Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Curve
16th August, 2017

‘And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream’

Nick Winston’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes ‘dreaming’ to the extreme in this surreal modern fairy tale. Since Curve opened 9 years ago, their annual community productions have become a highlight of the local and theatrical calendar, and their latest offering is no exception.

Utilising a cast of over 60, Winston populates the vast stage with detail, both human and mythic – a tavern comes to bustling life with comely wenches, couples dancing, and the occasional brawl, while the play begins with a brief tableau of the magical wood featuring a menagerie of legendary creatures, from fairies to centaurs, charmingly establishing the production’s colourful, storybook aesthetic. Fairy tales are a continual reference, notably in Kevin Jenkin’s set: a turfed copse features rough-hewn stone and wild grasses against a backdrop of twisted trees, silhouetted against an ever-changing sky. The bramble-like snare of the trees reminded me of the threatening woods in Sleeping Beauty, an apt comparison, considering the role that sleep and dreams plays in Shakespeare’s drama.

Edd Lindley’s costumes are intricate and lush, even in their odd mish-mash of styles. From Game Of Thrones-esque Medieval garb, to Regency and Edwardian era fashions, the Athenian world of the Dream never feels fully grounded in any specific place, as if the whole story could be told, word-of-mouth, from generation to generation until it loses all sense of realism. Ironically, the vision of the Fairy world here seems much more concrete, using a blend of steampunk and hip hop to create a vivid identity for the magical creatures that neatly separates them from their human counterparts.

Supporting this is a unique and fresh assortment of music, both of existing songs and Ben Harrison’s original music, from the ethereally ambient in Oberon (Simon Butler) and Titania’s (Demi Hylands) scenes, to blasts of dubstep for the mischievous Puck. A beautifully sung rendition of Norah Jones’ ‘Come Away With Me’ tenderly draws the relationship between Titania and her fairy helpers, while The Carpenters’ ‘Close To You’ is given the Bottom treatment in an amusing addition to the text.

Tonally and thematically, Winston’s vision is sweet natured. Eschewing the darkness and cruelty that seeps into some productions (I’m recalling in particular the 2016 BBC adaptation in which Theseus is painted as a fascist dictator – still great, just different), this is a warm, comforting version, akin to a cosy bedtime story. Hippolyta (Hannah Willars) is willing, Theseus (Alphonso Christie) is a grounded and benevolent leader, and Titania and Oberon reunite, hand in hand with the changeling boy they previously warred over - continuing the fairytale theme, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ seems a fitting summation.

As always, I’m astounded at the local talent on display in Curve’s community productions. Megan Marston is gently engaging as Hermia, a fine counterpoint to Lauren Jones’ feisty Helena, while the intriguing decision to dual cast Puck works surprisingly well, Mahesh Parmar and Joel Fossard-Jones are both individual in performance yet perfectly synchronised when needs be. Puck’s transcendental abilities here take on a new significance as the character flits through time and space and his echoing physicality occupies the very air around the characters. Yet, as is often the case with Shakespeare’s Dream, the Mechanicals steal the show with their earthy humour and earnest desire to please. Alexander Clifford’s Bottom manages to remain immensely likeable despite the character’s excitable egocentricity, while James Cottis’ Flute fares well as both Panto Dame and tender actor in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene. I say this time and again, but with these productions and Curve’s dedication to inclusivity and nurturing of young talent, it really does feel like we are witnessing the stars of the future.

Winston’s Shakespearean hybrid gets away with being slightly bonkers by merit of the dreamy, mythical quality it bestows on the narrative. It was lovely to see the joy on the audiences’ faces come curtain call. This is Shakespeare at its most accessible and the production revels in the romance, humour and magic of the Bard’s work.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Curve, Leicester until 20th August.


The company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Much Ado About Nothing

The Globe
13th August, 2017 (matinee)

Emma Rice has had a short and, some would say, tempestuous tenure at the helm of Shakespeare’s Globe. Her decision to allow non-natural lighting to be used in productions sparked headlines and equal amounts of criticism and praise for her new approach to the Bard. Her premature resignation suggests an underlying aversion to change on behalf of audiences, critics and supporters and focalises debates regarding the purpose of the Globe theatre. Is it primarily an archive? A museum ‘experience’ akin to York’s Jorvik centre or the battle re-enactments staged at Warwick castle? Or is it justifiably a theatre dedicated to producing new and challenging interpretations of (overly) familiar classics? As much as I understand the fascination with history, and admit to having a particular interest in Renaissance theatre (one of the reasons I wanted to visit the Globe is to see the theatre’s configuration and architecture), I would hate to have a theatrical experience bogged down by historical accuracy and the inertia that a refusal to embrace evolution would bring (why not extend this ban on electric lighting to include other contextual actualities such as all male casts, and the substitution of fake blood with pig’s blood?). This, in turn, raises questions concerning the purpose of theatre in general – to educate? To entertain? With all this in mind, for what was my first visit to the Globe, Rice’s ethos, and director Matthew Dunster’s refreshing revisioning of Much Ado About Nothing, set during the early 20th Century Mexican Revolution, proved satisfying on every level.

As Rice refused to be dictated by tradition, Dunster (no stranger to subversion, following his reimagining of Cymbeline, Imogen last year – I’ve always though Imogen would be a much more apt name for that play!) proves that Shakespeare isn’t sacrosanct. To attract new audiences, various alterations must, naturally, be made. The original sentiments still stand, but in lovingly adapting certain scenes they become more contextually appropriate, and often, much more funny. Case point: Benedick’s love song now sees his pitiful attempt to rhyme ‘Senorita’ with ‘healthy eater’. Likewise, constable Dogberry has been transformed into Dog Berry (played with fantastic pomposity and ignorance by Ewan Wardrop), an American film maker documenting Don Pedro’s (Steven John Shepherd) experiences of the revolution (mirroring the real life revolutionary figure, Pancho Villa). Here, the famous malapropisms result from a clash of cultures and language barriers, with the long-suffering Verges acting as interpreter. Yes, the humour is crass (who doesn’t love a good erection joke?) and the set up a little reminiscent of Allo’ Allo’, but Dunster creates a quirky spin which still tonally befits the ‘Shakespearean Fool’ character.

Similarly, the incorporation of vibrant Mexican culture into the play, most notably in composer James Maloney’s seamless blending of Shakespeare’s lyrics with songs inspired by traditional Mexican music, really emphasises the festive atmosphere of the wedding scenes. Aside from such aesthetics, this Much Ado resonates because of it’s an unfamiliar setting. It dislocates us, transposing both characters and audience from the cosy comfort zone of Shakespearean Sicily into unexplored territory. It makes you sit up and listen, which consequently helps to locate the drama in a specific reality, representing real class and gender issues, while also encouraging an interest in a period of history, and a culture that I was previously ignorant of. By looking towards the less obvious options, Dunster’s brave move has payed dividends both in analytical and entertainment terms.

My first impression of Dunster’s other break from tradition, recasting Don John as Juana (Jo Dockery), was one of bemusement. I’m usually all for gender bending in theatre, but my initial thought was that Don John as a character is too underdeveloped to be wasted on such a move. The trope of ‘disinherited bastard set on familial revenge’ is better drawn in King Lear’s Edmund as he is much more fleshed out, whereas Don John’s disappearance at the end of Much Ado is swiftly (and ambiguously) brushed aside. Yet, in revolutionary Mexico, where the women are as sharpshooting with their pistols as the men, and bullet belts are common garb for all, it seems much more appropriate that Juana feels put out by her disinheritance by a patriarchal society which favours her brother, and his young upstart, Claudio, over her own role in the political battle.

So far, so interesting.

The flaw in the plan arises when considering her role in besmirching Hero. If Juana is fighting against the patriarchy, why does she do so by jeopardising a fellow woman’s position? A possible solution is that in dishonouring Claudio by making him a cuckold, Juana is threatening the role of masculinity in conflict. If the opening scene portrays a post-battle reconnoitre of assets, then does Hero not partially become a living, breathing ‘spoils of war’? And in sullying Claudio’s ‘spoils’, Juana destabilises the patriarchal hierarchy that often governs conflict, revolution, and the reinstating of peacetime on masculine terms (here represented by the holy union of marriage). Consequently, this contextual gender conflict plays well into the Benedick/Beatrice relationship, the pair are matched in wits, even if not equal in status, which is what makes their coupling both refreshing and so deliciously fractious.

If I have so far been overly preachy, I apologise!

Anna Fleischle’s design is unimposing yet atmospheric. The majority of the stage houses a freight train from which the characters emerge, weary from battle. Sliding doors and multilevel hatches create simple and effective gulling scenes and the use of stilts and puppets to mimic horses is inventively droll. Dunster’s production is bolstered further by a cast which oozes chemistry and enthusiasm. Matthew Needham’s Benedick and Beatriz Romilly’s Beatrice are in equal measure endearingly oblivious and razor sharp in their repartee. The success of a Much Ado production often rests on this central relationship, and here it clicks instantly and I was rooting for them from the off. Because of this, it’s easy for Claudio and Hero to pale in comparison, yet Marcello Cruz and Anya Chalotra are so full of youthful exuberance that I cared just as much for them. Cruz displays a charming mixture of confidence and earnestness while Chalrota’s Hero is no push over, her body language making up for the character’s silence, and she remains passionate even in her naivety.

In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better first visit to the Globe. Shakespeare reimagined means there is so much more to ponder (and I just love thinking myself into knots over his plays) and enjoy. Dunster’s production is colourful, energetic, and joyous while also contributing to the levels of substance and subtext within the play. If Emma Rice’s departure means the decline of programming such as this, it will be a sad day for the Globe, Shakespeare’s legacy, and fans of theatre worldwide.

Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Globe Theatre until 15th October.


 
The Company in performance. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ink

Almeida, London
8th July, 2017, matinee

James Graham’s play charts media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s poaching of Larry Lamb to be editor of his newspaper, and then Lamb’s stopping at nothing to beat The Mirror sales figures in a hugely enjoyable, raucously funny, visually gratifying production from Rupert Goold. Whether it offers pithy entertainment for the masses or is a huge political mouthpiece, The Sun has had a seismic cultural impact on Britain (and arguably still has even if that has diminished in recent years). Graham explores this as well as a cultural class shift and the birth of an era of selfish individualism.

I grew up in a household that probably bought The Sun newspaper nearly every day. I wasn’t that old when I realised I didn’t share my family’s fondness for it. There’s a bit in Ink when we are told the paper’s manifesto: how it is to shine light into the dark corners of the government, the establishment, and – if necessary and what the people want to read about – the public. Their maxim is to satiate the public by punching up, never down. But Graham points up the hypocrisy that the voice-of-the-people tone is a newspaper version of David Cameron saying ‘Call me Dave’. Though the newspaper may be mere fish and chip paper a few days after publication, Ink shows the pressure on journalists to deliver, the commotion of the newsroom, and the sheer physical labour that goes into the printing presses. But as one character says, in feeding the public more of what they want, they’re going to want more. I saw the third official performance of Richard Bean’s Great Britain when there was still a lot of hype around it. As entertaining as it was and as broad in scope and humour as this play, it was clearly didactic and felt painted in big brush strokes as so to facilitate an immediate staging. Ink, however, feels timeless and yet still nods to contemporary issues regarding tabloids’ questionable methods to get a scoop. This is thrillingly staged in the second act’s focus on the real-life kidnapping of a journalist’s wife. We see the original testing of an editorial team’s ethics, asking themselves how far is it right to push the story for the sake of sales figures.

As with This House and The Vote, and no less so with Ink, Graham is clever at dramatising the technicalities and intricate workings of business, politics and industry. We see the thought process behind the changes The Sun made to go from stuffy broadsheet to what it’s more like now: the layout of its front page, the font used, and its eye-catching flashiness. There are some hilarious lines which I don’t want to spoil here about the reluctance for some of this cultural shift. There’s also an entertaining segue (one of many which still make the play feel robust as it does expansive) about the manual labour and sacred ritual of the printing presses.

Bunny Christie’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting design captures the play in sepia tone, creating the murky world of Fleet Street, from the editorial hub to the basement printing presses. Towers and archways of desks, gliding ladders and projections of front pages merge with a pub to leave the impression of a seedy, male-dominated industry, where the atmosphere is more that of a knees-up than a workplace. It is an aesthetic which makes the point that the newspaper industry is as British as the coal and steel industries, and pubs. It seems ungenerous to say that it often feels like a riff on This House, but the styles of the two do overlap. This is not to undermine what Goold achieves. His production, with thanks to Adam Cork’s sound and Lynne Page’s choreography, is never stagnant. The buzzing movement and (seedy) glamour of the 60s’ newsroom is stylishly evoked: we go from restaurants to saunas, and lines from sales charts come to life that map their war with The Mirror.

Bertie Carvel plays Rupert Murdoch with a surprising dose of humanity. His clipped Australian accent suggests class issues; his theatrical hand gestures and tendency to talk in binaries suggests a fondness for the sensational; his slightly twisted arm, hunched shoulders and occasional twitch in his left hand’s fingers suggest a brooding Shakespearean despot. Richard Coyle also leads the cast and controls the arc of the play masterfully as editor Larry Lamb. Other than them, Graham peoples Ink with bold characters coming together from different newspapers to work on the rebirthed The Sun, and a memorable cast of walk-on parts. Jack Holden (saw earlier this year in What the Butler Saw) stands out as Beverley, the hapless mortician photographer turned first Page 3 snapper. He also does an impressive turn as actor Christopher Timothy, the original fast paced, whacky TV advert voiceover. I’m glad Goold has cast Sophie Stanton again, playing the bolshie Joyce Hopkirk, who knows what women want to read, shocking the office by revealing that women masturbate and losing herself in a monologue about how much she loves TV.

For the most part, I want to rave about both play and production but it comes with a hesitation. I haven’t read the playtext but I’m inferring from the projection ‘Page 3’ in the play’s second half that this end part of the play focusing on the first page 3 girl is Ink’s short third act. Although an important part of the play and The Sun’s history I’m in two minds about it. The model (Pearl Chanda) delivers a speech to Lamb asking him if he would want his daughter reading or modelling for Page 3. On one hand, in a play filled with brazen, testosterone-fuelled language, it seems apt to have her speech so to the point. On the other, it feels tacked on and a rushed compromise for the lack of female voices in the play’s most part.

Ink plays at the Almeida Theatre until 5th August. It then transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September.

Of a lively audience, a moment that stood out: At one point, Lamb riffs on how he likes Ray Charles, noise and popular culture. A joyous ‘Yeah!’ came from a middle aged man behind me, as if he was punching the air.

The cast of Ink at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner



Monday, 17 July 2017

Barber Shop Chronicles

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
15th July, 2017, matinee

‘Even in darkness, the barbershop is a lighthouse’.

Barber Shop Chronicles, now playing in Leeds after a successful run in the Dorfman, has one of the best preshows of a play I’ve seen. The in the round seats look onto an array of different barbershop furniture, a sound system and a generator. Surrounding us are shop signs for hairdressers from London to Lagos. Actors meander on to mingle with the widely diverse audience, shaking their hands and one by one waving hello and to the baby(!) in the audience. They dance, invite people on stage for haircuts, laugh at how one of them has picked a bald man for a trim, and sing Happy Birthday to a young boy. This vibe makes it hard not to warm to the characters.

Inua Ellams’ new play takes us inside barbershops in London and five African cities: Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. During the peaceful, almost ceremonious, ritual of a haircut, we become privy to the sharing of jokes and football banter to big thoughts about politics and identity – including divisive opinions on Mandela, the history of the N word, and the apparent corruption of Pidgin by young people learning an Americanised/Anglicised English. Just as significant is the attraction of the barbershop for men to just sit round and listen, joining in when they want. But if this makes the play sound, sporadic and unfocused, simply a play where men sit around talking, this does the play an injustice. Ellams’ play is intricately and solidly structured, and absorbingly told. Settings are interconnected, time and place are played with. Characters might be continents apart and yet jokes, sport and hardships connect them. The London-based Three Kings barbershop is a major setting which we go to back and forth from the different African shops. A football game (Chelsea V Barcelona) also links each setting. We see the barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. There are some fascinating and funny bits about African names, especially about how the name of the former Nigerian president sounds like a sarcastic retort: So you want to save Africa joke? Good luck Jonathan!’

I think Barber Shop Chronicles is as important a play as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, debbie tucker green’s random, or Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. It’s perhaps not as immediately current as some of those plays regarding themes of gang culture or what it’s like to live on an estate. How Ellams writes about identity is complex and wide-ranging, but still focused. Representation is a key interest in the play. Here, Ellams forges a wide cast of characters that are deep, contradictory, from those uncertain about their identity to those who are bold and charismatic. There’s a big nod in the final scene to the lack of racially diverse casting. A male black actor wanting a haircut confides that he’s having doubts about whether he can be cast as a strong, black man. It’s a scene which underlines how Barber Shop Chronicles is a play about people trying to find themselves and connect. This is also epitomised in a major plot strand, that of the growing rift between Cyril Nri’s Emmanuel and Fisayo Akinade’s Samuel, the latter thinking that Emmanuel has betrayed Samuel’s father. In a play full of quasi-paternal bonds, Nri’s sacrifice in order to protect a father-son relationship is shattering.

The play is realised by Bijan Sheibani’s vivacious production. Aline David’s sharp movement and Michael Henry’s music deftly takes us from barber shop to barber shop, London to Africa, with a gusto typical of the play’s energy and the characters’ zest for life. The cast are all excellent so I’ll name check them all. Abdul Salis, Anthony Welsh, Cyril Nri, David Webber, Fisayo Akinade, Hammed Animashaun, Kwami Odoom, Maynard Eziashi, Patrice Naiambana (soon to be playing Davies in The Caretaker in Northampton), Peter Bankolé, Simon Manyonda and Sule Rimi play multiple roles with precision and vigour.

To go off on a tangent, but also to (mis)quote probably Leeds most famous writer, Alan Bennett wrote that theatre is best when it’s like school. I want to add that school was always best when it never seemed like school. Through Ellams play (complete with some cracking one-liners and bits of poetry), Sheibani and the whole cast create something both joyous and which opens up worlds of new perspectives.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 29th July. It returns to the National Theatre from 29th November.


Cyril Nri as Emmanuel in Barber Shop Chronicles. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Miss Saigon

Curve, Leicester
12th July 2017

Star-crossed love story, or cautionary tale of exploitation and the disenfranchisement of war? Miss Saigon is both these things. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is complex, sumptuous and doesn’t give its problematic subject matter an easy ride. Now embarking on a nationwide tour, Cameron Mackintosh and director Laurence Connor’s revival is everything I expected and more – a feast for the eyes, mind and heart.

As a big fan of Les Miserables, I couldn’t help but compare the two musicals, and they’ve much in common. Not only the exploration of the indestructible bond between parent and child, the harrows of war and the unflinchingly honest admission that, despite the efforts and trials of mankind, sometimes we fail. But in Schönberg’s rich score, tender wind sections rouse into piercing string orchestrations during the soaring ballads that typify his compositions, while Boublil’s lyrics are admirable in their combination of simplicity and poetic imagery.

As Les Mis tackles themes of redemption, moral duties and social revolution, Miss Saigon does not shy away from political matters and issues of ethical representation. With little prior knowledge of the story, having now seen the show I cannot fathom how producers thought that casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the original production was a good idea. Not only is the character of French-Vietnamese heritage, but his whole motivation and characterisation is built upon feelings of cultural displacement – he relishes the ideals of Western capitalism and has a voracious affinity with the hunger and entitlement that is promoted by his sordid interpretation of the ‘American Dream’.

In an astounding and thought-provoking act of internalised racism the Engineer, in his role as chief pimp, facilitates the Western exoticisation and fetishisation of the East that is central to the story. To have a white actor in this role would just seem wrong and inappropriate, both in regards to political correctness, and in terms of the plot. Thankfully, in the 28 years since the original production attitudes towards representation have progressed. (Caveat: I realise that as a white British woman I am not best situated to comment on the state of race relations and representation within Western culture, and I don’t wish to come across as overly preachy – I’m sure there are many better researched and better written arguments than mine).

The crux of the tragedy rests upon ignorance and the too-true situation wherein one dominant culture takes precedence over another. Kim believes that her marriage is a binding and unbreakable avowal of love, whereas to Chris the ceremony is a beautiful and quaint show of local custom – the trivialisation of tourism rearing its head – a brief respite from the drudgery and strife of war and an antidote to the false, Westernised representation of Vietnamese women in the Engineer’s ‘Dreamland’. Yet he fails to recognise the real meaning of this ‘show’. To coin a phrase, ‘what happens in Saigon stays in Saigon’. Perhaps it is for this reason that my own interpretation of the central romance is not one of true ‘love’, but a heady mixture of lust, Chris’s manifestation of the ‘white saviour complex’, and the paradoxical combination of jadedness and the ‘carpe diem’ sentiment that accompanies war, as well as Kim’s desperation, poverty and naivety in believing that he can provide her with a better life.

Therefore, within a score chock-a-block with pretty love songs, the greatest and most touching of them all is ‘I’d Give My Life For You’, a searingly honest and deeply moving depiction of the ferocious love a mother feels for her son. All of the political, moral and thematic issues and character motivations provide food for thought, which for me is what elevates Miss Saigon above the (unfairly derogatory, imo) label of ‘80’s mega-musical’.

That said, the production is spectacular. One of the slickest musicals I’ve seen, it oozes quality. I have slight reservations about supposed cut-backs for tours, and was concerned that some aspects may be skimped on, but boy was I wrong! The infamous helicopter scene has to be seen to be believed. We were there, fully immersed in the chaotic hysteria, the clawing of the Vietnamese people desperate to escape, the imposing chopper blades beating down on us as well as them. The stage is vastly populated and, with Totie Driver’s set design, creates a scale that feels at once crowded yet intimate and places us directly within the thoroughly believable world of Saigon.

The production is topped off with a huge and unreservedly outstanding cast. Red Concepcion’s Engineer steals every scene with his maniacal performance – all darting eyes, frisky fingers and an energy that drips sleaze. Sooha Kim’s Kim is deceptively sweet as her trillingly dainty voice gives way to a rawness of emotion that seems to tear from her very soul. Also notable, Ryan O’Gorman as John once again displays the unique mixture of soulfulness and humility that made him stand out in the recent RENT tour. His rendition of ‘Bui Doi’ is a rousing opener of Act 2.

Miss Saigon is a must see for theatre lovers. Mackintosh sure knows how to put on a show, and many of the remarkable images have imprinted themselves in my mind. But beneath the spectacle, Boublil and Schönberg have created a mature musical which, while, realistically, not able to provide answers to the world’s problems, illuminates them and allows us to see things from a different perspective. And all this is wrapped up in a luscious package of blissful melodies and exciting set pieces.

Miss Saigon is currently touring the UK and Ireland. For full dates and details visit https://www.miss-saigon.com/uk-ireland-tour/tour-dates

Ashley Gilmour as Chris and Sooha Kim as Kim - Photo Credit Johan Persson 


Thursday, 29 June 2017

Gloria

Hampstead Theatre
28th June, 2017, matinee

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ – whose Octoroon is selling out the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond – 2014 Pulitzer finalist Gloria is making its UK debut at Hampstead Theatre. It’s a gloriously rich play with an unexpected subject matter. This review is only of most of Act One in order to try to avoid plot spoilers.

On entering Hampstead’s auditorium for the first time, the stage management team were doing final checks on Lizzie Clachan’s meticulous design of makeshift cubicles in a makeshift chipboard office, complete with bulk bought furniture and departmental signs written with electrical tape on the walls. There is a print-out poster saying ‘I believe in the person I want to become’ and Thank You cards in one person’s cubicle; postcards of The Smiths and Beetlejuice in another; and a picture of a dog in another. I can’t help but feel the SM team and the chipboard design was all a ruse that contributed to the feeling that I started off thinking the play was going to be one thing before realising that it’s in fact a whole lot more. I thought, aided by the little I had read about the play, this was going to be an ‘office play’. Whatever that is! And it is – but it’s much more than that as well. There’s a sketchiness to the set that could be read as either a meta-theatrical device (I was reminded a bit of Gatz at first) or as a very well-wrought realistic representation of the design of modern offices.

There is much of office life to see in Gloria: the occasional pettiness, the realisation that however awkward you think you are there are others in the workplace who can match it, the optimistic thought that this job is only a rung on a hopefully bigger career ladder. Or perhaps the depressing one that actually, no, this is your career. One of the many achievements of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and Michael Longhurst’s production is that it paints hugely recognisable characters with spot-on detail. Ellie Kendrick conveys Ani very compellingly, from conveying her job satisfaction down to small nuances such as her habit of kicking the bin under her desk. Colin Morgan is brilliant as Dean, switching from the guy who turns up late, hungover and bitching to the ambitious guy barely clinging on to his twenties wanting to impress his boss in order to work his way up the food chain. And I think we can all relate to Bayo Gbadamosi’s intern Miles, willing to be the dog’s body and sitting around awkwardly with nothing to do whilst desperately wanting to impress and add to his CV. Bo Poraj is also quietly impressive as the pernickety worker from the office next door, meticulously delivering a speech about feeling condemned to be a fact checker all his life and complaining that even his $60 sound cancelling headphones haven’t drowned out the rabble from this office. Kae Alexander as Kendra stands out, evoking the character’s self-centredness and ambition, and Sian Clifford (the steely sister in Fleabag) is also excellent in her roles. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say the actors mostly double up to play other roles and not only does this show off the standard of the acting skills but also highlights similarities and differences between characters.

I got about half way through the first act and thought: OK, this is brilliantly written and performed but it’s also quite conventional so far in how it nicely rolls along. The writing is skilful and satisfying. Characters’ entrances and exits are well-orchestrated; it has the fascination of a work play; and it perfectly captures different feelings on the ‘ambitious youth vs. pressure to succeed and be happy in a career’ scale. I really can’t underestimate how astutely well observed Gloria is. AND THIS IS JUST HALF OF THE PLAY! Because then ‘Gloria’ happens. I might write another review of the rest of it after the run has finished but I don’t want to spoil what is a huge ‘upset’ in the structure of the play. Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing comes at times with a theatrically sly and wry sense of humour and handles a topic that I’ve not seen dealt with elsewhere in theatre. (There might be some comparisons made with Crimp’s The Treatment but I didn’t see the Almeida production). Clachan’s set is clever, inventive and (again) well-observed. Put all too simply, Gloria does a fantastic job of pointing up that no two people’s experience of the same event is equal and not unprofitable. With Octoroon and now Gloria, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has shot onto the London theatre scene.


Gloria plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 29th July.

Kae Alexander as Kendra and Ellie Kendrick as Ani in Gloria. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Common

National Theatre (Olivier)
24th June, 2017, matinee

This is the age of the clickbait blogger as Richard Jordan wrote in The Stage last week. As a blog with a (comparatively) small readership people might think it was inevitable that I was going to like Common simply to be different from most of the other reviews! But genuinely, despite and perhaps because of its faults and disarray, DC Moore has written a unique and strange play, and (putting aside the platitudinous of this cliché) the National should be applauded rather than condemned for putting it on the Olivier stage.

I wrote a piece about Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities today about typical tropes in that play. I partly wrote it because it made me think how Common doesn’t adhere to all of these techniques which made for a very different theatregoing experience; not necessarily better but certainly more distinctive. And if the play is purposefully elusive it gives an excuse for this review being wishy washy. The play is set in the early 19th century, when an upsurge in parliamentary acts saw common land move from collective to individual ownership. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a play which basically looks at the foundations of our economic system and which carries plenty of current undertones to public commodities being sold off would be more political than it is. However, Moore instead takes the play down a more haunting route. Brought back to life, soothsayer Mary (Anne-Marie Duff, in striking red) returns to her village where enclosure of the land is taking place.

Duff lends Mary the presence and quality of voice that is often afforded to a classical role. Where else in contemporary drama (I’m inviting a list) is there a female protagonist quite as bold as this? Top Girls? Mary is at times as audacious, infamous and seemingly invincible as Johnny Rooster Byron. She delivers meta-asides to the audience, including “If my language some offends, fist-fuck you all.” We also see her lesbian relationship with her sister Laura (Cush Jumbo) and how she yearns to take her to Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincoln). But Laura says that she doesn’t want to move because she was 'born, lived and made here'. It is clear that the land in Common has potency in Moore’s play; people are born and die by it, and are defined by it, in terms of class, wealth and spirit.

As singular as Common feels, there are comparisons that can be made to other plays. There’s a gruesome disembowelling of an Irish man in the second act much like the powerful ending of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come. In Common, such a ritualistic lynching of an outsider highlights the point that borders separating bits of land also divides people. Yet, whereas Rudkin’s play builds up to the murder in a moment which is shocking, mythical and sacrificial, in Common it is part of a list of otherness including pagan rituals and incest. (I realise this is sounding a bit ‘Billington’: “For better Irish murders see Rudkin’s 1960 Afore Night Come!”). Elsewhere, the language and plot – in my opinion at least – seemed as impenetrably beguiling as that in Howard Barker’s Victory: the one that opens with ‘In your own time, of course, at your very own cunt leisure’. Moore’s play isn’t always clear – its dialects, language and therefore its plot are sometimes difficult to grasp – but this is quite refreshing. I’ve seen the play and I don’t fully know what was going on in it, yet I can’t sneer at that but admire it for being completely left-field. Finally, probably unintentionally, there are a number of striking similarities to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Mary has come back to life after being killed, something which she repeats at the beginning of act two. In a striking moment, clouds swirling overhead, we see a hand come up through the mud followed by the rest of Duff, after which she stands next to her own grave and starts conversing with a talking crow. Plot-wise, this is all echoing American Gods. Moore’s play and Herrin’s production don’t quite reach the magic realist style of the TV drama but this ambition is nonetheless enjoyable.

The villagers may think the land is ‘unshifting’ but Richard Hudson’s mud covered stage uses the Olivier’s drum revolve effectively. It is at once ever changing, producing beds and graves coming from underground, and yet doesn’t look very fertile. Meanwhile, Paule Constable’s lighting casts large shadows on the back wall. However, it is peculiar that this design is interjected by a white cut-out of a stately home in the play’s dying moments. Aesthetically, it’s as if the play becomes Arcadia. I suppose there’s a point in there about the land being enclosed off for capital means and being in the hands of rich landowners but it’s not as effectively jarring as it perhaps should be.

I feel that Moore and Herrin were trying to more deeply mine the mythic quality of the pastoral that has been explored before, from the plays of Jez Butterworth to Crimp’s The Country. Muddy and mysterious but by no means a mess.



Common runs at the National Theatre, Olivier, until 5th August.

Anne-Marie Duff as Mary in Common. Photo: Johan Persson