Friday, 13 November 2009

Pains of Youth

Ferdinand Bruckner wrote Pains of Youth in 1926. The play is set in Vienna three years earlier and is about six medical students and their tangled emotional lives. Relationships within the group are broken and change; there is sexual ambiguity; the characters argue and exploit each other – as well as the young female servant in their lodging house. The action – and dialogue – is often repetitive. It is not clear if this is meant to signify anything – perhaps the characters are going in circles and repeating the same mistakes – or perhaps it is simply a narrative shortcoming.

It all ends badly when one of them, Desiree, commits suicide. Again it’s not clear if her action is due to a general bourgeois malaise or ennui, or if it’s because lesbian relationships are doomed and can only end in death and madness.

However, the language of the play – in a new version by Martin Crimp – is robust and works well – despite, and sometimes because of, its repetitions. The staging is striking – as you’d expect from something directed by Katie Mitchell. The set somehow manages to be both minimalist and cluttered at the same time. There is live music and the soundscape is integral to the production. The performances exude a nervy edginess; which, again, seems to be a characteristic of Mitchell’s work.

The acting is uniformly good, although Laura Elphinstone as Marie and Lydia Wilson as Desiree stand out. Geoffrey Streatfield playing the older and more debauched student Freder also gives a noteworthy performance as a manipulator sliding ever deeper into destructive alcoholism.

The programme for the play contains articles about its historical context – the state of Austria post WWI and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, together with the resulting economic uncertainty of the 1920s and the growing spectre of fascism. Allied to this attention is drawn to the progressive and groundbreaking artistic climate of the time which gives the staging much of its meaning and significance. So, we read about Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg and twelve-tone music, Swedish gymnastics, Javanese dance and the art movement New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). Although all this helps contextualise the drama in the minds of its audience after the performance, it doesn’t make its meaning any more significant or resonant while we are actually watching.

Cottesloe Theatre until January

Monday, 27 April 2009


Panic is the latest work from Improbable. They are a theatre group who have been responsible for a number of highly entertaining and ground-breaking works over the past decade or so – Shockheaded Peter, The Hanging Man, Theatre of Blood, Wolves in the Walls as well as a production of Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha at ENO. Currently they are in The Pit at the Barbican Arts Centre.

Panic is about the goat god Pan mainly and consists of a number of short-ish scenes. Some are more obviously Pan related than others. Phelim McDermott – one of Improbable’s founding fathers - is Pan. And there are also three nymphs. In addition, there is live music, sound and a number of filmic projections. As well as this there is imaginative use of brown paper, and rather a lot of paper carrier bags filled with self-help books.

The show starts with the cast breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and introducing themselves. Then we’re away into the woods and nature in the raw; the Pan story starts on its rambling way.

McDermott parades in his underpants and later straps on a giant wicker penis. He penetrates a dining chair to much hilarity. There are stunning projections on to the brown paper scenery – haunting images of nymphs from previous eras.

In another scene there is aerial work from Matilda Leyser over a recumbent Phelim McDermott that suggests Henry Fuseli’s 18th century painting The Nightmare. But in this instance – and from the audience’s perspective – the view is a mirror image of the picture – possibly because what we now see is a woman demon astride a supine man.

Another visually inventive section is called ‘Panography’ – it is a sort of masturbatory fantasy, with a life-size shadow theatre Pan and the silhouettes of tiny dancing women.

This is followed by an amusing section where Phelim McDermott reads out the titles of large numbers of self-help books. Their titles are self-evidently ridiculous and meaningless, and the scene’s power lies in the fact that it goes on stating the obvious and labouring the point for rather too long –just like a self-help book in fact.

A further striking image is of a large photo of many faces that grows smaller and smaller and ends up as a tears in the eye of a giant photo of Buffalo Bill. It is a powerful – indeed moving - image, but its ultimate meaning or contribution to the Pan theme is not clear.

The cast are energetic and engaging, the production skilful, inventive not to say magical at times; and altogether, this is an intermittently fantastic piece of work demonstrating the infinite possibilities of theatre. However, overall it leaves the feeling of being somewhat less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Pit Theatre, Barbican until 16th May

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Overcoat

Inspired by the Russian writer Gogol’s short story of the same name, The Overcoat is performed by physical theatre company Gecko.

The clue to their interpretation is in ‘inspired by’ and so the play’s narrative doesn’t match to closely that of the short story. Neither did it especially coincide with my own view of how the story might be brought to 21st century life. In a programme note the director and actor Amit Lahav says he’s dealing with the inner life of the protagonist rather than the detail of the original story. He therefore introduces a romance into the narrative, so that it all becomes – as the publicity tag line has it – ‘get the coat get the girl, change the world’. The original was more prosaic – essentially it was get the coat, get warm in Tsarist St. Petersburg – and was (in my view) more politically intriguing.

However, this take on the story has its own strengths. The central character lives in sordid lodgings. His parents watch him from a portrait on the wall. He has sexual fantasies. His landlady seduces him. Meanwhile he works at meaningless tasks as part of a cog in an office machine.

When there is dialogue in the play it is in the language of its multinational cast – Italian, Chinese, Hungarian, French. What this does is place the onus of communication on body language and tone of voice. It is effective –but, of course, the words could be sonorous banality rather than poetry.

The ‘hero’ eventually gets the coat – but is it at the cost of his soul? Has he made a pact with the devil? Did he really get the girl or was that his fervid dream? The narrative thread is ambiguous.

What is not ambiguous is the talent of the performers. They give a strikingly powerful and committed demonstration of what physical theatre can achieve. There are a number of startling moments and striking tableaux. There are thrills and danger – intriguing lighting. Some of the cast have previously worked with the David Glass ensemble – and this influence is apparent and adds to The Overcoat’s power.

The music – a mix of original composition and existing work – is eclectic in a World/Eastern European fusion style. It does in fact work well.

The night I saw it, the theatre was not full – but the audience response was justifiably enthusiastic.

It finished at The Lyric Hammersmith last Saturday, but can be seen at Theatre Royal, Plymouth from 23 - 25 April.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Madame de Sade

The third play in Donmar West End’s current season at Wyndhams Theatre is Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima. It is translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene and directed by Michael Grandage. It stars Judi Dench as the Marquis de Sade’s mother-in-law - but the best performances come from Frances Barber and Rosamund Pike.

The story spans 18 years before the French revolution and looks at de Sade and his influence from the perspective of several women who represent differing points of view about his behaviour. His wife – the character played by Rosamund Pike - remains loyal to both him and what he does throughout. It is only at the end of the play – when, having been released from prison, he returns to her family home – that she rejects him. Perhaps the reality of an aged dissolute being is less attractive than the intellectual concept of what he could be and the behaviour he stands for.

There is little action but much discussion in the play – or rather there is less discussion than there is a series of monologues. The views of the religious and sybaritic (the Comptesse de Saint-Fond; played superbly by Frances Barber) are presented, as are the views of the innocent, complicit and manipulative. Sadein practices are described rather than seen – somewhat in style of Greek tragedy.

The proletariat – in the guise of the servant Charlotte – is always in the background; until the denouement, that is, when we get an idea that the guillotine may beckon for some. Charlotte is a character of few words, but eloquent body language, and is brought to life convincingly in Jenny Galloway’s performance.

There are three acts, played without an interval, and a single set, which is an 18th century room. It is superbly lit throughout, showing different seasons of the year and providing an animated backdrop for – not only the action before us – but also the actions and emotions and events that are being described. In many ways the set and lighting are perhaps the true stars of the show.

This is a production that requires concentration and involvement. Neither its physical beauty (great though it is) nor the fine performances of all the actors (as good as they are) is enough to sustain an audience’s interest for the hour and forty-five minutes Madame de Sade lasts.

Plays until 23rd May

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Entertaining Mr Sloane

The vertiginous Trafalgar Studios tends to go in for celebrity casting. This version of Joe Orton’s 1960s black comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane features Matthew Horne, star of the TV shows Gavin and Stacey, and Horne and Corden, as the eponymous Sloane. He is also currently in the news for collapsing on stage during a performance of this very show.

The production – directed by Nick Bagnall – is firmly set in its historic period –the 1960s. It seems both of its time and yet speaks to the early 21st century too. For example, Sloane is a self-justifying parasite, whose emphasis is on self and pleasure. But the play is also about role-playing, power struggles and self-deceit.

In many ways it overlaps with the world of Harold Pinter, but is more overtly humorous and camp. In fact, it’s probably a missing link between Pinter and the comedy writers responsible for Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, Galton and Simpson. It is this blurring of dramatic and comic boundaries that provides the successes and disappointments of the production.

Imelda Staunton is spectacularly good as Kath, Sloane’s landlady. Her performance is completely lacking in vanity – she provides a remarkable portrayal of the character. However, Matthew Horne disappoints as Sloane –his performance doesn’t suggest the ebb and flow of the power struggle between his character and those of Kath’s brother Ed or her father Kemp; he felt neither dangerous nor particularly sexy.

The stage at Trafalgar Studios is steeply raked and Imelda Staunton is very short – so there is visual fun to be had with the contrast between her height and the tall spindly actors who play her brother (Simon Paisley Day) and father (Richard Bremmer).

Altogether though, this is an interesting and worthwhile revival of Orton’s play. During the current absence of Matthew Horne, Entertaining Mr Sloane is worth seeing for Imelda Staunton’s performance alone.

Closes 13th April

Friday, 3 April 2009

Dido Queen of Carthage

Written while he was an undergraduate, this is Christopher Marlowe’s first play. It does indeed come across as a young man’s play – at times dramatically overblown and bombastic, rambling and inconsistent. But, under James MacDonald’s direction it, nevertheless, provides a spirited and entertaining evening in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium – a space similar in size to that in which it was originally performed..

The core of the story concerns the love affair between Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Aeneas has escaped from Troy after its destruction by the Greeks, only to be shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage –modern day Tunisia.

Dido is a Queen who is the object of many suitors’ attentions. Their pictures adorn her palace. She chooses none of them – perhaps a not so veiled reference to the behaviour of Marlowe’s own Queen, Elizabeth. Dido’s latest suitor is Iarbas who she both keeps at arms length yet encourages.

The arrival of Aeneas and his men seems to present no danger to the status quo. Dido is generous in offering to help the shipwrecked travellers, and Aeneas glad to receive it. Aeneas tells his story and that of the sack of Troy in graphic and overlong detail. It is an account that does not especially impress Dido, her court or her current suitor. However, the gods have different ideas and meddle in human affairs for their own entertainment.

In fact the play opens with the god Jupiter – on a raised platform - dandling Ganymede on his knee. Jupiter is sleazy and far from godlike; Ganymede lives up to the Elizabethan meaning of his name - a male prostitute. This scene – as might be expected from a playwright who is both blasphemer and atheist - sets the tone and creates the atmosphere for the rest of the drama.

The other gods in the play are similarly inappropriate and sadly comic. Venus – who instigates Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas – is also inappropriate and amusing. She is, however, finely portrayed by Siobhan Redmond. Among a strong ensemble cast, other notable performances come from Sian Brooke as Dido’s sister Anna and Obi Abili as Iarbas. The latter is good at conveying his almost petulant exasperation at the loss of Dido’s interest and affection to Aeneas after the spiteful intervention of the gods.

However, the performance of the evening comes from Anastasia Hille as Dido. She is convincing not only as a generous Queen who rescues the shipwrecked travellers – and would possibly marry Iarbas – but also as the lovelorn woman desperate for Aeneas’ affection. She was even - finally - believable as someone tipped over into suicidal madness when Aeneas deserts her.

The music, performed live and written by Orlando Gough is nicely entertaining and seamlessly integrated into the action.

This well acted and staged performance is a little over long at three hours (including interval) but is illuminated by the clarity and inventiveness of James MacDonald’s direction and Anastasia Hille’s performance in the title role.

In repertory at the Cottesloe Theatre until 2nd June

This review was written for The Morning Star

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Tempest

Having opened in Stratford this RSC Tempest is now touring the UK. Directed by Janice Honeyman, it is a co-production with South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre.

Usually The Tempest is regarded as Shakespeare, the great storyteller’s farewell to the stage. In this version the magic and story-telling power remains, as does the motif of forgiveness and reconciliation for the past usurpation of legitimate political power. However, in this production, the magic and spirits that Prospero accesses are African. The forgiveness asked for at the end is that of the coloniser from the colonised.

The whole thing has an extraordinary vigour. There are live musicians, giant puppets and dancers. They take the part of the island’s spirits, both advancing and commenting on the action. Throughout the production is clear and entertaining; there is much humour to be found in the text. Miranda isn’t too wishy-washy (Tinarie Van Wyk Loots), and Aerial (Atandwa Kani) is athletic, full of grace and a longing to be free.

Anthony Sher is a bombastic yet ultimately sympathetic and kindly Prospero, while John Kani a justifiably angry Caliban.

The ending of the play – the part where Prospero appeals for release and forgiveness - is not addressed to the audience as is customary – but to Caliban; in essence it is an apology for colonialism – and it is a very powerful and deeply moving moment.

Now touring: Grand Theatre, Leeds (until 4th April), Theatre Royal, Bath (7th-11th April), Theatre Royal, Nottingham (14th-18th April) and Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (21st-25th April)

Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy

Marionettes are not the same as puppets, and Ronnie Burkett is far removed from any acts with either puppets or marionettes that you may have seen before (and – much as I like it - this includes The Tiger Lillies' scabrous version of Punch and Judy).

This is the story of cruise ship entertainer, the eponymous Billy Twinkle, at the end of his career. In his field of entertainment he employs the marionette – not the puppet. But, bored and disillusioned, he insults his audience, who are not giving him sufficient attention or respect. The implication is that he has become stale and repetitive as a performer As a consequence he is fired from his job which leads him to reminisce about how he came to this line of work and how his life and career subsequently unfolded.

Using the devices of flashback coupled with quotations and allusions to Shakespeare –particularly The Tempest – Burkett relates how he came into this world of string pulling. We learn who mentored him, how he became a leading practitioner of his art and how he has grown tired of what he does. Most importantly, he is confronted by a representative of the next generation of his art. This in turn demands he think about his role and responsibility in passing on his gifts and knowledge – if, indeed he wants to.

The whole show makes us consider who is pulling the strings and why, it examines relationships, significant moments in a life and even the nature of performance.

Burkett is an extraordinary performer. He is a character in the play as well as the person manipulating all the other characters – which adds yet another layer of meaning to the story he is telling. He performs all of the voices of the many different characters. There are even marionettes that are manipulating their own marionettes. It is technically amazing; it is hilarious and yet deeply moving. How is it that these characters made of wood and string can be so real, engaging and sympathetic and yet still deeply stir our emotions? That they do is a tribute to Ronnie Burkett’s talent and ingenuity as performer, writer and manipulator of marionettes.

It’s on at The Lowry in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester from Fri 3 Apr 2009 - Wed 8 Apr 2009

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Kafka's Monkey

Currently playing at the Young Vic, Kafka’s Monkey is adapted by Colin Teevan from Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy. In it Kathryn Hunter plays an ape who has been captured from the wilds and subsequently taken on human characteristics.

The ape tells the story of his loss of freedom, his treatment at the hands of those who caught him and how he has adapted to life since. Ultimately his choice is to be put in a zoo or become a ‘performer’; he chooses the latter.

As the ape, Kathryn Hunter’s physical flexibility is amazing and her performance is an extraordinary demonstration of the mingling of ape and human behaviour.

The play starts when Hunter enters the performance area. She bows several times before we – the audience - get the message; that the ape as man is addressing us, the academy. We need to applaud this entrance, as we would a human addressing such a meeting. After three bows we get it. There is more of this interspecies communication. At a number of points the audience is involved – in grooming and in teaching the ape to drink alcohol, for example.

The ape’s address to the academy provokes thought about the relationship between humanity and other species, as well as about how communication both works and fails.

Altogether this short piece - with a text that’s true to Kafka’s original – has a spectacular performance from Kathryn Hunter. Kafka’s Monkey is both profound and entertaining.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The Maids

The Maids is a 20th Century classic of French theatre. Currently it is being staged at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford in a production directed by Samir Bhamra.

Genet’s play is, in no particular order, a drama about role-play, anger, sexual jealousy fulfilment and violence, class conflict and aspiration, criminality and pleasure.

Although the characters in the play are ostensibly female Genet wanted them to be played by men. He isn’t actually that interested in women. This production had men in the roles for its first week and women for the second. It had also been transposed to India. I saw the production featuring men.

It seems ungenerous to criticise too much. However, one thing soon became clear: this is a play that needs really strong performances. It also demands that there is a clear distinction between the fantasy lives and reality inhabited by the characters. Unfortunately this is not conveyed at all clearly. For example, there is little sense that the ‘maids’ get actual pleasure from their enactments of their employer’s behaviour towards and treatment of them.

Technically the production is also disappointing. The lighting transitions between the maids’ real and fantasy lives are disconcertingly slow; the background music disturbingly abrupt.

The acting is all on a level – again there is no distinction between fantasy and ‘reality’. There is a lack of clarity in diction at times as well, so words are swallowed and meaning lost. And the choice to play ‘Madame’ as David Walliams was quite simply wrong.

Despite my criticisms I would, if I could, go back to the Watermans Arts Centre next week to see how this company’s female version of Genet’s masterpiece worked.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Stone/Seven Jewish Children

A couple of days ago I went to the Royal Court to see two playsin one evening. The first was The Stone by Marius von Mayenburg and the second Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill.

I saw von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One last year (my review is here). This time he deals with the different families who have lived in a house in Germany since the 1930s. The play’s themes are ownership, memory, self-justification and forgetting - as well as 21st century Germans reassessing their relationships with their parents and the history of their country. This includes not only the Second World War – and specifically the firebombing of Dresden and the Holocaust – but also the subsequent division and reunification of Germany.

The time line of the play moves between the mid 30s and the early 90s. The set is a room with no means of exit except through the audience. This echoes the plight of the characters who must - if not comes to terms with their nation’s past – at least begin to acknowledge it – otherwise they are forever trapped.

This is a powerful work that packs a lot of thought-provoking and challenging material into its 75 minutes running time. The cast of six are outstanding.

After a brief hiatus we return to the theatre to see Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children – her response to the recent events in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the people of Gaza.

An alternative title for the play could be ‘tell her’ as this phrase precedes much of the dialogue. Churchill’s approach is to imagine how an older generation might answer a younger generation's questions about significant events in the history of the state of Israel: how there is a conflict between the desire to protect and the democratic imperative to honesty; the opposition of justification and justice.

The play lasts about 10 minutes and was (obviously) performed on the same set as The Stone. Again the set served the drama well – it’s lack of an exit save through the audience once more acted as a potent metaphor.

Yet again – as with 2006’s Drunk Enough to say I Love You? - Churchill demonstrates her power as a politically engaged and innovative dramatist.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Edward Upward 1903-2009

So, Edward Upward's death has been extensively reported. There were obituaries in the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and Morning Star.

The Guardian's had clearly been written a while ago as its author died himself in 2004. I liked the praise for The Spiral Ascent in the Times and Peter Parker's robust defence of the trilogy in the Independent.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Kings Place: Music Melody and Text

On Thursday I went to Kings Place. It’s a new concert hall with two performance spaces. The building also houses the offices of The Guardian and Observer as well as an art gallery.

The concert was in Hall 1 and was called Music Melody and Text. It was words by Bertolt Brecht with music mainly by Hans Eisler, but also Kurt Weill and Dominic Muldowney. There were three instruments (piano, saxophone and drums) and three actor/singers. The whole thing was directed by Di Trevis, who directed something similar many years ago at the National Theatre: that was called ‘Happy Birthday Brecht’.

The evening mixed poetry and song. The subject matter was ostensibly about the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. The words of the poems and songs – although generally about very specific historical events – had a universality that relates what they said about the 1930s and 40s to the economic catastrophes and capitalist war mongering of our own times. Brecht is simultaneously a historical witness and a pertinent commentator on the iniquities of 21st century politicians and those who finance them.

The three actor/singers – Daniel Evans, Jenny Galloway and Christopher Kelham - gave convincing performances. The staging was plain yet effective. It highlighted the simplicity and directness of Brecht’s language but made clear its political and poetic essence.

The sparse audience applauded the show with some enthusiasm.

The hall itself is a good space: it is chamber music sized. The seating is comfortable, reasonably raked and nicely offset. The acoustics are excellent.