Wednesday, 16 April 2014

NSDF'14: Punk Rock – Performing Space 2, University of Hull, Scarborough Campus

NSDF'14: Editorial #2

NSDF'14: Road – College Hall, Scarborough

NSDF'14: Three of the Best

NSDF'14: Your Fragrant Phantom – SJT, McCarthy

NSDF'14: Duck Pond – Holbeck

[written for Noises Off]

Review of withWings's new devised show.

(photo: Aenne Pallasca)

NSDF'14: Editorial #1

King Charles III – Almeida

[the best week ever in British theatre: part III]

If the English want to tell you something really serious they’ll tell it as a joke. And Mike Bartlett’s new play, King Charles III, is very funny indeed. It is also like experiencing a lurching intellectual vertigo. Every time you think you’ve pretty much got the measure of it, it races off in a new direction. Formally, it’s like a genius mash-up of Shakespeare’s best bits, fashioned into an absorbing, compelling political thriller, heart-wrenching family drama, and bleak portrait of modern Britain, and all entirely newly-written with modern speech and idioms bent to iambic pentameter or blank verse. There are echoes of Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Othello, threaded through Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II and King Lear. Christ, it’s fucking clever. And incredibly satisfying. And crucially, rather than seeming self-satisfied about its own cleverness, it all feels like this great big incredibly generous present just the for audience.

And then, stone me, there’s the production: it’s got a flawless ensemble; beautiful, clever, understated design; and original music so gorgeous in places that I worried that I might have a bit of a cry before anyone had even spoken.

What’s brilliant about the production, and its relationship to this, the play’s première, is that it is completely, perfectly, in tune with and responsive to the demands of the text to an almost meta-textual level. Director Rupert Goold is (perhaps unfairly) renowned for throwing *a lot of stuff* at productions. Here, the incredibly clever conceit is playing this new “Shakespearean play” as a modern-dress production of Shakespeare. The first scene especially – where as an audience we’re asked to take an awful lot on trust, to take in a lot of ideas, and to tune in to hearing modern language chopped into early-modern rhythms – functions almost like a totally sincere, pitch-perfect parody of just such a production. Perhaps it works all the better because we know Goold so well as a director of Shakespeare. Maybe those who saw it are even slightly reminded of the recent King Lear directed by the former Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough (also designed by Tom Scutt, perhaps not entirely coincidentally). After all, this is – in part – a play about succession. About a successor’s need to prove his own brilliance and make his mark. (One idly notes in passing that all the posters for productions from the previous regime, which used to hang around the Almeida’s bar, are also gone.)

Really, though, pinning down what this new play is “about” is about as pointful as trying to say what Hamlet’s about. You could relate the plot. Or you could draw up a load of the different *themes* to which it speaks. It is about the monarchy, but it’s also about parliament, the conduct of the press, Britain’s unwritten constitution and various conceptions of "the British spirit". Alongside these it does brotherhood, love, treachery (of many different stripes), ambition, identity...

For my money, it also ultimately delivers an incredibly bleak, damning picture of Britain now, as broken, supine, and powerless. Sold off by successive Conservatives (the irony) until there is nothing whatsoever left to conserve. Midway through, there’s a brilliant scene where Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) slips his minders to go and get himself a late-night kebab (“a bit of Harry in the night” indeed), the kebab shop owner, however, as well as recalling those British soldiers in Henry V also serves like the gardeners at the heart of RII. The kebab-shop owner’s metaphor, obviously influenced by his own trade, imagines a Britain that has had strip after strip cut from it: “If you cut the Royal Mail, and then you cut the NHS and then you cut...” (i paraphrase)  And we imagine the nation as a rotating side of meat, ruthlessly being shaved until nothing remains.

That makes it sound like an evening of high, po-faced seriousness. And it isn’t. Early on, Bartlett even chucks in a perfectly observed Shakespearean comedy messenger in manner of Dogberry or Osrick – a preposterous royal under-butler, perfectly done by Matthew Robertson, in one of a series of perfectly judged cameo roles.

It says something about the play that you could give an incredibly full account of how it works and what it says just by detailing the minor scenes. But the fact is it’s also got a whacking great plot going on (alongside a touching sub-plot involving Prince Harry meeting and falling in love with an art student who doesn’t believe in the monarchy). Now, you could spend an entire review worrying about how *likely* the plot is, in the worst prose imaginable, but that would be kinda stupid, and would entirely miss the point. The plot is this: following the death of E II R, Charles III (Tim Pigott-Smith), before even being crowned, is required to sign into law a bill restricting the freedom of the press: fine in the hands of a nice, trustworthy Labour government, but potentially a charter for licenced corruption further down the line. He is reluctant. He is visited by the Tory leader (Nicholas Rowe), who not-too-subtly suggests that he could simply refuse to sign. This he does, setting the scene for a massive clash between monarch and parliament, with echoes the English civil war of the 1640s.

 The politics here are played as principles and broad brush-strokes rather than detailed appraisals of press legislation. The real question is whether we (the audience, and by extension the British,) are happier with the idea of an unelected conscience acting in our best interests, or with our elected representatives’ feckless idiocies. Into all this strides Kate Middleton (Lydia Wilson), who hatches her own plan for Charles to abdicate and herself and William (Oliver Chris) to be jointly crowned in his stead. A plan the politicians can get behind because her basic rationale is that she and William won’t be any trouble.

It might not sound like much when laid out so starkly, but – and bear in mind all this is running alongside the Shakespeare references, and the jokes, and the brilliant, brilliant performances – it’s an almost perfectly weighted moral and political difficulty. There really is no right or wrong side. There’s no straw man here, no obviously flawed argument. Granted the word “referendum” never surfaces, but generally it’s a play that actually makes you think about what you really believe.

Writing this review (or at least this bit of this review) five days after press night, it’s slightly difficult to resist the idea that it couldn’t possibly have been as good as I remember it being. All I can do is report that press night had one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever experienced, with audience and critics alike all suffused with an enormous sense of happiness and, well, a sense of actual, physical pleasure at witnessing such an astonishingly ambitious and intelligent play far exceed expectations.

*Of course*, there are aspects at which one could bridle: being a play about The Establishment (and mostly a male establishment at that) it reproduces that class privilege in its casting, mostly providing parts for posh white men – although there are probably twice as many parts for women and half as many for men compared with the nearest Shakespearean parallel, which I guess is progress, if not equality. There is also the slightly strange feeling that somehow Bartlett has become the David Hare, Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppards it’s ok to like, all rolled into one. Which makes this play sound a tonne more conservative than it actually is. I mean, I guess it isn’t actually calling for the throats of the monarchy to be ripped out and a people’s republic to be established (a pity), but at the same time, it is so fiercely intelligent, witty and and questioning that I think it is hard to hold that against it.
So, yeah. Another play and production that it is impossible to do justice to from last week’s extraordinary sequence of plays. If it doesn’t get a West End transfer, I will eat my hat. And, once/now that word is out, I can imagine it having multiple casts and running for a long time to come, perhaps even unto television. In many ways it feels like the most remarkable new play for an incredibly long time (at least, if we leave aside the out-and-out art-house hits like Alles Weitere…, Wastwater, The Author, The Events, There Has Possibly Been An Incident and so on, which somehow feel like they inhabit a different category of brilliance). Best most alternative mainstream play, perhaps.  

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Birdland – Royal Court

[Rock‘n’Baal Creation]

The problem with knowing Simon Stephens quite well is that it gets more and more difficult to write about his plays from the usual critical perspective. You know: turn up, be surprised, try to figure out what it all means, write it down.

So: I think I first came across “Birdland” talking to Simon about the possibility that he might do an adaptation of Brecht’s Baal. He also told me that Sebastian Nübling had suggested to him that he write an adaptation-for-stage of Mötley Crüe’s rock‘n’roll memoir, The Dirt. Birdland is the bastard offspring of these two impulses. Possibly six months or a year later I read an early finished draft of the play – still, then, vacillating, between the titles “Birdland” and “Cocksucker Blues” (the title of a bootleg Rolling Stones film).

And so that was the information with which I watched it, too.

To be honest, I also went in with a fair amount of trepidation. Reading the script, I hadn’t really been able to imagine Andrew Scott in the title role (ha! How wrong can I be? Totally wrong!), and – with the possible exception of Blurred Lines – most of the work I’ve seen by director Carrie Cracknell had tended toward toward beautifully realised realism, which I worried might cause problems to a more fluid script (I really should have more faith). Also, watching Birdland the night after Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge, well, you don’t expect to get quite that lucky twice in a week, so I was expecting some diminished returns. Good, but... kinda thing.

Again, wrong.

Birdland is just bloody amazing.

Just as with a rock band, it’s impossible to really pin down where the real driving force is coming from. Is it Cracknell’s endlessly inventive staging? Ian McNeil’s constantly moving, changing stage design? Is it Stephens’s restless, relentless take on the Stationendramen? Or is it Andrew Scott’s tour-de-force performance as Paul, the frontman of an unnamed, unheard band as they make their way back across Europe from Moscow to London in the last days of a global tour?

(And, yes, the ensemble, the light and sound design, and doubtless the invisible-but-flawless stage-management.)

Because I knew this script was based on Baal, I think I might have worried much less about “the plot” than other critics (and, indeed, having read it anyway, like some sort of German, knew what was coming). Knowing there’s *source material* is an interesting experience. The end of Baal is a bit of a mess, it sort of just trails off, as if, after an initial burst of gusto, Brecht tired of his character and started letting him just drift a bit. On the other hand, that’s how this sort of trajectory operates. I have a bit of a thing where I far prefer the first halves of biographies where whoever worth biographizing is putting together all the things that make them great. The second half where they inevitably fuck everything up always appeals far less to me. Ironically, this is *all* second half. In theory. Actually, being a play, Paul/Stephens has to pull a load of stuff together in the first few minutes of the play in order to make us care about what we have to stick with for the next two hours (no interval). And he does, the situation is admirably set up, Paul is greedy, capricious, and very, very rich. He can do what he likes. And he’s fucking bored. His guitarist friend Johnny (who seems to be both Johannes and Eckhart from the original) is looking on annoyed. (And a bit annoying, with his new girlfriend who he’s mooning over.)

It’s perhaps where Birdland departs from Baal that it’s at its most interesting and significant. Stephens has added a scene where Paul is reunited with his ageing father. It’s arguably one of the most emotionally charged scenes of the play, and it’s, of course, where Paul has returned *home*. His father’s small pride that his son’s latest record has received a four-star review in the local paper is almost devastating in its simple pathos; his father’s debt of a thousand pounds which his son dismisses as “nothing”, a sudden slap of normal reality in the face.

The way Stephens wraps up the ending is also interesting. There’s a kind of minor-ex-machina, sent by the wronged Johnny, who [spoiler] means Paul is suddenly facing statuary rape charges. His record company point out to him that – as in so many rock biog-catastrophes – actually, he’s not rich, it’s their money, and he’s quite profoundly in debt. (As Stewart Pringle memorably puts it in his review: “Paul’s decline could almost be a metaphor for the entire banking crisis… he is unwittingly an investment, he is rotting into the subprime. ”.) However, [more spoiler,] unlike Baal, Paul doesn’t die at the end. Stephens points to a world in which the sociopathic, the psychotic, and the charismatic can probably just keep on dodging the final curtain. That there can and will be a second, and most likely a third and fourth act for Paul. He’ll be able to keep on getting *something* (“what he wants” is wrong, because either he doesn’t know what he wants, or there’s nothing he really wants, or whatever he wanted he got sick of/from a long time ago) for a long time to come.

Cracknell’s production is an interesting proposition. I happened to watch from the front row of the balcony, which I’m tempted to claim (despite not having sat anywhere else) is the ideal vantage point. The choreography of the first few scenes especially – with all the players sat in blue plastic wheeled chairs – is beautifully realised, and it is immensely satisfying to watch the patterns their movements describe from high above. The whole is a gradual slide from slickness to mess, with the stage gradually being submerged in the inky black water with laps round its edges from the start, while scene-to-scene a golden flat-arch moves forwards and back to create different settings.

On one level, it manages to convince in the moment as the only possible way of doing it. On the other hand, there is a surprising total lack of any live music whatsoever. Admittedly, the script is the story of a rock star with *everything but the music*. But, y’know, they could have stuck some in anyway. Granted, music is plausibly even more devisive and theatre styles, and so deciding what Paul’s music sounded like could only really have alienated *some people*. But, well, hell, I like loud guitars and drums and I don’t think there’s much which isn’t improved by their presence. I wasn’t ever exactly sure how I felt about the bright blue leather jacket which Paul wears at the start, either, or some of the rather dance-y music played in the breaks, but, y’know. That’s just personal taste.

Cracknell’s staging is interpretative in much more interesting ways than this, however. In casting Andrew Scott, the production has foregrounded the charisma, charm and, let’s face it, good looks of Paul. Scott’s performance dwells on the contemptuous and the louche. Scott also turns out to be a pretty impressive dancer – a kind of Pina Bausch version of Ian Curtis crossed with Michael Jackson – in a few scene breaks. I could have watched a lot more of that. On the other hand, his cold stare eradicates the other aspect running through the script; the idea of Baal/Paul’s insatiable hunger. He is always eating. More and more. Other characters comment on it. The amount he eats, the way he eats repulses them. He’s putting on weight (Scott, really, really isn’t). He’s got fat. We go through the play watching the ghost of the original Paul in an environment that gets corrupted. We could equally have gone through watching the end result arrive at his final destination – and in a landscape of clinical modern hospitality suite after clinical modern hospitality suite. I’m not for a moment saying that would have been better – you pretty much can’t take your eyes off Scott, he is properly mesmerising and flawless as a performer, and the staging is sublime – but it’s interesting to observe that this is in no way a *definitive* production.

Beyond being a staging and an adaptation, though, what Birdland really is, is an evisceration of modern values and life under late-capitalism.  Of course, this is (ironically) where Stephens continually deviates most from Brecht. The trajectory and plot may be borrowed, but the conversations had in those situations are, even if mildly equivalent, entirely new.  In Paul, I think Stephens has found his most eloquent spokesperson yet. Because, obviously, having a character *actually talk about capitalism* – either saying what the author thinks, or otherwise – is a bit, well, *obvious*. Whereas having a narcissist who is obsessed with their money... Well, talking about *money* is different. And the way Paul talks about money is at once familiar and horrifying – at one point explaining that his music is now better because more people pay higher prices to see him play it. The logic of both bloated stadium rock and Tory arts policy in one dumb equation.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A View from the Bridge – Young Vic

[seen in preview]

The posters for the Young Vic’s new production of A View From the Bridge still have Arthur Miller’s name twice the size of the director’s, but it’s Belgian director Ivo van Hove who’s the real draw here.

Indeed, the prospect of sitting through A View From the Bridge, which I studied for A-Level, and last saw performed at the National Student Drama Festival in 1999 (starring Hattie Morahan as Catherine), nearly put me off from stumping up £10 for a cheap seat on my otherwise free Tuesday night (couldn’t make Friday’s press night because I’m in Scarborough for NSDF). Two hours later I was being spat back onto the street, adrenaline coursing through my veins, feeling more in love with theatre than I have have done in Britain for a good few months.

Jesus Christ, this is good.

It’s one of those shows where your instant response is just to write a bunch of raving Tweets and a functionally useless review which expends its entire word-count exhorting everyone to murder for tickets. I’ll try to resist, but, bear that in mind once I start getting all nit-picky and a bit dry.

So, why so good? What *is* it?

It opens with the audience confronted by a long slim thrust stage with high black walls stretching up into the flies. This wall – like a distended fire-guard – slowly rises during the prologue, to reveal two men – topless, muscular – showering under a meagre spit of water; washing themselves off after work. Eddie Carbone and a co-worker.

The first production of ...Bridge I saw had a late-middle-aged Bernard Hill in the title role. Just this vision of tough, hard-working labourers completely blew the cobwebs off the play. *Of course*, if the guy works day in, day out loading and unloading heavy bags of coffee or crates of whisky manually at the docks, *of course* he’s going to be built for manual labour. But this is a staging about tough, male, brute strength.

Mark Strong looks, frankly, fucking incredible. And he sounds incredible too – like he’s channeling the best of the 70s bits of de Niro and Pacino (*of course*, it’s about Italian Americans, of course he sounds like them – there are so many of these *of course* moments. In this respect it is an incredibly textually faithful production. It’s taken the script. Read it. And made a (near) complete physical and sonic sense out of it).

When he walks into his home his niece Catherine bounds up to him and leaps on him wrapping her legs around his waist her arms around his neck. And you’ve got another third of the play right there. The gesture is, of course, completely appropriate for the six-year-old neice she once was. But now looks incredibly sexual. Phoebe Fox seems genius casting, too. Slender and slight enough for you to be able to discern the girl Eddie tries to believe he’s still looking at, yet clearly woman enough to see what he’s trying to ignore. And then she opens her mouth, and she’s also got a tough, Italian-American Brooklyn accent. She’s not just a simpering, willowy thing. She’s tough and independent just as much as she is – with him – winsome and girlish.

The arrival of his wife’s (Nicola Walker) cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, drops a match in this petrol pool of growing incestuous desire. Eddie’s dislike of Rodolpho is as instant as his niece’s desire for him.

I remember a lot of A-Level ink was expended over prurient speculation on this point. Interestingly, nor do many of Eddie’s accusations ring especially true. There’s no way you could reasonably assert that this Rodolpho, played by the hunky, pec-heavy Luke Norris, could be “blown over if you shut a newspaper”. He looks like it’d take at least a small team of ponies to budge him. Nor is he remotely effeminate. The implication being that Eddie’s gay-smearing is entirely a ruse. Or that 100% naturalistic attention to the text has been abandoned in order to keep up the production’s aesthetic of relentless machismo. All of which just feels like so much nit-picking. It did briefly bother me when I was watching, but not much.

The climactic scene in which (do I need to spoiler-warning Miller’s plays? I think not) Eddie forcibly kisses first his niece and then, shockingly (for the time at which it was written) forces a kiss on Rudolpho is treated with such shock subsequently that for the first time – in this harder, infinitely more *male* environment – I wondered if that second kiss actually stands in for Eddie raping him – á la Blasted.

If the key note of van Hove’s production is its machismo and adrenalin, then the counterpoint lies in its use of music. Almost the whole thing is underscored with pieces from Fauré’s Requiem (sometimes whole, sometimes treated and looped). This has several effects. On one level it reminds us of the characters’ cultural, inherited Catholicism, but much more than this, it lends the entire production the air of a sacred rite, raising this small story of family strife in Brooklyn up to the status of some Wagnerian epic: indeed, when Marco beats Eddie in a show of strength – lifting a chair from the base of the leg with one hand – he raises it triumphantly aloft as the music swells and it looks more like something out of a modern dress Parsifal than anything Arthur Miller ever conceived. (I say this with admiration). Elsewhere, the soundscore is used to tick through tense family dinners. Echoing tick-tocks reverberate through the silence as the family members sit and chip away at each other. It might also be a misstep. Or maybe a bit too much. Or too odd. But for me it totally worked, both with the clinical setting – in the clean white tray, the cast might as well be lab-rats, being timed in some experiment – and as a way of keeping and marking the ever-present tension.

In terms of the text itself, I was horrified by the extent to which the play felt infinitely more resonant now than when I studied it in the mid-nineties. Obviously, the wider, more “universal” themes – love, incestuous desire, family tension, etc. – are always going to work dramatically; what now stands out is the fact that this is a story set against a backdrop of illegal immigration, police raids on migrant housing, and forcible repatriation. The sections of the story dealing with these issues, which enable Eddie’s ultimate betrayal of Marco and Rodolpho to the authorities, seemed to cause a different sort of palpable murmur round the theatre, as the audience recalled those posters and vans seen recently in England offering up a number for people to call and report illegal immigrants – precisely the method used by Eddie 60 years earlier.

But, for all this new-found contemporary resonance, ultimately it is the sheer energy, muscularity, and just plain, old-fashioned, great acting that makes this ...Bridge so compelling, coupled with the at times agonisingly beautiful music, and a final stage-picture which leaves you feeling entirely emotionally shredded and wrung out. This is an extraordinary piece of theatre.

[video: now not a spoiler...]

On Secret Theatre...

[written for]

Hello. Sorry for the protracted absence. Basically my laptop's ability to connect to the internet has gone AWOL. Happily, I'm now at NSDF so I can post stuff again. Anyway, this is a link to my piece for the brilliant German theaterwebsite Nachtkritik about Secret Theatre.