What joy and rapture to discover a new small theatre willing to take risks and bring London audiences challenging theatre. Riverside, Tricycle, Hampstead look out. The Print Room not only brings stiff competition, it could challenge you to up your game. I will admit that I was rather skeptical when I heard they would be putting on a rarely performed play by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a new translation by Jamie McKendrick. I am a huge Pasolini fan but he's not to everyone's taste, in the way that Beckett or Jean Genet or Inge or Antonioni or even Pinter aren't. Pasolini is not an entertainer, he makes his audiences work for their culture. Furthermore, he is one of those artists, again like Beckett, who is very easy to get wrong. And when it's wrong, it's excruciating. It can fall heavily into nonsense and pretention. So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I went along to Notting Hill's new theatre fashioned out of an old warehouse. The theatre design actually feels more like a Roman triclinium, the audience intimately crowded around a central square, the stage. It lacks the comfort of a triclinium--the seat cushions were far from luxurious--but you are sitting so close to the action as to feel part of it. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Luckily, the actors in Fabrication were of such a high caliber that being right up close to them added to the brilliance and intensity of their performances. I don't like to summarize plots and Pasolini certainly resists summary; let's just say a wealthy Milanese industrialist has a mid-life crisis and becomes obsessed with his blond-haired son. In very dramatic ways Pasolini explores the nature of masculinity and the Oedipus complex from the father's point of view. Few artists have been truly brave enough to dig so deeply into the male psyche and expose the wrenching vulnerabilities within. Shakespeare's King Lear comes to mind and Pasolini's play made me wonder: What if King Lear had had a son? Sophocles began it all, of course, with his play Oedipus Rex and appears in Pasolini's play as an apparition, much in the way of Hamlet's father, warning ominously about the pitfalls of the artistic life and the fundamental inadequacy of literature. Fabrication is a mightily ambitious, disturbing, surprising, edifying, and very funny play. Jasper Britton is magnificent as the Father, no small feat, and Geraldine Alexander is the perfect combination of brittleness, fear, and indifference as the bourgeoise Mother. Handsome Max Bennett does well with his role as the Son, at once defiant, curious, and terrified by his father's relentless assaults upon him. This production is what theatre is all about and I send a hearty congratulations to The Print Room's Artistic Directors Anda Winters and Lucy Bailey and thank them for their bravery, innovation, and vision. I look forward to seeing Alan Ayckbourn's "Snake in the Grass," playing at The Print Room in the new year.
My fourteen-year-old son has attended a fair amount of theatre in his day. With me, he has seen two Hamlets (David Tenant, Jude Law), two Macbeths (Patrick Stewart, Cheek by Jowl), Antony and Cleopatra (Patrick Stewart), two Twelfth Nights (Derek Jacoby, RSC), Much Ado About Nothing (National with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wannamaker), A Midummer Night's Dream (Judi Dench), Cymbeline (Regent's Park), two Tempests (Patrick Stewart, RSC), and, believe it or not, I could go on. So when at the interval of Ira Levin's Deathtrap (at the Noel Coward Theatre) he turned to me with a beaming face and said, "I never knew plays could be this good," I had something of a bittersweet comeuppance. I chose this play because the West End Whingers were postively operatic in their praise on Twitter and because of a gut feeling I've had lately that I better ease up on the Shakespeare or I would alienate my son from the theatre forever more, if I hadn't already. The premise of the play--a playwright past his prime contemplates killing a younger playwright and stealing his play in hopes of a last chance at fame and fortune--is evidently so primal that even a teenager can relate. Or perhaps it's the theme of going to any extreme to kill your wife that my son was relating to. In any case, the first act is very nearly perfect with sharp dialogue and unforseeable plot twists. But what makes this production soar is the casting. Simon Russell Beale's timing and delivery is so impeccable, he can elicit a burst of spontaneous laughter with a raised eyebrow. The very adorable Jonathan Groff's (Glee) combination of sleaze and ingenue is delectable, and Claire Skinner (Outnumbered) outdoes herself as the playwright's wife, at once suspicious and unsuspecting, fawning and fed up. Estelle Parson's as the pyschic neighbor displays sheer comic genius. When Ira Levin dreamed her character up he must have known he had a hit. The set--a refurbished Connecticut barn full of ancient and vintage weaponry--is stunning, Skinner demurely carries off her costume of shiny polyester blouse and spandex trousers with a big belt, and every visual detail is right on as opposed to retro. If there was anything inappropriately dated about the play, we found it in the audience. We went with a friend of my son's and his mother who ran into an elderly couple she knew during the interval. The woman surveyed the four of us and said, "Now that's very cheeky of you, leaving your husbands at home and coming out to the theatre with your sons. My daughter does the same thing, goes to the theatre without him, but of course she's divorced." Divorce may be in my future, but I will live in sincere regret for the rest of my life if I have managed to, through imposing my obsessive zeal for The Bard, forever inure my son to the theatre's infinite joys. I am, therefore, eternally grateful to the West End Whingers for their enthusiastic whinging but even more so to Mathew Warchus and his magnificently entertaining production of Deathtrap for giving us such a spectacular evening out. On the way home my son said to me, "motivation, if there's a flaw in the play, Sydney Bruhl's motivation is questionable--does he do it for love or money?" I think he's hooked for life.
When even the sexy, charming, bad boy Toby Stephens can't keep you awake, you're in trouble. I wasn't going to go see this because how could you improve on Gerard Depardieu in the movie? (Apparently, you can't.) But when one of my charming theatre buddies (Selina) asked me along, I went in hopes of a French Revolution refresher, and having vaguely heard the claim that Georg Buchner's play was the "greatest political tragedy ever written." I was to learn that indeed the play was a tragedy but of another sort: tragically boring. I have since read the West End Whingers review (http://bit.ly/cFwKNd) and wish I had thought, as they did, to bring along my knitting. As I woke up now and again to bad costumes, tedious speeches, and absolutely terrible acting by all the women (albeit their parts were also terribly written), I kept wondering: "Won't the interval ever come?" Alas, it would not since there was none. It is Selina's theory that when a theatre production knows it's dodgy, the interval is quickly done away so as to keep everyone from escaping at the earliest opportunity (which had been my plan exactly). Early in the play, Elliot Levey's Robespierre was creepy enough to keep me from dozing but given the text he couldn't sustain it, and poor Toby's utterly unconvincing philandering, not to mention his political discourse, sent me straight to sleep. Despite the fact that he is adorable, as far as I was concerned, my eyes mostly closed and everything, he might as well have looked like the real Danton--
who was so ugly, his obsessive philandering would make more sense. Toby Stephens is really too handsome to play Danton. Even Depardieu is in the hideous kinky category of men. The best part of the play was most definitely the end and not entirely because the play was almost over. There was a fantastic guillotine on the stage and we got to watch the Dantonists have their heads chopped off, which seemed fitting punishment for all that tortuous nodding off I was forced into for almost two hours nonstop. I'm not sure how they did it, but heads really do plop off into a basket and Selina and I were, for the first time that evening, utterly riveted.
If, for whatever reason, you have a hankering for some French Revolution fare, I would recommend this instead:
So I suppose it is predictable of me to reject the West End in favor of the Tricycle but if there is any real theatre going on in London it's in Kilburn or Hammersmith or Battersea, in other words, of course, the fringe. The seven hour marathon of 12 short plays by 12 playwrights about Afghanistan set from 1842 to the present put on earlier this year by the Tricycle is risky and ambitious and has evidently paid off. The production is back by popular demand for a short run this summer and I caught Part II. The four 1/2 hour plays I saw covered the years 1979-1996, and was subtitled "Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban." The pieces were all excellent and uniquely imagined, covering various aspects of Russia's failure in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban with American support via the Pakistanis. It made for some pretty vital theatre, an animated history lesson. Especially, when the New York Times headlines the next morning declared that leaked classified US government documents from the most recent war in that beleagured country confirmed the production's predominant message: history repeats itself with impunity. The Pakistanis are still supporting the Taliban, the Americans and Nato never really stood a chance. But was I transported? I was certainly very interested, and thought the writing and the acting above average. Blatantly agenda driven theatre does not generally turn me on. I appreciate but don't love, say, George Bernard Shaw or Eve Ensler. And there was certainly an element here of preaching to the converted: the CIA is bad, the Taliban is worse, the human spirit will abide. Nevertheless, if I weren't about to leave town and lived a little closer to Kilburn I would be heading back there for parts I and III. Edifying and entertaining for £12 a ticket. You can't go wrong.
I had promised myself that I wasn't going to see another West End production but then my theatre buddy Paola said someone (who?!) had told her Howard Davies' revivial of his revival (red flags flying) ten years ago at the National of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" was worth the journey and the price tag, and really was as good as all the critics' raves. I knew in my heart it wasn't going to be true but I relented because I always relent, but also because I'll go see anything with Paola just to be with her she's that great. Besides, I cajoled myself, the West End production of "The Crucible" a few years ago was mind-bogglingly good so I thought maybe the Brits get Miller better than we do. Well, you know where I'm going. It was terrible, yes, terrible, well not that bad, but disappointing for sure. The level of acting was only slightly above regional summer fare, all declarative self-consciousness. I hate watching actors act when exposing the mechanics is not intended. And these guys--Zoe Wannamaker (not a fan--she screamed all the way through "Electra" and totally overdid Serafina in "The Rose Tattoo" at the National) and David Suchet--are veterans! Stephen Campbell Moore's performance as the brother who survived the war and wants to marry his dead brother's girlfriend was, however, fine and layered. Of course, the play itself is just not a great play. It's a good play, an early play, a test run for Death of a Salesman. It's the work of a young genius who is ambitiously trying to imitate and compete with his fathers--Ibsen and Chekov (including the requisite gun shot), George Bernard Shaw (grand dicourses on the evils of moral compromise), and Tennessee Williams (but here only a weak attempt to grapple with the oddities of human sexuality). The set was fabulous, but had more of a southern than midwestern feel--as did some of the accents. Supposedly, this play has been making grown men in the audience soak their handkerchiefs with tears. Paola's comment, "Give me Toy Story III for emotional content over this any day."
Yesterday, upon seeing the Globe production of Henry IV, Part 1, under Dominic Dromgoole's direction (luckily his talent is up to his name), it became, at least for a good 24 hours my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. After the blush of such a rollicking performance began to fade, I remembered The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It--but it certainly remains in my top five. I am just always so amazed at how funny Shakespeare is, even in the Histories and Tragedies. I have seen two other productions of Henry IV, Part 1 in the past few years--Nick Hytner's at the National with Michael Gambon as a woozy Falstaff and the RSC/Michael Boyd production as part of the phenomenal Histories Cycle at the Roundhouse, but I can easily say I laughed the longest and the loudest at the Globe and Roger Allam's Falstaff was perfection itself. Jamie Parker's Prince Hal was equally impressive (I found myself wondering if he was on his way to becoming the next Kenneth Branagh and then prematurely mourning his loss to egomania) and the chemistry between the prince and his unlikely consort was a phenomenon to behold. Oliver Cotton's King is superb, and the conflict with his rebellious son finely played. Sam Crane's Hotspur was a force of nature (I'm not sure why I didn't have the Kenneth Branagh wonderment with him, but could be I marked the wrong man). Even the scenes with the wives--which I can find irksome--were pulled off with aplomb. It was one of those rare experiences--including a lager afterwards in the courtyard of The King George--that makes London great.
I was told by many trusted theatregoing friends and family members not to see this latest effort from Sam Mendez's The Bridge Project but I went anyway and it really wasn't that bad. Bland, blah, lacking imagination, yes, but viable. There was decidely no magic to this production which is rather a shame in a play essentially about the vicissitudes of magic. Christian Camargo played Ariel more as a vampire than a sprite. Juliet Rylance's Miranda would have been outstanding if this were an amateur production. Prospero was appropriately brooding but couldn't seem to muster much more. The innovations here were unhappy. The slide show depicting scenes from Miranda's childhood, though admirable in its ambition, did not work at all and nor did the dire marriage dance. Ariel's metallic wing contraption was intriguing though incongruous, as if he had borrowed the thing from a sadomasochistic Icarus who happened to be trudging by. I wish Ariel had stayed in his mermaid evening dress for the entire play. His dark suit with no shirt made me think he was on his way to a rave straight after the play. And the mishmash of accents could have been interesting but was just annoying. Still, I was glad I saw it because though the production was devoid of pizzazz, bereft of animation, the actors did admirable justice to Shakespeare's words in this most excellent play--perhaps my favorite. Doubt I'll go to another Bridge Project production though. I bet this is their last year in any case.
A revelation! Okay, Middleton is not Shakespeare but he's really pretty good. A fantastic play about a woman's lot from a clever male's point of view. After all, women are so endlessly fascinating and so fun to dominate and be dominated by. Many juicy plots and subplots, very erotic and overtly sexual, some great speeches and many quotable lines. Harriet Walter stole the show as Livia but the rest of the cast mostly held their own. I didn't see the necessity of the 1940s updating, nor the very mediocre nightclub jazz singer who nearly ruined the play for me. It did ruin the experience for my theatre pal who can be even more critical and intolerant than I am--bless her. She had just returned from Paris where she saw Irina Brook's La Tempete! at the Bouffes du Nord, and could suffer no mediocrity after that. She left at the interval but I stayed on and was glad of it.
As someone who is called "too feminist" by various members of my extended family, I am actually adverse to seeing agenda driven plays, so despite the great reviews avoided seeing "Ruined," the play by Lynn Nottage set in a Congolese brothel while war rages just outside its doors. But when a friend offered me a ticket I went. By the interval I thought I might have made a mistake. The set-up was traditional and there was a strong sense of the usual placating voyeurism that often accompanies art made in the name of the oppressed--the whores were enticingly whorish, the soldiers convincingly threatening. The second half, however, proved to me that Nottage knew just what she was doing and I left the theatre having been in some way transformed. The acting throughout was suberb and the set one of the best and most thoughtful I have seen in a while.
If it hadn't been for the fact that there were a lot of attractive young men on stage for nearly three hours, most of whom have promising careers in acting ahead, I would have been terribly bored by this play after the first half hour. Actually, I couldn't wait for it to be over and sympathized with Rachel Johnson, journalist and London Mayor Boris Johnson's sister, who left at the interval, pleading fatigue and suggesting the playwright Laura Wade send her a draft next time so that she get some of the details right (apparently one does not refer to Oxbridge as "college"). Boris Johnson, along with new PM Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, were all members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford upon which this play is based. The point of the club is two-fold: to get blind-drunk, then destroy the dining room where you have eaten, afterwards offering the proprietor full compensation for the damage in cash, which he will take gratefully. Its second purpose is to maintain the old boy network in all its power and glory in perpetuity. Though the play is packed with sharply written repartee, it lacks any depth or subtlety, and frankly I got much more out of reading the Wikipedia entry on the Bullingdon Club then on watching "Posh." The title alone reveals the one-note that will be hit relentlessly for two hours and forty-five minutes. As a title, it's vague and all-encompassing, lacks any metaphor or detail. If this was supposed to be a social critique of entitled power, it failed, and almost drove one left-wing theatre critic for the Independent to vote Tory. (Aha! Perhaps the secret motiviation of this play was to drive the populous into the arms of the Tories--and lo and behold it worked! So I take it all back, the play is a roaring success!) The sport of rich people bashing is fun, but if rich people envy isn't part of the equipment, it becomes, well, rather like watching a game of cricket. That this play, and the like, are at a theatre called The Royal Court, now that's dramatic irony of some caliber.
Against Tom Fordish designed sets, four middle-aged men in a barber-shop quartet of sorts sing/chant Gregorian style T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Maurice Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day," Franz Kafka's short story "Excursion into the Mountains", Samuel Beckett's "Worstward Ho." Mostly excruciating, though it had its moments. Silver lining, a reminder of how extraordinary the texts themselves are without any interference from the high-minded. At the Barbican, composed by Heiner Goebbels, and performed by the Hilliard Ensemble.
Antigone by Sophocles at Riverside Studios by the Theatre Lab Company is superb. Creon and Chorus especially good. All the strum and drang somehow reasonable in this production. And Shakespeare's debt to Sophocles, especially Macbeth, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet very evident. A lot is owed to Robert Fagles very beautiful and current translation. Favorite lines: "Of all the evils afflicting humankind, the worst is lack of judgement" and "The greatest part of joy is wisdom."
The Real Thing at the Old Vic directed by Anna Mackmin. The cricket bat speech still dazzles, the diaphragm quip still very funny, all else humdrum. Toby Stephens suave, Hattie Morahan shrill, but Fenella Woolgar's Charlotte had some energy and bite. Though I have admired Kevin Spacey's choices in productions--mostly revivals since our culture is basically brain dead--I haven't seen anything at the Old Vic during his tenure that I could call very good, much less brilliant.
Macbeth at the Barbican by Cheek by Jowl directed by Declan Donnellan. Not good at all. Will Keen's Macbeth and Anastasia Hille's Lady Macbeth way off into camp territory, where we embarrassingly are taken by the porter played by a pink-haired tart in a tartan distracted by her transistor radio. And if you're going to do this play without the witches, it can't be just because it's innovative. The whole production stank of unworthy innovation. Even the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech strained with trendiness. It will be some time before I see a Cheek by Jowl production again.
Measure for Measure at the Almeida directed by Michael Attenborough. Much better than the also updated production of this entirely implausible problem play at the National a few years back. Every time I see this strange tragi-comedy it gets better. Anna Maxwell Martin's Isabella is a wee bit too earnest, Rory Kinnear's Angelo is the right kind of self-righteous slime ball, and Duke Vincentio, played by Ben Miles does crackling justice to one of my favorite of Shakespeare's speeches: Disguised as a monk, the Duke visits Claudio in prison as he awaits the death penalty for having impregnated his girlfriend out of wedlock:
Be absolute for death; either death or life Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life: If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art, Servile to all the skyey influences, That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st, Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool; For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble; For all the accommodations that thou bear'st Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant; For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep, And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself; For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get, And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain; For thy complexion shifts to strange effects, After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor; For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows, Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey, And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none; For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire, The mere effusion of thy proper loins, Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum, For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age, But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep, Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich, Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty, To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this That bears the name of life? Yet in this life Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear, That makes these odds all even.
A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston under the artistic direction of Peter Hall with Judy Dench. Dare I say it? Judy Dench simply too old to play Tatiana. She could have been Oberon's grandmother so few sparks flying there. But her scene with the excellent Bottom as an Ass was, indeed, sublime. No luck with Puck.
London Assurance at the National's Olivier Theatre. Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly and Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker at the top of their comedic game in this 1841 social satire by 21-year-old Dion Boucicault. A very jolly romp through a flamboyant landscape of clever sexual innuendo.
Richard III at Riverside Studios by Love & Madness. Best Richard III--played by Carl Prekoff--I believe I've ever seen, though I do remember the one in the RSC's Histories season not too long ago was very good. At any rate, the play itself is just a stunning portrait of evil and so funny too. Only drawback: Sadie Frost as Lady Anne totally silly.
Demi-Monde at Riverside Studios by Love & Madness about William Morris's life. A prime example of when a writer is more interested in showing off his research than engaging his audience. I nearly fell asleep but the temperature inside the theatre was too cold. And the play's the thing here as the same cast was also performing Richard III and that was a brilliant production.
Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre, previously at the Royal Court. This is fine spectacle. Young Lucy Prebble's script is solid--she's writing what she knows having grown up in a family of banker types--but the entire production sparkles with great visuals, choreography, and even a barber shop quartet. Enron's drastic unravelling a precautionary tale? Hardly since the same thing keeps on happening. Makes the play terribly relevant.
Peter Brook's 11 and 12 at the Barbican. As to be expected from Brook, an intriguing premise: In a French colonial west African country in the 1930s a dispute breaks out between tribes as to whether a Sufi prayer should be said 11 or 12 times. Alas, despite the superior acting of Tunji Lucas, the script was tedious and condescending. Even the signature Brook simple staging, minimal props, and odd instrumental music felt trite. No more Peter Brook for me for a while, though I've heard his theatre piece based on Shakespeare's sonnets is great so don't hold me to that promise.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello. So good it felt as if Tennessee Williams had written it for this most excellent all black cast. Terrance Howard and Anika Noni Rose rival Newman and Taylor and James Earl Jones as Big Daddy sublime. Directed by Debbie Allen whom I shall keep an eye on.
Three Sisters at the Lyric Hammersmith in which the samovar is replaced by the electric kettle and other innovations. Romola Garai is charm itself (Eve beware) and the techno-production an unexpected success with only a few wobbles here and there. The youthful audience almost as fun to watch as the stage. Much is forgiven when you're only spending £10 a ticket.