Prick Up Your Ears – August 2009

8/10

By Simon Bent, inspired by John Lahr’s Biography and the dairies of Joe Orton

Directed by Daniel Kramer

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th August 2009

There was an additional bit of humour for this audience only, or for most of the audience anyway. The play was about to start, with Matt Lucas as Kenneth Halliwell alone on stage, when an elderly gentleman, still to find his seat in row B, held proceedings up for a few minutes. The natives were getting restless, but with a few little expressions, a glance at his watch, and some slight head shakes, Matt had us in fits of laughter and still got us back for the actual start of the piece. Masterly. (The elderly gentleman did try for a reprise at the start of the second half, but apart from a few people snapping at him he didn’t make as much of an impact.)

Now for the set. There was an outside brick wall with two windows fronting the set before and between the acts. A road sign bottom left told us this was Noel Road, Borough of Islington, and by the end of the play a blue plaque had appeared in the middle of the wall to commemorate Joe Orton’s time there (I didn’t spot it any earlier). Once lifted, the bedroom of the flat was revealed in all its sixties splendour. The ceiling was tiled in alternating pink and yellow, like a ferocious Battenberg cake, and with a central ceiling light. The door was centre back, giving the occasional glimpse of the bathroom and access to the kitchen (off right) and front door (left). The walls were mostly bare, though behind Halliwell’s bed a collage of pictures was taking shape. This collage grew and grew, taking over the other walls, and finally the ceiling was lifted up to show another level covered with pictures. (I assume this represented the ceiling itself, as it was too tricky to replace that.) The two beds were against the back wall (Halliwell’s) and the left wall (Orton’s). There was a large stereo player to the right of the door, a mirror on the wall to the right of that, and loads of shelves and books. Near the right front was a desk with the typewriter and later the telephone. Clothes were kept on the floor or tidied away in the drawers under the beds.

The play covered the relationship between Orton and Halliwell from their early work to improve the drab lives of library book borrowers in their neighbourhood through Orton’s success and Halliwell’s increasing insecurity to the expected bloody ending. I felt the writing was sympathetic to Halliwell though not blind to his difficult temperament, and made it clear that he did contribute to Orton’s success, at least to some extent. I’ve no idea how accurate any of it was, but the play worked well on stage, all the performances were good and we had a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Black Album – August 2009

2/10

By Hanif Kureishi

Directed by Jatinder Verma

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th August 2009

I think I can best sum up this stage version of Hanif Kureshi’s novel with one succinct four-letter word. Dull. The only way I could really expand on that would be to repeat the word, several times. Fortunately, the seats in the Cottesloe were uncomfortable enough to keep me awake throughout the first half, so I can speak with some confidence as to the consistency of the dullness. Not even the Cottesloe seats could keep me totally alert for part two, but I got enough, with Steve’s input as well, to have a clear view of the production’s inadequacy.

How can this be, you may ask? Let me explain. The set was OK, a small room with two walls, opening wide from the back, each of which were used as screens before and during the performance. To begin with there were slogans, song titles, etc., then wallpaper and other furnishing images appeared which helped to create quick changes of scene. So far, so good.  The room had four doors, at least one window (the projections confused things a little) and a desk, sofa and chair. We could see the shadows of people knocking on the doors, and characters often used the front of the stage when they were walking outside. It all felt a bit rough and ready, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was also music playing from time to time – not entirely to my taste, being a child of the sixties – but it was decent enough.

The story is set in the 1980s and begins with a young man, Shahid, heading off to college to get a qualification. His father is dead, his older brother is married, and his mother, possibly with the brother(?), runs the family’s travel agency business. There’s some nice humour to do with an over-protective mother sending her youngest away but that’s soon over and then we get to meet the different strata of society that young Shahid starts mixing with.

These include the overly rigid Muslims who want to mould him in their image, Shahid’s brother and sister-in-law (confusingly referred to as “aunt”) who are intent on enjoying the commercial opportunities and fleshpots offered by the West, the right-on female lecturer who beds Shahid and encourages him to think for himself, and her husband, the communistic lecturer who sees everything as an aspect of the class struggle. He’s going through a bad time because the opening up of the Eastern Bloc is revealing unpleasant truths about the former Communist regimes; he’s developing a stutter to compensate.

Not so much a coming-of-age piece, then, as a where-do-I-fit-in story with a state-of-the-nation setting. Shahid ultimately rejects the moral certainties of the religionists to stay with the lecturer, and the play ends with the two of them getting down to some serious nooky while his former Islamic brethren turn themselves into suicide bombers. When the bombs go off, the actors fall down and the walls collapse outwards, leaving the final image of a startled Shahid sitting up on the sofa trying to comprehend what’s just happened.

The final image was a good one, but sadly there was little else in the play to rejoice over. The funniest joke was probably the eating of the sacred pakora (it contained a message from god) but that had been so well signposted that it lost a lot of its impact. I had the feeling that we were meant to be laughing a lot more – nothing else could explain the less-than-two-dimensional characters and the turgid dialogue, which the actors often delivered as if they were reading off the back of a cereal packet. But either the humour just wasn’t there, or we, along with most of this audience, just weren’t getting it.

I don’t mean to criticise the actors either. Steve thought at first that they might have simply been miscast, but on the whole I think they were all doing their best with a very meagre script. Shereen Martineau, playing three female characters, probably got the most out of her parts, while I thought Alexander Andreou who played Riaz, the community’s political leader, also came across slightly better than the rest. The style of the production suggested a rollicking farce, or the Asian Marriage of Figaro we saw some time ago, while the dialogue just didn’t support that. There was one character, a kind of identikit skinhead drug dealer, who was a complete muddle, first supporting one side, then the other, but in a nod to My Beautiful Laundrette I guessed he was in a relationship with Shahid’s brother Chili. Homosexuality was hinted at, but not made explicit (unless I was dozing at that point). Anyway, the skinhead guy moved in a very choreographed way, which reminded me of the way they often play the clown role in comedies by the likes of Molière, but no one else really fitted with this style. I did like the fight scene in DeeDee’s flat, with Chili suddenly proving very good at dealing with attackers, but it didn’t make up for the remaining two hours of dross.

If we hadn’t known better, we would have thought this was some am-dram version of a very dated piece by a not very good writer, and while it still came across as very dated we know the rest isn’t true. I put the problems down to the script, Steve feels the director has a significant share of the responsibility, and neither of us feels like arguing about it. Let’s leave it at that.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Helen – August 2009

8/10

By Euripides, translated by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Deborah Bruce

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Friday 21st August 2009

This was a jolly romp, or as a friend of ours put it “a lot of nonsense, but very enjoyable”. Frank McGuiness has done another excellent version of a Greek play, using modern idiom superbly well when needed, and bringing out the comedy in this rather fantastical piece by Euripides.

The premise is that Helen was not stolen away to Troy but secretly whisked away to Egypt by a vengeful Hera, who substituted a fake Helen, conjured from vapours, to satisfy Paris. (Paris, you will remember, pleased Aphrodite enormously when he picked her as the most beautiful goddess in Olympus, but Hera and Athena weren’t so happy. Olympus may have talent, but it also has spite, jealousy and a nasty taste for revenge.)

Helen is a bit fed up, firstly from waiting for Menelaus to come and get her, then with hearing how she’s reviled by everyone for causing the Trojan War, lots of deaths, etc., and now having to fend off the unwelcome attentions of the new king Theoclymenes who’s looking after her. She was left with his father originally, but he died and his son quite fancies having a Greek queen. The Trojan war was over seven years ago, there’s been no definite word of Menelaus (but lots of rumours that he’s dead) and Theoclymenes sees no reason not to marry Helen, even against her wishes, the brute!

A Greek sailor turns up, who tells Helen her husband’s probably dead, and she’s just getting down to some serious breast beating and wailing when her ‘women’ (several of them played by men) acting as a mini-chorus, advise her to check with the king’s sister first. This sister, Theonoe, is a prophet and knows everything that goes on. If she says Menelaus is alive, then he’s alive. Encouraged by this advice, and with a warning from the chorus to get a straight answer from Theonoe (you know what these oracles can be like) Helen heads off.

Next thing you know, Menelaus is staggering through the audience before collapsing in a heap on the stage. Revived by a singing person (after Streetcar yesterday, another white dinner jacket – is this a trend?) he tells us how difficult it’s been to get home from Troy. He no sooner gets within sight of Sparta than he’s blown to yet another corner of the Med. This time, his ship’s been destroyed and he’s left ‘Helen’ hidden away in a cave, with his men guarding her, while he goes in search of food for them all. His first encounter is with a mouthy servant, straight out of Molière, who tells him to get while the getting’s good. The king doesn’t like Greeks, apart from that Helen woman he wants to marry. This makes Menelaus prick up his ears, and when Helen returns, joyful at Theonoe’s news that Menelaus is alive, they enter into a strange reunion dance, neither one quite able to believe the other’s identity at first. When one of Menelaus’s men comes from the cave to tell him that ‘Helen’ has vanished, Menelaus gets over his doubts and soon they’re plotting how to escape from Egypt.

The first step is to persuade Theonoe not to tell the king her brother that Menelaus has arrived, as he would simply have him bumped off. It’s tricky, as Theonoe is torn between helping Helen’s legitimate husband and loyalty to her brother. Finally, an appeal to consider what her dead father would have done tips the scales; she knows he would have restored Helen to Menelaus, and agrees to keep the information from her brother.

That done, they need to find a ship that will take them all back to Sparta. Menelaus may have been one of the leaders who defeated mighty Troy but he hasn’t much of a clue when it comes to devious manipulation. For that we need Helen’s quick wits. She decides to tell the king that Menelaus has drowned, and before she can remarry she must carry out a symbolic burial at sea to appease the gods or whatnot. Menelaus himself will pretend to be a Greek sailor who saw his death and has brought the news to her. Once aboard the ship, Menelaus and his men can get rid of the Egyptian sailors and sail for home. It’s a good plan, but will the king fall for it?

Of course he will. He doesn’t have a clue about Greek rituals and he’s keen to get on with his own nuptials, so Helen and Menelaus are given carte blanche to kit the ship out with whatever they need for the ceremony.  There’s a nasty moment when the king suggests he should accompany her, but he’s quickly dissuaded, and the couple make their escape safely.

Now all that remains is to hear the news of their escape brought back to the king, followed by a final intervention by Castor and Pollux, and before you know it the band are playing a jazzy little number for the cast to jive to at the end.

It was good fun, and although we had the usual problem at the Globe of not being able to hear all of it, I caught enough to keep me happy. I noticed that both Penny Downie and Paul McGann were much clearer than the others, especially the first sailor who arrived to speak to Helen; he had an accent and a roaring delivery that made it very hard to hear his lines, though he was better when he turned the volume down.

The set had a large mound on the near side of the stage with a hidey-hole part way down it at the front. There was a lot of scaffolding everywhere, which allowed characters to climb up the far pillar, and some huge letters, presumably Greek ones, with equivalent cut-outs in the back wall. The letter nearest us was lifted up towards the end. Otherwise the stage was the usual size, and personally I think that’s a better size for this performance space.

The preamble to the play had two builders wandering round the set making desultory efforts to work. One of them even sat down and had his lunch, as well as reading the paper. There was some sparring between them because a tool which one dropped was moved by the other, leading to retaliation. These two turned up as Castor and Pollux at the end, with the addition of cute wings which was good fun, though I have no idea what the connection with the initial builders bit was.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Streetcar Named Desire – August 2009

9/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Rob Ashford

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 20th August 2009

The weather was cooperating today to give us the full sensuround experience – hot and humid, perfect for the Deep South. The actors didn’t have to do quite so much acting to convince us of the sultry weather in the play.

The set had the usual rough back wall, with fancy ironwork for the balconies, a spiral staircase far right (looking straight on at the stage) and an iron archway supporting something I couldn’t see properly. There was a bench against the back wall, two chairs against the posts and a cupboard or two on the far side, near what might be window shutters. A flickering gas lantern hung left of centre and I could see some indoor lights of the period lurking in the ceiling. A tiled floor and an angled door to our left completed the initial set.

After the opening lines, when all the men plus Stella head off to the bowling alley, Blanche arrives, looking two weeks short of completing a month’s rehab. The Kowalsky’s dining room table also arrives, just in time for Mrs. Hubbel to show Blanche in. The next scene is preceded by the arrival of the bedroom furniture and Blanche’s large trunk, and apart from props and set dressing that was the final setup. I liked the relative sparseness of it and the use of lighting to change the mood or highlight Blanche’s memories. Some scene changes may have taken a little longer, perhaps, but it gave an overall effect of vagueness that Blanche herself would have been proud of.

The sense of location on stage may have had its top buttons undone and one sleeve hanging off its shoulder, but the sense of time and character was as precise as an officer’s uniform. Both Steve and I felt sure that the text for this production must have been edited in some way, as it seemed so different to productions we’ve seen before. Possibly influenced by the iconic film, most productions seem to concentrate almost exclusively on the love/hate relationship between Stanley and Blanche, with Stella being quite a minor figure. This production certainly demanded a lot from Rachel Weisz as Blanche, demands that she fulfilled superbly, but it also created a more believable world around her, with strong performances from Ruth Wilson as her sister Stella, Elliot Cowan as Stanley, and Barnaby Kay as Mitch, the one fragile hope Blanche has to find happiness, or at least a reliable meal ticket.

I didn’t remember the story of Blanche’s husband killing himself, but it’s etched into my memory now. There were various references to her doomed love early on, and occasionally a good looking young man would appear at some corner of the stage, dressed in a white dinner jacket, and remain there, spotlit, to demonstrate what Blanche is remembering. At one point, an older man joined him and the two of them walked off together. Then finally, after Blanche has revealed the whole story to Mitch, we see the party re-enacted with Blanche dressed up as she was that night.

These were powerful images, which kept me aware of how much she was damaged by this early experience and made me more sympathetic towards her. Unlike my feelings towards Stanley, who was not completely repulsive, but whose dark side certainly got an outing this afternoon. His constant refrain “I’ve got a friend who…” got some good laughs, making this the funniest Streetcar by a long way. Despite this, and his unequivocal rape of his sister-in-law, he came across more sympathetically than I thought he would at one point. He’s not well educated or used to fine manners, but he’s the sort of man who will work hard to bring home the money to keep his wife and family, which is no bad thing. He also needs to be the boss in his own house, and Blanche upsets the equilibrium just by being there. She’s like the professor and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, turning everyone else’s routine upside down without contributing anything themselves. Stanley can’t be kind and let Blanche have her fantasies; he has to crush her, mentally and physically, and so he does. Even so, it’s possible to see the good in him, and that he might not have turned into a monster but for Blanche’s arrival. Or perhaps he would. Who knows?

Stella herself was magnificently played by Ruth Wilson. For once, these two women really seemed to be sisters, with different temperaments, true, but also with a shared upbringing and a fondness for each other. Her expressions while listening to Blanche’s stories were worth the price of admission on their own.

Barnaby Kay as Mitch gave us a good contrast to Stanley. A single man, still living with his mother, he was attracted by Blanche’s ladylike qualities and then repelled by her unladylike ones. It’s a small part but an important one, similar to the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie. His clumsy attempts to have sex with Blanche are fended off, while Stanley is much more brutal only a few hours later. And Stanley’s cruelty in telling Mitch the truth about Blanche’s recent sexual activities in Laurel is emphasised by showing Mitch to be a decent chap, who’s also suffered the loss of someone he loved many years ago.

The rest of the cast supported these central characters really well, and the whole production just soared. A great afternoon out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – August 2009 (2)

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves

Company: RSC Youth Ensemble

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 14th August 2009

This was our first experience of the RSC Youth Ensemble, and while I enjoyed some of the performance, and felt they came up with some good ideas for staging, it’s not something I would normally include in our schedule. Some of the youngsters showed promise, all had worked very hard, and the editing done by Aileen Gonsalves worked very well. There were minimal costumes and no set (the performance took place on the regular Winter’s Tale set) and one musician at the back adding sound effects and music.

The play started with the Mamillius character investigating a hamper which turned out to have some clothes in it. The other actors rushed onto the stage as he approached the hamper and soon they were flinging the contents all over the place, occasionally trying some piece of clothing out. A few actors were helped into their ‘costumes’ and then we were into Act 2 Scene 2, with Hermione telling the waiting women to take her son for a bit. Even less explanation of Leontes’ jealousy, and no bad thing either. There’s enough explanation of the story after Hermione has been arrested and Leontes is telling his lords why he’s done it.

But first there’s a nice bit of staging, as Mamillius shows his ability to freeze time and slips out of his waistcoat so he can watch the rest of the action unfold. This emphasised the story-telling angle, and it was good to see so much of Mamillius, often the forgotten character of this play. He’s also able to stop time during the trial scene so that Hermione can get up and walk off, saving the other cast members the trouble of carrying her.

Polixenes and Camillo were played by two of the actresses within the group and a good job they made of it. The shepherds’ arrival during a storm was demonstrated by the older one flapping the ends of her cagoule, while the younger one lost his hat and had to chase it. Autolycus was singing snatches of modern songs, while Mopsa and Dorcas duetted with Abba’s Take A Chance On Me. The Bohemia scenes ended with a boat chase across the diagonal of the stage, with Camillo and Polixenes in hot pursuit of Florizel and Perdita and the shepherds following on behind. The young shepherd was nearly lost overboard but was rescued by his father.

Back in Sicilia we get the reports of the reunions from the servants and then Hermione’s statue, which was revealed in an interesting way. From our angle, we could see her walking on from the far side, but the rest of the ensemble was rushing around the stage a lot so it may not have been obvious from the front. The ‘spare’ actors then formed up in a ring around her, and as Paulina displays the statue, these actors squat down, then rise up and peel away like a curtain, running off stage. Nicely done.

The play ends with all the actors except Mamillius moving to the back, facing away from the audience. He moves towards them, and Hermione is the only one who sees him. She goes to hold his hand, before letting it go and joining the rest of the group. There’s some trigger which I don’t quite remember, and a final game of energetic tag, and then they formed up in the middle and the lights went down to end it.

There was a short post-show discussion where the youngsters were able to ask questions of Michael Boyd, and the audience got to join in too. The actors were certainly articulate and enthusiastic – our pick of the crop were Nina Kastner as Polixenes, Jodi Bree as Hermione, and Andrew Hodgson as Autolycus.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – August 2009 (1)

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th August 2009

This performance was so much better than the one we saw back in June. The dialogue was clearer, the individual performances had more detail, our view was better, and we suspect there was less paper on the floor in the second half. I hadn’t been looking forward to seeing this one again, but now I’m glad I did.

Of course, we’ve also attended various talks, including a chat from Kelly Hunter which was both interesting and revealing about the production and her own choices. She mentioned that she uses the time off stage between her ‘death’ and her arrival as a statue to get her body prepared for staying still, including lowering her heart rate. It certainly pays off, as I was watching her closely tonight and I couldn’t detect any movement at all, which is remarkable. I’ve only seen one other person do so well on stage, and he was a professional street performer who stands still for a living (Don Juan In Soho).

So to any specific differences or extra things we spotted. I watched Leontes closely tonight, and saw how the interaction between Hermione and Polixenes sparked the idea of jealousy in him, and how their subsequent, innocent behaviour added fuel to the fire. Hermione was indeed getting physically close to Polixenes, but it was at her husband’s request, and as Kelly mentioned earlier, her large bump made her sexually unavailable so flirting would have seemed more permissible. I was also conscious that Polixenes himself announces that he’s been there for nine months and it seemed to me that that detail contributed to Leontes’ delusional obsession. The whole scene came across more clearly, and while I enjoyed some of the early humour, I found I was out of sync with most of the audience at times as I wanted to savour the darkness of Leontes’ behaviour rather than laugh at it.

I had no such problems when Paulina takes the baby to the king and gives him a good telling off in the process – plenty to laugh at there. The trial scene was also stronger, and I was starting to get the sniffles at the sad news, first of Mamillius’s death, then Hermione’s (even though I know how the play ends). The bear seemed to work better this time, and Steve remembered the mittens hanging down from the sleeves of the young shepherd – a nice touch, showing us directly that he’s not the sharpest tool in the box.

The second half rattled through much as before but I enjoyed it better. Autolycus seemed to have come on, or perhaps I was just used to this portrayal. His stint as a courtier, manipulating the two shepherds for his own ends, was definitely funnier. The final scenes, with the Bohemia crew arriving en masse in Sicilia, followed by the revelation of the statue and Hermione’s return to life, were all very good, and I noticed a reference to Mamillius which was quickly quashed by Leontes, which answers a point raised during some of the talks, that Hermione and Leontes don’t mention the boy at all during the reunion scene. The play finished as before, with Autolycus left out in the cold. The audience showed its appreciation, and I left the theatre happier than I’d expected to be.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – August 2009

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th August 2009

Not the understudies this time. I was a bit worried, as I’d liked several of the performances in the Understudies run, but I was looking forward to seeing Katy Stephens as Rosalind and Maria Gale giving us her Celia – we’d heard them talking about their roles earlier in the day. I needn’t have worried, of course, as the performances were just as good all round, and some were even better. I won’t name too many names, but Forbes Masson was superb as Jacques, especially in his opening scene, whipping us up into a frenzy of audience participation. Katy Stephens had commented on how hard she was finding it to do Rosalind’s intelligence as she tends to come more from the heart, but personally I found the strength of her Rosalind’s emotions helped the part enormously. After all, the woman has just fallen deeply in love, so I’d expect her to be feeling at least as much as she’s thinking, and that came across clearly in tonight’s performance.

I also loved Mariah Gale’s Celia. Her Rosalind was fine, but as Celia she was definitely on a par with Rosalind as a character. Her subtle reactions during Ganymede’s ‘wooing’ scenes with Orlando showed a young woman concerned for her friend and what she was getting herself into, while still being happy for her in having the man she loves present in the forest. She managed to behave girlishly without being silly, and I loved the way she totally joined in Rosalind’s emotional rollercoaster when Orlando fails to turn up the first time. Both actresses have created a very strong relationship between the characters, the closest I’ve seen on stage.

I was also aware from this angle that the Duke was looking at the girls as they applauded Orlando during the wrestling, and it seemed to me that, having discovered who Orlando is, this is what triggers his banishment of Rosalind, as he thinks she’s having too much of an influence on his own daughter. I didn’t spot any significant changes to the staging, although I did see more of some bits, and of course there were more lords both in the court and in the forest. There was an unpleasant smell after the forest feast – presumably something had been spilled while grilling the kebabs – and a couple of Phoebe’s rolls disappeared into the audience, but otherwise all seemed well. In fact, the only minor (and I mean minor!) quibble I had at the start was that Orlando, the youngest son of Sir Roland, looked older than his brother, but I soon got past that, especially as Katy had informed us that Jonjo O’Neill is a great snogger. (On stage, at least, I have no idea what he’s like in real life.)

The rabbit skinning incident drew fewer squeamish responses from the audience this time and I hope we were suitably supportive of the changed epilogue tonight. Katy certainly looked happy at the end, as did the rest of the cast. And so were we.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me