Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Avenue Q


Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
21st May, 2019

‘What do you do with a BA in English?’

Never have I identified so much with a song lyric. Seriously, what do you do with a BA in English? The answer for me seems to be ‘become a PA for more successful academics working in a marketable scientific field…’. With theatre blogging as my (not-for-profit) side hustle. Honestly, it’s fine, I like my job and the people I work with, and I feel privileged to follow my interests in my spare time – but not once would I have thought that this would be my ‘purpose’ in life. Beneath the crudities, fuzz and non-PC wisecracks, Avenue Q expounds many home-truths for the down and out, ennui saturated Millennial. It’s bloody funny too.

Though this was my first time seeing Avenue Q, I was aware of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score, here sung with giddy delight by a splendid cast (both human and ‘monster’). Cressida Carré’s production zips along with hit after toe-tapping hit as what is initially a bizarre concept soon draws the audience into the zany, sometimes seedy, but often loveable world of the residents of backstreet New York. Mimicking the likes of Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Elmo, we are taught adult life lessons in the stylings of Sesame Street, complete with on-screen graphics, spelling classes (S.C.H.A.D.E.N.F.R.E.U.D.E), and human/puppet heart-to-hearts. From being proud to be who you are – even if you’re a Republican investment banker (‘If You Were Gay’), to accepting our differences (‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’), and the personal benefits of helping others (‘The Money Song’); beneath the hysterical lyrics, political satire and razor sharp lacerations of social stereotypes, Lopez and Marx conceal a heart as big as Lucy the Slut’s bouncing chest and as fluffy as Kate Monster’s fur.

A tip top cast bring to life the characters in all their horny, corny, gross-out and kindness filled glory. Tom Steedon storms the stage with his shaggy haired, porn addicted Trekkie Monster, milking every second of his brief appearances. Nicholas McLean gets some zingers as the late faded child star turned superintendent, Gary Coleman, and Saori Oda is a powerhouse of surreal feistiness as struggling therapist, Christmas Eve. Doubling up as the guileless college grad, Princeton, and the anal and closeted whinger, Rod, Lawrence Smith excels in his characterisation. Standing out amid this quality company is Cecily Redman’s charming performance as loveable girl-next-door, Kate Monster. Her rendition of ‘It’s a Fine, Fine Line’ is a treat, infused with genuine emotion and pristine vocals. Yet Redman is equally at home playing Kate’s nemesis and local seductress, Lucy The Slut – all southern drawl, hair flicks and swaying hips. Several scenes feature Redman playing both characters bouncing off each other, a feat wherein the skill involved - and the effortlessness with which Redman performs it – only sinks in as an afterthought.

I feel I can’t praise the human cast without also mentioning the wonderful puppets that are quite literally the ‘face’ of the show. Cartoonish, but with just the right amount of human quirk and expression, I felt like a kid again, totally believing in these characters in all their felt-skinned, limbless splendour – that is, if you discount that fact they’re alternately demonstrating an array of positions from the Kamasutra, simulating masturbation, and telling racist jokes! The sight of bright yellow golf-ball sized, erect puppet nipples is an image that I won’t forget in a hurry!

Despite my assertion that Avenue Q is a sugar cube of ‘awww’ at it’s core, Lopez, Marx and Jeff Whitty (book) pull-off the unthinkable – a musical finale that is happy without being mawkish of cheesy, while also acknowledging the everyday reality that happy endings aren’t sustainable due to the ephemeral nature of life (and theatre). The affirmation no one really has a defined ‘purpose’, and that everything – all the good things, all the bad things – is ‘only for now’ is a refreshing philosophy that sums up the irreverent-yet-heartfelt tone of the show. This production is a true joy to watch.

Avenue Q plays at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester until 25th May.
For full UK tour details please visit: http://avenuequk.com/tour-dates

The company of Avenue Q.
Credit: Matt Martin


Sunday, 19 May 2019

'I never tried to do anything before': Three Works by Kenneth Lonergan


Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger is about to open at the Wyndham’s starring Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern. Longergan’s work has enjoyed a series of Tony nominated revivals in New York over recent years: his 1996 play This is Our Youth ran on Broadway in 2014, followed by Lobby Hero (2001) and The Waverly Gallery (2000) in 2018, all three of which featured Michael Cera and the latter the then 86 year old Elaine May. But productions of his plays remain sparse in London. It’s a pity, as he is adept at creating subtle, character-driven dramas about moral dilemmas and everyday crises. Here, I write about three of his works, This is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea.

In This is Our Youth – *Klaxon* one of this month’s #ReadaPlayaWeek choices – Lonergan is interested in three fucked-up young people in Reagan-era New York City. The detail and complexity of the characters is shown in the stage directions. Dennis, for instance, is described as ‘a very quick, dynamic, fanatical and bullying kind of person; amazingly good-natured and magnetic’ along with about 6 more lines that gives any actor plenty to get their teeth stuck into. When the buzzer goes in his Manhattan bedsit at the start of the play Dennis is too cool to answer it straight away. When he does, it’s his friend Warren, having had stolen $2000 from his dad, a lingerie mogul-cum-gangster. Neither seemingly have jobs, degrees or many prospects, and they spend most of the play either doing or talking about getting drugs. Dennis is more resourceful in this way, putting together a plan that would help Warren pay his dad back, and leave enough left over as profit. Mostly a two-hander, the play is largely a character study into the lives of these two dumb-ass kids negotiating their friendship and this supposedly intermediate time in their lives where all they’re seemingly expected to be is dumb-ass kids.

Dennis’ bullish confidence is balanced by a lofty sense of entitlement. He’s fine with tossing a football round his own apartment but when Warren does it and breaks his girlfriend’s sculpture he kicks off. Likewise, he’s happy to play the more superior one but resists and bemoans any sense of responsibility over Warren. Warren, although more likeable with his ‘aw-shucks’ personality, is frustrating because of his apathy and stupid decisions. And any attempts to fix those are either short-lived or result in more foolishness. The two play off of each other resulting in an Odd Couple-esque comedy. Stuck in this apartment, the two would be trapped in a destructive cycle of youthful naivety and privilege.

What begins to help them out of that is the play’s third character Jessica. In the second act, Warren and Jessica see each other again having spent the night (and his dad’s money) together in a hotel penthouse. He, typically, has already relayed the evening to Dennis, whereas she is unsure how she feels. There’s an excellent sequence of about five pages leading up to her exit full of convoluted deflection, negotiations and contradiction where they talk around the subject of how they feel. It’s painful to see how far Warren goes with wearing his heart on his sleeve. Throughout the play, he has a suitcase full of old collectables from the fifties: old toys, a rare toaster(!) and a memorabilia baseball cap that his grandfather gave to him. It’s supposedly all worth a lot of money but, although Warren is passionate about it all, he is also seemingly indifferent about their disposal. Things like the toaster, and why he’s bothered to lug it across New York with him, have a comic effect, but the baseball cap carries more emotional weight. After he offers this as a token to Jessica, he says he’ll burn it if she doesn’t take it. It’s a signal of how he’s changed and yet stayed the same throughout the play; he’s wanting make a meaningful connection to Jessica but still knows the true value of nothing (financially or emotionally). The reason why he initially likes her is because she’s attractive and he’s desperate but there is more substance to their time together. In fact, one of the reasons he likes her is because she challenges him: ‘Like right now you’re all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be’. It is her maturity that makes him want to grow up and do something productive with his life. The play has a socio-political interest outside of the single room setting – all seeping into the world of the play by osmosis through the characters. It’s 1982 and a different world to the one their parents grew up in, but whereas these ‘lost souls’ may have the ideas, they have no idea about how to put them to any use. It’s a quirky, funny, and gently heart-breaking play.

Lonergan has no more so mined the depths of a character than in his Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea. Its protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) is someone who has a huge load of new responsibility thrust upon him. Lee has already hit rock-bottom, punishing himself by living in self-imposed purgatory after losing his children in a house fire which was, at least partly, his fault. He’s now lost his brother and is tasked with the guardianship of his teenage nephew. At one point, Lee, yet again unable to cope, snatches a gun from a policeman’s holster and, with no thought, raises it to his mouth in an attempt to shoot himself. It’s interested in how someone can even begin to move forward when faced with life’s tragedies. After the fire, Lee has lived in isolation in a basement apartment working as the janitor. Now, talking to his nephew – whether that’s about his estranged mum or sex – is just one of the many processes he has to (re)learn in his acquired role. Others include him organising a funeral and having financial responsibility. Lee’s complicatedness and stubbornness is subtly wrought by Affleck as he finds himself learning the ropes of parenthood again.

Lonergan’s dialogue is interested in a failure of communication. Much of the scenes between Lee and his nephew are made up of silences, awkward questions, interruptions, and overlay. Lee is despondent and has an inability to make small talk. How does someone without the emotional capacity and articulacy, or even the strength, begin to climb a mountain of responsibility? And as in life, amongst the tragedy there are everyday hiccups. These moments become typical in a film where there are no easy answers or pat conclusions in the narrative. Such moments as not having a clicker for the garage door or not remembering where they parked the car provide offbeat comedy. Darkest of all, in a flashback to the fatal fire, the legs of a trolley don’t fold correctly when the paramedics load Lee’s wife (Michelle Williams) into an ambulance as he watches their house and life burn. Such quirks epitomise the realistic details with which Lonergan fills his work.

The setting, Manchester, Massachusetts, is arguably another character. The film’s title implies a seaside place and, as an early scene shows, is strongly linked to Lee spending time with his brother and nephew fishing on their boat. But now its winter and Manchester acquires a cruelty in the cold weather. Most brutally, the ground is too frozen to allow burial to take place. But, as in many other works of literature and popular culture, the sea has a mystic quality. (Funnily, the two examples that come to mind are an episode from the first series of Mike Barlett’s Doctor Foster and The Simspons’ episode ‘Kidney Trouble’). The sea, and the coast, is a place of lost souls; of both peaceful contemplation and haunting memories; a place that can cleanse and torment.

In Lobby Hero, moral dilemmas are at the core of four people in a New York apartment lobby. Michael Cera played Jeff, a character not dissimilar to the one he played (Warren) in This is Our Youth. Jeff is a lobby security guard, naïve and perhaps a shirker who has now turned a new leaf: ‘I just don’t want to be one of those pathetic guys in lobbies who are always telling you about their big plans to do some kind of shit you know… they’re never gonna do’. Determined to be better at his job, he finds himself roiled in a number of Catch-22 decisions, such as whether to assist his supervisor in giving his brother a false alibi.

We saw Lobby Hero at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre last year. Trip Cullman’s production was sometimes dwarfed by the revolve that it was played on, but all four gave actors gave top performances. A moustached Chris Evans as a womanising cop and Bel Powley as his wide-eyed New-Yoiker rookie were especially good. Furthermore, it’s probably the first play I’ve seen where I’ve come close to understanding people’s comparison of drama to music. Like a quartet, there’s intrigue and enjoyment from seeing each of the four characters on their own, and then how each one interacts with one or two others. And when all four come together, it creates something which can set light.

Like those in This is Our Youth and to a lesser extent than what Lee has to face in Manchester by the Sea, Jeff is confronted with a call to action. Throughout these works, Lonergan shows everyday folk in positions where they could or need to commit to doing more. But what is it Jeff could do? In the closing moments, he confides in someone, ‘I was kind of hoping this whole experience would encourage me to rise to greater heights’. But is the whole thing a convenient anachronism? And would one answer have definitely been the morally correct one? What could make him that titular lobby hero? Would he have played the bigshot with the moral high ground and would it have given him a sense of satisfaction?

The Starry Messenger is playing at the Wyndham’s until 10th August. For more information, please visit https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/the-starry-messenger/


Saturday, 18 May 2019

Matthew Bourne's Romeo + Juliet

Curve, Leicester
17th May, 2019

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most influential work in the English canon, inspiring artworks, novels, musicals, ballets and the English language itself. The tale of star-crossed lovers is universally appealing, and Matthew Bourne and New Adventures' latest retelling is just as captivating. Taking Prokofiev’s 1938 ballet as a starting point, Bourne and co. have adapted the narrative to suit a modern age of toxic oppression.

With those resounding opening notes of Prokofiev’s immense ‘Montagues and Capulets’ we are thrown into the stark and oppressive world of the Verona Institute, a correctional facility for troubled young men and women. Girls and Boys are segregated, trapped within designer Lez Brotherston’s cage of chain-link fencing and sanitised, morgue-esque tiled walls. They are medicated, schooled and disciplined – their only social outlet being occasional balls where they’re forced to dance in ‘proper’ fashion. Officer Tybalt (Dan Wright) has taken an unsavoury interest in the disturbed and vulnerable Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite), as a result she becomes withdrawn, often isolated from her fellow inmates and friends. Meanwhile, a wealthy and famous couple are concerned about the wellbeing of their son, Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), consigning him to Verona where he soon pals up with the impish trio of Benvolio, Mercutio and his boyfriend, Balthasar. Eyes meet across the atrium-cum-ballroom, and Romeo and Juliet fall for each other against a backdrop of dirty dancing and overbearing state scrutiny.

Bourne has homed in on not two warring families, but a war between master and subject; a war of freedom of identity versus political propriety; this is a youth in revolt. Yet the ultimate tragedy resides in the internal conflict Romeo and Juliet have with their mental health (exacerbated by the incorrect care/treatment demonstrated at Verona). Juliet is scarred and haunted by the tyrannical Tybalt to the point where she is blinded to the world around her. The result is sadder than anything Shakespeare wrote. Bourne has created a powerful statement on the irresponsible and inexcusable neglect of our youth. We live in a society where more young people than ever before suffer from mental health issues, and while these issues are definitely getting more publicity, there remains a sense that those in power – local and national authorities, adults, carers – are unsympathetic and/or ignorant. Romeo and Juliet is what happens when vulnerable children are let down by those that they should be able to trust.

This message really packs a punch considering just how young Bourne’s assembled company seem. Fitzpatrick and Braithwaite perfectly capture a wide-eyed innocence while also suffering the unspeakable anguish of pain, guilt and love. Reece Causton’s Mercutio is full of adolescent bravado, blind courage and flirtatious charm, while Jackson Fisch brings a gentle melancholy to his grieving Balthasar and Hannah Mason’s Frenchie brims with a childlike spunky energy. The company should also be commended on their initiative to incorporate six local dancers (aged 16 – 19) into the ensemble at each venue. It is the greatest praise to say that until the curtain call I could not have separated these talented young men and women from the professional dancers with whom they shared the stage. It’s fantastic to see Bourne nurturing the next generation of dancers.

Bourne’s choreography is typically flawless. From the mechanical stiffness of the daily Verona routine to melting pas de deux with our winsome lovers, Bourne is a master of storytelling, infusing every motion with feeling, empathy and individuality of character. Not to lower the tone, but Romeo + Juliet features probably the best ‘kissing’ choreography I’ve witnessed; the constant contact maintained by Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick while twirling, climbing and leaping is a feat of physical dexterity that left me in awe. Oh, and it’s bloomin’ romantic to boot!

Yet, quite rightly, romance is not the main takeaway sentiment of this version of Romeo and Juliet. Rather, I felt disturbed by the fates of these characters that are at once pitifully naïve while also knowing and being subjected to things that no child (or adult, for that matter) should be. This is a wakeup call to the conscious and unconscious abuse of children and adolescents – psychological, sexual, physical – that plagues our society. The litter of bloodied bodies at the close is hideously inevitable, tragic and unjust. Bravo.

Romeo + Juliet plays at Curve, Leicester until 18th May 2019.

For full UK tour details please visit: https://new-adventures.net/romeo-juliet#overview

Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick in Romeo + Juliet.
Credit: Johan Persson.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Enron


Curve, Leicester

16th May 2019


We’re trying to change the world


Lucy Prebble’s 2009 play about the rise and collapse of the Texan energy company of the same name is given a confident and energetic production by Jonathan Martin. A culture of greed, bullying and corruption at the top, Enron is a timely play to be chosen as De Montfort University’s annual co-production at Curve. Reviews of the original production praised the play for being an ‘ultra-theatrical demonstration of [corporate crime] at work’. Martin’s production, performed by a cast of committed DMU students, certainly lives up to this. It’s a frenetic and at times forensic exploration of the behaviour and decisions made in boardrooms and trading floors in the company’s most lucrative period. We hear at the beginning that 90s was a good time for business and the ways in which business was changing. This develops to show the corruption and how the bosses initially got away with it.


Enron can be likened to other works. It evokes the thrill of the trading floor like Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) as well as the boardroom sharks of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011). At times it reminded of the audacious bravura of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s The Big Short (2015) but I also felt that Prebble (and Martin) is always keen to never let it stray into pure glorification. There’s always a feeling that Enron’s huge successes are going to be met with an equally big downfall; a chorus of dinosaurs are constantly only just at bay. And despite the play’s obvious display of a largely male world, it never feels like 2 hours of mansplaining (unlike Stefano Massini’s and Ben Power’s The Lehman Trilogy – now playing in the West End). What stands out about Enron is its commitment to dramatising the vacuity of the company. The text is rich with inspirational and high power, but ultimately empty, blue sky thinking maxims: ‘we’re aggressive, we take risks, and that’s why we’re successful’; ‘we’re a powerhouse of ideas’; ‘only people prepared to lose are ever gonna win’. Prebble perceptively indulges on showing us the bullshit of these hedonistic highflyers. For me, the play’s focus is on how the company made money and not about the actual work that Enron did. It’s not like in James Graham’s Ink (2017) where the ‘business’ scenes are interspersed with ‘work’ scenes where we see the nitty gritty of the people on the ground with the printing presses. This is purely about the stocks and shares; the suits and the yes men; the ideas and the virtual money.


Kate Unwin’s set is a series of platforms on different levels. It brilliantly captures the verticality of city skyscrapers, and provides the production with a space and aesthetic that emphasises the whirlwind nature of the business: lawyers and accountants face off on opposing balconies, the president orates the highest platform, news reports beam onto TV screens. The effort put in by the creative team must be applauded for this. The cast give confident and committed performances, all of them with assured American accents. Dominic White is excellent as CFO Andy Fastow, going from obsequious career climber to the deceitful one controlling the cards. Eleanor Page gives a memorable turn as an accountant ventriloquist, and Molly Furey excels as Claudia Roe, the lone woman in a testosterone-fuelled environment. But, overall, this is a company-driven piece in which great work is done by all. Can the same be said about Enron?


Enron plays at Curve, Leicester until 18th May.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Death of a Salesman


Young Vic
11th May, 2019, matinee

‘Be loving to him because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor’

She’s done it again.
Following her outstanding revival of Angels in America, and monumental reimagining of Company, Marianne Elliott – with the aid of co-director Miranda Cromwell – has once more shaken the bones of theatreland, getting to the root of Miller’s seminal Death of a Salesman while plumbing fresh emotion and political depths.

Salesman is my personal favourite of Miller’s plays, and my previous experience of it was Gregory Doran and Antony Sher’s verdant yet prosaic production at the RSC (2015). Doran’s vision accomplished that nigh-on-impossible feat of realising the ideas, pictures, thoughts flitting around my brain when I first read the play several years ago. It was like seeing a dream come to life in an addictively eerie fashion. Elliott’s production goes one step further by presenting the vision I wish I’d had. Great artists have the ability to reveal truths hidden in plain sight and Elliott and Cromwell excel in breathing new life into a time-tested piece while feeling every bit the stage classic.

The production is located in a very specific time and place (refrigerators are the latest kitchen gadget; rich Gershwin melodies lull us into a false sense of nostalgia; New York is expanding and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly gentrified), and just as Willy’s past shapes him and haunts him, so too does the socio-political and cultural history of the USA in which the Loman family live. Here the Lomans’ race undeniably plays into the tragedy. Elliott and Cromwell unearth resonant subtexts in Willy’s work struggles and lack of friends – his assertion that people ‘laugh’ at him when he enters a room takes on a whole new meaning; his boss, Howard, leaps back from a desperate Willy, telling him not to touch him and painstakingly wiping Willy’s fingerprints off his prized sound recorder. In this production I noticed (white) characters’ patronisingly incessant use of the word ‘kid’ in reference to Willy – a lexical slur that made me cringe at every utterance. In the tainted light of racial segregation, the humiliating treatment of Willy leaves a distinctly bitter taste more so than ever before.

Yet the inspection of race in Salesman is not limited to simplistic externalised racism, but also offers insight into the thorny subject of internalised racism in regards to black migrants in 20th Century America. Despite his idealised visions of the pastoral Southern prairies, Biff’s insistence that his work as a farm labourer is what he’s born for (or, in fact, all he’s worth), harks back to ancestral slaves working the plantations. In this sense, with these additional connotations brought to the text, the Loman family are sucked into a vortex of conflicting identities and ideals; the need to maintain links with the past (wonderfully evoked in the text’s ‘pastoral flute’ motif being transformed into Southern Bluesy guitar music), while simultaneously being constrained by such regression on both personal and socio-cultural levels, all the while battling contemporary injustice and ignorance. In this light, and especially when placed side-to-side with Biff’s nihilistic inertia, Willy’s striving for better, for promotion, for the dream, is at once heroic and depressingly futile.

Anna Fleischle’s set is claustrophobic, intimidatingly dark and stark. Doors and windows frame the Loman house, furniture hovers in the ether when surplus to requirements, a stairway can be glimpsed, but is beyond our reach. The uncanny use of space places us within the realms of Willy’s digression, playing with our concepts of reality and imagination – something which is further highlighted in Aideen Malone’s lighting. Willy’s memories play out like snapshots, complete with bursts of Malone’s flash lighting, floating an idealised vision of the past while causing pause for thought in the blank gaps between each carefully positioned pose. We are privy only to the moments Willy wants to remember and as he breaks down over the course of the play those unwanted memories begin to seep into the present most hauntingly.

Talking of another genre-defining Miller production, Howard Davies’ All My Sons, my partner (who was lucky enough to see it back in 2010) said that the director milked every last drop of talent and energy from his cast so that even those in the smallest of bit-part roles gave acclaimed performances. I feel the same can be said here. So assured is Elliott and Cromwell’s vision that the thematics of the piece appear effortless, affording the time, space and empathy to draw nuanced performances from the entire company. Characters that I have previously seen as also-rans (unfairly, or not), such as spineless boss, Howard (Matthew Seadon-Young), or cantankerous neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper), are given full-blooded performances that round out the play. I was especially taken by the impression that Maggie Service’s Woman gave me; her coquettish giggle echoing throughout the auditorium is truly nauseating, while her snapping at Willy reveals her as a fine example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Naturally, the Loman family shine. From Joseph Mydell’s insidious and tricksy Uncle Ben, to Arinzé Kene’s sincere turn as fading star, Biff, the company excel as individuals while also gelling in sublime familial reverence. Martins Imhangbe is surely a name to watch, his Happy Loman both charismatic and likeable, while maintaining an air of distastefulness in his debauched womanising ways. Sharon D. Clarke’s Linda may be a doormat, forever in the shadow of her husband and sons, but she demonstrates her unique oratory skill in moments of painful eloquence. Finally, Wendell Pierce gives the performance of a lifetime in his exhaustive portrayal of Willy Loman; erratic, bombastic, pathetic, but oddly endearing, he embodies the ‘small man’, the everyman, while displaying all the quirks that make the individual human. There is only one Willy Loman and, as Linda says, ‘attention must finally be paid to such a person’.

This production will become the stuff of legend, hopefully setting a precedent for future ‘classic’ revivals. Elliott and Cromwell bring out the absolute best in Miller’s text, packing a walloping punch with an emotional and intellectual impact that has been subtextually staring us in the face all along. The characters are truly alive. Wondrous stuff.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Young Vic until 13th July 2019.
Wendell Pierce, Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene in Death of a Salesman.
Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg


Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Tartuffe


National Theatre, Lyttelton
23rd February, 2019, matinee

We are all Tartuffe

In Christopher Hampton’s bilingual bash at the Molière classic last year, Tartuffe had supposedly come to rescue the materialistic tycoons blinded by the fame of the Hollywood Hills. The inanities of the modern world in this production may well be closer to home in Highgate, but the world that John Donnelly has created seems far away from reality. The effect, for me, was to show the lives of two different hypocrites from two very different sides of London crossing tracks.

Robert Jones’ design is of a gauche townhouse living room, stinking of money and tastelessness: midnight blue walls, a contemporary orb light fixture, and a huge naked gold statue holding a pink feather boa dominate the set. Kevin Doyle’s Orgon has a military past and since risen through the ranks to influence government. He plays Orgon as so to hint that he was once a man who valued the rational and enjoyed a simple upbringing but has since thrown it away. Since then, he’s batted an eyelid at too many parties and too much greed in his family, leaving him to fall under the spell of Denis O’Hare’s ersatz Tartuffe. O’Hare’s Tartuffe has several echoes of Johnny Rooster Byron. Not only did O’Hare’s performance – mixing with the audience beforehand, walking around in his pants, enamoured by his own charm – have an air of Mark Rylance’s in Jerusalem, but Orgon finding him in a portacabin on an industrial estate just outside Archway is the sort of fable you may hear of Rooster Byron. Kitty Archer gives a memorable performance as a stereotypically Millennial Mariane. But Geoffrey Lumb gives the most enjoyable performance as her boyfriend, the pompous champagne socialist street poet Valère. Him screaming the line ‘why does no one respect the revolution?!’ gets the most laughs; it reminded of that Tynan point about an audience loving an irate man shouting ‘I am perfectly calm’. Audiences still love it, in all its variations.

There’s a lot of belief to suspend for the play to make sense in a contemporary Western setting: Orgon insisting who his daughter marries; the oddly close brother-in-law character. Ultimately, Tartuffe is unravelled as a ‘plain old social climber… drinking the wine, eating the food, staining the sheets’, a reminder that there are many types of fake even if they don't resemble the ones Orgon's used to. But it seems to me that Tartuffe would only seem outright outrageous in a setting which is completely realistic, or to have an Orgon et al. that’s so out of touch with the modern world that Tartuffe actually seems rational. But in this version, both worlds are exaggerated and I'm unsure as to what the effect of that is. Nevertheless, Blanche McIntyre’s production is a colourful, lively romp which, in the play’s dying moments, adds a small coup in that the stage begins to tilt towards the audience. As Orgon and his family start to slide off the stage, it’s a reminder that their world is not as secure as they would like, no matter the clothes they wear, the parties they throw or the power they once yielded. Namaste.

Tartuffe played at the National Theatre until 30th April, 2019.

Kevin Doyle and Hari Dhillon in Tartuffe. Credit: Manuel Harlan.


#ReadaPlayaWeek - April


Effie’s Burning (1987) by Valerie Windsor

“Don’t ask no silly questions, my Mum said,
and you won’t get told no lies”

Windsor’s play is over 30 years old, yet the fact that Effie’s Burning still resonates deeply in a world of social segregation and ignorance is a hard-hitting reminder that we have much further to go in terms of ensuring the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Sixty year old Effie is horribly injured, recovering in hospital from a fire at the care home where she lives – a fire the authorities are insisting was caused by Effie herself. When young Dr Kovacs takes an interest in Effie and vows to find out what happened to her lifelong friend, Alice, the truth is shocking and deeply tragic.

Windsor manages to get under the skin of several pertinent issues with wit, empathy and clarity in a play which benefits from brevity and intimacy. As we hear of Effie’s upbringing in a cold, unloving farmhouse – her name a shorthand for ‘Effing Brat’ as coined by her father – as well as Dr Kovacs’ frequent humiliations by her bullying supervisor and head surgeon, the resounding theme is that of the injustices dealt to, and exploitation of, women across generations, heritage, and class divisions. The tendency to manage what are considered to be ‘problem children’ by sweeping them under the carpet is a horrifying concept and the insinuation that Dr Kovacs is the first person ever to sympathise with Effie, or even to ask her about her life, is heart-breaking.

On a personal level, I found some of the descriptions of child mental health facilities to be nauseatingly evocative, while Effie’s recollection of the day she was removed from her family home – and the reason for doing so – is incredibly distressing. The near sub-human way in which ‘difficult’ patients are treated – isolation, the severing of close friendships – is a hard-hitting reminder of the issues surrounding the care of vulnerable people that prevails. One only has to look at local and national news reports of institutional deaths resulting from neglect to see the dire need for progress and radical restructuring of mental health and social care systems.

The scattering of ‘knock knock’ jokes throughout lends the play a structure that mirrors Effie’s psychological strain and trust issues. The subversion of such jokes cleverly plays with the both Dr Kovacs’ and the audience/reader’s perceptions of ‘rules’ and ‘truth’. Windsor also imbues the piece with a magic realism that results in a dreamlike quality – an effect which pays off during Effie’s final recollection of the fire and Dr Kovacs’ stand against her horrible boss. It’s subtle and very, very compelling.

Letters Home (1979) by Rose Leiman Goldemberg

“I am writing the best poems of my life.
They will make my name”

Despite my background of literature and mental health struggles, I (I’m rather ashamed to say) have never read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It’s one of those novels I’ve always intended on reading eventually, but then life and other books seem to get in the way. Yet, having now read Goldemberg’s Letters Home (an adaptation of Aurelia Plath’s epistolary memoire), I shall make it my solid mission to do so!

Plath’s death is one of literature’s greatest tragedies, and what Letters Home does is gives us a dazzling insight into the tormented ecstasy of the poet’s mind. From her college days and the numerous prizes she won in ladies’ magazines, to her fateful marriage to Ted Hughes and her struggles with motherhood, Plath’s world is brought to life by Goldemberg with a powerful vivacity that encapsulates the woman’s spirit. The play is performed as a duologue, alternating between duels, duets and ‘round’ style verse-like prose. In the afterword, Goldemberg impresses the importance of using only the words put down by Sylvia (in her letters) and Aurelia (in her annotations), yet she demonstrates exceptional dramaturgy skills in arranging these words into an expansive tapestry of emotive and psychological intrigue that effuses sentiment, artistry and drama in one breathtaking swoop of a text. Overlaps, discordant undertones and a symmetry between mother and child add potency to Plath’s already inimitable use of language. As an elegy on maternal instinct, passionate ambition, and unspeakable loss, Plath and Goldemberg’s play is supremely readable and genuinely moving.

Rites (1969) by Maureen Duffy

I’m not having any man down here

Originally directed by Joan Plowright for the National Theatre in an effort to champion female playwrights, Duffy’s play sets its eye on a ladies’ toilets at a central London train station. It is of its time, purely from the facilities coming with an in-house attendant and cleaner, as well as an incinerator. However, I don’t think that Rites should be confined as a museum piece showing a classic example of a feminist play making the personal political. Two main reasons give the play more enduring appeal: it has echoes of a Greek tragedy (apparently mirroring The Bacchae although I’m not convinced) which gives it a classical structure; and the career-minded attendant Ada (Geraldine McEwan) reads as more modern than characters in any of Duffy’s contemporaries. Perhaps one of the reasons why it feels quite modern is that it’s set in a personal space isolated from men (although, interestingly, we do see a group of workmen build the set, thus creating this world). In what the visitors come to talk about, from sex and periods to secrets and quiet ambitions, there is an air of liberation. They may talk about men, and some of the characters may have devoted their lives to supporting a man, but in this drama we don’t feel that any of the characters are merely collateral for a man’s journey.

During the morning rush, the array of characters that come in demonstrates different and changing attitudes to sex and the role of women in marriage and the workplace. From the office girls wanting to escape their boss for the day, to the two old widows (“I cleaned his shoes for him every day of our life”), Rites is interested in women’s destinies not being determined by biology or the control of a man. Ada, however, has a degree of autonomy in her role. That is, until, the play takes a Greek tragic turn thus putting her promotion at risk. In her insistence that she’s not managed by a man, she is led into a troubling decision which some may feel complicates the play’s political message.

Trafford Tanzi (1980) by Claire Luckham

We can’t have no compromises, either you decide to be my wife… or off you trot

Trafford Tanzi follows the upbringing, personal life and making of a female champion boxer, the titular character. Quite prosaically told, each scene is introduced by a referee, with the players announced at the beginning and the ‘winner’ announced at the end. But the plot doesn’t matter, the telling of it is the more important and exciting bit. Played in a boxing ring, each scene becomes a literal battle of the sexes. The referee character, grandstanding as a cabaret club presenter, frames the play so its tone is the same as a boxing match, and the stage directions are dominated by wrestling terms: Irish whip, wristlock, ref’s hold, backhammer, head mare, single leg Boston to name but a few.

Trafford Tanzi culminates in a fight between her and her husband, the lesser Dean Rebel. In doing so, Tanzi is fighting for everything she believes in: if he wins, she plays the role of wife (as he sees it), complete with “apple pie on Sundays [and] afternoons in bed”. For Dean, Tanzi’s strength demoralises him and is incompatible with the stereotypical image of a wife. Both this and Rites concern themselves with appointed socially constructed roles and expectations. In what I imagine to be an entertaining piece of theatre to experience, the characters’ deliberate caricature nature lends itself to the comedy of the play, as well as satirises how strictly society sees (or at least how it has in the past seen) and demarcates gender roles.

All published by Methuen