Thursday, 8 December 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Longing

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 49: William Boyd’s Longing (2013)

Donald Rayfield’s introduction to William Boyd’s Longing draws attention to the paucity of Chekhov’s dramatic oeuvre while acknowledging the wealth of inspiration playwrights have since drawn from his work. One solution, says Rayfield, to the hunger for more Chekhovian plays, lies within his prose. Hence, Boyd’s play seamlessly adapts and entwines two of Chekhov’s short stories, ‘My Life’ and ‘A Visit to Friends’.

Moscow lawyer, Kolia, pays a visit to old friends, Tania and Varia in the country, but unbeknownst to him, Tania has an ulterior motive for the get-together. Her husband, Sergei, has frittered away all her inheritance on scatter-brained schemes that fail to come to fruition, and now the family estate is about to be repossessed – the only possible saviour is Kolia and his legal wit. Meanwhile, young Misail sets to work repainting Sergei and Tania’s summerhouse with the aid of the philosophical Radish – ‘“what is life like?” It’s as if you asked me: what’s a carrot like? A carrot is a carrot and nothing more…’. The son of the town architect, Misail rejects the wealthy life he was born into, preferring to work with his hands and live simply. Yet his fiancĂ©, Kleopatra, the daughter of local enterprising railway engineer, Dolzhikov, craves the fine life, much to Misail’s embarrassment. The two plotlines converge when Dolzhikov hires Sergei’s summerhouse as a venue for Misail and Kleopatra’s engagement party, and later proposes to buy the estate, keeping the old family as tenants of the summerhouse.

Boyd captures all the – to coin a phrase - ‘melancomic’ essence of Chekhovian drama and the stock features we’ve come to expect from theatre’s supreme realist. Repressed passions and unrequited love abound as Varia supresses her long-held love for Kolia and eventually resigns herself to his lack of reciprocation. Meanwhile, Tania – fully aware of Varia’s feelings – attempts to set up a marriage between Kolia and her young sister, Natasha, whom Misail is utterly enchanted by. As with all Chekhovian drama, all this pent up passion goes nowhere, characterised by a stasis perfectly juxtaposed with the changing world that surrounds the characters. Adroitly summarised by Kolia’s motto, ‘All Things Pass’, the old aristocratic Russia, represented by Tania, is being supplanted by the nouveau riche society of Dolzikhov, while Misail’s idealism seems ill-founded and crippled by an unhappy reality.
I felt Longing to bear particular comparison with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, as they share similar themes and characters (Tania/Ranevskaya, Pishchik/Sergei, Anya/Natasha, Varia/Varya), and both plays have that elusive quality which positions them as not-quite tragedy, but on the brink between laughter and tears. This resemblance is unsurprising, considering Chekhov himself apparently drew upon ‘A Visit to Friends’ when writing The Cherry Orchard.

While Boyd’s play doesn’t particularly illuminate anything new regarding Chekhov, he creates an uncanny imitation of the playwright’s style and substance. Longing presents an interesting exercise in adaptation and the expanding of an artists’ repertoire which seems at once synthetic and natural.

Friday, 2 December 2016


Curve, Leicester
1st December, 2016

I admit to being a little disappointed when it was announced that Curve’s Christmas musical this year would be Grease. Yes, it’s a classic, but I’ve always felt the stage show doesn’t quite live up to the film, and there’s also the issue of the less than wholesome moral of the story (if you want to fit in/make friends/get laid, change everything about yourself) – which, let’s face it, is barely disguised by the paper-thin plot and cheesy 50’s dialogue. This seems especially pertinent in comparison with more contemporary musicals that target a similar audience which have instead championed self-esteem, promoting individuality and anti-prejudice messages, such as Hairspray and Legally Blonde – both have been produced by Curve in recent years. However, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s songs still have the top-tapping joyousness that has secured Grease’s enduring popularity, and, somewhat to my surprise and despite the musical’s inherent faults, I found myself really enjoying this production.

Nikolai Foster’s production eschews the boxy design that has characterised Curve’s recent seasons (Legally Blonde, Spring Awakening, The Importance of Being Earnest, to name but a few), to open up the stage to its full capacity; Colin Richmond’s school gymnasium set is enlivened by neon signage and a boppy booth for Vince Fontaine’s radio show snippets which tie together the scenes. (On an unrelated note – where can I get that glitterball?! fabulous)  But the main advantage of opening up the set is that it allows Nick Winston’s choreography to shine. Winston brings a fresh vigour to routines which are engrained in pop-culture history. This revitalising energy is no more evident than in the ‘Hand Jive’ and ‘Greased Lightning’, stunningly realised by the triple-threat cast. I’ve never really considered Grease to be a ‘dance’ show, but this production really celebrated that aspect.

One of the biggest draws for this revival is the much-promoted reinstating of several of Jacobs and Casey’s original songs that were cut before going to Broadway. It certainly piqued my curiosity as an opportunity to glimpse into the musical theatre history books. Yet, on the whole, the songs add little. An oddly brief number in which the Burger Palace Boys (that’s right – not a ‘T-Bird’ in sight here) muse over whether or not to get a tattoo goes nowhere and is never referenced again; it’s pretty much a glorified scene change filler. While the idea of a song for Miss Lynch (Shobna Gulati) is appealing – the possibility for a rare insight into adult life in such a teenage, hormone driven world – the placing of ‘In My Day’ directly before the finale only serves to drag down the plot, a placeholder before the real event. While these additions don’t add any extra verve, they don’t exactly detract from the show either. As a musical theatre curio they’re worth seeing as an indication of Jacobs and Casey’s original vision, and confirm the importance of the preview process in regards to book, music and lyric alterations.

Conversely, the old favourites are all in fine fettle and sung with gusto. Sam Murphy and Natalie Woods strike just the right balance between adorable and goofy in their show-stealing duet, ‘Mooning’, and Jessica Paul (Sandy) and Djalenga Scott (Rizzo) both knock it out the park in their belting solos, ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ and ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’, respectively. Dex Lee (he was first brought to my attention in the wonderful The Scottsboro Boys) makes a creditable stab at erasing the memory of John Travolta’s Danny, and generally succeeds, incorporating his own inflections and riffs in lieu of Travolta’s trademark falsetto, and adopting a more insecure characterisation; Lee brings a sense that the ‘cool-guy’ image is just one of many facets to Zuko’s charm. Rounding off the cast is Curve’s master chameleon, the ever-brilliant Darren Bennet as the high-kicking, motor-mouthed Vince Fontaine, who, with his shades of knowing humour, had the audience giggling.

While I have several quibbles with the book, that is a moot point because there is so much to commend about Foster’s rejuvenating production; a charismatic cast that gels, great music, glorious choreography, and a set which allows the musical’s assets to naturally excel. At the end of the evening the entire audience was on their feet, singing and dancing in the aisles to a megamix of Grease’s greatest hits; a party atmosphere which absolutely hits the spot as a pre-Christmas pick-me-up.

Grease plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st January 2017.
 Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday, 28 November 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Mother

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 48: Florian Zeller’s The Mother (2010).

First seen in the UK in 2015 in a translation by Christopher Hampton, The Mother is a companion play to the award winning The Father. I saw The Father at the Birmingham Rep in May after Kenneth Cranham won the Olivier Award for Best Actor for playing Andre, the father of the title who is rapidly losing his mind to dementia. It finds the perfect form to reflect its subject matter, compelling the audience to succumb to the same spiralling confusion as Andre until we are no longer certain which character is which or where they are.

The Mother takes on a familiar form to convey a mother’s loss of self as her son is no longer living at home and her husband may be cheating on her. It sometimes reads that her desperation could also be attributed to Alzheimer’s disease as in The Father but the casting of a younger actress for Anne, the mother, in the Ustinov Bath and Tricycle production (Gina McKee) puts that issue aside and instead places more of an emphasis on the role of a mother. What does it mean, and what is her place once those duties are over, that is, if they do become obsolete?

Scenes play out and then often repeat but with alternate scenarios and endings. The play starts with Pierre about to go off to a seminar in Dijon, but Anne expects he’s having an affair, something which he doesn’t exactly deny to her. Anne is lonely, on pills and depressed. At one moment, she is complaining that their son rarely visits or never calls, thinking that his new girlfriend Elodie is driving him away, but then he comes down for breakfast having seemingly spent the night with them. Later on, Elodie (or The Girl) turns up and stubs her cigarette out on the floor, something which foreshadows a later bit where Anne is suffocated in bed. The play is elliptical and constantly makes you second guess the characters and the nature of reality in the play: is The Girl really Nicholas’ girlfriend or is she a nurse or is she Pierre’s lover?

The Mother is an ultimately poignant play especially when she reflects on missing the days when she made her son breakfast and walked him to school. Her last line, ‘What was all that for?’, certainly strikes a chord but I can’t help but feel it’s a less universal play than The Father. I guess it’s easier to write that as a man but The Mother deals with a different type of loss of self than The Father even though it’s just as (perhaps more so?) nightmarish.

I feel where The Father succeeded more was also more clearly evoking a stronger sense of place which could then be twisted and played with. When I saw James MacDonald’s production, a lot of effort had gone into Miriam Buether’s set to create a definite, concrete and detailed sense of space: three walls, a ceiling, furniture, a peep of the lampshade hanging in the hallway, a glance of the kitchen including a pedal bin in the corner. It gave the effect that we could familiarise ourselves with a flat, in this case belonging to Andre. In a later scene, we are simultaneously in ‘the same room and a different room’. As the scenes go on, more and more furniture moves and eventually vanishes. There were some vases on the bookshelf that I was expecting to switch around which I was keeping an eye on. A few scenes later, I missed that (even if the vases were in the same place) that a painting and lamp had gone! It created a sense of the uncanny, highlighted more by the speed of the changes and the glitches in the classical music between scenes. Space is not as specified in The Mother. In Laurence Boswell’s production at least, it looks as though the whole room was very minimalist and white, perhaps as empty and cold as Anne feels her life has become.

Both plays are very clever even if The Father is more original. There are echoes of Pinter and, inevitably I suppose, Yasmina Reza, and I look forward to seeing more of Zeller’s work.

Friday, 25 November 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Verdict

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 47: Agatha Christie’s Verdict (1958)

Agatha Christie is, allegedly, the most revived female playwright in history, and I can kind of see why. Her work is untaxing, often set in the well-to-do cosy surroundings of bygone eras, and audiences enter safe in the knowledge that, no matter how grisly the murder, all will be put right by the final curtain. Yet Verdict is somewhat of an odd fish in these regards. Aside from the cover blurb covering the entire plot (which I foolishly read beforehand), the play involves little mystery or intrigue. Less a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit (in the classic Columbo style), we know the culprit and their motive from the off. So this left me wondering exactly how to categorise Verdict

The story involves an eminent Professor, Karl Hendryk, who has emigrated to Britain following a run-in with the government in his homeland (it is never specified where that is). He takes care of his invalid wife, Anya, with the help of her cousin Lisa, with whom Karl has been in love with for years, although they have never acted upon their feelings. Yet Karl is also the object of student, Helen’s, affections, who, jealous and in the belief that she is freeing Karl from an unhappy marriage, kills Anya and covers up the murder as a suicidal overdose of pain medication. What follows is a muddle of false accusations, contradictory behaviour and disappointing resolutions.

There is a nice bit of suspense in Act 2 as we await the verdict of a trial, yet this is quickly dissipated with an anticlimactic revelation that seems very throwaway. The resolution is so neat (albeit with some unnecessary toing and froing in the build-up) that it really stretches the suspension of disbelief, a problem I also had with the stage adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None which bordered on laughable in its ludicrous denouement. Even more of a problem is the lack of characterisation. The play is filled with stock characters of a 2D nature – all the familiar tropes are there; the dodgy working-class cleaner; the cold but beautiful woman; the clumsy but well-meaning young man – and because of this there is no real attachment to them, I didn’t care about them. What’s more, often it seems that Christie uses her characters, not as living, breathing people, but as mouthpieces for exposition or some sort of vague social commentary (it is hinted that Karl won’t inform the police of Helen’s crime in the fear that she will hang for it). The dialogue is flimsy at best, and littered with stilted pleasantries; the rounds of ‘how do you do’s?’ on every character’s entrance becomes tiresome fast.

I could read into Verdict some essence of thematic complexity – allusions to assisted suicide and debates over a person’s right to die with dignity, and the aforementioned questioning of capital punishment – yet I feel this would be stretching the play too much and imprinting upon it my own need to analyse everything (a personal fault, I admit). The truth is, Verdict is too flimsy a play to adequately support such intellectual debates. Therefore, taken at face value, it is semi-entertaining, in an ironic I-Can’t-Believe-How-Ridiculous-This-Is way, but if you’re looking for a satisfying Christie mystery thriller, I’d advise sticking to the novels or tv adaptations of Poirot and Marple.

Friday, 18 November 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Chicken Soup with Barley

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 46: Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley (1958)

I’m about half way through The Wesker Trilogy (made up of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking about Jerusalem). Overtly political, and taking a sympathetic and sometimes critical lens to working class lives, they are three of the most famous kitchen sink dramas to come out of the Royal Court Theatre.

To give you an idea of the setup, Chicken Soup with Barley is about the Khan family, a working class, socialist, Jewish family in London. Act one is set in the thirties amidst a time of political urgency. Acts two and three, the former just after WWII and the latter in the fifties, sees that sense of excitement and faith in communism in decline along with the Khan family itself. Furthermore, in mapping the changing dynamics of the Khans and their friends, Wesker chronicles a nation’s drastic changes post-war.

The characters – their dreams, what they stand for, and how that changes – are minutely portrayed. The play opens with Sarah, Jewish and about 37 in the 1936 setting of act one. She’s always seen cooking or making tea and her ‘movements indicate great energy and vitality’ (p.11). Vitality is the cornerstone to this play (and I recommend Dan Rebellato’s analysis on this in 1956 and All That): some characters speak with bundles of passion and Wesker often equates characters having vigour in their personality with their physical well being. Harry’s, Sarah’s husband, impotence as a husband, father, worker and political activist eventually sees him all but give up on life and his body cease up. (On the other hand, the elderly Stann Mann in Roots shows his plentiful energy for life by dying). In the first act, nearly all of the characters are infused with a buzz for the communist revolt in which they are partaking. A revolutionary song plays, the red flag is waved, and they all hold a strong belief in their cause and hope for a changing political society. ‘[S]how a young person what socialism means’, Harry cries to his comrades, ‘and he recognises life! A future!’ (p.31). 

Sarah, too, insists that socialism is about love and brotherhood. Their son Ronnie, 15 in act two when they’ve moved to a block of flats and have recently voted in a Labour government, is also enthusiastic and delivers pamphlets. But things have already begun to change in the play. Ada, their daughter, is beginning to grow cynical of socialism’s practicalities and her father’s real motives. Characters are moving apart and setting up their own businesses in the country or in Manchester. Those passions are diminished even more in the third act even from Ronnie, apart from in Sarah whose passion is no less conveyed (perhaps grasped on to) than in the final moments, maybe not politically but as a mother and wife. Indeed, her closing lines, ‘Please Ronnie, don’t let me finish this life thinking I lived for nothing’, are reminiscent of a not too dissimilar character from Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! (1935, p.77). It’s an emotionally rousing ending to the play. There are times when you think Wesker is patronising or mocking his characters but he precedes the plays by saying that that isn’t his intention, but there’s no denying his sharp observations and the vitality of his dialogue.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Riots

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 45: Gillian Slovo’s The Riots (2011)

Following the lack of public inquiry into the riots that spread from London throughout the rest of England in the summer of 2011, the Tricycle theatre commissioned its own examination of events. Gillian Slovo’s verbatim piece compiles talking heads from various walks of life; from politicians, policemen and lawyers, to the rioters themselves and the innocent victims of the violent eruption. What was to blame? Race relations? Social divides? A culture of greed and opportunism? Slovo doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion, but to do so would simplify many of the complex and interconnected issues at play in our society.
What does result is an in-depth and wide ranging kaleidoscope of experiences and opinions, beginning with a blow-by-blow account of the riots themselves. Amidst an atmosphere of unrest, the killing of Mark Duggan by the police inspires protests from the black community in Tottenham. Yet, this is merely the breaking point, the spark which fires the ‘powder-keg’ of ongoing ill-relations and mistrust between the community and the police force. We hear accounts of the lack of police action, from both sides – seemingly the force’s hands were tied by low numbers of officers on duty and a fear of violent retaliation from the rioters (many of the policemen interviewed refer to the Broadwater Farm riots where PC Keith Blakelock was killed). For the rioters, this inaction acts more as an insult, and the vandalism and anarchy seems as much a reaction to this as the looting of chain stores was a material repercussion of the capitalist deprivation of the working classes.

From the chaotic memories of the riots, Slovo moves onto a sort of post-mortem interrogation, relaying the hypotheses of numerous authoritarians and supposed voices of reason including Diane Abbott, Iain Duncan Smith and various high court judges. One comment that stood out was Michael Gove’s likening of the situation to a Rorschach blot test, in that people will see what they want to see and thus their existing perceptions will only be further confirmed. Incidentally, Gove then goes on to spout the usual Tory guff about people wanting the reinstating of caning at schools, his example of choice solidifying his status as an out-of-touch, rambling toff. However, his initial point is an interesting one; there is a sense that Slovo is preaching to the converted. While the focus on benefit cuts and the lack of social platforms for poorer communities is an important factor to consider, as this (in the play) is predominantly voiced by the socially mobile, vastly more privileged interviewees, there is an air of left-wing, middle-class soap-boxing. More telling is the view of Sadie King, resident of the Pembury estate, who recalls an environment of white, middle-class moralising when do-gooders arrived to clean up the (already clean) estate; ‘It felt like an invasion, like people not from our community have to come into our community to clean up. It was patronising’.

Slovo hones in on the injustice of scapegoating individuals within the judiciary system. Some people received much harsher sentences than their individual crimes warranted (David Swarbrick received a 2 year sentence for stealing some moisturizer), as a means of setting an example, which is all rather draconian and seems desperately counterproductive. But the resounding voice is that of Mohamed Hammoudan, whose home was torched during the riots. As an innocent victim it is fitting that he gets the final word; he is despondent as he recalls that the emergency services ‘had no plan’ and contemplates having ‘to start a new chapter without having the seeds there from the past’.

Slovo’s play presents an intelligent perspective on the state of Britain, yet doesn’t quite manage to capture the cacophony of anger and disparity felt by the Tottenham community at the centre of the disruption – perhaps due to too much pontificating on the part of the big wigs and MPs. There is an essence of ‘what if…?’ in The Riots, it seemingly unpicks the seams of society to diagnose its problems, yet the truths that hindsight unveils (somewhat paradoxically considering the verbatim genre) don’t seem to have any practical function or resolution in the real world. Five years later not a lot seems to have changed, in fact race and class relations/divisions seem more fractured than ever - just consider the ‘war on immigration’ and instances of overt racism following the Brexit vote. So while it seems Slovo and many of her contributors would like us to take heed of what happened in August 2011 and its repercussions, whether politicians, the police force, and society as a whole will take that on board is another matter…

Friday, 4 November 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Dr Korczak's Example

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 44: David Greig’s Dr Korczak’s Example (1998)

Set in a Jewish ghetto in occupied Warsaw, Greig’s play, based on real events, focuses on Janusz Korczak’s orphanage. Within the walls of the compound, poverty stricken, surrounded by flies and their deaths in concentration camps awaiting them, Dr Korczak has set up a functioning democracy for the children of the orphanage. They can vote for new children to leave if no one likes them and they can be judged by their own peers in their self-run court. His teachings and theories were enough to get him – and him only – a pardon from the Nazis to be spared death. This, typical of his selfless nature, was refused and he went with the children on the train to his death. But he’s now apparently a legendary figure in Eastern Europe and his ideas formed the basis for the United Nations Rights for Children bill.

New to the orphanage is street urchin Adzio. He’s more used to stealing and fighting for his food, under the impression that he has to play rough in order to survive. Finding it difficult to fit in under the (comparable) Utopia of Korczak’s care, the doctor gets Stephanie to take Adzio under her wing. She teaches him to care and look after others in the orphanage, but in return he encourages her to throw stones at the window of a church whose priest refuses to let the children into the gardens. Sorry for the trouble she may have caused for the orphanage, she can’t help but agree with Adzio’s survivalist ways of thinking. Despite us knowing the horrific history behind how the characters’ stories ended, Greig imbues his characters with a sense of vitality despite the oppression they are suffering from the Nazi soldiers. Korczak teaches his children to live life by example to defy the hatred of the Nazis, allowing for a piece of theatre which is optimistic despite its harrowing backstory.

To avoid being voyeuristic and to allow for a more practical staging, Dr Korczak’s Example stipulates that an alienation effect is employed in order to distance the characters and audience from the action of the play. Actors are actors as well as characters and inanimate dolls represent the children in the orphanage. Dolls from previous scenes can stay on stage to haunt the next scene and actors can interact with them. In the text, it’s perhaps most effective when Korczak is talking to a soldier with a gun (a doll) standing high about the walls guarding the ghetto. Ellipses in the text leave gaps where the soldier’s eerie silence goes, emphasising the inhuman nature of the Nazi gunman.

This play gives Korczak’s story a much deserved showing in front of a UK audience (although it has been given numerous European productions) in a contemporary style which allows the theme of indomitable love to flourish. Furthermore, it also makes us evaluate our thinking on modern education systems, made more interesting in that it was first performed in Scottish schools.