Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mayhem & Murder

To the Globe yesterday, for Lucy Bailey's production of Titus Andronicus, the second play in Dominic Dromgoole's Edges Of Rome season.

It's been a couple of years since I was last at the Globe and before now I've always stood in the yard, as a 'groundling.' This was different, middle tier tickets and an evening showing, the sky slowly darkening above the theatre. I was looking forward to seeing what designer William Dudley would do with the space but found the results rather disappointing. Swathing everything in dark cloth didn't really create the intense and funereal atmosphere intended.

Bailey's production was more exciting, making better use of the theatre's unique space, than any other production I've seen there. The crowd in the yard regularly had to scatter as actors and musicians moved through them, on foot and on moveable wooden platforms. But for all its invention, this is a productin of one of Shakespeare's most difficult and dramatically unwieldy, brimful with blood and violence. Bailey tried to temper all this with humour, to send up the play's excesses but she only partially suceeded. Still, a performance at the Globe is always an experience. And it was a lovely - if very chilly - evening, the sky full of soft orange clouds, the city shining, the river still.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dark Clouds

Dodged hailstones yesterday to make my way to Theatre 503 in Battersea. It was my second visit to this cool studio space above the Latchmere pub. Last month I saw Chris Lee's excellent, compelling play The Ash Boy, this time I was there to see Owen McCafferty's Cold Comfort, a gripping one-man show starring Patrick O'Kane.

Basically it's just an hour and fifteen minutes of drunken rambling, the kind of conversation you'd loathe to be stuck in on the train journey home. But O'Kane makes it something more, draws you in to this man's life, his losses, falling apart before your eyes.

It's an appallingly bleak piece of drama, the lyricism of the language only just disguising a somewhat formulaic story. But you can't take your eyes of O'Kane and when he crumbles and howls at the end of the play, it's incredibly distressing to watch. I wouldn't have wanted it to go on any longer but, despite the scowling sky, I'm glad I made the trip into town to see it.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

War Stories

My week took a slightly surreal turn on Thursday. The play was Immortal at the Courtyard at Covent Garden, down in the bowels of the Theatre Museum. I noticed a couple of photographers at the door as I arrived and thought nothing of it, but then once in the bar I heard a very familiar Scottish accent. There was Ewan MacGregor, motorcycle helmet in hand, looking decidely dashing (and also Richard O’Brien in alarmingly tight white trousers, and a gaggle of well-groomed diary page types). And me, feeling decidedly unglam, a little sticky from the rush hour train, with pinenuts in my teeth from a hasty preshow stop-off at Pret A Manger. Fringe theatre press nights are never usually this glitzy. Someone in the cast must have been very well connected…

The play itself, Ciaran McConville’s claustrophobic Second World War drama about five RAF officers holed up in an old schoolhouse after being shot down over Holland, was a pretty mediocre affair, adequately acted but nothing special – and saddled with a crass final scene reveal from the M. Night Shymalan school of twisty surprise endings.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stage Magic

The Hammersmith Lyric is probably my favourite theatre in London at the moment. Miss Hunt and I saw our favourite show of the year to date there, Kneehigh's superb Nights At The Circus, and their programme of inventive, frequently magical productions is unrivalled by any other venue.

I was there again last night to see Aurelia's Oratorio, an occasionally beautiful, often just bizarre, series of stage illusions performed by Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter Aurelia Thierree.

The show was a unusual blend of circus and dance, visual jokes and strange vignettes. It was inevitably quite episodic and at less than an hour and a half it still felt overstretched, but when it worked it was quite wonderful. In one scene a curtain of lace falls across the stage and behind it Aurelia is menaced by puppets. It doesn't sound that exciting but it was one of the most visually inventive things I've seen. Like everything the Lyric does, Oratorio play's to the audience's sense of wonder - it allows a little magic to enter your life.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Still, Small Voice

I had every intention of going to see Dr Vesna Goldsworthy give a talk at Kingston University today about her fascinating memoir Chernobyl Strawberries. I really did. But it was scheduled for a Saturday morning, for God’s sake, and neither body nor brain was particularly willing.

It’s a shame as Goldsworthy’s book is quite brilliant. One of the most perceptive and interesting books I’ve read about what it means to be a Serb, and though its twin themes are cancer and civil war, it’s never bleak. I reviewed it last year for, Mark Thwaite’s engrossing literary blog site. For a more objective look at a similar subject, With Their Backs To The World: Portraits From Serbia by Asne Seierstad is also worth a look

I’ve gone way off topic; the reason for this post (and possibly the reason for my oversleeping) was yesterday’s opening night of Shared Experience’s production of Jane Eyre at the Trafalgar Studios. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time. I saw After Mrs Rochester, Shared Experience’s play based on Wide Sargasso Sea and the life of its author Jean Rhys, a couple of years ago and was familiar with the company’s layered, psychoanalytical approach.

Many of the same traits and techniques make a reappearance here – in fact this production actually predates After Mrs Rochester. Director Polly Teale once again has adult actors playing children (and in some cases animals) but the main, and defining device, is the constant onstage presence of Bertha Mason, played by Myriam Archarki, moaning and rolling in the attic, and the suggestion that she and Jane are not dissimilar in spirit, that Bertha represents the passion that Jane has had to suppress in order to survive as a plain but intelligent woman in Victorian society.

This approach is occasionally heavy-handed – and the play inevitably races through the scenes from Jane’s childhood – but Monica Dolan’s spiky and emotive performance as Jane holds things together and James Clyde makes a suitably shaggy and caddish Rochester. It makes me want to run straight back to the novel and re-read it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Seas Too Far To Reach

I go through phases of listening to albums quite obsessively. A current obsession is Black Sheep Boy by the Austin-based Okkervil River – I’m a sucker for the novelistic scope of their lyrics and I’ve been aching to see them play live for a while now.

I got that opportunity on Monday when they played Cargo in London. The Gin Soaked Boy and I went along, though I suspect they’re more my thing than his – they have this literary quality that, perhaps predictably, appeals to me hugely.

They didn’t quite live up to my expectations, the intricacy of the songs got lost a little bit in a live setting, but there was an endearing, rough around the edges energy to their performance. I could however have done without the sub-Couplandian spoken interlude that frontman Will Sheff crow-barred into the proceedings. Still they played A Stone, which is one of my favourites, a quite beautiful piece of song-writing. I read a review somewhere that described these songs as “stories of people trying to find out if they need each other,” and that, I think, sums them up more eloquently than I could have.

We didn’t stay until the end, which is a shame as I’d quite like to have seen how they brought things to a finish, but the Gin Soaked Boy was practically asleep on his feet and I’m less keen on waiting around for the last train now that I’m 9-to-5ing it again.

My rather ponderous review of Black Sheep Boy is on display in the usual place but, fear not, I shan't repeat it here.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dance Class

Just surfaced from a sea of Sunday papers and, trust me, wading through that lot is about the most strenuous thing I plan to do today.

Met up with Miss Hunt again last night to see the CanDoCo Dance Company at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I’ve not been to the South Bank venues in ages, except for the Hayward, where I went to see the Dan Flavin exhibition with the Gin Soaked Boy a couple of months ago, so it was nice to return.

I’ve never really followed contemporary dance and the show both confirmed and confounded my expectations. CanDoCo are renowned as an integrated dance company, two of the performers were wheelchair users, but this did not prove to be a limiting factor in the slightest, instead it allowed for, if anything, a greater range of expression.

The evening was divided into two sections, a more conventional piece called The Journey and a more theatrical piece called In Praise Of Folly. I must admit I enjoyed the first piece more. I found the injection of heavily-accented dialogue in the second half distracting though I enjoyed the rather manic ‘rag doll’ dancing that one of the women engaged in. Lisa had the opposite response, she was very moved by this second piece whereas I enjoyed the evening as an experience of something new, something I’d seen very little off before, but my overriding feeling was the same as with my brief brushes with ballet: An admiration of the technical proficiency of the dancers and the beauty in their movements, without ever connecting with it emotionally. Not totally.

Afterwards Miss Hunt, her friend Hugh, and I headed over to the National for a post-show coffee. I know this rather brutal building has its detractors, but I love everything about it; all that era-specific concrete I find quite comforting. It’s a nice place just to hang out and we sat there chatting until the theatres emptied out and locating a train home became a necessity. A lovely evening.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Bitter Kiss

Escaped work an hour early yesterday and spent the time in the sun on Richmond Green, reading my book and not watching the cricketers.

I was meeting the senior Hunt sister to see Tosca’s Kiss at the Orange Tree, Kenneth Jupp’s intriguing new play about journalist Rebecca West and her coverage of the Nuremberg trials. From the general press blurb I had anticipated more of a biographical drama about West herself, and this is what attracted me to the play in the first place – I only really knew of her as HG Wells' mistress and was eager to learn more about her – but instead it was more focused on the trial of Third Reich economist Hjalmar Schacht, one of only three to be acquitted for war crimes at Nuremberg.

It was an undeniabky interesting work, but was trying to do too much, I think, reducing its potential impact in the process. The details of West’s 10 year affair with Wells felt like afterthoughts that just clouded the play’s real narrative. The highlight, if you can call it that, was Schacht’s speech in his own defence - both chillingly persuasive and alarmingly prescient. The cast was very strong as well, particularly Steven Elder as US prosecutor Tom Morton, providing a powerful reminder of the obscene reality behind the political machinations.

Despite its flaws, it was genuinely thought-provoking theatre; I didn't exactly enjoy it in the obvious sense, but I certainly took a lot from it. However, on balance I still preferred the Orange Tree’s previous production, Larkin With Women. Oliver Ford Davies was magnificent as the deeply cynical and unarguably selfish poet. Yet what struck me most, I remember, was the perverse but rather comforting optimism in what it had to say about the enduring nature of love.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

One Flew East...

Back to work after the bank holiday weekend and straight back into database rearrangement. Not as bad as it sounds, there’s a soothing quality to the repetition of the task; I can attach myself to my iPod (current listening: Arcade Fire, Pavement, Portishead) and just float.

On Monday night, I trekked (and, oh boy, is it a trek) up to the Arcola in East London to see 15 Minutes, a new play by Christine Harmar-Brown - an intriguing but ultimately flawed production. The main idea, that the truth often gets sacrificed in favour of sensation and ratings when it comes to TV, was hardly an original one. But instead of opting for flimsy satire, the writer has chosen a more straightforward dramatic route. She focuses on the relationship between Toni, a mouthy 17 year old, fresh out of a young offenders institute and the documentary-maker who wants to make a film out of her life.

This central relationship is interesting and layered, they develop an almost mother-daughter bond at times – the filming brings them together but also sets up a barrier between them, the camera always comes first – but the whole thing gets weighted down by needless debate about media ethics

There’s a twist at the end, but it didn’t sit well with went before, it felt forced and awkward. Besides, I found the production overlong and repetitious, and my interest had dwindled somewhat by that point. Still I liked the energy of ex-Eastender Carly Hillman as the volatile Toni.

It was my first trip to the Arcola and though Hackney’s a little out of my comfort bubble, I’m glad I made it up there. It’s a surprising space, a former textiles factory, all bare brick and concrete. The whole place has a (very) rough, unfinished feel but also a buzz of potential, a real sense of excitement and creative passion.