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.