Tuesday, 14 December 2010


     Ena Lamont Stewart was the daughter of a Scottish minister whose church was in the Glasgow slums. Her upbringing caused her to develop a profound interest in and compassion for the poor, particularly the light of poor women. Married to an actor, she also became interested in theater. Because she was a woman, she was never fully accepted into the circle of male playwrights, directors and producers. Nonetheless, MEN SHOULD WEEP, written in 1937, was recently voted one of the hundred best British plays. It has an enormous cast which makes it very difficult to produce. Unlike all but a few plays, the cast is female heavy. The National has mounted an extremely effective revival of MEN SHOULD WEEP under the sensitive direction of Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Bush Theatre, one of London's most important centers of new writing for the stage.
     I was particularly interested in seeing this play. My grandmother grew up one of thirteen children in the Glasgow slums. She was a fierce woman, to put it mildly. She got out at the turn of the twentieth century and, with my grandfather, lived a version of the American dream though their social world was the small Scots enclave in Northern New Jersey. All the Scots' colorful language and tendency toward emotional overstatement was passed on to their children.
     MEN SHOULD WEEP takes place forty years after my grandparents left for America. It is the depression and the Morrison family live in an overcrowded Glasgow tenement. In their small apartment are John and Maggie, John's mother and their five children ranging from six to early twenties. John seldom has work, though he doesn't try very hard to get it. Their family support is depedent on what the grown children bring in plus John's mother's small pension and the genersosity of Maggie's sister. As in Lorraine Hansberry's later A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the tenement environment is a major destructive force on the family and the giant, multi-level set gives on a sense of  the depressing dramas being played out all over this building. Another tenement nearby physically collapses. What we witness in the Morrison apartment is a collapse of morale.
     I thought of Sean O'Casey's plays about the Dublin slums as I watched MEN SHOULD WEEP. As in O'Casey's work, the men are weak and the women are survivors. The men try to enforce a rigid moral code on the women, but the women know that conventional morality is irrelevant in their world. One daughter has managed to escape by moving in with her boss. She has a good home and nice clothes and wants to help her parents financially, but the father won't take "a whore's earnings." The mother will if it means a better home. There is a gossipy but supportive community of women who see men as the common enemy. Maggie and John love each other, but it takes a crisis in the marriage to get John into a steady job. He is a master at articulating his failure but then passing the blame on to something or someone else.
     At first the play seemed like unrelieved gloom. The youngest son has tuberculosis, the older daughter hates her parents and her home and the older son is a gambler married to a "fancy woman" who despises his weakness. But the play is leavened with humor and it is worth sticking through the relatively glum first half to get to the vibrant second half. At the interval, I wondered what the playwright's politics were -- why had she written this grim picture of slum life? A few minutes into Part Two and one could see that her primary interest was gender politics -- how strong women can survive despite weak men. For some, the Scottish accents will be a problem -- I was raised on them and loved hearing all the old Scots aphorisms and insults that I have known since childhood. I could hear my grandparents and my mother in the women's banter.
     The production is nearly flawless. It has been running for a while and there were a few moments when an actress would overplay her role and mug a bit. However, like O'Casey's work, MEN SHOULD WEEP veers from comedy to melodrama and Rourke and her cast tried to keep the acting totally honest. The cast drew cheers from the audience at the end which they richly deserved.
     Other people wrote better, more nuanced, versions of this sort of play -- Sean O'Casey, Lorraine Hansberry and the master, Clifford Odets. But MEN SHOULD WEEP deserves this fine production and only a well heeled, subsidized theatre like the National could afford to revive it.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


     I'm not a great G&S fan. To my ears, Sullivan's music is not anywhere near as good as that of the great composers of 19th century comic opera, Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss or Offenbach. The ballads sound like Victorian parlor music. And the lyrics, while witty, aren't as clever as the great Amercan lyricists, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart or Stephen Sondheim. On the other hand, I'm always surprised when I go to a G&S performance to find that I enjoy it if it is well sung and directed. I think I have been put off by the folks who are religious about G&S and by amateur performances. G&S musicals They are musical comedy, after all) deserve good singing and comic acting. I once starred  in an amateur G&S production. I know I was awful, but my colleagues weren't much better. At one performance, a fellow actor forgot an entrance leaving me alone on stage for six long minutes trying to improvise in G&S style. All I can say is that it must have been worse for the audience than it was for me.
     The tiny Union Theatre in London which specializes in pocket size revivals of classic musicals, now do an annual all male production of a G&S work. This year it is IOLANTHE and it is delightful. The conceit is that some boys rummage through an attic and decide to put on IOLANTHE with whatever they find. The sixteen talented (with one exception) young men then play both the fairies and the elderly Lords. The fairies are dressed in an odd combination of women's undergarments with shuttlecocks as wings. The Lords are dressed in extremely dusty old drapery. It's all great fun.
     First, the music. The men must be able to perform effectively in falsetto as the fairies, then with strong tenor and bass voices for the Lords. They're all extremely good singers. The choral work is superb, the solo work never less than good. There is only piano accompaniment, but in such a small space, one doesn't miss a orchestra.
     The performances are all totally committed. There is never a sense that the performers are merely camping it up but that they are really playing faries and silly old  men. Yes, this is all camp, but not the least bit cynical or ironic. There's one oddly weak performance, Gianni Onori as the romantic lead, Strephon. He's handsome, but simply can't act. I never for a moment thought he even understood what he was saying. Surely the director, Sasha  Regan, noticed this. Onori's ineptitude seems to be part of the concept, but I'm not sure it works. He's not funny awful, just oddly detached from the proceedings. 
     This IOLANTHE is the best staged G&S production I have seen. All the musical numbers are superbly choreographed (Mark Smith). The show dances from beginning to end which one does not expect of a G&S production. Sometimes it's disconcertingly "in your face" in this small space. We were in the front row and nearly got trampled a couple of times.  The cast all (Mr. Onori excepted) dance as well as they sing.
     I'm already looking forward the the Union's next G&S.
IOLANTHE at the Union Theatre. December 3, 2010

Sunday, 28 November 2010


     Philip Ridley's VINCENT RIVER is ten years old now. It played successfully in 2000 and was revived in 2007. Ben Brantley of the New York TIMES raved about the 2008 Off-Broadway production with British actors Deborah Findlay and Mark Field. This revival at the Old Red Lion pub theater near Angel station has also been well received. By the time we saw it, the theater had run out of programs.
     VINCENT RIVER is a textook example of a kind of two-character play in which a traumatic past is relived by its characters. The play is mostly exposition, but so well written that the audience is totally absorbed. We can see where the play is leading us, but are rapt during the journey. The play makes enormous emotional demands of its actors. Fortunately Debra Baker and Frank C. Keogh were totally convincing in this small space and were rbought out for repeated curtain calls.
     We never see the title character. He was murdered a month before the play begins in a horrific gay bashing in the men's room of an abandoned railroad station in East London. Vincent's mother has had to move out of her apartment because of vicious attacks from the neighbors at her council estate. She is still unpacking in her new apartment when the play begins. She is visited by sixteen year old Davey, dressed in the suit he wore to his mother's funeral the day before, but bleeding from a beating he has received.. Davey has been stalking her since her son died but now has worked up the courage to visit. Over the course of the next hour and a half, we discover Davey's connection to Vincent and Vincent's murder, but the play isn't a simple mystery. We get the history of both characters. The single mother who had a child with her married boss and lost her job and her place in her family as a result. The deeply troubled teenage boy who got engaged to please his dying mother, but who is struggling with his sexuality. And, in the background, the mother's relationship with Vincent, who couldn't stand to be away from her. Vincent may have been gay, but his first love was his mother who has never dealt with his sexuality.
     The long expository speeches Ridley has written for his characters are both specific and metaphorical. The mother trying to  get rid of her son's gay porn, but unable to find a place to dump it. The boy's description of his feelings for Vincent, a love he cannot describe as love. The boy's visit is cathartic for both characters who finally come to terms with their guilt and their grief. There are a couple of moments when niggling questions arose for me, but they didn't dilute to force of this experience.
     VINCENT RIVER is a almost unbearably emotionally raw. Both actors move convincingly from defensiveness to honesty, thanks in part to gin, pills and pot. They are totally believable. These are courageous performances one had to cheer.
     Were I still teaching playwriting, I would use VINCENT RIVER as a model for fine traditional playwriting.
VINCENT RIVER by Philip Ridley. Directed by Gary Reid. With Debra Baker and Frank C. Keogh. Old Red Lion Theatre. November 27, 2010     

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


     We opera buffs know that the great thrill of opera is hearing beautiful voices fill a theater without amplification. I lived through the golden age of opera singing and had the joy of seeing and hearing Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nillson, Leonie Rysanek, Carlo Bergonzi, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli. Recently I was lucky to hear the first performances at Covent Garden of Jonas Kauffman and Vittorio Grigolo. Of course, I have also witnessed vocal disasters. There is nothing like live opera. At the same time, I discovered opera as a kid through Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, have collected opera recordings for most of my life and have enjoyed opera on television from the old NBC Opera Theatre through Met telecasts. So I have enjoyed "canned opera." I know you can't quite judge the size of a voice through microphones though you get some sense of the quality of a voice.
     OK, I also have to admit that I don't like going to the Metropolitan Opera House. It is too big. Even in orchestra seats (and I certainly won't pay what they're charging for those seats now), one can feel far away from the stage. You hear well almost everywhere, but the performance is miles away. It's one reason the Met depends so much on spectacle. One also has to deal with the Met's interminable intermissions which can be longer than the acts they follow or precede. I much prefer the smaller Royal Opera House where one feels even from some of the cheaper seats a connection with the stage. The orchestra and chorus are as good as the Met's. The same stars appear there. I must say many of their productions are hideous to look at but some of the most egregious, like the new DON CARLO, are shared by the Met.
     All this is to say, I prefer going to my local movie theater and watching a Met HD telecast to going to the Met. Yes, the sound is amplified, not live, but you are seeing opera as musical theater. And it is more fun watching the backstage scene changes than sitting in the dark in the opera house for five or six minutes waiting for the scene change. We get those silly, but fun interviews with the principal singers, though some background on the opera would be more interesting. At the BORIS broadcast, the audience at the London IMAX roared with laughter at Patricia Racette's ineptitude as a compere. When one singer started to say something substantive about the opera, she shut him up and moved on to another silly question.
     One does get a sense of the aesthetic of an opera house. The Met's aesthetic is visual splendor. If one is paying $330 for a seat (the price of an orchestra seat these days) one wants to see where his money went. Sets and stars. The gigantic set for DAS RHEINGOLD which had some great visual moments, though I didn't feel the characters were very well defined. The gorgeous costumes for BORIS GODUNOV. Recently the DON PASQUALE had extremely heavy, realistic sets which took a fair amount of time to change when lightness and simplicity would be better. I remember the old 1950s production of the opera on a revolving stage so scenes moved swiftly. Last night we went to a Netherlands Opera production of LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. If the Met privileges realism, many European houses offer much more stylized productions. Act I of this FANCIULLA seemed to take place in an urban leather bar instead of the wild west saloon called for in the script. This made Minnie something of a fag hag to a bunch of leather queens.  The third act was in an automobile junkyard until Minnie appeared on a set out of an MGM musical looking like Jean Harlow. Musically the performance was fine, but directoral interpretation often came between the audience and the ultra romantic music. The audience in the opera house applauded when the set suddenly changed to a grand staircase and the MGM lion was projected in the background. The audience at our London cinema laughed. I know this Netherlands approach is mild compared to what goes on at Bayreuth and other German houses. I realize that I am something of a traditionalist but I have yet to see a contemporary directoral vision that improved on what the composer and librettist created. Most of all, directors are terrified of sentiment. They should stay away from Puccini.   
     The problem with HD transmissions on a big screen is that looks become important. Opera is traditionally an art form in which one has accepted that singers were not going to look like the romantic roles they played. When I first started going to opera the singers were hefty and homely. Some tried to act while others stood there. Now acting is important as are looks. Anna Netrebko is a fine singer and a lovely woman. She's no Joan Sutherland, but would Sutherland be accepted on the big screen? Would Pavarotti be as big a star now as handsome tenors like Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kauffman or Vittorio Grigolo? What would HD do with chubby, homely Carlo Bergonzi who just happened to be a great singer, but did all his acting with his voice? We accept a hefty singer like Eric Owens as a Wagner villain, but poor, chubby Stephanie Blythe looked absurd as Wotan's wife. No wonder he slept around a lot. This may not matter in the cavernous Met, but it closeup it matters a lot.
      The big question is what will these HD trasmissions do to live opera? Will people in Atlanta pay the high prices to go to the Atlanta Opera when they can see the Met at their movie theater for $20? The big question for the Met is whether people will pay outrageous Met prices when they can see the production better in a movie theatre. Will live opera be only for the very rich?

Sunday, 14 November 2010


     I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm always delighted to see a new, original musical comedy that isn't based on a movie (it wouldn't be original if it were) or based on pop hits of the past (ditto). So I went to LEGACY FALLS with some trepidation but hoping for the best. The show needs some pruning (too long by about twenty minutes), but nonetheless is delightful.
     "LEGACY FALLS" is a long-running American daytime soap opera. Some of its cast has been with the show for all of its thirty years. The script has gone through the usual mad permutations of daytime soaps. However, like current soaps, LEGACY FALLS is threatened with extinction. A new producer has been brought in to make the show more interesting to a young audience (more skin, more sex) and a special live broadcast is planned in which an earthquake will wipe out half of the cast so younger actors can take their place. None of the actors knows who will survive the earthquake. The show's handsome, grey-haired leading man starts a romance with a cute young PR man and is outed which could ruin his career. We seen some typically inane scenes from the soap opera. Can you really parody material as absurd as the scripts of daytime soaps?. Nonethelesss, the scenes are hilarious and acted with all the deadpan conventions of soap opera acting.
     LEGACY FALLS is a rarity -- a musical in which score, book and lyrics are by the same person (James Burn). The funny scenes are really funny, particularly the live earthquake broadcast which does not follow the script. In fact, the show would be better if it kept its tongue in its cheek. The sentimental moments clash with the overall tone of the piece -- the love songs between the star ad his boyfriend, the PFLAG ballad of the boyfriend's mother. If the offset moments were as zany as the onset moments, this would be a fine show instead of a very good one. But the score is very strong, most of the lyrics good, particularly in the comic numbers. I particularly liked the first act finale, "Soap Is a Dirty Business." And I must say I actually came out of the theater humming some of the tunes. Overall the direction is effective, though sometimes the show seems to stop cold at the ends of scenes.
     The cast is very strong. Mark Inscoe looks perfect as the tanned, greying leading man and Tim Oxbrow is charming as his young boyfriend. Tara Hugo is hilarious as the reigning bitch of the soap terrified of losing her job. I particularly liked Aimie Atkinson's performance as Amber, who slept her way into a role but is so dumb she thinks what is happening on the soap is real. Everybody sings well and the small band is terrific, though the sound is much too loud.  
      I hope LEGACY FALLS has a future. It deserves more than a limited run. The audience loved it.
LEGACY FALLS by James Burn. Directed by Ian Poitier. New Players Theatre. November 14, 2010.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


     I have seen two productions of stage versions of this classic MGM musical. Both left me wondering even more than usual about why one needs to see a stage version of a great film. Unlike many classic musicals, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN isn't a tribute to the stage, presenting its musical numbers as if they were in a theater. It is a movie about movies and these works cannot be translated to the stage. Moreover, like many classic film musicals, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is great because of its performances which cannot be duplicated on stage or on screen (who could be as good as Gene Kelly or Donald O'Connor today and in the age of hyper editing they would be ruined anyway by a director terrified of losing his audience's attention).          So who needs SINGIN' IN THE RAIN live? Conductor- arranger John Wilson, for one. Wilson is fanatic about MGM musicals and is intent on recreating the lost orchestrations of these films. He loves the sound of the MGM studio orchestra, a hybrid of symphony and dance band and has recreated the sound with his own orchestra. His BBC Proms concerts are among the first to sell out every year. Wilson is a combination of musical nerd and matinee idol. He certainly is the most handsome conductor around these days. One of Wilson's pet projects has been the reconstruction of the score to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. So what he brought to the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday was a semi-staged version of the MGM classic. The star was the orchestra. The sound was thrilling enough to justify the project. Wilson adores this music and his love radiates through the experience. He also played some of the smaller roles including the voice coach.
     The rest of the cast was fine. Kim Criswell adapted (she could have pruned it a bit more) the dialogue and played the shrill Lena Lamont. Julian Ovendon and Annalene Beechey sang beautifully and looked handsome (she had some beautiful costumes). And Josh Prince literally threw himself into the Donald O'Connor role. Nonetheless,  Wilson and the orchestra (the Philharmonia augmented with some of Wilson's usual musicians) stole the show. We didn't need Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse to appreciate the ballet music when it sounded that good.
     All 2900 seats were filled and the audience went wild.    

Friday, 12 November 2010


      In my old age I have become allergic to musicals aimed at people under 13 (most musicals nowadays), musicals based on movies and book musicals based on someone's greatest hits. In the latter category, I did find MAMMA MIA enjoyable and even witty in its self-reflexive shoehorning of ABBA songs into the paper thin book. Even though The Four Seasons were part of my growing up, I thought JERSEY BOYS verged on dull. Needless to say, I went to FELA, now in previews at the Royal National Theatre, with some trepidation. I came out thrilled.
      The production has two stars, both brilliant artists. The first is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the inventor of what became known as Afropop. In terms of popular music, Fela is one of the most mportant figures of the late twentieth-century. He created a unique sound, a fusion of African, jazz, rock, and Latin-American music. It is complex and highly infectious. He would be an important figure in any context, but he was also something of a political hero, using his music to protest the corruption of post-colonial Nigeria. He and his family and cohorts paid a high price for his daring. He was arrested many times and his mother was murdered in a brutal government attack on his compound. Yet, though he was world famous, Fela stayed in Nigeria. The troubled country was his inspiration. The musical is as much about political commitment as it is about Fela's music.
     What the show leaves out are Fela's troublesome, to put it mildly, sexual politics. The man exemplified the worst of African misogyny and homophobia. His marriage to twenty-seven women might be considered a statement of sexual liberation were it not for his refusal to wear condoms ("un-African") which led to his spreading his HIV virus (he died of AIDS). Then there's the nasty verbal gay bashing expressed in his lyrics (not used in the show, of course). So this cultural hero had clay feet. The musical gives us a hero and a martyr. The real man was not so nice. It is necessary to see the Fela the musical offers as a fictional creation based on the real person, but isn't that always true of biographical plays and musicals? 
     The conceit of this show, conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis (who wrote the book) and Stephen Hendel, is that it is the last night in Fela's Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, which was destroyed by government police. During the course of the show, Fela tells his life story and performs his music. The conceit sounds simple and all-too familiar. However, Bill T. Jones has turned Fela's story into a celebration of his music through dance. An ensemble of two dozen brilliant performers enthrall the audience in their tireless performance of Jones's brilliant choreography. They're everywhere in the theater -- and I must say Jones uses every inch of space in the Olivier Theatre. I know this is a very different space than the conventional Broadway theater, but Jones has used it better than any director I have experienced. Not only are the dancers everywhere, but there are projections and constantly changing patterns of light everywhere. This is very much a multi-media show.The costumes are gorgeous -- and there are a lot of costume changes. The show gets more spectacular as it progresses. I can't remember being so impressed by all the elements of a visual production.
     One can't say enough about the dancers who barely stop for almost three hours. Or about the terrific twelve piece band, which plays from the time the house opens until the end of the show. We saw the alternate Fela, Rolan Bell. He was fine. It was a preview and he's new to the role (the other Fela played it on Broadway). I didn't feel it was quite under his skin yet. I'd like to go back and see it with Sahr Nagaujah in order to compare. I want to go back anyway.
      I can't believe that FELA is only at the National for a limited run. There must be plans for a transfer if the British critics appreciate the show. One never knows over here how American musicals will fare. RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, two superb musicals, flopped in London while fluff like LEGALLY BLONDE is a hit. This production was created for the Olivier and it is hard to imagine it anywhere else.
       One seldom sees standing ovations at the staid National Theater and I must say I hope England does not go the route of America where everything gets a standing ovation, thus rendering the gesture meaningless. however FELA got one last night and it was richly deserved.
 FELA. Royal National Theatre. November 11, 2010.      

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


     Sarah Kane has become something of a legend in contemporary British drama. Her first play, BLASTED Royal Court, 1995), was greeted with howls of derision from critics and shock and digust from many audience members. The legend was aided by her suicide at the age of twenty-nine after the composition of a play, 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, that is a kind of public suicide note. By the time of her death, there had been a critical reappraisal of her work and Kane was considered a major talent.
     I must say that my own initial reaction to her work after seeing the premiere of PHAEDRA'S LOVE was that she had an adolescent desire to shock, but little else. Lots of simulated masturbation and blow jobs, but at the time I didn't see the point. I was won over to some extent by 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, a haunting, poetic work as carefully composed as a piece of serious music. I had read BLASTED but never seen it until the current revival, directed by Sean Holmes, at the Lyric Hammersmith. Since visual imagery is as important to much of Kane's work as verbal imagery, seeing her work in the theater is necessary to make a real assessment. Yes, this is true of all plays, but, since many crucial moments in BLASTED are silent, it must be seen.
     The setting is at first realistic. We're in a nondescript hotel room in Leeds occupied by a middle-aged man with a gun in a shoulder holster. Is he a gangster or a policeman? At first he seems to be a journalist, but why then is he carrying a gun in relatively gunless England? We later find out he is an assasin for a government intelligence agency. The man is visited by a young woman with whom he has had a sexual relationsip. She has strange fits. At first the play echoes the work of Harold Pinter. There's a sense of menace under the dialogue and a Pinter-esque conflict between a macho man and a somewhat mysterious woman. The man seems scared of something outside the door.
     In the second scene, the play becomes more violent, less rational, but the violence is at first limited to sexual violence between the two characters. The woman disappears and a soldier comes in. An explosion occurs and we are in the wreckage of the hotel. Only the bed is left. With war comes an apocalyptic sense of the end of civilization. We're in a horrifying combination of KING LEAR and a horror film. The soldier rapes the man and bites out his eyes. Later, the starving man eats part of the corpse of a baby before climbing into the baby's grave while waiting to die.
     Much has been written about the shocking moments in BLASTED, but they are no more shocking than KING LEAR or TITUS ANDRONICUS which certainly were in the back of Sarah Kane's mind when she wrote this. In 1995, the great fear of violence in England was from the IRA. I kept thinking of how more timely the play is now in our age of terrorism and seemingly endless wars. The odd beauty of BLASTED comes from the moments when violence and tenderness become strangely linked. The soldier rapes the man, but there's affection mixed with the brutality. The man sexually exploits the young woman, but also loves her. When the social order dissolves, all sorts of borders blur. The man longs for death but also will perform desperate acts to stay alive. The young woman wants to love, but there's no one left to receive her affection. At the end she seems the only person left.
      Kane had a real gift for theatrical poetry. She didn't have much of a sense of humor -- I thought about how her contemporary Martin McDonagh can make this kind of anarchic horror funny. Her models -- the works of Pinter, KING LEAR and TITUS ANDRONICUS -- have moments of humor to make the horror more palatable. Kane is relentless. Slowly, inexorably she leads us from a potentially violent scene into a nightmare. The last five minutes are a series of non-verbal snapshots of a man losing his sanity, his humanity and, finally his life.
      I can't imagine a better production of BLASTED than this one. Sean Holmes has paced the play to lead the audience slowly, inexorably into the nightmare. Danny Webb gives a virtuoso performance as the man, first a racist thug with glimmer of human feeling, then a passive victim, then something not quite human. Young Lydia Wilson almost matches him. Even in the relatively sane first scene, she convincingly alternates power and passivity; normalty, hysteria and cataonia. Aidan Kelly towers over the other actors and manages to be both terrifying and oddly tender.
     I remember a friend screaming after a Sarah Kane production: "Get me out of that person's head!!" One has to surrender to her vision. There is no doubt, that she had a great talent. To put it mildly, this is not the work of a happy camper, but I'm glad I experienced it.  
BLASTED by Sarah Kane. Directed by Sean Holmes. Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. November 10, 2010.           

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


     When I first heard about TRIBES, I thought it sounded a bit like a television movie of the week -- a deaf kid growing up in a non-deaf household. But the brilliantly written play by Nina Raines was so much more than that. It's about the various ways that people who love each other communicate and don't communicate -- about various forms of verbal and non-verbal language.
     Most of the play takes place around a large kitchen table. The family is affluent, hyper-articulate and committed in various ways to expression. Christopher, the father, is a literary critic; Ruth, his wife is a novelist. Daniel is studying literary theory at university. His sister, Ruth, wants to be an opera singer. The oldest son, Billy, just home from university, is deaf. As a result, he cannot participate fully in the constant roar of conversation and argument surrounding him. He has been raised to function in a non-deaf world, to listen, lip read and speak, but not to sign. He has little connection with other deaf people until he meets and falls in love with Sylvia, who was raised by deaf parents and is now going deaf. Sylvia has been around the deaf community enough to know it is insular, hierarchical and not totally satisfying. This is much the way Daniel, Ruth and Billy see their family.
      Billy moves out of the family home to live with Sylvia. He loves being part of a deaf community and is angry that his family never learned sign language -- that he had to do al the work of understanding them. Unfortunately his brother Daniel, who hears voices, cannot cope without his beloved brother and goes to pieces. And Sylvia, not born deaf, but now going deaf, needs more understanding and compassion than Billy can provide. He loves her in part because she can sign and teach him to sign and thus be part of the deaf community. However, deafness is new to her, and frightening in ways he cannot appreciate. "I didn't know deafness could be so loud," she cries. She's rather be part of the troubled, noisy world of Billy's family.
      TRIBES is a play about language and love. Throughout we hear bits of opera because, as one character says, "what's great about opera is that it creates feelings that you can't put into words." The final moments are played with the haunting wordless humming chrus from MADAMA BUTTERFLY playing in the background. But some characters don't believe feelings can exist without words. At the end, Daniel is beginning to learn sign language so he can reach out to Billy on Billy's terms. He asks Billy what the sign is for love. When Daniel tries to sign "love", "it looks like he's miming being in a straitjacket."
      This is a beautifully written play. I have been reading Jonathan Franzen's novel FREEDOM. Nina Raines has Franzen's ability to turn a domestic story into something much deeper, with cultural and metaphysical resonances. The production by veteran stage and film director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL) is simple, elegant and deeply moving. The entire cast is brilliant, particularly Harry Treadaway as haunted Daniel and Michelle Terry as Sylvia, so wanting to be part of the world of sound. At the end of act I, the Family listens to Sylvia play Debussy's "Claire de Lune" on the piano, not totally aware that she can no longer hear the music she creates. Michelle Terry is the finest young British actress, moving from role to role with total mastery. As the play goes on and she loses the ability to hear herself, we hear her language flatten out.
      The trouble with productions in limited runs is that one does not have time to see them again. We'd love a second chance to see TRIBES.
       I've been writing recently about the cost of theatergoing. We saw TRIBES at a Monday night performance at the Royal Court with all seats £10. The theater was packed -- the entire run is sold out -- and at least half of the audience was under 30, many of the age of the twenty-something characters they were watching. Very healthy.

TRIBES by Nina Raine. Directed by Roger Michell. Royal Court Theatre. November 8, 2010.  

Saturday, 6 November 2010


     In the past two decades, there have been two revelatory productions of J.B. Priestley plays at the National Theatre that demonstrated how a contemporary director can give new life and meaning to an older play. Stephen Daldry's production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS that moved from the National to a long run on the West End and on Broadway turned a three act drawing room philosophical mystery into a no-interval expressionistic piece. Last year, Rupert Goold's production of TIME AND THE CONWAYS was faithful to the play while adding dazzling visual moments that underscored the theme of the relativity of time. This is not to say that every revival of an older play must be director's theater with a startlingly different stylistic approach to a realistic drama. The recent production of Arthur Wing Pinero's 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT at the Orange Tree in Richmond was faithful to the text, but the director and actors had clear ideas about the play and how it should be performed 102 years after its debut. Leaving the West End revival of Priestley's WHEN WE ARE MARRIED, I could not help but mull over the old question of the value of theater as a museum of artifacts from the past. I also couldn't help thinking of the adage, "Treat a new play as if it is a classic and treat a classic as if it is a new play." A production must justify itself and the play being performed. This revival of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED did neither.
     J.B. Priestley is known for his novels and his philosophical dramas. WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is more situation comedy with some dark overtones. The play was written in 1938. There was still the depression and World War II was beginning in Europe. At this dark point in Britain's history, Priestley chose to write a light play that is also a piece of nostalgia both for Britain's past and for a kind of drama that he knew as a young man. The play is set in 1908 in a mythical West Yorkshire town not unlike Priestley's home town, Bradford. Stylistically, it could have been written in 1908. The characters are the wealthy, powerful folk of the town. They are the same sort of people Pinero satirizes in THE THUNDERBOLT, written in the year WHEN WE ARE MARRIED takes place, but Pinero has a point of view toward his characters. Priestley wants us to see them both realistically and as comic types. In the style of feelgood comedy, he also wants us to believe that they can change once their faults are pointed out.
     Three couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They got married on the same day and now are the prominent citizens of the town. They discover that due to a technicality they aren't legally married. This leads to the usual comic reversals. A henpecked husband stands up to his domineering wife. A docile wife tells her husband what she thinks of him. An infidelity is discovered. A drunken photographer comes in and out. After two hours the couples discover that their marriages are legal after all. Given the revelations, this isn't necessarily a happy conclusion, more an ambivalent one like the end of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE. At the end of this production, they characters all sang a period song as if nothing had been questioned.
      WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is considered a classic British comedy and has had a number of successfl revivals. I wonder if it hasn't past its due date. We see better period comedy and drama on television now, like the brilliant series DOWNTON ABBEY now on British television. Even if there were any substance in Priestley's play, and I don't discern any, it would take a better production than this to make it worth seeing. The production is cast with veteran stars of stage and television, but they go through this as if real acting weren't necessary. First of all, they are all too old. The couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversaries, not their fiftieth. The characters should be in their forties, not their sixties and seventies. The ingenue leads even looked too old for their parts. Perhaps because of the age, the production is far too slow. Light comedy needs above all pace. This had none. As the house lights go down, we hear a lugubrious piece of period music (hardly a piece to signal comedy) but a fitting introduction to a flaccid production. The men play Yorkshire types, but are far too muted. Of the women, only Maureen Lipman seems to realize that she's in a comedy. Her schtick gets the only full out laughs. As the photographer, Roy Hudd is tedious and he's onstage a lot. He gets paired up with party girl Rosemary Ashe who screams and cackles her way through her part. This seemed to be one of those productions where the director (Christopher Luscombe) simply let the actors do their thing with minimal intervention. There was no overall style and no rhythm.
The set was lovely and the costumes were appropriate.
Fortunately, we got half-price tickets, but this production of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED reinforced my skepticism about West End productions. I hate to bring up the subject of money, but I pay fifteen pounds or less to see intelligent, absorbing revivals at theaters like the Orange Tree and the Finborough. Even at half-price I paid £27.75 to see this mediocre production in the West End. Then there's the question of West End audiences. Like Broadway, the West End is for seeing stars rather than plays or productions. They have just announced a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1935 play, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, with Keira Knightley and MAD MEN's Elizabeth Moss. Prime seats for this will be £75 which is high even for a West End musical. But will this production justify reviving this old play about accusations of lesbianism? In all the press releases I have seen, no mention is made of who will be directing it. Nonetheless, it will get an audience to see the leads in person. Wouldn't it be better to find a good new play for them to be in? When Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig recently appeared on Broadway, they at least appeared in a new work, even if it was a mediocre one. The commercial theater is not the answer to keeping theater meaningful in the twenty-first century.
WHEN WE ARE MARRIED by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Christopher Luscombe. Garrick Theatre. November 5, 2010.     

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


     Shakespeare's HAMLET is a regular visitor to London. Jude Law's Dane followed hard on the heels of David Tennant's. Unfortunately for many of us, Tennant had back trouble and cancelled most of his performances, leaving sold out audiences with the dull, mediocre Edward Bennett who droned every soliloquy in the same way. Rory Kinnear is not as starry a name as Law or Tennent, but National Theatre audiences have been eagerly awaiting this production, staged by the NT's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, since it was announced two years ago.
     Hytner's production concept is much like Stephen Pimlott's for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Samuel West was the fine Hamlet) five or so years ago. Denmark is a contemporary society in which political leaders play to the cameras and everything is watched. Pimlott gave us video surveillance. Hytner is more interested in the contrast between public rhetoric and private corruption. Once again we have an alcoholic Gertrude.  While few of Hytner's ideas are original, one has a sense that every moment, every motivation and confrontation have been carefully thought out.
     The same can be said of Kinnear's HAMLET. His performance, the best I have seen of this mammoth and difficult role, combines appreciation of the poetry and understanding of Hamlet's mercuric mood swings. It is a truism that no one performance can capture all of Hamlet. Kinnear comes closer than any actor I have seen to realizing this complex character. I thought he would play up the humor more, but it is clear that Hamlet's "antic disposition" is not an act he enjoys. What we feel most deeply is Hamlet's disgust with the court, his cynical friends, his mother and uncle-stepfather and, most of all, himself. This Hamlet has few moments of happiness. Kinnear takes the soliloquies slowly as if Hamlet is carefully thinking out loud. There isn't one stagy moment when one felt he was "Acting." Kinnear has been doing fine work in a series of roles at the National and elsewhere as well as a lot of television. This Hamlet establishes him as the best actor of his generation.
     The supporting cast is good. There is nothing revelatory in their performances, but nothing bad either. Ruth Negga manages not to be vapid as Ophelia. In this production, she is murdered by Claudius's henchmen -- Gertrude's description of her suicide is a lie. Negga's Ophelia wouldn't kill herself in such a passive manner. Alex Lanipekun is a macho Laertes. Patrick Malahide does his usual creepy villain routine as Claudius -- we've seen it on many English tv murder mysteries. Claire Higgins seems to have forgotten that Gertrude is a queen. One feels that she's dying to play Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Hytner seems to want us to believe that Gertrude is both complicit in Claudius's villainy and disgusted by it, a Danish Carmela Soprano. Higgins plays the sloppy drunk a bit too much.  
The production is effectively staged and well paced, but the reason to see it is Kinnear.
HAMLET by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Designed by Vicki Mortimer. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. October 26, 2010.     

Monday, 25 October 2010


     We think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as the creators of a string of hits -- OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I, THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In  between those shows, there are flops as well. ALLEGRO (a lovely scored tied to a meretricious book), ME AND JULIET, PIPE DREAM. FLOWER DRUM SONG was a moderate success. The wonderful recent Broadway revival deserved better press than it got. I don't know PIPE DREAM at all. The superb score from ALLEGRO has been preserved fully on a recent 2 cd album with an all star cast. One can admire the attempt at an adventurous, non-realist approach to the storytelling in ALLEGRO if the story was the least bit interesting and the characters thicker than cardboard.
     The tiny Finborough Theatre has revived ME AND JULIET. Perhaps revival is the wrong word as this show has never been produced professionally in London. It ran on Broadway for a little under 400 performances on the strength of a strong advance. The reviews and word of mouth were weak. Like Cole Porter's KISS ME KATE, ME AND JULIET is a backstage musical and has a show within the show. We see the backstage goings on at a Broadway musical named, strangely enough, "Me and Juliet." That show is a symbolic, non-realistic musical a la ALLEGRO. The backstage goings on involve a murderous follow spot operator and a romance between a chorine and a wimpy assistant stage manager. As with ALLEGRO, we are given little reason to care about the characters, and the gender politics are downright embarrassing. "I'm the girl you own," the chorine sings to her boyfriend. The spotlight operator is a possessive bully and a womanizer. He's a bit like Jud in OKLAHOMA, but less interesting. The assistant stage manager gains his manhood and his courage when he falls in love with the wimpy chorus girl. There's a vamp, a bit like Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA. The comedy falls flat as a pancake.
     This story didn't seem to inspire Rodgers. There are two songs from the show that are R&H standards. "No Other Love" was filched from Rodger's score for the television documentary VICTORY AT SEA. The other  "hit" song is the catchy "Keep It Gay" which the cast managed to sing with straight faces (as it were). Both songs are repeated endlessly a la Andrew Lloyd Webber. The rest is forgettable stuff.
      It's a pretty dull show, but the dynamic young cast threw themselves into it. I wondered how they possibly could do an elaborate musical in the tiny Finborough, but the use of space and settings was more than clever. The singing was superb. The big musical numbers looked a bit like crowd scenes (a cast of 16 on a pastage stamp size stage) but were effective. The production gave the show a fair chance.
       Little revivals of American musicals are springing up on the fringe since the Menier Chocolate Factory has had its string of hits. Another tiny theater has a sellout run of BELLS ARE RINGING and the Finborough's ME AND JULIET is a sellout, following its hit run of R&H's STATE FAIR last year. It is good to see these pieces, particularly at a ticket price of fifteen pounds. So an off day for Rodgers and Hammerstein, but an enjoyable performance nonetheless. Maybe they'll try PIPE DREAM next.
ME AND JULIET, directed by Thom Southerland, choreographer by Sally Brooks, designed by Alex Marker. Finborough Theatre, October 24, 2010   

Friday, 22 October 2010


Do we really need a stage musical version of Almodovar's brilliant 1987 film? This production demonstrates why often what works on the screen does not work on the stage. Despite some brave and wonderful performances from Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott and Brian Stokes Mitchell, this show falls flat.
If I hadn't seen the movie many times, I don't think I would have any idea what was going on. The production (Bartlett Sher, director; Michael Yeargan, designer) was busy with constantly moving scenery and projections as if movement was the most important thing. David Yazbek's score is mediocre. I can't comment on the lyrics -- the sound system made them unintelligible.
I saw a rough early preview. Perhaps the show will become coherent, but I doubt the score will get any better. The biggest laughs came from Laura Benanti's ad libs as we waited for the set to move properly. Which brings up the issue of the morality of charging over $100 to see what amounts to a rehearsal.
Rent the DVD of the film.  
Oh, the renovated Belasco Theatre is beautiful. Try to sneak in and see the theatre without paying to see the show.

Friday, 8 October 2010


     I didn't know Annie Baker's work before I saw Peter Gill's prodction of THE ALIENS at the Bush, but her recent work has won major awards and CIRCLE, MIRROR, TRANSFORMATION has been one of the most celebrated new American plays of the past few years. THE ALIENS was produced Off-Broadway last year and won the Obie for Best New American Play. The tiny Bush theatre was the perfect place to see this touching character study.
     It is difficult to describe this play in a way that explains its excellence. The situation is not unfamiliar in American drama and film. Two thirty-something slackers hang out behind a coffee shop in a small town in Vermont. Jasper (MacKenzie Crook) is trying to write a novel that sounds like a lot of post Kerouac attempts at autobiographical fiction; dreadlocked KJ (Ralf Little), who lives with his new age mother, remembers the days when they had a band (their songs are delightfully awful). Jasper, who dropped out of high school after his mother's death, has just lost a girlfriend and barely hides his depression. KJ had a mental breakdown in college and is dependent on medication and self-medication to hold onto his sanity. These two men seem to be each other's only friends. Enter seventeen-year-old Evan, who works in the coffee shop. He has a brief, intense bond with these men. Like them, he is friendless.
     Nothing much happens on the surface of THE ALIENS. The three characters have a Fourth of July party together. After this, there are tragedies that break up the trio. Jasper dies, leaving R.J. and Evan despondent. Evan's boss says R.J. can no longer hang out behind the coffee shop. R.J. gives Evan Jasper's guitar as a farewell present. All this sounds trite, but the experience of this play is deeply moving. Baker loves silences and a great deal of the relationship between these men is unspoken. She subtly gives us enough exposition to understand why these men are so wounded, but nothing is underlined -- everything seems to emerge naturally. She lets simple moments take their time. At the end, Evan picks up Jasper's guitar and sings "If I Had a Hammer" -- all of it. It's painful at first, but we watch Evan gain his voice and confidence as he sings and plays. "You're gonna go far," K.J. exclaims at the end of the song, and we feel that Evan might. This will be a small, important chapter in his life.
     Baker's CIRCLE, MIRROR, TRANSFORMATION was a love song to acting. THE ALIENS shows how much she trusts her actors to find the depth in simple moments. Under the masterful direction of Peter Gill, this cast gave fine, detailed performances. All three actors are familiar from television and other stage appearances, but even in this small space one forgets the actors and concentrates on the characters. Physically Crook and Little are a good duo. Blonde, gaunt Crook looks like he's wasting away; Little is larger, dark haired, with an expressive face. Ollie Alexander captures Evan's sweetness and neediness.
THE ALIENS by Annie Baker. Directed by Peter Gill. Bush Theatre, October 7, 2010  


     The concept behind Nick Payne's WANDERLUST is a solid one. What is the relationship between sex and love, but the result is too scattershot and the play seems often like an adult sitcom rather than a coherent drama.
     Joy is a 40-something doctor, married to Alan, a schoolteacher. Their marriage is running on empty physically and emotionally. Joy wants affection; Alan wants sex. They both want to save their marriage but don't seem to know how. When Alan rages at the lack of sex in their marriage, Joy suggests that they make lists of their desires and fantasies. Their sex life doesn't seem to be the central problem. They have lost the power to communicate. Alan has a hot affair with a cute young teacher. Joy has a moment of tenderness with an ex. Above all, she wants to regain the romantic feelings she had as a young woman. All this is a bit too much Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
     Meanwhile Joy and Alan's fifteen year old son is doing some awkward sexual experimentation with a schoolmate, Michelle. When they finally have sex, they both start fantasizing wistfully about marriage and children, as if sex leads inevitably to such thoughts. I don't know what young people Payne has spoken to, but I don't see much sign that my students have immedate post-coital thoughts of marriage and family with their partner.
     All this is to say that I found moments in this play amusing, but didn't believe a word of it. The actors did the best they could with the material. Pippa Haywood (Joy) was wonderful, as usual, and Isabella Laughland, who played Michelle, brought real feeling to a part that could have been pure cliche. Simon Godwin was wise to keep the play moving on a unit set.
     WANDERLUST was not up to the usual Royal Court high standard.
WANDERLUST by Nick Payne. Directed by Simon Godwin. Royal Court Jerwood theatre Upstairs. October  5, 2010. 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


      One of the National Theatre of Great Britain's greatest successes has been their production of WAR HORSE, a co-production with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. The production ran in repertory for two seasons at the National and is now in a profitable long run on the West End. The stars of the show are the giant horse puppets but actors play the human characters. Can puppets be as successful in playing humans? Their faces cannot change and the voices have to come from the humans operating them. Handspring's most recent collaboration with the National is a play, OR YOU COULD KISS ME, written and directed by playwright-director-novelist Neil Bartlett. Bartlett has been for thirty years a key figure in gay literature and theater. He is not interested in conventional narrative but in experimental, almost deconstructive theater. OR YOU COULD KISS ME is a collaborative piece that is loosely based on the life story of the two founders of Handspring, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (the program has a picture of them on a South African gay beach in 1971, the meeting place of A&B in the play, with the caption "This did happen"). A &B met and fell in love in South Africa in the 1970s. We see their meeting and their first kiss. But most of the play depicts their old age when A is ill with emphysema and B is his caretaker. Though the couple have lived together for over sixty years (it is 2036), they have never had a civil partnership (we are never told why) or even made wills. A is not only physically ill, but is going through the onset of senile dementia. A narrator gives a scientific description of what his brain is going through as we watch and hear A go through a catalog of symptoms.
      Older and younger A and B (and their ancient, incontinent dog) are represented by puppets controlled by a team of seven men in dark suits who also supply the voices. Sometimes Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones represent themselves as middle-aged men looking toward their future. The charismatic actress Adjoa Andoh is the narrator and plays a variety of supprting characters (lawyer, doctor, housekeeper). The theater is once again in the kind of arena configuration it had for the magnificent EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON (design again by Rae Smith). A long, narrow stage ran diagonally across the floor with the audience sitting on all sides. Doors at either end and stairways onto the stage provided entrances and exits for the Anjoh, the puppets and the puppeteers. An accordianist provided the background music.
      At the end of the intermissionless 105 minutes, the audience gave a long enthusiastic ovation that called the performers back four times. I wish I could say that I was that enthusiastic about the work. The script gave no sense of the dynamic of the ongoing relationship of these men. We only saw the beginning and the end. Why didn't they get a civil partnership or make wills? What was their life together like? With so little information, it was hard to care about them. In fact, if a chronology of A&Bs lives had not been provided in the program, I would know next to nothing about them. The lack of names may have been an effort to universalize them, but the namelessness also robbed them of individual interest. I would have been more interested in more of the real "this did happen" experience of Kohler and Jones than this presentation of what might happen to them. The alienation was increased by the puppets. These weren't giant horses, but human figures that were about four feet high. Often they were blocked from view by the three men running each puppet. Perhaps it is better to see this production from the balconies (we were in the front row). Puppets however cleverly created cannot express the range of emotion that a human actor can express. We felt that the dog puppet stole the show in great part because puppets are better at being animals than humans.
       I would say that OR YOU COULD KISS ME was an interesting experiment but not a successful theater piece. It was refreshing to see a gay play that is about older gay people. What A and B go through is what many older couples gay and straight experience, but the subject has been treated better in other plays and films.
       By the way, the National Plans to build a new, larger Cottesloe to open in 2012. I will miss the intimacy ot the present space.
OR YOU COULD KISS ME by Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company. Designed by Rae Smith. Nationa Theatre Cottesloe Theatre, October 4, 2010. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010


PASSION is in some ways the most artistically successful of Sondheim musicals, but it is also one of the least popular because musically it doesn't burst into conventional song. I say it is a success because it is a seamless fusion of song and spoken word. In a recently aired interview on the BBC, Sondheim said he wasn't interested in opera because he was fascinated by the combination of dialogue and song the musical offers. Of all his shows, PASSION is the one where dialogue and musical number blend into one another. In part this is because the musical numbers aren't usually conventional show tunes. Only the first number, SO MUCH HAPPINESS, is conventional but this is because the love of Giorgio and his married mistress, Clara, is conventional. Their afternoon trysts are a happy respite from the rest of their lives, but don't plumb any emotional or spiritual depths. As Giorgio is drawn into Fosca's dark world, the music stops soaring. It can be jagged, as in Fosca's first utterances, or it can be quietly, lyrically tender as it is when Giorgio realized he shares Fosca's love. Musical figures are traded back and forth among characters. In the second half of the show, as Giorgio comes under Fosca's spell, he shares her music. Underscoring bridges dialogue and musical number.
I start with the music, because that is the heart of all musicals and Sondheim's score and lyrics are so strong that the dialogue usually pales by comparison. Here one feels that the dialogue is almost equal to the music. Everything fits together. The story (based on a nineteenth-century Italian novel and classic Italian film) is a strange one. A handsome young Italian soldier in the nineteenth century is sent off to a remote part of the country where he and other officers are billeted in an aristocratic home. The host's cousin, Fosca also lives there. She is physically and emotionally weak as well as homely. Fosca falls madly, obsessively in love with Giorgio. She stalks him -- even follows him when he goes off to Milan to visit his mistress. To Fosca, love isn't happy, it "cuts like a knife" and is "implacable as stone." Eventually Giorgio realizes that this is what love should be, not the undemanding affair he is having with Clara. But a mad love eventually leads to madness.
PASSION is a dark musical. There are no endings of songs, no opportunity for the audience to applaud until the end. There is no dancing and little laughter, though there is a kind of Greek chorus of officers who comment wryly on the action. In other words, this is not Broadway fare, particularly in an age in which the Broadway musical has turned into high priced childrens' theater. I never felt it worked on Broadway or in its short-lived West End production. It does work in the small Donmar Warehouse Theatre where it has been given an impeccable production. PASSION is really a chamber musical and this 240 seat theatre is perfect for it. This is the fourth Jamie Lloyd production I have seen this year and the first that has really worked. The staging is beautiful but everything is based on character. Argentinian performer Elena Roger has scored great success in London in revivals of PIAF and EVITA (which she will soon be performing on Broadway). She's a tiny woman with a unique, haunting voice. She didn't need any makeup to be Fosca. David Thaxton is the least wooden Giorgio I have seen. He is handsome and sings beautifully, but one also felt all of Giorgio's emotions from polite revulsion to obsession. The supporting cast was uniformly excellent, particularly Alan Corduner as the doctor, a pivotal role in this work. The orchestra played the lovely score beautifully.
On the way home, I couldn't help thinking that fine works like PASSION simply do not fit into the conventional economy of theater. Its home has to be a subsidized theater like the Donmar where it can be presented with the highest possible production values with no hope of a profit. I must say that the best productions I have seen of Sondheim musicals have been small-scale. The Donmar's PASSION, COMPANY and PACIFIC OVERTURES (I missed their MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG), the Menier's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the National's Cottesloe production of SWEENEY TODD and Matthew Warchus's relatively simple production of FOLLIES, and last year the tiny production of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at the Jermyn Street. 
PASSION. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. September 29, 2010.    

Monday, 27 September 2010


What do with with staging Wagner? For all the composer-librettist's theories of total theater, his works are fiendishly difficult to produce, not only because of the superhuman demands on his singers, but because they are not dramatic in a conventional sense. There are so many monologues, so many moments when psychology is more important than conventional dramatic conflict. Opera is often about what people are thinking and feeling more than what they are doing. Wagner's works are extreme examples of this. So how do you produce them?
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, perhaps the most influential of Wagners' works musically, is a prime example. Little happens. An hour into the work, lovers drink a love potion. An hour and a half later they are discovered in flagrante and Tristan is mortally wounded. Another hour later Tristan dies, a couple of other people die in a quick duel and Isolde sings her famous Liebestod. That, like so much of the opera, is an internal moment. Even the fifty minute love duet is less about love than longing to be removed from earth and conventional life. It's about death as much as it is about life. In other words, there isn't much for singers to do physically in TRISTAN. Moreover, the opera is so vocally demanding on the two singers playing the title roles that they can't be expected to move much. And, typical of Wagner, there are long orchestral passages between their vocal lines.  So, in the best of productions, TRISTAN is a static work. We listen -- and there is an enormous amount to listen to -- more than we look.
What was offered at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday was neither quite a concert or a fully staged performance. The singers were in front of the orchestra in concert dress, but they were "off book" and, to some extent, acting their roles. There was a black piece of furniture to be Isolde's couch in Act I, a bench in Act II and Tristan's bed in Act III. There was some minimal blocking and some theatrical lighting. Most impressive was the placement of some of the cast around the Royal Festival Hall. Brangane delivered her warning from a high box, the chorus welcoming Isolde at the end of Act I was in the back of the hall. The shepherd's mournful horn came from another side box. Trista and Isolde began their love duet in the auditorium and moved slowly onto the stage. This spatial variety of sound was extremely effective. Less so were Bill Viola's projections which appeared on a large screen behind the singers. Supposedly they gave another mythical, symbolic dimension to the work, if one needed such a thing. I found them either banal or distracting. After a while I ignored them and watched the singers. There were surtitles, which are essential for Wagner. One needs to know exactly what characters are singing in this complex, poetic work.
Musically the performance is as good as one can get nowadays. I grew up on Birgit Nillson's Isolde which was a perfect realization of the role musically and dramatically. No one has equalled or surpassed her. However, Violetta Urmana was the best we have now. She has a rich, lovely voice and enormous vocal power -- a necessity when competing with Wagner's rich, often loud orchestration. One never felt she was straining or forcing. The Liebestod was ravishing. Tristan is almost an impossible role vocally. When I first went to performances of the opera, much of Tristan's third act -- almost solo for forty-five minutes -- was cut because no one could sing it. Gary Lehman came as close as anyone has in the past generation. His third act -- uncut -- was as intense as it needs to be as Tristan, in delirium, sings of his longing for Isolde and for death. His is not a conventionally lovely voice, but at least he doesn't make the ugly, strained sounds one hears from most tenors essaying this role. The supporting cast, particularly Anne Sophie von Otter as Isolde's devoted lady in waiting, Brangane, and Matthew Best as the deeply hurt King Marke, father figure for Tristan and betrothed of Isolde, laments his betrayal by his dearest friend.
The Philharmonia Orchestra played magnificently for Esa Pekka Salonen whose account of the score after a too slow beginning was thrilling.
There was a much-deserved rapturous standing ovation at the end, more for what happened musically than for the five hours of projections of water, candles and homely people stripping. At least this multi-meda event wasn't as silly and obtrusive as some recent Wagner productions, particularly in Wagner's own theater at Bayreuth.
 TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Royal Festival Hall. September 26, 2010.

Friday, 24 September 2010

MAURICE again. Bravo Adam Lilley!

I was happy to return to the Above the Stag Theatre for the encore presentation of their hit from last season, a dramatic adaptation of E.M. Forster's MAURICE (my earlier review is somewhere on this blog).
The script has been tightened since the last run with a good ten minutes cut, which is all to the good. Poor Risley now has so little to do he should probably be cut altogether. The play now starts with Maurice at the hypnotist to be cured of his homosexuality, then flashes back to earlier scenes. This device isn't used consistently, but does give the long, episodic first act more shape. Since the crux of the play is Maurice's two relationships, first with the aristocratic Clyde Durham, then with the gamekeeper Alec Scudder, the cuts make the focus clearer. There is one crucial moment left out of the adaptation in its current form -- Clyde's insistence that his and Maurice's love be spiritual but not physical. Otherwise, this is a solid adaptation that gives us the most important and dramatic moments in the gay classic novel.
The production works as well as it does because of the performance of Adam Lilley in the title role. In some ways, he's not right for Maurice. He's too old, too smart and not convincingly a guy who loves rugby and wins boxing matches with inner city boys. Maurice can be happy with Alec at the end because he lives for his body, not his brain. He's not smart and, as he admits, always in a muddle. Nonetheless, Lilley's performance is so effective at expressing the turmoil inside Maurice, so clear in his specific reactions to other characters and situations that one believes he is Maurice Hall. This was a brilliant piece of casting and a triumph for an actor in his professional debut. Lilley is rarely off stage for the two and a half hours of the play and one wants to watch his face constantly for the quicksilver changes of expression. I hope Lilley gets a lot of work out of this.
The rest of the cast is variable. Steve Raine is fine as Alec Scudder, if also too old. He captures that difficult combination of fierce pride and trained subservience that Scudder displays when hurt by Maurice. Rob Stott is still too one-note as Clive. I never see what Maurice sees in him. The rest of the cast is good, except for the hypnotist, who is still playing his part as if he were in a nineteen-thirties horror film.
Forster's novel, MAURICE, was finally published just as I was deciding to live my life as a gay man. It's a lovely work and one of personal importance. I loved the Merchant Ivory film. The play justifies itself as a valid translation of a classic into another medium, particularly with Adam Lilley's performance.
MAURICE, by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham, from the novel by E.M. Forster. Directed by Tim McArthur. Above the Stag Theatre. September 23, 2010.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

FAUST at the ENO

Charles Gounod's operatic version of Goethe's FAUST is far from a faithful adaptation of that grand epic (Berlioz comes a bit closer). The Germans used to call it MARGUERITE to separate it from the original as it only focuses on one episode of Goethe's work. Not only is the focus on Marguerite -- the Gounod becomes a very Christian parable of damnation and salvation that ends with the heroine's entrance through the pearly gates after Faust has been dragged to hell. I remember the first production of FAUST I ever saw back in the 1950s with a vision of the gates of heaven opening as the chorus celebrates Marguerite's redemption (the production was by the now legendary Peter Brook). Frank Corsaro's famous prodction for the New York City Opera in the seventies had a more ironic ending -- a mad Marguerite going to her execution as the chorus sang. Corsaro was one of the first American exponents of director's opera in which a director's conception became paramount. In an age with few great divas and divos (most of whom would have cared less about a director's conception), conductors and directors are the stars.  It isn't that there aren't good singers about -- but there aren't the record companies to promote them as they promoted Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo. So now we often watch exercises in directoral self indulgence. Most of the examples of director's opera I have seen in London recently have been infuriating (Christof Loy's totally undramatic, minimalist LULU at the Royal Opera, Katie Mitchell's IDOMENEO at the English National Opera, Rupert Goold's TURANDOT at the ENO). And the look of many recent productions is simply ugly and doesn't provide a visual counterpart to the lovely music we are hearing.
There are times, as with Anthony Minghella's MADAMA BUTTERFLY in which a director creates an original, but perfectly appropriate visual production that serves the music which is, after all, the most important thing.
The MET and the ENO have brought in stage director Des McAnuff to direct a new FAUST. The ENO bills McAnuff as the director of JERSEY BOYS, but he is more than that -- a veteran director who can do the classics as well as jukebox musicals. McAnuff's idea is that FAUST isn't about salvation or damnation, but about mortality. At the end of the garden scene, the devil looks at a giant image of death who has stalked onto the stage. If anything, that image should have been more present throughout the evening. The final image we have is not of Faust being dragged off to hell or Marguerite going through the pearly gates, but Faust dying on the floor of his laboratory as if all we have seen has been a dream, as if death must be the end and nothing follows (Marguerite climbs a staircase that looks like it is part of the laboratory). Now I may believe that death is the end, but that sure isn't what the heavenly chorus has just sung. But this chorus has been Faust's lab-coated assistants in the bomb making factory where he researches means of destruction. He dreams the entire opera and elements of the laboratory and its staff are always on stage. For the most part, this works. The set isn't pretty to look at, even though Gounod's music is always pretty (for some this is a derogatory word, but there's nothing wrong with pretty music). The lighting is constantly changing and extremely effective. For the most part, I liked the production, though I thought some ideas (Death) were undeveloped and details were more important than developing character. Maybe all this will be worked out better by the time this production gets to the MET next season.
FAUST is an opera of great tunes and the real issue is the music. I have never heard the opera so beautifully conducted (Edward Gardner) or played and the ENO chorus was wonderful, as always. Toby Spence is an ideal Faust. Of course, he looks the part and can act. More important, he has a beautiful voice that seems to be getting bigger without losing its distinctive timbre and he sings the music beautifully. Melody Moore is good as Marguerite. She's not much of an actress, but uses her sweet lyric voice well. Last night Iain Paterson had a chest infection so his low notes were sometimes barely there, but everything else was fine.  The supporting cast was consistently good. This is probably a far better cast than the current MET casting office has found for their mounting of this production next season (please, not the ubiquitous Marcello Giordani!). Being the ENO, the opera was sung in a clunky English translation. Is opera in English drawing folks in or keeping them away? I think the latter.
What was most shocking was the small audience. FAUST used to be extremely popular. The MET in the good old days could fill the house with non-famous singers in FAUST. Now it seems to be out of fashion and even a production by the director of JERSEY BOYS doesn't bring in an audience. People will flock to Andrew Lloyd Webber's pallid imitations of this kind of music but don't go to the real thing. I'll take FAUST over PHANTOM any day.
FAUST. Music by Charles Gounod. Conducted by Edward Gardner. Directed by Des McAnuff. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lighting by Peter Mumford. With Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson and Benedict Nelson. English National Opera, September 21, 2010.    

Monday, 20 September 2010


Arthur Wing Pinero was one of the most successful pre World War I British dramatists. He lived until 1934, but the work for which he is best known was written beween 1890 and 1910. Like many of his contemporaries, he has been forgotten by all but British theater historians. There is an occasional revival of his delightful backstage comedy TRELAWNY OF THE WELLS, but all else has been dismissed as weak material, not worthy to stand with George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Actually, Pinero was one of many fine dramatists of the period (Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, J.M. Barrie, Somerset Maugham). The Orange Tree Theatre's revival of his 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT, like the recent Finborough production of THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, demands a serious reappraisal of Pinero's work.
Pinero was something of an outsider to British society (a Jew who rejected a middle-class career to become an actor, then a playwright), THE THUNDERBOLT takes a close look at provincial life that celebrates the characters who go against the grain. At the beginning we see a prominent Midlands family waiting for the settlement of a brother's estate. Given that no will can be found, the family members are too eagerly awaiting their share of a large fortune. One brother is a building contractor, another owner of the town's conservative newpaper. Their sister sees herself as a prominent member of London society (not likely) as she has married a poor aristocrat. The older members and their haught spouses look down on their younger brother who has become a musician and has married a grocer's daughter whom they despise. The dead brother would have nothing to do with his family until his last days. Though we never see him, we can't help but think he must have been nicer than the lot we see. The family is delighted that no will has been found since that means they will share his sizeable estate. However, they discover that he had an illegitimate daughter who has been summoned from her art studies in Paris. She is more upset at not being recognized by the father she loved than in losing his fortune.
The family discovers that there was a will that named the daughter as sole heir but that the wife they despise has stolen and destroyed it. It is typical of Pinero that the real power is wielded by women -- by the wife who destroys the will and by the rightful heiress who negotiates a just compromise.
THE THUNDERBOLT is a strange but absorbing mixture of comedy and domestic melodrama. There may be too much legal discussion and the wife's tearful confession goes on too long for contemporary audiences, but the play works. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is lively.
The Orange Tree is a 150 seat theatre-in-the-round in Richmond, a lovely London suburb, that alternates revivals of forgotten plays with new work. The level of acting is always high. I can't imagine a better cast for THE THUNDERBOLT and Sam Waters' direction was lively. He made sure that we saw characters, not caricatures. This production did the first thing a revival of a forgotten play must do which is prove that the play is worth reviving.
THE THUNDERBOLT by Arthur Wing Pinero. Directed by Sam Waters. Orange Tree Theatre. September 17, 2010.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


DESIGN FOR LIVING was first performed in New York in the early 1930s -- it would never have passed the censors in England. Noel Coward wrote it for him and his friends, the American husband-wife duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Coward's homosexuality was an open secret, though he was careful not to make it public, and Lunt and Fontanne had a kind of open marriage. Both had male lovers though the public saw them as an inseparable, blissfully married couple. In many ways they were. DESIGN FOR LIVING was sailing close to the wind for all three. Here is a play about two men and a woman who can't live without each other. In a more innocent time, it was possible to see the play as being about two men in love with the same woman, but it is clear from the text that this is the "three sided erotic hotch-potch" stuffy, aptly-named Ernest decries in the last act of the play. As in many Coward plays, the leading characters live a more exciting, unconventional life than the people around them. The same rules do not apply to Coward's witty characters and the voices of conventional morality are mocked pitilessly. In DESIGN FOR LIVING Leo is a fabulously successful playwright (like Coward), Otto a wealthy portrait painter and Gilda an interior decorator. Ernest, the voice of conventional morality, sells art but cannot create it.
DESIGN FOR LIVING is a tricky play to do. It's long and if one does not have the right touch, the central characters can seem smug and a bit preachy about their need to live outside of convetional morality. I have directed the play and know its perils and I have never seen a production that managed to make you care about the trio or to bring out the play's humor. The current revival at the Old Vic works brilliantly. All depends on the three leads and you really believe these three (Andrew Scott, Tom Burke, Lisa Dillon) are madly in love with each other and that they only really work as a trio. One also saw them as distinct characters with their own needs. They made an interesting physical combination. Blonde, lovely Dillon; slim, elfin Scott and leading man handsome Burke. Every scene clicked. Scott is an eccentric, slightly manic actor on stage who played against the stereotype of the louche Coward leading man. His line deliveries are always surprising but he has an impeccable sense of comedy. Burke is a less physical actor with less vocal range, but the two of them played the long drunk scene at the end of the second act like a great comedy team. Angus Wright played the stolid Ernest a little too stolidly at times, but his explosion at the end was just right for his character -- physically awkward and wanting to break something but too in love with his precious possessions to do it.
Fine direction from veteran Anthony Page and gorgeous sets. All in all, a perfect production of this tricky but wonderful play.
DESIGN FOR LIVING by Noel Coward. Directed by Anthony Page, designed by Lez Brotherson. Starring Lisa Dillon, Tom Burke and Andrew Scott. Old Vic Theatre. September 14, 2010.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Last year, one of the more interesting of the short plays about Afghanistan included in the Tricycle's wonderful cycle THE GREAT GAME AFGHANISTAN, was J.T. Rogers' BLOOD AND GIFTS, a short play about the relationship of an American CIA operative and an Afghan warlord during the years of the war against Russian occupation. The American saw his relationship with the warlord as a friendship though that was the American way of trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Ultimately the warlord, once relatively secular, realized that Islamic fundamentalism would be the gavanizing force to taking contorol of the country when the Americans lost interest after the Soviet defeat. By focusing on two characters, Rogers made the play dramatic rather than a staged history lesson.
Now he has expanded a 25 minute play into a two hour and forty-five minute epic with lots of characters. The American is still center stage, but we have long scenes with his Soviet couterpart in Pakistan, the outspoken British operative there, the head of the Pakistani secret service through which Americans are funneling weapons to the Afghan resistance and who have their own Islamist agenda, and American senators and bureaucrats back home in Washington. The subject is fascinating, but this sprawling play is no longer dramatic. It's too long by at least half an hour -- many repetitive scenes could be cut. The many characters tend to be representatives and mouthpieces of countries and points of view rather than people we care about.
Howard Davies is a wonderful director, but the play also suffers from an overblown National Theatre production. Many large scene changes slow down the action. The play would have been better in a much simpler production in the smaller Cottesloe. We wait for wagons to roll on and off and walls to roll in before a scene can start. The play really doesn't demand so much spectacle. Unfortunately the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre does require scenery. The cast is good, but Lloyd Owen, a wonderful actor, suffers the most from not having a character to play. He is onstage almost constantly, but all Rogers has given him is a stolid, emotionally constipated American. Does he believe what he says or is he a total cynic? He wants to avoid another debacle like Iran in 1979, but we don't know enough about him to know why this matters so much. His Russian, Afghan and British counterparts are better drawn as characters.
At the end, the Afghani freedom fighters we wanted to free from the Russians are screaming "Allah Akbar." The point of the play is that American blindness and obsession with the Soviets led to the Islamic Revolution we are now dealing with. The shorter, earlier version made that point in twenty-five minutes. We have a lot more detail now, but no play. J.T. Rogers' last play at the National, THE OVERWHELMING gave us real characters placed in an African mess they didn't understand. It mixed the personal and the policital brilliantly. One misses the personal here.
BLOOD AND GIFTS by J.T. Rogers, directed by Howard Davies. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. September 13, 2010.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


In Lorraine Hansberry's 1950s classic, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the proud matriarch of a Black Chicago family takes the life insurance money left to her and puts a down payment on a house in a suburb, Clybourne Park. This will be the home she has dreamed of for her children and grandson. Enter the one white character in the play, Karl Lindner from the Clybourne Park Citizen's Committee, to try to buy off the Youngers to save the property values in his all white community. At the end, the Youngers decide to move, to follow the American dream of suburban home owning. In the play Hansberry is dramatizing the battles her father fought for equal housing for African-Americans.
Bruce Norris's CLYBOURNE PARK shows us the other side of Hansberry's story. We are in the living room of the home the Youngers want to buy. Everything is packed up as Russ and Bev get ready to move to another suburban home. They are eager to sell their house even at a bargain price because it holds too many horrible memories. Their son, a damaged Korean War, hung himself in the bedroom. Russ has been in a depression ever since and Bev is desperately unhappy. The move may not be the therapy they need. Enter Karl Lindner and his deaf, pregnant wife and a fatuous minister. Karl is eager to stop the sale at any price. Eventually Russ explodes and all the bitterness and anger he has felt since his son's death pours out. The couples' Black maid and her husband are forced to watch this display of racism, grief and fury. No one is happy or happily married.
In Act II, it is the present and a white yuppie couple has bought the now derelict house and wants to tear it down to build a McMansion. "No one is questioning your ethics at all," the Black woman says to the white woman who wants to put up the new house, "What we're questioning is your taste." Could a Black woman say anything more devastating to whites who think they're improving the neighborhood? The Blacks who take great pride in their neighborhood want to stop this too big house from being built. A meeting is held with the buyers, the Black couple (the wife is a descendant of the Youngers), the real estate agent and a lawyer who is a descendant of the Lindners. Eventually racial hostilities build up and an exchange of racist jokes becomes a means of unleashing hostility. All this is both serious and savagely funny.
CLYBOURNE PARK is spot on it its presentation of racism in Obama's America in which denying the President's citizenship is a way of expressing racial hatred. And this production, directed by Royal Court artistic director, Dominic Cooke is perfect. When did British actors get so good at America accents? Twenty years ago they all did an approximation of quasi Bronx accents. Now they all sound middle-American, like High Laurie in HOUSE. Martin Freeman is superb as Lindner and the home buying husband in Act II. He's decent and a bit nebbishy until the hostility spews out. Freeman is a fine comic actor who is now in the spotlight for his Dr. Watson in the clever new tv series, SHERLOCK. Here he really modulates both roles beautifully. Sophie Thompson is deeply moving as the poor wife who has lost her son and finds it impossible to live with her depressed husband. The entire ensemble is excellent.
CLYBOURNE PARK is one of the finest American plays of recent years. Where has it been? I know it was produced by Wooly Mammoth in Washington and Playwrights Horizons in New York, but why hasn't it won major awards?


School shootings are highly uncommon in a civilized coutry like England where citizens are not allowed to carry firearms. Thus the bloodbath at the climax of Simon Stephens's PUNK ROCK is all the more shocking. Stephens, one of Britain's best playwrights, is a chronicler of the madness that lies just under the surface of middle-class life. His plays often tell the story of a seemingly normal person who becomes unhinged, commits an act of violence then, purged, seems quite normal again. MOTORTOWN showed us an Iraq veteran, a seemingly nice guy, who commits a mad, brutal act, then in the next scene seems saner than the people around him.
PUNK ROCK takes place in the library of a high school for bright, middle class kids in Stockport, near Manchester. We meet seven of the best and brightest. In the first scene, William welcomes the new girl at school, Lily. William seems friendly, but his questions and responses seem a bit detached. He's sweet and charming in a slightly geeky way, but there's something wrong. He talks too much, confides more than he should to a stranger. Lily, the new girl, is eager to have an ally though it isn't likely that she will be attracted to eager little William. Instead, she quickly makes a beeline for the best looking boy who also turns out to be the most decent of the lot. The other students who meet in the library are an odd bunch. Bennett is a vicious bully, Tanya obviously has little self worth, Chadwick is a genius with visions of the end of the world. Bits of violence bubble up. Lily burns herself. Bennett bullies Chadwick and Tanya merciessly and no one stops him. The play starts normally enough. These are bright, articulate, self-aware kids but something is wrong with the picture. We watch William's slow, inexorable descent into madness and when he tells Lily not to come to school the next day, we Americans in the audience know what will transpire. After the shooting we see William with the prison psychiatrist. He doesn't understand why he just can't get on with his life as planned, as if his murders don't matter at all.
Stephens isn't interested in writing a problem play (What's wrong with middle class kids? Why do kids kill each other?). He's interested in specific characters living here and now. He doesn't explain their actions -- he just shows us. A former teacher, he has an ear for the way kids talk and assert power over one another.
This is a harrowing play, but an effective one. And what a fine young cast. Rupert Simonian is brilliant at tracing William's unraveling. It's a demanding role. William is barely offstage from the beginning to the end. Everyone else, some making their professional debuts, is equally good. This is an ensemble piece, but the characters don't really connect on any meaningful level. It's a play abut separateness, not relationships. If there are deep sexual or emotional experiences, the highly articulate characters don't want to talk about them.
When this play first appeared last year, the critics all raved. In this return engagement, I can see why.

Sunday, 1 August 2010


Thanks in part to the Duke in London Drama Program, I have been in theatres almost nightly for the last six weeks, so long separate entries for everything would take another six weeks.
ROAD TO MECCA by Athol Fugard. This was our first trip to the highly respected Arcola Theatre in an unlikely neighborhood in Northeast London. Fugard's play is a remembrance of an eccentric older woman who, after her husband died, learned to express herself by turning her front lawn into a display of wild, eccentric sculpture. Her minister friend represents the dismayed conservative community. Her young friend wants her to be courageous. The play is slow but rewarding and Linda Bassett gives a superb performance as the older woman who is sometimes frightened, sometimes defiant.

Marianne Elliott's production of Thomas Middleton's Jacobean tragedy, WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN at the National - Olivier is an engrossing modern dress version of this tragicomedy. Elliott gets around the problem of the multiple deaths at the end by turning the carnage into a kind of ballet, thus avoiding the giggles these scenes sometimes provoke. Harriet Walter was the centerpiece of a strong cast.

Roy Williams's SUCKER PUNCH at the Royal Court is a well written saga of young Black boxers in the early 1980s. The production -- direction, scenery (the theatre really looked like an old boxing ring) and acting -- made a solid play seem even better.

Caryl Churchill's LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE was revived at the Arcola in a near perfect production. The staging used the space extremely effectively and the six actors playing various men and women was strong. Using the religious conflicts of the mid seventeenth century, the play celebrates those who find god within and strive to form Utopian communities. Very 60s, but still timely.

HAIR with the cast of the Broadway revival was a mixed blessing. The songs were well sung, but the sound system turned all words into mush, so the cast could have been singing Polish for all we could tell. It always was a meretricious show, trying to shock a Broadway audience with dirty words, nudity (here so dark they shouldn't have bothered) and pot smoking. Silly, but well performed.

OVer the summer, we got lessons in how to do Shakespeare and how not to do Shakespeare. In the first category were two productions at the Globe, Mark Rosenblatt's effective production of the flawed late history, HENRY VIII, and Dominic Dromgoole's earthy, dynamic production of HENRY IV, PART I. In both cases, the directors made the most of the space at the Globe and actors delivered Shakespeare's language as if they knew exactly what they were saying and in character. Both productions had a great deal of energy, but the energy was directed to the point of the lines, the character objectives and the other actors onstage. Some people don't find going to the Globe a pleasant experience. It certainly isn't comfortable and there are distractions, but the level of performance there is very high. Dromgoole is attracting really good actors who love working there. Roger Allam's Falstaff was both rogue and knight I liked Jamie Parker's youthful Hal and the brilliant idea of an equally young, callow Hotspur (Sam Crane). I would have lived if I had never seen another HENRY IV, but this was a vibrant production. For two lessons in how not to do Shakespeare, we had the Sam Mendes Bridge Project at the Old Vic. Last year the Bridge Project had a starry company with fine performances from Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, Sinead Cusack and Richard Easton and poor performances from Josh Hamilton (true amateur night) and Ethan Hawke (who didn't seem to notice that there were other people onstage). This year we had a company that was mediocre at best and piss poor at worst. THE TEMPEST, performed as if it were the most depressing work ever written, put everyone in a state of despondency. Had there been an interval, most of the audience would have crawled to the exits never to return. Stephen Dillane performed Prospero as if it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. The AS YOU LIKE IT was marginally better, but Juliet Rylance as Rosalind was all undirected energy as if she never thought about what she was saying. Others showed the same small bag of actor tricks in both plays. Mendes has announced that he is taking a year off from the Bridge Project. He seems to have lost his touch in casting and in direction.

Mark Rylance has made a career of self indulgent acting. He doesn't have much raw material to work with: a boyish face that seems usually to show surprise, a high unexpressive voice, and a love for taking pauses in the middle of lines or sentences for no reason. He is one of my least favorite actors, though audiences and critics like him. On occasion, when his limited talent meets the right part, as in Jez Butterworth's JERUSALEM last year, he can be effective. Rylance is a shamess actor who will, like a naughty boy, do anything on stage to get a reaction from the audience, so is best at low comedy. The leading character in JERUSALEM is a middle-aged naught boy, so everything worked, particularly since he was surrounded by good actors. This year, Rylance is chewing up the scenery in a very slight work, LA BETE, which has a limited run in London before moving to Broadway. It's a nothing of a piece about the rivalry of two playwrights in seventeenth century France. The play is written in blank verse which is sometimes clever in a hollow sort of way. Shortly after the beginning of this two hour intermissionless play, Rylance's character, who can't stop talking, has a thirty minute solo speech. Rylance brought out every trick in the book including eating, belching, farting, sitting on the toilet and then wiping himself with pages from a nearby book. After this act, there was no where for the play to go. Poor David Hyde Pierce, a far better comic actor than Rylance, could just stand there. Director Matthew Warchus didn't seem interested in anything but letting Rylance loose on his thirty minutes of schtick. Unfortunately there are other characters and 90 minutes more of tedium. Joanna Lumley appeared about half an hour before the end and acting grand as her character required. Last time around, LA BETE flopped on Broadway, but audiences have gotten worse and may just love it this time around.

Speaking of bad acting -- Rupert Everett has always struck me as a curiously uncommitted actor, even back when he made his sensational debut in ANOTHER COUNTRY. I have seen him in various theatrical productions over the years and he always seemed not to want to be bothered exerting himself or pretending to be anyone but Rupert Everett. Yet he has had a career of sorts. A gay student asked me if I agreed with Everett that he has had trouble getting parts because he is gay. I responded that this may be partly true, but he also didn't get parts because he isn't a very good actor. So down at lovely Chichester they cast him as Henry Higgins in a pretty dire revival of Shaw's PYGMALION performed in an ugly, garish set. Everett wasn't as mumbly as he often is, but he kept stumbling over lines, something I have never seen a professional actor under seventy do. The Eliza Doolittle, an actress with the unlikely name of Honeysuckle Weeks, was too old and unintelligible both as the cockney Eliza and the proper-spoken Eliza. The supporting cast acted rings around the two leads.
A few weeks later, we went back to Chichester to see a revival of 42ND STREET, that amalgam of wonderful Dubin-Warren songs from those thirties Warner Brothers musicals with a plot that is sort of a condensation of the usual plots, such as they were, of those enterprises. This production was as excellent as the PYGMALION was poor. The thrust stage didn't allow the scenic spectacle of the original production, but the great cast and excellent choreography made up for that. And what a band! I love those songs and I wasn't disappointed.

This summer we had two productions of German plays from the first half of the nineteenth century. Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar has directed great productions of two of Schiller masterpieces in recent years (another is coming in 2011). This year, Grandage's former assistant, Jamie Lloyd has directed Kleist's THE PRINCE OF HOMBURG in an adaptation by Dennis Kelly. I say adaptation rather then translation because Kelly has changed Kleist's ambiguous ending for a clear gunshot. This seems more consistent with the character of the Elector (Iam McDairmid) who sentences the Prince to death for disobeying his orders, but the fascination of Kleist's plays for a modern audience is in the odd, dreamy, sonnambulistic prince. He's something like Schiller's Don Carlos -- impetuous, romantic, idealistic -- as the Elector is something like Schiller's harsh King Philip. Kleist wasn't as good at writing women as men, so the female characters are two-dimensional, but the two leading male characters are fascinating. McDairmid gives the elector a sense of humor as well as rigidity. Charlie Cox turns the Prince into a 19th century Hamlet. It's a superb performance. Cox doesn't have a lot of stage credit, but shows that he's born to play these big romantic parts. Jamie Lloyd has drected a clean, well-paced production. I have had mixed feeling about some of his productions recently. He doesn't seem to do much work with actors, leaving them to their own devices which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. His Mad Maxish SALOME was overwrought with Con O'Neill so chewing up the scenery that the play should have been retitled Herod, particularly since the actress playing Salome did nothing with her part. Soprano Angela Denoke playing the title character in Strauss's operatic version of Wilde's play at the Royal Opera acted rings around her. Lloyd seems to have really worked with the actors in the Kleist production. Meanwhile at the National, Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar directed a cut version of Buchner's DANTON'S DEATH. I have always found this play tediously talky for the stage -- a play meant to be read, not seen. Grandage's production tried to give the play some physical energy -- lots of extras walking around the upper level and heads being chopped off at the end, but it isn't a very physical play. Toby Stephens as Danton did Toby Stephens, snarling many of his lines and offering picturesque poses. Elliot Levy as Robespierre was more intersting, but he's a more intersting character than the loquacious Danton.

Also on the Olivier stage -- WELCOME TO THEBES by Moira Buffini. This is an odd piece. On one hand, it's sort of about contemporary Liberia, a country ruled by women after years of brutal bloodshed under a male regime. But Buffini chooses to present Liberia as classical Thebes with Theseus (Obama?), Eurydice (the president of Liberia), Antigone, etc. I don't know what audiences who don't know their classical mythology make of all of it, but it is a lively, well written play. Richard Eyre has provided an excellent production that captures the audience (almost literally) from the first moments.

Back at the Royal Court, a play by a seventeen-year-old, Anya Reiss, entitled SPUR OF THE MOMENT. This is a raw, funny domestic drama. What happens in a middle-class household when a teenage girl falls madly in love with a twenty-something boarder (the father has lost his job and enough of his money that the family needs a lodger to make ends meet). It is not surprising that Reiss can write a teenage girl who is all raging hormones, overwhelming new emotions and the ruthlessness of youth. It is amazing that the feuding, unhappy parents, trying to make something of a broken marriage, are equally convincing. And the object of the girl's lust is convincingly feckless. The play has been given a fine staging in the small upstairs theatre. It was almost embarrassing to watch. Nichola Hytner was sitting in front of us -- is he looking at Anya Reiss for a play at the National?