Darker Shores – December 2009


By Michael Punter

Directed by Anthony Clark

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 12th December 2009

The set for this piece was wonderfully atmospheric, and completely suited a Victorian Christmas ghost story, with several banisters going across parts of the stage at various angles and many layers of black curtain swags. Very creepy, and all in black. The central space had a bed over to the left, a table which kept fairly central but did get moved a couple of times, a bureau back right and several very creepy statues on plinths which were covered with black cloth. The back left area was concealed by a curtain, and could be either the French windows to an otherwise inaccessible terrace or an open space, used for the golf course or similar. To the right was a big black door, which could open on its own if required. The scene was set for thrills and terror.

This play opens with two men. One, Tom Beauregard, an American of the Southern persuasion, claims to be a medium and a Doctor of Spiritual Science. The other, Gabriel Stokes, is a scientist, a natural history professor at Cambridge and keen to write a book that will, once and for all, completely refute Darwin’s preposterous assertion that man is descended from apes by distilling the evidence against from that authoritative scientific tome, the Bible. Not the brightest chimp at the tea party, then.

Her does, however, have an intriguing experience which he wants help with. The story was a bit complicated, and I’m sure I didn’t get all of it, but the gist is this. Stokes, who has lost both his wife and young child, was staying at an old house somewhere on the bleak and desolate Sussex coast. (Bleak and desolate? Sussex?) The house had previously been owned by a chap who was now dead, but who had created a beautiful garden terrace outside his window accessible only through the French windows in his room. A subsequent owner had been involved in dubious practices, despite being a missionary, and had disappeared in Africa, presumed dead. His housekeeper, Mrs Hinchcliffe, still looked after the place and took in paying guests, hence Mr Stokes’s involvement.

Lodged in the very room with the garden terrace outside and dominated by the creepy statues, it’s not long before Stokes is disturbed by lots of banging about in the room above, which had been the missing-in-Africa owner’s workroom. Nobody else hears these banging noises, and then Stokes sees a figure at the windows. He’s pretty scared by all of this, naturally enough (I was holding Steve’s hand a fair bit throughout this play) so he asks Beauregard to come down to Sussex and sort the whole thing out.

Beauregard is keen enough at first, but when Stokes uncovers his trickery during their first séance he decides to leave immediately. A chat with Mrs Hinchcliffe changes his mind, and during an attempt to contact the deceased spirit by the others (Stokes, Mrs H and the maid, Florence) Beauregard returns to witness the denouement.

I must admit the arrival of the ‘ghost’ was very well done, and the choice Stokes makes was pretty much inevitable. While it wasn’t as scary as The Woman In Black, it still had its chills, along with several funny lines and excellent performances from all. The only thing holding it back was the lack of response from the audience who seemed a bit sluggish.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Mother Courage And Her Children – December 2009


By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner

Directed by Deborah Warner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 5th December 2009

Straight off I was worried by the setup, especially the droning music in the background. Actually, it was more like the foreground. It was a really unpleasant sound, and, like the Therese Raquin earlier (Lyttelton, November 2006) I was considering leaving, only this time it would have been before the play began!

The set suggested some kind of protest situation, with an area roped off, cones and tape everywhere, and an industrial feel to the stage. When the play started, with the army recruiters meeting up to discuss business, the music stopped (thankfully), but the stage was the same. It was only at Mother Courage’s entrance that things started to liven up.

The gaping hole in the middle of the stage allowed a platform to be raised up, and on it was the travelling van Mother Courage used to peddle her wares. It was being pulled by two of her children, and once it had reached stage level, it went on a long journey round the place. All the while, Mother Courage (Fiona Shaw) was standing on top of the van, singing her song, wearing a peculiar costume which suggested both modern and old, and demonstrating her star status with a pair of sunglasses. The musicians may also have started to appear on stage around this time, as they frequently did. The band, led by Duke Special, did some excellent numbers throughout, ranging across styles, and making the production much more entertaining.

The sets changed frequently, always using the simplest techniques to create the locations. For an army tent, one canvas sheet would be lowered, with flaps for windows and doors. There were more elaborate pieces for the scene where Courage’s daughter warns the sleeping townsfolk, and often the van was the centre of it all. We were also treated to short readings by Gore Vidal of the bits between the scenes, telling us what was happening in the war, and what life was like for the people (usually dire). Brecht’s dry wit shone through, despite the horrors being related.

Fiona Shaw’s performance was excellent. She gave us a very clear picture of a woman who thought she was taking advantage of the war, but who was completely caught up in it, and eventually almost destroyed by it. Her family certainly was, as all three children died as a result of the war, and she was left alone, trying to keep going.  Her courage and brazen rapaciousness were both attractive and repellent, but it’s her greed for life that stands out most for me. Even after the beating that life gives her, she’s still battling on, perhaps stupidly, and perhaps bringing about her own downfall, but still keeping on. And clearly a punk, as Fiona’s dancing during one of the numbers indicated.

The other performances were also good, and I’m glad I stayed to watch it, but even so, it’s still Brecht, and there were lots of tedious patches which simply had to be endured. I also find it difficult to relate to these characters, which reduces my enjoyment, but for those who like this sort of thing, I suspect this was a very good production. It certainly got an enthusiastic response from the audience, and I’m glad to report that there were plenty of youngsters around us today.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me