A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It ) – August 2012

2/10

By Dmitry Krymov, loosely based on some elements of Shakespeare’s play

Directed by Dmitry Krymov

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory/School of Dramatic Art Theatre

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012

For lovers of this director’s work, this was a joy, but it certainly won’t persuade me to sample the rest of his repertoire. The performers were all brilliant at what they do, and there were some fun moments during the hour and forty minutes it took to get through (plus a cute little dog running around on stage), but the rest just dragged, and I was surprisingly unmoved by the deaths of the two lovers at the end. For once, I didn’t even have the heart to pretend to applaud, apart from the ballet dancers. Fortunately the regular fans more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm, and gave them a standing ovation.

Despite the title, this was not A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the director found he could only relate to the mechanicals in this play, so all we got was their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nothing else – no Duke, no lovers, no fairies. Before the start, the stage had wooden flooring covered with a large plastic sheet. The backs of the chairs near the stage had cloth covers too, and Steve soon realised that water was likely to be involved.

We sat by the right hand walkway, only this time it had been removed and stairs put in (similar on the other side). Along the length of these stairs lay a huge tree trunk, with the base resting on one of the steps up to the stage. Several of the mechanicals were guarding it and chatting to members of the audience as well. Above the central aisle hung a huge chandelier, swathed in white cloth and hanging quite low. At the back of the thrust on both sides were two makeshift boxes, and I assumed these would be for the onstage audience. They had assorted chairs, and were marked off with planks of wood resting on piles of bricks or whatever else was around. The areas of the circle above them were also sectioned off, and I could see colourful throws spread on the backs of the seats. At the very back was a sheet, but it didn’t come into use till later, and apart from that I think the stage was bare.

With the house lights still up – they were regularly on for the audience participation sections – the action began. The mechanicals started talking loudly amongst themselves, and lifting up the tree trunk they carried it onto the stage. Others came along with branches, and because the items were so big, they filled the stage and even brushed the audience as the mechanicals swung them around trying to sort them out. There was also a small dog, a terrier, which ran down the tree trunk and around the stage, getting to know the audience.

The tree and its branches disappeared off the back, and then a fountain was brought on down the same aisle, with water pouring out of it intermittently on either side. We didn’t get splashed much in the end, and the performers were quick to get the buckets under the flow (and towels were handed out immediately afterwards). The fountain was also taken off at the back, and neither tree nor fountain was seen again, although the sheet at the back had some smudgy markings that may have been intended to represent leaves. The dog stayed behind, and positioned itself centre back, while a screen came down on which was projected a long-winded description of the mechanicals argument. Apparently they had been discussing Shakespearean verse styles, and there appeared to be lots of in-jokes about the director’s wife; the fans were laughing, but apart from some lines I didn’t find it particularly funny. The dog sat up a few times during this, and again the fans thought this was hilarious. I noticed the dog had something attached to its collar – possibly to give it instructions remotely?

I’m not sure of the exact order of events – always a problem with non-textual business – but fairly soon the mechanicals came on stage half-dressed and proceeded to put on their evening clothes. They were in a tight group in the centre of the stage, and when they were done they formed up in rows and waited. At one point a woman tried to push her way to the front, but couldn’t get through. Then the on-stage audience arrived. There were lots of them, including two young girls, and they took a long, long time to get on stage, look around, and then take their seats. There was some fun as a stroppy older woman character, who was carrying a bunch of flowers, used it to brush wood shavings off the plank at the front of their box; this was when I realised there were wood shavings on all their chairs, indicating the rough and ready nature of the mechanicals’ performance. The way that woman cleared the chairs was good fun, even if it went on far too long. Then there was the inevitable wrecking of the boxes themselves, with people falling into the stalls and planks of wood landing on the stage. It was all very predictable and took many minutes to sort out, and it was probably at this point that I first considered leaving before I wasted too much of my precious time.

After they were seated, the on-stage audience were all given champagne to drink (yawn), and then there were several minutes of ringing phones to sort out. Later in the performance, one chap took a call on his mobile and we saw the dialogue come up on the surtitles. He told someone he was in Stratford (funny) and was paying a fortune for international roaming! (even funnier) He had several goes at switching his phone off before the ‘action’ continued.

Back at the start, the on-stage audience were seated, refreshed, and phone-free, so they waited for the performance to begin, as did we. And we waited. And we waited. I found myself thinking that Communism had given the Russian people great patience – all that queuing for bread, perhaps. Then the performer front right whispered something to the chap next to him, and it was passed back, one to another. When the surtitles started up, we learned that the chap who plays the lion was being told not to pare his nails (he didn’t, he informed us).

One of the performers came to the front and turned to face the group on the stage. He delivered an approximation of Peter Quince’s wonderful prologue, conveying the sense of awkwardness and confusion beautifully. He wanted the audience on stage to know that their performance wasn’t ready yet, but as they hadn’t seen it before they wouldn’t know that. They weren’t intending to give the audience any enjoyment, though if they did enjoy it that was fine. They just wanted to give a good performance. They pushed some of these surtitles through so fast that I could only just catch the sense of the last one; something about enjoying the fact that we realised the performance wasn’t ready. Whatever the punch line, the rest of the speech was funny, and for once the time they took was worth it. I even started to enjoy myself. But it wasn’t to last.

After the speech and whispering (they may have happened the other way round) one of the actors fell flat on his face, passing out from all that waiting. The others picked him up, and he ran back as if to go off stage to deal with his bloody nose, but then he stopped and came back to the front to explain what they were doing. They had obtained a copy of a very ancient text from a friend who was working for the RSC, or possibly from the KGB vaults, and had learned that Pyramus and Thisbe were real people and that theirs was the first true love story. Forget Adam and Eve – who else could they fall in love with? – this was the real thing, and all other lovers’ stories sprang from them. The list was long, and there were several laughs along the way. But each love story has a THING, the THING that caused Eve to eat the apple, etc. The THING in Pyramus and Thisbe’s case was a LION. They had decided to strip the Pyramus and Thisbe story down to the essentials and were going to present that to us.

I think the group broke up after this bit, and then two large black bags were carried onto the stage and placed on either side. The one on the left turned out to be Pyramus’s puppet, while Thisbe’s was on the right. They spent a lot of time setting up Pyramus; the puppet was at least ten feet tall, with the performers just able to walk under his legs. He had two large hands, one of which could actually grasp things, and the face stuck to his head looked like an icon’s face, a young one at that, and quite good looking. They played with the idea that the puppet was difficult to control, having it fall over a couple of times by the boxes, and then brought it over to the front of the stage where it teetered on the brink for a few moments. As it was just by us, I spotted the puppet’s reaction to not falling on top of the audience – he wiped his hand across his brow and then flicked it to one side. I found it amusing, but I suspect the gloomy lighting hid it from the fans in the audience as there was no response from them. Mind you, there was plenty going on with all the mechanicals rushing around, the dog scampering here and there, and occasional interruptions from the on-stage audience, particularly the outspoken older lady who’d been cleaning the seats with her flowers. When they did interrupt, the performers stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for them to finish.

Once they had Pyramus up and walking, he went over to the circle on the left side and held out his hand to the people there. The woman who was with the children up there was frightened, and swatted at his hand with her bunch of flowers to make him go away. The older girl realised what was wanted, took the flowers and gave the bunch to the puppet, who grasped them in his hand. Then the stroppy one on the other side took a rose out of her bouquet and demanded that Pyramus pick that up as well. This was when the balancing acts came to the fore. The Shustov brothers, highly regarded acrobats in Russia (and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment) did a couple of routines to hand Pyramus extra flowers to put in his bouquet. To give him the rose, they first had to get one of them on the other’s shoulders, and this took a few goes, as the upper one kept falling over the lower one and landing on the stage. Once they were balanced, someone handed the top guy the rose (flicked up from another acrobat’s foot?) and he held it out as Pyramus came over and took it in his right hand, then moved it over and slotted it into the bouquet he was holding in his left hand. It was impressive work for a puppet. To cap all this, the brothers then went into reverse, as it were, and handed Pyramus another colourful bunch of flowers with one balanced on the other’s head, and the flowers held in his outstretched foot. It was impressive, I’m sure, but as my view was blocked almost entirely for this bit I had to guess at what was going on from the audience’s reactions. They did take a break during this section – don’t remember if it was another audience interruption or not – and I could see the top brother walk his way down the wall and rest there, at right angles to the lower brother, while whatever else was going on was completed. Pyramus added these flowers to the bouquet with equal dexterity, and to much applause.

There was another balancing act as well, but neither of us can remember what was given to Pyramus by this means. This time it was Boris Opletaev (as far as I can tell from the pictures in the program) who stacked several cylinders, with short wide ones being placed rim down and longer narrow ones placed across them on their side and oriented in different directions. When he placed a board on top of these, we could see that the stack rolled every which way, and yet he stepped up onto it, steadying himself with a hand on a nearby shoulder, and stood there, rocking relatively gently, to do whatever this bit required. It was an impressive performance – they all were – and a momentary relief from the monotony.

With Pyramus good to go, we only needed Thisbe, so her bag was unpacked too. The woman who had been hanging around at the start turned out to be Thisbe’s voice; she and one of the men sang beautifully to convey the characters’ feelings, sometimes just ‘ah’ sounds, sometimes songs in German. Thisbe herself was as tall as Pyramus, and made out of odds and ends as he was. She had a white skirt, two breasts, and a doll’s head, large size, and her mouth worked when she was talking. We didn’t get any surtitles for the songs, but her “Nein” in response to Pyramus’s declaration of love was pretty straightforward. She said ‘no’ a few times, and Pyramus had to flaunt his shapely leg before she would sit down with him and chat.

Once seated towards the back of the stage, the wooing could proceed in earnest. First the food. Pyramus obviously likes his women well fed, so he gave her a peach, then a pair of cherries, then a pineapple, still with its spiky top. It was impressive enough the way he held out his hand, grasped the fruit which was put into it, then transferred it round to Thisbe’s mouth. She was a girl with a good appetite, too; her head had been changed during the move to the back of the stage, and now she had a head which flipped back at mouth level so she could swallow large fruits whole, which was very funny. She did stop Pyramus when it came to the pineapple though; instead, she took the fruit herself and put it in her own mouth, leaving a bit of the top sticking out, also funny.

For entertainment, the dog act came forward, and the lovely little chap (I’m talking about the dog) did some fun tricks, including a back flip. With the foreplay done, Pyramus needed some help to get ready for the next stage. Accompanied by many sound effects, his metal crotch panel was unscrewed and a large penis thrust through the gap. It was lying on the floor, and a pump had been brought on to get it upright, when the on-stage audience started to protest about the appropriateness of such things when there were children present. To be fair, it was mainly the old lady, but even so they had to interrupt the coitus, and a deflated Pyramus left the stage through the back curtain.

With Thisbe left alone, the lion made his appearance. Another black bag had been brought on and left near the front. Not as big as the others, it was still large enough to have a person inside it, so I wasn’t surprised when the lion leapt out. Don’t know who played him, but it was a lovely costume, with claws on the knees as well as the hands, a shaggy mane and a long tail. One chap held the tail and used it to drag the lion back when needed – I assume it would be too difficult to move backwards in that costume – and two other men attached bat wings to the lion’s back and held them open, flapping them to suggest a devil-lion. As they stood in front of me throughout this scene I had to rely on my knowledge of the story to guess what was happening. After each lunge of the lion towards Thisbe, I did see one chap come forward and place strips of white cloth and red ribbon around the centre of the stage, obviously representing the bloody cloth that Pyramus will find later. At some point, possibly before the lion left the stage, the stroppy old woman interrupted the action to tell a long-winded story about a lion that had destroyed a town, some of which was quite funny.

After several lunges at Thisbe, the lion left the stage. Thisbe was in a terrible state. She was so terrified that she peed in a basin for a very long time. Then she too left the stage, and they used a lovely piece of staging to create the moonshine. A rope of some reflective or glowing material was laid out in a wavy pattern on the stage further back from most of the bloody strips of cloth. Behind the sheet, a wobbly moon rose, and as it did so, the rope lit up, shining in the moonlight. It was a beautiful effect.

Pyramus returned to discover the bloody strips of cloth by this light, and he went to pieces at this point, literally. His arms came off and danced around towards the front of the stage, while his head came off and turned around towards the back. When it turned back again, his face had aged – a good trick – and as this happened twice he ended up with what looked like a bearded Christ face. He stabbed himself through the stomach and fell forward, dead or dying.

Thisbe returned accompanied by four swans carried by four of the performers. The swans had red beaks which looked suspiciously like dildos to me, and the rest of the swan was made of a sheet wrapped round and round for the neck and bundled together for the body. While the woman on stage had normally sung for Thisbe, I think it was the woman in the circle who now sang, and she had a lovely contralto voice, deep and rich. Thisbe saw Pyramus, and after a short lamentation she also fell on top of him, with the swans grouped round them, bobbing their heads. Pyramus raised his head briefly when Thisbe arrived, but it sank back down again quickly, and finally the show was over. Or was it? There was no way of telling with this production.

The on-stage audience were offered the option of an epilogue or a dance, and the old lady was very emphatic that they do the dance. Being Russian, this naturally meant ballet, and four dancers in tutus came to the front of the stage. As the music for the Dance of the Cygnets started up, they formed a line – with difficulty, as one of the four was preening herself in front of the audience too much – and did a set or two of the dance in step with each other. After that, things went from bad to worse, with heads going in different directions, bobbing up instead of down, and some cygnets forgetting which direction they were dancing in. It was a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene: with the Russian fondness for ballet this would instantly have illustrated the mechanicals’ ineptness, and it reminded me of the Nine Worthies scene at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The on-stage audience gradually left during this dance (lucky people), and when they’d finally gone the dancers stopped, very relieved and gasping for breath. Most of the cast were towards the back of the stage, with the dancers breathing heavily near the front, when the stroppy old lady came back to have a word with the man who was sweeping the stage. He’d been getting in the dancers’ way, wanting to sweep the bit of stage they were dancing on, but now he stopped and talked with the woman. She had recognised him – he’d played Shakespeare – and although the surtitles didn’t give us much of their conversation, I gathered that she was arranging to see him sometime soon. It was a little romance to end the evening with, after this tale of thwarted love. The music started up again, the dancers tried to carry on, but they were completely out of sync this time and the whole show ground to a halt.

The man with the bloody nose came to the front to tell us that although there was no need, he’d summed up the story for us. He handed a piece of paper to the main singer, who stood centre front and started scat singing – quite funny. The woman also came forward and tore off the bottom half of the paper, then joined in with a different set of scat noises. Others also joined in, some taking smaller and smaller bits of paper, until there was a cacophony of music. I don’t remember how they ended this bit, but eventually the cast disappeared off the back of the stage, though the bloody nose chap came back on to remove something which he’d used near the start to keep some raised flaps in place. As they fell back, he left the stage and the applause suggested we were finally at the end of the performance. The whole cast came back on to take their bows, the director presumably appearing as well although I couldn’t see him; some in the audience stood, there was lots of cheering, and I left after the first set of bows, glad to be getting out into the fresh air.

While this description of the staging may sound interesting, I’ve left out a lot of the boring bits, mainly because nothing happened during them. The Russian ability to pause is beyond belief, and the length of time they spent on some sections of the business left me cold. The physical business was usually telegraphed well in advance, and while I enjoyed some bits, and laughed quite a few times, there wasn’t enough of that for me. I like puppetry very much and I was becoming very fond of these two giant people, but the pauses for other business, including the woman’s lion story, drained any enthusiasm I’d developed for the performance, and I was very glad when it ended. I haven’t looked at my watch so often at the theatre for a very long time, and I hope I never feel the need to do so again. Brilliant as the performers clearly are, this just didn’t work for me, but thankfully most of tonight’s audience enjoyed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012

2/10

By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Winter – July 2011

2/10

By: Jon Fosse

Directed by: Teunkie van der Sluijs

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th July 2011

God, this was dull. Mind you, I slept through most of it, which is probably why I didn’t hate it as much as some of the audience at the post-show. We’ve added this writer to our do-not-see-again list.

It’s a two-hander. A man, clearly a businessman, enters a park and seems to be waiting for someone. A woman in scruffy clothes runs in looking like she’s drunk or on drugs, or possibly ill, and starts to talk to him. He tries to avoid her and leaves, but she calls after him and for no apparent reason he stops and becomes involved in a conversation of sorts. They end up in his hotel bedroom – he’s in town for work, but seems happy to blow that off – they have sex, and then she leaves him. He’s infatuated, and when she doesn’t meet up with him later as she promised to do, he hangs around the town looking for her. When he does spot her again in the park, she’s wearing the nice coat he gave her, and they again go to his room, where their relationship goes absolutely nowhere. End of the play.

My difficulty with this piece was the banal nature of the dialogue. Instead of being mysterious and absorbing, such as Pinter often achieves, it sounded very much like the writer had taken lines from a lot of soap opera episodes and cut and pasted them together. As a result there was no sense of real conversation, of character, of an interesting background to either of them, of any insight into the human condition beyond the basic level, and so there was nothing to engage with at all as far as I was concerned. It was inkblot theatre, and I don’t get on with that style at all.

Having said that, the actors did a great job with their parts, and I could feel that for them there was a great deal of tension in the scene. Pity it didn’t translate itself to me, but that’s life, or rather, art.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dumb Show – April 2010

2/10

By Joe Penhall

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th April 2010

Dire. Superficial. Banal. I rarely get to use these words to refer to a performance we’ve seen, but today they’re all apt. The second half showed some improvement, but not enough to raise the overall rating, and although there were a few good laughs, for the most part this was a waste of a good afternoon. (Although as it was also the day of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud closing UK airports, that may a little unfair.)

The story was of Barry, an Asian performer whose show was never clearly specified, being courted for business purposes in a hotel suite by a couple of bankers, who are actually investigative journalists out to get a story for the Sunday sleaze papers about how a well-loved entertainer is actually involved in naughty stuff, such as booze, drugs, improper sexual advances, etc., etc. You know the sort of thing. With a name like Barry, I assume the central character was originally more home-grown, but with Sanjeev Baskar playing the part it was fine-tuned to reflect his background.

The reporters, played by Emma Cunniffe and Dexter Fletcher, want to get more details from Barry to confirm what they’ve already got, and to find even more juicy bits to make the story bigger. They use all sorts of tactics, from bullying to enticements, and it was very clear that nothing they said could be believed. There was a short spell in the second half when Barry stood up to them, but then he went back to being putty in their hands, for no discernible reason I could see. Eventually he left, threatening them with all sorts of lawsuits if they published their story, and the final scene shows Barry meeting again with Liz in the same hotel room so she can tempt him to provide a follow-up story of how much he loved his wife Valerie, now dead from the cancer(?) that she’d been suffering from during Barry’s earlier stint in the room. The play ends with Barry, who’d been going to walk out on her, taking the phone to speak to her editor and after thinking for a long while, asking how much the fee would be.

The story wasn’t new, given how much this topic gets bandied about these days, and from this performance I’d have to say that the writing was pretty weak. There weren’t enough laughs to make it a properly enjoyable piece, and while the superficiality of the writing might be excused on the grounds that these are superficial people, that level of dialogue doesn’t support this long a play unless it’s done entirely for laughs. It takes a much better standard of authorship to make us care about the shallow, conceited, callous folk on show here. The opening was so fast and furious it reminded me of David Mamet’s work, but this was definitely sub-sub-sub Mamet in quality.

However, we’re both agreed that if this play does come around again with a different cast, we might be prepared to give it a go. Emma Cunniffe was fine, and Dexter Fletcher would have been fine if he had projected sufficiently for us to catch more of his lines, but Sanjeev Baskar was just too nice to give the production the darker edge it needed. Far from seeming the alcoholic, cheating husband who snorted cocaine like his life depended on it, he looked more like a man who would be home in good time for dinner because his wife might tell him off in a loud voice if he didn’t. His emotional range was limited, so that, apart from a flash of anger in the second half, his character didn’t seem to be feeling much at all. In the opening scene, when the two journalists are wheedling him into having some champagne, more could have been made of Barry’s alcoholism, and the fact that their pressure makes them seriously complicit in his bad behaviour later, after he’s downed most of the contents of the mini-bar.

That aside, Sanjeev can deliver a funny line really well; if only there had been a lot more of them, we’d have really enjoyed ourselves.

© 2010 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

Wallenstein – June 2009

2/10

By Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Mike Poulton

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th June 2009

It’s rare for me to miss the second half of something, as even quite dull productions can improve after the interval, but tonight’s performance was too much even for my boredom threshold. I wasn’t interested in the political manoeuvrings, the characters were largely insipid, there was no tension or drama for me and although I’d smiled at a few of the jokes, there were too few of them to keep me coming back. I admit it’s been a tiring week so far, but in similar circumstances I’ve managed to enjoy a number of productions more than this one, so I don’t think it’s entirely down to me.

The set was a sprawl of paving slanted across the stage with a slight rake. At the back was a peculiar wall – couldn’t really make it out – with double doors in the middle facing the slanted paving. A couple of bare tree trunks completed the picture. We could see through to the back at either side, and presumably through the doors when they were open (we weren’t in the right position to see).

The story concerns Wallenstein, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces for a large part of the Thirty Years War. He was promised the Kingdom of Bohemia by the Emperor when he took the job on, but the Emperor has not been “in the giving vein” for quite some time, so ambition is vying with loyalty and Wallenstein is contemplating a pact with the Swedes (currently enemies) so he can turn his forces on Vienna, clear out all his political opponents and gain his crown. His daughter and wife are involved (in a minor key), he has various generals who are loyal to him and some who are in the pay of the Emperor’s people, there are emissaries from Vienna and the Swedes (at least in the first half) and we get an early glimpse of a friar who preaches against Wallenstein to his own men (he’s bundled off stage pretty quickly).

It’s the familiar story of the successful leader brought down by the jealousy and fears of others, albeit a version with lots of nooks and crannies, and for once the leader himself has plenty of ambition and arrogance. There are a lot of arguments presented but few real feelings, which is probably why I found it difficult to get involved. Steve had seen a previous adaptation years ago at the RSC so perhaps he enjoyed this one more because he’s already seen a good production. Schiller had so much material when writing about Wallenstein that another version apparently runs to ten hours on stage, so at least this adaptation is a reasonable length but perhaps that’s its problem – too much to cram into the time. The actors were all doing a fine job, as usual, but it wasn’t for me.

I did like the emphasis on the fact that Wallenstein and his generals were paying their men out of their own coffers. It makes it seem even more unreasonable for the Emperor to sack Wallenstein and still expect to keep his armies to fight with, but that’s politicians for you. I wish they’d made more of the fact that this was a war where people kept changing sides, enemies becoming friends and vice versa. Despite the apparent principles involved – Catholicism versus Protestantism – there’s little to be seen of principles through the smoke of war, and bringing out that contrast more could have given the piece more humour and more focus, but it was not to be. Ah well.

I did attend the post-show, and there were some interesting questions and answers. Nothing that changes my opinion of this production, alas, but I’d be more interested in seeing a different version. The adaptor’s focus was on showing a man who had a fantasy of kingship but who didn’t really understand what it was about. I might have engaged with the piece better if that aspect had come out more in the first half. The cast apparently didn’t do much research into the history or the full Schiller version as it wouldn’t have helped; the real history and geography are merely ‘inspirational material’ for Schiller in a similar way to Shakespeare’s histories. The audience were generally appreciative, and I’m glad there were so many staying behind for the post-show as it made for a better discussion.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Don John – December 2008

Experience: 2/10

By Emma Rice and Anna Maria Murphy

Directed by Emma Rice

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th December 2008

We went to a pre-show talk with the director, where Emma Rice gave us some interesting information about Kneehigh’s development process for this piece, along with her ideas of what it was about. I’ve discovered that most of it is covered in the program notes and in the video interview on the RSC website, so I won’t go into too much detail here. She was very alert, and really listened to the questions, which corroborated the information that she has to be aware of everything that goes on in rehearsal in order to pick up every good idea that the cast come up with (usually in the tea breaks). While she’s fully open to these ideas, she’s also very clear about which ones will fit into her vision of the piece; “strong but wrong” is apparently a common assessment of many of the actors’ suggestions.

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