Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theater’

Review – Mary Stuart – Almeida Theater

January 27, 2017

The Almeida’s Mary Stuart opens with the most fabulous coup de theatre I think I’ve ever seen: a coin is tossed and, based on which actress has called the coin, the outcome determines who gets to play Mary Stuart, prisoner, and who gets to play Queen Elizabeth. The person who loses has their jewelry removed and their shoes taken off and walks off the stage barefoot; the other actress keeps her jacket and becomes power bitch, ruling over her court and completely in control. The point we’re trying to have pointed out to us is one made explicitly in the script; the person who is the “winner” and the person who is the loser is completely chosen by the hands of fate and has little to do with their own choices. However, what we witness is two actresses taking an incredible risk; can they each remember a bucketfull of dialogue, and be a different person, at the flip of a coin? ARE THEY ALL POWERFUL MAGICIANS?

As I watched the show, though, I stopped thinking about the role of chance and started thinking more about the action and the characters. I somehow started seeing Juliet Stevenson (our Elizabeth) as Theresa May … unsure how to deal with all of her power but desperate to show she was the one in charge. Sure, Elizabeth had a lot more to be weepy about than Theresa May, like managing foreign relations via her own marriage, but as Elizabeth became more cornered I saw more and more the modern politician with a shag blonde cut. And Queen Mary, well, the foreign devil held prisoner with no course to help … how could I not see Mary Stuart (Lia Williams) as a refugee held in some ridiculous Home Office limbo, denied access to her friends, family or legal council … with no choice but to beg for mercy from an arrogant sovereign who saw crushing her as a way to prove her own power? Theresa May, tyrant; Mary Stuart, every person ever desperate to escape death. And I can’t tell you how horrifying it was to watch Mary try to escape someone who’d decided that she owed him sexual favors because, really, when you’re in that kind of powerless position, how much ability do you have to say no? How much can you even protect yourself? And how much does each and every man who helps a woman in those kinds of desperate straights think that he now has a right to her body?

While the show itself is a bit of a marathon (and certainly has lots of history in it to keep you feeling like you’re getting an edumacation as well as being entertained), what I found amazing, more that the gobstopping interchangable actresses, was the crisp, vivid relevance of what I was seeing on stage to what is going on in the world around us. It’s not just a world where we’re fighting for how to spend our theater dollar, it’s a world of politics and power that theater can reflect back at us through a thinly curved mirror. Oh yeah. Mary Stuart. I came for the acting; I left feeling energized to go back out there and fight for oppressed people everywhere.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 19th. It continues through January 28th. I had the supposedly crappy £12 side seats and was grateful for them and felt like they were excellent value for the price.)

Review – Ghosts – Almeida Theater

October 10, 2013

I have to say, I wasn’t planning on going to see the Almeida’s production of Ghosts. I’m an Ibsen completist, but after seeing the Arcola’s 2009 production, I figured this was one I could skip seeing again. But, well, I got an offer to come to a bloggers’ review night, and I thought, why not?

As it turns out, with a different translation, the removal of the interval, and a more committed cast, this was not just a snappy play, but a performance that gave me new insights into the text. This show is known as the “syphilis” play, but it’s about much more than that: about morality, personal evolution, family ties, the impact of lies, and assisted suicide. Over all of this hovers the “ghosts” of the title, the past which Helen Alving (the stellar Lesley Manville) can’t escape … embodied pretty directly as her dead husband and the legacy of his life. She’s got a good position in society, but only as long as she keeps up the pretense of her husband’s reform after years of philandering and debauchery – a pretense which requires her to deny her own skill as a businesswoman. In the end, everything Mr Alving left behind is in ruins, including his son (Oswald, Jack Lowden) and the remainders of his money (to be turned into the funds for what looks to be a house of ill repute).

I found some of this play hard to swallow, still. Pastor Manders (Will keen) is both narrowminded and judgmental, but is both willing to be fooled by Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie) and then to quickly give up his pursuit of truth if it means he is to be stained by opprobrium. His gullibility and easy acceptance of false witness if it were to his benefit didn’t seem in keeping with his character. Meanwhile, Helene, while a believable loving mother and progressive thinker, completely falls apart at the end of the play, when her son starts piling on the bad news. This is a woman who made it through at least a decade (maybe more) of a terrible marriage that required her to deal with humiliation on a daily basis … where was her backbone when her son needed it? Manville had her sobbing and hysterical, but I think she probably would have pulled into herself, looked at the facts, and found strength and clearsightedness.

But, you know, it’s hard to blame actors for a playwright’s decision: I’m sure, like Jessica Rabbit, Manders and Helene were “just written that way.” And although I found moments which I think didn’t make sense, as a drama it all rolled on quite quickly to a blazing conclusion, with Oswald staring into the distance, asking for the sun, his mother standing beside him as the light of dawn peeps through the windows. Ooh such symbolism! And the whole thing took little more than ninety minutes. I was overwhelmed enough that I needed to get an ice cream afterwards to fortify myself – a big difference from how I felt walking out of the Arcola many years ago. This play was vibrant and relevant; I’m so glad I went!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 6th, 2013. It continues through November 23rd.)

Review – Chimerica – Almeida Theater (transferring to Harold Pinter Theater)

May 31, 2013

It was a bit intimidating to walk into the Almeida Theater’s blogger’s evening for Chimerica not two days after going to see Strange Interlude and discover that I had signed myself up for a second three hour play in one week. Arrgh! My sleep schedule!

But I was very interested by the subject material – a view of modern China as seen by a man who’s looking for the person in the infamous “Man confronts tank at Tian An Men Square” photo. It seems that “changes in China” is quite the topic, since both the Ai Wei Wei play and Consumed were newly produced and written just this year. And for me, well, Tien An Men is at the heart of my political consciousness – it was an event that changed the course of my professional life, putting a stop to my plans to go to Beijing and ride the surging tide of what would soon be the world’s largest economy. I watched the protests day after day on TV, and had been following the rapid changes in the newspapers … and twenty-five years later it seems to have been completely disappeared by the monster nation, swallowed up by stories about pollution, worker abuses, political corruption, and the excesses of the nouveaux riches.

The tale was spun in the very movie-like Headlong way that pretty much guaranteed that you could never get bored as the central cube of the set whirled around, opened screens to show little sets inside, was covered by animated images as it spun to another setting, then carried on WHOOPS HOW ABOUT A GHOST? Lucy Kirkwood wrote the scenes in a short, television-esque style that kept us moving from Beijing to New York to an editor’s office to a strip bar to Beijing circa 1987 and so on, barely a moment to think. Most of the cast played multiple roles, except of course for leads Stephen Campell Moore (as photographer Joe Schofield), Benedict Wong (a radicalizing professor Zhang Lin) and Claudie Blakeley (marketing executive Tessa Kendrick). All of them did solid jobs with their characters, although it was odd seeing Wong back on stage so shortly after his star turn in Ai Wei Wei – a particular accent that he has really marked it as “his” performance. And there was just a tiny bit of spoken Mandarin in many of the scenes just to keep it all real (in small enough drabs that I was able to follow along but felt sure nobody was really missing all that much).

Despite the loveliness of seeing a play with so much in the now in its dialogue, with so much of very modern politics and a genuine humanity at its core, I felt that Chimerica was both too long (several scenes seemed rather pointless) and too skewed toward a white, English-speaking audience. Who really could care about someone looking to “get a story” by finding someone in a twenty-five year old photograph? Joe wants to exploit “tank man,” and in the same way Chimerica exploits its subject(s) to produce what is ultimately a fairly empty entertainment at the expense of creating a deeper understanding …something which could only have happened if the people of China were its core rather than its window dressing. Whether as immigrants, dissidents, cheerful patriotic consumers or cog in the machine of the state, there’s a lot more to China and the modern Chinese condition than this play can be bothered to discuss (perhaps because it would be too “boring” or, God forbid, “foreign” to its intended audience). Maybe the author just didn’t want to do any more research. Who knows. I’m glad, in retrospect, that this play does so much to raise the profile of the Tian An Men square massacre; but ultimately it’s a bit like a fortune cookie: sweet and digestible but only with a Westerner’s ideas of Chinese culture at its heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 30th, 2013. My ticket was generously provided by the Almeida.)

Review – Turn of the Screw – Almeida Theater

February 2, 2013

The Almeida Theater’s bloggers’ evenings have been a great outreach program, making it possible for a small, changing group of dedicated theater junkies to see shows together on quieter nights and have extremely animated conversations with each other. It supports the community and gives us a chance to get together as a community (rather than by ones and twos) and interact with each other. I’m grateful for it; most bloggers buy all of their own tickets and getting a free one is a real treat, but the evenings themselves are fun because it’s great to see so many people that I may not have met in person before.

Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Anyway, I was interested enough by the Almeida’s production of Turn of the Screw that I was planning on going anyway, and I’m pleased to announce that it is a solid night’s entertainment that delivers good value on the ticket price (and, being the Almeida, they have a very wide range of prices, from £8 to £32). I didn’t know anything about the story, honest, only that I had some kind of idea it involved a governess and some kind of ghosty goings on. I had a weak memory of an operatic version that made me think children were involved, possibly as ghosts … it was all very vague, and THAT’S HOW I LIKE IT. I mean, seriously, how spooky can a supernatural styley play be if you already know what’s going to happen? And that makes it hard to write a review, too, because I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Right, so: there is a governess (Anna Madeley). There is a twist that is utterly vital at the beginning of the play to making any of this make sense: she is under no circumstance to contact the man who is paying her to do this job. BUT WHAT IS GOING ON? You know at the beginning something happened to the previous governess. BUT WHAT? And is it going to happen to her?

It’s pretty clear from the way the stage is set up that there are lots of nice places for spooky going ons to happen, what with the GIANT WINDOW in the middle of the wall behind the set (thrust far forward so it can rotate and we can have set changes happening behind the bit we’re currently watching). And the EE EE EE! factor is cranked up by the use of creepy music and projections of flapping bats during scene changes. Happily this is mostly very effective in getting the audience cranked up to a mild screaming pitch, and despite the obvious THERE MUST BE A GHOST IN THE WINDOW set up, the designer/director also included all sorts of stuff I would have never anticipated (though I occasionally missed some of it due to looking here and there trying to figure out what was going on, or deliberately looking away because I didn’t want to jump in my seat and knock my program onto the head of the man sitting in front of me).

Now, I will complain a bit, because by the second act we have moved well beyond mild fright and were in a position where we were basically having ghosts on stage all of the time, and I had to wonder: is this what they wanted? Is this where it became a psychodrama? I never entirely was sure what to make of it, but the shock factor of a looming presence was never really matched by someone just marching around on stage while a whirly blue light was shone on them. And this meant at the end, well, I had kind of lost my ability to be frightened. But I still had a very good time, and I walked out with questions to ask myself that weren’t about the scenery, but underneath it all I had to wonder: now, seriously, would anyone have taken the order to not call the uncle given the circumstances? THAT was a mystery to chew over. But it was a fun night and a much better time than I had sitting through some ridiculous kumbaya crap at the National; three cheers for solid entertainment and NO DEEP LESSON TO TAKE HOME thank you!
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(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 29th, 2013. Performances continue through March 16th.)

Review – Between the Dark Earth and Light Sky – Almeida Theater

November 25, 2012

A new play about a poet and the language of poetry – a tempting thing , I tell you: a new play, a play with enough content to mine that it could hit greatness; and me invited along to a bloggers night, a night where I could sit with other hardcore theater fans and discuss and dissect to my heart’s content. Really, I couldn’t ask for much more (other than a slightly less chaotic day at work so I could properly enjoy a glass of wine beforehand).

As it turns about ,the premise was even better that I’d hoped: the play was set in rural England before World War I (a time that bred both great poets and excellent poetry) and also featured Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley) as a friend of Edward Thomas (Pip Carter), the poet around whom the play centered. Having Frost as a character was a real treat for me: while I considered him a banal writer, I liked seeing an American character featuring prominently in this play. It was not just a writer I was familiar with; it was a chance to see through the play my own experience in the world, as an American living in England, with all of the foreignness of viewpoint and experience.

As it turned out, this was one of my greatest joys in the play; my stranger’s eyes, spoken through someone else’s mouth, with the distance of a century making little difference to the similarities of national origin (perhaps the author holds the blame for this). I also revelled in the discussions of language and poetry, of what makes a meter ring, of dissonances and subtlety and what you need to leave behind. This caught my mind and tossed it like a bird into the air; I left finding myself, among other things, willing to reconsider my fleering attitude regarding Frost.

But Edward Thomas: well. As a character, he was written so as to be impossible to like or even feel respect for. He was self-indugent; moody; rude and disrespectful toward his wife; self-pitying; willing to utterly ignore the suffering of others. Points to Nick Dear for making him life-like if this was indeed how he was: I found him insufferable and found it hard not to shout at his wife to kick the bastard out and get on with trying to make something positive out of her life. Thank God we were told at the beginning that he died young; I found myself getting rather eager for it to happen as the play went on. While this play was, to me, a success for the thoughts it provoked and its depiction of rural English life before the war, I find it hard to believe it was entirely successful given that, now that it is over, it is Frost’s poetry I will go back and read.  Ah well: the American regional reps will no doubt embrace it eagerly.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 20th, 2012. It continues through January 12th.)

Review – Reasons to Be Pretty – Almeida Theater

November 28, 2011

Neil LaBute has really been impressing me with his play writing style. From the first show of his I saw (Fat Pig) to In A Dark Dark House, he’s managed to capture both the natural way in which modern people speak and also the horrible way people lie to themselves and others. It the kind of conundrum I really like to watch play out on stage, and for this reason I was excited to see Reasons to Be Pretty when I saw it was coming to the Almeida.

Reasons to be Pretty is about a normal Joe (or Greg – Tom Burke) and the people he works with, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of cross-gender communication. Or so I thought as the show started and Greg was going toe to toe with his girlfriend Steph (the amazing Sian Brooke), whom he has just vilely insulted. Or has he? When the words are finally extracted from his mouth – to much disgust from Steph – you have to wonder Just what is she flipping out about? or, alternately, How does he not get how offensive that was? Or, actually, you should be thinking both, wondering Why does that one sentence seem so different from opposite sides of the bedroom?

To be honest (although I loved the fight scene), I worried at this point that the play was going to be a big boring “And now the clumsy man learns to have some sympathy for poor little sensitive women with our horribly polluted brains” with a cutesy happy ending. This feeling was only compounded by the extreme asshattery of Greg’s best friend, an egotistical asshole who says one thing in front of his friend and another when is pregnant wife/girlfriend is around. Said wife (who works at the same place as the two men) is supposedly hot (which is why friend stays with her) but also appears stunningly ignorant and self-righteous. In fact, as a couple they’re two of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen on stage in ages. You can only assume they’re there as a foil for Greg’s “journey of self discovery,” although how he’s ever going to get a word of sympathy out of either of them is a mystery.

But LaBute doesn’t go for this obvious story. Instead, he starts digging much deeper, into the nature of friendship and the rules that tie people together. We also get a serious examination of the rules Greg has written for himself, and even though he comes off initially like a checked-out loser, when he gets to a crisis point (more than once!) where his values and his actions come into conflict, he manages to execute flying paradigm shifts that would do credit to a cat being dropped into a bathtub. You can practically see him morphing into a vertebrate mid-scene.

At the end of this show, I came away with two major wows (other than the fact it was overall awesome): the set, which was basically a rotating steel packing container with sides that flipped down to create different rooms; and Sian Brooke as an actress, who I’ve now seen in three productions in one year, two of which totally (and successfully) hung on her emotional range to convey a deeply troubled character. And there was a third minor wow: this show is the first time since I’ve been in England that I didn’t catch a single bobble in the accents of the characters. I was actually surprised to find they were all English – I thought the way they spoke was a bit stilted, but I thought it was because they were Californians trying to sound like they were from Jersey. In fact, the whole effect, of watching an American play set in America showing (not at their best) American people actually made me a bit homesick. On the other hand, I’m not the least bit sorry that I’m not having to come home to any of the characters this play was about; but the fact LaBute created four people who seemed real enough to have a life before and after the show (I wound up arguing about how Greg and Steph ever got together in the first place with the people I went with) is a sign of a really well-written show. It’s on for six more weeks; if you value new writing and solid story telling, go see it.

(This review is for a performance seen on Saturday, November 19th, 2011. Apparently there is a TV celebrity in the cast but as I did not recognize her when I was watching the show I’m not going to say who she was though she did a completely fine job in the role of “the pregnant girlfriend.” However, I feel like her casting is responsible for the show being substantially sold out so I’m going to try to encourage people to go because it’s an awesome show rather than feeding any further interest due to celeb casting. Also, while Siân Brooke is generally amazing, I think it’s time for her to play someone rich, or at least middle class, just for variety’s sake.)

Review – There Came a Gypsy Riding – Almeida Theater

February 28, 2007

I was mocked tonight at the theater. I’d had a brief conversation with a woman in the bathroom at the Almeida, and I happened to pass by her talking to her knot of friends shortly thereafter. I heard this:
“Oh! Are you having a good time?”
“Wonderful, really, Actress X is so good tonight.”
“I just was talking to this girl in the bathroom and she said, ‘Ahr the aeccents off, oar is it jest me?'”
“Oh! How funny. I take it she was American?”

Anyway, tonight I went with Jess (and was most happily joined by Jason, who managed to get off call in time AND get a spare £6 ticket) to see There Came a Gypsy Riding. My actual conversation (in the ladies’ bathroom) went:
Me (to total stranger who sounded Irish): Ahr theyurr aiccents off?
Total stranger 1: I’m not Irish.
Total stranger #2: My seatmates are Irish and say there are.
Total stranger #3: They’re awfully, “Well, rahther.”

After, er, finishing up, #2 provided me with much more explicit detail: Imelda Staunton was UTTERLY failing her Donegal accent! (As if I could tell.) And Eileen Atkins, in the role of “the old nutter with the filthy mouth,” was apparently all over the place but since she was brilliant it was hard to care (I concurred).

The play itself was a good night at the theater but had a rough script lacking the, well, perfection of Night, Mother. Too many details were handled in an overly-heavy way; Bridget (the nutter)’s clunky description of finding the suicide, which reminded me of the occasional “explain the technology that enables interstellar travel” aspect of SF and denied the audience the pleasure of their own discovery of the story of the play; the dad’s quieter breakdown, which seemed to come at the moment in the play when the playwright needed it to happen rather than as a natural occurance that flowed up from the character; the sister’s brittle anger, which didn’t have any emotional depth to it. Sure, everyone was struggling, but none of them seemed to have had pasts in the way, say, Hedda Gabler does.

But still. The way the husband comforted and cared for his wife seemed to show the decades they’d spent together; the daughter’s panicked plea for her mother to “come back to us” did seem to come from the right place; and nutty Bridget’s scene talking about her marriage to Old Nick (and, much earlier, singing and dancing with dad) were very good. My hope is that the playwright will revisit and revamp this work and give the characters what they need to be real, or just focus on the mother altogether and let it be a completely brilliant role for “a woman of a certain age.” (And, ooh, I saw the actress who played Vera Drake tonight, woo!)

I leave you with pure beauty, as spoken from the play, an anticipation of a life cut short:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.