Review – Once in a Lifetime – Young Vic

December 11, 2016 by

Tell me what the movies Singing in the Rain and Prix de Beaute have in common? What, you haven’t heard of the second one? Well, this 1930 Louise Brooks film, made in two versions, is a real treat. So the secret is that both films are deeply immersed in the effect that the introduction of sound had to the evolution of the movies … and, if you look over your shoulder, to the effect that movies had on the support for live theater (as it’s sound cinema that killed vaudeville/music hall culture, putting Gypsy on the stage and making Norma Desmond mad). I am very interested in the change that The Jazz Singer brought to the world of cinema … and having the chance to see a play set during this fruitful era was one I could not let pass me by. And it was written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman … my hopes were high!

I’ll warn you that this show will go down best if you have a taste for the “screwball comedies” of 1930s Hollywood – with plots built around things like debutantes taking care of chimpanzees (or maybe cheetahs) while wearing an improbable series of expensive dresses. Yes, reality isn’t really a consideration, and the sooner you stop expecting it, the easier it will be for you to enjoy Once in a Lifetime.

The show opens in the hallway (?) of the tacky hotel the vaudeville troupe of May (Claudie Blakley), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and George (John Marquez) are sharing. May has some bad news: they’re running out of money. It seems like this group has run out of steam. But suddenly Jerry bursts on the scene and announces he’s sold the act so they can run to Hollywood and, somehow, make a fast buck out of the rise of the talking picture. He’s just seen The Jazz Singer and he’s sure there’s money to be made in Hollywood. Give him credit: he has certainly seen the sea change moment. However, he has no idea WHAT to do, and it winds up being May who comes up with the idea of running an elocution school. While the trio are on a train to the promised land (Hollywood), May somehow manages to convince an influential friend of hers, film critic Helen Hobart (Lucy Cohu), to get behind their crazy idea, and suddenly, boom, it’s Hollywood at one of the most chaotic times ever, and our silly little play is off careening down an iced slalom with a complete disregard for logic.

Along the way, we get to see all of the people constantly thinking they have something that ought to be in pictures, tons of glamorous dresses (no cheetahs or chimpanzees, alas), an endlessly rotating stage, way to many Indian nuts, a complete simpleton running an expensive Hollywood production, and an endless paean to the idea that it’s not skill but luck that leads to success.

The acting is not as energizing as it could be (and neither is the script at first), but there are so many astoundingly comic characters for the rather bland leads to bounce off of that I began to feel like I was, actually, watching a 1930s movie, with the incredible depth of character actors they had to choose from. Throughout it all, though, I maintained a high degree of ironic separation from the unreality of what I was seeing on stage … only, underneath it all, it seemed the lesson that the monkeys are actually in charge at the zoo seemed as correct in real life (say, in banking, business, and politics) as it was in this play. Oh, it’s all so funny because it’s just all so true. Skill and talent mean nothing; the ability to spin a convincing line of bullshit and get powerful people on your side is everything. And how can that not make you laugh? This play may have its faults, but I found it an effervescent slice of topsy-turvy reality wholly suited to the end of this most topsy-turvy of years. Who needs panto when you’ve got Once in a Lifetime?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. It continues through January 14th.)

Review – Hedda Gabler – Ivo Van Hove at the National Theater

December 8, 2016 by

HELLO. THIS IS A REVIEW OF A PREVIEW. IF YOU GIVE A FLYING F, DON’T READ THIS AND DON’T COMPLAIN TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T CARE A BIT.

Hedda Gabler. Ivo Van Hove. In no way were either of these things unknown quantities to me when I walked into the National Theater with the most expensive tickets I’d bought to see a show there all year (£39 , thank God for preview pricing!).

Ibsen is one of my favorite playwrights, and Hedda Gabler is the first play I ever saw by him. It established his presence in my developing mental landscape as someone who built complex characters and brought them to a boil in front of me. Ibsen had me asking myself as I walked out of the theater (some 20 plus years ago), “What was Hedda’s childhood like?” and this, the creation of a creature so real I could believe she had a childhood, marked him for me as a truly outstanding playwright. Hedda has reasons for acting the way that she does: I just don’t know them all.

And then there’s director of the moment Ivo Van Hove. I’ve heard his praises sung to the high heavens by Oughttobeclowns but to date I’ve found his production emotionally dry. Stylish, but not touching. Now, for the price I paid for View from the Bridge it’s possible that it could never meet my expectations (given how I feel about the script): Song from Far Away managed to turn suicide into a nap fest. But this was Hedda. I was ready to be blown away.

The set is bare and realistic; the white walls of an unfinished apartment, a very noticeable gun cabinet; nearly nothing to sit on anywhere; loads of flowers in buckets; and a patio window with blinds that gave the wonderful opportunity for light play (open! shut! open! shut!). In addition, the piano gives Hedda something to plink at while she’s being bored; and those flowers allow for some meta decorating of the apartment when she goes on a rant. Hedda: was rich, now isn’t, expects the world to be at her feet. She’s not meant to be sympathetic, not really; but she should be vibrant, and as Ruth Wilson inhabits the character, oh, she is, she is, she is, and she simply can’t be blamed for the overuse of Joni Mitchell (full credit for finishing with Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” though). With her mane of red hair, I saw her as the incarnation of Rita Hayworth as Glinda; beautiful and deadly (and never more so than when she’s pointing a pistol at Row W Seats 14 and 15, please do not be alarmed).

But the rest of it. Van Hove has, with muscle, dragged this play out of the Victorian era and into the modern; but Hedda’s boredom seems as unrealistic in modern times as the constant delivery of letters that really should have been phone calls. Hedda needs a TV and the internet and most of her boredom could be taken care of. And, transposed into the modern, the obsession with scandal and the deliberate choice to ignore the fact that, if you loathe your husband of six months than maybe it’s time for a D-I-V-O-R-C-E (this song was NOT chosen). But it doesn’t even come up. Miserable people in miserable marriages must stay married; lonely bored people need to sit inside and be sad because nothing is happening there; outside of the realm of the Tabloid newspaper, there is no scandal on the level that Hedda fears will come her way if her role in the death of her beloved ex-suitor Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) comes to light. We have options available to us today.

But … I almost forgot that. Hedda was a bullied but I believed in Brack’s (Rafe Spall) ability and enthusiasm about spending years tormenting her. And sure it was a bit silly to have him spit blood red soda all over her dress but it was a lovely way to express how violated she now was. And with her narrow view of the world – one room only, and no TV – I felt her trapped, and I felt her animal like desire to be free, to leap over all of the walls and limitations drawn around her by the world she was born into. And, yeah, it was really good. It’s an excellent play and this production doesn’t stint. Just forget about cell phones for a few hours (thank God all of the audience managed to, somehow!) and it’s just about perfect.

(This review is for a performance that took pace on December 7th, 2016. It continues through March 21st. I have to add that I loved Sinead Matthews as Mrs Elvsted, with her raspy voice and blowsy hair and beautifully designed dress made to really emphasize her character – it’s a lesser role but her desperation felt so very real that … wow. Fabulous.)

Review – Peter Pan – The Companies at The National Theater

December 5, 2016 by

There’s one thing you can expect from the National Theater: if they’re going to do a show, you can trust they’re going to do it right. No “empty space,” no actors all dressed in black because there’s no costume budget: you’re looking at the full meal deal. So when the Theatre Bloggers offered me a chance to go, I was eager. I’d seen a few versions of this book, most recently the side-splitting Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I jumped at the chance to see this show.

Notice, though that while the National tends to go for explicit realism, but can balance that out with “less” rather than “more.” Peter Pan, as performed by The Companies, is decidedly of the “less” aesthetic; rich costumes in front of a nearly empty stage; visible stagehands slipping up and down scaffolding to very visibly make actors “fly” countered with a fully drivable steampunk pirate boat; a crocodile that on one hand looks to be made of tin cans but then seems to leap ten feet into the hair. The air is that of something that is low tech and made up, but no undersupported production get as much as the wig budget must have been for this show. It’s faux poor.

The story itself is so rich that it’s hard to figure out how to approach it, because we have FLYING and PIRATES and FAIRIES. But the text is also troublesome, because it has, um, native Americans and, er, lots of children dying (if you’ve actually bothered to read it it’s not just Tinkerbell who dies, and let’s not mention the extremely bloody fates of the pirates). The script needs a bit of amendment, and with the cast members participating in the writing, we’ve wound up with a lot of free translations that help keep the story up to date with modern sensibilities. Our Captain is a woman, and Tink is played by a man; Tiger Lily’s tribe is gone and she’s morphed into some kind of modern day Princess Mononoke complete with wolves. And the sensitivities of the modern British audience are tenderly coddled by a near entire elimination of death from the script, except for the Tink’s heavily softened passing and of course the dramatic end of our Pirate Queen. I think we managed to frighten some audience members when Tink briefly stopped moving; fortunately Hook’s end was so dramatic it was hard to find it upsetting but rather an act of fantastic bravery. I’m sure anyone else who’s wound up inside a crocodile was far less sanguine (and more ensanguine) than Anna Francolini when she took her swan dive. Still, what an image for little girls to go home with: the wonderful, fierce, brave, New Rocks wearing Gothic pirate queen. I’d be asking for boat to play on in my back yard, no doubt about it.

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

But: the show. There are points to hit in the script, are there not? And the company seems to move between them with some sort of forward motion, but a lack of clear purpose; we have the bedroom, the parents, the woeful dog, Peter Pan, some business with a shadow, flying, Rasta Lost Boys, Wendy as Mummy, and so forth. And, because there are children in the audience, there are songs, none of which are particularly memorable. I mean, there are some really interesting points to be made, and some strong characters, and all of the World War One overhead lurking beneath the surface, and just really so much you can do …. but there are children to entertain but not overwhelm, and since this is devised there’s no actual author trying to make a grand vision come together but instead (perhaps) an attempt to recreate the great success of the Jane Eyre this same company did just last year. In that case, the formula worked … in this case, the sum was less that the whole of the parts, and I found myself, despite my love for this story, trying not to nod off before the interval. Alas.

(This review is of the opening night performance, which took place December 2nd, 2016. It continues until February 4.)

Review – Pride and Prejudice – Two Bits Classics at Jermyn Street Theater

December 4, 2016 by

The thought of two people acting all of Pride and Prejudice seems farcical at the outset, more so when I realized that it was to be a man and a woman. I mean, just look at Elizabeth Bennet’s family! She’s one of five daughters, and in her whole household there is only one man AND SIX WOMEN! And, frankly, Mr Darcy isn’t around nearly enough to justify an entire man in the cast – at least two thirds of the characters are female! But there I was, at Jermyn Street, waiting to see what had been created and, honestly, hoping for the best.

Fortunately, while Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood do stick to playing the two leads, Elizabeth and Darcy (and in the appropriate gender), the choice of genders for the various other parts is surprisingly more varied than I expected. Mr and Mrs Bennet are as expected – Underwood with a pipe and Tincey rather frequently twirling a hanky (and talking in a very comic accent) – but there is quite a bit of variety into the casting otherwise, rather sensibly as the various characters tend to appear in pairs, Darcy himself being frequently seen with Mr Bingley, and the youngest Bennet sisters being somewhat attached at the hip. There is no doubt that Mr Underwood is extraordinarily flexible with his portrayal of the female roles. And, to my surprise, so is Ms Tincey as a man (whipping aside her skirt to show trousers). You cannot help but be somewhat astounded at what a rich job they have done at making these many characters come to life, with only the tiny bit of waffling (the middle sister who only ever gets to be a music stand; an occasional chair that is supposed to be occupied).

Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey - photo courtesy Carrie Johnson

Jane Bennet (left) and Caroline Bingley (with fan) – Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey – photo courtesy Carrie Johnson


So we’ve established that there’s much of a to-do with the actors popping on hats, picking up pipes, or carefully arranging a sash to give a military air. Despite this, the production as a whole has a feeling of carefully controlled simplicity, with only picture rails, a half-window, some boxes and a fireplace serving to recreate one after another interior scene (of people in widely varying circumstances) and, indeed, even the outdoors (as Elizabeth takes her many walks). All of the richness is provided by the glorious words of Jane Austen and the highly memorable characters she created, who quickly became who I saw on stage as the scene required – the brash and stupid Lydia, grasping and shallow Mrs Bennet, formal and gentle Jane. What an accomplishment! And what a very good evening at the theater – it was a longish show but time positively raced by. Like the works of Jane Austen, this feels like a play one could see again and again – a classic performed with bravura and so, so much comedy. It’s delicious counter-programming for the festive season as well. Well done, all!

(This review is for the opening night performance which took place on Thursday, December 1st. It continues through Decmeber 21st.)

Mini-review – Nice Fish – Harold Pinter Theater

November 29, 2016 by

Obviously with Mark Rylance being such a genius and all, it’s “miss it at your peril” whenever he decides to hit the stage again. So I bought super cheap tickets for Nice Fish knowing nothing about it other than MARK RYLANCE WOO and then was overjoyed to discover I’d manage to bag seats for a 90 minute show. Wahoo! And it got better because we were magically upgraded to a BOX SEAT. Now, mind you, this meant that a fifth of the stage was invisible, and there were actually some bizarre things going on on the edge of the stage (puppets, a man standing around), but the LEGROOM and the TABLE. If only we’d had something to drink. Alas.

So Nice Fish is ostensibly about two men who are ice fishing in Minnesota. It is also about pretty much anything BUT ice fishing. There is certainly a lot of talking, and a lot of being silly, and it seems like it might have some point to it. It could have been about the nature of friendship … it could have been about the nature of Americans (you’ll certainly get some insights, as there’s no doubt in my mind that Ron (Mark Rylance) and Eric (Jim Lichtscheidl) are profoundly American in ways that I found oddly relaxing) … but a lot of the big moments that we’re moved between, on a road peppered with conversations about baloney sandwiches, Moby Dick, and the relative merit of different kinds of vitamins … is conversations about the nature of life. Yep. we are watching an absurdist existentialist drama, somewhere between Happy Days (you know, the woman buried below her neck in sand) and Tree, but with none of the “yeah it’s all just waiting for death” of Albee and a lot more of the “it’s actually about the journey, and maybe having a little bit of a laugh” of the Kitson piece.

In the end, this play doesn’t choose to hit you in the head with some big existentialist revelation (even though it does have a piscis ex machina in the final scene), but the semblance of the experience of endurance ice fishing combined with the moments of shimmering metaphors – like a brown trout flashing in a beam of sunshine – is actually rather fulfilling. You sit down, you sit back, you take a moment (or ninety) just to have experiences. It’s actually almost a mini-lesson in how to live life. And in that, the play was successful – not quite genius but still a perfect little lesson in zen.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 28, 2016. It continues through February 11th, 2017.)

Review – Akram Khan’s Giselle – English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

November 16, 2016 by

There is nothing like a sold out show to get me into a complete ticket buying frenzy. I’d kind of ignored the emails English National Ballet had been sending me about their new version of Giselle: what can I say, I was out of work for two months and tickets to Sadlers Wells were not on the list of things to buy with my limited funds. (This despite the fact that their ticket pricing structure is extremely kind especially to the unemployed.) And, well, ENB just isn’t that exciting to me in general. But it got closer to the time and I thought, hey, Giselle, that’s my favorite ballet, why don’t I make the attempt? And then GASP it was sold out. And so for three weeks I set poised with my computer browser set to the Sadler’s ticket buying page. Even after it was announced that it would be returning in 2017, I still wanted to go NOW, when it was all fresh and hot and juicy, and not wait for a whole ‘nother year. Yummy fresh ballet! I had quite a balancing act to pull off though because I had to fit in a time to see the new Wayne MacGregor at the Royal Ballet as well … so there I was yesterday STANDING IN LINE at Sadler’s at 6:45 hoping some person would fail to show up for their date and said date would hand over their ticket in eager anticipation of getting a little bit of money back (as Sadler’s will refund tickets if they are sold on – once again proving how wonderful they are). And POW I finally got one, back of the stalls for £38.

And, wow, what an utterly powerful and deeply creepy version of Giselle this was. Are you familiar with the normal plot? Prince (Albrecht) goes to a random (possibly eastern European) small town, woos innocent young girl (Giselle – Tamara Rojo) with a heart condition, makes her local beau Hilarion jealous, then gets in a bit of a situation as his family (the local king and queen or duke and duchess) show up, while hunting, along with his fiancee. Giselle is initially enchanted by the party of richies, especially the queen (and her clothing), and does a little dance for them to entertain them (because she’s just a lowly peasant after all), for which she receives a necklace in thanks. But then Hilarion blows Albrecht’s cover, forcing Albrecht to publicly show Giselle that his loyalties are actually with the nobility and his love is pledged to another (Bathilde). This causes Giselle to go mad; she does a dance and then dies of a heart attack (or stabs herself depending on the versions). Albrecht is very sad; so sad that in the next scene we see him at Giselle’s grave. She is buried in unconsecrated ground, and SURPRISE she has been recruited to join a band of evil fairies, the “Wilis,” who hunt down young men and kill them. (Wilis are the spirits of girls who died of broken hearts.) Hilarion is also sad and goes to Giselle’s grave only SURPRISE he gets captured by the Wilis and is forced to dance to his death. The queen of the Wilis then tries to get Giselle to join in killing Albrecht, which she should do as he’s directly responsible for her being dead, but unfortunately Giselle is as stupid in death as in life and instead saves Albrecht, thus losing her chance to live forever as a Wili. It’s hard to decide if this is a sad or happy ending but overall it’s a tremendously satisfying story.

SO: we have a NEW version of the ballet, which has taken some characters from the original and about five minutes of the music and dropped it into the tremendously powerful framework of this highly emotive production. I didn’t buy a program, so I’ll tell you what I thought was going on; some key moments were changed (or excised), so we are presented a much more original story that I felt was influenced both by modern fantasy drama (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with a good solid sploosh of Japanese horror sloshed on top. Maybe the intent of the choreographer was NOT to change things in the ways I saw; but it was still a strong story which held the following elements intact: a love triangle, an independent heroine who is betrayed by her love, and death dealing fairies. The rest of it, well, to say it “diverged” was fair; but like good Shakespeare, a good ballet and its characters transcends one choreographer’s interpretation.

In a village somewhere, villagers, men and women, are dancing in front of a looming wall. The dancers’ moment is tribal rather than classical; the men spin and leap (and do backflips). Everything seems to have an air of gloom. These people are poor, and they seemed trapped somehow. One woman stands out amongst them, in part because two men are fighting over her affection. One seems devoted and protective; the other, arrogant.

Out of nowhere a ram’s horn sounds. The effect is eerie, otherworldly: the dancing stop. It is the call of the Wild Hunt. Suddenly, the wall behind the villagers begins to tilt and light flows from underneath it. A crack is forming between the worlds, and the immortal members of the Court of the Fae have chosen to walk out into the land of mortals. We see them, in their elaborate gowns, head dresses, damasks, and lace, silhouetted behind, and yet above, the shabby villagers. They are clearly above their petty concerns. One woman in the group stands out, in her body conscious top more Cretan goddess than human nobility; Giselle is fascinated by her clothing but refuses the glove the woman drops at her feet. Then one of her lovers returns … seemingly Albrecht, the member of the tribe of priveleged people, for he goes around attempting to make all of the villagers bow to the strange creatures. Giselle refuses, and the gentler man rushes to her defence, triggering a battle with Albrecht which Giselle attempts to break up. In the end Albrecht loses, and is stolen away by Bathilde, who seems to have enchanted him. His fate looks to be about as kind as that as the male of the Black Widow spiders when caught by a female member of their species. The Fae depart with their prey, and with Albrecht.

In the next scene, a long haired, blonde supernatural straight out of KwaiDan appears, a veil covering her face and a long slim stick in her hands. She is clearly Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. She looks to want to be taking Giselle to be one of her minions. But then Albrecht appears, and in a violent rage chokes Giselle to death. This prompts the rest of the evil fairies to come out of the darkness with their sticks and herd him into a small circle; then, finally, they kill him, hoisting him overhead like a village sacrifice. It is primal and frightening.

And, as it is the nature of this story, the kind and loving boyfriend shows up. Giselle loves him but as she is a ghost now he doesn’t seem to be able to touch her any more; still, she swoons in his presence. And when Myrtha give the order to kill, she refuses, somehow managing to protect him from the lesser fairies; eventually, it becomes a battle of the wills between Murtha and Giselle, and Giselle wins, driving Myrtha off of her toes, leaving her flat footed. Doing this, Giselle has given up her chance to live forever, but she has kept her ability to make choices about her own actions intact. She is incredibly powerful. As the act ends, we shiver at the naked power she has displayed; to stand against the supernatural at any cost, even beyond death. And with that, she is gone.

Now, I’ve probably got some things wrong because the diversion from the original story seems unlikely to have happened in the way I saw it … Giselle dies after Myrtha shows up? Albrecht is her true love? … but this is how it read to me. And I liked it. The dancing was not very balletic but the Wilis used their toes well to express their otherworldliness and the men were given the opportunity to really show off (although not as much as in a traditional Giselle where the two guys have to “dance to the death” for Myrtha). Frankly I found this an incredibly compelling tale of the supernatural and I enjoyed it a lot. Thank goodness it’s coming back – it deserves to be seen again and again.

(This review is for the opening night performance at Sadler’s Wells, which took place on Tuesday, November 14, 2016. It continues through Saturday night but returns in 2017.)

Review – Travesties – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 12, 2016 by

It is over a month since I have seen this play and I am still so enthused by how brilliant it is that I had to make sure to get some sort of record of it in my blog. Fortunately, Travesties is transferring to the Apollo starting February 3rd so you now have a chance to indulge if you missed out on the Menier run.

And an indulgence this most surely is: Travesties had me feeling like every book I’d read, every movie I’d seen, and every play I’d been to in the last thirty years had all just come together in a big WHOOP of fission action and blown up into a bigger experience than I had any right to expect from a night in the theater. My useless degree in political theory, my teenaged obsession with the Smiths (and Oscar Wilde), my failed attempt to read Ulysses after Alison Bechdel recommended it … not to mention my years of self-teaching about art (no room for that in an American high school education) and even my little trip to the Bauhaus museum in Berlin this summer … yes, all of these things finally came into play as I was able to laugh heartily at a series of very clever jokes and have a right good time doing it. It was like reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and getting it without having to read 200 footnotes to explain everything.

So what was I getting? The wordplay and froth of Wilde; a scene conducted entirely in limerick; some convenient mistaken identities; Edwardian sexual highjinks; a reading of a notorious scene from Ulysses that bore a hysterical similarity to the best known scene of When Harry Met Sally (and had a bonus joke at the end); an actress dancing on a table; lectures on the role of art in the communist society; and more, so much more! (The plot is some kind of nonsense about the British ambassador to Switzerland getting involved in James Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest that took place during the World War One, when both Lenin and the Dadaists were hiding out in neutral Switzerland and, according to the invention of the playwright, meeting up in the town library. There’s just enough real to make this farce of false hold together, but it’s really much more fun to just go for the ride rather than dissect any historical inaccuracies; this is about a night at the theater, not closely observing any sort of “facts.” The ambassador is supposed to have a crush on the librarian, who is a committed communist, but it’s probably best to not going into the details lest you be distracted from the fun.)

The truly impressive thing about this evening was how high energy it all way, with the actors themselves seeming flawlessly on top of every line they said. In fact, it was all executed with a perfection that made me leap to my feet at the end; for it seems to me that only here, in London, could we have such a concentration of talent that this play, which could just be overwhelming, in fact came of as frothy fun executed at the peak of perfection. And there was the whole audience jammed in there and loving it, bringing their own wide-ranging minds to a night of the exact opposite of low brow entertainment. I left loving my fellow Londoners, loving my lovely London actors, and feeling joyous about the wonderful opportunities this city presents for me to feel like life can be truly lived well here. This was without doubt the best show that 2016 will have on offer, and I am sure that I will remember it for a very long time … although possibly not long enough for me to ever get through Ulysses.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 5th, 2016. The Menier run closes on November 19th but you can book those sweet tickets for the Apollo now!)

Isango Ensemble’s “A Man of Good Hope” (Young Vic) and Philharmonia Orchestra accompanying Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”

November 10, 2016 by

Two mini-reviews for shows that are going to be hard to see, as one has only happened twice in five years and the other is coming to the end of its run and is fully sold out.

The night after an election in which a racist candidate pushed an anti-immigrant campaign seemed like an excellent time to see the Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope, about a Somali immigrant and refugee who goes to South Africa in search of a better life. The play was full of the outstanding singing, lively dancing, and endlessly cheerful marimba playing that marks the Isango Ensemble’s work (and strongly justifies the £35 ticket price, which to be honest nearly kept me from coming as I’m really struggling financially right now). But I’d just been listening to an NPR story on how Somali Muslim immigrants are being demonized across the US and I was feeling particularly curious about what the truth was of these people’s experience. The degree of violence people who lived in Somalia in the 80s and 90s experienced is really amazing; I can see how that would have been producing some pretty unusual brain patterns (having your mom shot in front of you; being forced into a militia at 15; rape galore in the refugee camps). And there’s no doubt there were some seriously different cultural issues going on here than anything I’ve seen (although I question which ones were being highlighted as a matter of interest either to the people who make up the company or as a matter of interest to the South African author of the book this show is based upon): for example, how marriage works in Islam; the deep rooted feeling of hospitality that is extended to people of your extended family; how you make a living in a world where there is so little to go around (serving tea? translating? people smuggling?).

And then BAM in your face, the prejudice of the South African townships to the people who had moved there. We’re not talking just calling names – we’re talking wide scale murder, setting people on fire – a level of violence that goes far, far beyond my imagination of how people who hate immigrants treat them. And then there were the cops not coming to help them, but then again not coming to the townships at all – part of the overall problem of post-Apartheid South Africa not delivering for its poor citizenry. The lead character managed to hold on to his sense of self, but by the end of this story he has really just lost so much, over and over again, that I felt burdened with the knowledge that we as a world are just so full of hate for others I barely know how to take a single step forward. But there, I had a chance to get to know what the life of a Somali refugee/immigrant might be like, and in what ways I might perhaps find him very different from me and my experience …. but also how people in a township might be people I would find extremely different from me. But the hatred of the mob seemed too, depressingly, universal.

On the other hand, there was the nearly-sold out performance of the Carl Davis score to the silent movie Napoleon, which I wanted to see as one of those life-list things. Not just the longest movie I had ever seen (two PM to 10 PM with two 15 minute breaks and a 1:50 dinner break), but a genuine epic day and night of art PLUS I’d heard some rumors about how it was shown with three projectors at the same time and WOW. I had failed at River of Fundament and Einstein on the Beach at a mere 5 hours each; could I somehow soldier (HA HA!) though this five and a half hour marathon? I figured if worse came to worse and I left at the dinner break, I’d still have got £20 worth of cinema, especially given the whole thing was being done with an ORCHESTRA performing the score (no feeble solo piano tinkling along to this masterwork!).

Learning from my lesson from Einstein, I packed as if I were going hiking: flapjacks, crunchy candies, Doritos, a bottle of water, and a candy bar. I had a cup of chai (thank you Southbank Beanie Greeny) beforehand and a tea for the first two intervals, but avoided alcoholic drinks. I also made sure to have preventative toilet trips before the lights went down – important, as it turned out, since we weren’t allowed re-entry for rather a long time. I also allowed myself a nap about 90 minutes in during a sequence I had seen in 9 1/2 millimeter earlier in the summer; while a little bit of the beginning seemed different, most of the content before the first interval was very close to what Kevin Brownlow had shown from his home movie set of reels and I had found the Corsica section kind of dull (despite the amazing camera work during the horse chase scene).

The upshot of this (aside from possibly irritating my neighbors and losing a beautiful pair of gloves in my mad race to the start line) is that I found this film highly enjoyable from end to end, and sat eagerly waiting the next bit when we came to the end of each interval. It’s got some serious problems with over heavy symbolism (oh, the eagle in the school scene! and all of the other scenes!) and a bad case of hero worship that rendered many scenes unintentionally comic, but MAN. Did I buy in to Napoleon as a leader able to come up with excellent strategy and incredible levels of leadership during some piss poor times in French history? Damned straight. Did I think he was a hero who led his country to the heights? Well, not so much. And did I find Josephine unexpectedly enchanting? Um, no. But this movie, I found it enchanting – partially as a work of propaganda (but an unfrightening one, unlike Leni Riefenstahl), partially as the focused work of an incredibly creative mind. OH the revolutionaries of France’s terror and their hurdy gurdy player and the pet bunny! OH the crazy, crazy Violine, with her own personal altar to Napoleon, dressed as a bride and praying and MAD! OH Napoleon’s ridiculous lack of a sense of humor! OH the shimmering silks and nudity and madness at the Victims’ Ball! And you know, I think I came out of it with a slightly better understanding of French history. So while it wasn’t perfect, there was… oh wait, I forgot … THE MOMENT WHERE THEY OPENED THE CURTAINS AND THE OTHER TWO PROJECTORS CAME ON AND THE SCREEN WAS SUDDENLY TRIPLED IN SIZE. Fuck you Stanley Kubric, fuck Lawrence of Arabia, here’s sixty musicians and a screen the width of a football field AND A FUCKING ARMY ON THE SCREEN. And all the way through it the orchestra SERIOUSLY heightened the experience.

Yeah baby.

And there was a moment when Napoleon said that he had a vision …. of a Europe where every one was free … of a Europe where there were no borders. And the audience as one clapped and cheered. What an experience.

So three more days to catch Isango Ensemble, and Napoleon is apparently

Review – The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism – Hampstead Theater

November 9, 2016 by

Okay, guys: I try all of the time to give you reviews that let you know how YOU would feel if you just grabbed a ticket and headed to the theater tonight. But I have to preface this: I’ve seen nearly every major play that Tony Kushner has written, and I do not come at this play without baggage. I am going to dissect IHo (full title THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, currently playing at the Hampstead theater) from my particular point of view: as a Kushner enthusiast, as an American, as a small S socialist (I don’t like political parties because I am incapable of toeing any “party line”), as someone who’s been writing plays for three years and has spent the last ten seeing 150 or more plays a year. This review is totally contaminated with my experience and with everything my mind could pull up.

Non-spoilery mini-review: IHo is a flawed work exploring a subculture of Americans (View from the Bridge forty years later) with characters that are so well written they transcend the material. David Calder as patriarch Gus Marcantonio inhabits a man whose influence over his family operates at a near-operatic, Lear-like level of epic, while still being completely believable; Tamsin Grieg, as his daughter, Empty (M. T. Marcantonio) starts from a position of softness and inaccessibility to finish at a point of utter collapse, taking us on a completely believable emotional journey of near-madness, rage, and shock that left me no longer in doubt of why this top shelf actress took a role in a non-West End venue. But their accomplishments as actors and as part of a story-delivering unit are buried beneath a script that is sloppy, overegged, and structurally deficient. This is not a masterwork, despite having a story and characters that can carry it, and at three hours it outstays its welcome by at least 45 minutes. But it may yet redeem itself … in some other form. For now, go see it if you like the author, the subject, or the performers, but be warned the whole is sadly less than the sum of the parts, and you will be heading home at 10:30 most nights.

Now, on with the spoilers. You have been warned.

So, this play, it’s about a family led by a dedicated union organizer and communist (doubtlessly voting Democrat, though) who has decided that he wants to commit suicide and has gathered his adult children to discuss his decision some months after attempting to off himself (unsuccessfully, yet more than enough to traumatize youngest son V/ito – Lex Shrapnel – who had to clean up all of the blood). His three children have all generally followed Dad down the path of socialism, with his bisexual daughter taking up labor law, and his older gay son Pill waving the red flag while teaching high school history (oddly her sexuality matters more to the plot than Pill’s does but hurray for non-bi-invisibility in the theater). Both of the older kids seem to have given up on higher aspirations due to not wanting to break class solidarity; meanwhile the youngest son has chosen a fairly normal life (wife, kids and doing construction work) and while he seems to not embrace socialism, he’s still a huge support to his dad. And just to make everything a bit more messy, Mr. Marcantonio Senior has decided to sell the house for some huge some of money and divide the money amongst his kids … leaving him free to die. So: living dad or giant pile of money? And had dad maybe promised the house to the youngest son? And how does the sister who was a nun and then a member of the Shining Path fit in to all this?

But no, there’s more. Empty is having a baby with her wife, with her youngest brother as the father; older son Pill Marcantonio (Richard Clothier) is having some kind of crisis with his marriage to academic Paul Davis (Rhashan Stone) triggered by his affair with rentboy Eli (Luke Newberry) – providing opportunities to chat about the commodification of sex in the communist economy in an oddly hot way; and there is a MYSTERIOUS SUITCASE that appears toward the end of act two without anyone bothering to open it.

HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH YET? Well, I’d guess not, because there are plenty of extra plot twists involving sex, sex, more sex, babies, abandonment, money for sex, guilt, betrayal, and money. And capitalism. And some history of the labor movement in America. And if THAT wasn’t enough there are at least two scenes where about five to eight people are all talking over each other and frustratingly NONE OF THEM IS SAYING ANYTHING VERY INTERESTING. I mean, hey, I understand this is how real people talk, but the point of writing a play is not to create an extraordinarily realistic family argument, it’s to make a good play. And let’s be clear, the sex kind of helps make that happen, but there’s too much of it.

And, well, actually, there’s just too much of everything. I began to think there were actually too many characters. The ex-nun didn’t add much to the story, and, while Eli and Pill’s conversations about love and loneliness and trying to connect rang very true to me, Pill’s husband seemed a completely unimportant and ill-fleshed out character and I came to the end of the play thinking that actually it would be better if all three of them went as they didn’t really move the narrative forward or add anything necessary to the plot. I began to wonder if Kushner simply couldn’t axe them because they were his “ins” to the narrative; but given how disposable the Pill storyline was, I feel like just two siblings would have made so much more sense, and probably the whole baby plot could go too.

Frustratingly, the third act had a series of scenes that seemed highly necessary (mostly) but didn’t gel, and I got the feeling that maybe these were the things that Kushner constructed his story around, but then was unable to smoothly work back into the narrative. And this is why I feel like this play is interesting but flawed. It seems like a work in progress; it needs lots of cutting and it has too much that does not cohere. We get to enjoy some stupendous performances, and there are some good characters in there, but … it needs scissors. And then, maybe, we can have a great play. Right now, it’s interesting, but not enough for the investment in time. With luck he’ll rethink what he’s doing, ditch most of the noisy arguments, give up on the Macguffin, and then it’ll transfer and be a much better show.

(This is a review for a performance that took place on on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. It continues through November 26th.)

Review – Amadeus – National Theater

October 28, 2016 by

I admit, I did not know that Amadeus, which I saw in 1984, was originally (1979) a play … written for performance on the Olivier’s huge stage. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn’t know in 1984 … but I was already familiar with the music of Mozart (give me some credit!). But since then, I’ve listened to and seen The Magic Flute many times, laughed at Don Giovanni, mostly enjoyed The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutti … and, well, for me to write about seeing Amadeus I have to come clean: I cannot talk about this play from the position of innocence with which I like to approach the theater. I got a lot more little jokes in this play than I would have if I did not know that a woman going to see an opera wearing a tiara of giant stars was likely to very quickly throw off her coat and return to the stage as the Queen of the Night. Anyway, I really, really wanted to see this show and was pleased as punch when the marvelous folks at Theatre Bloggers wrote me with an opportunity to come see this show on press night. Was I happy to fill in a few extra seats in the house of this sold out night? Yes, ma’am; or, more appropriately, “Rock me, Amadeus!”

The play gets off to a rather slow start, which, in retrospective, is probably a good thing given that the play is three hours long and we might as well just get our heads around the fact that we’re going to be sitting there for a while. Salieri (Lucian Msamati), the most famous musician of his time, is explaining to us how it was that he came to hate Mozart. There’s a LOT of back story, and rather a lot of musicians on stage, and not a lot of decor, so your choices as an audience member are to get bored (the guy next to me fell asleep!) … or to actually dig in and engage.

This, dear reader, was my choice. What I was given in return was a chance to have a world built for me with actors, costumes, and the mere breath of a set; and, most importantly, music. MUSIC music music. I listened to music described by people who think about it and (possibly) by people who try to understand how to MAKE it and … it was magic. And it was an amazing story. I came out of the movie oh so many years ago thinking the character of Amadeus Mozart was just insufferable; and, amusingly enough, Adam Gillen was probably even more extreme as the insufferable, poorly socialized, oversexed genius (in pink Doc Martins, loved that so much) … but somehow all of that swirling chaos made the emergence of his ridiculous, beautiful, pattern-breaking music sensible. Of course it could come out of this peculiar/crude/garish vessel … and perhaps it was all of that music sitting in him that turned him into the freak he was written.
queen1
Salieri’s theory is that God chose to express himself though Mozart, leaving Salieri silent, and Salieri (at least as written by Peter Schaffer) has thus been forced to act to repair this injustice, to act against God by punishing Mozart. And we, yes, we, are the lucky recipient of the fruits of his frustration, which is glorious music played deliciously and fantastic conversations about what makes music work. Alongside we get some kind of artistic reconstruction of the lives of both of these men (this is not a history lesson), but, more importantly, a compelling fiction of revenge with bonus gold lame and harpsichords that was so much more compelling than the movie. I have so rarely seen the huge stage of the Olivier so wonderfully used – the experience was nearly overwhelming.

It’s a good thing that the National is planning on broadcasting this production (2 February 2017) because THIS is what people need to remember – a glorious theatrical evening of scintillating music with extra spectacle and great storytelling – and, well, it’s also sold out for the run except for day seats, the Friday rush seats, and returns. So keep your eyes peeled!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 26th, 2016. It continues into February – the additional dates are yet to be announced.)