The Effect – January 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold

Company: NT and Headlong co-production

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd January 2013

For this new Lucy Prebble play, the Cottesloe had been transformed into a (large) waiting room at a pharmaceutical company facility where trials of a new drug were taking place. We were up on the balcony for this one; our experience of the cramped benches of the House of Commons (This House) had put us off risking more uncomfortable seating from the ‘reality’ school of design. Today’s effort looked quite nice though – simple bench sofas with plenty of legroom – and if you could put up with the ubiquitous mustard yellow colour, it was probably a pleasant experience.

The seating was in two rows and went all the way round a rectangular performance space, with gaps on each side for the entrances which were diagonally opposite each other near the corners. There were low tables in the middle of each row apart from the far end, which had a larger sideboard with a display rack beside it. Vases of flowers stood on the tables, while four more low tables stood in each corner of the central space.

An inner rectangular space was outlined in this central area, and most of the acting was done within it, but occasionally spread throughout the downstairs area. Outlined with subdued strip lighting, the initial set up of this rectangle was in line with the rest of the room: two L-shaped seats stood in diagonal corners, and the flooring and the seats were in the same yellow colour. Above this area hung another rectangle which looked like some kind of lighting, though I didn’t notice it doing anything during the performance. Perhaps it contributed in some way to the projections that appeared beneath it; the central area was frequently adapted with light displays, including laser mapping, a mosaic floor and a video of a brain being flooded with some liquid.

There were also two screens positioned at either end of the balcony which showed various bits of information. At first they displayed the ‘Rauschen’ logo – the company involved in the trial – but they also showed when the drug dosage was being increased, and were used for the Stroop test, where various words are shown and the subjects have to name the colour of the word. All good fun, and for me this set up worked pretty well, with the cast being able to change locations briskly and no real confusion as to location.

The story was pretty simple: we followed two test subjects from their initial interviews through the drug trial and beyond – Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill). There were also two doctors: Dr James (Anastasia Hille) who ran the test and Dr Toby Sealey (Tom Goodman-Hill) who was well up the food chain and involved in senior management at the company. Tristan and Connie developed a relationship and the play was, in part, discussing how much our feelings are controlled by chemicals and how much they are just our emotional reactions to events in our lives. I found this aspect of the play much less interesting. I didn’t care for either of the characters, who seemed bland and featureless, and the extended scenes between them went on for too long; at times it felt like an odd couple relationship drama with some science bits attached. The early scene which set up the pattern of the drug trial, with lots of measurements being taken and showing us the strict timing of each dose, was overlong, and there were plenty of other scenes which started well but continued on past their effectiveness or were simply played at too slow a pace. The cross-cutting of scenes worked well, and both Steve and I reckoned that the play would work much better if around 20 to 30 minutes were surgically removed.

I found I engaged most with Dr James, as she was the only one who really wanted to help others, and on the whole I preferred the exchanges between the two doctors. There were early indications of a prior relationship, and these hints developed through the play to give us a much rounder picture of their characters. The scientific parts of the debate were aired more thoroughly with these two, and although it’s too big a subject to cover fully in one play, it was at least a promising start. Again, trimming the piece to about two hours (it ran for 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval) would help to focus the issues better.

Some aspects of the plotting could also do with more work. It was scarcely believable that Dr James would admit to one of the test subjects that another subject was receiving a placebo despite the emotional tension of the situation, and her vacillation over whether or not Connie could or would stay on the trial was bizarre. There were a number of odd anomalies like that which undercut the impact of the play, and with the sexual scene and nudity, I did wonder if they were just ramping up the sensationalism for the sake of bums on seats to the detriment of the production itself. Not that the nudity was salacious in any way; in many ways that scene was well staged with various brief poses giving a sense of the drug-heightened physicality of the couple’s relationship. But it didn’t add to the central theme of the piece, that we are not just bags of chemical reactions, but something more which is harder to define. The consequence of Dr James placebo revelation was also very predictable in general terms, which blunted the ending for me.

It sounds like I’m asking for a complete re-write, but there was a lot to enjoy as well. Plenty of humour, an interesting subject, and excellent performances from all the cast made for a decent afternoon’s entertainment, and I would be prepared to give this play another try in the future, especially if I hear it’s had further work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

This House – October 2012

7/10

By James Graham

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 18th October 2012

I enjoyed this play a lot. I would have enjoyed it more if the seat layout hadn’t involved a lot of twisting to see the action, leaving me with a sore neck – the transfer to the Olivier next year should make things easier. The action spanned the troubled years of the 1970s between Heath and Thatcher’s governments, when Labour whips had to use every trick in the book and invent a few new ones to hang on to power. I felt I knew too much and too little simultaneously – too much to be surprised by the events and too little to follow some of the fast-flowing short scenes. The use of the MPs’ constituency names instead of their personal names was another drawback, although I was pleased to find I remembered more of these than I expected.

The set was basically the House of Commons debating chamber. There were two long rows of green seats on either side of a central space, with cross benches at the main entrance and the speaker’s chair at the far end. Down the centre were situated the two whips’ offices with the Government one nearer the Speaker. A corridor ran across the middle of the stage, and the narrow gaps between the offices and the front benches were also used as corridors. There were balconies on two levels which gave some extra acting points, and at the far end there was a large image of the clock face of Big Ben with a spiral staircase leading down in the far right corner. The Speaker’s chair could be rotated to give a pub dartboard and other locations, and they used the whole space very creatively for all sorts of other locations although the majority of the action took place in the Palace of Westminster. The band was located by Big Ben, on the left of the balcony.

The political events are a matter of record, so I won’t repeat them here. The play started with a musical number, and involved a lot of MPs and the Speaker doing a processional dance along the stage until the Speaker arrived at his chair and sat down. The Speaker mainly stayed in his chair, announcing each MP (by constituency) as they joined the action and providing the knocking sound when MPs were knocking on doors. The actor had to disappear occasionally to play another part, but the Speaker’s presence was a strong one in both halves.

The two sets of whips were introduced to us, and each team had a newcomer which is always useful for introductions and explanations. We were already aware of the whips’ role in government at that time so it wasn’t difficult to follow, but I found I was losing some of the dialogue, especially when the action was down the other end, which didn’t help. The relationship between the two groups deteriorated as things became more and more difficult for the Labour government, and some ‘cheating’ by the Labour whips to win one particular vote brought about total war. No more pairing meant that all MPs had to be physically present (and preferably alive) in the Palace for their vote to count, and with a slender or no majority the Labour whips had to work flat out to keep their government’s head above water. Losing John Stonehouse to an apparent drowning didn’t help, and they staged that very nicely.

With the others off stage, Stonehouse stood at one end of the central strip and took his shirt and trousers off; he was wearing red underpants, a party man to the last. From the other end a group of actors brought on a white sheet to represent the water, and as the music played Storehouse walked forward onto it, finding the hole in the centre. As the sheet was lifted up, he waded, then swam, and then the tempo became more urgent and he was being thrown around, stepping up onto the chairs as he was gradually swept along and disappearing under the waves as he left the stage. This was nicely done, and with several other deaths taking place during the play, they set up a convention of the dead walking out of that same door while a light shone through it and some mist curled round the sides.

Of course, nobody ever dies in the Palace, so the tradition is to get the body off site pdq and declare the death as having happened elsewhere. One death actually did happen elsewhere. Having caused the original problem which lost them access to pairing, Walter Harrison had to face a tough dilemma during the run-up to the final vote of no confidence in the Labour Government. One old MP whose health was really bad would come and vote for them, but he probably wouldn’t make it out of the Palace alive. His wife wanted him left in peace, while the MP himself wanted to do his duty. The government was down one vote – what to do? In the end, the whips chose to leave him alone, the government lost by one vote, and Maggie Thatcher was returned to power with a large majority.

Along the way there was a lot of manoeuvring, manipulation and negotiation, some of which was very entertaining. I liked David’s Steel’s comment about why Labour and the Conservatives lose elections, and I suspect I would have liked more of the Irish contingent’s comments if I could have understood them – the accents were a bit variable and hard to follow. Despite the setting there were some strong female characters in the mix, and I liked the way the only female Labour whip swore at an intrusion by a Tory whip late in the play. The language was strong at times, but entirely appropriate in my view, and didn’t give either of us any problems.

I did find the overall structure with a lot of very short scenes made it hard to get any momentum going, and I also didn’t care much about any of the characters. Phil Daniels was good as Bob Mellish, the original Chief whip who had to resign after backing the wrong man in the Labour leadership election which Callaghan won. As he’d been given some numbers by Walter Harrison on which he’d based his choice, it was clear that Walter was staging a coup of his own, and his subsequent frustration at not getting the promotion he was after was richly deserved. Phil Daniels came back to sing a song in the second half up on the balcony, shortly after the beginning as I remember.

The second half began with the election of a new Speaker. The previous one stood by the door, surveying the crowd, and then there was a pretend chase with the new incumbent being dragged to the chair and given his gown and wig, after which it was handshakes all round and this new Speaker took charge. I’m not sure now which of the Speakers had the rant about Heseltine’s mace-waving, but it was good fun. Apparently the mace had been replaced the wrong way round and so Parliament couldn’t sit until it was replaced properly, a job reserved for one particular official. Talk about demarcation disputes!

I very much liked Redditch’s ranting complaint about his constituency; his comment “it’s Birmingham” was very funny – no offence to Redditch. Another excellent scene involved Coventry SW being penalised for some offence which I don’t remember. She came down to the whips’ office, apparently to write a letter of apology, but instead took her time to count out the exact amount of the fine, snapped her handbag shut and left the room. The whips were silent until Walter’s approving comment got things moving again.

The performances were all excellent, and with most of the actors having to swap character rapidly there were a lot of props sitting back stage to help with the quick changes. Phil Daniels (Bob Mellish) and Philip Glenister (Walter Harrison) gave two strong central performances, matched by Vincent Franklin as Michael Cocks, who took over as chief whip once Bob Mellish left. For the Tory side, Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards were suitably patrician as Humphrey Atkins and Jack Weatherill, with plenty of other posh types swanning in and out of their office during the play. I was surprised to see Norman Tebbit as a dandy, camping his way around the Commons, but it was entertaining, and may have been a reasonable portrayal for all I know.

The image of the clock face was important during the play. Michael Cocks liked to visit the clock when Parliament rose, and there were a few scenes where he did this, giving us some extra background information in the process. The first half ended with such a visit, and it was the moment when the mechanism broke, with the ominous silence sounding louder than the chimes. The play’s final image was of Cocks standing on the balcony looking at the clock as the lights went out.

There was obviously a lot more to the play than these few snippets I’ve noted down here, but this gives a flavour of the performance. I would be interested to see it when it transfers to the bigger space to see how they re-stage it, and it was enjoyable enough to warrant a second trip – we’ll see if we can fit it in.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Collaborators – December 2011

8/10

By John Hodge

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Werdnesday 14th December 2011

I don’t know how easy it will be to record my impressions of a piece that was both flamboyant and surreal. It was inspired by a play which Bulgakov actually wrote about Stalin’s early life, but which was never performed. It seems to have been part of the Soviet state’s process of playing mind games with dissidents and opponents, and this play reflects that aspect in its imaginary journey through the writing process.

In this play, Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play about Stalin in his younger days, for the great man’s 60th birthday celebrations. It’s meant to be a surprise for Stalin, but of course he knows all about it, and even joins in the creative process. In fact, he does more than join in, he writes the whole thing from beginning to end, scene by scene. Bulgakov only writes a final scene at the behest of a disillusioned NKVD officer in order to expose the truth about comrade Stalin. This scene was soon burned, and the play itself was never seen, because it was all a ploy to subvert Bulgakov into becoming a state stooge.

While he’s working hard at the typewriter, Stalin asks Bulgakov to do some of his government work – a fair division of labour. With a pretence of world-weary frankness, Stalin feeds Bulgakov little titbits to begin with, such as writing notes on steel production reports from the various parts of the vast Soviet Union and signing his mate Joe’s initials. When Bulgakov sees the results – reports of production up by 5% week on week – the nature of creative fiction under an oppressive regime takes on a new twist; Bulgakov wrote his plays and then (occasionally) saw them come to life, Stalin wrote his notes and then subsequent reports create the ‘reality’ he wanted. It’s an intriguing idea, and we get enough time to register it before moving on to the next phase.

During their next meeting Bulgakov is faced with an ethical dilemma. A city needs grain to feed its workers; the local farmers have grain but won’t give up enough of it because they need to feed themselves and their families, and have enough seed for next year’s harvest. What to do? Bulgakov makes his choice, and when he hears of the consequences, he’s shocked. Later, though, his feelings of guilt lead him to defend the government’s actions.

His next decision seems easier. He sees three confessions signed by men Stalin trusted absolutely, confessing that they were plotting against him. Stalin appears unaware of these confessions, and when Bulgakov tells him, he throws an almighty wobbly. To calm him down, Bulgakov suggests carrying out further investigations, and even writes that on the confessions – ‘carry out further investigations’. This calms Stalin down nicely, but at what cost? As the ‘further investigations’ are carried out, more and more people are arrested, and the apparent conspiracy which Bulgakov has helped uncover comes closer and closer to home.

When Bulgakov shows some stirrings of conscience, Stalin stops writing the play to concentrate on studying the conspiracy files. To help him out, Bulgakov rashly suggests a quota system; instead of investigating every case, just do some, and winnow out the traitors that way. Stalin was so taken with this idea that for their next meeting he asked Bulgakov to sign the death orders for the quotas of traitors to be killed and those to be sent to camps or into exile. Now, suddenly, Bulgakov draws the line; these are no longer numbers, they’re individual human beings, and he can’t go along with this job swap any more.

Stalin seems OK with this; he’s got what he wanted, so the final step doesn’t really matter. By now, Bulgakov’s friends have either deserted him or have disappeared. His wife is taken, and as Bulgakov finally collapses on his bed, dying, we see her put through a mock execution, one of the NKVD’s favourite pastimes. The play ends as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife, finds her husband dead on the bed. The phone rings, and it’s Stalin’s voice asking if it’s true that Bulgakov is dead. She doesn’t answer, the line goes dead, and the lights go out.

This is a very simplified version of the story. In performance, many elements were interwoven, but without losing track of where we were and who was who – a remarkable feat. For example, as the scenes of the play are written and handed over to Vladimir, an NKVD officer and director of the new play, we see them performed by two actors, one young and handsome, the other older. The younger one plays the young Stalin in a noble and heroic style, with gestures and poses reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films of the time. The other actor takes on most of the other parts – prison guard, priest at the seminary, young woman who’s passionately in love with Stalin, etc. His performance as the young woman was particularly funny.

The set was on long sweep of acting space that pushed right across the Cottesloe with the seats wrapped around it. To our left was the kitchen area, with the large cupboard which was Sergei’s bedroom – space was short in those days. A walkway sloped down to the central area which held the typewriter on its table in the middle and the gramophone on the far side. To the right, the stage sloped up again to the bedroom. There were lots of angles to the floor – must have been a nightmare walking on it – and around the whole platform there was space to walk, with a lamppost in the far right corner. This lower walkway also came back up onto the stage on the other side of the central section, so there were lots of potential entrances, including the cupboard doors.

In fact, the opening scene made good use of these doors. Bulgakov was having a nightmare in which Stalin emerged from the cupboard and chased him round the flat, finally grabbing the typewriter and using it to smash Bulgakov over the head. Only we didn’t see that bit; the lights went out and when they came back again Bulgakov was sitting on the bed and Stalin had disappeared. It was a very funny sequence, with appropriate chase music to accompany it, and both actors going completely over the top. At one point, they were facing each other across the table and screaming – hilarious.

It’s a long time after that before we see Stalin again, and in the meantime we meet Bulgakov’s flatmates, and learn about medical treatment in the Soviet Union. Bulgakov is hoping for a diagnosis for his tiredness and other symptoms, but it’s unlikely he’ll get very far with the doctor assigned to him. This chap remembers watching one of Bulgakov’s plays many years before, and being scandalised by the nakedness of a very attractive young actress on the stage. He was even more shocked the next night, when he went back and sat even closer, and even more the night after that, and so on. He kept asking Bulgakov if he knew where the actress was now, as he’d love to get in touch with her. Bulgakov hadn’t a clue, of course, so he had to keep fobbing him off. Later, when Bulgakov is temporarily back in favour, he’s taken to the top hospital, the one where all the top men at the politburo are treated, and although it’s the same doctor, the experience is completely different. The doctor’s smartened up, he has a pretty young nurse – she used to be an actress, but he’s taken her away from all that – and miraculously, Bulgakov’s kidney disease has disappeared. No trace of it at all! Since Bulgakov trained as a doctor, he knows that can’t be true, but the doctor simply gives him a prescription for good food, and that’s it.

The action moves smoothly from there to the setting of the tables for a grand feast, and that’s where the interval was taken. The restart was at the end of the feast, and this is where Bulgakov hears about the fate of the grain farmers. We’d seen The Grain Store back in 2009 which told the story of the famine from the Ukrainian point of view, so we could fill out the story with a greater awareness of the suffering.

Following this feast, we see the session where the confessions are discovered, and from here people start to disappear. Bulgakov is even taken with Vladimir to the arrest of a married couple. The husband’s only ‘crime’ is having ‘objective characteristics’ which could mean he’s part of the conspiracy, while her only ‘crime’ is to be the wife of such a man. When he returns home, Bulgakov finds that their flatmates have gone, and before long Vladimir has also disappeared, with his second-in-command taking over as director of the play. The play has a noticeably darker tone in this second half, as there are fewer people to present the different perspectives. Even Sergei, the committed socialist, is taken away, so that only Bulgakov and Yelena remain, and with his death, she’s on her own.

Early in this play, we saw part of a performance of Bulgakov’s play Molière, showing the death of that playwright during a performance of The Hypochondriac. This was reprised at the end of this play as Bulgakov lay dying on his bed, and the lines about marking the day with a black cross applied to Bulgakov just as well as Molière. Of course, that was the point of Bulgakov’s play, to satirise the Soviet state and Stalin, but sadly it wasn’t as well hidden a satire as it needed to be – the play was banned and had very few performances in Bulgakov’s lifetime. In this play, it’s the carrot that Stalin holds out to keep Bulgakov going, the prospect that Molière will finally be staged. The stick, much in evidence in the later scenes, is the threat against his wife Yelena. Between these two, Bulgakov is easily led where Stalin wants him to go.

The pace was pretty fast throughout this play, even though Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings held some longish pauses during their scenes together. The scenes flowed one into the other, with characters simply turning from one scene to appear in the next. They kept the sense of place going very clear, though, even when there was more than one location being shown on stage at a time; good use of lighting helped here. The humour was another fine aspect of this play, with lots of it in the first half, and while there was less in the second half that was entirely appropriate in the circumstances. This is a cracking good production, and we hope to get another chance to see it in the Olivier to appreciate it even more.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Holy Rosenbergs – May 2011

8/10

By: Ryan Craig

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th May 2011

The Cottesloe was in an unfamiliar arrangement for this play, an interesting cross between a standard domestic drama and an airing of viewpoints on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Speaking as someone with no vested interest, and with a less than perfect knowledge of the recent history of this subject matter, I can only comment that as far as I could tell, the views expressed seemed to be balanced overall, with no ‘side’ coming out on top, although individual characters naturally took up strong positions to allow the debate to take place. I certainly felt I knew a bit more about the subject than when I arrived, though that wouldn’t be difficult.

The set was a living/dining room, placed diagonally across the Cottesloe space. We were on the dining table side of the room; to our right was the exit to the kitchen, and round from that were the sofas at right angles to each other, with coffee table. Opposite us was the door from the hall, and along the left side as we looked at it was a long sideboard with many family pictures in frames. The seating rose up steeply on all sides, so naturally there was nothing on the ‘walls’, and even the front row was looking down on the action.

The Rosenberg family are kosher caterers in the Edgware area. David, the father, and Lesley, the mother, have been working hard to rebuild their business after an unfortunate death at an event they catered. Although it wasn’t caused by food poisoning, the mud stuck, and now the business is on the verge of collapse. Their son, Jonny, appears to be a waster, sponging off his parents but having grand schemes to get rich quick – internet gambling is the current wheeze – and with no intention of going into the family business. Their daughter, Ruth, is an over-achiever, a high-flying lawyer who’s working on a UN inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza. She’s come back to the family home for the funeral of the other son, Danny, who was a pilot out in Israel, and died in action there. There’s a lot of scope for discussion just among these four people, but we also get a young rabbi, Simon, who was once Ruth’s boyfriend, the chairman of the synagogue, Saul, whom David hopes will book his firm to do the catering for his (Saul’s) daughter’s wedding, and Stephen, the chairman of the inquiry that Ruth is working for, who drops by to leave her some entirely relevant papers on the evening of the funeral. A bit far-fetched, but that’s drama for you.

There was plenty of humour throughout the play, and although there were serious moments too, it never got preachy or too heavy. The antagonism felt in the Jewish community towards Ruth for her part in the UN investigation into potential war crimes leads Simon, and later Saul, to suggest that she stay away from the service, while David is suffering from unacknowledged guilt because he put pressure on Danny to stay in the danger zone, even though Danny himself wanted to come home. All these factors are woven together very skilfully, and the production was a delight to watch, with excellent performances all round.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – February 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Peter Hall

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday, 24th February 2011

A slightly weaker production than I would have expected. Some performances were excellent, especially Charles Edwards as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, but Viola and Olivia were remarkably bland. Both actresses were reduced to grinning and simpering a lot, with no sign of the grief that both characters are supposedly suffering. Most peculiar. Malvolio was a nasty piece of work, and his mistreatment particularly unpleasant, as he was penned in a large bird cage and had to crouch on the perch with his knees up around his chin. His later appearance indicates how this has affected his knees. Sir Toby was full of life, and Feste was an older version, with good delivery of the lines, but overall the piece felt lacking in pace and focus.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love The Sinner – June 2010

5/10

By Drew Pautz

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th June 2010

This play set its stall out very effectively, but in a misleading way. The opening scene was set in a meeting room somewhere in a posh hotel in a major African city – I didn’t catch any names, and I got the impression it was meant to be generic. The attendees were all clerics, dog collars well to the fore, and since one was a woman, I assumed this was an Anglican shindig. The initial point being clarified was who wanted what to drink. It emerged later that this group had sequestered itself away to thrash out an agreement which included a wording about accepting different lifestyle choices (i.e. homosexuality), and for all we know that may have been the sole purpose of the meeting. The African delegates were having none of it, the lone woman was the only one who dared to speak up for the European and American congregations, and the archbishop, Stephen, was trying to encourage them all to play nice. Some hope! When I talked about them ‘thrashing’ out an agreement, it wasn’t entirely metaphorical.

When the coffee arrived, the group all closed their eyes, so as not to be influenced by any outsider. There was some humour in the way they chatted with the waiter, and he was certainly surprised to find everyone had their eyes shut. Only Jonathan Cullen’s character Michael opened his for a short spell near the end, as he tried to give the waiter a tip from the general contributions. After he left, the arguments went on, and showed no sign of doing anything but entrenching the opposing views even deeper.

This was good stuff, and since there were no program notes to give us a clue as to the overall direction of the piece, we naturally assumed that the themes of reconciliation, attitudes to homosexuality, and the way the west treats the rest of the world and vice versa, would be given a good airing. But no. The next scene shows us Michael and the waiter, Joseph, after they’ve had sex. Joseph wants Michael to take him back to England. Michael is appalled at the idea, and there’s a very stuttering conversation which darkens into menace and even violence, when Joseph shows Michael that he’s taken Michael’s wallet and passport. He refuses to give the passport back, but Michael is saved by the arrival of Daniel (yes, they all had tediously obvious biblical names, apart from Shelley, Michael’s wife). This scene felt very dated. Homosexuality may not always get an easy ride still, but it is talked about more openly than was shown here, and if all we were meant to understand from this scene was Michael’s discomfort with his own actions, then we could cheerfully lose about three-quarters of the dialogue, as we got that point very early on.

The next scene, which took us up to the interval, was set back in England, in winter, in Michael and Shelley’s house. I must confess to dozing off a bit at this point – there was so little to keep me awake. Basically, they dodge and spar around three subjects – at least Michael does the dodging – but they’re both showing the wear and tear of a problematic relationship. The subjects are their difficulty having a child, Michael’s recent obsession with reading the Bible at home, even on weekdays, and the removal of a squirrel family from their loft. I have no idea what we were meant to get from this, none whatsoever.

The second half also began with a good scene, this time Michael having a management meeting at the envelope-making company which he owns. He wants to add church donation envelopes to their range, what with the reduction in letter sending, but his team aren’t enthusiastic. They’ve clearly had enough of his attempts to sanctify the workplace by removing the porno calendars and putting up religiously symbolic pictures of light shining through clouds instead. One chap was brave enough to point out that they didn’t know what to expect when he came into work – nice Michael who was considerate and understanding, or money-man Michael, all nose to the grindstone and telling the staff off if they made a mistake. When Michael asked what they thought he should do, the lone woman (again) suggested he kill off one of the Michaels, so that at least the other one would have a chance to make things work, a very funny moment.

Shortly after this, Shelley arrives. She wants to know who Joseph is, Michael is reluctant to tell her, they bicker (the staff have left the room by this time), and before you know it, they’re getting ready to have sex on the table. The scene ends with a knock on the door at a most inopportune time. Very funny.

I think the next scene is the final one. Daniel and Stephen, the nice Archbishop, turn up in the basement of Michael’s local church, to prepare for some speech that Stephen will be making shortly upstairs. They discover Joseph hiding out there, with Michael’s help, and the whole story unravels. Daniel, who appears to be some kind of spin doctor for the Archbishop, is totally wound up at the prospect of a gay liaison being uncovered at a local church, and while the Archbishop is actually there! Stephen seems to be more concerned about the welfare of Michael and Joseph.

We also get to see the scars on Joseph’s back, so we know just how bad things were for him back in Africa. Other than that, there’s not a lot to this scene. It ends with Joseph, smartly dressed in a suit, heading up the stairs to the main body of the church, but to do what, we hadn’t a clue. Michael is left, cringing in despair in the basement, but again, we’ve no idea why. The music swells, the light shines through the stained glass window, and all to no effect as far as I was concerned.

With plays like this, I feel I miss out because I was never brought up in an organised religion. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but sometimes the arcane methods and practices of these groups are so obscure to me that I reckon a lot of the subtler points miss me by a mile. I have no idea why we were being shown these things, or what we were supposed to get out of the piece. We both felt there was a good play in there, with some moments that work very well on stage, but it needs a lot of work to make the grade from our point of view.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Beyond The Horizon – May 2010

6/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Laurie Sansom

Company: Royal and Derngate Northampton

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th May 2010

We expect O’Neill’s work to be dark and full of suffering, and today’s piece hit the mark perfectly. It had the look and feel of an early work (haven’t read the program notes yet) with a bit more humour and less detail and complexity in the relationships, but not enough to reduce our enjoyment.

The set was nice and simple. A slightly raised square platform had torn strips of earth and floorboard across it, to represent the two locations. A tree trunk stood centre back, with stumps of branches twisted in the same direction, indicating a strong prevailing wind. At the back were silhouettes of hills in the distance, and the sky above took on different colours to suit the time and the mood. For the scenes on top of the hill, the cast usually brought on pieces of a fence which they slotted into position. For the interior scenes, they brought on a table (left of centre), a comfy chair (front right), a writing bureau (back right) and chairs and a footstool. For the final scene on the hilltop, the cast simply turned the furniture over, suggesting the final destruction of the farm, and of the remaining characters’ dreams.

The story involved two brothers, Andy and Robert, both in love with the same girl, Ruth. They’ve grown up together in a small farming community in Connecticut, with Andy being the farming type, destined to take over the farm from his father one day, and Robert being the sickly bookworm, who’s developed into a healthier young man, and who now wants to go to sea with Uncle Dick to travel and see the world, as well as learning to be ship’s officer.

The play opens the evening before Robert is due to leave. The two brothers stood on the stage, either side of the tree, as the rest of the cast brought on the fence posts and props. With the brothers staying still, the others set up the fence, then gave each brother their prop (a hoe and a book, since you ask) and after standing for a moment lining each side of the stage, the others left and the action began. This type of staging can slow things down an awful lot, but in this case it was OK, and paid one major dividend towards the end (more on that story later).

The brothers talk about many things, including their relationship, their father’s farm, how folk will miss Robert, etc. Robert is going to tell his brother something, but backs out at the last minute. As Andy heads off to wash up for dinner, Ruth arrives, wanting to know why Robert wants to leave his family and friends. His first reason is poetical and romantic. He tells her of all the times when he was young and in his wheelchair, sitting by the window and looking out at the hills, how he used to dream about the sea, and all the lands beyond. Now he was well enough to travel, he was keeping the promise he’d made to himself all those years ago. (It sounded better when he told it.) Then we get the other reason. He tells Ruth that he’s in love with her, but since she’s in love with Andy….. Ruth is practically wetting herself with excitement by this time, ‘cause she’s actually in love with Robert. She spent time with Andy because Rob was always off on his own, reading some book. Knowing this, Rob agrees to ditch his travel plans, stay on the farm and marry Ruth. (Uncle Dick will be so disappointed. I mean it, he will.)

The next scene is set in the farmhouse, after supper. Rob is taking Ruth and her mother home, while Andy, Ma and Pa Mayo, and Uncle Dick are sitting down talking. Or rather Uncle Dick is talking, about some woman asking a foolish question about where seagulls sleep. He’s an obnoxious old bugger and no mistake. It’s a miracle his crew haven’t murdered him in his sleep and thrown the body overboard. Fortunately, Kate Mayo, Ron and Andy’s mother, is a cheerful soul with a positive outlook. Pa Mayo is a decent enough bloke, not inclined to give too much whisky to Dick, presumably his brother-in-law, but otherwise fine unless his pride in the family farm is attacked. Andy’s very quiet, and goes off to check on one of the cows, which gives Kate a chance to talk about her feeling that things aren’t right. She’s already picked up from the fact that Rob and Ruth were glowing and Andy was down in the dumps that perhaps the wedding they’re all expecting sometime soon may have a different pair at the altar than previously envisaged, but her husband pooh-poohs the idea. Mind you, he does acknowledge she was right later on, after Rob comes back and announces his change of plan. Ma and Pa are delighted, Uncle Dick throws a strop, apparently based on his concern that after getting a cabin freshly painted for Rob to use, the crew will think he was planning on bringing a woman with him, but she’s dumped him. Andy congratulates Rob, having returned just as he was telling everyone his news, but it’s clear he’s been hit hard. As Dick goes on trying to persuade Rob to change his mind, it’s also clear how this is going to play out. Sure enough, Andy soon announces he’ll be going with Uncle Dick in Rob’s place. To stop his father’s protests, he throws some unkind words at him, insulting the very farm he’s loved himself up to now, and that’s too much for his father who disowns him outright. There was a fair bit of humour in this scene, particularly when Pa Mayo went to top up Uncle Dick’s whisky glass. While he’s talking, he keeps pausing just before he pours, and when he finally did pour, it hardly covered the bottom of the glass. We did enjoy the pauses, and the look Dick gave him.

The next scene is set several years ahead. There’s a child, around three years old, called Mary, and Ruth and her mother are now living in the Mayo farmhouse. Ruth looks harassed and worn out, and is increasingly cross with Mary, who isn’t keen to spend time with her bitch of a mother. Ruth’s mother may not be able to walk, but her mouth and tongue are in fine fettle, and so they should be, the amount of exercise they get. Criticising this, carping about that, complaining that no one ever takes her advice, it would try the patience of a saint, something no one would ever accuse her of being. Kate is dressed in black, and we soon get confirmation that Pa Mayo has died, about three years ago, and not long after Rob started working on the farm. As a result, the place has gone steadily downhill; Rob doesn’t have Andy’s experience or aptitude for farming, and without his father’s guidance he’s making a mess of things. This puts a lot of pressure on Ruth, while Kate seems to be content leaving everything in Rob’s incapable hands. She’s not even bothered when Ruth’s mother ‘accidentally’ lets slip that Rob is intending to mortgage the farm. And over all of this hangs the rainbow of Andy’s return. He’s sent them letters, they’re expecting him any day, and everyone seems to think it will all be fine when Andy gets back and takes over the farm. Ruth even tells Rob that she really loved Andy all along, though she didn’t realise it until too late. I did wonder if he would actually turn up at all or whether it would turn out to be their delusions talking, but the first half ends with Andy’s off-stage arrival.

The next scene is back up on the hill. Rob has taken Mary up there, and told her to play in the shade of the tree with her doll. Andy finds him there, and asks about all his experiences. Apparently, the amazing and terrifying time when they went through a monsoon slipped Andy’s mind when he came to write his letters home. (I did briefly wonder if Ruth had been hiding some of them.) Then comes the bad news – Andy plans to spend a short time on the farm, helping them get it back into shape, and making sure he hires a good man to look after things when he’s gone, but then he’s heading back to Argentina, to work in the grain business, where there are fortunes waiting for enterprising young men such as himself. He also tells Rob that he realised pretty soon that he didn’t actually love Ruth, so there needn’t be any tension between them over that.

Rob tells him not to mention this to Ruth, but after he takes Mary back to the house, Ruth arrives, all spruced up now she has a man to attract. When Andy tells her he doesn’t love her, she’s terribly hurt, and then Uncle Dick turns up to tell Andy that a boat in the harbour is actually on the point of leaving for Argentina, and everyone’s fate is sealed.

The next scene is another few years ahead. At the end of setting up the farmhouse room again, Kate, still in black, is standing by Pa Mayo, and Mary runs and joins them. They then leave the stage together, and from this I realised that both Kate and Mary had died. This was confirmed in the opening few minutes of the scene, and I felt this was a very effective use of these scene change moments. Now things have got really bad, with Ruth’s mother having to give Ruth money out of her savings to keep them afloat, but only just afloat. Rob is seriously ill, but still talking of a wonderful future. Ruth looks completely worn out, and her mother is no less bitchy than before. When Andy turns up with a doctor to check up on Rob’s condition, we learn that Rob has indeed very little time left. He tries to get Andy to promise to marry Ruth once he’s dead, but Andy holds off. Ruth and he talk about this, and Ruth explains that Rob still thinks she’s in love with Andy – this bit dragged a little. But then they find Rob has escaped from the bedroom, and they search for him, ending up back on the hilltop.

Rob is there, and this is when the furniture is turned over. The play ends with Rob dying in Andy’s arms. Andy and Ruth have a few more lines, but I don’t remember exactly what was said, although I think there was some reference back to earlier images.

Overall, it was a good play, and a good production, with strong performances all round. Despite a mobile going off towards the end of the penultimate scene, we enjoyed ourselves, and we’re only surprised to find that this is our first visit to the Cottesloe this year.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me