The Last Of The Haussmans – August 2012

6/10

By Stephen Beresford

Directed  by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th August 2012

Yet another DFCD (dysfunctional family confrontation drama), the twist this time being a reassessment of the 1960s Flower Power generation in today’s world. It had a marvellously detailed set, was a good first play by this writer, had excellent performances, and for those who like this sort of thing it was a great production. There were delicious sparkles of humour through most of the play, but the relatively turgid family ‘discussions’ left me cold.

The start was very promising. We were quickly introduced to Nicky and Libby, a brother and sister with assorted problems, including a drug habit, a rich and varied homosexual past (and present) and a stroppy teenage daughter. Libby’s daughter, Summer, was a representative of the daughter-as-bitch camp, slagging off her Mum at every opportunity and generally behaving badly most of the time. Judy, Summer’s gran and Nicky and Libby’s mother, was recovering from cancer surgery, and this seemed to be the trigger which had brought Nicky back to visit after many years’ absence. The story unfolded in fits and starts, with some lovely humour, mainly from Nicky; the energy dropped when his character was absent for a while. The play ended with a funeral for the last of the Haussmans, and a rather confused new start for Nicky and Libby after the family home had been sold.

The set used the large revolve to move the building round. It was a large Art Deco period house which had been sadly neglected, and with Judy’s hippy past there were plenty of Eastern trimmings to brighten the place up. I spotted, amongst the jumble, wind chimes, a dream catcher and a Tibetan cloth (judging by the shape); the only thing missing was the pungent aroma of incense (probably just as well). Around the front was the garden area, and there were two strange curved wooden pergola affairs on each side of the stage. They were used for exits and entrances to the garden, and were lavishly draped with colourful bunting, but apart from that I have no idea what they were meant to be. They may also have been responsible for our occasional problems hearing the dialogue; with nothing to bounce back from, some of the lines were probably crystal clear backstage but sounded muffled to us. The scenes were mainly set outside, though one was in the music room and another in the kitchen.

The two other characters we saw included a doctor, whose services to Judy included reminiscing about the 60s long into the night, drinking and singing songs. He was also having an affair with Libby which lasted until his wife found out. The other was Daniel, a young man whose talent as a swimmer was being nurtured with regular practice in Judy’s swimming pool. This seemed a bit unbelievable; if she couldn’t keep the house tidy, the swimming pool was likely to be a major health hazard. Anyway, he was a fit young athlete and the eye candy for many of us in the audience, as well as for Nicky.

Rory Kinnear was excellent as Nicky, and well matched by Helen McCrory as Libby, although hers were the lines I had most difficulty hearing. Julie Walters was clearly having a great time playing the aging rebel Judy, and Matthew Marsh was perfect as the randy doctor. The young actors were also very good. Isabella Laughland as Summer conveyed her character’s hostility and occasional vulnerability very well, while Taron Egerton showed us a Daniel who matured a lot during the period of the play, partly due to his experiences at the house and with the family.

The only reason for my lack of enthusiasm about this play is that we’ve seen so many of these family confrontations before and it takes something special in the writing or performances to engage my interest nowadays. I’m also beginning to wonder if the elaborate set didn’t dwarf the play too much; perhaps a studio setting, emphasising the relationships and allowing the location to fade into the background, would have helped the production more. It’s certainly the set that I remember most from this performance, which is not a healthy sign.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – July 2011

10/10

By: Anton Chekov, in a version by Andrew Upton

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th July 2011

This was the most wonderful production. Even before the start I liked the look of the set, or what I could see of it in the gloom. Instead of the usual palatial if somewhat dowdy nursery, this was a very rustic house with dilapidated plank walls and drab old furniture. It gave me the sense of a house in the back of beyond as well as creating a stronger contrast with the luxury and style of Paris, and emphasised the rose-tinted aspects of Madam Ranyevskaya’s nostalgia. The telegraph/telephone pole to the right of the stage (there were actually two of them, but the other one was hidden at this point) was a reminder of the technological changes that were underway around that time, and this opening set had me engaged before a line of dialogue had been spoken.

I spotted the body on the seat as well, though I’d forgotten it was Lopakhin who would be under the blanket. I realised this was a structural motif, beginning and ending the play with someone asleep; although Firs could well be dead – in this production he’s simply lying on the floor –  it tops and tails the play nicely. I also spotted the similar technique in the second act, which starts with Dunyasha and Yasha emerging from the long grass and ends with Trofimov and Anya disappearing into it.

The performance itself did not disappoint. The dialogue was crisp and clear – an excellent translation by Andrew Upton – and despite the modernisms it felt right. The story hadn’t been tampered with much, although there was a car instead of a carriage and horses, but I felt there was more being said between the characters this time which may be down to the new version. Not having seen the original Russian version, I can’t tell.

But I did get a lot more out of this production than I have previously. While there was plenty of humour, the performances took the characters and their situations seriously, and set all these in an historical and political framework which made sense of every part. I could see how the cherry orchard symbolised Mother Russia, which had become exhausted through supplying beauty and luxuries to the idle rich, its fresh potential largely untapped due to the nostalgic clinging of the elite landowners. Trees for the few have to be cleared to make houses (i.e. better living conditions) for the many. There’s no place in this new Russia for those who adhere to the old ways, so Madam Ranyevskaya has to leave, and Firs, sadly neglected, can only die. Others have to make new lives as best they can – I wonder what happens to them all? Before the Revolution, that is.

Another good aspect of this production is the additional ensemble that provides the extra characters for the party scene, as well as the extra servants. It does give a much better sense of the community that exists around the estate, even if the quality of the guests isn’t up to the standards of yesteryear (according to Firs).

And so to the individual performances. Conleth Hill as Lopakhin was worth the price of admission alone. He was absolutely spot on as the peasant made good who could never shake off his past but who desperately wanted acceptance from Ranyevskaya. His plans for the estate were lucid and sensible, and his desire to help Ranyevskaya was almost palpable. He’s delighted to have bought the estate at the auction, heady with the success of it, and I felt he was at some level getting back at Madam Ranyevskaya for her rejection of him. When it came to the proposal to Varya, he might have gone ahead with it if he hadn’t been interrupted at the crucial moment. But then again, maybe not.

Emily Taaffe played Dunyasha, the maid with ideas above her station. She’s looking for romance instead of a steady husband and is easily seduced by Yasha, the manservant who has come back from Paris with Madam Ranyevskaya. She’s unlikely to have a happy life, wanting so much that she can never get. Yasha was played by Gerald Kyd and came across as a nasty piece of work, used to satisfying his own pleasure and with little concern for anything or anyone else. Dunyasha’s other suitor, Yepihodov, was played by Pip Carter, and he was brilliant at portraying this character’s complete ineptness. We could tell from his first entrance what he was like, saying all the wrong things and clumsy with it. His attempted wooing of Dunyasha in the garden scene was very funny as he strolled around trying to look manly and failing, while Yasha just sat there oozing testosterone from every pore.

Anya, played by Charity Wakefield, was fine, while Zoe Wanamaker was wonderful as Ravyenskaya. She came across as an emotional junkie, always getting involved with the wrong sort of men and with no grasp of practical matters. When she was given the telegrams in the first act she became quite upset, and it was to help distract her that Gaev, her brother, launched into his paean of praise for the bookcase, looking at her almost all the time to see if she was listening. Everyone else was aware of her unhappiness too, and I noticed several characters glance at her with sympathy.  This was another strong point of this production; the reactions from everyone on stage indicated they were all involved in whatever was going on, which kept a high level of  energy  throughout.

Ranyevskaya’s shock at finding out who had bought the estate was also very moving, and contrasted well with Lopakhin’s jubilation. She was very still, looking out towards the audience and clearly distressed. Despite her flaws I could still understand her point of view – she’d grown up with the cherry orchard and it was all she knew. She couldn’t handle the idea of it being cut down to make way for anything, never mind holiday homes. She was also still mourning the loss of her son years before, and her brittleness was all too evident.

Claudie Blakely as Varya was another gem. She’s held things together for so long, and with so little appreciation and thanks. Her unhappiness at Lopakhin’s failed proposal was very moving. I was strongly reminded of the relationship between Sonya and Vanya from Uncle Vanya when I saw her and Gaev together, although Gaev’s probably never been as productive as Vanya was in the pre-professor days. Gaev was played by James Laurenson, and was a lovely bumbling character with great kindness and verbal diarrhoea. The billiards references weren’t emphasised so much this time, but that wasn’t a problem.

Charlotta was played by Sarah Woodward, an actress I’ve always enjoyed watching on stage. Her Charlotta was bright and snappy, but without any malice, very matter-of-fact. The magic tricks were good fun, and the appearance/disappearance was done next to a folding room divider with tall windows down to about three feet from the floor, so not a lot of room to hide people. Her dog was a cloth puppet, as was the baby at the end, of course.

Simyonov-Pishchik, constantly trying to borrow money, was played by Tim McMullan, and again I enjoyed his performance very much. (What is that white mud the Englishmen are paying him so much for?) Kenneth Cranham as Firs looked more robust than many I’ve seen, but played the faithful retainer very well, while Mark Bonnar as Trofimov caught perfectly all of that character’s passionate idealism, contempt for the past, and reluctance to do any actual work. It was interesting to note that he was just as disturbed by the arrival of the passer-by (Craige Els) as everyone else – perhaps Trofimov won’t do as well in the Revolution as he thinks.

There was plenty of dancing in this production, which made it very lively. The back wall of the nursery at the start opened out to form side walls for the garden scene, and these were then brought back for the living room in Act three. The final Act was also in this room, rather than recreating the nursery. The clarity of the dialogue, the detail in the performances and the relationships, and the superb way the story was contextualised within Russian history makes this one of the best Chekov productions I’ve ever seen, if not the very best. Full marks to the whole team.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The House Of Special Purpose – August 2009

6/10

By Heidi Thomas

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd August 2009

This was another new play, originally intended as a film but adapted for the stage. Set in the house in Ekaterinburg where the Romanovs were imprisoned and finally executed, it was a well-rounded drama showing the various relationships, mainly amongst the family but including their guards and other staff as well. One of the guards used to work in a laundry, and quite frankly seems to take a bit too much pleasure from getting underwear clean. He’s seconded to teach the girls to do their own laundry, and soon finds one of the girls even more attractive than a bundle of washing. She reciprocates, and so he’s the only guard who doesn’t take part in the final slaughter.

The family themselves are moderately interesting, with Anastasia being the live wire, and Olga being the worrier who looks after Alexei, the Tsarevich. Turns out she was raped during their trip to rejoin their parents. (She was also played by Annabel Scholey tonight, SATTF’s Bianca and Ophelia.) Tatiana and Maria were the other two daughters, but didn’t stick in my mind so much. The main interest however, is in seeing how they lived, and getting some understanding of their situation – not knowing whether the notes they were being sent were from friend or foe (started out friend, ended up foe) nor whether they were about to be rescued or not. They seemed to be valuable pawns for the new regime, but would that last if they were close to being liberated by the counter-revolutionaries? I felt this aspect of their confinement was evoked very effectively.

The guards and prison workers were, if anything, more interesting, probably because their stories aren’t usually told. They were based on real people, and showed the diversity of people brought into the Bolshevik army at that time. Most had been country folk or labourers in factories. They knew nothing about being soldiers – one chap didn’t even know how to load the gun he’d been given, let alone fire it. The experienced guard eventually offered to teach him how to do it, but he was later arrested for being too friendly with the royal family. His father had been a gamekeeper at one of the royal family’s summer residences, so he spent time reminiscing with family and even gave them a book taken from one of their kitchens, a recipe book, which they fell on like starving people. (To read, not to eat.) He wasn’t the one bringing the notes in, and he refused to take a message out, but he was just too fond of remembering the old times, especially when a new man was put in charge of the house. This chap was much less friendly to the family, interrogating the staff at the house, and putting pressure on them to inform on the other staff, never mind the family. The original commander had been quite amenable, letting the ex-Tsar stop work for a bit and even smoke a cigarette while they had a chat.

The final scene, with the family being told to pack for another change of prison, was quite moving. They went down the stairs, with the laundry guy (Yakunin?) staying on stage to give us some reactions to relate to. After some sound effects of them being led into the cellar, the shooting and the screaming started. As the shots were fired, bullet holes appeared in the back wall, with white light shining through them, a very effective way to get across the number of bullets fired. After the shooting and other noises stopped, another guard came back up to tell him (and us) what had happened. The women had so many jewels sewn into their corsets that the bullets couldn’t penetrate, so they had to be finished off at close range. The floor was slippery with blood, and fragments of the precious stones had flown back at the shooters, causing some injuries. It was the expected ending, of course, but emotive nonetheless.

There was an interesting section about the language of fans, and the period detail was excellent, without turning the play into a docu-drama. The set was suitably flexible, with both inside and outside locations evoked simply and effectively. Chairs, tables, etc. were brought on and taken off efficiently, and although I was briefly concerned that this would slow things down too much, the changes were usually covered well by the cast, as in the way the girls all trooped on for their laundry lesson carrying the tubs. All the performances were good, which made for an enjoyable evening.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Burnt By The Sun – April 2009

8/10

By Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st April 2009

This was a very interesting play and an excellent production. I’ve seen a number of pieces which comment on Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union but this play gives a different perspective, bridging the gap between Chekov’s soon-to-be-ousted upper classes and the thuggish period of the mass cleansings and executions.

The set for this play was a beautifully detailed veranda and adjacent rooms in a dacha, with tall tree trunks round the sides and back. The dacha rotates to change the scene, and at one point two sets of wooden railings are brought round to screen the house while the action takes place on the front of the stage. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the costumes, but they all seemed fine to me.

The dacha is occupied (I don’t know if ‘owned’ is the right word for these times) by General Kotov, a hero of the Revolution who has married a member of the old upper classes and chosen to live in her family’s dacha. He’s generous enough to allow the remaining members of her family to stay there too, so we have Maroussia’s mother and grandmother, her uncle and the grandmother’s friend all living there as well as Kotov, his wife Maroussia and their daughter Nadia. The only servant we see is Mokhova, whom the older generation tease mercilessly when they’re not reminiscing about the old days and complaining at what they have to put with now. Mind you, it’s the uncle, Vsevolod, who notices the coming storm when he reads a story in the paper about how “confessions are the source of all justice”. Nobody wants to debate the issue with him and he’s constantly distracted by lecherous thoughts, so if it wasn’t for our knowledge of what’s to come I can see that many people at the time would have accepted such an announcement without comment.

A former friend of the family, Mitia, arrives back after many years away. It’s clear there was a relationship between him and Maroussia and at first I thought he’d come back to get her to run off with him. He’s been spending a lot of time abroad, playing the piano and singing to make ends meet apparently, but now he’s back and he and Kotov are immediately at odds. The battle is quite subtle at first, then escalates through storytelling and Mitia taking Maroussia away for private conversations. Finally it emerges that Mitia is in fact an agent of the NKVD come to arrest Kotov and garner evidence to be used at his trial (though why they need evidence when he’s going to confess….). The rest of the family have gone to the zoo, a promised treat for Nadia, and after roughing Kotov up a bit (he resisted arrest – honestly, he did) and shooting a lorry driver who came along looking for Mokhova, they drag Kotov off leaving Mitia behind on the veranda. He uses Kotov’s own pistol to play a losing game of Russian roulette with himself, with the lights going out as the shot is fired.

It’s a powerful ending and a pretty powerful play. Light at the start, it darkens down through all the revelations until the final act of desperation snuffs it out completely. The characters are well drawn and well acted, and there’s a lot of humour as well as emotion. I so wanted Mokhova to get together with the driver, who came to the house originally for directions as he was lost. They seemed so well suited, but he turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time and death was inevitable. The old biddies with their twittering, grumbling and opera singing were very reminiscent of Chekovian characters. It was surprising to see how well they’d survived the initial stages of the Revolution, but then there would have been lots of them and only so much time in the day for executions.

Mitia is an interesting contrast to the other, raincoat clad NKVD men. He’s bright, articulate and full of stories and song, which gives him excellent camouflage in spying out the Russian exiles who might be a danger to Stalin. He clearly feels the loss of everything he cared about when he first left the area, initially to fight in the Revolution and then sent away to spy by none other than Kotov. It was Mitia’s protest that he had to get back to see Maroussia that led Kotov to investigate this woman, fall in love with and marry her, so Mitia’s grudge is easy to understand. His despair at what he has to do to keep his bosses happy is evident, and his final act completely at one with his personality and situation. Rory Kinnear’s performance was superb in this role, showing off his many talents to perfection.

Holding all of this together is Ciaran Hinds’ Kotov. A man of the people, he’s proud of having achieved so much in his life entirely on merit. He’s hard but not completely ruthless; believing that the victory has been won, he’s inclined to relax and enjoy life a little. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the danger he’s in immediately although he’s certainly suspicious of Mitia’s arrival. But then, he knows the sort of work Mitia’s been doing, so no wonder. He comes across as a loving father and a generally decent man, though prepared to take tough decisions when he has to. It’s sad to see him brought down by Stalin’s paranoia but that’s how it was. Anyone who was popular or successful was a threat and had to go.

There was a fair bit of humour during the play but I’ll just mention two bits here. The first happened in the opening scene when Kotov is roused by neighbours complaining that there are tanks in the fields of wheat. Kotov uses his rank to get them removed and the change in attitude of the two young soldiers is very entertaining. At first they’re throwing their weight around, thinking they’re dealing with peasants (or comrade peasants) but when they realise who they’re talking to, they turn into simpering schoolgirls and are only too happy to put him through to their commander. In relating Kotov’s instructions, one soldier translates “piss off” as “go away”, which also got a good laugh.

The second occasion was the singing near the end when the family is heading off to the zoo. The NKVD men have arrived, and to provide a cover story Mitia introduces them as his colleagues. The family assume that means they’re musicians with the Moscow Philharmonic, and from the expressions on their faces these blokes wouldn’t know one end of a bassoon from another. Still, they end up joining in a chorus or two of Evening Bells, and one chap even sounds quite good. It’s a nice bit of humour before the unpleasant ending.

Although I’ve mentioned a few of the actors by name, all the performances were excellent. I liked the set very much, although the veranda rail was in the way for a lot of the breakfast scene, cutting off the actors’ mouths, which was a bit irritating. It was well worth seeing, and I hope to catch it again sometime.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Gethsemane – February 2009

6/10

By David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th February 2009

This was a much better piece than David Hare’s usual offerings, mainly because he seems to have decided to let the audience have some fun and kept the political pontificating to a couple of speeches in the penultimate scene. Hooray! He is a good writer, but this is probably the first time I’ve enjoyed of one of his plays so much.

The play is a look at the various aspects of political life in contemporary Britain, seen through the eyes of a number of different people. To start and end with, there’s the idealistic musician, still believing that people can make honest choices, and that politicians don’t have to sup with the devil as part of the job. Lori gave up a job as a music teacher to busk on the Tube, because she reached a Gethsemane moment, a period of being tested, and in this case she decided that teaching wasn’t for her.

One of her former students, Suzette (and what parent would name their child after a crepe?), has been caught taking drugs, and is possibly going to be expelled from her posh private school. However, her mother is the Home Secretary, Meredith Guest, and the party fixer, Otto Fallon, who just happens to be on the board of governors (because Meredith’s minder Monique could see that Suzette was a disaster not just waiting to happen but about to arrive any minute), arranges for a generous donation to the school for a new gym. The school doesn’t want any adverse publicity, so case solved. Except that a journalist, Geoff Benzine (where does he get these names?) gets to hear about this from Suzette herself, while he was shagging her. He’s just one of five men she has on the trot, in an attempt to cure her unhappiness (it doesn’t work). So, the PM, Alec Beasley, has to interrupt his drum practice to have a little chat with Meredith, to see if she’s prepared to fall on her sword for the good of the party. She says no, and so the party machine spins on, with Suzette out of the way in Italy, chaperoned by Lori, and Meredith turning up at a party thrown by Otto to celebrate his appointment to the board of the Royal Opera House.

This is the scene with the speechifying, as Mike, Lori’s husband, who did work for Meredith but took a job with Otto to do fundraising for the party, finally quits due to concerns about the morality of what’s going on. He’s the amiable duffer type – good at his job, but unambitious, and easily led by the canny operators (or sharks) that want his talents on their side. He expresses that vague sense of unease that something’s wrong, that we’ve got our priorities mixed up, that sort of thing, without being able to deliver a killer blow. Meredith has a much stronger response to that. She’s discovered that, in the final analysis, you might as well do exactly what you want to, as ‘they’ aren’t going to like you whatever you do. It’s true enough, though in this case, it leads to politicians who get the country into a total mess, and appear not to care. They don’t even resign; as long as they can spin that they’re doing the best they can, we have to keep on putting up with them.

The play has a number of scenes, interspersed with monologues from most of the characters. Lori starts it off by talking about people who believe in a book, and wondering where those who don’t believe without question fit in nowadays.  Monique tells us about warning politicians where the elephant traps are, only to watch them fall right in. Meredith tells us that we’re all at risk, but for security reasons she can’t tell us what the threat is, so we just have to trust her, and Mike tells us about meeting Lori for the first time. We also get a couple of monologues from Frank, Otto’s right-hand man. He’s a character who’s relatively uninvolved; his deadpan and laconic delivery are a joy to watch, and he gets some wonderfully funny lines, too. He starts off by discussing food choices (chicken and salmon), and then gives us an insight into the homosexual nature of Parliament. The best lines, though, were Monique’s, when she made an observation about the people becoming more sceptical and yet electing people who are more devout. It got a huge laugh, and she had to wait a few seconds before continuing.

The play ends with Suzette and Lori in Italy, and as they talk, Lori brings up the idea of Gethsemane again. Suzette finds it funny that Lori’s got the wrong end of the stick; the point of the story is that, despite all the doubts and reluctance, Jesus still went ahead. It’s a story of keeping on regardless, not about changing tack because you’re not certain anymore. When Suzette leaves, Lori starts to play the piano on the table top, and as the music fades in, the lights fade out.

There was a lot to admire in this play. The performances were very good, the writing was excellent – very clear and not too pompous – and there were a lot of laughs. I liked the first encounter between Otto and Mike; the language was almost Pinterish, and the characterisations were nicely detailed. However, I found the play a bit out of date already as we’re past the Blair years, and the financial situation has changed dramatically since the time this play was set. There wasn’t a lot that was new to me either, so while it was very enjoyable, it wasn’t particularly meaty. Still, good fun though, and I hope he continues in this vein.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Her Naked Skin – August 2008

7/10

By Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th August 2008

This is not only a new play, but the first play by a living woman playwright to be produced on the Olivier stage. How apt that the play’s subject is the struggle for women to gain the right to vote. The set was a layered framework of hanging rectangular metal grids. Some of the grids were covered with metal mesh and some were open, creating an overall effect of a maze of bars and wires, which seems very appropriate for a play about suffragettes in prison. The grids at the front were in the shape of a cross – it didn’t seem to be significant in terms of the play but with such a complex set I doubt that it was unplanned. One spotlight hit a chair in front of this assemblage, a chair with a sash proclaiming ‘votes for women’ across it, also a jacket and hat. The rest of the set was lit in a blue gloom. I was impressed as soon as I saw it.

It got better. Each panel could move around, sliding up when needed, and some even moved from side to side. A large platform was moved forward after the second scene; this held the prison cells and was raised up enough for tables and chairs to be slid underneath on the revolve or just straight through. Occasionally the central platform was rotated so that we could focus on individual cells or to see the whole row from either side. At first I thought this might be distracting but actually it worked very well, adding extra movement and interest while characters were entering and leaving the cells.

The story had two strands which blended well together for the most part, but did stray apart for a while in the second half. The context for the play is the suffragette movement in the early 1900s, up to the beginnings of WWI. Within that story, two of the women who smash windows for the cause, and end up in prison as a result, form a sexual relationship and after the interval that relationship tends to take over from the broader story.

To deal with the suffragette part first; the play begins with a woman putting on the sash, jacket and hat that were on the chair and after a momentary pause, heading off stage. Then we see footage of the famous incident at the Derby, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the horses as they were rounding Tattenham Corner, causing her own death a few days later from her injuries. It’s an emotional piece of film, and it was projected repeatedly on large screens behind the metal grids. So immediately we were confronted with the lengths that many of these women were prepared to go to in order for their sisters to be able to vote.

The next scene took us from the moving to the funny, as tables and chairs revolved onto the stage for a meeting of important people with a female secretary also in attendance. The men were discussing what issues would be raised in the House of Commons that day and they generally seemed to dislike all the fuss and bother that these silly women were creating with their suffragette nonsense. After one comment condemning the intelligence of women in general, they had to appease the secretary by saying ‘present company excepted, of course’ – trust me, gents, that doesn’t help. (And the secretary wasn’t impressed either.) Their main concern about the Derby incident, apart from the health of the horse (it survived) was whether Davison was going to die and become the first suffragette martyr. In the end, the men decided the Irish question would probably dominate that day’s business.

The next scene takes place on a bare stage, at least at the front, as a number of women are gathering in an apparently unconnected way, just milling about as you do. One of them checks the time with a newspaper seller – seven minutes to six. Another of the women is clearly nervous – turns out it’s her first time. She’s so pent up she takes out her hammer and smashes a window a few minutes ahead of schedule, so the rest of the women do the same. There’s lots of breaking glass sounds – none of the real thing, thank goodness – and the women run off, exhilarated.

The next scene is where the cells come forward and they pretty much dominate the stage from now on. As the women arrive in the prison, they’re treated to the routine of having their names checked, given their numbers, aprons and kit and I noticed they were each weighed. I presume this was part of monitoring their health for when some of them inevitably went on hunger strike.

There’s a fair bit of banter, not all of it friendly, between the women and the prison staff. Florence, a veteran of the cause, insists on her occupation being described as suffragette and is angry they’ve been allocated to the wrong accommodation. They’re political prisoners in her book, not common criminals, and she quotes the rules like she wrote them. The guard in charge, Potter, points out that they’re in for criminal damage, which is a fair point, so tough luck. Some of the women are regulars in the prison – did they keep their cells for them, I wonder? – and one, the lady who was asking for the time earlier, turns out to be Celia Cain. The nervous woman, the one who jumped the gun, is Eve Douglas. I’ll just mention here that finding out who the characters are takes quite a while. Also, I was unsure at the end which of these characters was meant to be fictional – I assume Celia and Eve are, but I don’t know – and which historical. There are real people in the play, such as Asquith and Keir Hardie, and real events, such as the Derby day incident and the Cat and Mouse Act, but this lack of clarity has left me feeling a little unsure about the level of dramatisation versus the level of historical fact, and in my view that weakens the impact of the play somewhat. Anyway, the women are shown to their cells and there’s a nice exchange between Celia and the main female warden, Briggs. Briggs is very sparing of her words, never using two when one will do, and Celia has a nice line about this just before her prison door clangs shut.

The next scene sets up the most unpleasant aspect of the play – the forcible feeding of the women on hunger strike. Through various scenes we learn that the legal basis for this only applies to lunatics in asylums, but the law is being ignored in a desperate attempt to prevent the women from killing themselves and becoming martyrs. All we get this time around is a brief explanation of the process and the risks to the women if the tube goes down the wrong way – they end up getting pleurisy and dying, as it’s always fatal. Fortunately that’s all for now, so it’s back to the prisoners as they work in the kitchens next morning. Eve and Celia manage to have a surreptitious chat and start to make a connection, but for now I’ll leave off their story until I’ve dealt with the rest.

There’s a brief glimpse of the sort of debate some MPs were trying to have in the Commons, but the Government keep diverting the subject away to something more innocuous or occasionally something quite important, such as the Irish question. There’s no love lost between Keir Hardie and Asquith at this stage.

Celia’s husband visits her in prison and this is the first glimpse we get of the way the suffragettes’ commitment and determination (or, as the men put it, stubbornness) is affecting their families. Her husband is a top lawyer and he does his best to support Celia in her work, but he’s obviously feeling the strain. They chat about various things – the political situation, Scott’s death at the South Pole, one of their sons wants to marry – and it’s clear that what she’s doing to gain the vote for women is more important to her than her family. Her husband wants her to see a psychiatrist when she gets out in the hope that if she’s declared mentally unfit she won’t be sent back to prison in the future, or at least she’ll be spared some of the worse aspects of their treatment inside. Given that forcible feeding was originally intended for crazy people, I wasn’t sure that was the best move, but I can sympathise with his concern and desire to protect her.

The next scene clearly takes place after the women have been released. Florence is on her soapbox in Hyde Park and some of the men are taking offence at her speech. One chap has a go at Celia for smoking and she quite happily mouths off right back at him, in much better language of course, as befits a well-educated woman. He eventually takes a swing at her and manages to jostle her to the ground before the men around them get him under control and see him off. She’s not bothered, but it shows the sort of response the women could get from time to time. It also shows that Celia is now smoking, which is relevant in terms of her relationship with Eve.

Then Eve is back in prison and takes matters into her own hands when she can’t get the light turned off. She takes her metal cup or jug and smashes it. She’s then dragged out of her cell. Immediately after this, Celia visits Dr Stein and they have a brisk and interesting conversation, somewhat guarded on Celia’s part. I wasn’t sure if there was any sexual frisson between them – the doctor seemed keen to see her once a week after her next stint in prison and I wasn’t sure it was an entirely professional interest – but Steve didn’t detect anything, so maybe it was my imagination.

The next scene has Florence and Celia doing some work with posters or leaflets. Celia hasn’t been focussing on her work and she and Florence argue over Eve’s commitment to the cause. They have quite an argument, though not past the bounds of friendship, and there’s some lovely lines. At the end of the scene, Celia makes some comment about Florence finding plenty of work in the Russian women’s army, and Florence replies with “The Battalion of Death? Sounds a bit soft to me”, beautifully delivered.

There’s a scene where Celia visits Eve in prison, and then we get another chance to see Celia’s home situation. Her husband wants her to give up the demonstrations and getting herself locked up, but she’s not remotely interested in backing off. They have a nasty squabble, showing deep cracks in the relationship, and he heads out to do some more drinking. We also become aware that their sex life is non-existent, so no wonder he’s unhappy. She does seem a cold type, this Celia, never giving herself fully to anything but the cause.

However after a short scene where Florence is dragged out of her cell, having attempted to barricade herself in, and is given a good hosing down by the guards, we see Celia and Eve together in bed, both in dressing gowns, and enjoying each other’s company in a very intimate manner. All seems well with them now, and after the interval, during a practice shoot for the women in Epping forest, they’re canoodling in as much secrecy as they can.

Celia’s husband William is at his club in the next scene and getting some stick from the other members. Some are supportive, at least to the extent of telling the more aggressive ones to shut up, but ultimately William punches the most belligerent chap to the ground. Then Florence is visited in her cell by the doctor and there’s a discussion of force feeding methods. He’s becoming disillusioned by the process and wants her to use her authority to get the other women off hunger strike. She refuses, but in their debate we learn a great deal about the suffering caused by the force feeding, the retribution the women take on the doctors who do it once they’re out, and that Florence’s imprisonments have meant her missing her sister’s final days and her funeral, a fact which makes even this strong woman show her emotions.

Celia and Eve spend some time in a park at night, then later Celia’s husband gives her an ultimatum; give up the hunger strike next time she’s in prison or he’ll disown her. She won’t be allowed back into his house. Their argument has some lovely touches of humour, such as when she points out that she’s borne him seven children and he comments that he had actually noticed that fact. He’s fed up being treated as if he were some savage who doesn’t understand and doesn’t have needs of his own, while she’s lost her love for him long ago and doesn’t know how to handle this change in their lives.

The next scene shows us bath time at the prison. Florence doesn’t pick up the towel Briggs throws at her and there’s a short scuffle of wills as Briggs insists on her picking it up, but eventually Briggs’ deeply buried kindness starts to peep out and she rescues the towel herself. Celia and Eve have a meeting in a tea-room, with Celia keen to avoid being seen by a lady she knows, then Celia is trying to have a fling with a chap called Charlie, in a bedroom at the Ritz where he works, and then Celia visits Eve again in prison.

Then comes the dreaded scene. We get to see Eve being force fed by the doctor. It’s a gruesome experience to watch, so God knows what it was like to endure for those who actually went through it. Although I’ll go into some detail here (those of a nervous disposition may wish to skip a paragraph or two) I must confess to covering my eyes up for the insertion of the feeding tube and for parts of the feeding. However, I got the gist, and the whole setup, with the reactions of all the people involved, was important.

We’d seen the chair being set up in an earlier scene where the regular doctor was explaining things to the new boy. A sheet was placed under the chair, with straps being laid ready on either arm and on the chair back. There was a large funnel with a long rubber tube and about half way along it there was a fist-sized bulge. There was also an enamel jug. This time around the new person was a nurse, and she was the one who had to do the pouring. Eve was tied to the chair and held down while the doctor chose to put the tube down her nose. This is the yucky bit. I know it wasn’t real, but I’m squeamish about anything medical. A lot of the tube ‘went down’ her nose – the doctor commented that you have to get about twenty inches down them so the food will reach the stomach – and then the doctor tells the nurse to pour. She has to tell him if it’s not going down so he can do something about it; in fact, although it is going down, he decides to hold Eve’s nose shut anyway. The mixture is eggs and brandy, and once it’s all gone there’s the tube to get out and then she’s helped back to her cell. Gruesome doesn’t begin to cover it, although I appreciate there’s worse things happening in the world right now. The nurse was obviously in shock after seeing what was being done to these women, and Briggs shows us another level of her kindness when she gently helps the nurse to get off the stool she’s been standing on, frozen with shock.

After a scene showing us Celia arriving home after her night on the tiles and having a bit of a row with her husband, we see Eve at her washbasin, slitting her forearms and holding them in the water until she collapses. I thought this was at the prison, but the text says at her lodgings. It’s confusing, because the next scene is back in the prison, and both Florence and Celia are visiting Eve who has her arms bandaged. Florence leaves first and then when Celia says her goodbyes and leaves, the prison recedes into the background, with Eve and the wardress spotlit. I got that this was the relationship fading into the past.

The final scene has Celia sitting in Florence’s house, waiting for William to come and pick her up. From her chat with Florence, it appears she’s decided to go back to live with him and from her chat with him it appears she’s been away for three months. Florence has mentioned meeting Eve while she was out – Eve’s going to be married, to a watch maker. There’s some chat about the upcoming war and the decision to drop the protests and be patriotic once it’s declared. When William arrives her bags are taken away, but Celia’s suddenly overcome with emotion and her husband realises she’s not going to be coming back to him. She makes some comment about a wolf they both saw in the forest when they were little – I have absolutely no idea what that was about – and he leaves. End of play.

The suffragette parts were very interesting, even though I saw more than I wanted to of the force feeding. The relationship between Eve and Celia was superbly well performed but looking back, and occasionally at the time, I wondered what the point of it was. I couldn’t see clearly the connection between getting votes for women and hopping into bed with one, especially as Celia did her best to destroy the relationship once it looked like it might amount to something.

From the early meetings at the window smashing protest and the prison stint, we see the connection develop quickly as indicated by Celia taking up smoking, which she never used to do apparently. Eve smokes a lot. They’re obviously enjoying each other physically, with the scene in bed and the stolen kisses in Epping Forest, but when they get to the park Celia suddenly introduces the fact that she’s had affairs before and Eve is taken aback by this. She seemed to think their relationship was special, something to build on for the future; now Celia is talking about the inevitable time when they’ll be bored with each other, indicating this is just another fling for her or at least that’s what she wants Eve to think. It’s certainly the end of the fun part of the relationship and despite Eve trying to persuade Celia to carry on, Celia is determined to stop the affair completely regardless of her own suffering. Hence the attempt to have a one-night fling with the man from the hotel. It’s clear her marriage is on the rocks and she loves Eve, but she won’t go the final mile and commit to anything. Why?

I have no answers to this, but I must also say that the performances were excellent, not just for these parts but for all of the characters. They kept me involved and entertained, so while my description of the storyline may seem bitty, the pace of the play meant I was never bored. There was more humour than I’ve indicated, although the subject matter meant there was also a lot of heavier, emotional content to deal with. Overall, it felt like a very good play, and with a bit more work and more correlation between the two aspects, it could be a great play. Steve felt that if the author had written this ten years down the line, with more experience, it would have achieved greatness. Still it’s a tremendous offering regardless, and I wish it every success in its run.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Never So Good – July 2008

6/10

By Howard Brenton

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th July 2008

I found this a bit disappointing, given the good reviews it’s had. The queue for returns was certainly long enough. But even so, I did enjoy a lot of this performance. In fact it was the performances that made it for me – the writing seemed lacklustre at times, while the staging had a few high spots and a greater number of low ones. I was finding the heat difficult today, I must admit, but as I found the opening line funny, I don’t think my state of mind was the problem.

There were four acts, covering major periods of MacMillan’s life. The first took us up to his final wounding in WWI, and introduced us to his mother and the chap who was his best friend, until that friend decided to convert to Catholicism. This section may also have been meant to show us how MacMillan related to the sufferings of the working-class soldiers, but the writing was rather clunky in this area, and we get characters making comments about his attitude rather than letting us see it for ourselves. My main impressions from this section are that he’s a homosexual who never comes out of the closet, and who doesn’t really have any ambition for himself, so his incredibly pushy mother can mould him to suit her wishes. She wants a son who’s a big cheese in the political world, hence her insistence that Harold give up any idea of converting to Catholicism himself as it would make it impossible for him to hold high office.

Jeremy Irons is playing the older MacMillan throughout, but there’s a younger version we get to see a lot of, and in this early part, he’s doing most of the action while the older version dodders about the stage commenting on events. The younger version manages to survive the battle, despite lying in a foxhole for eight hours with no medical attention other than a shot of morphine. He’s psychologically damaged, however, and the exchange between the two MacMillans at this point makes it clear that his younger self is like a ghost haunting him, a conscience who keeps reminding him that he once had great ideals and has failed to achieve anything to justify them. Survivor’s guilt was mentioned in the program notes, and that’s clearly what’s being represented here. From this point on, the younger version wanders around, but doesn’t seem to get much dialogue, which made the character seem a bit redundant to me, and a waste of a good actor. (Having checked the playtext, the character seems to have more to say than I remember, so perhaps lines were cut, or perhaps they just didn’t register with me.)

The second act covered the run up to WWII, and a brief part of MacMillan’s wartime career when he was based in North Africa. While out there he met Eisenhower, and the two men got along well, which would be to MacMillan’s benefit in later years. At this point MacMillan gets the chance to save a young pilot’s life after his plane crashes, and there seemed to be some lessening of his survivor’s guilt, though I wasn’t absolutely sure about this. However, it does seem to be his turning point, when he becomes much tougher and determined to succeed.

Before this, the play covers the plotting that went on in the Conservative party after Chamberlain’s triumphant return from Germany with minimalist stationary supplies, and it was very entertaining. The opening scene shows MacMillan visiting his mother, who is constantly telling him off for his political choices, including becoming MP for a constituency north of Watford. It’s an absolutely hilarious scene, with several very funny lines, impeccably delivered. We also learn about his wife’s affair with another Tory MP, and one whom MacMillan will be involved with closely, as they’re both supporting Churchill in his attempts to retake power. He refuses to divorce his wife, though, as it would be another block to him holding high office. When the inevitable happens, Churchill takes over as leader of the country, and MacMillan finds himself in Africa talking to Eisenhower (see above).

There were warnings about pyrotechnic effects in the production as we went in, but nothing could have prepared us for the actual plane crash. I felt a serious blast of heat in my seat, and I don’t know how they stopped the flames from scorching the ceiling, never mind the actors. It was most impressive. Fortunately they now have the interval to clean everything up.

After the interval, we see the back room shenanigans involved in the Suez crisis. It’s quite good fun seeing the plotting and intrigue, the speculation about what will happen and, more importantly, how the intervention will look to everyone else. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a ludicrous plan, but it does show how the last traces of the Empire attitude lingered after WWII. MacMillan’s also in good form, manoeuvring himself nicely into the top job as Eden nose-dives into oblivion. It’s in this scene that his younger self seems particularly quiet and superfluous.

The final act is a short one, and takes us from MacMillan’s appointment as PM to his retirement. We see him getting to grips with the requirements of the top job, including negotiations with the French and with Eisenhower. MacMillan attempts to get access to America’s nuclear secrets, only to be told fairly bluntly that the Americans think the British have been faking their atomic orgasms. The effect of the new generation of satirists is mentioned, and then the Profumo affair comes along, and it’s Supermac’s turn to leave the political merry-go-round. And with a final reference to Google, he bids us farewell and leaves the stage.

As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the performances more than the writing or staging. The problems with the staging were simple, but first I want to describe the set. It had an angled wall with tall doors to our left. The doors have glass panes, so at first I thought they were windows. To our right, there were three or four rows of storage shelves, filled with official-looking boxes; these were moved about in later scenes to create the setting for the  Cabinet Room. Wooden chairs were placed in front of the pillars on either side. It was too gloomy at the start to see what the back wall was like, but it looked like industrial concrete. There was also a huge panel of windows that dropped down towards the front of the stage a couple of times, complemented with two chandeliers, and this usually represented a posh location – the Ritz ballroom perhaps. For the First World War, there were mounds and wire and suchlike to represent the battlefield – these were moved into place behind the panel of windows. A wall with greenery slid on about halfway back on the right, with a bench, and this was the setting for MacMillan’s country home. The plane crash in North Africa had lots of metal barrels standing around to hold the many flames, and for other scenes there were tables and chairs brought on as required.

Although we weren’t sitting that far to the side (about six seats in), I found I could see right through the shelving on our right, into the wings, and so whenever the stage crew were getting ready to move things around, these people who were clearly nothing to do with the performance on stage would come into my line of sight, distracting me for a moment from the play. It happened enough that it affected my enjoyment of the piece, and shows a sad lack of ability on the part of the designer, creating a set with such an annoying tendency to prevent audience members from enjoying the show! The amount of haulage was also a problem at times, and reminded me of Michael Attenborough’s comments about “theatre of burglary”, where the lights go down and people dressed in black come into your home and rearrange the furniture. The burglars were well active today, and obviously so, as this time the lights didn’t go down.

A number of the changes were covered by dances, usually between the acts. These did have the advantage of letting us know which time period we were in, but they went on for so long that the momentum of the performance was lost. Given that the writing was a bit lacking in interest, that’s not a good idea. Other than that, I liked the set and the flexibility it gave, but I wouldn’t willingly see this production again, despite the good performances.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me