Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blood Ties And Broken Vases

Monday night saw me bussing it over to the Bush. Having been granted a recent reprieve by the arts council the small theatre’s stairwells are now peppered, graffiti style, with congratulatory comments from theatre folk. For their current production, Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts, the seating in the, already compact, venue has been arranged in-the-round (or in-the-square, as the Whingers like to pedantically point out), the stage covered with a faded Persian carpet in need of a damn good hoover.

Now I managed to somehow miss Bartlett’s previous play My Child, so I was coming to this empty of expectation. Artefacts is about Kelly, a sixteen year old girl who has never met her father. Her mother had told her that she had no idea of his whereabouts, but this wasn’t strictly true. All these years he has been in Iraq; he is, in fact, Iraqi. Kelly is, understandably, both curious and angry to discover that her absent dad has been living all these years in Baghdad and, on discovering he is visiting the UK, reluctantly agrees to meet him. During their first awkward encounter he presents Kelly with an ancient, priceless vase. (I suppose it is meant to act as a link to him, to his homeland and to the past. It also important later in the plot, you know, a symbol of stuff and things). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kelly is unimpressed with this gift. She simply wants a father who is a presence in her life, someone to take care of her, to love her, to act like a dad is supposed to.

Bartlett can certainly write. Kelly’s early monologues are both fluid and true, tripping and skipping along, peppered with references to shopping and Charlotte Church’s thighs. He also has some interesting things to say about objects and memory, the way our possessions connect us to our past, the significance of the things we surround ourselves with. But too often the plot feels as if it has been pieced together solely as a backdrop for Big Themes. The characters are very thinly sketched. Kelly excepted they are there to act as conduits for various different points of view, to allow Bartlett to make his points about international involvement in Iraq; they don’t hold together as people.

But, though at times the dramatic scaffolding was all too visible, some of his points did resonate. There’s a line near the end of the play where Kelly and her Iraqi half-sister Raya, discuss the necessity of having something, some cause, someone, that you would die for, both slightly scornful of the other’s attitude. Now my family are Serbian, not Iraqi, but the current situation in Kosovo has made me think about what that means more sharply then usual. Certainly I find the passion and rage it invokes in usually level-headed people quite extraordinary. I rather self-righteously pride myself on remaining balanced and rational in my thinking, trying to see all sides, but sometimes I wonder whether, by not feeling that fire, that primal connection to a place, to a people, I am somehow lacking.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bathtubs, Bangkok and the Barbican

It's been a while since I entered the eerie interior of the Barbican. On Tuesday night it felt particularly odd: more staff than visitors, the evening's concert already well underway.

I was there to see Tough Time, Nice Time, the latest BITE commission from Ridiculusmus. Before the show I ran into the West End Whingers, who were, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the vicinity of the bar. Well, I say ran into, they were semaphoring at me from the adjacent table for a good five minutes before I noticed them.

We then spent a further five minutes being bewildered by the lifts (not all of them go down to the right level for the Pit theatre because, well, because it's the Barbican), arriving in the right place just in time to see an overzealous usher extracting dawdlers from the men's bathroom.

So: Tough Time, Nice Time. The lights come up on two men sitting together in a bathtub, which we soon establish is in a Bangkok sauna. The two men sip beer and they talk. And they talk. For 70 minutes. That's it. But, strange and static as this show is, it's also quite fascinating, a repellent yet compelling watch.

The two men, played by Jon Haynes and David Woods, are both ex-pats, Germans. One is a lawyer, the other a hack writer of some description. They don't know each other, have little in common, bar a shared nationality (though while the website blurb says both characters are German, Haynes' accent bore little trace of this I thought). Their conversation meanders as conversation tend to do, awash with film references and cynical jokes. Some of what they say is shocking, some of it banal.

The lawyer is keen to tell his story to the writer, to share his past with him. But, if there's a theme at all in this piece, it's that stories, and the telling of them, are subject to all manner of factors. Truth is a loose concept. The writer is in turn fascinated with atrocities and drops references to genocide into the conversation with the same easy flippancy with which he discusses the plot of The Constant Gardner, real horrors and celluloid fictions bleeding together as he speaks.

Haynes and Woods have a real rapport, unsurprising as they've been working together for 15 years, and the show is tautly written, but the sheer unpleasantness of the men they portray, for me overrode the play's ideas about the ownership of stories, about how memories have become commodities, another thing that can be sold.

Naturally, after the show we felt duty bound, compelled to discuss these issues further, something that could only really be done in the pub over the road with a couple of bottles of red as an aid to intellectual clarity.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arcola, Again

I was back at the Arcola at the end of last week and, once again, I found myself overcompensating for previous lateness incidents at this venue by arriving unnecessarily early. I got there a good hour before the start of the show and entered the bar only to find that the usual scattering of tables had been swept aside and replaced with ladders, lots of ladders. Interesting, I thought, there is clearly some Punchdrunk-style embracive use of the venue’s public spaces afoot here, but, no, it turned out the ladders were being used merely for a spot of (very) last minute light bulb tinkering and, as more people started to arrive, a rather anxious looking chap quickly reinstated the tables as I availed myself of the first of the evening’s glasses of (no doubt, organic, fair trade and carbon neutral) Rioja.

The Living Unknown Soldier, the production currently occupying the Arcola’s main space, is based on a French play, Le Soldat Inconnu Vivant by Jean-Yves Naour. It’s a play concerned with memory and loss. A soldier is found wandering at the end of the First World War. He is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who he is. He doesn’t know his name, the whereabouts of his family or even who he was fighting for. He is a blank, an absence, a man lost. The doctor at the institution that takes him in makes it his mission to discover the man’s identity, to find his family. To do this he gets a journalist to write a piece about the man’s situation. But, after the publication of the story in the newspapers, the doctor is flooded with families, with desperate people, longing to somehow turn this man without a past into their lost son, brother or husband.

The bare bones of the narrative are fascinating and incredibly poignant, and I thought the decision to have each member of the company play the soldier at some point during the production was inspired, emphasising his lack of identity, his role as non-person and, at the same time showing how this same void of personality makes him the ideal vessel for the hopes of these people, these families, whose loved ones are missing – and may forever be missing. But while the story itself was compelling, some of the devised elements that the production used in the telling felt rather forced; there was often too much going on, too much noise, too much ‘theatre.’ There was a strong performance from Tony Guilfoyle at the centre of things, as the doctor who devotes years to searching for the soldier’s relatives, but his naturalistic approach often seemed to conflict with other elements of the play and the piece as a whole felt rather disjointed. However, despite all that, I think this is one I will remember for longer than some of the more polished productions I’ve seen of late.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beside The Seaside

I’ve never been very good at Valentine’s Day. Even when I have every reason to be happy, I find the whole thing so weighted with expectation, so unnecessary, that it just makes me crabby and I prefer to pretend it’s not happening. In fact I rather take pleasure in using the day in a manner that is as unromantic as possible. So the idea of going to watch Scarborough, a play about a dubious relationship in inevitable decline, rather appealed.

I went to last Thursday’s 5.30pm performance (they squeeze another one in later in the evening) a timing that rather threw my usual theatre routine out of kilter. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Royal Court’s upstairs space is the set. The entire theatre has been decked out as a somewhat seedy Scarborough hotel room, complete with cigarette burns on the terracotta coloured carpet and peeling floral wallpaper adorned with commemorative plates. There is no conventional seating, instead audience members are forced to either squat on the floor or perch on the furniture, as the actors move around them. This, of course, gives an added intimacy to the production, though at times it feels almost too intrusive. When one of the characters sat sobbing on the stool by the dressing table, it was happening centimeters from my face, and I found myself instinctively looking down, looking away, giving them their privacy.

So yes, as I’ve said, Fiona Evans’ play presents a brief fiery relationship burning itself out. What gives this scenario an edge is the age gap. The boy in question is meant to be just fifteen, the woman is pushing thirty – she is also his teacher. I gather that Evans’ play was incredibly well received at last year’s Edinburgh fringe festival. But the version that she has brought to the Royal Court has been substantially revised. It now has a new second half, absent in Edinburgh, where an identical scenario is played out after the interval, only this time with the genders reversed: with a girl of fifteen and an older male teacher. The dialogue remains the same – line for line – but the dynamics have shifted. It’s an intriguing idea, but it doesn’t quite work, in fact, I thought it ended up undermining the writing in the long run.

In Scarborough’s first half, the tight, powerful performances of Holly Atkins and Jack O’Connell hold the piece together. O’Connell, in particular, is spot on, I thought. He is so cocky and sure of himself, yet when he is given a PSP as a birthday present he bounces on the bed with the undisguised glee of a child. When the genders are switched in the second half, Rebecca Ryan and Daniel Mayes take on the roles. The idea I suppose is that it is somehow more shocking, more unnerving to see an older man and a young girl in this position, and that this in turn makes you reconsider your responses to the earlier half of the production. This is true to an extent, Mayes as Adian, is able to physically dominate Ryan’s Beth in a way that wasn’t possible with the other pairing, but there is more going on here than just a straight gender swap – the particular casting means the whole dynamic of the relationship is altered. He is far more needy, she more mature. The balance of power between them is subtly altered, though the dialogue doesn’t really reflect this. The decision to replicate the first half line for line actually ends up backfiring. What convinced initially, sounds slacker, more flabby, second time round, and Ryan in particular is saddled with dialogue and attitude that just don’t ring true of a girl her age. A number of the lines sounded just plain wrong coming from the mouth of a teenage girl, and this is quite distancing, I found, ultimately diluting the considerable clout of the first half.

The play ends up feeling like an exercise in theory, rather than a piece you can take on its own terms. I can understand the thinking behind the decision to extend it in this way, but what was intended to add an extra layer, actually undermines the piece in the end. Yes, it makes the audience question and ponder what went before, but perhaps not in the way that Evans had hoped.

I was actually beside the seaside this weekend gone, though Brighton rather than Scarborough, catching up with occasional interval drinks companion French Claire. The weather was glorious, so un-February like, the sun glinting off the sea. Quite, quite lovely.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Horizontal Hour (And A Bit)

It was always going to be an opinion-splitter: Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.

If you’re reading this, chances are you probably know the basics: 450 characters, 27 actors, and no dialogue – though there is a fair bit of humming, clicking, yelling, screaming and sobbing, just no talking.

I was surprised by how much I got out of this. Yes, it was frustrating at times, it was tedious at times, but I still found myself engrossed in it, the rhythms, the swings from the familiar to the mythic. A thousand tiny stories. Walking through Waterloo station on the way home had a new frisson, I found myself watching people’s gaits, the striders, the slouchers, it made me smile.

There were parts I had trouble with certainly. The yellow tank-topped figure soon started to grate on me and I thought some of the comic moments were too forced. I certainly found the braying laughter that greeted the sequence when a line of old people shuffled across the stage in various guises rather unsettling. Surely this was more poignant than hilarity-inducing? I don’t know. Anyway there’s a far more intellectually rigorous discussion about the piece going on over here and the West End Whingers’ review is, of course, worth a read, that goes without saying.

I had gone along to the National with my friend Simon, a man who knows much about Handke and was even carrying a copy of the original text so he could assess the new version (apparently Mickey Mouse features in the original, one of many omissions.) Simon’s profile of Handke written in adavance of the production is here, if you’re interested. I’m quite taken with the idea of the companion piece: Journey to the Sonorous Land or The Art of Asking, which, in stark contrast, is all dialogue, most of it nonsensical, a sea of words.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Some Fringe Things

I squeezed a couple of fringe things in at the end of last week. Friday night I swung by the Arcola (and, as if to compensate for previous lateness incidents at this venue, I managed to arrive almost an hour early, and was forced, forced, to spend the intervening minutes milling about in the bar, drinking coffee, reading the paper and generally being indolent – a tough, tough life).

I was there to see The Blind, a staging of Maurice Maeterlinck's 19th century parable in the smaller downstairs studio. The play has a very Beckett-ish quality. A group of inhabitants from a hostel for the blind have been taken out on excursion by the priest who looks after them. But, for unknown reasons, he has abandoned them, and so they sit and wait for his return.

This is a very still production with long, l-o-n-g periods of silence. The six actors, three men and three women, are all either blind are visually impaired. They sit around a u-shaped rock, one by one rising to their feet, saying their piece. Above them hangs a lonely globe light that could easily be either sun or moon, emphasizing their isolation. The characters fret about their situation, but nobody takes any action, they bicker and worry, but remain where they are - sitting and waiting. Despite its literal casting, this is a play less about being blind and more about being lost and without power, forever waiting to be saved.

The night before I'd been over to the Courtyard Theatre in Shoreditch, where I'd met up with Helen Smith and Andrew of the West End Whingers to check out Tom Green's The Death of Margaret Thatcher. It's a provocative title to be sure, and one that probably does the play a disservice in the long run, setting up expectations that were, inevitably, difficult to meet. The resulting play was less explicitly about Thatcher’s legacy and more an entertaining satire on how such events are covered by the media, how deeply complex issues are compacted into easily churned out sound bites, banal and insincere pieces-to-camera, a life reduced to a fixed smile and a somber nod of the head.

Green does make some reference to the level of venom she generated in the British public during her time as PM: throughout the play we hear of a man who is walking down to London with the intention of spitting on her grave, gathering a large band of followers in the process – but, tellingly, this character is never seen, never heard.

I was born in the year that Thatcher came to power and the play did make me think about my memories of the woman, my own memories, not ideas absorbed in later years – perhaps sadly it does boil down to free school milk and the odd snippet of news footage about the Falklands and the miners. Being both a single mother and an immigrant, my mum was unsurprisingly not a fan of the Tories, and inevitably that colours my thinking – but I also remember the faint warmth that came from there being a woman in a position of such power. When my mother and aunts told me I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be, Mrs Thatcher was proof of how true that was – which really meant something especially since I can clearly remember a time at primary school when we my class was asked by our teacher what jobs we would like when we were older and most of the girls were still answering with something along the lines of ‘secretary’ and ‘dancer’. (I think I said ‘writer’, silly child that I was).

Anyway, the Daily Mail has got itself in a right old stink about the show, which while predictable, is also quite funny – they also seem to have forgotten that over at the Apollo Victoria they sing nightly about Thatcher’s death in the Billy Elliot musical.

Green’s play also afforded me the opportunity to see my second naked cock in as many evenings, (following A Prayer For My Daughter at the Young Vic), a sentence I include purely to see what interesting search engine traffic it swings my way.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cops And Cons

There seems to be some miscommunication at the Young Vic. For their new production, a revival of Thomas Babe’s A Prayer For My Daughter, the stage has been vertically and horizontally divided. By this I mean the auditorium has been split down the middle to form a traverse stage, with the audience steeply aligned on either side, and the set itself has been made into a two level affair, with a flight of stairs leading down from above.

Only nobody seems to have noticed all this spare space. The second – top – level of the set is a dead zone, made up of only of wires holding up the ‘ceiling’ below. Sitting midway up the stalls this just about worked in terms of sightlines, but it seemed like a bizarre choice of layout, especially since the current seating arrangement has taken the downstairs entrance to the auditorium out of play, leading to some major bottle-necking as people filed out at the interval. (The woman standing next to me even exclaimed, with wonderfully elongated vowels: “This will never do, what if there were a fire!”)

And the play, oh yes, the play. Babe’s 1978 New York-set cop shop drama is an intense four-hander. We’re in Sidney Lumet territory here, think Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, sweat and the city, men’s souls spilling over. So we have two cops, Kelly and Jack, and two criminals, Sean and Jimmy, with clear parallels between them, the thin blue line blurred, you get the picture.

An old lady has been shot dead, half her head blown off. And the two cops are determined to extract a confession. This is the 1970s though, so a punch in the gut is still a valid interrogation technique and shooting up in the office with your junkie suspect barely raises an eyebrow.

The dead old lady quickly gets forgotten, the crime seems like an afterthought thrown in by the playwright to get these men together. Babe’s interests in the changing nature of masculinity in post-Vietnam America, in what makes a man a man, in what makes a good father, bleed off the stage, but the clunky structure of the play works against any real sense of revelation. Kelly, the older and wearier of the two police officers, has a screwed up daughter who keeps phoning up, distraught, threatening to shoot herself. But he seems only minimally perturbed by this disturbance. The audience also struggles to care.

Dominic Hill’s production takes a good while to find its feet, and some of the actors overdo the Nu Yoik shtick, but in the second act things hit their stride, leading to some powerful and moving moments. The best of these occurs between Corey Johnson’s Jack, the younger police officer, and the more grounded of the two, despite his own drug use, and Sean Chapman, as traumatised Vietnam medic Sean. His account of cradling a dying soldier, as he tries to explain his sexuality to Jack, is incredibly powerful. "There's a woman inside me, officer," he tells him, "and she aches for the men she has known."

Colin Morgan, who, last year, played Vernon in the Young Vic’s wonky version of Vernon God Little, here plays the quivering young junkie Jimmy. At one point he was forced to strip to the altogether, ushering some rather sweet gasps from the gaggle of teenage girls a couple of rows behind me. It’s a very physical, very big performance, all ripples and twitches, somewhat undermined, for me, by his insistance on speaking like Ren from Ren and Stimpy throughout. As you can imagine, once my brain had made this connection, it was rather difficult to take him seriously – even during his big monologue about watching his daughter come into the world.

I also noticed that the actors playing the cons were still hand-cuffed when they returned to the stage to take their bows. I hope someone remembered to undo them before the after party.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Night Shots

Words are all well and good. But sometimes, just sometimes, a picture is all you need.

I picked the coldest night possible to go out and take these, but it was still more fun than Happy Now?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Get Happy

If I wanted to watch a gentle comedy drama about middle class marital woe, I’d switch on ITV around 9 of an evening. I wouldn’t head to the National. (Well, obviously, I would, because I did, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it).

Anyway, the play in question was Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now?, a gentle comedy drama about middle class marital woe which is being staged in the National's Cottesloe Theatre.

It stars Olivia Williams as Kitty, the emotionally overstretched executive of a major cancer research charity, who spends her time trotting between conferences. Her husband has recently chucked in his high-flying legal job to retrain as a teacher and she has two young children at home to cope with as well as an ailing estranged father. She also has to deal with the amorous attentions of a fellow charity big-wig she meets in a hotel after one of her conferences. With her husband oblivious to her unhappiness, the man’s advances start to look all the more appealing.

The set reminded me of a hotel in Antwerp I stayed in the early 1990s, all polished dark wood and beige carpets - no soul. It didn’t seem like the kind of place these characters would actually live, where anyone would actually live, however it did allow for a bit of impressive set acrobatics from actor Dominic Rowan, while pretending to clamber drunkenly into a garden.

I learned a number of things from Coxon’s play. I learned that it is impossible to maintain any degree of grace and poise while having a cushion fight and wearing a wrap dress. I learned that informing parents that their young daughter is definitely not gifted is the best way to terminate a dinner party. I learned that my Eastern European phobia about wasting good food is so hardwired it kicks in even when it’s just bags of pretend Thai takeaway that are being chucked in the bin. Oh, and I learned that a broken Cindy doll representing, I think, broken childhood hopes and dreams makes an excellent impromptu cake decoration.

Other aspects of the play were rather less enlightening. Just as in the superbly tense Swedish portion of the Family Plays at the Royal Court, I found myself waiting for the cuddly and inoffensive ‘Gay Best Friend’ to betray Kitty in some way or turn out to be a bigger twit than the husband and his wanky friend Miles combined, to do something, anything – surely such a bland, one-note character wouldn’t have made it through the first draft – but no, nothing. I also thought it was telling that both Kitty’s two children (not to mention the GBF’s pool attendant boyfriend) remained conveniently invisible throughout; the kids weren’t seen as people but just as another problem on Kitty’s already over-burdened shoulders. And, Christ, it’s a good thing I’d polished off my G&T before the interval or the scene where a character’s (guess which one) emotional growth was depicted via the release of a pink helium balloon, might have resulted in some involuntary gin spittage.

I’m picking a lot of holes in the play, I know, but I did enjoy parts of it, especially those (too short) moments involving Ann Reid as Kitty’s frightful mother. In fact I thought most of the actors did a decent job with underwritten parts, particularly Stanley Townsend as the portly but charming hotel lothario. But while I chuckled quite frequently throughout, the play as whole left me more irritated than anything.