Sunday, 29 November 2009

Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse, 27 Nov 2009

Unlike other fellow Spaniards in the audience for last Friday's performance, I wasn't particularly protective of Calderón de la Barca's masterpiece. Sure, like all Spanish people, I had to study it at school, and even during my time with the college school theatre we had a shot or two at Segismundo's inmortal soliloquy. But I was not worried or bothered about what kind of faithfulness Helen Edmunson could show in her translation.

It is a very good translation, too. The actors, I can guess less aware then some in the audience as to who or what was De la Barca, chose to deliver Edmunson's rich and gorgeous dialogue as if they were doing Shakespeare. That proved to be the right choice as well. Like most Shakespeare, Life is a Dream is at times brilliant, absurd, shamelessly uninterested in plot and surprisingly strange. De la Barca's play is very charged, philosophically, and that's one of the reasons of its endurance. His characters are sometimes too thinly-written and the narrative arch is uneven, making for a second half that is much weaker than the first.

With all the inherent flaws of the play, this is a production that makes good use of its virtues and it is also very Donmar-ish, if such thing exists. Sometimes I think the Donmar is overhyped but then it always delivers - at least the Donmar Warehouse does (let us forget the horrendous Donmar West End production of Hamlet, which still brings on nightmares in my house). This one doesn't fly as high as Dimetos but Jonathan Munby's Life is a Dream is handsome, engaging and thoroughly entertaining.

As a fan of minimal set designs I was happy to be met by Angela Davies' dark and damp stage, its bareness in perfect synch with the play's metaphorical nature. The live music by Ansuman Biswas added perfect effect as well. When it comes to production values no one can argue that the Donmar always gets it right (unless we are talking about Hamlet *shivers*) and this is no exception. Once more, at times, I thought I was witnessing some RSC's version of Shakespeare, but with a lot more charm.

As for the acting, Dominic West stroke the perfect balance between princely pride and a kind of rude, savage energy. He was suprisingly funny too. The transformation in the character in the second half and his hurried decisions in the climax didn't ring quite true but that's a problem of the writing rather than Mr.West's. Other than that he was up to the challenge and turned out a really commanding presence on stage. I had always imagined Segismundo to be a lot more fragile but Dominic West brought a caged-animal quality to his acting that, although not my idea of the character, convinced me completely.

The rest of the cast was solid and brilliant. Glad to see Kate Fleetwood on stage again, after how much we liked her in Rupert Goold's Macbeth. She is so fierce, it's a joy to see her act. Great Lloyd Hutchinson as well, getting on another great Donmar production after impressing us with his Antonio in the West End's Twelfth Night. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening was Rupert Evans, who hadn't impressed us in film or tv ever and whom we missed at the Bush's Broken Space Season last year; he was particularly flawless, hilarious and grabbing the verse and making it his own to the very last syllable. That should teach us not to judge just from what we see on the telly...

Bottom line: high value entertaiment, worth every penny of its (decently priced) ticket. Helen Edmunson turned in a lively translation & she even did quite alright when approaching what's arguably the best-known and loved monologue in the history of Spanish theatre:
Oh wretched me! Unhappy me!
Dear Lord in Heaven, tell me please,
what harm does my existence mean
that I should be so cruelly used
as this? That I was born I do
confess, and being born is Man's
most henious crime, deserving
of severest judgement, yet and yet
I cannot grasp nor comprehend
what further crime I did commit
that I should be condemned
to such extremes of punishment.
For are not all men born, as I?

The Guardian.
The Independent.
The Stage.
The Telegraph.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Pains of Youth, National Theatre, 11 Nov 2009

It says everything about my take on Pains of Youth that the real highlight of the night was seeing Gillian Anderson on my route to the toilet during the interval. And I don't like Gillian Anderson. Not one bit.

It's a shame, too, this production, because I was fairly excited about my second Katie Mitchell after ...some trace of her blew my theatrical mind last year. And I was also excited to see George Streatfeild after so many years - he was the first West End actor that left a lasting impression on me, when I was visiting London with my college friends and caught a revival of Journey's End. And of course Martin Crimp is one of my favourite writers.

So, this production had everything going to for it (including Leo Bill in it, memorable for his rendering of the word "pimp" in arguably the best tv drama ever made, Julian Jarrold's "Crime and Punishment", but I digress). I went into the Cottesloe theatre with hope in my heart - this was a stage that had rarely failed to enchant me so I was confident and trsuting.

Boy was I wrong.

I haven't been so thoroughly bored by a play since... well, since Riflemind, and that's saying something. While I appreciated what Katie Mitchell was trying to do with the direction and set design, the fault was not in the production - or in the underused cast, full of brilliant actors (like Cara Horgan, who needs to go on to better things) none of which were able to make me connect with the characters. Only Streatfeild managed to resonate in any way with the amoral, charming and manipulative Freder, a character who probably deserved a better play, too.

The story concerns a bunch of medical students in Vienna in the 1920s and there's much neurosis and promiscuity. Some of its themes must have been quite shocking when it was first staged (like Desiree's lesbian desire for Marie, or suicide) but sound trite and merely sensationalist now, without any real heart behind the story. I don't know if Martin Crimp's version is mistakingly dull or if that's the best he could do with the original but there was none of the sharpness and poetry we can normally find in the author. The characters are self-indulging and ridiculous and not in a way that's entertaining or provokes debate. You just want them so shut up.

In short, a real waste of money and time, and one of the biggest disappointments of the season.

The Independent.
The Guardian.
The Telegraph.
Sans Taste.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Royal Court Upstairs celebrations + Andrew Scott alert

The Royal Court is celebrating 40 years of its more intimate space this week with a series of panels where writers, directors, designers and actors will talk about their experiences Upstairs.

Here's the program:
Tuesday 3 November, 7pm
The Ripple Effect

Five authors of ground-breaking Theatre Upstairs plays discuss their work.
Chair: Mark Ravenhill
Panel includes Bola Agbaje, Winsome Pinnock, Marius von Mayenburg, Snoo Wilson

Wednesday 4 November, 7pm
Is Small Beautiful?
The founder of the Theatre Upstairs, and it’s first Artistic Director discuss programming and directing in the space with more recent Artistic and Associate Directors.
Chair: Jeremy Herrin
Panel includes Max Stafford Clark, William Gaskill, Ramin Gray, Nicholas Wright

Thursday 5 November, 7pm
Infinite Worlds in a Black Box
Designers and other practitioners share how they have explored the potential and approached the limitations of the space over forty years.

Chair Paul Handley
Panel includes Hildegard Bechtler, Jeremy Herbert, Ian Rickson, Ultz

Friday 6 November, 7pm
Close Encounters
Actors discuss the unique experience of defining roles for the first time in the bold, challenging, sometimes notorious work that has originated in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Chair: Daniel Evans
Panel: Sian Brooke, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Mays, Sophie Okonedo, Andrew Scott

Notice that Andrew Scott will take part in the last panel, which is very exciting of course. Wonder what he'll have to say about the stage.

My own relationship with the Theatre Upstairs has been more positive than with the space Downstairs (which is always a hit-or-miss). I love its smallness, I have always preferred smaller spaces. I first came up those stairs to see the double bill of plays from Sweden and Ukraine "The Good Family"/"The Khomenko Family Chronicles". It was a momentous occassion not just because it was my first contact with an space I love so (and an space I hope to have my plays on someday) but also because it was the first time I saw Harry Lloyd in theatre and since then he's become one of my favourites.

I wish I had gone more often there (& most of the time it was for readings and discussions) but nevertheless it's one of my favourite theatre spaces in London, if not my favourite.