Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Riot Acts at Richmix

A collection of words written in response to Penned in the Margins' Riot Acts, itself a form of response to the summer's riots. The evening featured new work in scratch form from Luke Wright, The Hurly Burly, Sophie Woolley and Greg McLaren. You can read the full piece on Exeunt. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Judgement Day at The Print Room

Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, takes the form of a heightened and poetic piece of self-examination, a man looking back at his life and work through a convex lens. A sense of finality pulses through the writing, a kind of breathless urgency.

Condensed and retitled by Mike Poulton, the play concerns Arnold Rubek, an aging sculptor who, having made both his reputation and his fortune many years ago with his masterwork, Judgement Day, is now enjoying the trapping of his success. Though he is respected and materially well off, Maia, his attractive and (much) younger wife resents him and he is all too aware that his days of producing great work are behind him.

He contents himself on commercial projects, corporate hackwork, sculpting bankers and merchants, and has tied himself to a young woman who bores him. In private moments he invites her to sit on his knee with a rather queasy Humbert Humbert tilt to his voice, but it’s clear that whatever affection once existed between them has long since turned to dust.

When his former muse, the mysterious Irena, appears at their mountain retreat, he is obliged to look back at the man – and the artist – he once was. Irena is a living ghost, a limbo-locked figure who feels that Rubek’s use of her image, her life, was an act of violation. While he has moved on without a backward glance, she has remained, trapped, drifting wraith-like through the mountain mist like an ageing Lucy Westenra; Rubek has drained something vital from her and she can neither forgive nor forget. She refers to his masterpiece as “their child” and is appalled at the thought of its existence apart from herself.

Rubek is obliged, for the first time it seems, to consider her role in its creation. The play pulls no punches in its depiction of the sculptor as a supremely self-involved and emotionally blinkered individual. Michael Pennington plays him with a calm naturalism, his voice rich and telling, providing a solid balance to Penny Downie’s more heightened and manic performance as Irena; shrouded in white, the pins working their way loose from her hair, she is by turns menacing and pathetic. Though at times her performance feels too stylised, there is a potent energy when she is on stage with Pennington. They both feel gripped by some deeper force. As a result the relationship between Sara Vickers’ Maia and her would-be lover, Philip Correia’s randy Baron, is eclipsed.

Poulton brings out the humour and humanity of Ibsen’s play, grounding it in the recognisable and counterbalancing its more abstract passages. James Dacre’s production is intense without being unrelenting. It takes this big, at times unwieldy play and makes it work in a small space. In this he’s aided by Mike Britton’s elegant traverse set which provides a sleek and contemporary frame of cool mountain blue for the period costumes (the wine-red of Maia’s skirts look particularly striking against this background). A single rock and a building mist are all it takes to transport the characters to a place precipitous in more than one sense. As the play draws to a close, Rubek and Irena are left to face each other and the unknown, reaching upwards into night.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We are Three Sisters at the Rose Theatre

“We are three sisters.” It is like an incantation. Surrounded by wind-lashed moorland, with tombstones looming at the window, the Brontë sisters wrote words that would survive them, in the process becoming semi-mythic themselves. Blake Morrison’s play for Northern Broadsides acknowledges the pull that the sisters’ lives still exert, the need to keep repeating and retelling their story.

Morrison draws deliberately on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, transporting events and people from the Brontës’ lives into a Chekhovian framework. It’s an elegant device, particularly because the parallels between the two sets of women were not entirely accidental and Chekhov may, at least in part, have been influenced by the inhabitants of the Haworth parsonage.

Though the play stands up well on its own as a piece of biographical drama, there’s pleasure to be taken in appreciating the many ways Morrison has woven together the Brontës’ world with that of the Prozorovs: the sibling harmonies and rivalries, the proximity of death – both plays begin with the remembering of a parent’s funeral. But it doesn’t adhere to its source too closely, breaking away from the template altogether in the later stages of the play; Morrison refers to it as a “shadow text”, one that inspires rather than dictates.

Though the timeline is condensed, Morrison’s play takes place at the most pivotal point in the sisters’ lives, when their books had finally found publishers and Charlotte in particular was starting to experience the first glow of literary success. This was to prove exposing and disconcerting to Emily who was content to shelter behind her pseudonym and pointedly did not join her sisters on their first tentative journey to London. Though London is a place the sisters ache for, it is a subtler form of longing than Chekhov’s sisters feel for Moscow, and Emily in particular makes her ambivalence felt.

Natasha’s ill-advised green sash in Chekhov’s play has become a dress the colour of limes, a retina-searing garment which stands out a mile next to the palette of matt browns and greys of the Brontës. The dress may as well have been Jezebel red, such is its effect; its wearer, Mrs Lydia Robinson, is Branwell’s older, married lover, here depicted as a cruel and manipulative woman with few redeeming traits (we know she is no good because she’s nasty to Tabby, the Brontës’ frail and ageing housekeeper).

Morrison has his Mrs Robinson paying a fictional visit to the sisters, much to their shock and displeasure. The other interlopers into their guarded world are all men – and all found wanting. John Branwell plays the local doctor, poignantly sporting a soft spot for Anne because she reminds him of her dead mother, whom he once loved. Marc Parry plays a rather feeble curate and director Barrie Rutter plays a self-promoting teacher to generally humorous effect. Fittingly it’s those playing the sisters who stand out. Rebecca Hutchinson’s Anne gets to escape her elder sisters’ shadows and speak of her own hopes; Catherine Kinsella’s Charlotte is the most grounded and subtly ambitious of the three and Sophia di Martino captures Emily’s volatility but also conveys a touch of knowing wit.

The play is less strong at providing social context and the references to events outside the parsonage walls, the Chartist riots for example, often feel heavy-handed; the same can be said of the handling of some of the background biographical detail. Branwell’s rapid decline into a stumbling drunk with a penchant for dipping into the family funds is also rather forced. The play is far better at sketching the tensions between the siblings, as that famous family portrait, with Branwell’s face blotted out by his own hand, watches over them from the far wall.

Rutter’s production can feel a little slow-paced and stiff; it sometimes lumbers rather than glides, and it lacks the energy and physicality of Shared Experience’s exploration of the same narrative ground. But it never feels like mere intellectual exercise; the play has an elegance of expression and an – eventual – emotional power as the three sisters, already coughing ominously, look ahead to their shared future.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Next Time I'll Sing To You at the Orange Tree Theatre

The stage is naked except for a small raised platform and a deflated air mattress. The ceiling glitters with fibre optic stars. Beneath these, a group of characters debate the nature of existence and reality, using theatre and the nature of performance as a broader metaphor for life (and death). Their conversation, which is studded with intentionally bad jokes and poetic digressions, swings back and forth but never settles.

First performed in 1962, James Saunders’ play was inspired by the story of the hermit of Great Canfield, a man who spent over three decades living in almost total isolation in a tiny hut. Was he some kind of contemporary saint or was he just a lonely old man prompted to reject the world after the young girl with whom he was fixated rejected him?

The play was the first ever directed by the Orange Tree’s Artistic Director, Sam Walters, and Saunders went on to have a strong association with the theatre throughout his life. Saunders’ next big project, according to the programme, was a stage adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Italian Girl, which seems apt as there is a lot of thematic overlap – but Murdoch usually embedded her philosophical exploring within a stronger structure than Saunders uses here.

The piece constantly comments on itself, picking itself apart. The performers remark on how they are going through the same motions, night after night, and on how nothing much has actually happened yet. “Yes, we get the metaphor,” is the weary reply. The director takes on the mantel of creator, the ultimate auteur, while the performers are deemed to be somnambulistic figures, neither fully awake nor asleep, with the exception of one man who eventually starts to merge with the figure of the hermit. There’s plenty of Pirandello here; Beckett and Ionesco too. You can almost see the spines lining Saunders’ library. Though frequently witty and undeniably smart, the play at times feels like a collection of his interests and obsessions, a primer in existential thinking, rather than anything more cohesive and relatable.

The cast cope well with the particular tone and rhythm of the play. Brendan Patricks is elegantly arrogant as Dust while Aiden Gillet succeeds in bringing out the spiritual quality of his director figure, Rudge. Roger Parkins’ character Meff, there primarily to provide relatively light relief, has dated far less well though he does his best with what he’s been given, and Holly Elmes, as Lizzie (one half of a pair of interchangeable identical twins), is required to do little beyond look almost permanently bewildered.

Unfortunately along with all this 1960s intellectual enquiry, the play comes with a hefty dose of 1960s chauvinism, complete with jokes about rape. Anthony Clark’s production attempts to counteract this by turning it into a period piece, complete with corduroy trousers and snug black turtlenecks, an ashtray quickly filling with the remnants of skinny cigarettes. But by rooting it so firmly in time, the light that shines around the edges of the text is dulled. The play becomes a fixed, rigid thing rather than something questing and illuminating. It’s easy to see what excited people about this play and how it came to influence other writers. At times it is still possible to feel the electricity of ideas at work, but in framing this as a heritage piece Clark has neutralised the play in more ways than one.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse

Snip, snip. Snip, snip. Michael Oakley’s production of Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy has taken the secateurs to the text. Gone is the madhouse subplot, leaving only the story of the duplicitous Beatrice-Joanna and her murky sexual entanglement with the bitter, volatile De Flores. But this secondary narrative strand does more than provide a comic counterweight to the central story, it feeds into it, shadowing it, paralleling it. Insanity takes many shapes, many forms in this play.

Oakley’s second conceptual experiment is to take the play’s many asides and turn them into pre-recorded voice over. Oakley, a past JMK Award-winner, admits in his programme notes that this is a risk, and the resulting disconnect between the internal and external is problematic. In theory the idea does chime nicely with the play’s use of doubling, but the recorded sequences seem flattened out and the production never quite solves the problem of how the cast should interact with them – they occasional resort to brow furrowing and other ‘thinking’ signifiers.

The production has been given a contemporary setting complete with seemingly obligatory CCTV monitors. There’s something vaguely 1980s about the aesthetic with its grubby filing cabinets and Beatrice-Joanna’s skin-tight black lace dress; a collision of Basic Instinct and Sliver. But the surveillance theme isn’t really picked up on, the monitors are only really brought into play during one scene, and the production suffers from a lack of claustrophobia, from a sense of these two people being unable to escape each other’s hold.

David Caves simmers as De Flores, a born gentleman forced to serve others; resentment permeates his every gesture and when he gets a chance to right what he sees as a slight, an insult, he leaps at it, relishes it. He seems to compensate for both his reduced circumstances and his marked face, his perceived ‘ugliness’, through hyper-masculine behaviour. He is not a hunched Caliban figure, muscles bulge beneath his short-sleeved white shirt; he even (just about) pulls off De Flores’ penchant for glove-sniffing.

Fiona Hampton is not quite as convincing as the fickle Beatrice-Joanna, a woman happy to manipulate De Flores into getting what she wants (having the unfortunate Alonzo iced so she can marry the dashing Alsemero), but who fails to anticipate the repercussions of her actions. While she is stronger in the early scenes, clearly enjoying the power she has over him, and she succeeds in showing how Beatrice-Joanna’s initial distaste for the man evolves into something more complex and interesting, as the situation escalates her performance seems to lose power.

Again, claustrophobia – or the lack of it – is an issue. Shorn of context, Beatrice-Joanna no longer seems backed into a corner by circumstance and her choices make even less sense. By ditching the madhouse subplot, the more blackly comic elements of the play, particularly the delicious absurdity of the virginity test, feel adrift and more than a little silly. There’s a strong case to be made for updating The Changeling; with its themes of social hierarchy – Beatrice Joanna’s sense of entitlement pitched against De Flores’ resentment – it has a particular contemporary resonance; but Oakley’s production is neither as sexually or as emotionally charged as it might be and while his approach to sound design is intriguing it also doesn’t quite make a case for itself.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, November 07, 2011

Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin at Jackson's Lane Theatre

This house is a lost house; cobwebbed, dilapidated and dusty, it has been forgotten. The old woman who once lived here has disappeared but no one has come looking for her; she is remembered only by the house itself. The chimney, the wall and the floor are given physical form. Clad in Miss Havisham rags, simpering and mugging like Playschool presenters they pine for their lost owner. Slowly, using objects scattered around the abandoned house they piece together the life of the missing woman: they give her a name, a past, a story.

Maison Foo’s poignant if rather broad-brush production was inspired by the performers’ experiences of working with the elderly. There’s something very touching in the way the fragments of a person who has been diminished and eroded by dementia are pieced back together, making them whole, even if the company have saddled both the piece and themselves with an awkward and overly elaborate narrative framework. The performers spend a very long time establishing that it is the house itself that is telling the story: so we see the floor getting overexcited at the memory of the hoover, while the chimney alternates between soot-clogged coughing and minor flirtations with the front row.

The stagecraft is impressive, blending elements of clowning and physical theatre with puppetry, and there is something particularly satisfying in the way they utilise every prop to create a recognisable world: a balloon and a piece of fabric become a small child, a coat-stand becomes a dashing young suitor, a picnic blanket and a straw hat create a fleeting yet idyllic afternoon in the sun. But while these shards of memory, these glimpses into the past, are often genuinely moving, in the favouring of the archetypal over the specific, the production is self-limiting. Mrs Benjamin, the woman who is both the absence and the presence at the centre of the piece, is not so much an individual as a portrait of every aging person whose sun-flecked past has faded to grey.

While it’s well-intentioned (the company are touring the work in partnership with Dementia UK) and well-executed, there is something a little twee in its presentation. It’s at its strongest when exploring the cruelty of dementia, conveying a strong sense of bewilderment, decay and increasing distress, but the depiction of life leading up to this moment is more formulaic, the milestones obvious and the storytelling simple: courtship, marriage, bereavement. The method of telling is visually appealing but dramatically the piece is rather narrow, and while the concept of the house as narrator is a resonant one, it feels too blunt, too literal.

The strongest sequences are also the darkest and most jarring, scenes that elegantly evoke loneliness and decline in old age, social isolation and its consequences, but elsewhere the company rather hammer their point home in a way that teeters on the edge of being patronising. It’s when they unshackle themselves from this tendency and trust their material and their audience more, that the production’s considerable charms become clear.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Revenge of the Grand Guignol at the Courtyard Theatre

The centrepiece of the London Horror Festival is Revenge of the Grand Guignol, a series of four vignettes inspired by the plays of the infamous Parisian Theatre and, in particular, by the work of the Grand Guignol playwright André de Lord.

The first piece, The Laboratory of Hallucinations, is the most explicitly linked to the French original. In an isolated clinic, a scientist is conducting brain experiments on terminal patients, tapping their frontal lobes, tinkering with their internal machinery. His wife decides she can no longer stand to stay with him, to be menaced and threatened, to listen to the screams emanating from the basement, so along with her somewhat unreliable lover she plots her escape. It takes a while – perhaps too long – for the premise to be established, but the piece eventually comes together, combining a campy Hammer quality with a lick of David Cronenberg-esque unpleasantness, but while this was the most faithful adaptation it was also the weakest; it did, however, serve as an interesting counterpoint to the pieces that followed.

By contrast, the second play, Stewart Pringle’s As Ye Sow, is the most successful of the four. An elderly man (a well-pitched performance by Jeffrey Mayhew) is visited by his daughter in the care home where he now resides, having been in decline since his wife’s disappearance eight years ago. His daughter has a scheme to remedy their financial worries, but when she explains it to her father he becomes increasingly fretful and upset. Elegantly blending elements of J-Horror – technology offers no solace here, the television and the radio are not your friends – with domestic drama, the piece contains some proper jolts but it’s the small details, the things half-glimpsed and half-heard, which really unnerve.

The third piece, Hero, sees de Lorde’s 1902 play Au Téléphone updated to the age of Skype. A medical student conducts a web-cam conversation with his girlfriend who is halfway across the world, working as a teacher in Russia. The student (nicely played by James Utechin), we eventually learn, is concealing another woman in his room, and what begins as the most light-hearted play of the night, soon begins to wrong-foot its audience; the initial jokiness falls away in favour of a drawn out, stark conclusion. Though Tom Richards’ update introduces a visual component and thereby opens up what was originally one-sided and left to the imagination, it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness – in fact it feels very much in keeping with the original’s suggestion that the devices designed to connect people can end up emphasising the distance between them.

The Blind Women, the final part of the varied quartet, has an air of Ballardian disconnect. It’s ostensibly set during the Blitz, but could easily be set during some future conflict; it has a floating, unsteady quality which is only enhanced by the harsh, jarring industrial sound effects. A young woman comes to work at a wartime munitions factory staffed predominantly by blind women where she immediately triggers the resentment of Greta (a menacing Scarlet Sweeney), a woman hardened, scarred, and more than a little unhinged. It’s the most overtly horrific of the four plays but interestingly, despite the escalating tension created by the proliferation of sharp things, it’s not as effective as the previous two pieces.

The production as a whole has a pleasing tonal variety, though possibly more could have been done to compensate for the lengthy set changes. And, in lieu of a David Warner or a Robert Powell figure to knit everything together, some form of title card might have better helped to shape things, to mark out the lines between each separate play. But, these small concerns aside, what impresses most of all about the production is its avoidance of cheap laughs and easy scares in favour of a focus on the psychology of horror, and the way in which the most successful of the plays here manage to tap into contemporary fears while still honouring their Grand Guignol origins.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Interview: Ché Walker

My interview with actor, playwright and director, Ché Walker, about directing John Patrick Shanley's two-hander, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, is now up on Exeunt. We talked about his being a 'rehearsal room baby' and the challenges and pleasures of directing in a space like The Vault at Southwark Playhouse. You can read the full interview here.