Saturday, January 28, 2017

In hindsight, going to see political theatre about Turkey, in German, was probably too ambitious.

As a consequence, I cannot decide whether Love it or leave it! was excellent or atrocious.

Let me tell you a little about it and you can make up your own mind.

Lights up on this. A man sitting on a chair that's placed by a desk with a tray of small glasses on his lap. A woman in a shiny white dress sitting on a double bed alongside a man in a suit. The man in a suit is holding (with some irritation) a large bunch of bananas. A woman in a red outfit that I'd assumed was an air hostess (but I'm not certain this was a correct assumption as the story unfolded) sat with her back to the audience on the edge of some sort of hole. And what you can't see is a small man with long hair sat in a vest and white shorts at the small organ, stage left. Aside from the not air hostess, they are all sitting facing centre stage, holding a small glass of liquid which they occasionally stir. They sit in silence.

They sat for a long long time.

They drank their drinks and the man with the tray collected them up and sat back down.

It can't have been all that long really but it felt like an interminable time before the man in the vest turned to the keys of his instrument and started to pick out a tune.

The woman in the white dress stood and crossed the stage to the organ, found herself a mic stand, and started singing a dirge like song into it.

The woman in the red outfit stood and turned to the audience. You might see that there's a long rope dangling at her back. This turned out to be a handy noose. She tried to hang herself but more rope spooled out so no matter how far she walked across the stage, it would not permit her to choke herself. She walked faster and faster, getting more and more frustrated. The man at the organ was playing a little faster now. The two men started smashing up the stage.

I'm forgetting to tell you an important detail. You may have noticed in the photo above that there are some photos on the back wall. To my shame, I ludicrously only recognised Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. But at least I recognised him! There were other men's photos in photo frames too. The men on stage started grabbing up these photos and throwing them on the floor.

The woman in the shiny white dress started undressing to a white vest and white shorts, singing the same refrain over and over.

I looked at my watch. Seventeen long minutes had passed. I understood the show to last two hours. I felt tired.

When the stage was thoroughly decimated, the lights went out. One of the men, as his parting shot, hung the bunch of bananas onto the noose that somehow become a hook instead. These were hoisted up into the air. Blackout.

A man came on, a different man, wearing a vest and loose comfortable trousers. He spied the bananas. He stuck his tongue out, like it was the most delicious thing he'd ever seen. He tried to reach them. He could not. They were suspended too high.

He got a chair from the desk. He stood on it. He could reach the bananas. But when he touched them, he received a terrible electric shock. His whole body shook. He let go of them. He looked at them again. He stuck his tongue out like they were the most delicious thing he'd ever seen. He reached for them. He got electrocuted. This happened several more times.

A woman came on stage, the red outfit woman but now in a white vest and shorts. She saw the bananas. She stuck her tongue out. She also wanted them. The two of them tussled. One or other of them kept falling off the chair onto the floor. Neither of them managed to get the bananas.

The lights went to black.

And up again on the man in the suit who was holding the bananas in the first scene.

I'd been feeling relatively smug - angry thoughts about life being too short for this aside - until now as no-one had spoken. I'd chosen the theatre because they're renowned for smart and interesting work. They have an artistic director relatively recently in post who sounds very cool. AND they subtitle all their work in English. But I was a little worried about trying to read and watch at the same time, daft as it doesn't bother me with films. But until that point, happy days. I didn't need to worry. As it was totally incomprehensible without a single word having been spoken.

The man in the suit started speaking. Casually and confidingly, like he was chatting to his friend. I stared resentfully at the blank sub-title screens. They remained blank. He continued to speak. I got more cross. I listened carefully. He was not speaking in German. I deduce he was speaking Turkish. (A rash deduction given the number of other languages spoken in that part of the world, I know.) A few people laughed. You could tell from the manner of delivery that it was meant to be funny. I think he said something about Trump as he made his hand into a stupid fringe and the word sounded a bit like the new President's name. He spoke on and on.

I was a little bit losing the will to live.

Lights out at the end of his funny speech.

Lights up on the house restored to order. A family sit around. The father is pronouncing (in German - with sub-titles, Allah be praised) although he seems to be pronouncing a poltical treatise and the family are all staring at him blankly.

I don't mean to take a little nap but I did.

I wake up and they are all clambering out of the window.

And the rest of the show goes on in this fashion.

For TWO hours.

Sometimes they're trying to get the bananas.

Sometimes they're the family.

The little man comes on in a blue shiny suit and plays more music at the organ.

He sometimes seems to be part of the family and sometimes now.

The women dress and re-dress in steadily more traditional Muslim clothing.

Occasionally, a small man (maybe the same one) appears at the window of the house in full marching regalia carrying a tuba. He starts out humming. Then he somehow hums and simultaneously plays the tuba. They all climb out of the window after him.

The original man in the suit bares his bottom and the others lick it. (Yes, sirree.) (A few people walked out here.)

Another man (I am losing track) appears in the bloodied clothing of perhaps a freedom fighter and walks around the stage singing perhaps traditional freedom songs.

Then the tuba man comes to the window and they all climb out.

AT LAST the stage is reset for the opening scene. Except another hole has opened up in a different area of the stage and the man in the suit whose bottom they all so enjoyed accidentally falls into it and lies there for a while. Then he gets out and goes to sit on the bed, holding the bananas.

They all stir and drink their little drinks.

Someone in the audience wistfully tries to start the clapping. It does not catch on.

The 'dad' man starts reciting his early polemic in German.

Someone in the audience, I swear, shouts out "nae, bitte!" People laugh nervously.

They sit. Drink. Stir. The man collects the glasses. He retreats to his seat. He plays a small tune with the spoon on the empty glasses in his tray.

The lights go out.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Picnic at Hanging Rock. 

On currently at the Lyceum. Borrowed, I think, from Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre. I'm guessing it was put together at one of these theatres and travelled as the Australian accents were impeccable.

It was the show of the season that I was least looking forward to. Reworked novel. Victorian teenagers. I'm still a bit scarred by The Weir I think. 

But gloriously I was wrong wrong wrong. It was excellent.

I won't tell you the story as I don't want to spoil it for you. But the premise is a pack of schoolgirls go for an unauthorised hike at a school outing to Hanging Rock. And are never seen again. 

The story is used as a premise for some musings on the extent to which man can ever control nature. And probably, as Mark Fisher observes, as an exploration of how effective British attempts to "civilise" the local populations in their Empire were ever going to be.

(Fresh back from losing my heart again to Melbourne, I also got a lot of joy from hearing the street names.)

The play is a cracker. The words are great. The last line is outstanding. (I tried to memorise it and failed. I've looked it up and failed to find it. If you know it, please share!) The story is told carefully and not overtold. But the production is the star of this show. 

Matthew Lutton, the director, isn't quite a child prodigy but seems to be doing incredibly well for himself on the other side of the world. And if this production is mostly his work, I can see why.

The staging was ace. The set was spartan so the actors got pretty much most of your attention, with little incursions of foliage to break things up now and again.The choreography - as it was choreographed more than directed but I mean that as a compliment - was smooth and sinister and controlled and evocative and marvellous. The cast are five, all girls, and they play the girls and the teachers and the gardener and the witnesses to the disappearance. In as much as there were witnesses. They're brilliant, versatile, commanding. (And their enunciation was excellent.)

The costumes are wonderful. These girls could have marched straight out of Heriot's, excepting the pink trim. But as the story evolves, we see occasional contemporary costumes which curiously reinforce what a curious tale this is.

And the lights. The blackest of black punctuates the scenes allowing for perfectly orchestrated scene changes that are so snappy, I'm a little bit in awe. The music casts a discombobulating chill over proceedings. And the illuminated captions over the stage. Needless to say, I want.

It's a cracking play, beautifully, elegantly, realised. 

This is the type of theatre the Lyceum should be sharing. More please.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Avid readers of this blog will know that William Shakespeare's The Tempest occupies the portion of my heart that can be relied upon to warm my hands on a chilly day. 

I've been in it. So got to say the wondrous line 

O brave new world that has such people in't. 

And in 2009, I directed it.

So I'm pretty familiar with the words. And have a pretty specific idea about how it should and shouldn't be done. (Rash.)
I hadn't seen it since again until Wednesday's night's live relay from the RSC in Stratford.  I do find these live relays troubling. Your experience is totally shaped by the camera angles and they understandably tend zoom in on the main men (and women). So Simon Russell Beale as Mr Prospero got a lot of camera time on Wednesday, for example. Which is fine and well but there was often a pack of stuff going on in the background which we therefore couldn't see. But if you sell your soul to the masses, you must make these decisions and if they really were trending on twitter by the interval, it must have paid off commercially.

The show was beautifully spoken. Liz would be proud of me for saying this as I normally care much less about the words than the manner of delivery. (I don't think the RSC would ever take me on.) They all enunciated beautifully. They were all miked, I think, which helps. But they did enjoy and eloquently share the text. And the words are wonderful. From this point of view, my experience was a little like the one I get from attending a Catholic mass (she says irreverantly). Born and raised a Catholic, I could mostly murmur the mass in my sleep and hearing it again is like slipping into a slanket. And so it was with this.

I LOVED Ariel. Tech aside, he did a marvellous job of being un-human. His haughty hair (ace costume / make-up), his blank blank face, his weird little duck like slidey walk (walk like a duck man like a duck I'll be damned) and his marvellous detachment. You got (I got, anyway) all of his yearning to be away but yearning to be a part of something other that he didn't really understand. 

They did something very clever with Intel and Imaginarium to make a model of Ariel that responded to motion sensors on the actual Ariel so the model, projected large onto this or that screen, replicated actual Ariel's movement. Prospero mostly addressed the projected Ariel. I was jealous of that.

Antonio and Sebastian were fun. Suitably scheming. Beautifully costumed. Composed. Charismatic. Machiavellian.

Oh and I loved Gonzalo (Joseph Mydell). He was as ramblingly in love with the sound of his own voice as he should be. I felt all sorts of nostalgia for Gillian Massie who I can still picture gazing beatifically to the skies and pontificating pointlessly.

The list of what I didn't like is longer.

Miranda delivered many many of her lines with a tremble. I don't know how to describe it accurately. It was like her voice wobbled - like she was about to burst into tears except she wasn't. Not all the time anyway. I can only think either she thinks it's a very effective way to deliver Shakespeare and no-one told her otherwise or someone told her to do it like that. But no-one else delivered their lines so strangely so I'm not sure that it can be the latter. So why didn't anyone tell her to stop? That aside, I didn't much like her. She wept too much. She was too credulous. She even didn't seem to mind too much that Caliban had tried to rape her. I struggled to believe in this portrayal of her. Of course not all Miranda's will do a sassy little dance to Beyonce's All The Single Ladies. But wouldn't it be a better play if they did?

I really struggled with Trinculo too. Partly because, Miranda style, I lost my heart to Cari Silver now Sivills waddling like a duck. But this Trinculo was a slightly dishevelled opinionated arrogant clown who was greatly in love with his own physicality and inserted all sorts of strange little leg movements into his performance that looked for all the world as if he was showing off. He was adept and funny and accomplished but I barely liked him.

Stephano, the drunken butler, I liked more. Tony Jayawardena did a marvellous job of making him louche and loud and luscious (I mean, like a lush - does that work?) and also, very likeable. I wanted him to snatch all the trinkets and run away and be happy and free. I didn't want Trinculo to get any trinkets. 

And then then there was Caliban. Now Caliban, whose costume was mostly knotted tights, suffered from being seen in close up on the cinema screen. From a distance, he would have looked much more like the dishevelled beast that Shakespeare perhaps intended. 

You see, even this photo looks better. But you zoom and he's got like a sausage of tights wrapped in string snaking down his back. Anyway, obviously the man can't be damned for his costume. Joe Dixon's performance was pretty good, I guess. Alternately downtrodden and then full of wide-eyed hope when the pranksters promise him the moon. 

And Prospero. Well, Simon Russell Beale talked a good game in the pre-movie filler film about how Prospero was a broken man, he's done his best by his daughter but he'd been betrayed by his bro and he hadn't really recovered. But this didn't really seem to translate into his performance which was either ponderous or angrily declamatory. For a master of his craft, I missed some light and shade. 

Then I didn't much like the costumes. They seemed predictable. The set was nice enough. Oh to have money. And the projections were wonderful. They kept all the Shakespeare 'songs' and rendered them as mostly dreary dirges aside from the dreadful recitations from the Brunehilde-style Juno and Ceres at the so-called festivities for the newly promised to each other couple.

It was as if the motion-sensor tech stuff excused them from the need to approach any of the rest of the production with any imagination. Or maybe they have to serve up a very traditional rendition for all the loyal RSC / Shakespeare devotees. I expected more from director Gregory Doran. But maybe he was enslaved to his paymasters. 

But the thing I really missed was that intangible thing you get from a show that works. I'm so very biased but when we did The Tempest (and remember my judgement is severely impaired), the cast had a ball. We were on for a fortnight. We were on a boat. We loved each other and our show and the music and the Fringe and the venue with a lively passion. So the fact that the play is a little weird and disjointed and the characters barely interact with each other mattered less because (I think) irrespective of what the audience took from it, it was fun. Where this RSC production was just a disparate collection of characters staggering around an island and I didn't care much what happened to them. Interestingly, with the exception of Ariel. My heart tugged a little when he was freed but continued to stare, a little bit blankly, at Prospero, like he didn't quite know what to do next. 

Then again, Michael Billington liked it. So maybe I'm just way too subjective.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

I expected great things from Anthony Neilson's Alice in Wonderland at the Lyceum. And I got them and I didn't. 

He has a tough act to follow. Given his penchant for loopyness and plumbing the depths of human darkness and indignity, I was expecting Neilson's Alice to have been given a Beauty Queen of Leenane style overhaul. Or at least a Wonderful World of Dissocia style overhaul.
You see all this zany stuff and then you realise that she's either a patient on a psychiatric ward or else - given that this is a children's show - the victim of some Hunter S Thompson style hallucinogenic drug trip. But the denouement was as Carroll's denouement does. 

You may be forgiven for thinking that I didn't like it, given my words to date. But in truth, as the second act unfurled, I was seduced. The story of Alice is loopy and the play was thus. The cast appeared to be having a ball - Alice aside who seemed to be just the right side of discombobulated. (Jess Peet did a just lovely job.)

It's a marvellous ensemble piece (as only the pretentious would say). There were 9 or maybe 10 in the cast (no, wait, I checked the cast list. They were EIGHT!), lots of doubling and tripling used to excellent effect. The costumes were brilliant.  The set boasted more technical wizardry than I've seen on that stage for a long time. They must have invested a huge amount of love and effort and expertise to (literally) get Alice off the ground. And the story was persuasively engaging. You wanted very much her to unpuzzle her peculiar surroundings - but then felt slightly disappointed when she did.

I didn't like the songs, I'll admit. They felt like they'd been shoved in because a Christmas show needs a song or two. And there was some disagreement in my group about whether or not the Mad Hatter (Tam Dean Burn) was always audible. It would be fair to say that it would probably suit smaller children better than those I was with. 

But if you're after a bundle of colour and chaos (the photos hardly do it justice - it looked glorious) and beautifully nonsensical nonsense, it felt very faithful to both content and intention of the book for which I commend Mr Neilson. For who would dare to overhaul such majestic nonsense when the original words are so smart and funny and thoughtful? He had a tough gig. And he manage to squidgle some politicing into his script. Placards here and there and the odd sly jibe which gave it a little bit more of an edge.
J K Rowling had a much easier ride of it with her Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. She created her story from scratch and oh - how I envy her mind. She tells such a good version of the socially awkward underdog doing good in the end. This version enhanced by all sorts of CGI trickery, a beautifully vintage New York and a budget the Lyceum can only dream of. Unsurprisingly, the film did zany with a little more aplomb than Alice managed. I wept continually for the last quarter of it. But I'd take the theatre over the cinema any day.