Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill @ Wyndham’s Theatre: Blood at the Root

There’s a handful of actors that I’m willing to get up at some ungodly hour to go and stand outside a box office and wait for day tickets for. Rylance, Gough… and Audra McDonald. There’s a whole load of reasons that I might have been interested in seeing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – I mean, if any life is worthy of drama, Billie Holiday’s certainly was. But really? I just really wanted to hear Audra McDonald hear some of my favourite music in the world.

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The aforementioned day seats are actually on the stage; Christopher Oram’s set has the bar literally invading the stage, stretching into the wings and into the auditorium. It crashes into the space the way Holiday crashes into the club, and like Holiday, is sort of shabby, peeling – but always aspiring towards glamour. If you’ve ever seen a Christopher Oram set you know what I’m getting at. The front seats at the Wyndham’s have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and the back of the stage is similar. In the middle is the stage for the three-piece band; a pianist, a drummer, and a bassist (Shelton Becton, Frankie Tontoh and Neville Malcolm, respectively.) At the edge of the stage stands a solitary microphone.

First off, the quality of musicianship in this play is astounding. Being so close to those instruments, and watching how those players watch each other is an endlessly fascinating thing. The way they communicate with just a glance, and an instinct and a rhythm. Watching the drummer switch from a stick to a brush and back again and watching how he can manipulate these really very simple implements at such close quarters is sooooo good.

The play itself, by Lanie Robertson, may not be a masterpiece, but it carries the potential for a brilliant performance from an actress, and that’s certainly what we get.

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The piece dramatizes one of Billie Holiday’s last gigs. Her performances at Emerson’s were among her last, and it follows the structure of a gig. She sings a number, then tells an anecdote and so on. As the gig goes on, and Holiday gets drunker and drunker (she consumes an alarming quantity of vodka onstage) the anecdotes get more and more inappropriate, and Jimmy, her musical director has to keep reeling her back in. Such was the nature of Holiday’s life and personality that she can drop an aside about being raped at 10 years old – and it’s only one of the worst things that has happened to her.

Holiday, we realise, is seriously unwell. She’s come out of jail, and is struggling to draw an audience. She can only perform with the help of alcohol, we’re told there’s a doctor offstage lest she become overwhelmed (but it’s implied what she’s actually doing offstage is rather less medical.) But this is not immediately apparent; Holiday seems on her game, moving through her first two numbers with ease. There’s a musical break in When a Woman Loves a Man where Holiday looks back at the band, seemingly enjoying the music, and then you realise she isn’t at all – she’s just waiting to be given her cue. She barely knows where she is, let alone what she should be singing.

What Audra McDonald does is no impersonation – frankly, her voice is too strong to replicate Holiday’s exactly. But she fills her voice with Holiday’s tone and phrasing, those scoops that made her seem on a completely different tuning to everyone else, but were still so thrilling to listen to. She has that perfect balance of absolute technique and craft with the danger of a live performer; you wonder what – McDonald and Holiday both – are going to do next, vocally, physically, emotionally… She’s a real live wire on the stage.

I’m not sure if it’s Acting-With-A-Capital-A or if it’s utterly invisible acting. I also don’t care either way. There’s a moment where he pianist tries to get her to sing God Bless the Child before she feels ready to sing it. She is so incensed at being undermined on her stage that she slams the piano shut, narrowly avoiding trapping fingers in the process. All the humour falls away, you become acutely aware of the steel in this woman, and McDonald plays it beautifully.

And that’s what characterises her performance; there’s an absolute strength to her, but it’s surrounded by a body that is disintegrating, and out of it comes this frail, trembling, and suddenly soaring sound. It is the fact that McDonald is as good an actor as a singer that makes it work. Instead of it feeling like a boring biopic, the pure exposition that is associated with one-person shows, McDonald plays it like the perfectly logical ramblings of a drunk/high star at her most desperate, but at the absolute height of her talents. When you sit on stage, you’re privileged to the sight of Holiday in her spotlight, the light cutting through the haze from the gods. The whole thing is lit exquisitely incidentally, shifting from reds and oranges to acid green and back again.

It was Strange Fruit that got to me. I already thought it was a beautiful, if completely horrifying song, but the second that first chord sounds it was like the whole audience took a big breath. As Holiday croons about the “southern trees” and the pretty “pastoral scene,” and as the landscape shifts into “bodies swing” and then the sharpness of “for the sun to rot” in the – by this point – completely silent theatre, the tension builds and builds until that final scoop on the word “crop.” The light falls away and Holiday is left in that spotlight, head turned, seemingly in mourning. It’s no wonder this is the song that forces her to leave the stage – if only briefly.

The show was recorded live in New York – thank GOD – and it is beautifully evocative of sitting in the theatre. I’ve found myself listening to Strange Fruit a lot, actually. Particularly with all the crap going on in the US. Lady Day, it turns out, is quietly but determinedly political. It may well be the only all-black cast in the West End at the moment, for that matter.

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Yes, Lady Day is in many ways typical West End fare. It’s not very complicated, it’s not daring formally, or unconventional in its staging, but at its heart is a blistering, titanic performance. And often, that’s enough to make the rest worth it. What could be an unashamed star vehicle (and not the good kind) is given flesh and blood with McDonald’s performance.

Loved it.

 

Photo by Marc Brenner.

Road @ Royal Court: Somehow A Somehow

Why did the Northerner cross the road?

TO GET A DECENT FECKING PART IN A PLAY.

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Jim Cartwright’s Road holds an almost mythic place in the pantheon of modern classics. It is so often cited as an example of the Royal Court firing on all cylinders, messing with form and content, transforming the theatre physically and metaphorically. Some of my favourite northern actors have been influenced by it – Maxine Peake recalls it being the first play she read at school and was able to recognise herself.

I only knew it by reputation. I’d never read it, never seen it. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to this year. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I expected.

It’s a series of vignettes, and soliloquies. Snatches of conversation and speeches are heard, as we hurtle down this unnamed road in sort-of Bolton (Brothel on wheels. Peake knows what’s up,) and all this is emceed by the aimless Scullery (Lemn Sissay,) a man with a deep affection for the people living on this road. Characters are barely characters, they are voices. They are individuals, but also a “whole kind of person,” as Kushner might say. It’s like ‘Not I’ but with social context. They call out into the dark, not for help, but just to be heard. You can certainly see how this was so arresting in promenade.

Inevitably, some bits work better than others, and most of the best bits are in the second act. I did find myself wishing that someone had taken a pair of scissors to some of the scenes, although I’m sure even simply speeding it up, and running it straight through without an interval might have added a momentum that’s hard to generate when you simply move from speech to speech. But under it all, there’s a quiet rhythm and a quiet poetry to it. Most surprisingly, it’s political with a determinedly lowercase ‘p.’ You don’t hear any speeches denouncing Thatcher or her policies; no sense that the circumstances of these people can be attributed to anyone – except maybe everyone.

And there are some gorgeous moments. There’s a wonderful scene where Michelle Fairley’s Helen is trying to seduce a drunk, younger soldier. It’s pathetic, and hopeless. He’s barely conscious and she’s desperate. She kneels in her plate of chips to dodge his vomit – the most convincing stage vomit I’ve seen since Adler and Gibb, incidentally – and you can’t help but wonder how the hell it got to this point. These characters can’t afford to have a past or a present, they can only afford to live quid to quid, in the moment.

It’s in the moment that the joy of the piece takes flight. These characters aren’t seeking anything but an ear. They want to be heard; they want everything to change and nothing to change. When Scullery dances to Swan Lake with an old trolley, the collision of absurdity and realism meant I couldn’t help but grin. It’s ridiculous, and somehow completely recognisable. Which is true for the whole piece, whenever I was worried it was falling into caricature, I’d remember someone I know who is exactly like that character in manner or attitude. I know everyone in this play, somehow.

I can forgive the dodgy scenes in Road because of the last one. Two lads and two girls, as the morning approaches. Everyone’s nervous, worried to make the first move. When the girls threaten to leave, the lads promise them something different. They drink a considerable amount of red wine, then stand, facing out, and we listen to Try A Little Tenderness in its entirety, as it swells from ballad to a thumping R&B blare. There’s the urge to move, to release the tension, but they just listen. The release comes after the music is over, and they begin to talk. They shout into the theatre, demanding to be heard, their dreams and their hopes.

And they start to chant, to incant even, “somehow a somehow might escape. Somehow a somehow might escape.” It’s a plea, and a prayer. It’s genuinely quite painful to listen to, at least to me. I thought about Tony’s line in Billy Elliot “we can’t all be fuckin’ dancers,” the idea that there are so many people doomed to spend their lives on this road, and knowing there’s no shame in that. But then somehow I have to reconcile my own desire to get as far away from my own road as possible, with my love for the people that live there still. The sheer fucking guilt you feel when you escape, but that you have to ignore in want of something else. And it’s all carried in that line.

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John Tiffany’s production seems at first to expose the theatre for the skeleton that it is, but when you look closer, you see the back wall is a recreation, the poles at the side are fake lampposts… It’s simultaneously interior and exterior, nowhere and everywhere… It also seems very traditional.

When you put a piece like this, so overtly confrontational, in a proscenium arch space there’s inevitably dead air between the performer and the audience. There’s more effort in pushing the voice out into the space, and it somehow rings slightly hollow. It sounds like acting.

It’s not helped by the glass box designer Chloe Lamford uses to facilitate the quick scene changes. This sterile cube that is spat forth from the stage floor, revealing lonely figure after lonely figure to be watched. It does isolate the character, but to a fault. You hear the voice from the speakers, you know there’s a barrier between you and them. When those characters are asking to be heard, it lets the audience off the hook, because you can sense the separation.

There’s also the movement, actors sweeping across the stage removing and setting up props as they go. Sometimes they linger at the side of the stage, watching. At the end, this escalates into dance, and I’m not convinced it has the effect intended; it’s almost as if Tiffany doesn’t trust the words, and feels he has to create a visual magic on top of the linguistic. I use the word magic deliberately, because I did find it reminding me of his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child quite a lot. In mood, in atmosphere… even in aesthetic, although this was brick where Potter was wooden panels.

But Tiffany has assembled a great company of actors. They act entirely without ego – this is a play that would disintegrate if anyone tried – but with quiet dignity, and more importantly, you can tell they’re having a blast. Liz White and Faye Marsay (in her STAGE DEBUT ffs) are especially good, there’s a warmth and a wit to their portrayals that in other hands might feel contrived. White in particular can carve years into her expressions as she despairs over her husband and then ditch them as she scoffs chips on the edge of the stage at the end of a night out.

Also, excellent wigs throughout.

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Periodically, I ask myself when was the last time I saw a northerner on stage. It’s often months in between occasions. If I ask myself when was the last time I saw a Scouser that wasn’t nicking something, I have to go back 3 and a half years to Educating Rita. You might argue that this isn’t the responsibility of the London theatres, as there are regional theatres that do this, and do it excellently. I beg to differ. The theatres in London have a status that privileges them. They get more money, and their reputations are more widely known. When that money is derived from taxes collected from all over the country, they have an obligation to represent the voices of those people.

Not only is Road a piece of the Royal Court’s history, it does exactly this. It puts the voices of working class northerners in direct conversation with the audience. I think to argue against this because of the affluence of the audience, and the location of the theatre (there’s a sodding Hugo Boss next door) is a cop out. Does it feel like the audience is laughing at the people Road portrays? Occasionally. For what it’s worth it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the audience at Ink did.

But it does raise the question, why do they need to revive it? Why isn’t the Royal Court putting on new plays that are dealing with the lives of working class northerners today? They’re doing it next season too, going back to a 35 year old play in Rita, Sue and Bob Too instead of commissioning new work. The only northern voices you hear are echoes from decades ago.

Because even at the Royal Court, with its reputation for being at the forefront of every theatrical shift, RP remains the standard. Take Anatomy of a Suicide, for instance (which I loved, before you start,) why did those women have to talk like that? Why couldn’t they talk with a Geordie accent? Or a Lancashire accent? Or Scouse? What about Bodies, upstairs at the moment. Middle-class people live in Yorkshire, too. And yes, there was a Scotsman in it, but Justine Mitchell couldn’t use her Irish voice? Escaped Alone, Unreachable, The Children… I’m sure there’s others. I’m probably being a bit harsh, or even unfair. But it seems to keep happening.

Put voices on stage that you will actually hear on the street. It’s not like by putting northerners on a stage you’re denying opportunities to cockneys, because you never hear them either. It doesn’t have to be about people from those areas. Just do it. It won’t destroy any world you’re meticulously trying to create, it just makes it sound more real.

Maybe I’m being old fashioned. Maybe what I’m suggesting is a version of realism that went out of style years ago. But it still lingers. And that pisses me off.

 

Photo by Johan Persson.

Gloria @ Hampstead Theatre: In Two Minds

I’m in two minds about Gloria. Which is oddly appropriate, because it seems in two minds of its own. The run finished at Hampstead yesterday, so I’m going to spoil pretty much everything there is to spoil about this play. It relies so heavily on a twist, that there are sealed pages in the programme that a member of staff will open for you at the interval. They have special knife things and everything.

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The first hour of Gloria feels like a normal, conventional, American drama. It’s the morning after Gloria’s housewarming party. Gloria, we discover, is the office weirdo. It feels naturalistic in its dialogue; characters go off into drifts of language, seemingly endless monologues about nothing in particular. But in this hum are defined characters: Dean, the sweaty, hungover – because he was the only one to go to the party – assistant (Colin Morgan;) Kendra, the coffee-chugging, talk-aholic (Kae Alexander;) Ani, sweet and earnest (Ellie Kendrick;) and Miles, the over-eager intern (Bayo Gbadamosi.) And it’s nice. It’s a nice play about office politics – occasionally the all-too-recognisable Lorin (Bo Paraj) will march in and demand they keep the noise down, and Gloria (Sian Clifford) will pop up to act weird for a minute. The people feel real and the thing has a plausibility to it, if it does seem to lack a point. It moves quickly and is immaculately observed.

And it’s somewhere in the back of your head that Gloria must be significant. It’s the name of the fecking play, but when ‘Gloria happens,’ it still manages to take you completely by surprise.

Gunshots are heard from offstage. Lorin runs past. On hurries Gloria with a gun. Before you can even process this, Miles has been shot dead and Ani is on the floor, bleeding. Gloria shoots her again, dead. She spares Dean – he turned up to her party when no one else did after all – and then she shoots herself. Blood runs across the stage and down the glass. The stage goes black.

Aaaaaand the audience goes nuts. There was a buzz the like of which you rarely hear in a theatre. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was surprised. It was a massive coup, brilliantly executed and technically seamless. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, in retrospect you see the subtext, but it’s totally thrilling in the moment.

It also has the unfortunate side effect of taking such a massive left turn it makes the first act seem irrelevant.

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After the interval, the play picks up seven months later. Dean is in a coffee shop, waiting to meet Kendra (who survived the shootings because she’d gone to Starbucks.) They both plan to write books about what happened – no – what they think happened to them. Later, Nan (their boss, who survived the shootings by hiding in her office) walks in, and has her own version of events.

In the third ‘act,’ we see Lorin, two years after the shootings, temping at a media company that has optioned Nan’s book. Truth and fiction collide repeatedly.

So… that’s the play. That’s what happens. And I wish I’d seen the play that happens between the scenes, because the overwhelming majority of text before the interval is mundane, drifting and ultimately irrelevant… and most of the text after the interval is exposition. We see very little of the effects being in the shootings had on these characters that are so well drawn in the first act; there are moments of high emotion, but largely we get it second hand. We hear about people, we don’t see them.

In the programme notes, it is suggested that the structure is deliberately unconventional, but it feels to me very much a traditional three act play. A three act play in the twenty-first century, sure, but it has that structure. It’s technically brilliant, and I can’t fault any of the acting (although I wish they’d maybe stop shouting… you’re at Hampstead, not the Olivier…) but it left me a bit cold. Jacobs-Jenkins notes that the piece does not resolve on a narrative level, but when there’s nothing else going on beyond technique, I wished it did. I wish there was just something in the mix that grounded it.

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There’s a lot of stuff going on here. Michael Longhurst’s production overlays a Brechtian element that doesn’t seem to go far enough nor add an intriguing visual language to the text as is; before the play starts we see the (rather uncomfortable looking) crew tending to the equipment on stage, and then the office itself is chipboard with ‘edit’ scrawled on the walls, and markings on the floor to indicate walls. This is the first act, when the action is most ‘real.’ As things become less real, and we hear more things second- and third-hand, the décor becomes more real. The window of a coffee shop (Starbucks? Starbucks.) and the ultramodern, very real offices of the production company.

And this, I hasten to add, is on top of the doubling Jacobs-Jenkins calls for in his script. Most of the actors play at least two roles, Kendrick and Gbadamosi three. In doing this, and by switching our focus away from the people he created in the first act, Jacobs-Jenkins dodges the issue of examining the interior of someone who has been through a massive trauma. The story becomes about ‘who owns a story,’ which frankly, is not as interesting. It’s chooses technical intrigue over emotion. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it did remove me from the play. All I could think was ‘oh, that’s what he’s moved and that’s where that’s gone.’

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I can’t work out whether the play is too clever for me to understand or whether it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. I was enjoying the play as I was experiencing it, but afterwards all I could think about was what I saw as flaws. Maybe, it’s because I saw the play it could have been (the one Jacobs-Jenkins clearly didn’t want to write, and all power to him) and I wanted to see that one instead. I wanted to see what happened to Dean after he left the coffee shop. I wanted to see Lorin after he ran away from the gunshots. I wanted an examination of what trauma does to people, and I felt like that was skirted around. That to me would have been far more interesting a play than the one I saw. BUT HEY the audience went nuts so what do I know.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

Ink @ Almeida Theatre: Can I Hire Someone to Write my Subtitles?

I didn’t actually wear my Don’t Buy the Sun badge to the Almeida. I did consider it, but to be honest it’s lost somewhere in the crevices of my desk.

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James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida focuses on the takeover of the Sun by Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel,) and its first year in print under editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle.) Graham makes the case that the theatre can be a medium where plot is the driving force; not necessarily character or argument – although there’s plenty of that too. And there’s a lot of plot, it turns out. A near three-hour run time races past, as we move – much like the journalists – from story to story, beat to beat. We career from side-plot to side-plot, from the introduction of glamour models and the television listings, to the abduction of the wife of one of the writers. All the while the rivalry with the Mirror bubbles underneath, the Sun chasing its readership becoming a strand that runs the whole tapestry of plot.

Rupert Goold’s production seemed to me to stage it like a musical. Levels of high excitement give way to movement – no, choreography – and vocalising. We flash in and out of realism; there’s a layer of glamour, and panache to the production. It doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. I’m also tempted to call it tabloid theatre, but that has unfair connotations. What I’m getting at is there’s a real element of performance about it; like The Treatment, which preceded it in the space, it’s a ‘play’ at the Almeida. There’s a proper set and blackouts and even a curtain before it starts.

The company here is really strong, Coyle barely leaves the stage as Lamb and (I imagine if you’re not me) has you rooting for the Sun to succeed. He conveys a sense of ambition and opportunities denied to him for so long – it’s no wonder he runs with Murdoch, and is willing to do anything to prove everyone wrong. Sophie Stanton (soooo good as Falstaff in the Donmar’s Henry IV last year) plays the Geordie Joyce Hopkirk, the women’s editor, with humour but also a sharp seriousness in the final scenes as the stakes climb up. There’s a slightly frantic, restless energy to all of them; you completely get why these people were willing to leave their steady jobs and chance a car crash with The Sun. They get off on the risk and the rush of it all.

And then, as the second-coming of Satan himself, is Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch. When the light hits him in those opening moments, all hunched shoulders and Aussie drawl, I got goosebumps. There’s a manner and even an affectedness to the performance that in the hands of a lesser actor would be unwatchable, but Carvel somehow makes it completely believable. With him, you see the gesture but you don’t see the joins. There’s a terrible charisma to him; whenever he was offstage I couldn’t help but think “when’s Murdoch coming back” WHICH IS A SENTENCE I NEVER THOUGH WOULD PASS THROUGH MY MIND.

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The play itself is not so blunt as to take a metaphorical baseball bat to Rupert Murdoch (note: I am very interested in seeing that play.) Instead, we see exactly what Larry Lamb was up to; all his tactics, all his decisions, all his games. Murdoch is the operator on the sidelines, making a key suggestion every now and again, setting up the plan for Lamb to execute. One of the really interesting facets of the play is how it makes Murdoch a cautious figure, not a trait I’d associate with him. It is Lamb who is pushing the groundbreaking stuff, the things that would characterise The Sun; Murdoch is a far more conservative figure.

There’s a point in the play when someone asks Lamb “How’s the North.” For some reason, this was funny to the Almeida audience who fell about laughing. Lamb responds with “The weather’s colder but the people are warmer.” I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who laughed. And it got me thinking about the ideas of class in the play; Lamb and (most of) the team he assembles are all working class. They are people who have grafted away on Labour-backing papers their whole lives, and in walks this rich Aussie, claiming a paper and letting them have free reign over it – or at least giving that impression. Lamb tries to be strict but it flares up only occasionally.

And there is a real sense of the people in this play. These journalists are determined that they will represent the views of ordinary people, and maybe it’s only because of hindsight this seems mind-numbingly ignorant. In the final moments of the play Murdoch starts to steer the paper towards the Conservatives. He wants to meet with them, a glimpse at the partnership that would give The Sun the reputation it has in my neck of the woods. But for the bulk of the play, because we are so caught up in story there is no time to make ‘judgements.’ Is this pandering to populism necessarily a good thing? Obviously, for the sake of sales it is, but I can only see it from the angle that this is all geared to make swallowing the politics of the 1980s easier for Sun readers.

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I have no interest in rehabilitating Murdoch. My opinion of him did not change, nor did it complicate, to be perfectly honest. I hate the man’s guts and I hate what his paper is responsible for. I had to view Carvel’s performance as something completely separate from the man – not to say this isn’t the intention or even my unique response. A disgustingly accurate characterisation, I’m sure, but I’m still unable to hold the idea in my head that Murdoch has any depth at all. But that’s my issue. The play is rock-solid, with a brilliant company. And you’ve got like four months to see it in the West End as part of Graham’s plan to colonise the whole of St Martin’s Lane.

 

Photo by Marc Brenner.

Notes from the Angels in America Platforms @ National Theatre

“OH LOOK,” I hear all three of you say, “ANOTHER BLOODY ANGELS IN AMERICA PIECE.”

Well screw you, it’s only the fourth. I plan to do five by the end of the run.

Anyway because I am a grade A* NERD I’ve been going to the series of platforms the National Theatre have held discussing Angels in America. I made some notes, and I thought I’d write them up.*

*Translation: likely to be of interest to no one but me. Deal with it.

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Tony Kushner in Conversation with Ola Animashawun, Friday 30th June 2017.

The minute Kushner steps onto the stage you are immediately, acutely aware that he is the smartest person in the room. It’s not like he carries himself with a smugness, he doesn’t. But there’s no questioning his intelligence. His first answer runs to about 5 minutes, and it was supposed to be brief. I later realise that a 5 minute answer for Tony Kushner is brief, something I should have known beforehand having sat through approximately 23 hours of Angels in America by this point.

A lot of what he says is familiar to me. He talks about where he was politically and emotionally when he started to write Angels, and charts it from long-form poem, to Sigrid Wurschmidt (the woman for whom he wrote the part of the Angel, but who died before the first production) suggesting it become a two-part piece. He mentions that it was actually in the contract he signed when Angels was commissioned that it had to be under 2 and a half hours in length. Thank God that bit was ignored.

It’s when he moves away from Angels that he gets really interesting. Writers should not be worried about preaching to the converted, because if theatre is a spiritual or even religious experience, he says, then that is exactly what ministers do; they preach to the converted. Why should theatre expect to change minds? By implication, he seems to suggest that theatre can only complicate, not completely reconceive people’s perceptions. I think about how it’s one of Angels’ enigmas that a play that rallies so furiously against neoliberalism cannot present us with a concrete alternative, instead we get a loose community, nothing particularly radical. It’s been suggested this is partly why Angels was so quickly accepted into the dramatic/American/Western canon. I’m not sure how much I agree.

He’s also refreshingly coherent when it comes to analysing Donald Trump in apocalyptic terms. He seems angrier with Trump than he was with Reagan, but it’s tempered. He has no interest in writing about him, he says, because unlike Roy Cohn, Trump’s contradictions are not centred around anything. He sees Trump as the logical result of a Republican party that has drilled into people the idea that government is the enemy; the only outcome of this is going to be the destruction of the government by the government itself.

Inevitably, he runs out of time. He speaks quickly, but with long hesitations; like he is desperately putting the words in order moments before they leave his mouth. There are too many ideas bouncing round for him to be simple in his thoughts.

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Andrew Garfield and Denise Gough in Conversation with Kate Bassett, Monday 3rd July 2017.

The theatre is packed, stalls and circle. People evidently want to hear these actors talk at 2 o’clock on a Monday, although it does seem to be split quite starkly between students and pensioners.

Gough and Garfield get a very long introduction; Gough clarifies that she is the “darling” of the National Theatre. She’s hilarious, eager to talk, enthusiasm visible. Garfield is quieter, more thoughtful. Perhaps he’s just saving himself for the evening’s performance, I wouldn’t blame him.

They talk at length about what exactly Angels in America means. Garfield explains that it was offered to him, and when a part like Prior is offered to you, you can’t really turn it down. He later goes on to say that it was Kushner’s enthusiasm for him in the role that allowed him to accept it on moral grounds – Prior being one of the great gay characters of the theatre, and Garfield being – well – not. He later goes on to joke that he is basically living as a gay man without the physical act. This will later be taken out of context by outlets that really should know better. But anyway. He holds viewing parties for RuPaul’s Drag Race on his days off, apparently.

Gough jokes that she basically thought Angels would be holiday after People, Places and Things. She was looking forward to lots of time off-stage, only to realise that actually the concentration required to stay at such an emotional pitch for so long was even harder than being on-stage every second of PPT, so much so she says she’s looking forward to going back to it this autumn. Both Gough and Garfield agree that the experience of doing Angels is unlikely to be matched in their professional lives. Gough ranks it alongside PPT in terms of emotional satisfaction. They both have trouble with the set, apparently. Gough hates waiting for the aperture to open before her first speech, and apparently the turntable is so disorientating for Garfield that when he makes his entrance, all his thoughts about being at a funeral and being diagnosed evaporate, and he might as well be Andrew Garfield waving at the audience.

An audience member later asks how do you look after yourselves. It’s a strange question, and its not. Garfield seems genuinely pleased to have been asked it. They both talk about how to reconcile being a professional with the toll a play like Angels inevitably takes on your body, particularly on a two play day. Gough rattles off a list of treatments and rituals; reiki, chakras, massage, among many other unpronounceables. Apparently, she was off to cleanse Garfield’s room before the show that night. Garfield doesn’t seem to have the rituals down like Gough, but he talks about the lack of satisfaction on the nights they perform only one part of the story.

Both actors talk about how the process of acting in Angels is really a matter of weaving yourself into the tapestry of the work; Gough draws attention to the scene on the promenade in Perestroika, a scene that doesn’t wholly make sense – because it was dreamt by Kushner. When she asked him to explain it in rehearsal, he couldn’t. And yet, she still has to play it as truthfully as any of the beautifully constructed psychologically exact scenes in Millennium. It becomes a matter of trusting the words, and trusting that it makes sense on the grand canvas. Angels is not just about trust in content it seems, but relies on it in form.

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Marianne Elliott in Conversation with Susannah Clapp, Monday 3rd July 2017.

I get the impression that Marianne Elliot likes to gossip. I like to gossip. It’s probably the collision of these two things that made this my favourite platform of the four.

She talks first about how she came to direct the play. She’s never seen it on stage, but read it and had a visceral reaction to the material. When she discovered the Old Vic had the rights(!) she badgered them to let her direct it, despite the fact they already had a director for what was intended to be Spacey’s swansong. Presumably he’d have played Cohn, which is an interesting prospect. When this didn’t happen, she got the National to get the rights, and the production proceeded from there. I wonder what Angels would have looked like at the Old Vic. I can’t say the idea of this play in that space entices me.

What does the play mean?

An audience member asks if she was hesitant to cast Garfield in a gay role, denying the opportunity to a gay actor. She talks – I think quite rightly – about how the burden of representation essentially means nothing if it is embodied in a single actor, and so it was more important to ensure there was a mix of sexualities in both the cast and creative team than it was to have Prior played by a gay actor.

The conversation turns towards the visual landscape of the play, and the design process. Ian McNeill and Elliott worked on it for 18 months, in which time Elliott had no other projects, so it was a long process of working out exactly how the piece would move, particularly Millennium, with its jump cuts and overlaps. She embarks on a monologue that I’m fairly certain qualifies as the best bit of new writing I’ve seen on the Lyttleton stage; explaining the thought process behind every major scene change in the production. She goes on for about ten minutes. A lot of it I thought was evident, but there’s moments of clarification that allow things to fall into place; for example, she traces all the surrealism in the design back to the shared hallucination scene in Millennium. I had thought it was drawn from the Antarctica sequence, but she explains that it is after this point that things start to shift just enough to be different. It becomes more elastic. And the other ‘Ican’tbelieveIdidn’tnoticethatmoment’ came when she talked about the ceiling piece. It looms in the air like a piece of aircraft engine, and was designed to contain the actors in the space physically from above when everything else is stripped away in Perestroika. It’s also a proscenium arch. And suddenly all the design ideas fall into place. We see a mirror image; a theatre reflected in itself.

Angels was rehearsed over three months, the first day of which coincided with Trump’s first day in office. She talks about the nightmarish logistics of staging it; there were three rooms rehearsing, one for flying, one for the assistant directors to go off and work with the actors, and the third was Elliott’s. They rehearsed Millennium for the first week, then Perestroika for the second, and then they began running them together. There were a lot of plates being spun.

When they talk about the scale of the piece, and how long it took to get a grip on, and just what it costs from those involved, I do start to feel differently towards it. I thought about the thing Glen Berger said about the Spiderman musical: it was a “machine built by the Gods to teach humility.” I don’t feel that way about Angels (obviously, I mean, come on, I’m me,) but there’s a sense it’s more than a play, more than liveness, it sort of becomes your life.

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Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey in Conversation with Matt Wolf, Monday 17th July 2017.

I realises very quickly I could listen to Nathan Lane talk about anything. Which is fortunate, because he talks a lot. But he also forces himself to stop talking, even when questions are put to him, to allow Tovey to be the focus – focus he’ll pull in a second for the sake of a joke. Very early on they are asked if they view Angels as two plays or as one. Lane apparently sees it as a “huge package,” and apparently Lane is drawn to huge packages. There’s no mistaking him, he’s an old school vaudevillian at heart. Interestingly, Tovey says he sees Angels as two separate pieces. After all, he says, we don’t refer to them as ‘Part One’ and ‘Part Two,’ but as ‘Millennium’ and ‘Perestroika.’

They are both asked what it’s like, as two openly gay men, to inhabit characters so consumed with self-loathing, loathing centred around their sexuality. I wonder whether that question is slightly intrusive for very early on in the conversation (like, five minutes in) but both men seem interested in it; Tovey remarks that he can leave a character in the theatre fairly easily, but that on the morning after a two-play day he wakes with morning-after guilt. Tovey also explains that he has a history with Angels; after seeing the HBO series the fountain of Bethesda became something of a pilgrimage for him, taking photos with family, ex-lovers and his dog in front of it. Lane explains his psychological theory behind Roy Cohn; a man who could never allow himself to be vulnerable from childhood, a schoolboy who even then was brokering deals.

They both agree that playing Angels in rep is a relief, there’s less worry of burnout and complete exhaustion. Doing Angels eight times a week would be a different ordeal entirely. Lane mentions that he was told the Lyttleton is the toughest stage to play at the National, and discovered almost immediately that it was in fact the case. I hadn’t noticed, but they all wear mics for Perestroika apparently, because there’s just nothing on stage to bounce the sound off.

It’s surprising – and somehow not – that it’s Tovey who mentions Trump first. When asked about playing Joe Pitt, he says that he didn’t want people to be happy about what happens to his character. He didn’t want to make a villain – he didn’t want people to look at Joe and see Donald Trump. The dynamic between Joe and Roy is – we presume – similar to that between Roy and Trump, although possibly without the “daddy complex” as Tovey calls it. Lane explains that he did a mountain of research on Cohn, talking to people that admired him rather than those who despised him. Trump was one of “Roy’s Boys,” as the real Roy Cohn called them, and Roy was the man Trump turned to for advice when he was sued for racial discrimination in the 70s. Cohn suggested he sued them back. It’s not hard to see where Trump learned from Cohn. Indeed, it’s been commented that his recent remarks about the Rosenbergs sound like a speech from Angels. But Lane is also insistent that this is separate from playing the role. Trump never once enters his head once he’s onstage, although he accepts it’s very much in the audience’s. Kushner’s Cohn is fiction, after all, and Lane points out that Cohn was never treated by a black nurse in a normal hospital, among other changes Kushner made. But the resonances are there, in the fabric of the thing, and for the first time they are visible in performance.

Also: Kushner wrote new dick jokes to cover Lane’s costume change at the end of Millennium.

*

I had more notes than I realised. Eh.

So. Do I write a conclusion? Do I do a ‘THIS IS WHAT I LEARNT’ thing?

If anything, and this is drawn from seeing the play again as well as the platforms, I am only more impressed with it as I discover more. It’s my favourite play, I now say that without any hesitation. Its production at the National is superlative, and the best thing about seeing people involved in it talk is that they clearly care very deeply about it too.

 

Photo by Helen Maybanks.


 

Here’s everything else I’ve written on Angels in America, if you’re interested.

Bodies @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Between the Womb and the Grave

I’d rather see a new play than anything else in the world, to be perfectly honest. Which is why I try and see everything at the Royal Court; almost without exception, there’s something interesting about the piece, theatrically, formally, linguistically, historically or politically. Bodies is definitely a ‘politically interesting’ piece.

And because I like to see plays knowing as little as possible, I love going to previews. I barely want to know the premise, generally I decide based on a cast and creative list. You get to feel like you’re involved, however peripherally in the development process, as the actors test various things out on you and the technical team try and calibrate all the inner workings that go into any play.

The obvious disadvantage is that very few people have seen it yet. Which means I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about it yet.

*

Vivienne Franzmann’s play is ‘about’ surrogacy. Clem, played by Justine Mitchell (aka the best thing about Plough and the Stars at the Nash last year) cannot have a baby, and so she and her husband are using eggs from a donor in Russia, implanted in a surrogate in India to have a child. The action takes place over nine months, and involves Clem’s Dad, who lives with motor neurone disease, his carer Oni (beautifully played by Lorna Brown,) and ‘Daughter,’ played by Hannah Rae. Bodies real and imagined, healthy and sick, privileged and not are vivisected in Jude Christian’s stark production.

This is interesting, but far more so is what lies underneath this; a suggestion that privilege is not necessarily about what benefits you, as much as privilege dictates the jurisdiction you can have over someone else’s body. In Clem’s case, all the privilege and money in the world could not stop her body betraying her, but it does mean she can wield influence over others. She cannot have a child, but she will have one, because she wants one. Maybe this was obvious to everyone except me, but I’d always thought of privilege as something that impacts the self, not others. So that’s interesting.

It’s not only Clem’s body that has let her down, her father David is largely confined to his chair, speech slurring, unable to tend the birds Clem remembers so clearly from her youth. He has a carer, Oni, who he trusts and treats as a friend, whereas Clem would rather things were kept professional. David, an old-school socialist feels a sense of larger responsibility, Clem apparently does not. Oni often mediates, but it is clear she agrees with David. They all have different ideas as to what taking care of someone consists of; David believes in rights, Oni in physically caring, and Clem in providing financially. She considers her obligations to the surrogate limited to the money – twenty-two thousand pounds – and thinks nothing as to her wellbeing.

The surrogate, Lakshmi (Salma Hoque,) apparently plans to use the money to send her children to school. Their father will look after them while she is in the clinic. This is what Clem knows, and doesn’t interrogate it. Does she think if she does challenge the simplicity of the arrangement it will all fall apart? Does she not want to chance gaining a conscience? Ignorance is certainly bliss, because of course these are not the circumstances at all. Lakshmi needs the money – period. There is no father looking after her other children, they look after themselves, connected by a piece of string. Lakshmi has no rights. There is a scene where Clem and her husband, Josh (Brian Ferguson,) skype Lakshmi. They are very friendly, ask lots of questions that border on invasive, but Lakshmi seems happy enough to answer the questions – translated by a doctor. It’s only when you read the script you realise that the translations are different; the doctor is harsher, authoritative, ordering Lakshmi around, telling her what to do.

*

Which brings me onto my problem with the play. In telling this story and focusing on white, middle-class successful TV producer Clem, Lakshmi is pushed to the margins of a narrative that is about her. Lakshmi only speaks to voice her pain – and even then it starts as the end of the sentences spoken by Daughter. Fragments of pain, not even complete thoughts. She is denied articulacy. The play seems to take advantage of her. There is a scene where she paints the room for the baby, in the background, while the white people talk. I want to believe this is about the ignorance of Clem to Lakshmi’s voice, and I want to believe this was deliberate, but it just seemed counter-intuitive. WHY make a story about how the bodies of Indian women are used to satisfy westerners if you’re going to do the same thing!? I so hope people with more to say on this do, because this is why I want to talk about it. The play made me feel icky politically, and not in a good way.

Perhaps Franzmann felt this was the only way she could write this story, fine; Bodies has done its job, with me at least. Commercial surrogacy wasn’t something I knew happened. Happens. I’d never even thought about it, and I consider myself a moderately empathetic person with some sense of the horrors going on in the world… and yet it was only seeing this play and then googling frantically afterwards just how out of control it is. It’s abuse on an industrial scale, taking advantage of those most desperate to please the wealthy.

It’s at this abstract level that the play works best. Gabriella Slade’s set reminded me of that Sarah Kane stage direction, a hotel room so expensive “it could be anywhere in the world.” A single long, thin room running the length of the upstairs space. A number of doors, and sliding glass panels. It looks like a waiting room in a private clinic, a clinic that could be, and is, anywhere.

I also want to add that I thought Justine Mitchell was excellent. More leading roles for her, please.

 

Photo by Bronwen Sharp & Scott Rylander.

Bent @ National Theatre: Getting Knocked Sideways

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality, the National Theatre programmed a series of readings entitled ‘Queer Theatre;’ five plays, each dealing with LGBT themes. I wanted to get to see at least one of them and Bent seemed most likely, being read on a Sunday afternoon. But I was still hesitant – I’ve only been to one reading previously, and it felt more like academic politics than anything theatrical (It was Stuff Happens, almost exactly a year ago. It was very good academic politics, being read the day the Chilcot Report was released, but academic politics nonetheless.)

I also didn’t know Bent at all, apart from by name and something of its reputation. But I went in expecting to see a worthy presentation of a notable play in 20th century history. I think I expected something vaguely-1960s-social-realist. Bit like Edward Bond. Maybe it’s the one word title. It was the cast that made me want to see this one in particular, and I do like going to see things I know very little about. Because that way, you and be knocked sideways completely unexpectedly. And I was knocked sideways.

*

Bent follows Max, a gay man who at the start of the play lives in Berlin with his lover, Rudy, a dancer. They enjoy the vibrant nightlife afforded by the city before the Nazi clampdowns, sexually free and promiscuous. They are happy. Then, on what would become known as the Night of the Long Knives, Max brings a man home who is a member of the Sturmabteilung (basically Nazi paratroopers,) an associate of Ernst Röhm. Röhm and his associates were to be assassinated, and the SS barge into Max and Rudy’s flat, killing the paratrooper and forcing Max and Rudy to flee.

First off – the play is fantastic. It will be 40 years old next year, and it sounds like it was written yesterday. I don’t mean that in a clichéd way, in that the themes are still relevant (although they are) but the dialogue is utterly contemporary; nothing feels dated, the language sparkles and crackles. It holds up beautifully, no museum piece. It covers vast ideas and conflicts in about 90 minutes excluding the interval.

Within about a minute I knew my reservations were unfounded. Russell Tovey as Max and George MacKay as Rudy were giving performances, not simply giving voices to words in a script. MacKay in particular barely glanced at his script, and he has that gift of being able to take you on drifts of thought with him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Tovey’s Max is more elusive, and he became more assured as the play progressed. It’s a tough role; he doesn’t leave the stage, and he does commit horrendous acts for the sake of self-preservation. He is often unlikable, self-hating to a degree, and utterly desperate. He has a monologue in the first act describing how he managed to acquire a yellow star instead of a pink triangle, and it’s horrifying. Tovey played it with total simplicity.

And that cast. In addition to Tovey and MacKay, Paapa Essiedu played Horst, a man detained in Dachau assigned the pink triangle. Essiedu was excellent, brilliant comic timing. He and Tovey are responsible for the most hilarious sex scene I’ve seen on a stage since Unreachable. In fucking Dachau. Even Simon Russell Beale had a scene, playing Max’s somewhat-closeted Uncle, cruising in the parks. John Pfumojena’s short but sharp appearance in the first scene sets the tone, while Giles Terera, in heels, played the owner of the club frequented by Max and Rudy, and Pip Torrens’ understated performance as an SS officer was beautifully chilling. Again, single scene appearances, but like Russell Beale, complete characters all.

When you pair that with the brilliance of Sherman’s play– I really can’t overstate how good I think it is – and the starkness afforded by the reading context, it’s no surprise in hindsight that it builds to such an emotional crescendo. The audience stood at the end, I think as shocked as I was to see this old play rise to such extraordinary heights.

*

There was a Q&A after the reading. Sherman and Stephen Daldry – who directed the reading – talked with Michael Cashman, who had appeared in Bent in its most recent run at the National in 1990. It was the first play Daldry saw in London, but as Sherman described, it’s a miracle it was put on at all. The theatre company he was working with – The Gay Sweatshop – encouraged him to put it out into the world, as with them it would live and probably die in a tiny space with little impact. But it was so shocking that there wasn’t a theatre in London that would touch it. The Royal Court only took it because there was a West End producer attached and Ian McKellen, then the darling of the RSC, was to play Max. Whenever I hear a story like that I always remember that theatre as a progressive art form is largely a myth. It can be as bad as the rest. Sherman said that the West End run of Bent had to be conclude by November because “it couldn’t be on at Christmas.”

Sherman had dared to put gay lives on stage, and dared to argue that their suffering in detention camps was worse than that of Jewish detainees. He sparked historical research into the experience of gay men during the Holocaust, and the tragedy that goes beyond that, with homosexuality still being illegal after the Nazis’ defeat. Men who had suffered hugely, and seen horrendous things, could not talk about why they were in concentration camps for fear of being thrown back into jail. It’s horror upon horror upon horror. No wonder Sherman says his motives for writing the play were completely political.

The play itself is a historical act now though, Cashman describing how the National’s 1990 production came about from a one-night-only reading to benefit Stonewall, an organisation that he and McKellen were founding members of. It was probably Cashman who talked about the play in the most emotional terms, describing what it was like to play in Bent every night, when Margaret Thatcher had only recently implemented Section 28 into law. It’s a play of defiance, and anger at its heart.

And THANK GOD for intelligent questions from the audience. But I suppose this was an audience that cared about more than flattering the people on stage. Bent matters. It set the precedent for the LGBT plays that followed – the significance of the reading taking place on the set of Angels in America was not lost on me. Apparently there’s a full London production in the works for next year, to mark its 40th anniversary. I look forward to seeing it.

Common @ National Theatre: …as muck?

First off, yes, I was rooting for Common. There’s very little that saddens me more than a half-empty theatre so I try to be an advocate for everything – but that’s not always possible. Some plays are just a bit shit; it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, just a matter of taste. I’m very aware that unlike a critic I’m under no obligation to ‘review’ what I see. I’m also aware that theatre is more subject to change than most art; when people complain that critics “must have seen a different show to the one I saw,” they’re probably exactly right. No show is the same two nights running.

I also know that Common, DC Moore’s new play in the National’s Olivier, has changed massively since its first preview. The struggles involved with staging a new play (that I can only imagine) suddenly became public. 45 minutes have been cut from the running time. All of this seems fair everyoneisallowedanopinion blah blah waffle waffle bleh.

My problem is this: the things concerning Common that were dismissed – and I use that word deliberately – by the critics, are seemingly still intact. And I don’t think they’re dismissible, not by any means.

HERE’S WHY I THINK EVERYONE WHO GAVE COMMON A ONE STAR REVIEW IS TALKING BOLLOCKS.

*

The thing that has been praised about this production, I think without exception, is Anne-Marie Duff as Mary, our heroine, who swears more than I do. She walks on stage, a striking figure in red and commands the audience with the most creative use of swearing I can recall seeing on a stage. I was banking every single one of her insults for future use. Mary is part-real, part-fiction; part-liar, part-seer – a multitude of flaws and contradictions. She is coarse and crude and crass and I LOVED her. You can see how much fun Duff is having, relishing being raunchy and provocative. It’s a great part, and she does a great job. And yes, I would see her in anything.

There’s strong acting support from Cush Jumbo as Laura, a supporting role; one painted in broad strokes but one she still manages to inhabit. Lois Chimimba is solid as Eggy Tom/Young Hannah, and yes, there’s a bloody puppet crow. And has John Dagleish put it in his contract that the set for any play he’s involved in must be a circle of dirt?

Jeremy Herrin’s production makes little attempt to put the physical village on stage; things are suggested with stiles and posts and the occasional table. Instead, the stage is filled with people, plenty of supernumeraries representing the landscape and the people that populate it. There are sequences where they trudge across the stage, carrying saplings, swiping the thin air with scythes, with nothing to harvest. The scythes become not instruments of agriculture, but blades destined for another use. This is a drama with people at the centre (and not just because the Travelex budget pushes it in this direction.)

The floor of the Olivier stage is a layer of thin, ruined earth, blackened and sharp. Nothing could possibly grow here; it seems toxic, throwing up whatever is attempted to be hidden within. It’s blackened and hard and dusty. This is rural England, but hardly William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” It is a land exhausted by centuries of labour by peasants; land about to be taken away from them. The world of the play is just on the verge of capitalism, just on the verge of chaos; revolutions are flaring up across Europe and threaten to scorch this earth too.

*

The production then, is far from terrible. But that wouldn’t matter if the text propping it up was shite.

GOOD NEWS. IT’S NOT SHITE. And I intend to make the case that COMMON IS A REALLY GOOD PLAY.

“But w-w-w-wait! I don’t know what happened!?”*

Alright. Common is about Mary, a woman who has been in London (or hell) for a long time, presumed dead by her lover (and also her adopted sister) Laura, and the rest of the community. She returns to the land as it is being inclosed under the acts of inclosure in the early 19th century. She expects to rekindle her romance with Laura, but cannot, and instead she is thrown into the violent resistance that surrounds the inclosure of the common land, led by Mary’s adopted brother, King.

There. That’s the plot of the first act. I really fail to see what was so hard to understand. I’d explain the second but I’d rather not spoil it.

“Ah!” I hear you counter; “But the language makes it impossible to follow what’s going on!”†

BULLSHIT. The language is by no means impenetrable. Yes, it forces you to *gasp* concentrate, but I found myself treating it like Shakespeare. I was paying far more attention to the rhythm and emphasis than I was to the words themselves, but the words themselves were fecking hilarious. And furthermore, the actors are more than capable of making even the obscure and dense parts intelligible. What Moore seems to do is layer the words on top of each other; where most playwrights would cut, he adds not adjectives but synonyms. The characters talk 50 different ways at once, something I did not find to be a flaw, but a totally original use of language in a dramatic context.

“What was with all that Wicker Man shit!?”‡

I have a feeling that my enjoyment of Common has a lot to do with my love of horror films, by which I mean, I looked at Common as a piece of folk horror. Horror as a genre has been rarely represented on stage, which is no surprise to me as it is barely taken seriously in film, let alone in “high culture,” whatever the hell that is. I mean, there’s the Woman in Black (which I have no intention of seeing, sorry ‘bout it) and there’s the work of Sarah Kane… but it’s never really perceived as horror. Common is folk horror in its true sense; playing on an English fascination with the green and pleasant land and inverting it.

Folk horror emerged in the late 60s, as attitudes towards sexuality loosened, and filmmakers tried to go beyond the gothic of the Hammer 50s. More could be shown, sex and violence, but instead of approaching modernity, they went backwards into history. Drawing on rural ritual and pagan imagery, these films were not nearly as camp, and were dark and nihilistic. The Wicker Man is probably the most widely known (hence its appearance as a reference point in several reviews) but is part of a whole sub-genre including Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. Common strikes me as part of this tradition, albeit set a little later. The ground here is home only to bodies – and even those it spits up. Holes gape in the ground like mouths, waiting to swallow people whole. There’s gore too, but not slasher-levels by any means; folk horror doesn’t rely on gore but on subversion. The characters dress in nature’s armour and chant and ritualise. Pre-Christian traditions in what we generally consider to be a Christian age.

This world is violent; people die horribly, and people kill brutally. There’s a linking of primal desires; sex and blood, revenge and resistance. Once a community has had its common ground stripped away – in both a literal and metaphorical sense – it disintegrates, the family collapses, social norms follow. Only those in the upper classes could possibly survive, and even that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Horror doesn’t sit easily in any form; it’s restless and subversive – and is very rarely taken seriously. People relish its flaws for good and bad – but its so rarely taken seriously. I can’t help but feel part of what made Common so criticised is its genre.

Yes, it is nuts. It is totally bonkers. This is no square, perfect little drama like The Ferryman. It’s rich and dark and weird and slippery and messy. Things are not tied up neatly in a bow, and I’m glad they’re not. When I say I like messy theatre THIS IS WHAT I MEAN.

*

When Anne Marie Duff thanked the audience, inaudibly, during the curtain call it was with total sincerity, not as some pandering actor. She seemed genuinely grateful we’d stayed till the end and listened to the story on it’s own terms.

Criticism is great, it’s the only way anyone learns. But dismissal strikes me as downright unfair. Dismissal is a failure of the critic, a complete inability to engage with the art on any level other than the superficial – and that’s what made me angry about the reaction to Common. You don’t have to like it, but there’s no reason to take glee in writing a hatchet job. Common is bold, original, linguistically fascinating, led by a formidable performance AND IT’S A PIECE OF NEW WRITING ON THE BIGGEST PLAYHOUSE STAGE IN LONDON. I massively enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s been treated fairly.

 

Photo by Johan Persson.

 


* “The plotting achieves Steven Moffat levels of head-scratching opacity.”

“Moore writes in a mangled, mongrel tongue”

“I felt as if I was watching a folkloric English equivalent of the diabolic Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter, perhaps randomly intercut with The Wicker Man.”

Killology @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Fathers, Sons and Fairytales

“In the beginning was Scream

Who begat Blood

[…]

Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood”

– Lineage, Ted Hughes

*

Killology is a play about how much it sucks to have kids.

I mean, it’s not, but it does suggest that parenting is simply a series of compromises and failures. Cheery stuff. One the one hand, it’s about the complexities of the father/son dynamic, something that – as a son – I certainly feel entangled in. On the other, it’s a morality fable about what is real and what is not – colliding with a sort-of satire on the prevalence of violence in mainstream culture.

Phew. Got that out of the way.

*

Sometimes a play has you grinning before the lights go down – and as the lights in the Upstairs space of the Royal Court flickered and then then cut completely, I certainly felt that grin spread across my face. It vanished fairly quickly, which seems fair considering the opening speech ends with an announcement of imminent murder.

Gary Owen’s play is a sequence of monologues, delivered by three characters that inhabit the same space but are on different timelines. Occasionally they interact, but the vast majority of the play is direct address. It’s confrontational, confessional even. These monologues become slightly hypnotic, hallucinogenic even, the set itself (mechanical, machine-like, but also wet and organic) seems to bleed into the audience, with a sound design that similarly makes us complicit. It’s also exquisitely lit by Kevin Treacy, the lights carve what could be an austere tangle into something more like a forest’s clearing, light dappled by leaves. Everything is heightened theatrically, but never enough to make you completely doubt it’s ‘real.’

The actors seem to be inhabiting different universes – which I suppose they are. Seán Gleeson’s Alan has had his heart utterly broken and exists somewhere outside rational thought; Richard Mylan’s brilliantly disgusting Paul reminded me slightly too much of some people I’ve met at uni, and also had a slight whiff of the Tarantino about him; and Siôn Daniel Young’s Davey is beautifully observed, his acting is almost invisible.

It does slightly conjure up the work of Sarah Kane – but I’m not sure that’s fair. It’s probably more to do with the idea that violence on the English stage = Sarah Kane, and then amplified by the theatre space shared by both Owen and Kane.

What I’m trying to get at is Killology is far more fairytale than realism. Although – yes – I was disgusted by the thing that happens just before the interval, there was little else that stirred anything other than interest. Because I was interested, but I think there was just huge swathes that I couldn’t take seriously – and, gah, I don’t even mean that. I think the nature of the piece, the form, the content, the line it walks between realism and fairytale, means that you’re always playing a guessing game – and that loosens the tension somewhat. I couldn’t take it ‘seriously’ because I was always interrogating whether what is being said is real or not. The second act has far more of these moments than the first.

There’s also the morals at play; the play seems to suggest that violence in culture begets violence in life – and violence in life begets violence in life. At least in some instances, under specific circumstances. But then why make the physical production so non-specific? In the play Alan suggests that “there is an instinctive revulsion against taking a human life,” and that it can be defeated with the appropriate ‘training.’ It’s a universal trait then? … and then when I carry on down this train of thought I get very confused and conflicted and bleh.

*

So, Killology. I definitely had a drink and thought a lot about it afterwards, put it that way.

 

Photo by Mark Douet.

Hamlet @ Harold Pinter Theatre: Twice Seen of Us

I first saw this production of Hamlet back in February, while it was in its previews at the Almeida. I wrote about it here, and it was the first thing I wrote that gained anything like interest. I couldn’t resist the urge to write about it again, but this piece is perhaps inevitably as much in conversation with my initial piece as it is with the production itself. And with me, any excuse to write about Hamlet is a good one.

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Seeing things twice is always something of a gamble. Sometimes you don’t want to give an actor the chance to change whatever it was that was so magical about their performance in the first place, sometimes you want to see just how deep they are willing to dive. Sometimes the production is so rich that it necessitates multiple viewings, and sometimes you want to retain the overwhelming impression of something. But there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to see Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet with Andrew Scott as the Dane himself if I got the chance. I knew I’d missed so much, and so much would have changed as the run progressed.

The production is so much richer for its 10-weeks-worth of performances since I last saw it. The actors have sunk into their characters to an extent that watching the play feels more like eavesdropping. That is in itself an achievement in moving the play from the intimate Almeida to the West End, although the actors all spoke at a conversational level – they were wearing mics but I’m not sure how much they were amplified to the balconies. I mention that because there is definitely a sense that they have moved the Almeida to the West End, going so far as reconstructing the former’s back wall on the stage of the Harold Pinter. The video feeds are retained – obviously – but instead of brick forming the backdrop, we see glimpses of the yellow-and-blue of the Pinter auditorium. My fringe made an appearance also. It loses something when it does this; it becomes slightly more like a play than a world. I was also aware that on this visit I was a lot closer to the stage than I had been at the Almeida, I could see every glance, every twitch.

And I still know there’s loads I’ve missed.

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Anyway, the play.

That first sequence, where the first act runs as one almost-unbroken scene is still a marvel to me. It also changed a lot of my feelings as to the internal relationships of the characters. I was wrong; clearly there is a sexual attraction between Hamlet and Ophelia. They’re so flirty, and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is full of life and energy. Ophelia is truly ‘good,’ not in some dated, virtuous way, but you’d want her for a mate. I’d bet she’d be a hoot at parties. I loved watching Ophelia and Laertes trying to make each other laugh during Claudius’ long speech. I loved watching Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude study every flicker that crosses Hamlet’s face, smiling encouragingly. She clearly loves her son, and her relationship with Claudius is a strong one. She is no opportunist.

And as for Hamlet himself, Scott’s performance seems to have grown in physicality. He’s a fidgety Hamlet; when his leg starts to shake, you know there’s about to be a volcanic outburst. He is – interestingly – less shouty. His anger manifests itself as a constant, simmering rage. He’s also far wittier, with superb comic timing. He’s a funny Hamlet. But far more importantly, he is a Hamlet without any answers. Scott’s gift is in making the verse ring with absolute clarity, he includes the audience on his thoughts with him. The effect of this is not only one of implication, but of a humanising of the character. Hamlet is no genius here, he is no preacher, he’s just trying to understand, and often coming to most awful conclusion, rightly and wrongly. When he asks Ophelia “are you honest?” you can see the desperation etched in Hamlet’s face, and the horror in Ophelia’s.

I also have to write about just how brilliant the characterisations of Gertrude and Ophelia are. Both actresses have to do so much with so little material. How Stevenson manages to craft that arc in Gertrude is stunning to me. We watch her go from a sexualised newlywed, to (un)willing pawn in Claudius’ attempts to get to Hamlet, to someone out of love, willing to not only sacrifice herself, but openly defy her husband politically. But more on that later. I’m also utterly convinced that the story Gertrude tells Laertes, of how Ophelia died, is a complete lie. Not a cruel lie, not one to hide a conspiracy, but one to spare Laertes. I suspect Laertes knew it was a lie too.

As I said, Findlay’s Ophelia is fucking brilliant. It registered with me just how much Hamlet screws up in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Ophelia is forced into playing the game by her father and Claudius, but she’s still somewhat on Hamlet’s side. And then Hamlet screws up. “Are you honest?” he asks, and the fury in Ophelia just leaps out – she knows the accusation is not just of sexual honesty but of political honesty. Hamlet believes the world is conspiring against him, and it probably isn’t, not until he throws Ophelia under the bus. And then the ‘mad scene’… in parts it is as though she isn’t mad at all. The way she hands the flowers out, so specifically, clinging on to the daisy (as she did when Hamlet throws the vase of water over her.) I couldn’t help but think Findlay will make a great Lady M one day. (With Scott? At the Almeida? With Icke? Please!?)

I also had a thought about the now-infamous “Now might I do it” bit. Claudius appears to be confessing the murder to Hamlet, at gunpoint. But the scene is lit like the ghost scene, (and we’re led to believe Hamlet imagines the physical manifestation of the ghost) Hamlet in harsh focus, like the ghost of his father. This continues right up until Claudius’ last couplet, when the lights shift, Claudius throws open his arms, his arrogance protecting him from any attempt by Hamlet to kill him. I think that nothing in that scene is ‘real’ until the lights shift. Simply thinking about the geography: if Hamlet was going to his mother’s closet, it makes sense he would pass Claudius in the room before this, and imagined what might occur. But I doubt that’s an original thought and I’m probably wrong. STILL.

Moving swiftly on, I don’t think I clocked last time just how beautiful that last scene is. From Claudius and Gertrude crossing the stage to attend to their respective loyalties, Laertes and Hamlet, to Laertes trying so hard not to using the poisoned foil. And as heart-breaking as Scott (and Luke Thompson’s Laertes, for that matter) is in this scene, the part that really took my breath away was Gertrude’s storyline, which I’m about to describe for my own benefit more than anyone else’s. The way she distances herself from Claudius, to taking the wine, and drinking not just to save her son, but in direct defiance of her husband politically, foiling (sorry) his plan. She pushes away his hand, there is no doubt she knows what she’s about to do, and then as she drinks she interlocks her fingers with Claudius. She still loves him, even as she’s dying as a direct consequence of his actions. Then she turns to Hamlet and smiles at him, and at the same moment it dawns on him what she has done. Hamlet’s smile is weaker. Gertrude sits at the back of the stage shaking slightly, hardly able to watch the proceedings, or look at her husband.

That last image, of Hamlet clawing at Horatio as he dies – a profoundly violent death – is unbearably moving. It’s almost strange to see Hamlet – the daddy of the tragedies – be quite so tragic.

And yes, I noticed the watches this time. (Although the very ending is still unclear to me. Hamlet’s watch is back on the wrist of his father, and this is what stops him joining the golden-lit party? Why? Or has he made his revenge and no longer needs to physically carry his father’s memory with him?)

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Long story short, you’ll be hard pressed to find better Shakespeare in London this year. I already want to see it again. “Twice seen of us” is not enough.

 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.