A Matter Of Life And Death – May 2007

5/10

Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice for the National Theatre

Directed by: Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st May 2007

I enjoyed Kneehigh’s Cymbeline so much, that I probably expected too much of this production. There was a lot to enjoy, but some of it was just plain dreary. Even so, I cried buckets, and felt happier when we came out, so I’d obviously had a good time.

First off, I tried out the audio devices for the first time here. Although we were in Row E, and I would have expected to hear most of it anyway, I wanted to find out what it was like. The headset is quite nifty, and certainly gave me a louder and clearer listening experience than without it. I found the pressure in my ear a bit uncomfortable, verging on painful, so I may have to investigate other options, but for now this will be a great way to get more out of the many plays we see. I also realised I would have to avoid wearing my pendant, as it kept clattering against the base of the headset. (Audio assisted experiences marked (headset) after seats.)

Before the start, the Olivier stage was bare. At the start, the panel at the back slid open (up and down), and the musicians were wheeled on, on a rectangular bandstand with a white arch at the back. The music was not particularly pleasant – rather wailing and loud – and it went on for far too long, in my view. As the music got under way, the whole stage became awash with the cast – cycling nurses stopping to light up a fag, hospital beds with pyjama-clad military patients, etc. Various people were reading aloud from books, and at one point there was a blaze in the middle of one of the beds – why? They’d already discovered torches under the bedclothes, and strung them up, and then the blaze, and then some fire buckets were brought on and set alight, and I have absolutely no idea why any of this was going on.

Then one of the pyjama men, dressed in a natty pair of star-patterned pj’s, started us off with the description of the universe. This was where it first started to engage me. As this was going on, another arching staircase is brought on, and Peter, the airmen who causes all the trouble, is being set up on it. Then we’re into the famous dialogue between Peter and June, and I cried and cried.

When Peter jumps out of the plane, he’s held aloft by wires for a while, and then comes down on a newly-cleared stage with a (photographic) beach scene plastered all over the back wall, and a couple of sand patches deposited on the floor. This was very evocative. He chats with a small girl, who’s playing in one of the sand patches, then along comes June, and the great romance gets underway.

Meanwhile, up in heaven, or at least the waiting room, Peter’s crewmate is waiting for him. The angels, all in nurses’ uniforms, are booking flyers in, but so far, there’s no sign of Peter. The chief accounting angel has no sooner explained that mistakes aren’t made, but that if one were all the alarms would go off, and that hasn’t happened for over 600 years, than the alarms go off, and it’s all hands to the pump to get that day’s soul receipts balanced.

This is where we’re introduced to Conductor 71. He’s a Norwegian, not that long deceased, who used to be an escape artist, but who suffered the most embarrassing death, as the trick that went wrong was the first one his mother had ever turned up to see. Judging by his completely unsuccessful attempts to vanish in front of everyone’s eyes, she was right to be unhappy about his chosen profession. He claims that the thick fog prevented him from snatching Peter’s soul from the jaws of life, and so he’s sent back down with orders to put things right.

Back on Earth, Peter and June are shown in a more sexually liberated 1940’s Britain than usual. They’re snuggled up together in bed, minus some clothes, and having a swinging time. Literally. The bed is swinging from side to side of the stage, and as Conductor 71 comes along, he show us his gymnastic skills by hanging on underneath. Eventually he emerges, and causes time to freeze, so he can speak to Peter. Spare company members hold the bed in place, while Peter tells Conductor 71 where to go.

The story unfolds as expected – the doctor at the hospital who’s in love with June tries to sort out Peter’s medical problems, and eventually gets caught up in helping him fight his case in heaven. All is resolved happily (yet still I cried!), and I left feeling cleansed. So, what else to say about the staging?

Wheeling the beds on and off was occasionally distracting, but overall, I felt the production settled down into a good rhythm. There was a lovely sub-plot with a wounded airman who’s obviously very affected by his experiences. He’s playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as staged by the doctor, and for ass’s ears, he’s got a couple of bedroom slippers strapped to his head. He hangs himself, which was distressing. Later, he sings a lovely song, which was actually a poem written by a deceased airman in the war; it’s quoted in the program notes.

While the doctor and June wait to see how Peter will go, they play ping-pong. This is done by having a ball on the end of a long pole, with one of the non-visible cast members moving it backwards and forwards between the players – great fun.  Finally, the bike crash was well done, with Douglas Hodge, the doctor, being lifted away from the wreckage.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough, but wouldn’t particularly want to see it again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

lies have been told – May 2007

an evening with robert maxwell

6/10

By: Rod Beacham

Directed by: Alan Doffor

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th May 2007

This is the third time we’ve seen Robert Maxwell portrayed in drama in six weeks. First there was Michael Pennington in The Bargain, then David Suchet on TV, and now a one-man (though given his size, it didn’t seem like that) show with Philip York playing the man himself.

All three portrayals had definite similarities; not too surprising with someone so recently deceased, and with such a strong public persona. This version gives us a post-death Maxwell, lecturing his audience on the tricks and tactics that made him a “successful” businessman, revealing his past, and eventually letting us in on the biggest mystery – how and why he died. Except that nothing quite happens as expected, and this play certainly gets across one of Maxwell’s early points: people will believe anything as long as it’s what they want to believe. There are some tremendously funny moments as he gives us examples, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury taking out a contract on John Gielgud because he doesn’t like the country’s leading actor being gay!

He takes us through his life in bite-sized chunks, appropriately enough, as he’s wolfing down Beluga caviar and champagne all the while. His early life as a poor Jew in Czechoslovakia, his arrest by the Germans, his escape from a one-armed guard when he was taken on a train journey, his various identities, ending up with the Robert Maxwell we know and ….well, know.

He often plays the other characters as well. At one point, he’s trying to persuade a colonel to set up a publishing company so that valuable scientific information from a German scientist can be published abroad at a time when Germans weren’t allowed to do this. He “plays” the colonel by holding up the cap and working it like a puppet. Very effective.

We see his temper tantrums and mood swings (firing his secretary then being amazed she should take him seriously), his manipulation of people (picking someone to bully in the audience, then getting us to stand up to him and reacting in a way that will hook people to him for life), and his sheer inability to recognise when anything is enough, a result of serious deprivation at an early age, which led him to grab and grab and grab, and never feel satiated.

All the rest is possible, but not definite; we’ll just never know the truth. But his desperate greed, the way he’s driven to succeed so fanatically that he’ll ride roughshod over people and the law to achieve greatness, that rings true. His varied versions of his final minutes are entertaining but ultimately give way to the only question that matters: why did he do it? Although we can never know for certain, this play gives a pretty good insight into the possibilities.

I loved the performance and the play. It’s probably better suited to a studio space, and so the relatively empty Yvonne Arnaud auditorium may have let it down a bit. I felt we could have responded more to some of the lines, although the chaps behind us were very enthusiastic when it came to standing up to him. I didn’t hear all of it, and I found my busy few days catching up with me a bit during the first half, but I still felt it was a good drama, well staged, and well worth the trip.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Landscape With Weapon – May 2007

8/10

By: Joe Penhall

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2007

This was four-hander, exploring some of the issues around the technology of warfare and arms dealing in general. It was great fun, also quite moving, and although nothing particularly surprised me, it was still good to see someone writing this stuff at this time.

The Cottesloe had been set up with a central strip of stage, entrances either end, and simple furniture. To our left, there was a kitchen, and to our right was the entrance to the flat. Tom Hollander, dressed (I use the word loosely) in relaxed mode, plays Ned, who has designed an advanced guidance system for military drones. His brother Dan, played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, is a dentist, venturing into Botox, with a militant anti-war wife. Dan is fond of saying “yeah, no, yeah…” a lot, which is something I find myself doing; now I know how it sounds, I’ll have to stop doing it! It was very funny, though, as was most of their chat. In fact, the play changes mood gradually from the beginning, taking on a greater degree of menace towards the end, when Jason Watkins, as Brooks, the man from security, gets involved.

Ned wants to avoid his design being used in a bad way. He doesn’t mind people being killed as such (it’s fewer people than would be killed the conventional way), but he gets worried after talking with Dan that his application might actually be used to kill people who didn’t deserve it – innocent civilians, for example. In fact, the only surprise in the whole play was that anyone could be that intelligent nowadays and not have a clearer idea of what might be done with such an advanced weapon. Still, we allow our nerds and geeks some leeway in social matters, including how the world works, so it didn’t get in my way.

Pippa Haywood plays Angela Ross, the Commercial Director of the firm which Ned works for, and which wants to get a deal signed with the British government to manufacture the product. There’s a bit of commercial stuff about how the UK government wants 51% of the intellectual copyright, with the intention of selling on the weapon to other countries. Ned’s concern is how that may lead to the weapon being sold to countries that would use it in the wrong way, and he holds out for a controlling share of the IP rights. The Commercial Director does her best to persuade him to sign up to the existing deal, but it’s no go.

The scene shifts to the factory after the interval, and the set is changed quite simply. The carpet runner is removed, revealing aircraft shapes on the floor, the sides are lit differently to show up the glass bricks, and shadows of fighter planes are thrown onto these walls. It reminded me of the museum at Coventry, I think. As Ned is still refusing to play ball, the security man is called in, and Jason gives us a lovely turn as the cheerful chappy who’s all friendly to begin with, but who turns on the pressure to make sure Ned changes his mind.

Next we see Brooks applying the pressure to Dan, as Ned has scarpered, having ballsed up his coding to make the weapon useless. Dan isn’t made of particularly stern stuff, and after a short while “volunteers” to give Brooks all the information he could possibly want. The final scene is another duologue between Dan and Ned, where we find out what happened to Ned after he’s picked up by Brooks.

There was a lot of fun in the language and the performances, all of which were excellent. The play struck me as being more about the people and their relationship within the arms industry, plus Dan’s relationship with Ned. It is a bit scary to consider some of the possibilities for the way weapons are changing now, but the reality as experienced by our troops in Iraq shows that superior firepower only gets you so far. Peace cannot be so easily imposed on people who don’t want it, and increased technological superiority isn’t the final answer.

Must just mention the entertaining fight over the curry take away. I’m often distracted when there’s real food on stage, and this was no exception, but I still enjoyed the scrap between the two men, ending up with them lying, exhausted, across the table. Great fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Entertainer – May 2007

5/10

By: John Osborne

Directed by: Sean Holmes

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd May 2007

I would have loved to have given this production a higher rating, but unfortunately this performance was marred by the one thing which I never thought would affect a performance adversely – an appreciative audience. Listen and learn.

I was in a better position to appreciate this play this time, as I’m more aware of the Suez crisis, and other events around that time. I could see how the play was reflecting some aspects of British society at that time, though it still feels very distant to me. As we were much further back than usual, I had more difficulty hearing the lines – I think I’ll check out the induction loop facilities for the future. The afternoon was also warm, and the auditorium very stuffy, with the beginnings of crowded room aroma starting to percolate, so I did find myself nodding off a little before the first interval.

However, I also found the performances very good, especially those of Pam Ferris and Robert Lindsay, in the title role. The structure of the play is interesting, with domestic scenes interspersed with Archie’s increasingly ragged performances on stage. The final scene, with all the backdrops lifted, and the bare, empty stage echoing to Archie’s departure, can be very moving, with a variety of emotions surfacing. Here, however, we had the problem that the audience, instead of stony silence as he disintegrates in front of them, roared with laughter at his final “joke”, and applauded loudly as he walked back to Phoebe to put on his coat and head out the stage door. Not the usual send-off for a failed entertainer. In fact, if this audience had been around in 1956, Archie would probably have had his own TV show!

It’s a tough balance to strike, putting across that this guy isn’t very good, and is deteriorating fast, while casting top-class actors in the part, as it needs a lot of skill to pull it off. Robert Lindsay did a very good job, though as I know how good he is at song and dance, my own “baggage” saw him as a better performer than he was meant to be. The audience just couldn’t get enough of him, and I don’t know what he would have to do to put them off. I’ve looked at the possibility that this is a perfectly acceptable way to stage it, but I keep coming up against the text – music hall was on its last, tottery, leg and no audience would have reacted that way to this guy. Ah well, at least the Old Vic is doing good business out of it.

Pam Ferris gave us an excellent portrait of an alcoholic air-head who will just not stop talking. I often find with Osborne’s characters that his observation is pretty sharp, but there isn’t the compassion to go with it. Someone like Alan Bennett, for example, can have me howling with laughter at a character, while also recognising their humanity and feeling warmth, respect and a greater understanding for their plight. These characters were unpleasant, and the case for the defence never really got going, in my view, so I left the theatre feeling a little “underdone” – cheated by the audience and to a certain extent by the play.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kiss Of The Spider Woman – May 2007

8/10

By: Manuel Puig, translated by Allan Baker

Directed by: Charlotte Westenra

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 17th May 2007

As this play got underway, I felt a sense of misgiving. I wasn’t sure I’d find two men talking together in a prison for two hours either interesting or enjoyable. (I hadn’t seen the film, and knew practically nothing about it.) I changed my opinion pretty soon, though, as the characters began to develop and the relationship emerged.

Will Keen as Molina starts things off. He’s talking about the storyline of a film he’s seen, about a panther woman. He’s a bit camp, and the softness of his voice meant I missed a lot of this bit. Once Rupert Evans, as Valentin, gets more involved, though, I found I could follow it a lot more.

As the days pass (Molina takes the pages off a calendar, so we can see when each scene happens) we get to know them better. Molina considers himself a woman – at least he aspires to be one. Slightly different from being a homosexual, as he doesn’t want to be a man having sex with another man. We’re not told exactly what he’s in jail for (or I didn’t hear it, possibly), but I assume it’s because he’s gay. His mother, whom he worships, is ill, and that appears to be his main worry during his time in prison. He’s always being kind to Valentin, and getting precious little back. Valentin is a young idealistic political activist. In Argentina. This means he’s determined to suffer for the cause, and continues to pump himself full of Marxist theory during his spare time. His disgust at the exploitation of others doesn’t include his own exploitation of Molina, although he does try to refuse his help as often as he can – it’s one of the main sources of tension between the two men.

At the end of the first half we get confirmation that Molina is being asked to spy on Valentin by the prison officials, and it’s also clear that he’s becoming more and more reluctant to rat on his cellmate. He keeps telling Valentin not to tell him things – names, etc. – in case he gets interrogated. Valentin is a bit naive, and doesn’t seem to grasp the danger. He’s finding he’d rather be with a woman who left the organisation, instead of the woman in the organisation who’s nominally his girlfriend. She’s off shagging someone else now he’s in prison, as dedication to the cause precludes personal attachments.

The two men grow closer, and eventually, they have sex. Molina’s time is nearly up. As he hasn’t got any information from Valentin, the prison officials have decided to release him, and then follow him to see who he contacts on Valentin’s behalf. At the end, Molina asks Valentin for the information that Valentin’s being anxious to give him, and the two men embrace. That’s the end of the play, and we’re left in delicious ambiguity as to what Molina’s going to do with the information. He’s in love with Valentin, but will he betray him deliberately, or just accidentally, by being followed?

I loved both performances. Will Keen was excellent as a man-woman, and Rupert Evans got across the self-righteousness of the idealist very well. I could see nothing but problems for both men, given the system they’re living under, and it’s a great example of how to make a protest and show the bigger picture by focusing on the personal and the individual. I’m really glad I saw this.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Rose Tattoo – May 2007

8/10

By: Tennessee Williams

Directed by: Steven Pimlott and Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th May 2007

Steve and I had seen this play many years ago, with a good cast, and a good director, but just hadn’t got it at all. Neither of us could remember much about it, apart from this sense of bewilderment. We’re both Williams fans though, so we wanted to give it another try. And we’re very glad we did.

As this was in the Olivier, the set design was basically the small house that Serafina lives in (minus a few of the rooms) on the revolve, so scene changes could be pretty brisk. The entire set was based on roses – a pattern of roses was etched onto the flooring underneath the house, and rose patterns appeared on many of the costumes (not just Serafina’s), and in much of the fabric. There was even a goat (no roses to be seen there) which was led round the front of the set a couple of times.

The fairly realistic setting certainly helped, but this production was much better than the one we’d seen before. I lost a fair bit of the dialogue at the start, as it took me a while to tune into the accents. The older generation are Italian immigrants, while the younger generation speak the southern way, except when speaking Italian. There was much more humour than I expected, although Tennessee isn’t the dourest writer by any means.

The story concerns an Italian woman, very prideful of her marriage to an Italian Baron, and even more prideful of his faithfulness, who eventually learns, years after her husband’s death during an intercepted drug delivery, that he hasn’t been faithful at all. She’s already spent those years mourning his death excessively, and this discovery threatens to tip her over the edge. Amazingly enough, this is the very day on which her daughter graduates from High School; she’s met a young man to whom she’s attracted, and this causes a bout of over-protectiveness from her mother. Serafina also meets a replacement man, another truck driver, who arranges to have a rose tattoo put on his chest to help him woo the lady. Everything seems to work out OK, though it’s a bumpy ride.

Having read the notes in the program, this was intended to be a more optimistic play than his usual, and it certainly comes across that way. Instead of a picture of domestic entanglements which are driving everyone crazy (or crazier), we get a greater sense of progression with this one, partly because of the long time gap between the husband’s death and the rest of the action, but also because the relationships are more open. The outside world is more involved through the female “chorus” of her Italian neighbours and their children, plus a few others, including the priest.

I was clear about who these people were this time, and the difficulties in the relationship between mother and daughter were both moving and entertaining. I could see how Serafina is driven by her passion, and I just enjoyed watching the events unfold. Nice one.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – May 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Tim Supple

Company: DASH Arts

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 11th May 2007

This is the second time we’ve seen this production, and it hasn’t lost anything in all those months. In fact, it’s improved – ten star plus! As I’ve gone over most of the staging in the first set of notes (see RSC Complete Works), I’ll just cover the changes here.

The early stages were as before. I remembered how Ajay starts off as Philostrate, with his long robe. The singing stone was just as magical, and the action much the same, and just as enjoyable. The first change I noticed was the mechanicals. The clattering pots and pans didn’t seem so loud, and the actors seemed to have developed their parts more. I suspect that comedy in particular needs the experience of an audience to grow and develop, and from the look of things, this group has taken full advantage of all the performances to learn as much as possible.

The fight between Titania and Oberon had changed slightly – it wasn’t quite so fierce. The sexual action between the lovers had really hotted up, however, and it was clear that both the men and the women this time were feeling the full force of rampant hormones, as the women started to respond sexually, even to the men they didn’t want.

When Oberon describes the effect of the flower he sends Puck to pick, he demonstrates the eye-smearing method, and Puck is so affected by just this display, that he’s extremely taken with a pretty blonde lady in the front row, but Oberon snatches him back before things get out of hand.

The rehearsal scene seemed to have even more interaction with the fairies. Bottom’s gourd was still there, and I was pleased to see the production promoting safe sex – when he reappears later with Titania, there’s a bright red condom on the end of it. The fairies’ reaction to him seems to be clearer as well – Titania might be in love, but they’re not at all keen, especially when he wants them to scratch him. Yuck!

The reconciliation between Titania and Oberon gives rise to a beautiful dance, which I don’t remember happening before, or at least not to this extent. It’s just after this that the couple change back into Theseus and Hippolyta. The elastic rope that tangles the lovers seemed to be less than before, and knowing what was going on I was able to concentrate more on the lovers this time, and I enjoyed the whole scene much better. Oberon’s pursuit of Puck through the tangle was also good fun. He was giving him a real ticking off, and Puck just didn’t want to let him get too close. He may have looked a bit downcast at times, but still, he was obviously enjoying every minute of the mischief.

Thisbe seemed to be even more disinclined to play a woman during the rehearsal, but changed her mind when it came to the performance in front of the Duke. All the animals and set design parts were doing more, it seemed. I particularly felt for Moonshine, ridiculed by the aristocrats. His dog, though, was a lovely touch – as he’s played by the tailor, his dog is an adapted sewing machine (an idea from the actor himself). One nice aspect that I didn’t notice before was that Egeus shows his acceptance of the situation at the end by hugging his daughter.

I was aware this time of the dangers of the forest, not that it wasn’t there before, but tonight it was heightened. I also saw the playlet at the end not only as a treat for the audience, but as a kind of healing therapy for the lovers. They, too, had been through a trial, facing dangers in an attempt to find their loved one despite parental opposition. Here was an even more comic version of their story, to take the sting out of their experience, and to give them a chance to laugh, not only at their mischance, but also at themselves. And this includes Theseus and Hippolyta, as they’ve been fighting, and have only just come to an understanding.

I noticed that the list of possible performances was handed to Hippolyta to read out – presumably because she would find it easier to give the English version. I also felt that perhaps the cast are themselves more comfortable with the different languages, as they gain in experience, and receive such a great response from a wide range of audiences.

Post-show. It covered some of the same ground as before, naturally, but I noticed there was less need for translation, so I assume all of the cast have become reasonably comfortable with English, enough to get the gist of what was said.

The set design arose from practical considerations, plus ideas Tim and the designer had worked on before rehearsals, but they were open to new ideas all the time, and the red earth and wooden grid at the back just materialised during rehearsals, so they went with it.  There is a strong tradition in Indian theatre for quick changes on stage – just a turn or slip behind a screen, and immediately the new character is there, or the same character is somewhere else. (I asked about this in relation to Titania and Oberon changing back to Hippolyta and Theseus on stage.) I also asked Tim as we were leaving if he was doing any more cross-cultural projects, and he is, one using actors from Africa and around the Mediterranean (?), and the other with a huge mixture of Asian, South American and others. I shall look forward to seeing those.

When someone asked if the actors ever get nervous climbing the ladders and ropes, there was a long pause, then Joy Fernandes said he didn’t – big laugh, as he’s the only one who doesn’t go clambering over the set.

Someone asked if the amount of sexuality and physical contact on display had caused problems in India, where there appear to be more concerns about showing these things publicly. There was a pause, and then Joy pointed out that they had come up with the Kama Sutra, so presumably Indians knew sex existed. Apparently there was one place where some people reacted negatively about the sexuality, but mostly, everyone in India enjoyed it immensely. In Calcutta (I think), the audience sat very quietly during the performance, and Tim thought they’d absolutely bombed, but then the applause at the end was very enthusiastic, so obviously in that place they have a tradition of not making much noise during a performance. He also reckoned there’d been as much difference between reactions in India, as between India and England.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me