Monday, 9 June 2014

Incognito, Squirrels/The After Dinner Joke, Privacy, The Drowned Man, and more

How has it taken me so long to discover the Bush Theatre? It's better than the Donmar--it's in a very cool neighborhood and has comfortable seats! What a revelation. And the play I happened to see--Nick Payne's Incognito--will surely be among the best I'll see this year.

The backbone of the play, which has a beautifully complicated structure, is the true story of a pathologist in Princeton who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein soon after his death in 1955, stole his brain, and kept it for over 40 years. Payne's play relies heavily on Michael Paterniti's book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain in which he recounts driving the then 84 year old pathologist, Thomas Stolz Harvey, across the U.S with Einstein's brain in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk in order to meet with Einstein's daughter. There are several more story lines in Payne's play related to the vast mystery that is our brain, ingeniously interwoven and miraculously interrelevant. Keeping track of all the strands is thoroughly challenging and engaging. The material--physics, cosmology, and neuroscience has been trendy for so long it's beginning to feel a bit tired, but Payne manages to more than eek out continued interest. His play is as good, better really, than Lucy Preeble's 2012 The Effect dealing with antidepressents effects on the brain and the pharmaceutical industry. It also nods to Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and the subsequent opera based on his book. Major credit for the success of the play goes to the four actors--Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda--who play up to six characters each with incredible subtlety and aplomb. The range of accents was impressive--though being from New Jersey myself, have to say that one didn't quite work.

How has it taken me so long to discover the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond? Okay, not so cool a neighborhood, and the seats worse than the Donmar, but a great venue nonetheless. And their recent revivals of David Mamet's Squirrels and Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke very solid stuff. Squirrels just about perfectly sums up the glories and terrors of the writing process, with a significant nod to the female influence/aspect which I found surprising coming from Mamet, and The After-Dinner Joke just about perfectly sums up the entrenched hypocricy of the left, right, and center, especially when it comes to "charitable works." This short play is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was written. The actors in both plays, were excellent. The Orange Tree Theatre will soon be putting on a festival of new work and rediscoveries and I will certainly be going along.

Privacy at the Donmar about the Snowden leaks and how technology is changing/has changed our entire concept of privacy was an intriguing affair for about 40 minute and then it just felt repetitive. Also, the framing device, a playwright struggling to write a play was weak and annoying.

If you have never experienced a Punchdrunk full immersion theatrical experience, The Drowned Man is a great one and I urge you to go. If you have experienced one (I saw their Faust a few years back), I'd still say go, but they haven't improved greatly on the formula. The best thing about the production by far is the truly inspired, meticulously, lovingly, wittily designed sets by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns. Wearing creepy white (death) masks, each audience member is encouraged to go it alone and explore the vast and  now defunct Hollywood Temple Studios expanding over several floors. (The building was, in fact, until not too long ago a post office near Paddington Station.) The care, thought, and aesthetic values that went into putting together each room and space is spectacular--and if I do go back to a Punchdrunk production it will be for the sets. The fragmented performances of a script based on Buchner's Woyzeck were far less interesting to me than the Hollywood executive's office full of chicken coops, the medical records room, its walls covered in forms listing on-set injuries and drug treatments for stars, wandering around the trailer park, sitting in the soda shop watching the other masked audience members come and go--and this just a fraction of what's possible. One of the great things about a Punchdrunk production is its comment on perspective. After the show is over, and you gather with your mates in the saloon, you realize that what you saw and experienced was utterly unique.

For his 18th birthday, I took my son to see cabaret sensation Meow Meow at Southbank's Wonderground. Seemingly out of control at all times, she gloriously manipulated the hell out of us all for the entire exhilerating performance. Her crowd surfing is one of the most courageous and stupendous acts I've ever seen. Her singing was great, especially her hilarious rendition of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and a great cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees."

While in New York over Easter a friend took me to see Stephen Soderbergh's The Library at The Public. The premise was promising. A student played by 17-year-old going-places actress Chloe Grace Moretz is falsely accused by another student of telling a gunman on a shooting spree at her school where other students are hiding. Unfortunately, the play, written by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Contagion, was none too subtle and it was pretty clear how the whole thing was going to unfold after about a half hour.

Also while in New York, my agent and I snuck off at lunch time to see The Realistic Jones by Will Eno, starring Marisa Tomei, Toni Colette, Tracey Letts, and Michael C. Hall. We'd both read Charles Isherwood's rave review in The New York Times. What a disappointment! What a waste of talent! The play, about ALS, was a bunch of clever one liners that never added up to much at all. And the ALS was used, like so often happens with the Holocaust and children, as insto-heartstring-puller. Ugh.

A while ago I saw a revival at the National of A Taste of Honey written by Shelagh Delaney when she was eighteen in 1958. A very ambitious play, taking on class, race, gender, and sexual orientatio in Britian in the 50s. The first half is a tour de force but the second half was a letdown, really just a repeat of the first. Still, I was glad to have seen it and actors Lesley Sharp and Kate O'Flynn were wonderfully watchable.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Bad Beckett: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby

Granted, it is almost impossible for an actor to do Beckett well, which means when it's bad, it is really very, very bad. I know Lisa Dwan has received lots of praise for taking on these three short Beckett pieces, and I am glad to have seen them, but her interpretation was all gothic, creepy, and Hound of the Baskervilles instead of chilling, angst-ridden, modernist, and funny. Beckett is full of humor and to miss that is, well, a little like missing the humor in Hamlet. Anyway, as I said, I was glad to see it. It was an excruciating hour--not in the right way--but it is so hard to see Beckett done at all that I appreciated Dwan's misguided interpretations nevertheless. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Raymond Chandler Meets Othello at Riverside Studios

Imagine if Othello had been written by Raymond Chandler and that's more or less what you'll get if you go see this Orangutan production at Riverside Studios directed by Rebekah Fortune. Actually, a 1940s classic noir is what this production aspires to but alas does not quite bring off. That said, it's fun to watch what works and doesn't work in a pretty uneven production. The costumes, set, and soundtrack are good--except for the very weak opening sultry nightclub number; a good idea badly executed--as are most of the performances, if uneven. Stephan Adegbola as Othello aquit himself well enough but showed none of the inner torture of either Shakespeare's Moor or any of Chandler's anguished men. Peter Lloyd's Iago was worthy of a good B-noir but not of Chandler or Shakespeare. Gillian Saker's Desdemona belonged in a pre-Raphaelite saga not in a lurid tale of jealousy run amok. I appreciated that the play was shortened to just two hours. I can't say you must run see it, but if you do you won't be completely disappointed.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

My Year at the Theatre: What I've seen since January 2013

Metamorphosis *****
Lysistrata ***
Mies Julie **
The Low Road **
Book of Mormon *****
Fences ****
A Season in the Congo *****
Much Ado About Nothing -----
Lizzie Siddal *****

All in all, I only regret going to one of these of these plays and the Icelandic theatre group Vesturport's interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis which I saw at the Lyric will go into my pantheon of Best Plays Ever Seen.

Theatre Lab Company's Lysistrata at Riverside Studios was fun, if long, and some of the actors were just so much better than others but I would go again to see something they put on. The energy and intelligence on stage was high.

Mies Julie was ok. I don't remember too much about it except a lot of strum and drang in South Africa. It's a weird play. This version was better than the Juliette Binoche French version at the Barbican but that's not saying much.

The Low Road was really a disappointment. I loved Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park and this was just silly and obvious. Actually, this one I could have missed.

Book of Mormon: you've got to see it to believe it. If only I thought it was actually helping the cause of female genital mutilation I would truly call it sheer genius. As it is, it's simply genius.

Fences was long but great and as relevant today as ever. Lenny Henry truly a great actor.

A Season in the Congo was revelatory and also a lot of fun. The Young Vic did a great job with this as did the extraordinary cast with material that could have been preachy and heavy going. I tried to get my 17 year old son to go see it but it was sadly sold out for the rest of the run.

Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones at the Old Vic directed by Mark Rylance. This may be just about the worst play I've ever seen. Truly excruciating. In some misguided moment I decided my visiting 83 year old father would like to see this. When I told him about the production and who was in it etc. he said, "Where are we going to see it, in a hospital?" The real crime was in the direction. But Rylance has to be forgiven since his performance in Twelfth Night was the best of 2012.

Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green at the Arcola was great theatre. A well-written play about a fascinating subject and era, very well acted by every one of the cast, great set, great direction. Entertaining and edifying.

I will try to do better posting in 2014!

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Old Times with Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams, and Rufus Sewell

Will her wig fall off? I kept asking myself. What does either of the women see in the flailing, entirely unappealing, wholly unsexy Rufus Sewall rendition of Deeley? We get the idea that he's supposed to be a domineering creep but there's got to be more nuance to the guy than that. If only Scott Thomas (Anna, the night I saw it) and Williams (Kate) would have swapped roles DURING the performance instead of for alternating performances I would have been so much more entertained. Director Ian Rickson should have thought of that gimmick. As it was, I was lucky because whenever what was happening on stage became too boring I got to watch Anna Wintour who was in the audience. She was wearing a coat appliqued with white daises. Prada? And those snakeskin heels! Was she terribly disappointed not to get the gig as US Ambassador to London? I wondered. Might she get up on stage and play Anna? She certainly wouldn't need to fuss with her wig and she wouldn't have to ACT charmingly aggressive and sexy. I read somewhere the play is supposed to be "darkly comic, erotic and sensual, haunting and poetic." Hmmmm. I suppose there might have been some of those things if there had been ANY emotional connection between the actors, if Kristin Scott Thomas hadn't needed to use the Pinter Pauses to straighten her wig, and if Rufus Sewall wasn't so convinced he was in another Tom Stoppard play (stole that from an excellent comment to the Whingers' review). As far as I could tell, Lia Williams just gave up and let the others take over--in so far as anyone was bothering to take over on stage. Anna Wintour--help! I wanted to fault the play, which I do--I mean a whole play based on an underwear stealing incident is rather quaint but I can imagine how this play could be an incredible challenge for actors if you got the right combo. To plagiarize myself, what I wrote about Kristin Scott Thomas in the production of Betrayal she did at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2011 could be said of this production:

" I saw it very early in the run, and it already felt, well, tired, and so did she. Even her voice seemed to crack a lot. I felt as if the three actors believed that their performance was the sideshow to something really big happening somewhere else--whereas the key to this play is the utter self-absorbtion of its three protagonists, their triangle central to the very functioning of the universe."

Actually, this is the production of Old Times that I would have liked to have seen--yes, that's Liv Ullman behind Michael Gambon from a 1985 production at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.   

Monday, 3 December 2012

All-Female Julius Caesar and All-Male Twelfth Night: The Most Revelatory Theater of 2012

Mark Rylance's Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night now at the Apollo in London was a revelation. I never really understood Olivia. For me she was always one of Shakespeare's disappointing female characters. Not particularly witty or smart, she always seemed to be little more than necessary to the plot. The play was about Viola and Orsino with some hilarious, and very dark, subplot provided by Malvolio and Feste. In Rylance's version Olivia is the plot. This is a play about the nature of woman--and how her true self contrasts, conflicts, and is defined by how she is construed by society. In her guise as Cesaro, Viola makes some discoveries upon this theme but she is too young to know what lies ahead. Olivia, instead, through her bumbling vanity, her primness that belies a boundlessly erotic passion, her mourning for her brother which is in fact a displaced mourning for her lost youth, has much to tell us about the truths and vagaries of womanhood. Maria, Olivia's housekeeper, played excellently by Paul Chahidi, is a perfect complement to Olivia providing the servant's eye view into femaledom. I have seen this play performed perhaps five or six times and I have seen incredible Malvolios (including Derek Jacobi), astonishing Festes, wondrous Sir Toby Belches, but I have never seen such an Olivia. The men who played women in this Twelfth Night were in general more entertaining than the men who played men who were rather, including Stephen Fry, rather run of the mill. But it is rare to have every character in a Shakespeare play equaled by the actor no matter his or her sex. 

Just such a rarity is being performed at the Donmar Warehouse in the all-female cast production of Julius Caesar. It is just plain astonishingly good in every way. I was skeptical about the play being set in a contemporary women's prison, a play within a play, but it works brilliantly, gets us to listen to the play's themes of power brokering, war, dictatorship, regime change in an altered and thus intensified manner. The set, the staging, the lighting, everything is exquisitely done but ultimately the production's true genius lies in the incredible performances of each and every actress which has everything to do with Phyllida Lloyd's outstanding direction. As Twelfth Night is a play fundamentally about femininity, Julius Caesar is a play fundamentally about masculinity--and how public constraints exaggerate, enhance, conflict with, and betray a man's true self. How better to understand this than to see the play performed by an all-female cast? And such a uniformly talented one. Our suspension of disbelief is established straight away allowing a viewer to contemplate in new ways Shakespeare's favorite idea: nothing is as it seems. Who knew that was still possible? Every individual performance is outrageously good but Jenny Jules as Cassius, Harriet Walter as Brutus, Frances Barber as Julius Caesar, and Cush Jumbo as Mark Antony have redefined their roles and as such are historic. The play is performed in just under two hours with no intermission. The time flew by and I didn't want it to end. Each speech, each line spoken, was clear and vital. I hung on every word. I have never witnessed such a profound female exploration of the masculine other. These actresses have given us an extraordinary, innovative, and revelatory excavation of humankind. I greatly look forward to a female Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear... 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Racine's Berenice at the Donmar: Excruciatingly Funny

We giggled. Sometimes uncontrollably. Especially whenever Dominic Rowan as Antiochus was making his particularly inane observations on the action--whatever little there was of it. Was he channeling, I wondered, that other Rowan? My theatre buddy (Paola) and I are perhaps the harshest critics in theatre-going London, but last night we were not alone. Much of the audience was laughing, and often, throughout this production at the Donmar of Racine's Berenice, starring Anne-Marie Duff as the Queen of Palestine, with a new translation by Alan Hollinghurst. Just to be clear: we were not meant to be laughing. Racine is emphatically not Shakespeare. He's a one-note kind of guy. Hamlet is one of the funniest tragedies ever written, but it's meant to be. The audience last night was laughing but not because the play itself was funny--far from it. As I sat in the intimate and renowned-for-excellence theater watching members of the audience stifle laughter, yawns, whisper to each other, cough, fidget, stare back at me, I tried to identify what was wrong. My conclusion was everything. The set: a "modern" geometrical, spiraling staircase with a bridge that looked like it might collapse at any moment. It resembled something found on a dilapidated housing estate built in the eighties. This was supposed to represent ancient Rome? And what was that inexplicable pile of sand? Last I checked Rome was not located in the desert. The costumes: they looked like they were thrown together last minute for a "Roman Night" fancy dress party in someone's flat on the housing estate. Berenice's sparkly, red, one-shoulder strap dress with a slit up the side, a bargain a few years ago at M&S. The play: a limp love triangle written by a humorless pedant who defiantly rejects subplot or subtext. The translation: the attempt to make Racine's posturing "accessible" renders it risible. The acting: I love Anne-Marie Duff and I think she did what she could but it was as if each of the three actors thought he or she was in a different play. Duff was in an ancient Greek production, Rowan was spoofing formal French tragedy of yore, Stephen Campbell Moore was in an "updated" version in which his Titus had just completed a "sensitive man" training in how to let your girlfriend down easy: stutter a lot, keep your voice so soft as not to be heard, earnestly make her understand that his decision to dump her is in her best interest, hurts him more than it hurts her etc. The direction: the buck stops here. Josie Rourke's direction is so indecisive she has left everyone suspended in ever shifting versions and interpretations of the play. That sounds kind of pomo and edgy but if that was her intention it was not achieved. There's nothing more dreadful than trying for pomo and edgy and missing the mark. The version of Berenice we saw was the unintended comedy. I never will pass up the chance to laugh, but being made to laugh when you know you're not supposed to be laughing is actually rather excruciating for all.