Friday 29 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Bang Bang Bang

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 30: Stella Feehily’s Bang Bang Bang (2011)

Inspired by workshops and interviews with aid workers, journalists and doctors, Feehily’s play aims to expose the inner machinations of humanitarian charities working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The effects of the work upon the social lives of the central characters pulls much focus. Indeed we are led to believe that aid workers are habitual drifters and idealists. Sadhbh entered into aid work as a means of escaping her old life and childhood sweetheart in small-town Ireland, and she is still running now, from the drudgery of settling down with her boyfriend, Stephen, in Islington. Naïve Mathilde has notions of saving the world by day and partying by night, while young photographer, Vin, aspires to international acclaim.

The characters are well drawn, the variety of nationalities comes across in the language and individual quirks without becoming stereotypical, and there are even a few tongue-in-cheek jibes at the clichéd Irish ‘craic’ without sacrificing colloquial warmth and wit. However, I found myself wishing to see more of the people being helped – not in an exploitative way, as is hinted in Vin’s lack of perspective when photographing a traumatised child – for a play aiming to be insightful into serious issues and life in violent territories it seems to lack a local voice. One of the most intriguing scenes involves Sadhbh interviewing Mburame, a notorious warlord. The to and fro of their conversation reveals the complexities of impartial aid work and the charisma embodied by the man we are told imposes widespread brutality. This scene has the potential to be a pivotal moment of drama, a meeting with the omnipresent threat, yet despite the frequent references to Mburame throughout, because the scene is cut short, it feels muted and slightly anticlimactic.

Following an attack on the aid worker’s camp, journalist Ronan seeks a scoop for the New York Times. Here Feehily makes some scorching remarks upon the ignorant state of Western media and blasé attitudes towards violence and welfare in far-off countries. Sadhbh sums up this attitude when accosting Ronan; ‘I know your angle. I guess a raped humanitarian will get many more inches than a raped eight-year-old Congolese girl? Where were you when fifty-three women and girls were raped in Masisi? Or is that too much of a norm to appear in the New York Times?’. These criticisms are very welcome, workers like Sadhbh are well aware of the dangers they face, yet the number of Western victims is infinitesimal in comparison to the hardship endured by local victims. To make a tenuous comparison I indicate the panicked uproar and intense media attention afforded to terrorist attacks in Europe and the US, as well as the deaths of journalists and humanitarian workers held captive by IS, while the many, many victims in the middle east are relegated to the ‘in other news…’ bulletins, and refugees are shunned and dehumanised through sheer ignorance.

While Feehily makes assured points, in focussing in the majority on the personal lives of the aid workers, I feel she falls victim to the very attitude she criticises. The Congolese victims are mainly talked about rather than portrayed as actual people, and while young Amala points a home-made gun and screams to be heard and recognised - ‘I am Amala. I will tell all the stories’ – there remains a sense that these people have been sidelined. This is never more evident than in Vin’s photograph, entitled ‘The Gun, The Gun, The Gun’, winning the Ian Parry award, yet his subject, the small traumatised child, remains unnamed, anonymous, and unheard, the hurt and anguish experienced by the child merely prolonged and exploited by Vin in order to satiate the thirst for self-satisfying liberal empathy from a safe distance.

Despite its shortcomings, the ambivalences and contradictions in Bang Bang Bang make for an interesting read and Feehily succeeds in inviting us to question Western, liberal morals as the very subject at the core of the play presents dramatic, thematic and social dilemmas for audiences and readers to ponder. And this quandary is in no way easily fixed, as Ronan says, ‘You give me a story. I bring it to the public. You get focus on Congo. Your organisation gets more recognition. Mutual responsibility’. A stubborn knot that needs loosening, Feehily’s play leaves me feeling frustrated, guilty, and intrigued.

Thursday 28 July 2016

The Plough and the Stars

Lyttelton – National Theatre
27th July, 2016 – press night

The National Theatre’s revival of Sean O’Casey’s play not only marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin but also allows us to reflect on more recent instances of nationalism closer to home.

O’Casey sets his play in a Dublin on the brink of change and rebellion, yet his deft focus is on everyday people who live together in a run-down tenement, caught up in the Rising. Among them is Fluther (Stephen Kennedy), a carpenter who we first meet having just fixed a door taking pride in how he’s apparently given up the drink. He’s joined by the charwoman Mrs Gogan (Josie Walker) who establishes herself as the busybody of the tenement, gossiping about the other residents and complaining how Nora Clitheroe is getting above her station. As people come and go we become more aware that this is a war being played out on the streets of their homes and one which plunges the lives of ordinary civilians into being directly involved.

Certainly that is the case in Howard Davies’ and Jeremy Herrin’s co-production, where it is the women’s struggles who stand out. Particularly impressive is Judith Roddy whose Nora is sprightly and wants to pride herself in her home: she lays the table with a certain musicality and keeps order over the squabbling men. She lives for her husband and you feel her pain when he prioritises his volunteering duties and the love of his country before the love for his family.

In the second scene, we hear the voice of a speaker rejoicing that war may be terrible but it ‘is not an evil thing’ and that ‘there are many things more horrible than bloodshed and slavery is one of them’. But for the few characters who paint war to be heroic in its efforts to free Ireland they are overshadowed by O’Casey’s portrayal of the monstrosities of war. Not only does it kill and wound those fighting but we see the very tangible effects it has on others. Nora loses her baby as well as mentally suffering and Bessie is shot as she tries to stop Nora from calling out of the window. The bleak ending sees three previously strong-willed women dead, bereft, or emotionally unstable but, ultimately, left picking up the pieces. Any lack of redemption in the final moments shows the futile attempts of violence in the cause of nationalism which gives plenty of food for thought in the wake of recent displays of nationalism during the EU Referendum campaign.

The Irish cast handles O’Casey’s language extremely well, even if this production doesn’t put much prominence on his comedy. Lloyd Hutchinson, looking like ‘th' illegitimate son of an illegitimate child of a corporal in th' Mexican army’ in his regalia as Nora’s uncle, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Stephen Kennedy offer fine support as the tenants who may bicker over ideas of religion and science but are united in their poverty and respect for Nora.

Vicky Mortimer’s design impressively evokes the squalors of tenement living and the sense that Dublin’s streets became a battleground, but it also suggests the sense of home that Nora tries to inject in the tenement as well as the sense of community in the local bar. In the later scenes, James Farncombe’s atmospheric lighting recreates the skies of a devastated Dublin, while Stephen Warbeck’s music frames the play with a melancholy tone.

Davies’ and Herrin’s production highlights O’Casey’s adept eye for humanity and detailed characters who live upon a backdrop of the far-reaching destructive and unforgiving effects of war.

The Plough and the Stars plays at the National Theatre until 22nd October.

Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 21 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: A Life in the Theatre

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 29: David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre (1977)

I first came across this Mamet play when looking for a play to potentially fill a slot in a studio theatre when on their production team. The other Mamet play we discussed doing that season was Glengarry Glen Ross. There was a very brief discussion in which we said we’d one day like to see it performed in the theatre’s main house. After that, we quickly moved on after agreeing that it would most likely prove unpopular with our audiences and could shut the theatre down! But that’s for another blog post. As for the studio slot, I think we plumped for Butley.

A life in the Theatre follows two actors, one older and more experienced (Robert) and one who is still learning the ropes (John). Over 26 scenes, the play follows their time in rep, performing plays, reading plays, waiting backstage and unwinding after a performance. On one hand the play is a two handed love letter to theatre, a fairly commercially viable play which can be easy to stage. More than that Mamet explores the personal politics of these two characters. Characters dominate and defer and compete for control. Anyone who has worked in theatre will be familiar with the unspoken etiquettes, the silent codes and the strange rituals which Mamet cleverly evokes here. To use a detrimental term, Robert is a luvvie. The sort of actor that others might tread around; the sort of actor who perhaps drops theatrical terms into everyday conversation amongst people are not in the know; the sort of actor who anecdotally reminisces how he once gave Alan Rickman acting advice (this isn’t Robert, I’m using my own examples here). Mamet asks if you can you really have an equal, creative, collaborative working experience when power struggles exist?

The onstage scenes are the most interesting: little stand-alone scenes from plays typically performed in rep theatre. Featured is a play about the sea, a play about war and a play set in a lawyer’s office. Is Mamet mocking the types of plays which are standards of the repertory I wonder? He writes as another writer in these scenes, and it’s enjoyable to try to guess the titles of those plays from particularly emotive lines in them: The Last Day for the trench scene perhaps, Men and the Sea for the boat scene, Force of Habit for the lawyer scene. There are also some nice subtle moments where we see how events offstage affect the playing of the onstage scenes, and how the actors’ relationship changes from that.

A Life in the Theatre is a bit self-indulgent and not quite as satisfying as you think a play about theatre could be. Out of five or so American plays that have featured in #ReadaPlayaWeek this year, from The Little Foxes to The Motherfucker with the Hat, Mamet’s play differs in that it’s not plot led and isn’t particularly driven by strong, magnetic characters. Instead, over short bursts of scenes we are privy to something not dissimilar to a work play in which there is a power battle between two characters, all coming together in kaleidoscopic fashion to portray a life in the theatre.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 28: Dario Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist (1970)

In December 1969, following the detonation of a bomb in the Agricultural Bank of Milan, suspect, Giovanni Pinelli, flew out of a fourth floor window of the Police Headquarters. Was Pinelli’s death suicide, an unfortunate accident, or something else? Dario Fo takes these murky circumstances as a starting point for his play. Heavily influenced by Brecht, Fo combines less-than-subtle political stances with heavy handed theatricality – much fourth wall breaking and social commentary – examining fraught topics such as corruption, police brutality, whitewashing and censorship. While this could be cloying, he does so with a deftness that entwines satire with farce as the plot convolutions unravel into fastidiously organised chaos. The end effect is one of hilarity tinged with gutsy discomfort.

In the aftermath of Pinelli’s death a man simply referred to as ‘Maniac’ enters the police headquarters and dons various guises, exposing the deceit that lies at the heart of the police force while simultaneously gaining their trust as he repeatedly outwits them. Contradicting versions of the interrogation and subsequent fall of Pinelli become increasingly ridiculous as the Maniac manipulates the gullible Inspector, Superintendent and Constable at the centre of the scandal into a confused, yet revealing state of panic.

The Maniac’s disguises, taking the form of a professor, a judge, and a forensics expert, highlight the institutionalised corruption and deception that pervades in the high ranking officials whom ought to be the protectors of the nation. His absurd final disguise sees him wear a glass eye, wooden leg, and a female mannequin’s hand, his masquerade should be easy to see through, and it is for us, but the characters on stage remain largely oblivious, tied up in their own skin-saving web spinning.

The introduction in the copy I read (Methuen Drama Modern Classics) states that an estimated one million people saw the play in its first four years, ‘many of whom took part in fierce debates after the performance’. This, possibly in no small way, can be attributed to the dual denouement. In one of the greatest feats of metatheatre I’ve encountered, the final moments of the play sees Fo ingeniously bestow a dramatic sense of rough justice, then seconds later snatch away that catharsis, leaving us grasping for answers that are denied; we are forced to decide upon our own conclusion.

This demonstrates the way Fo unmasks the reality behind the façade, whether that be political, social, institutional, or theatrical – the script is littered with subversive references to himself and his shortcomings as a playwright – emphasising the unknown quantity that is the real life event behind this fiction. Interjections by the actors and gaps left in the script for dramaturgs or directors to insert their own jokes and contemporary references means that the play is free of the censorship which was exercised in twentieth century Italy, as well as the inadvertent censorship that timely constraints imposes on society and history. Fo is undoubtedly political and driven by specifics, yet there is room to manoeuver and bring to the play an acutely modern relevance. As debates raged following its initial performances, the play still has the ability to cause a stir. We can very easily draw (un)comfortable comparisons with the state of institutionalised corruption at large in the world today. Just take a look at the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and stance against police brutality that has risen in recent years for one example.

Interestingly, at the time, the bombing of the bank was pinned on extreme leftist groups, yet ten years later a trial concluded with the condemnation of three fascists, who came from the ranks of military and political institutions, one even being an agent of the secret police. Fo’s play was ahead of its time, showing up Italy’s rulers and protectors for the rancid buffoons that they evidently were.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Flick

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. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 27: Annie Baker’s The Flick (2013)

I was going to blog about this play later in the year as it’s not long finished its run at the National, but I’ve just finished reading it and am so enthused to write about it. Its apparently ‘sold out’ status at the National wasn’t quite true which is annoying as I would have liked to have booked tickets. It’s such a magnetic play, cunningly clever, and with three extremely vivid, well-drawn characters.

What stood out to me was that The Flick parades what theatre is able to achieve that other media such as film cannot. In Hollywood cinema, films so often have to have tightly plotted story arcs, characters who conform to types, and dialogue that is so often clichéd. What’s more is that cinema so often misrepresents and under-represents communities. It is also often pressured (I guess) to meeting expectations of being thrilling or dramatic or purgative or atoning that it can seem forced and unnatural.

The Flick is set in a run down, single screen cinema in Massachusetts, where film fanatic Avery, who suffers from anxiety and depression, has recently started working. There’s also Rose, the unconventionally attractive projectionist. Finally there’s Sam, in his mid-thirties and living back with his parents, who likes Rose despite not really knowing her. For much of the play, we watch Sam and Avery mopping or sweeping up the aisles. It’s a job that comes at the end of each screening; it’s fascinating to consider that every movie showing offers an opportunity for three hours or so worth of escapism, enlightenment and entertainment. But for each screening there’s also this mandatory ritual of Sam and Avery doing this menial task: moaning about the litter, shooting the breeze and discussing movies. As a job it is so regular and perhaps dull that it should be seemingly non-performative. But are we ever not performing even whilst doing something as trivial as mopping up? And after all, Avery is self-conscious, shy and wants to fit in. Maybe Sam and Rose too to a lesser extent.

The play is so much about performance: performance as entertainment and how we all perform in everyday life whether we are aware or not. How can we articulate ourselves truly and effectively without sounding like a pastiche of movie and TV dialogue? In The Flick, these three characters come together in this place of performance (the setting of a cinema and the performances space of a theatre) and socialise, work and try to work out who each they really are as people. There’s no massive plot which takes over, it is simply a character-driven play with characters that talk and act like they are real people.

Of course, how much like real life so called ‘illusory’ theatre can be is problematic as we are aware that it is a performance. However, Baker (and director Sam Gold from what I’ve heard of the production at the National and in New York) achieves things which film can rarely do, certainly in Hollywood. There are moments of enjoyable boredom; moments of characters’ little quirks and niches; moments of anti-climax; moments of inarticulacy. It relishes the awkward and gives room for characters to breathe.

It’s a great play. I completely get the hype. I’d love to see it. I look forward to reading it again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation

2nd July, 2016, matinee

To celebrate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Erica Whyman has undertaken the mammoth task of creating a collaborative play made for and by the nation. She has brought together professional actors and creatives with 14 amateur theatre groups from across the country, as well as hundreds of schoolchildren (as Titania’s Fairy Train), in a production that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of carnival; the uniting of people from all walks of life in celebration of the magic of theatre. Following a nationwide tour, A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns for an encore at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The performance I saw featured the Canterbury Players as the Mechanicals and their joy was infectious. Holding their own admirably against the professionals, Lisa Nightingale particularly stands out as Bottom, balancing the more self-important, hammy moments with a good natured naivety. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene is an absolute triumph of comic timing - Hannah Newell’s Snout enthusiastically makes the most of her scene-stealing role as ‘Wall’ - even the doubting Theseus and Hippolyta failed to remain straight-faced. The actors perform with a self-awareness which removes the cruel edge of some interpretations and transforms it into a collaborative joke in which we egg on the company in honest jest.

The charm of Whyman’s production seeps into the uncanny woodland scenes. Doorways and staircases lead nowhere and loop back on themselves, creating a sense of magical mischief and upping the farcical nature of the lovers’ plot, further exasperating the confused characters. Lucy Ellinson’s Puck is mischief personified, she is inexhaustible, nimble and spritely, flitting through the space with impish glee, while Chu Omambala’s Oberon exudes ethereal languidness. Dressed in a brilliant white suit, yet barefooted and barechested, Oberon’s sensuality is matched by Titania’s (Ayesha Dharker) rose petal strewn bed, a sexually liberated sanctuary in contrast with the military stiffness of Theseus’ court and Egeus’ patriarchal dictation.

It often is easy to overlook the lovers’ amidst the glamour of the Fairies and the rambunctiousness of the Mechanicals, yet here they shine equally as bright, from Lysander and Demetrius’ (Jack Holden and Chris Nayak) preening and posturing, to Helena’s (Laura Riseborough) endearing dorkiness, and Hermia’s (Mercy Ojelade) near gravity-defying attacks on her rival. The lovers are flung hither and thither and there was an audible cheer when the complications finally resolved themselves.

Whyman explains that she set the production in 1940’s Britain as it was a time of great change following the Second World War, yet it was also a time of hope, consistent with the play’s timeless themes of love, community and acceptance. I grinned and laughed the whole way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as the Mechanicals, Fairies and Courtiers came together for the final dance the sense of pure joy and national pride was palpable. This ambitious undertaking to unite Britain under the legacy of our most renowned playwright has proven utterly heartwarming and inspirational. This sentiment seems particularly pertinent as we are similarly entering into a period of great change and turmoil. Following the political and social consequences of the recent EU referendum, now, more than ever, even as our leaders crumble, we as a nation need to unite in order to overcome these hard times.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 16th July.