Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Inevitable End Of Year List

OK, it seems that this time of year calls for a list of some sort. I can so do that. I like lists. So, in no particular order, the things that have moved and delighted me most this year were:

Elling, Bush Theatre
The Ugly One, Royal Court
Nakamitsu, Gate Theatre
Dealer’s Choice, Menier Chocolate Factory
Othello, Donmar Warehouse
The Brothers Size, Young Vic
Subway, Lyric Studio

That’s a rather hastily composed bunch. I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve forgotten. There are certainly things I wish I’d had a chance to have a second crack at; I really regret that I wasn’t able to tackle The Masque Of The Red Death with the energy it deserved.

There are also a number of things I missed completely due to disorganisation and bad luck, Rupert Goold’s Macbeth being the one that springs most immediately to mind, and a number of things I am determined to squeeze in next year: principally Women Of Troy and War Horse. There were also a good few hours of my life that I'd have liked back, but I shan't dwell on the negative now.

This is also probably the time to mention how blogging has, over this past year in particular, enriched my life no end. Not only has it been the springboard for contributing to the GU arts blog but, perhaps more significantly, it has also brought me into contact with a great number of lovely people – many, though not all, of whom are called Andrew – and led to many a pleasant wine-fuelled evening. With a bit of theatre thrown in, of course. That’s a given.

Here’s to more of the same in 2008.

Happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lady Disdain

I often wonder what actors talk about in those moments when they are on stage but the production is yet to officially ‘start’. Are they wryly dissecting the sartorial efforts of the front row? Are they engaging in some in-character debate about codpieces?

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Much Ado About Nothing opens with Leonato and family having a spot of dinner, a scene which requires a good proportion of the cast to be on stage as the audience file in and take their seats. There’s a lot of chatter in this sequence but it’s impossible to make out what’s being said.

Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker make a pleasingly mature Benedick and Beatrice: him with a rather unmilitary paunch; her with a wine glass near permanently dangling from her hand, a woman after my own heart. Beale was particularly wonderful I thought, tremendously endearing, if, perhaps, a bit too soft-hearted in the role, while Wanamaker, though convincing as a strong-willed, acid-tongued woman, was conversely rather too spiky, too hard-edged. And as such the chemistry between them refused to spark as it should; their verbal sparring didn’t have the necessary sexual undercurrent. You couldn’t quite believe he would ever be able to ‘stop her mouth,’ in any capacity.

There was, however, a lovely bit of comedy business with a pool in which Beale demonstrated the kind of precise comic timing that caused the bronchial National Theatre audience to cease coughing for a good thirty seconds and applaud instead. It was so funny that Hytner tried to repeat it in the following scene with Beatrice – with less success, the surprise factor this time absent. (I did wonder if the odd hair-wrap Wanamaker was sporting for this scene might have concealed some kind of shower cap, to cut down on frantic interval hair-drying.)

Much Ado is, of course, a play with a jet black heart, the Beatrice and Bendick narrative merely a sub-plot to the cruel machinations that lead to the brutal jilting of Hero. But the shift in tone proved a difficult one, and I was surprised at the number of people who greeted Beatrice's impassioned request for Benedick to “Kill Claudio” with a casual chuckle. On the whole I think I preferred Marianne Elliot’s recent-ish Cuban-set take on the play, which managed to better inject an under-layer of menace into proceedings.

Where Hytner’s production struck gold was in the casting of Mark Addy as Dogberry. He was superbly self-important and entertainingly accompanied by That Chap From The Vicar Of Dibley.

The set was a strange blend: Mediterranean in the main but with this minimal, slatted central structure that divided the space and appeared rather Japanese in nature. The Olivier’s revolve got to do plenty of revolving, allowing for lots of opportunity for eavesdropping and dancing. And the West End Whingers will be gladdened to know that said dancing was accompanied by a fair bit of hey-nonny-ing, and the use of, not just a mandolin, but an accordion and a really big tambourine too. There was a disappointing dearth of goats though.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bah Humbug!

I feel somewhat torn. On one hand I am glad that a company like the RSC is willing to work with someone like Anthony Neilson, to do something a bit daring, a bit experimental, to take a chance on a more collaborative – and initially script-less – way of working. (Brian Logan goes into the details of the creative process on his GU blog).

But then I get to the show itself, the finished product, God In Ruins, which I saw last night at Soho Theatre with my friend Juice, and my enthusiasm wavers. I just didn’t think it was all that good. It didn’t even seem like a brave failure, more a muddle of ideas, many of which I’d seen better executed elsewhere. While Neilson’s previous work, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia managed to be compelling and infuriating in equal measure, this new one was – cardinal sin in Neilson’s book – kind of on the dull side: there was something rather tired and lifeless about the play, beneath all the swearing and shouting.

It starts with a mildly amusing prologue in which Ebenezer Scrooge, now fully redeemed after his encounter with his three ghosts, turns out to be just as insufferable in his new perky and life-loving incarnation as his old bah-humbug self. This did make me chuckle a little, but it was essentially one joke, and a rather over stretched one.

The play then jumps forward to the present and we meet Brian, a divorced, alcoholic reality TV producer. Having been rude to his ex-wife and failed to tip a pizza delivery man, he has his own Scrooge moment when he is visited by the white-suited ghost of dead dad, there to help him reconnect with his estranged daughter. Even at this early point in the evening there’s a seen-it-before feel to the set up: a heartless TV exec forced to confront his mortality, wasn’t that Scrooged? Even his reality shows have a ring of the familiar to them, like Chimp Monastery – Monkey Tennis, anyone?

There’s also an internet porn sequence that reminded me of Closer, even more so when the truth behind it is revealed, and a not–quite-as-funny-as-it-could-have-been interlude where two small boys discuss the fact that Santa is actually dead and it’s their parents that really buy the presents, which features liberal use of the underused put down ‘pooh head.’

This is followed by a bizarrely studenty, post-modern moment when the characters become aware that they are in a theatre and that they are being watched by an audience. A further layer of artifice is then peeled away as a ‘real’ homeless man bursts into the auditorium and interrupts proceedings, claiming to be an ex-soldier, just back, oddly, from Iran. If this was meant to indicate a slightly futuristic setting, it passed me by – I was too busy wondering why Scrooge from the opening sequence had popped up to help Brian on his way; was he a ghost? A drunken hallucination? Did it even matter?

To be fair, there were a handful of good gags, but most of the laughter I could hear was of the uneasy ‘this is supposed to be a funny bit, right?’ type – forced and awkward. As a whole, the production often seemed to be striving incredibly hard to be anarchic, and coming nowhere near. Brian, eventually finds his daughter, in Second Life, but as Juice pointed out to me in the bar afterwards, he was actually desperate to get in touch with her at the start and was only unable to because he was pissed out of his head, so it’s not much of a redemption. Though there’s also a suggestion that Brian’s unhappiness might be down to some latent homosexuality on his part.

I don’t know, I hate to tip a bagful of negative over a work that takes risks, that tries something different, but none of the disparate elements of this show seemed to fit well with one another and, on top of that, there was a sense of over-confidence to the thing – a touch of swagger about it – that I found very off-putting.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Put Out The Light

So then. Othello, Donmar Warehouse. You know the story. Sell-out run, tickets swapping hands for sky-high sums on eBay, and so forth and so on. There’s been more than enough words devoted to all that. To the point where it seems almost in danger of overshadowing the production itself. Which is a shame, as this is a completely enthralling production, even if it is rather conventionally staged.

First up, there's Ewan McGregor playing Iago, who Charles Spencer and others were so mean about. I genuinely wonder if he perhaps had an attack of the jitters on the night the press were in, because he had ample charisma when I saw him, at last Thursday’s matinee. Yes, he was probably a tad too inscrutable in the role and it was difficult to gauge his motivations, but there was something appealingly sly and underhand about his performance. As an actor, he has charm and presence, but he can also switch it off if he chooses, can blend into the background; he’s not a starry actor – and I suspect that disappoints people.

However McGregor could probably turn cartwheels in the background if he wanted and it would still be Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance that made the greatest impact on the audience. Again, many words have already been written about his nuanced and sympathetic take on the role – and most of them are on the money. He is strong and dignified, yet vulnerable – a man out of place. He makes each line come alive and does so with a skill that is considerable yet not showily so.

Kelly Reilly’s performance as Desdemona, on the other hand, has proved as divisive as McGregor’s. And while she is rather girlish and fluttery in earlier scenes, after the interval she seemed to bloom in the role. Having spent most the evening cinched and uplifted in a beautiful dress (made, according to the programme, by someone with the too-delicious-to-be-true name of Elspeth Threadgold), she is slowly and poignantly stripped of her corsets and stockings by Emilia, until she is clad only in a shapeless, white nightgown. I found this scene incredibly moving, and by the end she looked so vulnerable, so exposed, ready to give herself to her husband in what proved to be a particularly effective death scene. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve been to a production this year that had my so physically gripped. I was edged forward in my seat, silently pleading with Othello to listen to her, to heed her protestations of innocence. I wasn’t alone either; I could hear the breath catching in the throat of the girl in the seat beside me, feel the tension radiating from her. Incidently, she had queued for her ticket on the day and found the experience fun, if a little tiring, and - judging by her enraptured response - more than worth it.

Indeed, there's an interesting and increasingly demented debate going on about the ticket situation on the GU blog after Peter Bradshaw commented that such a production should be filmed to make it accessible to all.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Happy Families

I tend to gravitate towards corners. It is my default setting in most social situations and so it was last night at a performance of the Royal Court’s Family Plays, a double bill of works from Sweden and Ukraine all neatly wrapped up in an one hour and fifteen minute package (complete with bar break).

For the first piece of the evening, the Court’s upstairs space has been painted a bright, sunny yellow and the bench seating arranged around the walls, with a dining table, a comfy sofa and some garden furniture scattered around the room. It’s all very light and airy and Swedish-looking, though my corner perch wasn’t the most sensible – I was watching the actors’ backs for a good chunk of the time.

Anyway, the play. The Good Family, by Joakim Pirinen, is perhaps one of the tensest things I’ve seen on stage in a long while. In it we are presented with family: a husband and wife and their two adolescent children, who are as perky and content as it’s possible to be, enraptured by everything around them, no matter how mundane – and it’s astonishingly unnerving. I felt myself expecting – and nervously waiting for – something awful to happen – for someone to say something vile or for one of the character’s to spectacularly lose it and stab all the others with a salad fork, but this moment doesn’t come. Instead they play dice and sing songs and compliment each other incessantly, saying things like: “The potatoes are extraordinarily well-cooked” and “Your hair is really light and vigorous looking.” At one point, the father goes off to take a phone call, and the tension is almost unbearable, as we wait for him to return with some atrocious news.

This was a fascinating play; one that achieved a number of things. It’s satirical, certainly, but it also made me question why I was reacting in the way that I was; why did this image of familial bliss make me so anxious? What was it about this portrait of intense happiness that I found so difficult to process? Why was I searching so desperately for something dark and rotten at the centre of it?

After the interval we returned to the theatre to find that all the Scandinavian pleasantness had been swept away, literally – the furniture was now stacked at the back of the room, leaving the audience to sit on seat cushions or on the floor. Earlier, as we headed to the bar after the first piece, Andrew Haydon commented that the next piece was probably going to be “Blasted, it’s all going to go Sarah Kane.” And while Natalia Voorzhibit’s The Khomenko Family Chronicles isn’t nearly so extreme, he wasn’t too far off the mark.

In a visual twist that reminded me of The Wonderful World Of Dissocia one wall had been opened out to create a grim little hospital room. On a metal bed, a bald-headed child sits attached to a chemotherapy drip. His parents come to visit, his mother is heavily pregnant, in white leggings and purple spike-heeled boots; his father wears a football shirt and carries a bottle of beer. They bring their son chicken soup and reminisce about how they first met, using references to Chernobyl and September 11 to colour their stories. Chernobyl and its resulting radioactive rain represents a pleasant memory to them - they appear to make no connection between this event and their son's illness.

But what stood out most for me about this second piece was Lewis Lempereur-Palmer’s superb performance as their young son Lyosha; in a dream-like sequence during the play’s closing minutes he is required to speak a lengthy monologue while running around through the seated audience, and he was quite brilliant.

Oh, though a small point, it's still worth noting that the dramatic change of set between plays means that anything left on the seats during the interval will be gathered up and tidied away - as I discovered after leaving my book under my chair.