Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History (The First Act) at the Barbican, or, A Rather Extraordinary Evening


Note: A review of the performance on Friday 29th June 2018.

If you'd told me at 7.35pm last Friday evening as, disgruntled, I watched the audience continue to trickle nonchalantly in (the advertised start time of this three hour show was 7.30pm) that some two and a half hours later I'd have a supporting cast member sitting beside me pretending to be drunk while I patted his hand and Taylor Mac sang a lullaby and, more importantly, that I'd be finding this conceit touching rather than annoying I doubt I'd have believed you. But so it was. Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of immersive theatre – that this show, which is full of it, gradually drew me into it tells you how remarkable a piece of theatre this is.


This performance is the first three hours of a twenty four hour marathon, exploring the history of the United States since 1776 through its popular music. Originally staged as a non-stop 24 hour performance in New York City it has been broken down into a variety of other increments around the world. According to Taylor Mac the plan is to stage it in London in increments (a segment every year or every two years were both mooted). On the strength of this episode there's no question in my mind that the rest should come over.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The RSC Imperium Plays in the West End, or, Historical Parallels?

Note: A review of the double bill on Thursday 28th June 2018.

Last Thursday I took the day off to catch Mark Poulton's two part adaptation of Robert Harris's Cicero novels. It proved to be gripping drama, superbly performed by a typically fine RSC ensemble and with much to say about our current politics (both in Britain and across the pond).

Poulton/Harris track the decline and fall of the Roman Republic from the days of the Catiline conspiracy to the rise of Octavian/Augustus, through the eyes of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and his slave and biographer (Tiro). The play is centrally concerned with how you construct workable governments and it explores the problems/limitations which beset both republic and dictatorship. We might like to think the former is obviously preferable, but its flaws are ruthlessly exposed. In the early stages, watching the ambitious men competing for office I was reminded of the American founders forever pretending (Jefferson was a master at this, particularly when it's come to the historians) that they didn't really want office. Here the nakedness of power lust is often striking - “It was my turn!” complains Joe Dixon's blunt Catiline. Nor as these often unsavoury men struggle to best each other are the plays especially kind to the mass of the people – waiting to be swayed by the next demagogue who can persuade them with a clever speech, or silence them with the threat of violence.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar, or, A Regrettable Absence of Subtlety

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 25th June 2018.

There's an early sign that all is not well with this adaptation of Muriel Spark's classic novel, and it appears on Lia Williams's first entry as Miss Brodie. She's costumed in a skin tight crimson dress. This stands out overly conspicuously in the otherwise grey to black d├ęcor of just about everything else. Clearly Miss Brodie is supposed to be distinctive but this carries matters too far, especially when coupled with the exaggerated, mannered delivery which Williams adopts. Very quickly I found this irritating rather than compelling, and the devotion she has to inspire in “her girls” simply didn't make sense in this context.

As this slow-paced evening went on it became clear to me that this initial costume decision is linked to wider problematic choices in the production as a whole. The novel is set in Edinburgh, and David Harrower's adaptation has retained many of the specific references – but there is little sense of place in Lizzie Clachan's bland set of a couple of concrete walls and half a dozen wooden chairs. Nor was I ever really convinced that the streets of Edinburgh, a city where I lived for over ten years, were present off-stage. The sense of time is similarly problematic. Again the script is very specific – we are in the interwar period – but the staging does nothing to really convince that this is when we are. Given that a crucial plot point hinges on that timing this is another significant issue.