Farewell To The Theatre – March 2012


By Richard Nelson

Directed by Roger Michell

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2012

This was a disappointment. From a quick scan of the program, I was aware that the author was writing about a period in the life of Harley Granville Barker when he considered giving up the theatre for good; this play was apparently using that situation to present a discussion of theatre’s pros and cons, but I have to say I wouldn’t have known that from actually watching the piece. If that was the author’s intention then there’s some serious rewriting to be done. I don’t mind the lack of action, and the actors all brought their characters to life really well, it’s just that I wasn’t engaged with them or their situations at any time, although the death of Frank’s wife was a little moving.

Apart from the writing, one difficulty I had was hearing the dialogue when the actors weren’t facing forward. The acting space had been opened up, removing some of the seats to provide a vast cavernous area for both the garden and the refectory scenes. This may well have contributed to the lack of atmosphere, and certainly didn’t help the actors with their delivery. I could hear them perfectly well when they were facing towards me, so the set was presumably the main culprit in the loss of volume.

Mind you, I have to confess to nodding off a bit during the early section of this play. There was so little of interest happening on stage that I just couldn’t stay awake. The energy picked up a bit when Henry arrived, and I was fine after that till the end, although it’s always rash to have an actor say something like ‘I wondered when it was all going to end’ – you and me both, sunshine. Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much; he enjoyed it more than I did, but still felt it lacked sparkle. It didn’t lack coughing, mind you; not the best audience today.

The play was set in America in 1916. There were a number of references to the war, but even so it didn’t seem to impinge too much on these people’s lives. Most of the characters were English, but had lived in America for many years. Barker himself only came to America for the occasional tour, lecturing and the like, and there was also one American student, Charles. The location was a college campus in Williamstown, where Barker was staying with Henry, a professor of English at the college, and his sister Dorothy, the widow of a professor who had apparently kept a mistress on the same campus. Dorothy had been so unpopular that no one had told her of this other woman until the day of her husband’s funeral, and since that day she had worn black all the time to compete with the other ‘widow’ in a game of mourning brinkmanship. Henry was another who had done the lecture circuit until being offered this professorship; now he was being systematically abused by the head of the English department through public ridicule and humiliation, but as he had nowhere else to go he had to put up with it. Dorothy’s cousin, George, was also staying with them; he was happy to eat the free meals and still keep in with the head of English in case there was a chance of snaffling Henry’s position – he wasn’t a nice man.

The guests included Barker himself, Frank who was a Dickens man – did readings from the books – and Beatrice, an ex-actress and lover of young Charles. Her infatuation with him made her blind to everything else, including the vicious treatment meted out to Henry after a performance of Twelfth Night by the student group, Cap and Bells. Barker was livid about it, going into all the details for Dorothy when he arrived back in the darkened refectory. I almost felt he went too far, but she needed to know, as did we. Her sharp comment later to Beatrice, that Henry‘s message was just to get her out of the room, was well deserved, as Beatrice kept going on about how wonderful Charles’s performance had been (he played Feste). I liked Barker’s bitchy comments to Charles which sounded like compliments, as by this time we’d learned that Charles had made a complaint about Henry being drunk during rehearsals in order to become president of the Cap and Bells, a post in the gift of the head of English.

As a study of the bitchiness and political in-fighting within American academic circles, a subject Richard Nelson knows well and has covered before, this was fine, but as a debate on the usefulness or otherwise of theatre, it was seriously lacking. The play ended out in the garden where it began, with the other characters giving Frank a welcome home present in the form of a Mummers’ play. It was short and livelier than the rest of the play, so we finished on a more upbeat note but it did seem to come out of nowhere, despite Barker’s little speech about recognising that theatre could do some good after all.

Although I didn’t enjoy this production much, I would be willing to give the play another chance as long as I don’t have to travel so far to see it. I would be much more interested in seeing the Granville-Barker original, mind you – hopefully some company will stage it again, as we missed the recent production at the Rose.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rope – February 2010


By Patrick Hamilton

Directed by Roger Michell

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd February 2010

Yet another hour and three quarters without an interval! Will we ever see a play of three and a half hours again? Or an interval? This must be playing havoc with the income from refreshments. Still, this time I judged things better and stayed the course.

This production was being staged in the round. In effect, the stage had moved a bit further forward, and seats (up as well as down) had been installed round the back. A glass dome was suspended above the room with a chandelier underneath, there was a fireplace far right with a round mirror over, various chairs and tables round the outside of the room and a whopping great chest in the middle. Hexagonal in shape, it stood about two feet high, its panels carved with geometric shapes. The door to the room was to our left.

Mind you, I wouldn’t have seen much of that in the initial gloom of the performance. The two characters who start the play came on with the lights still up, and got themselves and the set ready – knocking over a chair, getting the body half out of the chest. Then the lights were dimmed so that the play began in firelight, with the two murderers stuffing the body in the chest and then pausing to catch their breath. One of them, Granillo, is a bag of nerves, yelling at his partner in crime, Brandon, when he turns the table lamp on. We then get a well-crafted roundup of the story so far, based on Brandon’s need to get Granillo calmed down before their guests arrive. It was well done, I suppose, although as I couldn’t see their faces in the darkness all that acting was wasted on me. And while I appreciate the need to do that preliminary setup in the light, before starting the play proper, I found it slightly distracting. So not the best of starts from my perspective, but not terrible either. (I remember the opening of the production at Chichester many years ago, with two young men reposed on a window seat in a homo-erotic post-coital languor. A slower, but easier to see beginning.)

The manservant, Sabot, arrives and sets out the food and drink for the guests, who start to arrive soon after. Brandon’s already described them for us, so the fun is in seeing just how right he is. Raglan and Leila are a pair of bright young things with few, if any, brain cells left intact from seeing all those awfully good films called ‘something-something’ in which one film star or another was terribly good. The older man, Sir Johnston Kentyon was a nice character, very kind, and it was sad to see his concern when he heard that his son hadn’t come home. His sister was so painfully shy, and her use of stock answers so totally inappropriate, that we couldn’t help laughing on occasion, although Brandon’s treatment of her was quite chilling at times. Finally, there was Rupert Cadell, a poet of sorts, and someone who appeared to have taught these two young psychopaths at some time. His own strictures about living dangerously are thrown back at him during the final explanation, but whether he expressed them before his service in WWI that cost him his leg, I’m not sure.

Having checked the playtext, Bernie Carvel’s performance as Rupert was on the button according to the description given by the author – a limp, an affected manner, including a strange way of talking, etc. – but while I always admire his talent, I found this portrayal got in the way of my enjoyment. With the strange accent I could only make out about half of his lines, and although I thought I got the gist of some of his speeches, I found when I checked the playtext that I’d got some things completely wrong. For example, when Rupert is pointing out the difficulties in obeying the Ten Commandments, I got the impression that he felt fairly safe about not coveting his neighbour’s ox and ass, given the absence of livestock in the vicinity of his flat. However, according to the text, Rupert was actually saying that even with the absence of livestock etc., he didn’t fancy his chances of obeying that commandment either.

The overall effect was that I didn’t feel as relaxed or involved as I would have liked. I was interested to see the original version of the play – Chichester’s version had been based more on the film – and the characterisations and performances were excellent. However, the play has dated, and with the difficulty in making out Rupert’s dialogue as well, this wasn’t the best experience I’ve had at the Almeida.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Betrayal – July 2007


By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 12th July 2007

We’ve seen this play before, so I knew the general setup before it started. It’s basically the story of a love affair, told in reverse, with the final outcome shown first, and the start of the affair at the end. It’s an interesting structure, and means I have to pay attention even more.

With such an excellent cast – Sam West, Dervla Kirwan and Toby Stephens – I tried to keep my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. What I felt with this production was that the play is actually quite slight, that the reverse order is necessary to hide this fact, and that the interest is in the acting performances, which in this case were superb. Dervla as Emma came across as quite vulnerable at first, a person of refinement and sensitivity who rarely unleashes her emotions. In fact, she spends most of the play looking miserable, with only a short spell of actual happiness in the middle of the affair, and a sense of anticipation at the start (which we see at the end).

Toby Stephens as Jerry, Robert’s best friend who also sleeps with his wife, was wonderfully louche. He was stunned to find out that Robert had known about the affair for years, and was practically stalking Emma to get the affair started. Robert, played by Sam West, is rather prissy, wears velvet suits, and could come across as quite cruel at times. However, Steve reckoned his reported confession of his own affairs was a sham, designed to make it easier to end the marriage. I’m not so sure; it seemed to me he was simply concerned to keep his relationship with Jerry more than his marriage.

The set was fairly plain. There were long, lightweight curtains floating down from a track, and these were moved around, almost like a soft furnishing train set, not to create settings but to indicate the passage of time, usually in reverse. Bed, table and chairs were brought on and off as needed, often obscured by the curtains, and a range of years were projected onto the back wall and curtains as they moved. The year of each scene was clearly defined before it started.

Looking back, I find it hard to understand why Emma married Robert in the first place, but then that’s a natural part of other people’s relationships. I can’t fault anything with the performances, I just didn’t find this totally satisfying.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Landscape With Weapon – May 2007


By: Joe Penhall

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2007

This was four-hander, exploring some of the issues around the technology of warfare and arms dealing in general. It was great fun, also quite moving, and although nothing particularly surprised me, it was still good to see someone writing this stuff at this time.

The Cottesloe had been set up with a central strip of stage, entrances either end, and simple furniture. To our left, there was a kitchen, and to our right was the entrance to the flat. Tom Hollander, dressed (I use the word loosely) in relaxed mode, plays Ned, who has designed an advanced guidance system for military drones. His brother Dan, played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, is a dentist, venturing into Botox, with a militant anti-war wife. Dan is fond of saying “yeah, no, yeah…” a lot, which is something I find myself doing; now I know how it sounds, I’ll have to stop doing it! It was very funny, though, as was most of their chat. In fact, the play changes mood gradually from the beginning, taking on a greater degree of menace towards the end, when Jason Watkins, as Brooks, the man from security, gets involved.

Ned wants to avoid his design being used in a bad way. He doesn’t mind people being killed as such (it’s fewer people than would be killed the conventional way), but he gets worried after talking with Dan that his application might actually be used to kill people who didn’t deserve it – innocent civilians, for example. In fact, the only surprise in the whole play was that anyone could be that intelligent nowadays and not have a clearer idea of what might be done with such an advanced weapon. Still, we allow our nerds and geeks some leeway in social matters, including how the world works, so it didn’t get in my way.

Pippa Haywood plays Angela Ross, the Commercial Director of the firm which Ned works for, and which wants to get a deal signed with the British government to manufacture the product. There’s a bit of commercial stuff about how the UK government wants 51% of the intellectual copyright, with the intention of selling on the weapon to other countries. Ned’s concern is how that may lead to the weapon being sold to countries that would use it in the wrong way, and he holds out for a controlling share of the IP rights. The Commercial Director does her best to persuade him to sign up to the existing deal, but it’s no go.

The scene shifts to the factory after the interval, and the set is changed quite simply. The carpet runner is removed, revealing aircraft shapes on the floor, the sides are lit differently to show up the glass bricks, and shadows of fighter planes are thrown onto these walls. It reminded me of the museum at Coventry, I think. As Ned is still refusing to play ball, the security man is called in, and Jason gives us a lovely turn as the cheerful chappy who’s all friendly to begin with, but who turns on the pressure to make sure Ned changes his mind.

Next we see Brooks applying the pressure to Dan, as Ned has scarpered, having ballsed up his coding to make the weapon useless. Dan isn’t made of particularly stern stuff, and after a short while “volunteers” to give Brooks all the information he could possibly want. The final scene is another duologue between Dan and Ned, where we find out what happened to Ned after he’s picked up by Brooks.

There was a lot of fun in the language and the performances, all of which were excellent. The play struck me as being more about the people and their relationship within the arms industry, plus Dan’s relationship with Ned. It is a bit scary to consider some of the possibilities for the way weapons are changing now, but the reality as experienced by our troops in Iraq shows that superior firepower only gets you so far. Peace cannot be so easily imposed on people who don’t want it, and increased technological superiority isn’t the final answer.

Must just mention the entertaining fight over the curry take away. I’m often distracted when there’s real food on stage, and this was no exception, but I still enjoyed the scrap between the two men, ending up with them lying, exhausted, across the table. Great fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me