‘Everyman’ at the National (Olivier)Theatre
9th May, 2015
‘Welcome to hell, SE’
Wow! This is Rufus Norris’s first production as artistic director of the National Theatre and he is starting inventive in every sense from the drug-fuelled raves to a seductive Donna Summer soundtrack. The production design pulses with energy, even in the moments of quiet reflection. Much of the original’s theological substance has been stripped away. Poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy’s writing is characteristically edgy with lines such as ‘Religion is a man-made thing. It too will pass.’ At times, however, the predictable rhyming and the lame humour from contemporary references to loyalty cards and Beckham and even Cliff’s colostomy bag seem disappointingly puerile.
The play opens with a weary-looking cleaner (Kate Duchêne) mopping the stage. Contrary to expectation, she is God. None of this is particularly apparent from an audacious, wordless opening scene, in which Everyman, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a big star who’s never forgotten the stage, descends on a wire from the Olivier’s ceiling. He then runs vertically, in slow motion, down through the pit in the middle of the stage, before re-emerging into the hedonistic raunchy excesses of his 40th birthday party.
Continue reading Everyman
The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard
at Dorfman Theatre,
21st February 2015
A guest review by Derek Linney
My response to this new play by Tom Stoppard can probably best be summarised by my thoughts on exiting the theatre: “How do you stop audiences leaving a play at the interval? Answer: Stage it as a single act”.
The “Hard Problem” of the title is that of understanding / explaining human consciousness. Does one subscribe to Cartesian Dualism – in which the brain and the mind are essentially different: the brain being material and the mind, and hence consciousness, being insubstantive in the material sense. Or does one subscribe to Materialism: the mind and brain are one and the same material entity and consciousness is some, as yet unexplained, consequence of the complexity of the brain’s functioning. Both positions have difficulties. How does the dualist explain how thoughts – from the immaterial mind – can be translated into actions, for example the movement of ones arm, in the physical world? Also, how can one explain the emergence of consciousness during the course of evolution: presumably the original simple organisms lacked consciousness but at some stage it must have evolved; though how a non-material mind could emerge is problematical without recourse to an external agent such as God. The materialist, on the other hand, has to explain how consciousness intuitively seems to be a quality that cannot be possessed by a mere automaton – be that a computer or a physical brain.
The promise of The Hard Problem was a play that explored these questions. Instead we were served a hotchpot of declamations – to call them arguments would be stretching the reality of the script – regarding consciousness, morality and altruism, biased scientific research, god and miracles with a dollop of hedge funds and market modelling thrown in. While any of these could have formed the basis for an intelligent, challenging play what we got never went into any depth on any of these questions. By analogy, for Radio 4 fans, it was more like listening to Question Time – with party political representatives proclaiming manifesto points – rather than The Moral Maze – an in depth interactive debate of an issue.
Continue reading The Hard Problem
3 Winters at the Lyttleton Theatre
14th December, 2014
‘My great-grandmother was a barely literate working-class woman who had no voice in society to express whatever thoughts and desires she had. So I’m writing about what happened to female voices over a century’. Tena Stivicic
‘3 Winters’ continues the international vein of the National Theatre ended 2014. As the title intimates,Croatian writer Tena Stivicic’s ambitious new play spans 1945, 1990 and 2011 in Zagreb with the interplay of seminal events for the Kos family: a homecoming, a funeral and a wedding. All of which made me wish I had done some background reading of Croatian history.
The drama is a slow burn of a Chekhovian nature. An opening scene in 1945 provides the narrative springboard. The year is the birth of Communist Yugoslavia Rose King (Jo Herbert), her husband Alexander (Alex Price) and baby, Masha, together with her mother Monika (Josie Walker) are assigned by Tito’s new government a portion of the prosperous townhouse in which Rose’s mother had been a servant. 1990 reveals the first serious fractures in the Yugoslav federation that would lead to war in the Balkans. Masha (Siobhan Finneran) and her younger sister Dunya are both married. Masha has two daughters of her own, Lucia (Charlotte Beaumont) and Alisa (Bebe Sanders). By 2011, Croatia is on the brink of joining the EU, the family assemble for the wedding of Lucia (Sophie Rundle). Alisa learns that her absent, nouveau-riche brother-in-law has bought the once nationalised house. For the bride this is progress, for her sister it is capitalist greed as he is willing to purchase the house at the expense of other tenants who are forcibly evicted. Continue reading 3 Winters
‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ at The National Theatre
22nd November, 2014
‘Everything around us is roses,
And we’re the shit in between’
In ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, the lives of the poor are disposable. This is India, a country where the per capita annual income is only about £800; 70% live in slums, and have limited access to electricity, clean water, food, and educational opportunities. Slum children work as rag pickers, sewage cleaners and other unhealthy and dangerous jobs all around Mumbai, earning a few rupees a day in order to stave off their families’ hunger: the need is beyond understanding.
My only modern media image of slums in India is through films such as’ Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, but ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ reminds me more of novels such as ‘A Fine Balance’ or ‘White Tiger’. The energetic script is an adaptation by David Hare of the Pulitzer prizewinning , Jennifer Boo ‘s non-fictional account of more than three years spent investigating and documenting life in the settlement of Annawadi by the main runway at Mumbai airport.
So, we have the setting: a city of contrasts, where immense wealth and extreme poverty are seldom apart.
Strangely though, optimism lies with the nearby airport; a source of some options for success – in waste and recyclable scavenging, in metal thievery, and, for a lucky few, regular service jobs in the hotels. A wall plastered with the words of an Italian tile company (beautiful forever … beautiful forever) provides the irony of recyclable trash. Schemes are fragile and global recession threatens the garbage trade. Continue reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers
‘Protest Song’ by Tim Price at the Shed
3rd January 2014
‘On the first day of Christmas, the system gave to me… a vote in a demo-cra-cy’
A protest song is nothing new. As far back as medieval times, folk songs were used to reflect social dissent, upheaval and inequality. ‘Protest Song’ by Tim Price is a visceral monologue, superbly delivered by the aptly chosen Rhys Ifans who I haven’t seen since his rendering of the blundering Spike in the film, ‘Notting Hill’. It is the homeless Danny’s 70 minute monologue which literally engages the audience from start to finish. His script is inspired by the London Occupy movement that grew in the autum and winter of 2011-12.
At first, Danny shambles on stage, targeting unsuspecting members of the audience for money to pay for one night in a hostel; and for their phone numbers to prove to some off-stage social worker that he is properly ‘engaging’ with his mobile phone. Each hesitates, conflicted about how to respond. It is all too human to be uncomfortable with what we fear and what we don’t know. ‘Would you touch a rough sleeper?’ Awkward mumblings or silence ensue. Full lighting makes Danny’s raw interaction with the audience all the more invasive.
The intimate nature of the staging space underlines Danny’s need for territorial ownership; he needs his own comfort space and he destroys our fourth wall by forcing us to discuss disparity of wealth and humanity in general. Danny recalls his routine of years of sleeping rough on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral disrupted by Occupy. Yet, he finds a sense of community, belonging and purpose in volunteering in the kitchen finding a new impetus in his life, and reluctantly becoming more politicised: ‘everything – every fucking thing – is connected’. Continue reading Protest Song
‘This House’ by James Graham at the Cottesloe
16th October, 2012
‘A Conservative government always eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power, and Labour governments always fall because they don’t.’
Can one make a satirical play centred on the fragile coalition politics of the 1970s? These were the years of industrial unrest, spiralling inflation, but an absence of spin doctors and 24 hour news. James Graham’s drama emerges as a result of a National Theatre commission soon after the 2010 election delivered a hung Parliament. At just 30 years old, Graham wasn’t born until three years after the events of the play, yet with thorough research he creates his own version of the political playground tribalism.
Most of the action takes place in the Labour and Conservative Whips’ offices, where much of the wheeling and dealing goes on – the dark arts of politics. This is a time when the Labour government’s precarious ability to survive a hung parliament and a wafer-thin majority creates most of the play’s dynamics. The Labour Party whips have to fight for every single vote to pass legislation and win over as many as they can, including those MPs from minority parties. Eventually, every MP is required to be present in Parliament for every division to avoid losing a vote of No Confidence. The absurd lengths to which Whips go to ensure that their party members appear on the floor to vote is a fault line of our parliamentary system.
So, Philip Glenister as the formidable Labour Deputy Chief Whip, Walter Harrison, needs a controversial pairing of MPs, to save the Labour majority. For the uninitiated, pairing simply means that if, for example, a Tory MP is known to be unable to appear for a vote on a given day, a Labour member agrees by gentleman’s agreement not to attend the session and therefore sit out the vote. Continue reading This House
‘Table’ by Tanya Ronder at The Shed, National Theatre.
April 19th, 2013
‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.’ William Shakespeare
Starring the Table which spans generations: marriage in Lichfield in 1898, and continues through the two world wars to a missionary outpost in 1950s Tanganyika,(now Tanzania) then returns to a hippie commune in late 1960s Herefordshire, and ends up in south London today. Gideon (Paul Hilton) becomes the spirit of the table, leading through song and narrative, the journey of the table. Marks and scratches on the table are inheritance tracks of a troubled man in his eventual attempt to reconnect and find forgiveness.
The weight of the generations carried by the cast of nine, playing twenty three characters between them, is superb even though the character of the Su Linn is irritating.
For a short play, it covers a lot of ground. This is a cleverly written play by Tanya Ronder, and sensitively directed by her partner, Rufus Norris. Their own table which is a record of their relationship provides the inspiration for the play. Yet, three years of intermittent workshops to develop the play have left a slight trace of imbalance particularly in the abrupt sections set in Lichfield. Time-frames are beautifully and seamlessly interwoven by hymns and songs. I wanted to scream when the table’s legs are chopped off! I had to tell myself it’s just a bloody table.
Table is part of the eclectic kick-start of many projects to come in The Shed, the National Theatre’s new space. The theatre’s square construction painted bright red, is located just outside its main entrance in Theatre Square: a substitute venue whilst the Cottosloe becomes the Dorfman, (accolade to Travelex Chairman Lloyd Dorfman).
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’: Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel, adapted by Simon Stephens at National Theatre: 8th August, 2012
‘…most people are almost blind and they don’t see most things and there is lots of spare capacity in their heads and it is filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly’
When I first read the Mark Haddon’s novel on which this play is based, I recalled the set book for my teacher training: John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’. Although it is targeted to the effects and uses of advertising and Fine art, and outdated now, it focuses on the need to understand new ways of seeing an object differently. Therefore I had serious doubts as to whether Simon Stephens’s stage adaptation of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ would work as the book relied on first person narrative. Exploring the mind of the teenage protagonist, Christopher Boone, is fraught with unexpected complexity of family relationships and as Christopher self-defines ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.’ The assumption then is that he has Asperger’s Syndrome – a milder form of Autism that characterises his world view so that there is difficulty in understanding the subtleties of language and social situations, recognising and interpreting other people’s feelings and hates physical contact. As Mark Haddon wished, terminology is rendered redundant.
Christopher turns detective after he discovers a neighbour’s dog has been brutally killed. This very act leads him into situations that are terrifying for him as they are outside his daily routine: his timetable. Later, when Christopher learns the truth about the dead dog, we are totally absorbed by his meticulously building of a railway track around the stage.
Despite being far older than the scripted 15 year old, Luke Treadaway’s outstanding performance as Christopher Boone is both engaging and disabling for the audience, for like him, we become outsiders. The set design by Bunny Christie and digital technology from Finn Ross is breath-taking in the intimate space of the Cottlesloe. One minute glowing, geometric grids convey the comfort zone that the regimen of numbers and logic provides Christopher; another moment, we are seamlessly transported from classroom to the London Underground network. Continue reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
‘Edward II’ by Christopher Marlowe at The National Theatre.
5th September, 2013
‘What are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?’
‘Edward II’ is not a play I would normally choose but I was curious to see John Heffernan in his first major titled role and Kyle Soller, a young American actor who have had recent praise. As a student, the conspiracy theory that Marlowe may have written the works attributed to Shakespeare also intrigued me.
It is clear from the pregnant pauses during the opening coronation ceremony that Edward is going to battle between his private indulgences and his public duty to state and church. Soon we are launched into Heffernan’s frenzied, petulant portrayal of Edward as a young king who is unable to surrender his passionate and corrosive relationship with Gaveston. Unlike Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V‘ Edward is unable to distance himself as kingship demands. Passions drive the pace of the play that at times the language gets lost in the noise of the corrupting power of entertainment and military conflict. Conscious repetitive thrusts of ‘Music‘ and characters’ intolerance through the word ‘brook’ did grate.
The incompetence of the sovereign to manage his royal duties makes the body politic vulnerable. The Wheel of Fortune kicks into action and hubris is a defining weakness. The turning of the Wheel removes Edward II from the throne, and, in turn sets up Mortimer confidently delivered by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Vanessa Kirby’s neglected Isabella lost control as affections switched from Edward to Mortimer. Next Mortimer falls and is replaced by the young Edward III played by a diminutive adult female. Further gender swapping of Kent, Edward’s brother ( Kirsty Bushell) and Pembroke ( Penny Laden) proves clumsy rather than innovative. Continue reading Edward II
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin at National Theatre, London, 14th August 2013
‘I’m Not Tired’ (Quotation from the music used for The Amen Corner)
‘Praise the Lord’, the National Theatre continues to surprise and engage audiences with culturally diverse plays and all-black casting. Rufus Norris’s revival of James Baldwin’s 1965 gospel drama was certainly good news which also dispelled any prejudices I have ever had about being subjected to a musical.
The first ten minutes are disquietingly invigorating yet devotional for a non-Christian audience. The visceral gospel singing by the rightly acclaimed London Community Gospel Choir quickly immerses us into the emotional complexity of a Pentecostal corner church community in 1950s. Its pastor, Sister Margaret (brilliantly delivered by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) drives the simple plot. Her relentless, uncompromising sermonising both unifies the community and divides them. Continue reading The Amen Corner