Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night – Lauderdale House, London – Friday 11th August

The tea lawn at LaudeIMG_0189(1)rdale House provided the ideal setting for Shakespeare’s country-house comedy of mistaken identities and romantic intrigues. The re-developed 16th Century building is now run as a community hub, providing a wide range of classes, events and exhibitions to the denizens of North London. The building and its grounds are well worth a visit, play or not.

I’ve followed the general consensus in describing Twelfth Night above as a comedy, though I find it a very problematic one.

Shakespeare’s favourite comedy mechanisms are all there: the identical twins who have become separated by a shipwreck, echoing Comedy of Errors; the girl dressed as a boy who attracts all kinds unwanted attention, in the style of As You Like It; the foul-mouthed and dirty-minded drunkards Andrew Aguecheek and Toby Belch channelling the spirit of Falstaff.

And it is, indeed, a funny play as Shooting Stars Theatre Co. demonstrated with brio and verve. The youthful cast of 10 kept the play moving at a quick pace, and mingled freely with the crowd, to the general delight of the even younger audience. The actors more than broke the fourth wall as they stole snacks from the picnics on the lawn and cajoled one of the dads into officiating a wedding.

Although one older spectator on our row was clearly less than impressed, to put it very mildly, when Belch accidentally spilled half a bottle of bubbly over her. And the use of pop music between and during some scenes didn’t really work through under-powered amps in an open-air setting.

James Henri-Thomas and Michael Totton were great value as the two lecherous Lords, alongside Joe Sargent as Malvolio, playing him to type as the prideful peacock whose feathers are plucked.

However, this is where I start to disagree with Twelfth Night’s straightforward categorisation as a comedy.

Aguecheek and Belch are upper-class bullies. What irks them most about Malvolio isn’t his Puritan priggishness or pomposity. It’s his belief that he and his mistress could be in love; a transgression of hierarchy that terrifies and angers them. See their response to Malvolio’s observation that there is “example” or precedence of the Lady of Strachy marrying her yeoman of the wardrobe: “Fie on him, Jezebel!”

As a result of the cruel trick they engineer with Maria, and at the end of this so-called romantic comedy, Malvolio ends up a broken man: socially humiliated; psychologically shattered; romantically denied; and presumably unable to return to his job after being gulled into making a yellow cross-gartered fool of himself. It is hard to see one of the lowest-status characters belittled in this way while (most of) the high class and high-status characters waltz off into the sunset.

I’ve seen several versions of Twelfth Night, including a production with Derek Jacobi, one of the actors I most admire, as Malvolio. I’d really like to see one that problematised the Malvolio sub-plot.

This evening, however, was a joy, made even better by my companion’s delicious picnic. Thank you Lauderdale House, thank you Shooting Stars and thank you Tina!

24 down – 77 to go.

Racing Demon

Racing Demon

Racing Demon, Theatre Royal, Bath, Saturday 1st July 

Hallelujah! Thank the Lord!

The hot streak of gory, grimy, sexploitation plays that ran through spring and summer was finally broken ‘Racing Demon’.

The fine city of Bath was an apt place to wash away the grit and soak up the witty, politically astute comedy of David Hare’s 1990examination of the state of the Church of England.

Racing Demon is one part of Hare’s triptych examining the pillars of the British establishment, alongside Murmuring Judges and Absence of War, which scrutinised the judiciary and legislature respectively.

Some of the references, to the ordination of women for example, were outdated, but the fundamental themes of the play remain eternal: the nature of faith; the difficulty of defining and doing ‘good’; the tension between the active evangelical wing and the passive, pastoral traditions within the clergy.

These complex and challenging questions were explored through the story arcs of four priests working in a loose communal arrangement in a deprived south London neighbourhood.

David Haig was given star billing, and he excellently conveyed the buttoned-up Englishman archetype, suppressing deeper passions and pains, that has become his trademark. His Lionel is the hero of the play, when it is read as a critique of an institution that has forgotten the importance of humility.

As a man outside of the church, however, as a husband and father, he is a villain. He has utterly neglected his family in the service of his parishioners, spending so much time in house of God, his home life has collapsed without him noticing.

It would be unjust, however, to focus solely on Haig given the strength of the rest of the cast. Paapa Essiedu gave a powerful performance as the ambitious, proselytising ‘Tony’. Essiedu fizzed with energy, driven by a complex mix of evangelical zeal and semi-suppressed rage in response to a childhood tragedy which, one suspects, drives his need to believe in an all-powerful God.

I wondered at the interval whether the multiple plot-lines and regular scene-changes would make it difficult to land the play in a coherent and satisfying manner. My concerns were allayed. Hare’ brings together the strands with grace, carrying to the characters to a serious of conclusions that satisfied the audience without trying to wrap everything into neat bundles.

The only wrinkle I had, and one I shared with my mum and dad who joined me for the play, was the very final movement. At several points, the fizzily irreverent tone was quickly replaced by a series of particularly bleak endings that felt sudden and tonally jarring.

All in all, however, this was a magnificent performance of a play that is as relevant today as it was a generation ago.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark –


Woyzeck Hodgson


Woyzeck, The Old Vic, London, Saturday 20th May 2017 

We are on a roll. A seedy, sexually exploitative, and violent roll.

After the strangeness of The Goat and the threatening, unsettling atmosphere of The Homecoming, next up was Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1837 drama.

Close observers of the challenge may remember that Woyzeck appeared on the schedule of ‘found’ plays very early on, then disappeared from the list.

Let me explain why.

After successfully auditioning for a role in an amateur production, a friend of mine invited some family and friends, including me, to watch when it came around to opening night.

In between time, said friend read the rest of the play and decided she would feel rather uncomfortable performing some of the material in front of people she would have to look in the eye.

This was a very wise decision.

Billington described Woyzeck as a “bleeding torso left incomplete by Buchner’s death” at the age of 23. In place a definitive version of the text, we have 24 scenes of various length which broadly tell the story of a young soldier tormented by his own demons and the cruelties of society, who murders his own wife.

The incompleteness of the play leaves it open to constant reinterpretation. To draw on Billington again, it has “been claimed by everyone” and “provides open season for experimental directors”. Indeed, the Old Vic gave almost equal billing to its director as to its star. The posters boasted of John Boyega in the title role “in a new version by Jack Thorne.”

Boyega played his part well, spanning the spectrum from terrifying rage and babbling insanity at one extreme, through street philosopher in the scenes with his senior officer, all the way to sweet-hearted young lover trying to keep hold of his wife as much as his own mind.

The problem with the production as a whole was that there were so shocking moments, they started to lose impact. A scene of Woyzeck being abused mentally as a child is shortly followed by one in which he was the subject of medical experimentation (also featuring animal cruelty) as an adult.

We have full-front male nudity (oddly, I have now seen the same actor naked twice and this is only play 22 – if things continue at the same rate by the time I’ve seen all 101…), domestic violence, drug abuse, implied threat against a baby in a cot and, of course, the murder of Marie.

Theatre should always have the power to disturb, to make things strange you are forced to look at things again. Woyzeck sought to shock with almost every scene, I was rather inured to the effect by the end and unlike The Goat or The Homecoming have given the play little thought since.



The Homecoming


The Homecoming

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guilford, Saturday 29th April 2017

Image – Yvonne Arnaud theare

We seem to have entered a dark and dirty period in the #theatre101 run, with each disturbing performance leaving me want to shower in bleach to wash off the sleaze. After Damian Lewis acting the goat, and indulging in some light incest, today’s play was Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.

Pinter’s work is invariably disorienting. So much is left half-said or hinted at, but there is permanent sense of dread, of being carried inescapably toward a dark ending.

The Homecoming is no exception. As with so much of Pinter’s work, the setting is small and oppressive in its banality; the front room of a typical 1960s working class family. Yet such a familiar scene is the setting for a strange adventure beyond social and sexual boundaries.

The house is occupied by four related men (a father, his brother, and two grown-up sons) who are locked in a pattern of resentful competitiveness and stale grudge matches. Yet from the off, this familiar scene of men locking horns is queered. The father, Max, implies he himself gave birth to his children, while constantly putting them down because he fears being made into “the bitch”.

The pattern is disrupted by the arrival of the third son and his wife. Teddy is an academic, living in America, and writing papers which, he explains with open disdain, his relatives would not understand.

The son is welcomed back, but it is Ruth who becomes the centre of attention. The ‘homecoming’ journey is hers, rather than her husband’s.

In the way of men who are starved of female attention and / or emotionally stunted, Max and his sons variously see Ruth in crudely sexual terms – “She’s wide open!” – or as a symbol of ladylike purity. They seem incapable of dealing with her as person of the opposite gender, rather than as a whore or the embodiment of the Virgin Mary.

Ruth responds by seducing the younger brother and, while they make love upstairs, the other family members develop a plan to put her to work as a prostitute. Returning to the front room, Ruth seems far from put out by the proposal, and makes only certain demands before acceding. Teddy returns to America and their two children.

There is a feminist interpretation of The Homecoming, which places Ruth in charge of the action, the manipulator of these pathetic men. Even her decision to start work as a prostitute can be seen as an escape from the tedium of suburban domesticity, a form of homecoming to a version of herself that is openly sexual and alive to new adventures.

While Ruth is certainly the strongest character on display, it is wrong to think she or any other character emerges from The Homecoming having learned and improved. This would be insufficiently Pinteresque.

Before her arrival, Max and his family are locked in a cycle of abuse. The combination of imaginative impotence and the threat of punishment, even murder, keeps them all in tortured stasis. Ruth does not exploit this situation; she simply accommodates it. Her emotional fragility and heavily implied sexual frustration means she is just as (un)happy to be manipulate and be manipulated.

As the walls of the front-room seemed to close in, I found myself hoping the next play would be a little lighter and airier than this masterpiece of bleakness.


Do Not Pass Goat

ChupacabraThe Goat, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, Saturday 8th April 2017

El Chupacabra is a legendary, Latin-American creature. It is said to prowl the countryside at night looking to suck (‘chupar’) unsuspecting goats (‘cabra’) of their blood.

The anti-hero of Edward Albee’s ‘The Goat’ would identify closely with the mythical beast. Although Martin Gray is interested in bodily fluids other than the red stuff.

Martin may be a married man, a wildly successful architect, and the father of a seemingly well-adjusted and happily-out gay son.

He is also conducting a passionate physical and emotional love affair with Sylvia, the titular goat of the title.

That’s right, friends. This is a play about a man making love to a farm animal. Oh, yes, before I forget, he and his son get it on too, albeit briefly.

The Goat was easily, the most shocking, disturbing and disorienting play of the challenge.

It was also the one which triggered the most amount of discussion and debate with a friend immediately afterward. For Albee’s work does much more than shock and repulse, just as it ‘about’ much more than an inter-species hook-up.

‘The Goat’ is a modern deconstruction of the tragedy. Its title is a reference to the etymological roots of the word tragedy; goat-song, for reasons theorised about but not conclusively understood. Indeed, its alternative title is “Sylvia: Notes toward a definition of tragedy”.

Its hero has a fundamental flaw which will ultimately bring ruin and disgrace (sorry, that’s not a spoiler – you think it could possibly end well???), yet which he cannot bring himself to recognise as a problem.

From this premise, Albee spins a wonderful web of words, playing with repetition, grammatical pedantry, and allusions to other tragic and comic works.

Many descriptions of the play and specific reviews of this performance seem unsatisfied with ‘The Goat’ as a glorious, meta-textual ‘play’ on words. Critics have interpreted Martin’s obsession and the destruction of his family (again – not a spoiler – see above!) as metaphors for the crisis of liberalism, the limits of individuality, the brittle nature of social norms and much else besides.

I’m not convinced. I think The Goat is a brilliantly sustained exercise in linguistic playfulness and genre re-defining artistry. That’s what makes it great.

Dancing for joy

DancingDancing at Lughnasa, South London Theatre, Tuesday 21st March

Another play about an oddly-shaped family, with dancing and questions of belonging at its heart. There, the comparisons between Jerusalem and Dancing at Lughnasa largely end; though both are, in their own ways, wickedly funny.

From England in early-2000s we travel back to rural Ireland in 1936. While the former is set on St. George’s Day, Lughnasa (pronounced loo-nassa) is the Gaelic day of celebration to mark the start of the late-summer harvest.

The play follows the five sisters of the working-class Mundy family, as they struggle to keep their household and maintain a decent standard of living. Living in a small and conservative village, their task is made all the more difficult by the controversy of one sister having a child out of marriage and the return home of their older brother from a long posting as a missionary priest in Africa.

Instead of being welcomed back a hero for spreading the word of God, Father Jack is politely shunned by the rest of the village. It becomes clear to the Mundys, and to the audience, that Jack was sent home. Instead of converting the indigenous population to the path Christianity, he ventured out on his own spiritual safari and became obsessed with the earth-worshipping pagan rituals of the peoples he encountered.

The writer Brian Friel based the play loosely on his own childhood in rural Ireland. He once asked himself, in a written dialogue, what the play was ‘about’. “The play is about dancing in the 30s” was his deadpan reply.

In one sense, that response is correct. The play is small. All the action takes place in the kitchen of the house and the yard. Only one other character from outside the family appear; the otherwise absent father, Gerry Evans, of the ‘lovechild’ Michael. Within the confines of the onstage drama, very little happens beyond one of the sisters going missing for a few hours (to catch a squeeze with a suitor) and the sudden appearance of Gerry.

Yet the mere act of “dancing in the 1930s” is an expression of celebration, hope and joy. As the play progresses, we learn about the fate of the characters through the occasional appearance of Michael, now a grown-up, as an on-stage narrator.

Spoiler alert.

We learn from Michael’s narration that Jack dies very shortly after the play ends, while two of the sisters end up drunk and destitute in London. The other family members avoid such bleak fates, but none are blessed with lives of comfort or ease.

All the important then, the older Michael points out, to enjoy those times like his childhood summer of 1936 when the people you love are alive, close by and can sing, dance and play with you.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a beautiful celebration of life.

A final point, away from the drama, and another comparison with Jerusalem, to return to my original theme. Dancing with Lughnasa was another high-quality amateur / semi-professional production in a great venue run and maintained by volunteers. We’re blessed to have people like them.

Johnny – English

IMG_0438Jerusalem, Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre, Crayford, Saturday 18th March 2017

Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, the central and iconic character of Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play Jerusalem, stems from a very English tradition; the rebellious anti-hero whose mortal enemy is official bureaucracy and social conformity. A pill-popping Pop Larkin, he stems from the same bloodline as Falstaff, making a defiant stand for the right to be spontaneous, to gather at will, and to celebrate the mere fact of being alive without permission from the powers from be.

To draw a more contemporary comparison, he channels the spirit of 1990s rave scene in its attempt to evade the police crackdown on illegal warehouse parties. Or even attempts by communities today to assert the rights of the ‘commons’ in the face of the privatisation of public spaces.

The sub-culture he creates is a space for bored youngsters and the marginalised middle-aged to congregate, go chemically crazy, and stare all night at the stars, away from the demands of sixth-form homework and nine-to-five jobs.

He creates this gathering of free-folk in a small Wiltshire glade. Like so much of the play, which is also set on St. George’s Day, this location is immediately, recognisably English. You can almost smell the mulchy undergrowth and stale cider. Just as the idiom of the play is a very Shakespearean mixture of classicism and crudeness.

Of course, Johnny has not sought planning permission to create this clearing or to stage his all-night raves. The conflict between him and the local district council, which is set on demolishing the site, is the central tension of the play. Though as the drama evolves, we learn more about the tensions within the outwardly merry band, and the additional conflict between our anti-hero and a local criminal whose daughter he is sheltering.

As you can probably guess, I was beguiled by this play. By the ferocity of the language, by the roundedness of each character – each eccentric yet immediately recognisable – and by the deep sense of rootedness within and exploration of a particular aspect of the English national character.

The uniformly excellent cast of the Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre were more than a match for the power of Butterworth’s text. They were equalled by the efforts of the production team, who used the relative intimacy of the venue to great effect. The Theatre’s mission statement is to “undertake the production of acknowledged classics of all countries and ages and outstanding modern plays”.

On this night in March, they staged a modern classic to outstanding effect.

Not Now Bernarda

The HIMG_0295ouse of Bernarda Alba, Royal Exchange, Manchester, Saturday 25th February 2017

The idea behind this ‘uniquely accessible’ production was interesting and innovative. A joint project of the Royal Exchange and Gaea Theatre Company, it was designed bring “different theatrical languages to bear” on the text of Lorca’s last drama by using D/deaf and disabled actors as well as live captioning, British Sign Language and audio description.

The reality in front of me was a number of technical flaws that made it impossible to get into the flow of the action. My experiences of accessible plays have generally gone one of two ways: they have added extra and intriguing layers of interpretation, by expressing language in a different way; or the accessible elements have been integrated to such an extent that, after a little while, I’ve stopped noticing them.

It was difficult to do either with this production, for two reasons. The first was the constant discrepancy between the captioning text and the spoken word of the actors. At times, this meant a word like ‘Now’ appearing at the end rather than the start of a sentence. At other points, the variation more significant, where different pronouns were used, and the sense of the text was lost. It’s hard to engage with the drama, while constantly wondering if the caption was right, or the actor rights, or whether the discrepancy made a difference.

The second barrier was that the captioning was totally out of sync for the first ten minutes of the second half. Like a conference presentation going horribly wrong, the screen showed text from much later in the play, then flashed randomly with snippets of text, before going blank for a few minutes.

While all this happening, the actors switched between BSL and spoken English. While they were using BSL, the non-signing audience members like me could not follow what was going on. When the actors were speaking, the situation for the audience was reversed. Even if they could read lips, the Royal Exchange is theatre in the round, so not all the actors’ faces would have been visible at any one point.

This was penultimate performance of the run, so minor and major errors like this should have been ironed out way in advance.

The captioning did finally get back in sync, but by this point, bewildered and irritated, I had all but lost interest.

17 down – 84 to go

Edward II

Edward II, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge, Saturday 11th February 2017

It began with a footballer, ended with fellatio and featured Punch and Judy, the Sex Pistols and punk costumes. This was not a version of the Edward II that Christopher Marlowe could have imagined. Nor one for the faint of heart.

My own heart sank when David Beckham was the first character to take the stage, at the funeral of the old king and the coronation of the new. These kinds of anachronistic additions to classic plays threaten to steal focus from the quality of the text and the primacy of production values (see the infamous ‘Macbeth in the Blitz’).

My concerns were allayed very quickly, however, by the energy and verve of the Marlowe Society’s production. The ribald use of foul-mouthed sock puppets to prefigure the end of the play, set in a beach-hut as the characters await the return by sea of Piers Gaveston, was but one example of bold and playful invention.

The corrosive relationship between Edward II and Gaveston, which Billington compares to Oscar Wilde and Bosie, is at the heart of the play. The Marlowe Society foregrounded Edward’s queerness without attributing his downfall to his sexuality. Nor did they pay much attention to Gaveston’s low-born status and the class-based contempt this arouses, which Billington highlights in the book.

It is Edward’s temperamental unfitness to the role of king which proves his undoing. His wild infatuations and petulant mood swings turn the church, the court and the military against him. Only through constant deal-making, involving painful concessions including Gaveston’s temporary banishment, does Edward retain his grip on the crown.

At several points Edward and Gaveston, played respectively by Joe Sefton and Seth Kruge, clambered up the vast throne that dominated the stage in attempts to re-assert royal authority. The size of the throne, neatly symbolising the scale of the task of kingship had the opposite effect; the young lovers appeared inadequate and infantilised; boys playing at the work of men.

I learned from the book that this production followed the National’s 2013 production in deploying the same actor in the role of Gaveston and Lightborn, Edward’s assassin; bringing the focus back to the consequences of Edward’s fatal attraction.

In other senses, however, the Marlowe Society made this production their own, and I hope to see their work again before challenge is done.

16 down – 85 to go

Coronation Streetcar Named Desire

Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange Manchester, Saturday 8th October 2016

Manchester’s Royal Exchange is rapidly becoming my favourite major venue. The renovated building is beautiful and storied, while theatre-in-the-round can summon a special magic, like that conjured by the Crucible toward the start of the challenge. This weekend it was a visit to see A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tennessee Williams’ 1947 work portrays the arrival of Blanche DuBois in the home of her younger sister Stella and husband Stan. The fabulously-named DuBois is an alcoholic fantasist, fleeing an old life which has fallen apart, though her Southern-Belle manners prevent her from revealing the reasons why.

For the sake of sisterly love, Stella gives Blanche the benefit of the doubt, opening her house and her heart to her elder sibling. Yet any hope our heroine might be able to start again and find salvation is quickly strangled as Blanche flirts with Stanley while encouraging Stella to leave him for someone better suited to her genteel upbringing.

This interpretation placed a heavy emphasis on Blanche’s alcoholism. Alone or in a group, centre stage or in the shadows, she is either scoring or looking for her next bottle of liquor. Alcoholism is a deceitful disease. Those who suffer from it find it easy to lie to others because they have become expert at lying to themselves. In this, as in much else, Blanche is a victim but a hard one to pity.

In contrast to Stella, the horny-handed son of toil Stanley has no sympathy for Blanche’s plight. Provoked by her condescension toward his rough manners and ‘Polack’ background, he dismantles the fiction of blameless misfortune that Blanche has depicted and exposes the venal reasons she had to abandon her old home and career as a teacher.

Neither character should be sympathetic at all. Notwithstanding her drink problem, Blanche takes a swing-ball to her sister’s life, is revealed to have had sex with one of her pupils, and during the play flirts very manipulatively with another teenage boy. Stan is a chauvinist who is prone to violent outbursts and assaults both his wife and her sister.

And yet, as Billington points out, “As in so many great plays, we are not forced to take sides…[Williams] sees the virtues and defects in both his main characters and in the values they represent”.

Blanche has suffered terribly in life. Her husband committed suicide after revealing he was gay. She lives in fear of being seen by the male gaze as anything but young and perfect and cannot conceive of being happy through any other route than marriage. This pathway to happiness is effectively closed off, so she finds solace in (drunken) fantasy and dreams of old-fashioned romance.

Stanley’s furious response to Blanche’s arrival reflects a deeper resentment at a society that has told him he is a “Pig—Polak—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!” He stands for an unspun, unpolished version of America in contrast to Blanche’s mannerisms.

Two deeply flawed characters who commit terrible crimes, not least against each other, but nonetheless garner an element of sympathy.

The quality of that sympathy comes from the performances of the leads. Maxine Peake gave a very nuanced performance; capturing Blanche’s predatory sexuality as well as her sad and often childlike desire to banish reality and live as a fantasy princess. Ben Batt was her equal, distilling Stanley’s sinewy rage and sexualised aggression. Two performances and an overall production worthy of the venue.

15 down – 86 to go