Archive for November 16th, 2011

Review – Juno and the Paycock – National Theatre

November 16, 2011

Although my trip to the Lyttleton to see Juno and the Paycock was for a preview performance (tonight is the official opening at the National), I’d like to note that there’s no reason not to judge it fully as it stood last night – the production of this 1924 play is a transfer (and coproduction) with the Abbey in Dublin (which has already been reviewed).

Thursday, September 8th, 2011. In a frenzy of purchasing I attack the National Theater website with the aim of securing, at the lowest possible price, tickets to all of the shows in the fall season – all of the ones I think I will enjoy, that is. I read the description of Juno and the Paycock: “One of the great plays of the twentieth century, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock offers a devastating portrait of wasted potential in a Dublin torn apart by the chaos of the Irish Civil War, 1922.” Oh, well, okay! A great play, something to teach me about Irish history, and the pain of wasted potential – sounds like another August: Osage County or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! I happily dropped two tickets in my basket (balcony at £20, not as cheap as I was hoping) and went on to the rest of the season.

So. Intense struggling characters; a tightly knit family with their long connections (and resentments) carefully revealed through dialogue; some specifics about living conditions among the poor in the early twenties; a decent leavening of
Irish history. This is what I hoped for.

Horrible, comic, painful overacting (particularly from Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper, who seemed to be in One Man Two Guv’nors); conversations that killed time but went nowhere; lines shouted from the stage; history as window dressing; characters cut from cardboard and moving like paper dolls on a set that looked like a rotting mansion. And worst of all, the play turned “the poor Irish” into caricatures: drunk, lazy, supersitious, ignorant, everything I would criticize as a ridiculous stereotype in a new show. I could feel no sympathy for any of them, because they were not sympathetic; but I felt genuine anger at the playwright, who, I felt, had not made an honest play.

This show was for me like being stuck at two of my least favorite shows of the last thirteen months, Men Shall Weep and Chicken Soup with Barley, as I frequently could not understand what was being said on stage (my American-ness working against me) and had a real dislike of the core characters. But Men Shall Weep at least seemed realistic (and sympathetic, if schmaltzy) and Chicken Soup incorporated the history of London communism to an extent that I became interested enough to do further research. And both of them had characters drawn from the fabric of reality, not from the funny pages, with relationships between them that held together after the curtain dropped. Juno and the Paycock, though – I am convinced that it is fatally flawed as a work on the 21st century stage; and the production could not convince me it had any merit at all.

At the interval (ninety minutes in and at least thirty minutes after I started wondering when we were to be set free), I consulted my companions about our courses of acction. Only one of us wished to stay and it was only so that he could finish his review by saying that he’d actually seen it all; but without me by his side, he didn’t feel he could stay awake. I was not willing to stay just so I could say that I had. I hated it. I wanted to leave the theater with a violent passion. We compromised by looking up the ending on Wikipedia, decided we didn’t really care how it played out, then all melted into the night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011. It continues through February 26th, 2012. If you feel eager to see this play, I advise patience as you are very likely to be able to get discounted tickets later in the run.)

Review – the “Michael Sheen Hamlet” (or, rather, the Ian Rickson Hamlet) – Young Vic

November 16, 2011

Who in the world buys tickets to shows eight months in advance? Well, if you’re like me, you will all the time if you want to buy them when they’re cheap – especially if it’s a show you’re worried will sell out. In this case, there was a hot tip on Twitter that the Young Vic had a great new production of Hamlet, directed by Ian Rickson (of Jerusalem fame) and starring Michael Sheen. A theatrical event, I thought, the sort of thing I did not want to be left out of – so despite not really knowing who Michael Sheen was (I apparently saw him in Frost/Nixon but forgot all about it), I went ahead and bought tickets in March for a show in November. And then waited.

November rolled around at last, and word on the streets was bad. First, 80% of my Twitter theater friends hated it (summary available on the As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast). Second, the length was announced as three hours and twenty minutes. This is a problem, first, because it’s tiring: three hours is about all I can take. It’s also difficult because of the end time. While the Young Vic is one of the easiest theaters for me to get home from, given that my tickets were for a Monday, I was looking at setting myself up for a week of woe as I would be getting in a good half hour after bedtime. (Laugh if you will but if you see a lot of shows, exhaustion can be a real problem; I try to be really careful to schedule longer shows for Fridays and Saturdays.)

Third, the actual reviews, as they came out, were all over the place, but amongst the haters was some stunningly cutting summaries that just killed my desire to go. What was I to do with such mixed opinions? @weez said, “You must settle the controversy by going!.” So, despite the fact I thought an early night might suit me better (and getting the £60 I spent on tickets back seemed also very tempting), there I was last night, rushing in just before showtime and hoping the cold I had didn’t slow me down*.

By this point, it seems like there’s little for me to add to the reportage on this show. It’s set as if it’s in an insane asylum (a trope so original I first saw it in 1982 in an Arizonan “Coriolanus”), which works insofar as it makes the relationship between Hamlet and other characters a bit more fraught – Polonius (Michael Gould) is his psychologist, constantly taping his conversations, while Rosencranz (Eileen Walsh) and Guildenstern (Adeel Akhtar) seem far less greedy puppets sent to monitor Hamlet for pay but, rather, truly concerned friends who are frightened by his mental disintegration. It also enables some fun effects as people “watch” the patient behind the glassed off security zone (particularly painful in Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia), and affords some much more reasonable opportunities for people to overhear conversations (though for all of the patients to know they can hear what’s going on in the guard room simply by playing with certain switches stretches the imagination – even more so than what I needed to do to put meaning to Claudius’s garbled words).

But. Seriously. What does it matter if Hamlet is hallucinating the ghost, and seeing Polonius and even Ophelia come to haunt him, when we just care so little about what is happening on stage? Why was it I couldn’t make a connection with any of the characters? Did Sheen speak too fast? Did he fail to show fragility? Did none of the characters actually act like they had a connection with him, or each other, and did it seem, instead, like I was watching paid professionals go through their paces? Seriously, it is wrong for a production of Hamlet to reach an emotional peak when the aged player is reciting the tale of the death of Priam. Painfully, Ophelia’s mad scene was a horror of inappropriateness and unbelievability. Vinette Robinson never seemed to care particularly about Hamlet (or Polonius), so how could she have reached an emotional depth that would have caused her to lose her mind? Yes, she had a nice singing voice, but it was all so forced! As I sat there slowly readjusting my weight in my seat to try to alleviate the numbness in my bum, my soul was escaping from the building. There was some rock and roll, and an interval, and more flickering lights; I had little reveries of happy Hamlets of days gone by. And eventually it was all over. I know I’ll see a Hamlet that blows me away again; but I wish I’d sold of the seats to someone more easily impressed and instead spent the night with good friends at a bar rather than wasting it in this dessicated production.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, Novemeber 14th, 2011. Hamlet continues at the Young Vic through January 21st, 2012. Trust me, the play’s not the thing. However – see * – I did have good company for the show and if I’m honest with myself this is 80% of the reason why I went.)