Tuesday 28 June 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2016

We’re half way through #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016. There has been a different playwright each week and there have been 13 plays by women, 13 by men. From rickety West End melodramas to plays dealing with contemporary issues presented in the most contemporary and cutting edge of forms. From plays well-known or only recently produced to plays lost in the canon. From newly bought editions of new plays to dusty scripts dug out from the bookshelves of an amateur theatre. In the words of the stage manager in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, ‘Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten’, adding plays forgotten to that list too. Here are the plays:

·         Here We Go by Caryl Churchill (2015)
·         Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)
·         Pornography by Simon Stephens (2007)
·         Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje (2007)

·         Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (2011)
·         The Arbor by Andrea Dunbar (1980)
·         Painting a Wall by David Lan (1974)
·         The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson (2012)

·         The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis (2011)
·         Three Birds Alighting on a Field by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1991)
·         Pub Quiz is Life by Richard Bean (2009)
·         By the Bog of Cats… by Marina Carr (1998)
·         Closer by Patrick Marber (1997)

·         Silent by Pat Kinevane (2010)
·         Life X3 by Yasmina Reza (2000)
·         Time and Time Again by Alan Ayckbourn (1971)
·         Frozen by Bryony Lavery (1998)

·         The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton (1970)
·         Christie in Love by Howard Brenton (1969)
·         Play with a Tiger by Doris Lessing (1962)
·         Pastoral by Thomas Eccleshare (2013)

·         Keeping Tom Nice by Lucy Gannon (1988)
·         The Westbridge by Rachel De-lahay (2011)
·         Steaming by Nell Dunn (1981)
·         Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen (2015)
·         The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman (1939)

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Little Foxes

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 26: Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939)

I can’t help but think that when this play about a bitter, greedy family in the Southern states of America premiered in London in 1942 (with Richard Attenborough as Leo) the country had more pressing issues at hand. Indeed it only ran for 37 performances, but it was much more of a success in New York.

The Little Foxes is set in the spring of 1900 and focuses on the Hubbards, a rich family about to invest in a Chicago firm to expand their cotton business. Three siblings – Ben, Oscar and Regina – are each investing a third but Regina needs the help of her wealthy but distant and rather ill husband Horace since she was left out of her father’s will. Regina, a sort of hostile Southern Belle who was played by Bette Davis on film and Elizabeth Taylor in a New York and London revival in the eighties, even agrees to a smaller share if her daughter Alexandra can marry Oscar’s son Leo to ensure the money is kept in the family. But whereas she is cold and materialistic, Horace (on his return) is idealistic and warm-hearted. He wants to leave some money to the black maid, and is exhausted by the family making so much money at the expense of cheap labour or cheating someone else out of money. He is therefore reluctant to put up his part of the money, thus threatening the deal. What Horace eventually learns, however, is that Leo has stolen some bonds from a safety deposit box which he, Oscar and Ben can use in lieu of money to seal the deal.

Horace plans to make a new will leaving the 80,000 dollars’ worth of bonds (which Leo et al plans on returning) to Regina and the rest to daughter Alexandra, for whom he wishes a better life away from the greed and money swindling of the family. Indeed, Oscar’s wife Birdie is subdued and laments that she’s never had a happy day and that Oscar only married her for her family’s money. She is trapped (like a caged bird) and wants better for her niece.

It’s here where I wrote quite a concise paragraph of the rest of the play but I thought I’d cut it out as it was full of spoilers. What’s important is that there is a lot of double crossing, scheming siblings and warring over money. Indeed there’s a lot of plot to get through and Hellman shows good technique even if it might seem a bit rickety now. There’s the fate of the deal being decided by the frail man; the out of reach medicine bottle; the contents of a safety deposit box. What’s more is that there are about eight fairly meaty roles in the play, something which the original reviews noted: it is a play that ‘bestows viable parts on all the members of the cast’ (Brooks Atkinson). But despite its pace, it is such a frustrating play to read because of the many stage directions. Specific or just fussy, it becomes more and more difficult having to negotiate and visualise all the many ‘Oscar crosses down to front chair left centre’ etc.

Aesthetically, it could be an Oscar Wilde play. Hats and gloves and fancy drawing rooms, I would argue that Hellman doesn’t quite capture the heat or air of the south in the same way as Tennessee Williams. But there’s no faulting Hellman for writing such a gripping and multifaceted family melodrama even if it is old fashioned now. Having said that, you never fully appreciate how high the stakes are outside the house in The Little Foxes. It’s not until the end when Ben looks forward to the new century as one of opportunity and wealth. I also think that the irony is lost that that is only the perception of the rich white man. Behind the Hubbard household, there is a story of slavery, cheap labour on the cotton fields, industry, money (plenty of it!) and overall the changing face of America. And it is captured here in this crucible of family greed and money.

"Catch the foxes for us,/ The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards”.

We’re half way through #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016!

Sunday 26 June 2016

The Threepenny Opera

National Theatre (Olivier)
18th June, 2016

Brecht. The words ‘Marxist’, ‘dry’, ‘didactic’ and ‘po-faced’ come to mind. I don’t claim to be any expert, but I think I’d be forgiven for failing to associate his work with the words ‘fun’, or ‘entertaining’. Yet Rufus Norris’ production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (a new version by Simon Stephens) has, in all its merry immorality, proven that assumption wrong. Here Brecht’s occasionally exhausting theory is combined with enough humour and energy to hold our immediate, aesthetically driven, interest, making the ubiquitous socio-political lessons much more palatable.

The satirical anti-tragedy charts notorious criminal, Macheath’s (Rory Kinnear) marriage to Polly Peacham (Rosalie Craig), daughter of the controller of London’s beggars. Questions regarding capitalist social structures, the power that money holds over relationships, loyalties and emotions, and the immoral lengths people go to in order to survive come to the fore through a series of double-crossings and betrayals. Act 2 sees the comic gears turned up, from Mack’s knowing quips to the audience – ‘You came back?!’ – to the farcical prison scene where Mack is confronted by the many women in his life and some gloriously childish humour (I love a good bum joke), before we hurtle towards the ridiculously improbable (yet satirically perfect) finale. A sole moment of un-Brechtian catharsis arises as, following Mack’s monumentally un-PC rant, Jamie Beddard’s Matthias consolidates what the entire audience are thinking in one piercingly precise, foul-mouthed utterance – an uproariously fist-pumping moment if ever there was one.

Kinnear is a solid Macheath, breezing through Weill’s songs with an assured baritone timbre (who knew?), and while perhaps not the physical embodiment of hunkiness that would stereotypically attract so many women, he conveys a compellingly seedy charisma that convinces of Mack’s magnetism. He is exuberantly supported by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as the Peacham’s, their cartoonish characterisation exemplary of the glue that binds both theory and entertainment. The sturdy ensemble is rounded off by a scene-stealing turn from Sharon Small as Jenny, her raspy voice and rag doll appearance prove that Brechtian characters can be empathetic without being a detriment to the political ‘cause’.

However, the real star of the show is Vicki Mortimer’s design of bare-boned theatrical intricacy. Paper-lined scaffolds and staircases leading to nowhere are in constant transit, expertly choreographed to form a vast maze through which the actors and musicians lurk, wind, and in frustration, burst through. The fourth wall is not merely absent, but torn, ripped and stabbed to shreds, utterly shattering our suspension of disbelief. As such, my eye and mind was drawn towards appreciating the technical aspects involved in creating theatre. Mortimer and Norris’ excellence lies in their seemingly simple story-telling devices which, when examined more closely, are actually an acutely mechanised and complex series of cogs, all expertly conducted to whirl and spark with perfect timing. And the result is pure, theatrical magic.

For anyone perhaps hesitant in embracing Brechtian theatre, I’d recommend The Threepenny Opera as a starting point. Weill’s music is charming, hilariously off-set by Stephens’ unsentimental lyrics (‘Stupid twat. Stupid twat’ is one of my favourites for being so to-the-point), and the theatricality of Norris’ production emphasises the less-controversial aspects of Brechtian theory in celebrating the stage for what it is.

The Threepenny Opera plays at the National Theatre until 1st October.
 Photo: Richard H Smith

Wednesday 22 June 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Iphigenia in Splott

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 25: Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (2015)

I read Owen’s contemporary reworking of the Greek play earlier this year, knowing I was busy when the tour came to my nearest theatre and so couldn’t go to see it. It’s exhilarating and funny and yet makes you furious at local cuts.

Last year I read David Lindsay Abaire’s Good People. The two are very different plays: Owen’s is set in Wales and Lindsay Abaire’s is set in America. Good People made its UK premiere in a starry production in Hampstead followed by a West End run, whereas Iphigenia in Splott played mostly small venues, started as a fringe play and has a cast of one. But there are similarities between the two. Lindsay Abaire subverts the American play and gives us a female protagonist who is a single mother, struggling to pay the rent, who loses her job, and who barely copes to look after her disabled daughter. She is not one of life’s winners. And yet she has a huge amount of wit and warmth and is determined to do good for her daughter as well as not take money from her ex-partner. She plays church bingo to help get a bit more money.

Effie, in Owen’s play, is unemployed and unqualified. She goes on unbelievable drinking benders, has one night stands and is the sort of person you’d perhaps cross the road to avoid. Like Margie in Good People, where Effie lives doesn’t offer much hope because it is run down. The bingo hall is burnt down, the swimming pool is closed, shops are shutting, as is the library. It’s a dump. Owen takes us on a bit of a tour of her life, meeting people who are also unemployed or injured from the war, or struggling to scrape through their lives. Effie is stuck in a destructive cycle of binging. And then she is offered hope after a one night stand with an amputated ex-serviceman. She suddenly thinks that he can give her life purpose by looking after him, but even this is soon taken away from her. She becomes pregnant but loses her baby in an accident which is the hospital’s fault. This is where the Greek myth aspect of the play becomes apparent. Effie decides not to sue so as to ensure that much-needed money isn’t taken away from the hospital. She suffers so that others don’t have to. If you were going to look into the technicalities of compensation, then this ending may seem contrived but nonetheless the message is enduring. And what’s more, even though this small town is a bit of a dump, the people there all manage. But what if one day, Effie asks turning the question to the audience, they couldn’t cope?

This play is dazzling. Owen put centre stage a person who is not often seen in theatre. She is provocative and fills the stage. The text is in verse; the language is sparse but effective and it evokes clearly her world and the voices of those around her.  It’s fresh and poetic and exhilarating and imaginative. I hope it tours again or something because it is such an important and powerful play, bursting with energy and full of thoughts, hitting hard at budget cuts in contemporary society and shining a light on those often forgotten in the margins of society. It’s easily one of my favourite plays I’ve read this year and highly recommended.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Richard III

Almeida, London
18th June, 2016, matinee

When I studied Richard III at university, it was easily one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Its episodic plot is unfussy, driven entirely by Richard’s ascent to the throne stopping at nothing that might get in his way, followed by his decline. And Richard himself is a character associated with so many iconic performances. Production photographs and reviews show actors twisting their bodies to pull off extremely physically demanding interpretations. There have been Richards who have played on the animalistic imagery in the play, and performances which have relished the showmanship of the character. So what does Ralph Fiennes bring to the role? His Richard has a hilarious dry wit and a great amount of menace behind his feigned sophistication.

Rupert Goold’s postmodern production is framed by the excavation of Richard III’s bones from a car park in Leicester in 2012. Pre show we see archaeologists digging up soil and taking a twisted spine out of the ground. It has the effect of giving the past a resonance in the present. It also merges history and fiction, asking if modern day politicians achieve the same Machiavellian acts as the Duke of Gloucester. Indeed, politics on both sides of the Atlantic is fraught at the moment: politicians using dangerous rhetoric to work their way up the cursus honorum is becoming more familiar to see. Furthermore, having visited the Richard III exhibition in Leicester, the glass floor covering where he was buried (which you can walk on I might add!) matches the glass floor covering the pit in Hildegard Betchler’s design. It’s as if the production is being played out on top of his grave, adding to the palpable sense of fact and fiction, history and the present in tension with each other, just as science, history and literature merged (as Goold states in the programme) in the excavation of the dead king.

Goold’s production is modern set in that most of the characters are dressed in smart black and there are mobile phones and guns. But amongst that there are anachronisms: the throne and king’s attire seem period, as does the armour in which characters fight. But Goold denies an exact sense of setting, instead letting the production resonate with us in terms of its contemporary echoes as well as its literary and historical roots.

Fiennes’ last two stage roles have been fairly cerebral, something which he lends to his Gloucester but he can also be strong and threatening. He double takes when Buckingham suggests he is effeminate. He licks the blood of the beheaded Hastings and rubs it in his hair. He is aware of his barriers but is confident he will conquer those in his way and laughs in the face of those in the audience that may doubt him. His broad smile is reminiscent of Farage’s and he says ‘tut’ in such a tellingly sarcastic way. He knows his talents have no limits.

The women, however, don’t fare well in this production. In one scene, horrific to watch, Richard rapes Queen Elizabeth. It may emphasise his desperation for power, but really it feels gratuitous as his downfall of power is already in the text. What is also problematic about it is that it is the first time in the play when we see Richard be actively violent; mostly he dishes the murders out to his henchman. Elsewhere in the play, Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Margaret is not the vicious old hag she could be played as but instead a frail woman whose life has been tormented by murdered loved ones. She wanders the stage as she prophesises Richard’s future, clutching a doll in a mournful and maternal way. When Richard clutches its head, she gasps as if it was real. Still, she may be a soothsayer when it comes to the fate of Gloucester but she’s by no means won. It is a nice touch though for her to pass on the doll to Elizabeth, hinting that her life is to be spent lamenting her lost loved ones too.

The casting of Tom Canton as Richmond, England’s saviour, is particularly clever. Instead of resembling any politician we might hope to look up to, he is a knight in shining armour, a sort of Alfie Boe in Les Mis type, some may say almost too good to be true. Finbar Lynch as a rather cool, quietly ambitious Buckingham is impressive as is James Garnon as Hastings. He is surprisingly collected as he straightens his papers and lowers his head to a chopping block as he warns ‘Miserable England!/ I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee’.

Betchler’s set makes much of the Almeida’s stage, being both a muddy battle field and courtly chamber. The skulls of Richard’s enemies, lit up like trophies, are particularly effective. Adam Cork’s sound design cranks up the (sometimes lacking) tension and momentum and Jon Clark’s low lighting enables characters to lurk in the shadows. Overall, Fiennes’ Richard is not a portrait or caricature but chillingly familiar to real life politicians and Goold’s production brings out the contemporary relevancies in the play whilst acknowledging its links with history and as a piece of fiction.

Richard III plays at the Almeida until 6th August and is screened in cinemas on 21st July.

 Photo: Marc Brenner

Wednesday 15 June 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Steaming

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 24: Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1981)

Female relationships take the fore as a small group of women meet weekly at a run-down Turkish baths in South London. The baths hold a great importance to the women, many of whom see their visits as a reprieve from the uses and abuses of daily life. So when the council decide to shut the baths to make way for a new library, the women take a defensive stance.

Dunn’s eclectic group of characters feel real and you get an impression of the close bonds they share, despite their differing backgrounds. Violet has worked at the baths for eighteen years, a mother hen figure whose customers are her greatest priority. Josie is materialist and sex mad, yet she relies on a string of men including her abusive on/off boyfriend to finance the lifestyle she aspires to. Constantly worrying about rent, but always sporting the latest fashions, Josie resorts to working shifts in a strip club to pay her way. In contrast, old school friends, Nancy and Jane, have escaped from loveless marriages and cheating husbands, and despite of Jane’s seemingly exciting past travelling the world and Nancy’s perfect domesticity and fancy house, they reveal a sense of vulnerable loneliness. Dunn creates a poignant portrait of the forgotten wives and mothers, no longer of use when their families have dispersed.

This is offset by the intense relationship between Mrs Meadows and her daughter, Dawn. Both equally reliant on the other, yet striving against this reliance, they bicker and snipe, Mrs Meadows frequently expressing regret at still needing to take care of the thirty-odd year old Dawn (this is due to an event hinted at, involving a teenage Dawn and a Policeman that left her instable), yet at other times she seems to relish having a child at home for company. Living in poverty in a house with a leaky roof and no heating, they rely on the baths for social companionship as well as their health. There is a pathos in the fading prominence of bathhouses in the local community mirroring invisibility of the lives of its dwindling clientele.

Over the course of the play the women gain confidence and begin to challenge their oppressors. Previously believing herself of being incapable of getting a career, Josie develops her oratory skills, making a rousing speech to the council in defence of the baths. Dawn begins to stand up to her mother, ignoring her demands to ‘shut up!’ she begins to admire her body and speak up about her hurtful experience with the Policeman despite Mrs Meadows telling her that she’s a ‘wicked girl’. Nancy decides to sell her house and start afresh, and Violet’s ongoing feud with fellow bathhouse worker, Bill (the sole male character, only heard from offstage), culminates in her taking a stand against him by locking herself and her women inside the baths.

Yet, despite the women vowing to take ownership of their bodies and lives, there is a foreboding doubt that lingers. Josie’s imagined liberation from her violent boyfriend exposes the sexual trappings of their relationship; ‘I’ll tell him how much I hate him… how much he put me down… how much he hurt me… what a failure he is… and then after all that we’ll have it!’. There is a sense of the fantastical in Josie’s dreams of domination which dampens the prospects of real, lasting liberation from his clutches as her urges carnally tie her to him. Even as the women feel hopeful at the end of the play, the threat of oppression – whether socially, sexually, or poverty driven – looms ahead, reinforced by the final image of Dawn plunging into the pool and coming up choking for air.

Dunn presents strong and varied female characters and while the plot is slight and the particularities of the feminist message seem a little dated (many women work and live independently now, as opposed to the majority of Dunn’s characters being housebound or under the thumb of men), issues regarding female identity and the threats faced by women - personally, socially and politically - still resonate. The bittersweet final scenes demonstrate that little successes and progresses provide some hope, but as a society we still have a long way to go in regards to female empowerment.

Sunday 12 June 2016


Donmar Warehouse
11th June, 2016, matinee

What if someone who you have been in love with over the last 25 years does not reciprocate that love anymore because they cannot remember you? That is the situation Carrie is in after Lorna loses a large section of her memories after an operation to stop an unspecified disease. Apparently set in the near future where this sort of procedure is if not normal then more regular, the play is about the possibilities of science and complexity of the brain. But the wonders of medical science are not triumphant here and for all of the doctor character’s medical talk about the billions of neurons in our brain etc. I didn’t sit there feeling the excitement of science. The focus more largely questions the personal, possibly devastating effects this has on the individuals involved.

But even if it is perhaps difficult to connect directly to this specific situation, it is easier to connect with Carrie and the fear that someone might stop loving you or not even be able to recognise you. She is down-to-earth and pragmatic. She resorts to saying ‘fuck’ a lot – a word which encompasses a lot when there’s not much consolable hope in her situation. But she also has a lot of faith, in God, in science and in her love for Lorna. Barbara Flynn is very believable as her, throwing her arms up and pacing to show her frustration and helplessness but never overplaying her anger perhaps because she has faith: ‘I have faith because I waver’ she says. She believes in having hope that they can live like they did before the operation but there’s no escaping that it is tragic that their whole life together has been erased by Lorna’s memory, leaving Carrie feeling that it might have been less horrible if Lorna had died. Lorna on the other hand is airy, seemingly more spontaneous and more accepting. Zoe Wanamaker excels: barefoot, she jumps quickly from knowing where she is to forgetting herself. At one point she runs around the stage throwing chairs like a child, like someone wanting to regain control of her life. Together they roll about on the floor and share the same dark sense of humour and (in their ordinary, everyday clothes) are the normal couple who have been put in this extreme but perhaps one day commonplace medical and ethical dilemma.

We first meet them after the operation: Lorna can’t remember Carrie but she seems content leisurely sipping a drink and implying that she wants a divorce so she can move on without Carrie. This is where the structure became unstuck for me. After reading Matt Truman’s review last night the play is (mostly) set in reverse chronology, something which I completely missed when watching it. The next scene is Carrie talking to the doctor asking for another meeting with Lorna, although taking the reverse chronology into account it makes the first scene that meeting, probably (poignantly) their last. I understood, of course, that there was a jump back in time later on to before the operation where we see Lorna and Carrie choose readings for their wedding and discussing the operation etc., but the exact structure was, to me, unclear. The last scene (apparently not in the text) is a repeat of the first, a sort of coming of circle. You see the scene with new resonances and it’s much more poignant after knowing how in love they once were. But, although perhaps cynical of me, I felt it was a slightly weak ending and despite how much depth there is in this short poetic piece, it also feels lacking in denying a more hopeful ending, or any ending at all really.

Nina Sosanya is very strong in a role which is not dissimilar to ones she has played before. Professional and cerebral but also fairly personable, like her character in W1A, Sosanya (along with the whole cast) has some very tricky language to negotiate, self-interrupting and overlapping.

Indeed, Payne uses language in a specific way. Seeing Blue/Orange last week, Penhall shows characters carefully using PC language in order to tread around difficult subjects and cover their backs as so to stay professional. Meaning can be easily misconstrued. Likewise, Payne’s characters go back on themselves, restart sentences, and interrupt thoughts with new ones. The doctor, Miriam, replies with rehearsed medical patter as well as trying to respond to the individual on a human level. Again, meaning is something to be wary of and needs negotiating with language.

In this sense, Payne perhaps disconnects language and meaning, two things (like Lorna and Carrie?) which are usually so intrinsically married together. It is one of the many binary aspects in the play which are separated. There’s a moment where Carrie is aghast at being told by Miriam that they erased the part of someone’s brain which held their faith. It makes us question the abstract notions of love and faith and whether they are held in the heart or in the brain. Are we just made up of our memories? Are love and faith more tangible than we know? Where will the characters go from here and will Lorna be truly happy?

Tom Scutt’s set reflects the dark tone of the play. A tree trunk is preserved in a glass case in the background but there is a huge split down the middle. Like Lorna, it’s preserved but no longer whole. The glass half reflects the characters and the gravelled floor (silent to move on) only half leaves footprints barely for a few seconds. It leaves a ghostly effect.

The more I think about it, Elegy is a play which provokes discussion not only about the advances of science but also loss and love and death. It’s full of thoughts and images, as is Josie Rourke’s well-paced production and Tom Scutt’s intriguing design, which are clever and poetic, and ask big questions of the heart and about the brain. But I wanted it to come to something much more colourful, hopeful and cathartic than it did here.

Elegy plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 18th June.
 Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 9 June 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Westbridge

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 23: Rachel De-lahay’s The Westbridge (2011)

When rumours spread surrounding the brutal attack of an Asian girl by a group of black boys on the Westbridge estate the repercussions are felt by various members of the local community. Teenager Andre has been kicked out of home by his mum; Saghir is forced to close his shop early in fear of looters and rioters while his daughter, Soriya, begins to have doubts about her relationship with boyfriend Marcus. Racial tensions resurface and generational differences come to the fore in De-lahay’s funny and honest depiction of modern south-west London life.

The play explores the ever-increasing multicultural landscape of urban Britain and the evolving cultural identities of its people. De-lahay takes an interesting viewpoint on this topic as she highlights the simultaneous fracturing and intermingling of cultures and the resulting confusion experienced by the younger generations. Both Marcus and Soriya come from mixed-race families, and Soriya is proud of her half-Pakistani heritage, despite ridiculing her brother about his arranged marriage. At the beginning of the play she is confident in her relationship with White-Afro-Caribbean Marcus, he is even moving in with her. Yet over the course of the play she begins to have reservations about their suitability due to their different cultural upbringings and misgivings about her own dual heritage. She even begins to contemplate an arranged marriage herself – ‘I want to have Pakistani children for a Pakistani husband. I don’t want them to be as confused as I am’. Meanwhile, there are fears that the Pakistani community are merely using the attack accusations as an excuse to retaliate against the black community. Apparently, cultures coming together isn’t always rosy, and can present potentially problematic clashes.

I took special interest in The Westbridge and its depiction of a multicultural neighbourhood as I live just 200 yards from the most multicultural road in Britain (Narborough Road, Leicester – apparently). My local area is choc full of varying nationalities and this is most evident in the multitude of shops and takeaways: Indian, Chinese, Polish, Turkish, Caribbean, to name but a few. Similarly, De-lahay presents much of this cultural nourishment – food is mentioned a lot, whether it’s Soriya’s flatmate, George, chastising others for eating when she’s dieting, or the feast prepared by the (absent) Umra for Marcus’ first meeting with Saghir. The characters bond over food, yet it is also a notable marker of identity. When Soriya expresses the wish to cook for Marcus ‘something you grew up eating’, his response, ‘rice and peas or festivals? Babes, that’s not me’, highlights the reality of being mixed-race without having any sense of dual heritage.

From Elmina’s Kitchen to Gone Too Far!, The Westbridge is one of many plays which explore multicultural contemporary Britain, something which was perhaps previously ignored on major stages. Furthermore, De-lahay’s refusal to present issues surrounding race, culture and identity in a black and white way, as seen in the touching concluding scene, treats such themes with the complexity they require.

Monday 6 June 2016

Badgers, Foxes, and Stef Smith’s 'Human Animals'

In a new book, Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain, Lucy Jones explores our ambivalent relationship with foxes, one of Britain’s largest wild animals. We see foxes simultaneously as beautiful mammals to be in awe of and cunning pests that should be feared. And for such a wild animal, they are commonplace in both rural woodland and inner cities. Pigeons are even more ubiquitous in urban, suburban and rural landscapes. There’s a curious amount of contemporary plays which draw upon Britain’s wildlife or which exploits it to explore the idea of environmental disasters as a starting point. From the plays of Jez Butterworth to Stef Smith’s beautiful and intriguing new play Human Animals, here are some thoughts about how often-marginalised rural settings and ideas about wildlife are pervading British new writing.

Dawn King’s Foxfinder (2011), Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral (2013) and Stef Smith’s Human Animals (2016) feature some sort of ecological disaster where nature and animals are taking over the country. In Foxfinder, farmers are worried that an infestation of foxes are going to close their farm and are responsible for the death of their son. In comes the mysterious foxfinder whose prophesises that if foxes are eating up the crops, then it will lead to a shortage of food and therefore deaths. In Pastoral, an ordinary square has become thick woodland turning an area of consumerist living and chain restaurants into a habitat which the residents will have to share with dangerous flora and fauna. Roots burst up through the floor of Zizzi, a branch smashes through the window of Wagamama, a vole walks out of Paperchase, and there have been bear sightings. No one knows why it’s happened but the government has reacted by barricading the whole of the south before it spreads to the north.

Human Animals, currently playing at the Royal Court, is reminiscent of both plays. A sudden spurt in the population of foxes, pigeons and all wildlife for that matter has caused a massive pest problem. Soon enough the town is being shut off, there are fires on street corners and animals are being killed by the authority to avoid the spread of illness. Some characters protest the culls and keep the foxes in the back garden and birds in the loft, whereas some believe the hysteria and don’t want to leave the house. The situation escalates: roads cut off, blackouts, homes destroyed.

The play is delivered in short bursts of scenes between which the catastrophe has worsened. It keeps us fascinated by this strange situation. But we soon become more interested in the effect this has on human relationships, and the short scenes versus the length of the play really allows room for character development. One plot strand focuses on couple Lisa and Jamie. Lisa has just been made manager at a firm who are helping with the ‘clean-up’, helping to kill and burn the animals. Jamie has walked out of his low wage job due to poor working conditions since the ‘break-out’ but has devoted his life since to a higher cause: that of saving the animals and dismissing the scaremongers. It begins to become a weight on their relationship, but they come together in the end seemingly willing to sacrifice their lives for the animals (now including an escaped lion!).

Some critics have had a problem with John (mostly quite a reserved character) pleading with Si to beat him up and sleep with him:

            JOHN: I want to hit you.
                          I want to beat you until you bleed.
                          I want to use my belt (2016, 84).
The way I read it was one of many signs of natural instincts and urges displayed in the play. In the Methuen Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights Middeke, Schnierer and Sierz argue that ‘nature creeps back and… our natural impulses can surprise us’ (2014, xix). In these plays, nature has most certainly crept back and perhaps that explains characters’ visceral natural impulses.

Using animals to reflect the struggles of humans (and vice versa) is also employed in Jez Butterworth’s plays, particularly with badgers. In The Winterling (2006), Draycott persuades city hitman West to join him at a badger culling. We previously hear how one badger nearly savagely bit off Draycott’s toes thus making them part of the unforgiving, dangerous Dartmoor countryside. Yet West passionately turns down the invitation. Here is a man exiled from his home siding with a supposedly vicious animal. In Jerusalem (2009), Tanya has badger shit plastered over her back from sleeping under Rooster’s caravan for the night. Rooster’s home from which he is being threatened to be evicted belies that of a badger. Both are endangered species in their own way. And in Parlour Song (also 2009), one of the weird and wonderful possessions that mysteriously disappears from the cuckolded Ned is a stuffed badger. Whilst his wife is forming a bond with neighbour Dale, Ned is losing his items and therefore questioning his sense of home. As a side note, there’s also a scene in Parlour Song where Joy imagines what it’s like to be mauled to death, something which the final scene in Human Animals quite poetically also envisions.

What’s so brilliant about Foxfinder, Pastoral and Human Animals is that they ground flights into dystopia with very believable, troublesome detail. Current debates about the low pay and gruelling routine of farming can be seen in Foxfinder. Pastoral (which is more comic than the other two) marries mythic visions of England with a contemporary one (touching on the idea of the loss of identical high streets). Finally, Smith, in Human Animals, writes well-realised, very real characters whose more domestic situations run alongside the environmental adversity in the play. She also invokes an us/them mentality and hints at how weak society can be regarding how easily people turn to mob rule. And in a time of this EU referendum, the plays subvert the question of power and make us re-think who this country (and planet) really belong to.

Foxfinder plays at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End from 6th September 2018, starring Iwan Rheon.

This blog was originally published to discuss Stef Smith's Human Animals which played at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, until 18th June, 2016.


Young Vic, London
4th June, 2016, matinee

I was fairly young when the original production of Blue/Orange played at the National Theatre in 2000, and my early interest in theatre had not yet quite seeped over into the world of contemporary British writing. But what I did know of the play before seeing Matthew Xia’s production at the Young Vic was that it was set in contemporary London and is considered one of the first major plays of this century.

Formally, the play seems quite conventional: a three act, three-handed, one set play. Yet Xia’s concept and Jeremy Herbert’s ingenious design keeps the play fresh. In doing away with the walls the stage becomes a boxing ring in which a power battle plays out. And the little pre-performance detour immerses us in the play’s issues. In fact, Xia does a lot to embed us within the setting of this play. To get to our seats (front row was a nice surprise!) we walked through a makeshift corridor, a realistic replica of an NHS mental health unit. Orange peel is strewn all over the easy clean floor, the décor is recognisably cold and sterile (completed with those familiar bulk-bought paintings), and screams echo from the neighbouring wards. The clinical smell transports you to hospital waiting rooms.

It’s interesting that Xia has chosen to keep the play’s setting in 2000; props include a bulky mobile phone and late-nineties pop songs such as Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie in a Bottle’ are played into the auditorium pre-show. Characters smoke which would perhaps be more difficult to get around post-smoking ban, but that, to me, is not the reason why the setting hasn’t been updated. Instead, setting a play which is still so horribly relevant today in the year 2000 is a stark reminder of what is still wrong with mental health services in this country.

Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) has been confined to a psychiatric hospital, yet as he is only a Section 2, his 28 days are up and he’s itching to get out. However, junior doctor, Bruce (Luke Norris), believes Christopher to be showing symptoms of schizophrenia - oranges appear to him to be blue, and he is convinced his father is former Ugandan President, Idi Amin - and in urgent need of help. Bruce wants a Section 3 order. The problem arises when Bruce’s supervisor, consultant Robert (David Haig), appears keen to be rid of Christopher – the hospital lacks beds, Christopher has thus far only be diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder – and instead treat him as an outpatient. What becomes apparent is that Robert’s motives are much more personal. Believing there to be a connection between race, culture and perceived ‘madness’, he is eager to complete his research book, using Christopher as a case study.

I found myself wanting to see more of Kaluuya’s intense Christopher – by turns, frustrating, charming, intimidating and pitiable – he is really just a bit part, a pawn in the doctors’ manipulative games of one-upmanship. Over the course of the play Christopher becomes increasingly sidelined (literally, he is confined to skulking around the moat-pit surrounding the stage), a mere afterthought to the two doctors’ petty squabbles, work politics taking precedence over patient well-being. Robert revels in the power he holds, he is ‘the Authority’, and skews events to assert his superiority, while Bruce becomes progressively manic as any control he had over his patient - and his career - slips from his hands. Penhall’s script simultaneously invites laughter and anger, Haig in particular milks the comic opportunities for all their worth. Yet, the comedic tone highlights the frustrations central to the plot, we laugh because we cannot logically comprehend the injustices before us. The absurdity of everyday hierarchies and systems of authority are laid bare.

There are elements of Robert’s argument that resonate – it would be foolish to indiscriminately treat all patients the same, regardless of race, gender, age etc. and consequential, environmental factors regarding mental health deserve to be positively recognised. However, vulgar comments, such as suggesting Christopher ‘go home and listen to some reggae music’, expose Robert’s bigotry and ignorant blindness toward the individual. Bruce’s incredulity is palpable, yet despite the soundness of his argument, his own personal aspirations lurk behind his rhetoric. Determined to one day make consultant, the naïve, sycophantic ‘arselicking’ of his senior wrestles with his resolve to do the right thing. Norris plays Bruce’s torn conscience with a great nervous energy, we get the sense that this young doctor is well intentioned but out of his depth, and all the while Robert looms over him, a reflection of the institutionalised corruption and self-interest that he may one day also embody.

There is some sense of hope offered at the end when an almost-defeated Bruce stands up to his senior, but the predominant feeling we came out of the theatre with was anger. Nonetheless, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange remains an important and exhilarating play and this production is a must-experience revival.

Blue/Orange plays at the Young Vic until 2nd July
 Credit: Johan Persson