I need to start with an overriding principle: all awards for artistic achievement are inherently flawed. They always represent a compromise and therefore can’t express the joy of personal experience. They are also needed in hundred different practical ways, no point bemoaning their sheer existence or the agenda a specific award represents. The Oliviers focus on mainstream productions, complaining they ignore obscure edgier offerings is pointless. What struck me with the 2014 Oliviers nominations though was how the list was underwhelming, even by the standards of the commercial mainstream agenda.
Rachel Drazek as the Bride. Photo Ludovic Des Cognets
A few years ago I saw a play called Scarborough at the Royal Court Upstairs. The story was set in a hotel and the space was made into a hotel room. In fact there was no seating for the audience: we were sitting wherever we could: at the edge of a sofa or a window seat and the actors were working around us. Not so much around us but through us: we were ducking and diving to get out of their way. Which was all very good practice for Dante Or Die’s I Do, a story playing out in six rooms of a real hotel at the run up to a wedding. The audience, in six separate groups, is led from room to room and witnesses the last fifteen minutes of preparation from all different perspectives.
There is something particularly appealing in being a spectator (or “fly in the wall” as we were encouraged to be) in a familiar yet stressful situation. No leap of faith is needed, we recognise our stories played out. It’s surprising how much of the big day is not about the wedding: everyone has their own story, troubles, interests and preoccupations. Joy and sorrow, the sublime and the ridiculous live side by side, the condensed nature of the experience brings the contrast to the fore.
Mid performance of Peter Gill’s new play Versailles, I started thinking of the text and how it must look on the page. It was in one of the numerous, lengthy, cavernous monologues when the actor was pushing forward reams of sentences and words, in the presence of other people (fellow actors and the audience) who were trying to concentrate on their meaning.
This might give the impression of an avant guard play but Versailles is as old fashioned as it gets. The setting is the end of WWI, in the drawing room of an upper class family that is not as well off as it used to be. Some men have come back from the war, some never will. The treaty of Versailles is being negotiated. From there we move to the back rooms of power and then back to the drawing room. Relationships are sketched but the play hardly ever focuses on them. Instead we get essay after essay, and history lesson after history lesson. Lovers’ last encounters are weighted down by lectures on class, money, self-determination, reparation. It’s like being cornered by an earnest, not entirely sober, fervent activist at a party: you agree with most of what he/she says and some of it is a bit witty but mostly your eyes glaze over. Continue reading →
Russell Tovey as Jason, Gary Carr as Ade. Photo Manuel Harlan
John Donnelly’s The Pass, currently playing at the Royal Court Upstairs, was pushed into the spotlight as the play about a gay footballer. This is a good media hook but it’s selling the play short. Without ignoring attitudes and issues around homosexuality and football, Donnelly delves deeper into his characters to find universal questions: What would you sacrifice for success? How do you form human attachments if the world around you doesn’t allow for weakness, mistakes, human frailty? Can you ever find your way back if you take the wrong turn?
Donnelly approaches these questions with a lightness of touch, where loss is poignant because happiness is within reach and present. This is probably the biggest achievement for play and production: the characters are mischievous, sexy, playful and the play has their youthfulness and banter at its heart. Continue reading →
New plays by Nick Payne, Ella Hickson, Tom Wells are not to be ignored. New plays by Nick Payne, Ella Hickson, Tom Wells performed together are a major event. New plays by Payne, Hickson, Wells performed together in the middle of a gig? I couldn’t possibly stay away. The set up is unusual and yet simple: we first encounter musicians playing a gig but quickly the songs morph into performed stories and the musicians into actors playing characters. After that, there isn’t much distinction between plays and songs, they are all different points in the same universe.
Similarly, the three plays bleed into each other. Jonesy by Tom Wells recreates the chaotic drive of teenage years, where crashing pressure is only outweighed by optimism and indefatigable energy. (I loved how the adult world in the background was tired and fade, like a shake of the head too small for anyone to notice). Continue reading →
Andrew Scott as Angel in Original Sin. 2002 Sheffield Crucible. Photo Simon Walker
We are only a few weeks away from the first performances of Simon Stephens’ Birdland at the Royal Court. So much excitement riding on this: Andrew Scott in a Simon Stephens play (Sea Wall anyone?) directed by Carrie Cracknell. No pressure but anything less than superlative might be a disappointment.
This is not Andrew Scott’s first theatrical appearance since he played Moriarty (there is no way around it, for certain actors in certain roles there is before and after). He always stuck very close to the stage, all the way back to his native Ireland and Abbey theatre. My first introduction to his talents was at a Royal Court rehearsed reading in early 2009. (I had to look it up but the play was The Uncertainty Of The Situation (Die Unsicherheit der Sachlage) by Philipp Loehle. The cast – take a deep breath – included Katherine Parkinson, Jeff Rawle, Paul Ready, Samuel West). Once I saw him on stage, I always kept tabs, I wanted to have that rush again.
But this was seven years after he played Angel in Peter Gill’s Original Sin, after Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. The production premiered in Sheffield Crucible with mixed reviews but I can’t help to feel bawled over by its subject matter: “Angel, a spell-bindingly beautiful boy is plucked from the streets to be the plaything of a wealthy newspaper proprietor. Continue reading →
Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand
There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?
So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.
1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples. Continue reading →
Kate O’Flynn as Jo, Lesley Sharp as Helen. Photo Marc Brenner
Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was 18, and I can’t help but marvel at what it must felt to be a teenage female playwright in the 1950s. But if you thought this is a period piece, encrusted and from the history books, think again. The story of a mother and daughter in mid twentieth century Salford takes on motherhood, class, race, sexual orientation and female identity and makes sense of the fumbling, contradictory way people go through life. It’s both admirable and frightening how contemporary its themes feel. (It’s almost sixty years since the play was written. In order to grasp what sixty years mean, it’s the difference between pre World War I Edwardian England and swinging sixties).
Complex ideas are matched by the vitality of the characters: seventeen year old Jo and her mother Helen are bursting – almost violently – with life’s desires. Neither saints or whores, they fumble into the dark, continuously pushed forward by their own irrepressible drive. The play is uncompromising in its sharpness: no easy stereotypes or conclusions, it will poke you relentlessly till the end.
In the National Theatre revival directed by Bijan Sheibani, the text is left to work its magic, but some directorial choices bothered me. Continue reading →
If you read this blog, chances are you already had strong recommendations about Blurred Lines, a play “created by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell, devised by the Company with poetry by Michaela Coel”. (This is a direct quote from the National Theatre website, I didn’t want to get it wrong). “Recommendations” puts it somewhat mildly. Among the “feminist” plays currently performing in London, Blurred Lines (taking its title from the Robin Thicke song, yes THAT Robin Thicke song) is the rock n’ roll concert. People love it, scream for it (as the girls next to me did at the curtain call), adore it. And with very good reason.
Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Brendan Coyle. Photo Nigel Norrington
Last night was an important night in the calendar. It was the last performance of Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre, and that would have been significant enough, but for me it was also the official end of theatrical 2013, a vintage year by all accounts. Others are articulate in analysing cutting edge trends, but what I loved about 2013 was the abundance of productions that generated feverish excitement. In the last few months of the year, London theatres were full of people bouncing from Richard II to Coriolanus, Americhan Psycho to Mojo, but also productions without major stars: The Light Princess at the National, or The Pride at Trafalgar studios. Earlier in the year, Edward II (again at the National), Macbeth at Trafalgar and the Cripple of Inishmaan at Noel Coward had similar audiences.
Not all productions had been sold out successes and some of the enthusiasm was instigated and channelled through the presence of a famous actor, but what I loved was the absence of austere and po-faced reactions. Some people took these productions to their (fannish) heart and tumblr exploded with the sublime and the ridiculous. Continue reading →