Friday, October 24, 2008

Faces in the Crowd at the Royal Court

Good lord, this was intense...

I pretty much agree with Lyn Gardner on this one. The Royal Court’s upstairs theatre has been totally transformed for this production by designers Rae Smith and William Fricker with an entire one-bed flat set in a kind of pit around which the audience sit, watching from above. This makes the characters feel like animals in an enclosure. The staging though certainly memorable also had its problems in turns of sight-lines. I was sitting right above the 'bedroom' so struggled to see a lot of what went on there, despite the positioning of a large mirror on the opposite wall. On the other hand I got a, perhaps clearer than desirable, view of Con O'Neill's jiggling naked behind.

Leo Butler's play concerns Dave and Joanne. They were married – are still married – but he skipped town years ago, leaving both her and large pile of debt behind him. and headed to London. Now he lives in tiny but fashionably decked-out flat in Shoreditch. It’s little more than a shoebox but you can see the Gherkin from the window. Now she's journeyed down to see him, keen to take what she feels is owed to her - a baby, or at least the means to make one.

The play demands a lot from its performers, depicting both Dave and Joanne’s sexual fumbling and the violent fallout of their reunion. It’s draining to watch and is blessed with two utterly compelling and open performances from Con O’Neill, as Dave, and Amanda Drew, as Joanne. O’Neill superbly conveys Dave’s barely contained fury, his ability to flip, his volatility, and the way his Sheffield accent intensifies when he loses his cool. Drew is also startlingly good: her anger is better contained but she has the capacity to wound when necessary. But, good as they are there was something false and hollow about the whole set up. The big speeches about debt culture and social mobility felt a bit forced, striving too hard to be topical.

It was gripping though and in the seconds of darkness and quiet that followed the end of the play you could hear an audible collective release of tension. Butler also understands the importance of silence, the things that people do when they aren't talking (or insulting each other's gentalia).

This is a raw, powerful piece of theatre but the couple’s background, their journey to the place where we see them, doesn’t always ring true. But the sheer strength of the performances, the utter exposure required of them, is something not easily forgotten.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Wellcome Collection

The man who for the purposes of this blog is called Barry and I had a curious but rather lovely Saturday. We had hoped to see the morning screening of Frost/Nixon at the London Film Festival. But due to an absence of BFI staff at the cinema, a general air of confusion and a queue full of foot-tapping and frustrated filmgoers (and the fact that it was probably sold out, though no one could actually tell us whether it was or not), we decided to write it off and do something else instead. Something else turned out to be a trip to the Wellcome Collection, which we reached via an interestingly circular trans-Bloomsbury route – a long-cut I think is the term.

The building houses the artefacts collected by the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, many of which are of a medical nature. Under the banner Medicine Man, the permanent collection contains birthing chairs, Peruvian mummies, Nigerian twin dolls, Charles Darwin’s skull-headed cane and an array of turn of the century bone saws and forceps. There are metal prosthetic noses for the syphilis afflicted and some quite alarming anti-masturbatory devices with the amusing and apt caption ‘probably British’

Much of it is macabre but it’s also utterly fascinating. In the lobby, opposite the café with its nursery school chairs, there’s a display called Make A Piano in Spain. The artist John Newling asked 500 people what they did to make themselves feel better and recorded the responses. Newling created a number of composite situations from these responses, combing the recurring elements in little scenarios that verge on poems. But also, on the day we were there, he was giving a reading through all the responses in order, a three hour undertaking. Visitors to the Collection were encouraged to drift in and out of the room where he was reading.

There was something soothing about hearing these responses in full, the repetition and the banality of the answers. Most people went for obvious things: a glass of wine, cooking a meal for their partner, reading a novel, having a long hot bath, sex, quite a few people said they would choose to do something creative, to write, to play music, to paint; a few seemed acutely aware of letting people know how cool they were: one lengthy comment included listening to ‘trad jazz’ and going surfing – it was the specifics that made me smirk. Some were curt, some ponderous, and though he spoke with the flattest of monotones, a sense of the character of the respondent could be gathered through the way they had phrased things, the words they had chosen. Hearing it, or at least part of it, in this long, flat flow was rather reassuring, I found.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mine at Hampstead Theatre

I should know better by know. I should know that the tube to Swiss Cottage, that grim grey line to Hampstead Theatre, can only lead to disappointment. But time dulls past pains, one forgets, and then one glances at a flyer or a preview write-up and thinks ‘yes, I like the sound of that.’

I had seen and enjoyed past productions by Shared Experience, so their latest play Mine was not unappealing. But the curse of Hampstead Theatre continues. In Mine an unnamed, childless couple try to adopt a baby girl. They are wealthy and successful and clearly lead a life of considerable comfort while the girl’s birth mother is a drug-user and prostitute whose daughter has been taken into care while she attempts to rehabilitate herself. But all the money in the world can’t prepare them for the reality of raising a child and the arrival of this tiny, helpless person into the couple’s lives leaves them feeling exposed and unsettled.

Throughout the production there are dreamlike sequences in which an actress in a floaty white dress appears and scampers round the stage like a little girl, hiding behind furniture and playing with an ornate dollhouse. She represents both the woman’s desired daughter and her memories of her own childhood. But while this is initially interesting, it’s hard to get past the fact that this ‘child’ is being played by an adult, it’s too big a hurdle, and some of these sequences feel silly as opposed to moving or revealing.

The main problem with the production – and it’s a big one - is that there isn’t a single remotely sympathetic character on stage. The woman is joyless and her husband is a domineering, sharp-tempered, one-note sod; you find yourself questioning the social worker who entrusted these two people with a vulnerable infant. The couple is surrounded by a group of walking clichés. There’s the sister with three children of her own who worries she has forgotten how to be anything other than a mother and the housekeeper from some unspecified Eastern European country. None of these people feel real. Even Rose, the child’s mother, the character with the most potential to be interesting, is a harshly pony-tailed, tracksuit clad stereotype.

It’s such a shame as the play has some valid things to say about the way motherhood can open you up like an exposed wound, how the world suddenly becomes a more threatening, unsettling place when you have this small person to raise and care for and protect. But all this is buried under the clumsy and ugly production. There are some potentially good performances marooned in there too. Katy Stephens does what she can as the woman who has longed for a child for so long that she struggles to handle the reality when her wish is granted. And Lorraine Stephens, as the baby’s mother, somehow maintains a degree of dignity despite having to perform with her G-string riding up over her trousers as she staggers around stage, cigarette in hand.

But none of this compensates for having to sit through this turgid thing – though there is some unintentional humour to be derived from watching the actors cooing over the unnerving, tufty-headed fake baby. Shared Experience has done fine work in the past but their trademark approach feels cumbersome here. The play would have benefited from a lighter touch and less reliance on familiar theatrical tics and devices.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Iris Brunette at BAC

Melanie Wilson has strange powers. She sucks up time like juice through a straw. I could have sworn we were only watching her new show at the BAC for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes at most, but when we checked our watches on exiting almost an hour had passed.

Wilson has worked with The Clod Ensemble and Chris Goode (in ...Sisters at the Gate), but she also creates her own work. Her new show Iris Brunette is influenced by Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a French short film composed of still black and white images about apocalypse and time travel on which Terry Gilliam based Twelve Monkeys.

It is designed to be performed to just sixteen people at a time. The General Office at the BAC has been lit like the inside of a chapel or a phosphorescent cave and the audience sit in a circle, facing each other, while Wilson perches among us on a folding stool. From here she tells a story with a whiff of espionage to it: there are lots of snatched encounters in cafes and a strong sense of coming danger, of some kind of war or devastation. The setting for her tale is deliberately elusive, part of both the future and the past.

A spotlight picks out each audience member in turn. We are the characters who people her strange story: a cartographer, a sea captain and so forth. There is a degree of audience involvement with Wilson positioning herself in different places in the circle and speaking to people in friendly tones, soliciting their advice and playing games. Some respond with geeky good humour, others in unnerved silence, suddenly very interested in their shoes.

Throughout the piece there are periods of blackness during which we hear a soundscape of café chatter and strange clanking noises like the sound a descending elevator might make. Wilson’s own voice narrating, both recorded and spoken, also forms part of the aural backdrop. Clad in a black dress with a long watch chain around her neck and the light playing across her sculptural features and her dancing, delicate wrists, she is a striking guide through this odd, other world.

Iris Brunette is at times impenetrable – when asked about it by someone the next day I really struggled to explain what it was about – but it was never less than hypnotic, a disorientating and memorable show, a transporting experience, that left me all of a quiver, looking at my watch and wondering.

These words also appear over here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Broken Space Season at the Bush

I like the dark. Long before carbon footprints had entered the lexicon, I was the one bustling round the house switching off lights and contentedly damaging my eyes as I read and wrote with the aid of one lone lamp in the corner of the room.

So the idea of the Bush Theatre’s Broken Space season, a season of short plays born out of necessity and staged at least partly in the dark, was particularly appealing. A series of leaks and floodings were causing the theatre serious problems, as Andrew and I can testify having had to stand gin-less for twenty minutes on the cramped stairwell waiting to see Anthony Weigh’s 2000 Feet Away. So, as they are unable to use their lighting grid, they have responded by staging a changing triple bill of plays that make a virtue out of being minimally lit.

Temporary seating has been arranged around three walls of the theatre, facing the windows, which are open to the street. The line-up varies over the course of the month, with work by Jack Thorne and the increasingly ubiquitous Lucy Kirkwood due to feature alongside work by more established names including Bryony Lavery and the super-ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere Neil LaBute.

The longest of the three plays and the one unchanging thread of the season is Declan Feenan’s St Petersburg, about an elderly man and his middle aged daughter. She bustles around him, making him lunch, cleaning his flat and checking that he’s taken his pills. It’s well observed and often very funny, with a strong undercurrent of sadness, of past pain and things left unsaid. It’s a solid, unflashy piece of writing made more poignant by the dying light outside the window. (And the Whingers would particularly appreciate the cooking and consumption of a bacon sarnie that happens midway through)

The final piece of the evening was performed in total blackness, the shutters closed on the Shepherd’s Bush streets and only a sole torch beam to illuminate things. The theatre floor has been covered in loam, spongy underfoot, and a square of plastic had been pegged out in the middle of the room. The chairs had been removed and the audience was made to stand as if at some sort of midnight gathering: there was a whiff of Blair Witch to the whole set up. Anthony Weigh’s The Flooded Grave was a grotesque and darkly comic account of an exorcism; it was atmospheric, yes, and well performed, but there was something about it that didn’t quite click, it felt too much like an exercise; a bit of a let down considering the build up.

The most successful and memorable piece for me was Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, an utterly captivating, skin tingling monologue, superbly performed by Andrew Scott. This was wonderful, the simplest of three pieces and yet the most powerful. The writing, full of devastating detail, was captivating and aptly staged in fading daylight.

It seems odd though to have one unchanging play at the centre of the season as otherwise I may well have returned to see some of the other pieces. Also you are forced to vacate the theatre between plays so the stage can be reset, and, as the Bush as no proper bar of its own, you can either stand in noisy next door bar or hover awkwardly in the little lobby. Fine for a fifteen minute interval, a bit of a chore when there’s a gap of over half an hour as there was in the case of the first two plays. Still it’s small complaint, the Stephens monologue alone made it worth it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Girl With A Pearl Earring at the Haymarket

Sometimes one wonders if there are any original stories left. Tracy Chevalier’s popular novel about Vermeer’s most famous painting has already been filmed (with Colin Firth rather miscast as the artist) and it has now been transplanted to the stage in a new adaptation by David Joss Buckley. The first question one has to ask is why? Is this story so potent it deserves a third telling? Does theatre bring something to it that the other mediums were unable to match? The answer is no on both counts.

As with Chevalier’s novel, this is a fictionalised account of Delft’s master painter and what happens when he invites a young servant girl into his house. Griet is a pretty thing, seventeen years old and still more child than woman. Her father has been blinded in accident so she needs to take a job to help support her family. But from the start Vermeer’s wife Catharina views her with suspicion; unsurprisingly perhaps, as Griet’s beauty and lack of worldliness seems to transfix every man she meets. Not only does the butcher boy want to marry her but Vermeer’s lecherous patron, Van Ruijven, (played as a lank haired panto villain by Niall Buggy) clearly wants to get into her petticoats. And while Vermeer’s attraction to the girl is less overt, it is no less damaging.

Though Vermeer appears to love his ever-pregnant wife, he is drawn to the girl and allows her to assist him in his studio and eventually – inevitably – to sit for him. Which she does; having donned that striking turban first, she poses, as instructed, with her lips ever so slightly parted, her eyes bearing all. In this way the act of painting her becomes a far more intimate act than if he had simply given her a swift one in the kitchen, something that both Griet and the increasingly jealous Catharina understand even if he does not.

It’s conjecture, of course: the girl’s identity and Vermeer’s relationship to her are unknown. The book at least, written from Griet’s perspective, had an inbuilt distance, but here the story is presented in a lumpy, literal fashion. Every now and then a character will step over to the corner of the stage and make some solemn pronouncement about the way the narrative is going, just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention.

These little interludes are so clumsy it’s hard not to snigger. Not only that but they also speak of a lack of trust, the play does not appear to think its audience will be able to guess what is going on in the character’s heads without spelling it out in so blunt a fashion. (“She was different from the other maids…”) Later in the evening, having had the concept of allegory explained to her by Vermeer, Griet sobs and winces as he symbolically sticks her newly-pierced lobe with his wife’s earring. Conceits that may have worked well on the page, feel laboured and heavy-handed on the stage.

Kimberley Nixon is suitably plump-lipped and pretty under her plain cotton cap as Griet: young, yes, but not a total innocent. She over-enunciates at first, and seems to be speaking too loudly, moving too stiffly, but she gradually warms up in the scenes with Vermeer. Adrian Dunbar does a decent enough job as the artist, but he often comes off as a bit dim for not being able to see the consequences of his actions. There is no sign of the passionate artist figure, in love with the creative process and blind to all else. That may be a cliché but at least it would be a bit more interesting that what we get. There is, however, sturdy support from Sara Kestelman as Vermeer’s wily mother-in-law and Maggie Service as the other, plainer kitchen maid, Tanneke. And the production does look very pretty, the set design recreating Vermeer’s studio with its distinctive windows.

Joe Dowling’s direction is competent at best: it gets the job done, but never sticks its neck out. It seems a particularly odd choice that the paintings are never shown. The work – the art – gets lost as a result, and the idea of master and muse is never really explored in any fresh or insightful way. Without the art, it’s just another case of a middle aged man getting itchy around a pretty young girl.

Words once more borrowed from musicOMH as I have again been bee-like in my busyness this week.