A Matter Of Life And Death – May 2007


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


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