Friday, November 21, 2008

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton's

First the good. The RSC have chosen to stage their new production, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes in the wonderfully atmospheric space that is Wilton's Music Hall. Hidden in an East London alley, Wilton’s is, according to their website, “the world's oldest and last surviving grand music hall.”

The building is utterly lovely, barrel-ceilinged and beautiful, yet flaking and fading, its paint peeling, its windows boarded. But, gosh, it seems rather sad for a place that once resounded with gin and laughter to now be a venue for people to fidget through tedious RSC fare. That’s not to say that Adriano Shaplin's ambitious historical play is utterly without merit, that’s not true at all, it just manages to takes a period of innovation and energy and ideas and somehow sieve much of the magic out of it.

The play is pretty good at scene setting. This Tragedy takes place in the mid 17th century, post Civil War, pre-Restoration; the theatres have been closed and London is alive with intellectual chatter. This comes across well, but the play lacks a sense of dramatic structure and direction. Lots of famous figures flit on and then off again: oh look, there’s Cromwell and there’s a young Isaac Newton, but it all feels a bit quick and bitty.

Shaplin depicts the ideological clash between Hobbes, the political philosopher, and the men of science from Gresham College: Roberts Boyle and Hooke and, um, some others. I am always drawn to things that try and marry science and art, but am usually disappointed. OK, my knowledge of the period is admittedly fairly sketchy, but one would hope that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, that the writing would illuminate and clarify. Unfortunately the play seemed to go out of its way to make things more confusing then they needed to be: why was Robert Boyle played by a woman? Why was Charles II dressed like Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen (or was it supposed to be Russell Brand?) What was the point of the two men who sat up on the balcony and passed comment on the play? It’s not as if they shed any light on proceedings; they were credited as Statler and Waldorf but this is not a connection I would have made without reading the cast list. (On an unrelated note, the West End Whingers might be interested to know that the RSC wigs department also do a nice line in merkins).

This Tragedy is an ambitious thing certainly and one ripe with potential, but it felt in real need of taming and shaping. However it at least inspired me to go away and do a bit of reading about the period, if only to fill in the gaps of comprehension.

I was supposed to have company for this one, but my eminently sensible would-be companion, having clocked the running time (it's a long one) and Nicholas de Jongh's less than complimentary review, suddenly decided against it. I didn't even bother asking my mother, as she doesn't do theatre in the colder months unless guaranteed a pre- and post show glass of wine and a running time not in excess of ninety minutes. It’s probably a good thing my +1 skipped out, because as gorgeous as Wilton’s is, its decrepitude means that sightlines and acoustics are pretty poor – I had an achy neck for most of the following day from sitting side-on to the stage – and, horror of horrors, they, for this show at least, have an unreserved seating policy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Good Thing

Not a proper post, just the quickest of quick notes to urge people to go and see Zena Edwards' Security at BAC. One woman show, spoken word and singing, utterly captivating and superbly performed. Sorry, this is not very critical, is it? But it's good, she's good, go see.

More words, for those who want them (all two of you), here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Emotion at Soho Theatre

Question: when is a play not a play? Answer: when it’s an essay with characters attached.

While On Emotion raises some fascinating points, about how the human mind works and about the gulf between reason and emotion, as theatre its scaffolding is always very visible, one can see the thinking behind every scene and interchange, to the detriment of the drama.

On Emotion is the latest in Mick Gordon’s series of On Something plays (On Love, On Religion) and the second one on which he has collaborated with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, following On Ego.

The play concerns a cognitive behavioural therapist, Stephen, and his two children, Lucy, a rather self-absorbed young actress, and Mark, who, conveniently in a play that deals in the workings of human feelings, appears to have some form of autism. Though his condition is left unspecified, he has many of the associated poor social skills that come with it: he has no concept of fear and a tendency to repeat verbatim conversations he has overheard. Mark cannot read emotion, preferring instead the world of Star Trek, the logical mindset of Mr Spock; his greatest pleasure is his 8 o’clock visit to his father’s study to look at the stars through a telescope.

Stephen is treating one of Lucy’s friends, Anna, an artist and puppet-maker (which, once again, feels a bit too neat, seeing as the play’s main thrust is that we are puppets of our emotions). Anna is beset by dark dreams and angry outbursts; she is sinking, but Stephen is helping her keep her head above water. Recently divorced, he is also attracted to her, and, while composing a lecture on human emotion (much of which he delivers direct to the audience), he indulges his sexual fantasies in the privacy of his study.

This brief masturbatory interlude seems an initially tasteless scene, but then this play is asking its audience to address and question why certain scenarios trigger disgust and upset in people, so in that sense it is fitting. But like so much else in this play it feels as if it were included to illustrate a theoretical point rather than as a way of evolving the plot.

The strong cast do much to give shape to potentially two-dimensional characters. James Wilby has the necessary air of authority as Stephen, but is also able to show the human frailties beneath the professional veneer. Caroline Catz strikes the right balance as Anna: she may be losing her grip, but she's still far more grounded than her flighty friend Lucy, played by Rhian Blythe (recently seen in Gordon's acclaimed Deep Cut).

Mark Down, stuck with the difficult role of Mark, a man who engages with the world on a different level to most, manages to sidestep some, if not all, of the clich├ęs inherent in such a character. Down is also the co-founder of Blind Summit, the puppet theatre company responsible for the cool three foot high space man puppet that is given considerable stage time.

While the meat of Stephen's lecture about the way in which emotions shape our interactions with the world is indeed fascinating (as was Broks’ book Into The Silent Land, which is definitely worth seeking out), the play into which it is woven feels too contrived to genuinely enlighten. And, crucially for a play that deals with emotions, the would be pathos-tinged ending is inexcusably unmoving.

Words once more borrowed from musicOMH.

Having primed myself for puppets, I was disappointed at how little they featured. Ah well. There were other things to engage with. The couple directly in front of me seemed to disagree though. They fidgeted, chatted and giggled almost from the start before making a noisy exit about twenty minutes from the end (they were in the middle of the aisle and there was no interval). I've seen many a thing at the theatre that hasn't really done it for me, where I've felt no connection with what's happening on the stage and the minutes have crawled by as a result, but I still think it's a little unfair to inflict your displeasure on those around you. Tsk.

Monday, November 10, 2008


When I was in Palermo earlier this year I quickly discovered that the need-to-do thing cultural thing was a spot of Sicilian puppet theatre, but in the end I never went, for when I saw the puppets – they were everywhere, displayed in shop windows and cafes – I found their spindly and inanimate forms rather unnerving. They creeped me out; so instead I invested my energies in gelato consumption and crossing the street without being mown down by unobservant motorists (a sport in itself in Sicily) and enjoyed a pleasantly puppet-free holiday.

I’ve always found puppets a little upsetting. There is a shop somewhere in Clapham full of the things and every time I walk pass it I imagine them coming to life after dark and maybe holding little puppet ceremonies in which they sacrifice a Care Bear or some such thing to their little puppet gods.

But now having had, not one, but two positive puppet experiences in one weekend, I realise how wrong I was, for it is not the puppets per se that I dislike, for when brought to life by skilled performers they are quite amazing – I understand that now, the subtlety and precision in both shows was astonishing – it’s just when the puppets are vacant and lifeless that they make me shudder.

The first show on my puppet double bill was Blind Summit’s Low Life at the BAC, which I saw as a kind of primer to On Emotion which opens at Soho Theatre this week and also features their work, and also because I wanted to address the whole puppet thing, to look it square in its (creepy, painted) face. This was a slight but very enjoyable show. Apparently taking its inspiration from the writings of Charles Bukowski, it was set in dive bar populated by both people and puppets. But really the setting was just an excuse to string together a series of sketches: a character called Kevin (portrayed by a puppet who is the spit of Kevin Spacey) fights with his wife for one last drink and ends up performing a balletic airborne duet with an empty glass; an elderly cleaning lady gets worked up about the outcome of the book she is reading; a faded star of the stage smokes a cigarette and makes a pass at the bartender; a tiny plumber embarks on a Mission: Impossible-style adventure to fix a leaking pipe; and 1940s B-movie is re-enacted using a series of little blue men.

With the exception of the last sketch the puppeteers are always visible, there is no attempt to conceal them or distract from their manipulations. With up to three people controlling each puppet, the way in which the performers create the movements becomes as fascinating as the puppets themselves. There’s no plot, hardly any dialogue and for a show of an hour, it felt a bit stretched, but within it there were some very tender, funny and magical moments.

The same – well, the tender, funny and magical bit – can also be said of puppet show number two: War Horse at the National Theatre, which I finally caught on its Sunday matinee. There’s probably not a lot I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, as I’m rather late to the party on this one, but oh my, weren’t the horses amazing: cloth and wood and wire, but so wonderfully life-like. From the stiff-legged, Bambi-like foal to the magnificent adult animal (when Albert first jumped into the saddle there was an audible ripple of excitement). Yes, it’s kind of baggy plot-wise and veers towards sentiment at the end, but given its source material (Michael Morpurgo’s novel is narrated by the horse, something the play has not tried to replicate) I think this is acceptable. In the closing scenes, the whole theatre seemed to be physically willing this horse to stay alive and the moment when one of the horses dies and the puppeteers (who again are visible, though never distracting) tumble out of the animal and slowly, respectfully walk away, it was as its spirit was quietly departing and it almost, almost made me cry a little bit.

Describing the production to a friend today I was searching for a photo online to illustrate my babble, but the horses invariably looked a little rubbish in two dimensions, you really had to be there to see them move, to see them whinny and buck and stamp and nuzzle: to see them live. I found the look of the production also quite powerful. Rae Smith’s design fitted the piece perfectly, the sketches flickering in the background were very effective and, in the trench scene, it featured one of the best uses of the Olivier revolve I’ve seen in a long time. Being Remembrance Sunday, the cast all returned to take their bows sporting poppies, which was a lovely, thoughtful touch and the play itself made me think about the First World War in a way I’d not really done so before, the devastation of land as well as life, Europe as a battlefield, for once the trenches and the pain and the mess of it all felt geographically as well as historically grounded in my mind.

I won't say I'm totally over the puppet thing but I am dealing with my issues (I will still be keeping my distance from that shop in Clapham though, I'm not that brave).

Friday, November 07, 2008

Othello at the Lyric

There has not been a lot of theatre on here of late because I have been in France for much of last week. This was a theatre-free trip, though I did draw some pretty pictures of leaves and eat a lot of cheese. There may also have been some wine involved.

Idyllic as all that was, I came back eager to break my theatrical fast - which I duly did last night by heading over to Hammersmith to take in Frantic Assembly’s modern, urban Othello at the Lyric.

They have taken Shakespeare’s tragedy and relocated it to a rough estate pub in West Yorkshire. This is not an arbitrary choice and it is clear that thought has been taken in finding a contemporary setting that doesn’t jar with the racial dynamics of the play, a modern context into which it can fit. Othello, played by Jimmy Akingbola, is the only black face in a predominantly white working class neighbourhood where rivalries run rife and violent clashes are common. He is simultaneously respected, admired and feared; his colour gives him cache, which is backed by his cool-headedness and confidence. He comes across as a man among boys and one can see why Desdemona was drawn to him, marrying him without her father’s knowledge.

The play has been condensed to less than two hours and is shot through with music and dance, indeed for the first five minutes or so there are no words, just pounding beats and writhing bodies. For the most part the dance compliments the feel of the production, even the danced fight scenes don’t stick out as much as they usually do, though, as ever, the participants look far more like dancers than fighters. There was also a brief bit of onstage up-sicking though nothing like as dramatic as the barfing in God of Carnage.

Though the production has undoubted energy, not everything works. A handkerchief feels like a very odd thing for a chap like Othello to give to his girlfriend – was there no way this could have been updated? They have no problem having Desdemona say “fuck, it’s my dad,” when their pub toilet coitus is interrupted by her father.

I did like the way Claire Louise Cordwell’s Desdemona fought and kicked and struggled against her fate, but the bloody end scenes veered towards the excessive and ended up feeling rather silly. Half the cast took their bows splattered with stage blood. Iago, played by Charles Aiken, also remained a bit too opaque. But despite some problems the production had a power and a drive to it: real effort had been taken to make Shakespeare’s world connect with a modern setting.

The time whipped by (unlike, say, A Disappearing Number, a production of a similar length but one that just dragged on and on) and the piece left a definite impression.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Not dead. In France. Or was until the weekend. Home now. Bit cold.