Friday 27 March 2009

Everything else

I'm idly hoping I might get five minutes spare while I'm at NSDF to post the whole kaboodle of links to the stuff I've been writing that has been posted elsewhere - well, at the Guardian and Time Out, anyway - that has been keeping me away from Postcards... when I've not been in Germany. Travel and moving house has kept me rather busy of late, but hopefully I'll be posting stuff that gets written in Scarborough as an when it is published to keep things moving here and I'll polish everything else off when I get back.

Berlin - iv

The actual place not the David Hare live blog-post. Taking far longer to write up than I imagined it would.

Berlin - iii

The actual place not the David Hare live blog-post. Taking far longer to write up than I imagined it would.

Berlin - ii

The actual place not the David Hare live blog-post. Taking far longer to write up than I imagined it would.

Berlin - i

The actual place not the David Hare live blog-post. Taking far longer to write up than I imagined it would.

Pandora's Box

with a live score by Monroe Transfer. Again, placeholder until I get time to write up.

In the mean time, there's a video of rehearsals on YouTube:


Again, a placeholder on the off-chance I ever get around to writing this.

In the meantime, enjoy:


Place-holder for chronology's sake - in brief: Fantastic, go see.

Guardian blog post (partially) about it here.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Over There - Royal Court

First draft:

Karl and Franz are twin brothers. One grew up in East Germany and one in the West. Over There looks at what happens to their relationship when the wall comes down and the Soviet Bloc disintegrates.

Being a piece of theatre, Mark Ravenhill’s text avoids just offering a simple, naturalistic tale of two boys. Instead, Over There is a dense, allusive, fluid piece of work. Karl and Franz are at once two brothers, embodiments of East and West Germany and at times almost pure ciphers for Capitalist and Socialist ideology. What is exciting is that these positions are not fixed. There is a sense that both figures on stage continually exist on all three levels, forcing the audience to keep re-reading their relationship with what is being said and done.

Staged in the same white-box-on-stage set as The Stone, Ramin Gray and Mark Ravenhill’s staging is like a hugely playful homage to contemporary German theatre techniques. It’s as if, alongside the putting on the play, they’ve decided to give British audiences a masterclass in how to read German theatre. The elements on stage are already almost clichés of a certain type of German theatre: the obligatory stripping off costumes and changing clothes on stage; the increasingly littered stage; the use of foodstuffs and mess; etc. But here there’s a very deliberate knowingness to the way these elements are deployed – an oddly British precision. Perhaps it’s the shared language and cultural knowledge, but elements that often look random on German stages here frequently look like very exact visual puns and metaphors.

The real card up the production’s sleeve, and the one which I suspect will render this production frighteningly definitive for a long time to come, is the casting of identical twins Harry and Luke Treadaway. Individually, each brother is right up there among Britain’s finest young actors – both capable of electric intensity. Watching them on stage together is something else entirely. They look similar enough for the effect of their both being on stage together to be mildly disconcerting, even before they start speaking, and at one point moving, in unison. The fact they are actually related also adds an extra dimension of playful liveness. There’s a rapport that goes beyond being “performance” which is acknowledged and played with. The brothers exchange wry smiles at what each other is doing, which seem to exist simultaneously in the world of the play and the real world.

The conceit of twins playing East and West Germany is a neat one, but it is perhaps West German Franz’s son, played by a large sponge, that is the real coup here. The analogy is too obvious to need pointing out, but what is surprising is how sympathetic a character the sponge becomes, propped up on surfaces, sometimes wearing a little hat.

In many ways, the play is a theatrical successor to Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and (God help us) Seven Jewish Children, in that it sets up its characters to stand for blocks of land, populations and ideologies and them moves them through history. Its sparse language even echo the cut-off sentences of Drunk Enough... However, unlike those plays, Over There is no a polemic but an exploration. By shifting between registers and through elliptical ambiguity it suggests ideas but doesn’t ram them down our throats.

Overall, thanks to its gloriously messy, seductive staging and intelligent script, Over There manages to present a picture of Germany’s ongoing struggles to reconcile the experiences of one people divided by ideology for half a century.
____________________________________----_____Photo by Simon Annand

Burnt by the Sun - National Theatre

First Draft:

It is surprising to learn that Burnt by the Sun is an adaptation of a relatively recent Russian film. Peter Flannery’s version feels completely at home on stage. Indeed it plays like an exceptionally well made play in the Chekhov/Ibsen mould.

Set in 1936, in a village 22 miles west of Moscow, the piece takes us into the bustling home of Kotov (Ciarán Hinds) and Maroussia (Michelle Dockery), filled with Maroussia’s aging extended family and their friends and hangers-on. These bourgeois, pre-revolutionary relics seem to be very much the dominant force in the house until two tank drivers parked in a field arrive and start throwing causing trouble. When they recognise Kotov, become paralysed with fear. Kotov, it turns out, rather than just being a lunkish, lumpenproletarian husband is also a very high ranking-Soviet general and one who knows comrade Stalin’s home phone number. There is suddenly no question about how this power-dynamic works, it is about those in charge exercising power of life and death over everyone beneath them.

While well acted and prettily staged, one spends the first twenty minutes gearing up for a somewhat slow evening. Then Rory Kinnear (Mitia) turns up and suddenly the whole thing springs to life. It’s not just that Kinnear is one of the most charismatic actors working today, its also that the dynamic in the house suddenly makes sense, the one really vital bit of conflict is suddenly in place. It is obvious from the start that Maroussia’s relationship with Kotov can be strained, but it is her reaction to Mitia where the play ignites. Pretty much their whole 12-year back-story can be read from the way she suddenly goes rigid and his bonhomie suddenly turns forced and tense. And then there’s Kotov, with power of life and death standing in the corner silently observing all this, complete with Stalin moustache; the very image of Uncle Joe himself.

If you’re going to do one of those mixing the personal and the political plays, this is pretty much an object lesson in how to do it right. The people are likeable and morally complex, their stories are interesting and draw you in, while the political-historical backdrop has a convincing bearing on the situation that never feels contrived. And then, just when you think you know where it’s going, the play delivers a perfect, bitter twist.

Howard Davies staging is workmanlike, while thanks to Vick Mortimer’s, admittedly beautifully rendered, Russian dacha set – complete with roof, ceilings and a covered balcony – the lighting is oddly, and sometimes annoyingly impressionist as it is forced to come mostly from the sides making the whle thing look a bit more formalist than may have been intended. While his staging may lack for sparkle, Davies’s direction of his actors is superb.

As an examination of the way in which terror operates and how individuals will submerge themselves in a collective to avoid responsibility for their own actions it is quite outstanding. As an portrayal of how love can destroy lives it is shattering.

A Miracle

Traditionally, babies don’t fare well at the Royal Court. Soldiers returning from combat tend to get a pretty hard time too. So perhaps it is to Molly Davies’s credit that in The Miracle, it takes half the play before the soldier goes psycho and that the baby survives intact.

Gary, the soldier, returns home for what he says is indefinite compassionate leave. Spotted by her grandmother Val at the shops, he goes to see his former crush Amy. At the same time, he tries to patch up his relationship with his dad Rob.

The opening if Davies’s play is likeable enough. Russell Tovey is a likeable and talented actor, and his portrayal of Gary briefly suggests that The Miracle might not conform to cynical type in its portrayal of returning members of the British Army. In fact the thing chugs along like the omnibus edition of The Archers until Gary punches Amy in the face over a minor domestic dispute. After that, we’re just waiting for him to eat the baby or stone it to death.

Ultimately, though Davies isn’t really saying anything about soldiers or war. This is about the effect of families on the psyche. Gary isn’t home because of the war, but because he heard his father tried to commit suicide following the loss of the farm on which he grew up.

It’s a well-written play – the dialogue fairly crackles with jokes and subtext – but the plot is a bit nothing-y. Lyndsey Turner’s direction is excellent, setting the piece in the round and extracting fine, detailed performances on the turf-covered set. Ultimately, though, the piece just feels like filler. Like a very well-handled exercise in writing A Play. It feels like it needs a lot more weight and a few less clichés before it really turns into something urgent, but as Archers omnibuses go, it’s certainly got a lot of promise.