Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre

The switchback rhythms of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue must present a challenge to any actor. In their lilting, his lines are almost musical, glittering with wicked humour, but they also has a very distinctive cadence – timing is all, a half second either way is all it takes to tip the train from its tracks. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson nailed it in In Bruges. The cast of Michael Grandage’s revival – the third production in his West End season after Privates on Parade and the lacklustre Peter and Alice – hit the mark in places but all too often the tempo feels just a little out, a little off. We’re talking micro-beats here, slivers of seconds, but they still matter.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the title character, Billy Claven, a young orphan known to all on the island of Inishmaan as Cripple Billy. Since his parents drowned in mysterious circumstances, he’s been raised by the two spinsters who run the local shop and is regarded as something of an odd sort, a little bit touched, for he spends his days staring at cows or, worse, reading books; he’s a figure of mockery for most and is constantly teased by the flame-haired, egg-pegging ‘Slippy’ Helen for whom he harbours a soft spot.

This is a real ensemble piece (though you wouldn’t know it from the posters) and McDonagh’s play is as much a portrait of a community, as it is of an individual. The suffocating nature of life on the island, where a fracas between a cat and a goose is deemed worthy of relating by the town gossip, is disrupted by the arrival of film maker Robert Flaherty on the neighbouring Inishmore, to make his seminal early documentary Man of Aran. Billy scents an opportunity to escape and he does all he can to take it.

Radcliffe has clearly given a lot of thought to the physicality of his character. One leg drags stiffly, unbending at the knee, while one hand sits rigid and twisted against his chest; occasionally his good hand brushes lightly against the curled one, as if it’s a source of solace. Though Billy’s movements are awkward and jerky, Radcliffe also brings a sort of youthful determination to the character, both physically – encapsulated in the way he slithers unaided down a rope into the harbour – and in the way he engineers his flight to Hollywood. It may take him longer than most but he gets where he wants to go in the end.

There’s a gentleness and openness to Radcliffe’s performance. It avoids heavy-handed poor-me pathos; his Billy doesn’t revel, nor does he meekly resign himself to the hand life has dealt him. Grandage’s production also features a brilliant double-act between Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as Billy’s adoptive aunts, who clearly love him despite their sternness. Their sisterly bickering and their quiet despair when Billy leaves are warmly portrayed.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is probably Martin McDonagh’s softest-souled play (though this is very much a relative thing – he still takes rather a lot of pleasure in dangling a little sprig of hope over poor Billy’s head) and Grandage’s production softens it further, humanising the characters rather than making grotesques of them. The play brings a sense of Beckettian repetition to their isolated island world, with its grey days, its sense of time snailing by, its Alpine stacks of tinned peas – which is all Billy’s aunties seem to sell in their shop. McDonagh also plays interesting games with Irish types. There’s thematic overlap with both Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets, Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and even Father Ted, the emergence of Ireland as a cultural product. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if French fellas want to live in Ireland,” Helen says and this refrain echoes through the play as their way of life is fixed, filmed, and sent into the world.

And yet for a play which is so much about representation, there are times when the production seems content to skate on the surface of things. Christopher Oram’s blocky polystyrene set is a case in point and looks a bit like it’s been cobbled together from left over pieces of the one from the Old Vic’s production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. For all its considerable polish and Radcliffe’s generous, unshowy performance, there are things about the production that don’t quite click. These are mainly small, subtle things but they add up. Helen’s hair is a little bit too bright and lush, the characters’ clothes a little bit too artfully grubby and distressed and while the play does have a heart, its beat is erratic and irregular at best.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Amen Corner, National Theatre

In a production full of soaring choral moments, it’s the undercurrent of silent strength that sounds loudest in this revival of James Baldwin’s 1955 play. When Sharon D. Clarke’s Sister Odessa faces down the grumblers and the gossips in her sister’s church, she stands firm, arms solemnly folded, dignified in the face of their snipping and griping, their small-mindedness and back-biting. She’s steady as a stone, a force to be reckoned with, even though she barely says a word.

This quality of quiet, feminine strength stripes through Baldwin’s play; his women know what it is to struggle – they understand hunger and grief and loss all too well.

Marianne Jean Baptiste plays Sister Margaret, the iron-minded pastor of a Harlem tabernacle who has raised her young son on her own after being abandoned by her musician husband. When she is in full flow as a preacher she is capable of generating waves of euphoria in her congregation; though small in stature she fills the room, white-robed, her voice rising and falling like the tide, her hands drifting heavenward, sending her flock into ecstatic paroxysms. She councils her congregation to put the Lord above all else in the world, to go hungry rather than take that job driving a liquor truck, to empty their pockets into the collection plate, to do everything they can in the service of God. He is everywhere and in everything. The church elders always greet each other with the exultation to ‘Praise the Lord’ - it’s the first thing that leaves their lips when they meet.

Sister Margaret faces a double test of her faith when her husband, Luke, returns unexpectedly, sick yet unrepentant, quivering with fever, his lungs ravaged by TB; at the same time her son is proving himself to be a talented young musician who’s not content just to play piano in church, he wants to ‘live in the world’ instead. There’s dissent too among her flock, who start to question the status of a female pastor and question quite how she can afford a shiny new frigidaire while they can hardly make ends meet.

Baldwin’s addict father left his mother when he was young and the man who replaced him was none too pleasant either, but despite this he does not make Margaret a saint; she is complex, proud, and over-comfortable in her position of power in the community. When the poorer members of her church complain about their situation, she doesn’t really hear them. And when it turns out that the reasons her relationship with Luke collapsed are more messy than she led on, and that, in reality, it was her that did the leaving, walking out him after the death of their child to make a go of it on her own, they have their ammunition.  As the church elders use this against her, the repeated calls of ‘Praise the Lord’ start to sound increasingly hollow, a way of excusing the most craven behaviour.

The play is often over emphatic and heavy of hand – the way the elders suddenly turn against Margaret seems too quick, too simplistic – but the central performances are powerful and Rufus Norris’ production creates a enveloping sense of community, a world, mainly of women, with the church at its heart, filling the Olivier with ceiling-lifted gospel music. Marianne Jean-Baptiste traces Margaret’s journey from near-complacency in her faith and her position in the community to raw confrontation with what it really means to love. Sharon D. Clarke’s Odessa is a calm, capable presence, unruffled and wise. Cecilia Noble is a cupcake-voiced delight as the most sanctimonious of the elders, a pastel-suited woman who uses her virginity as a weapon, a demonstration of the strength of her commitment to God. And though it’s the women you go home remembering, Lucian Msamati’s Luke is also more than a man gone bad; he’s been as undone by the death of their daughter as Margaret has.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, June 07, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Globe Theatre

Deep in the forest there are dark things: horned half-men and furry beasts, creatures of English myth. Dominic Dromgoole’s production is populated by animalistic fairies with antler crowns, green men and women, wreathed in leaves and daubed with earth. There’s a carnality to them too, these creatures; Titania’s desire for Bottom is hot and hungry – you can almost see the steam rising – while the bare-chested Oberon will occasionally envelop his Puck in a long, lingering embrace.

The forest seems to taint the four young lovers too, creeping around their ankles like ivy, encircling them. Each time they appear on stage, they have shed one more layer of finery; their shirts come untucked and their stockings straggle, their faces become increasingly caked in dirt. The forest infects them and there becomes less and less to distinguish them from the fairy folk.

This sense of pastoral unease is off-set by the broadly comic mechanicals scenes. They’re first seen tip-tap their way onto the stage in a kind of clog dance (a recurring device). Pearce Quigley’s magnificent Bottom manages to be both gentle and understated in his delivery while simultaneously stealing every scene he’s in like a child scrumping apples. His is a melancholic Bottom, though also rather vain and touchy, prone to strops. He makes a show of never remembering Peter Quince’s name and likewise refers to the play they are putting on as the tragedy of Pyramus and Thingy. The final performance of the play, in all its tragical mirth, sees the company erect a teeny theatre, a kind of rickety mini-Globe onto which they all cram, a structure which requires regular mid-scene repairs, the stage hand slithering between Bottom’s legs as he attempts to address his chink.

Michelle Terry is a lustful, rich-voiced Titania but also an intriguing Hippolyta, full of ambivalence for Theseus, shrinking from his touch and enjoying the disruptive antics of the mechanicals rather too much (there’s also a fascinating essay by Terry on Hippolyta and the Amazons in the programme, which is well worth reading). John Light is a bounding, bearded Oberon, clambering about the stage and swinging from its pillars, while Matthew Tennyson’s Puck is lanky and somewhat adolescent in energy, his sudden fits of energy giving in to shoulder-shrugs and inattentive yawns, a creature in need of distraction. Luke Thompson, making his professional debut as Lysander, stands out among the love-struck quartet, consumed by this sudden surge of new feeling, grinning like a little boy.

While the comic scenes are a source of revelry with every potential joke sniffed out and made much of, with each mechanical granted their moment, whether it be the wall’s trousers escaping or Bottom’s inability to remember his lines, the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence does feel rather over-extended. Though the laughs duly come, there are times when the jokes feel laboured and you can practically see the performers striving and straining, steering the play away from the twilight magic of some of the earlier scenes in the process. Though there are some pleasing subversions, particularly the way the company approaches the final, almost obligatory, jig, Dromgoole’s production is most potent when evoking a sense of mystical menace, the forest not as lovers’ playground but as a world of hunter and hunted.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Narrated by an Ancient Tree

"All the way from Belgium. Artificial insemination and tears. "

My annual trawl through the Edinburgh Fringe programme. The product, as ever, of a lot of coffee; a mixture of optimism and fear. The piece in full here.