Beginning @ National Theatre: Time Makes You Bolder

I was looking forward to Beginning, don’t get me wrong. But when a play seems to come out of nowhere and sweep you away with its magic, that effect is heightened. You get drunk on it. As it was, I entered the Dorfman theatre and as that wall of party music that forms the pre-show hit me, I felt my mood lift. I was in such a good mood, but half-expecting it to be deflated the second the curtain (there was a curtain!) went up. When it looks like things are going well, I tend to doubt. It absolutely did not deflate. It lifted even further.

*

God I loved it so much. It’s bloody brilliant craftsmanship, gorgeously done by everyone involved. It seems beautifully ‘classic.’ Not classic the way that some might describe a tweedy, mothballed suit, but classic in the way that an oak bookcase full of really good books will always look amazing.

A man and a woman are left alone at the end of a party; he’s been eyeing her up all night and she’s taken a shine to him too. They’ve both – ahem – ‘had a drop taken,’ but they’re both clearly excited at the prospect of being alone. They stand in awkward silence, half posed, each waiting for the other to talk. It’s often painfully awkward, the distance between the bodies on stage seems magnified; Danny, with his back to us over on the right trying to look bigger, and Laura, leaning on the doorframe in an attempt at sensuality.

And when they start to talk, as they must, they just can’t stop saying the wrong things. (Personal favourite, when Laura tells Danny to ‘man up’ and he promptly bursts into tears.) It’s Chekhovian in that sense of these people should not keep saying those things but the fact they do is just so hilarious – I genuinely don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in a theatre. They talk in weird, awkward, half sentences and “what?”s and misunderstandings. It is, as Eldridge put it, “tortured, euphemistic language.” Neither can bring themselves to say exactly what it is they want, even supposedly empowered, forward Laura.

The play is a game of how much can these people stand of the other’s presence. Can they really stand that awkwardness? Can they stand that silence and the missteps and OH GOD when they just keep saying the wrong thing? It’s a play of so many endings that could but never quite materialise. Laura stands between Danny and the door physically, and the genius of Polly Findlay’s direction is you’re never entirely sure what is a conscious action and what is not. Is Laura really blocking Danny’s way? Or is it just the inevitable consequence of hosting a party? When Danny turns away from Laura and she tucks her hair behind her ears, is it conscious or utterly irrelevant?

It is a play where the politics of lifting a glass are important (sidenote; I got to hear Eldridge and Findlay talk about Beginning and it was wonderful and wow Polly Findlay’s such a great articulator of this stuff.) It’s a play where the detail is so. Damn. Important. Thinking about it now, I have no real idea which ideas were Eldridge’s, Findlay’s or the actors’. The work is completely seamless. Findlay referred to ‘The Eldridge Iceberg,’ the idea that the dialogue offers a glimpse at what the characters are attempting to conceal, and as that icebergs melts away over the evening, the huge depth of emotion that is under these characters becomes raw and exposed. Both these characters have vast capacities for emotion, in a way that I think is genuinely rare to see.

Playing these parts are Justine Mitchell (who is having a hell of a year, incidentally,) and Sam Troughton. They are both completely exquisite. There’s not a moment in either of their performances I wish was different. The way Mitchell’s Laura stares at the gold streamers for just a couple of seconds longer than you expect before she rips it down. The way Troughton swallows hard wile shaking out a binbag. The way Mitchell sits on a beanbag eating a fish-finger sandwich. The way Troughton cannot stay still on that couch. I could list them and list them – but I won’t, because you really should see it for yourself. Possibly their biggest achievement is in the balance of their performances; they never seek to outdo the other, but they’re constantly matching, daring themselves and then the other. You do feel like they could both go completely off script and you’d still have two human beings on stage trying to talk to each other.

It’s so lovely to simply enjoy yourself unreservedly at the theatre. I love feeling like my brain is going at 100mph, don’t get me wrong. I love being challenged, but it’s so wonderful to just be told a story when the storytelling is so good. And that’s not to say that Beginning isn’t intelligent, because it is. I think it speaks very eloquently about class, and age, and children and love and money and how frustratingly interconnected they can all be. It just chooses to wear its heart, not Wikipedia, on its sleeve.

It’s also beautifully designed; Fly Davis’ room is just exactly the room it should be, and is treated as such by the actors. It’s an alive space, it never feels like a set. To navigate this type of naturalism without falling into the holes that seem to define naturalism is a skill in itself, carried through from the writing to the directing and acting, into the design.

*

A sizeable chunk of this play is completely devoid of dialogue. The longest stretch is eight(!) minutes but it’s often just a second too long to be comfortable. You sit in a permanent state of half-wince. The audience cannot really (with a few exceptions) agree on what to laugh at, it emerges in spikes and awkward, nervous cackles. You get the sense that for a lot of the audience, this is very close to the bone.

And it’s not a play that is overly optimistic. Hopeful, yes, and I think (SPOILER) when Danny and Laura finally kiss we desperately want them to make it work, (END SPOILER) but something dark creeps into the room someway through. I think it’s when Laura mentions how in the next year America will elect a female president. It’s only then the play plants itself in history, 2015, before the EU referendum and the election of Trump, and what feels like an era of incompetents doing jobs well beyond their capacities. Eldridge spoke about how he was very much “writing in the present tense” when he wrote it, but what seemed then an opportunity for the – loosely – progressive voice to finally assert itself seems instead a last hurrah for optimism. I can’t help but wonder if Laura and Danny’s relationship would disintegrate the way so much of politics has.

It was also interesting to see this play between two other, radically different two-handers. It exposed the form not solely as a method for experiment, but as a form for complete assurance and confidence. It struck me that it is an inherently dangerous thing to put two humans on stage and leave them there for 100 minutes; there’s no surface scene change to grab a glass of water, or to distract/wake up the audience. There’s no other actor to walk in and energise the piece. It is an act of complete trust, and faith. Which may be why when it works – and it very much works here – the results are soaring because you sense the elements of immense difficulty being navigated with total ease and confidence.

*

Beginning doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it does lovingly craft a gorgeous-looking one out of the finest materials in the wheel-making industry, and it’s my favourite new play of the year so you should probably see it, okay?

 

Photo by John Persson.

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Saint George and the Dragon @ National Theatre: Dragon’s Back, Tell A Friend

I’m not sure what I expected Saint George and the Dragon to be like, but it sure as hell wasn’t a three-act pantomime that lurches through time and genre and technology, and manages to encompass pastoral folk elements, a critique of capitalism and a bust up in a pub.

It’s a weird play.

SPOILERS AHOY.

*

When it starts, with George (a gorgeously-wigged John Heffernan) addressing the audience in verse(?) I was a) having Boudica flashbacks and b) convinced that this was going to be a traditional retelling of the legend of Saint George. We meet him as a knight in Medieval England, convinced to rescue a maid who has been promised as a sacrifice to the dragon, who has been ruling England for many years (how and why is never explained.)

It basically descends very quickly into panto. When the dragon (Julian Bleach) makes his entrance, black cloak trailing behind (half the fun is watching him try not to trip over it) you’re wanting to boo. It’s such a camp performance and you either want more of it, or you want it to stop. I feel like this wouldn’t matter if the whole production had that heightened, comedic, panto campiness – but it doesn’t go that far, and it suffers for it. I hate to say it, but I genuinely found the first 40 minutes or so excruciating. Its morals are so simple, its characters so straightforward and one-dimensional, the production needed to be flatter – but it treats the material like fucking Hamlet. I was thinking as it was happening “this is a really decent kids’ play. Why isn’t it being marketed as such.” The production is trying to twist the text into something it cannot be. Don’t have your actors try and make deep psychological sense of something when you’re also going to have a papier-mache dragon head zoom down from the circle. TWICE.

And then it changes. And it becomes far more interesting.

*

After the first dragon has been banished – and you do clock fairly quickly that we’re careering through the folk tale ridiculously quickly for a play promised to be 2 and ¾ hours long – we are flung forward in time; a year in the narrative, but in practice this is a shift from pre-industrial pleasant lands to the dark, satanic mills of the new towns. The dragon that keeps these people under his grip is – you guessed it – the capitalist system itself. Bureaucracy, and law, and plans, and the machine that crushes everyone it touches, maiming children and never to be stopped. It’s a slight change in tone, as you can imagine. Suddenly there’s an attempt to talk about politics seriously, through the lens of an English folk tale. Now that’s an interesting idea to me. It’s still simple, what could be a full length play in itself is crammed into another 40 minutes as George takes it upon himself to rid the town of it’s capitalist by – wait for it – ripping up the city plans. WHAT. It’s panto as if written by David Hare. There’s no attempt to create myth, or an internal logic, and these are things that seem intrinsic to me when retelling these stories.

It is nevertheless the most interesting, and probably the most successful part of the play. It throws up ideas that I wish it delved into.

Once again, the people are left to close their eyes and imagine the future. When we return after the interval, that future seems to be what we’re living now, a glossy city where no one looks at each other and no one cares if you’re crying on the bus. (It’s clearly a Southern city then.) The dragon in this world is apathy, and as such it lurks within all of us.

Super deep, right?

And it’s this idea that the dragon is no longer tangible that sends George spiralling out of control; there is no simple objective, nothing to slay for him any more, and he cannot take it. He resorts to violence; misplaced, inappropriate violence. It loses him the trust of the people, and then his life.

But this strange, third act also has some of the strongest bits. There’s a scene in a pub where a disguised George gets absolutely hammered watching a football match that actually sort of works? It ends with him pissing everyone off and starting a fight (Scouser throws the first punch, hmm.) We then see him sobering up in a police cell with the aforementioned Scouser, and it too is a strong scene. Don’t ask me what it’s about exactly, because I’ve already forgotten, but it just drew attention to what the play could have been; how does a man on a mythic quest cope when the objective of that quest has irrevocably changed?

*

Ultimately, this is a production of missed opportunities. Where there could have been a dissection of what this folk icon means in 21st century Britain – it being England no longer after all, there was a confusing sequence of repeated motifs and pithy speeches about how good England is. Only at the very end is this given any kind of rebuttal – the Empire does exist in this world, but is given about 10 seconds of discussion time. The ideas of time expanding and contracting, so beautifully done in Ella Hickson’s Oil a year ago that could have resurfaced again here, are glossed over if it can be said they are even considered. There is only the surface here, as hard as the cast work to try and make it otherwise (Gawn Grainger gives a particularly good performance.)

And again, I hate to say it, but it’s probably due to a complete misconceiving of the production. It just doesn’t work. The set doesn’t make particularly good use of the space, forcing everything onto the downstage rim of the Olivier. It aches to stretch back, using the full space – it has a big enough company to fill it after all. And the set itself looks… cheap. Not good, panto cheap, but ‘we need to do this under budget’ cheap. Then again I was front row, so maybe it was just because I could actually see the damn paint strokes on the floor.

If it was attempting to find a centre, it needed to be either campier, or altogether more serious. Because what happens on stage is frustrating.

If this sounds at all snarky, I’m sorry. I don’t want to be that dick that snarks about someone else’s work. I guess I’m just frustrated that there are interesting ideas in the text here, but they’re all confused and twisted into a production that simply does work.

*

AN ADDITION: congratulations to Victoria Mosely for being the first actress with a Scouse accent I’ve seen at the National (That’s her in the photo at the top.) It brings the total number of Scouse accents I’ve seen on the London stage this year to 3 – and she was 2 of them (she was also in My Brilliant Friend.) I suppose it is worth noting that this production represents England in the widest demographics it could, across race, gender and accent. So that’s good*. But it should probably be a given by now, shouldn’t it?

*still a posh white dude though that tries to save the day. Just saying.

Oslo @ National Theatre: Iceberg/Goldberg

“…it is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”

– Larsen, p. 33 (TCG)

 

Oslo is a three hour long political thriller that theatricalises the advent of the Oslo Accords, largely through dramatizing the political processes that were navigated by the Israeli government and the PLO, and their facilitators, the Norwegian couple Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul.

It’s either very much your kind of thing, or it’s not.

It is very much my kind of thing.

*

For those of you that don’t know, I’m a history student. I remember in my university interview I was asked why I wanted to study history, and I answered something along these lines:

What interests me personally, is what happens when the personal collides with the political. In history, this happens most clearly in two ways; with people, and with conflict. There are people throughout history that transcend their politics and becomes icons in their own right; Eva Peron, Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana… there’s lots. People who are loved and hated for being them, instead of for what they stand/stood for. Then there’s conflict – particularly the ethno-political kind. Violence exists in these circumstances superficially because of political positions, but often the hatred is because the other side is them. People pretend it’s about politics, but it’s not, it’s about identity (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, The Middle East…) And that is just endlessly fascinating to me.

Anyway. I hope that doesn’t sound like self-indulgent bullshit. Hopefully it might explain why I was HYPED for Oslo. It literally dramatizes people sat round a table talking about rubbish collections. It gives the illusion of being about politics, but it is ultimately about identity. It is about who these people are, and what they want – and why they want it.

*

So what exactly is the point of dramatizing political processes? What does it achieve? Is it even a valid form of theatre*?

YES.

Political process often comes down to a conversation, a dialogue between two people, maybe an argument – but it’s at a human scale. It allows massive history to be examine on a human, and therefore theatrical level. When it comes down to it, narrative theatre relies on human interaction; when done well, nothing can be as ruthless an exposer of human nature than political process. In Oslo, we’re dealing with tempers that have been fraying for 50 years. It’s no wonder that characters come rushing in at 50mph shouting at the top of their voices – they have reason to. And there’s also the fact that political processes can be fascinating on their own terms. How do you get the PLO and the Israeli Government to agree on… anything? Answering that question is dramatic. There’s an inherent tension. The stakes are far higher than any shitty drawing room drama. There’s not one life/mind at stake, there are millions.

In Oslo, this is communicated through narration. Larsen and Juul talk directly to the audience, largely to cover vast swathes of exposition that would be unbearable if it was embedded in the text proper. It’s a smart choice, and it establishes their perspective all the more firmly – but more on that later. The Norwegian voice is made important, with Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard furnishing their characters with what could be described as ‘accents.’ Apparently they’re Norwegian. I though Stephens had taken RP to new heights before I understood this. ANYWAY, the Norwegian voice is made important – the accents are not necessary, which means they can only exist to further stress the Norwegians removedness from the conflict. But it’s also much simpler; Larsen and Juul facilitate the play as they do the politics.

Rogers succeeds I think in keeping the tension high and the mood taught; the three-hour run time really does race by. Bartlett Sher ensures the pace is quick; it is very much a furniture-moving-on-and-off kind of play. Like Cleansed but without the (onstage at least) violence. He is certainly a director who knows how to use space (it’s not quite as gorgeous to look at as his South Pacific aka my favourite thing ever and the most significant production of a musical this century, but the same thinking underlies it.) His production feels presentational, as opposed to inclusive; perhaps this is a side-effect of moving the production from a thrust space to a proscenium. The presentational nature of it makes it feel slightly filmic, or like a documentary perhaps, there may be a little too much telling instead of showing, but when there’s that much history to cover, I get why. Larsen and Juul’s work culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords; I’d guess that many if not most of the audience at the National knew this in advance… which makes the end of the play really interesting.

Rogers does convey just what makes these people exciting – not necessarily Larsen and Juul, the former in particular is too enigmatic to be drawn in broad strokes – but the supporting players, Ahmed Qurie of the PLO and Uri Savir of the Israeli Foreign Ministry are brought vividly to life by Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti respectively. It’s not an exercise in subtlety; they are a pair of barn-storming performances by actors that were practically spitting nails from all the scenery they were chewing. It’s a masterclass in character acting whenever the two of them are onstage separately, let alone when they’re together. You get why these people are so brilliant to dramatize; their energy is thrilling – and slightly scary.

*

Okay. The above was written fairly quickly after seeing the play (13/9/17) and I could have left it at that. But there’s something about this play that has been bothering me, and seeing as I’m sat in my uni library surrounded by books on Israeli/Palestinian history, I thought I’d try to write about it. The thing that’s been bothering me is the politics.

More specifically, the play’s perspective.

Right. Rogers is an American, writing about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through a Norwegian perspective, in what seems to be a very English style. Each of those elements come loaded with baggage and significance which seems to have been ignored as the work is understood as remarkably ‘neutral.’

Firstly, the American thing. Bart Sher knows Larsen; Their daughters went to school together. He introduced Rogers to Larsen. It would be overly cynical of me to suggest this meant there was any sort of agenda other than this is a really good story… but it lingers in your head somewhat.

Out of interest, when was the last time an Israeli or a Palestinian got their play produced on a national stage? One that deals with their own histories? I’m not a fan of the whole ‘not yours to write about’ school of thought, but it does seem strange that the Americans (and the English) seem to raise their voices loudest. I bring up the English style, by which I mean Rogers has (by his own admission) studied David Hare’s political work; the echoes of Stuff Happens can be seen quite clearly. It’s a theatre that puts politicians onstage, rather than those affected by their actions. It both holds them accountable, and humanises them; the latter having the potential to be a major problem when the politicians are almost beyond politics – when they’re hated for being them. Is that fair? Not only to the audience, but to the people represented?

Sher genuinely seems to understand Norway as a neutral channel; a way to explore the conflict without, as Rogers has said, the baggage of “he said, she said.” It allows for – what was an initially American audience – to come at it from a different angle. Norway was in an unusual position in that they were officially neutral with both sides, but they could never publicly endorse the talks Larsen and Juul were facilitating for fear of upsetting the Americans… so…. Neutral? There does seem to be a conflation with ‘do they have any interests at stake,’ and ‘are they neutral.’

I’d bet that Americans in general have stronger feelings about Israel and Palestine than Brits anyway, so perhaps that impression of neutrality was more important than exploring where the conflict was actually at; the intifada is still ongoing, though less horrendous, the Soviet Union has just collapsed and the PLO has lost its main sponsor, and Yitzhak Rabin was recently re-elected on a platform advocating peace. Some of this context is dropped into the conversation, much is not. The PLO were willing to try anything to keep their campaign on the world agenda at a time when it was in danger of falling off, and moreover were desperate to be included in any talks they could, having been excluded from the talks in Madrid.** There’s something of a false equivalency in how the two sides are portrayed, I feel. But perhaps that’s inevitable. Perhaps all of this is inevitable.

Is neutrality actually important? I honestly don’t know. Could you do a play that was massively anti-Israel at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain? Or a play that denies the existence of Palestine? I doubt it. Funding would get pulled so quick – in America your whole subscriber base would dissolve in an instant. (though Lincoln Center has members, not subscribers…) It was only at the start of my second year of uni I managed to banish the idea that history is about finding some sort of objective truth or fact – it’s nothing of the sort. You make your argument, and you back it up. You can challenge it, you can throw stuff at it and see if anything sticks, but you’re never trying to be objective, necessarily. I don’t feel this kind of theatre should be any different.

What am I trying to say… Something along the lines of “Oslo is not a straightforward political thriller.” It’s not as simple as to say that Larsen and Juul facilitated conversation between two sides of a conflict; one of those sides was incredibly tired of war, and the other had lost a huge amount of funding. To impose a further morality on that seems artificial.

And again, I don’t mean to take away from what they did. It’s bloody genius what they did; as Rogers has said, it feels impossible now but it felt impossible then. Perhaps that idea of hope, of seeing deeply intelligent people try and communicate across vast historical and political divides matters in 2017, when the political landscape is populated by anti-intellectual twonks.


*all theatre is ‘valid,’ twat. Just some of it’s good and some of it’s shit.

**the programme essays for Oslo are particularly good, and much of this can be gleaned from them. Definitely worth a read.

This is also particularly interesting, and it’s where I’ve sourced most of my ‘Sher said’ ‘Rogers has said’ comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jgM093MhW8&t=901s

 

Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Boudica @ Shakespeare’s Globe: Battle Come Down

Couldn’t resist. I’m sorry for the verse.
It’s hardly brilliant, and that is why
It’s Tristam Bernays who got a commission,
And why I’m writing blogs instead of plays.

*

It’s rather a surprise that Boudica
Has not been given such a play before;
This hugely influential, mythic figure,
About whom we know almost nothing of –
A great role waiting for an actress t’play.
Gina McKee here gives her life and grows
From tentative – and possibly too posh –
To raging, seething, blood-drenched queen in war.
Her temples smudged with blue, voice opened up.
And five stars for the wig alone, I reckon.
Her power in the part will only grow
As she has time to work out where to rip
Loose, where her voice and energy can run
Away from her. She’s very good, and never
Better than when onstage with her two daughters;
The only things she cares for more than war.
Natalie Simpson, Joan Iyiola play
These parts, the only ones who own the stage
With the authority of Boudica,
The ones I want to see when she’s offstage,
If offstage she must be. The conflict there
Feels real, the actors’ chemistry does spark.

*

I could have done without the movement bits,
Not every new play needs to have some dance,
It would have shaved some time of it as well.
My problems with the piece come down to this;
It’s always entertaining, but there’s parts
That go on far too long; it’s ‘Boudica’
Not ‘Random Roman Soldier I don’t care
About.’ But most surprising is the way
Formidably the play is anti-war.
It’s critical of violence in all forms,
Manifestations, mourns the brutal truth
Of revolution; just how easily
The slaves get just as cruel as masters did.
A play that I suppose I thought would take
From Boudica ideas of nation, pride
Perhaps, more openly reactionary –
More Brexity, even. Temptation’s dodged.

*

It seemed appropriate the heaven’s opened
When the Iceni stormed the Roman town;
This play belongs in open air, the verse
Bernays employs entirely justified
By a production treating it as grand
As any Shakespeare, but with trademark wit
And the irreverence that came to note
The time of Emma Rice; the Romans smashed
Apart to Celtic riffs on ‘London Calling,’
We hear a prologue, Gods and myth’s invoked,
We hear soliloquies, but much seems Greek
As well as English; violence is onstage
For sure, when Boudica rips out a tongue
For instance. Still, a lot is told to us,
Aspiring to give us a sense of scale.
But Shakespeare’s Globe has the advantage where
A character we know at threat of rape
Can claw her way towards the audience,
And beg a person standing there for help.
When horror is this easy to express
On such a stage it seems irrelevant
Almost to have a person talk to us,
Before she too is murdered by the Celts.
Sometimes it seems to talk for sake of talk.

*

Worthiness at the Globe is a misstep.
Delicate work goes quite unnoticed there,
The subtleties of language do get lost.
And that’s why entertainment has to take
Priority; strong narrative and climbing
Momentum – make it bold and make it loud –
And Boudica is never less than this.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.’

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

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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.

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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.