Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theater’

Review – The Taming of the Shrew – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 12, 2013

Shakespeare has a few plays I really don’t like. A few I don’t like because they are boring; one (Winter’s Tale) because it’s nonsensical; one because of the violence (Othello); and, well, one because of the misogyny. That’s right, The Taming of the Shrew is a play I actively avoid, because watching a man torture a woman in a comedy just doesn’t tickle my funny bone one little bit. I find it more abusive than Othello, because it makes the audience complicit in Kate’s destruction.

But then there’s Propeller. I think they’re the most outstanding performers of Shakespeare in the country; and, given that it’s an all-male troupe, I’d expect they’d bring something really different to this play. And I’ve been booking for everything they do since their outstanding Richard III; I was just going to have to trust the company to make the best silk purse possible out of this sow’s ear. So I bought my tickets (months in advance!) and waited.

As you would hope, Propellor produced this as a very lively show, with the usual “everybody in the cast sing” moments as well as some rocking out (I doubt the electric guitar was period appropriate but, you know, roll with it); piles of physical interactions and fun staging that still made a virtue of simplicity – much better suited to my tastes than the National’s typical over-heavy set dressings. And the comedy was not limited to the usual “hip thrust to indicate sexual innuendo in the script” nonsense – in the scene where Petruchio shows up to the wedding ill-clad, he is costumed in a fringed leather jacket … and a sumo wrestler’s underpants, aligned so that when he turned his back to the audience and lifts his arms, we were all mooned. (Somewhat more horrifying was the view from the front – my housemate and I were in cringing hysterics because of the nut cleavage. Someone needs to teach this man how to tuck better.)

But did we manage to change the play into one that was not horrifying? Well, no. Punk rock Katherine (with her bleached blond hair and tattered stockings) came off more than ever like someone who’d been mentally abused. Her final scene, in which she admonishes her sister and another new bride for being inappropriately lacking obedience toward their husbands, has been, when I’ve seen this before, kind of a triumph for Petruchio, as Katherine has been restored to a “natural” state for women, obedient and yet still intelligent. In this version, Katherine appeared to be a broken, abused prisoner of war, utterly humiliated and abased, her natural vivacity destroyed. Her changed seemed profoundly wrong.

At the end, when Petruchio is told that it was all a dream (or a play), I can’t help but wonder just what Shakespeare was saying about his own comedy – that it was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration … or not? Despite the overall excellence of this show, I have not been converted to this play, but I think Propeller will probably give you a chance to see it in as good of a form as it will get.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 8th, 2013. It continues at Hampstead Theatre through July 20th. Next year they’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, which I’m looking forward to much more.)

Review – #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei – Hampstead Theater 艾未未

April 12, 2013

In some ways, I feel Like I’ve spent the entire last 25 years of my life getting ready to see and write about “#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei,” a new play currently showing at the Hampstead Theater. So I’m going to let it all rip here without trying to explain too much: but my interest in human rights in China, the evolution of modern China, and modern art are all going to come to a head in this review. So: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

In execution, “The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” is the most purely political play I’ve ever seen. It’s not designed to lecture the audience (except for a few minutes at the end) like “Earthquakes in London” or pretty much anything by George Bernard Shaw; instead, it’s actually the equivalent of a newspaper editorial, directly written as an attack. Its performance is part of the attack, and in order to achieve its goal, which is embarrassing the Chinese government, we, the audience, are required to be there; for a play embarrassing China means nothing if it only exists on paper. This play is being performed on a stage, seen by hundreds or even thousands of people, and reviewed in newspaper: its position, mocking Chinese officials as being stupid and petty and the Chinese government for being rigid and censorious, while simultaneously raising the profile of the treatment of political prisoners in China, is one that the government of China cannot help but be offended by. This play “ruins face” for China; it shows it to be a backward country dedicated to crushing any individual who dares speak against the state. China wants to appear like a modern state on the modern stage; this play peels away the facade of technological innovation and shows China to be just as much of a fascist regime as it ever was. And for this to count, for this to make its political point, for it to be a barb or a dart in China’s self image, it must be done in public.

So, in some senses, this is not designed to be a play that we see and enjoy; it’s a work of performance art. But still: it is a play. And as a play, well, if you’re not really into China or Ai Wei Wei, you might be a little bit bored. It’s no Kiss of the Spider Woman; there’s no moment when the layers peel away and we’re exposed to great art or some sort of, well, fabulous theatrical experience. It actually plays out rather flatly, with the Chinese officials who discuss Ai Wei Wei’s case inside a garden seeming completely artificial, and the “action” inside the places where he is kept prisoner, well, rather dull. In fact, you could make the argument that, as a political prisoner, 90 days of imprisonment in which he’s kept handcuffed to a chair but never beaten is actually a bit on the dull side. In fact, it doesn’t seem like particularly harsh treatment at all, except, of course, if you’re being forced to watch it. (It is, however, a good chance to get to learn about some of Ai Wei Wei’s art works besides his very famous “Sunflower Seeds,” and I am inspired to read up on them.)

I was also very interested in the presentation of Ai Wei Wei in this play, given that it’s based in interviews with Ai. Ai is very much an artist celebrity (or, in the view of the Chinese interrogators, a “con man”) whose art is in part predicated on his position as a dissident in society. At the end, he is freed in part because the officials think his imprisonment would serve Ai more than it would serve them. I remember thinking, when he was arrested, that China could hardly do more to improve his celebrity status and increase the value of his art. But is this play also serving to create “Ai Wei Wei, the legend?” As written, all of his captors turn to his side: the Beijing policemen talk noodle recipes with him; the soldiers speak to him without moving their lips; the transcriptionist at the end says he admires him and wants to shake his hand. Is any of that real? I kind of think Ai may have made all of that up to show how well he connects with everyday people – he even gets his last set of captors to learn about Dadaism. (My favorite moment: Ai being confronted with a picture of Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Brilliant!) But I can’t cross-check his story. It’s being presented as history, but I think it may all be self-serving hagiography.

So is this a good play? I think it’s important in terms of being a good piece of politics making some important points and poking a government that really needs to have its ugly side exposed to the world; but it’s dry and I suspect plays fast and loose with the facts. It may be good for people who are really into modern art, modern China, or human rights; it will be highly offensive to many Chinese people. And for other people, it may just be dull. I don’t expect it will stand the test of time, but one thing I feel certain about, “The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei” was a play that was meant to be talked about. And for all that his jailors said that Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds were a con because they couldn’t even grow (“They were just dirt!”), I say I disagree, because, for me, they, like this play, made beautiful flowers of thought bloom in my mind.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, April 12th, 2013. For another take on the same evening, please see the Monkey Matters blog.)

Mini-review – A Winter’s Tale – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 13, 2012

What happens if you take the worst Shakespearean play ever and have it performed by the world’s best Shakespearean company?

That’s the question I was asking myself when I booked to see Propeller‘s A Winter’s Tale at the Hampstead Theater. I don’t buy that every play by the Bard is good: while he may hold as a poet, some things just don’t fly these days. And the ending of this play is just too far gone to be credible to me. It also is jarring in tone, being a sort-of comedy with themes that are better suited to Othello than Much Ado. Silly shepherds being gulled by a salesman OH HO HO um only remember just a few minutes back when a loyal and good man was being eaten alive by a bear? Or even just a few scenes ago when we saw a woman die because of her husband’s irrational jealousy? Wait I’m laughing so hard I can’t stand it! Or maybe it’s really a tragedy with a tacked on, Hollywood (or Dickensian) happy ending …

I can’t help but think that given the material, Propeller have hugely succeeded with this show, because they kept my focus throughout (even the horrible pastoral party scene, much enlivened by a drag Girl Scout) but also got me emotionally involved in the plot thanks to the top notch acting. Richard Dempsey broke my heart as Hermione, and Robert Hands was convincingly over the edge as Leontes.

And yet … and yet …

Even with the comedy sheep band of the second half of this show, I found most of the scenes in Bohemia irritating (the father/son confrontation excluded), and the final scene in the sculpture room just made me want to pull my hair out. WHAT oh WHAT was Shakespeare thinking? I could not suspend my disbelief to accept the ending of this play as anything other than a … well, these day I would have thought the studio had forced the director to add it, like Decker’s voiceover in Bladerunner. I walked out shaking my head, again. If you’re a Shakespeare completist, then this may be your best chance to see the least painful performance of this play possible, but I can pretty confidently now say that I will die and never again go back for a production of A Winter’s Tale.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. It continues at the Hampstead until July 21st.)