Sunday, 28 September 2008

RIFLEMIND, Trafalgar Studios, Sept 08

Trafalgar Studios failed to make the hat-trick for us. After the great experiences of Elling and Dealer's Choice we went in to see Riflemind with hope in our hearts (more so since we really love John Hannah), only to have it crushed by reality.

The reality is, this is a bad play, there's no way around it. This story (?) about the strangled reunion of a rock band with their one-time lead musician (now living a normal life far from the glitter of rock glamour) is weak, unfocused and unexciting. None of the characters is particularly well-drawn or particularly interesting and it all looks like a washed-up version of a play (or movie) we've seen a thousand times before. It was predictable, and worse, it was utterly boring.

Poor John Hannah did what he could, with the script he had been given. It's a shame cause he would be amazing in a more worthy enterprise - his skills and charisma made the night almost bearable for the audience. He took the scantilly-written character of John, burned out Scottish singer and songwriter, and he tried to steered him far from the clich├ęs he had been written into. Hannah was a courageous performer but he was ultimately foiled by the low quality of Andrew Upton's writing.

We can also save from the disaster Susan Prior, playing wife to John Hannah's has-been rocker. She wasn't spectacular but she was decent enough, which is more than I can say of the rest of the cast.

For more than 40 pounds the seat I (writer, unemployed) came out of the theatre feeling completely cheated.

The British Theatre Guide.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

CARYL CHURCHILL READINGS: Ice Cream, The Royal Court, 16 Sep 2008

Caryl Churchill and her gorgeous writing was far from my mind when I came to see the reading of her "Ice Cream".

The fact that my favourite actress on the world was going to be in it dominated my mood of the evening. I had already booked tickets for Ivanov so I knew I was going to see her at some point. Having already seen her both at the National Theatre (a magnificent season of Connections) and the Soho Theatre (in the fantastic A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians) one might think this nothing special but my admiration for Miss Riseborough have only grown since I first saw her in Chatroom/Citizenship. Since then she has been in my cult tv favourites Party Animals and Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley.

So nervous we entered the theatre but after an exciting real-life meeting with the lovely Miss Riseborough at the Royal Court Bar (a place of fateful meetings indeed) one could go into the auditorium a little more relaxed.

And of course it's always an special occassion, seeing Andre Riseborough do what she does, which is basically being the most talented actress of her generation and many other generations. "Ice cream" gave her plenty of chances to show off her skills as the story, after a more choral first half, centers on her character, Jaq. She manages to seem quirky and enigmatic yet strangely ordinary. Riseborough navigates through Jaq's rough edges with charm but refusing to sell the character to the audience. Jaq might be a bit lost, but she is not fighting your approval.

This is a strange coming-of-age story and yet it is one indeed, starting out as a culture clash between an American well-to-do couple and their British relatives, the young and down-and-out siblings Jaq and Phil. Another delight of the night was seeing Ben Whishaw take on the role of Phil. We finally understand what all the fuss about this actor was about. He was unexpectedly hilarious and had great acting chemistry with Riseborough, and had a sort of confidence to his manner that is just lovely to see on stage. I, for one, am sold and promise to see everything this man acts in (starting with the National Theatre's ...some trace of her).

Shawn Wallace as Lance, from the American part of the play, was impressive in this reading as well, with Miranda Richardson convincing as his unsatisfied wife.

Like with other Churchill readings I've been to this week I was left astounded at how fresh the writing feels, how well it sounds. I particularly enjoyed how the story tramples the expectations about itself and when we thought it is an American-British relationship statement it turns into a somehow cheap crime mystery and then it changes again into something quiet as we follow Jaq's steps into American. It becomes a road-play of sorts, introspective and surprising.

Caryl Churchill is so hardcore.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

CARYL CHURCHILL READINGS: Three More Sleepless Nights, The Royal Court, 19 Sep 2008

It's funny how a couple of months ago, when I had not open a Caryl Churchill script, I still wondered what all the fuss about her was about, and if she was really worth the hype. And now, the more I read and the more I see of her work, the more I come to understand why she's been so pivotal to British theatre in the last decades.

I wish I had seen the reading of Top Girls as well, one of her best known plays, but money is scarce and I had to choose between that one and this almost-short piece. In case of doubt I'll always pick the one with Lesley Sharp in it. Not only is she my favourite actress but I sincerely believe she is the best British actress nowadays so I knew I was in for a treat. Also, having been absolutely mesmerized by Tom Brooke in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, I wanted to see more of him.

Three More Sleepless Nights follows three scenes between four characters that make up three different couples. The theme of communication, or in this case lack of it, is at the heart of the play. Which was written years before incommunication became the main subject of about 90% of modern theatre plays. But I am beginning to comprehend to what extent Caryl Churchill was and still is ahead of her time.

Churchill wrote Three More Sleepless Nights in 1980 but it is astounding how modern it sounds nowadays. The sound of it. What Churchill does with words very few authors can achieve. There's a very peculiar poetry to it. The first scene, between Sharp and Ron Cook, with overlapping dialogue which had to be timed to the fraction-of-a-second (and it was, despite this being a rehearsed reading), leaves the audience with the mouth open. But it's not just technical trick of it, it's the observation, the details, how well-drawn the characters are in just a few lines.

The reading was directed by debbie tucker green, which is another treat in itself, she is a great writer.

The cast was flawless. It's always an excercise in amazement, watching Lesley Sharp work. She is just one of those actors who are just a pleasure to watch, whatever she is doing, because she is so skillful and at the same time she makes it looks effortless. Ron Cook admirably stood his ground against her, he was pretty incredible too. And no, my first impression of Tom Brooke wasn't an illusion. This is one to look for. I loved the quietness and quirkiness he embedded into the character, and the very peculiar delivery he has, that voice. I am completely converted. He is the theatre discovery of the year so far.

As an aside note I should say I was very happy to take home with me Lesley Sharp's script of the play. She kindly gave it to this faithful fan. Aw. She also introduce me to Dominic Cooke and I shooke hands with the man I dream of working for someday. Amazing theatre experience.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

CARYL CHURCHILL READINGS: Owners, The Royal Court, 16 Sep 2008

The Caryl Chruchill readings at the Royal Court might just be our favourite theatre happening of the year. Such an admired author and our knowledge of her was so limited: we had, of course, read "Light Shining In Buckinghamshire" as part of our accelerated Course On The Figure Of Edward Sexby to prepare for this fall Channel 4's The Devil's Whore. We thought "Light Shining In Buckinghamshire" a masterpiece but decided to wait for the reading to get a broader taste of Churchill.

The readings kicked off with "Owners" and if the West End Whingers often value productions by the "Cranford-factor" we have decided to do the same but with a "Life On Mars-factor" -wait for the upcoming review of "Ivanov" on that subject- and thus were excited by the prospect of seeing Ian Puleston Davies on stage: not only did he contribute to the Life On Mars-factor (and from one of our favourite episodes!) but he also penned the very nice tv-movie Dirty Filthy Love with the adorable Shirley Henderson, and he was part of the cast of Conviction, a cult show for us*.

What in the end comes through in these readings -apart from the magnificence, courage and modernity of Churchill's writing- is what a great ensemble the Court has attracted to do them. Money couldn't pay these actors in a normal production.

Crisis in the UK! Rehearsed readings is the answer!

Fine by us. The decision of putting these readings on the Downstairs Stage is a compliment to the author but we think the mood would have been more fitting if these had been done Upstairs. Or maybe we just favour Upstairs every time (it's one of the unwritten rules of Going To The Court: the plays Downstairs are usually shite and the plays Upstairs are amazing, and so far in our experience we concur). It's not like it was packed all nights.

But anyway, "Owners". As the first one Churchill wrote it is also the one we rated the least: we enjoyed it the whole time and it has great moments of brilliance -specially in the character of Alec- but it is also a bit uneven at parts. We are not that fascinated by the house market as a whole, or the baby plot. In general we dislike plots with babies in them, or female characters with motherly instincts. Clegg's character and the whole butcher set up reminded us a lot of The Bush's "Tinkerbox" and we wondered if Churchill is of any influence on Lucy Kirkwood. Maybe we should stop obssessing over Lucy Kirkwood.

The cast was in top form, even if this was just a reading, but it really looked like they had rehearsed quite a bit, so kudos to April De Angelis for the directing. Justin Salinger, in particular, made an impression.

* The inclusion of the Conviction pic on top serves a double purpose as it turns out, what with William Ash going to visit us with the production of You Can See The Hills at the Young Vic, October 14-18. Yes, yes, to visit us particularly, shut up, as we are his biggest fans. This is clearly going to be the theatrical event of the fall, given our weakness for Mancunian accents.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Romeo And Juliet GALA PERFORMANCE, Middle Temple Hall, 12 Sep 2008

They had FREE CHAMPAGNE AND SUSHI. If that doesn't contitute a top theatre experience I don't know what does. Sushi! We were beyond us with glee. We drank and ate and approached Max Bennett in pure fangirl fashion. We also caught glimpse of OUR HEROINE Tamara Harvey in the champagne reception. Ah, high life.

The readings were also a treat, with Corin Redgrave approaching the sonnets, and Fione Shaw indulging us with our favourite twentieth century poet.

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It's so elegant
So intelligent
'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
'With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
'What shall we ever do?'
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

We cannot understimate the power of such a voice as Fiona Shaw's has when reading "The Wasteland". It felt somehow appropriate that in this place where Shakespeare once set foot on we should hear words from Eliot, a kindred spirit. Once more the Middle Temple Hall worked its magic on us, and we should hope to see more productions in this stage.

Now that we knew where the production's strong point were we could pay them proper attention, namely: Will Kemp, the swordfighting, Max Bennett's silence, the costumes, the sad fate of Paris, the scenes with Juliet and her parents... And we pondered and pondered and ended up deciding that Nicolas Tennant is possibly THE genius of the production, with his understated and gorgeous friar. This sudden love of ours for Nicolas Tennant, whom we had never seen on stage before, has nothing to do with our discovery that he took part in the National Theatre Studio's workshop on Simon Bent's "The Trouble With Girls" under the direction of our favourite director Paul Miller back in 1997. Or maybe it has to do a bit with that. Theatre is not for the rational.

This time around we were a bit more convinced by Juliet Rylance's performance than the first time. Despite other reservations we might have about her Juliet (the age thing, the slight lack of warmth and teenage doubts in her character) one thing we do love about her: she speaks the Shakespearean verse with wit and precision, and it's just a joy to hear her go on through the poetry of the piece.

After the performance (and some more successful fangirling of Will Kemp and Max Bennett) the whole company and audience walked the Temple streets up to the Temple Church, the way lit by cute oil lamps. It was quite magical and once inside the church Mark Rylance read some Temple prays. Very neat. Worth our money, the whole evening.

Friday, 12 September 2008

In-i, National Theatre, 11 Sep 2008

We have to start by saying we know nothing at all about dance. We know nothing about ballet and much less about modern dance. So this play might be pure crap and totally unimaginative and we wouldn't have a clue.

Ignorant as we are we pretty much loved this.

Or we just were extremely happy to get first row seat at 10 pounds.

Either way it was a great show: low key and intimate, despite the size of the stage. The bare bones of theatre there, two people and shadows and light and darkness. And their bodies as a way of communicatting. Akram Khan turned out to be an excellent actor on top of a great dancer. As for Juliette Binoche, we all know what her acting skills can do, but we didn't know she could be so expressive dancing as well.

A delightful night out.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Factory's Hamlet, The Globe, 6 Sep 2008

(Note: This was the first time I had seen a play in the Globe after the "As You Like It" production of more than a decade ago -yes, the one with David Tennant, funnily enough- when I was a wee teenage who couldn't speak two words of English but fell in love with Mister Shake-scene anyway. So coming back here to see "Hamlet" was bound to be an emotional experience)

Or not so emotional. Thank God for the Factory and its will to put the silliness back in Will. Posters and t-shirts were bought, cruel jokes about Josh Harnett were made, night buses from St. Paul's were chased at four in the morning, and there was a stuffed deer on stage. In short: a blast of a night out.

Such a mirth-inducing anniversary for The Factory!

Having the performance start at midnight set the tone for the night: there was a very healthy and childish air of mischief from the start. Sometimes we get too caught up in the medium's complications and we forget what theatre is about: a bunch of guys putting on a play and a bunch of people who go see them and have a good time. And a good time we did have. Even if it sounds blasphemous to behold "Hamlet" as a comedy, we welcomed all the silliness and cheap laughs of the long night.

The actors of the Factory always manage to remind us that yes, acting Shakespeare is hard but it's also a lot of fun. Their exercises do not only refresh the text but also the audience's preconceptions about how it should be played. The obstructions are there not because of a whim, they are there to remind both the actors and the audience that the text should always be a living thing, and in the case of "Hamlet" -the most complex, gorgeous, infuriating, rich, confusing text in western literature- the text welcomes all these variations, for its so flexible that it survives radical interpretation stronger than before.

Love the summary of the night's obstructions in the Factory's Wiki thread by one of the actors:

Well walking out in front of a baying crowd at the Globe was An Event in itself – Obstruction No 1 of the week was All That Love.

I Love
II One person on the stage level at a time (including that bloody extension)
III Voices on the balcony and bodies (those who won the toss) on the stage.
IV Doubling (or tripling or quadrupling) of characters a choix.
V John Boden played music of HIS choice – characters to move but not speak to the music, then freeze and speak when the music stopped.

The first obstruction pervaded the entire show. How lovely. Also dangerous – at times it was raining props. TC asked that the props in Act One come from the balconies not the more accessible yard… so they came – largely unsolicited and without warning.
Of the props thrown to the stage the most celebrated one was the stuffed deer that the actors playing Claudius and Polonius used to hide behind and spy on Hamlet. It made us think what a great prop it would make in a performance of "Love's Labour Lost" when the Prince declares he has been hiding behind "this bush". It prompted our only intellectual moment of the night, thinking how all the Shakespeare plays are somehow connected even via stuffed deers.

All the actors were, needless to say, exceptional. This was our second foray into The Factory adventures (having seen the Riverside Studios "Hamlet" in the spring) and we can see how capable and committed (and okay, brave) these actors are. We were specially enthused by the guy who played Claudius and the one who lost the toss with him but got to play the part in the Voices obstruction and the Doubling obstruction. This very last obstruction seemed like the most fun to us, with different versions of the character interacting with each other, almost Python-esque in spirit.

The party -oh, it was a party- ended very late and the experience of walking through the streets of London at night was in itself, very theatrical, specially crossing the Millenium Bridge in the darkness.

From the Factory "official rulebook":
17. Always offer the most beautiful versions of ourselves.
Some nights it's hard being skeptical with theatre.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Romeo And Juliet, Middle Temple Hall, 3 Sep 2008

But, let them measure us by what they will,
We'll measure them a measure, and be gone.

We all have these experiences in which an actor illuminates a character we hadn't care much for before. The title of this post could very well be "How I Learned To Relax And Started Loving Benvolio".

Max Bennet's performance puts in focus this one of the most overlooked characters of the play. His Benvolio is youthful but wise, charming but discrete; when Romeo gets banished you really get a sense of tragedy around him, now with his best friend killed and his other best friend banished, Benvolio stands totally and utterly alone. It's all done in the subtle gestures, the way Mister Bennet just stands there after the banishment, defeated, his tight, clipped tones.

First of all, this was our first time at a Theatre of Memory show. If this "Romeo and Juliet" is anything to judge them by, we are pretty sure we will be repeating whenever. The emphasis was on the haunting location, the Middle Temple Hall - haunting because it's one of the few places where one can be sure Will Shakes himself set foot on. We will not pretend we weren't excited by that. The preoduction was heavy on the pretty costumes but the prettiness worked very well. The white and gold of the clothes matched the lyricism of the play perfectly. (We wish they would have managed to get some blood on, though).

Tamara Harvey has quite a reputation and now we come to understand why. It's easy to foresee we'll be trying to attend to all of her shows in the future. The work with the actors obviously shines through, and in a production like this it would be too easy to get caught up in the place and costumes and all kinds of shiny things.

So the production was flawless and inspired, and the cast was very nicely put together. Will Kemp is everything you might want in a Mercution and a bit more: charming to the point of sickness, light-headed and light-limbed. There's something desperated in his Mercutio: the character must have really low self esteem to push himself like that and be a show off and just try to charm everybody. Oh, well, poor bastard.

Santiago Cabrera was more competent than expected. He had a good Shakesperean diction, and was likeable enough for one of the less liakeable characters in Shakespeare. Romeo has always been a kind of whiny moron, but he has poetry enough to pull that off. Meanwhile Juliet Rylance rubbed us the wrong way, even if she was very competent. Her Juliet was not teenage-y at all, and she was fesisty but not vulnerable.

Of the rest of the cast special mention deserved by Nicolas Tennant -surperb- and the wonderful Michael Brown, whose career we are going to follow closely from now on, he makes a perfect Paris, all uptight and clueless and sweet and always the innocent bystander. Paris has always been our favourite character in the play and we can't for the life of us understand why Juliet would want to marry Romeo instead of him.

The swordfighting was very good. We have been seeing a lot of good swordfighting this year, what with the two Hamlets and this. We are nothinbg if not shallow and good swordfighting is the key of any Shakespeare production for us.

We pretty much agree with everything said in the review by Interval Drinks. In particular the part about the show being hardly revelatory but enjoyable.

For us it will always be the show that Max Bennett stole. We'll have to keep an eye on him.

*photo by Alex Guelff

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Hedda, The Gate, 2 Sep 2008

Yes, yes, we definitely like Lucy Kirkwood.