Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

The opening minutes of this collaboration between Copenhagen’s Republique Theatre Company and the redoubtable Tiger Lillies promise so much. Kicking off with a witty reworking of the wonderful Gin in which the word ‘Sin’ has been substituted, the scene is set for a characteristically grotesque exploration of Elsinore’s murky moral universe.

But this initial thrill dissipates quickly. The title is something of a misnomer for one thing, as the Lillies don’t really perform Hamlet. Yes, they have written some songs with a vaguely Hamlety theme but there’s a real failure of integration at work here, the production shunting forwards in a clunky song-text-song-text format, their music interspersed with anaemic breezeblocks of Bard, a pattern made all the more wearying by some patchy performances.

The theremin-voiced Martyn Jacques, who as ever looks as if he’s been sucking on an inky lemon, remains a compelling stage presence, perhaps too compelling in this case as he constantly draws the eye away from Morten Burian’s bland, blonde Dane. Indeed, you soon start to wish Hamlet would stop his swithering so the singing could begin again. This despite the fact that the project seems to have cowed them considerably: the song-writing lacks its usual exuberance, the lyrics veering dangerously close to the generic in places, a feeling which only intensifies as the production drags on.

Jacques’ role is never clearly defined: just who is he supposed to be in this world? What is he supposed to represent? Is he a facet of Hamlet’s psyche, an impish emissary from some other realm, or, more prosaically, just a panda-eyed master of ceremonies? There’s a recurring puppetry motif which is also never fully developed or justified. Characters are suspended by strings or turned into living ventriloquist’s dummies. There are occasional moments when the aerial work is striking, as when a horizontal Hamlet drifts dreamily across the stage or a drowning Ophelia writhes in mid-air before a backdrop of roaring water, but in terms of psychological insight it’s pretty sketchy stuff.

There are other more glaring issues with the production. The international nature of the project results in a new variant on gender-blind casting: accent-deaf casting. So Scandinavian Hamlet is paired with a Slavic Claudius who occasionally appears to be channelling Count von Count (one poisoned goblet, two poisoned goblets, bwa-ha-ha).

Martin Tulinius’ set is a kind of rain-lashed Rachel Whiteread construction by way of Playschool (Claudius and Gertrude can occasionally be spotted frotting through the square window) which descends – very slowly – to the floor in a manner reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr, only without the energy or element of surprise. And there’s the rub.

One of the real problems here is that of pacing. The whole thing most closely resembles Hoipolloi’s lamentable attempts to stage Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest, with too many scenes tediously over-stretched. The Tiger Lillies are many things, but rarely are they boring. Here there are instances when a sustaining glass of gin would really have been appreciated (only the curmudgeonly QEH won’t let you take one in) and the whole thing makes you ache to dash home and remind yourself of how good they can be when on form.Hamlet is robust enough for most things, be it dreamthinkspeak turning the text inside out in The Rest is Silence or Michael Sheen’s Cuckoo’s Nest Hamlet at the Young Vic, but here it seems to have been criminally bled of much of its life and heat. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the final duel between Laertes and Hamlet in which the two men stand at opposite ends of the stage and jab and wag their tainted foils at empty air. The failure to connect is palpable.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Busy Body, Southwark Playhouse

The tone is set during the prologue. Having swiftly dispensed with Thomas Baker’s condescending original, in which the audience were urged not to run away just because the play they were about to see was by – gasp – a woman, Jessica Swale’s contemporary replacement rattles through a list of the best British female playwrights, from Aphra Behn onwards, referencing everyone from Fanny Burney to Debbie Tucker Green along the way. It’s a lively, witty beginning and one which encapsulates Swale’s approach to the material: honouring the spirit in which it was written while bringing a more contemporary sensibility into play.

Susanna Centlivre belongs fairly near the beginning of that list, once regarded as the ‘second woman of the English stage’ after Behn, she was the kind of brilliant individual who was determined to make her mark regardless of sex, dressing up as a man in order to attend university lectures and going on to write plays that remained popular well into the nineteenth century. The Busy Body – one of her greatest successes – was written in 1709, putting it far earlier in the period than Swale’s last eighteenth century revival – Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem – but she draws from it the same delicious mix of charm and warmth. And though her track record with plays of this era is already well proven, she really excels herself here. This is a joyous, delightful production, directed with a lightness of a touch and with one eyebrow elegantly arched throughout, though – crucially – with affection rather than cynicism.

The play’s structure is far from unfamiliar: two love-plots intertwine, each reflecting the other. In the first, the pretty young heiress Miranda has to fend off the attentions of her amorous guardian, Sir Francis Gripe, while winning the hand of her admirer, Sir George Airey. In the second strand, Isabinda is all but imprisoned by her over-protective hispanophile mother who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy Spanish merchant, even though she is already well and truly smitten with Sir Francis’s son, Charles. Throughout all this, Charles’ friend Marplot, big of heart but low on smarts, acts as the busy-body of the title and his well -meant meddling threatens to scupper both couples’ plans.

The cast – several of whom have worked with Swale before, either on The Belle’s Stratagem or her earlier production of Sheridan’s The Rivals – all display a similar delicacy. The performances are knowing in tone without being too removed. There are plenty of asides and a degree of audience interaction, but these never fracture the world of the production. Each contrivance of plot is approached with suitable energy and conviction. The comic timing and delivery is brilliantly pitched; faces remain straight even when Alexandra Guelff’s Miranda rebukes Marplot for trying to look at her monkey. Michael Lindall is suitably dashing as Charles, investing his character with considerable emotional weight, especially during the scenes with his brusque and dismissive dad, while also embracing all the business with false moustaches and the scaling of invisible walls. Ella Smith, while clearly also revelling in the silliness of some of the writing, is sparkly and coquettish as Isabinda and Cerith Flinn is endearing as the hapless Marplot.

There’s no Beyonce this time, no one is invited to ‘Put a Ring On It,’ instead there are a series of songs composed by Harriet Oughton, with lyrics by Swale, that once again manage to be incredibly clever and funny without being bruisingly postmodern. These musical interludes give the production its spine, its shape, heightening the comedy and generally making the whole exercise even more blissful.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Judas Kiss, Hampstead Theatre

David Hare’s diptych about the decline and fall of Oscar Wilde hones in on two decisive moments in the man’s life. The first half is set in Wilde’s suite in the Cadogan Hotel on the afternoon on which his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry has fallen spectacularly apart. The police are on their way to arrest him for sodomy, the press are massing at his door, and his friend, Robbie Ross, is begging Wilde to use the slim window of time they have left to flee to France. But his darling Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, wants him to stay, to stand his ground, and Wilde also believes that he is in some way “trapped by the narrative”, that he has no choice in the matter. He seems almost wilfully determined to be dragged down by the gods, believing the outcome of his story is, like Christ’s, all but inevitable despite Ross’s increasingly desperate pleas that he leave England while he still can.

The play’s second act is set two years later in the Neapolitan fishing village to which Wilde has retreated, diminished in every sense by his time in Reading Gaol, with Bosie – once again – in tow. It’s by some way the more emotionally gripping part of the play. Wilde has got his wish, and is busy pickling in melancholy, disdaining motion of any sort, while Bosie cavorts with the tanned local fishermen. It’s this second half which provides the emotional charge that the play requires and – with the exception of an achingly tender exchange between Ross and Wilde – is largely absent from the first half.

There’s a real poignancy to the way in which Wilde explains his belief that there is nothing delusional about falling in love, how in actual fact it brings the true nature of a person into the light (“Love is not the illusion. Life is.”), while all the time Bosie is planning to abandon him, to retreat into his aristocratic familial cocoon and the financial security which comes with it.

It takes a while for Rupert Everett’s performance as Wilde to warm up. This is partly due to the alien physicality; he’s puffy and neckless, Mr Toad wearing Rufus Wainwright’s hair. Only in the second half does he seem to really settle into the role, reining in his more flamboyant gestures, internalising his pain; there’s a delicious stillness to this later, deflated Wilde. Everett sits primly in the centre of the stage, with his moth-eaten greatcoat spread over his lap, his pallid face shaded by a limp straw hat. Occasionally he lets an eye glide casually over the sculpted, naked body of Galileo, but otherwise he stares flatly ahead.

Freddie Fox’s Bosie, meanwhile, with his wet-lipped schoolboy pout and Mount Etna temper, initially comes across as a tantrum throwing brat, a petulant man-child in a salmon cravat, but Fox manages to generate small moments of tenderness and affection between the pair, moments which make it possible, albeit briefly, to see why Wilde may have been so fixated with this spoiled and selfish young man. Cal Macaninch, as the steadfast Robbie Ross, is perhaps the most touching and restrained of the three; when he admits sadly to Wilde, “I adored you too,” both men know that, true as this was, it was never enough. It’s one of the production’s most heart-breaking moments.

Hare’s 1998 play – much like Everett’s performance – strips away the surface flamboyance, the veneer of myth, to expose the man beneath. It also takes a scalpel to Victorian hypocrisy when it came to matters sexual, something Dale Ferguson’s design underlines, the dishevelled bed featuring centrally in a set which seems to have been sparked by Wilde’s purported deathbed retort that “either the curtains go, or I do.” Here the curtains appear to be eating the set like something out of a 1950s B-movie, spilling from above like a great velvet waterfall, and pooling alarmingly on the floor.

This set-up is echoed visually in the second half: the bed remains the focus, this time swathed in gauzy white cotton upon which Bosie lies in a post-coital tangle while Everett’s Wilde regards him with something akin to resignation, glorying in the beauty of the boy while knowing in his heart that what they have cannot last.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I Am a Camera, Southwark Playhouse

“Someday all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” But Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin has never been fully fixed; it is developing still, print after print, a continuing chemical process. John van Druten’s play would beget Kander and Ebb’sCabaret and Isherwood himself would refocus his lens and revisit the material in the even more candid Christopher and His Kind, written in 1976 and making explicit that at which he could once only hint.

The recent BBC adaptation of His Kind featured Matt Smith as the author, engaged in sweaty bedroom sessions with the boys of Berlin. Though Isherwood’s sexuality remains clouded in Van Druten’s play, even so it’s difficult not to make a connection with this particular lensing when watching Anthony Lau’s revival of I am a Camera: for Harry Melling’s incarnation of Isherwood has more than a dash of the Doctor about him; he’s a nervy but observant outsider, the odd man out, always slightly removed.

The bond between Melling’s Christopher and Rebecca Humphries’s spirited Sally Bowles is an intense and consuming one. They are wrapped in each other, like children, like siblings, flaring in rage one moment, earnestly proposing marriage the next when the other is in a bind. While Isherwood is tolerant of the many unsuitable men she drags into their world – the coolly overgenerous Clive amongst them, with his promises of exotic travel and his frequent gifts of Champagne – the play is unbalanced in this respect; his love-life remains opaque, while her failings are continually picked over. As Isherwood, Melling has a kind of geeky grace, a pleasing precision of gesture, while Humphries’ Sally conveys a deep streak of pathos and self-knowledge below the feathers and glitter and nail varnish. Though mannered and bratty, she’s a striking presence, even at her most dishevelled and regretful.

The playground heat of their friendship is contrasted with the slow-blooming relationship between Isherwood’s uptight Jewish student Natalia and Fritz, Isherwood’s essentially amiable if slightly predatory hanger-on. Fritz initially pursues Natalia on a whim, his eyes lighting up when he discovers she comes from a wealthy family, but her decency and strength of character wake something up in him and he finds himself falling in love. There’s an interesting process of doubling at work here: as Isherwood’s sexuality remains unspoken, Fritz is also revealed to be concealing his Jewishness, sealing it away so deeply inside himself he struggles to admit it even to Natalia. It’s testament to both Freddie Capper and Sophie Dickson that neither gets gusted off the stage by Melling and Humphries’ altogether larger performances.

Eventually even the pathologically passive Herr Issyvoo can no longer hide from the reality of what’s happening in the city, the storm clouds forming beyond his shabby rented room and the claustrophobia of his relationship with Sally. Reality starts to encroach on both their lives; for Isherwood the growing wave of violence and hate becomes unbearable, while Sally’s fire fades when her mother arrives in town to put an end to her adventuring.

In the last few productions in their current home, Southwark Playhouse has made increasingly creative use of their Vault space and James Turner’s set is no exception. Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house – with its much abused bed and velvet chaise lounge, its faded drapings and decaying paperbacks, that all-important tooth-glass from which to sip one’s gin – feels perfectly at home under the arched stone ceiling, a little bit bohemian and subterranean in more ways than one, cut off from the outside world. The bassist and pianist perched on a dais at the back of the stage conjures up a whiff of the Weimar clubs in which Sally Bowles might have wafted her emerald-tipped fingernails, beckoning at men through a cigarette haze.

Reviewed for Exeunt