Friday, August 08, 2008

A Mad Macbeth and Then The Menier

If you’ve been to the South Bank this week you may have seen that the National have erected a big-fenced off area near the stage door. This is Square2, and for the next couple of weeks it is home to two international former Edinburgh hits, the first is Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?, a condensed al fresco take on Shakespeare’s tragedy full of motorcycles, stilt-walkers and guns, by a Polish theatre company. (There was going to be a rather laboured riff here on the production featuring an abundance of poles – the wooden kind – and Poles, but I suspect that would be scraping the bottom of even my shallow barrel).

We were ushered into fairly large space where the audience were made to stand behind crash barriers and, given that this is open air theatre in London in August, it immediately started to rain. Everyone fiddled with hoods and scarves and brollies in a stoic manner but fortunately it didn’t last long and the residual damp in the air kind of complimented the production’s war-scarred, slightly Mad Max-ish landscape. I was particularly taken with the witches, who strode around the place on stilts, dressed in black, their faces covered with white veils. When shot by the gun-toting Macbeth they would drop to the ground before silently rising again like Michael in the Halloween films. It was really rather creepy.

The production is short, just over an hour, and they’ve ripped out nearly all the dialogue, except for a few key passages (which are delivered in over-amplified and accented English). Instead they really fairly firmly on the visual to convey the power of the narrative, acknowledging that if you’re going to make people stand around for an hour you better give them plenty to look at. It was a visceral and memorable experience, one that had a pleasing cohesiveness, a sense of an over-arcing vision at work, rather than just being a string of striking images. However I suspect the National’s health and safety officer must have developed a whole collection of nervous ticks by now, what with the heady blend of flames and petrol on display here and the onstage fires lit every night in …some trace of her

This week I also saw They’re Playing Our Song at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a production that, while not truly awful, left me shrugging my shoulders and wondering what the point of it was. It seemed to be wholly an exercise in 1970s kitsch. That’s it. Ho, ho, look: orange curtains, a turquoise cardigan, some bad wigs, and so forth and so on. At least the costume changes raised a few laughs, as the one-liners, particularly in the first half, fell rather flat, leaving quite a few of those awkward, empty moments where you knew a laugh was supposed to be required, that a line was meant to be funny, only it hadn’t quite worked out that way.

While the leads – Alistair McGowan and Connie Fisher – were both amiable enough (she has a lovely singing voice and he has, well, he has a voice) and did much to make me feel warmly towards the production, they both seemed miscast as fast talking New York types and the play itself (it’s not really a full-on musical) seemed a ridiculously inward-looking piece of writing, a musical about a composer and lyricist who meet, bicker a little, get together, break up and get together again. Apparently it was based on the relationship between Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch who supplied the (forgettable, except for the title number which was just annoying) lyrics and music that accompany Neil Simon’s book. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of dramatic tension and the songs that evaporate from the memory the minute you step outside the theatre. It raised a couple of smiles I’ll admit, but I couldn’t shake this so-what feeling the whole time I was sitting there.

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