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.