Wednesday 31 August 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Stacy

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, this initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. 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 35: Jack Thorne’s Stacy (2007)

A few weeks ago I was travelling through South London on the train from Brighton to London Bridge. I don’t live in London so it’s not a common journey for me. At East Croydon three people in their late twenties/ early thirties got on. They spoke fairly loudly about cats following them home in the early hours, looking after a (different) lost scrawny cat, the importance of making time for yourself and about a friend in need who’s stretching the limits of their friendship. Their conversation (throughout most of which I was earwigging) seemed fairly theatrical to me. Their chit chat seemed much more articulate and occasionally profound than you often hear. They imbued their stories with a lot of detail. They were talking about everyday matters and yet it also sounded as if they were investing their conversation with something more significant as well. From this snippet of conversation I conjured what their daily lives might look like, who they were and what they did.

Rob, who is 26, ordinary looking and lives in East Croydon, is at the centre of Thorne’s monologue Stacy. First performed by Arthur Darvill at the Arcola Theatre before transferring to Trafalgar Studios with Ralf Little, the play features Rob and a slide projector which shows the people and places closest to Rob whilst he tells his story. We hear how Rob has just had a one night stand with his best friend (so he says) and about his journey to her house after work in order to talk it through. He also goes further back a bit to talk about his childhood as a ‘beautiful child’, about his sister’s death, and about the time his dad attempted to kill an injured dog and all of the neighbours were too polite to tell him he wasn’t successful. He’s fairly engaging and occasionally funny. But then his story changes and there’s much about it that’s troubling, namely his rape of Stacy’s flatmate and how he reacts to it. Rob begins to unravel as he tells us about his tube journey back to Croydon, how his ineffective brother tries to help, and his next morning at work.

What works really well is that Thorne conjures these couple of days and memories from Rob’s childhood with such clarity and detail which is helped by us seeing his loved ones etc. on the projector. He also talks with the imperfections of every day conversation: he meanders off topic, he omits things and he stumbles over bits. But we still get a pretty comprehensive portrait of his life (or do we?). He lives with his brother in a house which is a bit studenty and he doesn’t love his job at a call centre for which he’s overqualified but has saved up a lot of money from it. He’s sort of finding adult life more difficult than when he was younger.

There have been a few plays this year (Yen, The Suicide, Boy) which have been given the label of poverty porn – although plays being given this label isn’t a new phenomenon. You can tell that the label could also be given to Stacy, however Thorne cleverly skirts around that. Rob’s home and work may be a tad shit but it’s not terrible. His house is a bit grotty, they don’t eat like kings, his family is perhaps a bit emotionally stunted and his job might be a bit bleak, but he’s young and you get the impression that he’s still living like a student. Thorne doesn’t diagnose. There’s not the suggestion that ‘this and this and this’ lead to Rob feeling like this which makes him do this (Matt Trueman’s review of Yen particularly focused on the oversimplified, reductive nature of that play’s prognosis). Stacy is undoubtedly troubling but is more complex and deserves deeper consideration particularly as we only see a snippet, albeit a detailed one, of Rob’s life. Where is Stacy? What is the bigger picture with Rob? Why is he only working in a call centre? Why doesn’t he travel or live somewhere else? Thorne gives us just enough to wonder about Rob’s life without making quick final decisions about it.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Burning Doors

Curve, Leicester
23rd August, 2016

*Please note that this was the first performance of Burning Doors and there were some technical difficulties with the surtitles projector, unless this was meant to reflect the themes of censorship, in which case, great job! Furthermore, I wrote about Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour earlier this month which may be a worthwhile accompanying piece.

‘Do you recognise me?’ a woman asks at the start of Burning Doors. ‘How about now?’ she says as she puts on a coloured balaclava. The image of course conjures new stories of Pussy Riot being arrested in 2012 for performing in a Moscow cathedral. Burning Doors brings together stories of Russian and Ukrainian artists including Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Petr Pavolvsky and Oleg Sentsov who have been persecuted for speaking against the state. It is presented through a hotchpotch of different forms, some more enduring than others, but the result is an (often) extraordinary kaleidoscopic exploration and dissection of the oppression that contemporary artists suffer in some parts of the world.

It is not every day that a piece of theatre is performed by people so invested in the piece’s subject matters, thus making for a piece of very intense and rewarding theatre. At times, the cast go to extreme lengths to evoke the artists’ stories. It is this line between performance and reality that runs through Burning Doors. The scenes vary between dialogue, physical theatre, literary extracts and verbatim, so we can go from watching scripted scenes (I suppose something we’re more familiar with in British theatre) to hearing real bits of uncomfortable testimonial and seeing slides of extreme protest art. Using multiple forms like this suggests that art can go from the comfortable world of an exchange between two characters in a clearly defined setting to very dramatic and public forms of performance art that can resemble protest and sometimes be perceived as hooliganism.

And so it is unsurprising that many of the scenes in Burning Doors are shocking not only visually but also in the limited ideas about art expressed by two Russian officials. In one scene, they chat whilst sat on the toilet. It is this striking, if crude, setting which frames their opinions on art for the duration of the scene. ‘Before Picasso’, one says, ‘art was normal’. The pair then wipe their arses with the paper on which Petr Pavlensky’s statement defending his act of setting fire to a government building’s door is written. There’s a difference, they see, between art as in paintings and art that is nailing your scrotum to a public square or setting fire to something. What are the limitations of art and when does it stop being considered art? Elsewhere in the performance, someone recites a poem (the surtitles of which we are aptly denied) in a bath whilst another performer repeatedly tries to drown her. It is uncomfortable to watch not least because it is clear that her head is apparently forcibly underwater for some time. Later, there is a prolonged section where two men fight, a birds’ eye view of which is projected onto the screen. It isn’t too forceful and is perhaps choreographed but the energy and physicality afforded to it and the subtle application of an ice pack afterwards suggests that it was more ‘real’ than perhaps first thought.

Burning Doors also gives insight into how, for the artists, daily life can be as suppressive as prison life, and it goes one step further by suggesting different forms of torture are commonplace in Russia. We hear an introspective account of one person waiting to be executed by shooting range before being let off – a similar situation to that of Dostoyevsky apparently. Later we see three men forced to hold piles of plates, visibly sweating and struggling to do so. The piece also impressively incorporates a lot vigorous physical theatre, ranging from aerial skills to convey the brutality of the Russian prison system to choreographed ensemble work to conjure the media circus surrounding Pussy Riot’s trial. Another effective scene shows the interrogation and torment that the artists can suffer, repeating itself over and over, getting louder each time until they’re shouting.

Burning Doors is vital theatre. The final image of three flaming doors is a reminder of the symbolism of the gates of hell and the difficulties of artists in Russia being labelled political dissidents and enemies of the state because of their art.

Finally, as the applause died down at the end of the play, a northern man from the balcony shouted: ‘Gail, Gail, I’ll meet you out front’. I’m unsure whether he enjoyed it or not but it was a joyous reminder that theatre can be revolutionary but is also often divisive and surely much more rich for it.

Burning Doors plays at Curve, Leicester until 27th August before playing Soho Theatre, London from 31st August to 24th September. It then tours nationally and internationally until 3rd December. It will be screened online on 12th October.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: One Flea Spare

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 34: Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare (1995)

There is no doubting the originality of One Flea Spare. Wallace chooses the setting of a Plague riddled London in 1665 to let us consider class inequalities anew. In the afterword, Wallace writes about specific recent global relations such as the Mexican/US border and how social inequality today in the nineties is akin to the Depression in American and to Victorian times in the UK. In 2016, I wonder, how much has this changed? What One Flea Spare successfully does and timelessly does is to create a defamiliarised setting to allow us to consider who poverty and disease affects now, how it is treated, and what the effect is on wider society.

London, 1665 and the body count from the Plague is on the up. Locked in their own home in quarantine are upper class couple William and Darcy Snelgrave. Their marriage hasn’t been the same since Darcy was injured in a fire when younger. Their servants have died but a sailor, Bunce, and a girl claiming to be the daughter of some friends, Morse, are also stuck there. In one confined space, characters of different social standing are forced to cohabitate. In one very affecting scene (scene six), Snelgrave cruelly allows Bunce to wear his fine leather shoes saying that history doesn’t usually allow the poor man to wear the rich man’s shoes and admits that he is only teasing Bunce, his status still only that of a lower class sailor.

The play inspires thoughts on social roles and gender roles, and it seemed to me that the characters, just as they are locked in the one house/room, are locked in the roles given to them. Snelgrave plays the part of the unloving, dusty old man; Darcy the part of the unloved, sexless burnt wife; Bunce the part of the nomad sailor apparently living up to the image of a pirate pillaging his way around the pubs and brothels of the world. But there are moments in the play – often very subtle – where they open up to show something more tender and complex. Then there’s Morse, who’s not only the keystone of the piece but who also poses a significant challenge to a young actress. She won’t let the older characters trample on her irrespective of gender or class, and a question is posed asking who she really is and whether she’s something more spiritual. She also has the ability to bring characters together and gets them to realise that they can still feel for each other. Bunce and Darcy fall for each other and he touches her burnt skin, something which Snelgrave hasn’t done for years. Yet they either don’t have the depth of feeling or the capability to express them to transcend their social barriers. On one hand, this perhaps is an unsatisfying ending but on the other Wallace suggests that happy endings are harder to achieve when class inequalities and such poverty as this exists in the play.

Wallace has a firm grasp on her characters: from Morse’s lyrical language to guard Kabe’s swindling and his sharp tongued critique of those in power: ‘The hungry. The dirty. The abandoned. That’s who dies. Not the fancy and the wealthy. Clergymen, physicians and surgeons, all fled’ (Wallace p.302). Finally, scene nine of the second act is missing: an editorial typo or elusive cut scene?

Monday 22 August 2016

Spring Awakening

Curve, Leicester
20th August, 2016

This year the National Youth Music Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary. Shining the spotlight on emerging young actors, they certainly showcase their talent in this full-on production of Sater and Sheik’s musical adaptation of Wedekind’s seminal drama of revolutionary spirit and sexual awakening. However, director Nikolai Foster’s aesthetic does a slight disservice to both the head and heart of Spring Awakening.

Foster transports the musical from its original late-19th century setting to 1980’s Berlin; the graffiti-obscured concrete behemoth looms to the back of the stage. In attempting to emulate the premise of a changing society within the suffocating atmosphere of fin de siècle culture, the intent is clear, aiming to compound the themes of sexual repression with the oppression and liberation surrounding the divided Germany of the 20th Century.

However, in modernising the set and costumes, Foster and designer, Takis, diminish the power of the deliberately anachronistic music within the constraints of a decaying period in time which was successfully exploited in the original production. The tension between the outer straight-laced school environment and the, by turns, angsty and dreamy inner feelings of the teenage protagonists relies on the incongruity of both temporal and spatial setting and the folk/rock musical genre.

This was matched in the original productions’ memorable image of the immaculately uniformed schoolboys whose inner revolutionary identities were reflected in their Eraserhead-esque punk hair styles. Here the day-glo 80’s garb doesn’t have the same striking effect – the costumes are an eyesore, but not rebelliously so, they are merely a reminder of the decade fashion forgot – nylon and cheese aplenty.

Because of this misstep, Foster manages to both overegg the contemporary thematic relevance – the subtlety of Sater’s lyrics convey (still) deeply resonant issues while maintaining a surface of melodic beauty – while sacrificing the theatrical aesthetic of personal, spiritual and stately antithesis that Spring Awakening lends itself to. I got the impression that Foster was trying to do something different just for the sake of it. And different is by no means a bad thing, but it needs to be better supported by interpretive insight.

Despite these criticisms, there is a lot to be praised in this production. The NYMT cast work their socks off and exude talent by the bucket load. Passionate, moving and ecstatic with energy, the entire ensemble shines. The volume of the company adds undeniable oomph to the musical numbers - the room literally jumps during the thumping Totally Fucked, and the harmonious Song Of Purple Summer is elevated to an exuberantly rousing finale.

There are some lovely moments of staging, namely the ethereal Mirror Blue Night, and confetti strewn Melchior (Nathanael Landskroner) and Wendla (Claire O’Leary) gracefully floating above the stage, supported by the ensemble, to the choral quasi-spiritual sexuality of I Believe. Moritz’s death scene similarly demonstrates a masterstroke of direction. Toby Turpin’s sense of despair is gut-wrenching as the silence and darkness close in around him and he progresses ever deeper into his waiting grave. Although the boxing ring interpretation of Don’t Do Sadness seems a tad overwrought, the frenetic action a distraction from what should be a poignant moment of introspection. Here, And Then There Were None proves to be a stronger episode in Moritz’s character progression.

As Hanschen, Stuart Thompson’s characterisation is less the vain manipulator one often thinks of, he is more sensitive and vulnerable, with an air of burgeoning confidence found in self-aware and intelligent young men. Consequently, his scene with Ernst (Oscar Morgan) and their reprise of The Word Of Your Body is a highlight of the evening, a simple and touching moment as the two boys hesitantly unfold themselves before one another.

Professional, dedicated and naturally charismatic, these actors are definitely ones to watch out for in the future, and due to the sheer exuberance of the cast and beauty of Sheik’s music, Spring Awakening is a very enjoyable evening of theatre.

One final note – it has been noted numerous times, but Curve really need to fix their sound mixing. Projection, acoustics, microphone levels – whatever it is requires some attention. The ensemble numbers were fine in Spring Awakening, but the sound became an issue during solos, especially when the lead actor cannot be heard fully over the loudness of the band.

Thursday 18 August 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Keyboard Skills

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 33: Lesley Bruce’s Keyboard Skills (1993)

The joy of second hand bookshops is to find a book of plays that you’ve not come across before for a relatively low price. Keyboard Skills is one of four plays by female playwrights in a collection called Bush Theatre Plays. It’s a play about a scandal involving a politician’s private life, and gender roles.

Late at night in central London a woman in her forties, Caroline, is in her bedroom waiting for her MP husband, Bernard, to return home. The wardrobe doors fly open and out pops Caroline’s former teacher Miss Gainsborough of Gainsborough’s school for secretarial training sat at her teaching desk. She appears throughout the first act each time prescribing the dos and don’ts of typing, answering the phone, and taking minutes. Her unique entrance of bursting from the wardrobe keeps the play’s setting focused on the bedroom, with Miss Gainsborough’s world appearing in Caroline’s memory. We also see how Bernard and Caroline first met with her being his secretary twenty years previously. Now, he’s further up the cursus honorum and she is no longer his PA but instead playing the role of the politician’s dutiful wife. What follows, when he eventually returns home, is a series of scenes in which Bernard lies, squirms and boasts his way through trying to explain to Caro (as he calls her) about a potentially cataclysmic turn in his career. Involving an affair with a secretary, a mislaid briefcase, an IRA bomb, a pub in Bromley, and an opportunistic junior minister, Bruce’s dialogue persuasively evokes how this couple operates. From Bernard’s sense of self-regard to Caroline’s smart awareness of his fables, the play is evocative, detailed and offers two meaty roles for actors.

There are some interesting thoughts about belonging which seems to be a token of 90s’ new writing, but much of the play is about roleplaying and the inherent sexism in the depleting world of secretarial training in which Caroline trained. The role of the secretary, apparently, is to be indispensable, dedicated, creative, and to have an insinuation of power but to be efficient and deferential, ultimately submissive. Perhaps, Bruce suggests, that is also Bernard’s idea of a wife. In one captivating moment, when Caroline is faced with playing the role of the humiliated but supportive politician’s wife, she rips clothes out of the (previously inhabited) wardrobe: ‘what would you like me to wear?... [Something] beautiful without being intimidating. Feminine without being too blatantly sexy. Sexy without being tarty. Intelligent without being threatening’. And so she goes on, strewing clothes about as much as the adjectives that are supposed to describe the perfect woman in Bernard’s eyes. As the play draws to a close, Bernard finally accepts the idea of leaving politics and they decide to stick together, but as the lights go down Bernard is heard grasping at straws to try to save his chance of being in the cabinet. Some things in politics, Bruce suggests, never change.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

The Play that Goes Wrong

Duchess, London
12th August, 2016

It’s hard not to be won over by Mischief Theatre Company’s success story. From a group of drama graduates performing in pub theatres to (later this year) having three shows in the West End and an upcoming Broadway transfer, they are the new kings of West End comedy. We’re late to the game in seeing the hit that got them off the ground but on Friday night we joined the thousands of other audience members who have laughed in hysterics at The Play that Goes Wrong.


The basic concept is not dissimilar to Frayn’s Noises Off. It uses a framing device, in this case that of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of second rate Murder at Haversham Manor, to unleash havoc. The enjoyment comes from watching the play within unravel, escalating to the dizzying heights of farce. From the programme notes and the pre-show routine of getting the audience involved to every bit of the set spectacularly falling apart, the play unashamedly milks every last drop of comedy with satisfying results. Praise goes to writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields for expertly finding comedy in every corner of the set and in the pitfalls of dodgy stage acting. Yet it never feels overwrought and they have created characters each with their own niches and not just cogs in this larger game of Mousetrap.


It’s hard not to draw parallels with Noises Off and so many of the Whitehall and Aldwych farces as it has all the characteristics of a classic of the genre. Paintings fall down, doors slam, and none of the characters particularly want to be in the situation into which they’ve been thrown (although there is a surprising twist that the phone works!). But what drives the play onwards is the notion of carrying on, something which many amateur or student drama groups have experienced and enjoyed – or perhaps endured. Whereas there is a slight edge of cynicism about theatre in Noises Off, in The Play that Goes Wrong there is more of a sense that the characters, as hapless or incompetent as they might be, are doing it for the love of the theatre. This idea of carrying on is no more joyous and hilarious than when one actor accepts that a grandfather clock has stepped in for a missing actor. In fact there are many nods to the theatre, from the rickety old West End murder mystery to which The Murder at Haversham Manor aspires, to the tales of the drama group’s unsuccessful attempts at other plays.

...GO SEE!

Mark Bell’s production ensures that the laughter is continuous, and this new cast have made the roles their own. In particular, April Hughes is hilarious as Sandra, the upstaging actress better trained in dance and the 3Ts who does her best in the role of Florence. Daniel Miller’s Max is also a highlight, over gesticulating and bowing when he senses the audience’s approval. Nigel Hook’s set design is slyly clever: looking like it’s been shoddily knocked together, all I shall say is that it is extremely impressive. The stage management team also deserves a mention, led by Lucy Westnidge. It is no mean feat to achieve a production which looks like it is falling apart; in reality I imagine it has to be expertly timed from well-practiced performers and crew alike. Overall, it is a joy to experience.

The Play that Goes Wrong is playing at the Duchess Theatre until September 2017 and is touring the UK from January 2017.
 Photo: Helen Murray

Monday 15 August 2016

Groundhog Day

Old Vic
11th August, 2016*
*This was a preview performance and as there was no song list available, I have attempted to guess song titles, please forgive me if they are not totally accurate.

What would you do differently if you had a second chance? Or third? Or thousandth? This question lies at the crux of Danny Rubin (Book) and Tim Minchin’s (Music and Lyrics) musical adaptation of Harold Ramis’ 1993 film about weatherman Phil Connors’ entrapment within a single day in the obscure town of Punxsutawney during an obscure annual holiday. Minchin’s reunion with director Matthew Warchus sees the Matilda dream-team work their magic once more to produce this whimsical study of antithesis; big shot cynicism versus small town idealism, selfishness versus community spirit, flippancy versus pathos. The result is a transcendental journey through human morality in all its splendour, despondent lows and incandescent highs.

On entering the auditorium in place of a curtain the stage is filled with dozens of flatscreen televisions relaying loops of ‘Phil Connors’ Good Weather’, surrounded by weather related symbols. This preliminary show gives a sense of the scale of Warchus’ production and Rob Howell’s design, which continues in the complex use of numerous revolves and precisely choreographed repetitions to produce the time-loop in which Phil is trapped. However, Warchus’ genius doesn’t rely solely on the technical capacities of the Old Vic stage, as he also utilises delightfully quaint, but intrinsically theatrical staging strategies, such as portraying a police chase by method of houses and cars held aloft upon sticks by the cast.

Minchin’s score is similarly eclectic, delving into various genres ranging from the jazzy ‘Punxsutawney On Groundhog Day’, to the gravelly rock ballad ‘Never Give Up Hope’, to the rockabilly infused ‘Nobody Cares’. Yet all have the trademark Minchin wit – I never thought I’d hear a song which incorporates themes as diverse as exorcism, gluten intolerance, enemas and constipated oxen (it’s hilarious). Yet the real feat lies in Minchin’s reaping the rewards of seeds laid early on in the plot. Echoes and epiphanies are never more apparent than in life insurance salesman, Ned’s, resounding second act song. ‘On and On’ aches with pathos as a long-running joke evolves with a heart and conscience-tugging twist. Similarly, the repeated lyrical leitmotif, ‘I know everything’, is eventually flipped as Phil comes to the realisation that, really, he knows ‘nothing’.

This musical and lyrical antithesis and transformation mirrors the plot perfectly and forms the basis for the moral epiphany and transcendence at the heart of Groundhog Day which culminates in the searing honesty of the final song, ‘Seeing You’. After all the comical shenanigans gone before, Minchin’s musical and lyrical simplicity here is comparable to flipping on a light switch, or opening a window to the first day of Spring; the humble power it yields is immense, euphoric, and brilliantly satisfying.

The ensemble cast of characters assembled by Rubin and Warchus exudes the intimacy and eccentricity of small town communities – I must applaud the amount of quick-changes involved here – all the Punxsutawney inhabitants feel well rounded, despite the narrative paradox of being frozen in time, becoming more fleshed out the more Phil socially embraces them. Carlyss Peer’s Rita is warm, spirited, yet yearning for more, her song lamenting the dilemma of the modern woman looking for love hits the nail on the head of feminine complexities.

Yet the undeniable star of the show is Andy Karl as Phil. Karl breaks free of the Bill Murray shaped shackles so ingrained in pop-culture history (a hard feat) to create his own Phil Connors, totally believable in all his selfishness, arrogance, sarcasm, and eventual earnest repentance. The journey Karl acts out is nothing short of mesmerising, he pulsates an essence of life that is palpable even up to the very gods of the auditorium as he traverses the entire spectrum of human emotion. Phil’s personal progression never feels forced (a testament to Rubin’s impeccable pacing) while Karl has the charisma and effortless comic timing to pull off the wise-cracking digs without alienating us; he’s an ‘asshole’, but strangely likable. As Phil says to Rita, ‘you don’t know how deep my shallowness goes’, it sums up both the role and performance as Karl deftly presents an outward sheen and bravado that conceals a deeper density of character.

In the wrong hands the moralising plot of Groundhog Day could be unpalatably sickly, especially when enriched with music. However, Warchus’ production is glowing, but never garish; spikey, but never cruel; and heartfelt, but never schmaltzy. A mature musical that is so confident and rounded that it already seems a modern classic of the genre, it is the best new British musical since, well, Matilda. And if you ever wanted to see a groundhog playing the drums – your wish is granted!

I would like to see a further life for the show in London and hope that the Old Vic run is not only some large pre-New York try-out. However, I hope its planned Broadway transfer goes ahead and reaps the Tony Awards it deserves.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until 17th September.
 Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sunday 7 August 2016

No Man's Land

Lyceum, Sheffield
6th August, 2016, matinee
*Please note that No Man's Land is still in early previews.

In the programme notes, director Sean Mathias (along with McKellen and Stewart) recollects seeing the original National Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 1975 starring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. ‘In Pinter’s play’, he goes on to say, ‘the past and present merge in a place that might be unreliable like a distorted mirror’. Mathias’ production, which we saw on its pre-London tour, plays homage to that original production. Pinter started out in repertory theatre and Peter Hall’s National Theatre production starred two knights of the realm who also started out in the all but gone world of rep. Forty years later two other sirs who started out in rep theatre have taken on the roles of Hirst and Spooner. In this production, as with the play, the past and present merge in terms of casting, acting styles and production traditions. The effect is a faithful and stylish production and one which gives attention to the play’s underlying tone of nostalgia.

At the play’s start, Nina Dunn’s tree projections locate us in Hampstead Heath. It is peaceful, colourful and almost rural. We then enter Hirst’s house, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design creating the chic drawing room and bar. Stewart’s smart-suited Hirst is sophisticated but has hints of fragility, slowly shuffling about the room. McKellen’s Spooner is roughish, lively (and in fine physical form), with a twinkle in his eye. Spooner may have the bulk of the lines early on and takes roost of the room, but it is Hirst, sat in the room’s solitary arm chair silent and icy, who holds the power.

Then, when Owen Teale as Briggs and Damien Molony as Foster enter, they run rings around Spooner, both physically and verbally, playing mind games and tricks on him such as vanishing a coin and putting it in his glass in order to intimidate. At first they seem to be Hirst’s heavies, Teale’s jacket and moustache particularly giving off that type of vibe; interestingly their costumes help to temporally locate the play as distinctly seventies. Later in the play, however, Briggs now appears much more business-like and later dons an apron to serve breakfast thus playing a much more domestic and stereotypically female role in the household. It begs the question who these two men are, what exactly are their names, why do they care so much for Hirst, and what exactly are their roles?

As Briggs' disorientating directions to Bolsover Street twist and turn, we are thrown and spun around; just as we begin to understand what may be happening and the relationships between the characters the play swerves in a new direction. This sense of being repeatedly wrong-footed leaves us feeling vulnerable and uneasy. We laugh at the coin trick, but this tricksiness is embedded within the whole structure of the play, even its relationship with us as an audience. It feels as if we are being toyed with and are forced to wonder how much illusion and disillusion is at play. The odd trajectory is anything but straightforward, time, place, memory, reality and fiction dissolve into a sphere of labyrinthine proportions. Towards the end in particular an ethereal atmosphere manifests as, despite the characters' shifting layers and their alternating grip on power, they seem frozen within this uneasiness, the purgatorial stasis of 'no man's land'.

The poetry of Pinter's language is striking, making what is – essentially - four blokes standing around talking pregnant with alternating tones of threat, vulnerability, wistfulness and comedy. The rhythms and repetitions of the reminiscences strike a chord and even the long pauses seem timed to wring the utmost from the words, or absence of them. It befits that there is much talk of the poetic vocation within the play. And what more could one want, but to hear two of the greatest living actors slash and parry with nimble verbosity only to be vanquished by the others' cutting silence or an uproariously filthy one-liner.

Pinter’s play can still perplex forty years on, and its poetry and blend of humour and menace are enduring. Stewart admits to seeing the original production three times in a single week, so 'dazzled' was he. This is a play to sink your teeth into – or attempt to even as its ultimate meaning grows increasingly elusive – and must surely repay watching several times over. Alas, theatre is ephemeral and we are unlikely to have the opportunity to revisit this production, so we are left with only our memories and impressions, which will inevitably alter and shift over time in a similar fashion to Pinter's drama, the performance we saw living on in its own kind of 'no man's land', which is a rather exciting thought.

What’s more, for a Pinter play to pack out a 1000 seat theatre in Sheffield on a summer afternoon is remarkable.

No Man’s Land plays at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield until 13th August before touring. It then transfers to the Wyndham’s Theatre from 8th September until 17th December, 2016.

Thursday 4 August 2016

The Blue Touch Paper and #ReadaPlayaWeek: The Breath of Life

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 32: David Hare’s The Breath of Life (2002)

David Hare is divisive. In my experience, I’ve found that some tend not to like him. I guess that it is because he occasionally comes across as a champagne socialist. His opinions can be unpopular, yes, but I have to admit that I like his work. I read his National Theatre trilogy last year (Racing DemonMurmuring Judges and The Absence of War) and it’s hard not to be won over by their cinematic pace, strong opening images and epic scale and scope; they read like thrillers. Likewise, the intimacy of Skylight (I saw Stephen Daldry’s 2014 revival) was no less compelling.

Earlier this year, I read Hare’s memoir The Blue Touch Paper (2015) which spans from his childhood until the early eighties. I highly recommend it. There are large parts of it filled with the theatrical anecdotes for which you crave in a playwright’s memoir. He vividly paints Peggy Ramsay’s eccentricity and bluntness, and includes a letter from her in which she expresses with admirable clarity her encouragement that Knuckle was a play which challenged what most West End audiences went to see.

He argues passionately about theatre including the importance of rough and ready touring political theatre in his days at Portable, and the power of large scale plays about national themes on national stages. There were parts I was fascinated to read about, such as his instrumentalism in setting up Joint Stock with Max Stafford Clark, and introducing the plays of Wallace Shawn to UK audiences. He also writes inspiringly of the generosity and artistic daring of people such as Michael Codron and Richard Eyre – to think that Eyre started his tenure as AD of the Nottingham Playhouse with 11 new plays (one being Hare’s and Howard Brenton’s Brassneck) is a reminder of how regional theatre has changed in the last 30 years.

However, it’s not all an easy read. It’s often frustrating and sometimes infuriating, wanting me to rename it As Easy as That! I’m not implying Hare didn’t work hard, but his education and early days in the industry are portrayed as being filled with opportunity, from backpacking across America stopping at the homes of now eminent figures of the 20th century (including Rosa Parks’ lawyer) to lunching with Hitchcock in Cambridge to falling into the role of literary manager at the Royal Court. It’s not just that he writes of chance meetings and being in the right place at the right time, it’s more that I got the sense that he was of an upbringing/ society/ generation where opportunity was more easily available. I don’t mean to sound bitter.

His memories of Cambridge are telling. He directed a play at university where several people involved now have big wig jobs. Germaine Greer was in the cast, for example, and someone who later held a prominent position at the ENO conducted the band. As I look out of the window and sigh that we can’t all be Germaine Greer (I jest!) there’s a more pressing point. Whilst reading it, I started to get the impression that many of the interesting, important and powerful jobs could be currently filled by people who went to Oxbridge. That may have changed in recent times, and it’s pleasing that Rufus Norris is the first NT AD since Olivier who didn’t go to Oxbridge, but the idea that many of those roles are held by people heralding from a very small circle of friends is disconcerting.

It’s apt that I write about his memoir in regards to the The Breath of Life as it is a play about two people in their sixties reflecting back on their life. Indeed, there are elements to the two women’s stories that echo events in The Blue Touch Paper. The play is set on the Isle of Wight where Frances, who’s recently found success as a novelist, has come to confront Madeleine, who was having an affair with Frances’ ex-husband for much of their marriage. Martin, the husband, has since left the country for America and for another woman, but Frances, looking for closure, wants to write a memoir of her husband’s betrayal. Such a synopsis would easily leave one wondering if this play is really by one of Britain’s leading chroniclers of contemporary issues. Indeed, the play is partly about writing and the differences between so called ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ writers. Its arguments don’t reach the topical heights of Skylight but it does subtly touch on relevant and perceptive themes. Frances and Madeleine discuss for instance how the ideals of youth are often soon lost in exchange for settling down. They also mark how they noticed a transition from the sixties, where people fought for causes, into a time where people started being more interested in the self. These are all ideas chewed over by Hare himself in his memoir, ideas which I’ve not read expressed in such an articulate way before.

The play invites you to think about different layers of writing. At one point Frances and Madeleine reflect on our lack of thirst for fiction. We’d rather think about who Marilyn Monroe was dating at the time of making a certain movie than the actual plot of that movie. Considering the original production of this play starred Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, it is easy to do the same with The Breath of Life. Which Harry Potter film was Smith filming at the time? Did the two get along? Also, I can’t help but wonder if a mention of Bill Clinton was added because of a visit from the Clintons themselves to the Theatre Royal Haymarket whilst it was playing. What would they have made of a play, I wonder, which is so much about the left overs of a deceitful marriage?

The Breath of Life is a slow burner of a play full of atmospheric, beguiling images: two women drinking beer and eating curry in the middle of the night overlooking the promenade seems to be typical Hare.

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

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 31: Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977)

This month, we’re seeing the pre-London tour of Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Sheffield. Later this month, Belarus Free Theatre opens the world premiere of Burning Doors, a play about about artists’ freedom in Russia, at our local theatre, Leicester’s Curve. Therefore I thought I’d revisit Stoppard’s play which originally starred McKellan and Stewart and is about political prisoners and the repression of art.

The play’s title refers to the method used to teach children how to play the piano, inspiring thoughts of teaching, reward, structures, rules and the freedom of music. Stoppard’s tightly written, clever and funny satire on the stupidity and hypocrisy of authoritarian regimes criticises the readiness of the Soviet practice to treat political protest as mental illness.

One strand of the plot focuses on two men in a cell, both with the same name. One, who we know as Alexander (McKellan), is a political prisoner for criticising the government, but the doctors see his problem as a mental one. All he needs to do is apologise and say he is ‘cured’ and he will be freed, but he refuses to do so instead choosing to go on hunger strike. The other one, Ivanov, is in fact mad. He thinks he can always hear an orchestra despite the doctor (Stewart) trying to convince him that there is not one. However, this is contradicted by there being a full size orchestra on stage (original music was by André Previn) in which the Doctor plays the violin.

Music is brilliantly used as a metaphor for liberation and repression, similar to Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides about the American interrogation of musicians in occupied post-war Nazi Germany. But here, the addition of a live orchestra means that we literally see and hear artistic liberation on stage. We see the order and hierarchies of an orchestra and how it involves a group of people working together. We are told by the Doctor that there is no orchestra but we know there is, thus we question who is mad. Authoritarian figures that speak in coded language are bunched together as strict, restraining and stupid people, from colonels and prison officers to teachers, doctors and nurses. There’s a funny twist at the end which satisfies both of the prisoners without giving in to the authorities. It’s such a well-written and playful piece of theatre and perhaps a good play to have in mind before seeing Burning Doors.