Sunday 30 October 2016

The Red Barn

Lyttelton, National Theatre
29th October, 2016, matinee

This is surprisingly the first David Hare play I’ve seen live. I saw the NT Live screening of Skylight but, as brilliant as it was, it doesn’t quite capture the same filmic pace of what I’ve read of his other work. From Plenty to his NT trilogy to Stuff Happens, Hare’s plays are full of striking images and settings as varied and delicious as the Savoy bar to the fields of France. I’ve always wanted to see how one of these fast-moving plays is staged and Robert Icke’s production, with the help of Bunny Christie’s gorgeous design, has notched up the stakes in making The Red Barn even more cinematic and tantalising than Hare’s scripts often demand. Slow motion, music underplaying scenes, a stunning snowstorm, a suggestive prologue followed by a typewriter typed ‘title card’, and the framing of parts of the stage to create a close-up effect all comes together to create an ingenious film noir aesthetic.

Adapted from the novel La Main by Georges Simenon (though as someone in my early twenties and not having read any of his novels I only have the recent Rowan Atkinson-led Maigret adaptation with which to compare), The Red Barn is on the surface – and it’s a play hugely interested in surfaces – a thriller. On the way home from a party, two couples, Donald and Ingrid Dodd and his best friend Ray and his partner Mona, are forced to make their way home through a snowstorm. However Ray doesn’t make it back to the Dodd’s clapboard house. Ray’s outcome leads to Donald’s thus far ordinary, middle-class, middle of the road life in rural Connecticut hurtling into something far more intense and ultimately spiralling out of control.

The Red Barn unapologetically takes us to a world which displays many of contemporary theatre’s bugbears: the struggles of the white middle-class man, a patriarchal concept of success, female nudity. Ray’s disappearance and death – offstage and subsidiary – paves the way for a psychological thriller underneath. Back in their home, Donald and Ingrid try to reassure Mona. Their home is chic and designer, their voices remain calm, Ingrid makes neatly cut sandwiches and brews coffee on the cosy fire. But this marriage seems too eerie: the family photo seems perfectly staged and distant, completely without love. If it wasn’t placed above the fire it would be devoid of warmth. She later suggests that Donald sleeps next to Mona for the night and that he even go to comfort her in Manhattan. They start an affair in New York, one it seems that Ingrid has instigated.

Here Donald is in a different, sexier world: Mona’s apartment is completely white, vast, airy and full of uber-contemporary furnishings. And Mona herself offers him a temporary retreat more exciting from his otherwise pedestrian life before rejecting him later in the play. Earlier, we jump back to the party to see the trigger event which causes Donald’s mind set on Ray to change: he walks through several rooms (revealed one at a time by sliding curtains) eventually walking in on Ray having sex with one of the other guests. For Donald, this represents all the success Ray has had – in terms of women, work and a leader-of-the-pack mentality – which Donald hasn’t. Instead, marrying Ingrid and staying in small town America has been a compromise of his potential talents, and he’s now angry at himself for losing control of his life. It may seem all very self-indulgent but it is so tantalisingly designed and well performed it is effective and enjoyable, if not always likeable.

However the play is more complex than Donald being a dick and wanting out of his marriage. Hare is just as interested in a social shift in America and Donald’s selfishness seems symptomatic of that. The red barn of the title represents a rural wholesomeness as American as apple pie or the sports trophy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a wholesomeness to which Donald perhaps initially aspires. Ingrid apparently only married him because she could live with him. She also despises the city seeing its fast nature as a ‘substitute for life’ whereas he begins to detest rural Connecticut and all its false notions of community which it holds dear. In his memoir The Blue Touch Paper (review here), Hare articulates a shift in late 20th century society from an interest in the collective growing more inward to an interest in the self. Going off on a tangent, I believe Hare has also spoken about being shocked when the world turned right in the seventies when it seemed to be turning left. We hear a conversation early on in the play between Donald and the doctor where the latter praises Nixon and chastises the hippy youth culture. Donald seems to like the young and what they stand for but maybe all that changes too when he walks in on Ray and realises his unhappiness. Perhaps what Simenon is implying (or Hare is crowbarring in?) is that Donald foreshadows a culture of selfishness that was soon commonplace.

Mark Strong seems odd casting for the downtrodden hero but he and Elizabeth Debicki give incredible performances as the two lovers. But it is Hope Davis as Ingrid who is the most beguiling. She’s controlled and tranquil, almost cold, and you feel she is holding back her passive power over Donald. She doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the snowstorm they have to fight their way through, instead simply getting on with it.

Some have suggested that the play is too obvious in its signposting of metaphors which I don’t fully agree with. When Ingrid fills the room with daffodils and asks Donald how they look is this just a heavy handed symbol for their unhappiness veiled by the façade of contentment or is it a deliberate move by Ingrid to rub it in to Donald that he’s stuck there? Furthermore, Donald telling Ray that they’re side by side in the snowstorm when Ray’s actually behind him nicely sets up parallels later on, and Ingrid’s concerns about glaucoma are deftly handled. It makes for a bit of a writerly prologue but one that fits the overall tone.

I could see this play again and again. It transports us to a world so stylish and clearly evoked it’s hard not to be affected by it. At the play’s climax, heart-pumping music by Tom Gibbons, a breath-taking visual effect and Donald’s life plummeting out of control (or perhaps he is taking control of his life here?) creates a first class coup-de-théâtre.

The Red Barn runs at the National Theatre, Lyttelton, until 17th January.

Elizabeth, Debicki, Mark Strong and Hope Davis. Credit: Manuel Harlan.

Friday 28 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Lettice and Lovage

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. 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 43: Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage (1987)
Lettice and Lovage meets our expectations of what a stock, if stereotypical, West End comedy might be. It’s sturdy, exceptionally well written, probably expensive to stage, formally traditional, and offers strong roles for leading actors. I read most of the play thinking it would make for good entertainment but hardly ‘vital’ theatre. ‘What exactly is this play for?’ I wondered. But as well as it being consistently funny, Lettice and Lovage (first staged at the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzak) seems to straddle the line between quietly rebellious and stoically conservative.

Lettice Douffet is stuck in the past. Out of touch with modern technology, uncomfortable with the changing demographic of society and unsatisfied by modern architecture, she prefers to surround herself with Elizabethan food and tales of the famous deaths of England’s and France’s kings and queens. She’s fired from her job by the stiff upper lipped Lotte as a tour guide at a Wiltshire stately home for dressing up the more boring bits of its history. In a series of opening scenes, we see her different tour groups gasp and applaud at her ever-changing story of someone knighted for defying acts of gravity and catching Queen Elizabeth as she nearly fell down the stairs, the staircase since known as ‘the staircase of advancement’. In act two, we see Lotte and Lettice bond in the latter’s basement flat over some quaff – an alcoholic, supposedly Elizabethan, drink named Lovage for its somewhat spirit enhancing benefits: ‘it shouldn’t be trickled down the throat but poured’.

The plot turns, however, as the third act opens and we hear that Lettice has been charged with the attempted murder of Lotte for dropping an axe on her head during the stirring and accurate re-enactment of the execution of Charles I. The play wraps up with Lettice and Lotte determined to start up their own tour of London’s ugliest modern buildings, using Lotte’s knowledge of architecture and Lettice’s unique knack for ostentatious narration. Shaffer’s play puts centre stage the troubles of these two eccentric middle-aged women. Lotte had to give up school to look after her dad and has spent most of her career embarrassed to show any rebellious side that may have once existed and stay strictly professional. Both women appreciate the difficulties of looking for work in a world they understand less and less. Indeed, Shaffer touches on a contemporary note by expressing the thoughts of the disaffected and disillusioned, where legendary acts are reserved for the lives of kings and queens (and an England) gone by. It’s a triumphant play which, I feel, would fare being revived today. And what’s more, with all the talk of the heritage industry and theatre this week regarding Emma Rice’s departure (sacking!) from Shakespeare’s Globe, Shaffer’s play (in a reminder of Alan Bennett’s People) makes us think that subject anew.

Saturday 22 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Zoo Story

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. 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 42: Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958)

The Zoo Story has a killer hook! Played over one scene, it sees Peter sat reading peacefully on a Central Park bench approached by another man (Jerry). Jerry tells Peter that he’s been to the zoo and that he will probably read about it in the paper the next day if he doesn’t see it on the news before then.

A different blogger might reference Beckett as a way in to discuss The Zoo Story, Albee’s first play which was first performed in Germany in 1959. But how about the 2016 animated film The Secret Life of Pets? Watching the film last week (it’s diverting but not on the same par as Pixar films, with most of the good bits shown in the trailers), its depiction of a New York of two halves made me think about Albee’s striking debut. In both the play and the film, New York is a fast and busy city with few precious places of solace and calm. One of those places is the home and the other is Central Park. For Peter in Albee’s play, a spot in a quiet corner of the park offers him a chance to read and reflect on a Sunday afternoon, a chance to get some ‘me’ time away from his editorial job and big city house full of his family and plenty of pets. Nearby is the zoo full of balloon sellers and families enjoying a sunny afternoon. It’s New York not too dissimilar from the one seen through the lens of an animated family film such as The Secret Life of Pets. But in that film, we also see a (albeit exaggerated) darker side of New York which includes street gang bunnies and sewers full of crocodiles. It is the ominous of New York underneath the touristy, tawdry surface in which Albee is interested especially regarding the character of Jerry.

Jerry lives in a room of a boarding house in a rundown area of New York. It may only be a few blocks away from Peter’s Manhattan townhouse but is culturally a world apart. He, and his neighbours, lives in a state of poverty where his frisky landlady’s flirtations and her dog’s growls run like clockwork each day. Jerry is a curious character (to say the least) but he is also lonely and is perhaps associated more with the Central Park more associated with yesteryear full of bums and criminals. He constantly undermines and questions the buttoned-down sheen of Peter’s life, something which Albee explored further by writing a companion play, Homelife, about Peter and his wife in 2004 which payed as a double bill with The Zoo Story. As the play spins towards its climax, we see the two worlds collide, with Jerry’s unhinged nature changing Peter’s life forever.

Albee’s writing is perceptive, funny and quirky. There’s also a surreal edge and bit of a self-conscious aspect of The Zoo Story, things which are brought out more in his second play The Sandbox. With a flurry of Albee productions in the West End next year including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, I would say that The Zoo Story is also well worthy of a revival.

Thursday 13 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Empress

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. 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 41: Tanika Gupta’s The Empress (2013)

I’m fairly certain that this blog won’t capture the ambitious scope and scale of The Empress. Similarly, reading it wouldn’t pay credence to the colour and imagination typical of Emma Rice’s style in her production at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, a production which included puppetry, singing and video design.

Set in the last 14 years of Queen Victoria’s reign (and life), the play has three main plot strands which ebb and flow in and out of focus. Firstly, there is the love story of Rani, an Indian Ayah (a nanny for English families), and Hari, a lascar (shipmate) who are reunited after spending years and oceans apart. Then there is Queen Victoria’s ambivalent fondness of Abdul Karim who has come from India to be her servant and munshi. Finally, there is the rise to power of Dadabhai Naoriji, the first Asian man to become a British politician, followed by his quick disillusionment and return to India. Gupta takes us from ships and London dockyards to rooms in Palaces and grimy boarding houses. On the way, we meet sideline but certainly memorable characters including Lascar Sally, the British woman looking after the sailors in more ways than one; Lady Sarah, Victoria’s dutiful lady in waiting whose jealousy for the fondness afforded to Abdul Karim might stem from racial prejudice; and Lord Oakham, whose kindness towards Rani by giving her a bed and a job is rebuked when he finds out she is pregnant with his baby. Even Gandhi is in the play.

‘Theatre is often best’, I think Alan Bennett wrote, ‘when it’s school’. That’s what is partly so captivating about The Empress. I didn’t know much about the different plotlines in the play but it’s also full of criticisms of the Empire and nationalism. Some, I felt, feel a little tagged on or as if they have been written with the benefit of hindsight. Lady Sarah says that Britain’s ‘destiny is to bring civilisation to the world’ whereas Dadabhai criticises Britain for not doing enough to stop the famine in India, and argues that Britain’s continuing approach to its empire harbours ‘misplaced jingoistic ideas of nationalism’. But it’s more than just a history lesson. Regarding race, class and nationalism, The Empress skewers many contemporary issues. And in the closing moments of act one, despite them never meeting, Gupta brings together Queen Victoria and Rani in a tableau which highlights all their differences and similarities.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest

Curve, Leicester
11th October, 2016

Nikolai Foster’s production of The Importance Of Being Earnest is a fresh, modern interpretation that breaks free from the shackles of tradition and the ubiquity of Wilde’s most famous adages. This co-production with the Birmingham Rep skews a contemporary focus upon the play’s themes of identity, gender politics and societal perceptions.

Isla Shaw’s design adopts an haute-couture edge while maintaining a satirical eye upon the idiosyncrasies of the Victorian age. The fully mirrored set is visually stunning – praise must also go to Ben Cracknell’s lighting, which must have been a hell of a difficult job, but is achieved without any unwanted harshness and allows the set to seemingly illuminate itself. The prism of echoed and distorted reflections encapsulates the themes of identity and genteel appearance in the farcical romantic and hereditary mix-ups central to the plot. I was also rather amused by the way -intentional or not - that the mirrors warped the actors’ reflections, in some instances magnifying the characters’ heads along with their pretentions.

The reflection of the audience into the stage space realigns our focus on the societal issues at play and implicates us within Wilde’s satirical critique. We become representatives of the judgemental society to which women lie at the mercy of and are often thought of as commodities, both in Wilde’s time and today. Eyes, faces, bodies multiply in the prismic maze of glass and the reality that we are all (especially women) judged upon outward appearance. Our place in the world and mobility prospects often relies on navigating this myriad of internal perceptions and external deceptions. In a world of selfies, filters and snappy social interactions à la the cruelty of the ‘swipe left’ culture of tinder, Foster and Shaw have reconfigured Wilde for the Instagram age.

Conceptually brash, the sheer confidence in this gilded surface simplicity removes the production from the realms of gimmickry as Foster sticks to his guns, directing with an assuredness that complements Shaw’s boldness of vision. The ensemble gel nicely and appear to be having a blast. With an arch twinkle in his eye, Curve veteran Darren Bennet quietly steals many a scene in the dual roles of Merriman and Lane and I was especially impressed with the vitality of the young cast. Sharan Phull is gleeful as the idealistic Cecily and shares fine comic chemistry with Edward Franklin’s rakish Algernon and Martha Mackintosh’s precocious Gwendolen. The strained afternoon tea scene between the doubly duped girls presents a fantastically cringe-worthy microcosm of the drollness of genteel etiquette. Not to be outdone by the vigour of the youngsters, Cathy Tyson is a matriarchal force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. She remains sympathetically humorous, uttering the aphorisms which have overshadowed the character, play, and even playwright for the past 100 years with a lightness that suggests little of the burden of bygone expectations.

The concept, and realisation, work harmoniously with, and pay due respect to Wilde’s text without being bogged down by it. Foster has succeeded in bringing a zesty freshness to a well-loved play; one which has arguably been previously confined by the stuffy consecration bestowed on such ‘classics’.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Curve, Leicester until 29th October.

 Photo credit: Tom Wren

Thursday 6 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Know Your Rights

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 40: Judy Upton’s Know Your Rights (1998)

Judy Upton’s most famous play is Ashes and Sand (Royal Court, 1994). One of the most prominent plays to be attributed with the hindsight in-yer-face label, Upton’s play, focusing on a Brighton girl gang, explores a generation with little hope of a bright and prosperous future. What sticks out in that play is the anger of its lead characters. More than just shock tactics or an aesthetic, Ashes and Sand is a stinging play about the effects of a long and no doubt seemingly ceaseless Tory rule.

This short play premiered roughly a year after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 but the promises of New Labour are not on display here. Jane and Bonnie live in the same block of flats. Jane is the nosy neighbour type whose husband is in a private care home which she struggles to afford. Bonnie is a single mum with a young child struggling to get by. Yet they are plunged into a legal dispute when Bonnie’s son gets in the way on the stairs leaving Jane to fall down them and injure herself, opening up the opportunity for her to try and get some money out of Bonnie. Taking the form of two interweaving split stage monologues, Know Your Rights sees two very different people’s shared welfare, money and job worries come to a head.

Neither of them fully realise the financial worries of the other. Bonnie (played by Noma Dumezweni in the original production at the Battersea Arts Centre) is on benefits but is forced into a job on the side at Safeway because they’ve been lowered slightly. When Jane finds out, Bonnie is fired and her benefits cut leaving her desperate for money and pushed into putting Jake into care for a few days whilst she decides somewhere else to live. If you’re using this play as a look into what the late nineties under Tony Blair was like, it paints an interesting depiction of New Labour Britain. Cassette tapes and since-shutdown supermarkets aside, there are problems with housing, healthcare and benefits. The Helping Hands centre is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a No Win No Fee injury claim culture seems part of a financial opportunism which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It perhaps doesn’t quite have the same anger as Ashes and Sand, or at least it does but with less dramatic impact. Nor does it quite have the same imagination as some recent #ReadaPlayaWeek choices from 1990s’ fringe theatre.