Review: Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, presented by Headlong, at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

– Don’t you feel pain?
– Only as much as I want to.
– And how much pain is that?
– That’s rather personal, don’t you think?

Words that are brazen, suspicious, suggestive. Even worse, this is the conversation between an adult and a child. Even worse, this is not quite true.

Jennifer Haley’s play assumes a world where we can go to hide. It’s The Nether and it’s virtual but other than that, each character defines it in a different way. No consequences, no pain, no sense of time, no limitations. These are the lies people tell to each other. The closest the virtual world imitates the physical one, the less escapism it offers. Isn’t that weird?

The play will be discussed as a play about pedophilia, but this is far too obvious an approach. It’s mostly about intimacy, and whether it can be achieved without moral choices and consequences. The characters try to evade reality and then demand it as a token from each other. Continue reading

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (with Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster), Young Vic Theatre

Ben Foster as Stanley and Gillian Anderson as Blanche. Photo Johan Persson

Ben Foster as Stanley and Gillian Anderson as Blanche. Photo Johan Persson

I was going to start the review in some flippant way – Old Vic versus Young Vic, mine is bigger than yours, the fear of the theatre goer before the 3.5 hours production – but Benedict Andrews and company put a stop to all that. A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic has such a strong grip on the senses I could feel its salty whiskey taste in my mouth. It’s rare and savage and addictive.

Tennessee Williams’ play pushes all my buttons, and not in a good way: domestic violence, rape, self-delusion, it’s hard to ignore the urge to shout: get out, snap out of it, run away. Benedict Andrews’ production magnifies these moments in all their horror while giving the characters a measure of personal worth free of judgement. These people don’t care what you think. But they make you care.

So much of Blanche DuBois is a performance: it’s the lies she tells others, before the lies she tells herself, before the lies no one can establish either way. Gillian Anderson is uncompromising in pursuing that performance and unmerciful in cornering Blanche in all her petty ways. When the performance cracks, Anderson falls into a pit of mute despair. It’s not vain, it’s not beatific, it’s so ugly it defies aesthetics and it’s beautiful again.

Stanley is a simple soul but the total committment with which he lives that simplicity is intoxicating (in both meanings of the word, both exhilarating and unhealthy). Ben Foster inhabits Stanley unapologetically. Continue reading

Review: The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker, starring Lisa Dillon, at the Swan Theatre, RSC

LIsa Dillon as Moll. Photo Helen Maybanks

LIsa Dillon as Moll. Photo Helen Maybanks

In a sly and underappreciated tradition, many RSC cross dressing girls look like K.D. Lang. In that distinguished line up, Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse has a special place. For one, she is a 17th century girl who cross dresses unapologetically. None of this fleeing through the forest in disguise for her. Secondly she plays the double bass. And sings. And rises to the stage surrounded by a cloud of smoke. If you want the K.D. Lang crown, this is how to get it.

The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611, is the dramatised story of Mary Frith, nickname Moll Cutpurse, a famous virago in London at the time, who lived as a pickpocket and a pimp, dressed in men’s clothing, had a house full of mirrors on Fleet Street and kept parrots, bred mastiffs and a dancing horse. In other words, she was like the best of the Soho crowd before there was a Soho and the best of feminists before there were any. The rest of the story is complicated: Sebastian needs Moll’s help to get together with Mary, they avoid his father’s trickery with cunningness, Moll helps Jack – another wild spirit – to slip the taming hand of the law, Mistress Gallipot – a shopkeeper’s wife with the covert skills of a modern spy – has a clandestine love affair with Laxton and so on. In other words, a lot happens in a jumble of a metropolitan city of aristocrats, merchants and petty thieves.

At the centre of it all, Lisa Dillon’s Moll is a born troublemaker come orator, with one eye looking for trouble while simultaneously talking her way out of it. Continue reading

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Royal Shakespeare Company, RST – Stratford upon Avon

RSC The Two Gentlemen of Verona posterI was to start the review a different way and then I thought “screw it, let’s not faff about”: what I really liked about The Two Gentlemen of Verona – a Shakespeare play I hadn’t seen before and knew little about – was its unexpected feminist angle. Nominally, it’s a comedy about the vagaries of romantic love but it’s the other kinds of love that are well and truly tested: friendship, loyalty, and the love of one man for his dog. And the girls stand their ground much better than the boys. In the new RSC production directed by Simon Godwin, these qualities sparkle bright.

Valentine and Proteus grew up together in Verona and, although still close, have different aspirations: Proteus – his soul filled with romance – wants to woo Julia. Valentine – his soul filled with adventure – denounces romantic love and wants to travel. And so he goes to Milan where, as so often in life, his plans go awry, he meets Sylvia and falls madly in love. When Proteus is made to leave Verona and go to Milan, he promises Julia eternal love. But when he is reunited with Valentine and introduced to Sylvia, he himself falls infatuated, forgetting promises of love and friendship.

It feels like a young person’s play in the best possible way. All characters fumble with choices and unfamiliar feelings and the play’s pleasures come from seeing them gasp at new discoveries, in themselves and in others. Simon Godwin gives the story a modern – vaguely italian – setting but without gimmicks. He works the young angle by focusing on his four leads, who work exceptionally well together: they are all cut from the same cloth, a fresh-faced honesty and immediacy that colours each character differently but bounds them together. Whenever the four interact, there is friction of something real at stake, whether it’s the comic stumbles of love or the agony of a betrayed friendship. Continue reading

Review: Medea (starring Helen McCrory), at the National theatre, Olivier stage

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Plainingly speaking, there are two reasons why the National theatre production of Medea* is all shades of brilliant: The first reason is Helen McCrory. The second reason is everything else. With a play like Medea, it’s prim and proper that a star dominates the story. To McCrory’s credit she does it open-heartedly, and to the production’s credit, she doesn’t eclipse everyone else. I don’t use the word “star” casually: Medea is the granddaughter of the god Helios (the sun god, if your greek is rusty). A star is the only option and an eclipse the risk to take.

The play starts with the children’s nurse recounting a story. It’s both the past and the future. It’s not prophecy or premonition, more the natural law driven to its logical conclusion. Inevitability and logic, argument and counter argument play out with fiery passion throughout the play. It’s equations saturated with fire. Ben Power’s adaptation bristles with unquiet energy, Carrie Cracknell creates a world which is as precise as it is dangerous. Continue reading

Review: The Boss of It All, by Lars Von Triers, at the Soho theatre

rom left: James Rigby, Tom McHugh, Gerry Howell, Ross Armstrong. Photo Pamela Raith

From left: James Rigby, Tom McHugh, Gerry Howell, Ross Armstrong. Photo Pamela Raith

The IT crowd isn’t unfamiliar with comedy. I am not referring to the Channel 4 sitcom but all the IT people who labour on things nobody understands. You need to have a sense of humour. I should know. I work on IT.

Now we have a danish comedy (originally a film written and directed by Lars Von Triers, now a play by New Perspectives) set in an IT company.  An actor is dropped in the middle of it. His determination to inhabit the character pierces passive-aggressive politics and office dynamics in unpredictable ways. The rules get changed by someone who doesn’t understand the rules. It’s thinking “out of the box” and then some.

Is it funny? Yes, some times goofily, some times explosively, some times cuttingly. Anyone who has worked in an office will recognise the habitat and anyone who has worked with artists will recognise the symptoms. Two worlds collide, play rock paper scissors and art wins. Every time. Continue reading

Review: August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, Minerva theatre, Chichester

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in Miss Julie. Photo Manuel Harlan

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in Miss Julie. Photo Manuel Harlan

It’s well-known Black Comedy starts in complete darkness but in the double bill at the Minerva theatre in Chichester, so does August Strindberg‘s Miss Julie. A couple of seconds of pitch black until a match strikes and an oil lamp is lit. The Minerva stage has been transformed to an airy and welcoming kitchen of a 19th century mansion. Despite the oil lamp and other equipment, the set wears its period elements lightly. Squint a little and you could be in a modern – if rustic – house. Contemporary echoes run through the whole of the production, a lot of them due to the new adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. If that weakens the social focus of the story, it brings other pleasures.

The story is preoccupied with class and social mores: the action is set in the kitchen and we are always aware this is working class territory. It’s midsummer’s night, and the mistress of the house starts a cat and mouse sexual game with one of the senior servants. Before the night is out, the power dynamics have shifted several times and in different directions. The strict class structure of 19th century households has no equivalent in 21st century western societies (where social inequality manifests itself in other ways) and the production doesn’t duel on that. The tragedy becomes one of people trapped in their own preconceptions. We have the sense they could escape if they dared to do so. It’s a rich and immediately relatable perspective. Continue reading

Review: The Anorak by Adam Kelly Morton, at the Hope theatre

Felix Brunger in The Anorak. Photo Robert Clough

Felix Brunger in The Anorak. Photo Robert Clough

The Anorak, Adam Kelly Morton’s one man play, is an audacious difficult-to-ignore proposition: On December 6th 1989 Marc Lepine – armed with an automatic weapon and a knife – arrived at the Ecole Polytechnic of The University of Montreal and started a killing spree. Women were his particular target but his victims were a more diverse group. The incident became known as the Montreal Massacre. It’s a dreadful thing to say but a killing spree is much the same as another. Unless it’s about someone we know.

Mark Lepine himself is the someone we get to know. Much of his experience is ordinary: divorced parents, social awkwardness in adolescence, uncertainty about his place in the world. Occasionally something darker surfaces: his conflicted view of women, his disgust – or is it self-disgust? – for those in need. Still none of these can explain what’s about to happen.

As much as we linger in Lepine’s mind, his victims make a vivid impression. Is that the author or the character? Has the executioner such a clear understanding of his victims? Is the author betraying the character, in order to give us a moral anchor? Continue reading

Review: Fathers and Sons by Brian Friel, at the Donmar Warehouse

Anthony Calf as Nikolai, Joshua James as Arkady. Photo Johan Persson

Anthony Calf as Nikolai, Joshua James as Arkady. Photo Johan Persson

In a cunning piece of programming, the Donmar follows James Graham’s Privacy – the most un-Donmar of productions – with Brian Friel’s Fathers and Sons (adapted from the novel of Ivan Turgenev). If Privacy was brilliant in unexpected ways, Fathers and Sons has the emotional richness and acute lyricism that characterise Donmar productions at their best. Let’s be clear: if the Lyndsey Turner directed production doesn’t rewrite the theatrical book, that’s not a criticism in any way.

The story is set in mid 19th century Russia with two young men, Arkady and Bazarov, returning home for the summer. University has opened their eyes to a whole new world and they buzz with the enormity of it all. Back home, they are faced with rich if neglected estates, middle-class ideas, lives preoccupied with the soil, and harvest, and sex. The purity of their idealism is put to the test as the social landscape changes rapidly and irrevocably. The conflict between young and old has the inevitability of a clock ticking but none of the clichés. Don’t assume you know how interactions will play out: Arkady’s father dots on his new baby born out of wedlock. Bazarov’s father idolises his son.

There is a bittersweet, even droll, breeze blowing in the play. Continue reading

Review: Richard III (starring Martin Freeman), at Trafalgar Transformed (aka Trafalgar studios)

Martin Freeman as Richard, Lauren O'Neill as Anne. Photo Marc Brenner

Martin Freeman as Richard, Lauren O’Neil as Anne. Photo Marc Brenner

There is much to like about Richard III. He is an one-man slaughter house, although he is more the senior executive than the cleaver. He is manipulative but he confides in us. In that respect, he is a bit like Hannibal. We spent so much time in his head we might as well like him. Or even trust him. And here is the great truth about Richard III: everyone knows he is the villain so he doesn’t have to be played as one.

Martin Freeman made his name playing “good guys” but this is an oversimplification (as most things in the media are). His performances brim with intelligence and occasional frustration. As Richard III, he starts tentatively but quickly hits his stride. In the scene where Richard does the impossible and woos Anne over her husband’s dead body, the openness of his approach is both alluring and frightening. If his good guys are frustrated by their virtue, his bad guy is frustrated by the absence of ambition. That’s why he kills, because no one is as ambitious as he is. It seems fair. At least to him. He makes a pretty good case for it.

His performance is a rich combination of contempt, impatience, a sense of the ridiculous and a sweaty kind of wit, no more so than when he faces his nightmares. His final monologue is brilliant, his final moments – with a sly nod to Indiana Jones – worthy of a vile but seductive king.

Continue reading