Thursday 21 February 2008

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - Lyric Hammersmith

Written for

Bert Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a hotch-potch to say the least, flinging Shakespeare’s Richard III and Julius Caesar together in a retelling of Hitler’s rise to power transposed to Chicago’s ganglands of the 1930s. Lyric artistic director David Farr’s new version manages to confuse matters further by sort-of relocating the narrative again in modern Africa. I say “sort of” since despite having a black cast dressed in costumes that evoke a number of African dictatorships from Idi Amin’s Uganda to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe the characters continually refer to the text’s original Chicago locations.

The show doesn’t help matters by getting off to a slow start, making heavy weather of the early expositionary scenes. Nothing is especially clear, the intended parallels, while obvious enough, aren’t quite mapping onto either Weimar Germany or contemporary Africa, and it’s simply not a good enough play about gangsters to stand on its own. Matters aren’t helped by a pretty patchy cast who seem to completely fail to gel into a coherent ensemble, barking their lines at one another and never playing off one another or achieving moments of complicity. Yes, this evokes an atmosphere of heightened paranoia, but it obliterates Brecht’s more enjoyable clownishness. After all, in some ways this is - intentionally - a very silly play. The empire-building nominally undertaken by Ui is that of cauliflower sales. It puts the level of gangsterism somewhere around that of Bugsy Malone.

Things pick up when the play start charting Hitler’s rise to power. Ui brings in a Shakespearean actor to help him learn oratorical skills, and gradually transforms into the Hitler we know from Newsreel footage while reciting Mark Antony’s funeral speech (you know, the “Brutus is an honourable man” one). Of course the scene is a gift for any actor, but with the additional African dictatorships angle, doesn’t quite make proper sense.

From here on in, the play’s internal sense becomes much strong and as we trot through analogies of the night of the long knives and the annexation of Austria, we have a pretty good idea what’s going on and it’s all rattling good fun. Problematically so - the issue being, if you take a figure like Hitler (or Mugabe, or Amin) then firstly dress them in the borrowed phrases of Shakespeare’s central characters, and, secondly, reduce the magnitude of their crimes to the petty squabbling of rival gangs, you wind up with a guy you’re rooting for. Not ideal.

The staging is also somewhat less than perfect, including totally unnecessary blackouts and annoying inconsistencies, like the guns sometimes using pre-recorded sound effects and sometimes letting off caps. Similarly, there seemed to be no internal logic to when scene titles were declaimed - some before the blackouts, some during and some after. Meanwhile, the raked sandpit stage feels somehow too cramped - suggesting an even smaller scope for the play, with all the characters hemmed in by the wings and packing cases.

Lucian Msamati makes a solid Ui, but lacks the sheer psychotic charisma that would really make the play fly. Until, that is, the very end, when suddenly, while making his final speech, addressed directly to the audience - delivered through microphones with enough reverb and delay to evoke the Nuremberg Rallies - he starts naming African cities rather than American towns. And it is electrifying. The list - Kigali, Kinshasa, Khartoum - conjuring up real horrors for the first time - giving a glimpse of the production this could have been.

Also: note to programme editor - it’s “African Dictators” (no apostrophe needed). Embarrassing.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Press plus

The main point of this post is to flag up the brilliant new show at the Gate called Press. I have reviewed it for Time Out, but that won’t be published for a week. I will write it up here if I get a chance, but in the mean time, just trust me. It is a brilliant piece of work - combining contemporary dance, physical comedy and a really neat line in mordant wit. It is one of the best things I’ve seen in the last year and a real coup for Natalie Abrahami ands Carrie Cracknell’s blossoming artistic directorship. In the next year I think the Gate is going to have become an absolutely essential venue for the first time in years.

I’m afraid Postcards’s schedule has gotten a bit hectic recently. That said, for anyone with serious withdrawal symptoms, there are two newish posts over at the Guardian’s blog site: yesterday’s looking at the value of free theatrical events, and a cynical little Valentine’s piece from last week.

There’s also my review for Time Out of The Blind, which is still running at the Arcola. This review earned me my first bit of director comeback action for almost a year (since That Face, since you ask), of which more another time. This week’s two star savaging of Senti-Mental at the Union is also online now.

Brief Encounter - Kneehigh at the Haymarket Cinema

There comes a point in everyone’s life where they must confront their mortality. I staggered out of Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter into Sunday’s twilight fearing I had just become a Dead White Male. Turns out I was wrong.

Sure, I had found much of the previous two hours absolutely shattering - Noel Coward’s portrait of a doomed affair is too painfully acute not to do that - but this was the problem; while I had absolutely loved a vast majority of what Emma Rice’s adaptation had done with Alec and Laura’s story, I wasn’t at all sure about the rest of the Kneehigh-ification. This was going to be A Matter of Life and Death all over again, with me as the rotting corpse of Caucasian Masculine Theatre Criticism.

However, my memory of the David Lean original was far from perfect. I wasn’t quite sure how much of what I’d just seen had been Kneehigh’s invention and how much was the original Coward. So I spent the evening re-watching the original Brief Encounter, with unexpected results. It turns out that, by and large, I actually preferred the stage version’s rendition of the romance by quite a margin. On the other hand, yes, I still found the forty-five minutes of additional material largely superfluous, under-done, often misjudged or just downright irritating. Similarly, the camped-up, slightly enlarged roles for the staff of the station refreshment room where much of the action takes place are very much a matter of taste. Fans of Kneehigh’s brand of broad, rough-and-tumble humour will laugh their heads off, others won’t. There is also something of a question mark over the company’s overdone use of symbolism. As my companion remarked, it’s like Kneehigh doing Shared Experience doing Brief Encounter, with brief Physical Theatre moments - here an impressionist gust of wind causing everyone to throw shapes, there a projected wave suddenly washing over the on-stage cast - and there’s a ludicrously heavy-handed recurrent crashing waves motif to symbolise the, uh, passion and stuff.

However, for all these caveats, Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick as Alec and Laura, are absolutely first rate. Part of the reason is that they are just more 21st century. Yes, they’re doing the accents and have something like the haircuts, but in actual fact, when held up against the original, one realises how much both have been moderated and softened. And the updated versions come across as more likeable and charismatic. This is perhaps something to do with being in a theatre. The stage version also dispenses with the running voice-over commentary of the original. A wise move and absolutely an improvement - instead of having the emotions explained to us, we get to see it happen. And in spite of some deliberately choppy scene shifting - intercut with music hall-ifications of some Coward songs - Kneehigh have a far greater momentum.

There are some duff notes, though. The ending is brilliantly handled, but then milked for an extra five minutes with Alec/Sturrock offering a funereal rendition of A Room With a View, followed by Laura returning home and starting to play Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto - echoing Emma Rice’s director’s note that she believes the affair will have changed both participants, and her hope that Laura will take up the piano again. This All Must Have Prizes mentality doesn’t sit well with the sentiments of the original, nor does it make a lot of sense; any more than Rice’s amping up of the brief moment when two off-duty soldiers attempt to buy whisky in the station café, which is turned from an innocuous moment into something that looks like it’s going to turn into Motortown.

While the eve of World War II Britain doesn’t map quite so neatly onto the Iraq/Afghanistan-objecting noughties, it is remarkable how searingly acute Coward’s depiction of an affair remains. Overall the piece is something of a mixed bag, but the good moments more than make up for the rest.

Thursday 14 February 2008

The Hour When We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Written for

If nothing else, the National’s latest offering is guaranteed to divide opinion. Peter Handke’s 1992 play lasts for an hour and a half, during which not a recognisable word is spoken. There are 450 characters, played by a company of 27, and no real narrative in any conventional sense of the word.

So what happens instead? Essentially, people just keep crossing the stage. Hildegard Bechtler’s set beautifully conjures the sense of a city square with an untidy mixture of old and new buildings, rendered as simplified pale blocks. Subtle shifts in the lighting allow these to suggest modern London, Oxford, Europe, America and the Middle East, at varying points in time - domed building variously evokes St Paul’s Cathedral, Brasenose College and old Jerusalem.

Through this space, the people come and go. The first few - conventionally dressed modern types, such as you’d see in modern London - just walk through. A slightly giddy (not to mention luminary-packed) press-night crowd, possibly apprehensive about the prospect of spending an hour and a half without plot or dialogue, titter nervously. After a few more people have crossed the stage, it does start to be genuinely funny. There’s a sense of complicity, of Handke and director James MacDonald teasing the audience with the possibility that nothing more than this will happen for the entire duration. And the sense of an audience finding its feet and wondering whether it will enjoy that, if it turns out to be the case. As it turns out, Handke is not averse to making the thing funny. As the sequences of characters crossing the stage continue, clearly comic and absurd figures emerge. Though wordless, there is interaction - a profusion of it - everything from lust to rage, as well as a good deal of the more commonplace irritations of walking round a city. Jason Thorpe recurs as a yellow tank-topped clown figure, mimicking other characters, following them around as they try to fulfil their jobs.

Gradually, a sense of progression builds. Though largely opaque, the piece is clearly up to something. That’s not to say there’s a definite hidden meaning which audiences are being asked to crack, but nonetheless, there appears to be some conscious choice behind the particular events that unfold - while deliberately seeming random. The juxtapositions of events start to take on associations. There are points where the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a particularly oblique version of The Fast Show, while elsewhere the surrealism of Magritte. Toward the end, the thing builds into a sudden apparent apocalypse. At another point, a group of soldiers are succeeded by a number of women in Islamic dress. More commonly, though, it is the small interactions and failures of communication that are most interesting - suggesting one theme here is the remarkable way that vast numbers of people can live together in cities while pretending that they are virtually alone.

Granted, the piece is being sold on somewhat daunting premises, but in fact it reminds us that theatre can easily survive without words or narrative through-lines. Anyone with the capacity to watch either contemporary dance, or, for that matter, an orchestra playing a symphony, will have no trouble sitting through this; although it is fair to say that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. For me, it possibly outstays its welcome by about quarter of an hour, but, by and large, it is a rewarding experience and another testament to the sheer range and imagination of Nicholas Hytner’s artistic directorship of the National.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Scarborough - Royal Court

Written for

Transferring to the Royal Court after making a big splash on the Fringe in Edinburgh last year, Fiona Evans’s Scarborough has doubled its length in transit. Now her meticulously detailed, ultra-realist depiction of a ‘dirty weekend’ shared by a PE teacher in her late twenties and her nearly-sixteen-year-old lover has acquired a transgendered second half.

Now, rather than a pithy 45-minute show, audiences are given the whole thing twice. It’s a shame that Evans didn’t opt for the Beckett in-joke option and conclude the script with “Repeat Scarborough”. As it is the full text is a shameless exercise in Copy and Paste with some additional Find and Replace action on the genders and names. It’s easy enough to see why someone thought this was a good idea. A lot of the original reviews made much of the fact that the whole thing might have seemed very different if the play was about a male teacher and an initially under-age pupil. Now we can see for ourselves.

In many ways, Evans’s original play is an impressive bit of work. The dialogue is well-observed and the characters - the infatuated but frightened teacher and her puppyish, adoring young lover - are psychologically spot-on. The play’s narrative, meanwhile, is so instantly credible that it could be a verbatim transcript of any love affair unraveling due to external pressures. The problem is that it doesn’t really do a lot more than that. It is nicely structured, there are some good jokes and the writing is first-class in places, but it doesn’t really say anything.

Deborah Bruce’s revival of her Edinburgh production is greatly aided by set designer Jo Newberry’s realisation of the original concept - that the audience are actually in the hotel room with the two couples. In Edinburgh, this was achieved by wallpapering a small Assembly Rooms office and sticking a bed in it. Here Newberry has built the whole shebang inside the Upstairs space. As a result, the action takes place right in our faces (amusing, therefore, to be sat next to Aleks Sierz after the interval). As such the production makes enormous demands on its actors. There is no room for stagey-ness; it is a tour-de-force in naturalist brilliance. Holly Atkins as the first teacher and Jack O’Connell as her young lover are quite brilliant, perfectly capturing the exact blend of cockiness, nerves, showing off and sheer sexual vertigo. As such, it hardly matters from moment to moment that the play isn’t really saying very much. It is fascinating enough just watching the action unfold.

This is less the case as the script returns to the start, and the parallels and interstices begin to reveal themselves and start bouncing off one another. It seems likely that the original production of Scarborough never anticipated a gender-swapped twin - and so there are occasional “typically male” traits in the younger party - liking football and being thrilled by PSPs - that jangle slightly when it’s a girl, but only slightly. There is also the irritating fact that a final black-as-pitch ironic pay-off only works in the first half. More interesting is the way in which the lines work when played by a member of the opposite sex. Partially this is down to casting - pitting Daniel Mays’s teacher against Rebecca Ryan (most famous for her long-running part as Debbie Gallagher in C4’s Shameless) seems downright unfair. Mays has made a career of playing childish nutcases, and to an extent, he remains strangely boyish here. Ryan, by contrast, comes across as tough and resilient - a complete contrast to the heart-on-sleeve vulnerability of O’Connell’s male young lover in part one. If anything, this is the biggest surprise of the evening. Bruce’s direction of the two parts both present men as perpetually in need of mothering. Mays’s teacher seems far more broken by the end of the piece than his female counterpart, who seems to have broken the heart of her young man. In each, it seems that it is the men who are in need of sympathy and the women who have some control over their destinies.

Monday 11 February 2008

Made glorious summer...

Well, spring, anyway.

I haven’t actually been quite as ludicrously work-shy as the recent lack of activity on here suggests. In fact I’ve even been reviewing stuff for proper people; People who print on paper and everything. The results can be found variously for:

The West End oddity An Audience with the Mafia

Hackney Empire Studio show A Mother Speaks

And the Finborough’s latest, Weapons of Happiness

I have also managed a new blog for the Guardian.

This last was largely the result of a couple of emails from Big Chief Guardian Unlimited, drawing my attention to the stories included (you don’t think I spend my spare time trawling the Mirror’s website looking for theatre news, do you? Perhaps I should, but is life really long enough?). Before settling on my somewhat pious stance, I had been considering writing a piece on the hitherto unconsidered role that an actor’s pubic hair may unwittingly play in scenes of full-frontal nudity. Trivial, of course, and uncomfortably prurient, but increasingly it does seem like a faintly relevant question.

Thinking back, there were at least two occasions late last year when it had flickered across my consciousness. The first occasion was whilst watching Ian McKellan’s King Lear, for which - as you’ll see from the comments under my own piece, and most memorably summarised by Germaine Greer here - Sir Ian won almost as many plaudits for the size of his cock as for the quality of his acting. What no one bothered to mention was that the great man had perhaps the most neatly trimmed, almost cropped, pubic hair that Shakespeare’s mad monarch can ever have enjoyed. Far be it from me to speculate as to whether this pubic grooming regime gave McKellen his advantage over former Lear Ian Holm - whose own penis, as Mark Shenton notes, was cruelly slighted by Mark Lawson back in 1997.

The second occasion was during Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy, during which Sinead Matthews, the actor playing Cassandra, briefly tries to rip off her dress, revealing a neat Brazilian - by which, I confess, I was briefly surprised. Not by the nudity itself - which seemed pretty integral to the choices made elsewhere - but by the quick question that flitted through my mind: put bluntly - did I think that the cursed prophetess, even in modern dress, would have had such pubic topiary? On balance, possibly not. But then I could well be about forty years behind the rest of the country on the subject of pubic styling. There doesn’t seem a polite way to find out, but then it doesn’t seem especially important, either.

All this does raise the interesting question that periodically crops up: to what extent can physical demands be made on actors working in theatre? Is it reasonable to expect an actor to either grow or cut their pubic hair in the pursuit of their role? Ok, this is a minor point. It doesn’t go half as far as the question posed by cinema - most recently, it is speculated, exampled by Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution - is it fair to ask actors to have actual sex with one another? Obviously, for a number of reasons, this is less relevant to theatre - for one thing Actual Sex is not allowed on stage; for another, could any pair (-or more) of actors be prevailed upon to have sex with one another to order at the same time for roughly the same duration for even a three-week run? Of course not. Beyond which, would anyone want them to? I like to imagine that, on the whole, people would not. But it is an interesting area, recalling Chris Goode’s enormously memorable comment on the erection sustained by one of the actors in the Oxford Stage Company’s production of Cleansed: “In the midst of all this performing, all this simulation, all this misconceived playing-at-extremity, there was this momentary realness, uncontrolled possibly, but showing everything else up as a kind of bourgeois party game, suffocating in the tiny airlock gaps between non-tessellating "theatrical" conventions.”

All this talk of pubic hair brings us neatly to this year’s Olivier Awards. These are possibly the most interestingly problematic set of gongs given to the theatre profession. The problem centres on the little reported fact that the Oliviers are essentially the in-house awards for the Society of London Theatre, an umbrella organisation which looks after the interests of many, but by no means all, London theatres. All fair enough, except that because of the way the awards are reported, they achieve coverage which, by failing to note the perameters of the awards, makes their choices often seem very oddly skewed.

The best clue comes from their Best New Play category. After all, no one in their right mind could seriously claim that: A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney at the Barbican; The Reporter by Nicholas Wright at the National Cottesloe; Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, adapted by Tanya Ronder at the Young Vic; and, War Horse based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford at the National Olivier - is a comprehensive shortlist of last year’s best new plays. But when you take away The Bush and The Royal Court Upstairs (not to mention 503, The Finborough; indeed pretty much all the spaces where “New Writing” happens) it starts to make a little more sense. There is only one award for non-SOLT theatres - the Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre award - this year’s nominations including: The Brothers Size at The Maria, Young Vic; Cinderella at Theatre Royal, Stratford East; Gone Too Far at The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court; and, the cast of That Face at The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court. This last specification is particularly puzzling - is it a deliberate sleight to Polly Stenham and Jeremy Herrin’s input into proceedings? If not, why make the distinction which is not applied to even the other Royal Court Upstairs show? Answers on a postcard...