Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dido, Queen of Carthage at the National

Is it wrong to snigger at self immolation? I suspect it is. But it was difficult to keep an entirely straight face watching Anastasia Hille’s distraught Phoenician queen build a pyre of John Lewis throw pillows before dousing herself in liquid, lighting a match and waiting for the ‘roaring flames’ sound effects to kick in.

Michael Billington has asked we celebrate a straightforward staging of a rarely performed work, but making Marlowe dull takes a fair bit of doing and this does it. It’s not so much the length – 3 hours, despite what the programme says – but James MacDonald’s staging which seemed almost wilfully old-fashioned and unadventurous. That’s perhaps a little harsh. I did think that Hille, as Dido, and Mark Bonnar as Aeneas gave strong, at times moving performances but I found so many of the design and directorial choices got in the way of the play rather than making it live.

The yellow shower curtain that formed the main backdrop was one such niggle, especially as the performers often left gaps in it when pulling it closed. Some of the costumes had the whiff of the dressing up box to them too, one kept in the attic by an aunt and full of odd scarves and skirts, and I couldn’t fathom why Mercury – who seemed to be wearing sock-suspenders – seemed to address the mortals via one of those devices that serial killers use to disguise their voices when taunting the police (or that’s at least what it sounded like).

There were some moments of lightness and invention but things – especially in the later stages of the play, as Aeneas was compelled to depart and Dido fretted and raved, her thoughts turning to death – felt more laboured than anything else and the climactic conflagration, when it came, was something of a damp squib. Billington has a point, in that I did enjoy seeing this play lifted off the page, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that more could have been done with it. The West End Whingers were spotted departing hastily at the interval (no doubt via the bar).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tanja Liedtke's Twelfth Floor

In a typically passionate manner Andy Field blooged recently over on the Guardian about the potency of dance. I've also been finding that some of the most memorable and exciting things I've seen recenly have been movement based - dance. I don't always write about them though, not here; I think I watch dance in a different way - or at least I tell myself I do, I suspect it's more to do with the worry that there is a particular way of writing and discussing dance and I might expose my gaping ignorance of such things more so than normal.

But. Anyway. The most recent thing I saw and enjoyed was Twelfth Floor, choreographed by Tanya Liedtke, a compelling, frequently amusing and ultimately rather disturbing hour of dance set in an unspecified institution.

The walls are painted a muddy mix of cream and green and the lone window is shuttered. Two men, clad in sloppy T shirts and track-suit bottoms, spar and play-fight while another chalks words onto the walls seemingly lost in a private world – it is possible to glimpse the word ‘escape’ among his scrawling.

A nurse-like figure escorts a fourth person into the room, a young woman. Though there are obvious parallels with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Liedtke’s piece does not mirror it too closely. Her nurse is not nearly as formidable as the Big Nurse of Ken Kesey’s novel. As danced by Amelia McQueen, she is a skittery, jittery thing in a pink uniform with neat little socks. Her movements are intricate yet jerky: robotic and repetitive. Her finger constantly jabs the air as if independent of the rest of her, seeking out transgressions, admonishing her charges.

The remaining characters sometimes stand up to her but at other times they cower in the corner, jiggling like pepper pots left on a washing machine during its spin cycle. A battle of wills plays out between them – inmates and nurse – and small victories are celebrated on either side. There is much humour in Liedtke’s work – especially during a well-timed sequence involving a revolving door and, later, when the inmates mock the nurse’s mannerisms – and at times it feels cartoonish, even approaches slapstick in places, but, always, there is this sense of tension just beneath the surface: the under-toad is lurking.

The piece makes clear that while it is possible to win in the short term, a certain status quo remains: there are lines that can’t be crossed and the consequences of attempting to do so are severe. The caged human has a capacity for aggression and violence and as the piece progresses the levity of earlier scenes is replaced with something much darker and more unsettling. The power games cease being games.

Though Twelfth Floor is walking on oft-visited ground and at times it tip toes fairly close to cliché, is in places formulaic, it manages, in the main, to remain fresh and exciting to watch. The production as a whole isn’t as successful as some of its individual moments, but there is much to revel in: Liedtke’s ability to convey character through movement, to build a rich and complex world, is considerable.

Knowing this, it's all too tempting to be side-tracked by Tanja Liedtke’s own poignant story (she had just been appointed Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company when she died in an accident in 2007 - this was her only full length piece) but the work stands on its terms and that is the important thing. However one can't quite escape the feeling that this is an early work - shot through with youth - and that hers was a talent that would have, given more time, matured and evolved and created even better things.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Over There at the Royal Court

The Royal Court’s Off the Wall season of plays about Germany continues with Mark Ravenhill’s unsettling Over There.

The play is a strongly allegorical piece about two brothers, identical twins, who grow up on separate sides of the Wall.

Though they live apart - Franz lives with his mother in the West while Karl has remained in the East his socialist father - they are still connected by the filaments of their twin-ness, they can feel each other’s pain, each other’s joy.

When the Wall falls the brothers are reunited and Karl comes to stay with Franz in what was the West.

He is initially excited by this prospect, by this opportunity to binge on things, but he also still clings to his Eastern way of thinking. He can’t marry the two, and a divide remains in his mind.
In a delicious piece of casting, the brothers are played by identical twins Luke and Harry Treadaway, with only a slight difference in hairstyle and different coloured underwear to mark them apart; so when they face each other on stage and joke about it being like looking in a mirror, it is indeed so.

Once they start living together, the relationship between the two brothers quickly starts to deteriorate. Karl finds his new life a struggle and starts to imitate his brother, to wear his (shiny, shiny) suits and to teach Franz’s young son Russian, to blur the line between himself and his twin. Ravenhill uses this device to convey the crisis of a country trying to create a new vision for itself, one of a united future, and the cultural and ideological divisions that remain even after the wall has been torn down.

Co-directed by Ravenhill and Ramin Grey, the production has a pared down aesthetic. Johannes Schutz’s set is a stark white box filled with further boxes: brands haphazardly stacked, a jumble of plastic condiment bottles and serial packets, all labelled with familiar names, the detritus of the West.

This spare way of presenting things extends to the performances, and to the very texture of the piece. The Treadaways, frequently speaking in unison, deliver their dialogue in an oddly detached fashion. That is not to say their delivery is empty of emotion, but what emotion there is feels intentionally askew. There is a flatness to their line readings, sentences end bluntly, rather than trailing off naturally, and when they speak in foreign languages – Franz in English or Karl in Russian – we hear a string of nonsense words instead. This manner of staging, playful, teasing and stripped of the unessential, is reminiscent of the Court’s recent productions of work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, The Ugly One and The Stone, which began the Off The Wall season.

As the play proceeds, this notion of things being ‘stripped down’ is taking to its logical conclusion and the final scenes see the two men utterly exposed, their skin smeared with food, with sauces and condiments, the contents of tubs and bottles and packets.

There is a pleasing absurdity to some earlier scenes. A yellow sponge stands in for Franz’s son (appropriate since he is not a character, not a person, but a thing, a pawn between them), while a bag of flour temporarily becomes their father’s ashes, and, in a brief prologue set in California, an American waitress is played by Luke in a blonde wig and heels. But this lightness of tone is replaced by something altogether more disquieting in the play’s later moments.

There is something quite repellent about the mess they make, writhing in gunk, skin sticky and slick: it speaks of all manner of fluids spilled and is, at times I found, difficult to watch (literally - I became acutely interested in my shoes at one point). As a metaphor it is not unsuccessful, for the brothers’ relationship is far from tidy, nor is the path of the reunited country free of debris – you can’t stitch a wound that deep overnight. “Your world can’t exist,” Franz tells Karl. “There’s only my world.” And, seeing this, Karl starts to sink, to lose his grip.

Both actors, onstage throughout, throw themselves into demanding roles, and there is an undeniable potency to proceedings. But in the end Ravenhill's approach is too heavy-handed and obvious, it hits its audience over the head, yells in their faces: West eats East. Point made. We get it.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

A double booking error meant that at one point it seemed as if I might have to watch the show sitting on Charles Spencer's lap - but fortuntaley an usher was able to find me a spare speat seconds before the play started.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Burnt by the Sun at the National

With his current role at the National, Rory Kinnear has been given a gift of a part. He plays Mitia, a charming and playful character, who is also highly enigmatic and a little sinister; a man of layers and hidden things, a wearer of masks and disguises.

Mitia was once in love with Maroussia, the daughter of his music teacher, but one night he left, vanished without a word, and has not been seen since. Now, twelve years later, he has returned to a world not dissimilar to the one he left.

Though the music teacher is now dead, his family still live as they once did, a gentle and rather Chekhovian existence, sipping tea and singing songs in their summer dacha.

They are allowed to continue in this gentle facsimile of pre-Revolutionary life because Maroussia has, in the years since Mitia left, married Colonel Kotov, a celebrated Bolshevik hero who – literally – has a direct line to Stalin.

So while the family waft around their airy home in linens and silks, it is only the stream of MASH style loudspeaker announcements (“Comrades…”) and the passing troupes of beaming, red-sashed Pioneers, that show that life beyond the dacha has changed so completely.

Kotov meanwhile lumbers round the place in his grey flannel breeches looking bear-like and out of place. The family sniff about his rough habits – he prefers to use the old fashioned steam house rather than the bathroom – but there is clearly an unvoiced pact between them, a harmony which Mitia’s return threatens to undermine in the most brutal fashion.

Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar winning Russian film has been adapted for the stage by Peter Flannery and as with many screen-to-stage transfers there have been a number of inevitable and necessary changes. Flannery’s version (based on the screenplay by Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov) makes explicit many of the things that are merely danced around in the film. At one point, as the family bemoan the things they miss from their old way of living, Kotov asks them outright: “why didn’t you fight for it?”

The film filtered the complex tangle of adult relationships through the eyes of Kotov and Maroussia’s precocious young daughter Nadia. Here, while Nadia is still a delightful presence, the emotions of the adult characters are pitched closer to the surface, they are more exposed.

Michelle Dockery is quietly impressive as the stricken Maroussia suddenly torn between the man she once adored and her current husband, who she also cares deeply about. Ciaran Hinds, however, feels oddly underpowered as Kotov. He is suitably gruff but there are too few glimpses of the feared and revered leader of men or, for that matter, the man who charmed Maroussia. Rory Kinnear, of course, benefits from the showier role but though clearly revelling in his character’s propensity for dressing up, playing the piano and tap dancing, he never overdoes it. He maintains a careful balance and there is always the sense of pain and loss under the veneer of playfulness, an aura of danger about him. When the truth behind his long absence is revealed it is very chilling indeed.

The supporting cast are also very strong, particularly Stehanie Jacob as Mokhova the eternally virginal maid, prone to howling on the stairs when upset.

Howard Davies’ production works well, gently and divertingly building to a tense and moving conclusion. It is powerfully played and compelling and yet there are the usual niggles when translating something that worked so well in one medium to another; there are a number of key images and scenes that can’t be replicated on stage, so the production doesn’t attempt to. The balloons bearing a huge image of Stalin’s face, a central motif in the film, simultaneously unsettling and slightly absurd, is here reduced to a throwaway reference. The atmosphere of terror on the horizon, of a world about to be overturned, is not so pervading.

But, taken on its own terms the production works well, it is initially funny and charming, before successfully shifting to something much darker in the later scenes, as a larger tide washes away this small golden world forever.

Reviewed for musicOMH

I once again coaxed my mother out of the house for this one and am rather glad I did. As a girl she once was a beaming, red-sashed Pioneer and that, combined with pre-show and mid-show wine and standing next to the "pretty one from the History Boys" at the bar, made it one of her preferred theatre experiences of this or any other year I expect.