Sunday, 21 September 2014

Another Country

Another Country 
Trafalgar Studios

The play that purportedly made stars out of Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country is an interpretation of the reasons Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five might have chosen to spy for the Russians against the British in the 1940s and 50s. It follows Bennett, a gay pupil at a prestigious boarding school, and his classmate Judd, a proto-communist who makes clear his disgust for the rigidly enforced class system around him.

There’s plenty of interest in the subject matter of the play, but in this production there’s just too much talking and not enough action. The extremely static direction doesn’t help; characters often remaining seated and inert throughout entire scenes. With long, vaguely philosophical debates about society and class dominating much of the stage time; Another Country occasionally resembles a university seminar rather than a play, particularly when Judd is waxing lyrical about his fervent belief in the communist system. Judd himself is a supremely irritating character; given to constant impromptu lectures about politic reform and class division. We’re intended to see the other boys’ dismissal of him as symptomatic of their uncaring class superiority; but I have some sympathy with their annoyance at his self-righteous hectoring. 

The second half is better than the first; there’s more movement, and a lively scene in which Bennett talks his way out of corporal punishment is energetically executed. Bennett’s final breakdown is also a well done moment – movingly depicted by Rob Callender. In fact, Callender’s performance is one of the main strengths of the production; he is by turn sly, camp, irreverent and affectionate. His artful observations provide much of the humour of the play; and his emotional journey is the empathetic centre of the piece.

I find Mitchell’s conclusion – that the Cambridge Five might have defected to Russia to enact personal vengeance – a shaky one. Bennett’s total lack of interest in politics throughout the play make his last minute conversion to Judd’s proselytising very unconvincing indeed. There may be an argument to be made that frustration with the implacable British class system was a catalyst for Guy Burgess’ betrayal, but the Bennett we see in Another County doesn’t fit the profile of a political extremist. Ultimately, his burgeoning sexuality and struggle for self-acceptance prove to be a more compelling narrative focus than the political aspects of the piece.


Royal Court

Birdland – named not for Charlie Parker’s jazz club but for Patti Smith’s song of the same name – tells the story of Paul, a working class lad who has found international fame as a rock star, but is slowly coming apart at the seams. The play tracks a series of encounters between him and his manager, his fans, an interviewer, a love interest, a police officer and his own father. By the end of the play, his charmed life has unravelled around him and his reputation lies in tatters.

Birdland boasts a star performance from Andrew Scott, an effectively utilised set, and some snappy direction. The problem lies with the narrative. Paul’s journey wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood biopic: the humble beginnings, the meteoric rise to fame, the developing hubris, the point of crisis, the inexorable decline. Birdland fits this ‘VH1: Behind the Music’ genre to a t; right down to the awkward conversation with the estranged father right at the end. The plot borders on cliché, which is not something you can usually accuse Simon Stephens of, and it makes it harder to engage with what feels like an overly familiar story.

It could be argued that the narrative isn’t the point, but unfortunately Birdland offers little compensation in other areas. The dialogue is sometimes sharp, sometimes amusing, but never clever or compelling enough to distract from the creaking plot. The set and costumes are visually interesting, and I liked the black water that eventually swallowed up the ground beneath them, but it was a bit late to capture my interest by then. 

The acting is good however, particularly from Andrew Scott as Paul. He has a magnetic quality that holds the audience’s sympathies, even as he descends further into entropy. There are also several interesting contradictions in his character that the play sadly never explores. For example, why is he so keen to tell his manager that he seduced his girlfriend Marnie? Is he completely lacking in empathy? Is he trying to get one over on his friend? Or is he simply craving attention in any form? We never know because the plot eschews further development of this point, even though his decision to announce this plan to Marnie is the catalyst for her suicide and thus the entire narrative that follows.

Rock and roll will always be an interesting topic for the stage, and Birdland is certainly not a disaster. But it’s not as good as it could be. Simon Stephens often incorporates his love of music into his writing, and I hope that he might return to this particular theme one day with a slightly more unpredictable take on it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014


The Shed (NT)

Vivienne, a senior politician, and her family are staying in an opulent hotel on a secluded Kenyan island. It’s a last ditch attempt to repair the damage done by husband Robert’s recent and well publicised infidelity. Meanwhile teenagers Ralph and Frankie are keeping secrets of their own. But their problems fade into insignificance when hotel staff members Nala and Abdi take them hostage for terrifying purposes of their own. 

Polly Stenham's new thriller Hotel has been receiving mixed reviews all over the shop; with several critics praising her ambition but criticising her plotting. But I felt there was something more troubling afoot in the piece than structural inconsistencies.  Before I discuss that, I do want to note that there are parts of Hotel that are good. Both Susan Wokoma and Tom Rhys Harries give committed performances as the fiery Nala and the damaged Ralph respectively. There’s interest to be had in the early scene in which Ralph painfully confesses that he was the one to lure his father into the honey trap that destroyed their family. There are also several witty lines, the acting is generally good, and the set is beautifully and artfully constructed.

However. There are ways in which race is represented in Hotel that seem problematic to me.

The most uncomfortable scene comes in the second half of the drama. After Nala and Abdi have tied up the family and Nala has explained her rage against the UK government’s exploitation of Kenya, she seems to be about to set Vivienne and Robert on fire. Then suddenly four or five heavily armed young black men run onto the stage and proceed to destroy the set and kidnap Vivienne and Robert; in the process shooting Abdi dead and wounding Nala.

The discomfort comes from the fact that these young men (later revealed to be Somalian pirates) simply crowd the stage, violently wreck it, and then vanish. We have no insight into their motives or backstory; it’s not even clear what the alluded to deal that they struck with Nala is.

Which in one sense is fine – plays don’t have to explain every last detail; and it’s okay to use characters for a brief scene to advance the plot. But in another sense, having a group of nameless black men jump onstage, wreak violent havoc, and then disappear is deeply problematic. In a country where non-white representation onstage is far too sparse to begin with, utilising black actors only to enact a brief scene of rage and destruction sits uncomfortably. They don’t signify anything other than chaotic violence and horror – which is uneasily close to the current public perception of all Somalians (and to some extent, vilified black men in society in general).

Perhaps Stenham is aware of this and is making an ironic point by reflecting our own prejudices back at us. If that’s the case, I’m not sure it comes across strongly enough.  Especially given that the only black male character with lines is Abdi: who wields a huge gun, is on crack, and at one point casts voodoo against the hostage family - coming across as the archetypal 'Other'. If he’s an ironic representation of white prejudice, the meaning is somewhat lost, especially when he dies a sudden and pointless death on the arrival of the ‘pirates’. 

Similarly, why Somalians? Nala is Kenyan but Abdi is Somalian, as are the young men who burst onstage. Whilst Nala’s ire is directed at all post-colonial activity, she specifically focuses on how Vivienne’s actions have impacted Kenya. So are the other characters Somalian simply because the current political situation there is less stable than in Kenya? Is it just geographical proximity? Or is this another awkward case of Africa being treated as one homogenous nation with identical perceptions and experiences of colonialism?

American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks writes in her essay An Equation For Black People Onstage: “Can a White person be present onstage not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed?” Hotel falls into this trap of oppressor/oppressed by oversimplifying the power relationships onstage. Nala first appears as a maid, seemingly the ‘lower status’ individual in her interaction with Ralph; forced to listen to his tedious musings on the sunset. But when she returns, it’s to physically overpower him and take his family hostage. Then, after the pirates come, Ralph’s back in control; with the power to first tend to her gunshot wound, and then ferociously kick her until she bleeds. 

Stenham seems to allude to cycles of violence, and the colonial tendency to deny and cover up mistakes – as referenced by Frankie’s final suggestion that they simply kill Nala, as “no-one would know”. But the narrative falls foul of enacting the oppression it condemns. It denies the black characters a proper agency – and even Nala, the most three dimensional of them all, is inconsistently drawn. Her self-conscious speechifying about the amorality of UK foreign policy fails to convince; and we never hear the full backstory on her upbringing in London. There’s the start of an interesting exchange after Abdi dies; when Ralph points out that Nala used him for their own ends in the same way the British government used Kenya. It’s a tantalising allusion to the more complicated dialectic on the intersections of race, class and oppression that unfortunately Hotel largely forgoes – and the exchange leads nowhere.

Also, the causal link between the two halves of the play is weak. The only connection I could find was the fact that Robert’s apologies for his infidelities were as meaningless as Vivienne’s apologies for the violence enacted on Kenya by the UK government. If, like in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, the conflict of the first half is meant to be a microcosm of the violence of the second, it doesn’t quite work. The breakdown of the family unit just doesn’t seem comparable to the colonial oppression of a nation, and if the link is the futility of saying sorry, it isn’t followed through.  

Just to be clear, this review is not about lambasting Stenham or calling her a racist. There’s been an unpleasant tendency to bash Stenham since she first appeared on the scene – as  an upper class, out of touch playwright who gets more opportunities than she deserves – a tendency which is not only bitter, but also carries the undeniable whiff of misogyny. She’s not a bad playwright. There is talent on display in Hotel; it’s just that the racial politics are ultimately problematic to my mind. I'm all for plays engaging in post-colonialism, but care needs to be taken to ensure they don't end up colluding in the stereotyping that they seek to oppose.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Bash: Latterday Plays

Bash: Latterday Plays
Old Red Lion Theatre

It was gratifying to see Neil LaBute’s trio of Greek myth inspired shorts Bash transferring to Trafalgar Studios after its original run at the Old Red Lion – a well-deserved second outing for a taut, unnerving piece about the everyday nature of evil. 

LaBute uses three pieces to form Bash – two monologues based on specific Greek tragedies and one duologue with more general influences.* What all three tales have in common is how disturbing the stark violence of Greek tragedy feels when transposed to the modern day. Iphigenia in Orem sees a businessman tell a stranger in his hotel room the shocking lengths he went to in order to secure a promotion. In A Gaggle of Saints, a young couple recount a trip to New York which ends in a horrific gay bashing; whilst Dani Harrison’s Sue reminisces on the glamour and excitement of the big city, Tom Vallen’s John recalls his participation in the violent assault with giddy, childlike glee. And finally, Medea Redux gives us the perspective of a damaged young woman who has an affair with her teacher and later tracks him down to commit an unforgivable act of desperation. 

The acting is brilliant; Tom Vallen is particularly chilling as a man who fails to grasp the enormity of his crime. Sarah McCann’s effectively simple set sees chairs strewn around the stage and sinking into the floor; as though succumbing to the same moral quicksand the characters find themselves in. Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction is clear and direct; recognising that the power of the play is in the words, and guiding the action accordingly. LaBute’s decision to set Bash firmly in the milieu of the Mormon community is an interesting one; perhaps asking audiences to draw links between a modern day religion that is often stereotyped as strange and esoteric, and our reaction to ancient Greek cultural mores. Whatever his reason, it's a skilful, powerful piece of writing that forces the audience to be complicit in these intimate confessions of sin.

*I was actually unsure about whether A Gaggle of Saints had a specific influence so I posed the question in the comments on a Guardian interview with Neil LaBute and the man himself was kind enough to answer me, saying: “the duologue was actually the first piece i wrote and it was originally titled BASH but eventually i created the three pieces and my producer thought it was a better title for the whole show (producers love to think about things like that). anyway, i didn't actually base the first one on a greek myth in the same way that i did the others, or at least in such an obvious fashion, but i did try to utilize some of the tenants of telling a story that writers from that period had developed (unities of time and place and action, violence offstage, etc.). i hope that this answers your question.”

Friday, 4 July 2014

A View From the Bridge

A View From the Bridge
Young Vic

Ivo Van Hove puts his own unique brand on a classic with an immensely powerful take on Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy. Set in the Sicilian-American community in 1950s Brooklyn, A View From the Bridge is a searing tale of loyalty, honour, and betrayal; and the Young Vic’s production brings its harsh world to stage in stark, vivid detail.

Jan Versweyveld’s stripped back set – a rectangular thrust stage that closes like a boxing ring around the characters – skilfully emphasises the tight-knit, oft oppressive living situation. Whilst the stylistic choice not to include the full tenement set sacrifices the sense of an omnipresent community, it pays dividends in highlighting the universal themes of the play. Free of historical markers, the empty stage reminds the audience that this particular tale of love and hubris could be from any time and any place.

In keeping with the sense of timeless tragedy, Alfieri is the character who most explicitly ties A View From the Bridge to its roots in Greek drama. Michael Gould’s troubled lawyer picks his way around the set; the only character allowed beyond the bounds of the rectangle stage in a nod to his outsider status. His scenes with Eddie are electrifying; when Alfieri tries to painstakingly hint around Eddie’s real problem: “We all love somebody […] but sometimes… there’s too much. You know? There’s too much and it goes where it shouldn’t,” Mark Strong’s face twists in momentary recognition and shame. 

The whole cast is excellent. Nicola Walker’s Beatrice is more hard-faced and robust than other portrayals; her pain and bitterness over Eddie’s wandering eye seems to have worn her down to a sharp-edged watchdog. Against her better nature, she cannot quite conceal her resentment towards Phoebe Fox’s Catherine; the scene in which Beatrice tries to tell Catherine to “be [her] own self more” is agonising, the air thick with the painful truths that neither woman can acknowledge.

It’s these unspoken truths that eventually tear Eddie’s world apart. If Eddie Carbone is a tragic figure, he’s a deeply flawed one. The genius of Strong’s performance is that he makes his troubled longshoreman a figure of pity as well as brutality. Eddie wants a black and white world; where people live by codes of honour and debts are repaid. But his own desire for his niece Catherine transgresses against what Alfieri calls the ‘natural’ law; and Strong powerfully shows how Eddie is unable to reconcile these two warring moralities within himself.  

Miller’s previous play The Crucible is a fairly straightforward condemnation of naming names; in A View From the Bridge Miller allows a vein of ambivalence to enter the dramatic discourse. Eddie names names not out of fear for his own safety as the Salemites do, but out of a misplaced sense of honour and righteousness. The strengths of Hove’s direction mean Alfieri’s famous last words about the problematic purity in Eddie’s actions are deeply resonant in this production; a lone man left standing on a stage drowned in blood both literal and metaphorical.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Punchdrunk's latest show The Drowned Man had people queuing round the metaphorical block again for tickets - they're one of the few theatre companies in England that can generate such a fervour with every new show. But I wonder if the shine might be off the apple after this slightly lacklustre offering.

The Drowned Man is set in a 1950s Hollywood studio and the narrative is ostensibly based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, with two plots of marital infidelity running parallel. This being Punchdrunk however, the audience is part of the action. We don masks to explore the cavernous studios (and the woods beyond) and are sometimes drafted in to aid the action. More often we are spectators to short scenes between disparate characters as they interact in various settings around the detailed set.

Now, I happen to be a fan of interactive theatre. But this 'choose your own adventure' approach inevitably leads to frustration. Comparing notes with other audience members hammers home how many scenes you missed - in one sense it's a good thing that every spectator has a different experience, in another sense you don't pay the best part of forty quid to hear you missed out on "the most amazing contemporary dance scene" because you were meandering round a doctor's office looking at 1950s X-rays.

I can't help but feel the overall experience was more akin to concept art than theatre. The intricate and lovingly created set was endlessly fascinating to me; so much so that I felt more like I was wandering round an exhibition than watching a play.

There were some great moments of physical theatre. I managed to catch an enjoyably frenzied table cleaning scene twice, and I enjoyed the slow dance/fight to 'Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad.' I happened upon several intriguing bits, but that's all they were: bits. A series of tiny vignettes, no matter how well crafted, do not a satisfying theatrical experience make. I'm all for fragmented narrative when it serves a specific purpose, but the whole evening seemed oddly aimless, barely anchored by the perfunctory attempt at plot the actors occasionally hinted at.

I didn't dislike it, but the original pleasure of the location and set up was fleeting. Perhaps it says it all that the highlight of my evening was the handsome bartender slinging me a free shot of whiskey. It was great to look at, and sometimes thrilling, but ultimately the novelty factor wasn't enough to sustain interest or engagement.