Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Comedy of Errors at the National a Triumph--and the one error I didn't make in what I chose to see on stage this autumn in London...

(i.e. The Last of the Duchess, The Faith Machine, South Pacific)

Thank god I finally saw something grand, splashy, fun, exalted, roll-on-the-floor funny and intelligent at the theater this autumn. If you take your kids to see one panto may it be this one (age 10+). The farting sequence alone is worth the ticket. But OMG the sets! As a truly great set designer (Bunny Christie) will do, not only do the sets reflect the ambitiously wild imagination of the entire production, they create it. As my colleague over at Sans Taste writes: "Vast but nimble, the set effortlessly evokes everything from disused warehouses to yuppy flats, and red light districts to Harley Street grandeur." In one particularly wonderful over-the-top keystones cop moment, an ambulence drives on stage and becomes an integral part of the action.
Shakespeare freak that I am, I had never before seen a production of The Comedy of Errors and I can see why there aren't many: an almost impossible story to pull off from a gazillion points of view. The Bard's hubris from the title onwards is (as usual) breathtaking. Suspension of disbelief never a worry for the playwright, he goes all out on this story of double sets of twins, shipwrecks, separations, mistaken identity galore. Director Dominic Cooke and his incredible cast rise with extraordiary slapstick wit and aplomb to the task, setting the story in a 20th century-ish London-ish Ephesus, by way of the Carribean and Nigeria with a Mariachi quartet as the Greek Chorus. Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse hits his stride here (his Othello disappointed), both Dromios (Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser) are adorable, the entire and considerable cast just so good.
If the show could be stolen (which it sublimely cannot be), Claudie Blakely as Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Syracuse, and Michelle Terry who plays her sister Luciana, would stride off in their form fitting frocks and five-inch stiletto heels with ne'er a wobble, their crimsoned lips slicing up the air with Essex-accented banter, taking with them all the gold chains in Christendom. Do as I say and: Get thee to the National.

The Last of the Duchess

We're having a Wallis moment. "That American woman" has turned up in a number of places recently, most famously in Madonna's movie, but Gillian Anderson excellently portrayed her in Channel 4's weirdly ungripping adaptation of Any Human Heart, and she was done a nice turn by Eve Best in The King's Speech. And she is the subject of a fascinating new biography, That Woman, by Anne Sebba. So of course she should also make an appearance in Hampstead. Everybody loved this play by Nicholas Wright, directed by Richard Eyre, but I most emphatically did not. I went because I love Anna Chancellor (she was the best thing about The Hour). She plays Caroline Blackwood, the aristocrat journalist with all the illustrious husbands (Lucien Freud, Israel Citkowitz, Robert Lowell) who goes to Paris to try to get an interview with the ailing Wallis who is holed up (or imprisoned? Do I care?) in a luxurious apartment, her protector/jailer Suzanne Blum, lawyer to the stars. Blackwood is really only interested in herself, but has to make good on her trip so turns to a profile of the lawyer instead. As far as I was concerned, no one on stage interested me much either as character or actor--including Chancellor who overdid Blackwood as lush. I saw the play in previews and besides the fact that none of the actors seemed to know their lines, I was mostly bored with the non-story. All this obsession with the titled and entitled--Lady Mosely and Lord Snowdon and Lady Caroline--just didn't do it for me. I was, however, thoroughly intrigued by Wallis (Helen Bradbury) herself during her sublime five-minute appearance early in the play. She did steal this show--and I kept hoping, in vain, that she would reappear. I suppose we can't be reminded enough of the fact that the British aristocracy in the 1930s was awfully soft on Hitler. This may be the last we hear from the Duchess for a while, but I have no doubt that she'll be back.

The Faith Machine

I love The Royal Court Theatre. Such good value no matter what you see. New plays, always interesting, even if they don't really work. At least the ensemble really are trying in myriad ways to explore the craft. The Faith Machine was one of those that didn't quite work. It was too long, preachy, and overacted, but so earnest in a good way about theatre as artform. Rachel Cooke's review in the Observer says it all: (

South Pacific

I'm beginning to really get the idea that venue is almost as important as the play itself (duh). So when my sister told me I had to go see South Pacific when it came to London because she had just seen it in New York and it was "out of this world wonderful" I bought tickets right away. When I heard this classic musical was going to be at The Barbican I thought, odd, that's not the kind of thing they do well, really. The Barbican is good for "edgier" fare--though the racial theme in South Pacific might qualify. Anyway, it was a disappointment. Despite the wonderful numbers, the great sets, and lively choreography, it was just flat. It's almost impossible to get "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair" wrong and yet it fizzled. The whole cast seemed already exhausted right from the opening number. Apparently, it was a difficult crossing.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

3 Revivals from the '70s, '80s and '90s for August: Pinter, Churchill, Shanley

Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal is utterly timeless even if the production at the Comedy Theatre (a less than pleasant venue) makes the most of the era with a fetching Kristin Scott Thomas bedecked in fashionable seventies peasant-wear by Yves Saint Laurent. The story about a woman's seven year affair with her husband's best friend (husband: Ben Miles; Lover: Douglas Henshall) is told backwards and the play's intriguing structure is as much of a character in the play as any of the actors on stage. The experience is riveting even after multiple viewings (I've seen both a previous production of the play and the excellent 1983 movie with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge). Many claim it's Pinter's best play and from what I've seen of his opus I agree. The Pinter Pause is here used to genius effect and the Pinter Pretention is advantageously contained. Kristin Scott Thomas is my idea of a diva--her intelligence and particular beauty always working together to make any character she inhabits larger than life. I have seen her on the London stage over the past few years both in The Seagull and in Pirandello's As You Desire Me and she was magnificent to watch in both. Alas, somewhat less so in this production of Betrayal, directed by Ian Rickson. 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.

I'd given up on Trafalgar Studios as a venue. For one, it always smells horribly of bathroom and toilet cleaners. And if the production is just mediocre--which they tend to be here--that's a bad combination. But Caryl Churchill is in my top 3 living playwrights list and I'd never seen Top Girls so I got myself a ticket. Sure enough, upon entering the theatre I was immediately greeted by the wafting odor of sickly sweet disinfectants. But I didn't lose heart as the set looked promising and a slide show of Great Women images kept me distracted as I waited for the play to begin. The first Act is Churchill at her very best. Gathered in a restaurant are a bunch of imaginary dead women from history or literature--a cross-dressed Pope, a Japanese concubine, a 19th century Scottish traveler, a Viking housewife, a Medieval peasant who marries up (suggesting to this audience shades of Kate Middleton), and their interaction is both hilarious and relevatory. Acts II and III are more in the realism vein and tell the story of the rise of feminsim and its effects in the 1980s Britian under Thatcher by following the trajectory of Marlene, the new "modern woman" as she struggles with career, family, motherhood. The play's overriding message is: change for women is a Grand Illusion, and the fact that this play was written in 1982 and is as relevant today as ever confirms that message. Despite my adoration of Churchill, this play, as with some others of hers, suffers from a tad too much Agenda. That said, it's a great play, just not up to the more subtle Genius of say Blue Heart, Cloud Nine, or A Number.

For something really off the beaten path and performed in a truly raunchy little dive (I can't even name the smells, there were so many) head to the Phoenix Artists' Club just off Tottenham Court Road to see Rock 'n' Roll Theatre's production of John Patrick Shanley's 1992 play Four Dogs and A Bone. For a tenner, this actually might be your best bet of the three as this tiny troupe has thrown their heart and soul into the revival of Shanley's blistering satire of Hollywood greed. The venue is so small the audience is practically on stage with the actors making for a rather intense experience. For some, including the friend I went with, this was just one of the aspects of the performance she found excruciating. I, instead, rather liked the InYourFaceness of it all, including the actors' over-the-top performances. But mostly, I thought Shanley's script a hell of a lot of fun, replete with crackling one-liners, and in the hands and mouths of Amy Tez's company, it fully lives up to its reputation as a "butt-sniffing romp through Hollywood's flea-bitten underbelly." (until August 20, for tickets:

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Haunting Julia by Alan Ayckbourn at Riverside Studios

Go, go, go. It's £15 very well spent. This production is wonderful: the play is a great ghost story/pychological thriller, the acting beyond superb, the production excellent. It's so often hit or miss at Riverside Studios but this is a hit. Go early and have dinner on their lovely terrace overlooking the Hammersmith Bridge and then prepare to be thoroughly entertained with a whodunnit of sorts. The dead person is Julia Lukin, a young music prodigy who committed suicide seven years earlier. The three most significant men in her life--Christopher Timothy as her father Joe Lukin, Dominic Hecht as her boyfriend Andy Rollinson, and Richard O'Callaghan as the wild card Ken Chase--are brought together cleverly by the playwright to unravel the whys and wherefores of her death. She, however, is very much in the room, figuratively, spiritually, and, we wonder while sitting on the edge of our seats, will she appear actually? All the performances were very good but I thought Richard O'Callaghan as the janitor/psychic especially strong. (Loved the Yorkshire accents!) The play's ending (last ten minutes) relies far too heavily on cliche (ah, the perils of endings) but by I wasn't too bothered, the evening had been mostly well spent.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Hit and a Flop: this weekend at the theatre in London

On Friday night I went to see Kevin Spacey in Richard III directed by Sam Mendes and was thoroughly entertained by this timeless thriller about a power hungry, deformed royal who murders his way to the throne. Shakespeare was a funny man and here his humor teamed with horror is deeply pleasurable and wonderfully uncomfortable. The necromancing Bard manages to manipulate his audience into rooting for a serial killer.
The Old Vic has had it's ups and downs while in Spacey's hands but this is decidely an up. Actually, in this case the play would have been better titled "King Kevin" as everything about the production works to highlight Kevin Spacey's acting talents which are considerable given the right material. His rendition of evil is wickedly funny and deadly charming, coming dangerously and tantalizing close to ham but never giving into the temptation. At moments, Spacey's Richard was channeling Keyser Soze from "The Usual Suspects."
The supporting cast was very strong. Especially the women. Gemma Jones as Margaret is very powerful. And that usually preposterous seduction scene early in the play between Richard and (Annabel Scholey's excellent) Lady Anne was so erotic my disbelief was, in this context, suspended for the first time ever. In the final scenes, Jeremy Bobb's Richmond was weak making Spacey's performance have to uphold the entire battle of Bosworth sequence which was more than even he could quite pull off.
The production was modernized--40s costumes, tv screens, one hilarious remote video scene, and projected titles such as NOW, ELIZABETH, CLARENCE, THE PEOPLE, helping us in this multi-stimulus age to stay focused and keep our attention on track.

I hear the Propeller production of Richard III at the Hampstead Theatre is even better than this one.

Of course, Richard III is entirely inaccurate historically. Richard was actually a really nice guy with no physical deformities at all. And he never killed anyone, not even the young princes. Only long after Richard III was dead did historical accounts (including the one Shakespeare relied upon) start depicting him as a murderous monster on scant evidence to serve the purposes of later monarchs. For more on this subject read Josephine Tey's brilliant novel "The Daughter of Time" or better yet do as I did and have it read to you by Derek Jacobi.

It took about 30 seconds of Lucy Bailey's production of The Beggar's Opera at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park to know it was a disaster. I gave it five more minutes to be sure but my god was that bad. Where to begin. None of the actors could sing. I understand that this is an "anti-opera" but the terrible voices did not seem in any way purposefully bad, just plain bad. The sound system to boot was terrible and on the night we saw it unintentional, very loud speaker farts soon became the funniest thing about the play. The set and costumes were worse than uninspired--flat, predictable, yawn-worthy. Any amateur regional production would have attempted something more imaginative. The worst part of the whole thing, however, was the excruciating portrayal of the Bawdy. As the whores humped posts and bared their breasts in banal displays of the Lewd, I doubt there was an erotic tingle in even one member of the audience. Any Hogarth print is far more animated, scandalous, and naugtily enticing than anything that happened on the stage that evening. How did this play go so terribly wrong? I think the simple answer is that Bailey made the very mistaken decision to mount a straightforward production without any ironic referencing to our own time. Still I would wager that any one of the 62 original performances of John Gay's ballad opera in 1728 at Lincoln Inn Field's theatre was far more entertaining than this one. Several people stood up and left during the first half. Our party of five waited until the interval but reluctantly so. The attendant at the door apologized sheepishly to us as we left.

The Open Air Theatre is not ususally so off the mark and I recently saw there a very solid production of Lord of the Flies. The set was magnificent, the acting (mostly teenage boys) superb, a show that very much succeeded in complementing the book and film.
Further London theatre I have seen over the past few months (and failed to write about--busy me) are: an excellent revival of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead directed by Trevor Nunn with great performances by Samuel Burnett as Rosencrantz and Jamie Parker as Guildenstern--or is that the other way around? The play made me yearn for the days when pseudo-philosophizing was fashionable--and no one does it better than Stoppard--still my favorite living playwright despite some recent faltering. The influence of Beckett and Ionesco is here but really Shakespeare himself is the mentor. Reminded me a lot of Hamlet's conversation with Yorick's skull. My fifteen year old loved it, perhaps even a little more than he did "Deathtrap" last year.

Thea Sharrock's As You Like It at the Globe is entirely delightful and well worth enduring the horrible seats. The Globe productions just seem to get better and better and are close to rivaling the RSC. Naomi Frederick's Rosalind and Laura Rogers Celia are a pair made in heaven and in many ways made sense to me for the first time. Their energy, repartee, palpable mutual attraction, and perfect comic timeing almost stole the show but there is so much to praise here. I have to say I really did feel the woman director's touch.
Deborah Warner's School for Scandal at the Barbican was most excellent, the pomo electronic effects put to exciting use. These between scene projected titles seem to be the thing these days, and so far they are working well to assist our addled brains.
One Flea Spare written by Naomi Wallace about four people quarantined together in a house in plague-ridden London in 1665 is a great premise and mostly successful. A little didactic though and made me wish I taken the kids (my poor kids). I loved the intimacy of the space, if not so much the pub smells.

Cause Celebre at the Old Vic was a great vehicle for Anne-Marie Duff. She's a wonderful actress though hasn't yet mustered the stage presence and confidence to create that frisson in her audience as will, say, a Kristin Scott Thomas.
I should have walked out of The Children's Hour starring Keira Knightly and Elisabeth Moss. It was torture. Terrible acting all around.
Trollope in Barsetshire with Edward Fox at Riverside Studios a snooze. I love Trollope and couldn't bear this stuffy interpretation.
One of the best and funniest plays of this year so far was certainly Clynebourne Park by Bruce Norris who justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this play. Norris hits very close to the bone here and I found myself identifying with characters I didn't like. Many in the audience when I saw it were mystified by the message--just plain couldn't get why a black middle class family might not want a white middle class family to move into their neighborhood. It all comes down to a matter of taste--so very true. Aesthetics is all. I look forward to seeing Norris' new play "A Parallelogram," whenever it comes to London. And last but not least, I saw Derek Jacobi playing King Lear for a second time at BAM in Brooklyn. It was probably even better than at the Donmar, the cast at the very top of their game. My three sisters and I took my father for his eightieth birthday. We all had a blast, especially as we vied for Cordelia status in his eyes.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

End and Beginning of Year Round-Up

Over the holiday season it all just got too much for me. I had been drinking too much so I started to write down exactly how much I was drinking on the calender: a vodka on Monday, two glasses of wine on Tuesday, a mohito and a glass of port on Wednesday (that hurt) etc. etc. I decided to do the same with my theatre addiction in hopes that I would realize the extremity of my indulgence and cut way back. It started to spin out of control in early December with The Master Builder at the Almeida. "If I've said it once, I'll say it again," I said to myself as I sat through this less than cohesive star vehicle (Gemma Arterton/Stephen Dillane) that was trying to be "edgy" but was just bad, "no more plays with movie stars!" But what did I go see the next week in New York? The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino.
He did all right but the production was a mess, made-for-Broadway Shakespeare, (though I'm told it was much better when The Public Theatre did it in Central Park). The actors used all manner of strange accents and did that declarative thing to compensate for the fact that they have no idea what they're saying (alas, so common to American actors doing Shakespeare). Lily Rabe was gorgeous but played Portia as a Southern Belle. Why oh why did I do it to myself? The Russians sitting next to me whispering during the entire performance were a welcome distraction from the confusion on stage. Next up, much to my relief, was a very solid RSC As You Like It at the Roundhouse.
I took three ten-year-old boys and they absolutely loved it. The English just know how to do Shakespeare and especially the RSC. Plenty of laughs and slapstick, audience participation, and when they do the music it's not an afterthought or bad or just trying to fit it in somehow, it's an important and integral part of the show. And Rosalind is just one of the great characters of all time. A temporary respite because very soon I had fallen off the wagon at the Old Vic (how many times have I promised myself never to go back there?) sitting through a terribly unfunny production of Georges Feydeau's A Flea In Her Ear.
This time I took my fourteen-year-old son and he just shook his head in despair. Any street credit I had gained by taking him to see Deathtrap was hopelessly lost. To be fair, the night we saw it Tom Hollander was sick and the entire cast just seemed to have lost their timing but I don't think it was salvagable, with or without Hollander. The question is: if the devil were to tempt me with the chance to see the 1966 Albert Finney production would I go?
I am a sucker for the National Theatre. Ten pounds a ticket how can you go wrong? You can go wrong. Very, very wrong. As in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein wrong.
Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternate roles each night to emphasize the interchangablity of man and monster. Just the first of a number of facile tricks that riddle this travesty. The monster grunts and frets naked on stage (and whichever that was, he isn't Ian McKellen--if you saw his Lear you'll know precisely what I'm talking about) for what seemed like the first half hour of the play signifying what exactly? Maybe it's a lad thing I just don't get. Massive pulleys lift and lower irrelevant scenery and a train engine is rolled on stage for a few seconds a propos of nothing. At that point, I was seriously hoping the cast would break out in song and dance. By the end of the play, the audience was so lost they ended up laughing raucously at a horrible rape scene. The only consolation is that it surely cost less than Spider-Man and Danny Boyle's career isn't at risk the way Julie Taymor's is. I saw two other productions at the National: Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart
(I try my hardest to see anything by a woman) which was fabulous for the clothes, set, and thick Scottish accents but overlong; and the ancient and accomplished theatre director Peter Hall's Twelfth Night
starring his daughter Rebecca Hall was drab (especially the shiny red costumes) and flat, unfunny and unmusical (this is the play, remember, which begins "If music be the food of love, play on"). What was I saying about the Brits and Shakespeare again? I sat in the National's wonderfully intimate Cottesloe theatre thinking, okay that's it, I'm done with Shakespeare, done with the theatre. I've seen too much and I'm drowning. From now on it's cold turkey for me.
Of course, the following week I went to the Donmar to see Derek Jacobi as King Lear. The experience was like being reborn. I left the theatre with all critical faculties suspended, utterly transported, the whole world new to me again. Ripe for readdiction.