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.

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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

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.

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.