Tuesday 9 July 2013

Mint - Royal Court

Claire Lizzimore’s Mint is almost an antidote to all this frenetic activity. It’s a *proper play*. It’s an hour and a half long. You have to sit down, concentrate, and possibly slow down your body’s natural rhythm to properly digest it.

It’s also another example of Not My Favourite Sort of Play, but it’s different to Pigeons (which also wasn’t). Instead of fast-paced urban-yoof thriller, this is your big, serious, adult drama. And I think it’s a very good one of them. (It not being my favourite sort of thing, that’s kind of hard to tell, because you (I) don’t fully feel it instinctively, but it appeared to me to be a work of real substance, integrity and quality.)

It’s a play about Alan (captured astonishingly in Sam Troughton’s mesmerising performance), who is in prison for a robbery – probably an armed robbery, given the length of his sentence – and his relationship with his family for the duration of that sentence, and beyond into the early days of his release.

It reminded me a great deal of Simon Stephens’s Country Music (from before Simon’s first brush with Germany, when he was also a writer of very good examples of Not My Favourite Sort of Play). It also had something of the economy and style of Mike Bartlett’s taut, painfully precise dialogue. For others, it had something of the Saved, about it (it’s been way too long since I saw Saved to feel that connection).

But, while Not Strictly My Bag, I was pretty impressed by Mint as a piece of writing. And on a few beautiful occasions, it totally transcended the starkness of its form to deliver a couple of genuinely stop-you-in-your-tracks monologues – one from Alan’s father (another beautiful performance, from Alan Williams) and then one about being in prison by Alan. It was in these moments, much more than in the carefully handled dialogue and well-structured chronology, that it felt we really saw the best of what Lizzimore the playwright might come up with in the future.

Caroline Steinbeis’s production of course astonishes just by virtue of being Very Good Indeed after only a week, but there was a canniness and crispness to it that felt like even if it were left for a Full British Rehearsal Period™, perhaps not much would have needed to be substantially rethought. This week, Chloe Lamford’s versatile box (see Open Court reviews passim, for other iterations of my fondness for this increasingly sorry euphemism) has opaque plastic not-quite-see-thru walls, which is also nice. Lizzie Powell’s Lighting design is perhaps the best yet for Open Court, all pillars of uplighting against the back wall and a tiny bit of swirling stage fog. Similarly, Giles Thomas’s sound design is also the best yet (although possibly trumped on energy by Pigeons’s use of Tinie Tempah et al.), making big echoey clanging noises to mark scene changes (I know it’s an old effect, and probably a terrible cliché, but I still bloody love big echoey clanging noises when lighting states suddenly shift).

In a way, I wonder if the Open Court Aesthetic serves Mint as well as a “proper” run in a theatre would, however. I wonder if (at least for me) it falls victim to the sort of expectation that everything is going to be pretty whizz-bang. (Maybe, for example, why it gets a much better write up from Paul Taylor, than it’s getting from me, on the grounds that he’d not seen as much else, and so hadn’t adjusted his pulse-rate forwards.)

The buzz around Open Court as a whole is an interesting question, as I mention above. Matt Trueman in his excellent second report on it wonders:
“[whooping is] an almost nightly occurrence at Open Court. Actors bow to a chorus of cheers, whistles. It’s extraordinary... It’s so uncouth. It’s ruddy brilliant, but it’s not like every piece is an out-of-the-park success. Far from it. Seen in the cold light of day, most are pretty good. Decent. Enjoyable enough, you know. Yet, in the heat of the moment, we’re going wild for them.
“...there’s a sense of event that’s long been missing from the average Royal Court show. Open Court has restored it in a single swoop. This is new writing as live performance, not staged literature.
“...each show is keen to admit that process – both as get-out clause and aesthetic choice – and it’s genuinely more exciting. It begs a pretty massive question of a writers’ theatre: do we go to the Royal Court to see a play or a performance?”
Leaving aside the thing about literature (which I think is a matter of semantics), I think Trueman’s identified something. I’m not sure I completely agree with his diagnosis of what it is, however. Yes, some of what feels exciting is the liveness and the in-the-moment-ness, but I think – perhaps especially for critics and people who work in the theatre – there’s also something about the rate of turnover that’s important. That we can keep coming back to just this one place and there’s something new for us every time. I think that adds to the atmosphere. But against that, there’s also something liberating to the extent to which you can back something so transitory.

Put nakedly (and perhaps it’s “cynically” too), I think you judge something differently when it’s been programmed for a week, or for one night, than if it stands for six weeks of what a building wants to tell people – what that building wants to say about itself. It isn’t something that had ever occurred to me before, but it feels like it makes a lot of sense. If you feel a bit luke-warm about a play, and it’s basically bed-blocking an important London stage (Upstairs or Downstairs) for a month or so, you’re going to feel that displeasure a lot more accurately than if it’s only on until Saturday. Or it’s already gone. “Never mind, there’ll be a new one any minute” is also an incredibly seductive mantra.

And, as I said before, I think the “festival” atmosphere of being able to keep on coming back is also incredibly important (and it’s being helped enormously by the current weather). The fact that once you’ve seen a show (or both shows) at a building doesn’t make it a slightly dead space for the next month or so also helps the feeling here enormously. I’ve got no idea what their actual repeat bookings figures are, but my betting is that they’re higher than usual. Well, apart from anything else, in the period of a month, they are almost certain to be tonnes more, unless loads of people went to Ingredient X or The fucking Priory twice. Which I bloody doubt.

But, as revisiting my horrid memories of those two plays also suggests, this is also better just for the simple fact that it is just actually better work than pretty much everything that the Royal Court has done since the end of 2009. (Except Wastwater, which was magical.)

There we go: that should be enough hostages to fortune to ensure I hate everything else that the Featherstone regime puts out, but let no one diminish the extraordinary gesture and effect of this first month.

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