Thursday 2 June 2022

Oklahoma at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Oklahoma is not a musical about which I previously had strong opinions. I saw it once more than a decade ago in an amateur production in Edinburgh (I think put on under the auspices of the Catholic Chaplaincy) and it didn't leave me with a desire to see the show again. I mention this to stress that I don't think I arrived at this performance wedded to the view that the show should be staged in a particular, say traditional way. I wouldn't even say, based on that one previous viewing, that I thought it was a show that especially needed a revival. Given those feelings and the fact I didn't need to see it in order to tick it off my list of unseen musicals, I really only booked because the production came trailing so much praise from its New York City run and because I thought it might be thought provoking. I left the theatre bored and baffled.

The problems start with the failure of the set (co-designed by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher) to give much in the way of a sense of place. We're in a bare space with two trestle tables making a T and a further single line of tables down the right and left sides separating audience from playing area. The railings of the upper level have been covered over with wood on which guns are hung. The thing never loses the sense of being a hall which could, frankly, be any number of places. The corn fields and farm drawing on the back wall is nice to look at but feels increasingly disconnected from the action. Productions with little sense of place seem to be in vogue these days (see most recently the Donmar's Henry V) and was one of a litany of things about this production that struck me as wearily familiar rather than daringly original. It is worth noting here that it may be that if seated downstairs the show works differently (we were in the gallery).

The more serious issue is how little perception directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein show for the characters or the narrative, instead I felt I was watching a parade of tired directorial ticks. To name a few: I can think of only one show (Melly Still's brilliant From Morning to Midnight at the National) which has made the device of having your ensemble sit round the edges of the action whenever they're not in a scene work - this show was not an exception. Particularly in Act 2 Fish and Fein had plainly directed that ensemble to deliver line after line in a monotone thus robbing scenes and relationships of drama (I have seen this in failed EIF theatre productions again and again). There's periodic use of handheld microphones (Hamilton is the only show I recall that made this work). The pacing was glacial. When the handheld camera appeared (a curse of modern stagings) I wanted to scream.

The dream ballet undoubtedly makes this a difficult show to revive, but I assumed that the concept must at least be aimed at making that element work, or at least jar less than it might otherwise do. But no. It's relocated to the start of Act 2, musically re-orchestrated so it sounds like some drug-fuelled Hendrix riff. John Heginbotham's choreography is very poor. By the end Fish and Fein resort to throwing the kitchen sink at it culminating in a resolution to the need to get the shoes they've dropped from the ceiling off-stage which is just laughable.

The most convincing performance is given by Patrick Vaill as Jud whose glowering presence works best within the straightjacket of the production. Stavros Demetraki brings welcome energy to his scenes as Ali Hakim despite being given silly things to do (particularly the moment when he has to start stripping off in front of Ado Annie the directors apparently fearing we have failed to grasp that he wants to sleep with her). The interpretation of Laurey is problematic - I do think that for the narrative to work there needs to be at least a degree of ambiguity in what the character thinks about love and sex, but I'm afraid Anoushka Lucas's performance for me lacked that. There was a knowingness to her behaviour almost from the outset that jarred with the text.

The re-orchestrations/re-arrangements of the score by Daniel Kluger seem to have essentially two ideas - mostly to make everything sound like a country and western song, and to bring in the occasional contemporary riff. More recent musicals have married traditional Broadway with other sound worlds to far stronger effect. Overall, the sound world becomes tiring to listen to and the score feels flattened - by the end I was longing for more colour.

And then there's the ending. By this stage I was pretty completely disengaged and just wanting the thing to be over. To explain the problems spoilers follow. Jud turns up at Curly and Laurie's wedding and presents a box containing a gun to Curly. In so far as anything in what follows is clear I think we must assume that, in this reading, Jud wants Curly to kill him. But the fact that Curly does so, after another interminable pause, I found inexplicable. That Curly and Laurie are spattered in blood as a consequence just struck me as yet more evidence for directors who didn't trust the audience to draw their own conclusions - no, we must have a visual cue that the blood is on them, that they will carry this blood with them for the rest of their lives, etc. 

It's perfectly clear that the directors want to use this production as a vehicle to comment on contemporary issues around sexuality, violence and possibly race in American society. To my mind, as an American historian who watches a lot of live performance trying to do this, this show did not find anything original to say on these points. It's worth pausing here just a moment and considering the show's treatment of race a little further - because it repeats difficulties I've seen in other stagings (normally UK originated ones) seeking to address race in the US. The show is color-blind cast, and most of the time does not suggest this is an environment in which race relations is a central or problematic issue. There were three episodes when the opposite seemed to apply: the dream ballet, Ado Annie's father settling her marriage with the pedlar, the judge overruling the federal marshal in the final trial. The problem with all of these instances is that they are isolated rather than being embedded in a consistent representation of either that character or the broader state of race relations. As a result they lack impact.

I don't dispute for a minute that the original show has a lot of elements that make it challenging to stage today and I think to do other in a production now than to try and engage with them would be foolish. But this attempt came across to me as a dull cocktail of currently popular directorial devices which left me uncaring about any of the characters or relationships. No need to queue for returns.

Housekeeping Note: My party were seated in seats J42-45 (the front row of the upper level immediately above the band). These seats are sold for £58 each - the second price level. I cannot recall any indication when I bought them that the view was restricted and the price certainly doesn't reflect that. But there is a significant restriction to the view and I can only assume nobody involved in pricing went and sat up there for the full run of the show. Not good enough.

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