Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Case at Oubliette

A set of green steps leads down into a basement.

It’s a sprawling space, full of interconnecting rooms, with walls of bare brick, exposed pipes and caged-off electrical equipment. It has a slightly musty smell and though it is a warm evening outside, the temperature down here is on the chilly side (I am grateful I have brought a scarf).

It is a highly atmospheric space. The layout of the place puts you in mind of the lair in Silence of the Lambs, or of a series of sinister prison cells, or the sight of bodies sheltering during a wartime air raid – though this last one is perhaps partly down to the fact that the walls have been plastered with First World War posters. Look, there’s Lord Kitchener and his moustache and he wants you.

The posters are part of the backdrop for a new, short show by Donkeywork which is based on a true story. One corner of the space has been decorated to resemble a shabby little London pub, while another has become a cramped and sad bedroom that someone has attempted to brighten with an embroidered bedspread.

A young woman, Milly (Abigail Gallagher), is befriended by a rather too kindly woman after missing her train at King’s Cross and soon slides into prostitution. Meanwhile Harry (Matthew Leonard) a young soldier broken by war, returns home from the trenches and tries to begin his life again, but he is unable to quell the violent rages that bubble inside of him, at one point even attacking his own mother.

They man and woman meet and are drawn to each other, but even the most optimistically-minded will have gathered by then that theirs is a story that doesn’t end well.

The nature of the space means that it is sometimes difficult to manoeuvre the audience into the correct place quickly enough and there is an awful lot of shuffling through doorways and awkward arranging of bodies. (There’s a nice touch of camaraderie to this process though, with people checking that those behind them can see and making room for those who can’t). But, though Alan Sharpington and Rob Crouch's production is rather patchy and saddled with a number of practical problems, the company have created a plausible wartime world.

Given limited resources and a space that is presumably as difficult as it is freeing, they have created a gripping little show. This idea of battle turning normal men into killers, of something snapping, is a fascinating one, one it would have been nice if they could have fleshed out further, as there’s not enough in the way of build up before the properly shocking, but also inevitable, ending.

The basement is part of what was an English Language School near Waterloo Station. The building has sat empty and near derelict for some time and has now been taken over by squatters, the Oubliette art collective. They have patched it up to create gallery, performance and studio space.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Mountaintop at Theatre 503

The posters for James Dacre’s production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at Theatre 503 make explicit the link between the present and the past: for they are of the face of Martin Luther King Jr. depicted in the familiar campaign colours of Barack Obama.

Hall’s play is set in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is 3rd April 1968 - the last night of Dr King’s life. He has just delivered his "I’ve been to the mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple, he is tired and his throat is hoarse from talking. Outside, the rain lashes against the motel window. He sends his aide out for a packet of Pall Mall cigarettes and settles down to work on another speech.

A maid brings him a cup of room service coffee. She is new; this is her first day and she is elated to have been sent to see Preacher King. She is further delighted when he cadges a cigarette. They talk about his work, his world, the road he has chosen. She is of a more militant leaning and questions the necessity of his commitment to peaceful protest; “fuck the white man,” she bellows, when challenged to display her oratorical skills. King finds this shocking but also funny. He is also not immune to her physical charms, for she is, as she tells him, so pretty that “even my uncle couldn’t resist.”

Hall’s play is compelling and energetic, at least to begin with. She successfully re-makes a man of this iconic figure through his chance casual encounter with a charismatic chamber maid. But then the play takes a sudden swerve – the rules are changed. Without revealing too much of this unexpected twist, it is enough to say that King is made aware of the imminence of his death. He comes to know that this is his last night on earth and accepts this information almost unquestioningly.

While he accepts it, he does still try and escape his fate: he still has a lot of work to do; he is nowhere near finished. He needs more time. But he can do nothing to change what is to come. All he can do is take solace in the fact that his work will continue after his death and that some of his dreams will, eventually, come to pass; and that in four decades time, the American landscape will have changed to the point where it is possible for Obama to be elected President.

Hall’s play is an attempt to examine both King’s legacy and the man himself; to make the audience see him as just that: a man. And she achieves this, to a degree. King is holed up in a scruffy motel, checking the furniture for bugs (of the surveillance variety – though given the grim brown and orange-dominated d├ęcor of Libby Watson’s set, he would also be wise to be wary of the real thing), his feet are ripe from marching and he has neglected to pack a toothbrush. His flirtatious interactions with Camae the maid, a rare moment of relaxation, go further to making him human, flawed. He loves his wife, his family, but he has been known to stray.

But then there comes this strange, forced, supernatural twist (one that owes a hefty debt to Kevin Smith’s Dogma) and Dacre’s production immediately loses focus. Its grip on its audience slackens and it becomes a much limper thing. It begins as a play with much power and charm but becomes something else altogether, something awkward and even rather silly in places.

David Harewood is quite excellent as King. His performance combines the stirring voice of the born orator with more human worries and frailties. But despite his best efforts and the snappy rapport that builds between him and Lorraine Borroughs’ Camae, the play sabotages itself and that initial potency is lost, returning only for a few brief flickering seconds in the final montage

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kursk at the Young Vic

Put out the light, and then put out the light. Sometimes the most audacious thing a theatre director can do is to plunge the audience into blackness. For, in the dark, the mind creates its own lasting horrors.

In Kursk, only a few pitch black seconds patterned with glimmering green are sufficient for the audience to gain an awful inkling into what the last days of a group of Russian submariners, trapped at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, may have been like.

Inspired by the submarine disaster of 2000, Bryony Lavery’s new play sees her collaborating with Sound&Fury, a company with a good track record in creating bold theatrical experiences.

The play is set aboard a British submarine that has been tasked with covertly photographing the Kursk, a state-of-the-art Russian nuclear sub. The Young Vic’s Maria studio has been transformed into a two-tier space in which the audience are free to move around. It is possible to go down amongst the performers and watch the scenes up close or stand on the walk-ways and watch everything unfold from above.

The designer, John Bausor, has created a believable, immersive interior. There are bunk beds, a mess table, captain’s quarters, flickering control panels and a periscope, while the directors, Mark Espiner and Dan Jones, have successfully created an atmosphere that is both claustrophobic – one learns to flinch at every clink and clang – but also everyday, ordinary, one of routine. The men onboard the sub mock each other; they banter and bicker; they observe little rituals; they sing in the showers; they wait eagerly for messages from home, for the telegrams from their wives and partners which are their only contact with the world outside the reinforced metal walls. The cast convinces as men obliged to live in close proximity to one another.

By observing the lives of the British crew, the unseen crew of the Russian submarine are also humanised and paralleled. So when an explosion sends the Kursk plummeting to the seabed, one can easily picture a similar set of men, trapped but alive, helplessly waiting for death or rescue. This is the basis of the play’s main moral dilemma: whether the British crew should do what they can to save these men, even if it means betraying their presence and jeopardizing their mission. Borders and orders become irrelevant, the Russians are human beings who might possibly by saved.

Alongside this, Laurence Mitchell's commanding officer is seen grappling with whether to let one of his crew know some bad news from home. It seems smaller in the scheme of things, yet just as emotionally potent.

This is a thrilling piece of theatre making on two counts, for it is just as tense as any cinematic exploration of this masculine, underwater world, like The Hunt for Red October or the gruelling Das Boot. It is also thrilling in the amount of control it affords its audience; one dictates one’s own experiences, choosing when to zoom in and when to pull back. It is in this way that the visual punch line to a rather good gag featuring a mysterious noise which must, by necessity, be tracked down and accounted for, became obvious far earlier to those audience members standing directly above the offending individual than to those standing way across the studio.

The real beauty of the production is in its details and the seemingly authentic world it so completely creates. There is humour here, but also horror, as the dark, last days of the men of the Kursk are left to the imagination to work its worst on.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Not much time for blogging of late due to stuff and things and general elsewhere occupied-ness. Two of my friends got married in a wedding of near-cinematographic wonderfulness on a recent sun-blessed weekend and my flatmate did lots of lovely things with compost and seedlings and planters and now we have lettuces in the garden, growing in a discarded butler sink of all things – it is too Sunday supplement for words.

And obviously there was some theatre. Quite a bit of theatre. I reviewed Michael Grandage’s Hamlet for Theatermania and I am Montana at the Arcola for The Stage. Last night I went to the Globe for the second time this season to see Thea Sharrock’s As You Like It, an interesting if slightly patchy production. While not quite balmy, the rain held off at least and the Globe worked its twilight magic and afterwards Helen and I strolled along the south bank to the National to join some other friends who were in the post-Phedre phase of their evening and there was wine and it was good.

A proper, actual review of As You Like It to come. At some point, maybe.