Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar, or, Symbolic Paddling Involved

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 2nd December 2017.

Regular readers will know that I've never really got on with Ibsen. This was not a performance of his work that changed my mind.

Adaptor Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah relocate the action from Norway to the Caribbean. There are various problems with this. Cook's text retains all of the characters' original names without accounting for what these Scandinavians are doing in the Caribbean. There's also a description of a lagoon which I'm afraid sounds much more like the dark seas of a fjord. More seriously, the relocation assumes that an interracial marriage in the Caribbean of the 1950s would be  accepted without question by everybody and, indeed, that there are absolutely no racial tensions at all – neither position struck me as convincing. There is one heavy handed attempt to compare marriage to slavery late on which doesn't really help the problem. Overall, the relocation comes across as half baked, undermining rather than reinforcing belief in the text.

Matters are further not helped by Tom Scutt's peculiar set. The stage is bare except for a square shaped pool within a glass and silver frame stage left. The frame seemed oddly modern for the 1950s to me, but perhaps that's unfair. At the back right hand corner of this pool a heap of rocks rises from within. Under the water are various miniature boats and houses – it never was quite clear to me why. This pool is, I assume, meant to make us think of the regularly referred to sea. Unfortunately, it is confusingly used sometimes as if it is the sea (in which guise it never convinces), sometimes as an ornamental pond apparently in the back garden of Wrangel's house, and on one occasion as what appears to be a pool of the mind because we have just been informed that the characters are up on a mountain and the sea is miles away. Intermittently characters jump into this pool or splash people with water from it. The whole thing is a muddled, ineffective device, and, indeed, as the show went on I couldn't avoid the feeling that Kwei-Armah didn't really know what to do with it. Heavy handed contributions from Lee Curran (lighting), Emma Laxton (sound) and Michael Bruce (composer) also feature – they appear to have been directed to give a quasi supernatural atmosphere every time something that might be supernatural is talked about – for example Ellida's account of The Stranger. These effects feel intrusive and undermine rather than assisting the credibility of the narrative.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Labour of Love in the West End, or, Ultimately Ducking the Question

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 25th November 2017.

In advance of this show I was disposed to like it having been strongly impressed by James Graham's This House at the National and Ink at the Almeida. Interesting issues are raised and there are some funny moments, but ultimately Graham can't quite decide whether he is writing a political drama or a romantic comedy, and ducks the final hard question.

The play tracks Labour MP for Ashfield, David Lyons, backwards from his 2017 election defeat to his first by-election victory in the late 80s, and then forward again to 2017 in Act Two. Graham's structuring is certainly clever and brave, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along say – though granted that simply goes back in time. Graham doesn't quite find the richness that a truly great use of such a structure could yield where lines or interactions sting in different ways depending on the period, and where all the characters are completely convincing creations whose changing nature we understand better for having followed them in this way.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Albion at the Almeida, or, Time for a Moratorium on State of the Nation Plays

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 18th November 2017.

Mike Bartlett's new play is anxious to tell us about the state of England. So anxious that he hammers the point home in the title and on several other occasions in the body of the play. England, in this instance, is like a garden. A garden in which, it seems, a lot of pretty unpleasant people are trapped with each other. Unfortunately, after what felt a pretty long three hours, I was convinced neither that this was an illuminating representation of England, nor in these individual characters and their relationships.

Bartlett's premise is that Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton), a successful businesswoman, has left her London life and bought a run down mansion with extensive garden somewhere rural (possibly the precise location is mentioned but it didn't stick in my mind). The house was previously owned by a great uncle, who constructed a massive and allegedly pioneering landscape garden. Now that I reflect on this it seems to me something is awry with the chronology because the relative in question is supposed to construct at least some of the garden on his return from World War One, but I feel sure that the history of landscape gardening goes back rather further than that. Despite some laboured expository passages on the matter quite why the garden was so significant never really comes into focus. The same insufficiency of illumination applies to Audrey's decisions first to buy the house and reconstruct the garden and by the end to abandon the whole business.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Network at the National, or, I'm Feeling Bored

Note: This is a review of the matinee preview on Saturday 11th November 2017. The press night is this evening.

About midway through this long two hour show a performer demands to know how we are feeling. We're expected to join in a collective applauding of fictitious TV anchor Howard Beale and shouting out of his catchphrase (“I'm mad and I'm not gonna take it anymore”). As far as I'm concerned theatre has to earn my participation, persuade me to become complicit in such an act. This failed. I was bored and I quietly said so.

I haven''t seen the 1976 film on which this show is based, but a read of the plot on-line, scan of quotations on IMDb and a viewing of the trailer suggests that Lee Hall has made a pretty fair copy of the original. Looking at the trailer there is a noticeable difference to the emotional pitch – zany, tending to crazed, which this wearily slow-paced version fails to match. But I also wonder if the politics of the film – the power of television, the threat of a faceless corporate America, were more original and provocative in 1976 than they feel now. I felt I was listening to lectures on these matters I have heard frequently before and which, as so often at Norris's National, were not subjected to sufficient on-stage critique.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

St George and the Dragon at the National, or, The Tedium Resumes

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 14th October 2017.

After the too brief glory of Follies, the run of flops in the Olivier resumes with this latest National new commission. This show appears to be yet another attempt by the venue to comment on the state of the nation. The result is two hours and 45 minutes of often painful tedium.

Rory Mullarkey's play starts from the premise that St George reappears age after age to slay the dragon which mutates into different guises. We start in pre-industrial England, move forward to a country in the grip of the industrial revolution and finish up in present day London. The cyclical approach is unfortunately reminiscent of Common's repetitions and problematic, albeit in different ways. Firstly, the play asserts that only a year passes between each encounter but there is really no sign that anybody ages at all in that year. Secondly, the village still seems to be inhabited on each occasion by exactly the same people, but there is almost nothing in the way of individual character or relationship development. This is compounded by the cliched nature of many of the characters – the fact that nearly all of them are denied a proper name and referred to instead by trade both indicates and exacerbates this (crier, butcher, healer etc. - as with Eggy Tom in Common I despair that it seems to have occurred to nobody in the National's commissioning process that there was any problem with this). Then there's the shallow political commentary which Mullarkey will insist on bolting on to this rickety structure – a tiresome anti-capitalist screed in the second cycle, wearily familiar remarks about the breakdown of communities in the third, and general unexplored assertions that there was, at some point in the past, a better, possibly golden, age. The net effect of all this is to bore. Apart from one or two brief sparks in the second half the play basically committed my cardinal sin of failing to make me care about anybody on stage, or to make me really believe in any of the relationships being represented.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Follies at the National, or, Living Up To All My Hopes

Note: A belated review of the evening performance on Saturday 23rd September 2017.

I feel like I've been waiting for this revival for forever. Indeed for years, inspired mainly by the correspondence between the line that the Weissmann theatre is to be a car park (though in this version office block) and the Yes Minister joke about the National's building that the architect was given a knighthood so no one could say the building looked like a car park I've thought the National should do it. That it should be the often dismal Norris era that finally sees this revival was a pleasant surprise. Fortunately, it met all my high hopes.

From my seat on the side of the central Stalls block I found the show superbly made to fit the Olivier space. Vicki Mortimer's straightforward set works well. We see a central wall with an archway on one side of which the theatre's advertising lights are sometimes illuminated. To the left the stairway for the descent of the girls, to the right a muddled, dimly lit ruin of rubble and red theatre seats. Often, though, the central playing area is bare but this focuses attention on the drama – Cooke finds an intimacy that can elude in this space.

Friday, 25 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Oresteia: This Restless House at the Lyceum, or In Need of Restraint (2)

This final Scottish production of the 2017 Festival arrived trailing highly positive reviews from its original Glasgow run. There are quite a number of positive aspects to it, but it is, finally, undermined by failures of restraint, and a third part that goes off on a not wholly convincing tangent.

I don't know the original text well enough to know how far Zinnie Harris has taken liberties with the adaptation but the programme note suggests expanded roles for Clytemnestra and Elektra, and there are certainly oddities with the third play which we'll come on to. As in Meet Me at Dawn, Harris demonstrates a capacity for charged, intense scenes – her writing of several of the paired relationships is especially strong – Agamemnon/Clytemnestra in particular, but also Elektra/Orestes.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the Traverse, or, That's Real Theatrical Magic

I booked for this show because I was curious to see something directed by Emma Rice after the recent controversy over her Globe tenure. It turned out to be one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen in Edinburgh this August.

Daniel Jamieson's script chronicles the married life of Marc and Bella Chagall from the Jewish community in Vitebsk (Russia) where they both grow up through the upheaval of wars and revolution to exile in the United States. Apart from the framing device, subtly done, this is a refreshingly straightforward chronological narrative. It is also worth noting that, although the couple are the central focus, subtle reminders are also conveyed about larger issues - effects of censorship, prejudice and exile in particular.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Real Magic at the Studio, or, I'm thinking of a word, and it begins with B

Years ago the International Festival staged a dire production of Three Sisters by the American Repertory Theatre. Finally, after years of trying, the EIF has found a show which is equally dire.

We are presented with three performers (Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall) in an unconvincing version of a game show. The premise of the show is that one person thinks of a word (displayed on a piece of cardboard), the second person (usually blindfold) makes three unsuccessful attempts to guess the word, the third person acts as the host. Oh and some, sometimes all, are dressed in bright yellow chicken costumes and periodically do a silly dance. Some in the audience (bafflingly as far as I was concerned) found this latter aspect funny. After the first failure, the trio swap roles twice until each member has played each of the parts. This cycle, a bald and unconvincing narrative to start with (to borrow from Gilbert), is repeated for an interminable 90 minutes.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Had We Never at the Portrait Gallery, or, It Will Be Long Ere I Forget His Face

After a couple of disappointing EIF late nighters it's a pleasure to be able to report that this was 50 minutes powerfully spent at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in the company of the poet Jackie Kay, members of the Scottish Ensemble, David James (counter tenor), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass) and Ghetto Priest (reggae singer).

The programme was a mix of Jackie Kay's poems and settings of Robert Burns by the poet himself, Shostakovich, Part and at the centre a newly commissioned version of The Slave's Lament performed by Ghetto Priest and the Scottish Ensemble (with the assistance of an uncredited technician).

EIF 2017 – Macbeth at the Festival Theatre, or, In Need of Restraint

When the EIF programme was announced I questioned the decision to programme Verdi's Macbeth for the fourth time in twenty years. After this performance I have not changed my mind. I still don't find it an especially distinguished opera, and this production was not of sufficient quality to merit the repeat programming.

The first problem is with Verdi's work itself. It lacks the masterful dramatic craftsmanship of later works like Traviata or Don Carlo. Pacing struck me as off, motivations insufficiently illuminated by  music, and textual setting not always convincing. There are a number of potentially powerful moments – particularly the mad scene – but there's quite a few places where the music seems to me to chunter on in an overly cheerful mood that doesn't properly match the sombreness of the subject matter.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Martin Creed's Words and Music, or, What This Festival Needs is Some Fringe Shows (Because Nobody Else is Offering That)

Martin Creed apparently thinks he's at least a triple threat – artist, singer, writer. Presumably Fergus Linehan agrees and commissioned this show on that basis, alongside the evident desire that the International Festival should have more Fringe-like elements (quite why the International Festival should be moving to do work the Fringe can perfectly well do is a question nobody seems inclined to discuss). I occasionally laughed in this show, one or two songs were enjoyable enough, there are some perceptive remarks (though I think Creed is not so insightful as some seem to imagine). But a great deal of this is tiresome, familiar and wearily self-indulgent.

The show begins with a projection of the following on single slides: “No-A-E-I-O-U-Yes” (it eventually becomes clear this is related to Creed's issues about the slipperiness of words). Then we get a rambling voice over about, amongst other things, sorting socks. Finally Creed hops into the room and proceeds, eventually, to play a number on the electric guitar while standing on one leg. I began to wonder whether I should have brought a larger glass of wine in with me.