Ruined – May 2010

5/10

By Lynn Nottage

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 22nd May 2010

I don’t know what went wrong for me at this performance. Maybe I was tired, maybe I had the wrong expectations of this piece, or maybe we were just too far round the side for this production, but I found it uninvolving in a number of ways.

Firstly, the humour was great, and I acknowledge that in difficult situations it’s normal for people to laugh as a way of coping. But when there’s so much death and violence going on, sometimes the humour seemed to be too light. We’re not used to living in those circumstances, so I felt I needed more of a sense of the hardships in order to appreciate the women’s reactions and the ways that they coped. When working in a brothel can seem a better prospect than life in a village, it’s hard to know just how sorry to feel for these women, and for the people as a whole. Are they suffering? Or are they just a strange bunch of folk who don’t seem to mind living in a war zone? I like ambiguity, but this felt more like indifference.

And secondly, the production looked like it was aimed squarely at the centre stalls. I missed a good few lines because the actor’s back was towards me, and while the rotating set was very effective, it came so far forward that parts of the stage weren’t visible from the side of the stalls.

The set was the inside and outside of Mama Nadi’s bar, somewhere in the Republic of Congo, near a road in a mining area. She takes in girls to work as prostitutes, often because there’s no one else to take care of them – their husbands and families have been killed or are away fighting in the civil war. We see the rebel soldiers and the official government troops – each lot seems as bad as the other – and in between are the ordinary folk, mainly the women, who are simply trying to survive. I was very aware of the wasted lives and the senselessness of the cultural conditioning that rejects a woman after she’s been abducted and raped, because she would dishonour the family.

And all the performances were absolutely brilliant. Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi was central to the piece, and she carried it off superbly, with Lucian Msamati’s Christian close behind as the man who loves her and finally wins her. The music was great, and the costumes and set very colourful. If I could have connected with the characters more, I would have really enjoyed this. As it is, it was still a great performance, and I hope it gets the awards it deserves.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Wuthering Heights – November 2008

6/10

By Emily Bronte, adapted by April de Angelis

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Chichester Festival Theatre

Wednesday 12th November 2008

Another night, another stage adaptation of a highly popular nineteenth century novel. This time I haven’t read the book, nor seen the movie. I have heard the song, and it’s probably impossible to avoid seeing clips from the film, usually in reference to Laurence Olivier’s acting skills, but this is as much of a blank slate as I can achieve for such a well known work.

The set couldn’t have been more different in look from last night’s (Far From The Madding Crowd) though in terms of multi-functionality they were close kin. A huge screen dominated the almost empty stage. It was tilted forward, and a picture of grubby clouds scudding across a blue sky was either projected onto it, or possibly painted on. It was hard to tell; in the occasional dull moment I tried to figure it out, but no luck. There was a table with bench and stools in a very rustic style to the back left of the acting space, and some chairs, a sofa and a bed were brought on a few times, but that was it. A lovely open space which the cast, assisted by some excellent lighting, turned into every location needed. Doors and windows were magicked up by that marvellous skill known as acting, and I found I preferred this approach tonight. No invisible sheep this time, but there were some dogs, and again acting and sound effects did the job very nicely.

I won’t go into detail on the story. I found it enjoyable in parts, mostly when Mr Lockwood made one of his entertaining comments, but I noticed there was a ridiculous amount of coughing in the audience at times, especially during the opening scenes after the interval. The actors could hardly get a line out without an accompanying hack. Funnily enough, though, the coughing seemed to die away when we got to the more interesting parts; whether I just stopped noticing it or the audience were too distracted to cough, I don’t know.

I enjoyed this production more than last night partly because there was a narrator, partly because there was a lot more humour, and partly because it was a much livelier performance, with a stronger cast giving it their all. Having a narrator, Nelly, played by Susannah York, made it all the more interesting as well as giving us the information we needed. Her voice wasn’t so powerful, so I did miss some of what she said, but I got the gist. The humour mainly came from Lockwood, a gentleman from London who had decided to bury himself in such an isolated place because he didn’t want to break another woman’s heart. Bless him, there was little chance of that, but we loved his vanity for all the fun it gave us. He opened the play by coming on to the stage, telling us of his situation, and knocking at the door of Wuthering Heights. The old chap who answered him spoke in such a strong accent (and probably in dialect as well), that we were all relieved when Lockwood couldn’t understand him either. We’d no sooner stopped laughing at that, than there was a small shower of snow, which only fell on Mr Lockwood. His comment, “It’s snowing”, was timed to comic perfection.

His presence throughout as the on-stage audience was also enjoyable. Nelly would tell him something, then be in a scene with the other characters, while Lockwood hovered like another, more substantial ghost, watching events unfold. He was handed things occasionally as well, suggesting a looseness to the boundary between ‘reality’ and fiction, the present and the past, which was entirely appropriate for this story.

The other performances were good too, especially Anthony Byrne as Heathcliff, so although I lost some of the dialogue due to the accent, like last night, I found it didn’t matter so much tonight as the characters’ thoughts and feelings came across regardless. The one plot detail I missed till later was that Heathcliff had been lending Hindley money which he couldn’t repay, and that was how Heathcliff ended up owning Wuthering Heights.

The play ended with Lockwood returning to visit the area again, so that we could find out what happened to them all. As he left, wondering about the dead folk, we saw the young Cathy and Heathcliff standing on a bench as we’d seen them earlier, when they were in the graveyard trying to raise spirits. This was the final image – the two of them silhouetted against the sky – and it was a fitting way to end this ghost story.

My only problem with this production was that I don’t find the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy particularly interesting. OK, she’s strong willed, and that may have been unusual in those days, though to judge by the number of strong women in the fiction and drama of the time (Hobson’s Choice, Hindle Wakes, etc.), you’d be forgiven for assuming the meek and mild woman devoted to her family was just a hopeful figment of male authors’ imaginations. Strong will on its own doesn’t do it for me, though, and Heathcliff seems to be such a nasty piece of work that I wouldn’t care to spend time with him, either. In fact, none of the characters were likeable, Lockwood excepted – even Nelly has her faults – and while I don’t mind that when the story is good, this one didn’t appeal to me, hence the dull parts. I am glad I’ve seen this, though, as it’s definitely a good production, and while I might consider reading the book sometime, it won’t be high on my list of priorities.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me