Archive for September, 2012

Commentary – Scenes from an Execution (the first half), final dress – National Theater

September 29, 2012

So. Thursday morning, 10 AM. I’ve decided my bad ankle means no dancing for me tonight. But I want to go out. I look at Google Calendars and see my friend Tim Watson is off to see Scenes from an Execution at the National Theater. It’s described as “funny” and stars Fiona Shaw. I see there are some front row tickets available for twelve quid. I buy them. Job done.

When I arrive at the National, I discover the show is running late, and that the “first preview” is now being billed as a “final dress.” We are offered the opportunity both to watch the show AND get our money back (as they say the show may be stopped in the middle) and I take it. With a running time of 2:45, an 8 PM start time now means that my jolly trip to the theater is about to become a Friday morning death march at work, and I want to be able to leave at the interval with a clear conscience. Getting home at midnight is just NOT the way to be a responsible arts lover and worker bee. Of course, I know that if I love it, I’ll stay.

It starts. A man is flying overhead in a box; Fiona Shaw is sitting on the floor in the most horrid rag while a naked man is draped across a rock. The man in the box tells us she is Galactia, female artist of the Renaissance; the man on the rock is her model and lover. She is preparing to paint the battle of Lepanto on commission for the Doge of Venice. Shaw approaches the man on the rock and starts a lusty scene. Her breasts are falling out of her top; I realize, with horror, that in my seat I am perfectly positioned to discover if she’s actually completely without undergarments. I do NOT want to know. Somehow, Entertaining Mr Sloane turned the exact same situation into high comedy; but as scene after scene goes by with the same dress and my eyes at crotch level, I find myself just incredibly uncomfortable and looking at all sorts of different places on the stage.

A man comes on stage with an arrow sticking out of his head. He can make it twitch. Galactia gets him upset, does some quick sketches, and brusquely sends him off stage. This marks the end of the comedic section of this play.

Now as the play goes on, I start having troubles with the script. I think back on my knowledge of art history. There is no Galactia. The problems she’s facing as a woman painting in Renaissance Italy are purely imaginary. She’s not famous for her realism; no one has ever spoken of the Venetian artist Galactia because there has never been such a person. There are no daughter painters worrying about her legacy to them as a gender; there is no female art critic giving lectures on politics. There is no one worrying about a female artist’s outrageous behavior at a funeral or her flaunting of social conventions. It’s all made up. They are debating things that are irrelevant in the historical context. The women of this time were not allowed to do any of these things.

We might as well be watching an episode of Mork and Mindy. I imagine its star is Space Commander Galactica and her glitterboots of wonder, single-handedly saving Venice for democracy and freeing all women to do and say what they want for all time. Only in my version, things are actually funny. Fiona Shaw and Robyn Williams would probably make an outstanding theatrical pair.

When the interval rolls around, I don’t care about Galactia and her imaginary daughters and the painting she never painted because she didn’t exist. Her struggle to be personally true and free of the limits of politics in her work have no resonance. I leave, and I realize that, even though I can rebook, and would be happy to do so for full price for a good play, I don’t consider this worthwhile, because despite some tremendous acting all around, the script is a dud and doesn’t merit nearly a three hour commitment.

I recognize that this was sold to me as a dress rehearsal rather than even a preview, and I give my feedback to you with these caveats. The problems I saw were due to the script, at such an essential level that I do not believe they can be overcome. Other people may feel differently; reviews of the entire show will be coming out soon. I will read them carefully to see if this show was able to salvage itself in the second act; I fear it is an impossible task.

(This review is for a semi-preview, as described, given on Thursday, September 27th.)

Review – Love and Information – Royal Court Theater

September 23, 2012

A long time ago a theater far from the bright lights of the West End set itself a course dedicated to new theater. This being a risky venture for profit making theaters, many looked upon this decision and thought it was good, both the hard core theater fans looking for a new buzz and the conservative programming directors at the big theaters. And the seats were cheap (and huge and made of Corinthian leather) and the theater was usually full. And it was good.

And then, well, some of the productions became very popular. And then there were West End Transfers and queues at the box office and the website was overloaded at the start of booking and even for those who were supposedly Friends there was the bitter disappointment of The Shows That Would Remain Unseen. And lo, the secret was out, and it was fork over for the transfer or suck it, and as a special bonus we’re going to make the tickets for the most popular show of the year available on a luck only basis. Great was the gnashing of teeth, and many were the rendings of the friends memberships.

Hey ho, the fall of 2012 is upon us, and I’m pleased to report that the Royal Court is consoling us for the shows we weren’t able to see by providing us with a run of shows that will make us believe we’re actually not missing anything when we’re forced by finances or the vagaries of the ticket allotment system to stand one out. I present as proof Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 50 miniscule scenes that hit the subjects of the title without illuminating them. It’s as if Churchill was given the task of creating fifty audition pieces and we get to watch the entire collection performed in sequence.

I’ll admit, the audience did laugh, and there were wee moments of poignancy, but I was grossly disappointed by a show that made me feel like I’d been channel surfing.  I found myself thinking,”This show was perfect for the Royal Court,” but sadly I thought this because its deeply literate audience is able to roll with a non-standard format rather than just walking out even when it proves itself unworthy of their time. I want things to be perfect for the Royal Court because they’re new and awesome, not because no other theater would waste their audience’s time with it.

I love my cheapie £12 seats at the Royal Court because they so regularly have overdelivered value; what a change (and a disappointment) to walk out thinking, “Thank goodness I didn’t pay any more for that …”the third time running.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 21st, 2012.)

Mini-review – Hamlet – Tiger Lillies at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center

September 20, 2012

There’s only two days left to see this show, so this review needs to be quick if you’re looking to make up your mind. I’m going to assume you know about Hamlet: to me, it’s the very best play in the English language; as a classic, it’s very open to being “interpreted” as a play as well as being able to form a basis for many other works of art. The Tiger Lillies, well, if you know them I don’t need to say more (and you’re already going), but if you don’t I’ll summarize as: dark clown cabaret music, heavy on the accordion, with liberal helping of Edward Gorey and sex.

Right! So, about that Tiger Lillies’ Hamlet happening at the Southbank Centre for two more nights: it’s 2 1/2 hours long, it has about 10% of the text of Hamlet, and it has five performers doing six characters (Polonius/Laertes is doubled up – well, actually Rosencranz and Guildenstern do make an appearance but they hardly count), so you’re obviously not going to get it all. Instead, you get a journey through the psyche of Hamlet (and a bit of a tour de Gertrude et Ophelia), which, unsurprisingly, the Tiger Lillies find obsessed with sin and death – which, considering the play, isn’t really much of a stretch. There’s far more acrobatics than you get in a normal Hamlet, and very effective puppetry and projections.

Let me go on about the last two for just a bit. Hamlet’s father is a projection, a face bounced onto the cast that contracts until he is only a tiny projection on Hamlet’s body: a powerful expression of his hold over the story as well as his intense sway over Hamlet. This was a nearly shocking use of a frequently lazy medium to convey actual artistry and metaphor: would that all projections were so well used. Ophelia’s drowning scene was also done as a projection, of various waters and splashes behind her while she was suspended from the ceiling; I could have hated it but water (like fire) can just be hard, splashes are impossible (without real water), and the whole thing was just beautiful as well as a summary of Ophelia’s mind (I am particularly thinking of a bit I was sure was blown snow).

The puppets were also very good: Polonius is such a figure of ridicule that he _is_ just perfectly expressed as a giant puppet; and the scene with the players, done as the actual cast with strings holding them to the ceiling, captured nicely the feeling of the performance being controlled by Hamlet as well as the bigger metaphor of the characters in they play all being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Did the Tiger Lillies intend their design to hit deeper levels so effectively, or was this merely a side effect of someone else’s artistic choices? Oddly, their songs did not really add too much to the show other than atmosphere, a fault that was not entirely caused by the murky sound design (Hamlet’s mike totally gave out at one point). Still, I’m not one to complain; this was a very engaged adaptation of this play and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012.)

Review – King Lear – Almeida Theatre

September 18, 2012

It’s easy to get jaded about theater in London. You get big stars all the time (this for me means movie stars, not TV stars), and a quantity of shows that beggars belief. You get the new stuff, you get the classics, you get MULTIPLE versions of classics in one year.

Well, actually, now we’re starting to talk about the problem areas. Seriously, how many TOP NAME ACTORS do we need to see in Hamlet in one year? Is there any excuse for having three Henry IVs part 1 in the same month? Maybe we should be … doing more experimental work? Maybe the big name actors should be pushing the envelope by getting involved in new shows? I mean … does anyone get the feeling maybe the theaters are trying to play it safe with BIG NAME PEOPLE in REALLY FAMOUS PLAYS? Not that I’m complaining about a Long Day’s Journey with David Suchet, and, hey, that girl from Dr Who is in Lucy Prebble’s new play The Effect at the National (though she’s a TV star – still, enough of an effect to make the show a sell-out before it even went to general booking) … but sometimes it feels like there’s not enough risk taking from the theaters or the actors.

Which, I think, brings us pretty squarely to King Lear at the Almeida Theater. It’s pretty safe programming, and the Almeida has loaded the dice by filling the cast with a bunch of big names, none of which I recognized (this is true in real life for me as well as the theater). However, people were very excited about Jonathan Pryce being in it, and even though I haven’t seen him in anything since Brazil, I thought, hey, I ought to go, especially when the Almeida was being nice and offering some bloggers comps to attend very early in the run. I hoped that I’d be ready for it it even though I’d just got back from a week of kayaking in Sicily and was somewhat suspicious about the need for me to see another Lear so soon after Sir Ian’s performance …

Lear, as ever, starts off by alienating the audience (as he alienates “good daughter” Cordelia, a very regal Phoebe Fox), and part of the journey of the actor is, I think, to pull us around to sympathizing with Lear rather than thinking that we’d throw him out if he were our dad. And, well, ew, for some reason director Michael Attenborough decided to have Lear give some incestuous-seeming kisses to the “good” daughters, and that just turned me against Lear in a way I was not able to overcome across the course of the evening. Gloucester (Clive Wood) is a different story – he is lied to and misled, and shows himself to have a strong moral fiber lacking in at least half of the other characters. Thus, to me, he is a real figure of tragedy; Lear, however, is more of an Oedipus, a man deservingly brought down by the gods for his pride.

The ensemble is very strong in this cast – amazing to see the wealth of talent available to the English stage in the over-sixty set – and the design work is extremely effective in the admittedly small Almeida space. But I was never able to emotionally connect to the action on stage. Perhaps it was too close to my return from a long vacation (though I Am a Camera the night before was very enjoyable) … perhaps it was directorial choices. At either rate, I left unmoved, and with the feeling that for some plays, three years between productions is just not enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012. It continues through November 3rd.)

Review – I Am A Camera – Southwark Playhouse

September 13, 2012

My Kander and Ebb obsession has been well fed this summer, with both Flora the Red Menace and Curtains keeping me well entertained and exposed to their considerable skills as a show-making duo. But last night I had an opportunity to do something new: to see the play that inspired their most famous show, Cabaret. Not only would I Am a Camera (at the Southwark Playhouse) give me an insight into the seedy life of inter-war Berlin (and the writing of Christopher Isherwood), it would help me understand the creative process they followed in creating a musical version of the story. Obviously, this was NOT a Kander and Ebb show, but for a fangirl it was an unmissable opportunity to get closer to the characters Cabaret immortalized – and, with any luck, it would be fun.

SO! Let’s talk about the production of I Am a Camera as put on by Southwark Playhouse. It all takes place in a one bedroom flat in Berlin (nicely designed though I suspect not so fun to look at from the seats on the side), run by the busty, middle-aged Frau Schneider (who seems to represent the “everywoman” of Germany of the time), and inhabited by the mousy writer Chris. While he claims to just be a camera reporting on what he sees, still gets stuck in enough to develop strong friendships and get involved in street brawls when things start coming to a crisis. However, as a Briton who socializes pretty exclusively with the Anglophone community of Berlin, he is very much removed from the drama of what is going on in the country around him – meaning he operates at a level of distance that’s actually a bit despicable. Thus, the life he lives in his apartment is pretty much all of his life – but with the addition of a crazy cabaret singer, he has a lot of vim added into what might have otherwise been a very sterile existence.

While there doesn’t really seem to be much of a plot (and both the beginning and the end seemed tacked on as a way of framing what is basically a slice of life), still, the time we spend with these characters is very enjoyable. I was impressed by how richly the script captured the lives of, essentially, a couple of nobodies on the sidelines of history (so stupid they seem utterly unaware of how dangerous the times they’re living in are), but how deeply the actors inhabited these characters. “Chris” (Harry Melling) and Sally (Rebecca Humphries) are both pretty much perfect, inhabiting-the-other performances, especially when they are together and they show an intimacy and friendship that seems hard to see as “just a couple of actors on a stage.” Sally’s falseness and fakery are very much that of a certain kind of girl whom one minute is your friend and the next minute is selling you out – totally running on emotion, incapable of planning ahead. And while “Chris” seems like a character with nowhere to go, he comes through as a person of deep feelings and strong moral core – though one can’t help but wonder if the real Chris just chose to write himself that way in retrospect.

If you’re a Cabaret fan, you’ll adore seeing little snippets that play big parts later – such as the pineapple and the fur coat – and the way the constituent elements of the supporting characters provide multiple strands to be unpicked to support the narrative thread of the Kander and Ebb show. You might miss the nightclub scenes, but underneath it all I was thrilled by the chance to get a closer look at Sally Bowles …and a chance to more deeply understand one of my favorite works of musical theater. But really, I loved spending and evening with such a bunch of perfectly realized, wholly imperfect, and one hundred percent believable characters. Nice job, Southwark Playhouse!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 10th, 2012. I Am a Camera continues through September 22nd.)