Posts Tagged ‘headlong theatre’

Mini-review – The Seagull – Headlong at Richmond Theater (then Theater Royal Bath, Derby Theater)

June 4, 2013

Why, WHY would I go see a Chekhov play FOR THE SECOND TIME when I’d already seen it, and should be done with it for all time? Well … to be honest, the last (and first) time I saw it, I thought it was a pretty good play, not nearly as miserablist and pathetic as most Chekhov, with lots of comedy and not nearly as much of an air of “get your shit together, the revolution is about to come and wipe your entire lifestyle off of the pages of history” to it. And, well, Headlong has a really good reputation, and, finally, Lyn Gardner said I ought to (as in, directly to me, in addition to in her tips of the week column). I really thought I could get out of it … I mean, I was hardly going to Glasgow to see it on tour … but then I saw it was coming to Richmond. There were no excuses left: I knew they had £10 balcony seats and with a annual zone three travel card, well, getting there was no problem. The ticket was bought and off I went.

So … you don’t need to know about the plot, right? Fabulous aged actress spending some time at a country house with her sexy younger playwright boyfriend, getting peeved at her wanna-be playwright son (Alexander Cobb, with a delicious layer of puppy fat) and jealous of the son’s wanna-be actress not-quite-girlfriend (Pearl Chanda)? The really bad play the son does? Jealousy and tension and bad manners and a second act back at the country house “some time later” after rather a lot has changed for the two young people? Yeah, that Seagull, complete with all of the self-referential theater jokes (including a discussion of the symbolism of the dead seagull of Act One and how critics approve of plays that propound their own politics, said as if Michael Billington were being addressed directly) that, a century later, are actually still really funny.

It’s all set in the very much now, which means the droopy Goth character Masha (Jenny Rainsford) is tan and trim and wears short black dresses instead of Victorian mourning garb, and glam mom Irina (Abigail Cruttenden) has tousled blond hair and goes about in khaki capris and white Oxford shirts. So, you wonder, can it really work nowadays, when having a child out of wedlock isn’t really the kind of thing that ruins you for life, and women are perfectly capable of having careers and not required to get handouts from their relatives if they’re not employed? The answer is an unqualified yes – unless you have a problem with the use of four letter words on stage (as one couple I heard in the bar did) or find it extremely jarring when someone asks to have the horses brought around so they can go to the station. The hassle of modernizing everything would have been genuinely inappropriate and the out of place bits (frankly making a living off of short stories published ON PAPER seems more of an anachronism than plowing fields with animals) were easy enough to glide over once you were in the groove of the play.

And what a groove it is … so much sexual energy (my heavens!) and such a sense of watching lives teetering on the edge of catastrophe. The whole thing is brought into incredible relief by the stripped down set, just a gray backdrop (that occasionally has a little something sprayed onto it) and a giant trestle that plays the role of seasaw, dock, and dinner table equally well. You’ve got almost nothing to look at but the actors, and it’s really just perfect; it’s treating Chekhov like the Italians do their food – fresh oil, some pepper and salt is really all you need, because the miracle is in how fresh and tasty the ingredients are.

Normally I make really, really bad analogies, but this one is actually just perfect for this show. Chekhov shouldn’t need ultra realistic sets and 100% accurate costumes; he creates characters that are real enough that you can believe their feelings and their backstories. Headlong appreciates that and lets you experience everything that’s right in this play. And, well, maybe the second half was a little long, and it is certainly gloomy in parts, but it was basically perfect. I won’t be seeing any more Chekhov for a long time, but this was, actually, really worth the effort.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 1st, 2013. It opens tonight in Bath: the production continues touring until June 22nd.)

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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.)

Mini-review – Medea (the Mike Bartlett adaptation) – Headlong at Richmond Theater (then Northcott Theatre, Exeter)

November 22, 2012

I went last night to see a modernized adaptation of Medea at the Richmond Theater, and BOY IT ROCKED. I sat up in the cheapie cheapie seats for ten quid in the back of the 2nd circle but after about 10 minutes I didn’t care about the angle or the bits of the stage that were cut off, because the whole thing was TOTALLY AMAZING. Medea and Jason were English, she was living in some kind of maisonette in the suburbs, the chorus was her nosy neighbors, Jason was getting married to the landlord of their building (who was evicting Medea). She was a career woman who was just too clever to be well-liked. There was a song in which the entirely of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” played while she basically had a breakdown in the kitchen and WOW WOW WOW.

It deserves a longer review, but you deserve to see it, so I’m posting this HEADS UP AWESOMENESS and maybe I’ll get in a longer review later. It’s only 90 minutes so you have NO EXCUSE.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 21, 2012. It runs through Saturday, November 24th. Then it goes to the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and I HIGHLY ADVISE YOU SEE IT.)