Monday, September 29, 2008

Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud

Right, I finally managed to reschedule Six Characters - and glad I am about it as I really did enjoy it, more, I think, than I expected to.

The words below are borrowed from musicOMH, mainly due to indolence on my part, but also because the big pile of other stuff that needs attending to is starting to growl at me.

In Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s very free adaptation of Pirandello’s modernist classic, the rehearsal space in which the original was set has been replaced by a blank, bland urban office. In this office a team of film makers are in a quandary over a documentary they are making about a euthanasia clinic in Denmark. They question how much re-enacted footage they can included before it stops being a drama-documentary and starts being a docu-drama, they worry about what the story is they are trying to tell, they worry about how to find a dramatically satisfying ending.

It is into this scenario that Pirandello’s sextet of characters stride, dressed in mourning clothes, seeking an author to tell their story. There is the domineering father and his angry, accusing stepdaughter; a mother, with her face hidden behind dark glasses; a nervy son, who clutches a book and turns his back on the others; and a young boy and girl, both silent.

The characters’ story is a sordid, tangled thing, one of illegitimacy and infidelity, of an illicit sexual encounter in a grubby room above a hat-maker’s shop. It is a tale full of twists and turns and emotional drama, and, after some persuasion, the characters convince the documentary producer (played by Noma Dumezweni) to tell it. A set is constructed – a set within a set – and they begin to film. But the characters baulk at having their story told by actors, despite the actors’ insistence that they will capture the essence of the characters, that their performance will be somehow ‘realer’, and the characters eventually win the fight to play themselves.

Goold’s production, a transfer from Chichester where it was a hit this summer, is risk-taking and ambitious, though the results, while sometimes inspired, are sometimes a little too self-consciously ‘clever’ to be truly enjoyable. Ian McDiarmid, whose illness earlier in the run caused cancellations, is now recovered and is superbly sinister as the father, veering from eccentric gent to something far more demonic as the play progresses. Denise Gough is also impressive as the wronged step-daughter and Adam Cork’s sound design is particularly striking and memorable, moving gradually from muddy, naturalism to operatic cacophony, over the course of the first half.

The production shifts in tone after the interval; the understood realities of the earlier scenes have been removed and the documentary producer is plunged into a hell of self-questioning, a limbo state. The characters explain that those who live in the imagination live forever – so who is more real, them or her? The mood becomes darker as layer after layer of ‘reality’ is stripped away and the play turns in on itself, curling itself into tighter and tighter coils. In the process the audience are treated to some lovely theatrical in-jokery and a couple of genuinely, unnerving jolts.

The trouble with this kind of self-referential, self-dissecting, self-digesting approach is that it works best on the medium in question and by drawing documentary and film into the mix, the waters are somewhat dirtied. And an attempt to give the ‘character’ of the producer a back-story, to give her some shape, some drive, doesn’t really work, as the very structure of the piece seems to argue against it. Instead, as she charges through the theatre sobbing, searching for help and answers, she reminds one, more than anything else, of the 'final girl' in an old school horror movie.

These quibbles aside, this is a challenging and exciting piece, more thrilling than one might expect an intellectual exercise of this kind to be. Goold and Power manage to stay true to the subversive qualities of Pirandello’s original while gleefully twisting the material to their own ends, creating something new and invigorating in the process.

Friday, September 19, 2008

More on the Balkans

I still haven’t written anything that I’m particularly happy with about my time in Belgrade and Bosnia. I think I hoped – desperately naively I know – that I would return from a week spent over there and have lovely, neat answers to all my questions about family and the conflicts of the past and present and that fire which I have seen in people’s eyes (the fire I feel I do not possess, not in the same way at any rate).

It was my mother’s first trip of any note back to Belgrade in 45 years, which turned out to be almost too long a time to bridge. We were both tourists in our own way, which had its drawbacks and its pleasures. I have just come home with many, many, many more questions than I had before I went and am struggling to order my thoughts. I was going to write about the pop corn vendors and the permeating sense of chaos and the evening we sipped beer in the bar at Kalemegdan as the sun set over the Danube (a very cinematic moment) and other such things – and I still might – but, really, right now the only solid true thing I know is that a week was not enough and I hope to go back as soon as I can (well, sometime next year at least).

Apologies, I suspect this was of interest to no-one other than myself. Next post will be more theatre-centric, honest.

Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola

This was going to be a review of Six Characters in Search of an Author. But my friend and I arrived at the Gielgud theatre earlier in the week to find the shutters down and some apologetic front of house staff explaining about unexpected illness in the cast. So we were forced, forced I say, to go and come to terms with our disappointment over a bottle of red wine. And a number of gins. Hopefully I will reschedule for a date in the near future as it’s one I was super keen to see. So in lieu of the planned review, here’s some words (borrowed from musicOMH) about Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola which I saw last week.

A sail fish hangs above Monk’s bar, gleaming and glossy. It’s about the only clean, untainted thing in Tennessee Williams’s 1972 play, Small Craft Warnings, set in a Californian beach bar where human flotsam drifts in on the tide.

Apparently Williams specified fog blowing in off the Pacific in his stage directions, spewing forth desperate men and women like something in a John Carpenter film. We don’t get fog during Bill Bryden’s revival at the Arcola, but we do get desperation. The play reeks of it. Broken people and the whiff of bourbon. There’s the Doctor, who can’t get through the night without a cocktail of brandy and Benzedrine; the short-order cook with the pot-belly and the My Name Is Earl moustache; the feckless layabout who calls his cock ‘junior’ with pride rather than irony and the gay Hollywood screenwriter whose life no longer surprises him. Then there’s the young farm boy, hope undimmed, who he has picked up en route, and Violet, thin-limbed and prone to wailing in the ladies’ toilets, the varnish peeling off her dirty finger nails, who regularly dispenses hand jobs under the cover of the incongruously quaint red and white checked table cloths.

And in the middle of all this, there's Leona, the trailer dwelling beautician whose eyes have clearly seen things. It is her brother’s death-day and she sways round the place listening to violin music on the duke box, trying to pry another drink from Monk the bartender, who kindly but firmly declines.

Sian Thomas is superb as Leona, hardened but soft at the same time, a force to be reckoned with. No-one else in the fine cast gets quite the same chance to shine. Jack Shepherd, as Monk, has the spot-on look and manner of the man behind the bar and Greg Hicks makes an impression as the wasp-tongued and bitter, blazer-clad screenwriter Quentin who compares gay sex to a jab with a hypodermic. Meredith MacNeil, black bra showing through her a flimsy dress, dark hair piled up on her head (in a fashion appropriately reminiscent of Amy Winehouse), is also memorable as the fog-brained Violet.

The play is a difficult one, bleak and meandering, with shards of lyrical beauty amidst the murk. Each character takes their turn to step forward and spin out a confessional monologue, before retreating back into the wash. It has its powerful moments but something about it just doesn’t sit right. It’s a hard, tired play. And it is tiring to watch, all that misery, those empty lives. Bryden’s production is moving in places but also wearying, and, talented as the cast are, they sometimes struggle to do much with this collage of lost, sloshed people.

The detailed design (by Hayden Griffin) has some nice touches and the beat of the Pacific, the constant sound of crashing waves outside the door gives a certain rhythm to the piece, but it remains a play of moments rather than a satisfying whole.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Well at Trafalgar Studios

Right, been back in the UK a few days now and am slowly getting back into the swing of things, adjusting to the whole no-longer-on-holiday hoo-ha. I was hoping to have put together some words by now on the Belgrade/Bosnia experience but have been prevaricating and it has yet to happen.

I have, however – small drum roll – been to the theatre. My first excursion after landing was to see Well at Trafalgar Studios (in the little downstairs one). This is a play about ‘issues of illness and wellness’ by American playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron. When Kron was growing up her mother was often ill, fatigued to the point where she could hardly move, yet at the same time she managed to do considerable work in the community, to ‘heal’ a neighbourhood, as the play rather too neatly puts it. Kron was also ill herself, ill enough to warrant a stint in a hospital allergy unit and in order to better understand both her mother’s and her own experiences of illness, Kron has created a ‘multi-character theatrical experience.’ This is how the play terms itself. There’s a lot of talk like that as Natalie Casey, playing Kron, speaks directly to the audience throughout, describing her intentions and how she hopes the piece will work.

Sarah Miles , sitting in a battred red leather Lazy Boy chair swaddled in blankets and sporting a pair of huge fluffy bed socks, plays Kron’s mother, Ann. She is very entertaining in the role, forever interrupting proceedings and puncturing the monologue in order to offer drinks and Oreos to the audience and point out inaccuracies in the narrative. However while there are some gloriously funny moments (an anecdote about her childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, chief among them), the production is hampered by some major problems, most significantly the fact that Kron played herself stateside while here she is played by Casey (who apparently is from Two Pints Of Lager and A Packet of Crisps, which I gather is a thing off the telly). She is very, very good as Kron, with solid, comic timing and a nice rapport with the audience, wholly inhabiting the role, but she is, still, an actress playing a part. So when the production loops ever in on itself and the other actors start breaking character and ditching their American accents, when they start questioning Kron and what she is trying to achieve, the fact that Casey is also playing a role and is not the author of the piece sits in the middle of the room like a big postmodern elephant.

The fact that the play also tiptoes around the nature of Kron’s own illness, doesn’t help either. Was she ever genuinely sick? It remains ambiguous – and while the writing acknowledges these ambiguities, that doesn’t make them any less problematic.

Despite these sizeable flaws, it is a warmly written and well performed piece, if, at times, a bit too cute and too, well, for want of a better term, American (specifically east coast introspective) but where it did work was in making me think about my attitude to illness and health. Having always enjoyed pretty good health, I think I do sometimes rather assume that people who haven’t (and I’m not talking about people with serious conditions, rather people who are more prone to sicknesses, colds, lurgies and the like, than I am) are somehow complicit in their unwellness. It’s a rather arrogant attitude and I’m not proud of it, and I shall endeavour not to tut and judge so much in future. Honest.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

From Belgrade to Bosnia

Still on holiday and Not At The Theatre. After four days in Belgrade, I crossed the border to Bosnia, which is where I am now, staying in my family's small apartment. This was going to be a long-ish and no doubt deeply fascinating post about that city but it is 36 degrees here at last look (and, sensible me, I have packed mainly cardigans and other unsuitable items) and there are people in the next room luring me with cool beer and idle afternoon chatter, so it will have to wait.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hedda at the Gate

And, so, to Notting Hill on a sticky, pre-storm Saturday, to the teeny (but fortunately air-cooled) Gate Theatre for Lucy Kirkwood’s modern update of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. I was not overfond of Tinderbox, her first full length play which was at the Bush earlier this year, but this I really enjoyed – with one fairly major reservation. Kirkwood has relocated the play to contemporary Notting Hill, to the streets a stone’s (or a play text’s throw) from the venue itself; her Hedda, still grieving for her father and impulsively married to a man she does not care for, is “marooned in nappy valley with nothing to do.” She has no job – and no real desire to get one – is saddled with a hefty mortgage on a home she never really wanted and, possibly, has a baby on the way. Though her husband adores her (even if he does not really understand her), for Hedda it is hell. So she entertains herself by toying with those around her, mocking and manipulating.

Though it runs to nearly two hours without a break, Carrie Cracknell’s production is riveting, always gripping, and superbly acted by everyone; each performance feels whole, solid. Cara Horgan is a dangerous Hedda, stalking around the two-tier set with her father’s antique pistols (though I did wonder why, when Eli’s manuscript was now carried around on a memory stick, Hedda’s guns had not been updated in any way). Tom Mison is strong of spirit as her husband George, even though he is clearly baffled and awed by his new wife. There is clearly more to him than she gives him credit for. Everyone else – Adrian Bower (the not John Simm one from Elling, Cath Whitefield, Christopher Obi, Alice Patten – adds to the picture

The set design and the use of music in Cracknell’s production is, as ever with the Gate, spot on. As a venue it seems to have a particularly good way with such things. Unkle’s Rabbit In Your Headlights (the one with Thom Yorke on vocals) was just one example of a perfectly judged choice of song.

The crucial problem for me though (and not just me, as I see from the reviews) is that in stripping Hedda of social context, any sympathy for her is lost. She just comes across as monstrously self absorbed and cruel, repellently so. Kirkwood has done her best to get around this, Hedda is still in pain following her father’s death and she clearly views herself as a bad, broken person, unfixable. Horgan too manages to inject some small note of vulnerability into the character. But it’s not enough, or it wasn’t for me. This Hedda is simply too much, too unpleasant, her behaviour malicious and inexcusable.

Unrelated, but the floor seemed to be magnetised at the performance I saw, as both Hedda’s bracelet and that vital memory stick jumped out of her grasp and fell to the ground and had to be scrabbled for.

Even more unrelated, I am off to Belgrade tomorrow, so this blog may go quiet for a week or so.