Monday, October 31, 2011

Earthquakes in London at Richmond Theatre

As Mike Bartlett’s 13 opens at the National Theatre, this earlier foray into the apocalyptic and multi-stranded is currently on a UK tour. Earthquakes in London is a huge, sprawling play, both in time and scope, a cocktail of stylistic devices and narrative possibilities.

The snaking staging and immersive nature of Rupert Goold’s original production has been flat-packed for a proscenium stage by tour director Caroline Steinbeis, but it still throbs with energy. Music permeates the piece; there is a burlesque sequence, a chorus line of cloned Sloanes in black sunglasses and some spirited drunken dancing to Arcade Fire.

Bartlett’s play has a kaleidoscopic quality and the story only gradually comes into focus; the connections between the characters are revealed gradually, scene by scene. At the centre of the play are three sisters: Sarah, the eldest, is a Liberal Democrat minister; Freya is lonely, heavily pregnant, and grappling with her fears about brining another life into a broken world; while the youngest, Jasmine, is unanchored in every sense – she has recently been kicked out of university and feels increasingly estranged from her family and surroundings, swigging Ouzo from the bottle in an effort to blot things out. The sisters’ climatologist father abandoned them years ago after their mother’s death leaving Sarah to raise Freya and Jasmine alone; he now lives an equally isolated life in a remote part of Scotland, convinced the world is on the brink of imminent environmental collapse.

Occasionally the characterisation veers close to formula. This is particularly true of the character of Tom, a student protestor whose family in Eritrea are dealing with the tangible effects of climate change. He is the polar opposite of Jasmine, whose half-baked piece of protest performance art seems like a childish attempt to get her older sister’s attention rather than anything more reasoned. Tom’s anger seems justified but it walks hand in hand with a rather sniffy sense of self-righteousness; his fury sings out yet his methods are underhand. As characters they seem too carefully fixed at different ends of the apathy/engagement scale.

The character of Lib Dem Minister Sarah is more intriguing. A woman in a senior role in government with a slightly rocky home life, her principles being slowly eroded, she could so easily have been a caricature but in Bartlett’s hands she is a shaded creation, confident and capable in the political arena yet not devoid of warmth or humour, qualities only enhanced by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s well-judged performance.

Having established this complex and engaging web of characters and stories, the play becomes even more ambitious in its aims, sending out feelers into the future, dabbling in dream sequence and origin myth, a quasi-Biblical reboot of a broken world. For all its audacity it doesn’t quite come off. The play works better as a pluralised portrait of contemporary unease, the growing tide of anxiety, the groping for a solution. This is echoed in the choreography, which is often jagged and robotic. From the identikit Hampstead housewives to the department stores sales assistant who matches her make up to the store’s lighting scheme, the play is stuffed with automatons, consumers, cogs in a machine on the verge of crashing, fussing over their Fair Trade ‘good coffee’ as the world collapses around them.

One suspects that some of the production’s visual originality is reduced by being forced into a more conventional space: seven people frugging in neon wigs does not a wild party make, particularly when framed by a proscenium, and the revolve is decidedly arthritic, audibly wheezing and creaking as it turns. And while the thrust and ambition of Bartlett’s writing is undimmed, little can disguise the fact that the play starts to unravel well before the end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, October 24, 2011

Terror 2011 at Soho Theatre

Terror isn’t quite the word. Disquieting? Yes, perhaps. Creepy? In places. This collection of short plays doesn't really come close to creating genuine terror in its audience, but then nor does it seem to be trying to: it seems to prize the nervous, slightly grossed out chuckle more highly than the scream of real dread and distress.

This peripatetic annual celebration of the macabre and unsettling, last seen at Southwark Playhouse, has been rehomed in Soho Theatre’s basement cabaret space and this relocation seems to have informed the production as a whole because the musical interludes are given almost as much time and room as the plays themselves. The songs, co-written by Desmond O’Connor and Cabaret Whore, Sarah-Louise Young, are spectacularly off-colour: a country and western ditty about abortion, a ballad about anorexics in love. The resulting laughter is often halting and awkward, slow to flow, arriving in guilty little bursts. But by addressing and involving the audience, the songs knit together a production that might otherwise have felt too tonally choppy, too disparate in approach and execution.

Of all the playwrights on the bill, Lucy Kirkwood has taken this merging of music and theatre furthest. Her contribution to the evening is a piece of burlesque, conceived with performer Eleanor Buchan, in which a be-tasselled dancer falls under her own dark spell. It juxtaposes a jokey, nod-wink style with something distinctly icky but doesn’t really leave itself anywhere to go once the premise has been established.

The opening piece, Dave Florez’s The Waiting Mortuary, is similarly stuck. Two nineteenth century doctors debate whether the body laid out on the slab before them has actually expired. The tone of the play – more of a sketch really – is weirdly pitched, a pastiche that seems unsure quite how seriously it wants the audience to take it. Carl Grose’s comic verse monologue, Wormy Close, performed by Amanda Lawrence achieves a far better balance between the horrible and the comic. It’s a silly but endearing piece, a kind of goryJackanory that benefits from Lawrence’s strong sense of timing and delivery. Tom Holloway’s play, If I Stay I Would Only Be in Your Way, is a two-hander that owes a debt to Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters. It’s more genuinely unsettling but it over-plays its hand. There’s something to be said for taking something beyond what appears to be its natural end point and stretching it further than good sense or taste might dictate, but it’s not a gamble that quite pays off, and the resulting laughter is fitful and diminishing.

The most unnerving piece of the night, and also the most successful, is Jack Thorne’s The Gong. Thorne is a writer who knows how to create tension, who understands how to feed information to his audience in the most potent way possible before confirming their worst fears. A torch-lit Ciaran Kellgren stalks around the room, smoking intensely as he recounts his experience of being working class at Cambridge University, and the lengths he will go to fit in, to prove he belongs. It’s a jarring and unpleasant piece, and one that achieves in words what the other plays never quite manage even with all their splatter and seepage and shrieking.

Reviewed for Exeunt

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The Duke of Milan strides round the stage in a pair of be-ribboned PVC knee boots, his hands sheathed in fingerless black leather gloves. This is a Milan of flashbulbs and high fashion overseen by a Karl Lagerfeld-esque colossus, the kind a man who tweezes sushi into his mouth while barking at hapless underlings. Music pounds and bodies writhe and somewhere beneath the din and the flicker there is a trace of Shakespeare.

There’s a sense of disconnect to Matthew Dunster’s new production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a piece made in collaboration with RashDash. Dunster is clearly enamoured with the company – after seeing their work at the Edinburgh Fringe, he was determined to create something with them – but while many of their most appealing traits, their energy, their physicality, have made their way into this broad reworking of Shakespeare’s early comedy, so have some of the company’s limitations, the messiness of intention, and, chiefly, the way in which they knit together – or rather frequently fail to – the text with the choreography.

There were similar issues with RashDash’s previous pieces, Another Someone and Scary Gorgeous. The imaginative physical sequences always seemed to sit above and apart from the narrative – and the same is true here; only when working with an established text, rather than a piece of their own devising, it feels all the more marked.

The production is lively and bright, musical and colourful, but there’s often a sense that the words are secondary to the visuals. RashDash’s Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen play, respectively, Julia, Proteus’ homely Veronese sweetheart, and Sylvia, the glamorous daughter of the Milanese Duke; while Julia flutters over her lover’s every letter, Sylvia is the pouting, strutting object of much male attention and fascination, a woman on a – literal – pedestal, with her near-naked image splashed across banners.

In comparison to the throb and debauchery of Milan, Verona is depicted as suburban and small fry, a town populated by beaming kids in well-pressed khakis; in the over-stretched opening scene, the titular two gentlemen brandish guitars and sing a peppy song about seeking fortune and freedom elsewhere. There’s wit and invention in such devices, but a lack of subtlety, the point is forced home, the comparisons are laboured. There are long periods given over to music and movement where no one speaks a word of verse, and there’s an adolescent quality to some of the humour, a seeming belief that all this cussing and snorting and stripping is more daring than it is.

Clemmie Sveaas plays Proteus’ inept servant, Launce, as an escapee from Ugly Betty toting a plastic lapdog in a designer handbag, but her scenes soon start to grate and this is before she ends up relieving herself in a plastic cup. By making this clownish secondary character female and by focusing the audience’s attentions firmly on Julia and Sylvia over the various gentlemen, the production seems to be tugging in an interesting direction, but this is neither a fully feminised or feminist account of the text and some of the choices seem to have been made for visual appeal rather than to make a particular point.

In fact there seems to be two conflicting desires at work here. On one hand it feels like an attempt to stage a frothy homage to the play, in the vein of Ten Things I Hate About You or Clueless, and in these moments the text feels like an obstacle. This is frustrating, as some of the more successful episodes come when the background noise subsides and the words are given room. This is most evident in the morally knotty final scenes when Sylvia is threatened with rape and then seemingly bartered; Dunster’s production plays up the sinister implications of this transaction, but then undoes the power of these closing moments by ending on a song and giving the women back their voices.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, October 14, 2011

Interview: Tena Štivičić.

My interview with Croatian playwright, Tena Štivičić, about her latest play Invisible, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, is now up on Exeunt. We discussed the idea of migration as theme and as context and she talked about her work for the Ulysses Theatre on the Croatian Island of Brijuni. You can read the full interview here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic

When J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was first performed in Dublin in 1907, the audience exploded over its moral murkiness and its perceived ridicule of Irish village life, with particular ire reserved for the very notion of Mayo woman parading in their shifts, something which is referenced in the text but not actually shown.

The play is now considered Synge’s masterpiece and fully cemented in the canon of 20thcentury Irish drama, a thing to be revered and handled with due care. So it’s difficult to make that leap back in time, to fully grasp what so inflamed its original audience, causing them to riot in the stalls; John Crowley’s production for the Old Vic does little to help bridge that gap for, though undeniably lively, it’s distinctly polished in tone, overly polite.

Former Misfit Robert Sheehan, here making his stage debut, plays the young interloper, Christy Mahon, who arrives breathless and footsore at a Mayo shebeen late at night and immediately starts to sweet-talk the locals. When he first arrives, he’s a hunched and diminished figure, ‘destroyed by walking’ but the minute he lets slip that he’s killed his bully of a ‘da’, delivering a fatal blow that near enough split the man down the middle, then the community starts to look at him differently. Sheehan’s physicality reflects this change; gradually he uncurls and unfurls, like a flower turning to face the sun. When he moves, he’s like a gangly marionette, oddly jointed and long of limb; though Sheehan is probably too pretty for the role, his awkward way of holding himself, his crab-like, wary stance, goes some way to overcome this.

Christy suddenly goes from being a nonentity to a man anointed with the sparkle of scandal. Instead of condemning him for his actions, the local folk seem excited by his story. He is a like a star in their midst, white knight and rock god rolled into one, and the source of much female adulation. The publican’s daughter Pegeen Mike takes an instant shine to him, but she has to compete for his affections with the predatory Widow Quinn. Christy can’t quite believe his luck; he talks with increasing rapidity and energy, as if he’s worried the spell will be broken if he ever shuts up.

Sheehan is somewhat cowed by the force of the two female leads. As the volatile Pegeen, Ruth Negga almost visibly glitters; there is heat in her gaze but also metal, and she is not a woman you would want to cross. The same can be said of Niamh Cusack, as the Widow Quinn; she fixes her sights on Christy and is adept at steering the situation in an attempt to get her way. Compared to the sodden, quaking Mayo menfolk, these two make a formidable pair.

Scott Pask’s detailed set consists of a rotating two-room shack, a stone walled collage of greys and browns with a string of laundry slung to its side – grinding rural poverty lavishly and expensively recreated. A clutch of villagers with fiddles and accordions set off each scene and provide bridging music as the house slowly twists and slides into place.

The way the play blends the comic with slivers of the macabre, its tectonic shift from the light-hearted to the unsettling, now seems almost too commonplace to be worthy of comment, but Synge was particularly revolutionary in this regard and his influence can be seen everywhere, in the work of Martin McDonagh, and in the gentle (and not so gentle) mockery of Father Ted. This revolutionary quality – and the lyrical brilliance of the language, its glorious musicality – is evoked by Crowley’s production without ever being completely convincing. Everything about it is very nice, both to look at and to listen to, but there’s something missing from its middle, the vital thump of a heart.

Reviewed for Exeunt