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.