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. 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

An Autumn Theatre Binge: The Judas Kiss, Cabaret, Love and Information, Jumpy, Last of the Haussmans, All That Fall

I wish I could say the binge had been worth it. There were some very decent plays involved, and only one truly dreadful revival of a musical, but I came away from it all with a mild hangover of disappointment and scant enlightenment. Even the gorgeous Italian nude in The Judas Kiss, who draped himself suggestively over furniture and sauntered about the stage on plein air after a long while became awkward and tedious--a fault not of the Italian's but of Neil Armfield's, the director. David Hare's 1998 play about Oscar Wilde's relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas so far stands the test of time as solid theatre fare, but goes no further. There are some really wonderful speeches but they are so self-consciously really wonderful speeches. Rupert Everett as Wilde was very entertaining, though "role of a lifetime" was everywhere evident in his performance. I would like to see Freddie Fox who plays Bosie in another role in another play sometime soon. And I'd like to see the Italian all alone in my boudoir (that's him on the right next to Bosie, dressed, alas).  The same cannot be said for any of the actors in the excruciating revival of CabaretI know it's gotten four stars and everything but the production would have been more entertaining and "edgy" in the hands of some summerstock theatre in the heart of Kansas. (We walked out and the doorman at the Savoy Theatre told us it got better in the second half so my judgement is admittedly half-baked.) We did have a grand time at the American Piano Bar at the Savoy so the evening wasn't a complete waste. Caryl Churchill is one of my favourite playwrights and Love and Information was diverting for about half an hour and then it was just repetitive. It's a series of vignettes about communication in our capitalist-techno age but it relies too heavily on the likes of Oliver Sacks, Alan Lightman, and Lydia Davis i.e. the poetry to be found in neurological disorders, theoretical physics, and the quotidien. It felt tired to me, unfresh, and didn't amount to anything, or nothing. Churchill's play Blue Heart still fills me with excitement just thinking about it and I saw fifteen years ago in Brooklyn. In this age of revivals, someone should revive that. 
Jumpy, about a mother-daughter relationship, was surprisingly much darker than I had been lead to expect from reviews and full of very disturbing--and very funny--writing, but I had a fair amount of trouble with just how thoroughly awful the daughter was. Some of the problem no doubt is with the actress but by no means all...she was almost not allowed to be human. I went to the play really to see Tamsin Greig--she's one of those actresses that I just want to see what she's doing. I also went because I wanted to support a woman playwright--there are far too few. And I am eager to see whatever it is April De Angelis does next.  Last of the Haussmans at the National was enjoyable enough though too long and full of plausibility issues. Julie Walters exquisite performance as the dying hippy completely stole the show. Rory Kinear, whom I very much like as an actor, was over-channeling Simon Russell Beale. I like Helen McCrory too but she was a bit wasted. The best speech in the play is when the Rory tells his ex-flower girl mother that while she was off at ashrams in India ostensibly changing the world, the real revolution was taking place with Thatcher and Reagan back home. The truth of that observation stings deep. 
What an absolute treat to see the absolutely brilliant (so yes there was some brilliance in my binge) Eileen Aitkens so up close in the Jermyn Street Theatre's production of an old Beckett radio play entitled All That Fall. Trevor Nunn writes the primer on how to stage a radio play here but ultimately the play itself, though full of wonderful Beckettian moments, is not a prime example of his genius. Michael Gambon's part is small but he, of course, makes it very big. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Decadence explored in Four London Plays: Zelda, Save Me, Timon of Athens, Mademoiselle Julie

For a while now, there's been an eerie feeling that we've been living in an era not unlike the 1930s, an era of extreme decadence just before something terrible is about to happen. Four recent plays in London reflect this zietgeist, the excellent and very intense one-woman play Zelda at Trafalgar Studios, the ambitious Spilt Milk production of Caroline af Petersens' play Save Me--also about the meteoric rise, decline, and fall of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, the National's trenchant production of Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale, and Mademoiselle Julie, a French adaptation of Strindberg's classic at the Barbican starring Juliette Binoche.

The most overall impressive of these four plays has to be Zelda, a 70-minute monologue in the voice of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, written and performed by the actress Kelly Burke. It is hard to say which is better, the writing of the piece based on Zelda's letters or Burke's performance. Burke, uncannily resembling a young Annette Benning, grabs us from the very start and never let's us go as she encapsulates in her words and acting both Zelda's particular story and the universal story of female creativity thwarted and the descent into madness. The story of what truly happened between Zelda and F. Scott can never be known, but  it is sure that Scott used sections of Zelda's diary verbatim in his novels, published several of her short stories under his name, and adamantly discouraged her from becoming a writer herself.

Save Me at the Union Theatre captured the glamour and rampant indulgence of the Jazz Age while also providing a searing look into Zelda and Scott's tortured relationship. The performances by Sherry Newton as Zelda, Francis Moore as Scott, and William Harrison-Wallis as Maxwell Perkins, Scott and Zelda's editor and guardian angel, were compelling and fun to watch, if a tad overwrought. The play, based in large part on the brilliant biography of Zelda by Nancy Milford, is admirable for its ambition. Unfortunately, there is no real development after the first half. The second half of the play was just a reiteration of what we had already seen. I would have been much more enthusiastic about the production had I left at the interval.
Both Zelda and Save Me were performed in very small theatres in which the audience is practically a part of the production. Many hate this intimacy whereas I find it integral to my definition of theatre--far more challenging for everyone involved and therefore always a more vital experience than a play seen on a remote stage.

As if to reinforce this lack of connection or intimacy between the audience and the play, the Barbican's French production of Strindberg's Miss Julie has a big glass wall at the front of the stage behind which the action takes place. Subtle. The story revolves around the mutual manipulation of a rich woman trapped by society's prescribed femininity and the ambitious family chauffer trapped by his class. The production was a near complete disaster--why I keep going to these movie-star fueled things I don't know. There is a sucker born every minute and I am one! Banality wrapped up in style is so over! But did I nevertheless glean through all of the alienated pomp a thoroughly radical playwright who must have influenced Beckett? (btw I've never seen a Strindberg play before--so sad this was my first.)

All I can say about the Timon of Athens at the National is get thee to the play! It is all about us! How greedy and hypocritical we all are. How the only thing we truly hold sacred is gold. How we are willing to sacrifice liberty itself to the pursuit of money all in the name of liberty. And it is hilarious, moving, chilling, beautiful, start to finish. I have heard complaints about the second act but my god Simon Russell Beale goes beyond his usual genius precisely in the second act. And such gorgeous speeches:

I 'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief.

If I can, I think I will go see it again and take my sixteen-year-old son. Shakespeare never ceases to astonish me.

Monday, 2 July 2012

So, I have been a complete slacker, not about going to the theater, but in terms of writing about what I've seen. I've disappointed myself but I also finished that novel I've been working on forever so there is a silver lining. I know, excuses, excuses.What follows here is really just a glorified list of what I've seen since my last post, and in no particular order though I'll begin with the most recent:

Birthday by Joe Penhall directed by Roger Michell at The Royal Court

What if men could have babies? Joe Penhall sets up and delivers on this premise in a both excruciating and hilarious play. In 90 minutes he explores the subject to the hilt, and provides a searing condemnation of the NHS--and those who use it--along the way. I went with three women and afterwards we were all so glad we had no plans for having any more children. Steve Mangan was so perfectly cast I can't imagine anyone else in the role. The play ultimately rings only one-note, if smashingly. I wish there had been a subplot, but what could that have possible been?

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Mike Poulton directed by Lucy Bailey at The Print Room

I love The Print Room, a small theater in a '50s warehouse in Notting Hill (very close to Hereford Road where we had dinner afterwards) and I loved this production of Uncle Vanya, which is on for one more week so go, go, go. I saw it during its previous run and found it exhilerating. I had actually never seen the play before and my companion Paola said this interpretation took broad liberties, but any translation worth its salt does just that. Besides it was very funny. I know Chekov can be funny but you don't usually think of him as a comedic playwright. Uncle Vanya, was played brilliantly by Iain Glen of Downton Abbey (Mary's suitor, the Rupert Murdoch of his day).

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt in a new version by Jack Thorne, directed by Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse

What a terrible disappointment! An absurdist play from the '60s about theoretical physics--it was as if the play had been written for me. (I'm serious. My first novel combined quantum mechanics and classic Hollywood cinema). But, alas, it was tedious, not that funny, and so very dated. I can't imagine why anyone thought it was a good idea to revive this. I took some enjoyment in the fabulous performance by Sophie Thompson as the hunchbacked founder of the insane asylum in which the play is set, where she specializes in the mental disorders of physicists (it sounds great but isn't). She was some combination of Igor in Young Frankenstein and Greta Garbo.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang directed by Sacha Wares at The Young Vic

Communism seems to be all the rage these days, in terms of things cultural at any rate, and this play was a didactic view of an oppressive system, with extraordinary sets. It was edifying to be reminded of how China has come to take over the world. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, but do it better.

Collaborators by John Hodge directed by Nicholas Hytner at The National

Simon Russell Beale playing Stalin? Irresistible, and he was. Only SRB could make this hideous tyrant sympathetic while maintaining his monstrousness. Collaborators was inspired by a footnote in a biography of the young Stalin, stating that Mikhail Bulgakov had been commisioned by Stalin to write a play about his youth in Batumi. Bulgakov's play was written in 1939, approved by the cultural apparatchiks, but never produced. John Hodge has written a very clever play about Bulgakov's flirtation/collaboration/compromise with his hated leader and does wonders with the old theme of the fine line between the oppressor and the oppressed. In 1940, just before he died, Bulgakov, would publish his anti-Stalinist masterpiece The Master and Margarita in which the devil comes to Moscow.

The Master and Margarita based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov adapted by Simon McBurney at The Barbican

Butchery. Somewhere else in a previous blog I swore to never see another Simon McBurney production, but at my peril I took another risk because when he is good he is very, very good, but when he's bad...I left at the interval along with at least half of the audience.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus in a translation by Ted Hughes by Theatre Lab Company at Riverside Studios

I would see anything these guys do. It was totally sublime. And in that tiny theater at Riverside, it's all so intimate, gory, and in your face. Took my 15 year old son, who also admitted to being glad I had dragged him--or he knew that if he said so I was more likely to allow him to go to a Mud Honey concert the following week.

Gross und Klein (Big and Small) by Botho Strauss via the Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican

Like The Physicists, why, I ask? This avant-garde German play from 1978 does not hold up well, even with Cate Blanchett's muscular performance to aid it. They did better with A Street Car Named Desire, which I saw in NYC though Blanchett again stole the show. Hmmmm.

Venus in Fur by David Ives, originally at the Classic Stage Company in NYC.

I saw this in New York and I can't tell you how many people told me I would love this. And I did. I was thoroughly entertained by this drama exploring relations between the sexes via heady intellectual literary discussion and S&M paradigms. Just my cup of tea! But ultimately, after I left the theater and thought about it for half an hour I realized it was the same old story. In the battle between the sexes, no matter how smart, witty, intelligent, domantrix a woman is portrayed, if she has to perform for nearly two hours practically nude, often with her legs splayed, while her male interlocuter on stage is fully dressed, she is the object of humiliation.