Friday, March 25, 2011

Remembrance Day at the Royal Court

The 16th March marks Latvian Legion Day, a day of commemoration for the surviving veterans who fought against the Soviets on the side of the Nazis. It is a day of remembrance but also a day of protest and anger in which the country’s entrenched social divisions are brought sharply into focus. The march has become a touch-paper for a younger generation, both for young nationalist groups and for predominantly Russian anti-fascist groups.

Aleksey Scherbak’s new play, staged as part of the Royal Court’s International Playwrights Season in a translation by Rory Mullarky, is set on the eve of the march. Anya, the teenage daughter of a Russian family, is getting ready to protest; her rage is blue-flamed and youthful, her view of the world binary. Her father doesn’t condone her anger yet he is sympathetic and even helps her paint an anti-fascist banner; however the more he speaks of forgiveness and leaving the past in the past, the more he seems to upset and anger both her and other Russians who feel as she does.

Scherbak’s play is set in a run-down block of flats in Riga where Russians and Latvians live next door to one another, though this proximity does not equate to neighbourliness. If anything the divisions run deeper than they once did (Latvian Legion Day was only instituted in the 1990s when the country gained its independence); Anya’s elderly Uncle Misha, a Russian army veteran, used to play chess with his Latvian neighbour Valdis, but those days are long gone. To speak of forgiveness, as Anya’s father does, is on a par with declaring oneself a Nazi sympathiser.

In the adjacent flat, the two veterans, Valdis and his friend Paulis, knock back the vodka in remembrance of the fallen and discuss how their fight has become a symbol of Latvian independence and pride. Paulis is full of unrepentant bluster but Valdis is more contemplative, fully aware that things were not so clear cut during the war years.

Tom Scutt’s stark set, its walls and floor painted red and white, striped like the Latvian flag, is agreeably flexible, acting as both the connecting corridor and the interior of the various flats. A pile of rather functional furniture sits at one side of the stage and is pulled into use when needed and left in place so that director Michael Longhurst is able to interweave the scenes and show the neighbours - literally - living on top of one another, sharing the same sofa, eating at the same table.

Scherbak seems to be writing with a broader audience in mind – there’s a lot of contextualising and explanation – but his play paints a fascinating picture of a divided country and the harnessing of the past for political ends, which while very specific to Latvia, contains ripples that run throughout Europe and beyond. Character takes something of a backseat in this process and Anya’s journey towards radicalism, tangled as it is with sexual desire and adolescent romanticism – she speaks dreamily about the purity and beauty of martyrdom, of being willing to die for one’s beliefs – feels rather heavy-handed at times. Ruby Bentall, as Anya, manages to combine teenage petulance with something colder and more disturbing while Iwan Rheon, as her brother Lyosha, is the voice of optimism and internationalism; he pronounces himself a citizen of the world and thinks the whole situation has little relevance for his generation.

Michael Nardone gives the play a solid centre as Anya’s determinedly reasonable father, a man unwilling to dilute his principles. Sam Kelly and Ewan Hooper, as the ageing veterans, add a necessary textural layer as well as some humour - which sits uneasily with the sight of their SS jackets. Luke Norris is fittingly slick and cynical as Boris, the young man using both the veterans and Anya’s passion as a way of furthering his political career (there’s a nice, if a little too wry, moment where Boris meets his fascist counterpart in the corridor and greets him like a colleague, asking after his family before briefly discussing printing costs like any two co-workers).

Scherbak’s play, like Anya’s father, seems keen to draw a line under the past, while demonstrating that looking forward is not the same thing as forgetting or even forgiving. But it does this at the expense of fully engaging with what drives young people towards extremism and sacrifices a certain dramatic richness along the way too, yet for all it lacks, it remains a fascinating portrait of a country split by its past.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mary Broome at the Orange Tree Theatre

What’s in a name? An awful lot, a life, a past: to have a name is to exist, to be recognised. Mary Broome has worked as a housemaid for the prosperous Timbrell family for years, yet they only have cause to learn her surname when it transpires, on the eve of a family wedding, that their younger son Leonard has got her ‘in trouble.’ Suddenly they’re forced to see her as a person rather than as part of the furniture, a speck in their peripheral vision. Later the family congratulate themselves on letting another housemaid hang on to her ‘awful’ given name of Beryl rather than insisting she change it to something more palatable.

It says much about both playwright and play that Allan Monkhouse chose to use her name as his title. Monkhouse, a critic and literary editor for the Manchester Guardian as well as a socially minded playwright who had several plays staged at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre, was clearly very interested in the interplay between the servant class and their employers. He was also interested in intergenerational relationships and this play, first staged in 1911, is as much about the gulf in attitude and understanding between young Leonard Timbrell and his father as it is about Mary.

The couple are obliged to marry and do a good job of coping with the situation until Leonard’s runaway tongue causes his father to cut off their allowance entirely. While Mary grows ever anxious over money and the health of their child, Leonard lounges around and vaguely considers pawning his pocket watch. A sub-Wildean aesthete lacking only the lily in his lapel, he was a source of torment and confusion to his rather Victorian father even before this latest indiscretion. Though he’s perceptive, expressive, and quite unlike his stuffy elder brother, he is also, as he confesses, quite ‘rotten with egoism’ and is capable of being just as blind and cruel as his father when he chooses. At times his aestheticism feels like a defence for idleness (he’s a writer, but there’s no real sense that he’s particularly gifted) and the whole situation like an amusing adventure, while Mary’s whole life and sense of herself has been uprooted.

The situation also seems to awaken something in Leonard’s cowed mother. Though she repeatedly and rather too vocally insists on her own weakness in the face of her husband’s bluster, she also confesses that she believes that there’s “something in what these suffrage people say.”

Jack Farthing manages to convey the conflicting aspects of Leonard’s personality; he is charismatic and honest yet oddly hollow and casual in his cruelty, quite astonishingly unlikeable at times. He views everything at a remove, barely acknowledges his son, but seems – briefly at least – saddened by his inability to feel anything more deeply than he does. Katie McGuinness has an apt placidity as Mary, a woman used to accepting the various hands that life has dealt her, but who is also quite unshakeable when she sets her mind to a thing. Eunice Roberts also gives an intriguingly shaded performance as Mrs Timbrell, a woman who – at times at least – seems far more questing and aware than others of her generation, but whose love for her son blinds her to his faults.

Monkhouse’s play sets its stall deftly. The situation and characters are elegantly established and while it’s not as socially probing as a play by someone like Granville-Barker, it remains a strong piece of comic writing with a conscience and would probably have been considered rather daring in its day. But the play loses steam by the second half and his portrait of Leonard and Mary’s life together is less convincing. The final scene sees everything tied up rather too quickly and neatly (when one learns that Mary has been stepping out with the Jonsonianly monikered milkman George Truefitt it’s not that hard to guess how things will end up for her) and there’s only the lightest sense that anyone has learned anything, Mary excepted, from this unfortunate episode.

Auriol Smith’s production is pleasingly pacey  for a revival of an Edwardian play and this despite some lengthy scene changes. That the furniture is shifted and the cushions plumped by women in housemaids’ attire does serve as a neat reminder of how these people’s lives were oiled and their homes made comfortable by the labour of others, but these interludes also serve to slow down and break up the flow of the drama.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, March 18, 2011

Theatre Uncut

Theatre Uncut is a refusal to lie down and be silent. As the project’s co-ordinator, Hannah Price of Reclaim, has explained, it’s about theatre contributing to the discussion and “joining our voice with the voices that are already out there.” This is not just a response to the cuts in the arts, rather a broader response to the spending cuts in general; an attempt to spark debate and stir feelings.

The project consists of eight short plays by Mark Ravenhill, Lucy Kirkwood, David Grieg, Jack Thorne, Dennis Kelly, Laura Lomas, Anders Lustgarten and Clara Brennan. The plays have been made available rights-free to anyone who wants to stage them. On the 19th March, they will performed by an eclectic array of theatre groups – including am-dram groups and student groups – across the UK (as well as in New York, Chicago and Berlin) with the resulting productions linked together by online networking and video conferencing.

Before that the pieces are being staged in London’s Southwark Playhouse to allow all eight to be seen together. Each writers response has been different; some take a more opaque approach while others aim for the throat – or rather the heart in the case of the first play in the showcase, Laura Lomas’ Open Heart Surgery, a raw allegorical monologue delivered by a woman by a hospital bedside, trying to put a brave face on the fact that something she loves has had its heart ripped out. Dennis Kelly’s Things That Make No Sense is a spikier piece of writing, a Kafka-esque skit in which a man is punished for a crime he didn’t commit, his protests ignored by a pair of smiling police officers.

David Grieg’s piece Fragile is a two-hander in which, in a nod to austerity, the audience is required to play one of the parts, reading their lines en masse from projections on the back of the stage. It takes the form of a conversation between a young man with mental health issues and his case worker; light-hearted at first it becomes increasingly taut as Greig makes the audience think about those at the hard-edge who stand to lose the most as well as the people in between, the people whose jobs are going to become an awful lot harder (that is if they still have jobs)

Both Jack Thorne and Lucy Kirkwood, in Whiff Whaff and Housekeeping, take slightly slanted paths towards the subject at hand. Thorne’s play depicts a cheerful middle class couple who describe how they believe that providing support for the disabled or ailing is somehow defeatist: “The thing is with crutches, they’re crutches.” In Kirkwood’s piece, which has more of a poetic intensity than its premise would suggest, a woman sells off her grandmother to help clear her debts. The grandmother, played by Marlene Sidaway, eyes Zawe Ashton’s brisk, business-like accountant with recognition. She’s marched from Jarrow, debated at Putney; she’s been here before.

Anders Lustgarten’s contribution is not a character piece at all rather a polemic delivered by the playwright himself, in which he neatly explains the economics of the Greek bailout before urging the audience to get angry, to lose their rag, to wake up to the changes they can exert collectively if they try; to, as he puts it, “fuck the fat man” of capitalism.

Mark Ravenhill’s piece, A Bigger Banner, written in response to and in honour of the recent student protests, employs a time-slip set-up in which a student at a university sit-in encounters her 1950s counterpart and ends up reassuring her that the future she’s fighting for so passionately will indeed come to pass. Interestingly it is Ravenhill and Lustgarten’s pieces that have proved most popular with younger groups, perhaps because of their clarity of message, their undiluted call to activism.

The evening concludes with Clara Brennan’s moving monologue Hi Vis, featuring Lisa Palfrey as a mother of a severely disabled daughter, describing her child with love and humour. Each play has its own particularly potency, and though some are blunter instruments than others, together they succeed in their intention to stir, to connect, to create an engagement that spills beyond the theatre walls.

Reviewed for Exeunt I'd also recommend reading Aliki Chapple's account of staging the plays in Lancaster, here.

For further information about the project, visit Theatre Uncut

Friday, March 11, 2011

Woman Bomb at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Woman Bomb, by the Croatian playwright Ivana Sajko, is as much about one woman’s journey towards becoming a suicide bomber as it is about the creative process involved in imagining such a journey.

Though subtitled ‘a monologue for a woman-bomb, a name-less politician, his bodyguards and mistress, God, a choir of angels, a worm, the Mona Lisa, twenty friends of mine, my mother and me,’ and previously performed as a solo piece, under the direction of Maja Milatović-Ovadia and Vanda Butković, the play is voiced by three women. This has the effect of giving shape to the playwright’s internal conversations as well as form to the woman-bomb herself (played with suitable intensity by Laura Harling).

Sajko’s play is a layered to the point of being messy, flicking back and forth between the self-interrogatory and the exploratory, merging dreams and digressions in what often comes across as a relentless stream of consciousness splurge (or, possibly, a purge). She has said that the author is always hidden somewhere in every playwright’s work so she chooses not to hide herself nor her role as the writer. Having embarked on the project Sajko emails twenty of her friends to ask how they would behave if they had only twelve minutes and thirty-six seconds to live, and weaves their responses into the text. She feeds her audience the fruits of her research. Most female suicide bombers are young; 22, we are told, is the average age. For some it’s the only way of restoring honour to their family after perceived sexual transgression, for others the reasons are murkier and less easy to grasp. A section of the play is devoted to a discussion of Dhanu, the woman who assassinated Rhajiv Ghandi, and to descriptions of the photographs taken both before and after she detonated the explosives strapped to her middle.

Sajko equates this terminal act with pregnancy; she describes the intimacy between bomber and bomb, metal against skin, and blurs the line between destruction and creation. The woman-bomb is forced on her back and has her belly pawed and fondled by the other two women, pages of script are stuffed beneath her clothes to give her stomach the false curve of pregnancy. The woman-bomb speaks through a mouthful of apple (what else?) and the final act of detonation is described in near-sexual terms, a sticky embrace, while fear and the bomber’s desire to self-betray take the form of a literal ear-worm, a squirmy nervous creature on her shoulder. Footage of the rotting body of a dog is projected on a screen in one corner of the stage. Any discussion of political motivation is, for the most part, pushed to one side; it’s the psychological that fixates Sajko, the contents of the bomber’s mind in those last fraught minutes.

The riper passages of Sajko’s play hover, at times uneasily, between abstraction and incoherence. There are puns – a‘Prada Meinhoff bra’- but also many other instances where the adverb-heavy language jars. Perhaps this is an issue of translation or perhaps the result of more intrinsic linguistic differences between Croatian and English; the writing is sometimes poetic, but sometimes blunt, jagged, cluttered (full of sentences like this: “aeroplanes fly over my desk, scanning my manuscripts, my skull, ribs, spine and limb-bones, noting my body postures, the composition of liquid in my cup and the burned misery of a war-torn scenery.”).

Butković’s set design consists of a writer’s desk and a collection of floor tiles set in sand that crack and slide (rather noisily) under the performers’ feet, until, with papers strewn everywhere and furniture upended, the room looks not unlike a bombsite.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Cleansing of Constance Brown, A.E. Harris Building, Birmingham

A corridor is not a destination. It’s a place of transition, of passage; a place people move through, not to.

First staged in 2007, Stan’s Café's mesmeric production takes place in a chilly warehouse in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The stage takes the form of a stretch of corridor two metres wide and fourteen metres deep; facing the audience end-on, the space is spot-lit from above and has doorways on either side, doorways through which it’s impossible to see. It’s a space through which people are constantly moving, darting from one entrance to another in various guises; moments of stillness are rare and all the more potent for that.

This corridor becomes an ‘anywhere’ space; it is a prison, a hotel, the hallway in an apartment building, an office complex. It slip-slides through time, from the Elizabethan era to the recognisable present, a collage of narrative fragments that often overlap and intersect. Sometimes it is lit with torch beams like some early episode of The X Files, at other times by the lamp of a Florence Nightingale figure who peers with concern into the various rooms.

The act of looking in and on is a recurring trope. In a production performed with minimal dialogue and a cranium-pounding soundtrack, the audience are left to guess at what’s going on behind the doors. At one point police officers force their way through one doorway while a Jewish man and his wife emerge from another pushing a pram laden with their possession. In this way the responses and reactions of the ‘characters’ become the main event. This is an incredibly powerful device, tapping into everything from way that key incidents are reported in Greek drama to the modern obsession with conspiracy, with shadowy goings-on behind closed doors, decisions being made and plots being hatched. This is emphasised by the vaguely sinister black-suited men with earpieces who pop up at various points in the proceedings to stand guard, arms folded and vigilant.

Only on a couple of occasions does the production break this pattern of observing from the outside, most notably when the aftermath of a raucous office party circa 1985 segues into a scene of soldiers tormenting prisoners in Abu Ghraib. A gaggle of quivering men, cuffed and hung-over, become meat for manipulation, to be posed and humiliated. It takes a moment for the click to come, for this transition to sink in.

Constance Brown is steeped in cinematic reference, sometimes overt, sometimes less so. Various genre markers are employed, sci-fi, horror, a semiotic smorgasbord. In one of the more blatant moments a priest armed with holy water pursues a twitching, wild-eyed girl in a nightgown. There are nods to The Shining and at one point a 1950s B-movie blob engulfs the whole space. It is also frequently witty, with a number of neat visual gags: a woman in a burka walks past a woman whited out with terry cloth and cold cream and they both register curiosity and amusement.

The act of cleaning is a recurring theme: people mop and sweep and polish the walls. At one point the buzz of a vacuum cleaner adds another layer to an already pulsating soundscape. There are echoes of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things: these are the people who clean up the mess of the world once the lights have been switched off. It’s also difficult not to think of Rupert Goold’s staging of Enron when documents, shredded in panic, rain down like so much wedding confetti. And who is Constance? It’s not always clear. She’s the woman on the edges, in the background, peering through doorways, inquisitive, bemused, aghast.

The piece is performed by seven cast members, though one feels the need to double-check that number as there are so many costume changes (there are 68 distinct characters in all), so many shifts, that it often feels like the work of far more. The production has a relentless quality and teeters on the brink of becoming wearying as it tips over the hour mark, but director James Yarker ensures there’s enough textural variety to stop it becoming too oppressive. At the end the audience are invited to inspect the spaces behind and between for themselves, to get a glimpse of the workings behind the seemingly seamless. This just adds another layer of appreciation to what is already – in so very many ways – an exciting piece of theatre.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Moment at the Bush Theatre

The ritual of tea-making plays a large part in Irish playwright Deirdre Kinhan’s tense drama. In moments of familial crisis, people reach for the kettle. The tea doesn’t always get drunk, the stuff in the cup is almost secondary, but it’s the act of making it that matters, the sense of purpose provided, the long wait for the kettle to sing.

Kinahan’s play illustrates how one awful act, one unreclaimable moment of violence, can shatter a family, can have consequences that bleed through the years. Around fifteen years ago, while still a teenager, Nial Lynch committed a crime, he killed someone. He’s paid for it; he’s served his time, and after his release he was able to go and live in London where he became a successful artist. His sisters, however, Niamh and Ciara, stayed behind, left with the mess, with a father who would die young from the stress and a mother who pops pills like sweets in an effort to shut out the past. They were left to face the reproachful stares of the neighbours and to tend to their damaged parents.

Now Nial is coming home for a visit. Recently married, his English bride Ruth wants to meet her new family. She’s been told about Nial’s background but it’s clear she doesn’t fully understand the consequences, not completely, and over the course of one exquisitely tense meal, the full impact of Nial’s act comes flooding up.

Kinahan roots their story in the everyday, in the domestic and familiar, in cups of tea and plates of quiche, in shop-bought potato salad. Though an evident tension between mother and daughters is there from the beginning, she takes her time in exploring it, exposing it. The mother’s weakness and dependence, and the way she uses it to subtly control them, only gradually becomes apparent.

Maybe because of its size the Bush does gripping kitchen scenes very well. There are echoes of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, also staged in this space, in this pivotal meal, in the way the kitchen table becomes a site of familial dissection, with all their old wounds opened up. The second half of David Horan’s production never quite matches the momentum of the first and the play too becomes a blunter instrument, dabbling in flashback.

Maeve Fitzgerald and Kate Nic Chonaonaigh are both compelling as the Lynch sisters. Fitzgerald is brittle and tightly wound, forever on the brink of exasperation and outburst; her face tells of the effort required in not speaking and occasionally, inevitably, she erupts. Chonaonaigh is far calmer, playing someone long accustomed to steadying the boat. Yet she too carries a weight around her neck and ultimately needs to unburden herself. Ronan Leahy is more impenetrable as Nial, There is anger there but also frustration and the sense that he still doesn’t fully grasp either why he did what he did or the full implications of his actions.

There’s something almost serene in the way Deirdre Donnelly plays their mother Teresa. She’s a passive woman, but one capable of calculation, a woman who has developed strategies to ensure her own survival in the face of all that’s happened. Kinahan makes it clear that she already played upon her fragility even before the incident and this tactic has become her crutch, a vital part of who she is.

Kinhan is not afraid to tap the situation for comedy, using the characters of the two men in the sisters’ lives, Dave and Fin, to balance the emotional see-saw and provide some necessary levity. Only Ruth, the new bride, the interloper, never really rings true as a character in her reactions and expectations, she’s a tool, a catalyst. The production is well-paced, especially in its first half, and Kinahan sculpts events with elegance, adding characters, building to a pitch, and then allowing events to fade, to dissipate, as the family scatters once more and Niamh is left alone in a dark Dublin kitchen with her memories.

Reviewed for Exeunt