Archive for February, 2016

Double Header Review – Weald, Finborough Theatre and Battlefield, Young Vic

February 24, 2016

There are two sweet, short shows on right now that end this week, and if you’re trying to decide which to book, you’re probably going to have to choose one or the other. Weald, on through the 27th at the Finborough, is a highly naturalistic show set in present day England that looks at the relationship between an older and a younger man working at a horse stable. Battlefield (at the Young Vic through the 27th), written and directed by Peter Brook (and Marie-Hélène Estienne), is a highly stylized slice of the Mahabharata, an epic story of battle and family rivalry. Night and day, right?

Well, actually, seeing the two shows so closely together, I found many more similarities than differences between them. Peter Brook, as world famous director, seems the likely choice to have created a better product, but in some ways his style has very much informed the production of Weald, which is (seemingly) all about horses with nary a horse on stage. Brook has us seeing gods walking on stage, people transforming into animals, souls leaving bodies and fires raging on stage; Weald similarly takes tiny cues (a bridle, feed buckets) and creates the snuffling, kicking, smelly, warm ungulates that are never represented by so much as a single hoof. It’s all about the actors and the words, and in both cases, our actors take us on a journey: to scenes of tragic death; to scenes of horrible betrayal; to scenes in which the golden light of humanity shines out of a mere actor’s eyes. I saw the grassy countryside through which Cromwell’s army marched, and the blood covered banks of the Ganges; and the goddess of the river rising and crying.

Weald isn’t a perfect script (Battlefield is doubtlessly stronger), and while Peter Brook has honestly created something I can mostly only describe as a perfect theatrical experience, well … I’d like to encourage you to try to see Weald, especially if you have seen a Brook work on stage before. I feel language that is so believable – and is about the world we live in now – is not often come by, and this work by a younger playwright could use you more that Brook can. But, really, they were both very special. Might I suggest you catch the final Sunday show and do the Brook as well? I think you will not consider it time poorly spent; I found it lovely.

(This review is for the Sunday February 21st performance of Weald and the Tuesday February 23rd performance of Battlefield.)

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Mini-review – Road Show – Phil Willmott at the Union Theater

February 23, 2016

It seems odd that the most recent musical by Sondheim (well, hardly recent: it’s been bouncing around since 2003) is making its second UK outing at a tiny venue like The Union Theater. But Road Show seems to be a troubled show with a troubled life. It’s been renamed twice, and it’s never really had a West End run.

What’s the deal, then? In fact, the musical is a bit of a mess. I mean, we start of the night with the jolt of a character coming on stage and singing, “I’m the one you fucked.” Is this all that was left, for Sondheim to choose to shock? The music, you can hear the Sondheim all the way through it, but the story … oh, the story. It’s kind of “backstage at Funny Girl,” the true story of the “lovable scoundrel” Fanny Brice married … though this is the story of two brothers of that era, one of whom gambled and swindled (and was popular – Wilson Mizner), the other of whom (Addison Mizner) was a bit of a wallflower and a failure until he takes up being an architect. The musical follows along their adventures, as well as covering their relationships with each other and their mother … and, eventually, with Addison’s lover, Hollis Bessemer. We cover a large swath of American history over the course of the evening, from the Alaskan Gold Rush to gilded age New York to land speculation in Florida …

… but it all seems to add up to nothing. The characters didn’t enchant me, the songs slipped away, the story felt as cobbled and mish-mashed as a four hundred year old English farm house. I imagined Sondheim wanted to keep some of the songs, but then let the plot get worked and reworked until there was almost nothing left, and this nothing is what we got to see. It was well sung, and the production did a lot to make the space come alive … but it all felt hollow, like Wilson Mizner’s promised investment opportunities. This show will sell out, I’m sure – it’s a must for Sondheim completists – but in its current form it simply isn’t suitable for a grander outing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 18th, 2016. It continues through March 5th.)

Review – Cleansed – Katie Mitchell directing, National Theater

February 22, 2016

Although the National Theater’s website warned that Cleansed “[c]ontains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence,” I did not expect that my evening in the Dorfman would be one of such an extreme nature that an audience member would be carried away, fainting, midshow. (“We get a few every night,” said the man in the cloakroom afterwards, also kindly suggesting I have a sit down to help me deal with what I’d just witnessed.)

I had really discounted the notice as a bit of protective hype, but the show that I got – full of rape, gore, torture, abuse, nudity, sex, and cruelty – operated at a level that seemed designed to batter the audience. Gloucester’s blinding, the maiming of Lavinia … these were moments of theatrical horror, but as arranged in this show the brutal moments were placed so snugly against one another that there was no room to breathe, and the violence in Sarah Kane’s text became nonsensical.

I decided the way to process it was to imagine that, in fact, I had signed up for a night at the Grand Guignol. The relationships that developed between the characters were truly works of fiction existing only to heighten the sensation of horror; the people we were watching, seemingly, suffer, were merely actors playing a role which they would repeat nearly exactly in the next performance. No one was being hurt physically or emotionally, no matter what the bursts of stressed out sweat coming off the man sitting next to me might say. It was fake shots, fake rape, fake suicide and fake murder, all bundled up to deliver the most heightened experience possible. And, although it looked like we were going to have vomiting and emptied bladders/bowels, those lines were not crossed. (Although I think on some nights the vomiting might happen.) I had to <I>actively</I> distance myself from what was happening on stage to get through the show.

Er, so, what about the story? Cleansed seems to me a mélange of short pieces tied together poorly with its asylum setting. We have a woman seeking her lost brother; a gay couple the authorities are attempting to get to betray each other a la 1984; and a peep show stripper being manipulated by a stranger. I couldn’t feel that there was really an overarching narrative to this, although the desire for human connection ran through all of the scenes like a knife slash across a belly: bleeding, dripping, wrenching in its reality. But these threads did not ultimately make a plot, and while each was sharply (horrifically) acted, I couldn’t help but feel all I had was tacked together sketches – or, perhaps, surgical staples across the wound of Kane’s script.

In the end, Cleansed will find its audience; fans of Katie Mitchell, fans of Sarah Kane (myself) … but, I think not in a way Kane would have wanted, fans of gore who come for a night of gut turning theatrical trickery. It’s not what I want to see on stage, but there’s got to be somebody out there who enjoys it; I just wonder if this really, really in any way is how this script was meant to come across.

(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on Friday, February 19th, 2016. It continues through May 5th. It took me three days to recover from how deeply disturbed this show left me. You have been warned.)

Review – Rabbit Hole – Hampstead Theater

February 19, 2016

It’s a treat for me to get to see new plays by American playwrights. The language and the people are, for once, familiar; I relax and enjoy spending time with people I recognize. So it was with Rabbit Hole, the Pulitzer prize winning play making its UK debut at the Hampstead Theater. Since David Linsay-Abaire’s last play (that I saw), Good People, was my favorite show of 2014, I booked for Rabbit Hole immediately, without bothering to read anything about it. I advise you to do so now as well, while there are still a few tickets left; consider this your spoiler alert as I’ll shortly be discussing the plot of this play. If you don’t want to know anything, just stop reading and get a ticket. If you trust my tastes, you won’t regret that decision.

But for those of you who need a little more persuading, let me say that the pleasure of the slow burn of this play about grief is hard for me to put into words. Deaths come to plays and pass quickly; grief comes to our world and stays forever. People learn to cope with it – or they don’t – and this evolution, this accommodation, is at the heart of this story. Becca (Claire Skinner) and Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) seem like they might have once been a normal couple, but the grief of dealing with their young son’s accidental death have left them like two castaways on a storm-swept island, with enough to eat but absolutely no ability to relate to or even recognize one another as struggling with the same problems. Claire’s sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) and mother Nat (Penny Downie) come visit them at their house, but with the amount of engagement Claire can spare for them, she might have well just turned on the TV. The world is not real for her. These other people are not real for her. And when her husband reaches out to her, he might as well be pointing a leafless stick at her for the welcome she gives him. It’s just crushing: they’re both drowning and neither of them can do a thing to help the other.

I found the words of this play very every-day and the opposite of overwrought; they were simple, accurate, and quietly heartbreaking. Absolutely crushing, though, were the tiny interactions of the people with their environment showing the great pits of despair sucking at them from the inside like a black hole trying to turn them inside out. Howie chills out by watching videos of his son; Claire is unable to bear the sight of the dog she holds responsible for the accident. It got to the point that when the son’s cartoons disappeared off of the fridge, I worried about who was responsible. Had Claire finally gone off the edge?

The acting is generally quite good, although I thought Izzy was too bouncily abrasive and seemed to clash oddly with Claire’s much more settled middle class self; perhaps, though, it’s Claire who’s moved a bit up in life but it really felt to me like Linsay-Abaire had just not got the character written right (although in Good People he showed he was quite good at this, who knows what happened). Once I’d gotten past the initial scene with Izzy and Claire, though, I settled right down for a lovely two hours of having my soul crushed delicately and subtlely, so, at the very end, I found myself shocked to feel hot tears pooling up in my eyes (as they are, again, as I write this) for the tiny firefly of hope we are left with in the final scene. It was only a faint glow, seen through clenched hands, but it just destroyed me because I had long ago given up the belief that there was actually ever going to be anything to hope for.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February 15th, 2016. Rabbit Hole continues through April 16th.)

Mini-review – Homecoming – Trafalgar Studios

February 14, 2016

I went pretty late in the run for Trafalgar Studio’s Homecoming, so there’s not much left to say; you can’t go now. It was brilliantly sit and stylishly staged, and now that I’ve been here for another 5 years I understand its slang a lot more: the mysterious mangle, the women “on the game,” why stylishly dressed men own houses on Greek Street. I can hardly imagine this play having been done better.

This leaves us, then, with the question of the script. Would three men live with their father/brother in a situation where pretty much everyone of them was constantly a violent asshole to each other (with the exception of the uncle)? Would the missing brother of the younger generation actually ever come home to this disaster area? Is it really even possible that he would have got a PhD in philosophy, given that his dad was a butcher, his brother a pimp, and his other brother an amateur boxer/construction worker?

Would he bring his wife into this circle of bad chemistry? Would she really talk to all of the men about her underwear? Could she have left her life as a nude model and become a model wife for six years …. and then decide to give it all up, to walk away from her children and be a prostitute?

I like to see Pinter because I feel like his plays are little mysteries that we, initiated members of the theatrical cognoscenti, are able to puzzle through. But I’m about ten years into my Pinter kick and I have this to say about my second professional outing with Homecoming: it doesn’t make any sense. Pinter made a bunch of characters up who possibly worked individually, but as a family realistically interacting together, not a bit of it coheres. Well, okay, I buy the four men who live in the house, but the man whose homecoming this is sticks out as unnaturally as a Bauhaus extension to a Victorian apartment block. It doesn’t work. Tension is created, but at the end, you have to throw your hands in the air and say, “This just doesn’t work!” Pinter has failed to create people any normal person can believe in, and he’s got no one to blame but himself. I’ll flag this play up as not worth viewing ever again; I just don’t have time to waste with such laziness.

(This for a performance that took place on Wednesday, February 10th, 2016. It has closed.)

Review – Light – Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Battersea Arts Center

February 7, 2016

While “the surveillance state” seems like a loosy goosy premise to organize a play around, I’m pleased to say that Theatre Ad Infititum’s Light takes the core nightmare of the society we live in – one where we expect our communication with others to be private and yet now know that most of our communication is routinely monitored by this and other governments. It clear to see what a government on a mission can do to destroy a person’s life – I mean, there are people in Guantanamo to this day who have had no charges brought against them – and the distance between our current situation and a living dystopia is probably little more than the flick of a switch away.

The style of Light is very much like a silent movie (say by Guy Maddin) – all dialogue is broadcast in text above the stage, and the movement is highly stylized to increase the emotional effect of the action. Scenes are “set” with circles of light that might only have a hand or a face in them – so our gaze is guided from moment to moment onto very specific things. The performers often hold the lights and move them around to achieve this effect, and also seem to “throw” LEDs (in red and green) that are meant to show people “sharing” their thoughts with each other (although it could just as easily be people sending text messages and getting them on their phones). The nightmare at the core of this is that now our “receiving devices” are internal instead of external (phones), and these implanted devices are required by and monitored by the state. The plot is a bit about a rebel group trying to free people from the tyranny of surveillance but also about how this surveillance state came to be.

As a theatrical experience, I found the intense sensory assault (there is quite a bit of noise and we’re also occasionally blinded, then reverted to near full darkness) engaging: I liked having my focus so strongly guided. I’m also a science fiction fan, and I found the Matrix-like elements of the plot very enjoyable – in fact, the way this play rode the edge of reality made it feel much more plausible than a story about us being used as batteries. Finally, at 70 minutes, it was pretty damned snappy, with just about 5 minutes of tightening needed. And, boy, my 12 quid ticket could not be beat. In short: it’s excellent, so do try to go, if for no other reason than to see one of the best and most original lighting designs to ever grace the London stage.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February 1st, 2016. It continues through February 13th.)