Sleuth – April 2008

6/10

By Anthony Shaffer

Directed by Joe Harmston

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th April 2008

Steve and I have seen this before, so I was aware of the story, although I didn’t remember all the details. It was entertaining to see a cast of five listed in the program.

The set was the typical old house in the country, all wooden beams and nooks and crannies. The performances were excellent, as I would expect from actors of the calibre of Simon MacCorkindale and Michael Praed. Simon’s Andrew Wyke was suitably theatrical, but with enough menace when needed to create tension, and Michael’s Milo was believably the son of an Italian, well versed in Latin ideas of intrigue and vendetta.

If we had been seeing this first time around, I would probably have given it 8/10 for the standard of production and the performances. As we were no longer virgins, so to speak, it couldn’t grip us in quite the same way, hence the rating of 6/10.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Chains Of Dew – April 2008

8/10

By Susan Glaspell

Directed by Kaye Saxon

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 26th April 2008

First off, the set. We start with an office environment. Tables, printing press to our left, telephone and small models of people to our right. Across from us a bench with open boxes, and other boxes strewn about. A poster on the floor gives contraceptive advice. There are three wooden chairs, and a map of America on the door far right to us, with a number of white tags stuck on it. The second scene is in the Mid-western town where Seymour has his lair, or home, as it’s sometimes called. Rug, settee, chairs, and some fancier desk ornaments give us the picture. There are also two rag dolls on one of the chairs. This set carries us through the rest of the play.

The play took some time to get going. We meet four characters; Nora, a free-thinking, bob-haired woman who’s passionate about birth control; Leon, who’s a publisher and who wants to encourage Seymour to develop into the great poet he believes him to be; O’Brien, an Irish chap who also wants to be a poet, and who provides a useful outsider’s point of view; and Seymour himself. Even at this early stage, it’s possible to see the sanctimonious, conceited prig in Seymour’s language and behaviour. Anyone who sets himself up as a complete ignoramus by telling everyone else how ignorant and immature they are compared to him, is asking for a thoroughly deserved comeuppance, which he gets, to a certain extent, although he’s spared the full suffering of the husband in A Doll’s House.

Of course, we don’t get to see the full range of this man’s self-centred chauvinism until we meet his family in the second scene. The first scene introduces the four characters whose lives are so closely linked in New York. There’s even a semi-jocular attempt to pair up Seymour and Nora, to help Seymour free himself from his social acceptability (by shocking his straight-laced fellow Mid-westerners), but Seymour ducks the opportunity, as he regularly does, we learn. Back in his Mid West home, Seymour’s wife Dottie/Diantha, has been conducting a little rebellion of her own. She’s been skipping the social events – dinner, afternoon tea – to study, and to study poetry at that. She clearly wants to support Seymour in his dream of being free to write poetry, as a good wife should. She hasn’t yet realised that Seymour likes fitting his writing into those few brief moments allowed to him when he doesn’t have to sacrifice his talent to take care of everyone else. Naturally he’s horrified to find his wife is trying to think for herself, but before he can restore normal service, Nora turns up for a visit. We learned in the first scene that she’s been asked to go out in the field, to spread the Birth Control message, so the first place she goes to is Seymour’s home town, where she immediately stirs up a whole heap of trouble, much to our amusement.

Dottie/Diantha is young, very attractive, and gentle, though it’s possible to see real strength of character in her. Seymour’s mother is a wonderful character. She’s the one who makes the dolls, and I reckoned she had a lovely mischievous streak even before she admitted to making the dolls with carefully designed features as a form of revenge. She has some marvellous lines. As a mother of seven children, it carries some weight when she says seven is too many, and that turns to hilarity when Seymour points out that he was her seventh child! Despite her support for the Birth Control ideas, she’s the one who finally convinces Diantha to let go of her new ways and support Seymour by allowing herself to be a burden to him (yes, I know it sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense in context).

There was some discomfort expressed in the post-show that the wife should give up her new-found interests to support her husband’s career. Personally, I think it’s the better option – how on earth would the writer have ended the play otherwise? We’ve already had A Doll’s House, so we don’t need a rehash of that, and it’s a dilemma that many women face, even now, and both options are valid in their own way. Again, the accents were excellent, as were the performances, and apart from the slow start it was a thoroughly enjoyable play which I wouldn’t mind seeing again, as if I’m likely to get the chance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo And Juliet – April 2008

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barry Rutter

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Wednesday 23rd April 2008

It’s good to see Northern Broadsides down here in the south. I very much like their no-nonsense approach and deep faith in the text. Plus, of course, their willingness to give the audience a good time – that’s always welcome.

On the way up, Steve and I were speculating on which part Barry Rutter would have snaffled for himself. We were sure it would be either the Friar or Pops Capulet. Who knew he would opt for Romeo? (Only joking.) Capulet was his role this time, although he also gave us the prologue.

I must admit to nodding off a bit during the first half, between the ball and Mercutio’s fight with Tybalt. I found the production took a while to get going. I don’t know if it was the performance space or, as Steve suspected, the high proportion of school kids in the audience, but I didn’t feel as involved as I would normally expect in a Northern Broadsides production. Fortunately the second half worked better for me – I felt the audience had warmed up more, although Barry Rutter had to cool down some of the youngsters by stopping his opening line and redoing it once they settled down.

The overall style was typical Northern Broadsides. The set consisted of a paved square-ish area with a two-level raised platform on top of it. The first raised level acted as a step, but didn’t run all the way around the top level. This platform was set slightly to the right of centre, allowing space for a large set of stairs leading up to a balcony to the left of the stage. There was plenty of room around all this, and sometimes the actors had to walk quite a long way to get to the “stage”.

Music played an important part in this production, as usual. There were several instruments sitting beside the balcony, including a double bass, and we were treated to some lively stuff for the feast (clog dancing included), a lovely wedding song which counterpointed the dead body of Juliet, a short requiem for the funeral, and probably some other bits which I just don’t remember. We also got the altercation between the servants and the musicians after the discovery of Juliet’s body, which is a very rare scene to see.

The costumes were a mixture; 50s style, I’d guess, with some contemporary clothes thrown in. The only furniture I can remember was the bed, which came on during the interval, and was used later on as kind of shroud to remove Juliet’s body. Sadly this deft piece of stage work caused some titters from the less mature audience members. For the funeral, a pallet was brought on to sit in the hole left by the bed, and Juliet and Tybalt walked on, now dressed in black, to take their places in Capel’s monument. I felt that was very effective, and that continued when, after the requiem, the others went, leaving Paris and his servant in the perfect position to start the next scene.

As the bed was “on” from the start of the second half, we got to see Romeo and Juliet lying together in it, another cause for immaturity in the audience to show itself, but a touching moment for the rest of us. I thought it was well done, and helped to show the characters growing up. I also thought what a big step one’s first sexual experience can be, but how much there still is to learn after that.

I always like the clarity of these productions, and today was no exception. Friar Lawrence can seem a real busybody, interfering in two young lives and screwing them up right royally. Today I could see that he’s doing his best to help, and there’s even a chance it could work. When Romeo is banished, and it all seems to be going horribly wrong, the friar’s plan to get Juliet away from her family and the arranged marriage makes sense. She’d be dead, for all her family knew, so no one would be looking for her. The impact of the undelivered letter is all the greater because, but for that, the plan would have worked. Shame about the audience, but even so, the youngsters did seem to appreciate the performance at the end.

Post-show.

Chaired by Stephen Unwin, this was a talk about language in the theatre, and Barry gave us his views in his usual forthright manner.  He doesn’t go in for all the psychological stuff with Shakespeare – even Stanislavsky reckoned his method was only good for contemporary Russian writers, and recommended ignoring it for the likes of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, etc. For Barry, the text is the important thing, and Will had written his lines with a particular rhythm, to give the actors the key to their delivery. This is what he, and the company, try to bring out in their productions.

He talked a bit about how and why he set up Northern Broadsides. Basically, he wanted work, and decided the best way to do that was to employ himself. He thought the company would only last a short while, and now they’ve been going for years, and tour to even more places. The only place they can’t go to is London, some silliness to do with the Arts Council grant, I think. He’s a good talker is Barry, and there was lots more entertaining stuff, but that’s the main points, and enough for now.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The 39 Steps – April 2008

8/10

By John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the Hitchcock film of the novel

Directed by Maria Aitken, redirected for tour by David Newman

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 22nd April 2008

There were so many visual images in this production that I’m not sure I’ll get even half of them down. Unlike Doctor in the House last week, this show managed to get just the right tone when making use of their “mistakes”. Early on, Hannay and Annabella Schmidt are in his flat, and both look at the phone. He says, ‘it’s the phone’, and then it rings. Very funny.

It’s all good fun, with lots of knockabout silly humour. When escaping through a window, Hannay shoves his head and shoulders through, then realises he won’t be able to get any further, so he just lets the window frame slide down and steps out of it, handing it back to his lovely Scottish hostess afterwards. What a thoughtful man.

The performance started with an announcement about switching off phones, watches, etc, done old style, which was good fun, and then there was a period of strobe lighting as the cast brought on furniture for Hannay’s flat. I couldn’t watch the strobe, so for me the action began when the lights came on to reveal Hannay sitting in his flat. There was a comfy chair, table, hat stand, window frame and some other shapes covered in sheets. Otherwise the set was a bare stage, with the brick wall showing at the back. On either side there were theatre boxes, for use at the London Palladium.

Hannay talks about his disillusionment with life in London – no friends, nothing interesting to do, sigh. It’s a lovely performance, mixing the stiff upper lip gentleman, man of action, and tongue in cheek approach very nicely. When he brings an exotic woman back to his flat, she’s wary of being seen at the window, insisting he lower the blinds before he puts the light on. He does so, and when he checks out her story that there are two men waiting underneath a lamppost in the street below, the other two actors rush on in great coats, carrying a lamppost to stand under. When Hannay releases the blind, they dash off again, only to reappear the next time he checks. The third time, Hannay can’t quite make up his mind whether to look or not, leading to a stop-start bit of confusion, and some exasperation from the men, as they eventually head back into the wings, trailing their lamppost.

These men were played by Colin Mace and Alan Perrin, who played a vast number of parts between them, often more than one at the same time. They carried spare hats with them for some very quick changes, and also swapped coats so that the two hoteliers could talk to the two fake policemen. At the end, Colin Mace also put his police coat on, but only on one side, so that by turning from side to side he could play two people having a conversation. It’s remarkable how well it all came across, and it’s a testament to how hard these actors were working.

The train sequence was excellent. The sheets had been whipped off the trunks in Hannay’s flat by the cleaning lady who discovers the dead woman (do keep up), so they’re easily moved to form two rows of seats. As the train chugs along towards Scotland, the actors move with it (from the post show, this took some time to get the hang of, jiggling and talking at the same time, but it all fell into place eventually). When the train stops in Edinburgh (the platform sign moves across the stage, then comes to a halt), the guard and a paper seller materialise, and have a long conversation. Rather too long, I felt, and then Hannay himself asks them to get a move on. With the police now searching the train, Hannay opts for the snogging disguise, only the young woman he’s just assaulted takes exception to this and gives him away. He then climbs out of the window, and clambers back along the train (you know the sequence), eventually being pursued along the top of the train. As the woman and policeman look out of the window after him, they’re buffeted by the wind – she holds the brim of her hat, and gets it to shake in very realistic way, and the policeman does something similar. Hannay’s coat is blowing out behind him, and it all looked very effective. Eventually he gets on to the bridge, and there’s a ramp brought on across the back of the stage to show him falling into the river. It’s a great way to do an action sequence on stage, and it was both exciting and funny, an unusual combination.

Later, after Hannay has climbed out of the window, he’s chased across the hills, and escapes on the other side of the loch. This is the bit we see in silhouette. A white sheet comes down, and cut-outs of the banks of the loch come in on each side. Wee figures run down the hillside, then Hannay appears on the other side, as does a stag, and he’s off to apparent safety. The story followed the Hitchcock film so closely that we even got the mandatory appearance by the great man himself. During this part, as Hannay was racing up the far side of the loch, a silhouette of Hitchcock came on and walked about a bit on the left hillside. Then a plane appears from our left, and starts to follow him (Hannay, that is). The pole it’s on isn’t long enough to stop us seeing the hand holding it, as the plane flies over the loch and the far bank. Then, as the cut-outs are taken away, the actor involved has to make a quick getaway, though not too quick for us to miss the fun. There’s still some silhouette work, but with Hannay running around behind the sheet – he really did work hard, that chap.

The section in the house on the other side of the loch (the one owned by the man with the missing part of one finger – and we all know what that means!) involved a lot of doors. Actually, there was one door, but Mrs X (don’t remember her name) kept leading Hannay through it, then wheeling it around to give them another doorway opportunity.

The hotel that Hannay stays in with the young woman he’s handcuffed to (look, watch the film on DVD if you don’t know what’s going on!) had a wonderfully silly couple in charge. The room they’re shown to was a large wardrobe, which opened out to reveal a fold-up bed. They also had a fireplace, and frankly I’ve stayed in worse. The woman manages to slip the handcuff off her wrist, and creeps downstairs, just in time to hear the two fake policemen discuss bumping both of them off, so now she’s on Hannay’s side.

Hannay heads back down to London to stop the villain getting the secret plans out of the country. He heads for the London Palladium, a tip based on the woman overhearing the fake policemen’s conversation, and he realises the plans are securely hidden in the mind of Mr Memory. We’d seen Mr Memory before, and been amazed at his prodigious powers of recall. Sadly, we weren’t actually able to ask any questions ourselves, and less kind people might have thought the questions were possibly planted, but we put those ideas to one side, and just enjoyed seeing a master at work. Alas, the poor chap gets shot, and then the villain gets killed by a fifth man. He dies (and that takes long enough!) complaining that there’s only supposed to be four people in the cast, so whose arm was it that came through the curtain and shot him? We’ll never know. His dead body tumbled to the ground, looking suspiciously like a dummy.

After that, Mr Memory dies backstage, while the policeman and the stage manager have their two-in-one conversation. Hannay and the woman shake hands and he heads back to his lonely flat, now clear of dead bodies, to have a proper brood in a manly way. I think she turns up later, but I’m getting a bit hazy on some of the details. Anyway, it was a fun ending, and we all applauded very loudly as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

There was a post-show. A large number of folk stayed behind, mostly youngsters, and they asked some interesting questions. A couple got the seal of approval from the cast: how many people were helping out behind the scenes so that they could do all the quick changes, etc., and what did they do between a matinee and evening performance, given that they were working really hard during each show. I forget how many people there were helping out (but lots), but for the second question the point was made that when performance time comes round, there’s an adrenalin boost that sees them through – “Doctor Theatre”. They also explained that, unlike most tours of a West End show, they were a completely new cast, and had to learn how the play was currently being done, rather than developing their own characters, although it was inevitable that they would end up doing things according to their own styles. Their favourite scene was the train sequence, and they did mention that in an earlier performance elsewhere, which a member of this audience had been to, the lights hadn’t worked for the silhouette part, so it briefly turned into a radio play for that night only.

It was an interesting post-show with lots of questions, and all the cast getting a chance to participate, so we went home well happy. Definitely one to see again, and possibly the West End version, to see if there are any significant differences?

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Glaspell Shorts – April 2008

All three plays by Susan Glaspell

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th April 2008

 

Trifles    7/10

Directed by Helen Leblique

The first play in this set of three was Trifles, which I would give a 7/10 rating. The set was a poor family’s kitchen – stove, dresser, table, sink with bucket, wooden chairs. Wind whistling. Three men and two women arrive at the house. Two of the men, the authority figures, hog the stove. They ask the other man to tell them what happened the previous day, and we hear how he found the wife acting strangely and the husband dead. Off they go to check for evidence, leaving the women to get some things for the wife, who’s now in jail. As they talk about the wife and sort through her things, with a great deal more kindness than the men, they discover an empty bird cage, then a dead bird, and realise what’s happened. They tacitly agree to hide the evidence, but there’s a tense moment when the county attorney is checking the stuff they intend to take to the wife. As he looks through the pile of quilting material, will he discover the box with the dead bird inside? It’s a play that rejoices in noticing, and showing, small details, and it was done very well.

The Outside     6/10

Directed by Svetlana Dimcovic

The second play was The Outside, a 6/10, though only just. Several shaped boards with straw grasses set the seaside theme. There were also a couple of ropes hanging down; one to the floor, the other halfway. A chair completed the set. There were the sounds of waves, seabirds calling, and then two seamen attempt to bring a dead body on stage. Their captain tries to revive him, but no luck. The first two men chat, and we find out this is an old life-saving station that’s been closed down and is now lived in by a strange woman who spends most of her time staring at the dunes. Her servant is an older woman who hardly says a word. As in the first play, the men set the scene, and then we see the two women talking. This bit is more Ibsen-like in the language and use of symbolism. Both women are dealing with loss, and somehow seeing the dead body has loosened the older woman’s tongue. She tries to persuade the younger woman to see the positive side of the tussle between the dunes and the woods, and possibly succeeds. It’s a strange debate, and I don’t claim to understand what the author is trying to do here. It certainly didn’t feel as complete as Trifles, although a theme of men not understanding what women experience is coming through loud and clear.

[Thinking about it afterwards, the older woman, Allie, is trying to get the younger one, Mrs Patrick, to accept her loss. Mrs Patrick’s husband is missing, having gone on a long sea voyage, so it’s not absolutely definite he’s dead but it is likely, while Allie’s husband has been drowned at sea. Allie doesn’t want Mrs Patrick to waste so much of her life as she did herself, but the debate drifts into symbolic territory which becomes a bit confusing.]

Suppressed Desires      8/10

Directed by Phoebe Barran

The third play, originally scheduled to be the second one performed, is Suppressed Desires, and a definite 8/10 hoot if ever there was one. The set consists of a sitting room with desk, phonograph, a table with breakfast things, and a settle. This was a comic look at the misguided passion some folk had for the new-fangled invention of psychoanalysis. Henrietta is addicted to it. Her husband Stephen is not so much against psychoanalysis as completely against his wife inflicting it on him. His temper is close to breaking point, and when his sister-in-law, Mabel, who’s visiting for a while, tells Henrietta the dream she had the night before, which Henrietta tries to twist into an expression of suppressed desire, he loses it completely. He heads out, but he’s actually going to see Dr X, whom Henrietta worships, to get himself analyzed. Mabel goes to the doctor, too, and the final scene, when both Stephen and Mabel confront Henrietta with the suppressed desires that the doctor has uncovered, is absolutely hilarious. It would be extremely apt to say that Henrietta’s chickens have come home to roost, and with a vengeance. Her only option is to renounce the religion of psychoanalysis, and live happily with her husband. Wonderful stuff.

The performances were all excellent, as is usual at this theatre. The three plays were an interesting introduction to Susan Glaspell’s writing, covering quite a range of styles. The first play was a clever piece of writing, getting across some subtle points very well. The characters were recognizable very quickly, and the situation was presented clearly at the start, giving plenty of time in an admittedly short play for the dialogue between the two women to gradually reveal what we needed to know – why the wife had killed her husband. Given the amount of time devoted to crime drama these days on TV, the description of the wife’s behaviour and the motivation for the murder all seemed spot on. For a character who doesn’t appear, she’s a strong presence in the play, as is her husband, though to a lesser extent. The growing understanding between the two women is also nicely developed, as the sheriff’s wife moves from supporting the strict legal code to actively suppressing relevant evidence.

The second play started off in similar vein, with the three men setting the scene. This time, though, the women were arguing about how to handle their grief. At least, that’s what it was about on the surface. They were talking a lot about “the outside”, and I didn’t quite get what that was meant to represent. Otherwise, the debate was between life-affirming and life-denying, the dunes swallowing the trees and the trees regrowing over the sand. At one point, the servant had her hands together, demonstrating this constantly evolving pattern, and as she countered the other woman’s argument by saying that the trees would grow through again, her lower fingers crept through like new shoots – a lovely detail, and one of the reasons I like such intimate spaces – I’m close enough to spot such things.

The problem I found with this play was that it was too short to really get its point across. In particular, I found the servant’s abrupt rediscovery of her desire to speak, when we’d barely grasped her silence, was difficult to absorb. It seemed a convenient device from someone who evidently understood human nature very well, and who could have given us much more of that character’s silent eloquence before making better use of her transformation. Several people at the post-show discussion voiced similarly views, and a number clearly enjoyed the piece.

The third play was much livelier. From the off, there was plenty of humour, and it was clear that Susan Glaspell knew these type of people very well, enough to poke loving fun at them. The husband’s exasperation was brilliantly done, along with his remarkable calmness and sadness as he tells his wife that he has a suppressed desire to leave her. Personally I thought his desire was more overt than that, but this fitted perfectly with his wife’s obsession. I did wonder, along with at least one other audience member, whether he was simply setting his wife up to show her the consequences of her beliefs, but it became clear that he wasn’t. The complicated unravelling of Mabel’s dream was a comic masterpiece, and I do hope we’ll get to see more of Glaspell’s work again.

Post-show discussion: Sam Walters was here as usual, together with Kate Saxon, who directs Chains of Dew, and two of the three directors of these pieces – I didn’t get the names, though judging by the accents I’d say one of them was Svetlana Dimcovic. There were various questions about Glaspell’s work, and how these pieces fitted into the overall trend. I think Suppressed Desires was an early piece, while The Outside was a later work. Trifles is apparently her best known piece, as it’s included in a number of anthologies of American plays, but still very few students, even American ones, recognise her name. Sam Walters chose these plays to show the range of her work, and to compliment Chains of Dew, although he could have chosen a number of other pieces.

There was some information about her “set”, the group of American artists, writers, etc, who wanted to create home-grown American theatre. Most of the stuff being put on at the end of the 19th century was taken from the European tradition, and they felt it was time for the authentic American voice to be heard. This group supported Eugene O’Neill, and they were certainly influenced by, amongst others, Ibsen. They would head for the coast during the summer, and put on plays; there was some uncertainty about whether these were performed by themselves, as enthusiastic amateurs, or by professional actors as a bit of fun during the summer. Either way, they produced some good stuff, and Susan Glaspell was not the least amongst them, judging by this set of plays.

On the way out, Steve heard an American lady compliment one of the actors on the accents they used. Apparently she found them all totally authentic, and appropriate to each setting.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Doctor In The House – April 2008

3/10

By Ted Willis, from the novels by Richard Gordon

Directed by Bruce James

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th April 2008

I only managed the first half of this – I had some digestive trouble and couldn’t relax and enjoy myself, so it seemed better to head home. Steve stayed for the rest, and gave me feedback later. 3/10 was my rating for the first half, though as I wasn’t feeling so good, that may have been a bit mean. Steve reckoned a lowish 5/10 though, so perhaps I wasn’t so far off.

We are both familiar with the Doctor in the House storyline, and there was nothing new here. To put it on the stage, all the action was set in the flat that the students were sharing, which meant that the surgery “sketch” had to become a demonstration in the flat. Nothing wrong with that, but the material did seem dated and rather flat.

Whether this was accurate or not, it certainly seemed to be the opinion of the director, and possibly the cast as well. Steve described it as the “Morecambe and Wise” version of the story. The cast mainly got their laughs by making deliberate mistakes, fluffs, etc., and apparently ad libbing to the audience. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it looked to both of us early on that it was planned rather than accidental. For example, Simon Sparrow was using a microscope at one point, and a piece came off and rolled onto the floor. Fine, he came and got it, making a suitable funny comment, but then he kept playing with it. Whenever there’s a genuine mistake like that, the actors usually leave well alone, so it was pretty clear that this was a setup. Confirmation came when the performance ended on the button – no chance of that if they’d really been screwing up that much.

Having said this, the performances were very good. Damian Williams as Simon Sparrow did most of the fooling around, and did it very well. Eric Potts, one of our favourites, was playing Sir Launcelot Sprat, and although he was a bit too much on the cuddly side at times to strike fear into anyone, he was still very entertaining. The play was framed by the device of asking if there was a doctor in the house, as the leading lady had had an accident. Two doctors responded – two of the cast – and they started reminiscing about their time together as students. Cue the flashback. James Campbell as Grimsdyke did the occasional narration piece during the play, between scenes, and also finished it off, but there was nothing much to it other than emphasising that the action takes place in the 1950s, and allowing the numerous asides to the audience to fit in more comfortably. It’s a good enough device, and the performances were good, but there was one big drawback. The asides and funny business, while entertaining, tended to point out how unfunny most of the actual dialogue was. I certainly found the fooling around more fun than the play itself. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for me in my condition, and might not have been enough even if I’d been in top form. However, I’m happy to give the play the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if it had been done with more enthusiasm for the original piece, I might have enjoyed it a lot more.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot – April 2008

6/10

By Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 12th April 2008

This was a good production. It was pretty loud – I only used the headset briefly in the first half, during Simon’s testimony, but I used it a bit more in the second half.

The overall effect was surreal. The play was set in Hope, a suburb of Purgatory, according to a helpful angel. It concerns an appeal hearing on behalf of Judas Iscariot, to get him out of Hell and into heaven. The story jumps around a lot, so I’ll just throw things in as I remember them. St. Monica, resplendent in a red tracksuit, gave us a good insight into Judas’ suffering, and how she was requested to put in a good word with God about helping him. She visits Judas, and finds him frozen in grief, unable to move, with only one tear trickling down his cheek. She’s very moved by this, and does her best to help.

Corey Johnson played the judge who does his best to refuse to hear the case. We find out later that he’d hanged himself when he was on Earth, which is why he was trying cases in Purgatory. Really he should have recused himself in this trial, but that’s the afterlife for you. There’s a young woman lawyer, Cunningham, who’s determined to get him to change his mind and eventually succeeds, and another chap who’s keen to defend against the appeal. He’s so smarmy he took flattery to the next level. He flirted outrageously with Mother Teresa and constantly praised the judge, but he was brought up short by Satan. Cunningham has her own issues, as we discover later, but she’s mainly feisty and determined, and does her best to get Judas’s sentence repealed.

A jury is sworn in – it includes the angel who gave us the introduction at the start – and they sit in the front row of the auditorium, to one side. Witnesses are called, and it’s an illustrious list. One of the first is Satan, played by Dougie Henshall, all svelte and charming in a classy suit, but he could get nasty at times. He was very candid about his activities, but completely denied that he tempted Judas to betray Christ.

Initially, Satan was complaining that a couple of his souls had been nicked, and he wanted replacements, he wasn’t fussy who. He had an unsettling way of looking at the audience at this point. He also reckoned he didn’t compete with God – people were turning up in Hell all by themselves, while he sat on his sofa watching hour long dramas on HBO. I thought there was more humour in this than the audience responded to, and there were some gaps in the auditorium after the interval. The language wasn’t a problem for us – if you watch The Wire regularly, as we do, this was pretty tame – although I probably didn’t get all the cultural references.

Saint Peter told us of ‘Drew running off to be with Jesus. Matthew was also with Peter, and explained the attitude towards Jewish tax collectors. A nun read out a quote from Thomas Aquinas(?) during Mother Teresa’s testimony. She got a bit stroppy at having to read it out a second time, as the prosecution lawyer didn’t get it first time around. Personally I don’t blame him, it was a tricky piece of language.

Satan was recalled to the stand, and was very unhappy about it. He put both counsellors through Hell before continuing. Pilate was called, and arrived in sandy coloured plus fours with purple socks, carrying a golf club. He clearly enjoys all the facilities at the heavenly country club. Despite her best efforts, Cunningham was unable to pin any responsibility for Jesus’ death on him; that’s how cool Pilate was.

The second half started with Monica introducing us to Mary Magdalene. She was clear that she wasn’t Jesus’ wife, but his best friend. Judas was probably his second best friend, chalk to Jesus’ cheese. Jesus argued with Judas a lot, but always loved him. Then we were back into the court case.

Caiaphas gave testimony, and was fairly unmoved about it all, but he still couldn’t explain the difference between his betrayal of Jesus, and Judas’s. There were lots of different arguments put forward, but at times I felt the writer’s own passion had taken over, and I wasn’t able to connect with what was going on. On the whole, I liked Satan’s evidence best – he seemed to be pointing them in a more useful direction, had they cared to take it.

We saw two jury members, apart from the angel we met near the start. One was a woman still on life support back on Earth, so she was dressed in hospital blue; the other was a young man who didn’t yet know he was dead, and who didn’t ask anyone in case he found out. He ended the play by bringing Judas some beer, and then telling him a long story about how he cheated on his wife. At this point Judas has frozen up again, in the pose that Monica found him in earlier. Jesus is sitting on the far desk, having tried to help Judas get past his guilt. It was a fairly downbeat ending, but there was a lot to like during the rest of the play.

The set had a curved box covering the upper level, with a big slit at which characters could appear. Towards the back there was a fireman’s pole, while the floor underneath was a dangerous looking design of random and shattered tiles. To our left, the judge had a desk, to our right was the lawyers’ table and chairs, and in the centre was a manhole cover. Various lights gave a number of different effects, and on the whole I liked the sparse design and jumping from one scene to another without much explanation or sense of place (place on Earth, that is). One exception was Satan’s description of his meeting with Judas at a bar after the betrayal. Judas brought on two bar stools, and his Hawaiian shirt brightened the place up enormously. Satan pretends to be Clementine from Cappadocia, and Judas is so drunk he thinks Cappadocia is in Egypt. Or else he just didn’t care, which is more likely.

There was lots of humour in this, and lots of excellent performances. The down side was that some speeches went on too long, and the energy flagged in the second half with some of the repetitious questioning. I would have liked to have heard more from Judas himself, but then one of the points was that he was too locked up in his guilt and grief to help himself. I was sad that he couldn’t get past those things to accept the forgiveness that was on offer. To sum up, there was much to like, with some rough patches.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me