Tuesday 31 January 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare: my thoughts on the Hare and Billington articles

Firstly, I am a fan of Hare’s work*. I think that’s important to say as he does get a bit of a kicking sometimes. Then again that criticism isn’t wholly unfounded; I found his recent memoirs, for example, equally fascinating and infuriating. But whilst reading his latest comments about European directors such as Ivo Van Hove that he made in an interview with Jeffrey Sweet – and I’m sure he’s as pleased as punch with this controversy, I mean we’re all going to buy his book now, right? – I found there were a lot of question marks and exclamation marks popping up.


Do European theatre directors camp up classic plays? Is there a definition of camp I’m unaware of? I’ve only seen one Van Hove production (A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic) and it was one of the tensest things I’ve seen on a stage, not camp.

Cut them and prune them: Yeah, so Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge was very short in comparison to other productions but cutting plays down to suit contemporary theatre practises can be a good thing, yeah? Many adaptors, and Hare has done a lot of adapting/ translating, do this so is his problem that it’s a director doing it rather than a writer?

Why would a directing style take over state of the nation plays? Lyn Gardner is quite right in listing plays in which ‘the nation’s soul and psyche’ are captured but have also been presented in different forms and styles.Iphigenia in Splott – performed by one woman – was exhilarating in its poetic and sparse language and also dazzling because of its sharp eye on poverty and local cuts in 21st century Britain.

Furthermore, and more pressingly, is that the only thing we write in this country? State of the nation plays? I’ve written dissertations and essays about playwrights who have written major state of the nation plays but I didn’t think that that’s the only theatre there is, or all the theatre that is worth seeing. I imagine this is something that would be cleared up by reading in full what Hare has to say in the book though, so – once again – looking forward to reading it Jeffrey! And I’m not sure State of the Nation plays are disappearing from the repertoire. Look at DC Moore’s new play Common and Rory Mullarkey’s new play Saint George and the Dragon at the National this year and they both sound like they could be commenting on aspects of Britain and our sense of nationhood.

I know next to nothing about European theatre. Bloggers like ‘Postcards from the Gods’ (wonderful blogger!) actually go to Europe and see plays! Imagine that! Me, on the other hand, I could perhaps draw a sketch of a stereotyped and clich├ęd idea of what I think European theatre is and it would probably be closer to Hare’s views on it than it is to the actual thing. I agree with Sweet, however, when he says we don’t want a load of Van Hove-lites directing everything in his style. Likewise, I don’t want Van Hove monopolising all classic plays either.

So what’s Hare’s problem? I think it’s partly generational and partly to do with the changing (changed?) role of the writer in 21st century theatre practice. Firstly, remember the NT50 celebrations where actors/writers/directors fawned over the best things they’ve seen at the National? Well one of the things than came up (if I remember correctly) was Peter Stein’s production of Gorky’s Summerfolk, a production which came over from Berlin. Stein’s production rewrote 40% of the text through improvisation in rehearsal collaborating with the company and a dramaturg. Hare himself said (in his NT50 interview) that he apparently welcomed those foreign productions at least because they put a perspective on the British theatre at the time. So why then does he now see European directing styles as an infection to the British theatre? Is it the abundance of them or a particular style or trend that he favours against?

The abundance of Van Hove’s work, particularly at the NT recently, might also be displeasing to Hare. He recently (in his Simon Stephens’ Royal Court podcast) praised the Royal Court for being a writers’ theatre and lamenting that the NT isn’t perhaps as led by its new writers as it seems to be led by its directors. Maybe Hare fears that Van Hove et al treats text with irreverence but then again perhaps Hare treats it with too high a reverence. The role of the writer is of course still valued and (I would like to think) crucial in contemporary theatre but they perhaps don’t hole the same sovereignty that they once did.

Which brings me onto Billington. I think it’s a separate debate even though me writing about both writers in the same blog is helping to conflate matters. Billington is surprised by the lack of inclusion of much classic work (apart from by Shakespeare, Kushner and Sondheim) in the National’s new season, saying ‘From its inception, the National has combined the roles of providing a library of world drama and acting as a stimulus to living playwrights’.The term library, I feel, doesn’t help his argument. I don’t want to go to the theatre to appreciate classic plays, still dusty from being dragged off the bookshelf, but instead to experience and engage with old and new plays in a way that I can see them afresh. But Norris has already staged revivals by Churchill, Wilson, Hansberry, Turgenev (via Marber), Farquhar (with dramaturg work by Marber), Ibsen (once again, via Marber – Billington might as well have written about how there’s too much Marber at the NT), Granville Barker, Chekhov, O’Casey, Kane, Brecht, Rattigan, Shaffer, DH Lawrence, Wertenbaker and probably more.

I go to the theatre for classic plays but, at a time of Trump and Brexit, the new plays that try to make sense of the world are of most interest to me.

* Really, Skylight and The Red Barn were two of the best things I’ve ever seen in a cinema/ theatre, both for different reasons. And the plays I’ve read of his make me want to see them, particularly the NT trilogy and Plenty. And each time I try to persuade my girlfriend that he’s a really interesting and entertaining playwright, he goes and says something antagonistic which understandably puts her off.

Monday 16 January 2017

Ramin Karimloo and the Broadgrass Band: Lead Me Home tour

Curve, Leicester
15th January 2017

Following his success in shows as diverse as Les Miserables, Love Never Dies, and Murder Ballad, Ramin Karimloo tours his passion project, a unique genre of music he dubs ‘broadgrass’ – show tunes with a bluegrass flavour – before returning to the bright lights of Broadway to star in the premiere of the long-awaited stage adaptation of Anastasia. The evening began with singer/songwriter Rob Richings’ easy going brand of folk-pop, a gentle yet endearing warm up before the headline act. The band themselves, including Jessie Linden (percussion/vocals), Matthew Harvey (guitar/keyboard/vocals), Nick Pini (bass/vocals) and Georgina Leach (violin), have all the musical chemistry expected of bluegrass and country acts; a tremendous success considering the hairpin tightness of those harmonies.

The set included a mix of original songs, such as fan favourite ‘Broken’, written with Karimloo’s Sheytoons collaborator, Hadley Fraser, to covers ranging from folk (‘Wild World’) to musical theatre classics (‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Being Alive’, ‘High Flying Adored’). The five piece band were evidently having a ball; Karimloo’s banter with guitarist (incidentally, also his understudy for Murder Ballad) Matt and ad-libs referring to the incongruity of the Rydell High School gymnasium set upon which they played (Curve’s production of Grease continues to play til 21st January) provided some gentle humour between songs.

Gifted with natural charm Karimloo’s anecdotes complemented the set list and gave us small insights into a life in the theatre. Regarding the inspiration behind his ‘broadgrass’ venture, Karimloo revealed that he would while away the hours spent in make-up for Love Never Dies learning to play the banjo and writing his own music. His skill as a musician and song-writer is impressive, but the undeniable show-stealer is that voice which has made him a star and one of the most in-demand leading men in the West End and Broadway. Rich, soaring, with a consistency of power throughout his vast range, Karimloo effortlessly glides from crystalline falsetto to treacly bass tones, breathing an effervescent lustre into the most well-known of melodies. The fresh, stripped back ‘broadgrass’ arrangements are all lilting guitars, sighing fiddles, and whimsical harmonies, which only heighten the lyrical story-telling clout of the original versions. I discovered songs I didn’t know – their rendition of ‘Sara’ from Murder Ballad, makes me regret having not seen the recent West End production – and new ways of seeing seemingly ubiquitous MT songs – who’d have thought ‘Bring Him Home’ could work so well on the banjo!

A final treat for fans, the encore of ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ brought the evening to a magnificent close – I left the theatre with Karimloo’s voice still reverberating in my ears! Having lovingly created their own distinct sound, a joy for music and collaboration in all its forms shines through the band’s performance. I recommend the Lead Me Home tour for anyone with a love of country or musical theatre; a thoroughly enjoyable evening of passionate music and informal chat, Karimloo and his band are masters of their craft.

For all UK tour dates and venues visit https://www.raminkarimloo.com/live

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Looking Ahead at 2017 Theatre

In March, we’re seeing Robert Icke’s take on Hamlet at the Almeida. The last production we saw by Icke at the Almeida was the expansive, colourful and dystopian Mr Burns. It stars Andrew Scott in the title role and Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude.

Ugly Lies the Bone
After directing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat at the National, Indhu Rubasingham returns to the National with another contemporary American play. Lindsey Ferrentino’s play is about the use of virtual reality therapy to help a recently returned soldier from Afghanistan (Kate Fleetwood) rebuild her life in Florida. The play premiered last year at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, but this is a new production with a design provided by Es Devlin (Hamlet at the Barbican, Chimerica).

The Ferryman
Queuing for a day seat ticket to see Jerusalem in its second West End run galvanised my enthusiasm for theatre. It was one of a few bits of theatre a few years ago that sparked an interest in more frequent theatregoing. After writing two dissertations on Butterworth’s plays since then, I’m looking forward to seeing his new play at the Royal Court in April. It’s directed by Sam Mendes and is already sold out, but a transfer to the West End is already on the cards.

Tickets go on sale in January for Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. Having changed the face of Broadway and transcended the world of theatre, this is sure to be one of the year’s most yearned for tickets. It previews at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace from November.

Angels in America
The other most anticipated show of the year has to be both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the National. Marianne Elliott directs Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, Russell Tovey and Andrew Garfield in Kushner’s epic, partly about the New York AIDS crisis. Later in the year, Elliott launches her own West End season which includes Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg which recently played in New York and a new production of Sondheim’s musical Company with a gender reversed Bobby played by Rosalie Craig.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Daniel Radcliffe returns to the London stage in a 50th anniversary production of Stoppard’s play. I’m currently reading about the Old Vic’s history and its rather insecure start. As the theatre approaches its 200th birthday, artistic director Matthew Warchus is continuing to secure big names and big plays for this year. Later in the year, John Boyega stars in Jack Thorne’s new version of Woyzeck, the excellent Groundhog Day opens on Broadway, and a new play about Bob Dylan premieres in the summer.

The Miser
In March, we’re seeing one of two major London productions based on Moliere’s work. A starry cast of comic actors including Griff Rhys Jones, Matthew Horne, Lee Mack and Katy Wix take on Sean Foley’s production and adaptation of The Miser at the Garrick Theatre. Next door at the Wyndham’s David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough lead the cast for a revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho (reworked from Moliere and revised since its Donmar premiere in 2006).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
After Edward Albee’s death last year, there are a couple of West End productions of his major plays. Ian Rickson directs Damien Lewis in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket from March, and in April we’re seeing Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre. James MacDonald directs what is sure to a hot ticket.

What the Butler Saw
Curve and Theatre Royal, Bath, collaborate on Nikolai Foster’s production of Joe Orton’s farce. In his productions of Grease and The Importance of Being Earnest, Foster injected well-trodden pieces with a newfound vigour. We’re looking forward to his production of this twentieth century classic, which plays Orton’s home city of Leicester from March, starring Rufus Hound.

Julius Caesar
In May, Robert Hastie directs his first major production as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. Shakespeare’s tale of political dissent and betrayal plays at the Crucible from 18th May to 10th June. In September, he directs the world premiere of Chris Thompson’s Of Kith and Kin, a gripping dark comedy, in a co-production with the Bush Theatre.

The Girls

Opening this month at the Phoenix is Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical The Girls, based on Calendar Girls. There can be a lot of snobbery surrounding musical theatre, but even if Barlow isn’t the next Sondheim then there’s no denying that this is commercial producing at its boldest and most intriguing. Its marketing has been drumming up support for months, tweeting the musical’s progress from its development stages to rehearsals. The cast is promising, the design looks enthralling and the songs that have been previewed are strong, as you’d expect from listening to Barlow’s pop music. Furthermore, I love the humour in Firth’s other work (Neville’s Island, Fleet Street Nativity). You can’t predict a hit when it comes to new musicals but everything I’ve seen of this project (produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers) looks very promising.