The Man Who Pays The Piper – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By G B Stern

Directed by Helen Leblique

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd March 2013

It would be hard not to notice the theme to this year’s Orange Tree program. First there was The Stepmother, a play by Githa Sowerby about women’s need for financial independence, and now, in this play, G B Stern also exposes the social changes that led to a generation of young women developing careers first and families second. As the next play is called The Breadwinner, the theme is clearly continuing for a while yet. And fortunately, with Sam Walters’ gift for unearthing and scheduling both neglected plays and new work, this is proving to be a season well worth catching, yet again.

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The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (1)

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Helen Leblique

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd June 2009

Another touch of the ‘Smallwoods’ again today. Despite the lack of rehearsal time plus all the other distractions RSC actors are hit with during a summer at Stratford, this was another very good performance, up to a regular professional standard. There may have been a fluffed line or two, but not so’s you’d notice. Nobody was doubling up roles that were on stage at the same time, so the whole thing ran smoothly as for a regular performance. There may have been some cutting – I noticed the song by the shepherd’s love triangle was missing – but we won’t really know until the main event.

The set was very bookish. Two very large bookcases flanked the central doorway at an angle, just back of the thrust. For the opening scene a long dining table ran diagonally across the stage, towards our corner. It was removed after the initial scenes, with a couple of chairs being left behind. One of these disappeared later, so that Leontes had just one chair to sit in during Hermione’s trial. Although our view was blocked more than I would have liked, on the whole they kept the space pretty open throughout.

The gods’ anger with Leontes ran into the storm scene very well. The bookcases toppled forward and hung there, looming over the stage, with their books thrown onto the floor or hanging off the shelves. A lot of individual pieces of paper fell out as well; we kept the one that floated over to land by our feet – extract from Hansard. The central ceiling light, a large dome intended to be glass, fell down as well but bounced and ended up as a dome on the ground. Antigonus left Perdita there, and when the bear rose up at the back entrance allowed himself to be taken instead of the baby (sniffles). The bear looked as if it had been made of books, with bits of brown paper hanging off its coat. The ending of the first half was quite upbeat this time, with the end of the storm and two chaps relatively happy with their lot, especially as they’d just come into a lot of gold.

I thought the paper would be cleared away during the interval, but not a bit. In fact, more was added. By the time I came back in, there was paper all along the front of the stage and a lady stage hand was just sticking some extra sheets down along the walkway to our right. More books had been piled up underneath the bookcases – it gave the musicians somewhere to sit – and the general impression was of a paper-throwing free-for-all. The centre of the stage was relatively clear to give the actors somewhere safe to walk, but even so there were a few swathes of paper that tried to follow some actors around until a fellow cast member put a stop to it.

The opening to the second half had Time being lowered down in the glass dome, this time hung like a large swing seat (the dome, not Time). In the next scene, Polixenes laid the groundwork for Camillo’s little scheme later on by denying him the chance to go back to Sicilia for his final days. Then Autolycus popped out of the centre of the stage and started chatting with the musicians, getting their help when spinning his sob story to Perdita’s ‘brother’. Some trees descended, with one going right into the opening in the middle of the stage, and although it shook a bit when Perdita climbed out of it, just managing to keep her skirt on, it did well enough to suggest the countryside. The country fair went well enough – we got the satyrs and their enormous appendages – and then Florizel goes and pops the question right in front of his Dad, who’s not too pleased. Actually, I noticed a family resemblance straightaway this time. Pops likes dressing up in silly outfits, especially the worst fake beard I’ve seen in a long time, while his son takes delight in donning the naffest yokel’s smock he could find to cover up his posh clothes. Poor dress sense runs in the family, then. Anyway, the young couple head off to Sicilia, hotly pursued by Polixenes and Camillo and with all the other relevant characters in tow as well.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes is still in the grip of grief. Paulina is constantly rubbing more salt into the wound and fending off the suggestions of the other courtiers that Leontes should get married again. He seems to have fully recovered from his bout of insane jealousy, but Paulina is no doubt waiting for the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophecy before reuniting him with his love. I noticed the way that the revelations are reported to us and how moving they are, when perhaps they might not have been so emotive had they been acted out. Then we get the final revelation, of Hermione’s survival, and this worked very well for me. Hermione was amazingly still – she did have a reasonable posture this time – and I felt she wasn’t entirely sure how Leontes would react to finding his wife alive after all this time. More sniffles.

With everyone who is everyone happily reunited, they all head off through the rear doors to have a jolly good knees up, all except Autolycus, who’s shut out. The play ends with him sitting on the central plinth that held Hermione’s ‘statue’ and looking glum.

Although the bookish theme wasn’t always convincing, it didn’t get in the way, so I found myself enjoying this performance more than I expected. The standard of performance was high, and there were some lovely touches. I liked Noma Dumezweni and Kelly Hunter (normally Paulina and Hermione) nearly coming to blows over the young shepherd, and while Autolycus (Paul Hamilton) may have needed a little help on occasion, such as putting out his wares, he did have some nice lines, even inviting the audience to join in his song as well as chatting up the lady playing the violin. James Gale got across Leontes’ jealousy very well – Steve reckoned it had been building up for some time – and I saw a lot more in Hannah Young’s performance as Hermione than I’ve seen before, how she suffers not only for herself and her children but also for her husband, recognising that he’s trapped in his own delusion. When Leontes says to one of his lords that he won’t be happy until she’s dead, I saw the connection with Paulina’s deception, though whether that was cause and effect I’ve no idea.

Simone Saunders was a formidable Paulina, and whetted my appetite for Noma’s version, while the rest of the cast played their numerous parts very well. It was a true ensemble, as all the cast contributed to the understudy run including the ‘stars’, which gives a completely different feel to the performance.

At the end, David Farr came on stage to say a few words and to explain that this had been the public understudies run, and we applauded even more. I’ll try not to have too high an expectation of the regular performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Glaspell Shorts – April 2008

All three plays by Susan Glaspell

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th April 2008

 

Trifles    7/10

Directed by Helen Leblique

The first play in this set of three was Trifles, which I would give a 7/10 rating. The set was a poor family’s kitchen – stove, dresser, table, sink with bucket, wooden chairs. Wind whistling. Three men and two women arrive at the house. Two of the men, the authority figures, hog the stove. They ask the other man to tell them what happened the previous day, and we hear how he found the wife acting strangely and the husband dead. Off they go to check for evidence, leaving the women to get some things for the wife, who’s now in jail. As they talk about the wife and sort through her things, with a great deal more kindness than the men, they discover an empty bird cage, then a dead bird, and realise what’s happened. They tacitly agree to hide the evidence, but there’s a tense moment when the county attorney is checking the stuff they intend to take to the wife. As he looks through the pile of quilting material, will he discover the box with the dead bird inside? It’s a play that rejoices in noticing, and showing, small details, and it was done very well.

The Outside     6/10

Directed by Svetlana Dimcovic

The second play was The Outside, a 6/10, though only just. Several shaped boards with straw grasses set the seaside theme. There were also a couple of ropes hanging down; one to the floor, the other halfway. A chair completed the set. There were the sounds of waves, seabirds calling, and then two seamen attempt to bring a dead body on stage. Their captain tries to revive him, but no luck. The first two men chat, and we find out this is an old life-saving station that’s been closed down and is now lived in by a strange woman who spends most of her time staring at the dunes. Her servant is an older woman who hardly says a word. As in the first play, the men set the scene, and then we see the two women talking. This bit is more Ibsen-like in the language and use of symbolism. Both women are dealing with loss, and somehow seeing the dead body has loosened the older woman’s tongue. She tries to persuade the younger woman to see the positive side of the tussle between the dunes and the woods, and possibly succeeds. It’s a strange debate, and I don’t claim to understand what the author is trying to do here. It certainly didn’t feel as complete as Trifles, although a theme of men not understanding what women experience is coming through loud and clear.

[Thinking about it afterwards, the older woman, Allie, is trying to get the younger one, Mrs Patrick, to accept her loss. Mrs Patrick’s husband is missing, having gone on a long sea voyage, so it’s not absolutely definite he’s dead but it is likely, while Allie’s husband has been drowned at sea. Allie doesn’t want Mrs Patrick to waste so much of her life as she did herself, but the debate drifts into symbolic territory which becomes a bit confusing.]

Suppressed Desires      8/10

Directed by Phoebe Barran

The third play, originally scheduled to be the second one performed, is Suppressed Desires, and a definite 8/10 hoot if ever there was one. The set consists of a sitting room with desk, phonograph, a table with breakfast things, and a settle. This was a comic look at the misguided passion some folk had for the new-fangled invention of psychoanalysis. Henrietta is addicted to it. Her husband Stephen is not so much against psychoanalysis as completely against his wife inflicting it on him. His temper is close to breaking point, and when his sister-in-law, Mabel, who’s visiting for a while, tells Henrietta the dream she had the night before, which Henrietta tries to twist into an expression of suppressed desire, he loses it completely. He heads out, but he’s actually going to see Dr X, whom Henrietta worships, to get himself analyzed. Mabel goes to the doctor, too, and the final scene, when both Stephen and Mabel confront Henrietta with the suppressed desires that the doctor has uncovered, is absolutely hilarious. It would be extremely apt to say that Henrietta’s chickens have come home to roost, and with a vengeance. Her only option is to renounce the religion of psychoanalysis, and live happily with her husband. Wonderful stuff.

The performances were all excellent, as is usual at this theatre. The three plays were an interesting introduction to Susan Glaspell’s writing, covering quite a range of styles. The first play was a clever piece of writing, getting across some subtle points very well. The characters were recognizable very quickly, and the situation was presented clearly at the start, giving plenty of time in an admittedly short play for the dialogue between the two women to gradually reveal what we needed to know – why the wife had killed her husband. Given the amount of time devoted to crime drama these days on TV, the description of the wife’s behaviour and the motivation for the murder all seemed spot on. For a character who doesn’t appear, she’s a strong presence in the play, as is her husband, though to a lesser extent. The growing understanding between the two women is also nicely developed, as the sheriff’s wife moves from supporting the strict legal code to actively suppressing relevant evidence.

The second play started off in similar vein, with the three men setting the scene. This time, though, the women were arguing about how to handle their grief. At least, that’s what it was about on the surface. They were talking a lot about “the outside”, and I didn’t quite get what that was meant to represent. Otherwise, the debate was between life-affirming and life-denying, the dunes swallowing the trees and the trees regrowing over the sand. At one point, the servant had her hands together, demonstrating this constantly evolving pattern, and as she countered the other woman’s argument by saying that the trees would grow through again, her lower fingers crept through like new shoots – a lovely detail, and one of the reasons I like such intimate spaces – I’m close enough to spot such things.

The problem I found with this play was that it was too short to really get its point across. In particular, I found the servant’s abrupt rediscovery of her desire to speak, when we’d barely grasped her silence, was difficult to absorb. It seemed a convenient device from someone who evidently understood human nature very well, and who could have given us much more of that character’s silent eloquence before making better use of her transformation. Several people at the post-show discussion voiced similarly views, and a number clearly enjoyed the piece.

The third play was much livelier. From the off, there was plenty of humour, and it was clear that Susan Glaspell knew these type of people very well, enough to poke loving fun at them. The husband’s exasperation was brilliantly done, along with his remarkable calmness and sadness as he tells his wife that he has a suppressed desire to leave her. Personally I thought his desire was more overt than that, but this fitted perfectly with his wife’s obsession. I did wonder, along with at least one other audience member, whether he was simply setting his wife up to show her the consequences of her beliefs, but it became clear that he wasn’t. The complicated unravelling of Mabel’s dream was a comic masterpiece, and I do hope we’ll get to see more of Glaspell’s work again.

Post-show discussion: Sam Walters was here as usual, together with Kate Saxon, who directs Chains of Dew, and two of the three directors of these pieces – I didn’t get the names, though judging by the accents I’d say one of them was Svetlana Dimcovic. There were various questions about Glaspell’s work, and how these pieces fitted into the overall trend. I think Suppressed Desires was an early piece, while The Outside was a later work. Trifles is apparently her best known piece, as it’s included in a number of anthologies of American plays, but still very few students, even American ones, recognise her name. Sam Walters chose these plays to show the range of her work, and to compliment Chains of Dew, although he could have chosen a number of other pieces.

There was some information about her “set”, the group of American artists, writers, etc, who wanted to create home-grown American theatre. Most of the stuff being put on at the end of the 19th century was taken from the European tradition, and they felt it was time for the authentic American voice to be heard. This group supported Eugene O’Neill, and they were certainly influenced by, amongst others, Ibsen. They would head for the coast during the summer, and put on plays; there was some uncertainty about whether these were performed by themselves, as enthusiastic amateurs, or by professional actors as a bit of fun during the summer. Either way, they produced some good stuff, and Susan Glaspell was not the least amongst them, judging by this set of plays.

On the way out, Steve heard an American lady compliment one of the actors on the accents they used. Apparently she found them all totally authentic, and appropriate to each setting.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me