Bring Up The Bodies – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd January 2014

My experiment with these novels and plays has borne fruit. While Steve, not having read the books at all, would have rated this play slightly higher than me, I found the lack of background knowledge a hindrance for the first half, and although I picked up the threads quite quickly, the brisk pace left me feeling unsatisfied – I was too aware that there was a lot of detail missing and as I haven’t yet read the novel, I wasn’t privy to Cromwell’s inner thoughts. The final stage of the experiment will be to read Bring Up The Bodies and see what that feels like now that I’ve seen the play.

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Wolf Hall – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 20th January 2014

Knowing these adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s work were coming up, I chose to read Wolf Hall before seeing the plays, and intend to read Bring Up The Bodies afterwards. I wanted to get a sense of how the dramatization had changed the novel’s interpretation, and to understand what it’s like to see a play when I’ve already read the book. Of course, that assumed I would finish Wolf Hall, and at one point I thought I might abandon the book altogether – the middle third was tedious compared to the opening section – but fortunately some friends advised me to persevere. The final section picked up tempo and left us with a tantalising ending, so how would reading the book beforehand affect my experience of the play?

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The Tempest – May 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Sunday 12th May 2013

An early start on a Sunday, a missed breakfast, no sign of a Sunday lunch(!), a poor selection of food at our destination and weather that started off mild and sunny but got colder and wetter; it just shows you how a tremendously good production can make us forget our worries and cares. We left the Globe with eyes sparkling (and not a little moist) after one of the best Tempests I’ve ever seen. The performances were all excellent and there were some interesting and novel staging choices which I hope I can remember long enough to note them up.

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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

Children’s Children – June 2012

6/10

By Matthew Dunster

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Monday 11th June 2012

The title of this play is meant to reflect the concern over what sort of planet we’re leaving to our children’s children, but apart from a long speech about the oil industry ruining parts of our planet – the environment and the people’s lives – this wasn’t really what the play was about. It concerned the relationships among a group of people, several of whom had been friends from their younger days, and charted the ups and downs in their relationships as the wheel of fortune turned. At times it was very funny, at times it was a bit dull, but although it could easily be criticised for a number of reasons, the overall story arc was strong and compelling enough to keep me in my seat for the second half – not everyone felt that way judging by the gaps after the interval.

Each act was introduced by a monologue from one of the characters, with a final monologue rounding the play off. For the first act we heard from Louisa, Michael’s second wife and the outsider of the group. Michael had previously been married to Clare, and with the other couple, Gordon and Sally, they had all gone to drama school together. None of them had made it big until a few years earlier, when Michael suddenly became ‘Mr Saturday Night’ through TV presenting, rather than acting, and after a couple of years not seeing much of each other, Gordon and Sally are visiting Michael and Louisa for lunch. Also included are Ellie, Gordon and Sally’s daughter and Michael’s god-daughter, and her boyfriend Castro, a wannabe film director.

The set was a stylish modern sitting room, with shelves on the right and windows to the left, doors either side, and prints of comic characters (Flash, Green Lantern, Iron Man) on the walls. The bottom shelf held a vast array of alcoholic drinks, the second shelf was mainly books, while the top shelf had a big ‘WOW’ along with some pottery. The colours were plain but strong, and the overall effect was of money and success. Louisa was a nervous talker, frequently changing direction, while Michael was a typical alpha male, dominating the conversation and giving excessive amounts of detail about the way sherry is made – his latest thing. Gordon was an unpleasant straight talker, while Sally was clearly having a lot of problems coping with their situation, which became clearer as the scene played out. Castro was a nice lad, almost the only decent character in the play in some ways, but there were already signs that he wouldn’t actually achieve anything despite his strong desire to address social problems in his films. His African background – his family were Zambian – gave him an interest in the exploitation of that continent’s natural resources and people, hence his knowledge of oil exploration and gas flaring later on.  Ellie was the most obviously obnoxious character from the word go; a sulky, spoiled brat, she didn’t like anything much, and although her father’s violence and threats towards her were shocking to watch, I got the impression that she was too far gone to respond to anything else.

After some initial chat, Gordon makes it clear that he wants to talk with Michael alone, so the others are hustled out of the way. Gordon spins Michael a real sob story about his financial difficulties, and Michael is broadly sympathetic. He’s made it big, the money’s no big deal to him, lifelong friends, etc. Gordon finally produces a figure of £50, 000 – enough to clear his immediate debts, and Michael is fine with that. Then the figure gets bumped up to include all the debts, and Michael’s suggesting £100,000. Then there’s the need for Gordon to set himself up in his own business, making use of his gardening skills – he’s had no acting work for a long time – so it’s up to £175,000. And finally Gordon plays his trump card; Ellie’s pregnant, Michael’s her god-father, so before you know it, the total sum is £250,000, and in cash! (So the banks won’t get their hands on it.) At this point, it looks like a generous gesture from one friend who’s had huge success, towards another friend who’s completely out of luck.

The second act began with Sally’s monologue, when she told us how important Dorset was to her. Apparently she and Gordon had been joined on their honeymoon by Michael and Clare, with the group getting so smashed on the wedding night that Sally fell asleep in wedding dress on the floor while the other three ended up in the bed together. What larks! The set had been changed to show a garden setting, with the walls swung round to give the French doors and a garden wall, a table and chairs, lounger and a swimming pool at the back. This was the house in Dorset which Michael mentioned he was buying in the first act, which was close to where Sally and Gordon got married. They were now staying at the house from time to time, usually when Michael and Louisa weren’t there, and much more often than Michael and Louisa knew about. On this occasion Ellie and Castro, along with their baby (whom we never see) were also staying, and it was during the family rows that I started to nod off a bit, family rows being much the same wherever you go. It’s fine to show these things in all their natural awfulness, but they don’t necessarily have dramatic value nor do they create any tension or sense of jeopardy. Still, once Michael and Louisa turned up, there was plenty of both.

The end of Sally’s monologue had hinted at a change of fortune for Michael, and so it was no surprise when he and Louisa turned up unexpectedly at their country retreat to avoid the press. Michael had finally been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a couple of women at the TV studio, and although Sally talked convincingly of his innocence, Louisa was clearly not sure. Michael was in a very bad temper, understandably, but did calm down enough to share with Gordon that, while he intended to tell Louisa the truth, he wasn’t sure yet which truth it would be – it depended on how many women came forward. He started to put pressure on Gordon over the money he’d given him, the investment in the business, and when he could expect to get some of it back; Gordon fobbed him off as best he could, but it was clear he hadn’t put an ounce of effort into setting up a business. The act ended with Sally getting a call from her agent about an audition, with the prospect of a TV series; the wheel of fortune was taking another turn.

They took the interval after act two, which gave the stage crew plenty of time to set up the third act set – a fancy modern kitchen with a table and chairs to our right and the appliances and work island to the left. The door was roughly in the middle. The monologue this time was done by Castro, who expressed his dislike for Ellie and the whole family. He felt he was caught up in their lives and seemed to want to get free, but would he actually have the nerve?

Since act two, Michael had gone to prison and lost everything, including Louisa. Gordon had died, and act three took place after the funeral. Louisa was there, and with both of their menfolk out of the way, she and Sally came across as stronger people. Sally had been successful at the audition, so this new house was entirely her doing, while Ellie’s looks had resulted in modelling work, and she had also produced a range of clothing for mothers and daughters – completely identical clothes. She was also adept at using the social media as part of her marketing strategy, so although she was still vain, self-centred and thoroughly unpleasant to everyone, she was at least making a success of her life commercially. Castro was very unhappy about this, but despite his strong convictions, the world had yet to see any visible results from his film-making.

This act did develop the attraction between him and Louisa. We’d seen it during the first two acts; she’d been uncomfortable about it because of his relationship with Ellie, especially once he was the father of her child, but she was also the only person who seemed to be really interested in his ideas and passions. The result of this was a ten minute monologue about the damage being done to the environment and local cultures by the oil giants, Shell in particular. He even talked about how people in the West found these subjects boring, and tuned out of any discussion of them, which was true of most of the audience tonight. But it showed us the positive side of Castro, a side we hadn’t been able to see before because the other characters were always shutting him up, and it also allowed Sally to change her attitude towards him; she’d been heavily into charity work when Michael had lots of money to give away, so she had both empathy for Castro’s ideals and an understanding of how often the talk wasn’t converted into real action.

The changes and character development were interesting enough, but then Michael turned up, looking like he was sleeping rough, and demanding that Sally repay the £250,000 he had lent to Gordon years ago. Ellie was so angry that he’d even turned up that she went for him and had to be restrained, while even Sally, up to now the most tolerant of people, had the most vicious rant at him and the other two in their original group, Clare and Gordon. All her resentment of the way they’d treated her, all her suspicions of betrayal came pouring out in an almost incoherent torrent of words. She grasped the work island and was bent almost double as she relieved herself of all the bile and bitterness she’d stored up. And in a wonderful touch of black comedy, when she turned around and saw Louisa standing in the doorway, she became apologetic for having said all those things in front of her.

The reactions to Michael wanting his money back were interesting. Sally and Ellie disclaimed all knowledge of the £250,000. They had been told, by Gordon, that he’d got £10,000 from Michael to pay off the mortgage, and nothing else. (I wasn’t sure if that had been paid back to Michael or not.) The rest was news to them, and when Michael said he’d paid Gordon in cash, he suddenly looked like the biggest idiot in the world. Louisa knew about the loan, but she wouldn’t confirm or deny anything; she was still angry with Michael for throwing away the good life they both had, and was focused on getting him out of the house. She told Ellie to call the police and tell them that Michael was in the house and was threatening them; given his background, the police wouldn’t be happy with that situation. This led to the funniest bit of the play; after Ellie had called 999, she yelled into the phone that ‘Michael fucking Stewart was in her house and she wanted him fucking out’ or words to that effect. After a pause, she said, quite calmly, ‘police, please’ – we all knew what the rest of the conversation had been. [I checked the text later – that wasn’t in the original script.]

After Michael left, the act soon finished, and then the play was rounded off with a monologue from Ellie, again expecting, twins this time. She was ever so proud of her daughter’s first blog (not that her daughter was actually writing it, of course), and she spent some time telling us about the naming options they’d come up with for the twins, one boy and one girl. The girl was easy – there were lots of African names which had beautiful meanings. She had wanted to name the boy after her father, but Gordon? Although it wasn’t the most clear-cut ending, this speech did round off the play well enough, and could be seen as an upbeat ending in some ways.

While it kept me watching, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the play. I can’t put my finger on the reason for it, but it just didn’t fully engage me. It’s fine to pose the questions without having any answers, but what questions was this play posing exactly? It’s still enjoyable enough, and the performances were all absolutely excellent, but I wouldn’t expect to see it again anytime soon.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – April 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th April 2012

Although the main performances had come on from our earlier visit, I found I didn’t get much more enjoyment out of the evening, as this version focused more on the period specifics rather than the wider issues. I was more aware of the Russian background to the piece and less about the people and their relevance to our times, although the environmental concerns were are topical as ever. Still, it’s a good production, and deserves to get a transfer if they can work out the details.

Yelena’s performance was probably the most changed from last time. I’d felt before that Lara Pulver wasn’t sufficiently glamorous in the role; not so tonight. She drifted languorously across the stage, fully justifying Vanya’s descriptions of her, and I couldn’t decide whether her sexual posturing was completely unconscious on her part, or whether she was doing some of it deliberately. Her relationship with Sonya was much clearer tonight – they were similar in age, and became almost sisters as they shared their feelings and girlish laughter. I was better able to ignore Dervla Kirwan’s good looks tonight, which made it easier to relate to Sonya’s situation.

The age differences came out strongly all round tonight, with the professor looking much the same age as his mother-in-law. Timothy West had his lines pat this time, which helped to make the third act in the drawing room even stronger. Maggie Steed had also developed her part as the mother-in-law, and her early exchanges with Vanya became a lot clearer as a result. Even when edging round the room to find a suitable location to sit and read her pamphlets, she was a strong presence on stage.

Alexander Hanson delivered his lines much more clearly as the doctor, and his character naturally seemed better defined as a result. Roger Allam presumably made some changes in his performance, but I didn’t notice any specifics; I felt he gave such a strong performance first time round that there wasn’t so much left to work on. Anthony O’Donnell and Maggie McCarthy were equally as good as Telegin and Marina respectively. Nothing else had changed in the staging that I could spot, and the scene changes were as long as before.

I still felt there wasn’t anything new in the play for me, but this time I did reckon the characters were connecting a bit with each other. The scene where the doctor explained his maps to Yelena worked particularly well; the air between them was alive with sexual attraction and frustration in about equal measure. There was a strong sense of order being restored at the end with the departure of the interlopers, even if Vanya and Sonya had a lot to grieve over. A good start to this year’s Festival season at Chichester.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – March 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 30th March 2012

Pretty impressive for the first preview performance. Overall I would say this is a balanced production, giving us plenty of humour along with an understanding of the characters.

The set was expansive (for the Minerva) and detailed. A wall of windows along the back of the stage had a couple of doors in it. Trees were visible through the windows, and there were several dotted around the stage as well, with one right up against the seats over on the left side. [From the post-show in April, one woman would happily have chopped it down!]  The first scene is set outside, so there was a large table with chairs, the samovar on a table over on the right at the back with a couple of chairs, and not much else.

The set changes took a long time, but the results were effective. The dining room had a carpet, the main table and chairs plus some others, and ceiling lamps were lowered as well. The drawing room was much the same, but had an extra carpet and a chaise longue, while Vanya’s room had a small table for the doctor’s stuff and lots of paperwork was laid out on the main table for Sonya and Vanya to work on. The costumes were all fine, and Yelena had a new outfit for every scene, as befitted her role of trophy wife.

There were a few problems tonight. I couldn’t always make out the doctor’s dialogue, although everyone else seemed pretty clear. I would have cast Sonya and Yelena the other way round, as Dervla Kirwan (Sonya) is much better looking than any other Sonya I’ve seen, and Lara Pulver didn’t radiate the glamour required for a Yelena – this may come with time. Timothy West stumbled a bit over his lines in the third act, a bit more than we can allow for an elderly character, but again this should improve with time.

During the second act, when Sonya interrupted Vanya, Astrov and Telegin singing their rowdy song I was reminded of Twelfth Night, and the similarity was very strong in this performance. Throughout the play I felt the characters were each living in their own universe, with little or no contact between them, and although this is a valid way to present these people, it doesn’t help me to engage with them as much as I’d like to. I found myself wondering if Chekov’s five plays are perhaps done too often, given that there isn’t the same scope to reinterpret them as there is with Shakespeare’s work, and he wrote over thirty plays! I certainly didn’t feel I was discovering anything new from tonight’s offering although it was enjoyable, and it will be interesting to see how the production comes on when we see it again in April.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me