Twelfth Night @ Shakespeare’s Globe: The Wind and the Rain

The fact that so many people are going to hate Emma Rice’s production of Twelfth Night makes me like it all the more. There is *gasp* amplified sound and *shock* artificial lighting. It is certainly very different to the last Globe production, the all-male affair with Rylance as Olivia. I checked, in this production, it’s at least 10 minutes before we get any verse, ten minutes involving a dance routine with sailors and raucous renditions of the YMCA and We Are Family. Any suspicion that Rice may have compromised in her final season evaporates instantly – not that this feels remotely like a sequel to last year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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It begins on a cruise, some point in the late 70s-early 80s. There’s sequinned jumpsuits, mullets, sailor outfits, leather jackets, a glittery drag queen – the works. The soundtrack is disco, the mood is anarchic, the thing couldn’t be camper if it tried. And then the ship sinks. Woops.

Illyria appears to be somewhere off Scotland. There’s kilts, and Scottish accents scattered around, but it’s not an idea that’s pushed too far. Place largely falls away, which is fine, because it’s not as though Illyria is the most fleshed out of locations. Characters are brought out to drive the narrative.

Honestly, I don’t know the text of Twelfth Night well enough to determine what exactly had been cut. I think a fair bit of Feste was scissored out. Olivia certainly seemed more prominent in this production, although I don’t know that the text had been edited around her as much as the performance was genuinely funny and memorable. And, this being a Rice production, there was a far bit of deviance from the text, plenty of ad-libs (or apparent ad-libs) although the original pronouns remain intact.

As with all three of Rice’s productions I’ve seen at the Globe, Twelfth Night is marked by a complete clarity of storytelling. She uses music almost constantly (it being the food of love, after all) and uses strong characterisations (at least among the men) that would probably play as caricatures against another canvas. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Marc Antolin) needs only to walk on before he gets a laugh. I think it’s a combination of the campiness, the walk, the hair and the lisp. But, this never seems to work against the text, yes the gags are often visual but they don’t feel cheap.

I definitely get the sense that telling a good story is the most important thing to Rice. Her work is unashamedly populist. Twelfth Night, like last year’s Midsummer and 946, is joyous, warm and romantic. There’s not a whiff of the academic about it, but it’s not apolitical. I’m not sure if the casting is gender-blind or gender-conscious, but either way there are women playing significant male characters – and that’s without mentioning the gorgeously-voiced Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. I suppose the 21st century of a court clown in a drag queen. Someone more intelligent than I should write about how Rice treats the cross-dressing in the play, because while it’s clearly a crucial part of the plot, it’s never made a big deal of. When I think of how big a fuss was made of Tamsin Grieg playing Malvolia, it’s interesting to see how Rice does it without any fanfare.

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Which brings me on to Malvolio. Apparently he’s the most interesting character in Twelfth Night for me, because he’s the only one I seem to write about.

Like in the NT’s recent production, Malvolio is played by a woman. Unlike the NT’s recent production, Malvolio is not transformed into a woman. Instead, Katy Owen plays him in drag, as a sort of middle-aged, middle class man with ideas above his station. He’s of another era, vaguely Edwardian, probably born into a line of service with an accompanying sense of entitlement (conveniently forgetting that he himself is not the master.) He looks like he’d go foxhunting, put it that way.

I bring up the Edwardian era because there’s something of that vaudevillian period in Owen herself. There’s something ancient about her, as is there something incredibly childlike. A total character actress, capable of believably playing a fairy, a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged man purely by shifting her features ever so slightly. In Midsummer it was the eyebrows, in 946 her pout, and here it’s a finger, restless and ceaselessly tapping, timekeeping probably. Yes, she is an actress that plays in broad strokes (her entrance is far more openly contemptuous and villainous that Tamsin Grieg’s was) but it’s the tiny things she does that transform her.

Malvolio is made both more monstrous and more pitiful than I had imagined. Comically monstrous, screaming in a audience member’s face was a highlight, and genuinely monstrous, Malvolio is clearly hated by the rest of the staff. But just when you’re rooting for Malvolio to get his comeuppance, pantomime style, his bottom lip starts to tremble, and Owen gives you a man completely without self-confidence. It’s brilliant work.

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Do I think it’s a production that works entirely… probably not. There’s certainly things I’ve already pushed to the back of my mind. But there are few better or more anarchic storytellers working on such a grand scale in London right now, and if this is Rice’s Shakespeare swansong, it’s a good one.

And a jig! There was a jig! It was definitely a solid 9/10. A 10/10 looks like this btw.

 

Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

Manwatching @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Oh Captain My Captain

I’d never been up to the Royal Court Upstairs space before this year. Now I’m obsessed. I want to see everything there. It’s such a fluid space, and for this the audience is literally stacked against the performer, he’s under interrogation. Which is only appropriate.

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I thought a lot about whether it was worth writing about Manwatching. Not because it wasn’t worth my time, or that it wasn’t any good – far from it. It’s brilliant. But it’s so specifically about one night, one man, that writing about it feels like an act of betrayal. Even by writing about it I’m potentially jeopardising part of its intent, ideally, no one in the room would have a clue what’s coming. But sod it. Every night is unique, so whatever I tell you, it will still be different tonight, and tomorrow.

An unprepared man walks onto the stage, and introduces himself to the audience. His name is Mark Thomas. We nod in acknowledgment. He wears a ‘sashay away’ shirt. This makes me smirk. He quickly describes what is about to happen. The stage manager, Charlotte, activates the printer, which proceeds to churn out the script. Mark gets a woman on the front row to take his picture with the printer. He attempts to take one of the audience – except he’s out of time, the script has printed. He puts on his glasses, glances at the first page, and begins to talk.

Manwatching is a monologue, written by a female playwright who has chosen to remain anonymous, something she chooses to address in the piece. Having it sight read by a different male comedian each night is certainly a gimmick, but it’s a great gimmick. It so effortlessly inverts the traditional heterosexual power dynamic, relying totally on this man’s trust in an idea. And we, as an audience, go into the space knowing this. There’s at least some part of us that’s hoping to see someone get embarrassed. In fact, particularly as a man, there’s something vaguely self-flagellant about being an audience member in the first place, and probably in agreeing to read it out as a performer.

And let me just say – gimmick aside – the text is really good. Really good. Brutally honest, linguistically so clear, and shot through with hilarious and cringe inducing passages, including anecdotes about giving bad head in a bathroom and wet-dreaming about a half-lion, French, Andy Samberg-lookalike. It’s the kind of text that is funny however its done, a thesis I tested with my housemates later that night, as the script (only available after the show to minimise spoilers) was passed around and we each read sections from the text. It works because all it needs is the unknown, a sense of risk, someone willing to potentially humiliate themselves.

When you put it like that, it sounds cruel. Like, let’s put a dude onstage, pull his pants down, and laugh at him. Except its nothing like that at all. The audience is warm, not hostile. This is so important, because as brilliant as the text is, it’s only an ingredient in this experience. The audience cannot be malicious, because if it is, then the whole thing falls apart. Thomas, a particularly political comedian, appears largely unfazed by the text, by which I mean he is never made visibly uncomfortable (at least to my collection.) When he does momentarily fluster, it’s because he’s stumbled on a line, and not the lines that might embarrass the reader (looking at you, “set of hanging enamel spoons.”) But he is unafraid to go back over a line, to give a better reading – not necessarily to get a bigger laugh but to just give it greater clarity. I can’t see this happening with an audience baying for blood.

Occasionally, he does throw a line at the audience, once in response to the text “that’s fucking brilliant,” and once in response to the audience “I love that you’re nodding.” And then there’s a bit at the end that I won’t spoil because it’s brilliant but he actually had to stop because he was laughing so hard.

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I was thinking about whether this piece is feminist, or whether it was sort of ‘politely’ feminist where the piece thinks it’s more feminist than it actually is. It’s definitely feminist (I’m aware of the ironies of a dude making this claim.) Laura Mulvey wrote about how in narrative it is the man who is active and the woman passive, and how for a woman to be considered active she must adopt masculine traits. Manwatching totally subverts this. It is absolutely the female voice that is active, in the text it is always about the woman, and the man – interchangeable, unprepared, suspended in tension – is rendered passive in a theatrical space where he is traditionally privileged.

The liveness ignites this; as great fun as Manwatching is to read amongst friends (the Anonymous Woman suggests it as a quirky option for a first date) it relies on an audience that doesn’t know each other. There’s less collective hostility, and a palpable sense of excitement even. Certainly, the women in the audience were cackling away, in recognition, in approval, I don’t know. There were absolutely moments I winced at – the first couple of minutes, in particular.

Manwatching is a brilliantly funny, sharply political monologue in a purely theatrical form. I loved it. I’d love to see it again, but I’m not sure how that would work. It should be a singular experience for everyone, I think.

SEE IT. IT’S GOING TO BE IN EDINBURGH.

This Beautiful Future @ Yard Theatre: France, Feathers and Fascists

I had no excuse to miss this one. Everyone* had been raving about This Beautiful Future at this tiny little place called the Yard, which happens to be not-very-long-on-the-bus away from where I live. I had to go. I mean, I wasn’t threatened with physical violence, but it was going to happen.

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I can’t lie, I wasn’t instantly enamoured with it. I was sat in this space – new to me, smelling of wood and heat, in the middle of the fecking Stratford hinterlands – and suddenly there are two people introduced via surtitles saying hello to the audience. The play starts and there’s karaoke and a girl running around the stage and a boy in the bed and a whole cacophony of things, set and sound and light and human.

All this confusion then stops abruptly. For the next half an hour we’re witnessing an encounter between aforementioned boy and girl, in August 1944, in the north of France. He – Otto – is a 15-year-old German soldier, she – Elodie – is French and a couple of years older. And I found them so unbelievably annoying, until I remember that teenagers are unbelievably annoying, and then it dawned on me that I was watching the most convincing teenage performances I’ve probably ever seen. Both actors (Hannah Milward and Bradley Hall) give beautifully observed and articulated performances that so perfectly capture teenage awkwardness and sexuality it actually pisses me off.

Rita Kalnejais’ script is sparse, short bursts of rhythmic language with massive gaps of awkwardness in between. It looks like Annie Baker on the page but it seeks to stretch rather than emulate reality. Basically, for 45 minutes I was enjoying every element of the production (directed by Jay Miller) separately but still wasn’t convinced.

Then there’s part two (Kalnejas’ script is split into 5 parts rather than scenes) and the cacophony of ridiculousness makes sense. The parts start to telescope and collapse in on each other. Linearism goes out the window. The production starts to cohere; as the narrative fractures, the disparate elements of the production are drawn together as the lives of the characters disintegrate.

OH AND THEN there’s an absolutely gorgeous bit at the very end. Just as you think the world of the play has become incredibly bleak, Miller releases joy back into the room in the form of *SPOILER* tiny little chicks. They flap onto the stage, apparently so delicate we’re not allowed to applaud until they’ve been rounded back up. Although this is a dark play, and upsetting things happen, it’s done with imagination and joy and a sense of fun and humour. It’s also – to its credit – done with a sense of unabashed and unashamed romance. You do find yourself grinning at this couple, even if they are fecking annoying, and even though we know that whatever they share cannot last, for any number of reasons we conjure in our heads.

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I’ve thought a lot about the title. This Beautiful Future. Three different emphases, this – belonging to who? Beautiful – what about it? Neither of the characters’ stories end particularly well. And Future. What future? This play only exists in the present – by which I mean the only thing that happens in reality is the night in the bedroom. Everything else, the aftermath, potential futures and thoughts, it’s all filtered through microphones. It’s just voices, once removed. It’s real, or at least feasible, but it achieves 2 things. The first is that what Elodie and Otto describe through the mics is made all the more horrifying; with no physicality to distract us from the text it becomes far more upsetting. The second is that is reinforces the idea that it’s only the ‘present’ i.e. the night in the bedroom that really matters. As if, that night made what came next worth it.

And the idea of future, and utopia. Elodie seems more contemporary, she doesn’t care about anything. She’s indifferent towards everything, ambivalent even. Her only absolute conviction is in that moment with Otto. Otto, on the other hand, ties his future to an ideology and teenage, male(?) idealism. And as much as we like Otto, it’s impossible to separate him with the regime he represents with passion. He may well be in the war because of desperation, but his conviction in his beliefs is as strong as Elodie’s indifference. And of course, she knows the Nazis have as good as lost the war in France. Otto has no idea.

It’s a short, sharp, romantic, joyous piece that bounces ideas around, grounded by a couple of brilliant performances. I can’t believe I haven’t talked about how they got the audience to sing along to Someone Like You. I liked it a LOT.


*here’s some of the pieces, all of which are better than mine: http://darkerneon.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/this-beatiful-future-or-how-i-forgave.html, http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/this-beautiful-future-yard-theatre.html, Meg Vaughan’s newsletter.

 

Photo by Richard Lakos.

Angels in America @ National Theatre: Heaven is a Place on Earth

It would have taken a hurricane, the catastrophic failure of the London Underground, and probably a tidal wave to stop me getting to Angels in America. I’ve already written about my excitement here, and about some of my readings of the text here, so I’m restricting myself to only writing about this production. And it’s bloody good.

If you’re not familiar with Angels in America, it’s essentially the story of Prior Walter, a man who at the start of the play tells his boyfriend Louis that he has AIDS. Louis works at the Court of Appeals with Joe, who is married to Harper. They’re both Mormons, but Joe is a closeted gay man. Joe works for a (real) man called Roy Cohn – who is also diagnosed with AIDS. There’s also Hannah, Joe’s mother, and Belize, Prior’s ex-boyfriend. And the Angel. And a whole bunch of periphery characters played by the same actors. The play charts their various interactions, how the relationships between them form and are destroyed.

Prepare the way – here be production spoilers in abundance.

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If Marianne Elliott has a speciality, it is in grounding the language of a text and heightening the visual landscape encapsulating it. We saw it in War Horse, Curious Incident, and Husbands and Sons; these pieces have human language often chasing realism, so she gets her actors to make psychological sense while simultaneously stretching the physical space into something theatrical. It is much the same with Angels in America, which is a good fit for her method, as the language escalates from human subtleties to massive philosophical ideas in seconds. The production just oozes confidence, is stylish but not overly stylised, and focuses the attention onto the story, onto the actor.

The first two-and-a-bit acts of Millennium Approaches take place on a downstage wagon with three turntables running the width of the stage; rooms with sliding windows spin in and out of the light, framing and reframing the characters. The horizontal axis of the Lyttelton is emphasised. Corridors blur into each other, walls are incomplete, the rooms and offices are the same, but not. It’s domestic, not realistic. Ian MacNeil’s set chooses (correctly, I think) to ignore the idea of ‘New York’ altogether. There’s no Empire State Building here, far more important is the idea of the city, and cities in Angels in America are places of death, misery, and abandonment. Were it not for the wide demographic representation, Angels could be taking place anywhere.

When we go to Antarctica, this all changes. The wagon tracks back, the domestic shrinks into the darkness of the rear stage, calling our attention to the obscured realities within. The snow falls  and the skeletal metal structure suspended in the air looms closer. The physical rooms are still just in reach, visible in the distance, but now it looks as though the domestic must force itself into the vastness of space; the characters are flung into the abyss. The stage deepens, the space expands and the play becomes far bleaker.

It feels like three Elliott shows in one; the common thread in the design of her previous work seems to be an attempt to cohere the landscape through one character’s sensibilities, but such an approach does not work with a play as disparate as Angels, so she uses three (maybe four) different visual landscapes to tell the story. There are the linear turntables, the emotion-exposing Antarctic, the Brechtian emptiness (the snow machines of Antartica are hidden, the rain machine later on is exposed for the audience to see,) and then in the final moments a blank simplicity. Over all this lingers the aforementioned giant skeleton of metal suspended in the air, it looks like a chuck of old machinery, part of an aeroplane wing perhaps, punctuated with lightbulbs. When even the empty Antarctic disappears, we discover that this is the ceiling of the Council Room in Heaven, Heaven made omnipresent. But it also furnishes the fountain of Bethesda with its water (here represented with neon lighting, a recurring fixture throughout the set.) It gives life, then, both the water of the fountain, and Heaven.

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The politics of the play (of any play, probably,) are ignited by liveness. In the introduction to the newly-published text Kushner says he feels he writes “perched on the knife’s edge of terror and hope.” There are certainly moments in Angels that (ugh) feel as though they were written yesterday (*smacks self*) because it often does feel like the world is perched on that same knife edge. There is a palpable sense of something terrible being imminent, a sensation that moves from the biological apocalypse on the stage into a sense of political apocalypse in the auditorium. This equation of biological and political catastrophe is in the text, in the AIDS/Reaganism dichotomy, but in performance there is an extra recognition. It was quite startling to me just how many lines got their own rounds of applause, out of recognition and approval, not just hilarity.

I’ve wondered in the past whether Angels is a play more interested in theology than politics, but this is a production that stresses the politics and brings it to the forefront. Perhaps that is the inevitable fact of live performance; politics is a quicker, more satisfying immediate hit to the audience, and theology is left in the text for those who want to dig for it.

This felt most palpable in one of my favourite scenes, Act 3 Scene 2 of Millennium, when Belize and Louis are having coffee, and Louis is endless monologuing about the state of the nation, in a massively racist way. Elliott puts the actors far downstage, impinging upon audience time and space. This is not a historical conversation, Elliott suggests, one that should be confined to the centre-stage of fiction. But the scene has its own evocations of millenarianism, the “purple” joke is a great punchline but also anticipates the Angels arrival (the purple light Prior sees before the Angel’s entrance) By making this conversation about now, Elliott suggests our own approaching Millennium, while also distancing this idea from immediate recognition. A similar effect is achieved with the slightly earlier scene where Louis and Joe converse on the steps of the court house. Louis is made immediate, Prior somewhat historical.

There’s also a moment that reminded me of Roman Tragedies; at the end of the second act of Millennium, Louis/Prior and Harper/Joe are arguing in a split scene. Elliott overlaps the spaces, so Prior is shouting past Joe in order to get to Louis, and Harper accuses over Louis to get to Joe. It’s like the Caesar/Calpurnia and Brutus/Portia scene in #RomTrag; although the dialogue doesn’t overlap (excepting a scream from Prior that carries across the space) the circumstances of both couples are similar, physicalized in this way.

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As Prior, the man who anchors the show, Andrew Garfield is quite frankly brilliant. The minute the bench spun around and he was revealed in that pose and in that coat, I was sold. His characterisation is probably one of the most brilliant I have ever seen. Yes, it tips into shoutiness occasionally but maybe I only felt that because I was at the front. He completely disappears inside Prior’s lesion-ridden skin, becomes him totally in voice and mannerisms, he has excellent comic timing. It was only in the curtain calls you even sensed how exhausting a performance it must be; Prior spends so much of the show barely holding it together, dissolving into tears in seconds. It’s clearly a draining and demanding performance, emotionally and physically, but I didn’t think about any of this until afterwards because he was playing it with such conviction, and such wit, and with a huge emotional depth. The end was incredibly moving.

For me, the most interesting character in Angels is Louis, I think because what he does is so awful and yet completely understandable. His politics are deeply, deeply flawed. In my head he was a bit pathetic, a bit apologetic for being such a complete ARSE. James McArdle inverts all this, he seems to draw from Louis’ sexual confidence, there’s no sense of apology in his politics, even when he’s clearly rattled Belize. I was never sure whether his tears were genuine, whether he was genuine. What was even more interesting, was that I imagine it’s easy to play Louis as the ‘straight man’ compared to Prior, but McArdle makes Louis just as much of a screaming queen (Jason Isaacs’ description.) There’s less a sense that Louis is self-destructive, as he just makes a catastrophic mistake. Also, I want his wardrobe.

Denise Gough has described Harper Pitt as “the saddest woman in the world.” I can certainly why she thinks this based on her portrayal. Even before Harper is chewing down pine trees with her teeth there is a latent ferality. She spends much of the first play in a well-worn nightdress. This is absolutely a woman trapped in her environment who can only find joy in the imagined. She certainly does not seem an optimist. But there’s an innocence Gough finds; she seems to genuinely not have realised her husband’s gay, nor is she malicious towards Prior in the hallucination scene. The final speech in Perestroika proper is Harper’s, on a flight (that may or may not be real) to San Francisco. It’s heart-breaking but hopeful, and I’ve thought a lot about how Gough might play it. Simply, it turns out. With the whole auditorium in her peripheral vision, she’s sat in her seat, talking to us, not herself. Gough’s raw magnetism makes it work. And her smile at the end just twists the knife for good measure.

Joe Pitt, the ‘straight man’ is probably the trickiest role in Angels. No, it’s not as emotionally demanding as Prior, nor as politically complicated as Louis, not even as funny as Belize. But Russell Tovey manages to make Joe human enough that we can be interested by him. There’s a crucial scene in Millennium, where Joe and Louis sit eating hot dogs. Tovey finds a quiet intelligence to Joe, and an innocence. It’s interesting because it makes Harper and Joe work as a couple; you get why they’ve both bought into the façade. But Joe is arguably just as self-destructive as Louis. By the end of the third act of Perestroika, we see Joe is just as volatile as the rest, stripping himself on the beach (McArdle’s face is brilliant in this scene.) Joe is not a simple role for the rest of the company to bounce off, and Tovey never plays him as such.

Then there’s Roy Cohn, the “polestar of evil.” If the narratives of the other characters are journeys of discovery and acceptance, Roy’s is one of destruction and disintegration. Everything he has is stripped from him, like King Lear but with a sense of humour. Nathan Lane, an actor capable of huge comedy and huge tragedy, is perfect in the role. When his character is introduced to the audience, with a brilliant monologue in which Roy is trying to have three phone conversations at once, Lane has the audience instantly. It’s like witchcraft. He knows exactly how to get a laugh, and as such, knows how to be truly horrifying and cruel. Millennium belongs to Roy as much as it does to Prior, but the scene in Perestroika where he provokes Belize into a hideous argument simply for his own satisfaction. Lane plays it with the relish of a vaudevillian, making it all the more disturbing, without ever falling into caricature.

Susan Brown is a chameleon. She plays an elderly Rabbi, the oldest living Bolshevik, Ethel bloody Rosenberg, and a Mormon mother (Hannah Pitt) – and she manages to convince as all four. She was particularly good in Perestroika, in the scenes with Prior. You could watch the smirk on Hannah’s face turn into a smile as she developed a sense of humour. I think making that arc work convincingly is a feat, particularly when all hell is breaking loose around the character. It was the stillness with which Ethel says the kaddish that got under my skin though, she starts off quietly, helping Louis to speak the Aramaic, growing louder as she speaks it for her own conscience (if ghosts(?) have consciences I suppose) before twisting her face as she spits out the final stinger “you sonofabitch.” It’s the most understated performance of the lot, but a brilliant one nonetheless.

As the Angel herself, Amanda Lawrence is suitably threatening. Like Brown, she plays many roles, rather than the simple doubling of the other actors. Again, like Brown, she convinces as all. Her Angel is not a one-woman performance however, and as it dawned on me that a woman with wings on wires was too simple for this production, it became clear that Lawrence was going to be a very different Angel. Elliott has taken Kushner’s 2007 suggestion that “it’s OK if the wires show” as inspiration, it seems, to make the Angel many things “manifest in One” literally. The ensemble move the Angel’s wings, she becomes a sort of puppet, extending her physicality. Realism is well-abandoned by her entrance, as Lawrence is held aloft on the shoulders of the other actors, who hold her body as she contorts, an approach that chimes with Kushner’s statement that Brechtian approaches are “consonant with the act’s… storytelling.” Lawrence’s Angel is extraordinarily physical and sexual. More Miss Havisham than Lady Liberty in appearance, the idea that she is grieving for her lover as much as Prior is never far away.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize looked like he was having a ball. The character is delicious, and the number of rounds he got after a stinger were many (personal favourite: “my jaw aches at the memory.”) Without meaning any disrespect to when he’s talking, I think my favourite moments where when he was simply reacting to something ridiculous going on. Particularly in the café scene with Louis, where a simple eyebrow raise got a huge laugh. Or the second act of Perestroika: “the sexual politics of this are-“ “Very confusing. I know.” Belize spends so much time just watching, offering perspective, that when he finally gets to talk at length about how he hates America, there’s an unusual sort of gravity to it. You take him seriously because he has been so ridiculous, you’re in no doubt Belize is a truthful character and Stewart-Jarrett can deliver this in spades.

I can’t lie, this is probably the best bunch of actors I’ve ever seen on a stage together. There’s not a single weak link.

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There’s no doubting that Angels in America is a dense piece of drama; Kushner interweaves the political, emotional, philosophical and theological so tightly that there is so much to chew on. But this production has a clarity in its storytelling that makes it always accessible to the audience. I’ve seen a few criticisms of the ‘clunky’ staging, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘clunky’ as it seemed to me that the piece unfurled itself as smoothly as the text allows. Because Elliott grounds the play on the actors, it doesn’t matter that every time we see a hospital room it’s the wrong way around, or in another part of the stage entirely. Architecture is not important here, because the walls of reality are breaking down, and it is the human beings we follow through the story.

Angels is a cry against reactionary politics; claims that mankind should stay still, and not migrate and progress. It’s not hard to see the parallels and this production never shies away from them, without ever smacking the audience around the face with them.

It never dips into sentiment. There have been accusations that Perestroika does do this, and I can see how in the hands of lesser actors it would be terrible. But Kushner refuses to tie Perestroika up neatly, so while Millennium is possibly the ‘better’ play, Perestroika feels the more anarchic in performance. And while it is a comedy, as most of the situations in Perestroika are resolved amicably, the actors never milk a laugh. The comedy comes from the text, not from appendages to it.

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Look, I know I rave a lot on this blog. Because I choose to only write about stuff that excites me, that means I write more about good stuff. I’m aware that the more positive I am, the less some people are likely to believe me, or take me seriously. But the fact of the matter is, I’m not a cynic, at least not when it comes to theatre. I’m still wide-eyed and probably incredibly naïve and lord knows I’ve a tendency for hyperbole. I can’t claim that everyone will love Angels in America, but I did. And even among the brilliant things I’ve seen this year, it stands apart.

NOTE

My thoughts on the design of Angels and how Angels works as a form of Brechtian theatre is largely informed by Art Borreca’s essay ‘“Dramaturging” the Dialectic: Brecht, Benjamin, and Declan Donnellan’s production of Angels in America,’ in Geis, Deborah R and Steven F. Kruger (eds) Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America pp. 245-260

 

Photo by Helen Maybanks.

The Ferryman @ Royal Court: Zombies, Ghosts, and Bodies in the Bog

There’s certainly a reading of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman that sees it as a drawing together of literary allusions. There’s a dead goose (as well as a live one) that hangs over the sink like Konstantin’s seagull, people quote Virgil, Raleigh and sing several folk songs. It’s a play with the oral tradition at its spine; stories are constantly being swapped among the family. History is its own story, of course, and it’s this that I think Butterworth chooses to investigate, through generational politics and a classic tragic structure, although Sam Mendes’ production does seem to highlight them.

The Ferryman centres on a family bringing in the annual harvest in rural County Armagh in 1981. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is the man of the house, with his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) and his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and the many children surrounding him, as well as his aunts and an Uncle, and Corcorans from Derry there to help with the harvest. It is a packed house, the Royal Court stage teeming with life. Into this ritual walks a man to inform Caitlin that her husband – missing the past 10 years – has been found in a bog. It is likely he was there the whole time.

Basically, Butterworth + Mendes + Irish History = Harry is very interested.

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I kept thinking of that Cranberries lyric “it’s the same old theme / since nineteen-sixteen / in your head in your head / they are fighting.” There are those in the play, mainly Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) that carry the ghosts of 1916 with them. For them the war is clear cut ideologically, one character even jokes that her hatred of Margaret Thatcher is what keeps her alive. She believes there is more than enough historical justification for the war to be fought along black and white lines, and it appears most of it happens in her head, an imagined conflict, once removed from her everyday life – until it isn’t. At one point, Pat recites the names of the dead hunger strikers. It becomes a sort of incantation, as if she’s willing them back to life, as she seems to will her brother – one of the 1916 dead – back to life. She is of the generation that mourn for a lost republic, and seek to transfer the legacy through stories.

Then there’s the next generation, Quinn and Mary, who have fought and lost in the Troubles respectively. By 1981, the deadliest years of the conflict were over, and it moved more into a political sphere, not that anyone could have known this, and The Ferryman suggests a world just on the verge of self-destruction. Butterworth takes us out of the familiar landscape of dramatizing the Troubles, portraying the rural not the urban. And yet, a flag of the Irish Confederacy hangs on the wall, and the house itself has been passed down through the generations just like the mantle of Irish Republicanism. The generation that has a stake in the bitter, greyer war of the moment is stuck somewhere between the past and the present – an idea Butterworth transposes into the human relationships.

Further down, there’s the kids. They literally stop the tradition in its tracks, switching the folk playing from the radio to the Undertones, going absolutely bat-shit mental, bouncing around the kitchen. The first part of the third act is essentially a portrait of a radicalised youth, Diarmaid Corcoran – a boy who has already been witness to terrible things in the name of Irish Republicanism, and walks around with his trophies. He either chooses not to think about what actually happens to someone the ‘RA’ torture, or he doesn’t care. He’s been groomed by Muldoon – and IRA man from Derry, who has given him his watch, and he wears a chain from a ‘disappeared’ around his neck. It’s easy to sort of tut him, and see him as wasted potential, but I think The Ferryman frames him as a victim of abuse, certainly when Diarmaid re-enters at the end of the play, you get the sense that he has very little agency in the whole enterprise.

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My eye was repeatedly drawn by Genevieve O’Reilly, who can say as much in a glance as she can in a monologue. During the dinner scene, I was paying more attention to who she was looking at and how than I was what was actually being said. She descends from the upstairs in her nightdress like Mary Tyrone; she’s up to something in an upstairs room that is removing herself from her family. She’s a sort of ghostly figure, internalising so much that I couldn’t not make the comparison n my head. I just wish she’d been given more to do, it’s not until the third act she gets to talk at any sort of length, or indeed seems to have any stake in the proceedings.

This surely can’t be Paddy Considine’s stage debut, right? There’s nothing in his credits and nothing I could find on google, but the man makes it look so easy. There’s nothing showy about the performance, and he portrays Quinn largely as a romantic until the very final seconds (trying to avoid spoilers) which makes what he does all the more shocking. If this really is his stage debut then we’ve been missing out.

Also, there’s some properly excellent child acting in this one. I’ve no idea which guy played Declan Corcoran the night I saw it (the last preview) but he was genuinely hysterical. “How do you know the Elephant Man is a Protestant? … Because he fucking looks like one” being just one of his several great lines. And is this the year of babies on stage or something? First there was the baby in Consent, and now there’s another here. He even gurgled on cue.

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If anything, The Ferryman might be a little too beautifully constructed. Excepting the very last seconds, I had sussed most of the final act well ahead of time. It seems very classical in its structure, perhaps it has to be when there’s that much going on. But I like things that seems more unpredictable, when the final coup is not so much a shock as in keeping with the style of the piece.

I think I admired the play more than I liked it, for the depth of its thoughts rather than an emotional suckerpunch – but that was certainly a minority view at the theatre where people flung themselves to their feet in approval. I think I’m still very much on an Angels hangover, so I’m sorely tempted to go back when it transfers with a clearer head.

 

Photo by Johan Persson.