The Man Who Had All The Luck – March 2008

6/10

By Arthur Miller

Directed by Sean Holmes

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th March 2008

As is typical with Steve and me, we hadn’t a clue about this play as we headed for London. Who wrote it, who was in it, what it was about, etc. All gone. That’s what happens when we book tickets months ahead and then get on with our lives. So it’s often a great pleasure when we do turn up to see the production and find it’s by one of our favourite playwrights, and the cast is dripping with talent, as it was today. I like my life.

This is an early Miller play, almost the first thing he wrote, and the first performed on Broadway, although for a mere four performances (program notes are wonderful things). The plot concerns a father and two brothers – typical Miller. The elder brother David seems to be blessed with unbelievable luck. He doesn’t just land on his feet, he lands smack bang in the middle of a red carpet, and finds riches and everything he could ever want thrust upon him apparently without the slightest effort on his part. His brother Amos has been indoctrinated by their father to become a top class baseball pitcher, and as he doesn’t seem to have much else going for him, that skill looks to be his ticket to a good life. Sadly, though, things don’t work out, because the father’s fixation has actually contributed to weaknesses in the son’s game that prevent him making the big time.

Meantime David has gone from good to better. His girlfriend’s father, implacably opposed to David having anything to do with his daughter, has been killed in a freak accident, leaving David and Hester free to marry. A friend brings along a relative to get his car fixed at the garage David works at – he’s got a reputation for being a genius at fixing cars – and when David hasn’t a clue what’s wrong with the thing, never having had any training, along comes an immigrant mechanic who can tell just by listening to the engine noise what the problem is. He not only identifies the problem, he even does the whole repair (replacing the crankshaft), to allow David to get some much-needed sleep. This mechanic starts up his own repair business just along from where David works, but despite the better location, ends up running out of money and working for David, who by now has a farm, courtesy of Hester’s late father, also the garage, a petrol station (which just happens to be on a new main road that’s being built) and probably some other assets that I couldn’t quite keep track of.

David is so convinced that he’s living in a Greek tragedy, that’s he’s expecting some major problems to happen to balance all the good things in his life. As time goes on, and the successes accumulate, the pressure builds, and he starts to go a bit crazy. He’s convinced that he and Hester won’t be able to have children – that that’s the way “fate” will nobble his happiness. He’s a real miseryguts when he puts his mind to it. Anyway, Hester does get pregnant, but that doesn’t help, as David can’t believe it’ll be born OK. Hester had a fall during the pregnancy, which might have damaged the baby, and there’s a lot of tension during the birth, as all the men wait downstairs to hear the news. A scatty aunt is fetching and carrying to help the doctor and midwife, and would no doubt have passed on some news to them all if she’d had anything to tell. The doctor, wise man, refuses to tell her anything, so her lack of information just makes things worse. Eventually, there’s a great cry, presumably the birth pains, and the men assume the worst. The aunt appears, crying, and very emotional, and it looks like David’s luck has finally run out. Of course not! It’s a boy, and a healthy one at that. David is in despair – he thought losing the baby would prevent his mink from dying off (it’s complicated, but he’s also become a mink farmer).

Finally, with David avoiding his own son, the wife strategically fails to pass on a message about some dodgy feed, in the hope that the mink will all die off, and David will somehow become the happy-go-lucky fellow she married (and she thinks David is crazy). Also, the mechanic is leaving, as he can’t take being around a man who’s so sure that he hasn’t earned or deserved all the good things that have come to him. The saving of the mink finally hammers home this point to us, if not entirely to him. He had been told to check the feed before giving it to the animals, so he did. He saw some little black specks on some of the fish, so he threw those away and only used the clean ones. His own carefulness and willingness to be thorough was what saved him. At last, he’s able to let go of his millstone and accept his son, along with his other many blessings. Ah.

It’s a strange story in many ways, more stylised than many of Miller’s plays, but still very interesting. The performances were all excellent, although the accents wandered a bit from the straight and narrow at times. I felt very moved by Amos’s anguish as he acknowledged the judgement of the baseball scout, that he’d never make the grade as a professional because he couldn’t play the bases. His whole life had been built on one thing, and now that was taken away from him. In the penultimate scene, with the father taking his leave, Amos turns up to give David the takings from the petrol station that he’s now working at, and completely ignores his father.

There was also quite a lot of humour, and I did like the old style car that was dropped down on wires for the repairing scenes. Not Miller’s best, but still an enjoyable afternoon.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – March 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jonathan Miller

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 27th March 2008

This was an absolutely superb production. From the start, I was riveted by the detail in each performance, so much so that a woman sitting opposite commented on my obvious absorption when our paths crossed during the interval.

The opening scene with the ghost-spotters, Marcellus and Bernardo, telling Horatio what’s being going on, was beautifully lit. From the off, the eerie gloom made me shiver, and the edginess of the characters was plain to see. Bernardo “arrives” off-stage, so that Francisco is clearly unable to tell who it is, and his anxiety adds to the atmosphere. The discussion amongst the three men got across Horatio’s scepticism and the other two’s nervousness and tension. There were three benches on the stage for the first half – one down each side and another across the back – and these were used at this point. The ghost appeared on the far side to us, to our left, and I did reckon he was looking a bit sorrowful. He didn’t stay long, and his second appearance was on the far side to our right. Horatio’s long speech to him came across very well, but sadly the ghost wasn’t impressed, and headed off. It was a great start, and really set the standard for the whole performance.

The next scene, with Claudius addressing the court, was a completely different affair. Given the small cast, there couldn’t really be much of a show of courtiers for this scene, but the small numbers actually worked very well. There was a waiting woman attending the queen, who stayed well in the background during the scene. Claudius also had a secretary waiting on him, Osric no less, and his presence was valuable throughout the play, as his reactions gave us clues to the nature of Claudius’ style of government, as well as alerting us to problems. Nicholas Gadd played this part, and I could see his character making himself very useful to Fortinbras after the play was over.

Claudius was played by Jay Villiers, and came across as a sensual but intelligent man, well suited to his chosen career, if we overlook his means of getting into it. Polonius (Roland Oliver) was a crafty character, well versed in the ways of kings and politics, but less understanding of his family. Gertrude (Francesca Ryan) was mature but attractive, and gave the impression she could have been more sensible in her choice of second husband, but was swayed by personal attraction. Laertes (Oliver Le Sueur) was fairly straightforward, while Hamlet (Jamie Ballard) was having a fit of the sulks from the word go, sitting with his back to us, dressed in black, and obviously not involving himself in the proceedings.

With the spin about Gertrude’s quick remarriage out of the way, and the minor matter of Fortinbras despatched as swiftly (we don’t actually see any ambassadors in this slimmed down version), Claudius can start being more cuddly as he deals with Laertes. Polonius starts to come into his own here, and this portrayal got across his great delight in hearing the sound of his own voice, while still managing to make him believable as a senior politician in the Danish court. With all the other matters dealt with, Claudius approaches Hamlet as if he’s genuinely concerned about him, and wants to be on friendly terms. Gertrude is certainly concerned, and Hamlet, despite being obviously distressed with grief, finally accedes to her request to stay at home instead of returning to university.

With everyone else leaving, we now get to see Hamlet on his own, and get to know more about how he’s actually feeling, and how he’s handling the loss of his father. Not well, appears to be the answer. Jamie Ballard isn’t the conventional Hamlet type, not as good looking nor as athletic as many have tended to be. Still, he managed to get the character across in great detail, both the intelligence and the emotions. In some ways, he underplayed it compared to other performances I’ve seen, which worked well in the small space, of course, but also allowed the thought processes to shine through the grief and other emotions. It was a very good performance, and made this one of the best productions I’ve seen of this play.

This production followed the text closely, and although there must have been some editing, it seemed very full, even including Polonius’ instructions to Reynaldo, which I have often seen omitted (or should that be “not seen at all”?). The pace was good, and I was very caught up in the various characters’ emotional journeys; Hamlet’s obviously, but also Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia. I found Gertrude in particular had more presence than usual for me, and her change of heart during Hamlet’s tirade in her closet made more sense to me. She really is seeing for the first time that she made a mistake, although I still think the shock of seeing Polonius killed a few yards away must have something to do with it. She spends the rest of the play subtly avoiding Claudius.

Ophelia’s mad scenes can often be a trial to sit through; these were terribly moving, all the more because they were done very simply. Instead of flowers, she carried twigs, as I recall, and this underlined her insanity. All the other characters on stage seem stunned by her actions, and the story of her death was also very moving. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do the burial scene, as the floor of the stage is the floor – there are no magic trapdoors here. They got round it by having the grave dug off stage, through the entrance, and the gravedigger brings a barrow on stage with the debris he’s dug out of it, Yorick’s skull included. Hamlet and Laertes therefore have their tussle not quite in the grave, but it all worked just fine, as this company are all about getting the text across, and fancy stagings can sometimes get in the way of that. Incidentally, Polonius was also stabbed off stage, as the nearest arras was quite some way from Gertrude’s bed.

The players were excellent. Small in number, they made up for it in quality. David Collins, the player king, did the speech about the Trojan War beautifully, following on from Hamlet’s own good beginning which was warmly received. Hamlet seemed to be very much at home with them, and sat against the pillar opposite from us, drinking it all in. The play before the king had to be kept simple, and in any case I was more concerned to watch Polonius and Gertrude, sitting to our right on one of the benches. Their reactions were fine, with Claudius visibly shaken by the analogy to his own acts. He had clearly believed that no one else knew. In this production, I was actually concerned for the safety of the players, as who knows what orders Claudius might give after a fright like that. I was also aware that this shows the darker side to Hamlet’s character, the way he’s prepared to use people, even those he’s fond of, to get what he wants, regardless of the consequences to them.

Following the play, Claudius tries to gather his thoughts privately, so we get to hear all about it (this play is a bit like Big Brother at times), and he gives us a good insight to his state of mind. Hamlet’s choice to delay killing him is clearer here, as Claudius is obviously praying, and Hamlet’s thoughts seem more like he’s actually seeking the best revenge possible rather than just finding another excuse for putting it off again.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a superb pair of innocent pawns in all this. Claudius made the usual mistake of which was which, with Gertrude correcting him. They were distinct characters for once, with Guildenstern being more straightforward and honest, and Rosencrantz being shiftier, more willing to do the covert operations bit. Neither of them deserved to die, of course, but I could also see Hamlet’s point of view here – he’s surrounded by people who work for the man who killed his father, and who may be contriving his death as well. Apart from Horatio, who can he trust? His madness may be only partly feigned, as this situation must be putting him under tremendous strain.

In this portrayal at any rate, Jamie Ballard shows us this pressure and its effects while also showing us Hamlet’s resilience and determination. His emotions were clear throughout, as were his sense of humour and his idealistic standards. His delivery of the lines was superb, and I remember hearing and understanding many of them more clearly than before, even though I know this play well. The fight scene was unusual, in that one of the blades came off its hilt during the fight, so as well as not laughing, Hamlet had to get hold of the blade itself to kill Laertes with his own poison. We’re left finally with Fortinbras arriving at just the right moment to take advantage of all these deaths, and I was aware of the effect on what was left of the court, with the prospect of a new ruler and possible changes to come. Still, I reckoned Osric would do alright, unless he was one of the first to be shot, and Horatio should be OK as he’s the one in the know, but otherwise…

I haven’t managed to put down half of what I experienced in this production. I couldn’t do it on the night as we finished so late, and now the memories are fading. But it was a magnificent evening, and I will happily travel this far again to see this level of production.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Days Of Significance – March 2008

5/10

By Roy Williams

Directed by Maria Aberg

Company: RSC

Venue: Tricycle Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th March 2008

This was something of a disappointment, although it was better than the previous adaptation. The theatre was decked out with a lot of paraphernalia. Metal stairs on the left of the stage led up to a door, which seemed to be the entrance to the club that the young folk were at, while a door below this was the public loos. There was a bench in the middle of the stage, and to the right was a sketchy burger stand. There was a recessed area on the right hand side of the stage, which later became part of a building that the soldiers are hiding in. There are lots of neon signs everywhere, and the setting is clearly contemporary.

The play is based on Much Ado About Nothing, and the plot of that play is pretty much seen off in the first half. Several of the young men have joined up, and are off to Iraq or Afghanistan the next day. The young women are just out for a good time, with no strings attached, but one of them, Hannah, falls for one of the guys. Another of the women overhears her telling her cousin about this in confidence, and she rushes off to blab to the first pair of ears she can find. It’s all resolved by the end of this part, though, so the couple are back together again, while the cousin, playing the Beatrice role, is obviously taken with another of the blokes, for all her loud mouthed ways. There’s also a couple of police constables – one man, one woman – who have to take a lot of flak from the rowdy element, but who do help to sort out the misunderstanding. So all the main characters are there, then, including Hannah’s father who runs the burger bar.

The language was pretty ripe throughout this play, as we expected, but nothing to put us off. The tougher stuff was the battle scenes in the second part. We saw some video footage on a screen (there were several dotted around), where the blokes were sending messages home, or talking about their experiences. There’s a scene where they’re in the building, having been ambushed by some hostile forces. This shows the way the attitudes have changed and relationships developed, differently than they would have back home. Then the final scene is set at a wedding, and Hannah’s chap has been sent back in disgrace having been caught doing something too extreme to tolerate, at least once it’s been made public.

There’s a lot of tension around, and the effects of the fighting and the political situation are covered to a certain extent, but overall I found this section lacked any real punch. We’ve seen this stuff on the news, and so there has to be more to engage me with these characters and their stories. I did enjoy a fair bit of the afternoon’s performance though, and the actors themselves did a good job with what they had, so I was happier at the end than I had been with the previous offering. It’s always risky taking on Will on his home turf (the theatre), as comparisons are both inevitable and “odorous”, but this might have worked better if the reworking of the Much Ado plot had supported the rest of the story more.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dealer’s Choice – March 2008

8/10

By Patrick Marber

Directed by Samuel West

Venue: Trafalgar Studio 1

Date: Thursday 20th March 2008

I was hugely impressed by this play, as well as the production. This was Patrick Marber’s first effort at playwriting, apparently, and it’s tremendously well constructed, with plenty of insight and humour. A modern classic.

The first half of the play takes us up to just before the poker game starts, while the second half covers parts of the game itself. The game is held in the cellar of a restaurant, with the earlier scenes being set in the restaurant and kitchen up above, allowing for an interesting scene change during the interval. The players are mainly those connected to the restaurant – the owner, his staff and his son – but tonight there’s a new player to contend with. The son, Carl, owes money to Ash, who’s been subbing him and teaching him how to play poker, blackjack, etc. Carl fits nicely into the category known as “mug punter”, and doesn’t have the money that Ash needs to pay his debts, so Carl gets Ash a seat at the poker game downstairs. With his talent, Ash makes plenty towards covering what he owes.

We’ve already spent the first couple of acts learning about the other characters. Stephen, the restaurant owner, is a fairly tough cookie, but his son is definitely a weak spot in his armour. The chef, Sweeney, has plans to visit his daughter the next day, and initially says he won’t be playing, but gets suckered in as usual, losing all his money. Mugsy, the junior waiter, is well named. He has aspirations, which at this point consist of planning to open up a fancy restaurant in the Mile End road in a converted public loo. He also loses his money, so the prospects don’t look good, but he is good value in terms of humour, with his immature attitudes and boundless enthusiasm. The other waiter, Frankie, is more sensible, though that’s not saying a lot in this company. Ash cleans up at the table, though as someone points out near the end, he’s welcomed at the big boys’ tables because he’s their mug player, even if he’s better than this crowd.

The cast included Ross Boatman, a well-known poker player himself, but despite the emphasis on poker it wasn’t so much about that as about the characters and how they’re hooked on gambling. The performances were all excellent, the set was very good, and I’m glad I’ve finally seen this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Turn Of The Screw – March 2008

5/10

By Henry James, adapted by Ali Gorton

Directed by Ali Gorton

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th March 2008

I nearly gave this a 3/10 rating, as the first half was very weak. It picked up in the second half though, and so I felt that overall a 5/10 rating was just appropriate.

There were a number of problems with the production. The set was another portmanteau effort, which seemed too jumbled to give me any real sense of place most of the time. The scene down by the lake was good, with some of the furniture removed, and mist billowing out across the stage and auditorium, but otherwise I found the locations quite confusing. Added to this was the lighting, which was often dim. For good reason admittedly, but it still made it harder to see what was going on. The story was told in a strange sequence, with the last scene chronologically shown first, then a flashback to the governess being offered her post, then another flashback to when the two servants were alive, then a flash forward to the governess’s arrival at the house. Knowing the story reasonably well, I wasn’t too worried, but I did wonder how someone who didn’t know it would get on.

Apart from that, there were some odd effects, such as having one of the lights flash on and off rapidly. It was presumably meant to tell us something about the ghostly apparitions, but I certainly didn’t get anything from it. And the horrendous wig the previous governess was wearing was only scary in the humorous sense. But the biggest problem was in the delivery of the lines. Again, I knew the story fairly well, so I was able to get by, and perhaps a headset would have helped a bit, but unfortunately Honeysuckle Weeks showed a distinct lack of vocal prowess in this part. She gabbled a lot of her lines as if she were in a race. We had started fifteen minutes late, and I briefly wondered if they were hurrying to catch up the lost time, but it was just the pace they were playing it at. Her voice definitely needs to be developed if she’s going to do much on the stage. [18/9/11 Seen her several times since and she’s been fine – don’t know what went wrong tonight]

Despite that, she got across a good picture of a highly strung young woman of a romantic disposition, used to her own family, who gets caught up in the atmosphere of the first house she goes to work in. The possibility of the ghosts being entirely in her imagination is one that was new to Steve, though I’d come across it before in a TV adaptation, and it’s well presented here. Personally I think there’s a bit of both options going on. The two servants have left an emotional legacy which has been ignored up to now, and the sensitive governess picks up on this and takes it further than she has any right to, making serious misjudgements along the way. There were some scary moments – I held Steve’s arm for a while – and the death scene was well done, so the evening ended better than it had begun.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – March 2008

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th March 2008

This is one of the few plays where I saw a fantastic production first time out, which makes it difficult for me to be entirely fair to all subsequent productions. This one didn’t do too badly, mind you, and the translation was excellent – suitably up-to-date and flowing without jarring at all.

It was the first production put on in the new Rose Theatre at Kingston, and the set reflects that acting space. The stage is basically an open space, with no flats and minimal dressing. There’s a tree to reflect the countryside, but otherwise it’s just tables, chairs, a piano and an easel, all of which are moved around to create the appropriate rooms. It’s an interesting use of space, giving a very open feel, and acknowledging the theatricality of the piece while still giving us fairly precise locations to frame the action. I liked that awareness of the artificiality. This is the first time I’ve seen a production of a Chekov play where the comedic emphasis really worked. I could see what the writer was trying to achieve – these are comedies after all – and could appreciate the humour he was bringing out by having such over-the-top reactions from such ordinary folk. I still feel there’s more to be got out of the play on the emotional side than I saw tonight, but I have a better understanding of Chekov’s sense of humour now, which I hope will help when I see his other plays.

The performances were good overall. The best for me was Loo Brealy as Sonya. She got across the range of that character’s emotions very well, from her rampant explanation of the doctor’s ideas to her attempt to comfort her uncle at the end of the play. I also liked Ronald Pickup as the professor, as I found I could relate both to his feelings as he goes through his pain and discomfort, and to the effect he’s having on everyone around him, making them dance attendance and disrupting the smooth running of the household. It’s Yelena’s beauty that disrupts the emotional life of the estate, but it’s his presence in the first place that throws the rhythm of their lives out of balance and makes them more vulnerable to the other temptations (I reckon). His grumpiness was mainly down to his ill-health, and once the nanny character gave him some sympathy, he was putty in her hands.

I also noticed how much the characters seemed to be throwing their lines at each other, and not really communicating at all, except sporadically. The soliloquies were also presented clearly, with each soliloquiser coming to the centre front of the stage to speak to the audience. No musing out loud here, which is another way the theatricality of the piece was emphasised.

The doctor, played by Neil Pearson, was sneaking vodka into his tea during the first scene. I was less sure this time that the doctor actually does as much work as he says he does. Like most of the men in this play, he’s good at grumbling, including grumbling about how much other people grumble. Michelle Dockery as Yelena gave me the impression of a fish out of water. She had no idea how to live in the country, and although she was honest enough about her feelings for her husband, that was about the extent of her virtues. She doesn’t want to work, she’s trapped in a loveless marriage, and she doesn’t seem to realise how much of an effect she’s having on the people around her, apart from her husband. I didn’t get the feeling that she’s really interrogating the doctor about Sonya in order to snare him for herself this time.

So overall it was an enjoyable evening, with some interesting variations that have given me a fair bit to think about. The post-show discussion added a few pieces of information, which I’ve incorporated into the notes.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Prayer For My Daughter – March 2008

5/10

By Thomas Babe

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th March

The Young Vic has been transformed for this play. Instead of the seats on four sides round the central stage, there are two steeply raked banks of seats on either side of a long narrow acting space, which is on two levels. At ground level (stage-wise) there’s the precinct room where the action mainly takes place. Above this is the street level, with the entrance stairs. There are balloons and streamers everywhere, as it’s midnight after July 4th, and mercifully, there was a fan blowing. It’s a massive construction, and frankly I don’t know whether it’s entirely necessary, but it’s certainly impressive.

The play, originally staged in 1977, concerns two men brought in for questioning by two cops. An old woman has been shot, and these men are the suspects. As the interrogations, and some beatings, unfold, we also learn that one of the cops has a daughter who’s threatening to commit suicide. His reluctance to go out looking for her is the dramatic focus of the play, and she’s the daughter for whom they say a prayer at the end. During the play, the younger cop takes drugs, and gives some drugs to the suspects, while the older cop, who’s been drinking steadily, has his gun lifted by one of the suspects and nearly gets shot. It’s not exactly an advert for the NYPD.

The performances were good, with Matthew Marsh giving a very strong portrayal of the older cop with a daughter he just doesn’t understand. He makes the character’s choice not to help her seem understandable, even if it also appears callous. The other actors did a fine job too, and the only problem I had with this play is that it seemed tremendously dated. It may have had some punch back in 1977, but nowadays, with all the drama that’s been and gone in between, the situation and characters seem hackneyed to my eyes. Having said that, I didn’t feel bored, and there were some good moments in the script. We were surprised that a woman had brought her three young sons to see the show, as there was a fair bit of blood and violence as well as the drug use, but it takes all sorts. I hope they get a stronger play for next time.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me