Friday, February 26, 2010

Off the Endz at the Royal Court

Bola Agbaje appears to have taken a considerable step back from her flawed but intermittently exhilarating debut, Gone Too Far! Off The Endz, her third major work and second for the Royal Court, is a straightforward morality tale built seemingly with Duplo blocks.

The play deals in stock types. David and Kojo are friends from way back. David is the bad boy, always in and out of prison, exuding disdain for honest toil; while Kojo is hardworking and determined to get off the Endz (the estate on which they live) and make a better life for himself and his family.

David – having just been released after an indeterminate stretch inside for an indeterminate crime and needing a place to stay – heads straight to see his friend. There he finds that Kojo’s girlfriend, Sharon, with who he was once also romantically involved, is pregnant and that the couple have plans to buy a house together. Scornful of the way they live yet happy to sponge of them until he finds his feet, David shows no interest in getting a job of any kind; he sneers at the minimum wage positions offered to him at job centre, regarding such work as beneath him, and decides that drug dealing is the only way he can make the kind of money he wants without losing face.

Kojo’s attempts to convince him that hard work and slow slog are the better way to go are met with derision, especially when it transpires that, though Sharon doesn’t know it, the couple are deeply in debt, weighed down with unmanageable credit card bills, and that Kojo is on the verge of losing his job.

Where Agbaje succeeds is in showing the shifting bonds between the three main characters and showing how David subtly slides between Kojo and Sharon. The central dilemma, however, is set out in a very basic way and there’s a total lack of suspense in regards to which way David is going to turn. The fallout from the choices he makes is totally predictable.

Too often Agbaje resorts to interminable domestic scenes (with – faint – echoes of John Osborne) in which angry people shout over at each other over ironing boards, though she does deliver a few striking moments. The scene where David discovers that the estate is now apparently ruled by weapon-packing primary school kids is both amusing and unnerving, and a clash with Kojo’s receptionist succinctly illustrates how uneasy David is with normal social situations and how he compensates with aggression, making trouble for himself in the process.

The tone of the play is, at times, pretty condescending; the wants and needs and hopes of these characters are spelt out in the biggest block capitals and while there is such a thing as being elegantly economical in approach, this isn’t it. It’s all a bit simplistic and naive and feels overstretched at less than an hour and a half. Both world views presented are narrow in the extreme and the play seems closed off to any possible middle ground between Kojo and Sharon’s joyless, middle class aspirational grind and David’s murky criminal dealings.

Agbaje also leaves some potentially interesting avenues unexplored. David’s attitude to women is pretty repugnant: he expects Sharon to clean up after him and his attitude seems to infect Kojo, to some degree. The play even seems to lay the blame for their debt problems at Sharon’s door. Despite holding down a job herself, their situation appears to stem from her excessive spending on store cards and ignorance of their true financial state, though Kojo’s determination to be a man and provide for her and his child, things he sees as fundamentally intertwined, is also a factor. The subtle assertion that women and their material demands can force men into difficult corners and make them act against their better judgement is something it shares with The Wire (though sadly the comparison ends there).

Jeremy Herrin’s production is relatively punchy and the cast do a solid enough job, particularly Lorraine Boroughs as Sharon who seems to do the most to give some shape to her character. Ashley Walters gives a decent account of a man whose charm and easy manner masks a fairly unattractive personality and who can snap with little provocation. But none of this is sufficient compensation for a thinly written and unsatisfying play.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Measure for Measure at the Almeida

Measure for Measure is often categorised as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, meaning it doesn’t easily fit into the boxes marked ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’, but falls awkwardly in between. It’s a morally muddy piece that raises as many questions as it answers. A better way of viewing it is as a challenge rather than a problem; it takes clarity of vision and some strong assured performances to pull it off with any degree of success, something Michael Attenborough manages with his modern dress production at the Almeida.

The first few minutes are full of writhing and thrusting bodies, a gaggle of prostitutes tottering about in quim-skimming skirts, which rapidly serves to establish the Vienna of the play as a place riddled with vice and corruption.

The Duke, who seems keen to clean things up, decides it’s necessary for him to view society from a different perspective, his identity concealed under a friar’s cowl. He appoints the uptight Angelo to be his deputy in his absence, a man who at first seems up to the task; he is rigid and diligent, excessively so, and quite able to send a man to his death for having sex out of wedlock.
Isabella, a novitiate nun, clad from neck to ankle in black, comes to plead for her condemned brother and Angelo is knocked off course by the mere sight of her. She taps into some dark seam within him and he attempts to use his new authority to claim what he suddenly, feverishly needs to possess.

Rory Kinnear is superb as Angelo. To begin with he is socially awkward, a bit of a nebbish in his specs and cheap suit. There is something almost endearing about the way he frets about Isabella’s imminent arrival, putting in his contacts and tidying his desk, but this is quickly undercut by his sweaty-palmed pawing of her and his very indecent proposal, his actions charged with lust and frustration. Yet he seems almost as shocked as she is by his behaviour, by the aggressive, scheming individual he finds himself becoming, a man driven by urges he has perhaps not felt before and can’t process in any normal way. As played by Kinnear, he’s a conniving hypocrite but not a monster.

Anna Maxwell Martin is clear-eyed and determined as Isabella, perfectly plausible as a woman who would consider sacrificing her brother’s life in order to maintain her chastity. Her inner struggle is evident but there is also a slight trace of petulance and self-righteousness to her sheen of dignity.

Ben Miles’s Duke Vincentio remains an enigma. He seems slightly uncomfortable within his own skin, nervy and troubled. Though clearly unsettled by the murky world he finds himself in, he takes some pleasure in the complex string of machinations and deceptions he instigates and his motivations are never quite clear. Returned to his ducal finery he seems oddly exposed and inadequate.

Though his is a far broader performance, Lloyd Hutchinson displays sound comic timing and judgement as the manipulative wide boy, Lucio, playing both sides against each other and revelling in the chaos, though his punishment for his behaviour seems excessively harsh.

The seedy, red-light aesthetic evoked by Lez Brotherston’s set doesn’t always sit comfortably with tone of the piece. The clash is too dramatic. Yet, for the most part, Attenborough’s production manages to achieve resonance whilst still fully conveying the play’s complexities. The cast are a joy to watch and when the production hits its stride the whole things sings.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Vic

John Guare’s play takes its name from the ‘human web’ theory that states that every person is, at most, six steps away from any other person on the planet whoever or wherever they may be, anyone from, as wealthy Manhattanite Ouisa Kittredge notes, "the President of the United States or a gondolier in Venice."

Guare’s play is very much concerned with ideas of separation and connection, ideas that carry a possibly even greater resonance now, as the methods in which we are capable of connecting with one another has changed so dramatically since 1990 when the play was written. The key event of the play simply couldn’t happen these days. Facts could be checked within seconds, iPhones consulted, names Googled. In this way the play gains more weight than it perhaps deserves as a telling portrait of life in a pre-internet age, a world on the cusp.

Inspired by actual events, Six Degrees begins with Ouisa and her art dealer husband Flan busy buttering up their wealthy South African friend, when a young black man arrives at their door, bleeding and upset – the victim of a mugging. At first they are baffled and alarmed (Flan was midway through trying to engineer a two million dollar sale of a Cezanne), but the young man, Paul, claims to know their children, to be at Harvard with them, and, what’s more, he lets slip that he is the son of a famous film star, an icon of his times: Sidney Poitier, star of In the Heat of the Night and, as Paul, says pointedly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

And he does end up cooking them dinner, over which they discuss his thesis on Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield’s appeal to alienated young men. Charmed as they are by his company, they insist he stays the night, only to be woken by unusual sounds and to discover Paul with a gay street hustler. They ask him to leave and only discover later, when telling their story to friends, the full extent of Paul’s deception.

David Grindley's production is solid and, perhaps, over polished. It’s a little too glossy which at least is fitting in a play about the veneer of money and status. The production is, if not dominated than certainly driven, by Obi Abili’s captivating performance as Paul, the heart and yet also the void of the play. He’s charismatic, but also, as becomes increasingly clear, needy and delusional. Yet he still retains a magnetic quality, an elegance of manner, even as his hold on who he is fragments.

Anthony Head and Lesley Manville do a decent enough job as the Kittredges, though only the latter really stands out as Ouisa, haunted by her encounter with Paul, begins to examine her life and her marriage. The Kittredges live in a fine Park Avenue apartment – rendered as a series of oxblood coloured Rothko-esque panels by set designer Jonathan Fensom – and have surrounded themselves with fine things, with antique ink wells and the (rather too heavily symbolic) double-sided Kandinsky, but it is the thought of more wealth, those rows of gleaming zeroes, that really makes their eyes shine. Guare is saying, non too subtly, that they are wearing masks, as much so as Paul.

The first section of the production, during which Paul charms his way into the Kittredges’ apartment, is smoothly handled, but then as events unfold and Paul’s story fractures, it seems to lose its way. The simplicity and fluidity of the early scenes is replaced with a bittier feel: shorter scenes and more characters. The Kittredges’ children are played as foot-stamping stereotypes by actors who look rather too old for the roles. But Abili and Manville keep things moving and the play gains rather than suffers from being so firmly fixed to its time.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Knives in Hens at the Arcola

David Harrower’s 1995 debut play, first performed at the Traverse in Edinburgh, is as rich as the earth on which its characters depend. It is a pulsing piece of writing, alive with wonder and the power of words.

The play is set in a rural pre-industrial landscape where language still has a near scared potency. The naming of things, the spilling of one’s thoughts and one’s self onto paper, is an act akin to what God does. The gift of the written word allows people to tear themselves open and look inside, to question what was once accepted, to buck against what was once thought to be as solid and immoveable as stone.

At centre of the play is a triangular relationship between the village ploughman, known as Pony William because of his way with the horses, his young wife, and the local miller. Literate and knowledgeable about the outside world, the miller leads an isolated life. His work, which is removed from the toil of the fields, and his power – his ownership and control over the apparatus for turning grain to flour - means he is viewed by the villagers with suspicion, if not outright hatred.
To the ploughman’s wife, the miller is a source of superstition. She fears him and yet is also fascinated by him; with his books and his ink-pen, he holds the keys to something vital and she knows it. He becomes a catalyst to her awakening, the blossoming of her sense of self. The young woman does not cease to be a part of a constant, turning world, driven by the shifting of the seasons, the breaking of day and the needs of the fields, but Harrower shows her waking to her place and power within this world.

Serdar Billis’ atmospheric revival doesn’t quite probe as deeply into this play’s rich ground as it might, but he grasps the particular rhythms of the dialogue and gives them space and shape. Designer Hannah Clarke has turned the Arcola’s Studio 2 into a dark, evocative space. The stage is loamy and soft underfoot, blurring the line between outside and in. The lighting is low and there’s a sense of oppressiveness about the space that suits the piece.

The cast all seem comfortable with the weight of the text and Jodie McNee is particularly striking as the young woman slowly making connections with her inner and outer worlds. Phil Cheadle, as the miller, displays a nonchalance to his situation that masks his sense of loss and separation and Nathaniel Martello-White, as the ploughman, conveys a quiet confidence in his view of the world. Live cello accompaniment is provided by Maria Rijo, who sits clad in black at the side of the stage. Her music never clashes with the language, but the playing at times feels repetitive - there’s little variance in mood or tone.

The production’s main flaw is perhaps an over-reliance on atmosphere, on creating a strong visual sense of this dark world full of things to fear, and the production could do with greater degree of clarity, especially in the later scenes where crucial events and the sense of coming change are somewhat muffled and muddled.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre

Bit late to the table with this one, but still...

Lucy Prebble’s ambitious and assured play about the spectacular collapse of the energy company Enron, the biggest bankruptcy in American history, comes to the West End by way of the Royal Court and Chichester, trailing a comet tail of glittering reviews in its wake.

A Broadway transfer is now also imminent. Going to see this show knowing all this, it's inevitable that one’s expectations will be high – given all that’s been said and written, how could they not be? Fortunately the production is, in its own, sometimes overwhelming way, quite dazzling. Rupert Goold directs with a characteristic level of visual invention and exuberance though he sometimes trowels on the different theatrical techniques.

There are song and dance numbers, video projections, puppetry and even a choreographed sequence with light sabres, yet his approach to the material, though it can feel excessive, also feels apt. The production demands your attention. It’s glossy and unstoppable, which seems entirely fitting.

Beneath all Goold’s glitter, Prebble’s play is quite conventional in terms of structure. She depicts in a linear and comparatively straightforward way Enron’s path to implosion as the company is steered into ever more risky waters by its ambitious CEO Jeffrey Skilling (Samuel West) and by the fawning but fiscally creative Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill). For a while things seem fine. The share price keeps climbing and Skilling keeps pushing the company onwards, expanding into new markets – but the money simply isn’t there. Having purposefully moved Enron away from dealing in the “things you can hold” into more theoretical trading territory, Skilling’s profits are virtual, his debts are mounting. When Fastow suggests a legal loophole that might allow them to camouflage this, at least until things improve, Skilling is intrigued. Neither of them believe they can fail (Skilling proudly describes himself not just as "smart" but as "fucking smart"); it simply doesn’t occur to them that things might go wrong.

Prebble is careful not to make Skilling into a one-dimensional villain. Though never exactly sympathetic, she does at least make him human, a thing she achieves primarily via scenes showing his slightly baffled interactions with his young daughter (they count dollar bills together). At the same time she does not shy away from showing how his hubris devastated lives; the collapse of the company stripped many employees of their life savings and left them with nothing.

West’s superb performance gives the production its pulse. In his hands Skilling is an enigmatic and intriguing figure, highly intelligent, ruthless and manipulative when needs be, and utterly convinced of his own brilliance, but also undoubtedly passionate about what he does. It’s clear that greed is only one of many motivating factors; his is a familiar dramatic trajectory, the archetypal rise and fall – only when he falls he takes a whole heap of people with him. Physically, West transforms himself repeatedly as the play progresses. From a portly outsider with unfortunate hair at the start he morphs into the epitome of the slick executive and then, as the full reality of the situation comes to light, he subtly conveys Skilling’s unravelling.

As company chairman Ken Lay, Tim Pigott-Smith is more of a conventional boo-hiss figure with a reptilian steeliness concealed beneath his friendly gee-shucks exterior. Goodman-Hill is also impressive as the smart but socially awkward and rather repellent Fastow.

Goold’s directorial approach can be playful and witty, but often when he’s drawn to a particular visual device, he can’t resist returning to it again and again. The first use of dinosaur-headed performers to represent the ‘raptors’ (the term used by Fastow to describe his debt guzzling scheme) is both striking and amusing, a deft way of making something quite complex more easily graspable, but their impact is diluted by Goold’s repeated use of them.

Some of the imagery feels forced and overdone. The use of three blind mice in the opening sequence lacks subtly and the paralleling of the panicked shredding of incriminating Enron paperwork with the raining debris of the World Trade Centre is simply crass and unnecessary.

Though the production is, in the main, a fascinating and exciting, if inevitably condensed, depiction of one of the defining events of the last decade, there are several moments where it's tempting to call out to the stage and say: "yes OK, point made, we get it already."

Reviewed for musicOMH