Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Red at the Donmar Warehouse

John Logan’s play, Red, is more successful than most in translating the world of visual art to the stage and in achieving a workable balance between the said and the shown.

In order to explore the creative drive of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko he employs a device that might have come across as rather mechanical were it not for the assured performances of the two actors. Logan’s play takes the form of a two-hander: a series of, often very one-sided conversations, between Rothko and his young assistant, played by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. It could all too easily have felt clunky and forced, but the production manages to avoid straying too far into the terrain of cliché.

It’s 1958 and Mark Rothko is at work on a series of paintings he has been commissioned to produce for the Four Seasons Restaurant of the Seagram Building. The play is set in Rothko’s Bowery studio where natural light has been banished and great, shimmering squares of red dominate the set. Rothko badgers and berates the younger man, lecturing him and dismissing his ideas - dismissing his existence. He talks constantly about art. There is no other. Art is everything. He expresses a hope that his paintings will put the wealthy diners off their dinner and eventually turns down the commission, returning the not inconsiderable fee.

Logan’s Rothko is a rather unsympathetic character. His capacious intellect and his consuming passion are coupled with a "titanic self-absorption." As written, he’s a bully and, at times, a bore. He takes pride in explaining how his generation of artists stomped on the cubists but then bristles at the thought of sharing gallery space with the emerging wave of pop artists. (The obligatory quip is made about Warhol’s work and the unlikelihood that anyone will care about it in the future).

Michael Grandage’s production grapples with one of the main hurdles in any play concerned with matters of art. Painting and sculpting – the processes of art – are not easy to stage in any plausible way (the charcoal sketch scene in The Pitmen Painters a notable exception). In a wonderfully physical scene, Grandage has Rothko and his assistant prep one of the large canvases, splashing red paint about the place until the floor looks - aptly as it turns out for the younger man' parents were stabbed to death - like a crime scene and their arms and faces are coated in the splatter of the of abattoir.

The performances go a good way to papering over the gaps and cracks in the writing. Alfred Molina, stocky and shaven-headed, is a necessarily dominant Rothko, bullish and aggressive, using his intellect as a weapon, yet not uncharismatic, not without charm. There is a bright flare of humanity and humour in him, though it’s often well hidden. Eddie Redmayne is the perfect foil to Molina. Wiry and wired, for much of the early part of the play he’s little more than a sounding board for Rothko’s tirades, but Redmanye has a way of responding with intelligence and fire, qualities evident even when he’s silent. Eventually he grows increasingly intolerant of Rothko’s indifference to him and his determination to be significant to the detriment of all else. He rebels, he bites back, and, in doing so, becomes the catalyst for Rothko’s rejection of the Seagram commission.

Christopher Oram’s set, warmly lit by Neil Austin, recreates Rothko’s studio: cavernous and concrete-walled, spattered and practical, complete with the pulleys the artist used to manoeuvre his large canvases into place.

Logan’s play is undoubtedly a polished piece, composed with care; but while it’s neither as cumbersome as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s recent The Line (a play about Edgar Degas and Suzanne Valadon), nor as overwrought as Dea Loher’s Land Without Words, which also channelled Rothko, it’s just too neat a package - it’s an essay on art given flesh and voice, but though Molina and Redmayne do much to counter this, the play leaves the heart and the gut largely untroubled.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, December 11, 2009

1984 at BAC

Though the creative use of puppetry is what theatre company Blind Summit is known for, puppets don’t dominate their new production of 1984 – they don’t need to. In George Orwell’s terrifying vision of life in a totalitarian state, every aspect of life is subject to control.

The company’s previous work includes the Charles Bukowski influenced Low Life and they also provided the puppets for Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, but here the puppets are only part of the fabric of a witty, sinister production.

A neat framing device sees the story of the thought criminal Winston Smith and ‘his whore’ Julia being performed by a travelling community theatre group as a lesson on what happens when you defy Big Brother. Winston is a worker in the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his days rewriting old news reports in order to bolster Big Brother’s omnipotence and erase the very existence of dissenters. He has been harbouring doubts about the regime for some time and embarks on a furtive relationship with the similarly disillusioned Julia. When they are together, they are human – living, loving individuals – not simply cogs in a vast grinding machine (it is fitting that the production visually references King Vidor’s The Crowd).

Winston and Julia rent a shabby room in the Prole District, where they believe they will be safe from prying eyes, at least in the short term, but Big Brother sees everything and it is with a degree of inevitability that Winston finds himself facing the harrowing prospect of Room 101 in the Ministry of Love.

Mark Down’s production draws out the comedy of the situation, something that was admittedly not particular evident in Orwell’s text, and enthuses every scene with visual ingenuity. There are some wonderful executed moments and a scattering of chairs and some pieces of cardboard are all that’s required to recreate the various scenes of the novel. A particular highlight is the staging of the rebel text The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism using a white bed sheet and some cardboard signs; it’s a fast, funny and very inventive scene. And of course there are the puppets, simple yet emotive things. There are puppet birds and bunnies and a spindly child threatened by falling bombs. These are stringless puppets, each limb manipulated by a performer and the connotations of this within the context of the narrative are clear (though the company spell things out for those not paying attention).

The ensemble cast work well together and Simon Scardifield, as Winston, and Julia Innocenti, as Julia, convey a strong sense of being normal people in an abnormal world. The balance falters a little towards the end and, perhaps as a result of the framing device, the final scenes of torture suffer from being too stylized – the full horror of Orwell’s denouement is diluted.

Despite that, this remains a potent, engaging and highly inventive rendering of a novel that has lost none of its edge or resonance over the decades.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Enjoyment of show enhanced on spotting this in the bar afterwards:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays at the Bush

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays, two bittersweet monologues about lost love, were first seen in Edinburgh. Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About a Girl He Once Loved premiered at the Pleasance in 2008 while Stefan Golaszewski is a Widower was performed at the Traverse earlier this summer. This is the first time they’ve been staged together, but they share similar themes and preoccupations and work well as a double bill.

Speaks About a Girl is a lovingly detailed account of a teenage brief encounter with a girl called Betty. The couple first meets over a packet of pork scratching in a pub, exchange texts, and go on one long, strange date over the course of which it becomes clear that this is the only night they will ever spend together.

Golaszewski really captures the tone of someone who is in theory an adult, a man, able to drive a car and buy a pint in a pub, but in reality anything but - his ideas about women and life culled mainly from Home and Away. The words fizz from him – his shock that a girl like Betty would even consider going out with him his palpable and his pain on discovering that his imagined future with her is not to be is comparably raw. The language is vivid and joyous and energetic, and the monologue is cleverly grounded in a particular time through the use of the comedy catchphrases of the day (mainly Fast Show derived).

The second play is far more ambitious in intention. The year is 2056 and a white-suited Golaszewski speaks from the perspective of an elderly man who has recently lost his wife. He talks about his marriage and the awe and excitement and oddness he felt on his wedding day. He describes the joy of fatherhood and the awful event that would tear an unmendable hole in his marriage. He speaks with bitterness about the indignity of aging, the diminishing, the growing frailty, the pain. But while the first play had vibrancy this one feels weighted by its own striving to be something more than it is.

The language - the verbal bursts and lexical dexterity - that were so appealing in the first play, feel jarring in this new context. Golaszewski over-salts the text; the words lead him rather than the other way round. His writing, which proved so effective when describing a young man, poised on the cusp of adulthood and fizzing with life, is less successful when conveying someone older, someone broken down. There are some wonderful lines, some lovely descriptive phrases, but the play feels as if it needs to be simpler, cleaner – instead it has to fight against its own verbal clutter. It’s not without poignancy and a degree of bitterness, a black thread of a disappointment and despair, but they emerge despite rather than because of the writing.

Golaszewski is an affable, energetic performer, who pitches his material well, drawing out the emotional notes, but only in the first play do all the elements come together in a truly satisfying way.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Jiggery Pokery at BAC

Amanda Lawrence has a very versatile face. With her hair upswept, her neck taut and her mouth pursed in a manner that suggest she has just become aware of a rather disagreeable smell in the room, she looks uncannily like Charles Hawtrey, the British actor best remembered for his roles in the Carry On films.

In her one-woman show based on Hawtrey’s life, Lawrence shows his evolution from an eager child actor to a lonely, bitter and gin-riddled old man who makes passes at cabbies and shouts "fawk orf" at anyone foolhardy enough to approach him.

A very private person, Hawtrey attended the Italia Conti School and played a Lost Boy on stage in Peter Pan before his film career took off with the Will Hay movies. Lawrence shows him to be something of a mother’s boy, a prim and keen young man whose once bright career hit a wall when his style and manner were deemed to be out of step with the times and only really bloomed again with the Carry Ons – though eventually his alcoholism meant that he was dropped from these too.

At the start of his career he adopted the name of theatrical impresario Sir Charles Hawtrey and sometimes claimed him as his father, though this was not the case. He clearly had a difficult relationship with his own background and yet his relationship with his mother seems to have been one of the most significant in his life. Lawrence poignantly illustrates the mix of frustration, anger and affection he feels for her and shows how her descent into senility foreshadows his own decline.

The production itself is intentionally frantic with Lawrence playing some fifty roles including Sid James and Laurence Olivier. Director Paul Hunter (of Told by an Idiot) moves events along at rapid pace; at one point he stages a conversation between three characters, Hawtrey, his mother and Madame Conti, forcing Lawrence to switch roles for almost every other line of dialogue. This she does by jumping from chair to chair, while donning and removing her round, wire-framed spectacles at an insane rate. Even though Lawrence is skilled enough to make the shift from role to role feel effortless, the direction forces the audience to acknowledge the amount of effort involved; it underlines the one-ness in the ‘one woman’ show.

Cathy Wren’s cluttered set is full of detail, some of which remain unexplained – such as the hoarded loo rolls and bedsteads of Hawtrey’s boozy twilight in Deal. From this detritus, various props are picked up and imaginatively woven into the narrative: a tasselled lamp shade becomes a hat, a shopping trolley doubles as a taxi cab (and, later, Olivier’s chauffer-driven car), and a table and a marker pen are used to illustrate an unfortunate incident when an aging, semi-clad Hawtrey had to be plucked from a burning building by a fireman.

Lawrence’s performance, the sheer skill and energy of it – her neatly pinned up hair has all but escaped by the end as a result of the physical demands of the piece – can’t be faulted. She mimes in perfect time to audio snippets of Hawtrey’s films and creates a well rounded impression of a complex, difficult and not particularly likeable man. But for all her efforts, Hawtrey remains too big an enigma; his sexuality, his disappointments - fame tasted fleetingly, the shadow of celebrity, Carry On fans still knocking on his door years later - don't quite mesh into a whole and there's a patchwork quality to the piece that, while inevitable, is also frustrating.

Reviewed for musicOMH