Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Woman Killed With Kindness at the National Theatre

Two households. Two women. Katie Mitchell’s new production of Thomas Heywood’s 1603 play splits the stage down the middle: on one side, there is an ancient family manor house and, on the other, an elegant early twentieth century home. This division allows for a process of mirroring, for moments of both harmony and discordance between the play’s two plot strands.

Heywood’s play begins on a joyous note, on the day of the wedding of John Frankford. But the celebratory spirit of these opening moments is soon diluted when his wife Anne embarks on an affair with Wendoll, a friend of her husband who has been invited to stay at their home and treat it - and its contents - as his own. The idea of women as property is made explicit in the secondary but more potent account of Sir Charles, the wealthy landowner imprisoned for his shooting a servant, who in order to free himself from mounting debts, offers up his sister, Susan, to a man she can’t abide.

Mitchell’s production continually contrasts these two women and their predicaments. The events have been transplanted from the early seventeenth century to 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when social structures were shifting. The Representation of the People Act had recently granted women over 30 the right to vote, but both of these women remain trapped by entrenched social codes, the need for female purity most pressing among them. Whiteness. The wedding gown takes on a toxic symbolism as Susan stands shrouded in lace awaiting the man Charles would have her give herself to and, on the night of her wedding, Anne’s white nightdress is tainted by her own blood, so it seems apt that, later, when her husband interrupts her in bed with Wendoll, she emerges from the room clad in turquoise silk. Heywood’s play offers little in the way of insight into why Anne gives herself so quickly to Wendoll but the walls of the Frankford home are pointedly hung with butterflies under glass. On the other side of the divide, the walls of the Mountford home are methodically stripped of their finery, of the oil paintings and the chandeliers, as their once grand family seat becomes little more than a decaying, chilly prison.

The stage space is actually split into four rather than two since both sides of Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer’s set are spread across two levels, each connected by a staircase, while Mitchell’s production plays with the vertical as much as the horizontal. Servants are forever flurrying up and down the stairs or gently ascending to the bedrooms above; in one striking moment, Susan, amid a blizzard of activity, walks slowly backwards up the stairs as if tugged by a cord. Visual paralleling also occurs between the upstairs and downstairs worlds: when Anne is in labour both Frankford and Wendoll rattle back and forth across the stage like fingers being impatiently run up and down the keys of a piano.

For all this visual intricacy, Mitchell sometimes seems to be sparring with Heywood’s play rather than dancing with it; a constant process of negotiation with the text seems to be at work. There’s wit here - when Frankford faces his wife over card table and they debate whether to play Hearts and Cheat – but the play is often merely functional, shoving its characters from point A to point B without giving much thought to the journey. It’s full of emotional lurches and leaps in plausibility and neither play nor production ever fully gets under Anne’s skin as a character, neither makes the audience grasp quite why this woman is so quick to hop into bed with Wendoll (Mitchell suggests that sex with Frankford is a brusque, abrupt affair but this feels like a tacked on explanation).

The production is better at painting the fall-out of Anne’s adultery, the pain Frankford inflicts through his stoic determination to drive his wife from her home and her children and the awful punishment she inflicts on them both as a result. There’s a continuing resonance to Anne’s decision to starve herself; a woman of appetite remains a suspect figure and self-denial is a kind of power, a means of taking control. Yet at times the production seems to be pushing too hard to make its point: the final hospital scene – which finally unites the two women’s stories – is as clinical as the space in which it is set, and an earlier scene in which Susan clutches a noose and contemplates escape, are blunt in execution and out of step with the production’s particular rhythms.

Of the performances, Paul Ready’s decent, bemused and ultimately shattered Frankford stands out, as does Sandy McDade, a still, drifting presence as Susan. But this is very much an ensemble piece, elegantly and intricately choreographed. Mitchell seems particularly interested in the relationship between servant and master, the bonds of dependence and affection, and there are always large numbers of bodies on stage, clearing dishes, serving drinks. Gawn Grainger’s turn as Frankford’s paternal, no-nonsense butler, Nicholas, provides a necessary note of warmth.

Amid the near-constant motion and the dramatic use of the domestic interior it’s the moments of connection that mark themselves out. The most memorable image, the one you are left with long after, is of these two women on either side of the wall picking out notes on the piano, briefly connecting with one another, before life spirals away from them.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Rattigan's Nijinsky at Chichester Festival Theatre

There’s a process of weaving at work here. Nicholas Wright’s new play is inspired by a never-produced Terence Rattigan screenplay about the life – and loves – of Vaslav Nijinsky. Wright takes this unfilmed script – written in 1974 for the BBC but withdrawn by the playwright – and threads it with scenes from the Rattigan’s own life.

As the ageing playwright self-medicates in his suite at Claridge’s and considers his creative legacy, episodes from the Njinsky script invade his room. At one point the suite becomes a ballet class, flooded by young boys in white, while later on performers from the Ballet Russes glide and leap behind him. Reclining on his sofa while elegantly clutching a Sobranie, Rattigan also has a number of earnest, soul-searching conversations with Diaghilev in which the Russian impresario advises him on matters of the heart.

Rattigan’s screenplay explores the intense relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky without tiptoeing around their sexuality. But he seems most concerned with what prompts the enigmatic young dancer’s sudden marriage to Romola, a determined admirer with whom he didn’t even share a common langue, and the impact this has both on his relationship with Diaghilev and eventually on his own sanity. Though it’s not always clear how much of the play has come from Wright and how much from Rattigan, it’s not always easy to see where that line falls, the screenplay seems more caught up in Romola’s evolution as a woman than with Nijinsky himself, who remains an unknowable, tortured figure throughout.

Fittingly it is Romola, now old, who halts the production of the film by threatening to expose Rattigan’s ‘bestial’ urges. Perturbed by the rise of a new wave of playwrights who “couldn’t write bum on a wall”, Rattigan is already concerned with the way in which his work will be remembered, and he worries about being tagged as queer, of his work being labelled and boxed, its impact narrowed.

This encounter is one of the more gripping in what is a rather bitty production. Wright’s dialogue is too often weighted with exposition and some of the lines he puts in the playwright’s mouth feel cribbed from research notes, such as when Rattigan argues that he could and did write women as women, not just men masquerading as women.

Malcolm Sinclair gives a warm and understated performance as Rattigan. The production often requires him to be a passive figure, to silently watch on as things unfold in front of him, but he always gives the impression he is contemplating his situation. He is active in his stillness. This is in marked contrast to some of the other performances; there is little shading in Jonathan Hyde’s flamboyant Diaghilev, with his PepĂ© Le Pew hair-do; Hyde is however much more convincing in his brief turn as a big-shot television producer.

This use of doubling enhances the dreamlike quality of the production. Rattigan, already stricken with the cancer that would kill him, frequently swigs from a medicine bottle or tops up his glass with J&B. The play seems intended to have the texture of memory and Philip Franks’ production is able to evoke the sense of a man nearing the end of his life and still wrestling with who he is and how he wants to be remembered.

But some unhappy compromises seem to have been reached in translating material intended for the screen to the stage; the play has a choppy quality and the dialogue is often functional. While the curiosity value of the piece is clear and one can see what excited Wright about it, he never really makes it feel like a great loss that the screenplay was shelved. Franks’ production also seems to neglect the visual potential of the script; Nijinsky’s creative daring is discussed without being shown and the play’s relationship with dance is somewhat half-hearted throughout. There’s a leap here, a turn here but no one really moves like a dancer

The exception to this is the scene where Romola and Nijinsky first glimpse each other. She is wearing a tuxedo, as she has been informed that this will appeal to him (It does, but not in the obvious way; he believes that art has no gender). With no common tongue, they attempt to speak, first in Russian, then Hungarian and then in halting French, before doing away with words altogether and allowing their bodies to move together, to connect through dance.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Interview: Frisky and Mannish

Last week, after their last performance at the Udderbelly - the big purple cow on the South Bank - I had the pleasure of speaking to Laura Corcoran and Matthew Jones about intimate venues vs. larger spaces, the shortcomings of Edinburgh dressing room facilities and the demands of staging their biggest show to date on this year's Fringe.You can read the full interview on Exeunt

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eden End at Richmond Theatre

It may be less structurally playful than some of his other plays but J.B Priestley’s Eden End is still very much concerned with time, its passing and the things it wrings from people over the years.

When prodigal daughter Stella Kirby returns to the family home after an absence of eight years, she finds that may things have altered since she left: her mother has passed away, her father’s health is failing, her sister has hardened with the strain while her younger brother, still a boy when she set out, has simply grown up. Stella left the nest to pursue a career on the stage but the world of the Edwardian theatre has not been kind to her; despite travelling widely, she has never achieved fame, just drifted from one draughty dressing room to the next.

Perhaps because it is more straightforwardly constructed than some of his other work, Eden End has been comparatively neglected. Written in 1934, in the turbulent period between the wars, the play is set in 1912 and duly loaded with ironic foreshadowing. There are recurring conversations about their hopes for the future; more than once characters pass comment on how four years down the line  life will surely be looking up for everyone.

Stella does not anticipate how disruptive her return will be for her family, particularly for her sister, Lilian who feels angry that she has been obliged to stay behind and take care of things while Stella has been out in the world. This idea, of roads not taken, runs through the play; the girls’ softly spoken father, a rural GP, speaks of his regret at not having taken his chances in London when a younger man and Lillian’s conception of herself is shaped by the things she hasn’t done, even if there’s a sense that she has come to cling to the role of the devoted, stay-at-home daughter, that she alone has held herself back. In places the tone, it has been pointed out, is decidedly Chekhovian: this family in their rain-lashed out-of-the-way abode dreaming of what might have been.

Lilian’s bitterness becomes increasingly venomous when the dashing local farmer - for whom she has held a candle for years - finds his dormant feelings for Stella reignited by her return. Lilian retaliates by looking up Stella’s estranged husband Charles and inviting him to stay. Priestley’s characterisation of this caddish interloper, however, is surprisingly affectionate; in fact the playwright’s sympathies seem very much skewed towards the two actors and their itinerant tempest-tossed existence, with the result that Lilian comes off as chilly and malicious in comparison.

Charlotte Emmerson’s delicate yet worldly performance as Stella is the highlight of Laurie Sansom’s slow-burner of a production though Nick Hendrix makes an endearing stage debut as baby brother, Wilfred; home on leave from his job in Nigeria, he seems to have regressed to adolescence, pouting sulkily at the maid and dashing around the stage with boyish energy before getting spectacularly squiffy with Charles in a somewhat over-extended scene of drunkenness.

While Sansom successfully conjures an air of poignancy and wistfulness, a world and a way of life about to be obliterated, he seems to wish the play were a little more formally experimental than it actually is. Some of the directorial choices are jarring: a music hall interlude feels like too aggressive an insert, puncturing the atmosphere of the piece, and the decision to place the set on a raised stage upon the stage itself seems only to constrict the performers’ negotiation of the space. Other aspects of Sara Perks’s design are more successful and her backdrop of light bulbs and glistening strings is appropriately reminiscent of both a theatre curtain and the trickle of raindrops on a window pane.

Reviewed for Exeunt