A Tender Thing – October 2012

7/10

By Ben Power

Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 1st October 2012

It’s hard to evaluate this experience, as it’s completely unlike anything else I’ve seen. The topic isn’t new – we saw Abi Morgan’s Lovesong a year ago, which presents a similar story – but this process of taking apart Romeo and Juliet in order to stitch a new garment for an older couple is something I haven’t come across before.

This older couple are still very much in love, and have to face up to mortality when one of them develops a fatal illness. From an opening scene showing us the later stages of the husband’s situation, the play took us through their relationship from years before when the illness hadn’t appeared, moving back to the present and the resolution of their joint suffering. A final coda showed us the original meeting, including the famous sonnet between the two lovers, and then they left the stage for good.

There were many layers to this performance, and both actors – Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter – did a splendid job. The set indicated a beach somewhere; pale blue decking covered the stage, fringed with small pockets of sand, seaweed, plants and rocks. A large screen was lowered at the back of the thrust with a similar screen on the back wall which were used for video projections. These mostly consisted of ocean waves but they did use some other pictures, including photos of younger versions of Romeo and Juliet. The videos extended onto the floor of the stage, and they used sound effects too for good measure.

Music also featured strongly, with the couple often dancing; this was how the symptoms first appeared. There was a door to one side and a bed which was initially behind the screen but was brought forward as needed. They also used a wheelchair later on. At the start there were two wooden chairs on stage, one lying on its side near the left front and the other upright on the other side of the stage. A bottle of poison lurked in the sandy patch at the front of the stage. The costumes were contemporary yet old-fashioned, and the overall effect was of a nowhere place away from normal life where the couple could experience their relationship in total isolation.

Apart from a few lines from sonnet 116 – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” – the dialogue appeared to be entirely from Romeo And Juliet, which is amazing. I recognized a number of lines, of course, and could even identify some line-swapping between the two lovers. Names had been changed to protect the integrity of their speeches, but there were still many lines of dialogue which were fresh and new, and I didn’t find the familiar ones at all distracting. There was a fair amount of humour too, especially in the early stages; when Juliet was telling Romeo what not to swear by, she kept putting her hand over his mouth and the expression on his face was hugely entertaining, desperate to assure her of his love and being constantly prevented.

Of course there were sadder moments as well. I found the detail of the illness hard to take at times, and the emphasis on those aspects perhaps unbalanced the play a little; instead of being about love it became more about assisted suicide. But that passed, and once the focus shifted back onto the lovers’ relationship I found my emotions more engaged again.

I did feel the Queen Mab speech was a bit of an intrusion – sort of a ‘greatest hits’ moment – and there may be scope for some other trimming, but on the whole this piece works very well and it’s a joy to hear these lines delivered so clearly by experienced actors. I was surprised to find how often death and aging are referred to in the original, and often by the young folk themselves; those phrases were extremely apt for this retelling. I would be happy to see this again, though not immediately, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it second time around.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

Emperor And Galilean – July 2011

8/10

By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Ben Power

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 12th July 2011

We were always going to be keen to see this rarely performed Ibsen, and this production, of a Ben Power adaptation, didn’t stint when it came to the cast or the set. Andrew Scott’s strong central performance as Julian anchored the piece brilliantly, and while the play doesn’t have a lot of laughs, our attention was hooked throughout.

It came across to me as a debate play, looking at religious conflict in general, and specifically the clash between spiritual and temporal power, self-will or God’s will, hence the title. Would Julian choose to take on the mantle of emperor to bring about the ‘third kingdom’ which would unite man’s worldly and divine natures (yes, I know, nutty as a fruit cake), or would he choose to be subservient to the will of the god represented by Jesus Christ, the Galilean? Given that these early Christians are so full of the Holy Spirit that they joyfully massacre anyone who follows a different path, it’s a tough call, especially as Julian has lived his life on the brink since Constantius had the rest of his family murdered when he and his brother, Gallus, were small boys.

Raised in Cappadocia as a devout Christian, Julian was brought back to Constantinople with his brother Gallus when they were young men, and kept close to the Emperor to prevent them from taking their revenge. Gallus appears to be honoured by Constantius when he’s given the title ‘Caesar’, and anointed as Constantius’s heir, but then he’s immediately sent to wage war against the Persians. I assume Constantius hoped he would be killed in battle, but in fact he’s victorious, and so he’s sent to Cappadocia as Governor, where he cracks down hard on the locals who’ve taken to fighting each other over religious differences. Finally, with Gallus seeming unkillable, Constantius brings him back to Constantinople, where he dies of something or other, i.e. he’s poisoned.

We hear most of this by report, only seeing Gallus himself in the opening scene. Meanwhile Julian, the nervy sensitive type, is worried about his future. He feels he has a destiny, but what is it? His faith in the Christian god is clearly waning, and he deliberately chooses to play hooky in Athens where he can study at university and find out the truth. Sadly, Athens doesn’t live up to his romantically idealised expectations, so when he hears of a local magician who has brought a statue to life, he’s keen to find this man and learn from him. His friends from Cappadocia, who’ve been with him all this while, start to leave him, and the door to madness swings wide to let him in.

Maximus, the magician, is determined to overthrow the Christian religion, and while it’s admirable that he wants to bring light into the world, and sincerely believes what he tells Julian, it’s clear things are not going to end well. Even Maximus is concerned when first Cain and then Judas appear to Julian in a drug-induced vision, but he seems to get over these concerns remarkably quickly when he finds himself advisor-in-chief to the new emperor. At the end, with Julian dead and Jovian, his general, proclaimed emperor in his place, Maximus expresses his disappointment that Julian turned out to be a dud after all, before indulging in a spot of competitive chanting with Peter, Julian’s only remaining friend from Cappadocia who’s reciting the Lord’s prayer over Julian’s dead body. Their positioning, one on either side holding an outstretched hand, and with Julian’s body down to a loincloth, evoked the crucifixion image used at the start of the play and again later. It suggested to me that the same leader, once dead, could be used by different groups to promote their own, conflicting, agendas, and don’t we know all about that today.

I don’t know if I can use the word ‘set’ to talk about the acting space, as it was anything but static. From the opening scene, with half the revolve dropped away to leave a semicircular chasm with a life-size crucifixion sculpture suspended half-way into it, the stage itself never seemed to settle into any particular format. For the most part, the space was open, and the revolve either dropped or rose to create many levels and locations. There was a low platform for Athens, with a very shallow splash pool and a screen backdrop with a view of the Acropolis. There was a throne room in Constantinople with a throne, a rug and not much else. There were the massive walls of a church, and two equally massive doors, as well as walls for other buildings, including a much smaller church in Antioch. There was one particularly gruesome setting which was on three levels, with the lowest being a kind of basement in which Maximus was evidently doing some heavy duty butchery as part of his advisory duties. The plastic bags and lots of fake blood suggested that many animals had been carved open for entrail-checking purposes, but then why had he kept the remains? Eugh.

The costumes were a mixture of modern and Romanesque, which worked fine for me, and overall the production was visually stunning. The dialogue seemed very fresh, and I have no idea how much of that was the new version, and how much Ibsen. The liberal use of extras for the soldiers, students, etc, added to the sense of historical change sweeping across society, and also created a strong contrast with the more solitary scenes. Ultimately, though, the whole performance depended on how well Andrew Scott carried off the part of Julian, especially as he’s on stage for almost the whole of the play; fortunately, he played a blinder. We hadn’t seen him before on stage, but I do hope we see him again. He showed us Julian’s difficult journey through the twists and turns of political and theological upheaval very clearly, and although it would be easy to dismiss Julian’s character as a whiny, spoilt brat, I never felt completely out of sympathy with him, even when he’s being disastrously insane. Mind you, there were other examples of nuttiness to compete with his, such as Helena, Constantius’s sister, who’s been having sex with a priest believing it’s actually Jesus she’s shagging. She’s another one with the gleam of holy murder in her eye – at one point she’s egging Julian on so much I couldn’t help thinking she’d give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.

This tremendous central performance was well supported by all the cast, so praise all round for a terrific production. We were surprised to see very few gaps in the audience for the second half – for all that we enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be the easiest play to relate to, despite the topical nature of the subject matter – but I’m glad it’s getting such a good response.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall – October 2009

6/10

Based on the war memoirs of Spike Milligan, adapted for the stage by Ben Power and Tim Carroll

Directed by Tim Carroll

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Saturday 24th October 2009

This was a wonderful music-and-humour-fest of Spike Milligan’s writings, at least the part relating to his war experiences. The singing and dancing were superb, the humour was patchy, but still very good, and the anarchic style fitted very well with the style of the writing. My biggest problem was that I simply couldn’t make out a lot of the lines, as some of them were spoken, or even shouted while the band was playing, and this either drowned out the words or made them hard to distinguish. It seemed to be easier during the second half – don’t know if this was because they changed the balance or because we were more adjusted to it.

There was one bit of audience participation during the second half – trepidation amongst those of us (like me!) foolish enough to sit on the centre aisle – but a lovely young lady called Genevieve was tonight’s lucky participant. She correctly guessed, by looking at a playing card, which card it was! Much applause.

All the cast were hugely talented, of course, but the central role of Spike was played by a newcomer, Sholto Morgan, and if this is anything to go by, he’s got a great career ahead of him. Sadly, talent alone is not enough, so I just hope he gets the breaks he deserves. He conveyed Spike’s gangliness and wide-eyed innocent mischievousness brilliantly, as well as playing a mean trumpet.

I suspect the wide open spaces of the Festival Theatre may have been a bit too much for this production – perhaps the Minerva would have suited it better? – but at least it got a good audience, who were very appreciative of both the fun and the talent on display. Good luck for the rest of the run.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Six Characters In Search Of An Author – July 2008

6/10

By Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 2nd July 2008

This was a typical Rupert Goold production – a number of really good ideas but patchy in execution. I have wanted to see this play for a long time, as I’m a great fan of Pirandello – I’m still waiting! The adaptation was so wide-ranging that I felt I wasn’t necessarily getting a reasonable picture of the original intention. I may be wrong, but without knowing more about the play, I won’t be able to tell. Even so, there was a lot to enjoy in this production, although it did have some tedious bits as well.

The ‘plot’ is almost irrelevant. The intention of the piece is to explore the nature of reality and truth, and to challenge the audience’s perceptions. The overall idea was of a documentary film team, reviewing their work on a euthanasia story with the executive producer, and then being hijacked by a bizarre group of people who claim to be six abandoned characters looking for an author to help them tell their stories. The performance then unravels layer upon layer of reality, often with disturbing or uncomfortable images, including paedophilia, rape, murder, etc. Pirandello himself even puts in an appearance, to complain that he doesn’t know how to end the piece. He didn’t know what should be in the rest of it, either, if one of the conversations in this adaptation is anything to go by – he wrote six different versions of the play.

The set was a suitably bleak utilitarian office space, with various tables, chairs, computers, etc. spread around. Behind this office, visible through the windows, is a widthways corridor with another office space on the other side of that. The opening scene has the documentary team reviewing the tape, and stopping it a couple of times to make comments. At one point, a doctor who’s speaking to camera puts her hand up to her eye as if she’s crying – well, it’s a sad subject. However, as a long-standing contact lens wearer, I could see that the hand movement wasn’t quite right for an emotional reaction – I guessed she had something in her eye, and so it turned out. Her contact lens had shifted. It was a neat trick, though, reminding us how easily these sorts of things can be exploited in the editing suite to give a completely false perspective of the situation.

The discussion during this phase was full of topical references, and almost constantly referenced the current climate where so many revelations of fakery have led to program makers cracking down in all areas. There was also an explanation of the difference between drama documentary and docu-drama – don’t expect me to tell you now, I didn’t really understand it at the time. A lot of it seemed like splitting hairs, but what did come across, here and elsewhere,  was the definite belief that faking an event can somehow be more ‘real’ and truthful than filming the actual occurrence. (Doesn’t work for sporting events, mind you.)

The executive has left, to the accompaniment of a finger and several gratuitous insults, and the team are considering their options when six people troop into the room. All dressed in black, three of them, the father, mother and one of the daughters, start to plead to be given the chance to tell their story. The other three characters, a young boy and girl, and an older boy, pretty much stay silent throughout this scene, and indeed for most of the play.

The father and the feisty daughter (not actually his, we discover) are at odds, and it soon becomes clear that he’s been doing something he shouldn’t have with her. The mother is a highly dramatic person, very Italian and expressive. Played by Eleanor David, she’s also drop-dead gorgeous, and sings divinely, but more of that later. The basic story is that the father employed a handsome young secretary, the secretary and the mother fell for each other, the father allowed it and even encouraged them to set up house together with his financial support, they ended up leaving town and when the secretary died, the mother returned with her three children – the two girls and the younger boy – and the father knew nothing about it. When he visited a local brothel (twinned with a hat shop), he doesn’t recognise the girl in the bedroom as his step-daughter. The mother discovers them together, and is deeply shocked. The father then takes them all back to his house, where his son, the legitimate one, takes against the new family members with all the resentment of the young. He’s not too keen on his mother for deserting him, either. She felt she was turned out by her husband, and so it goes on, each person having a different view of the events. Actually, the story that does emerge is fairly coherent, and I felt it was only the interpretations and reactions to it that varied, rather than actual ‘facts’, if a fictional story can have any of those.

The producer is gradually won over by this bizarre crew. Not interested at the start, she becomes intrigued by their pleading. She’s initially torn by her desire to do justice to her original story about assisted euthanasia, and she takes some persuading to put that aside and spend some of her precious time recording the details of this new account. She already has a couple of actors available for dramatic reconstructions, so she asks her team to get a suitable set prepared for filming. This takes some time to set up, and instead of an interval, we sit through the cumbersome set construction, with a couple of clips from the documentary footage showing on the screens. The first clip is simply recording the producers feelings as they arrive in Holland, and the second I’ve forgotten the details of, but I think it showed more of the euthanasia stuff. The first wasn’t particularly interesting, the second was a bit better, but on the whole I would have preferred to have taken a break at this point.

The second scene was definitely the most entertaining of the evening. The installed set represents the bedroom in which the father and the daughter are found by the mother in a sexually explicit, though not climactic, situation. The two main participants are concerned to get the room right, while the film crew just want to get on with it. There’s a lot of fun in the way the producer tries to placate the characters, especially when they find out that they won’t be doing the scene themselves. The actors will be recreating the scene for the cameras. This is where most of the ideas about recreations being more faithful to the truth comes out, and I found it hugely entertaining to see actors, playing ‘real’ characters telling another actress, playing a producer, that they could do a better job than the actors because they are the events, i.e. the events are entirely what they are about, and they only live through these events. It’s fun juggling all these different levels of reality, though I can see why Pirandello found this play so difficult to write. Anyway, the characters eventually accept the situation, and after describing their experiences a bit, the actors get down to it.

This was the funniest bit of the play, as the actors do their warm-ups and try to get into their roles. As they attempt to do the scene in the bedroom, the characters fill in more of the details, and it turns out that a certain Mr Pace (pronounce Pa-chay) had been present at the time – owner of the hat business as well as pimp. The hat business employed the mother, and Mr Pace employed the daughter in other ways. The producer asks if they can get hold of Mr Pace, and the characters oblige by summoning him with lots of hats (from the studio’s store). With much grunting and a few other weird noises, Mr Pace emerges from underneath the bed, an impressive trick, and one I didn’t expect after seeing the stuff brought on to build the floor. Mr Pace is what I would call a grotesque, all flailing arms and a weird accent. There’s some sexual action on the bed, which the producer cuts short, and then we get the scene between the father and daughter. Turns out he brought along a child’s dress for her to wear, and since we’d heard he also stalked the girl when she was still known to him as his step-daughter, it’s clear he’s someone who prefers them young. It’s a dark and quite powerful section of the play, strong meat for now never mind the 1920s when it was written. Now they’re into their stride these two warring characters are working together to tell this story, and it’s brought a lot of depth to what was a relatively superficial piece up to this point.

Just as the father is about to get more deeply involved, as it were, the mother bursts into the room, and starts singing. Not any words, just sounds, amazing sounds, expressing her emotions wonderfully. I was taken aback at first, but after a few seconds I realised what was happening and really enjoyed it. I felt in need of something to express the emotions that the previous bit had stirred up, and this was perfect. The singing went on for some time, and the father joined in with a weird barking howl that I can’t adequately describe. It got across both his suffering and his disfunctionality.

I think the interval came just after this, but I don’t really remember the detail. With such a mixed up play, it’s hard to get a grip on the order of things. The second half started with a video clip of the producer talking about how important documentary making was to her, and how she saw her role in that process. There were a couple of screens for viewing these clips. One dropped down centrally, and gave a big but grainy picture, while another was positioned over to our left, and gave a better quality but smaller picture. From our distance, we couldn’t see much detail on that one. When the film crew were working, there were often other screens in the office showing the pictures as well, and I could also see the screen on the camera, for example when they were filming the daughter being interviewed about the bedroom events.

During the interval the installed set and most of the office paraphernalia were cleared, and a large rectangular water tank was wheeled on. Placed centrally, it had what seemed to be fronds and rather milky water in it. Other than that, and possibly a chair or two, the room was bare. The characters arrive, with the producer, who is carrying a camcorder. She doesn’t know where they are, and the father explains she’s now in the story with them. She resists this notion, but he questions her on who she is, even showing her a clip from a much earlier interview where she expresses a completely different point of view about euthanasia from her current one. The father’s argument seems to be that as they (the characters) are unchanging, and she, and all other ‘real’ people are constantly changing, then the fictional characters are more real than the ‘real’ people. It’s a load of rubbish, but he is so convincing, and she is so uncertain that she accepts it in the same way as a rabbit accepts the oncoming car bumper.

The final part of their story is now revealed. With so many negative emotions swirling around in that ‘family’, it’s not surprising that  a tragedy happens. The tank represents a pond in the garden of the house. With the mother and father away, the elder daughter and legitimate son head off to the forest to get to know one another better, leaving the two younger children unsupervised in the garden. First the girl falls into the pond and drowns (she had a hidden breathing tube, so she could stay under for a horribly long time), and then the boy gives himself a fatal injection and dies. The producer is horrified by this. She doesn’t appear to do anything to try to save the girl, but then this is only a representation of the garden – she may have been many yards away instead of a few feet. However, her scream at the drowning is what the other characters hear, and which alerts them to the deaths, mingling the layers of ‘reality’ beyond any hope of disentanglement.

With the boy, the producer tries to get help for him, and picking him up she runs out of the theatre. We know she does this, because the screens now take up the story and show us a film of her running downstairs, across to the main house (oh, of course, it’s The Music Man tonight) running into the main house, into the auditorium, onto the stage (seventy-six trombones, if you’re interested), off again, and back the way she came, still clutching the boy, and still not getting any help, despite the fact that the theatre staff were very obligingly holding doors open for this poor woman who’s carrying a young boy in her arms, clearly distressed. I found this part quite boring. It’s been done before (Fram, Brief Encounter), it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the emotional content of the scene, the attempted layering of realities would have worked better if the theatre staff hadn’t been so obviously present (I’ve always found them very solicitous and helpful on the rare occasions I’ve been in need), and I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why this film was necessary. The boy was just as dead at the end of it as he was before, and she was just as distressed.

Returning to the Minerva stage, the producer collapses in a heap by the back wall of the office, and from there she witnesses a strange series of events. On the big screen, the director’s comments option is highlighted, and we hear a couple of voices talking about the film they’ve just made. It’s about a documentary team who get taken over by some characters, etc. The fun here was in the reshowing of the first scene. All the original characters are there, and apart from the producer, go through the same actions. The voices don’t need to see it all, however, so they fast forward through bits of it, and the actors on stage have to do the scene very fast. It’s hilariously funny. As I recall, the producer stays where she is, but says her lines as needed. Then the back office is lit up, and the same executive is listening to two guys selling him their concept for adapting Six Characters. It’s just out of copyright and they want to get in before the National does its version. The executive goes along with it, finding the idea of the stupid executive in the adaptation very funny, and phones up somebody to get clearance from the estate for this version to go ahead. This is where we get the information about Pirandello writing six different versions.

Then there’s a strange bit where the two guys pitching the idea are butchered by the father and daughter, and then we see Pirandello working hard to finish at least one version of the play. His servant(?) comes in to tell him dinner’s ready, and they have what appears to be a forgettable conversation, and then that’s all cleared and the back office lights up again. This time it contains the family of characters, preparing a bed for the producer. She goes through, takes to the bed, and accepts the syringe she’s given, injecting herself before lying down in the bed, lovingly looked after by the fatal group. I think that’s how it ended, but it seemed to disintegrate in the later stages, so I may be misremembering.

There was a suitably Pirandello-ish moment at the end when the actors came trooping on to take their bows. The young lad who was ‘dead’ at the back of the office didn’t move, and for a moment or two I wondered if this was another level of confusion for the audience. But it wasn’t. He got up, they all took their bows and headed off, while we hung on for the post-show (where we found out he had simply fallen asleep).

Before I mention any post-show comments, I’ve a few of my own concerning the evening’s entertainment. All the actors gave excellent performances. Ian McDiarmid as the father was wonderfully creepy, yet authoritative. Eleanor David I have already mentioned, and Denise Gough as the step-daughter was superb at showing us her anger and her disturbing involvement in prostitution. I will also mention Dylan Dwyfor as the legitimate son, whom we have seen before in The Comedy Of Errors in the RSC’s Complete Works Festival (Young Person’s Shakespeare). He didn’t get a lot of lines, and his character mainly sulks in the background, but he did it well.

My main praise though has to be for Noma Dumezweni as the producer. In many ways she holds this piece together, and as the crossover character she allows us into that nightmare world of uncertainty about our own existences. The producer had been deeply affected by her sister’s long illness and death, and that had caused her attitude towards euthanasia to shift 180 degrees. She was also perhaps looking for a way out for herself, and so this final choice didn’t feel like a new idea, but something that had been building for quite some time. I did feel at times that the characters were actually mass murderers, and that they’d be off to find another victim as soon as they’d buried this one, offering to tell their story again with equally deadly results.

One point that was made during the play and again in the post-show was that fictional characters are eternal. Bollocks. There are a lot of lost works of fiction that nobody remembers, so as far as this physical level is concerned, all their characters are dead. As dodos. For other levels of existence, that’s a different matter, but then the rules for ‘real’ people change at other levels too, so it’s still a silly point. Comes of people fearing death and wanting something to live forever, I suppose.

The post-show attracted a lot of people this time, more than usual for the Minerva. There were the inevitable questions about what the play meant, what was going on and what actually happened. No satisfactory answers were forthcoming, unsurprisingly. A woman expressed a more general concern about the young boy being present during some pretty disturbing activities, but we were reassured by the cast that he wasn’t at all bothered about it. He often had his back to the action, and didn’t really understand what was going on. We found out about the breathing tube, and apparently the actress diving in to ‘drown’ found it really exciting to do. (If you ever needed proof that actors are strange…..) I found I was out of step with the majority of the crowd, so I refrained from making any comments as I see no need to spoil the party on such occasions and I couldn’t think of any constructive questions to ask. On the whole, the audience were puzzled but appreciative, whereas I was not so much puzzled as disappointed, but on reflection it may have been a better production than I experienced on the night. It was still in the review period, so there may well be changes as they get more experience.

It’s certainly a very Chichester-based production, and with a lot of contemporary references, it won’t transfer to another stage or time easily. However the central idea of the adaptation wasn’t bad, and it seems other directors have made huge changes as well in the past, so we may never see a ‘traditional’ production ever in our lifetimes. Get used to it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me