Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Filumena at the Almeida Theatre

Elegantly weathered shutters overlook a shaded Neapolitan courtyard. Vines snake up the old stone walls and light streams through the overhanging branches of an orange tree. Crickets chirrup and birds twitter. Fabric flowers sit under a halogen sun. It’s all exquisitely pretty in a strangely sterile way. But Eduardo De Filippo’s play is not big on pretty. It’s a comedy drawn from desperation, haunted by the spectre of poverty, and this tame, tasteful Tourist Board vision of southern Italy conveys nothing of that.

While it’s true that this courtyard, the home of the wealthy Don Domenico, is supposed to be a place of escape for the play’s protagonist, the one-time prostitute Filumena, a safe-haven from the ugly world outside, the production’s prevailing sense of disconnection is not just one of aesthetics. There’s something tonally amiss about the whole thing.

At the start of the play, Filumena has just tricked Don Domenico, her philandering lover of some 27 years, into a deathbed marriage. Though the minute the priest has made things official between them, she is suddenly, miraculously ‘cured.’ In the noisy fallout from her deception, it comes to light that she has three illegitimate adult sons – a writer, a tailor, and a mechanic – whom she has surreptitiously looked out for over the years. She now hopes that Domenico will assume the role of father and provider for all three.

Filumena was driven into prostitution out of desperation. Her teenage years were spent on the brink of starvation; poverty closes doors, it shrinks people’s worlds, and this was the only way out that seemed open to her. It was an act of survival. De Filippo’s play does not skirt around the issue, nor does it gloss over the tough choices she faced in bringing each of her children into the world; she has, in her own way, managed to provide for them financially, though she was never able to be a mother to them. Now she seeks security, comfort, the love that was denied to her. But while pain radiates from the writing it is rarely evident on stage.

Samantha Spiro is an actor of warmth and charisma but in the play’s opening scenes she comes across as shrill and hard-edged, a schemer. Only later, when her motivations are clearer, does she start appearing more human, more sympathetic. Clive Wood’s Domenico is all froth and bluster, a carapace of masculine menace; when he first discovers Filumena has tricked him, he half-heartedly shakes a spoon at her while spouting unconvincing threats.

There is further disconnection evident in the translation by Tanya Ronder. While it’s probably necessary to have the cast avoid Italian caricature, Ronder takes things in the other direction, revelling in the colloquial. Her translation has Filumena’s sons calling one another “twat” and “big man”, and people screeching “silly old cow.” It all sits rather awkwardly on the studiously attractive flower-bedecked set; the gap between what we see and what we hear is an increasingly difficult one to bridge.

Michael Attenborough’s production wakes up and warms up considerably in the far shorter second half. There is some genial if underpowered comic interplay between the three sons and everyone suddenly and almost unaccountably seems inclined to be far kinder to one another. But it all comes too late in the day; and the production never convincingly evokes the social polarization of post-war Naples, the creep of poverty and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The play’s heat, its vital fire, has been damped down, its emotional potency neutered.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ball, and Other Funny Stories About Cancer at CPT

Brian Lobel has just asked a woman to fondle his testicles. Or rather testicle: Lobel was diagnosed with cancer when he was 20 years old and as a result he only has the one. The woman is wearing a surgical glove and their encounter forms the end part of a trilogy of work, a collection of pieces dating from 2003, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Though cancer is the subject matter this is not a battle narrative; what doesn’t kill you doesn’t by default make you stronger: it makes you sick and bald and miserable, it eats up time that you’ll never get back. The first piece of the night, Ball, is not a survival story (the fact that he’s in the room relating his experience says enough); Lobel is not out to inspire nor is he out to make his audience weep. Instead he describes his diagnosis, his response to it, and the subsequent ravages of chemotherapy, with honesty, humour and warmth. It’s often very funny – especially when he’s explaining what it’s like to jerk off in a cryogenics facility (malignancy and masturbation, he observes, are not words that usually crop up in the same anecdote) – but it’s also tender and raw.

Lobel evokes the clash of emotions that come from having to deal with serious illness at a young age, at any age, and having to grapple, not just with his cancer, but with other people’s assumptions and anxieties about it too: he spent a lot of time reassuring and comforting others. And it wasn’t enough just to get through it and get better, he had to emerge victorious, triumphant. Cancer was something to be beaten and defeated, hurled to the ground and trampled upon. Lobel dons a Lycra cyclist’s jersey to make his point. Cancer has not turned him into Lance Armstrong.

The second piece of the night, Other Funny Stories About Cancer, digs deeper into the mess of the situation, the knotty, tangled stuff, both sexual and medical – the fear and loathing – that didn’t quite fit into the first piece. He examines the differing societal reactions to his cancer – the good kind of cancer, the right kind of cancer – and to illnesses like AIDS. Sex was already up for discussion in Ball – as a 20-year-old gay virgin just what constituted the ‘normal sex life’ his doctors kept reassuring him he would still enjoy? Here, he recounts his many awkward attempts to rid himself of his virginity, and the joyous if unexpected moment, following the major abdominal surgery that might have made him impotent, he found himself getting off to Miranda from Sex and the City.

The final chapter of his trilogy, 2009’s An Appreciation, provides a playful coda to the evening. Lobel asks five audience members to come and appreciate his equipment. These five volunteers are each given a shot of whisky to drink before they glove up; then Lobel drops his trousers and invites them to have a feel. In the context of the performance such a request seems entirely apt. Lobel has already laid himself bare and he’s taken care to create a comfortable, relaxed and open environment. The actual moment of handling is brief, but somehow both intimate and clinical, tender and awkward. It brings home the physical reality of the things he’s been discussing: the body as a source of pleasure and pain, a changing, aging wilful thing, your ally and your enemy. Each volunteer is given a piece of paper and asked to jot down the word that encapsulates the experience; one says ‘squidgy’, another ‘scary’, the final one simply reads: ‘wow’.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mustafa at Soho Theatre

There’s a chimerical quality to Naylah Ahmed’s play; there are moments where it feels unevenly stitched, a collision of things, that while individually intriguing and exciting, don’t always fit neatly together.

Mustafa, a devout Muslim man, is in prison for manslaughter. The play opens with his cell being searched and his prayer mat confiscated. In its early moments the play seems to be setting itself up as a piece of ‘issue’ theatre: it bears all the hallmarks, and it’s easy to imagine where this play, in other hands, may have ended up. But Ahmed soon upends this impression, her play revealing itself as something altogether more intriguing and unexpected. Mustafa, it seems, has been put in solitary confinement because strange things happen when he is around. At first the prison guards are happy to mark him out as a trouble maker, but it soon becomes evident that he’s the catalyst rather than the cause.

Mustafa is in prison because a boy died while under his care during what turns out to have been an exorcism ritual; he claims he was trying to free the boy from the grip of an evil spirit, a djinn, but the ritual failed, the boy died, and now the djinn seems to have acquired a new host in Mustafa. The idea of a malign, invisible force attaching itself to a man is one rich in metaphoric potential and the play acknowledges this without over-milking it.

Ahmed has written a contemporary supernatural thriller with a political edge and, though the play doesn’t quite fly, its willingness to tinker with genre and audience expectation is pleasing. At times it feels a bit like a British take on The Green Mile (without Tom Hanks’ permanently earnest expression or urinary tract issues) or like one of the more out-there episodes of HBO prison drama Oz (without Chris Meloni’s ubiquitous cock). But Ahmed is out to do more than just unnerve her audience, at times too much more. There are a couple of complicated subplots, one about female-on-male domestic violence, and another about Mustafa’s antagonistic relationship with his brother, Shabir (who is also, conveniently, his solicitor). These plot threads are intriguing – exploring ideas of masculinity and cultural identity both within prison and out in the wider world – but, as both concern events that take place beyond the prison walls, they require lengthy chunks of exposition in order to weave them into the fabric of the play, and this excess of explanation undermines the building sense of tension.

The performances are nicely balanced. There’s an endearingly paternal quality to the relationship between the older, experienced prison guard, played by Paul McClearly, and his younger, brasher colleague, played by Ryan Early. Munir Khairdin provides a calm central presence as the enigmatic, sensitive Mustafa; there’s a sense of quiet pathos to his performance which helps tame the more wayward aspects of the play, keeping the genie in its bottle.

Janet Steel’s production delivers the occasional tingle but is more concerned with the relationships between the four characters than with shocks and scares; indeed, for a play about an exorcism, there’s a surprising amount of humour on display. Colin Falconer’s caged and barred set emphasises the sense of confinement and isolation, with Mustafa’s cell swamped in blackness, figures half-glimpsed in the distance, adding to the production’s sense of a world off-kilter, a world in which dark things lurk.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Ethics of Progress at Jackson's Lane Theatre

“Spooky action at a distance” was Einstein’s memorable description of the paradoxes inherent in quantum mechanics – and the words “spooky” and “weird” crop up more than once in Jon Spooner’s engaging one-man show about the places theoretical physics may soon take us.

As adults the vast majority of us, physicists excepted, take for grant that the world works in certain ways, and that everything is governed by a set of basic laws and rules; so to learn that the very smallest particles are not subject to these laws – in defiance of classic Newtonian physics – is a bit of a head-fuck: Spooner is clearly still spinning.

Written together with Chris Thorpe and Clare Duffy of Unlimited Theatre, The Ethics of Progress, a kind of everyman’s guide to superposition and quantum entanglement, came about following a process of conversation and consultation with Oxford University’s Professor Vlatko Vedral. Spooner describes how teleportation is theoretically entirely possible and goes on to outline what a future in which humans are capable of teleportation might be like. He draws an amusing but apt parallel with a pre- and post-wheel world: making the obvious but still persuasive observation that something which brought us so much in terms of agriculture, industry and freedom of movement is also a fundamental tool of warfare and environmental ruin. From here he extrapolates a possible future in which teleportation technology comes to be a boon in terms of global travel and the averting of humanitarian crises, but on the flip-side, there’s also an unnerving sequence in which he describes a scenario of potential genocide-by-teleportation.

Like the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, in his book Into The Silent Land, Spooner finds himself questioning what all this means in terms of the soul. If we’re all just data, a collection of transferrable particles, what does this mean for the essential stuff that is us?

It’s important, he says, to think about the social and ethical – and spiritual – consequences of new technology because it’s on its way. He uses the recent rapid advances in communication technology as an example, the way they’ve utterly and fundamentally changed the way so many of us interact. Some people find this exhilarating, others deeply troubling, but to a younger generation of digital natives it’s simply how things are. Spooner is not however advocating technophobia, if anything he’s excited about the possibilities; but he does stress the necessity for imaginative questioning. We need to think about this now, he urges, because we can’t simply turn the clocks back if the future isn’t as bright and shiny as we’d hoped (well, actually, as it transpires in the post-show Q&A with Vedral, maybe we can – but that’s another story).

Spooner’s show has a lot in common with Robin Ince’s exercises in Carl Sagan fanboyism. There’s something endearingly lo-fi about explaining scientific innovation with the help of a laptop and a couple of stools and in its own quiet, geeky way it’s like the clarion call which fills the final pages of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma, a call to keep questioning things, to ask and ask and ask, because the future is coming and all we can do is be ready.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, March 09, 2012

Farewell to the Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

There’s a gentle, tip-toe quality about Richard Nelson’s new play. Intentionally thin on plot, it’s less concerned with “doing” than “being” and allows its characters’ stories to unfold in a delicate rippling fashion. It’s not exactly ‘about’ the life of the innovative actor-manager, playwright and director, Harley Granville-Barker, either, rather it’s a play in which Granville-Barker features as a character. If anything it’s more concerned with the condition of the English in exile and the potency of theatre.

Granville-Barker is marking time at a boarding house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1916. Having left behind the collapse of his marriage (a divorce is pending) and the trauma of the war in Europe he finds himself witness to a number of private tragedies and passions. He’s disillusioned, frustrated and contemplating giving up theatre for good – it is at this point in his life he writes the one-act play with which Nelson’s shares its name – but he can’t quite let go of the theatre, not yet, nor it of him.

The majority of the characters are, like Granville-Barker, English escapees. There’s Beatrice, a middle-aged actress deep in the midst of an infatuation with a young American student; the genial Frank Spraight, a renowned Dickens specialist; Henry, a professor at the local college, and his widowed sister Dorothy, who runs the boarding house at which Granville-Barker is staying. They each have their longings, they all have their regrets.

An unseen but much discussed production of Twelfth Night at the college where Henry teaches forms the backdrop to the play. Granville-Barker watches as Shakespeare’s comedy becomes the source of much toxic academic wrangling and acute social humiliation. It seems his presence has alarmed one of the resident professors and he, in turn, has taken it out on the hapless Henry. None of this adds up to very much but it is, at times, gently compelling, full of quiet Chekhovian melancholy. There are other times however where a little bit more in the way of momentum would be appreciated, more incident, more ‘doing.’ As it is Granville-Barker’s one moment of physical and emotional connection feels like a thunder clap on an otherwise still day.

Ben Chaplin excels at playing English men of a certain stripe – sardonic, intelligent, reserved – and he’s superb as Granville-Barker, a watchful, contemplative man, his words carefully measured. Jason Watkins is hugely endearing as Spraight, his chipper exterior concealing a deep sadness of his own; both men are adept at putting up shields, guarding themselves emotionally. Tara Fitzgerald makes for a giddy Beatrice, near-intoxicated by the blood-rush of feeling for her pretty young American while Jemma Redgrave is alternatively nervy and bold as the permanently black-clad Dorothy.

Roger Michell’s production seems to follow some of Granville-Barker’s tenets in terms of use of space and the minimal bare-board aesthetic of the stage design, but while Nelson has created some intriguingly shaded and layered characters, the college in-fighting that soaks up so much of the play feels unnecessarily laboured, Granville-Barker and the others bobbing on the surface of an ultimately slight story.

The final scene in which the characters take solace in the performance of a traditional mummers’ play, wearing dressing-up box costumes and wielding wooden swords under a bright American sun – revelling in theatre in one of its oldest forms – feels slightly tepid and tacked-on rather than in any way revelatory or transformative.

Reviewed for Exeunt