Tuesday 27 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Boys Mean Business

It’s not always possible to see every play. 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 39: Catherine Johnson’s Boys Mean Business (1989)

Now we’re nearing the end of September, the X Factor train is in full motion and hurtling the nation through the advent period towards that inevitable Christmas number 1 (sorry to mention the ‘C’ word!). While I, and I imagine many others, feel particularly jaded with the Cowell cash-cow, it is interesting to compare it with the old-school, cheesy radio talent contest at the centre of Catherine Johnson’s play. This simple set up provides a cypher for Johnson’s exploration of familial relationships and the inevitability of change.

Having been kicked out of his parents’ house, Will is sleeping in his brother Gary’s beach hut, scraping a living by dressing up as a scruffy cartoon character and posing for pictures with tourists. An opportunity to escape presents itself in the form of the visiting Radio One Superstar Show, however, both brothers have ulterior motives.

What becomes apparent is a clash between past, present and future, loyalty and success. Will, nearly 30, is the epitome of a man-child; a careless drifter stuck in the past. His greatest joy comes from nostalgic reminiscences of his Punk heyday, supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Boomtown Rats. Conversely, Gary looks ahead, striving for financial security for his growing family – albeit via dodgy business with friend and local drug dealer, Elvis – while desperately trying to retain a sense of youthful vitality through his affair with the underage Dawn. There is a tragic sense that while Will has merely never grown up, Gary is undergoing a mid-life crisis at the tender age of 27.

Some of the details of Johnson’s play seem dated; the dramatic climax is accompanied by the song ‘Two Little Boys’, hence what could be a poignantly tragicomic scene, in retrospect has more sinister connotations relating to celebrity sex criminals such as Rolf Harris. Yet this datedness and discomfort seems to fit with the play’s overarching sense of fin de siècle. We are presented with the ceremonial end of an era; from Will’s simultaneously cringe-worthy yet admirable adlibbed lyrics to The Strangler’s ‘No More Heroes’, reflecting his disillusionment with the already outmoded Punk scene; to the family beach hut’s transformation into a blazing pyre, incinerating the symbolic and literal family bonds and business dealings enshrouded within it.

Furthermore, in a world where the Western media and perceptions of ‘talent’ are increasingly filtered through a SYCO lens, Will’s actions and irreverent attitude appears to be a heroic last-ditch attempt at rebellion, which, however pathetic and crude in practice, seems a bygone notion nowadays and retrospectively signifies the death of a more naïve (yet equally unwholesome) era.

Monday 19 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Two Lips Indifferent Red

It’s not always possible to see every play. 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 38: Tamsin Oglesby’s Two Lips Indifferent Red (1995)

This play is interested in a world of surfaces. Set in the world of cat walks, models, beauty parlours and cosmetic surgeons, Two Lips Indifferent Red focuses on the moral implications of changing your body in the name of beauty. Angela is considering several operations that her cosmetic surgeon husband Andrew has offered her for her birthday. If this makes Andrew sound like a bit of a dick then you’re not wrong. He comes up with crude limericks about his clients, it seems like he couldn’t cope being married to a fat person, and he has shattered his relationship with his daughter by making her have a nose job. He also comes packaged with some under baked ideas about copies of art which invites parallels to be made about fake body parts. He’s an unsympathetic character that perhaps seems cartoonish. In fact, when we first see Andrew he is holding a ‘scalpel menacingly over Angela’ in a nightmare sequence. The other major characters in the play are more rounded. Angela and Andrew’s daughter Jo is a model and although she’s a rather good one she has more substance than her peers and decides to train as a photographer.

Oglesby’s play skewers the nineties obsession with excess. In many ways it reminds me of Absolutely Fabulous, no more so in a scene between Jo and Angela where after a while I gave up and started imagining Julia Sawalha and Jennifer Saunders. Their sense of humour and character dynamics are very similar to that of Saffie and Eddy in the sitcom. The surgeons, the models and the beauticians are all to some extent obsessed with aesthetic beauty. The beauticians talk about the ugliest person they know and the models vie to be noticed by a photographer. It is a play which satirises what we apparently value (or did in the nineties). As one character says, ‘I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be sexy’.

Sometimes when reading a play, I suppose that it is natural to play director, trying to imagine how it might be staged. Two Lips Indifferent Red flits between multiple settings. To create some sort of unity on the stage (especially in as small a space as the Bush Theatre where it was originally staged) I guess it would be interesting to see how the brilliant white of a fashion photoshoot is visually similar to but also different (in terms of mood) from the sterile white of a surgeon’s clinic.

Oglesby’s play is an entertaining, often very funny one about surface appearances. However beneath that there is a lot of substance to the mother and daughter relationship at its heart.

Monday 12 September 2016

King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
10th September, 2016, matinee

‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these?’ (3.4.29-33).

This is one of my all-time favourite Shakespearean passages. I like it for its poetic beauty, for its compounding of the many themes of the play, as well as the astute social commentary it induces, both then and now. Inspired by this, Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear begins by preluding the action with ragged, poverty stricken ‘wretches’ cowering upon the stage; hooded, veiled, anonymous. In contrast, the proceeding scene is rich in texture, as the bejewelled aristocracy meet under Lear’s desire to explicitly divide his kingdom. Antony Sher’s Lear is heralded by a procession of underlings carrying branches and golden orbs, evocative of natural and universal spirituality, and the apparent absolutism of the monarchy. Dwarfed by gigantic Russian furs, he enters within a transparent palanquin, reminiscent of the pope-mobile, he is separated in stature from his subjects rich and poor; a visual manifestation of his hubristic neglect.

The themes of nature, division and poverty are also tremendously wrought in the storm scene. Doran’s simplistic staging sees Lear and his Fool (Graham Turner) lifted high, upon a gigantic billowing sheet, physically exemplifying Lear’s call to ‘smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!’ and ‘crack nature’s molds’. The unnaturalness of this tragedy is subsequently entwined with the suffering of the poor, creating a heady mixture of nihilism, injustice, and divine abstinence as Lear wanders the moors of his land, in an ironic reformation wrought by simultaneous madness and reason.

Despite Lear’s inherent hubris, Sher is delightfully pragmatic in performance. While his frailty is constantly foregrounded – from his palanquin mode of travel, to his hand tremors, and his final entrance upon a cart, too weak to carry the fallen Cordelia, Sher exhibits all the tremulous rage of an elderly, cantankerous man, convincing of a once all-powerful ruler, now belittled by the constraints of old-age. Yet, for me, he really excels in moments of quiet incredulity. During a confrontation with Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Sher’s eyes are lucid and piercing, his hushed words resound as he fixes his daughter with an almightily withering glare.

While King Lear may seem to be a star-vehicle for the Shakespearean greats, that is to deny its epic scope and true ensemble nature. I particularly admire Shakespeare’s ability here to render all characters and all plotlines coherent and rounded (an aspect, I feel, which is neglected in some of his other sweeping tragedies). As such, amongst a strong ensemble, David Troughton’s Gloucester is masterful as an initially powerful statesman before toppling into sympathetic despair. His scenes with the unbeknownst to him Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) are particularly touching. Paapa Essiedu wrings Edmund for all his sarcastic wit, eliciting the majority of the humour in this production. His is an interesting take on the character, making the bastard seem deceptively benign as we are impelled to empathise with his eye-rolling frustrations concerning the ‘natural order’ and his old man’s superstitions. On a semi-off topic note, Bryon Mondahl’s Oswald reminded me, not unkindly, of Conleth Hill’s Varys from the Game of Thrones series – a minor observation, but one that tickled me.

In a production of admirable performances and classical thematic focus, Doran smartly eschews concept-driven direction, preferring to foreground the text (tonally and visually it reminds me of his successful 2013 production of Richard II). The only deviant is the neon-lit Perspex chamber within which Gloucester receives his torture. While a fun idea (if ‘fun’ can be used to describe such a harrowing moment in British drama), it remains rather tame and is not as blood-splattered as it could be if intending to shock. Moreover, stylistically this scene jars with the remainder of the production aesthetic of ostensibly pagan natural divinity. Thus it is a memorable moment, but not as a piquant example of Doran’s overall vision; it appears more as an anomaly in the otherwise pretty traditional theatrical style associated with his direction.

There are moments in this production that will linger in my mind – the effective staging of the storm, Sher’s performance of intense human frailty, and the sheer scope and spectacle of seeing a large cast populate the RST stage in an accessible, un-divisive telling of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. And if Doran is a little safe as a director, I cannot complain too much as he delivers everything a wide-ranging audience would wish of a visit to the RST.

King Lear plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15th October before transferring to the Barbican where it plays from 10th November – 23rd December 2016.

Sunday 11 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Humans

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 37: Stephen Karam’s The Humans (2014)

This year’s Tony winner for Best Play was The Humans by Stephen Karam. Played out in one scene, the play is about the Blake family coming to New York to have Thanksgiving with Erik’s youngest daughter and her partner in their new Chinatown duplex.

Erik has been having nightmares and is struggling with his back; his wife Deidre has been helping the Bhutanese refugees back home in small town Scranton, PA; their eldest daughter Aimee has broken up with her long term girlfriend and has intestinal problems; youngest daughter Brigid is struggling to pursue her dream career whilst trying to cover the bills; her older boyfriend Richard is back in college and pushing 40. I don’t want to drop any spoilers but suffice to say Karam paints a well-observed, warm portrait of family life, with all its imperfections, in-jokes, strange traditions, tensions and worries. It strikes a chord on many levels, whether we recognise worries about money or elderly relatives, ill health or being out of work.

Karam’s text is meticulously detailed. Characters interrupt each other, overlap, trail off and repeat themselves. There might be a conversation going on in one room while another is happening in another room – or other floor. That brings me to the other really distinct feature of The Humans: it is set over two floors, each with separate rooms so we can wander our attentions into whichever room we wish. It’s a slow-burner of a play, but over the course of the get-together, we learn how the events of 9/11 still haunt this family, we hear the daughters rebelling against their parents especially concerning views on religion and marriage, and we see the Blakes’ familial instinct to help each other out. On one level this play is an insightful psychological family drama but it also operates on another, more ambivalent and mysterious level. Karam blends concrete family drama with elements of the supernatural. It is gripping until its uncanny, moving end. I wonder if we’ll see it in London sometime soon.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Sucker Punch

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 36: Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch (2010)

I remember an academic once claiming that the only contemporary comparison to the groundling experience at a Shakespeare play is the rowdy atmosphere of a football match. The thrill of sport combined with the thrill of live theatre is something often exploited by Roy Williams, notably in his plays Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), Joe Guy (2007), and There’s Only One Wayne Matthews (2007). While these plays use football as a cipher for exploring British society, William’s 2010 play, Sucker Punch, turns towards the world of boxing to scrutinise aspects of racial identity amidst Thatcherite Britain in the 1980’s.
We first meet young Leon and Troy arguing over the chores they’ve been ordered to do as punishment for breaking into a local boxing club. They soon catch the attention of Charlie, who decides to train them to fight. The play follows the two boys as they progress down different paths; Leon growing in stature as a serious UK boxing contender, while Troy compromises his talent as he rails against the police, eventually leaving Britain for a new life in the US.

The boys also embody diverse attitudes towards the prejudice and injustice they encounter on a daily basis; Troy is angry, lashing out against institutionalised racism, while Leon takes a more fatalistic view, longing to be accepted by his white trainer-cum-father-figure, Charlie, and Charlie’s daughter, Becky. Charlie is an interesting character, because there is a sense that he is genuinely affectionate and proud of Leon, yet he cannot hide his bigotry when he discovers the interracial relationship between Becky and Leon.

This is just one example of the casual racism that litters the play, alien to someone of my generation, but recent enough to shock. These attitudes and the subsequent backlash, such as the Brixton riots which Williams references, thoroughly evoke Thatcher’s Britain, highlighting the culture of social and racial division. What’s more, showing that these issues are just as apparent today, Sucker Punch premiered at the Royal Court just one year before the London riots in 2011, ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man (and even more recently evidenced in the USA with the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign against institutionalised racism). Yet, in more ways than one, Thatcher’s Britain comes under criticism. The 80’s culture of economic greed bites back as Charlie’s faith in ‘Maggie’ leads to his financial downfall, investing all the profits from Leon’s matches in the stock market (and we all know what happened there…).

What is perhaps most striking is Williams’ unflinching portrayal of the boxing world and how it is entwined with identity. Ironically, Troy’s anger and sense of racial identity culminates in his being scouted by a boxing promoter after a brawl with US police officers. However, it becomes increasingly obvious that the boys have little control over their own lives. They are owned; the imposing Ray tells Troy ‘I made you […] You are mine’, and Charlie manipulates his bigoted relationship with Leon for his own gain. He presents him with an ultimatum; he will become Leon’s manager, but only if he stops seeing Becky.
Furthermore, while seemingly embodying black empowerment by excelling in sport, Williams highlights the inevitable contradictions in the boxers’ roles. At the end of Act 1, Leon fights Charlie’s ex-pupil, Tommy, where the ‘white, pale faces […] cheering Tommy on, telling him to bury me’, demonstrate the way boxing, in its legitimised violence, can, in the worst cases, become a vicarious and legitimised outlet for racial hatred. Despite the two protagonists being set up as opposites, in character, attitude and philosophy, in one of the most elucidating passages, Leon’s father offers some home truths ahead of the climactic Leon vs. Troy match; ‘You can’t win, neither of you […] they love nothing better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it’. Racism is shown to be not only a casual aspect of 80’s culture, but a form of passive brutality in the form of spectator sport.

In this time of UKIP, Black Lives Matter, and the horrifying possibility of ‘President Trump’ the themes explored in Sucker Punch echo through the decades, presenting us with the bleak reality that racism and violence is perhaps even more of a pressing issue now than it was then - scarily so. While casual racism is now taboo, bigoted views manifest in ever more brutal ways, with no (justifiably sickening) joviality to hide behind, racism is unveiled and is more catastrophic and loathsome than ever.