Springs Eternal – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Susan Glaspell

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 19th October 2013

Not the best Susan Glaspell play we’ve seen here (like you can see them anywhere else?) but the cast were superb, and although the writing wasn’t so strong and the audience a bit unresponsive, we enjoyed our afternoon.

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The Stepmother – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Githa Sowerby

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree

Date: Monday 4th March 2013

We’re having something of a Githa Sowerby mini-festival at the moment; given that she only wrote three or four plays in total, seeing two of them in quick succession is quite something, and from what I’ve seen, they deserve to be revived much more often. We’ll be seeing Rutherford and Son in a few weeks’ time; tonight’s play dealt with the financial situation for women in the 1920s, and gave us one of the nastiest male characters to be seen on stage in any play.

Not only was this the first professional production of this play in the UK, it was also our first time upstairs at the Orange Tree. We weren’t as close to the action, and although our position in one of the corners gave us a good view of the performance, we definitely prefer the ground level.

The set was a flexible design which allowed for two other locations in addition to the sitting room in Eustace Gaydon’s house in which most of the action was set. From the entrance corner there was a fireplace with two armchairs on the left side, French windows to the garden in the middle of the far left side (the seating had been moved to the adjacent corners), a sofa with coffee table on the far right and a desk and chair on the right hand side. Between the Prologue and the first act there were some minor changes to the furnishings to indicate the passing of time.

After the interval, there were two short scenes in other locations, and the furniture was rearranged so that both were on stage at the same time. On the far side, next to the French windows, the desk, chairs and the central section of the sofa had been set up as Lois’s business room with the addition of a filing cabinet. On the near side were the fireplace and the other two parts of the sofa, representing Peter’s flat. At the end of the first scene, Lois left her room and walked a few feet into Peter’s flat to continue the play; with the lighting changes this was very effective.

It only took a few minutes for the cast to change things back to the sitting room again, and since the previous scene had left us with a cliff-hanging moment, the energy didn’t flag at all; I was champing at the bit to find out how the story would work out. The final act resolved things in as satisfactory a way as could be expected, and our only disappointment was that we hadn’t been able to make any of the midweek matinees for a post-show discussion.

The Prologue (practically an Act in itself) was set in 1911, and introduced us to Eustace Gaydon’s household. It soon became clear that Eustace had money worries, and that he had relied on receiving a large inheritance from the estate of his recently deceased sister. When he found out who would actually be getting the money, he was angry though he tried his best to hide it, but he soon decided on a course of action which would lead to the rest of the events in the play.

The first Act was set in 1921. With Eustace remarried, his two daughters now had a stepmother, and it soon became clear that the three women got on very well. Lois, the new Mrs Gaydon, was perhaps too fond of her step-daughters, and they loved her as if she were their own mother. There was also the aging Aunt Charlotte, whose increasing deafness and memory loss suggested that she wouldn’t last to the end of the play, and so it proved.

Despite the convention of the wife staying at home to look after the family, Lois had taken her ‘hobby’ of dressmaking and turned it into a successful dress design business. Her husband had taken on the management of her financial affairs, and the girls were both now grown up and the elder, Monica, was keen to be married. Unfortunately, her intended, Cyril, was the son of a solicitor, Mr Bennet, with whom Eustace had fallen out years ago. Mr Bennet objected strongly to the match, and Eustace simply wouldn’t take the subject seriously, laughing off Monica’s pleas for assistance. When Monica turned to Lois for help, she agreed to discuss the matter with her husband. The resulting disagreement, just before Eustace left on a long business trip, led to Lois taking matters into her own hands and promising Mr Bennet that she would provide a settlement for Monica of £10,000. Despite his total disbelief that the money would be forthcoming, Mr Bennet agreed to withdraw his objections once the settlement had been drawn up.

When Eustace returned from his trip and confronted Lois about her promise, the revelations were shocking to her. What was more shocking to the audience was the despicable way that Eustace tried to turn everything round to blame her. I’ve never heard so many gasps of shocked laughter at any performance before, and I’m not sure I’ve heard that many at all the other plays I’ve seen put together. Eustace’s final demand to Lois, backed by the threat of telling her secret to his daughters, was horrifying in its viciousness; by this time I was desperately keen to see him get his comeuppance and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

Lois did at least have someone else to turn to. Her platonic friendship with Peter Holland, a neighbour who also happened to be a lawyer and very rich, changed when Lois found herself in need of more substantial support than a chat. This one transgression was discovered by Eustace, and he held it over Lois to manipulate her to his own advantage. Peter, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy to push around, and his forcing of the situation gave Eustace two options, each equally unpleasant (hooray!). With the set being rearranged for the final act, what would Eustace do?

Well, he basically behaved as he always had; blamed others for his misfortune, charmed where he saw some advantage in it and tried to bully when the charm didn’t work. His final theft of some money before leaving the stage was spotted by one of his daughters, and despite Eustace’s attempt to spread a little nastiness, the girls were determined to stick by their stepmother. Cyril was also determined to stick by Monica, and with a final phone call between Peter and Monica, overheard by Lois, the play concluded satisfactorily.

We were very impressed both by the writing and the performances. It’s not easy to portray such a figure of hate without tipping over into pantomime villain, but Christopher Ravenscroft held the line brilliantly. The audience’s reactions to Eustace’s flagrant deceptions and self-justification were regularly audible: after he asked Lois a question such as “don’t you trust me?” one woman in the audience said “No!”. I would have liked to call out myself on occasion, but at the same time I wanted to concentrate on what was happening with all the characters. Eustace was a very human villain too, the sort of person who does exist and has preyed on others from the dawn of time.

The other characters were nicer, of course, but not without their flaws as well. I did wonder how the young couple would manage once they had to fend for themselves, and Lois was clearly a bit of a wimp despite setting up and running a successful business. With such a strong cast the minor characters were very well drawn too, and I noticed a similarity with Rutherford And Son in that Githa Sowerby has an outsider come in to the play (in this case, Mrs Geddes) to give a different perspective.

This was another great production by the Orange Tree, and I do hope this play will be revived more often; we’d certainly see it again very happily.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sauce For The Goose – January 2013

Experience: 8/10
By Georges Feydeau, translated by Peter Meyer

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd January 2013

This was an entertaining start to the year’s theatre-going. I wasn’t sure how well a farce like this would work in the round, and although the constant doorway miming got a little tedious at times, it did the job reasonably well and even allowed for some extra humour, mostly between the acts. The cast did a good job, as usual, and despite the slightly excessive number of characters and the complicated plot, they told the story well and got a good deal of humour out of the play.

The set was fairly complicated as well, transforming itself twice into three different locations. For the first act, the Vatelin’s flat was decorated in gaudy colours, with a crudely painted ‘carpet’ in the middle of the floor, a fake fireplace on the left wall, the effects desk by the left entranceway, and a long pouf along the far left side with a regular pouf close by. A table with two chairs stood against the far right wall; from the veneer pattern painted on it, it was a folding table. On the right side stood a sofa, coffee table and armchair. The furniture was as crudely painted as the carpet, and the whole effect was both garish and modern, or at least modern for its time.

The second act was located in a hotel room; this was soon produced by rearranging the furniture and providing some extra dressing. The sofa, poufs and coffee table became a bed against the far right wall, the fireplace was moved round to the far left wall, the table was realigned (it did fold after all) and moved across to the left side, while a bedside table and some bedclothes completed the scene. There were also some nick-knacks and a trunk belonging to the current occupant of the room, but she soon moved out to make way for all the fun and games. Farce being what it is -there were lots of clothes and bags distributed around the room by the end of the act – it took a fair chunk of the interval to change everything round to Redillon’s flat for the final act. The furniture was much the same as for the first act, but with a different layout.

The plot revolved around Pontagnac (David Antrobus) and his obsession with chasing other men’s wives. This time he’s followed home Lucienne, who happens to be the wife of one of Pontagnac’s friends, Vatelin. When Lucienne complains to her husband that a man has been following her, Vatelin is shocked and denounces such behaviour as disgraceful; it’s a different matter when he learns that the man in question is Pontagnac, his friend, and Vatelin soon loses his outrage which doesn’t please Lucienne.

We soon discover that Lucienne has every intention of staying faithful to her husband, provided he doesn’t stray himself; if he does, she’ll be in another’s arms in a trice, and she knows just the man to help her out – Redillon. He hangs around their house all the time, desperate for an affair with Lucienne, but she holds him off resolutely. Things change when a German lady, Heidi, pays a visit to Vatelin and we find out that what happened in Germany was meant to stay in Germany, but hasn’t! Various twists and turns later, there’s quite a party going on at the hotel Ultimo, with all the characters we’ve already met plus a few new ones waltzing in and out of room 13, much to our amusement.

The final act provides Redillon with his long-wished-for opportunity to enjoy Lucienne’s delights, and there’s even another wife keen to get revenge on her unfaithful husband – Madame de Pontagnac. But sadly, a night spent with a beautiful prostitute, Armandine, has left Redillon with a temporary shortfall in the loving department. With Lucienne overhearing (by Redillon’s design) her husband’s tortured confession of his one and only lapse while away in Germany on business, the couple are reunited and, for the most part, everything ends happily.

At the time I felt the play could do with some serious pruning to give us more of the main characters and fewer distractions, but thinking about it afterwards I’m not sure what could be cut apart from Armandine. The servants had some nice little scenes, especially at the hotel, and between the acts they also opened the ‘doors’ so that the stage crew could get into the rooms and move the furniture around – a nice touch.

From the post-show we learned that the actors figure out where to move as they work on the play; apart from some set positions, such as taking tea at the table in the hotel room, they’re free to do whatever feels right. The original play had Vatelin travelling to England for business and used the Channel as the barrier between him and France. In translating the play, Peter Meyer had changed the location to Germany, using the Rhine as the water barrier, and giving Heidi some time spent in England to account for her love of tea. I forget the rest of the points, but it was one of the more interesting discussions.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Yours For The Asking – September 2012


By Ana Diosdado

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th September 2012

This is a play by a female Spanish writer, written and produced during the tail end of Franco’s repressive regime and looking at general themes of that period. Such is the nature of life that those themes are also relevant today, which is why Sam Walters decided to give it this UK premier.

The set consisted of a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage, covered with newspaper and magazine cuttings. I don’t mean there were a lot of cuttings sitting on these items of furniture, I mean the cuttings had been stuck on every surface of the table and chairs to create a colourful jumbled collage, with some specifically worded strips of paper on the table top – “Who is Susi Roman?” for example. The table also had a fake typewriter and old-style cassette player which were simply boxes in the appropriate shape covered with a picture of the object. The black telephone was real and there was a black mat under the table.

On each side of the balcony was a large screen with a black and white picture of a beautiful woman, scantily clad but not actually revealing too much. The slogan ‘SHE is yours for the asking’ was on each picture. As there was no obvious sign of what was being advertised, these pictures emphasised for me that this kind of advertising is about selling the woman, not the product. The word “SABO” was discreetly placed in a corner of each advert and we learned in the post-show that this was the name of the laboratory mentioned in the play.

The story unfolded in interwoven snippets with some longer scenes in between. It became clear early on that suicide was a likely ending, but they kept the detail of who had done it well hidden till the end, although I’d guessed beforehand (I’ve watched too many crime dramas). A journalist, Juan, returned from a week-long stay with a young model whose face (and body) had become the logo of a perfume campaign. When some bad publicity emerged about the laboratory which made the perfume she became the scapegoat in the public’s mind, and with so many people hounding her, the journalist was surprised to find her granting him an interview. She needed to talk to someone, and despite the unpromising start – he was stuck in the lift for a while – he got the interview of a lifetime. The play began with him arriving home to write the article, and ended after a reprise of that scene and a finishing speech from the coroner.

The other characters involved were the journalist’s wife, the photographer who went with him to take pictures for the article, and several Everymen, all played by one actor. These characters included the coroner, a porter, a neighbour who came to help when the lift was stuck, etc., and they often used similar language when talking to the model to show the massed ranks of hostility she faced from the general public.

The performances were all excellent and believable, and it was remarkably easy to follow the story as it slipped from present to past and location to location. The way these changes were staged was amazingly simple and effective. To represent Juan being stuck in the lift the actor crept under the table (hence the mat). When Susi was doing her dancing routine at the nightclub, she stood on the table and danced while the lighting indicated the location and the music was played very loud. In general, characters simply stood or sat in a location and sound effects indicated what was happening. So when Juan sat at the typewriter, the sound of keys being hit was played but his hands didn’t move. This was both effective and practical; he didn’t have to pretend to type and the sound could be lowered when it might get in the way of the dialogue – the scenes often overlapped. To show someone arriving they would stand at the ‘door’, the lights would change with the sound of the door opening, they would step through and then we would hear the door closing. Likewise people would stand to one side of the set and some music would start, so we knew where the record player was.

It might sound cumbersome as I describe it, but these were straightforward effects which allowed us to engage our imaginations and participate more fully with the story; from the post-show feedback this recognition of the audience’s intelligence was greatly appreciated. It turned out the clippings stuck all over the table related to the story as well. While Juan was ‘interviewing’ Susi in her bed, Manny, the photographer, had been investigating the health scare which had triggered Susi’s fall from grace. He’d discovered some interesting facts which suggested that the laboratory had engineered her fame in order to divert attention from their role in the health scandal, and that they’d done this several times before to deflect bad publicity. The clippings he brought to show them were the ones on the table – a nice touch. The article which Juan wrote included this damning information, but for political reasons it was never published, reflecting the way Franco’s regime squashed any suggestion of social problems like suicide or corrupt companies.

They told the story much better than I have, and the characters were sympathetically drawn. It’s an impressive piece of work, not least because of the difficulties faced by women dramatists in Spain at that time, and to air these themes at all must have taken courage. Sometimes plays written under repressive regimes seen a bit tame to us now, as we’re used to relatively open media and creative arts; this one was just as moving and challenging as if it had been written here instead.

The post-show covered a range of questions. I asked about the staging choices, whether they were derived from Spanish theatre or had been created here. They were all practical choices which came out of the rehearsal process, and once they realised that they didn’t need a literal typewriter or recorder, they pretty much got rid of anything that wasn’t essential. Only the table, chairs and telephone were left; they didn’t even have drinks in their glasses, although there was a sandwich on the plate during the bedroom scene. We liked this a lot, and there seemed to be general agreement that theatre doesn’t need as much realism as TV or film. We’d missed a couple of productions here for various reasons, and it was good to see such a strong performance on our return.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Muswell Hill – February 2012


By Torben Betts

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd February 2012

The set was very straightforward for this play – a kitchen. We sat in the front row, and the U-shaped work island was open on our side. Sink on the right, hob and oven on the left, plus all the paraphernalia for a dinner party. A netbook was open on the front right corner of the unit, and there were two stools on that side. A fridge stood in the corner to our right.

The play covered the new social processes of the Facebook generation, with frequent interruptions and conversational non sequiturs as emails, texts and people arrived at the flat for a dinner party. Mat (it’s short for Matthew, but not the typical abbreviation) and Jess are in the process of breaking up, but their inability to connect with each other is getting in the way. Also getting in the way are their several guests; Karen, a friend of Jess whose own husband Julian committed suicide several years ago, Simon, a friend of Mat’s from university days who has an attitude problem, Annie, Jess’s sister by adoption who has  great looks and a needy personality but no discernible talent, and Tony, Annie’s ‘fiancé’, a much older man who teaches at the drama school Annie’s hoping to get into.

The action all takes place over the one evening, with short scenes in the kitchen giving us the story. Mat has heard from a social networking friend that Jess has been having an affair, and challenges her about this just before the guests start arriving – bad timing or what? There was no inkling of this revelation beforehand so it could seem a little odd, but with the communication problems of this group of people, somehow it worked. I found myself thinking that they might have done better to text each other even though they were in the same room, as they paid more attention to electronic conversations than to what the other person was saying.

The first guest to arrive is Karen, who’s still getting over the loss of her husband Julian, an incredibly selfish, opinionated boor from the sound of him. She tells plenty of stories about what he used to do, and it’s clear that she’s still a bit lost without him. She’s also a non-drinking vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, so the dinner menu of prawn avocado and monkfish stew is off to a bad start.

Simon, the second to arrive, is one of those left-wing, belligerent, contemptuous types who have difficulty making friends because they’re always bitching about something. His initial unpleasantness puts Karen off, and the way he takes the photo of Jess and Annie off the fridge door and puts it in his pocket is decidedly creepy. He fancies Annie based solely on her photo, but once he meets the real thing he changes tack and starts chatting up Karen instead. She warms to Simon as the evening progresses and she starts on the booze again; she needs someone with his strong opinions and apparent dedication to helping others, and even comments herself later on that he’s almost exactly like Julian.

Annie is indeed a looker, but as Mat has already informed us she’s got very low self-esteem. She was adopted by Jess’s parents, having come from a very difficult background, and now she’s quit her job and taken up with Tony, a man old enough to be her grandfather, because he may be able to help her get into drama school. It comes as quite a shock to Jess to find out that her sister is engaged – Annie forgot to mention that fact before – and that Tony is also coming to the dinner party. Good job there’s a spare prawn avocado and plenty of monkfish stew!

Tony calls himself a director, but how much actual directing he does is anybody’s guess. He just can’t help taking advantage of all the lovely young things who attend his classes wanting fame and fortune and expecting him to get it for them. Unfortunately his wife has found out about this affair with Annie through reading his text messages and has thrown him out. He’s another emotional wreck, trying desperately to get back with his wife, aghast at Annie’s excessive clinginess, competing unsuccessfully with Simon for Karen’s attention and even trying to seduce Jess. Any port in a storm.

The scene where Annie introduced Tony to Jess was wonderful. He stood there, still in his coat and carrying a bottle wrapped in black tissue paper, looking uncertain of his welcome, while Annie gushed about their wonderful relationship and her future career as an actress and singer, and Jess just stood there, holding the platter with bread on it, completely stunned by what she saw. It was very funny, and made us very aware of the massive number of assumptions Annie was making and which Tony hadn’t yet had the heart to challenge. Well, the sex was great, so why bother?

Annie’s demonstration of her acting and singing abilities (I use the word loosely) was another horrifyingly funny moment. She did at least know Cleopatra’s lines from Shakespeare’s play and she was bossy enough with her supporting cast to be believable as a demanding queen, but her style of delivery was atrocious, even from behind. Her singing style appeared to be modelled on the worst excesses of the reality casting shows (we don’t watch them, so I’m guessing a bit here) and her nasal tones grated really badly with me. I’m confident that Tala Gouveia, who played Annie, is very talented to be so good at playing someone who isn’t.

There were plenty of entertaining moments like that throughout the play, and the cast brought the characters to life so well that at times I felt like I was suffering through a real dinner party. Despite this, I didn’t leave early, as I would probably have done in real life, so I did get a chance to enjoy the disintegration of most of these characters’ lives, and see the little bud of hope that was the emerging connection between Simon and Karen. The only down side is that when such unpleasant or boring people are being shown so realistically, the play itself can suffer from the lack of interest on the stage; this production wasn’t too bad, but it did drag a little during the early stages. Still it did pick up as things went from bad to worse, so it was quite a good afternoon in the end.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Factors Unforeseen – May 2009


By Michael Vinaver, translated by Catherine Crimp

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th May 2009

Set: office blue carpet, white laminate table centre diagonal, three L-shaped low benches on three sides, each with white backing like a modesty screen, and a glass of water strategically placed underneath the top of the L (actors, for the use of). A few coats and jackets are hung by the cross entrances, otherwise the auditorium is bare, unusually so for this place.

The ‘play’ has no plot, nearly 30 characters, and a jumble of scenes which tell the story of a small French company being taken over by a big American multi-national, only to lose profitability due to unforeseen circumstances and end up as a small workers’ cooperative, ripe for another takeover. The circular nature of the story was commented on in the post-show, as was the topicality of the situation. Not only do we have companies going bust due to an economic downturn, but in this case the company’s problems were caused by televised interviews with an aristocrat dying of cancer – we’ve recently had similar public deaths from cancer in Jade Goody and also Farrah Fawcett. As the company makes sun tan products, the adverse publicity for sun worshipping was disastrous especially as they were just in the process of launching a major new product, Heavenly Body (from what I could gather, it was the same product in a different bottle – nothing new there, then). We get to see snippets of scenes from a lot of perspectives – the US company bosses, the French management team, the workers on the shop floor, including the union rep, and the dying Princess and her rather sycophantic interviewer. We also heard occasionally from the retailers who were concerned about taking on too much stock, and met an executive from Kronenburg at the airport.

The play began and ended with a narrator, giving us the background and then the resolution to the story. We were then into a whirlwind of management-speak as the managers discussed a promotion in a very disjointed way, and the piece pretty much carried on in that vein for the rest of the time. The three benches were occupied by three ‘couples’ – one was the Princess and her interviewer, another was the two American bosses, and the third was two women workers in the filling department. Twice during the performance they got up in unison and shifted position, presumably to alleviate numb bum syndrome, but otherwise they were pretty static. The two women did move around when the workers went on strike, and the central table was turned over for a while, but mainly it was the actors’ energy that kept things moving. They were so good at involving us in this fragmented plot that I even found myself looking for the TV screen when the managers were viewing the ads for the launch campaign, although I knew there was nothing there.

While I didn’t find the play hugely enjoyable, there was a lot to smile and even chuckle at. For example, I liked the two women at the airport, who half recognised each other and tried to connect with talk of briefcases and lighters and ‘weren’t you at such and such conference’. They also reflected the financial situation for their companies – now up, now down. I liked the way the workers went on spontaneous strike when they realised that management had led them into a downturn and the union rep found herself no longer in charge of their militancy. I liked little details like the reference to someone as ‘Sandra from Aerosols’, typical of the workplace, and the way the US men couldn’t pronounce the French names correctly. In the post-show, someone asked whether they could have transposed the play to England, but while that might have helped with the names, we would have lost that little touch.

All the performances were excellent – I can’t single out anyone from such a good ensemble – and I was tremendously impressed by both the actors’ hard work and their patience, especially those who had to sit on the benches for so long. So overall I kind of enjoyed myself and I would be willing to give this author’s work another go, though I won’t make it a priority. The layering of dialogue didn’t add anything extra for me and simply created an unnecessary distraction, particularly at the end when the final piece of narration was held up by frequent hubbubs of lines from the play. Another audience member commented on how the energy fell off at the end, and for me that was the reason – I liked the narration, didn’t like the hubbubs.

The post show had some of the usual questions about why this play, and about the translation, etc. Sam informed us that the translation was done by Martin Crimp’s daughter, currently doing post grad work at university, as Martin himself was too busy. I think she did a very good job, personally, as did the author apparently, after seeing her initial translations of some tricky passages selected by her father. There was also a question about the lack of punctuation in the text as mentioned in the program. Sam pointed out that we don’t use punctuation when we speak, pace Victor Borge, so not having it in the text made them all work a lot harder to discover what was actually going on.

I think the discussion relaxed and let its hair down a bit when one chap admitted he didn’t care for it much, which Sam had been expecting. I asked about the author’s intention regarding the humour. Sam reckoned both author and actors would be delighted if audiences laughed. Some of the actors chipped in as well; apparently we were a good audience, and they also find there’s not many gags as such but a lot to smile and chuckle over, a background rumble I think it was called. Someone raised the question of the playwright’s political leanings. A reviewer had commented on a passage supporting Communism in the second half, but Sam didn’t rate that idea, nor did most of us I reckon. In fact, I saw the commercial logic in the need to cut back when times are tough – if there’s no company, there’s no jobs at all – while Steve saw echoes of Dario Fo’s work in the surreal and absurd nature of the situation. I also felt the style was a lot like the Vaclav Havel plays we saw last year, especially Mountain Hotel.

An interesting piece, and well performed, though not entirely to my liking.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Mountain Hotel – November 2008


By Vaclav Havel, translated by Jitka Martinova

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th November 2008

This set was more complicated than the first: three cast iron style patio tables with matching chairs (very lightweight – I checked) on three sides. A wooden bench with metal ends sat across the far left entranceway, and a picnic rug filled the rest of the space. There was a thermos flask and some odds and ends (sun tan lotion, hair gel, razor) by the rug.  A canopy had been put up over the entrance far right from us.

Mind you, the set was a lot less complicated than the play. Surreal doesn’t begin to cover it. The same scene kept repeating, many characters shifted and changed, different stories were presented to us, and the whole performance became like a merry-go-round, with the horses spinning faster and faster until we were almost dizzy with multiple possibilities. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I found it enjoyable and interesting to watch.

To begin with, various actors came on, stood in their positions, and then sat down. The lights were partly up for this. There was also some music playing, and that was used each time the scene changed. The actors went through the same routine for each scene change as well, with most of them changing their positions. Initially, there was a man, Kubik (Stuart Fox), seated with his back to us, just to our left. To his left, a woman, Rachel (Paula Stockbridge), was sitting at the far table, knitting. I confess to being curious about what she was knitting, and occasionally my thoughts were more on that than the play. However, along from her, on the bench, sat Orlov (James Greene), while Pechar (Paul O’Mahony) sat on the picnic rug, sunning himself. To our right, sitting alone at his table, was Kotrba (David Antrobus), who never spoke, and rarely got involved with anyone else. There’s also Tetz (Mike Sengelow), who dashes on, catching a ball, the sporty type, and who sits down next to one of the characters, Orlov I think first time round.

Other characters come and go. Liza (Esther Ruth Elliot) dashes on and off stage regularly. She’s dressed up in a fancy frock, carrying some flowers, and looking a bit distracted. Orlov usually tries to intercept her, insisting that they had a relationship many years ago in Paris, which she denies. As the hurdy-gurdy of the play cranks up its madness, however, we even get to see a scene in which she accosts Orlov, claiming they’d known one another, and he denies all knowledge of her. There’s also Pecharova (Rebecca Pownall), who seems to be the wife of Pechar, fussing over him, insisting he wear a jumper though he wants to sunbathe, bringing him tea which he doesn’t want, and talking about his possible liaison with another woman. This other woman, Milena (Faye Castelow), is the waitress, who regularly brings on some orange juice and offers it round. She seems to be having a relationship with two different men, both of whom are Pechar. With each scene change, Pechar becomes the other man in this triangle, so we get to see the relationship develop with two men in one. It’s totally surreal, but surprisingly watchable and entertaining. Pechar also has a piece of repeated business, and I think it comes at the end of each scene. Milena, or possibly Pecharova, goes off in a huff, and Pechar seems to become aware of everyone watching him, including the audience. He looks around – he’s kneeling at this point – looking mortified at being the centre of attention, and then looks at Kotrba and shrugs. Thanks to Paul O’Mahony’s performance, this worked very well.

Dlask (Philip Anthony) brings on a bottle of wine and two glasses, and joins one of the other characters to share some wine and have a chat. Kunc (Robert Austin) appears every so often and spends some time whispering in Kotrba’s ear; they both have a good laugh at whatever it is that he’s said, and then he leaves without talking to anyone else.  Then there are the director(s) of the hotel, or institute, or whatever else this place represents. Drasar (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and Kraus (Christopher Naylor) take it in turns to be director, while the other one gets to be henchman. Each director comes on, accepts the warm response from the guests(?) and staff(?), then searches for a piece of paper with increasing degrees of panic. They find a small scrap of paper in one pocket, not much bigger than a credit card, which seems to be all they need. They then make a little speech, which includes statements ranging from the philosophical (e.g. unity is strength) to the banal (the light in the downstairs toilet has been fixed). Each statement is greeted as if it were a most important pronouncement, and with each scene we get a different assortment of choice statements, each delivered as if it were the most important thing in the world.

As the characters become more and more mixed, with lines being said by anyone in any order, the whole group stands up and starts dancing. With fewer women, the men have to cut in from time to time. Eventually, the dance stops, the actors stand still, and the lights go out. End of play. It made sense at the time, though describing it makes it seem really weird. Actually it was weird as well, but perfectly in keeping with the rest of the play.

The fun was in the performances, and the way these little cameos built up a larger picture without mapping it out too clearly. I got a sense of people having to be careful about revealing too much of their past, of having to change stories depending on who they were talking to, of reinventing themselves on a regular basis depending on who was now in power. Yet still the standard relationships were there, struggling to maintain normality when everything has gone horribly wrong. There was a subtle sense of menace in the air – characters talked about Kubik having missed some event, and how this would affect him. It was an intriguing play, which had a bit too much repetition in places for my liking, but which I still enjoyed overall.

There was the usual post-show chat, but I find I’ve forgotten most of what was said. There was some confirmation of the way Havel and many other writers chose to use surrealism to mask anti-government writing – if they couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t ban it. I suspect that’s what makes some European drama inaccessible to me – you had to have been there. The amount of beer being drunk in the first play (Audience) was commented on; apparently the timing of each bottle and glass was tricky, but turned out to be crucial to the scene. I do remember there were some long anecdotes by people who had been to Czechoslovakia, which seemed to have very little to add to the experience of the discussion, at least not as much as the actual Czech folk who contributed to the earlier talks, so perhaps that’s why I don’t have a lot more to say here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Private View – November 2008


By Vaclav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky

Directed by Sam Walters

Orange Tree Theatre

Thursday 13th November 2008

This play was part of a double bill, and came after, and was much funnier than, Protest. This was a view of those people who bought into Western materialism, Czech style, in the 70s.

A couple, dressed like 70s hippies, welcome Vanek to their flat for a ‘private view’. The husband, Michael, has gone to a lot of trouble to do it up to their exacting standards, everything except feng shui from the sounds of it, and they want their best friend to see the results before everyone else. His wife, Vera, is very supportive of her husband, and even found the scimitar proudly displayed on the wall to our left, which was just what Michael had wanted. They ply Vanek with drink, and in between showing off various items they’ve bought and boasting about their amazing young son (precocious enough to ask, do frogs drown?), they attempt to do a makeover on Vanek and his wife’s lifestyle, despite his protestations that he and his wife are fine as they are. Michael and Vera even go so far as to assume Vanek will want to watch them making love, as they’re so good at it and he obviously needs some tips.

These are the friends from hell, and there’s some lovely repetition that goes on with the husband asking if he’d like some music, the wife offering some unpronounceable (and probably unpalatable) snack, and then the clock doing its weird musical thing, which both Michael and Vera ignore, but Vanek reacts to. This cycle, interspersed with increasingly desperate attempts by the couple to make Vanek’s life better, gradually build up to a point where Vanek has to tell them to lay off, at which point Vera goes ape-shit, throws his flowers back at him, and tells him to get out if he doesn’t want to be there. He has to make a choice now, and although I would probably have decided differently, he opts for peace at all costs, picks up the flowers (he’s right beside us at this point), puts them back in the vase, and sits down to enjoy some more of their company. With his acquiescence, they’re back to being charming again, and so it goes on, though mercifully we’re spared the sequel by the lights going out.

It was a more interesting and enjoyable play than this description gets across. I liked that another actor was playing the Vanek character this time, indicating that he is an everyman type. The performances were all excellent, which brought out the very dry humour. I suspect I didn’t get all of it, but I still found it good fun, and again I notice that a group of pieces has been arranged to end with the funny one (cf Glaspell Shorts).

During the interval, the set was completely transformed. Using the same basic items, we ended up with one of the black leather chairs in front of us, the large chest to the left of it with a gramophone, the other black chair in the corner, and the drinks trolley along from that. Opposite us was the table, sporting two candlesticks and a small vase, and flanked by two upright chairs. In the middle, on the diagonal, was a big crazy-paved oblong fire pit, with a bear-skin rug this side of it. Four special items hung from the centre of each balcony; an icon in a niche, an icon painting, a clock, which played an unusual tune at odd moments, and a scimitar.

The post-show brought out some interesting points. Apparently Vanek was used by other writers once Havel had created him, so he has a bigger life than just these plays. Since he had such a big cast for the whole season, Sam Walters decided to cast three different Vaneks, and the general feeling on this seemed to be positive.

The moral dilemmas of the first play were discussed in some depth, and covered all of the points I had thought of and a few more. We were asked whether we thought Stanek should have signed the petition or not. I voted for, but wasn’t entirely happy with that; I didn’t think he “should” have, though it might have been the more courageous thing to do. Either way, the complexities of the situation came across even more, and I can only respect those who went through such times, regardless of their choices.

The second play was also appreciated, but there was less to say about it. The choice Vanek makes at the end was commented on; apparently that’s the choice many Czech people would make to keep the peace with friends. One other point from the first play – Vanek removes his shoes, and that’s a point of etiquette to remember if I’m ever in the Czech republic (and a number of other European countries as well, apparently). Although hosts will tell their guests they don’t have to take their shoes off, DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. It’s a huge social gaffe to keep shoes on in someone’s house, and they won’t be your friends if you do.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Protest – November 2008


By Vaclav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky

Directed by Sam Walters

Orange Tree Theatre

Thursday 13th November 2008

This was the first of two playlets today, both by Vaclav Havel. It’s a two-hander exploring the reasoning of those who avoid taking a stand against tyranny and oppression, or despotism, as it’s referred to in the play. It’s not one-sided though, as the character of Stanek, who could come across as a cowardly chap who wants others to fight his battles for him, is given some thought provoking speeches which certainly made me aware that he was in a much more complex situation than any I’ve experienced.

The story is very simple. Vanek arrives at Stanek’s house which appears to be in the country. Vanek has spent some time in prison for his dissident behaviour, and has only recently been released. Stanek is a successful writer who gets his work on TV, but he’s obviously had to make a number of moral compromises along the way, and not just in terms of his work. His daughter is pregnant by a musician, one of the current rock stars, who has been arrested for telling some improper joke at a concert – they didn’t tell us the joke, sadly, but I do remember some reference to a penguin, which always gets a laugh. Stanek wants Vanek’s help to stir up some sort of protest so that the young man will be released. He says he’s done all he can behind the scenes, but without result so far. Vanek already has a petition with him about that very thing, and has brought it with him in the hope that Stanek will sign it to add weight to the 50 signatures already obtained. The meat of the play is Stanek’s deliberations, out loud, of the pros and cons of signing.

Vanek is a very blank character, which gives Stanek every opportunity, and even the need to express himself to us. For people living under that sort of oppressive regime, the choices may have been limited – as in, to sign or not to sign – but the ramifications were amazingly varied. Apart from the obvious consequences of losing his job and his son not being allowed to go to university, there was the factor of his son’s respect for a man who would speak out on such a matter, the possibility that by upsetting the authorities they might take a harder line, and a somewhat complicated consideration about his name being so unusual in the world of dissidents, that it might distort the intention of the petition altogether. It made sense when he was explaining it, but I’m not sure I can get it down clearly. The idea seemed to be that when there was such a tight-knit group of protesters, the usual suspects if you will, adding his name would be a political statement that the equilibrium had changed, that  even non-dissidents were now getting involved in these matters. In effect, no one would talk about the release of the rock star, because they’d all be too busy talking about his signature and what that meant for the political climate. In this reasoning, his signature could do more harm than good.

While this might seem like the sort of equivocating spin that many politicians come up with nowadays (I was strongly reminded of Timon Of  Athens, and the ridiculous excuse given by the third chap he approaches for some financial assistance, i.e. I’m so upset that you came to me last that I won’t give you anything!), but Vanek’s reaction, which indicated an understanding that these were valid points, made me realise that we were being shown deeper aspects of political manoeuvring than I’d seen before. I got the impression that Vanek, having been through the jail experience, understood all the nooks and crannies of these arguments, and judged no one for their choices.

As it turned out, a phone call came after Stanek decided not to sign, from his daughter – the rock star had been released and was with her. Perhaps the negotiations behind the scenes had worked after all. I was certainly more aware with this play that the possibility of influencing the authorities in private could be a useful tactic, rather than the opt-out that we smug liberals often consider it.

There were also some interesting points in the early parts of the scene, where Stanek appeared to be trying to get some idea of just what Vanek had told his interrogators in prison, and I even wondered just how safe it was to give any information to him, as he might have been willing, or even planning to use it to his own advantage. This makes me much more aware of how difficult relationships must be in those circumstances; if I could have those passing thoughts during a fifty minute play, what must it have been like for those living permanently with such doubts?

Now I’ll describe the set; starting from where we sat and going clockwise, there was a big, square black leather easy chair in the middle of the row, and the next side had a long wooden chest with some sort of radio on it. Across the far diagonal was a dark wooden table, richly carved in a middle European style, and adorned with a typewriter and other desk accoutrements. The chair was of the wheeled variety, and a much more modern design. Further round, roughly opposite us, was a drinks trolley, and to our right another black leather chair with a small chest this side of it. There was a large rug with an asymmetrical geometric pattern on it filling the centre of this space.

The post-show brought out some interesting points. Apparently Vanek was used by other writers once Havel had created him, so he has a bigger life than just these plays. Since he had such a big cast for the whole season, Sam Walters decided to cast three different Vaneks, and the general feeling on this seemed to be positive.

The moral dilemmas of the first play were discussed in some depth, and covered all of the points I had thought of and a few more. We were asked whether we thought Stanek should have signed the petition or not. I voted for, but wasn’t entirely happy with that; I didn’t think he ‘should’ have, though it might have been the more courageous thing to do. Either way, the complexities of the situation came across even more, and I can only respect those who went through such times, regardless of their choices.

The second play was also appreciated, but there was less to say about it. The choice Vanek makes at the end was commented on; apparently that’s the choice many Czech people would make to keep the peace with friends. One other point from the first play – Vanek removes his shoes, and that’s a point of etiquette to remember if I’m ever in the Czech republic (and a number of other European countries as well, apparently). Although hosts will tell their guests they don’t have to take their shoes off, DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. It’s a huge social gaffe to keep shoes on in someone’s house, and they won’t be your friends if you do.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Leaving – October 2008


By Vaclav Havel

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th October 2008

The set was a country garden. There was a pergola beside me with ivy trailing around it, a stone arched doorway far right, more bits of shrubbery round the walls, and a female nude in the stonework over the entranceway. A swing hung down towards the stone arched doorway, there was a round patio table with metal chairs in front of us, and a wooden bench to the left. The floor was part stone flagged, part brown carpet, which may represent dead lawn.

The play was about a Chancellor who has left office, and how things change once he’s no longer in power, especially as his political opponents are now in charge. Vilem Rieger, played by Geoffrey Beevers, is a middle aged man who had massive popular support when he took office, but now his legacy is coming under scrutiny. He has a long-time companion Irina, who herself has a ‘friend’ called Monika, and he lives with them and his mother in one of the official residences. A couple of former aides are helping him to pack up his things, although he feels he should be allowed to carry on staying in the house. His mother, known only as Grandma, potters about, making unfortunate comments, and there’s also a manservant, Oswald, who’s so old and rickety he should really be retired. Along with this group, there are Rieger’s two daughters, Zuzana and Vlasta, Patrick Klein, a member of the opposition party now in power, who manages to make a miraculous climb up the greasy pole right to the top in the course of the play, some journalists interviewing the great man now he’s no longer so great, and a political scientist Bea, who’s simply drawn to power and is willing to do the usual sort of things to latch on to the top dog. She starts off being attracted to Rieger, then drops him like a hot potato when Klein takes over. And before I forget, there’s also Vlasta’s husband Albin, who says little but is still scolded for being a chatterbox, and who streaks across the stage at one point, completely nude. He’s also wheeled on in the same state, having spent the night in the garden. And there’s a gardener who basically comes on to announce the various political changes in the country, like the gardeners in Richard II.

In fact, this play deliberately references other plays, specifically The Cherry Orchard and King Lear. Oswald is clearly Firs, the old servant who gets left behind when the family leaves, and who lies down on the sofa to die – Oswald does much the same thing. Both plays have a cherry orchard, but while the orchard in Chekov’s play is only being chopped down at the end, this orchard is being chain-sawed from a much earlier point. The King Lear references are abundant, as when Rieger finds he no longer has any influence, and is not only going to be booted out of the house, but may find himself in even deeper trouble. He ends up having to back the new regime, who have adopted his slogans and buzzwords, even though it’s clear they don’t intend to do anything about them. It was interesting to see that Irina, who seemed to be an older version of Bea, only staying with Rieger because he was powerful, actually stays loyal to him until this point, when he throws away his principles and supports the new power elite, specifically Klein. Once he does that, she leaves with Monika, although it’s possible Klein and Monika might develop a ‘special relationship’ themselves.

There’s also a Lear connection with the daughters. Zuzana is confident her boyfriend (French?) can put them up for a while, but later we hear that he’s been arrested on suspicion of something or other. Vlasta starts by offering her father a place to stay in their flat, then changes her mind as the pressure mounts. It may have been Albin’s (Albany) disagreement with that which led to her telling him to shut up as he was talking too much, and presumably triggered his bizarre behaviour.

There’s a load more stuff going on as one of the former aides plots to get himself into a good position in the new government, while the other worries about accounting for paper clips and a bust of Gandhi. Klein keeps turning up, each time with a more impressive job, until he’s finally made it to the top. He buys the residence, and plans to chop down the orchard and build a condo complex with facilities such as pubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas, and, of course, a posh brothel, located in the grand old house itself. He’ll be living in one of his other villas by then, as he’s cannily snapped up a job lot going cheap as the incoming party tries to balance the books. There’s also a lot of references to the Gambaccis, a Mafia-like family with fingers in more pies than they have fingers, if you see what I mean. All in all, this play gives us a complex and absurd picture of a country going to the dogs once a new party takes control, despite having had a good, if ineffective, leader for many years.

The autobiographical aspects are enhanced in this production because the author himself reads some entertaining notes during the performance – a disembodied voice telling us about the writing process, what the author intended at this point, how an actor should say a line, and generally giving us a humorous take on the whole process of writing a play. There’s a lovely spell when the stage has been left empty, and after quite a long pause, Havel talks about the difficulty of judging just how long to leave the stage unpeopled before the audience think the play’s finished and start leaving. Although I found his delivery a bit monotonous, I did enjoy his comments; the long boring bits were worth listening to for the punchlines.

I found myself enjoying this much more than I would have expected. I thought it might be a bit dull, but I now realise that Vaclav Havel probably wouldn’t know how to do dull. Although it obviously referred to Czech politics (Patrick Klein has the same initials as the chap who succeeded Havel), there were a lot of echoes of our own political scene, with Tony Blair having left office not so long ago. In the post-show chat, there were a couple of contributions from Czech ladies; an older woman who had lived through much of the massive changes that country has been through, and a younger woman who confirmed that she saw the play as essentially Czech in nature. She reckoned non-Czechs wouldn’t be able to get as much out of it, but even so, this production was apparently funnier than the original done in the Czech Republic.

There were only a few of the usual questions, what with these comments and questions about the nudity, etc. Someone asked about Irina being such a bitch, but I think the general feeling was that the characters all had some redeeming qualities, and that they weren’t just heroes and villains. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the Havel season now.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me