Monday, 24 May 2010


In a hotel conference room in Africa, leaders of the Church of England are in a heated discussion about the issue that is splitting the curch apart -- homosexuality. The Amrican bishop (female) weighs in in favor of inclusion. The African bishop is hard line. The archbishop won't take a stand and believes that issued can be resolved through discussion He's wrong on this one. During this conference that leads nowhere, Michael, a lay volunteer, is having an affair with Joseph, a young native bellhop. Michael is guilty enough about his homosexual activities and saw his fling as something he could leave at the hotel. Joseph, who is a bit of a loose cannon, has other ideas. He wants Michael to take him back to England. Michael is alternatiely baffled, frightened and angry at Joseph's sudden mood changes and threats.
Back in England, Michael has become more and more religious as a way to order the chaos of his sexual desire. His wife, who is frustrated and bitter what Michael's failure to meet her emotional and sexual needs wants a child enough to stick with an unsatisfactory marriage. At work, Michael's employees are tired of his increasing religiosity and mood swings. And, as expected, Joseph turns up at Michael's doorstep, bearing the scars of the flogging he received for his homosexuality and wanting Michael to help him get asylum in England. Michael waffles, as he always does, but sneaks Joseph into the church basement for a temporary home. There is no way to satisfy Joseph's changing demands. When the archbishop asks him what he wants, Joseph responds: "I want to be safe. I want a home. A healthy, normal family. Then I want to be a bishop. Like you." Joseph is a bit crazy, as much victimizer as victim. He tells Michael, "There are alwys consequences." He's living proof of that.
Michael is a fascinating character. Like the church, he is split apart over his homosexuality and tries to please irreconcilable factions. He wants to do right by everybody, but can't. Jonathan Cullen gives the performance of his long, distinguished career in this plum of a role. He is ably supported by young Fiston Barek, who is truly scary as Joseph, Charlotte Randle as Michael's frustrated wife and a large supporting cast, many of whom take on multiple roles. director Matthew Dunster has brought the best out of his cast, though I think the production didn't need to be so scenery heavy. The critics were mixed on this one, but I give it four stars.
LOVE THE SINNER by Drerw Paultz. Directed by Matthew Dunster. Royal National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. May 22, 2010.


I had enjoyed Mark Haddon's novels, particularly A SPOT OF BOTHER, so was looking forward to his play despite the mixed to negative reviews it has received. I'm afraid the London critics are right -- despite valiant effforts from a fine cast, the play doesn't work.
How does one live with a bipolar person? The Broadway musical NEXT TO NORMAL deals with this issue powerfully. Here you just want to throw a bucket of water on Kay, who simply seems self indulgent. At one point, her brother, who also has issues, to put it mildly, tells her husband that Kay is simply seeking attention. Well, my attention started to wander. Her husband seems to love playing the put upon victim so also quickly loses the audience's sympathy despite Richard Coyle's intense performance. The play jumps around in time and levels of reality. Some scenes are fantasy, but they are the most tedious. Kay has a discussion with Jesus. Her husband, John, has an interminable dream. When Haddon can't find a dramatically viable way to show us John's breakdown, he has John delivers a long lecture (he's a philosophy profesor) tha turns into a mad scene. We know from the first scene that John kills Kay (or did he?) and has gone bonkers. By the end I wanted to kill her.
POLAR BEARS isn't just the story of the effect of a bipolar person -- it's also a cry of despair. We're supposed to see that there is no hope, no reason for faith, and that love is usually victimization. In his diatribe, John says that love is only love if one has to face disease or suffering. Psychological masochism. Such despair has been the stock in trade of modern dramatists from Strindberg to O'Neill to Albee, so there's nothing new here.
A strong group of actors bravely tried to make something of the play. As usual, I think Jamie Lloyd could have done more to clarify the play's changes of tone. On the basis of the four productions of his that I have seen, I have reservations about him as a director.
A long 90 minutes.
POLAR BEARS by Mark Haddon, directed by Jamie Lloyd. With Jodhi May, Richard Coyle, Paul Hilton and Celia Imrie. Donmar Warehouse. March 21, 2010


I had seen the New York production of Lynn Nottage's RUINED (imported from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago) and found the production limp and the lead character miscast, or at least not up to her role. This had been a disappointment because I loved the script and, as a member of the Pulitzer Prize drama jury, enthusiastically supported it for that prize. Was I mistaken about the script or was the production really weak? The current production of RUINED at the Almeida Theatre proved that with the right director and cast, RUINED is an intense, powerful experience.
In the midst of Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mama Nadi, an African Mother Courage, tries to avoid taking sides and maintain her business, a bar-brothel. The women who work for her all bear the scars of the war and are forced into prostitution. One has been "ruined" -- gang raped by soldier and outcast by her husband. Of course, Mama's attempt to keep both sides as happy customers is unsuccessful. Mama has a friend-admirer, the merchant Christian, and her employees are couragous women trying to make the best of their situation in a world of brutal men.
RUINED is the fruit of Nottage's research among women in the Congo, but the play is more tha a documentary. Her characters are vibrant and her theatrical language compleeing. This is the work of a master dramatist, one of the best America has produced in the best quarter century.
The production at the Almeida is perfect.Jenny Jules shows Mama Nadi's strength, but also her vulnerabiliy. Her grief in the final scene is almost too much to witness. The supporting cast is consistently strong, thanks to fine casting and the superb direction of Indhu Rabasingham. I particularly liked the revolving set that allowed for smooth scene transitions. One doesn't expect that kind of technology on the small Almeida stage. Mama's establishment looked like a good wind -- or a bad war -- could blow it away.
As close to a perfect production as I have seen in a long time. And the play deserved it.
RUINED by Lynn Nottage. Almeida Theatre. March 20, 2010.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


The BBC arts review, a fixture of Friday television, is a show we keep swearing we'll never watch again, but one we, for some perverse reason, keep coming back to. Four "experts" with very little to say, hold forth on the arts events of the week. They seldom listen to each other, so nothing in the way of dialogue takes place. Some characters are more irritating than others. In fact, we have a kind of hit parade of guests we would never invite to dinner -- Germaine Greer, wno has become self parody; the head of the ICA who constantly interrupts other people's contributions to repeat himself. Last Friday, the assembled "experts" held forth on why the nineteen-eighties has become chic again. One person opined that one can't discuss the eighties without mentioning the devastating effect AIDS had and how AIDS was a defining aspect of the era.
Hard on the heels of that discussion, we went to see Tommy Murphy's adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's memoir, HOLDING THE MAN. The acclaimed memoir, written in 1994, is a chronicle of a relationship and a period (1976, when Tim Cosigrave and John Caleo became teenage lovers, and 1992, when John died of AIDS, two years before Tim's death). The play, which had its Australian premiere, in 2006, is a picture of an earlier era and, in a time when gay marriage is more an issue than AIDS in the first world and the gay community, a love story with a sad ending. The original production has, after years of playing down under, has finally come to London with its original leads.
The Tim and John we see in the play are an odd couple. Tim is one of those people with no self censorship. He is "out" when others are more circumspect. Though deeply in love with John, he canot resist indulging in the sexual freedom of a period that devalued committed monogamous gay relationships. He tells his parents he has AIDS on the eve of his sister's wedding. While Tim is self indulgent, John is loyal, faithful, and a man of few words. Their relationship is on again, off again because Tim needs his freedom. Shortly after they get back together, they receive the death sentence that a positive HIV test was in 1985. Tim has become an AIDS activist, creating theater pieces and doing social work while John has a chiropractic practice in Sydney he eventually is too ill to maintain.
The play Tommy Murphy has crafted from Conigrave's memoir is perforce episodic, chronicling an era and a relationship. In addition to Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes, who have played Tim and John since the production opened in Australia four years ago, four actors (two men, two women) play a variety of roles, male and female. Some scenes are extremely funny, particularly an adolescent slumber party of Tim and his friends that turns into a noisy jerkoff session, a college gay liberation group meeting and a seventies gay bar. The tone changes when AIDS enters the scene early in the second act. Giant puppets depict the ravages of the disease. One of the most touching scenes in the play takes place at an expensive Sydney hotel. John and Tim have decided to give themselves a small celebration, complete with room service and champagne. John is already very ill, but the couple want to celebrate their relationship while they can. Tim confesses that he still is unfaithful to John: "That's my biggest regret. All the times I hurt you." John's characteristic response is "Don't want to talk about that."
The play is based on Tim's memoir and that causes something of a problem, because John's life is actually the more dramatic. We only have glimpses of his conflict with his staunch Catholic family and his reaction to Tim's betrayals. John was the golden boy athlete who actually had to pay a higher price for his relationship with Tim. Since he is a man of few words, we have to read between the lines until an ugly deathbed scene when John's father demands changes in his son's will.
Yes, this is a play about a marriage of sorts that began when Tim and John were sixteen year old boys and lasted until death. It is funny and deeply moving. David Berthold's production is perfect and the acting ensemble is excellent. Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes are getting a bit long in the tooth to play these young men and one didn't feel the heat of teenage sexual attraction that brought these guys together, but these are minor quibbles. I laughed. I cried.

HOLDING THE MAN, adapted by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave. Directed by David Berthold. With Guy Edmonds, Matt Zeremes and Jane Turner, Simon Burke,Anna Skellern and Oliver Farnworth. Sets, Brian Thomson; Costumes and puppets, Micka Agosta; Lighting, James Whiteside. Trafalgar Studios 1. May 17 2010.