Second Sight: The Ferryman and The Inheritance on Second Viewings

Seeing things more than once is always a risk. Whatever you may have fallen in love with on the first viewing might have totally evaporated, or it might have become richer, and deepened. Like when you really balls up the first pancake but the rest are GREAT. Such was the case with these two.

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I first saw The Ferryman the day before its press night at the Royal Court last year, in the middle of an Angels in America hangover. It was not the right play for me to see at that moment, and consequently I found myself totally clueless as to why this piece, which I had not disliked but which had left me cold, was being hailed as a masterpiece. I grumbled about it for a while but didn’t particularly care. I’d seen bits in it that I admired, and I certainly thought I had an understanding of the play. Then, when Jez Butterworth won an Evening Standard award and basically said that he’d written it for Laura Donnelly, I wondered if I’d got things a bit wrong.

I’d presumed the play was about Quinn Carney, first played by Paddy Considine, and that it was him that we were following over those 24 hours as the past crawls back into that farmhouse. NOPE. It’s about Caitlin Carney, Butterworth was basically saying. So, I decided to read the text, which I had not yet done, and lo and behold – Butterworth was right about his own play! It was about Caitlin Carney! Everything fell into place upon reading it, things I had felt were contrived in that early performance were totally seamless in the text. My understanding of the piece was based on totally false assumptions.

So I had to see it again.

It was in its last few weeks in the West End, with a third cast led by Rosalie Craig, and I was on the front row (I’d been in the circle at the Royal Court.) Everything felt more assured – as you would expect with 400-odd performances under your belt. Craig and Owen McDonnell – who has taken over as Quinn – were giving genuinely brilliant performances that were noticeably different to the originals; there was no carbon-copying. Craig certainly made me see it as Caitlin’s play, she holds the stage and you’re aware of her presence more assuredly, I think. Also, McDonnell never seeks to dominate the play; he’s very much the patriarch but his absences don’t feel like you’re waiting for the paly to start again.

It becomes clearer as a collage of experiences of The Troubles; I was more aware of the clash of generations, and how that translates to different experiences of violence, the shades of ambiguity that are clearer to some but not to others. The way that absolutism in politics is possibly the exact same principle that governs tragedy in drama – the idea that there is no other way to do things. Violence is the necessary act, but it is one that people can – and will – always resort to.

The ending, that spike of violent rage in that rural hub of domesticity felt like the only logical outcome for those people. I bought it all. And the place went nuts afterwards, as it had at the Royal Court – the difference was, this time I understood why. It’s still not my favourite play in the world but bloody hell it’s a good one.

I think it also helped that I hadn’t seen Angels in America three days before.

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The Inheritance – or, as I like to think of it, a succession of cardigans.

The more I think about it, and I’ve thought about it a lot, I come to think that The Inheritance is one of, if not the most significant play premiered in my lifetime. Seeing it on that first two-play day felt like being there at the birth of something that would become far bigger than itself, seeing it on its last two-play day (before its West End transfer this autumn) felt like a celebration of what the piece is now recognised as. That first audience were taking a risk (“Only agents and sadists go to first previews.”) and the second knew they were at a hit.

That cast looked like they were having an absolute blast. There were ad libs and gestures that had definitely not been there at the start of the run, and were probably not there at any other performance, thinking particularly about Eric’s comment about “Windsor Castle.”

The actors have only got better, a level of assurance that comes with a long run, and – presumably – by being in a hit has made those characters gleam on that stage. Even the smaller parts feel mined for detail. And bloody hell were they living it on that final day. I hope there were ample supplies of water backstage to keep them hydrated because they spent most of it crying. Samuel H. Levine was AUDIBLY SOBBING as John Benjamin Hickey and Paul Hilton said the final words of the play. Andrew Burnap has only made Toby Darling more seductive, and he makes that character’s trajectory look so effortless. And Kyle Soller, I want him to be in everything, but I also want him to play this role forever, so I can keep watching him make ordinariness look so extraordinary.

The text has changed too; notably the Margaret scene in part two. On first viewing, she had an enormous monologue, that I’d heard Vanessa Redgrave had been struggling with. She also looked quite frail – all of that was gone. The moment she stepped onto the stage you were in no doubt she was in control. She looked physically strong, and none of those lines were escaping from her. I actually thought – oh yeah, this is why she’s regarded as one of the best actors of her generation. The monologue has been reshaped; she does a spiel, and then it is picked up by another actor for a sentence, and then she carries on. Because the play’s reality builds and melts so quickly, it works beautifully, and there’s a stronger performance as a result.

I recognised some more of the references, having now read both the play and (at the time) part of Maurice, I saw where Lopez had drawn particular characters and plot points from when it wasn’t directly from Howards End – and the couple of overlaps with Angels in America (yes, that blog post is coming.) And the skill of the direction, realising just how much Stephen Daldry has done with a difficult text. The subtleties of it, like when Morgan rests his hand on Leo’s shoulder as he says “we shall find each other again.” The image of Margaret saying hr last lines, sat on the edge of the stage as the men sit watching her – with tears pouring down their faces – will never go.

And that curtain call – holy shit. Not in 5 trips to see Angels in America have I seen a standing ovation like it. It was overwhelming, so loud, so celebratory. They came back to take multiple bows, and then people started to stamp, you could hear the stamping sound through the Young Vic (which Redgrave seemed to take particular delight in.) Matthew Lopez took a bow. It was an extraordinary response, one of those theatre-as-spiritual-experience moments.

I just love it so much.

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The Ferryman has closed now, so I’m glad I got to see it as it concluded. I will do terrible things to see The Inheritance multiple times in the West End – but II know it won’t be the same. But that’s half the fun of it.

 

The Ferryman photo by Johan Persson.

The Inheritance photo by Simon Annand.

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The Inheritance @ Young Vic: More Life

I had high hopes for this. The second I heard about it, back at the Bent Q&A last summer, I was sure it was going to be up my street, particularly with Stephen Daldry attached, and then when that cast was announced… yeah high hopes, particularly with it being such a large time investment.  If a play is gonna last 7+ hours and I’m gonna see it in one day and in previews then I’m gonna be expecting something worth that time.

It surpassed all my expectations.

I don’t cry often – not something I’m particularly proud of – I prefer to express emotion through, you know, snarkily insulting someone. I show affection by angrily swearing at someone. I let people know I’m emotional by getting very drunk and ranting about politics. You know, that sort of thing. The inescapably remarkable thing about The Inheritance is the emotional potency it acquires so quickly. An hour in, I was choked up. By the end of part one, TEARS. ACTUAL FUCKING TEARS.

Fuck you Matthew Lopez. Seriously. You’ve crafted a play that slips under the skin so quickly and with such ease that it annoys me.

Lord knows I’m prone to hyperbole but I know it’s justified in this instance. The Inheritance is a properly wonderful play. One of the best I’ve seen. The audacity of its conception is brilliant enough, let alone the accomplishment of its execution. Let it be known that what follows is a rave and I urge you to book a ticket to see this thing immediately. Don’t miss this.

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                The law of the past cannot be eluded,

                The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,

                The law of the living cannot be eluded… it is eternal

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass [To Think of Time]

The play claims to be inspired by Howards End, but it seems to me more of a loose adaptation of it. Lopez lifts plot elements and characterisations completely, and transposes them to the context of a group of gay men in today’s New York City. It works beautifully.

Eric Glass is a terminally middle-class gay man in New York City, about to lose the lease on a rent-controlled apartment that has been in his family for generations. As this is happening, his friendship with an older man, Walter, develops and when Walter dies, he asks his partner Henry to ensure Eric gets his beloved house. Simultaneously, Eric’s relationship with writer-and-playwright Toby is disintegrating, and Toby finds solace in Adam, an actor. There’s a lot of people to keep track of, and a lot of plot that happens – though that’s part and parcel with a 7+ hour play.

It was strange too to see a new play deal so explicitly with the passage of time, which seems central to modern revivals of classic texts (and the thing I thought was missing from Long Day’s Journey,) in allowing the drama to unfold in its own time, knowing full well that the first act can often be written off as dramatically inert. I did ask myself after the first part ‘when did the play start?’ and I concluded the play had probably started after the second interval. That’s the moment something shifts – but who cares when what came before it is so important in its own ways.

The play breaks apart and reconstructs itself continuously, language is fussed over and clarified, stories get ripped from their ‘owners,’ within the structure and within the narrative. It does so on about 5 levels that I don’t wholly understand; for example, there is the surface reconstruction – the play starts with a writing workshop, and someone starts up the story, with the help of E.M. Forster. Then there’s Toby, obsessed with writing his own version of events, no matter how far they are from reality, but then under that, as Toby reconstructs his past, and gives it different forms, his counterpart in Howards End shifts as well.

Weirdly, it feels like the best dramatization of historical revisionism I can imagine. Which struck me as relevant; one of the problems with the history of the AIDS crisis is those that have written it either died, or they lived through it and as such knew people who died. Certain voices have necessarily been privileged because of what was taken away. It’s a detriment to the historiography, as well as humanity. Eric has a speech in the play where he mourns what he has lost in the epidemic, as someone who grew up afterwards; mentors and friends and lovers… storytellers, perhaps most of all.

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David’s lover, Sal Licata, had invited Jane [Rosett] and a few other close friends to David and Sal’s seventh anniversary celebration, to, as Sal put it, “hang out in bed and hold David while he pukes.” Jane wrote, “Who could resist? It was a party. David held court and stressed how honoured he was to have lured a lesbian into his king-size bed. […] Within a few days, David was dead, and within a few years, everyone else in David’s bed that day – except me – was also dead.”

-Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, p.7

Regarding the emotional potency of the play, there is the painful fact that any story that encounters the AIDS epidemic will always be upsetting, because remembering how a hundred thousand people had their lives ripped away while a country – well, a world – did nothing will always be upsetting. If anything, we’re probably guilty of historicizing AIDS, once the aggressive campaign of direct action started to wane, so too did a perception of the urgency of the crisis. It’s where The Inheritance is so successful; in making that past tangible in the room.

There is a stark, utter simplicity to Daldry’s production, which is played out on a white slab that doesn’t really do a lot. It’s like a tombstone, or a sacrificial altar. Somewhere for a ritual to be repeated. There’s a sense of purging, or exorcism. In opening the text up like that, allowing the fluidity of the play’s reality to be absolutely clear, he makes it a play where the actors are given absolute control, and it seems absolute freedom too.

The acting is exceptional. It’s rare you get 3 or 4 actors that excellent in something, let alone a dozen of them. Exceptional doesn’t seem like an appropriate word for what they’re doing actually, but it’ll have to do. (I didn’t want to do a shopping list of excellent actors but that’s what the next bit turned into. Sorry.)

In that exceptional company, I think Paul Hilton probably was my favourite. Doubling as Walter, dying of cancer, and ‘Morgan,’ aka E.M. Forster himself. The voice of reason, of rationality, of physical insecurity and inarticulacy, and of ruthless self-criticism as the latter, and the embodiment of compassion and empathy as the former. He has a monologue, maybe 10, 15 minutes(?) in the very first act that seems to conjure the height of the epidemic around you. It’s complete terror, complete fear, complete chaos – and all it is, actually, is Hilton’s voice, as he sits in a chair. It’s totally remarkable. Christ Hilton’s good; it doesn’t feel like 5 minutes since he was flying in the Olivier as Peter Pan. Maybe that’s what was so moving, he seemed to embody the frailty of sickness, the resolve of the British upper-middle classes and a childlike curiosity all at once.

The bulk of the narrative, however falls on Kyle Soller as Eric. It’s a slippery part (in a way that did remind me of Prior,) in that I can imagine it being completely unmemorable in the hands of the wrong actor. Soller is not that wrong actor. He’s nimble, and quick with his language and his physicality. There’s a repeated refrain, as to how remarkable Eric is, and yet he doesn’t know it. I was thinking a lot about what made him remarkable, given that he appears so utterly normal. Eric’s capacity for empathy and compassion is unmatched in the play after Walter’s death, and he has such a conviction that you know it’s genuine, not performative, and he’s self-aware enough to recognise that. And then it hit me that what was so brilliant about Soller was how he managed to channel all that into complete normality. He makes it look utterly natural, utterly possible.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Andrew Burnap as Toby. Holy shit. Can we steal him? I know he’s American but if Broadway’s sure to get a steady stream of British Harry Potters, surely we can nick one American actor? He’s so good. He’s so hateable and so cold, with a dangerous sexuality to him, but you sense those vast chasms of empty space underneath that. His narcissism is palpable, which makes its systematic destruction all the more stark. His arc is melodramatic, sure, but Burnap makes it work, and makes it look so easy. And he makes you howl with laughter while he does it.

John Benjamin Hickey shows up after the first interval, as Henry Wilcox, Walter’s partner for decades. Henry’s a dick. A Republican donor, including (gasp!) to the candidate, he takes on every single one of Eric’s friends’ ideas of the world, turns it around and flips it for a profit. What’s frustrating is how easily he does it. The debate about AIDS in an era of small government felt like a really uncomfortable truth finally being talked about, but how he frames it is kind of disgusting. Hickey never makes you hate Henry, it’s more complicated than that, but you’re furiously trying to work out his interior architecture. Why the hell is he reacting like that? Henry, more than any other part lets the play happen to him. He’s reactionary in every sense.

Samuel H. Levine – another American! – has two jobs. He has to make a narcissistic, privileged, twat bearable for 7+ hours, and he has to play the absolutely most vulnerable a human being can be, and at one point he does it when they’re both in conversation with each other. One of the play’s strengths is in its long stretches of monologue, one of which is given to Adam, (the narcissistic, privileged, twat. An actor, incidentally,) where he describes the ecstasy of a Czech bathhouse, and then the panic of a HIV scare. The way Levine can play the bottom falling out of a story is terrifyingly good.

Vanessa Redgrave is also in the play. She’s fantastic.

You could watch the whole play again just to watch the actors that spend the play sat at the peripheries of the playing space. I’m fascinated by whether they’re in character, or not, or somewhere in between. I want to watch them watch the play.

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People have brought up the diversity question, as well they should. The Inheritance has a cast of 13, 12 of whom are men, (the other is Vanessa Redgrave, who we all know sits outside all know human realms,) and only 2 are POC. They’re all attractive, affluent, middle-class characters.

I suppose for me, that was the point. It doesn’t represent an entire spectrum, because to attempt to do so, even in a 7+ hour play would probably be terrible, and would do everybody a disservice. The point of Howards End, to me, was that it dramatized intra-class conflicts and ambitions, not inter-class conflicts and ambitions. It’s the same with The Inheritance; it is very specifically about the concerns of affluent, attractive, metropolitan gay men in New York City. It makes no claims to do otherwise.

That’s not to say the plays that aren’t about the concerns and ambitions of affluent, attractive, metropolitan gay men shouldn’t be written and given such large platforms as this, because I want to see them too. But I did find some of the dismissal of the play on the diversity front utterly nonsensical. The liberal tendency for cannibalism rearing its head again.

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I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld…These are not invisible men.

Ned Weeks, in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

The Inheritance certainly knows what it has inherited. It understands its lineage, Forster being the most obvious reference, but there is Angels in America in there (a literal angel at one point – maybe I’ll grapple with all the Angels comparative stuff in another blog) and there’s Chekhov, there’s Williams and O’Neill, there’s Kramer’s anger, a Fierstein-like defiance, a Shavian combat-like spat of ideas, a Tóibínesque warmth… But it’s steeped in this history, it doesn’t brandish it in your face in any way that feels academic; this isn’t some postmodern stick-it-in-a-blender play, it’s considered, and seems proud of its heritage, not determined to separate itself entirely.

But it does stand by itself. It only relies on its own story, but in its awareness that it is nonetheless part of a lineage it is far stronger than an eternally implicitly referential piece. It reminded me of something someone (??? help) said about how gay culture has gone from being referential, to being referenced. We’re at a point now where it gets taken seriously. Where’s it’s worthy of space – though its often a space not nearly big enough.

The political gesture of the play is that it doesn’t have a broad political gesture. It’s not polemical; it’s argumentative, and Lopez clears the narrative periodically to allow the characters to have a good old debate (very Act 3, Scene 2 of Millennium Approaches,) but it can afford to be subtle, and nuanced. I know I’ve already forgotten so much.

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So, the end of the first part. I’m going to try and capture that moment, and I’m sure I will fail miserably.

Eric arrives at the house Walter had wanted him to have, oblivious to this fact. It’s the house where Walter had cared for 200 men, all of whom had AIDS, all of whom are buried in the garden. It’s the house that destroyed Walter’s relationship, the house that brought the plague into Henry’s protective bubble. It’s the house that men went to die in.

And as Eric walks into the house, there’s a man there, a man we haven’t seen before – which is strange, considering the cast sit around the stage the entire time – but he looks slightly other. He doesn’t quite fit. And then there’s many men, floating onto that stage from the audience, shaking Eric’s hand, shaking everyone’s hand, introducing themselves, still looking not-of-this-time. And then, of course, it clicked. They were ghosts, or memories; memories in 80s-dress of the men that had died. And they sit round the stage, and Eric sits with them. It’s as if they’re about to take communion, or something. And they look like us, like a mirror image of the audience.

It sort of felt like they were really there.

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If there is a weirdness to The Inheritance, it’s that the play is premiering at the Young Vic. Which is in London. Why the hell is it not on the biggest bloody stage in America? I can only hope its run here is the prologue to a recognition of this play in the country it dramatizes. If I needed to hear the words of this play, God knows how much our American counterparts do. When people talk about theatre as a religious experience… well I felt it that day.

It feels like a landmark, something that will be inherited in its time. At least I think so, but it’s never really for those of us that were there to decide.

aids_memorial_design-01
The New York City AIDS Memorial, adjacent to the site of St. Vincent’s hospital, which housed one of America’s first AIDS wards. It was opened in 2016 – until then, there was no permanent memorial in New York City. (https://nycaidsmemorial.org/about/)

Photo by Simon Annand.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night @ Wyndham’s Theatre: A Little in Love With Death

It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing a Eugene O’Neill play, which is strange considering he was one of the first playwrights I actually read outside of school (O’Neill, Hare and Miller was the full list. That was a depressing summer.) In other words, I was first exposed to it as a literary artefact, and I think that I thought the drama of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was in the revelations that unfurl across the play. It was only later I realised that this isn’t true; the drama is in what saying those things in that particular moment does to those people. They’re too easily conflated, I think.

James Tyrone launching into a monologue about his lost talent isn’t dramatic. James Tyrone launching into a monologue about his lost talent as his drunken, consumptive son sits opposite him as his morphine-drugged wife shuffles around upstairs is dramatic.

I’m not entirely sure why Long Day’s Journey resonated with me as a teenager. That’s an immediate lie, I know exactly why. Because it appealed my angsty self. Because it’s so specifically about one family that it could be about any. And because from the moment I discovered him I was a little bit obsessed with Eugene O’Neill. He seemed just so sad, in a completely unpretentious way. It was in the way he so ruthlessly attacks his own ability, the way he was wracked with self-doubt even as he was crafting this masterpiece. He was so sure he didn’t have the makings of a poet, only the habit. And that seemed so horrible to me. It still does, being so crippled by self-doubt.

There’s a gorgeous documentary about O’Neill that’s definitely worth a watch. In it, someone mentions that the only really change O’Neill made between his family reality and the play is that he switched his own name with that of the dead baby, and how that tells you more about Eugene O’Neill than anything else in the play. Always a little in love with death.

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I was thinking, as I left The Inheritance a few days after Long Day’s Journey, just how significant time is in the play. It all happens over 16 hours, wouldn’t it be interesting to see it done in real time? Watching that family collapse over 3 and a half hours is interesting, but what would watching it collapse over 16 hours do? Would it diffuse the tension, or draw it out to an unbearable pain? It might just be terrible. I’d be interested to see, though.

I guess that was my main problem with this production (which is very good, okay,) that it didn’t take it’s time. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t the version of Long Day’ Journey I’ve had in my head for 4 years or whatever. But I just wanted it to be longer. I wanted to hear them breathe in the same room, I wanted them to actually live in that house instead of just argue in it. Stick another interval or two in and make an event of it. Time fucking matters.

How often do the Tyrone’s have a day like this? I know there’s the (very convincing) argument that this is the only time it happens, and that nothing could ever be the same for the Tyrone’s after that night, but I’ve always thought it has happened before, and it would happen again. They’re living in complete denial. Certainly in the way Matthew Beard was playing Edmund, I felt like he’d heard these things a hundred times before. There’s very little surprise in him.

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Lesley Manville is brilliant as Mary, particularly in the first act; the way she flits around the stage, so desperate to run up those stairs and into the spare room, but knowing she can’t, not straight away. Permanently on the edge of tears, always on the edge of breaking. There’s also the suggestion (that I’ve always bought into) that it’s deliberate. That Mary does do it to hurt her family. That she knows what she’s doing. That even in the throes of addiction she’s never totally without agency in that house, a house she loathes so much.

Long Day’s Journey seems to me an absolutely titanic tragedy. It devastated me when I read it. Its tragedy is in the fact that nothing changes. Even in The Iceman Cometh, there’s a catharsis; there’s a shift in the power dynamic and a sense that justice is served. In Long Day’s Journey – nothing. Nothing changes. Nobody dies. And somehow, that’s worse.

 

Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

Girls & Boys @ Royal Court Theatre: You Know What I Mean?

On the set of Girls & Boys, there’s a Penguin clothbound edition of Middlemarch, which made me think rather obnoxiously about these words from it:

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea- but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”

George Eliot was so bothered about the ineffectiveness of a single narrative that she interrupted her own sentence to make her point. She wanted to democratise her novel, drawing on as many narratives as possible to form her story.

Girls & Boys is the anti-Middlemarch.

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In anticipation of Girls & Boys, I had a bit of a Carey Mulligan binge. I watched and re-watched as many of her films as I could, including – no – especially her episode of Doctor Who which scared the SHIT out of 10-year-old me and still holds up a decade and a bit later. I did this because she’s one of my favourite actors and she’s always brilliant. It seems to me, that in a career where she’s excelled playing supporting roles (Shame, Mudbound,) or larger roles where she’s heavily involved with another main character (An Education, The Great Gatsby,) she’s brilliant at making her character the single most interesting person in the story, drawing your interest towards whatever she’s doing, sometimes away from something or someone else, but in a way that never feels like pulling focus. She’s the only actor that made David Tennant’s Doctor look superfluous.

Maybe that’s what all great actors do. But I definitely notice it with her.

Girls & Boys is a monologue, and therefore she’s alone on the stage. There’s no one to draw focus from, nobody that she can comparatively be more interesting than – it’s just her. And that’s a feat in itself; 100 minutes she talks to us for, something like 15,000 words she’s learned. That alone always impresses me. And then the speed of it… I don’t know that there’s anything particularly sophisticated about learning a monologue but Christ it must be hard.

It’s a brilliant monologue, and Mulligan holds your attention for the whole damn thing. I’ve seen it twice, and both times I was riveted, from the first moment to the last. She’s extraordinarily compelling – and really fucking funny. That first speech plays more like stand up than anything else, and it’s brilliant to see her be unreservedly funny; she’s got brilliant timing and you can tell she enjoys playing with the audience – she’s a completely natural stage actor, the type of performer that makes you forget about the other 400 people in the room.

The rest of the play isn’t quite so funny. Fairly quickly you realise the humour is a coping strategy, and fairly quickly you sense that something isn’t right. And that simply intensifies and intensifies, ratcheting up the tension until she finally drops the bombshell. Which is what I’m going to talk about now. So yeah, spoilers.

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Clearly, Girls & Boys is just about the best play to produce at this cultural moment, particularly at the Royal Court, which under the leadership of Vicky Featherstone has established itself as the theatre most respondent to the world outside. It grapples directly with male violence, and the way that men control the women in their lives, but it does so in an overtly feminist way, by exclusively presenting the Woman’s perspective. It’s ultimately very simple; no argument, no actor, no directorial intervention is likely able to make what the Man in question did feel rational, let alone justified. Why bother with what Michael Billington calls the ‘multi-faceted natured of drama’? What purpose would that serve other than to distract from the Woman?

I’m still dancing around it.

Does anyone really want to watch a play that attempts in some way to rationalise the actions of a Man that murders his own children because of his drive towards jealous, brutal, misogynistic violence? Really?

Instead, Dennis Kelly (a man!) gives us a monologue of mostly direct address; there’s nowhere for the audience to hide, the Woman is talking directly to us. That’s generally what direct address entails. She waits for us to laugh. She repeats things for emphasis. She’s particularly addressing, it seems to me, the men in the room. It’s as if she’s flirting with them. She’s smirking, she wants you to enjoy it. That first comedic chunk of the play lulls you/them/me into a false sense of comfort. I don’t mean security, because it is the Royal Court – which generally means at some point something awful is going to happen. And it does, sure enough.

Violence is an act. It is not a thought, it is not a something confined to a psychology textbook, it is something that one person does to another. About 40 years ago Laura Mulvey wrote about how in film, men are the active presence and women are passive (little has changed on that front.) But it does draw the link; violence is action, and action is coded male, therefore violence is (covertly, or overtly) male. When women in film commit violence, they are often masculinised, or androgenised. I wondered about that, as I watched Mulligan with her hair pulled back, in a shirt and trousers. She’s hardly the image of stereotypical femininity.

But of course, Girls & Boys is cleverer than a fucking theory. The Woman in the play doesn’t actually do anything. Even when she runs around with her (invisible) kids, she’s not actually doing anything. She’s just talking. She is not ‘masculinised’ by her circumstances, there is absolutely no phallic imagery here thankyouverymuch. She’s not rendered emotionless, but not overly-emotional. You get the sense of restraint. Of the capacity for fury but the choice to not give it physical form. She’s still, but not completely so. There’s control in her but not excessive tension.

The play’s feminism isn’t grounded in the emancipation of women, it’s grounded in the idea of patriarchy (maybe even the nuclear family) as an inherently violent structure. It’s in making that claim that the play feels horrifyingly contemporary. There’s a moment where the Woman describes how a school shooting in America (“a really bad one […] everyone was watching this unfold.”) leads to an argument between her and the Man, and you can practically hear the audience thinking about Parkland, about the numerous violent acts around the world committed by men. You can practically hear people think “how the fuck can you stop them?” It seems utterly impossible.

*

There’s a phrase that crops up a couple of times in the play: “you know what I mean?” The Woman is giving her side of the story and is absolutely determined to be understood, comprehended.

I am not going to be that dick that claims this is not a gendered question, because it obviously is. She will not be misinterpreted by the audience. But the Woman is also working class, thickly-accented, making bold points assertively. And with that comes a whole load of baggage – specifically, in a strangely ironic way, the fear of inarticulacy. The fear of not saying exactly what you mean and therefore not being taken seriously – because in this country, being inarticulate is often synonymous with being thick. She needs to be clear, she needs to be understood. But this is never explicit, it’s not like Mulligan asks that question with a lot of weight, it’s just played as a verbal tick. Because that’s what it becomes, an instinct to check that you’re being articulate, because God forbid you’re not.

I write about class a lot. Mostly I guess, because I’m obsessed by it. But also, because it very often feels like the thing that is glossed over. In the pursuit of an intersectional progressive theatre it is absolutely vital that the question of class is addressed. Girls & Boys does this in a way that I’ve not really considered, because I’m not sure I’ve seen it before, and that’s in the way it locates the language of working-class theatre with the aesthetic of the (ugh) ‘art’ theatre you see on a regular basis at the Almeida. The aesthetic of that which until now I’ve only seen as the realm of English queens, Danish princes and Roman politicians, all electric glass and sanitary floors and pastel walls that look like unfinished car parks – it is now the realm of a working-class woman. That felt significant, because now there’s a precedent. Now sure, the Woman in the play is inhabiting an upper-middle class world, and I can’t see a production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too using electric glass any time soon, but I think my point still stands.

When the aesthetic that is in fashion privileges a certain kind of story, namely one that doesn’t lose its potency when removed from its social context, there needs to be a conscious effort to reconcile the artistic and political potential of the theatre. The politics of posh white people can more easily be made abstract, because the politics of posh white people are presumed to be universal. It seems to me that the aesthetic perpetuated by Ivo van Hove et al privileges the abstract, and therefore the politics and narratives of posh white people. Girls & Boys demonstrates that this does not have to be the case – though that doesn’t mean everything now must fall into that aesthetic. Dear God, no thank you.

(Further tangent: is this conversation about aesthetic similar to the conversation about content and form? Does a focus on the reinvention of form privilege those stories already represented in terms of content? Does it matter when you chop Hamlet up into little pieces when the story of Hamlet exists anyway? In other words, when form advances, is it because we are satisfied with the content – even when that content is exclusive and non-diverse? Can reinvention of form and content coexist and be progressive? Is this even English?)

*

The first time I saw Girls & Boys I was overwhelmed by the technical bloody skill involved, by the lacerating precision of Kelly’s text, by the poise of Mulligan’s performance, by the gorgeousness of Es Devlin’s set, and the sheer bloody joy that the Royal Court exists.

The second time was profoundly more emotional. I became aware of more muffled sobs behind me in the audience. Mulligan’s restraint was slacker, the tears more visible, her voice cracking slightly more. It was another reminder of the volatility of live theatre.

Olivier Awards mean shit but in a world where they do this would be winning some.

 

Photo by Marc Brenner

John @ National Theatre: Something May Come of Nothing

It is an entirely unoriginal and yet entirely worthwhile thing to comment on and gush about the way Annie Baker crafts silences. I think it’s largely because they never feel like silences. She arranges the people in her plays in such a way that when they lapse into silence it doesn’t for a second feel artificial. It doesn’t feel manipulated to control the tension – though it does. It feels perfectly normal, because it excavates the twenty layers of complicated human sinew that a lesser playwright might need an hour-long monologue followed by a screaming match to articulate.

It never feels empty. There’s a thing Tony Kushner said about The Iceman Cometh; he spoke of the end of that play being “the nothing that gives birth to something.” That’s what Baker seems to do. Each moment of nothing gives birth to something – even if that something is itself nothing.

Fuck.

*

So there’s a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg sometime after Thanksgiving with a lot of strange furniture and interesting wallpaper and a lot of lamps and a lot of dolls. It’s strangely gorgeous, and therefore it’s obviously a Chloe Lamford set. Into it walk a couple, Elias and Jenny. They seem perfectly normal. Which is always a giveaway. Maybe they’re just comparatively normal in the middle of a scene that looks somehow like it’s permanently Christmas.

The shelves at the back of the stage are rammed with dolls. The watch glassy-eyed over the event of the play. These are old-school dolls, one’s that look like they’ve had many owners, however cared for they are now. These dolls – like the dead bodies of the soldiers in the ground – can only be silent. But in Baker’s hands, silence carries enormous weight.

Nothing particularly happens in John, but then why should it. You just watch Jenny and Elias, and the bed and breakfast owner Mertis over a few days, and watch as something in that room gets under their skin and turns them inside out. Jenny and Elias, that is. Mertis could be completely nuts, and everything that comes out of her mouth could be a lie, or she could be absolutely completely sincere, in which case she’s just a little bit kooky. Why does she draw a curtain before and after each act? Why does she move the hands on the clock? Will none of this happen without her?

OH and there’s that spookyspookyspooky piano that plays very loudly all by itself. It doesn’t even feel like it represents anything but REALLY CREEPY SHIT. It’s just there to be strange, without explanation. John refuses to spell anything out to you; it articulates everything beautifully, and then explains not a goddamn bit of it,

You know that thing where actors look like they’re not even acting? And everyone always uses that phrase and it’s infuriating but there’s not really an alternative? That’s what it’s like watching Mary-Louise Burke onstage. I’m completely convinced that’s what she’s like as a person, and I’m pretty sure actually meeting her would not disabuse me of that notion. She just is Mertis. By which I suppose I mean she has a complete and total understanding of just how Baker constructs her characters, and the rhythms of her writing, and then how to play that, instead of just internalising it. Which means you can doubt her completely, she can carry the weight of what I think is the central question of the play, who exactly is Mertis? She seems to have the tone of a Fairy Godmother, but the threat of a Machiavelli, and the aimlessness of Amberlynn Weggers.

*

My favourite thing about John is the way it spends the first act, a good hour-and-a-bit, meticulously creating a completely (well, almost) naturalistic world, and then spends the next couple of hours systematically destroying that naturalism. My very favourite moment is when Genevieve emerges from behind the curtain, mid-interval, to explain at length exactly how she went insane. It’s so out of step, a part of the play that just juts out of this otherwise beautifully constructed piece. It’s GREAT.

June Watson is pretty fucking excellent, isn’t she? It’s a strange part; in such a naturalistic world, she’s GRAND. She’s BIG. It’s just the bed and breakfasts that got small. There’s a sense of faded glamour, and history to Genevieve, royalty or regality or something. But Watson doesn’t force the character to make it fit with the naturalistic rhythm of the rest of the piece, Genevieve sits slightly apart from the rest of the play, somewhere between the front of the stage and the audience. She’s performing for us, she knows we’re there, probably because she can’t see us.

*

This is the first Baker play I’ve actually seen, but whenever I’ve read one of her plays, I’m always struck by the quiet heaviness of it; the way that when you turn the last page and you know that there’s a weight to it, that somehow you’ve got somewhere, without any real idea how it happened. Like in life, when you might find yourself in an argument without any real sense of how it started. In John, we watch a relationship disintegrate (or at least the latter stages of it,) but it sort of happens without you realising it, by accident almost. When the argument gets loud, when they start to scream it doesn’t feel like a jolt, or a shock, it’s just an unsettling feeling that this was happening all along.

The dolls stare back at us, the audience. They’ve been watching it all, too, even when the curtain’s drawn. They’ve had the chance to see far more that we have. I wonder if they knew it was happening?

 

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

Terror in Belleville and The Twilight Zone

“Harry likes to study the emotions he elicits in other people.” – Housemate’s theory on why I took a module last year on the history of British horror films.

*

Terror, according to my housemate’s boyfriend’s etymological dictionary – they’re a thing apparently – comes from (albeit after much deviation) the root ‘tres-,‘ which meant ‘to tremble.’ What I understood from that, is that terror is a concept inherently linked to a physical sensation. I think – though I am by no means certain – that really great theatre is linked with a physical sensation too. When whatever it is you’re watching has affected you so deeply that you can feel it in your gut. That’s certainly what I like; when it bypasses your intellect – though staying there to be unpacked later – and hits your physical self, your cells actually reacting to it. It can’t be faked.

It is surprising then that terror – or horror, which has slightly different implications – is not engaged with in the theatre more regularly, probably because terror tends to involve genre, and genre and theatre… something something never the twain shall meet.

So it was strange to see two plays engage with it in fairly quick succession. Both on over Christmas, no less. Festive.

*

Belleville is a play about American couple Zack and Abby, living in a trendy part of Paris due to Zack’s job. He works for Médecins Sans Frontières. Abby is an actress and a yoga teacher. She has less to do.

It essentially starts with a scream; Abby arrives home one afternoon to find Zack also home, watching porn. Considering she’s expecting him to be at work, it’s a shock. He’s embarrassed, she’s embarrassed, it’s awkward.

The whole thing is based on a terrible lie.

[terrible. (F. = L.) F. terrible. = L. terribilis, causing terror = L. terrere, to frighten.]

And slowly, we watch this relationship unravel. We see two lonely people, both with their own shit to deal with; she’s trying to get off some meds, he can’t do anything without weed because he’s too restless. When that kind of dependency rests on a lie, then it’s gonna give. It’s only a matter of time.

Audience gasps are great. I think it’s actually pretty hard to surprise an audience. But when Abby, drunk and alone, reaches for a knife and starts hacking away at her foot that we’re far away from Virginia Woolf territory. These aren’t people who spar, they don’t go on long booze-fuelled rants, throwing insults across the room at each other. They actually hurt each other. They remember that they’re flesh and blood. Malleable, even.

By the time they do talk, and Zack finally confesses that he failed medical school and his job and assistant aren’t real, the damage is long done. The psychological effect of discovering your circumstances are a complete fabrication is somehow secondary to the fact that your body is somewhere it shouldn’t be, in a state it wouldn’t have been in had that lie not existed.

Belleville’s terror is visceral and bloody, but it’s about two people, relatively a tiny relationship in a vast city on a vast planet. It’s about an entire world collapsing around them – and then how the mess is left to be dealt with by those less privileged than them. Lying, or delusion (if that’s even a distinction worth making) about your circumstances is probably a sign of high privilege, because the people that come to clear up can’t afford to have illusions. There are bills to pay.

Maybe existential terror is a luxury.

 

lizzy-connolly-and-matthew-needham-in-the-twilight-121027

The Twilight Zone is not tiny. It’s vast and unwieldy and bits fall off and things don’t finish and things barely start and things bang into each other. It never quite gets to the end of itself. It’s messy terror. Cosmic, Lovecraftian, shtick-ier terror. With a great big streak of humour running through it. It’s sort of not about people at all.

It shows us worlds we do not inhabit and experiences we almost certainly would not want to experience ourselves – basically, it’s quintessential horror. We want to watch people go through trauma in order to assure ourselves that we are not going through them. We watch The Twilight Zone to remind ourselves that we are not actually in The Twilight Zone, no matter the shit that the Tangerine Nightmare is spewing.

It doesn’t take itself seriously. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Jokey-genre isn’t really my thing. But as the play unfurls, and as the scale of the thing, and the ludicrousness of that production makes itself clear, it expresses its sense of terror in a different way. The fact that it is so ludicrous, the fact that it seems at times utterly impenetrable, is what gives it an edge. It’s what stops it slipping into farce. When it forbids itself a centre you have to watch the peripheries instead, and the peripheries are strange.

[Strange; see Exterior.

Exterior, outward. estrange, to make strange. (F. = L.) F. extraneum, foreign, on the outside.]

Cigarettes appear from nowhere, people vanish into thin air, the idea of beauty is inversed; it’s not nonsensical, rather it may be asensical (is that a word?) for it abandons the idea of sense completely. There’s a random musical number for no discernible reason which is EXCELLENT. I don’t think it’s poking fun, certainly not in a mean-spirited way, but it is incredibly campy, but to dismiss camp is to ignore the subversiveness of camp; the way it exaggerates to avoid censorship – it’s another distraction. But a distraction from what? (Sidenote: cast Matthew Needham as the Emcee in Cabaret already.)

The only narrative that we get in anything resembling a linear narrative is The Shelter, a self-contained playlet. It’s utterly contemporary, an argument over who might get to survive a nuclear attack. Everyone’s prejudices come out, the panic igniting all the hatred and the fear underlying those relationships. It’s the one occasion the play settles, when it finds a centre, however briefly. Possibly because the centre of a play is when it’s most immediate, most present.

The Twilight Zone uses that need to look out into the strange to avoid looking at reality, and of course it has that strange, wonderful, paradoxical effect of doing the opposite. The need to ensure our own senses of self and reality provoke us into obsessing over that which is not recognisable. We all to some extent have a compulsive need to reassure our physical selves that they are not subject to the same rules of logic.

*

What actually scares us, and what our bodies seem to need are often so closely linked. We need, to whatever extent, to see strangeness in order to recognise that we are comparatively not strange. We need to be scared by fiction to remind ourselves that our own lives are perhaps comparatively not so scary.

Except there are people that live with a terror under their skin all the time, people for whom life is genuinely scary. What kind of a gesture does terror make to them, when perhaps the self is not as cleanly removed from the play?

Terror and its physicality suddenly feel rather different.

 

Photos by Marc Brenner

Labour of Love @ Noël Coward Theatre: Much Ado About Socialism

Right, first order of business: the idea that this is somehow a polite little comedy about the Labour Party is just straight-up wrong. Nor would it be accurate to say it is a completely serious vivisection of leftist politics, because it’s not that either. The best way to think of it is Much Ado About Nothing in a constituency office. It’s about a relationship in a series of highly politicised circumstances – as are most good dramas, to be fair.

I loved it. It crackles and sparkles and waltzes its way into your heart. Or at least what’s left of my cold, dead one. That in itself feels like an act of defiance, it refuses to be small or weepy when it could be witty and warm – which is what working class people tend to do, come to think of it. It takes on the character of the people it portrays.

*

David Lyons is a Labour MP, about to lose his seat in the 2017 general election. As his colleagues are avoiding the feared bloodbath, and with Labour gaining seats across the country, his hangs by a thread. His constituency agent, Jean, is getting the numbers in and swearing a lot. They’re both resigned to his fate. Once this is established, we cycle back through the years, stopping off at various key moments in the modern history of the Labour Party and David and Jean’s friendship all the way back to 1990, with the help of some excellent(?) wigs. After the interval we move the other way back to the present, and the play gains its political edge.

The first act is almost entirely comedic, the second reminds you exactly what Labour means to these people, and why the process of politics is so bloody painful. We watch New Labour rise, get elected and re-elected, and then start to collapse. We see the onset of austerity and the emergence of Corbyn. We also watch David’s conflict with the CLP, the collapse of his marriage, and watch his hair get greyer. We see Jean adjust to the realities of working for a Labour party that seems to brush over her principles, we see her widowed and re-married. You end up really rooting for these people – they’re like Benedick and Beatrice; constantly at each other’s throats but they’d be lost without each other. They are each other’s constant.

At the heart of this play is a conversation, literally and metaphorically, about who socialism belongs to. How can an ideology belong to a specific group of people? David is brought into a seat so safe that cottage cheese could get elected if it was red, but with a decidedly Blairite view of matters. He believes that it is only by appealing to the maximum number of people – moving towards the centre – that any form of social progress can occur. Jean is old-school Labour, devoted to its working-class roots, and wary of change – though not as inflexible as the CLP. The CLP is led by Len, a staunch socialist. Straightforward enough, except we come to learn it is David, not Len, who comes from the communities they claim to protect.

What is the value of a hard-line socialism when its chief proponents are those that learned the theory at university, not those who came from the communities socialism aims to emancipate? And yes, there are overlaps, but broadly speaking (and certainly in my experience) working-class people are pragmatic. They have to be. Principle for the sake of principle means very little when people are lining up at food banks. If a closer-to-the-centre Labour government stops this happening – who gives a shit if the red flag gets sung?

And I do think that. I agree with David. Yes, more should have been done, yes they were too safe, but New Labour did a lot of good (we’re not going into the Iraq war here, aight?) There shouldn’t necessarily be an apology for that, something I think Jean understands (I think. I THINK.) But the most moving part of the play is when Jean and David both lament what being left actually entails; the knowledge that the work will never be done. Nothing will ever be okay, to be actively left is resigning yourself to a life of sheer bloody hard work.

When Jean (SPOILERS) starts to entertain the possibility of replacing David as MP, right at the end of the play, they both lament that to be an MP is bloody hard work. There’s never been a worse time to be an MP, it’s like drinking from a poisoned chalice. Whatever they do, it will be viewed as a betrayal, because the act of politics is compromise. You want to help, and the people will resent you. It’s a proper tragedy, really.

*

Apparently now whenever I hear Moon River there’s two moments from plays I’ll recall. Prior and Louis dancing in Angels in America… and David and Jean waltzing in Labour of Love.

They’re played to perfection by Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig. And I really do mean perfection. There’s a particular thing that Freeman does where he’s trying not to blow up, and he sort of takes a breath, and straightens his face, juts his chin and drops his arms. It’s never felt more real that when he’s the lone Blairite facing off a CLP that wants him out. Trying to retain his composure against those that see him as a betrayal of every value they hold dear.

Greig is a complete revelation. She’s made a career out of playing – wonderfully, I hasten to add – roles that are characterised by a sort of middle-class bothered-ness. But the second the lights went up and she was swearing profusely into a phone with a voice you don’t expect to hear from Greig, I was completely enthralled. She’s harsh and salty and coarse, all with an unshakeable conviction and an undeniable warmth. She has a natural comic instinct that she deploys effortlessly, landing joke after joke after joke. And there are a lot of jokes – the sheer volume of comedy in this play is quite striking. I was cackling. CACKLING I TELL YOU.

And they have such great chemistry. They so dominate the stage that when they’re not on together you’re counting the seconds until they are again. A proper modern-day Benedick and Beatrice (god I wish I’d seen Greig play it.)

*

NORTHERNERS.

BLOODY NORTHERNERS.

For those of you that don’t know, I happen to be from the north. I also happen to feel incredibly strongly that the way northerners (and more generally, ‘regional’ and working classes voices) are represented on the national stages of this country is regularly inadequate and often insulting. I have written about such views in the past. I’m a big advocate of just plonking a play in the north without any explanation and demanding an audience take it seriously, and I’m also an advocate of work that is very specifically about northerners and their experiences.

Labour of Love is both. I kept thinking how easily it could have been set in London, but it’s not. It’s set in the north (Nottinghamshire is northern in my book.) This means that the characters have certain expectations of their lives and their culture – and it means the play can use a very particular kind of language and wit, which Graham harnesses wonderfully.

It is strange that there is a whole sub-genre of British media – film in particular – that is interested in working-class, normally Northern response to Thatcherism; Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Pride, Billy Elliot. They’re all comedies, with an edge for sure, but comedies nonetheless. Why? Is it because when dramas like I, Daniel Blake are made they get dismissed as propaganda? Maybe when it’s a comedy, there’s simply something to laugh at, there’s a distance that allows middle-class and Southern audiences to remove themselves (one line I didn’t laugh at, “I’d have taken Leeds.” Half the audience did, what exactly is inherently funny about Leeds, remind me?) But also, self-pity isn’t a thing we do well. Comedy has to be the healing process, the way we understand trauma. The line between accurate representation and ‘poverty porn’ is one that gets crossed waaaaaay too often; Labour of Love never shies away from the shit people have to go through, but its structure never allows anyone to wallow in it, nor pity the characters. And the actors treat it beautifully; Greig in particular just dances over the darkness in Jean’s life, so when it occasionally shows through the cracks, it becomes all the more alarming.

And God, I’ve never heard the words ‘daft apeth’ on a stage IN MY LIFE. And MARDY. And that collision of affection and steel and conflict, and an inability to convey emotion in any traditional ‘theatrical’ sense; the people Graham dramatises can’t – and if they could they wouldn’t dream of – profess their love for each other in grand speeches, it’s hard enough for them to talk about politics in cosmic terms, let alone what’s going on in their hearts.

*

It’s not perfect, the brilliance of Freeman and Greig does have the side-effect of making some of the other acting seem stiff in comparison, and it could possibly do without the projected images of the key moments in British politics over the last 27 years. It felt somewhat superfluous. (And the set broke! Twice! And I don’t think anyone noticed! The magic of the theatre!) But it’s really striking that in 2 hours and 45 minute’s worth of material, there’s not a moment wasted. It’s never filler, damn near every joke lands beautifully.

And it was so nice to not listen to middle class people talk about middle class problems. Just for a change. It puts conversations about the fate of the country and the nature of politics in the voice-boxes of NORTHERNERS. And that’s pretty great, and it’s certainly still a rarity. More please.

*

Labour of Love is a joyous thing.


Photo by Johan Persson.

Network @ National Theatre: Sex, Lies and Videotape

I’m writing my notes for this in a pad that’s leaning on a book about genocide, in between seminars after my fourth coffee of the day – just in case you were wondering how third year’s going.

*

Network. Right.

It’s an adaptation of the script of a movie I haven’t seen, but apparently it’s a satire, made in the 70s when a world where news is a commodity; integrity and honesty are turned into ash for the sake of a higher share of the ratings. It’s a satire no more – it’s a tragedy (albeit a funny one.)

I’ve barely started this and I’m already finding it bloody difficult. Network is a piece that I completely fell into in the moment, but as I dissect it, it starts to slip away from me. I can’t work out why it works.

As always, spoilers ahoy.

*

First: it’s a mess. It just is. I happen to like mess a lot; in fact, it tends to be why I go to the theatre. If I wanted perfection, I’d go to the cinema. Network is a collision of ideas and concepts and styles and it throws them all down at once, demanding you to see it on those terms and on no others. For the most part, this is fine. You lose yourself in the maelstrom of technology and noise and the blur of reality and fiction. It’s so caught up in ‘now’ that it’s hard to break apart, presumably because ‘now’ is similarly hard to break apart. It’s just a big fucking mess.

Simultaneously, everything makes sense somehow; the inclusion of the restaurant onstage shifts the dynamic in the audience, the effortless creation of a privileged few that you’re always aware of, fundamentally having the same experience under very different circumstances.

There’s a slickness to it, a cool, methodical, ruthless precision to it that feels genuinely exciting. The very simple act of including a countdown heightens the ideas of choreography, and the business of news-making. There’s a rush to it, although it can tend towards the artificial. These characters have this shit down. Probably explains why they’re not paying any attention when Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) goes off-script while on air, explaining how he plans to kill himself a week hence, and why all hell subsequently breaks loose. Or something.

Because horribly, Beale’s threat has made the ratings jump. And the network, the people for whom information is a money-making industry, jump on the opportunity. Who gives a shit about accuracy, because if no-one’s watching, what’s the point? But this isn’t new. This isn’t groundbreaking, as it may well have been in the 1970s. That’s not where the horror lies – instead, the horror is in the fact that misinformation under capitalism is a very old idea. It was always going to get to this ridiculous level because nobody was willing to call it out – least of all a media that relies on it to pay their mortgages. When information is commercialised, and presuming the aim of commercialism is power, this is the logical endpoint.

It also feels cinematic; the way that screen is used, the way it focuses and highlights is forensic the in the same way that a movie screen is forensic, in what feels like a very different way to RomTrag, where the camera sought to frame and re-frame the relationships between the characters, and between the characters and the audience. Here it makes sense of the chaos, presenting you with a single image to follow. The video is totally integrated, most notably in a sequence that’s just begging to go wrong, where two characters start out on the South Bank and end up on stage. It moves like film, sequences sliding over each other. And it’s beautifully cut together, the video folks on this have excelled themselves.

And that set is cool. Like, really cool. It’s possibly the best use of the Lyttelton I’ve seen, and I hate that damn theatre. It seems you have two options; throw everything including the kitchen sink at it (the Network approach) or take absolutely everything away and let the space take on its own character (the Angels in America approach.)

*

Bryan Cranston acts with such ease it’s unnerving. The use of camera and the fact he’s mic’ed means that his performance can carry a whole range of subtleties; the way he angles his forehead at the start, or the way he can charm the audience senseless, or the way he can be stuck dumb by something else. He creates a character who knows how to measure every single one of his actions to conceal and provoke emotion. He’s been playing politics his whole life, so what’s a shift to fiction?

But he’s not the whole show; Douglas Henshall might be doing the best work in it, as Beale’s long-time friend and colleague. It’s subtle, slight work, but he’s totally solid. And Michelle Dockery looks like she’s having an absolute blast. She has that capacity to be completely seductive and charming, and then turn on her heel and destroy everything in her path, a real volatility.

But it’s in the acting that you start to notice Van Hove isn’t a great director of actors. Of concept, yes. And of style and clarity there’s few his equal – but when there’s a bigger cast on stage, you see the edges start to fray. None of the acting is bad, by any means. But it’s as if they’re inhabiting completely different worlds. Half of the actors nail the naturalism the piece asks for, but half are using the Lyttelton like it’s The Plough and the Stars; as if this is traditional storytelling – and it’s not. I could see the seams, I could see why things weren’t quite fitting together a beautifully as they should, and I suppose I found that frustrating.

*

It could probably lose about 15 minutes, but I’m fairly sure van Hove sticks with a text rightly or wrongly, so you have to take the text on its own terms. I saw a preview so there were a couple of sound issues but I’m not a dick so I won’t hold that against them.

But ultimately I felt that Network lacked the excitement of RomTrag, and the lacerating emotion of Hedda Gabler. Rather, it feels overtly political in a way I don’t expect from van Hove – but I’m not sure the politics are consistent or even coherent. Not a bad thing. But that confusion has led to my confusion, and I’m not sure what I think about it.

Round and round in circles again, Harry.

I really liked it. Honestly. But I don’t know why, and honestly I’m not even sure I understand it.

Every Brilliant Thing @ Orange Tree Theatre: 1,000,001: Going to the Theatre

This is a thing that’s happened to me; I’ve reached an end.

When I saw After the Rehearsal/Persona a couple of weeks ago, I was really miserable. I was walking to the concrete palace known affectionately as the Barbican and it was pissing down with rain and I had a bit of indigestion and I really didn’t want to be going there. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t enjoying going to the theatre. And that’s the only reason I do this shit, because I enjoy it.

I saw a couple of other things in the weeks after, many of which I don’t really remember in great detail. This is not because they weren’t good, but because I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t writing about things because I didn’t care enough, and it took me weeks to write about the things I did write about because I simply couldn’t muster the energy to do so. I was going for the sake of it, booking last minute tickets to things I wasn’t overly keen on seeing simply because I could – that type of excitement I’d discovered over the last two years has come to an end. I no longer wanted to see everything, I realised, I no longer needed to inhale theatre. Now I just want to see things I want to see.

*

Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful, relentlessly gorgeous piece of theatre. It’s no wonder, because it’s performed by the genuinely lovely Jonny Donahoe who seems so at ease on that stage, and who seems willing to charm anything with a pulse.

And that’s a good job, because he does have to charm the whole damn theatre, coercing us into participation to varying degrees, but it’s always from a place of warmth, and humour, and everyone’s game. Macmillan and Donahoe are both master storytellers, and that’s crucial when the theatre they make is storytelling at its simplest; we are literally just told a story. The Narrator (for want of a better word) tells his life story; growing up in a house with a suicidal mother, and creating a list of brilliant things; reasons to keep living. The list is childish, and childlike, and genuinely funny and warm and sweet and heartbreaking.

The audience joins in with the list, reading out ‘Ham and Mayo Sandwiches,’ and ‘Realising You’re Never Too Old to Climb Trees.’ We gain a stake in the story, giving it a heft that a 60 minute long play really has no right to acquire under normal proceedings. It’s a perfect combination of form and content, and I’m beginning to think maybe Macmillan understands this better than any other playwright I can think of.

Donahoe made a curtain speech; it turns out we had seen his last performance in the play, the last of about 400. He was visibly emotional, thanking us for not letting his last be a damp squib. It was an end for him, and a sudden one, I imagine; to go from holding that play in your head for 4 years, to realising you won’t do it again… that must feel like a death, right? It’s closing the back cover of a book knowing you can’t ever read the first page for the first time again.

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I’m very glad that it’s work by Duncan Macmillan that has book-ended this period for me. It was People, Places and Things that made me want to see absolutely everything, to be constantly in pursuit of the next thing. And it’s Every Brilliant Thing that has reminded me that Theatre is definitely on my list of brilliant things, so why bother doing it if I’m not enjoying it?

Not that I’m quitting theatre altogether mind, or stopping this blog. You don’t get shot of me that easily. You probably won’t even notice me seeing less from what I tweet or blog – but my mind and my reasoning has been changed. And I like that.

 

Photo by Richard Davenport

The Seagull @ Lyric Hammersmith: Orang* Bill*d Fuck*rs

Let me tell you a story about how a seagull once tried to murder me at a harbour in Cornwall.

So. I was on holiday, crabbing next to one of those mooring post things. It was low tide, quite a bit of a drop, me and my brother are stood on the edge. Then, one of these orange-billed fuckers swoops down, clips my head with its wing and proceeds to perch itself on top of the post.

I completely lost my balance, I felt myself go on tiptoe and almost went over the edge. Damn near went headfirst into the harbour. I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE.

I didn’t, much to my brother’s annoyance. The moral of this particular story is I fucking hate seagulls and they’re all evil.

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The Seagull, on the other hand, I love. It’s one of about three plays I could watch forever. I remember listening to that thing David Hare said about how Chekhov matters how you do it; it’s not Hamlet, you can’t do it badly and still expect it to work. It’s certainly a delicate play, a beautifully balanced play, but what struck me as Simon Stephen’s version moved towards its conclusion is that there is an immovable devastating spine to this play. I think Konstantin’s arc will always be shattering, in the same way that Hamlet’s demise is always shattering.

Stephens’ text highlights a couple of things that I probably should have recognised before. The first is just how much of The Seagull is about art; they’re all utterly obsessed with it; making it, breaking it, criticising it and revolutionising it. It’s a play whose characters are dripping with ambition – none of them are that old, I suppose. Those desires have yet to be tempered, and the need to be taken seriously on that front is the single most important thing to so many of them. Personal relationships are disposable, even family comes second to white-hot ambition.

The second is just how horrible everyone (except Hugo) is to Konstantin. The way he is treated is appalling – and I’m not sure why that’s never struck me before. Perhaps it’s Brian Vernel’s performance, a young man whose cockiness exists only to disguise his heartbreak, who is very funny, and who plays the ending with an unnerving blankness – but it’s as much in Lesley Sharp’s performance as Irina. The way she screams at him, the way she postures to everyone else and fawns over Boris… she’s utterly miserable and rather pathetic. The brilliance in Sharp’s performance is that although Irina wants to hog the limelight, Sharp never does. It’s a lower key Irina, one whose influence is felt rather than seen, but one that’s probably all the crueller for it.

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Sean Holmes’ production very quickly kicks the (somewhat) expected fourth wall down. The internal reality of the play is blurred with our reality; characters pose for us, look to us for approval; there’s a sense of pageant to it, characters strutting up and presenting themselves. I’m not sure that this works, other than to remove us slightly from the story, and this feels particularly jarring in the first act when we are introduced to the characters sequentially. It’s a good thing that this pageantry starts to diminish as the play progresses towards its conclusion, although it does mean it’s not until the third act that we get any sense of humanity in Irina (although how much of this is text and how much is style of direction, I’m not sure yet.)

I’m gonna briefly talk about the set because sets are awesome and fuck you, ATCA. It exposes the mechanics of the Lyric’s stage; you can see the pulleys and the doors at the back; it’s a place of heightened performance, strings of fairy lights glowing in the spring. As the play progresses, the space contracts, gets closer to the audience, all icy cold and blue, plastic sheeting hanging limply. There’s something of an abattoir about it. During the scene changes (and they are long scene changes, the lights in the house are brought up and people have a bit of a natter) we see the work done by the stagehands shadow puppet style, but as they leave the stage and the actors take their marks we’re left wondering who is who; who is actor, who is scene-setter – and then what’s the difference.

It’s less vodka-soaked than the Chekhovs at the NT last year (my only other Seagull, incidentally.) Pain comes from the words, but the words don’t explicitly come from alcohol. On that point, there’s less sense of this being a rural place, one where drink provides the only escape. It could be a suburb to the city instead of miles and miles away. The only place we know it is, is the theatre itself. And when it is could be whole other essay. There’s references to horses and farming but the fairy lights are electric, the characters wear leather and lycra – not a linen jacket in sight. So similarly, the only when it’s happening, is now.

So what does that mean? It’s taking place in this theatre, right now. People are talking in their own accents (except Lesley Sharp?) which is lovely, so cohering this family is about more than resemblance. I think it’s ultimately to do with the trajectory of the play; all that stuff – time, place, reality – becomes superfluous when you focus in on the tragedy at the heart of The Seagull, which at least for me is the destruction of Konstantin. In that painful fourth act, when Nina (how have I not mentioned Nina yet????) comes back, and proceeds to break what’s left of his heart, it simply doesn’t matter, because this young, talented, funny young man is about to kill himself. Holmes and Stephens never shy away from that, and it does become the thing that haunts you.

Each act is a season; starting with the optimism of spring (and an appropriate burst of Vivaldi,) turning through into winter. How much of what happens in The Seagull is as inevitable as that transition? We know spring must become summer, but must Boris destroy Nina? Must Konstantin shoot himself? I think this production suggests that in the case of the latter, it is. The way Irina and Boris and even Nina are set up as destroying him, it becomes clear that the logical conclusion to what his mum does to him in the first act (i.e. destroy his play) is always going to end in her destroying everything else if her behaviour is allowed to go unchecked – and unchecked it goes. It’s all well and good Hugo offering his support to Konstantin, but he makes no attempt to discourage Irina.

It’s just really fucking sad, I suppose.

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Ultimately, The Seagull is a play that has power no matter how it’s done. Stephens and Holmes don’t turn it upside down, but they do make it fresh and immediate, the near three-hour run time zips by.

I was sat in the row behind a school group (unsurprisingly, the phone that bleeped didn’t belong to them, but to the couple behind me that had tutted when they saw the kids) and honestly half my enjoyment was in watching their reactions. I had no idea whether they knew the ending, and given the way they jumped, I doubt it. I loved the way they roared with laughter when Irina asks Boris “You’re coming, aren’t you?” Mainly I’m jealous. How cool is it that they’re getting to see Chekhov – and cool Chekhov at that?

 

Photo by Tristram Kenton