Making Dramas Out of a Crisis

Just as fact is often stranger than fiction, so reality is sometimes more theatrical than theatre. Both Lucy Prebble's acclaimed new play Enron and David Hare's The Power of Yes deal with recent financial disasters and both suffer from the problem that what has been happening in reality is so spectacular and so complex that it defies the confines of drama. The greed, the vanity, the recklessness, the bizarre financial vehicles, the creativity, the pathological dishonesty, the unforgivable ignorance, self-deception and political irresponsibility all demonstrated by real people who are still alive (apart from a few suicides and heart attacks) have no need of the embellishment of the imagination. The financial and political forces driving all this are too difficult to explain within the conventions of a play. A better medium for such messages may be the documentary film. Several excellent documentaries have been produced about various aspects of this crisis. These have been enlightening and mesmerising, challenging one's memories and ideas in a way that the best theatre does. For example, BBC2's documentary about the fall of Lehman Brothers, The Love of Money, easily outshone The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, a BBC drama released at the same time about the same events. Reality — the real dishonesty, anger or shock on real people's faces, coupled with a well-scripted factual explanation — was much more gripping than drama. Similarly, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an independent documentary from 2005 about the spectacular rise and fall of the energy company, is both more startling and satisfying than Lucy Prebble's version. That is not to say her Enron (at the Royal Court until 7 November) is not enjoyable. It's easy to see why it has already had a huge success in Chichester, and will soon (most unusually for a Royal Court play) be transferring to the West End. The production is slick and fun and funny, rather in the way that Caryl Churchill's 1987 Serious Money was a delight — singing and dancing with energy and visual imagination. As Enron develops, three blind mice appear inconsequentially at times. They are the members of the board, blind to the massive fraud being concocted. Meanwhile, the hubristic chief executive and his crazy finance director are feeding masses of toxic debt to menacing red-eyed raptors in the corporation's basement, while upstairs the dealers dance frantically in the hysteria and exhilaration of the bubble in which they exist. The Lehmans are two corrupt twins in a single suit, the chief accountant is a ventriloquist and the lawyers are blind. In the midst of this constant agitation and exuberance, the chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, superbly played by Sam West, blossoms like a poisonous plant from nerd into charismatic master of the universe. This is very theatrical, but as an attempt to explain how the climate of the times made the Enron crash possible, and how the scam succeeded for so long, it didn't do nearly enough. To turn the chairman, Ken Lay, into a bumbling Texan bore without much involvement when in fact he was wholly complicit, is to diminish both the story and its explanation. Perhaps that is because the writer felt any more complexity would have damaged its theatricality. David Hare approaches this problem in precisely the opposite way. He doesn't even attempt to give his subject theatrical life. The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis (Lyttelton until 10 January) is less a play than an animated lecture. It is spoken journalism with visual aids, in a set which most of the time is barely more than a lecture hall. As Hare's character says at the beginning, "This isn't a play...It doesn't pretend to be a play." What we get is a playwright painstakingly trying, from a position of almost total ignorance, to learn how the crisis came about. From such a low starting point, he questions economics teachers, intellectuals, bankers, traders, hedge funders, civil servants, journalists — many of them actually named, such as "George Soros", "Howard Davies", "Ronald Cohen", "Adair Turner", "David Freud" and other real people, who presumably okayed the words Hare puts into their mouths — and he arrives at the best, fairest, simplest and clearest explanation of the whole thing that I have come across (apart from Bird and Fortune's immortal comic explanation of subprime loans, to be found on YouTube). There will certainly be those who don't agree with every aspect of Hare's "story". And I am not sure that a theatregoer with very little previous knowledge of this subject would be able to follow him right through. But it is certainly worth the effort. As one might expect, nobody comes out of this well, not even the relatively good guys. One who comes out particularly badly is Gordon Brown. Hare's characters skewer him without mercy and "Hare" appears to accept their evidence. "Brown was completely uninterested in regulation," says "Howard Davies" (an actor playing the real-life first chairman of the "light-touch" Financial Services Authority, which Brown set up). "He never made any criticism of anything we did." Another character says, "Brown was happy with the City so long as it generated huge amounts of cash" — an incredible 27 per cent of his total tax take, according to another. "It was his cash cow. Of course he wasn't going to regulate it." "Howard Davies" and "David Freud" strongly blame Brown for "stoking up the boom, just when he should have been doing the opposite", for a general election that never happened. "You say Brown is clever," says "Freud". "I don't think he's clever." All this is extremely interesting for those interested in such things (and the house was packed). But it isn't theatre. And if not, should it be in a theatre? To ask that is perhaps unfair to the production and to the actors, who managed to prevent a very dense text from being boring. But shouldn't such a creation be presented in the Royal Geographical Society debating chamber or one of this country's great civic halls? Or is it, on the other hand, a new departure in theatre proper, which theatrical conventions can perfectly well accommodate? The theatre of explication, perhaps? Journodrama? What David Hare has written is something very hard to find anywhere else — a demanding, well-considered analysis intended to enlighten and arouse a passionate response, and meant to be shared in public. If that is not theatre, it is close.

Sunday, November 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

The Stuff of Dreams

After 400 years, the ways of producing Shakespeare remain astonishing in their infinite variety. Age cannot wither him, nor fashion nor Thespian controversy nor budget cuts — nor, I hope, the threatened loss of his plays as A level set texts. Though the point hardly needs proving, it is strikingly demonstrated by two of his comedies playing in London at the moment, at the opposite extremes of Shakespearean production. As You Like It is presented in the sparsest conventions of 16th-century theatre at the Globe and All's Well That Ends Well at the Olivier is interpreted as a hugely imaginative, anachronistic, high-tech, kitsch-Gothic fairytale. Both productions are triumphantly successful despite some unevenness; together they prove that in the hands of gifted directors (Thea Sharrock and Marianne Elliott respectively) Shakespeare can be almost anything and still entirely him. All's Well is a notoriously difficult play, and certainly unsatisfactory as a comedy because it is almost impossible for a contemporary audience to accept that it does end well. Perhaps that's why it isn't very often performed. This production is the first ever at the National Theatre. The plot is one of Shakespeare's least familiar. For those who need reminding, Helena, the resourceful orphaned daughter of a mere apothecary, has the presumption to fall in love with the noble young Bertram and to win his hand, despite the immense difference between them in rank, as a reward for curing their king of a fistula through her dead father's great chymical arts. Bertram rejects her immediately after the wedding ceremony, as well he might, because in this production she is determinedly plain and rather too plainly determined. However, the heroine then tricks him into bed, fatherhood and public acknowledgment, by taking the place between the sheets of a Florentine virgin he feels like ravishing. This, though effective, does not bode well for the future, at least not in contemporary terms of companionate marriage and perhaps not even in Elizabethan terms of arranged marriages, which Shakespeare is constantly subverting anyway. But this is not the stuff of naturalism: it is such stuff as dreams are made on, and nightmares too. It is the place of hopeless wishes and strange transformations, dark thickets of confusion, cunning and betrayal, of ambiguity and the unmasking of lies. It makes perfect sense to present All's Well as the harsher kind of fairy story. Here the director, and the designer Rae Smith, take this to delightful, child-like extremes. The eye is constantly intrigued by images from half-forgotten story-books, a red riding hood cloak, dramatic silhouettes of some of the characters in weird and Gothicky costumes, a curving path at the back of the stage down into darkness or up into adventures, into skies which drop gold dust or petals, or suddenly produce silly cut-out owls. The story is full of references to other stories, particularly to the Brothers Grimm. My companion described all this as "very Tim Burton", but that's fair enough, as Burton's bizarre films are multi-derivative, drawing heavily and in some of the same ways on these folk and fairy memories. Michelle Terry is excellent as Helena, making sense of an almost impossible part and giving real feeling to this strange heroine; making her gawky and unattractive physically, yet emotionally admirable and appealing, is something she seems to achieve with ease and with excellent diction. Clare Higgins is outstanding as the Countess of Rossillion, one of the rare mothers-in-law in literature, and possibly in life, who is loving, wise and good, without being boring. In an equally strong performance as the king, Oliver Ford Davies does everything to hold together an otherwise rather inconsistent cast. The mood music, however, was often an irritant, apart from a triumphant moment at the cleverly bleak ending. Imposing mood music on Shakespeare productions (other than his own songs) seems to be a new convention. It is not just unnecessary, it is offensively manipulative and a particularly contemporary annoyance. In the Globe's As You Like It, too, the distracting noise of musical promptings strikes up from time to time — here comes the seriously romantic bit — as though, given the current mass addiction to surround-sound, the many stimuli of theatre were not enough for a contemporary audience. Otherwise, As You Like It was a dream, in both senses — a dream of youth and desire set free for a time in a magic wood, and a dream of a production, full of youthful energy, agility and beauty, with very lovely singing of Shakespeare's heart-stopping songs, an excellent Jacques and a particularly good Touchstone. Dick Bird's and Caroline Hughes's costumes were rigorously in period, and very beautiful; so was the body language. In the beginning, when at court, Rosalind and Celia stand very chastely and rigidly, according to the convention of the times, with their hands folded modestly across their stomachers. This gives much greater meaning to the freedom they find in the forest of Arden, not only emotionally but also physically. It also perhaps gives more understanding to a 21st-century audience of some of the constraints of 16th-century society, without taking away from the universality of the play. What's more, it all proves that the starkest of sets and the minimum of props can fire the imagination, even with an almost archaic text. Equally, sexing Shakespeare up, though often successful, can sometimes be rather pointless and crude, as in the comic parts of the Old Vic's current Winter's Tale, in which rudely-shaped balloons are used, embarrassingly, to suggest bucolic bawdry. The Globe and National productions, however, make the most of their chosen constraints and freedoms. The usual reconciliation scene at the end of Shakespeare's comedies ends in this All's Well in a magnificent lack of an ending, with a sudden freeze frame of the young couple caught in fear and uncertainty. By contrast, the jig at the end of As You Like It, just before Rosalind's epilogue — with all the cast stomping enthusiastically in the golden evening light — was a moment of joy.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

The Stars Come Out

Superstardom is not necessarily good for the theatre. If an actor is a superstar worldwide, or even nationwide, surely he or she is bound to have difficulty fitting properly into a serious theatrical production. Could Charlie Chaplin, for instance, ever have played anything on stage other than himself? Or could a man indelibly imprinted on the world's imagination as James Bond ever succeed in convincing a theatre audience in any other role, no matter how great his talents? Could Marilyn Monroe, a very underestimated actress, have played Phèdre, or anything other than a blonde bombshell? This question has nothing to do with the actor's ability: stage and screen superstars have usually been outstanding actors. Think of the master-class in comic timing given by Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. The question has everything to do with the theatre audience's perception, with the great problem of the suspension of disbelief that every actor must solve. While it was always difficult for superstars, such as Olivier or Gielgud, these days the mass media have made superstars even more incandescent. For instance, can Jude Law play Hamlet? True, he is an accomplished classical stage actor. Yet he is also a sublime piece of Hollywood beefcake, known to millions for being mesmerising even in his bad films. He is much more disablingly starry than Ralph Fiennes, who has also played Hamlet on stage. Helen Mirren is another great classical actor who is a star on TV, the stage and films. She is now firmly identified in many millions of minds with the Queen. Can such players really play anything other than themselves or their most famous roles? We seem to be in the middle of an excess of such superstar casting. Law is playing Hamlet in a Donmar West End production at the Wyndham's (until 22 August). Mirren is playing Phèdre at the Lyttelton (until 27 August). And in a very starry cast of Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket (until 9 August), Ian "Gandalf" McKellen and Patrick "Captain Jean-Luc Picard" Stewart are Estragon and Vladimir. They are joined by Simon Callow (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky). The Old Vic's current Bridge Project, which is taking Sam Mendes's Anglo-American company around the world, has a cast of well- established or rising stars, including Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke. The current production of Godot both gains and loses from super-celebrity. All the performances are about as accomplished and intelligent as humanly possible. There is something very endearing about these ageing actors exploiting their verbal and physical talents with self-conscious virtuosity, as if they know that we know that they know that they are sometimes showing off and also playing themselves and hamming it up a bit together, as part of the business of growing old-one of the great themes of this play, after all. McKellen and Stewart sometimes slip, like aged troupers, into fragments of old music-hall routines and Callow undercuts his brutal Pozzo with his best hammy bombast. All this, while convincing within the play, is also partly about themselves. It is all tricksily self-referential — but perhaps that is itself rather Beckettesque. It's an interpretation of the play that creates more comedy than usual, and a strange sweetness in places, but loses something of the malignant sadness that is central to the text. Perhaps that is why, surprisingly, it is not quite as moving as it might have been, though nor is it a production to be missed. Jude Law manages to lose his celebrity in an outstandingly good performance that made me cry. He also manages to discover Hamlet's famous lines for himself, so rediscovering them for us. His Prince is neither mad nor neurotic, but a promising, witty and open-hearted man, driven to distraction by betrayal and grief. Law has a sense of timing in Shakespearean verse as good as any I've heard, and some critics' comments that his voice is too light are simply unfair. He moves with the suppleness and strength of a dancer and the same is true of the way he speaks. There is perhaps something almost too clear in his delivery. He gives such careful meaning and movement to every phrase that at first the performance feels a little didactic, a little like a master-class in speaking it trippingly. Years ago, I watched an unforgettable TV master-class by McKellen, in which he examined a Macbeth soliloquy. While no one can better McKellen, Law comes from the same school of inspired and passionate understanding of every Shakespearean syllable. Helen Mirren's problem with Ted Hughes's version of Racine's Phèdre is that his lines are rather uneven. Sometimes very powerful in their vernacular, they are occasionally bathetic, almost comic, and generally too far from the epic spirit of Racine. Mirren's furious sexual obsession and horrified shame are completely convincing, if always very Mirren. But the play's greater themes belong to a different, lost kind of language and a different, lost mindset. It's notoriously difficult to put Racine into contemporary English, and Hughes has not succeeded. This production makes Hamlet seem entirely contemporary by contrast, though Shakespeare was writing so much earlier than Hughes (1998) and even than Racine (1677). The brave Bridge Project cast have the same problem with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Here Shakespeare has written an unsatisfactory play, with many unsatisfactory lines and there's little that any cast, however starry or anonymously good, can make of it. The play's the thing.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

Out of Tune With the Crowd

"How often do you see something genuinely revolutionary on the West End stage? Or genuinely half-revolutionary? Not so often you can afford to look away when a phenomenon like Spring Awakening hits town." How true, I thought, in response to this astonishing accolade in Time Out about Spring Awakening, which opened at the Novello in mid-April. So I went to one of the opening performances in London. After all, I thought, Time Out was hardly likely to risk its sophisticated, edgy reputation on something that wasn't, as it claimed, "very special indeed". Another unusually hot ticket that same week, also a musical, was the press night of Trevor Nunn's interpretation at the Garrick Theatre of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. It, too, was rapturously received, but not by me, and I was left wondering, in the thundering applause, whether there was something wrong with musicals or with me. Spring Awakening is a drama of youthful sexual longing and rage struggling against adult repression. The musical is closely based on the 1906 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, set in a society which, unlike ours, was extremely repressive in every way. This production has a period setting, complete with Edwardian knickerbockers. It races through old-fashioned teenage sex, abortion, paternal abuse, suicide and reform school, as well as masturbation on stage performed by the most beautiful boy in the adorably young and enthusiastic cast. The general message is parents bad, kids good. Kids will bring about a better tomorrow, especially if they're allowed to express themselves sexually. And if that's revolutionary, I don't know what the word means. As far as I am concerned, the music is barely tolerable - a mixture of soppy ballads and low-grade pop, belted out with more volume than talent. A Little Night Music is also, in Nunn's production, a period drama with lush costumes and sets. It's based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, which itself was based on an 18th-century Marivaux play. It is a chocolate-boxy assortment, including a country house, a nest of gentlefolk, champagne, adulteries, heartbreak and summer night reconciliations, aiming without much success to be as magical as Mozart's Marriage of Figaro or Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Musically, it leaves me almost entirely cold but there is something extremely touching about the central drama between two elderly people, both still very attractive, who rediscover each other despite many summer evening obstacles. This is beautifully achieved by Alexander Hanson and Hannah Waddingham (who has only one song). Maureen Lipman is wonderful, apart from her singing voice (which she overcomes with great panache), as an autocratic grande dame with great aphoristic lines. The most striking thing about both productions is that the singing is so bad. That is astonishing, given that London is flooded with talent of every kind and there must be excellent sopranos on every street corner. Yet one of the lead characters in Night Music has a voice that, from the first metallic shriek, is positively nasty to hear and the best one can say of the rest is that one or two of them have voices that are quite pleasant. There was not a single particularly good singer in Spring Awakening. And the music itself in both seems to me very third-rate. Spring Awakening's music is mostly just noise. Sondheim's, although much easier on the ear, moves from derivative to schlocky to dull. I've always thought him incomprehensibly overrated as a musician. According to the programme notes, he does not care for Mozart; a composer who does not care for Mozart is a man, in my view, who cannot truly care for music. His real talent is for words - lyrics and dialogue are often sharp and elegantly witty - and it is striking that his long, centrally important scene in the second half is entirely spoken, rather than sung. The admirable lead character, the ageing beauty, has one solo song - Send in the Clowns - which was composed for someone who could barely sing. No doubt both productions will be smash hits. But I find it hard to define why or what exactly it is I object to. The words that come to mind - middlebrow, sentimental, vulgar - are insufficient. Plenty of things that are middlebrow or sentimental are excellent - one could describe most opera as both. And the word vulgar has become almost meaningless, serving only to make the person who uses it look like a snob and a fool. Perhaps the right word is crude - unsubtle, inept, too obviously manipulative, too conventional, too anxious to please and too aggressively over-determined, both emotionally and musically. But, as my scripture teacher used to ask us unbelievers, can so many millions be wrong about it?

Friday, May 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

In Rude Health

England People Very Nice, Burnt by the Sun and King Lear all deal with power, powerlessness and the abuse of power. All three are in the broadest sense political plays, although quite without the crude didactics of Shaw or Hare. Although very unequal in achievement, together they show how healthy and serious British theatre is today - ambitious, varied and voraciously imaginative. England People Very Nice is a fast, energetic romp through the history of immigration in this country. It is set in an asylum seekers' detention centre, where a cast of multi-racial inmates is staging a play they have devised together. Although this sounds off-puttingly earnest, the detention centre works surprisingly well as a setting for poignant comedy. Despite the angry reception given to this production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, I thought it sounded promising, partly because it was written by Richard Bean, the author (among much else) of The English Game, a particularly independent and spirited drama about cricket and multiculturalism, and mainly because so many prominent people have said how disgusted they are by England People Very Nice's offensive racial stereotypes. It is curious that the bien pensants insist that theatre should be transgressive, yet when it is, they don't like it. And where the bien pensants are shocked, there might well be good theatre. Several negative stereotypes do appear, it's true, such as the pig-ignorant bog-Irish family in which a girl is giving birth to her brother's child while he imagines that the Pope is the name of a racehorse. However, there are plenty of sentimentally positive stereotypes, too. Besides, what is wrong with stereotypes? When we approve of stereotypes we call them archetypes and drama is full of them, as in King Lear. What's actually wrong with this play is something different. It is not clear what Bean is trying to achieve and despite a wonderfully rich production and some beautiful singing, the play doesn't either challenge or move. Burnt by the Sun, by contrast, is very moving and visually beautiful, despite its underlying brutality. Adapted from a successful Russian film of 1994, it is set in the Soviet Union in 1936, during the Stalinist terror. That is hardly apparent at first: the play opens upon a nest of gentlefolk in a timeless Chekhovian wooden dacha surrounded by predictable birch trees and birdsong and artfully flooded by the light of nostalgia. Lighting directors must have filters actually labelled "nostalgia". However, it gradually emerges that nothing is what it seems. The dacha has been confiscated by the state and the twittering gentlefolk, in mourning for what's gone with the wind of revolution, stay there only at the whim of the powerful working-class Soviet general who has married their beautiful Maroussia. A long-lost lover of hers, a man of her own class, mysteriously reappears and surprising betrayals and revelations hurry upon each other to a terrible ending. There's something old-fashioned and conventionally stagey about this production, almost as if it were a Chekhov play that, however touching, might seem rather remote from us. But it isn't. The Russian government seems now to be trying to rehabilitate Stalin and to suppress evidence against him, as the historian Orlando Figes has just discovered, so this subtle and complex play, despite its period flavour, has all the more resonance. Howard Davies's production is strikingly coherent and disciplined in every aspect - in its acting, its dazzling set and its movement: there's a brilliant dance competition between the lover and the general. Rupert Goold's Young Vic production of King Lear, by contrast, is at times patchy and undisciplined. It must be a mistake, when Lear is suffering the extremes of abandonment in the storm on the blasted heath, to have the rest of the cast miming and moving all around him without any obvious reason, cluttering the imagination and the stage and diminishing this central scene. Directors should approach the current fashion for mime with caution. When it's good, it's very, very good but when it's bad, it's embarrassing. There are a few other ideas that don't quite work, such as giving Edgar and Edmund plastic toy swords in their final scene, as if they were angry little brothers. However, there are many inspired and bold ideas, which work very well. Giving the highest-born courtiers paper party crowns and Lear's daughters a microphone, in the scene where they compete to describe their love for him as if they were in a reality TV contest, might sound gimmicky, but it makes sense on many levels. Presenting the maddened king in an afternoon frock with parasol and directing the play for saucy and heartbreaking laughs, as well as extreme violence, is inspired. All in all, this is a Lear production not to miss. That is largely because Pete Postlethwaite's performance as Lear is something anyone who loves Shakespeare absolutely must try to see. It is a great, state-of-the-art classic performance and profoundly moving. Postlethwaite's control over Lear's fitful changes of mood is astonishing: now wheedling, whining and showing off, now bawdy, now wilfully absurd, now lost in the ravages of senility or reduced to flashes of noble honesty, his is second to none as a portrayal of Lear's emotional incontinence. There are several other excellent performances and an outstanding one by Forbes Masson as a Scottish Fool. His beautiful singing completes an interpretation that is at times overwhelming. I believe King Lear is the greatest play in the English language and it continues to inspire very great productions.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

Magical Mystery Tour de Force

With all the highly developed talents and traditions that come together in British theatre, it is still very rare to find a production which is truly, bewitchingly theatrical. This is almost always because the play - the text - is not good enough to serve the uses of enchantment, even when its production is. However, Complicite's Shun-kin, as so often with Simon McBurney's productions, has achieved a bewitchingly theatrical, magical, unforgettable piece of true theatre-everything came together in near-perfection. Shun-kin is entirely in Japanese, with Japanese actors and English surtitles. It lasts an interval-less 110 minutes and features a couple of puppets and a lot of plangent Japanese shamisen music. It appeared at the Barbican, which, however good inside, is a difficult and unwelcoming place to which to travel, so there was plenty to prejudice a jaded theatregoer. Yet it was one of the best things I have seen. It ran only for the first three weeks of February, but with luck it will be revived in the near future, and should not be missed by anyone interested in theatre. It seems a pity to try to describe the play very closely. Its strangeness and shadowy uncertainty are an important part of it. However, unless it does have a rerun soon, that experience may not be available for some time, and the production did offer some interesting insights into what makes really theatrical theatre. Shun-kin is based on two works published in 1933 by the Japanese writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, A Portrait of Shunkin and In Praise of Shadows. In McBurney's play, the story of an exceptionally beautiful and musical young girl, Shun-kin, from an affluent 19th-century Osakan merchant family, is gradually developed: as a child, she becomes blind and depends on a poor apprentice boy, Sasuke, as her guide and slave-like servant. He later becomes her shamisen pupil as well. Despite her frailty, he grows increasingly dependent on her and they spend the rest of their lives together in a strange and tormented symbiosis. Shun-kin is his everything - a viciously demanding mistress, harsh music master, sadistic lover and countless other things. He is her everything as well. When she is mysteriously disfigured, he blinds himself, so that he will never see the ruin of her beauty and she will be certain of that. Finally, they lie buried close together in a neglected cemetery visited by a narrator, with an ugly modern industrial city as a backdrop. But to say that is to reveal little about the play. It has to do with beauty, cruelty, ritual, hierarchy, dependency, obsession and spirituality, with the extremes of sexuality, sadism, narcissism and luxury - even to the use of nightingale droppings as exfoliants for Shun-kin's alabaster skin. Shocking though some of these themes are, they are handled with the intense delicacy and heroic restraint that Westerners love in Japanese art. The play deals with the tensions between Japan past and Japan present, between Japan and the West, between the illumination of the light bulb and the shadows full of obscured meanings of the era of candlelight. It touches on the ambiguities of storytelling and the loneliness of the recording studio. It even deals with moments of high spiritual tranquillity in the traditional Japanese lavatory, though that might be lost on anyone who had not read the programme notes. Ultimately, the production is very beautiful. Complicite has always devised extremely physical theatre and here, drawing heavily on the traditions of Japan, the physical rituals of Japanese life are mesmerising, as is the constant music and occasional singing. With the dark sets, troubling puppets and formal movements, this is the world of an alien but familiar fairy story. Why are there several narrators? Why are there different versions of the story? Why does Shun-kin herself begin as a masked puppet and then much later become a naked living woman? There are explanations, but they are elusive-allusive. The point is that Shun-kin is not schematic. It has no tricksy literary or theatrical devices that can be interpreted literally. The story is unfolded with so many different layers of suggestion and emotion that it is impossible to enumerate them. Many are expressed only physically or musically. That is Shun-kin's great theatrical strength, and the strength of all great theatre. Although the play is very articulate verbally (despite the austere surtitles), although one can easily spell out in words some of one's responses and thoughts, and although one can mention in common nouns some of the play's preoccupations, there is a very great deal more that cannot be, and is not meant to be, articulated. The production is full of strange resonances reverberating at the edge of one's consciousness. It seduces the viewer into abandoning the everyday mind's nagging for clarity and certainty. That may be partly to do with unfamiliarity with Japanese culture. Perhaps novelty explains part of the play's enchantment. But audiences in Tokyo were enthralled, too, last year. Shun-kin was created in close collaboration with Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre, which, by Japanese standards, is unusually avant-garde and outward looking. This is perhaps why it was able to collaborate with Complicite, whose theatrical tradition is not popular in Japan. Setagaya is a non-profit organisation funded by the local council. So Setagaya is state-subsidised theatre, as is Complicite, which is substantially funded by the Arts Council. This presents a challenge to all those who, like me, have tended to think that the arts should not be funded by the taxpayer.

Sunday, March 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

To See or Not to See

How many Hamlets is enough? To go again, or not to go: that is the question. I decided recently not to see David Tennant's Hamlet, highly praised though it was, because I have seen so many other productions and know the play better than any other. My first Hamlet was David Warner's famous 1965 Stratford performance. The last, if it was to be the last, was a remarkable and touching performance by Ben Whishaw, in Trevor Nunn's outstanding 2004 production at the Old Vic. Whishaw played Hamlet as a vulnerable, geeky teen, and while that removed some of the resonance from Hamlet's greatest rhetoric, it was one of the most plausible interpretations I've seen. Even so, I began to feel that the charm of Thespis may not last forever, and is perhaps felt most acutely by the young. Is there still any reason, 40 years on, to see new productions of plays one knows and has often thought about in the past? With this in mind, I went rather uncertainly to see two plays I first saw in the '60s - Joe Orton's Loot, now at the Tricycle Theatre, and Twelfth Night at the Wyndham Theatre/Donmar West End. Quite apart from the effects of time on oneself, what about the effects of time on plays? I had always doubted that Twelfth Night had much resonance in the 20th century and now it is the 21st. I also suspected that even Orton might have lost some of his late '60s dazzle. However if one is going to see Twelfth Night at all, with all its faults, Michael Grandage's production is without a doubt worth the journey. It was the best I have seen so far, largely because of the unforgettable performance of Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. He was mesmerising. There can be thrilling moments in the theatre, when you realise that you are in the hands - in the emotional control - of a great artist, and Jacobi has that power. Malvolio is in many ways a very unsatisfactory role, and Jacobi chose to ham it up. But what a ham! Every slight turn of the wrist, every hint of a look, every triple and quadruple meaning was dramatic genius. And no one could dismiss Jacobi as being merely a bit of a ham. He is a great tragic actor and his Cyrano of long ago (RSC 1983) remains one of the best things I have seen. As all schoolchildren used to know, there is often, at least for contemporary audiences, something about Shakespeare's low life and comic scenes that is rather leaden - not so much light relief as heavy distraction from the more interesting bits. There is also the problem that the speed and complexity of the language is sometimes, if not hard to follow, at least hard to enjoy. The complex witticisms of 16th- and 17th-century humour are not really for us any more, young or old. But none the less, Grandage's production manages to infuse comic life into the play, not only with Jacobi but also with three other accomplished performances from Ron Cook as Sir Toby Belch, Guy Henry as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Zubin Varla as Feste the fool. It is very funny at times, and very physical, with dancing, acrobatics and body language that are not just actorly, but good. The humour is often visual. Malvolio's yellow hose and cross garters are very cleverly recreated in (vaguely) modern dress, and the difference in size between the short, sexy Sir Toby and the daffy beanpole Sir Andrew is well exploited. Zubin Varla's singing is bewitching. Even so, this excellent production cannot deal with the central problem of the play: its comedy and its cruelty can never come to a satisfactory ending together. What remains above all is its great language and its many famous lines, which are now truisms. A couplet that perhaps should be better known is Antonio's protest against the appearance of goodness and beauty, when it is not what it seems: "In nature there's no blemish but the mind;/None can be called deformed but the unkind." This is, of course, a judgment in advance against all those central characters who show or allow unkindness to Malvolio. Sadly, I came to the same conclusion with Loot. It is hard to imagine now how dazzlingly brilliant Orton's macabre comedies seemed in the late '60s. Loot, which I saw in an early production, was to me almost amazingly knowing, daring, subversive, clever and above all funny. Homosexuality was still, just, illegal when Orton wrote it and plays were still subject to the will of the Lord Chamberlain: he declared in 1967 that Loot could only be put on if certain phrases not wholly respectful to the Royal Family, Sacred Heart and the religion of Pakistani kids were cut and if the word buggery were replaced with beggary. So it was easier for a writer to be transgressive in those prim times, much easier to shock and delight an audience and to be funny in the process. For all its wit, Loot hasn't really survived the explosion of social, sexual and religious freedom which was ignited around the time of Orton's early death. Comedy depends on a sense of transgression, which is probably why contemporary comedy is so often not very funny. Far from being transgressive, it is usually trying to toe the conventional liberal line. All the same, Sean Holmes's capable production at the Tricycle did as much for Loot as can be done, I think. David Haig as the sinister policeman Truscott carries the show, and the rest of the cast are confident and convincing. There is a contemporary feel in the way the police behave. They are unashamedly indifferent to everyone's civil liberties and feelings, and Truscott jubilantly ignores Mr McCleavy's protests at being bullied by a man apparently from the water board. Whether today's police (and water board men) are better or worse than those of Orton's worldview, the abuse of state power in an anarchic, rather Kafka-esque world is something of Orton that has survived. Loot is certainly worth seeing for a first time, partly because the Tricycle in Kilburn is a great theatre to go to. The same applies to Orton's much better play, Entertaining Mr Sloane, which is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. The Tricycle tries in the best sense to be innovative and experimental, although in aspiring to "inclusion" and "community work" it runs the risk of being conventional. My conclusion was that both plays are very well worth seeing, for a first time, and Twelfth Night for Jacobi alone, but that neither play was quite good enough to survive either the 40- or the 400-year test. Few plays are. Even fewer still are really worth seeing repeatedly. Perhaps as with novels, a play has something to do with novelty, with psychological and emotional discovery. Perhaps - differently from music - one can have an excess of it, which does sicken the appetite. For a while, at least.

Sunday, February 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

Bathetic Effort

A playwright would have to have a remarkably high opinion of himself to choose the word Gethsemane as the title of one of his plays. Even in this almost post-Christian country, the word still suggests what is most profound, tragic and numinous: Gethsemane is the garden where Christ watched and prayed all night in an agony of doubt, before accepting his coming self-sacrifice, and where his disciple Judas betrayed him with a kiss. To lay claim to one of the greatest stories ever told, as David Hare does in his new play Gethsemane at the National Theatre, is to risk an ignominious pratfall. Hare can hardly be blamed for taking himself very seriously; most people do. He is a hugely prolific writer, seen by many as the brightest star in the British theatrical firmament, and adored by the left-liberal establishment. Notices of his Gethsemane actually appeared on the front page of the Guardian, in recognition of its great importance, and in the news sections of The Times and the Independent. Generally speaking, Hare is reputed to be as good as it gets on the English political stage. In my view, though, this play, and very often Hare himself, represent precisely what is wrong with British political theatre - it is unsophisticated, uninformative and, worst of all, untheatrical. It is a waste of the great wealth of resources that have been so triumphantly amassed, in its actors, directors, designers, choreographers, coaches and schools. However, it must be right for artists to be ambitious, even if they do overreach themselves, and Gethsemane does raise all sorts of ambitious questions. Its setting is very like the political court of Tony Blair, although Hare claims unconvincingly that the play is "pure fiction". There is a woman Home Secretary, whose career is threatened by a flaky husband who is facing trial for dodgy dealing abroad and by an enraged daughter who takes drugs. There is a smarmy Prime Minister who plays the drums (not the guitar) and sees himself as deeply religious while proving himself to be amoral, cynical and mercenary. Very close to the PM there is a fundraiser who brings Lord Levy to mind. And there is of course the press, snuffling out scandals like tasty truffles. Some gentlemen of the tabloid press (in real life) are given to saying "you couldn't make it up". In the case of the Blair imperium you didn't need to, and it seems that Hare hasn't. That period in our history - the real one, not Hare's "pure fiction" - does invite serious artistic treatment. It was a long-drawn-out farce, or tragedy, depending on one's original view of Blair and New Labour, in which the misplaced faith, hope and love of the idealistic Left in this country was systematically betrayed by New Labour - by its greed, corruption, vanity and intellectual vacuity. Naturally enough, the left-liberal establishment feels outraged, bereft and in desperate need of a new narrative, as such people say. However, Gethsemane is not more than the narrative we already know; it is less. Seeing only a couple of Shakespeare plays would remind you that politics has always been a very nasty business. What is disappointing in Gethsemane is that the fictional characters are very much less theatrical and astonishing than their true-life doppelgangers. In the play, their roles are stereotypical and two dimensional, apart, at times, from the Home Secretary's. Between them, they offer no explanation - moral, psychological or sociological - of why nearly every one behaves as badly as he or she does. Hare expects us to find explanation and meaning in his use of the idea of Gethsemane. The stereotypical good woman of the play - the disillusioned teacher-cum-saviour of the minister's abandoned daughter - refers twice to a sort of Gethsemane moment as central to why she has given up teaching for busking on the Underground. She describes it as her "moment of doubt". And in a moment of truth, in the staff-room lavatory, she realises she had to stop all the form-filling and target-chasing and give up. As the minister's daughter points out to her, that is not exactly what happened at Gethsemane. Jesus did not give up; he "went through with it". That's true, but she too has missed the point of the story. What Jesus "went through with" was complete self-sacrifice for others. The good schoolteacher seems hardly likely to do that, or to be required to; indeed she has already abandoned her pupils. And the steely Home Secretary, who also has a long night of doubt, was wondering only how to survive politically - whether to dump her embarrassing husband or to be loyal to him despite the Prime Minister's threats and so risk her career. All this seems to have very little to do with sacrificing oneself entirely for the good of others - even though trying to do good for others is a claim made by almost everyone in the play. Hare's general preoccupation with religion in this play seems to me rather incomprehensible. Gethsemane opens with a portentous monologue by the good schoolteacher. She kicks off by distinguishing between people who believe in a book in which all truth resides and "people without a book". People like her, ie good moderate people who have questions rather than certainties are, she says, the people without a book. In the same spirit, Act Two begins with another woman's monologue: "What worried me is the more sceptical the public becomes, the more devout its leaders. It's like we take the least representative people among us... and we put them in charge." If this is intended to direct us towards some explanation of the Blair betrayals as driven by religion, then one can only really snigger. Plenty of religious believers, in all British governments, have not been "people of the book" in any literal sense. Most of Blair's ministers and cronies were very far from fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist anything. Their crimes and misdemeanours cannot possibly be explained by their devout adherence to the Bible. The only possible exception is Blair himself, whose behaviour may partly be explained by the feeling that he had a personal hot-line to God. It might seem that there is little point in reviewing a bad play at any length. This review, however, is a protest not just against the play and its muddled, undisciplined thinking. It's a protest against the uncritical mindset of an intellectual establishment which can mistake such work for great political theatre. The intellectual weakness and flabby political judgment of that establishment are responsible for the Blair imperium in the first place and the Brown disaster which accompanied it.

Thursday, January 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

Surprise Conquest

Plays, like people, should not be put into pigeonholes. For years, I have made this mistake with Alan Ayckbourn, assuming that his plays are popular farces or light middle-class comedies, and - because popular - probably not very good or even very funny. As a result, I have never seen one until now. A new production at the Old Vic of his 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests has proved me entirely wrong. Not only is it exceptionally funny and technically accomplished, it also - to compare small things with great - touches in its farcical way on some of the questions about the force of destiny raised so powerfully by Sophocles' Oedipus, now in repertory at the National Theatre. Alan Ayckbourn may not quite be Sophocles, but he ought to be consoled by having one of the greatest gifts any writer can hope for - he can make people laugh. I laughed until I almost cried at Living Together, the second of the trilogy, and the other two plays are very funny as well, even in cold print. They are written both to stand independently and to work together. All three plays concern the same three couples, who come together in the house of a malevolent old mother, bedridden upstairs and unseen. During a wearing family weekend, her son-in-law Norman (of the Conquests) tries to seduce both her daughters (his sisters-in-law), and then his own disaffected wife, with painful and hilarious consequences all round. The woe that is marriage, the farce that is family, the petty cruelties of sibling rivalry and the helpless misery with which everyone falls into his or her unwanted but appointed role are all developed with horrible precision. It's funny precisely because it's so acutely recognisable: even those from the best regulated of homes must see resemblances between the cruel squabbling on stage and their own family history. Ayckbourn is well served by almost faultless actors who find every subtle nuance, and at the same time could probably make even the programme notes funny. There are quite a few good one-liners and extended jokes, but the real comedy comes from the farceur's traditional play on who knows what, and who doesn't. Most of Ayckbourn's characters are unaware of things that are very important, and most of the time we, the audience, know most of these things. We watch the characters struggle with their varying degrees of misunderstanding and unwelcome surprise. This, not to strain a point, is a central force of Oedipus as well. The further dimension of the entire Ayckbourn trilogy is that even the audience begins to understand, when the same events recur from different perspectives, that it doesn't understand as much as it imagined - true, again, of the entire Oedipus trilogy. However, the comparable playwright that most obviously comes to mind is not Sophocles but Chekhov. There are lots of similarities between The Norman Conquests and the Donmar's recent production of Chekhov's Ivanov; in both works, ordinary people - neither very ignorant nor very poor - find themselves somehow condemned to a life which though superficially quite pleasant, is actually almost insupportable, at least at times. Yet they seem quite unable to free themselves from their fate, even by behaving badly, in desperation - Ivanov is vile to his wife, his neighbours are nasty to each other, and Ayckbourn's family actually insult the family lares and penates by throwing biscuits at each other in their misery and fighting over a coffee pot. In the end they seem resigned to their unnecessarily unpleasant lot. It is tragic. Yet Chekhov insisted again and again that his plays were comedy, not tragedy (though I have never found them funny), while Ayckbourn's plays are clearly much more than comedy, though clearly they are funny. Pigeonholes are problematic. However, one can at least safely say that Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy is not a comedy. Jonathan Kent's remarkable new production of the first part, Oedipus Tyrannos, in a new version simply called Oedipus by Frank McGuinness, is heart-rending. Despite a few faults, this is theatre at its best. My prejudices against subsidised theatre, and the luvvie establishment generally, are silenced by work like this. Oedipus is running at the Olivier Theatre at the National until 4 January, and although it has had some mixed reviews, I think it is one of those few productions it would be a pity to miss. This play, first produced in 430 BC, is notoriously difficult to represent, because of the obvious differences of thought and convention between then and now. Kent's production feels very close and contemporary, and very moving, without losing its otherness. It is remarkable. Most theatregoers can remember Greek tragedy productions of silly tunics, clumsy language and embarrassment, with choruses bleating meaninglessly, like a herd of lost Greek goats. In this production, the chorus is put to inspired use. Dressed in anonymous modern suits, they are deployed both as separate characters, with individual personae and comments, and also as one. The way in which they move across the stage, separately and together, and in which they chant and sing in harmony as well as speak, even dance briefly with Oedipus and respond individually to his final agony, makes the chorus a living part of the drama, rather than an awkward piece of classical business. The composer Jonathan Dove deserves much of the credit for this, as do the music director Derek Barnes and the movement director Denni Sayers. There are some surprising flaws. Ralph Fiennes may have been born to play this vainglorious, bullying, tortured Oedipus, and gives a mesmerising performance. But he is sometimes hammy, and his voice and demeanour sometimes lapse, very oddly, into comic Leonard Rossiter mode. McGuinness's new text has a few lapses as well. "Done and dusted" is not the way for a messenger to announce the death of one king to another, in any culture. It's just clumsy. The centrally important line from Tiresias the prophet to Oedipus - "You are who you are seeking to find" - is also clumsy and unrhythmical, especially for a major prophetic announcement at the centre of a mythic drama. It was also a mistake - even if it was Sophocles' originally - to let Oedipus' young children in at the end, so he could cuddle his polluted little daughters, dripping his guilty blood on to their grey school uniforms. It was bathetic. Oedipus is condemned to his terrible fate long before his conception. He was born guilty and the force of his destiny is absolute, dictated by the gods. This might seem entirely alien to the modern Western view of guilt and personal responsibility or of personal redemption and reparation. Yet what's true of Sophocles' Oedipus is in some sense true of Ayckbourn's unhappy family in The Norman Conquests, and of Chekhov's miserable gentlefolk. They, too, are somehow condemned to their lesser fates and their stereotypical roles by forces of destiny that we now give different names. It makes very little difference how much the characters struggle against their invisible chains, and many of them come to understand and accept that fact. Either their inborn natures, or their environment, or the combination of both, mean that they seem to have almost no choices, almost no moral autonomy. The gods may indeed be absent, but whatever they once were is still tragically present. That's what's tragic, even when we laugh at comic stereotypes.

Monday, December 01, 2008 | Comments (0)

Right Welcome

Those of us given to complaining about the lack of good new political plays, and the lack of plays that are not predictably left-wing, will now have to stop, if only for a while. The Royal Court, home to everything that is bien-pensant and right-on, has, rather surprisingly, given a world première to a new political play - Christopher Shinn's Now or Later - which is unusually independent in spirit. To many theatre-goers it must seem far from predictably left-wing, and possibly rather predictably right-wing. It is also very good, with a central performance by Eddie Redmayne that is absolutely exceptional. One should see the play for that alone; without him it might not have been so convincing. Now or Later is set on the eve of victory of an American Democratic presidential candidate. It's confined physically to the hotel room of his gay son John (Eddie Redmayne), who is a student at an Ivy League university, and to a set that is about as minimal as a cheap TV studio drama. That is what the playwright wanted; he recommended in the text of the play "a Spartan design in all areas", and he certainly got it. Perhaps that's just as well, as the play is verbally very demanding; designerish flourishes might have been distracting. The central question of the drama is whether John can be persuaded, against his judgment and feelings, to apologise for a recent prank at a campus "naked party". Behind the prank lies his disgust at what he sees as the decadence around him - college rich kids who attack everything American, yet refuse to criticise other cultures, who tearfully sympathise with oppression of Muslims in the form of some cartoon on campus and refuse to defend freedom of speech; most absurdly with college feminists who are silent about the oppression of women by Muslims but actually go to a free-for-all orgy. So John goes as well, to stage a drunken little protest; he arrives wearing a turban and a T-shirt marked Muhammad, with his friend Matt dressed as a fundamentalist Christian evangelical. As a gay man, John has particular reason to hate radical Islam for its homophobia and its repression of human rights. Someone has posted a few blurry photos of this on the internet but John feels they cannot matter much. His father's election team - an invisible but menacing presence on the floor above - thinks very differently and sends people in and out of John's room, including his mother and finally his father, to manipulate him into publicly apologising. The final crisis of the play begins when something worse emerges: someone has now posted video footage on the internet of something alcohol had wiped from John's memory of the party - the simulated gay sex act that "Muhammad" performed on "Pastor Bob". It was very brave of Shinn, and intellectually honest, to write a play defending freedom of expression in such extreme circumstances. There could hardly be a harsher test case. It is more than likely that there would be international outrage and rioting, if the president's son were to insult the prophet so grossly in Muslim eyes, quite apart from the damage to America's standing in the world and of course to his father's brilliant career. Yet John's arguments are almost unanswerable. What makes them particularly plausible is that John is not conventionally, thoughtlessly anti-Muslim - rather the reverse. He hates the war in Iraq, he passionately supports Palestinian rights. He is also cynical about American interventionism; his criticism of Islam is little different from his criticism of Christian fundamentalism. Yet he is quite clear. Early in the play, he explains to the nicest of the political aides that he totally agrees that "the Muslim world has grievances against the West that are valid - not just valid but correct, a lot of them... I'm just saying those grievances are not the whole story, Islam has hatred and intolerance in it that have nothing to do with Western oppression. It makes an apology a lot more complex because they can interpret my apology as an acknowledgement that their value system is legitimate - and if I submit to it then I am betraying all those who are oppressed by that system." When the aide argues that he should compromise, "try to see things their way a little", and respect that their culture is different from his, he replies: "At a certain level there really is just one standard, whatever the cultural differences." His father, hurrying to his triumph, talks of "a new era of respect" for the Islamic world, and beginning "the work of finding common ground". But, says John, "I don't think we should give up our values to find common ground. Then it's not common ground, it's their ground and we're just standing on it." The development of the various arguments is much more complex, and dense, than this outline suggests. At an early moment, when I felt the play might be becoming irritatingly cerebral and Shavian, I began to wonder why we needed the reiteration of these ideas; they are to be heard round the clock on all the news media. But in fact they are very rarely heard or read with such clarity or at such length as this, and it does seem that there is an appetite for something more than the usual media offerings - hence the surprising success of public debates recently. In any case, this play is full of feeling; the emotional tension develops very powerfully together with the political. In this Shinn has succeeded where others usually fail. David Hare's Iraq play, Stuff Happens, for instance, never rose above the level of an A-level history lesson. But Now or Later tugs at the audience's feelings just as insistently as at their ideas, pulling both in different directions. It is Eddie Redmayne who is very largely responsible for the emotional impact of this play. The other actors are all good, but their roles are rather more schematic than the part of John and they lack the dramatic authority and control that Redmayne possesses, despite his youth. This play is about much more than political questions; it has a lot to do with young manhood and the gaining of independence as well as wisdom. Redmayne moves swiftly from the posture and gestures of a brave and confident young man to an anxious teenager, to a desolate child, and back. His command of rhythm and diction - complicated political stuff and in an American accent, too - is as remarkable as his body language. He has an extraordinarily economical way of looking not just bereft or betrayed but half-blind with emotion, in a way that his understatement makes more touching. It's hard to avoid thinking of Hamlet, and there are some obvious parallels, including a sexually incontinent First Lady mother. The printed edition opens with a truncated quotation from Hamlet: "Be bloody or be nothing." What Hamlet says in full is: "My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth." Both versions are chilling undercurrents in the play's theme. Thoughts, when expressed, are becoming deeds in the contemporary world, and are thus at risk of being controlled. A surprising and outstanding play. It runs until 1 November.

Saturday, November 01, 2008 | Comments (0)