Posts Tagged ‘Fiona Shaw’

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 – London Assurance – National Theatre

March 4, 2010

London Assurance, at the National Theater, marks the first time I have ever gone to a show based on a character’s name. I’ve got no natural attraction to early 19th century works; farce can too often seemed forced; but there was nothing I could do to resist the lure of a “Lady Gay Spanker.” My God. The comedy value of that moniker alone had me gaping. And, when sales for the season opened, I saw that it was very substantially sold out for nearly all of the early run. What did these people know that I didn’t? A farce in which a Gay Spanker pretends to seduce an aging fop suddenly aquired an unbearable attraction for me. Oh National Theater, take me away to the land of laughs!

But, well, then, come show night (second preview), I had second thoughts. The Olivier! Ever stained by Fram, still holding on to Nation! I saw my night of easy laughs suddenly burdened by the worries of _two intervals_ (and the poison of a really long day at work). Gah! I imagined myself dragging along from scene to scene, begging for release from my prison. At least I had aisle seats, and in the very last row, so I could easily run out if needed.

As it turns out, my fear of farce were unwarranted. The stilted jokes and heavy-handed hipness of Man of Mode, the lack of laughs in The Misanthrope (at the Comedy), all were washed over by the gleeful giggles elicited by a show scripted nearly at the level of The Importance of Being Earnest – instead, all the promise of the line “when Lady Spanker discovers the young couple, she needs little prompting from the visiting chancer Dazzle to lead Sir Harcourt astray,” was in every way achieved.

With this showcase for top comic actors, the National reasserted itself as a venue that can get together a cast that does it all right, down to the second butler. I only regret I didn’t pony up for better tickets so that I could have enjoyed it more, because the actors’ comic reactions were making it all the way to the last row, making me wish I’d been able to admire them from closer. And they stuck to one interval and a 10:15 exeunt – hurray! (In fact I’d misread the program about there being two intervals in the first place, so my bad.)

Enough of my fawning. The story, in short, involves an arranged marriage, a young heiress, debtors, rakes, an aged, egotistical fop, and a country house setting, and the requisite double identity (not to mention a false beard). Sir Harcourt Courtley (Simon Russell Beale), is perfect as a fat, painfully vain man who sees himself as a catch for an eighteen-year old. Despite the burden of what seemed like an excessively silly script, Beale managed to do it all without becoming ridiculous – or, rather, he made his character as utterly and completely ridiculous as he deserved to be, pulling laughs the second he walked on the stage with his impossibly over the top and yet perfect posing and posturing.

While his son Charles Court (Paul Ready) is both amusing as a drunk and then fairly comic as a smitten swain reduced to a double identity to dupe his father – and then his new love, Grace Harkaway (Michelle Terry) – neither member of the young couple can hold a candle to the brilliant, braying Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw), whose hysterical lines about hunting, marriage, men, and whistling to call your husband had me guffawing and hee-hawing myself. I was both admiring how good she looked in her period-perfect costumes and totally buying her character as a one-woman party in riding boots. She was both a shining string of diamonds as an actress and an utterly delightful character – I can’t remember ever seeing such an independent, self-directed woman pre-Shaw – and when Shaw and Beale are on stage together, PHWOOM! I can’t imagine how it could have been better.

Sure, the set up of the play was ludicrous from the start, but when you take great dialogue and give it a wriggling mass of top-drawer talent to perform it, it’s suddenly clear why this play ran for ages and ages when it first opened. The National has graced it with a flexible but not overdesigned set, appropriate but inobtrusive music, and some good staging that only faltered when the mechanical rat in the last scene ran out of batteries before he managed to scare Sir Harcourt Courtley out of his last bout of self-admiration. Nearly 200 years later, this play is still perfectly attuned to English comic sensitivities, and for a really good, “forget your troubles, forget your cares” night out, London Assurance can’t be beat.

(This review is for the second preview, which took place on March 2nd, 2010. The official opening is March 10th. The show runs at least through June. For reviews from a variety of reviewers, please see UpTheWestEnd.Com – it’s a short list at present but they will keep updating it as the dailies start to publish theirs.)