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Black Comedy

Black Comedy – The Corner House Community Arts Centre, Surbiton – Friday 16th November

Black Comedy

The sight of deluded Brits groping in the dark and alienating their European neighbours holds up a dark mirror to Brexit Britain.

Peter Shaffer’s one-act play premiered in 1965. It features an aspiring young sculptor who has invited a German art dealer to his flat in the hope of selling one of his pieces and making his name in the art world.

His carefully planned scheme for the evening descends into utter chaos following a blackout and the unwanted arrival of several characters, including a previous girlfriend, the current father-in-law and an alcoholic neighbour.

For the audience, the play starts in total darkness when, in the world of the play, the lights are on. When the blackout hits, the stage is lit, and the performers move as if they are in pitch blackness. It is a clever gimmick that guarantees laughter by marrying exaggerated physical performances to Comedy of Errors-style misunderstandings and a consistently sharp script.

Instead of boosting his career, our sculptor friend Brindsley ends up trying to save his skin amid the madness his greed has unleashed.

While Black Comedy is a light-hearted farce, there was something very contemporary and troubling about a group of Brits flailing around in the dark. Brindsley needs a generous offer from Europe to escape poverty but ends up offending his visitor and wrecking any hope of a deal.

One can only hope Black Comedy isn’t too precise a metaphor for Brexit Britain, and the lights in Westminster and Whitehall go up more quickly than they did in Surbiton.

Gulled

Gulled

The Seagull – Lyric Hammersmith, London – Saturday 4th November

I am aware of two definitions of being ‘gulled’. The first is the traditional term, meaning tricked or hoodwinked. The second is the urban dictionary definition.

Pushmi-Pullyu

After what felt like five hours of this turgid production, I felt I had been fooled. There was no energy spunk to this performance. Even and afternoon spent in a glum, suburban car park in the company of enthusiastically gurn-faced gullers would have been preferable to this confused and confusing mess of a play.

The core problem with this version of ‘The Seagull’ was the unresolved tension between the sur-text and sub-text of the play. The sur-text addresses the human urge to create and perform art, to get as close as one can to expressing the sublime through primitive and broken language.

The sub-text ridicules such pomposity and pretension. Thus we have a play that both celebrates and sends up the notion of artistic endeavour, with Chekov using the form of a play to deride theatre as “the most tedious, old-fashioned, prejudiced, elitist form”.

The blurb for The Seagull promised a production that “switch[ed] effortlessly between the ridiculous and the profound”. Instead we had an awkward clash of incompatible acting styles.

In several scenes, Lesley Sharp uttered her lines with a sly knowingness, metaphorically winking to the audience in appreciation of Chekov’s archness and playing with the form. To be met by an entirely naturalistic and straight response from actors sharing the same stage but in an entirely different performance.

The performance had all the dynamism of a Pushmi-Pullyu – two forces pulling in opposite directions, going nowhere fast. And after the initial fascination of seeing such a mutant, the spectacle became utterly tedious.

 

She’s a Schiller Queen

QE1

Mary Stuart – The Bunker, London – Friday 3rd November

With Coriolanus, we had the parallels to the victory of Trump and the disarray of democracy. With Mary Stuart we had echoes of the war on terror.

Elizabeth I is an insecure leader whose reign is under constant threat from enemies external and internal. She holds her Catholic cousin and counter-claimant to the throne Mary Stuart under house arrest, while the conflicts sparked by the Reformation blaze across Europe.

What should Elizabeth do? Execute her rival and the figurehead for rebellion against her reign, as some of her advisor urge her? Or show Christian mercy, as her more compassionate – and perhaps more politically canny – counsellors encourage?

While Elizabeth hesitates Hamlet-like over her quandary, the members of the secret Babington circle plot a dramatic rescue and armed insurrection against the Virgin Queen.

Ultimately, their plot fails and Elizabeth orders Mary’s execution. Or rather, she creates a situation in which she ensures Mary will be executed without giving a direct order. She sides with her advisers who see Mary as a religious fanatic and terrorist sympathiser.

It is Elizabeth who is the focus of the play, despite its title. The work is a close-up study of the conflicts of power under extreme pressure. A misstep by Elizabeth could be fatal to her, to her reign, and to her nascent church.

This ‘semi-staged reading’ formed part of the Bunker’s SchillerFest, a week-long festival of the dramatist’s work. In contrast to other productions, Mary emerged as something of a cypher in this production, in part because her physical isolation means she was confined to soliloquies and whispered debates with her handmaid.

Elizabeth instead raged and soothed, swinging between the desire to be ruthless and the urge to mercy. She was by far the more interesting and intriguing character, giving the audience a sharp sense of the multiple conflicts and dilemmas she was handling.

I left with Mary Stuart added to those fine works of art that are fascinating studies of power and its deadly perils.

 

Coriolanus

CoriolanusCoriolanus – RSC / Screen on the Green, London – Weds 11th October

The Shakespeare gang re-united for a live screening of the RSC’s Coriolanus at the charming Everyman cinema in Angel. We couldn’t find a performance of this play back in 2011 as the Ralph Fiennes film was due to come out over the summer. So, we put it in ourselves, in the beer garden of a pub in Edinburgh during a trip to the festival.

The acting tonight was rather more professional, although the play got off to a creaky start when the projection froze. Worse still, the action we should have been watching was already pretty dull.

You see, I have friends who don’t go to the theatre because they can’t suspend their disbelief and go along with the make-believe. At some fundamental level, they can’t get over the fact that they are watching other grown-ups pretending.

For the first (…what felt like…) twenty minutes of Coriolanus, I had a measure of sympathy for these otherwise misguided fools. The opening scenes are supposed to establish that Coriolanus is a martial man of individual bravery and tactical shrewdness.

These facts could have been asserted in one efficient swoop. Instead we had several noisy but frankly rather silly-looking battle scenes and a playground fight between Coriolanus and his nemesis Tullus Aufidius. As the ‘action’ dragged on I half-expected the minor characters to gather in a circle and start chanting ‘Oggy! Oggy! Oggy! Oi! Oi! Oi!”

Once Coriolanus had won both the battle and the war, we engage with the real drama of the play: his tortured relationships with his mother and his people. To his mother, he is utterly obedient. To his subjects, he is utterly arrogant. Any show of in front of the populace is, in his mind, to allow “The crows to peck the eagles.”

Not that this production gives the masses much credit either, comparing their foolishness in submitting to Coriolanus’ forced flattery with the presidential victory of Donald Trump. “What? You chose this man?” asks one of the female tribunes, aghast at their stupidity and venality.

It the infinitely elastic applicability of Shakespeare which has ensured his writing has been cherished for so long. This production explores the familiar themes of the contradictions of democracy and strong leadership, alongside Coriolanus’ maternal complexities in a fairly even-handed manner.

Going much further than any other production I’ve seen (or read in a pub car-park) was the focus on the homo-erotic relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Their re-union and reconciliation was a moment of openly charged mutual admiration and sweaty physical intimacy.

As Billington points out, Aufidius engages in “one of the most violently sexual passages in all Shakespeare”, describing his “dreams of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me” in which they “fist each other’s throats”.

The power of this sequence and my faith in the production as a whole was, however, under-cut by the preceding scene featuring a crudely-drawn camp character flittering about and generally acting the nelly. So, apart from the massively homophobic bit, this was a production with a very modern sense of the characters’ fluid sexuality.

As ever with Shakespeare, a new era unearths new layers of meaning and exploration.

Cricket Bat Man

The Real ThingThe Real Thing – Theatre Royal Bath – Saturday 23rd September

To Bath for a second time this summer, to see the only Stoppard on the list.

As the title suggests, The Real Thing is a meditation on the nature of authenticity. What is real love? What is real writing? What is a real experience?

The central character is Henry, a famous and celebrated playwright who can write about the infinite wonder of love, but seems incapable of feeling it in his own heart. In the first half of the play, he escapes from an unhappy and love-less marriage to an equally unsatisfying and uneasy relationship with Annie, his (former) friend’s wife.

It falls to his teenage daughter to pinpoint with an innocent, adolescent fearlessness, his emotional cowardice and immaturity. It is easier, safer for Henry to hide behind an impenetrable wall of intellectual hauteur than let down his defences and attempt to connect emotionally and engage with the “negotiation” at the heart of every relationship.

The question of authenticity is re-examined through a different lens, when Annie tries to convince him that a piece of lumpen prose written by a political prisoner is just as valid as his refined writing. Both are good by the measure of their own subjective criteria, she argues. One is good because it fits within the canon of classically-defined literary quality. The other has its own merit as a piece of ‘real’ writing, not from the academe, but from the heart of lived experience.

In a wonderful scene, Henry picks apart this argument through analogy with a cricket bat. A cricket bat is a finely crafted, honed and tempered thing. You can hack a piece of wood into the shape of a cricket bat, and swing it about as if it were, but neither you nor the cricket ball will get very far. It is not, after all, the real thing.

I like the fact that the 101 Challenge leads me to odd and experimental theatrical productions. But there are times like today when I was glad to watch something sound all round: a strong cast, in an excellent theatre, staging a play that is intellectually self-confident and dramatically coherent.

Thank you Theatre Royal Bath and the folks for the debate and discussion after the play!

Hamlet

HamletHamlet – Park Theatre, London – Wednesday 6th September 2017 

Let us differ from the Dane and be direct: this was the best Hamlet I have seen by an Elsinore mile.

It was enormously inventive, brilliantly witty, and coolly self-aware (more on this later). And it starred Gyles Brandreth, his son and daughter-in-law.

Yes. That Gyles Brandreth. A man I see sitting on quiz panels sharing shaggy dog stories, rather than wrestling with the most famous text in Western literature. So I approached this performance with a low bar of expectations and a high sense of curiosity.

I was reassured by the wonderful space of the Park90 Theatre, containing the spare modern kitchen which provided the setting for the entire play. Then I was intrigued by Brandreth’s description of himself as a “near-lifelong Hamlet obsessive” in the introductory notes to the programme.

With admirable brio, the Brandreth trio cut and re-ordered the play to fit into ninety minutes and to allow three actors to play all the parts.

The result was a masterpiece of editing, staging and acting. With deft changes in costume, tone and mien, the three switched smoothly between the characters. The table at the centre of the kitchen was used again and again as the edge of the battlements, the deck of the ship, the stage of the play within the play, and much else besides.

Most impressively, Brandreth Benet and Gyles and Kosha Engler played all the parts with energy and emotion. Bravura performances all round.

At a few points, the trio played with the audience’s expectations. In the role of the first player, preparing for the play within the play, Gyles Brandreth began to act in a very, well, Brandrethian way; boomy, over-the-top, ostentatious.

No, Benet chided with a knowing grin, “If you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” The laugh from the audience suggested we were all in on the gently joke at the expense of Brandreth père’s reputation.

I wrote back in 2011, during the Shakespeare challenge, and after Rory Kinnear’s acclaimed run, that I’ve always found Hamlet a ‘problem play’ in a very unwelcome way. It often feels like a philosophical treatise squeezed into the form of a play, at the expense of character development (Ophelia, Gertrude) and plot (particularly Hamlet’s sudden transformation from intellectual crippled by doubt to cold-blooded killer).

This performance made me forget those doubts and kept me fascinated for every second of its ninety minutes.

Bravo!

 

 

 

Helen – fighting on a lie

HelenOff to the Hen and Chickens in Islington to catch Helen at the Camden Fringe festival. One of the earliest plays in the list and, according to Billington, the first tragi-comedy.

This one-hour, semi-professional production emphasised the comedy over the tragedy although, as this review points out, the contrast between acting styles was striking. Elena Clements’ Helen was under-stated and quietly emotive, while Nicholas Bright’s performance as Menelaus was energetic and experience, and Darren Ruston entertained by channelling Zero Mostel as Theoclymenus. Bright wore only a loin cloth for the entire hour, so he had to keep moving just to stay warm.

Undercutting the humour is a sense of doomed futility, not just about war and its consequences, but mortal existence altogether. The premise of the play revolves around two misunderstandings. The first is Helen’s belief that Menelaus is dead, and she is fated to live out her life as a widow or the unhappy bride of a rival king. The second is that Menelaus’ bride is actually Helen. In truth, the being he has captured from Troy is a phantom, created by the Gods due to a conflict in the heavens.

It is the wry humour in the face of such capricious cruelty which Billington rightly praises. How foolish are men, even kings – no, especially kings? How pointless is war, especially when it is based on the misunderstandings of mortals and the deceits of the deities?

Yet the war was started, and the men must fight on. As Slim Charles explains to Avon Barksdale in the episode of The Wire entitled ‘Mission Accomplished’: “Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”

The fragility of men was underlined toward the end of this heavily cut and tightly compacted version of the original text. Theoclymenus exposes himself as a buffoon, allowing his desire to impress Helen to blind him to her obvious attempts to escape with Menelaus. He is then prevented from taking out his rage on his sister the priestess Theonoe by the direct intervention of the Gods.

Helen and Menelaus escape, but to what? The next chapter in a life written by forces far beyond their comprehension. From the battlefields of Troy to the streets of Baltimore, we need comedy so we can laugh at in the face of such futility.

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 – nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

 

Woyzeck Hodgson

Woyzeck

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.