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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That wasn’t entertainment…

‘The Entertainer’Ollie P, Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 27 August 2016

Another birthday – 38 today! Fantastic.

Another play – we’re up to 14 now! Fabulous

Another state-of-the-nation drama. Ah…right…

And not just any old state-of-the-nation drama, folks. “The Entertainer” is the epitome, the Ur text, the Mitochondrial Eve of the species. As Billington ominously put it in his description: “If ever there was a state-of-the-nation play, this is it”.

Regular readers will know that the state-of-the-nation play has started to bring me out in a state of nervous agitation. They have become the internal enemy of the #theatre101 challenge, generating the least enjoyable experiences. As I’ve already written, the low point was Waste at the National.

They must present a very difficult interpretative challenge to theatrical producers. One can stage a version like Waste that stays close to the original text and serious tone, but is subsequently weighed down by its own sense of self-importance. What was once new and shocking now seems irrelevant, if it registers at all. The Stage’s Natasha Tripney put this very well in her description of Waste as “remote rather than resonant”.

An alternative strategy is to downgrade the weightier elements and focus more on the interplay of characters and the comedic elements, as with Heartbreak House in Brighton. You get the laughs with this approach, but little that will last in the memory.

This production of The Entertainer seemed to do a bit both at the same time and ended up doing neither particularly well.

The Entertainer is set in London, 1956, the year of the Suez Crisis, an event made for a state-of-the-nation play. Post-war Britain is struggling to re-define itself. As the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, the country had “lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. Into this vacuum leapt the Macmillan government, attempting to re-impose an element of control over post-colonial Egypt. Ultimately, he was forced to back down in humiliating fashion.

This sense of a once-great but fading power being discarded by a frighteningly new world is paralleled in the shape of Archie Rice, the entertainer of the title. A musical-hall legend back in the days of black and white, Archie’s routines are tired and out-of-date, leading to a growing bitterness against this fancy, new, multi-coloured world.

The problems arose when this already fairly obvious premise was pressed home with such constant force it reached an Ollie Plimsolls-level of audience patronisation.

“You can see the parallels, can’t you? Can’t you? Look, here they are. Now, I don’t mean to patronise you – patronise means to talk down to – but here is another parallel!”

As a result, I was seriously impressed by Kenneth Branagh’s athleticism but not much else.

It occurs to me now that this is the first time I’ve mentioned that Branagh was the lead of this performance. The greatest stage actor of his day and all I remember are his dance moves (and his strangely camp-cockney barrow-boy accent, but the least said about that the better).

Like other state-of-the-nation plays, it takes something to re-capture what made them once so brilliant and bracing. Whatever that something is, it was not be found at the Garrick on this warm summer afternoon.

14 down – 87 to go.

 

Rain Break at Heartbreak House

heartbreak-houseHeartbreak House, Brighton Open Air Theatre, Saturday 20th August 2016

After a stroll with an old friend around the lanes of Kreuzberg-on-Sea, I headed to the Brighton Open Air Theatre for Droll and Folly Theatre’s production of Heartbreak House.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” is difficult to describe and characterise.

On the surface, it is an old-fashioned country house farce, featuring a familiar roll-call of archetypes from the English class-system. So we have eccentric military types, dotty toffs, and bourgeois social climbers.

The humour is often as broad, relying on prat-falls and farcical misunderstandings. One character is believed to have died, for example, before he wakes from a hypnosis-induced catatonic state.

Yet scratch away at the lacquered surface and we find a darker and more didactic narrative. The play was published and performed shortly after the end of World War 1. Britain’s population had been assured that the conflict would last mere months and be ended by a decisive knockout blow.

After four years of grinding mechanised slaughter, people were no longer willing to doff their caps and defer to their superiors. I suspect the stupidity and venality of the upper-class characters seemed less funny to audiences of the day.

The house of the title, Shotover’s home, is literally ship-shaped. These people, it seems, are driving the great ship of state into the rocks. As the audience, we are meant to feel as powerless in the face of such thanatotic madness as the populace during the great war. These people who are supposed to know better, know nothing at all.

Whatever anger the audience felt is even shared by Shaw’s characters. As Billington points out, they seem to exhibit a “pervasive disillusion…a collective death wish” reflected in Captain Shotover’s attempt to invent a super-weapon and their decision in the final scene to make a target of themselves by illuminating the house during a bombing raid. Although, for reasons I shall shortly explain, I only know this element of the plot from Billington’s description.

Droll and Folly brought a light tone to the heavy weight of the play, bringing out the farcical elements without undercutting the necessary seriousness of the drama. On a large stage in a sea-front open-air setting, the ensemble cast perforce played it big and bold. They seemed to enjoy it. I certainly did, and will keep an eye for their productions in future.

It was the heavy weather which proved their greatest enemy. After several temporary breaks to allow heavy downpours to pass, the play was called off completely with twenty minutes yet to go. It was the correct decision, given the need to protect the actors’ wellbeing in the face of such awful and unpredictable weather. Yet it left me with a minor quandary.

There is no way I’m seeing 100 and 4/5ths  of the greatest plays. Can I round this one up? That seems like cheating. Find another one? That’s adding even more plays to an already long list.

Maybe I can rustle up some friends to put on the final few scenes over dinner. What do you think, gang?

A Doll’s House

a-dolls-houseA Doll’s House, Medway Little Theatre, Saturday 14th May 2016

There are times, when a play has had such an impact, that I’m moved to double-check the date it was written.

In the case of ‘The Father’ and its anachronistic references, doing so revealed my error. Microwaves had not been invented in 1887. Nor had Augustus Strindberg predicted the construction of the channel tunnel by a century.

I turned to Billington’s book at the end of the ‘A Doll’s House’ at the Medway Little Theatre to confirm the date of its original publication in 1879. A time when women across Europe were denied suffrage and citizenship, and subjected to all kinds of legal and moral control and censure.

Yet we have Ibsen’s main character, Norma Helmer, walking out on her husband, young children and comfortable bourgeois life in order to realise herself as an individual. Here is a small part of one of the final exchange between Nora and her husband:

Nora:                     What do you consider my most sacred duties?

Helmer:                Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?

Nora:                     I have other duties just as sacred.

Helmer:                That you have not. What duties could those be?

Nora:                     Duties to myself.

Helmer:                Before all else, you are a wife and mother.

Nora:                     I don’t believe that any longer.

She goes on to dismiss marriage, religion and the law as an instruments of patriarchy, before telling Helmer that she no longer loves him.

We don’t need to ask how shocking this kind of radical humanism must have been. History tells us. Some of Ibsen’s contemporaries, including Strindberg, were appalled at Norma’s apparent selfishness. This opening night reviewer was riled by Ibsen’s ‘false reflection’ on the institution of marriage. Nora should, it seems, have saved her union in the name of family and motherhood. One actress even boycotted the role, such was her disgust at Nora’s decision.

Nora’s eloquence in the climactic scene is all the more bracing, given how alternately child-like and edgily manic her previous behaviour has been.

Her child-like behaviour is understandable, given the way she is infantilised by society in general and her husband in particular. She is his “little singing-bird”, to be sheltered, coddled and occasionally scolded when she speaks out of turn or indulges in sugared candies.

Likewise, it is not surprise she veers lives on the edge of a nervous breakdown, given the weight of social pressure to play the role of pliant doll-wife. As Billington points out, we are watching the evolution of romantic and spirited soul toward a form of actualisation that will be financially and socially precarious.

In rejecting the role society has designed for her, Norma walks away to a totally unknown future. As Germaine Greer put it in ‘The Female Eunuch’, revolution is the festival of the oppressed.

Away from the text, I was really impressed by the staging of this production, the charm of the aptly named Medway Little Theatre and the very powerful performance of Rebecca Bland as Nora.

12 down – 89 to go

Image credit –  @neilthornephotography via https://www.facebook.com/medwaylittletheatrerochester/

All rise for ‘All That Fall’

blindfoldLast time out, in relation to ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, I wrote the about sign-language describer providing a welcome distraction from the turgidity on stage.

There could be no such diversion for ‘All That Fall’ at Wilton’s Music Hall as the entire audience was blindfolded for the duration of the play.

The Beckett estate is famously protective, giving permission for his work to be performed on strict condition that they follow his original instruction. ‘All That Fall’ was a radio play, so there are no stage direction, no costumes, no prescriptions on the appearance or countenance of the characters.

The deployment of blindfold was Out of Joint’s elegant solution to this problem. We should be thankful for their ingenuity.

It’s a corny old truism that people who are deprived of one sense find the others over-compensating. So, for example, people who are blind or partially sighted are said to have above-average hearing. The science behind this idea is sketchy at best.

Yet for the 60 minutes this production, the loss of sight forced the audience (or this member of it at least) to create for ourselves the setting, the backdrop, the movement and expressions of the characters, and the rest of this individually-improvised fictional universe. The three friends who joined me also enjoyed this innovation and the challenge it created of making the audience work in a creative fashion.

To conjure and nurture this mindscape, we have the words of “Beckett’s best play” as Michael Billington bravely but accurately describes it. ‘All That Fall’ is often described at one of his most naturalistic / least absurdist works. It is set in a small Irish village populated by recognisable characters in everyday occupations.

In the finest Beckettian style, very little happens. A woman goes to collect her husband from the station, the train is late, it eventually arrives, and they walk home together. Yet within that simple narrative we contemplate the nature of existence, faith, memory, identity and much else through the encounters Maddy has along the way. “Don’t mind me. Don’t take any notice of me. I do not exist. The fact is well known” she explains to one baffled interlocutor.

‘All That Fall’ is also very, very funny, from Maddy’s attempt to climb in and out of a car that is far too small for her generous frame, to the much darker humour as the play reaches its ambiguous un-conclusion.

Without giving too much, an unexplained death is the focus of the final movement of the play. This is another very familiar Beckett move, of leaving things unresolved and unknowable.

As the play came to its end, I found myself wiping away a few tears. Or trying as best as I could while blindfolded.

I’d found myself heavily invested in the play, and Maddy’s simple desire to get back home with her husband safe and warm. In addition, as a brief personal aside, I’d had a call a few hours before the start of the play letting me know that my Nan had died. She was 85 and had been ill for a while. Not a surprise, but still a shock when you get the dreaded call.

I wondered if the play might ‘take my mind off it’ for a little while. In fact, Maddy was a head-strong, loquacious, Irish matriarch. Oh, Nanna Molly, you would have liked her!

11 down – 90 to go.

Long, long, long day’s journey…

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Old Vic, Bristol, Saturday 2nd April 2016

It says something about my experience of this play that I recall the performance of the sign-language describer off to the side more warmly than anything taking place on the stage.

She was very expressive, putting real vigour into her BSL interpretation of “I got on my knees and prayed”. It looked a little something like this, but with more panache.

It’s no disrespect to the cast, headed by Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, that I was so easily, even willingly distracted. Along with Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle, they had to barrel through a dense and often quite repetitive script in just under four hours.

As a result, the subtlety and deftness of the writing was annihilated in the haste to cram a quart of drama into the pint-pot of audience endurance.

I like demanding works of art. I love all five and a half unbroken hours of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and was delighted to catch a very rare live performance. David Peace’s hypnotically repetitive Red or Dead is one my favourite novels of the past ten years. I adore The Wire precisely because it requires commitment. “F**k the casual viewer” was David Simon’s answer to a journalist who asked whether the show’s complicated, overlapping storylines might be too demanding for some people.

These works have been given time and space to breathe and grow, allowing each frond to unfurl naturally.

This production felt like an improv-workshop pastiche of ‘those Eugene O’Neill shouty plays’ as a guest on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast once put it. ‘Yes, and louder!’ was the order of the day, with each character taking it in turn to ratchet up the pace and intensity.

When the volume starts at 9.5 out of 10 and the characters are tearing chunks out of each other as soon as the lights are dimmed, it’s hard to feel the dramatic peaks, or even know when they are supposed to be.

Many reviewers, including Michael Billington, really rated this production. For me, it became a trial of strength. Three and a half hours of watching a drunkard, a morphine addict and two angry young men scream at and threaten each other. You know, I live in London. I can sit on a park bench in certain parts of town and watch that for free all the live-long day.

If I see Long Day’s Journey Into Night again, I hope it is twice as long and half as fast. Such that I can enjoy the nuance and gentle touches of O’Neill’s writing and appreciate the skill of an actor like Jeremy Irons who was so impressive when I saw him last in the much more restrained role of Harold Macmillan in Never So Good.

A long and disappointing journey.

10 down – 91 to go.