Sunday, June 29, 2008

Again With The Backlog

I suppose I should probably have spent this weekend investigating Hide and Seek, the festival of social gaming and whatnot on the South Bank, but the opportunity to spend some time instead catching up with friends ended up taking precedence. It is alarming to me, at this stage in my life, just how quickly the weeks, and sometimes months, can scamper past without seeing some of the people I care about, so it was quite, quite wonderful to spend a few aimless, weather-blessed hours traversing the city before raising a glass or three in honour of my friend’s imminent marriage.

That’s not to say these last few days have been theatre free, far from it. Most recently I caught Anna Ziegler’s Dov and Ali at Theatre 503 (who, I notice, have finally reupholstered their bench-seats and done something to make conditions inside the theatre a little less sauna-like). Ziegler’s play is about two men who end up hurting the women they love – a girlfriend and a sister respectively – as result, in part at least, of their religious beliefs.

Dov, an Orthodox Jew whose father is a rabbi, is an English teacher at a Detroit high school; Ali is his student, a seventeen year old Muslim boy, who is unshakeably confident in his views and incredibly sure of himself. (“Life” he says “isn’t about happiness, it’s about being right.”). A classroom debate over The Lord Of The Flies pits student against teacher: Ali has his own, very clear, ideas about what the events in the novel mean – he believes one must have set rules to live by, with little room for negotiation – and he challenges his teacher on these points. This discussion rapidly lurches into an aggressive critique of Dov’s life choices. Ali sees the fact that Dov has yet to complete his PhD as evidence of laziness and is critical of Dov's constant, reductive self-questioning. This behaviour, he believes, is typical of all Jews and he says as much to Dov. But, perhaps inevitably, despite the obvious oppositions between the two men, Ali begins to feel a connection with his teacher: they both have dominant fathers and they have both been pushed into difficult moral corners by their respective faiths.

Through a series of conversations between the two, Zielgler unpicks both characters. Despite his superficial self-possession, Ali is capable of doing little beyond parroting his father’s views, and though Dov speaks about the wisdom and experience that come with being an adult, he is unable to summon the courage to tell his parents he is dating, and is indeed in love with, a non-Jewish woman, a shiksa.

The set up, it has to be said, sounds worryingly trite. This is the second play in as many weeks that I’ve seen about a Jew and a Muslim striking up an unlikely friendship (after Stewart Permutt’s warm, compassionate Many Roads To Paradise) – but , despite my reservations, I found myself warming to the play. It’s an intelligent and considerate piece, not as preachy as it sounds, and Zielger resists the urge to tie things up neatly at the end, asking questions without offering answers. The acting is strong, particularly from Ben Turner as the slightly rumpled Dov. But while it avoids tidy resolutions, it is also, at times, rather too blunt in its approach. The play packs a lot of meat into its hour and twenty minutes, and as a result, it sometimes felt hurried and also a little implausible. This is especially true of the way Ali’s relationship with his teacher develops. It seemed to become very intense, very quickly and I couldn’t quite believe Dov would be that relaxed about Ali’s anti-Semitic baiting even if it was obviously being done to provoke a reaction. I’m also still unsure about the narration from Ali’s absent sister, Sameh, (who, having fallen for a man deemed unappropriate by her father – and, by default, her brother – has been dispatched to Pakistan and a life, it is implied, of untold misery.) Her character regularly interrupts events to move the story on, to provide a counterpoint to Ali’s moral rigidity – and, of course, there is an irony in the fact that it is Ali who has deprived her of her voice and yet it is her who now shapes his story. At times I found this device too constricting a way of structuring the piece, too obviously a device, but in the end it gave the piece an added sense of poignancy, not to mention a female counterbalance to the masculine bluster of the main characters.

I also enjoyed the novelty of seeing a play on a Sunday evening and of emerging from the theatre with much of the night still ahead. (Theatre 503 is one of the few London venues that does this: holding performances at 5pm most Sundays),

Other memorable things from the last fortnight included Richard Bean’s The English Game, a play about an amateur cricket team, which I saw when it came to the Rose Theatre in Kingston last week. This is a venue that has really grown on me. I love the fact that you can pay a few quid and sit in the central pit area (they advise you to bring a cushion, but I am relatively young and springy and have not felt the need for one yet). This appeals hugely to my inner-student and made me take a punt on a play that, knowing next to nothing about cricket as I do (really nothing, I even had to use google recently just to ascertain that a wicket was actually called a wicket), I might otherwise have ignored. And I’m so glad I didn’t, because it was a warm-hearted, amusing and very well acted piece. Though it contained a dozen or so characters, many of whom were quite simply sketched, Bean has a way of making these men seem to have lives beyond the cricket pitch, to exist beyond the stage. The men bicker and rib each other, tensions surface and settle, unexpected opinions are revealed, a friendship fractures, perhaps irreparably, and an old man fades gently away in the afternoon sun. It is not just about cricket, of course, Bean also seemed concerned with issues of Englishness and, beneath the banter, there was a sense of things changing, a whiff of decline, but what I really liked about it, was that, in the end it was mainly about cricket, a game I have no knowledge of or love for, and yet it didn’t matter a jot. While I admire the stripped down, nipped down style of something like The Ugly One, I love the big-ness of this, the clutter of characters, and am now, as a result, rather gutted that I missed his Harvest at the Royal Court.

Speaking of big-ness, this blog post is going on for a bit and I will wrap things up shortly before your attention wavers, but I just want to mention Metamorphosis 08, a competition for new writing in south east London held by the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. The judging panel was chaired by David Eldridge and the two winning plays were staged at the Churchill last week in a specially constructed studio space that had been erected on the stage. The first of the double bill was [in parenthesis], by Ben Hales. It contained a nice, visually appealing set up: three climbers have tumbled from a mountain and now hang suspended by their climbing ropes in midair, one with a bloody hole in his side. The shock of the fall has passed and, as they wait, to be rescued, or to not be rescued, they tell bad jokes and, inevitably, given their predicament, start talking about life and love. It was, once the novelty of the dangling actors subsided, rather a static, overlong (and, I think, rather flatly directed) production but it was well acted, particularly by Adam Sopp as the young lad slowly leaking vital fluids, and the writing had a considerable degree of charm and openness.

It was the second piece of the evening that really made an impact. Overspill is by Ali Taylor (who also wrote the wonderful Cotton Wool, one of my favourite new plays of the year) and tells the story of three lads on a night out in Bromley town centre. The language is the thing here, the pounding pulse of the piece, rhythmic, poetic, and yet wholly evocative of the location in question: the outer edge of London, the weekend impending. I preferred Cotton Wool for the way it married its lexical musicality with more strongly developed characters, but this still packed a punch of its own.

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