Saturday, 17 December 2011

true sword to sword

So, the BBC 1984 production of Coriolanus is magnificent and Mike Gwilym is making all the right faces at the right moments. Mike Gwilym is my favourite OH-WHEN-ARE-THEY-GONNA-INVENT-A-TIME-MACHINE? shakespearean actor. Loved his Berowne, loved his Pericles, and his Aufidius is infused with a peculiar sense of weight and tragedy (oh, his face) that I had not found in the character before. No wonder Caius Martius has such a homoerotic crush on him. The Royal Shakespeare Company staging from 2007 with William Houston made me discover this play and it has been on my mind on-and-off since then. Now expectant about Ralph Fiennes' take on the subject I obssess once more. But back 1984: for a tv production -directed by Elijah Moshinsky- this has a couple of gorgeous filmic moments, Act 1 Scene 4 specially, an hypnotic matching of Shakespeare's rhythm of war-language with the images. Alan Howard is more clipped and nervous as the protagonist than I expected, more restless, but his scenes with his mother explain away where the anxiety comes from. FEELINGS. Bottom line: Mike Gwilym makes all the right choices with this.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Painter - Arcola Theatre - 12 Feb 2011

First of all congratulations to the Arcola for their new home on Ashwin Street after ten years on Arcola Street. The new location is easier to access for those of us coming from other, far boroughs, and the building itself is charming, with a derelict and amateur-ish feeling that's easy to fall in love with. Pity about the technical/enviromental difficulties experienced during the play - as in the noise from the street coming in so loud that sometimes it was hard to hear the actors and it was distracting throughout all the play.

And what a pity, because The Painter is a play that creates a very powerful, intimate mood.

TURNER: They'd never have me in their stable anyway. Constable, maybe. Not me. A rough at the court? No. (reading from a review) `Mr Turner, alas, feels the perpetual need to be extraordinary.´ Why would you want to be anything else?

It is rewarding in itself to see a playwright at the top of her game and that's where Rebecca Lenkiewicz is at the moment. Even though The Painter is far from perfect Lenkiewicz writes with such a confidence that it's just a pleasure to watch. Plus she inquires on the biographical/period piece from a modern perspective, writing historical figures as if they were contemporany plays' characters, which is of course the way to write them. This might of course be a particular bias of mine as I am personally very drawn to plays that examine historical events and settings.

The play concerns itself with romantic painter JMW Turner (played by a powerful and understated Toby Jones) and his relationships mainly with two women: Sarah (Niahm Cusak), neighbour and attracted to Turner as much as he is to her, and the prostitute Jenny (a surprising, gorgeous and incandescent Denise Gough), and with the shadow of the relationship with his mother (afflicted with mental illness) cast over the whole play. We meet Turner in 1799 as he is made member of the Royal Academy and begins to lecture students, while disdaining the "fashionables" - painters concerned with "face-painting", dogs, or flowers.

Constraint is a word that came to me watching the play: in a good way. The Painter is gorgeously sober for a piece of drama that deals with the life of an artist (but perhaps Turner, very private, invokes certain austerity himself). First of all the whole play is set within the studio of the painter - with brief glimpses into Turner's lectures at the Academy, done by light changes - beautifully designed by Ben Stones, minimalistic and monochrome. Then the performance by Jones himself works against the stereotype of the passionate artist; he also portrays Turner's arrogance with a matter-of-factly confidence that's hard to question - and I wish the play would have left more space for Tuner's arrogance and his principles of art. And that, for me, is the only weakness in Lenkiewicz's writing, the thing that stops this very good play from becoming a great play: there are too many themes touched upon but not sufficiently explored. The Painter crams a era of mental illnesses (the scenes with Turner's mother fell particularly flat for me), prostitution, slavery, the role of the artist in society, mother-son relationships, infant's death, patronage, snobberish... I felt the play touched on many subjects without them adding to a whole theme, though I liked the idea of it being somehow vignette-esque in its scenes but it lacked the kind of punch or edge that great plays have.

Nevertheless The Painter leave us with some very powerful theatrical moments: mostly in the scenes between Turner and Jenny, moments full of real human warmth and chemistry between the actors, scenes that made us forget the noise of Dalston outside and connect with the stage completely. Those scenes were remarkable pieces of theatre, if the play as a whole wasn't.

other reviews of The Painter:
There Ought To Be Clowns
The Independent

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Clybourne Park - The Royal Court - 27 Aug 2010

There's a very funny sequence in the second half of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park where the character start telling very non-PC jokes to each other. The audience is delighted and uncomfortable at the parade of offensive terms. In a play that deals not just with race and real state but also with terror of appearing racist and the pressure we put on ourselves to seem as unprejudiced as possible it is a moment of great release and impact. Clybourne Park is political theatre more preocupied with asking a variety of questions rather than supplying answers (that is fine by me, I prefer this sort).

The play concerns the story of a house - the first house is set in the 1950s, where the house is sold out for a far cheaper price than it should (and the audience will come to find out why) and the idea of a black family moving in upsets the comfortable, conservative, white community. After the intermission we are in the present day, witnessing the efforts of a young couple who have bought the house and plans to remodel it, while the neighbours are concerned with preserving the historical heritage of the building.

Clybourne Park really has it all to please the Royal Court audience, and most of the non-usuals too: the humour, the political bite, a gorgeous art direction, Dominic Cooke working his magic behind scenes, family secrets, a theatrical meshing of different periods, a flawless cast (impressive Martin Freeman and Sarah Goldberg, and how nice to see Sam Spruell on stage again, a revelation to me in Trafalgar's The Caretaker) and some nice writing (mainly in the second half).

But what the play likes is an edge. I found the first part a bit weak - the family drama was predictable and we never got a clear sense of the characters as real people on one hand and on the other it wasn't satiric enough to be a proper satire. The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is very detailed and believable but what goes on inside is a bit stuffy for my taste. The second half flows so much easily and there's a wonderful ghost moment when both periods mix in a very theatrical twist (that's good, theatre is supossed to be theatrical). Plays where different periods are represented on stage to illustrate a subject or to dig up secret histories seem to work very well - while I was seeing Clybourne Park I was constantly reminded of the best of this examples, the magnificent Three Days Of Rain. Here there were bits that felt heavy-handed (the predictable reappearing of the chest) and the general feeling of the play telling us that we are all a bit racist, really, didn't sit well with me but I liked the interesting questions that it posed. And the jokes were funny.

It never got to be the brilliant theatre event that it could have been, for me, but Clybourne Park is a very enjoyable, entertaining and pretty thoughtful play. The cast is lowkey and very sharp and though Sophie Thompson is getting a lot of press for her role(s) - she had the flashiest parts, after all - the whole cast is perfect, specially in the second part.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

REVIEW: In An Instant, Theatre503, 23 August 2010

 Live a life less ordinary.

Do you have 12 pounds?

Okay, well, if you have them get yourself south of the river to Theatre503 (upstairs at the Latchmere pub) and buy a ticket for In An Instant. It's an evening of new writing - 8 short plays focused on the idea of an unexpected moment that changes your life forever.

You wait for the house to open, sit on the comfortable and well-worn leather couches, sip on your drink and look at all that trendy and beautiful people around you (Is that Samuel Barnett I spot? Yes, it is). Then you go inside the theatre itself and it's tiny - but that's alright, you should be used to that, you love pub theatres, don't you? They are great, they bring back all the rawness of real theatre. But yes, the room is small, so go sit in the first row; don't be afraid of first rows, if you are used to getting day tickets in West End theatres you know of the rewards of first-row theatre-ing. The set is bare: black, two chairs. There will not be much in the way of props or costume during the night but that's fine, listen to the words, look at the actors' faces, that's all you need.

Then it starts.

It starts with HOW I CAME TO BE, written by Adam Barnard and directed Jules Tipton. It's a boy-meets-girl story of sorts. It's not the most original or exciting idea in the world and it sounds like something you might have seen in some writing workshop or a new writing night or something in the Tristan Bates Theatre. But Adam Barnard writes with such charm and wittiness and Nick Gadd and Katie Hayes ar such convincing players that yes, you are charmed. Things are looking good in the room.

Then comes DEBBIE (Who couldn't catch a cold if she tried) by James Graham, directed by Mel Hillyard. Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer genius of this monologue. Maybe it's a pity that it's so early in the evening because it's the best piece of the play, with the one written by Matthew Dunster. It's hilarious and touching and captures the subtle absurdity of teenage despair without looking down on its protagonist. This is a story about a girl who wants to get hit by lightning. Don't worry, she'll tell you why and you'll understand it all. Rebecca Oldfield is simply astonishing as the titular Debbie. You fall in love a bit. Maybe she reminds you of the first time you saw Jessica Raine in theatre, or Pippa Nixon. She makes Debbie quirky and sympathetic and real. This is what happens when pitch-perfect acting meets great writing, and the way James Graham writes here is... Well, it wasn't such a bad idea, coming down to South London on a Monday evening. This monologue reminds you why you love theatre: because it can be this extraordinary.

You are not expecting much AMBIENT NOISE, written by Kenneth Emson and directed by Mel Hillyard again. Maybe because DEBBIE was so perfect that you are expecting a let down. It starts very funny - in fact Richard Maxted is so hilarious that you wonder why he is not in everything. But then you focus on the language, the rhythm of the lines. And hey, wow, that Kenneth Emson sure can write. It's a Morning After story and it turns from funny and well-observed to weird and then sort of touching. You are not sure you get the point of the story completely. It doesn't matter. Richard Maxted and Antonia Kinlay are gorgeous. You are beginning to suspect that every single actor taking part in this play is nothing but extraordinary. In fact Richard Maxted is not only funny but he can give surprising depth to its performance.

QUIZ NIGHT feels perhaps like the most underwritten of the eight plays you see tonight. Written and directed by John Sheerman. It's entertaining and you are entertained despite some bits where the writing doesn't fly as well as it could, and some cheap humour. Nick Gadd, Martin Allanson and Chris Brandon play a trio of friends going to their regular quiz night at the pub, but then there's a twist. The effort to mix genres here is appreciated. You go to the interval quite happy.

When you come back to the little black room it's turn for Matthew Dunster's piece. Matthew Dunster is possibly the most talented writer in UK right now - didn't you go to You Can See The Hills at the Young Vic? Arguably the most powerful play of the last five or six years. You are a bit anxious about this one; Dunster is so good that of course you have certain expectations. You needn't worry: POP! is as brilliant as anything you might have expected. Directed again by Mel Hillyard and performed by Jonathan McGuinness and Rebecca Oldfield. Of course you know Jonathan McGuinness, you've seen him in rehearsed readings here and there, the Soho Theatre, and at the Actors Centre (in fact, you think you remember him in an evening of new writing in which Matthew Dunster also took part). He is always relieable and impressive. True genius. In the same way people like Justin Salinger are geniuses: as in "actors who don't get as much press attention as their obvious talents deserve". McGuinness is indeed impressive (and magnificently low-key) as Rupert, posh City guy hooked on heroin trying to score a hit after work and the only one who can help him is young Jenny, addict and lowlife. The chemistry between the actors works perfectly and you can hardly believe that Rebecca Oldfield can be Jenny as well as Debbie from the earlier piece. POP! takes on a familiar subject for theatre, and it's gritty and it could have easily been clichéd but Dunster is too good for that. You have the feeling this is the kind of play all those gritty plays about drugs wish they could be.

The next piece SNAP, written by Emma Jowett and directed by Jules Tipton, is a dark tale as well (and maybe putting it together with POP! makes sense). It is also a great piece of storytelling - you watch it unfold on the edge of your seat, tense the whole time. It is engaging theatre and to say anything more would be spoiling it. This needs to be said, though: Antonia Kinlay is amazing in it. You begin to suspect you are overusing the world amazing tonight but these plays really deserve it.

Amy Abrahams captures the give-and-take of male friendship very well in HAPINESS IS A CHOICE, directed by John Sheerman. The piece itself might not be extraordinary but the writing and the performances by Martin Allanson and Richard Maxted make it very easy to connect with the characters. The story of James, who changes his behavious suddenly and it pisses his flatmate Dan. Nicely observed.

The last short of the night is EYES FULL OF PORNOGRAPHY by Michael Ross, again under John Sheerman's direction and featuring Chris Brandon and Cameron Slater. Unfortunately this is the weakest play of the group. You don't go with a bitter taste in your mouth because they whole thing has been so rewarding but this piece isn't for you. It's funny at times and the actors do it well but once it's past the plot twist it doesn't have much to offer. It offers cliché but doesn't dissect it succesfully so the characters feel a bit constrained. You get the feeling someone else could have done great work with the idea but as it is the piece remains a bit underwhelming. Nevermind, you don't care. It's all well.

In An Instant comes to London from good Latitude reviews. As you leave the Latchmere pub and wonder which bus will take you north of the Thames from here you mentally thank Theatre503 and Eyebrow Productions for putting this play together. This is what theatre should be about, at its very core. Something fresh, committed with new language, performed by actors full of talent and passion. Even if it's in a tiny room with no set.

And you almost didn't want to come.

So, once again, I ask you: Can you spare 12 quid?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Deathtrap official trailer.

Oh, hi, Claire Skinner, you brilliant thing, can't wait to see you.

I swang by the box office yesterday and they told me they were going to do day tickets (first row) for 25 quid.

Check out the official website.

Friday, 6 August 2010

REVIEW: After the Dance, National Theatre, 4 August

A harsher truth.

Some characters are really hard to empathise with. And Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine, almost surgical job with the lead man of After the Dance. But one suspects that the audience is not meant to care for David but rather watch Terence Rattigan's study of his appalling behaviour as if an insenct under the microscope. The writing is tight but cold and ultimately a bit dull. But one has to admire the dullness as well. Because these people can be very dull in their little tragic lives. (Benedict Cumberbatch is a specialist in repressed douchebags - he can move on now.)

David is appalling, indeed, but not so much out of malice; his shortcoming are, in the end, tragic, and the audience's shortcoming is to expect anything else of the play. David cheats on his wife and we know he didn't resist temptation too much; the girl he falls for is judged cruelly by both characters and audience, who resents the confidence and arrogance of youth (Faye Castelow is perfect in embodying both the spirit of the period and her age). The friend seeing the play besides me really hated her; I didn't, I found easy to forgive her, because she really did what she did for love (or so she thought). David's wife, Joan (brilliant Nancy Carroll, fondly remembered from the underrated Waste at the Almeida) lives all her life in a lie because she is afraid of losing David, but she'd probably have a better chance of keeping him if she had been honest. So much waste, such a tragic missed chance. A play about a lost generation. Adrian Scarborough plays the drunken friend with a keen eye and a big heart, offering commentary to the disastrous relationships, and in the end he achieves some kind of hope of redemption (via moving to grim Manchester).

Rattigan can be brilliant at times but the play lacked dramatic tension and momentum, which okay, I ended up believing it was all on purpose, very modern, or maybe I wanted to like this play so much (Mr.Cumberbatch!) that I liked it against its weaknesses. It was not bland, it was tight, but on the same subject of a lost generation I ended up wishing I was seeing Time and the Conways again (After the Dance was better directed, but then again I really dislike Rupert Goold and everything he does).

Also: Can John Heffernan be my Pip Carter when Pip Carter is not around? (On second thought: Pip Carter, why are you not around? I want you to be on the stage all the time.)

Saturday, 12 June 2010

REVIEW: Ingredient X, Royal Court, 9 June 2010

Anatomy of addiction

There's something about this play that lacks some punch, some theatrical edge that stops it from being a truly good piece. But truth be told in the hands of a lesser dramatist Ingredient X would have turned out an insufferable turkey. The situation is not promising: Three friends (and the boyfriend of one of them) meet up for a fun night in watching the finale of that year's Factor X and of their conversation the general theme of the work comes to light: addiction and how it has left a mark on these women's lives. Katie (Indira Varma) and Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) have suffered from being involved with men addicted to drugs, and even Katie's new partner Frank (James Lance) is a recovering addict himself. The third friend Deanne (Lisa Palfrey) is an alcoholic who refuses to admit she has a problem.

There are some good things going for the play: the very theatrical restraint of it all happening in a night, the car-crash fascination of seeing Deanne control by her addiction, the four perfomances are excellent, and there's some clever dialogue. But there are few surprises, and few memorable moments itself. Indira Varma charms her way through th therapy-babble language of Katie admirably, and James Lance paints a surprisingly understated portrait of a man who is really trying to make his new life work - his last scene, alone, cleaning up after the party, is genuinely touching.

And one can only agree with the point Nick Grosso is trying to make: that alcohol is as much if not more of a curse to Britain as illegal drugs are. He writes flawed, sympathetic human beings and there's much value in that. There's also a lot of value in writing for women of this age - not long ago Lesley Sharp complained in her masterclass at the Haymarket how difficult it is to find lead characters and challenging roles for women of her generation. Grosso has a clever eye for dialogue and offers no easy solution for the characters. Like Frank, they all have to make it day by day, learning from their mistakes. Ingredient X is also a play about mistakes and appalling decisions and how people try to blame those on every one by themselves. It's a nice twist that the character of Indira Varma, who uses all that psycho jargon to explain how addiction is an illness, is also the most resolute of them all to prove that our decisions are always our own, and we have to take responsibility for our issues.

But unfortunately none of this is enough to make the play great. Maybe I'm just burnt out on realism like this: realism itself is not an artistic value and we take at face value that something is good because it's true to life. A play is good because it is good, not because it looks like real life. I can do without all the kitchen-sink, Mike Leigh, social realism stuff the British arts have always been so full of. Ingredient X left me with a big sense of "So what?"; while it wasn't a bad play, and the actors made it worth the money, I didn't feel challenged or illuminated in any way. Real theatre should never leave you untouched.