drunk on stage, playing Nina in The Seagull, her striking blonde hair hidden by a wig. She proceeds to lie repeatedly about her name, recounts her life story which is revealed to be merely the synopsis of Hedda Gabler, and turns to handy dramatic quotations such as ‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’ - whether true to her or not - as a way of avoiding really letting people get close to her and help. Substituting her true personality with those of the dramatic heroines she is used to embodying, acting is not only a career for her, but a way of life.

In Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996), characters are hungry for meaning in their lives: ‘[w]e work, we struggle. And we find ourselves asking: what is this for? Is there meaning?’ and ‘[w]e are born into chaos, we exist in chaos, and finally we are released from chaos’ (1997, 84). In a largely secular society, what is there to aspire to now and (as the new wave dramatists of the fifties asked) are there a lack of big causes to fight for anymore? Macmillan similarly reflects on such ideas, as the play poses the question: what if the main advocated programme for addicts endorses the relinquishing of oneself to a higher power - particularly that of God?

It’s also interesting that both Mark in Shopping and Fucking and Nina (who ‘Emma’ plays) in The Seagull prophesise the end of the world. In act one of The Seagull, Nina, performing in part of Kostya’s play, foresees a dystopian future in which the ‘moon, bright Sirius and earth shall turn to dust’ (2011, 14). In Shopping and Fucking Mark likewise envisions ‘It’s three thousand AD. Or something. It’s the future. The Earth has died. Died or we killed it’ (1997, 87). In these telling references and allusions Macmillan weaves an intricate, intertextual web, which leaves you musing upon its themes, and those of its predecessors for a long time afterwards.

Jeremy Herrin’s production brings out the visceral in Macmillan’s play and, especially from the on stage seats, there are plenty of heart-in-mouth moments as Emma’s struggle with herself and her surroundings are brought to life in a tangible flurry of set pieces. There are several striking, trip-y moments in which the stage is swamped with Emma lookalikes manifesting magically from under the bedcovers and crawling out of the floor and walls. Running around the stage convulsing, it is a genius way to convey Emma’s internal struggles in rehab.

But for the production’s adrenaline-charged, provocative effects, Herrin still allows the play to breathe. Once Emma leaves rehab and returns to her old room at her parents’ house, she has to face the people, places and things that the Doctor warns her will be a challenge. Bunny Christie’s design takes us from the clinical whiteness (almost placelessness?) of the hospital to a definite sense of place. Emma’s room is precisely strewn with make-up brushes, nail files, cassette players, VHSs, teddy bears, board games (Frustration and Boggle seem particularly apt), and even a little fake Oscar trophy. From the front row of the onstage seats (I won’t get bored of saying that any time soon!) I could see a box under the bed. I assumed it was more make-up, other knick-knacks to contribute to the detritus of childhood displayed in the rest of the room. But this room does not represent Emma as she is now and the contents of the box under the bed turns out to be the closest thing to Emma as we know her – as little as that may really be.

Herrin’s production is rounded off with some of the finest performances currently in the West End. Denise Gough is by turns frustrating, hilarious, and deeply sympathetic. She has the audience in the palm of her hand as we constantly examine and cross-examine her honesty – a game of cat and mouse where just as we think we can trust her, we’re fooled once more. Never off stage Gough puts her all into a demanding role and proves just why she won an Olivier Award last month. There is a brilliant moment in the play’s closing moments where she pauses before embracing all of the audience whilst continuing her speech. It is a moment which makes it seem as if the play has transcended itself. Matching Gough, Barbara Marten excels as Emma’s Doctor/Therapist/Mum, an island of icy composure that contrasts perfectly with our heroine’s hot chaos.

Macmillan’s play is beautifully and intelligently written, stunningly realised by Herrin and will linger in the mind for a long time to come.

People, Places and Things plays at the Wyndham’s theatre until 18th June.
 Credit: Alastair Muir

Thursday 5 May 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Philanthropist

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 18: Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (1970)

I’m finally seeing Florian Zeller’s The Father on Saturday, two years after its UK premiere. Christopher Hampton has translated it from the French, a playwright whose work I know a little about but mainly from his translations and adaptations. Reading David Hare’s memoirs recently, I was aghast when he said that he stumbled across the job of the Royal Court’s literary manager by luck when Hampton was too busy for the role and so offered to give it to his friend Hare. As easy as that! Out of the few original Hampton plays at my local university’s library, I thought I’d read The Philanthropist, a bourgeois comedy which first played at the Royal Court.

The play centres on Philip, a rather apathetic and emotionally incompetent university don, engaged to Celia but with his heart not completely settled on the idea. It’s often witty and it’s interesting that (like Leonard in Time and Time Again) Philip’s inertia and indecisiveness is his downfall. But it feels like all of this comes second to talking about the dramatic opening scene which opens with John threatening to kill himself in front of two others, although really he’s acting out part of a play he’s written. The scene continues with meta nod nod wink winks aplenty and works its way towards a discussion of how the character might shoot himself when John accidentally does shoot himself, blood spluttering up the wall. It’s surely one of the most exciting openings to a play.

Hampton presents a comedy full of rich characters: the supposedly charitable author Braham who enjoys taking his fee from televised appeals; the sexually liberated Araminta; and Don who realises his own hopelessness and uselessness but embraces it to enjoy a rather sedentary life. They’re slyly subversive. For instance, Don has a speech which is surely unpopular with teachers. We also hear of the crazed gunman who shoots down the Tory Prime Minister and cabinet in an attempt to quell socialism! What Hampton does is write dialogue which makes characters sound both intelligent and buffoonish, creating an enjoyable comedy reminiscent of Twenty Twelve and W1A.

In a neat twist which echoes the start of the play, Philip – seemingly inspired by the horror stories of shootings and hostage situations about which we hear from other characters – springs into action to do something about his (love) life.  Philanthropic turned misanthropic, Hampton’s comedy is smart, dramatically rewarding and shows a more unattractive side to the leafy middle classes.