Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hedda Gabler at Richmond Theatre

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a woman adept at making her own prisons.

Though she is pressured by both family and society to behave a certain manner, to resign herself to life as a wife and mother, the greatest pressure on her seems to come from within.

Hedda has taken it upon herself to marry a distinctly average, academically inclined man, George Tesman, and now that their honeymoon is over she finds herself living in the house she had only pretended to adore, hemmed in, trapped.

When she finds the maid has left the windows open in the drawing room, she orders the curtain drawn, to shield her from the sun, to keep her in shadow. She seems to take a perverse kind of pleasure in her misery, to cultivate it.

Rosamund Pike’s Hedda is, by turns, both malevolent and radiant. There is such determination in her eyes when she lifts a match to the simpering Mrs Elvsted’s hair and threatens to burn it, that one gets the impression it is only a nagging lethargy that stops her from carrying out the act. Pike revels in the character’s contradictions; Hedda is forceful and seductive, yet also passive. There are actions she could take to save herself but she does not take them. Needy and grating though she may be, Mrs Elvsted has greater courage, going after the things she cares about.

Hedda is also the daughter of a general and still has something of the air of a spoilt child about her, though one grown into a volatile, demanding adult. She courts danger, nurtures it, but often buckles under the consequences of the mess she has made. She spars with Tim McInnerny’s creepy, manipulative Judge Brack and enjoys the hold she has over Colin Tierney’s brilliant but weak Loevborg. As the play progresses she becomes ever more inward looking, thriving on her pain and frustration; as she sits by the furnace feeding in pages of Lovboerg’s manuscript, the lights dim and her face is picked out by the glow of the flames – she looks giddy, wicked, and far from blind to the outcome of her actions.

Adrian Noble’s production is handsome and solid but it is also rather blunt in places, especially in the concluding scenes. Hedda’s unease and near disgust about the child she is likely carrying are apparent already without her beating with her hands at her corseted stomach. Her despair in these last moments is perhaps, too marked, too vocal. Conversely Hedda’s fierce belief in beauty seems underplayed and her wish to see Loevborg with vine leaves in his hair becomes a hollow, airless chant.

Noble allows Pike to dominate the production and it is the right decision – she does not disappoint. She is glorious to look at, captivating, a single glowing point amid the muted reds and blacks of Anthony Ward set. Everyone else is secondary, in every sense, though there some strong support performances. Robert Glenister veers between bear-like and boyish as Tesman, genuinely moved to receive his old pair of slippers from his aunt and sometimes so happy he simply bobs up and down; he is clearly still a little baffled by the fact he has landed this strange, imposing woman as a wife. McInnerny has a kind of silken unpleasantness as Judge Brack but Tierney’s Lovborg is rather too muted and when Hedda hands him a loaded pistol, he accepts it with only a flicker of indecision.

The pacing is more sure-footed and events build inexorably towards their bleak conclusion. There is something incredibly wrenching about Hedda’s final, frantic playing of the piano before the shot and the silence that follows.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Sanctuary Lamp at the Arcola

Tom Murphy’s bleak but tender play is said to have caused outrage after its first performance in 1975. Yet it’s far from being an attack on the Church; it’s a more questioning and layered piece of writing than that, as demonstrated by the playwright’s revival of his own work for the b*spoke theatre company.

The play concerns three characters from society’s margins who seek solace in an empty church overnight. In need of a place to stay, former strongman Harry is given a job as church clerk, and charged with keeping the sanctuary lamp lit. Also taking refuge in the church is Maudie, a waif-like and simply spoken teenage runaway, shaken by the loss of her child.

They are joined by Francisco, Harry’s one-time circus colleague and a rival for the affections of Olga the contortionist. As the night passes, bolstered by fishn and chips and communion wine, they share their stories and make their confessions to one another.

Robert O’Mahoney is bass-voiced and kindly as Harry, his character’s spiritual need palpable, while Declan Conlon is more volatile as Francisco, railing against the Church with his own particular logic, and Kate Brennan is suitably delicate as Maudie, a girl in search of answers of her own. Swaddled in a choirister's robe she looks appropriately ethereal as the third member of this somewhat twisted trinity. Bosco Hogan's Monsignor, on the other hand, is little more than a pleasant but ineffectual adminisatrator type who is, crucially, absent when the talk turns to matters of the soul.

Monica Frawley’s set, with its three thick 'stone' pillars, its pews and confessional, creates a sense of height and space in the Arcola’s rather squat-ceilinged main studio that is convincingly church-like.

Murphy's production of his own material is more problematic; it's rather monotonous and plodding in pace, which has the effect of downplaying the richness of writing.

Slighty extended version of a review for The Stage

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Return at BAC

Return, a new piece of storytelling by Polarbear, is a tale of home and its hold on you.

Told in a straightforward, casual manner, eschewing elaborate verbal gymnastics, it takes the form of a spoken screenplay. Polarbear gives the audience a camera lens view of events as his main character Noah returns to the town he left behind.

Performed, without music, against a blue box of a background, he describes close ups, fade outs, establishing shots; he makes the story live visually. Occasionally lines of text or the red flicker of a digital clock will spill across the floors and walls, but the main tool used is his voice. As he explains, he comes from a place where people tell stories: they talk, they don’t write.

So Noah comes home to Birmingham after years away and finds the life he left to an extent unchanged. He bickers amiably with his brother; he bumps into an old school friend, now working in a supermarket. There is little in the way of narrative tension. He pisses off his mum over dinner and has a fleeting encounter with a girl he once had a thing for, but that’s about it. Instead the chief relationship being explored here is the one between Noah and the place that he comes to see has shaped him; the place he left behind in body, but never really left, not completely.

As he says, his work ever since has been "soaked in home." Though the story and its telling are intentionally lacking in flash, there is a strong awareness of the rhythms of natural speech, the way people talk to one another, the poetry of the ordinary and everyday. There is wit and humour too, plus a peppering of references to Steven Seagal movies, The Terminator and Reservoir Dogs. His descriptions are sharp and well-honed, not quite minimalist, but ungarnished, giving only what is necessary to create a potent picture. He describes a barmaid collecting "empty glasses and out of date compliments" and the "butterfly of blood" on a white shirt after a fight.

The hour-long show is a quietly compelling and bittersweet piece of story telling, though sometimes a clearer differentiation between characters would be welcome; the use of visuals also feels a little underdeveloped and it would have been nice to see them made more of.

Return is being performed as part of the BAC’s The Big Story, along with Jon Haynes' The Poof Downstairs and Little Bulb’s wonderful Sporadical, and on Thursdays, it will be performed in different spaces around the building.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sutra at Sadler's Wells

The beautiful contradiction of the Shaolin warrior monks – their unique intertwining of the spiritual and the physical – forms the heart of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s extraordinary production, Sutra, returning to Sadler’s Wells as part of a European tour.

Rather than simply being a straightforward showcase for the monks’ extraordinary kung fu skills, this is an often contemplative piece punctuated by passages of quiet. This has the effect of making the sudden bursts of agility and movement all the more dazzling. There are the requisite backflips and soaring jump-kicks, moments when gravity seems to have loosened its hold, but there are also more peaceful, meditative episodes - an apt balance.

The production begins with a lone dancer, originally performed by Cherkakaoui, now by Ali Ben Lofti Thabet, sitting at the side of the stage with a boy monk. They are a playing with a series of tiny wooden boxes, one for each of the man-sized pine boxes that lay at the centre of the stage. As the first adult monk appears on stage, swirling a sword around his head, Thabet replicates his movements with his fingers, giving the impression of controlling his actions.

These wooden boxes are the creation of artist Antony Gormley and they give the show its shape and spine. They are basic and functional things yet also highly versatile. They are stacked like shelves, worn like turtle-shells, made to form the petals of a flower and, in one precarious and truly gasp-inducing moment, they are set tumbling into one another like dominoes. Sometimes the boxes resemble coffins, sometimes they become prisons in which the monks lay writhing and kicking, and sometimes they form a wall, keeping the lone questing Westerner on the outside. Thabet has his own box, which is painted silver, marking out his other-ness. At times he seems to be their puppeteer but more often than not he just stands by and watches and it is only at the very end that he gets to join in, performing as one of them.

The monks initially wear traditional robes in shades of silver grey that match the surrounding walls before changing into black, western-style suits and then, later, changing back into their original outfits. In their cool suits they give off a different kind of vibe; their fluidity of movement is the same but something is both added and subtracted, making you think of the Western take on kung fu as filtered through numerous movies of varying quality.

As useful a tool as the boxes are – with their connotations of enclosure, of the mind and of the soul – they are also sometimes limiting, in the sense that they impose a need to create yet more ways of employing them; the moments when the monks dance in formation in front of the boxes are some of the show’s strongest.

The piece is performed to music by the composer Szymon Brzóska Рplayed live by musicians seated behind the opaque back wall Рwhich verges from the delicate to the aggressively percussive. The 65 minute piece is driven by a desire to explore and understand; rather than a collage of noise and force and visual spectacle at which the audience is invited to gawp, an attempt is made to bridge a cultural chasm, to connect.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Dunsinane at Hampstead Theatre

"You seem to think peace is a natural state but the truth is the exact opposite. Peace is what the sea looks like in a dead calm – a rare and beautiful moment."

David Greig’s new play for the RSC is vivid in its use of language and wide in scope. Set in eleventh century Scotland, it is a sequel of sorts, picking up where Macbeth left off. Birnam Wood has advanced on Dunsinane (following some drama studenty tree-empathy exercises on the part of the soldiers) and Macbeth, ‘the tyrant’, is dead. His wife, however, despite rumours to the contrary, is very much alive as, more problematically, is her son.

Siward, Earl of Northumberland and leader of the English army, his son slain by Macbeth in battle, must deal with the aftermath. There’s strife between the various clans and a refusal to accept the authority of Malcolm, the newly crowned king. It soon dawns on the English soldiers that their battle is far from over and that they won’t see their homes again, not before winter; they are stuck in this hostile country, with its equally hostile weather, for the duration.

Held captive in her own castle, Lady Macbeth, known as Gruach, bides her time, convinced of her right to rule, still queen in mind and heart. Greig uses the observations of a young boy soldier to sculpt his narrative and to create a nice juxtaposition with the more heated scenes between Siward and Gruach. As the widowed queen Siobhan Redmond, her red hair tumbling across her shoulders, a flash of fire amidst the murky medieval greys and browns, comports herself with dignity and a regal distance. She speaks with a grudging grace, forced to converse in another tongue, a language she describes as a “woodworker’s tool”, a language that lacks the poetry of Gaelic in its desperate attempts to “capture the world in words”

Yet despite Redmond’s considerable poise, her attempts at seduction of Jonny Phillips’ battle-hardened Siward don’t feel particularly convincing and Roxana Silbert’s production rather fudges her semi-mystical escape, gliding to freedom amidst crowds of clashing soldiers. The more fascinating character is Brian Ferguson’s Malcolm, a man who knows and understands his own weaknesses, who uses them as a shield. He is also adept at balancing and weighing out his words, in the judicious use of ‘seems’ and ‘appears’, spinning the situation to his advantage.

Greig’s play of invasion and insurgence has obvious modern parallels but only occasionally does it hammer them home with excessive force. He contrasts the antics of the young soldiers – ripe with talk of tits and sex, missing their homes, baffled by this foreign land with its alien foods and customs – with the machinations of those in power and relies on slender red threads to link their world with the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Silbert’s production moves smoothly and elegantly from the broad, almost Monty Python and the Holy Grail-esque atmosphere of the opening scenes to the stark, snow-swept landscape of its low-key denouement.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has created a simple, stepped stone set which, while effective, also sometimes feels cramped (especially during a central wedding scene). Though the production is a decent one, it can feel a bit pedestrian in places and one is left with the impression that Greig’s play is a much richer thing than it is fully allowed to be here.

Reviewed for musicOMH