Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theatre’

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

November 9, 2016

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.)

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Review – Rabbit Hole – Hampstead Theater

February 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Hapgood – Hampstead Theater

December 10, 2015

The Hampstead is right in its happy place with this productionl of Hapgood, a revival of a Stoppard work from the balancing point in his career where he was still riding the line between intellectual inquiry and entertainment in his plays. Written twenty years after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but a mere five years before Arcadia, Hapgood comes from a richly productive time in Stoppard’s life where I imagine a little dalliance in something light seemed like a refreshing change. So for the audience, we get a fast-paced night of guns, deceit, and triple crosses, with some chewy lectures on particle physics that must have seemed zingily fresh when new but which come across as a bit quaint post-Constellations (I mean, who doesn’t know about Heisenberg and make jokes about dead cats in a box these days?). It’s idea for the Hampstead crowd, which I fancy considers itself up on intellectual concerns yet still desirous of entertainment whilst in the theater: they wants jokes that they can feel smug about laughing at – but they still want jokes.

Hapgood posits a single mother working for MI6 in charge of important operations as the cold war is winding itself up. We are given a few mysteries (none of which is how did a woman advance so far in those less-enlightened days; another is how did a “bit of rough” become an expert in the experimental application of dark matter?), most of which center around “who is loyal to whom,” with “whom” being either a country or (more interestingly) a person. The loyalties of the various spies within the agency are under scrutiny, and we, the audience, debate which of the various spies is loyal to which of their coworkers and which to the UK/US versus Russia. We are also given a mystery about an exchange of briefcases in a bathroom at the beginning of the show, and a delightful logic puzzle that introduces the concept of twinnage as a solution for someone being in two places at the same place; does it make the math work? Interval drinks while we debate.

Lisa Dillon has a great time playing top spy Mrs Hapgood, cheering her son on in his rugby games in one scene, repulsing ex-lover(s?) in a shooting gallery in the next. Fellow spy Blair (Tim McMullan) doesn’t seem nearly as well rounded by comparison, but his own woodenness was nicely rounded by the extravagant emotions of Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman). I suspect Stoppard cared more about his character than nearly any of the others, as he’s the one used to spout off most of the scientific blather; it seems simultaneously normal and somewhat boring to listen to someone discuss that passionately his work, and I think Stoppard must have wanted him to seem very real; in some ways more real than everyone else in the play. He is the one we are meant to observe; as we focus on him, the direction of all of the other (unobserved) particles becomes merely a question of proper equations, this relationship x this chemistry = this outcome.

Through a thirty-year lens, this play has become charming and nostalgic; politics and science and plays have all moved on since this was written, and it seems a cuddly little toy from a day when people thought these things really matters. Stoppard doesn’t care about making his plays watchable anymore; I look to Scarlett Thomas when I want to think about the underpinnings of the world. But for a good night out – at just under 2 1/2 hours running time – Hapgood does deliver the goods.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Decmeber 8, 2015. It continues through January 23rd. Might I suggest you consider the Caryl Churchill play at the National if you really want something intellectually challenging: it’s a bargain at £15 a pop.)

Mini-review – Sunny Afternoon (the Kinks musical) – Harold Pinter Theater

May 27, 2015

If you’re a Kinks fan, this isn’t the review of Sunny Afternoon you should be reading. This review is for someone who knows next to nothing about the Kinks but likes musical theater. Should you, oh fellow cultural outsider, see this show? Is it a good musical – or really just a jukebox musical, a way for fans to relive the experience outside of the concert hall?

But how could it be that I didn’t know much of the music of the Kinks? First, I’m too young; second, I’m not British. I was aware of the song “Lola” and “Come Dancing,” but those were the only two songs by the Kinks I could have dredged up out of my memory: “You Really Got Me” I certainly knew, but as a background song from the oldies radio station. I had never heard “Sunny Afternoon” or “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (and not really “Waterloo Sunset,” at least not ’til I moved here): but I discovered (during the course of the show) that I had heard a few via The Pretenders – “Stop Your Sobbing” and “I Go to Sleep.” So there you have it, Kinks fans – I’m really sorry, but they just weren’t as fantastically big in the US as they were in the UK. My 60s listening has tended toward psychedelic music and girl bands, anyway.

So, then, why did I go? Well, it’s actually due to the talk on the show presented at the Hampstead Theater’s Page to Stage Festival, in which the show’s playwright Joe Penhall and its director Edward Hall talked about the complexities in building this story and bringing it to the stage. The writing process was fantastically exciting to me, as Ray Davies was directly involved in it – I mean, who gets to have the subject of your show walk in and say, “Yeah, that’s good, but did you know about this other story?” There was also some mind-expanding talk about recreating the sounds of this band during the sixties, ranging from getting the right kind of amplifiers to teaching all of the actors to not just to act the roles of musicians but to perform in the style of the musicians who they were emulating (i.e. one of them was always a tiny bit off-beat). It sounded like such a great artistic effort that I got really interested in seeing the output of all of this effort – and, I figured, at the end I’d know who the Kinks were in a way I certainly did not before the show started.

As a play, this show succeeded in creating some very rich, believable characters – primarily Ray Davies (John Dagliesh) and his brother Dave (George Maguire), whose richly nuanced performances created the semblance of real legends on the stage before us. And to throw us more into the milieu of this extremely creative era, we had a cast with not just the four people in the band singing and playing, but every single actor on stage contributing to the music (as near as I can tell), including some extremely surprising turns as the two posh boys in the first act turned out to play the trombone and the late middle aged actor who played one of the Kinks’ British lawyers turned out to be a rather fine percussionist. The energy on stage was really impressive – everybody seemed to be having a good time. I even caught the background pianist singing along to tunes where here clearly hadn’t been miked. The joy and excitement wasn’t just on stage, either, because by the end of the show all of the people sitting in my section (who all appeared to be in their late fifties to sixties) were up and dancing and having themselves a real knees-up.

This was what I enjoyed about the show – a chance to hear some really seminal British music performed, not just in its original context, but in its current context, with fandom intact. And I was intrigued by the ups and downs of the bands. However … as a story, it just didn’t get very deep. References were made to Ray Davies’ mental health issues – and they were portrayed a teeny bit on stage – but I never got a handle on just what was going on in his head or how it was affecting his daily life or his creativity. The conflict between the band members was laid out clearly enough, but I couldn’t see how it really ramped up or how it was resolved – just transitioning into another song didn’t explain it. And this seemed to be the solution for nearly every moment when the story could have taken us deeper – play a song. This, unfortunately, didn’t enlighten me, and I still have no idea what brought Ray together with his (first) wife, or how she ever found time to make it into the recording studio after the birth of their daughter. She looked groovy and sang great, but …

In conclusion, I think this is, to a great extent, a jukebox musical, because, while there’s lots of story going on, there just isn’t enough personal evolution for me to really rate it as a play. But there’s lots and lots of music and it’s really fun and it tries to really recreate the sound and feel of the era – and maybe that’s enough. It was certainly a good night out and I walked home humming a lot of the songs, and after any musical, that’s the criteria that would make me say I enjoyed myself.

Mini-review – Hello/Goodbye – Hampstead Theater

January 30, 2015

I think I’m beginning to get a feel for the programming of the Hampstead Theater. It seems a little conservative and it’s got a decided leaning toward the comic (as witnessed by both the nearly perfect Good People and the extremely funny Seminar). This is good, though, as after a brain warping day at work I am ready for a few laughs, so when a friend said she had a spare ticket for Hello/Goodbye on opening night, I said yes without doing any research on this show at all.

The concept of the play (you know this in the first five minutes, so not much of a spoiler) is that two twenty-somethings wind up in a flat which they’ve apparently both rented, only one of them actually has signed papers and the other person has keys and the habit of being serially disorganized. Other person, Juliet (Miranda Raison), initially attempts to bully Person One, Alex (Shaun Evans), into leaving, threatening to have her boyfriend come over and “squish your tiny head” and threatening GBH to the blue toy dinosaur Happy Meal toy Alex has taken a shine to. While Juliet is rampaging around madly and pulling every trick she can think of to manipulate Alex out the door, Alex is slowly drawing her out, getting her to talk to him, and exposing us to what a bag of issues she is. She’s actually managed to be kicked out of her last place and has no backup to live if she can’t stay in this apartment. Watching the two of them spar with each other – Juliet attacking with every weapon she has at her disposal, Alex so succesful at diverting he seems almost teflon-coated – I couldn’t help but laugh, loudly, at her outrageousness (she finally resorts to lingerie and partial nudity) and his hysterical inperturbility. He’s quite the nerdy boy, obsessed with his collections of stuff, yet still completely managing difficult social interactions – the way he diverts her boyfriend with a cup of coffee was an absolute classic, and by claiming to be excellent at sex in a completely non-putting-on-the-moves way managed to put his adversary off kilter as well. After half an hour, you can’t help but feel like they’re both people you know or have met, but the direction the first act is going to take starts to feel extremely inevitable long before the end comes. I found it an enjoyable ride, though, so was willing to forgive its more pat, sit-com-like tendencies. A good laugh was more than enough to compensate me for a few plot holes.

Sadly, the second act just fell over, with a plot twist I anticipated in the first five minutes and a very false feeling reference to, I think, a miscarriage. It’s many years later and things have changed but the two protagonists don’t seem to have evolved a bit. I got in maybe one or two giggles but it became more of a matter of moving toward the inevitable finish and dragging us somewhat unwillingly behind. The TV tendencies of the characters’ interactions became so strong I lost my ability to believe in or laugh at them – I was more laughing at how ridiculous everything had become. And the final, final ending, well … I don’t think it would be believable in a movie, much less the theater and certainly not in a television program. Oh well, it was a good first act, and really, if you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t have to spend too much to see this show (I’d advice under £20), it’s not a terrible evening overall. There’s just much, much better stuff available.

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on January 29th, 2015. It runs through February 28.)

Review – Good People – Hampstead Theater

March 3, 2014

It’s official: London has its first five star production of 2014* … and it’s a comedy. Good People at the Hampstead Theater had me guffawing and gasping nearly from the start straight through to its trim finish shortly before 10 PM. I was actually eager and excited to come back after the interval! When was the last time that happened!

I did my best to do no research whatsoever about this show before I went in, wanting to experience it completely raw – so I was very surprised to find out this show was a very modern play set in America (I finally deduced it to be Boston, a city where a really poor white, urban population is most decidedly in existence – Good Will Hunting twenty years later). The lead character is Margie (Imelda Staunton), a forties-ish mom taking care of a mentally handicapped daughter as best she can on a cashier’s income. Her friends – as long as cash is left out of the equations – are Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson), each with their own list of deadbeat relatives, whom they discuss over coffee and bingo. When Margaret finds out her old boyfriend Mike has moved back to town – and he’s now a doctor – we’re set up for a clash of titans, a veritable Look Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Abigail’s Party.

The clash between Margie and Dr. Mike is pretty colossal. People here in the UK are obsessed with class, but us Americans live in ignorance of it, because all that matters is money. And this play is about how you can “take the girl out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl” as these two old friends from “Soufie” meet up across the giant gap that is their income divide. But what is even more wrenching seeing how much Dr Mike has failed to accept about his past … he’s fit into the rich culture he’s become a part of that there’s not a single person who really understands what he’s like under the skin. Except, really, Margie.

The careful depictions of how real people treat each other, showing off both their humanity and their selfishness, is what makes Good People both hysterically funny and nearly tearfully tragic. Poor people in America are working, are taking care of their kids, and are living one paycheck away from the streets. Some of them don’t make it; the discussion about Cookie, a woman who slides into homelessness after her husband leaves her, is just too telling in the way the poor woman accept that this is just something that happens.

Meanwhile we’ve got Dr Mike living it up in a world of fancy cheeses he can’t appreciate and a beautiful wife who’s assimilated far better into upper class American life as an African-American (she was, after all, born into it) than Mike ever will. He’s convinced that he’s earned it all: Margaret’s wretched life is, in his mind, because of her choices. The scene in which they argue this point … which had me on the edge of my chair … captures so much about why rich people in America … and let’s be honest, the UK … feel like they deserve what they’ve got and poor people got what they deserved.

At the end, I had laughed my head off but was holding back the tears because of an unexpected display of decency. I don’t want to say much more, but just trust me: this play was worth every penny I paid for the ticket, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, even for the top price of £32, you will consider both the money and the time well-spent. Oh, and if you don’t get in, might you consider a cash donation to a food bank? It’s what Good People should do.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on February 27th, 2014. It continues through April 5th.)

*I’m not counting Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t included anymore.

Review – Twelfth Night – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 14, 2013

As mentioned in my review for Taming of the Shrew, I will book for anything that Propellor puts on, because I think they are the best Shakespearean theater company in Great Britain. The combination of original staging, impeccable acting, and transfiguration of the gender expectations puts me into an entirely more receptive state of mind than the “let’s do it all in the most authentic/detailed fashion possible” style I feel is very popular.

And … well, once again I booked for a play I don’t enjoy because of the company. The Twelfth Night subplot of the humiliation of Malvolio doesn’t sit well with me and goes on far too long. The scenes with Viola all sit well with me – I love watching her discomfort both at Olivia’s flirtations and Duke Orsinio’s too-well-received affections – but there’s too much in this play that feels like padding. Maybe a version in which all scenes with Sir Toby Belch were cut out would suit me better; but this is the third time I’ve seen this play in three years and really, it gets boring. If neither Simon Russell-Beale or Mark Rylance can make this show work for me, it just isn’t going to happen.

Except, well, Mark Rylance did make the show work for me: his Olivia was like cut glass, so full of self-importance and yet dragged down by mourning that her sudden change into chickenhawk worked for me. And the Olivia of Propellor’s production wasn’t able to get to that level of comedy, which meant we were reduced to looking to Sir Andrew Auguecheek for laughs (not that he wasn’t very well played but the character frustrates me).

For original staging, we had the duel between Viola and Auguecheek staged in a boxing ring, and the truly lovely shipwreck sequence, done with a ship in the bottle (I love how Propeller really makes less count for more). And Malvolio was truly pathetic and broken, and it was great to see the heavily abused Katherine (of Shrew) returned as a rather swaggering, sexy Sebastian … but … I probably could have passed on this one. I’d just seen in in November and its shortcomings were too fresh for me to overcome my dislike for them, and it’s not like anyone is going to do a version of this in which all of the things I don’t enjoy are cut. So: a good production, a very good Twelfth Night, but on a lovely summer evening I’d probably just as soon have sat outside and had a nice picnic with the actors instead.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 10th, 2013. It continues through July 20th at the Hampstead Theater. They’ll be back next year for Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, so keep it in mind and remember to book early.)

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 – Henry V – Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

July 26, 2012

There’s no doubt about it, seeing Henry V twice in thirty days was a mistake. This version was better than Theatre Delicatessen’s (I could tell, because I didn’t get bored during the last half hour), but the magic was gone for me. I liked the music, though. And it was cool to see the same cast who was just in The Winter’s Tale perform such different roles.

Memo to self: only one production of any individual Shakespearean play per year. DO NOT FORGET.

(I saw this show on Friday, July 20th, but just couldn’t build up a head of steam to write a review, especially given that it closed before I even looked at my computer again.)