Wednesday, 25 July 2012


24/7/12, Shakespeare's Globe

With the legendary Mark Rylance in the title role.  It sounded a cracker and I was desolate at having to miss it: work and sleeplessness thanks to gastric reflux.  Then D came home early: they left at the half.  She called his performance Uriah Heep-like.


23/7/12, Olympic Stadium

D went.  She'd volunteered but they hadn't given her anything; a ticket to the tech rehearsal was the consolation prize.  She texted before it started to say the set looked like a Fuzzy Felt Hobbitland.  But when she came home she was very discreet: Danny Boyle came on before it started and implored them to (Twitter hashtag coming up) #savethesurprise.  I think she was a bit underwhelmed but I can get no details.


22/7/12, Royal Albert Hall

One of the best Proms I've been to in years: a work of the requisite scale, with the delight of discovering something new (we'd never knowingly heard it or any part of it), plus top notch performances by a team who've already done it several times at Covent Garden (this was a concert version of the Royal Opera's recent production, for which we couldn't get tickets), and this time we managed to get a programme so we could follow the words.


19/7/12, Royal Albert Hall

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


17/7/12, Royal Court (Upstairs)


12/7/12, Donmar


10/7/12, Royal Court


8/7/12, National Maritime Museum


7/7/12, Menier


6/7/12, National (Lyttleton)


1/7/12, New York

Saturday, 30 June 2012


30/6/12, Punchdrunk at the McKitterick Hotel, NYC

Macbeth hath murdered sleep.  That's two hours of our lives we won't get back.  It was expensive ($100), they took two unopened bottles of water off me before we were let in and I never saw 'em again, meaning we were dying of thirst by the end, we had to wear uncomfortable (with glasses) Eyes Wide Shut-style masks throughout and it was confusing, just as I remember previous immersive, site-specific theatre experiences to have been (with the exception many years ago of a production in the cellars underneath Edinburgh Old Town which moved sequentially from one site/scene to another and thus provided what these things lack, namely narrative).

Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death was a great hit at BAC, and this had good things about it, in particular the immensely elaborate sets over four floors of a rambling building which I think was originally a warehouse (the "hotel" bit being a polite fiction).  But we were constantly stumbling across segments with live actors just before they finished; and when we caught them sufficiently early to follow their development they were exceptionally hard to decode, involving as they did no dialogue and a lot of studied, repetitive action.  The best bits were impressively aggressive dance: two men in a phone box; a woman in a revealing green dress kept on with sticky tape and a prayer being thrown around a hotel living room and over a table by a man who may have been a porter or a barman.

The cast were in 1920s garb, which has become something of a cliche.  The action was supposedly based on Macbeth but, with the exception of the grand finale at a Last Supper-style table in the "ballroom" which brought together the whole cast, a lot of elaborate lighting effects and slow motion, plus Banquo's ghost, and a scene which might have been Duncan's murder, it all bore precious little relevance to Shakespeare.

One of my beefs about this kind of thing is that it's inherently frustrating: you never get to see all of it, which means you end up feeling you've missed something crucial or fascinating or fantastic.  It's not like a smorgasbord, where you can see what's on offer and make a choice; the choice is forced upon you from a menu you're never shown.

As a technical achievement, eight out of ten; but for artistic content, three.

NY Times review here:


30/6/12, NYC


29/6/12, Duke's Theater on 42nd Street

Friday, 29 June 2012


29/6/12, Sleepy Hollow, New York

We took the train from Grand Central up to Tarrytown and Philipse Manor, running along the East River looking across to a surprisingly green and hilly northern tip of Manhattan, and then beside the mighty Hudson, which really is huge with formidable cliffs on the far side.  We were intending to visit a reconstructed 18th century farm and mill and then go on to Washington Irving's house, Sunnyside, south of Tarrytown, but abandoned that after spending so long and having such fun at the farm, Philipsburg Manor.  We walked there from the station at Philipse Manor through a very upscale Stepford Wives-type housing estate (our only mistake to go up to the main road at one point, only to retreat when it had no sidewalk: they don't really do walking here. When I asked the woman at the visitor centre for directions to Tarrytown station she advised me not to walk in the heat: it took all of 15 or 20 minutes).

There's a restored house; kitchen garden; rebuilt working watermill; 18th century farm brought down from somewhere upstate and reassembled; and farm buildings where they show you how to spin wool and work wood using 18th century techniques and technology.  The interpreters are all in period costume.  It ought to be toe-curling but actually it was fascinating, largely because the first interpreter we encountered was a highly-knowledgeable graduate in performing arts who's now an expert in historic cooking techniques and with whom we fell to chatting over the kitchen garden wall.  There were very few visitors so we were her only customers when she came to give us the tour of the house.  We know lots about the Philipse family, who were among Manhattan's richest, and about this estate, which in the mid-1700s covered 52,000 acres, mostly growing wheat for export to the Caribbean to feed slaves on the sugar plantations there, and a reasonable amount about their slaves.

I learnt a lot about how slavery worked, when it was abolished in New York State (formally in the 1820s, though informally people were still effectively enslaved in the mines and elsewhere until after the Civil War) and about the barter economy of this part of the state in the 18th century, not to mention the fact that virtually all the European settlers' food crops and medicinal herbs came with them from Europe, there being next to no cultural interchange with the native Americans, while the slaves' African foods probably came over as seeds in the detritus of slave ships (the "nitty gritty", though she didn't use the term) and were rescued by slaves cleaning them out.

We saw the cornmill working, picked wool (to get out all the bits of organic matter still left even after a fleece has been washed three or four times) and finally got to understand how a spinning wheel worked.

All in all a most satisfying and informative visit.


28/6/12, Mint Theater, NYC

A 1946 play about women war correspondents written by two women war correspondents, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, involving lots of sub-Hecht and MacArthur wisecracking and some execrable English accents.  A
fascinating period piece.

Set in a temporary press camp a few miles behind the front line in Italy, where the British are running the show for a largely American contingent of hacks who seem intent principally on stealing one another's stories, it reminded me of Flare Path, but without the luminous, transformative performance of Sheridan Smith.  Indeed, though perfectly competently done, for me it never quite took off.

In many respects it was of its time: three act structure, slow to start, elements of farce, stock characters (ditzy British ENSA chanteuse; hard-bitten mid-Western hacks; stuffed shirt British officer), slightly cavalier attitude to realism (we're told several times that it's bitterly cold, and some of the jokes turn on the fact, but then people wander round quite happily in shirt sleeves and there seems to be a constantly open door to the outside world at the back of the set), allusions to some of the problems war correspondents have always faced (notably military censorship). But the modern journalistic trade's fascination with the ethics of the whole business was largely missing, probably because in the immediate wake of WW2 everyone still had a pretty black and white view of the war and everything connected with it.

It was also highly autobiographical.  The unscrupulous but charismatic correspondent to whom one of the correspondents was briefly married, and under whose spell she once again falls when they meet up again, who stole all her scoops on the pretence that he was protecting her from danger, is Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was for a time married.  The uptight Yorkshire squire and major given the thankless task of acting as PR to the correspondents is Aidan Crawley, the upper middle class Brit who helped found ITN and who Cowles married.

A lot of the comedy turned on the assumption on the part of the special men in their lives that both the women needed protecting not only from the risks of their chosen profession but from any kind of adventure or paid work, and should really be at home knitting socks. Satirising such attitudes seems unexceptionable now, but thinking back to the general state of society in the 1940s I imagine the women in the audience nodding inwardly, but biting their tongues as their menfolk laughed heartily at the absurdity of women riding jeeps to war.

We were about the only people in the theatre who didn't belong either to a huge gang of teenage girls (they
loved it, especially the comic Yorkshire servant with a Midlands accent -- not that they'd have known that -- and the love scenes, which they found hilarious) or to the party celebrating the wedding of what we took to be one of the theatre's trustees, who was sitting with his new husband in the front row. the pair of them looking dapper in matching dark suits and white button-holes (don't know what they thought of the love scenes).

One of the leading ladies was a substitute: the wonderfully named Heidi Armbruster was presumably indisposed.  She seemed a pretty adequate substitute.


28/6/12, New York

Where do you start?  The Met's collection is simply overwhelming.  We stopped by the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, rescued from the rising floods of the Aswan High Dam, which I recall from my previous visit, en route to the American Wing.

There we saw lots of reconstructed interiors of 18th and 19th century houses, some enjoyable American Impressionist paintings (including a series of women and women-with-children by a talented woman called Mary Cassatt), and some earlier landscapes, plus the vast and famous picture of Washington Crossing the Delaware among the ice-floes, which fills an entire wall.

There were a couple of galleries filled with John Singer Sargent (who it turns out painted rather fine genre paintings as well as the well-known portraits), including his scandalous picture of Madame X, whose drily-phrased label I enjoyed:

Madame Pierre Gautreau (the Louisiana-born Virginie Amélie Avegno; 1859–1915) was known in Paris for her artful appearance. Sargent hoped to enhance his reputation by painting and exhibiting her portrait. Working without a commission but with his sitter’s complicity, he emphasized her daring personal style, showing the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder. At the Salon of 1884, the portrait received more ridicule than praise. Sargent repainted the shoulder strap and kept the work for over thirty years. When, eventually, he sold it to the Metropolitan, he commented, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” but asked that the Museum disguise the sitter’s name.

We moved on to the modern galleries -- Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko in profusion -- and then a simply stunning collection of French Impressionists.  Rooms-full of Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Sisley, Seurat etc etc.  So much indeed that you couldn't take it in.  Which is why one prefers the Frick, in a way: more manageable.

We found some striking Georgia O'Keeffes, but when we went looking for photographs by her husband Alfred Steiglitz there were none to be seen, which was a pity.


27/6/12, American Ballet Theatre at Metropolitan pera, NYC

  I fell asleep during the famous Act 1 Pas de
Deux.  My body insisted it was 3am.


27/6/12, New York

What a gem.   Henry Clay Frick may not have been a very nice person (he made a fortune out of coke; there was a partnership with Andrew Carnegie; and a bitterly-fought strike at one of his steelworks) but by heck he knew his old masters. It's a small collection, but virtually every one's a winner, all housed in Henry's Fifth Avenue mansion facing Central Park which was built to show off the art and extended after his death to provide a second large gallery, a circular music room, a rather grand entrance and a memorable glass-roofed internal courtyard with a pool full of water lilies).

The collection includes definitive Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Cromwell, looking like a butcher (one of several versions, apparently: this one thought to be the earliest and best), hung on either side of a fireplace with a stunning El Greco of St Jerome in what looks like a pink cardinal's cape between them.

There's a stunning Ingres of a girl in a grey-blue dress leaning against a table, chin in her hand, staring intently or perhaps quizzically out of the frame (apparently bought after his death by Henry's daughter).  There's a whole room panelled with Fragonards (yuck, chocolate box), ditto a room full of small paintings by Boucher (even yuckier, even chocolate box-ier -- though K claims his stuff was actually very naughty and rather subversive).

There are several fairly "safe" Turners of boats at sea and two spectacular pictures of boats in harbour, each a forest of masts, bustling activity on the quays and the most glorious golden sun reflected on the water.

There are three Vermeers (including the Girl with a Pearl Earring), which must represent around 20 per cent of the world's entire holdings.

There are several Gainsborough portraits of elongated aristocrats, a Degas of an elderly bearded dancing master with a stick facing a line of ballet dancers of various ages standing around the walls of the rehearsal room in a great arc, Italian Renaissance stuff and one of the world's most famous Renoirs, though that, like the Fragonards and Bouchers, veers towards the saccharine (it's the one of a wealthy mother in dark blue cape ushering two little blonde girls in matching pale blue fur-trimmed capes and muffs through the park).

Apparently the only American painter Frick rated was Whistler: he bought several.

And that's just the stuff on display.  A quick glance at the website suggests there's lots of other stuff we didn't see.


A clue to what keeps places like the Frick going financially may be found online: searching for Frick Collection in Google images throws up even more pictures of New York socialites and ridiculously elegant young women than it does of the collection itself.


22/6/12, New Orleans

A modern, airy exhibition space on three floors on the edge of the Business District devoted, as the name suggests, to work by artists from the southern states (mainly Louisiana and Florida), none of whom we'd ever heard of.

The standout was a man called Michael Messersmith, who paints big canavases in rich, almost lurid colours full of hyper-real images of animals, birds, reptiles, many eating each other, many on carved boards shaped like bird's wings or beaks or foliage.  They reminded me of 1970s rock album covers.  Full of blues, reds and yellows, they're images of the Florida wetlands, many painted with a thick impasto. They stand just the right side of extreme kitsch.  In one gallery he'd also filled a wall with a batch of identically-sized unframed canvases of wetland landscapes painted en plein air: did Hockney steal the idea from him or he from Hockney?  

On the other hand, there was a woman called Alexa Kleinbard whose work shares many of Messersmith's tropes -- Florida wetlands wildlife as a subject, shaped panels, bright colours, hyper-real approach -- who strayed over the border into kitsch.  Her subjects were swamp flowers known to the Indians for their medicinal properties, along with birds and insects, all framing landscape views, and painted on irregular panels with trailing roots like twisted legs dangling down.  I assumed she must have studied with Messersmith (who teaches at some Florida academy) but there was no acknowledgement of any connection.  Her later picutres featured more raptors like owls around the frames, meant to symbolise the increasing depradations of man.

There was also a top-floor display of striking giant photographs of the wetlands, the Gulf and the delta, many of them aerial pictures, many referencing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Many looked like pure abstracts, though all were of natural phenomena or the modifications to nature made by man.

There were some traditional 19th century landscapes by "American impressionists" which had an antiquarian interest but were neither especially memorable nor impactful.


22/6/12, New Orleans

Just north of the French Quarter in the largely-black and rather scruffy Treme, and just round the corner from St Augustine's Roman Catholic church, which at its foundation in 1842 by a congregation of whites and free men and women of color also, uniquely, set aside some pews for slaves, and which today has a memorial to slavery in the churchyard made of an anchor-like cross forged from giant chain links and festooned with shackles.

It's a museum devoted to New Orleans black street culture: Mardi Gras Indians with their immensely elaborate and startlingly bright-coloured costumes; Second Line parades; jazz funerals; the history of New Orleans brass bands; the social clubs which run the parades.  The Indian costumes are the most striking, with masks and body drapes covered in sequins and motifs, with elements of Aztec and Inca art and Liberian and Sierra Leonean masked devils and huge, garishly-dyed ostrich feathers.  They must be unbelievably hot to wear, as well as being outrageous, absurd, flamboyant and unrestrained.

The collection's housed in a former funeral parlour and was put together by a man called Sylvester Francis, a photographer, who's been collecting this stuff since the 1990s.  His wife showed us round.  Divided by a common language, I found much of what she said hard to follow but she said it enthusiastically.  If I understood her correctly, the collection survived Katrina because it was in store at the time, but the museum was flooded and so was the Sylvester's home -- they moved into the museum building for a time.

I also get the impression all these things were dying out in the 50s and 60s with the rise of television, and that they've been deliberately resurrected.

The place is run in the kind of laidback fashion one might expect.  It's supposed to open at 10; we arrived at 10.30; a man who came round with some provisions told us to come back in half an hour.

A couple of days later K took us to a Second Line parade (which took some finding in a taxi, driving round the neighbourhood following the route on a photocopied sheet we'd been given at the Museum).  Very noisy, very, very hot, the Uptown Swingers swaggering along in a lime green suits with sashes and hats and what not, behind a truck with a sound system and a line of convertibles with ladies ("queens") of all ages sitting up in the back, and a small and raucous brass band.  When we arrived they were taking a break at Joe's House of Blues, the followers milling around in the street outside, with stalls selling cold drinks and barbecued food and a man with a megaphone selling rum off the back of a pick-up truck.  After a time they set off three or four more blocks before taking another break.  It was chaotic though not undisciplined and everyone seemed to know everyone else, though many of the participants looked a bit bored, I thought.


18/6/12, Tricycle


14/6/12, Royal Court Upstairs


9/6/12, Longborough

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


6/6/12, National (Olivier)

Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, Alex Jennings as Bulgakov in a transfer from the Cottesloe.  A first stage play by John Hodge (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) reminiscent of Stoppard at his finest in its mix of politics, humour and stagecraft.

Friday, 1 June 2012


1/6/12, Adelphi

Sondheim's wonderful black comedy about a gruesome serial killer, starring Imelda Staunton (very funny, and revealing what to me was a hitherto unknown ability to sing rather well) and Michael Ball, once a heartthrob, now somewhat overweight and looking deeply saturnine and scary (there's never been any doubt about his ability to sing).  Seen for the very first time.  Production transferred from Chichester.

I realised a few minutes in that this is the first time (with the exception of a childhood trip to see A Little Night Music) that I've ever seen a Sondheim musical in a big theatre, with the inevitable aircraft-hangar amplification.  All previous exposure has been in small houses with only modest amplification or none at all, where you can hear every word and see the actors' expressions up close.  This may, I now realise, have partly accounted for a willingness to except Sondheim from a general anathema against musicals.

Nonetheless, his merits were evident even in the cavernous Adelphi.  Wonderfully witty rhymes.  Complex, surprising harmonies and a few good tunes.  First-class story-telling.  A willingness to take on subjects others would run a mile from: Sweeney Todd really is a very black tale indeed.  A focus on drama and character rather than sugar-coated sentimentality or spectacle.

What I thought this one lacked was the subtlety in characterisation that you find in some of the others (like Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park and Passion).

The production (by Jonathan Kent) had its weaknesses as well.  It was updated to the 1920s, for reasons not entirely clear (I wasn't aware they were still sentencing criminals to transportation after World War One), though it did mean they could bring the rival barber and hair-restorer salesman, Pirelli, on in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw.  Sweeney's barber shop was atop a square structure which wheeled forward when required and turned on a revolve, which seemed cumbersome.  The love interest Johanna had neither the looks nor the voice for the part (a harsh and screechy soprano).  The boy Tobias was too quiet and tentative.  Johanna at her window was wheeled on at the top of a metal staircase.

But there were some very good things too, apart from Staunton and Ball, including Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford.  The ensemble were seen at the start engaged in all kinds of convincing drudgery (cleaning floors, hauling sacks of coal).  And they narrated and commented from time to time from a first-floor gallery/gantry, looking down on the action: the people of London.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


29/5/12, Almeida

I can't really say much about this.  I missed the first half.  The second half was very SHOUTY.  They all seemed horrible people.  Here's a couple of reviews:


28/5/12, Shakespeare's Globe

Performed in Hebrew by Habima, the National Theatre of Israel; part of the Globe to Globe season.  The one with the demonstrations.
There was airport-style security.  The auditorium was flooded with blue T-shirted event security guys.  There was a pro-Palestinian demo on the river front, a pro-Israeli demo up the street, hordes of police.  There'd been calls for a boycott (from Mark Rylance among others) on the grounds that Habima has performed in illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Before the performance the Glove's artistic director Dominic Dromgoole came on stage to ask us, if there were protests during the performance, to stay calm and not attempt a citizen's arrest, and to remind any of us who were minded to protest that these weren't politicians or policy-makers but artists there to tell a story.

There were protests, and they were distracting, for the audience and (at one point) for the actors.  From our seats round to one side of the Middle Gallery we had a good view of the interruptions, not least because two took place right next to us.  During the first scene half a dozen demonstrators stood up unfurling Palestinian flags and banners a few seats to our right.  They were quickly but necessarily rather noisily removed by stewards, who lifted them bodily out, among much sotto voce protest (one woman kept intoning "no violence" and then, rather more loudly after they'd got her as far as the staircase, "don't you dare touch me there!").  Not long after, a second group in adjacent seats unfurled more flags (which were whipped away) and then taped address labels over their mouths and stood for the remainder of the (long) first half in silent protest, from time to time raising their arms in a V for victory sign.  Finally towards the end of the first half a group among the groundlings unfurled flags and "apartheid Israel" banners but were swiftly removed.

At the start of the second half a tall man among the groundlings shouted "Do Palestinians not have eyes?" during Shylock's famous speech.  As he was led away he added "Do we not bleed?"; someone shouted "piss off" to laughter and applause.  There was then a second interruption, which brought the cast to a halt, until someone in the audience shouted "Keep going, we're with you".  I noticed audience members pointing furiously at the interruptors during all this so that the security guys could grab them -- a gesture which for some reason made me uncomfortable.

At the end there was of course huge applause from an audience most of whom were evidently supportive and many of whom (judging by the laughter at the verbal comedy) spoke Hebrew.

It all made it rather hard to concentrate on the play itself.  It seemed a brisk and workmanlike production which started with Venetian carnival revellers in beaked bird masks beating up Shylock in dumbshow and ended with him trudging disconsolately, suitcase in hand, the wandering Jew sans daughter, sans money, sans home.  This was Shylock's tragedy: an outsider, ill-treated, with legitimate grievances whose tragic flaw is to believe he can use the Christians' own law to exact revenge, only to find the law and the Venetian Christian establishment in turn destroy him.  There were a handful of walkouts in the scene when, utterly humiliated, he is forced to trade his religion for his life.

The Venetians in this production are deeply unsympathetic: smug and obsessed with money.  Bassanio chooses the correct casket to win Portia's hand but doesn't then instantly embrace her but ignores her in order to dance a celebratory jig with his servant Gratiano.  In the trial scene Portia seems to be making it up as she goes along (a legitimate reading of the text), with the "not one drop of blood line" an inspired, spur of the moment idea.  The only problem with that is it makes her whole intervention in Antonio's trial look like the self-indulgent gesture of a spoiled rich girl.  The "comedy" around the rings she and Nerissa give their husbands (and which they give, in breach of their promises to their wives, to the "lawyers") is merely tiresome, the games-playing of rich kids which shows up poorly in contrast to the life and death drama of the trial scene (which may of course be the point).

It was hard to tell how good the performances were.  Launcelot Gobbo was winning and funny.  Shylock was dignified.  Jessica was stunningly beautiful.

There were some nice touches in the staging.  The carnival masks appeared frequently, always menacing, especially in the trial scene.  The first two caskets were carried on actors' heads and lifted off to reveal masks -- a death's head and a fool; the foreign princes were played unashamedly for laughs, both of them rigged out in appropriate costume as we watched to the accompaniment of music, emphasising the theatricality of the whole business.  Portia wore a harness attached to a spider's web of ropes held by six actors standing at the edges of the stage; it was lifted off her once a suitor had chosen correctly.  The same harness and network of ropes (plus other ropes as well) held a bare-chested Antonio during the trial scene, and then Shylock.

It all added up to an impressive picture of an affluent society riddled with anti-semitism and of the plight of the dispossessed outsider.  Amongst whom, of course, we should count the Palestinians.


26/5/12, National (Cottesloe)

Even three days later I could remember next to nothing about this, which was a shame.  A four-hander (which turns rather clumsily into a five-hander just before the end -- always distrust a playwright who has to introduce a new character late in the play to drive the plot) it originated with Steppenwolf in Chicago, the same outfit that brought the outstanding August, Osage County to the National a couple of years ago.

This isn't in the same league.  The characters aren't believable.  The writing is stilted.  The situation cliched.  Respectable middle-class surbubanites invite the penniless young couple from next door round for a barbecue.  It rapidly becomes clear that the penniless young couple are recovering drink and drug addicts, and slightly less rapidly that all is not well in the suburbanites' household: he has lost his job in a bank and spends all his time at home allegedly creating a website from which to run a one-man financial consultancy; she has a drink problem too and is barely holding it together.

It's a traverse production like the recent Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at this address, but the comparison does it no favours.  That was a masterclass in wonderful close-up naturalistic acting.  This is hammy and unconvincing (not the actors' fault: it's written this way, with elements of absurdist drama).  The young couple's backstory is intriguing, I suppose.  But there's a curious episode in which the two women go off to camp in the woods, determined to slough off the shackles of suburbia and get back to the simple life, only to get lost on the way and return, declaring they're afraid of bears.  We learn this, as we learn much in this play, not so much from dialogue as from story-telling monologues, which frankly aren't convincing.

After the women's return proceedings degenerate into a boozy party in which all parties dance to loud music and snog one another (some members of the audience left at this point; others had gone earlier).  Then the house burns down and collapses.  In the following scene the young couple have done a runner and his uncle, who owned their house, turns up to fill in some details and reminisce about the time many years ago when this rundown suburb was a real community (supposedly) and offered its residents a dream existence.

First-class staging: not one but two smoking barbecues, an arson attack and the entire facade of a house crashing down onto what had been a green patio but becomes, during a blackout, a miniature version of a pitted Western Front. 


24/5/12, Shakespeare's Globe

In Gujerati.  Part of the Globe to Globe season.

Considering we don't have a word of Gujerati between us, this was very enjoyable, largely because a packed audience of people who did speak Gujerati laughed heartily at all the jokes, of which there were clearly many.

How much Shakespeare survived the translation of the story to British India c 1910 wasn't clear.  Bertram became a young man, Bharatram, apprenticed to an elderly merchant in Mumbai, who sent him to Rangoon to do (illegal) business with a (female) opium trader whose daughter (imagined as a sexy Burmese dancing girl) he fell for, having run away from the marriage into which the equally beautiful Heli had tricked him with her mother's connivance.

Three-man musical accompaniment throughout, Bollywood-style song and dance, lots of colourful costumes: what was not to like?

I suspect this dispensed with quite a lot of Shakespeare's poetry and complexity and dug down to the farce and folk tale roots of his play, ending up somewhere that East and West could happily meet.

Friday, 18 May 2012


18/5/12, Royal Court


16/5/12, Hampstead

Smoking alert.

We saw a preview of this without realising, and may have misjudged it.  We left at half-time, knowing how it would end having seen the film (though A in fact hadn't and we had to explain the denouement to her) and being underwhelmed by a script which seemed to add little to the film (they kept Vangelis's music) and by pedestrian performances.

I now think the performances would have improved by opening night, and a certain lack in that department may be excused by the fact that in rehearsal they'd obviously been concentrating a lot on choreographing a physically complex and demanding show.  The reviews I've seen have been generous, likening it to a West End musical (there are G&S songs and a 21-strong ensemble -- so maybe Hampstead's hoping for a lucrative transfer and a West End run) (just after writing this I discovered they are: saw a full-page ad for the transfer to the Gielgud).

A figure-of-eight running track goes around the whole space, with seats around all four sides of the auditorium, the track running behind some of the seats, in front of others (Hampstead really is a most flexible space given that at first glance it looks like an entirely conventional proscenium theatre).  There's a central playing area.  The cast ran (really ran, and scarcely puffing at the end of it) around the track as well as indulging in group callisthenics in the central area.  All choreographed with great precision.

I found it a bit dull and predictable, the physical side notwithstanding, but others clearly didn't.  One of the advantages of this kind of staging is that you can watch the audience.  Towards the end of part 1 we have the champagne hurdling scene (which is also of course where the smoking comes in, our insouciant aristocrat happily lighting up at every opportunity), and I saw one woman away to my right literally agape, quite transfixed, as she awaited the outcome.

Overall, it made one ask again what the point is of reimagining in a new medium something which worked supremely well in another.


10/5/12, Lyric Hammersmith

Thursday, 10 May 2012


8/5/12, Duchess

An uncommonly intelligent play by David Edgar about translating the Bible into English.  Dr T left at the half, complaining she was bored, which seemed unusually dense of her.

The Archbishop of Canterbury himself was in the audience, across the aisle from us and just behind.  I was told afterwards that he gave every impression of enjoying it hugely.  Interesting, since one of the central characters is Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, played by Oliver Ford Davis, who I could have sworn modelled his portrayal of a highly-intelligent but rather tortured man of religion on Rowan Williams.

Andrewes' contemporaries in 1610 thought him a puritan. But we see him in flashback sparring with a puritan zealot whom he later visits in jail: had he put him there?  His contemporaries also thought his presence in the Parliament on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot must make him a natural anti-Catholic (and thus a puritan sympathiser on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend).  But Edgar knows nothing is ever that simple.

Andrewes' position is subtler, and could be read as a type of that of the C of E throughout.  Ideological and theological purity are less important than a workable compromise which ensures peace and stability.  Translating the Bible is an intensely political act.  Deciding between "church" and "congregation" or "love" and "charity" as translations of the original Greek is not a neutral business.  Never mind what is most accurate: the King has laid down certain rules; there is the health of the body politic to consider; not to mention a prudent consideration of one's own well being and chances of advancement.

At the end of the play, in fact, Andrewes (who we are told spends hours every day in prayer) explicitly repudiates temporal ambition and recommends another man for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the flashback scene we seem him, with the zealous puritan, "visiting" a church in Yorkshie in the reign of Elizabeth, where the locals are suspected of theological (and thus political) unsoundness in trying to preserve some of the cherished paraphernalia of Catholic worship, perhaps not surprisingly given the U-turns of the previous two reigns.

Throughout Andrews' approach is contrasted with that of William Tyndale, who built on Miles Coverdale's pioneering work of translating the Bible into English, and who we first meet awaiting execution in Dutch prison but still gamely translating the Old Testament in his prison cell, a translation he passes secretly to an English Catholic priest sent to win him to repentance but who is instead won over by Tynbdale's passion and commitment and smuggles the manuscript back to England.

Tyndale's ghost visits Andrewes.  They spar, agreeing on the importance of giving ordinary people access to the word of God, but not on whether they should be guided in its interpretation by the heirarchy of the church.  Tyndale is comically horrified to discover that there are still bishops in Andrews' time.

No-one does a tortured soul better than Oliver Ford-Davies.  Stephen Boxer was warm and sympathetic as Tyndale.


25/4/12, The Print Room

A new venue, tiny, with no proper front of house and precious little backstage, judging by the fact that one of the actors was washing his make-up off in the gents when we left.  We sat, maybe 80 or 90 of us, in two rows around all four sides of a room with an entrance at each corner plus the door in the centre of one wall through which we entered.

So, real close-up stuff, even closer than Moon on a Rainbow Shawl the other day, and some carried it off better than others.  Ian Glen as Vanya was of course superb, but William Houston as the doctor played as if in a conventional theatre: it was a good performance, but too big for a space this intimate.  Charlotte Emmerson as Sonia was genuinely touching, though I missed the shivers during her final speech (the shivers came earlier, I distinctly recall... but I can't remember what sparked them!).  Lucinda Millward "made the wife a bore" I wrote a day or two after seeing the show I can't now remember what I meant by that: whether it was her performance that was boring (not sure it was) or the characterisation.

David Yelland as the professor also went way over the top, though in his case it may have been legitimate since the old fraud has spent his life as the central character in a life of his own making, performing in front of students and colleagues.  It does make his appeal to Yelena as a husband even more baffling, however.

The production found the humour in much of this, as well as the authentic despair: Vanya really did seem at the end of his tether, not just posturing with that gun.  And of course when he does go over the edge it's even more thrilling in such a tiny space.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


17/4/12, ENO at Hampstead
17/4/12, Hampstead
1 hr 5 mins, no interval. Smoking alert (clay pipe: now there's a first, and with real tobacco, judging by the smell that wafted up to the circle). It was the first night so the Hampstead foyer was heaving with a very different crowd from its normal North London bourgeois, including ENO's new chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette, two former general directors (Dennis Marks and Nicholas Payne), assorted critics and opera buffs.

A bizarre evening: memorable, but for mostly the wrong reasons. How sad that something done with such commitment should prove so utterly unengaging and alienating. But apparently it's a modern classic. This was A's take, emailed within 90 minutes of the curtain:

Well, we are reeling from what can only be described as a tour de force of performance and a health & safety nightmare. Described as a chamber musical for three performers, additional singers and a percussion section, in this production, it certainly is that and more.

Thankfully, it was short (but not short enough, say I). I admit, I didn't do my homework on this (we booked the tickets, obviously in a moment of madness, particularly as we managed to double book ourselves; I blame the Lears' good hosting on the afternoon we did the bookings). The set is an actor/performer's nightmare of health & safety issues: pools of water, some deeper than others but the actors/singers were all sploshing around on stage. I also pity stage management on this show, who will also be doing laundry because of the water, never mind the full-body 'baptisms' and/or jumpings-in which happened at least five times in the space of 80min.

So, there we were, in the 'circle' at Hampstead. They took out several rows of seats in order to accommodate a chamber orchestra. Hampstead made it three-sided seating; I felt very sorry for anyone on the far sides, left & right as they would only have seen performers' backs. The music was squeeky-gate and is an up-date from 1979 when squeeky-gate stuff was in its heyday, I guess. Having said that, the orchestra was wonderful and some of the music was magic.

However, what was on stage...well, we didn't fall asleep because I think we (at least I) wondered where it could possibly go next. There is a scene where part of a church wall, lying flat to begin with, is raised on a hoist (above pools of water), on which is played a duet at a parlous angle for the two performers. And then the female heroine starts running around and jumping in restoration dress. She visibly slipped and nearly lost her wig. He slipped when he attempted to run up the thing again later in the scene. And why Jakob didn't set himself alight when he covered himself and the candle-lit lamp, I do not know.

I didn't bother to buy a programme on this one; our tickets were expensive enough in the first place. Having looked at Hampstead's site, apparently all seats are £45. There are six performances left. Run and buy a ticket (not).
Jakob Lenz really existed: an 18thC poet and friend of Goethe who went mad and sought help from a pioneering psychologist and Lutheran pastor called Oberlin, who told the story to Georg Buchner, who wrote it down. Wolfgang Rihm set it to music in the 1970s. This was its first English-language production in the UK.

The lead was sung by Andrew Shore: we've seen him as Mime and in ENO's Elixir of Love among other things and he's a great actor, let alone singer, but this must have been a challenge. After so many dunkings he'll have pneumonia by the end of the run. There were two other singing parts, for Oberlin (a bass) and a foppish friend of Lenz's (a tenor) plus a small chorus of peasants, two children and two non-speaking, non-singing parts: an elegant woman who might be Lenz's muse or a former lover, and a little girl who is presumably the muse as a child, though one can't be sure: at one point Lenz baptises the little girl in one of the pools; later the woman, in her scanties (presumably the costs of laundering daily her magnificently starched 18thC dress horrified the management), drowns the little girl in the same pool (Lenz tries unsuccessfully to resurrect her... the woman kisses her and she wakes). The elegant woman was played by Suzy Cooper -- last seen in the York panto!

Though the soloists' enunciation was admirably clear, they had to fight the highly percussive and often noisy orchestra and many of the words went west, so one had only a hazy notion of what was going on. The music was deliberately alienating and though it had its moments of calm it was a struggle to listen to. I'm not sure (as so often with modern operas) what it added to a straight dramatisation. It was also frustrating not knowing what was in Rihm's text and what was the director Sam Brown's interpolation. Presumably the mute muse was in the text. And the little girl. But does the text specify the splashy fens of Annemarie Wood's muddy, reedy set? They were, as A says, a potential deathtrap and the cast will be lucky not to sustain a broken leg during the run.

One fundamental problem (not limited to operas in general or this one in particular) is that it's hard to sympathise with someone in the throes of madness if one's not first seen them sane.

From my seat in the circle I had a first-class view of the percussionist who, as so often in modern music, had loads to do (percussionists must love this kind of stuff). He was often more entertaining than the onstage antics.

Overnight reviews here. I especially like Michael Church's summary in the Indie:

There is much to like in what results. Shore’s heroic performance is ably complemented by those of Suzy Cooper, Richard Roberts and Jonathan Best; the chorus of ‘voices’ and children is artfully deployed; under Alex Ingram’s direction, Rihm’s score comes to life with remarkable vividness. But that is all there is to it: Lenz starts off mad and stays mad, period. There is no narrative, no psychological surprise, no dramatic tension of any kind; just wall-to-wall hysteria.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


11/4/12, NFT1, BFI Southbank

1 hour 55 mins. A beautiful new pristine print. Smoking alert (they do it all the time; all the prison camp interiors are wreathed in smoke; but then that's the way it was).

A film I've been reading about for almost 40 years: Jean Renoir's celebrated anti-war film (without a battle in sight). Now finally seen, and a thoroughly satisfactory experience it was, if not quite one that justifies the five stars lavished on it by some critics.

One of its problems, of course, is that it pioneered a whole genre, the PoW movie, and many of the things that must have seemed startling and original in 1937 now look like cliches, recycled time and again in everything from The Great Escape to Colditz: the escape tunnel beneath the floorboards, the spoil deposited in the prisoners' garden; the camp (in both senses) concert; the officers-only, "escape-proof" castle on a hill; the unlikely bonding between the working class Marechal and the Jewish Rosenthal as they escape into the Alps and freedom.

It's great strength is that for the most part it's not sentimental. It's about class solidarity in the face of a common enemy, but Jean Gabon's beefy Marechal (wearing Renoir's old uniform: he was himself a pilot until shot down in 1915) concedes he'll never really be pals with the aristocratic de Boildieu. Meanwhile de Boildieu's common cause with the equally upper-crust von Rauffenstein (played by Eric von Stroheim) is suffused with the knowledge that their kind -- along with their way of making war in which fighting honourably counts for as much as winning -- are on the way out. And von R's aristocratic hauteur is kept fuelled with frequent shots of schnapps.

The great illusion is of course that war is bearable: it isn't. It's absurd and destructive and pointless, which is something on which both the French prisoners and their sympathetically-portrayed German captors (mostly middle-aged or elderly) clearly both agree. But there are other illusions. Honour is probably one. Interracial harmony may be another: everyone gets on famously weith Rosenthal, who takes transparent delight in his family's wealth and success, and keeps everyone's morale up by sharing his generous food parcels. But when our heroes bunk up with a black soldier they simply ignore him.

Not everything works. The musical hall performer Julien Carette gurns and gavottes unconvincingly. And there are plenty of unanswered questions, like how the mud-spattered British officers newly-captured somewhere like the Somme have their tennis rackets with them. But we were on balance admiring.

John Birt sat in solitary splendour in the row immediately in front of us.


10/4/12, National (Cottesloe)

2 hrs 40 mins. Smoking alert (Danny Sapani a token, unenthusiastic puff or two; Ray Emmett Brown as Mavis's beau Prince smoking enthusiastically and for real, which is most unusual).

A masterclass in close-up naturalistic acting from a wonderful ensemble cast in a fine play written in 1953 by Errol John (actor and playwright -- once played Othello, as well as starring in the 1960 ITV presentation of this play) about Trinidad in 1947. The troops are returning from the war, and young Ephraim, trolleybus driver with prospects of promotion to inspector, has secretly saved the money for a passage to Liverpool because he's desperate to get out of Trinidad's dead-end society. (In England, of course, he'll most likely end up driving a bus, with the prospect of promotion to inspector, but that's another story).

Around him a strongly-drawn collection of characters living in rooms around the "yard" owned by miserly Mr Mack, who owns the local cafe. There's innocent young Rosa, pregnant with Ephraim's child (though he doesn't know it); hardworking, poverty-stricken Mrs Adams, mother not only to her scholarship girl daughter Esther but the entire yard, with her wastrel husband Charlie, once a cricketer who played for Trinidad; Mavis the hooker upstairs; Prince, her ridiculously dandyish beau. They may sound like types but the play was sufficiently well-written and (especially) well-performed to go well beyond stereotype. These were convincing, sympathetic and rounded people.

Danny Sapani too old for Ephraim (though John himself was 36 when he played him on TV) but a wonderful actor with great physical presence (we saw him in The Overwhelming and as Macbeth in Out of Joint's promenade production at Wilton's); Martina Laird brilliant as Mrs Adams; Tahirah Sharif ("playing age 18" according to Casting Call) utterly convincing as a 10 year old; Jude Akuwudike as Charlie; Jade Anouka (whose credits include Juliet and Ophelia) as Rosa; Burt Caesar as Mr Mack; Jenny Jules as Mavis (we saw her play the lead in Ruined at the Almeida, and in white-face with Lucian Msamati in Death and the King's Horseman).

Played in traverse with a wonderfully naturalistic set by Soutra Gilmour: the Adams's and Rosa's rooms as one end; the stairs to Mavis's at the other; beneath the stairs the bed in Ephraim's room -- all a miracle of compression. Directed by Michael Buffong. Plaudits all round.

It ended sadly after a rather melodramatic confrontation between the departing Ephraim and Mrs Adams, berating him and begging him to stay. There was some plot -- who stole the $70 from Mr Mack's cafe? -- but it emerged from a convincingly portrayed milieu with lots of patois and nicely-observed interactions. (Some of the accents slipped now and again.)

Because it came out of the British and Caribbean traditions there was no American-style need for a happy ending (unlike Ruined). All in all we liked it a lot.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


7/4/12, ROH, Covent Garden

2 hrs 45 mins. A thoroughly satisfactory evening. Purists may cavil: we just suspended our critical faculties and had a good old wallow.

The promised Russian soprano as Gilda was substituted by an English singer, Lucy Crowe. We got an email some time ago telling us that; even so the Russian sang at the first night of this revival. Maybe her agent had double-booked her. Ms Crowe a more than adequate replacement, though she seemed from the Upper Amphitheatre a slightly stolid stage presence. And her two duets with Dimitri Platanias as her dad were genuinely ravishing. He's pretty stolid as well, no great actor, but fine voice, helped by the fact that David McVicar's production and Tanya McCallin's costume design equip him when at court with a black leather ensemble, two-horned cap, hump and pair of walking sticks that make him look like a scuttling insect.

The Duke was sung by a look-at-me Italian tenor called Vittorio Grigolo (who bounded on at the curtain call to beckon down the adulation of the House: the expected extra cheer failed to materialise). One review suggests he looks a bit too clean-cut for a cynical, serial seducer and I wouldn't disagree.

Among the walk-ons we were pleased to spot three of the Jette Parker Young Artistes we heard at Highgate the other week: ZhengZhong Zhou, Pablo Bemsch and Susana Gaspar.

The costumes were in the intended period: 16th century; the set was abstract but included some decidedly 20th century chain-link fencing. Built on the revolve it presented a smooth sloping face during the court scenes with an opening off centre from which thrust a ramp with steps down and a throne for the Duke in front; then it turned to reveal a cramped two-storey interior with a rather precipitous staircase which served as both Gilda's apartment and Sparafucile's tavern (the revolve at the end of scene one was interminable, in silence, dissipating much of the tension and excitement: does it really take Rigoletto that long to manage the costume change from black leather beetle to brownb mufti?). During the abduction scene it half-turned so it was end-on to the audience.

The first scene a proper orgy, with two or three topless actresses running round in extravagantly tailored gowns, draping themselves round the Duke, the courtiers and each other, and another wrapped in a carpet who finds herself stripped naked and (presumably) raped by an equally naked male courtier -- this I assume is Count Monterone's debauched daughter, who comes back in a nightie during act two, lurking disconsolately and a trifle distractingly in the shadows. With so much happening on stage and the surtitles to read it proved tough to focus. And those who've seen it before report that it's all grown a bit flaccid (hah!) since the original production a decade ago.

John Eliot Gardner conducted briskly. A bit outside his normal repertoire, I'd have thought.

This is only the third time we've seen Rigoletto, and the first two were decades ago when we twice saw the Jonathan Miller mafia production at ENO. Gratifying, therefore, to find it can be done differently.

It also has wonderful music, great tunes, etc etc. But the truth is the operatic apparatus often gets in the way of the emotion in works like this which have a pretence of naturalism. It's fun to go, but it's not half as involving as the stage version, Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse, on which the opera's based and which we saw (as The King's Play) in a mesmerising production (with real rain) many years ago at the Olivier with Ken Stott: now that really did make the heart bleed.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


4/4/12, Almeida

2 hrs. A heart-warming, old-fashioned play saved from sentimentality by its honest depiction of its characters' frailties and, in this production, by fine performances from Samantha Spiro (last seen in the Court's Chicken Soup with Barley) as Filumena, the mistress who schemes to get her lover of 27 years to marry her to legitimise her three sons, only one of which is his (and she won't say which), and Clive Wood (last seen as the gay squadron leader in Flare Path) as Don Domenico, the ageing cock of the walk.

The set by Robert Jones a courtyard bathed in rich Neapolitan light in a posh house with balconies and flowers and all other appurtenances (which a couple of hints in the text suggested was originally meant to be the living room of an apartment). But the warm glow is deliberately at odds with some of the content, notably the monologues from Filumena and her old maid, Rosalio, about their past lives spent in the extreme poverty of the Naples slums. The object of the satire is male vanity, and especially sexual vanity, which I suppose helps it to have lasted.

Don Domenico has treated the illiterate Filumena appallingly, deserting her for months at a time (she was working in "the house on the hill" when he first met her), failing to marry her when his wife died, carrying on with an attractive young nurse when he thinks she's dying; she repays him by telling him that she has, unbeknown to him, three illegitimate sons she's set up in business as a plumber, a tailor and a clerk-with-ambitions-to-become-a-writer with money she's stolen from him down the years. When he throws her out before the interval, after discovering she tricked him into marriage by pretending she was dying, she tells him one of the three is his. Which is how when we came back from the interval we found them some months later on the brink of marriage, with the Don trying to work out which is most like him (it turns out none of them can sing, unlike him; and they're all womanisers, like him) and to get all three to call him "father".

Though premiered in 1946 there's not a mention of the war or Fascism: part of its appeal at the time must have been that it takes place in a Neapolitan never-never land; its continuing appeal lies in the robustness of its plotting -- plenty of twists in the first half to keep you guessing -- and its nods towards the reality of Neapolitan poverty.

The house only half full, and some of the laughs were slow in coming. Maybe the Almeida's regular audience thought it didn't sound arty or challenging enough. Like most plays that have lasted, though, it turned out to have strong theatrical legs.


2/4/12, Barbican.

3.5 hours, including interval (the first act was an hour and 45 minutes, which is pushing it). A Simon McBurney Complicite classic with all the wit and technology and spectacular capacity to conjure much out of very little that we've come to expect, but perhaps more impressive than moving. By all accounts Bulgakov's sprawling novel is tough to adapt, but Mao, whom we travelled back with and is the only person I've ever met who's actually read it, said so far as she could remember this was a faithful version.

Eleven actors walk on to a line of chairs across the back of the wide, flat stage. The back wall is blank but will be used for videos and projections throughout, including Google maps-style birds-eye views of locations in the story -- in and around Moscow, in the Holy Land. The chairs are deployed throughout as props, along with a bed, a small glass cubicle big enough for a single person, a wall-with-door which serves to indicate a room; much of the rest of the staging is done with light: pools of light, bars of light which travel across the stage. There are video cameras which occasionally illuminate an action or focus on a performer (the result projected on the back wall); there are also cameras in the ceiling pointing vertically down which occasionally give us a picture of actors lying in square pools of light flat on their backs.

Everyone has head mics.

In the first scene, after some preliminaries which I forget, we see a line of chairs
cubicle (tram, phone box, soft drink)
pilate and yeshua (v thin)
crucifixion scene
woland, truly spooky
lit committee satire
hard to see the master's appeal
angus wright
moscow variety theatre
iphones, lights on us

Sunday, 1 April 2012


31/3/12, Tricycle

2 x 2.5 hours of short plays about the nuclear bomb, interspersed with verbatim quotations, to be seen over two nights or (as we did) in an afternoon and an evening. A disappointment after the really excellent Great Game at this address last year, which was in three parts but otherwise followed a similar format.

That was about using history and the resources of the drama to illuminate a pressing, live contemporary political issue. This was about what ought to be an equally pressing contemporary issue but is in fact one that has slipped off the political radar in recent years (though the Iranian attempts to develop a bomb have reversed that lately).

That may have been one explanation for a curiously underpowered feel to the whole exercise. But the principal problem was that too many of these short plays tackled the issue head on, dramatising the arguments around the bomb but not doing enough to turn them into real drama. It was like sitting through an illustrated politics lecture. Worst offender was the second playlet, in which the central section was a discussion between Attlee, Bevan, a field marshal and a scientist (William Penney, who'd flown in a second plane at Nagasaki to observe the effects of the explosion) about whether Britain should begin development of a bomb of her own. Interesting as history: Bevan's "naked into the conference chamber line was there", the field marshal was agin development because it rendered conventional warfare irrelevant, Penney -- I think it was this character in this play -- argued that once the scientific genie is out of the bottle, it's impossible to put it back in. But too literal, too underpowered dramatically to work as theatre.

There were exceptions: the last play of the afternoon, set in Ukraine some time in the early 1990s, was a comedy which took as its starting point all those worries about the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists and imagined how that might happen. Cue two hillbilly brothers who'd got their hands on one of these things and were selling it off piecemeal for scrap; their sexually rapacious mother; and a drunken ex-Red Army doctor who claimed to have a contact (called "Dennis") in the Chechen terrorist fraternity. The missile sat at the back of the stage as the lads took potshots at empty beer cans perched on it. The Ukrainians all spoke with Ulster accents. It was quite funny and quite clever, though it didn't get the laughs it deserved, perhaps because by that stage the audience had lost its enthusiasm.

The second part was better. A full house helped. So did the fact that, while part one was largely a history lesson, part two took a series of contemporary questions and explored them. But mainly the afternoon plays looked at the issue in an imaginatively-satisfying, sideways fashion. An exception was a pretty literal but entertainingly-staged sketch (little more than that, really) involving two senior North Korean generals discussing a US offer of $1.5 billion to "buy out" the North Korean nuclear arms programme, and wondering how the new Supreme Leader would react (and what his father, the Dear Leader, would have done).

One play centred on the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by Israeli agents who attached a bomb to his car in central Tehran and then sped off on a motorbike. In scene one a Mossad agent travelled to a hotel room in Switzerland to meet his sister, also a scientist and married to a Swiss banker, who had been the Iranian's lover and had slipped him a USB stick which (unknown to her) contained a disabling virus which infected the Iranian nuclear programme's computer network. (The siblings had been born Jews in Iran, before emigrating to Israel). In the second scene we see the professor's widow in a Tehran hotel room immediately after the assassination with her brother, a member of the secret police, who reveals her husband's infidelity with a Jew and Israeli citizen and threatens her. A pleasing symmetry which illuminated issues of loyalty (to family, country, religion) and the paranoia which has led both Israel and Iran to seek to develop a bomb.

The highlight of the evening was by David Grieg, in which a newly-elected Prime Minister is urged by an anonymous functionary ("John. From Arrangements") to write the Letter of Last Resort to be opened by a nuclear submarine captain in the event of a devastating and disabling nuclear strike which has destroyed government, civilian life and military command and control in the UK. (How will they know? There will be no Radio 4. The audience liked that notion and so did Grieg, who milked the gag three or four times.) The letter commands the captain to retaliate. Or not. Retaliation is meaningless and probably a war crime: condemning 10 or 20 million civilians to death to no military purpose, purely as an act of revenge. Not to retaliate renders the whole notion of nuclear deterrence and mutually-assured destruction a nonsense. This was as talky as any of the plays, as dramatically inert (in the sense that it consisted of no more than two people sitting in a room) and as literal; yet it worked the best, probably because Grieg is such a witty, subtle writer. (Dr T thought it played too readily to the audiences prejudices, by which I think she meant there were too many easy gags about Radio 4, and I saw what she meant; but then the audience for an event like this is always likely to be stuffed with R4 listeners, and the whole five hours was pandering to its audiences prejudices since no-one not alarmed by nuclear weapons was likely to come.)

I learnt a fair amount; I reacquainted myself with many of the arguments around the Bomb; I gained insight into the motives of those countries beyond the original cold war participants (China, India, Israel, Iran) who've gone to considerable lengths to develop nuclear weapons; I enjoyed some of the doublespeak this area of political, scientific and military endeavour seems to generate. But I could probably have got all of that from a well-written magazine article in a fraction of the time.

M/f when I can get into the front room where I left the programme when we came home last night (currently inaccessible because of a sleeping visitor brought home in the wee small hours by the boy's girlfriend)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


28/3/12, National (Lyttelton). A mix of verbatim theatre and dance by DV8 arguing that our liberal, multicultural society has failed to stand up to threat posed by murderous Islamic extremisms for fear of offence and accusations of racism. Performed by a ten strong cast of actor-dancers, themselves thoroughly multinational and multicultural, who spoke the words (with the aid of head mics) while moving, dancing, gyrating, sometimes repetitively, often distractingly, once or twice amusingly.

There were also moments of pure dance (or at any rate movement): I remember one scene in which half a dozen dancers ran to and fro diagonally across the stage, forming and reforming small groups who stared warily at one another before dashing off again. There were TV news reports (authentic pictures, commentary revoiced). And there was a soundtrack of recorded rants and observations, mostly revoiced though the most memorable was the audio from a Newsnight discussion chaired by Paxman between a spokesman for fundamentalist Islam (a man who'd like to bring the caliphate to Britain) and a lapsed extremist.

From time to dates, names and statistics would be chalked up graffiti-like. And there was an effective scene in which performers stood facing us intoning the names of moderate Muslims in Europe and Pakistan who'd been murdered for their views, each one marked by a photograph which the performer held in front of them, facing us, letting it fall to the floor with each name, so revealing the next victim.

Less effective were two attempts to break the fourth wall. One was at the very beginning, when a performer comes on and asks: "Who here feels morally superior to the Taliban?" and then shows why many more of us were wrong not to put our hands up by reciting a litany of outrageous Taliban acts (I felt it came too early, right at the start, when we we weren't sure of the rules of the game -- many of us sat, literally or metaphorically, on our hands because we weren't sure about the extent to which this was a real or a rhetorical question. Though maybe
that was the point). The other came two-thirds of the way through in a section devoted to Jasvinder Sanghera and her campaign against forced marriages, when a man near the front suddenly stood up, shouted "the is Islamophobic shit," threw some "turds" onto the stage and walked out.

Piling up the case histories like this is compelling: from Ray Honeyford, the Bradford head teacher hounded in the 1980s for suggesting that, in school at any rate, Asian children should be encouraged to integrate into British society (not least so they stood a better chance of succeeding in it); through Salman Rushdie (passing references only, so well known is the case); Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali; the Danish cartoons; Channel 4's Despatches expose of extremist preachers, Undercover Mosque, for which West Midlands Police initially tried to blame the programme (until Ofcom came to its rescue, cleared it of all blame, and the programme-makers won libel damages from the police); etc etc. There was one example I wasn't familiar with: Dr Usama Hasan, an imam and IT lecturer at Middlesex University, who wrote a piece arguing that Darwinian evolution is compatible with the Koran and was persecuted (and banned from preaching) after a Saudi sage declared he was wrong. Does this mean that all Muslim imams believe evolution is a fraud? Or that most have the good sense to keep quiet? Either way a disturbing discovery.

The piece explicitly posed the question of how a liberal, tolerant society devoted to freedom of speech should respond to illiberal intolerance, to people who who would destroy that society entirely and replace it with something utterly intolerant and who, in the meantime, demand a respect for their views which we don't accord to others' views (but then the "others" mostly don't threaten to kill us if we don't do what they want) and try to impose their values on the rest of us.

It also revealed why we so often accept a minority's arguably outrageous views: because we're afraid of being branded racist, one of the worst insults you can throw at a liberal.

I wasn't sure how staging the argument in this way helps, beyond concentrating the minds of those in the audience on a particular night. I'm also slightly wary, as always when faced with a powerful piece of polemic, about being swept up by it and losing sight of the subtelties and complexities of the situation. Nor did the piece suggest a solution, beyond standing up for what we believe and not letting the intolerant, extremist bullies win; which was at least what the cast and crew of this were doing.

Conceived and directed by Lloyd Newson, who I think is DV8's founder.

Only one scene prompted applause: the former Labour MP Anne Cryer talking about her campaign on behalf of her constituents against forced marriage. Was the applause for the sweet no-nonsense reasonableness of her arguments, delivered in a soft northern accent? Or the elegance with which she was twisted and turned by a male dancer, on whose head at one point she rested her teacup? I thought the former (it was the only moment at which I actually felt moved); A thought the latter.

Afterwards we bought a drink and talked about it animatedly (not something we're minded to do after everything we see, and one advantage of a piece that runs just 80 minutes). Many of the cast came round to the bar (it was the last night); A asked two of them if they'd received any threats and they said they hadn't, though they couldn't speak for the management, and suggested the event took place in a rarefied arts world of which few extremists would be likely to take much notice.

Reviews here. Left and right unite in applauding; but Billington in the Guardian is right to point out that claiming there is a conspiracy of silence not to criticise militant Islam is patently false, as both this piece and the many well-known cases cited demonstrate. The Whingers liken it to London Road with dance but without the hanging baskets, which is sport on in terms of form:

And here's a Guardian interview with Newson. "State multiculturalism has, Newson argues, inadvertently led to a cultural relativism, which leads to a toleration of intolerant positions on women's rights, gay rights and other liberal progressive issues":