Monday, 19 October 2009


15/10/09, Royal Court

Written by Penelope
Enron is now a byword for fraud. A giant corporate puzzle built on flimsy foundations which came apart at the seams. Some of the details are complicated and, even now, defy belief. Before I say what I thought of this play, I feel I should declare an interest. As a journalist working in the US in 2001, I covered the Enron saga, meeting people who'd lost all their savings, visiting the company's HQ in Houston and attending the congressional hearings which attempted to bring those at the top of the empire to account.

Lucy Prebble's play based on this sorry tale blends fact and fiction, farce, musical and tragedy into one production. And it works. Sam West is outstanding as Enron's CEO, Jeffrey Skilling. He is, by turn, insipid, creepy, imperious, venal and pathetic. He's on stage almost the whole evening so it's a role which demands stamina in addition to great acting. One of my favourite scenes was when he and Tom Goodman-Hill (who plays the CFO, Andy Fastow) hold a "meeting" in an imaginary gym on make-believe exercise bicycles. The audience was roaring with laughter.

Fastow and Skilling were the two executives who dreamt up some of the worst aspects of the Enron fraud - a company with high share prices built on nothing. Explaining mark to market accounting and shadow companies isn't an easy prospect but Lucy Prebble's script achieves this with aplomb. And this play resonates well in the current recession.

It's directed by Rupert Goold and is fast moving, entertaining and bold. The scenery and lighting (designed by Anthony Ward and Mark Henderson respectively) are imaginative and stark. There are songs, dances and moments of disbelief at the absurdity of the protagonists' behaviour. Goold is a director full of ideas. There were a couple of moments when one or two of them might have been edited out, as I was in danger of being overwhelmed. But it seems unfair to criticise anyone for having too many ideas! Also deserving a mention are Tim Piggott Smith as the wilfully blind company Chairman, Ken Lay (accompanied by three blind mice) and Amanda Drew as Claudia Roe who also worked for Enron.

For me, there was one glaringly awful moment in the evening which was a crass "reconstruction" of September 11th 2001, complete with projections of planes and tiny pieces of paper falling from the sky. I didn't feel this was necessary and it made me feel uncomfortable to use these iconic historical moments for entertainment. But that squeamishness aside, I loved it and the play thoroughly deserves its imminent West End transfer.


15/10/09, Soho Theatre

1 hr 40 mins. Transfer from Edinburgh of a three-hander about a married couple on a sink estate and her brother, who bursts in on their diner a deux with blood on his hands (and on his T-shirt -- loads of it).

He turns out to be a psychopath who has seized some hapless Asian man, attacked him with a knife, dragged him to a friend's shed and tied him up there and tortured him. This emerges by degrees, in a succession of revelations. The sister (they are orphans) defends him right up until the very last revelation, at which point it becomes clear, even to her, that his actions are indefensible.

But by then the husband (until then an upright character who is however putty in his wife's hands) has been persuaded to join in by terrifying the man, in the hopes that he won't go to the police. So the well has been well and truly poisoned.

A fable about blood being thicker than water, perhaps. Brother and sister are orphans, brought up by foster parents, and she has always looked out for her damaged sibling (who may have been the cause of the fire that killed their parents, and who ensured the couple wouldn't be parted by beating up a small boy at school when it looked like his sister might get a place with a nice middle-class family). She is in denial about his character, constantly making allowances for him, painting his unspeakable actions in the best possible light (as S said, constantly fending off reality), until reality intrudes too horribly).

The dialogue a highly stylised version of prole-speak: lots of "know what I means?", repetitions, uncompleted sentences, a veritable blizzard of F-words and C-words and P-words, all delivered with a reverence and deliberation worthy of Beckett. Happily the stylisation wore off a little as the evening wore on (or perhaps we just got used to it).

A convincing enough portrait of the compromises those at the bottom of the heap often have to make. We differed as to the significance of some of it, though, notably the question of abortion. At the start our heroine is carrying the couple's second child. Then she tells her husband she's thinking of aborting it. I couldn't see a reason for this, unless it was to find some emotional leverage over him; S and A thought it was because she feared the child might turn out like her brother, even though the couple's existing six-year old seemed perfectly OK. At the end she has decided she might keep the child, only to be told by her compromised husband at the very end that he wants her to get rid of it. Is he worried about its inheritance? Or is this revenge for having been dragged down by her?

All done on a single set, with a table and three chairs and exits stage left (to the kitchen) and stage right (to the hallway)... plus glimpses of high railings outside the house, and the lights of passing cars.

Interesting to see if it would have been as gripping without the spooky music, which I found intrusive (which is to say, I noticed it...).

Good performances by Joe Armstrong as the psycho brother, Jonathan McGuinness as the husband and Claire-Louise Cordwell (last seen as Desdemona in the Frantic Assembly Othello at the Lyric Hammersmith last November). Written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Roxana Silbert, a Paines Plough/Traverse/Birmingham Rep co-production.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


13/10/09, Duke of Yorks

2hrs 20 mins. By Andrew Bovell, who wrote When the Rain Comes which we saw at the Almeida recently and which was a cracker, mannered but thought-provoking, multi-layered and rather moving.

This play was the basis for a well-received film, Lantana, which we haven't seen but which S and A think not bad. And this production has a promising cast: John Simm from Life on Mars and Elling (in which he was very good a year or two back at the Trafalgar Studios); Ian Hart, whom I remember from Backbeat, the 1994 film about the "fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe and the band's time in Hamburg, in which he played John Lennon rather brilliantly (he has aged somewhat, though I suppose it was 15 years ago); Kerry Fox from Shallow Grave, looking Mumsy; and an actress new to us called Lucy Cohu.

It started well. Two couples dancing in alternating pools of light. Then the back wall rises in the dark to reveal a neon sign saying "hotel", seen from the back, and we are in a hotel room. Both couples engage in near-identical dialogue, mostly in unison (which could have become tiresome, but Bovell knew when to stop). It emerges that these are adulterous one-night stands, destined to remain unconsummated. And that the woman in couple A is married to the man in couple B, and vice-versa.

The next scene(s) is/are played out in the couple's(s') living room(s). One half confesses the affair to the other (who preteneds outrage) and they one half leaves home. Next we see the two men in a bar, where they have chanced on one another; then the two women in another bar, likewise. In each case one realises that the other is their partner's adulterous squeeze.

At which point the wheels came off rather. The (married) couples get together again and the "guilty" party in each case tells their husband/wife a story... interminably. The John Simm character tells of going jogging, colliding with a man he later finds weeping and then sees on the beach, where he abandons his brown brogues. The Kerry Fox character tells of a neighbour arrested on suspicion of murder after she has seen him throw a woman's shoe from his car onto a piece of wasteland and called the police.

Until this point the play had been excessively schematic and mannered, but there had been some dramatic tension: a series of rtevelations emerging in the proper way through dialogue. I wanted to know what would happen next. But the monologues finished me; I lost the will to lie. To judge by the coughs and shuffles around us I wasn't alone. D agreed and we left. The others stayed.

On the bus home I read the programme and wondered if we'd made a mistake. Each of the actors it seemed played at least one other character, so we wouldn't have been stuck with the ones we'd lost interest in. There was talk in an interview with the author (or was it the director?) of multi-layering.

I emailed the others to see if we'd made a mistake.

I got this back from A: I think we felt the second act was worth seeing although, as S said, it’s all well and good having actors double in roles but at times it can get very confusing when you introduce another whole set of characters. We did establish that Nick, the next-door neighbour, did not kill the woman, Valerie, whose shoe was in his car. She got freaked by her own demons and jumped out of his car, never to be seen/heard of again, at least in terms of our evening. We heard from Sarah (I think), the erstwhile girlfriend of the saddo who never got over her departure to the States, in that she did recognize him and spent some time angsting about it. The film, Lantana is, like the word (which I had to look up) and the play, a tendril-like affair, showing that there are more layers on layers and many lives are tangled into one another, often tangentially. It seems to me (but I’d have to see it again to be sure) that they ultimately left the conclusion hanging as to whodunnit.

Dr T wrote: I think it rather picked up in the second act and I liked the rather stagey (it is theatre) complex way the characters were all loosely connected to each other, and the way incidents/stories were told from different perspectives. The fact that the Sarah character chose her lover's wife as her psychotherapist was tantalisingly unexplored. But like wine, play-watching is contextual so as you were knackered an early night may have been more enjoyable for you.


12/10/09, Royal Court

We thought it was absolutely cracking, stuffed full of invention and first-rate performances. Directed by Rupert Goold: compare his Turandot which was also full of ideas and invention, but on that occasion they were often baffling or at odds with the music and the direction of the drama. Not here.

There were songs, dance routines, fantastic lighting, "raptors" in the basement (the fancy accounting devices and off balance sheet vehicles designed to cook the Enron books, which eventually came back to devour their creators), swift sketches of members of Congress, analysts, bankers and others blinded to Enron's failures by stupidity, greed, arrogance or a desire not to seem out of step with the prevailing consensus... oh, and Lehman Brothers sharing a single overcoat.

Sam West played Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO, developing from backroom geek to master of the universe to desperation and later paranoia as it all comes crashing down. Towards the end his lawyer tells him the principal accusation against Enron is that it "took advantage" of others (including the state of California, whose power supplies it deliberately disrupted to drive up the price). "Taking an advantage is what we do in business," Skilling retorts. Except of course that it isn't: making an honest profit by providing goods or services is one thing; unfairly exploiting legal loopholes and other people's gullibility while producing dishonest accounts is quite another.

I suspect the principal female character was an invention, there to contrast the Skilling approach to business with something more traditional (as well as to create a major role for a woman... except that she disappears two-thirds of the way through, when she's fired). She wants to build power stations in India, a market she thinks has huge potential, and she is of course right. But building power stations takes years, requires huge amounts of capital and provokes strikes and demonstrations and political problems; Skilling's approach to business makes everyone at Enron instantly rich overnight.

The parallels with the banking bubble are eerie. This is a company which started as a conventional business (oil and power generation) and grew massively and unsustainably by turning itself into a trading entity, many of whose products were incomprehensible to anyone but insiders. This was a play about the way businesses can lose touch with the underlying realities as clever people think up ever cleverer wheezes to make money. In the end Enron was little more than a Ponzi fraud.

Tim Piggott-Smith played the chairman, Ken Lay, as a good ole Texan boy. But A, who is American, said the accents for the most part were excruciating.

Lucy Prebble, who wrote it, is only 26: a fact which has inevitably excited much remark. We await her next with huge anticipation.

Penelope went to see it a few days later. I agree with almost everything she says.


1/10/09, ENO

2 hrs 10 mins. Gyorgy Ligeti's 1978 opera, reworked and revived in a spectacular staging by the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus.

The others liked this much more than I did. It was unquestionably spectacular, the stage dominated by a huge figure of a naked woman, crouching on her knees, bits of whose anatomy opened up to reveal the action. People looked out of her eyes, dropped through her mouth, etc. It was all fittingly reminiscent of Breughel, which was apt since the whole thing was set in "Breughelland".

A devil, or Death, comes down to destroy the world but falls into a drunken stupor instead, having recruited a drunkard called Piet the Pot as his assistant.

A Masochistic philosopher called Astradamors is terrorised by his sadistic wife Mescalina, who whips him while complaining loudly that she wants a "proper man".

Two young lovers sung by sopranos in hooded flesh-coloured leotards make out.

A prince (called Go-Go) has two ministers, one white, one black (well, white actually, but blacked up). There is a chief of the secret police who in this production was played by a frantic soprano in riot police uniform.

A video at the start and at intervals during the proceedings suggested the giant body was that of a woman who thought she was having a heart attack but who turned out only to need a good shit.

It made some sense, but not a lot, and the music was uncongenial.

Rebecca Bottone was one of the lovers, Susan Bickley was the whip-wielding Mescalina, Simon Butteriss the black minister.

Here are some reviews:


27/9/09, La Monnaie, Brussels

Handel's opera, directed by a Chinese visual artist, Zhang Huan, trying his hand at opera for the first time. A curious East-West mix which didn't work (because the Eastern elements seemed entirely arbitrary) but which musically wasn't half bad. Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques were excellent, with wonderful colour and pace and tunefulness. Handel can sound bland sometimes, even with period instruments: here he never did.

The Semele (Ying Huang) was a bit dour and dumpy, and out of her depth and shouty-screechy in the dramatic aria towards the end ("No, no I'll take no less") and struggling a bit in "Myself I shall adore". In the latter she wasn't a patch on Carolyn Sampson at the Proms the other day (I watched it again online and it's a truly brilliant performance; though Rosemary Joshua in an exceedingly sexy version done in Aix in the 1990s, which I think was the basis of a version we saw with her at ENO, runs Ms Sampson exceedingly close).

This Semele did contemplative very well, though: "Oh sleep why dost thou leave me?" was beautiful; even better was "Endless pleasure", sung while suspended from a hanging moon at the end of Act 1.

Best of all was Jupiter (Jeremy Ovenden), who sang "Where e'er you walk" better than I've ever heard it, while washing Semele's feet: hairs on the head time (the same went for "Endless pleasure" and "Oh sleep"). And honorary mentions for the father, Iris (Sarah Tynan) and Somnus.

The best of the Oriental interpolations was the set, a genuine 12th(?) century Chinese temple which we saw in a black and white documentary, projected onto the front cloth during the overture, being demolished and then re-erected in the artist's hangar-like studio in Shanghai, while subtitled locals told us its somewhat lurid recent history (someone was executed for plotting a murder) and we met the son of the owner, who hoped for something more modern to impress potential brides.

And then the curtain rose to reveal the very same temple, its wooden framework fitting the stage almost exactly, with massive round wooden columns and even more massive cross-beams. It was an appropriate setting for the opening marriage scene; filled with shrubbery for the scenes in heaven; appeared covered in a great crimson cloth across the roof in which Somnus slept at the start of Act 3.

The costumes were a curious mix of European Renaissance (husband in tights and tunic; Iris in black dress and white ruff) and classical Chinese, for the women especially. The chorus wore orange or red Chinese robes which they discarded to reveal slate blue pyjamas and polka-dot underpants in the orgy as Jupiter and Semele make love.

Other eastern elements: a pantomime donkey at the start (donkeys are apparently associated with peasant weddings in China), which reappeared in the orgy scene with an enormous phallus ( wonder how the mother in the audience with three young kids explained that to the little ones?), and two sumo wrestlers at the end of Act 2. At one point a Mongolian throat-singer entered through the audience, singing unaccompanied, her rills and trills reminiscent of Handel's, and picking up a white chiffon scarf that Semele drops as she is translated to the heavens (a bit like the bride's bouquet, perhaps?). In the final scene there's a white Chinese dragon, and we last see Semele wrapped in its coils, lamenting her fate ("Ah me! too late I now repent").

Finally the conventional happy ending was dropped for a humming chorus of the Internationale as Semele's red coffin is carried off. Much of this was frankly baffling, though it kept one's interest. A helpful gloss was provided by this review in the New Tork Times:

There were some other good bits. Somnus was awoken from sleep in a vast blanket on the roof of the temple, a topless Penthesilea beside him: the pair then fly off (there was a lot of flying, and it was well done). While he sang a huge inflatable doll beside him was gradually blown up... then deflated again.

And "Myself I shall adore" was sung in front of a vast mirror filling the whole stage, reflecting the audience as well as Semele. We liked that, and laughed: about the only moment the audience roused itself as this Sunday matinee. We were a pretty unenthusiastic lot, and there was no applause for even the most finely-sung arias.


26/9/09, KVS (Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg/Royal Flemish Theatre), Brussels

We decided on a trip to the opera in Brussels (readily manageable with Eurostar, but ruinously expensive thanks to the exchange rate) and saw this as well the evening before.

They called it nieuwZwart; my Flemish isn't good enough to know what that means.

The theatre was a great barn of a place, 1870s I'd guess, occupying an entire block, with a portico out front and three floors of fine flying balconies with iron railings all round each side, getting narrower with each storey. The inside had been gutted, the original auditorium replaced with a concrete near-sphere reminiscent of the Hampstead Theatre, squatting in the space with wire sculptures of naked dancers hanging in the void around it.

Inside there were three curved narrow balconies (we were in the centre of the middle level) each with three rows of seats and a large stalls area and a surprisingly big stage: a pleasing combination of the intimate and the spectacular.

The best bit of the building was the old bar-cum-withdrawing roomn above the foyer, which retained some of the original Flemish decor, with elaborately-painted walls in which dark red seemed to predominate, and a spectacular coffered ceiling, held up by two great black riveted cast iron girders, and at either end a bar with a Flemish tiled backing and canopy. It had obviously been in a poor state before renovation and rebuilding; in places the decoration had been replaced by red wash, and elsewhere the painted plaster had been taken back to reveal patches of bare brick. We were most impressed.

As to the show itself...

There were seven dancers (four men, three women), three musicians (percussion and two guitars), a narrator with a headset and an Australian accent. The text was in English, verse, impenetrable and not apparently related to the movement.

It opened with a very dimly lit stage behind a gauze, with the narrator out front looking back and naked figures vaguely visible. One moves, and there is a noise of... what? Dried leaves? Scrunched-up newspaper? Crumpled polythene? Others move too. Slo-o-o-wly. One or two emerge from whatever it is covering the floor, to the accompaniment of amplified FX.
The narrator produces something from his pocket, and unfolds it. It's one of those gold survival blankets they issue to walkers and military pilots. He holds it in front of him and it acquires a life of its own, hovering away with an invisible dancer beneath it.

The gauze falls, the lights go up and the floor is seen to be a great sheet of the golden stuff. The dancers are now underneath it, making it billow and scrunch. The sheet is pulled to the back of the stage, revealing the dancers lying naked on the floor. They twitch and writhe and kick like maggots, or creatures disturbed when you dislodge a stone.

Three men in uniform come on with lamps and microphones. They treat the dancers' bodies like musical instruments, beating a highly-amplified tattoo on their cheeks oir shins. One woman is made to convulse as one of the unifomed types seems to pick her up, arching her back, her feet and shoulders on the floor, head back, mouth open staring at the audience.

The dancers wriggle to the back of the stage where there is a heap of clothes. At some point in the gloom (I missed it) the three men in uniform clamber aboard a gantry suspended over the stage and mutate into the band, accompanying the rest of the evening with noisy rock music.

And we're still only ten minutes in...

During the rest of the evening our narrator wanders on and off the stage, at one point climbing a structure at one side of the stage from which hand six great metal sheets which serve as both the wings and as occasional percussion (shake them and they vibrate very noisily).

The dancers perform a succession of set pieces with no obvious links. One man mimes aggression. One pantomimes an ape, fascinated by a sleeping girl, whith whom he eventually seems to mate. The same girl slides over a recumbent dancer; he slides through her legs; another is manhandled into position behind him and she passes over him as well; and so on until all six dancers are leying in a ragged row stretching upstage; she dances around and over the row; at one point she rushes it and it moves away from her, as a single organism; then she dives into the row and another dancer takes over where she left off; and so on until they've all had a go.

In another scene towards the end they all come on under gold blankets, eventually standing up and running about the stage with the blankets sticking to their faces and bodies, blinding them, flapping. They pair up, face-to-face, boy-girl, with the thin, feather-light blankets keeping them apart. The narrator comes and drags the blankets away. The dancers do not move.

At one point one of the girls mimes throwing up. A woman in the audience laughs.

At another point the band stops. There are two dancers on stage, a man adn a woman. I can't remember what they're doing but there is a sense of great stillness and concentration. And then someone's mobile goes off.

There are a few costume changes, apparently arbitrary. They first donned dun-coloured clothes. One of the girls wore a hoodie: she bent over on all fours and it slipped over her head, making her look like some eyeless animal. Then the dun-colour was replaced with sexy red and blue and black for the girls, and for the men black or in one case a red and turquoise boiler suit.
D (who liked it more than me) remembered the percussion, including some sort of wooden box like a bent tube, and a thing like an upright piano back with a big reverb.

One woman was athletic enough to lift the men.

The best bits involved running and leaping and throwing themselves into one another's arms: a familiar modern dance trope but still breathtaking.


23/9/09, Hampstead Theatre

Missed it: had to work. D enjoyed it. Reviews here:


12/9/09, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Northern Ballet Theatre's version of the old favourite.

Very conventional, recorded music, Dracula in a great black cloak, girls in short Victorian dresses, pretty costumes, traditional choreography much of the time, but a lot of impressive and inventive and evidently "modern" lifts.

Dracula's coffin rose through the front of the stage at the start, and he emerged to walk through the curtains away from us stark naked but for a thong, leading to hopes that Lucy might likewise emerge from her coffin starkers (no such luck). But there was a certain amount of simulated sex in lurid red light between Dracula and Lucy and D and Mina. There was also an impressive homo-erotic duet between D and Jonathan at the start, but since J didn't turn into a vampire I imagine they'd can't have gone all the way.

My knowledge of the Dracula story is shaky, and since we passed on the souvenir programme at £5 we had to glean what we could from a cast list which spelt out the characters' relationships. From this it appeared that the virginal Mina's friend Lucy was tempted into a night of passion with D during a night-time walk in a red dress in the graveyard (silly girl), lost all her inhibitions and behaved abominably at her engagement party, which was also the main chance for the corpse (ha!) de ballet to go through their paces; her fiance laboured under the unlikely moniker of Lord Arthur Godalming and was danced by a Japanese in a silly moustache.

Lucy was then put to bed while the medical men busied themselves about her, and where she was later visited by D and subsequently expired.

D then turned his attention to Lucy, with whom he danced an erotic duet ending up on another bed stage left, to the accompaniment of a Classic FM favourite I can't name, involving a very slow piano and solo violin, both incredibly close-miked.

It was camp and kitsch and done without any irony, but on its own terms it was effective.

There was a sub-plot I didn't entirely follow involving a lunatic in a cage who was winched down from the flies.

We agreed it would have been better still with live music, though the range of FX would have been much reduced in that case.

Semi-naturalistic scenery (like beds) was wheeled on and off from time to time, which was cumbersome.

The audience were an entertaining mix of the WYP's usual stolid burghers, plus gay balletomanes... and Dracula fans in gothic black (why are all goths fat?).

W didn't think he'd enjoy it but clearly did, especially the shorter second act, which was gratifyingly full of sex and violence.