Friday, October 29, 2010

Palace of the End at the Arcola Theatre

This Arcola’s staging of Judith Thompson’s triptych of monologues about Iraq is nothing if not timely, coinciding as it does with both the recent Wikileaks revelations and the results of the inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly. But even if it hadn’t arrived at such an apt time, Jessica Swale’s production would still exert considerable power. The combination of some fine, fine writing and Swale’s superb use of the Arcola’s intimate second studio leaves the audience dazed and unsettled.

The play is divided into three strands. In the first of these Jade Williams plays a young soldier clearly based in large part on Lynndie England. Pregnant and fearful for her future, she feels little real regret for her actions, yet Thompson’s nunaced portrait does not demonise her. It’s a layered account of a young woman from West Virginia for whom casual cruelty has always featured large in her life. She simply doesn’t see the people she has tortured and humiliated as fully human and seems more perturbed about the (mostly vile) comments flying around about her on the internet, especially the ones where she is called ‘ugly’ and, worse, ‘a feminist.’ In Williams’ hands, this woman - this girl - appears simultaneosuly appalled and thrilled at the situation she has found herself in.

The second monologue features Robin Soans in compelling form as Dr David Kelly, contemplating his actions (and his inaction) as he awaits death on Harrowdown Hill. Soans was excellent in the Arcola’s recent production of Pieces of Vincent, and here he gives another powerful performance, one that suucessfully takes a figure from the headlines and makes a man of him once more, a husband, a father, fallible but also noble. Collected and genial at first, he becomes increasingly anguished as he recounts the death of an Iraqi bookseller and his family, people he was close to, a seeming catalyst for his decision to speak out.

The final thread concerns Nehrjas, an Iraqi woman played by Imogen Smith. At first her warm recollections come as welcome relief after the intensity of the David Kelly sequence, but this section is ultimately no less harrowing, as Nehrjas describes the appalling torture of herself and her children at the hands of Saddam’s Secret Police. Smith gives a rich and dignified performance, one that trusts the potency of the text. This last piece provides context for the first two, rooting them, and yet the story exists for itself, it never feels like it’s serving a purpose.

This is not verbatim theatre, the words are drawn from imagination but rooted in truth. This gives Thompson a degree of freedom; there are subtle echoes in the writing, recurring images of flying, of falling, Alice-like, through the looking glass. But Thompson never strays too far from recognisable events. There are some beautiful passages but they’re always anchored to something solid.

Though it’s a common pitfall of monologue-based theatre, Swale’s production is never static; if anything the opposite is true. The actors pace the space, engaging with audience, meeting their eyes. Soans in particular makes the audience aware of the complicity inherent in inaction, making full use of the capacity for connection in such a small venue. He fixes the audience with an interrogative stare, before calmly thanking those gathered for being here to share his last moments.

Simon Kenny’s simple design - twin glass cubes and a solitary tree (which comes to have dual significance) - both divides and unites the three speakers and the stories are further delineated by Christopher Nairne’s lighting, the colour subtly shifting from piece to piece. All these elements are neatly tied together, and the resulting production exerts a considerable and lasting hold. There isn't much time left for the Arcola in their current home (click here for more details of their appeal); if this is one of the last things staged in this space, it makes for a memorable way to bow out.

An extended version of a review that appeared in The Stage.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Charming Man at Theatre 503

Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s new play asks a pertinent question - is it possible to retain one’s integrity within the grip of the political machine? The resulting answer gets lost in a production that, while ambitious in scope, is also problematically muddled and unconvincing.

The main character, Darren, is a youth centre worker who, following an impassioned outburst at a local political meeting, rather improbably becomes the Green Party’s candidate for Number 10. Darren’s lack of political nous, his outsider status, is deemed an asset, but he’s also black and gay and the combination of both these factors works against him in the polls. If he’s to going have a real shot at the top he’ll have to fundamentally change who he is.

The tone of Bisset-Smith’s writing varies wildly, from the broad comedy of Lib Dems on Ice to something much more serious and contemplative: the erosion of Darren’s principles as he succumbs to the continued pressure to make compromises. But the play all too often seems to equate satire with extremes of character and of situation. So among its sizeable roster of characters, it incorporates a South African conspiracy theorist millionaire, the shadowy money man behind the Green Party, who explains that Obama’s election was down to a decade long project involving the oeuvre of Morgan Freeman and the insertion of a black president into the TV show 24. There’s also a hard-line right wing radio shock jock on whose show Darren volunteers to make an appearance. It’s possible to see what Bisset-Smith was aiming for in these scenes but too often the results feel naive rather than amusingly exaggerated or absurd.

Satire, of this particular stripe at least, needs to at least feel like it has a basis in something real or something the audience recognises as real, and Bisset-Smith’s play never really achieves this. The political side of things, the main thrust of the play, feels awkward and poorly thought through in a way that undermines the more successful elements. A number of the topical gags are properly funny, there are some interesting narrative slivers buried in the overstuffed script and the scenes between Darren and his boyfriend Luke feel plausibly intimate and genuinely warm, but the political material swerves all over the place and some of the scenarios really stretch credulity to snapping point, tipping from satire into silliness. Libby Watson’s sticky-backed plastic set doesn’t help matters; cheap and shiny, more Blue Peter than corridors of power, it further undermines the text.

The concept of even the most good-hearted and well-intentioned of men being broken down by a system that places only superficial emphasis on those attributes is a potent one, but Paul Robinson’s production only ever skates around this theme and doesn’t quite find a way of making it work.

The cast do well to ground the play and David Verrey in particular gives a well-judged and amusing turn as pompous politico Marcus, who jumps ship from the Greens when Darren is appointed, while Syrus Lowe is suitably charming yet understated in the main role, as the decent young man forced into the spotlight.

An extended version of a review that appeared in The Stage

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tribes at the Royal Court

For the family in Nina Raine’s new play, Tribes, most meals seem to end in disarray. It’s par for the course, unexceptional, the dining table doubling as battlefield.

Christopher, an academic, clearly relishes a full-throated, calculatedly un-PC rant, while his would-be novelist wife, Beth, and his children Daniel and Ruth all fight to have their say. Opinions are aired, weaknesses are honed in on and picked at and dinner inevitably turns into a cacophonous mess with everyone talking at once and no one really listening to what the others have to say.

The only family member who refrains from diving in is Billy. Born deaf, despite his excellent lip reading skills he struggles to keep up when his family are in full flow, teasing and needling one another, sometimes with affection, sometimes with cruel acuity; rarely does anyone ever pause to make sure Billy isn’t being left behind.

Things change when Billy meets Sylvia. The daughter of deaf parents, she’s losing her hearing as a result of a genetic condition; she’s also teaching Billy to sign, something to which his father has always been resistant, and in doing so she opens up a new world to him. But, in an ironic twist, it’s a world with which Sylvia is increasingly starting to struggle; she finds the hierarchies and rivalries of the deaf community alienating, the insularity alarming.

There’s an overabundance of parallels at work here; some of Raine’s narrative devices that are just a little bit too pat, a little bit too mechanical. Both Billy’s parents write for a living, words are their business, and yet they fail to grasp Billy’s need for connection through language. This point is repeatedly underlined; Christopher, who steadfastly refuses to learn to sign, is even taking Chinese lessons. As the play progresses its subtly dwindles. While Billy becomes more confident, his brother Daniel (who just happens to be writing a thesis on language) is sinking into mental illness, his childhood stutter re-emerging, so as one brother finds his voice, the other loses his.

The performances show no such heavy-handedness. Jacob Casselden, a deaf actor, plays Billy with a calm, wry quality. Accustomed to being stuck on the sidelines, his character’s gradual emergence and growth is deftly handled. Playing opposite him, as Sylvia, Michelle Terry is (once again) controlled and compelling. Her character’s distress at the loss of her hearing is palpable and her response - wary, bemused, unsettled - to Billy’s feuding brood is convincing. She also gently modifies her voice as the play progresses to give a sense of her condition worsening.

Stanley Townsend is suitably larger than life as the booming, bearded Christopher and Kika Markham, Harry Treadaway and Pheobe Waller-Bridge are all on strong form as Beth, Daniel and Ruth respectively, though the two women’s roles are rather thin in comparison.

Mark Thompson’s simple set has a gauze screen that serves a dual purpose, dividing the space and allowing for the projection of surtitles. Most of the early scenes are conducted around the dining table but the piano, partially shielded from view, comes into its own at the end of the first act as Sylvia sits down to play. It’s a poignant moment, well executed, and subtler than some later scenes, beautifully illustrating that while Sylvia will always have the memory of music, Billy will not, something that causes them both disquiet.

The first half of Roger Michell’s production is crackling and energetic, full of familial one-upmanship and some inspired expletive-riddled dialogue (eating his wife’s seafood pasta is, according to Christopher, “like being fucked in the face by a crab”), but this momentum doesn’t quite carry through into the second half as events become more fragmented and unconvincing.

Yet despite this eventual falling off Raine’s play provides some real insight into the way that families communicate (or, rather, often fail to) and into just how painfully isolating it can be not to be able to hear in a world that makes few allowances for this fact.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ivan and the Dogs at Soho Theatre

Moscow in the 1990s, when Yeltsin was still in power, was a harsh place for those with little money. While the elite feasted, many people struggled to feed their families. Pets were frequently abandoned in desperation; wild dogs roamed the streets.

Four year old Ivan’s world is a volatile one; his stepfather is a violent drunk and his mother spends much of her time weeping in fear. One morning the boy makes a run for it only to end up on the streets and forced to fend for himself.

His first attempts to find shelter result in him being kicked and taunted by a group of vagrant children but he eventually finds solace and security with a pack of wild dogs.

Ivan spends two years with his canine companions, developing an ever stronger bond with the head of the pack, a white dog he names Belka. He begs by day and is always careful to share his food with the dogs. As the nights grow colder he is eventually allowed into their den where he curls up with them for warmth.

Based on the true experiences of Ivan Mishukov (a potent story that also inspired NIE’s My Life with the Dogs), Hattie Naylor’s monologue has a gentle, fable-like quality. The simple set consists of a square white box in which actor Rad Kaim perches. As Ivan Kaim’s performance is quiet but compelling, vulnerable and open; he is often still and silent, as if lost in memory, but sometimes his face brightens and fills with delight. His movements and manner are subtly childlike but he never overplays this aspect of his performance.

Initially written for radio, Naylor’s play lacks immediacy. Ivan describes the way his behaviour becomes more doglike during his time on the streets, but as he is speaking from some future point a lot is left to the audience’s imagination. There’s never any real jeopardy over Ivan’s survival and Naylor seems more interested in how he survives, his gradual acceptance by the pack and the sense of connection he feels with the animals. Director Ellen McDougall resists the urge to have Kaim show this transition through his performance and a distance is always maintained between the Ivan on stage and the Ivan being described - the audience are told about, but don't ever really see, the small boy who learns to bark and growl in order to survive.

The gentle tone of this ATC and Soho Theatre co-production is accentuated by the sound design: Ivan’s monologue is interspersed with short bursts of pre-recorded Russian voices and, at one point, the poignant sound of a child singing. Occasionally the faint silhouettes of running dogs are projected on the set, ethereal and transient shapes which are more than a little reminiscent of Watership Down’s spirit bunnies, but for the most part the focus is on Kaim and he holds the attention throughout.

Though Naylor’s play supplies plenty of grim descriptions of the things Ivan witnesses while on the streets - blank-eyed glue sniffing children, tramps being brutally beaten and stripped - they’re not as penetrating as they might be and the overall tone is actually one of hope and optimism. The play, while never sentimental, is at times romantic about Ivan's situation and Naylor only very superficially explores what life might be like for Ivan after his experiences; she chooses instead, perhaps wisely, to end things on an uplifting note.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Onassis at the Novello Theatre

It must have required some considerable effort to take a life as eventful as that of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and render it so theatrically flat and unsatisfying.

Martin Sherman’s biographical drama first surfaced in Chichester a couple of years ago but despite considerable reworking the version that has now reached the West End is static and unforgivably dull.

That said, it can’t be accused of being short on plot. Drawing on Peter Evans’ book, Nemesis, the play covers his marriage to Jackie Kennedy, his off-and-on relationship with Maria Callas and even suggests that Onassis may have had some financial involvement in Robert Kennedy’s assassination. At one point (in one of the production’s funnier moments) director Nancy Meckler has to resort to using a flow chart projected on to the back of the set in order to illustrate the complex web of copulation in the Onassis set.

Sherman has appropriated some of the trappings of Greek tragedy – there’s a chorus of Onassis’ employees on hand to comment on the action and the characters make frequent calls upon the gods – but any sense of real tragedy is absent. The key events are reported rather than staged which adds to the sense of distance and only very occasionally are the characters allowed to collide.

Robert Lindsay, in the title role, captures some of the man’s brash charisma and doesn’t shy from depicting his unpleasantness and volatility, but there’s often a forced quality to his performance even if this in part seems to stem from the method of staging. Information is continually hurled at the audience in a way that minimises the emotional impact of even the most tragic of events. When Onassis crumbles on hearing of the death of his son, it’s a rare showy moment but one with little real power.

Lindsay is not allowed much opportunity to dig beneath the surface of his character and is forced to fall back on his not inconsiderable charm, clicking his heels to the regular bursts of bouzouki music and cursing with relish. His Onassis is never a figure one can empathise with and it’s easy to see why he occasionally overplays things, it feels like a compensatory measure for the play’s lack of dramatic drive. The other characters fare little better. Lydia Leonard, as Jackie, does her best with an underwritten role, but it’s difficult to figure out what her true feelings are towards Onassis at any stage in their relationship; Anna Francolini, drifting round the set in a kimono as the side-lined Maria Callas, her voice lost, has even less to do. Gawn Grainger, as Onassis’ right hand man Costa, is saddled with the bulk of the narration but he at least delivers this smoothly.

The sleek, clean design, by Katrina Lindsay, effectively conveys a world of Mediterranean wealth, of yachts and heat and money. The pool of water at the front of the stage is mirrored in the lighting, but this device, like so much in the production becomes repetitive and tired well before the end.

Reviewed for Theatermania

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Enlightenment at Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall begins his first season as Artistic Director at Hampstead Theatre with a new play by Shelagh Stephenson, a writer whose career was shaped by the theatre (her early play The Memory of Water was staged there in the 1990s).

Lia and Nick’s 20-year-old son, Adam, has disappeared while on his gap year. They suspect he may have been caught up in a terrorist attack in Indonesia but can’t be sure. They have been left in an awful limbo; not knowing whether he is alive or dead they are unable to grieve, unable to continue living - Lia has even taken to consulting psychics in her need for answers, for closure.

Meanwhile Joanna, a young film maker, is very keen to televise their story, but while she professes an affinity with Lia - for, as she keeps reminding them, she's "a mother myself" - it’s clear her own career comes first.

Stephenson’s play is – to a point – compelling, the twisty plot keeps the audience guessing and it has a real narrative tug. But the writing is also chilly and clunky and often implausible. Lia spends an awful lot of time dissecting her predicament, to the extent that it clouds out her grief – her words are just words, unanchored to anything resembling real emotion.

There’s an uncertainty of tone to Edward Hall’s production. The early scenes not only suffer from an excess of exposition but they also have an awkward comic edge to them, a whiff of sitcom, especially those featuring Polly Kemp’s perky medium. Fortunately things shift at the play’s midway point and a welcome darkness sets in with the arrival of a mysterious young man into the family home. So significant is this change in gear that it almost feels as if the play could jettison its opening scenes to no ill effect.

The production, when it finally hits its stride, is well-paced and the plot holds the attention but Hall can’t quite disguise the stiffness of some of the writing nor the frequent lapses in credibility. When Paul Freeman, as Lia’s gruff MP father, blusters in at the end and starts behaving bluntly but sensibly it just highlights how frustratingly everyone else has been acting before then.

In a play that touches on the connectedness of things there’s a failure of all the various elements to intermesh. Lia’s many digressions, on chaos theory, the impossibility of trying to protect one’s children from the awful randomness of the world and the human capacity for goodness, seem superfluous to the story being told; one can hear the voice of the writer bleeding through. In amongst this Stephenson occasionally touches on something potent and true, like Lia’s quietly expressed anxiety that if she goes to the cinema with Nick she might enjoy herself, may even laugh, but these moments of emotional complexity are too few and far between.

Francis O’Connor’s sleek, curved white set is very striking, as is the use of projections on the ceilings and walls to create different locations, a park, and most effectively, an airport, but these potentially haunting and evocative visuals don’t quite click with the action on stage; again there’s a failure to completely mesh.

The cast do a decent enough job with the material. Julie Graham just about copes with a role that, though central, feels strangely half-formed and incomplete. Richard Clothier fares slightly better as her husband, Nick, though there’s a chilly impotence to his character too; he has little to do but bristle. It’s Tim Weston-Jones who really stands out, playing this young mixed up interloper with a suitable blend of brightness and menace; the scenes that he’s in are increasingly tense and provide the atmospheric kick the production is crying out for.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hamlet at the National Theatre

Rory Kinnear is a very cerebral actor. It’s often possible to see the things clicking and connecting behind his eyes, but here in his long-mooted Hamlet for the National Theatre, this only works in his favour.

He speaks with a clearness of tone and freshness of voice, as if the words were just occurring to him, and, even when he is still, a sense of inner desperation remains.

His Hamlet is a mercurial figure, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes hard-edged and cunning; a young man pinioned by circumstance. When, rather self-consciously shamming insanity, he curls himself up in his trunk and pulls down the lid, there’s a palpable feeling that he wishes he could stay like that, balled up with a book, secure and safe, and shut out the hell he’s found himself in.

The production belongs to Kinnear. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is solid and polished but also rather safe and occasionally uninspired. The overriding sense is of a watched world: dark suited men with earpieces glide through anonymous corridors, people listen behind doors and silent figures can often be glimpsed through windows or submerged in shadow. It is impossible to be truly alone in this environment – there is always someone looking on or listening in.

Kinnear is first glimpsed in his mourning suit, looking stiff-spined and awkward as people buzz around him, an afterthought in his own home. Claudius’s first speech has become an on-camera address and once it’s all wrapped up everyone visibly slumps while Gertrude reaches for the first of many glasses of bubbly. The playing out of events for public consumption is a recurring theme and Hytner’s production contains visual echoes of The West Wing as well as touches of something more sinister and Soviet.

Patrick Malahide is a sly and understated Claudius while Clare Higgins plays Gertrude as a groomed and glossy political wife, crammed into a pencil skirt and high heels, masking her complicity with drink; but, in a production of great clarity, her motivations remain the haziest of all the characters and Higgins rarely allows the audience a handle on what she is feeling or thinking, a barrier remains in place.

Ruth Negga is a sparky Ophelia and has a real sense of sibling warmth with Alex Lanipekun's Laertes but, as is often the case, comes unstuck with the mad scenes, and just seems silly gliding round the stage on an overly symbolic shopping trolley papered with her dead father’s image.

Vicki Mortimer’s design enhances this idea of the ‘corridors of power’; the palace is an elegant but anonymous space, sparely furnished, chilly and shifting, with Hamlet’s book-strewn and messy quarters standing out in contrast. Though Hytner’s production can be a bit obvious, a bit blunt in places, and some of the innovations seem misplaced – the matching T-shirts whipped out to accompany the players’ performance are a case in point, stretching credulity – it’s very well-paced and has real dramatic propulsion, thanks in large part to Kinnear.

Kinnear’s somewhat studenty Prince is pitched into a hellish mess and made to confront himself and his world for what seems the first time; his is a very human Hamlet, smacking his hand against a desk with such force he hurts himself, smoking through his soliloquies. It’s his performance that sticks, that roots itself deep, a thoughtful portrayal that never feels mechanical, always fresh, considered and touchingly real.

Reviewed for musicOMH