Posts Tagged ‘I have it as a goal to see all plays by Ibsen’

Review – Hedda Gabler – Ivo Van Hove at the National Theater

December 8, 2016

HELLO. THIS IS A REVIEW OF A PREVIEW. IF YOU GIVE A FLYING F, DON’T READ THIS AND DON’T COMPLAIN TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T CARE A BIT.

Hedda Gabler. Ivo Van Hove. In no way were either of these things unknown quantities to me when I walked into the National Theater with the most expensive tickets I’d bought to see a show there all year (£39 , thank God for preview pricing!).

Ibsen is one of my favorite playwrights, and Hedda Gabler is the first play I ever saw by him. It established his presence in my developing mental landscape as someone who built complex characters and brought them to a boil in front of me. Ibsen had me asking myself as I walked out of the theater (some 20 plus years ago), “What was Hedda’s childhood like?” and this, the creation of a creature so real I could believe she had a childhood, marked him for me as a truly outstanding playwright. Hedda has reasons for acting the way that she does: I just don’t know them all.

And then there’s director of the moment Ivo Van Hove. I’ve heard his praises sung to the high heavens by Oughttobeclowns but to date I’ve found his production emotionally dry. Stylish, but not touching. Now, for the price I paid for View from the Bridge it’s possible that it could never meet my expectations (given how I feel about the script): Song from Far Away managed to turn suicide into a nap fest. But this was Hedda. I was ready to be blown away.

The set is bare and realistic; the white walls of an unfinished apartment, a very noticeable gun cabinet; nearly nothing to sit on anywhere; loads of flowers in buckets; and a patio window with blinds that gave the wonderful opportunity for light play (open! shut! open! shut!). In addition, the piano gives Hedda something to plink at while she’s being bored; and those flowers allow for some meta decorating of the apartment when she goes on a rant. Hedda: was rich, now isn’t, expects the world to be at her feet. She’s not meant to be sympathetic, not really; but she should be vibrant, and as Ruth Wilson inhabits the character, oh, she is, she is, she is, and she simply can’t be blamed for the overuse of Joni Mitchell (full credit for finishing with Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” though). With her mane of red hair, I saw her as the incarnation of Rita Hayworth as Glinda; beautiful and deadly (and never more so than when she’s pointing a pistol at Row W Seats 14 and 15, please do not be alarmed).

But the rest of it. Van Hove has, with muscle, dragged this play out of the Victorian era and into the modern; but Hedda’s boredom seems as unrealistic in modern times as the constant delivery of letters that really should have been phone calls. Hedda needs a TV and the internet and most of her boredom could be taken care of. And, transposed into the modern, the obsession with scandal and the deliberate choice to ignore the fact that, if you loathe your husband of six months than maybe it’s time for a D-I-V-O-R-C-E (this song was NOT chosen). But it doesn’t even come up. Miserable people in miserable marriages must stay married; lonely bored people need to sit inside and be sad because nothing is happening there; outside of the realm of the Tabloid newspaper, there is no scandal on the level that Hedda fears will come her way if her role in the death of her beloved ex-suitor Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) comes to light. We have options available to us today.

But … I almost forgot that. Hedda was a bullied but I believed in Brack’s (Rafe Spall) ability and enthusiasm about spending years tormenting her. And sure it was a bit silly to have him spit blood red soda all over her dress but it was a lovely way to express how violated she now was. And with her narrow view of the world – one room only, and no TV – I felt her trapped, and I felt her animal like desire to be free, to leap over all of the walls and limitations drawn around her by the world she was born into. And, yeah, it was really good. It’s an excellent play and this production doesn’t stint. Just forget about cell phones for a few hours (thank God all of the audience managed to, somehow!) and it’s just about perfect.

(This review is for a performance that took pace on December 7th, 2016. It continues through March 21st. I have to add that I loved Sinead Matthews as Mrs Elvsted, with her raspy voice and blowsy hair and beautifully designed dress made to really emphasize her character – it’s a lesser role but her desperation felt so very real that … wow. Fabulous.)

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Review – The Wild Duck – Belvoir Sydney at The Barbican

October 24, 2014

So how do you describe the feeling of suddenly having a realization that means your entire world has just changed?

It is sitting in the pitch black dark of a spaceship’s belly while pinprick galaxies spin by into infinity and noise slams you into your seat. It is complete sensory overload crossed with paralysis. It is how I felt at the climax of The Wild Duck: fear and exhilaration and amazement all hitting me so hard I almost could not think, I could only experience.

I’ve made it my practice for years to avoid both reading scripts and reading reviews so I can have the pleasure of having a play unfold and be a surprise to me, and there was not a single expected revelation in this show (although I had the decency to be surprised by the presence of a duck on stage despite the title – then wondered to what extent it was a seagull-like metaphor – and, assuming it was, raced quickly to determine exactly what it meant before the end, and was wrong).

You see, the thing is, the rich man, his son Gregers, the son’s buddy, buddy’s wife and kid, they weren’t my family; they weren’t my friends. But from the very first strained meeting between Mr Moneybags and Moneybags Junior, I was pulled in to the reality of their lives. This is kind of funny because the whole thing is done behind a glass wall (yes, there is a fourth wall, and a third) with microphones, and you’d think I’d hate it, the artificiality of it all, the fakeness. But instead, I bought the conceit and believed it all, this despite the fact the daughter was both too long in the tooth to be 15 and, well, just not written right. But there was Gregers with his ridiculous chips on his shoulder – practically myself – making sure everyone knew what the truth was about everything (including his feelings) no matter how unwanted or upsetting his “truth” was … “The Wife,” seemingly a throwaway role until she falls in a ball on the stage and stays there for some twenty minutes, the embodiment of every woman who has had to cry all of her tears forever and can never be unbroken … and “The Buddy,” so hung up on his own ego (like Gregers) that he’s willing to destroy everything so he can feel proud of himself. They’re all real people. I know them all.

In some ways, seeing this play was like watching a real-life enactment of the immovable object and the unstoppable force; but with the feeling of tragedy I always get when I think about Schroedinger’s cat. Do you remember hearing about Schroedinger’s cat for the first time? Can you not tell me that, truth or not truth, the whole thing was terribly cruel to the cat? You want it to be a discussion about physics, but you have to step away from life to do that; and life has a horrible way of popping up when you think it’s just become a beautiful abstraction with no relationship to you.

Finally the lights lifted a bit and the fourth wall became invisible, and two of the characters had a little meaningless conversation and I felt broken and hurt for them. And I thought, once again, Ibsen did this to me. He made me believe. He made me feel. He made the people matter to me, wisps of text and thoughts that they are. Nicely, Belvoir Sydney made me feel the breeze blowing from the stage, as we stood in a nowhere wondering just where our lives had brought us, or, rather, where these characters’ lives (and words, and decisions) had brought them. And I thought, now this was a good, good night. This is why I go to the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, October 23rd, 2014. I apologize for the lack of credit to the actors but there’s absolutely zero information on the Barbican website and I didn’t feel like shelling out £4 for a program, so do the legwork yourself if you’re really curious. Admittedly some of my experience of the play was due to having side effects from an ocular migraine, and the fact that the Barbican theater reminds me of a spaceship anyway, but there you have it, I was actually speechless and amazed and seeing little flickering lights while feeling unable to move a muscle. Kinda cool really.)

Review – Public Enemy – Young Vic

May 9, 2013

As an Ibsen completist, I was excited by the opportunity to see a production of Enemy of the People (charmingly retitled as Public Enemy but no rapping), so much the better that seats at this Young Vic production were available for £10. Be warned, though, cheap seats fans, of the danger of the front row, far left seats: for a good section of the first scene, of two actors I could only see a hat; and for the second act, a long section in which the actors were actually in front of the curtain required me to crane my neck so far (and so long) to the right I thought I was going to get the theatrical equivalent of deep vein thrombosis. Balcony seats will likely save you from cramping.

Plotwise, Public Enemy is just as on topic now as it would have been when written – well, mostly. The lead character is a doctor who is going to save a spa town from the pollution that’s making spa-goers sick; however, when it turns out the consequences of fixing this problem will cause the ruination of the town, suddenly even his wife is asking him to reconsider letting the cat out of the bag. The situation, of a small town with a small economy and a whistleblower who’s going to upset things, has all sorts of easy-to-see parallels with our society; but the political environment is quite different. The local government in the play is far more prone to cronyism than today (not so many people appointing family members to public office); there’s a real fear of communism and yet the local publisher is proud to be a socialist; and, shockingly, the doctor himself posits anti-democratic beliefs that are right out of the Ayn Rand handbook. “The majority makes the rules, but you’re willing to admit that most people are stupid! You should all be shot!” (Oh my.)

This leads to some interesting tension as a play viewer. You want the doctor to stand up for what is right (not having people die from the poisoned water at the spa), you want him to do it more than he worries about his career (or even his family), but suddenly when he starts talking about his own superiority to the people of the town he lives in, your sympathy for him evaporates. Yeah, he is probably better educated than most of the townspeople; sure, a lot of people “vote with their wallets” (private interest over public interest); but … if he really believes that everyone is ignorant and the ignorant should be “put out of their misery” rather than be allowed to participate in government, well, all I can say is Nietzsche did it better and the consequences were pretty horrible, and maybe the good doctor should be looking at a better investment in education for his fellow citizens.

But there is no way to not feel the pull of individual greed in influencing bad decisions: you can see it today in the factory collapses in Bangladesh and the recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Both individuals and governments influenced by the self-interest of the rich work to try to do things on the cheap; and the result is that people die in entirely preventable incidents. It’s amazing to watch both the newspaper editor and the publisher collapse in the face of their own loss were the doctor’s report to be published: suddenly their concern for “the public good” and “the people” are revealed to be easily punctured in the face of reduced revenue. And it’s hard not to value someone who’s willing to stand up to public pressure to save people’s lives. I’ll agree with the doctor: the minority is the one from which ideas and change generate, and minority interests need to be protected. But at the end, when he says that the strongest man is the one who stands by himself, well, in this version at least, he’s shown to be a madman. Frankly, I prefer him as a slightly misguided hero, but … well, it’s lovely that Ibsen has created a show so vibrant that there’s this much to talk about, and I was very happy to have the whole thing race along in less than 1:45 (a possible interval was replaced by a set change). If you like your theater served with a heavy side dish of politics, this play is highly recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. It continues through June 8th.)

Mini-review – Love’s Comedy – Orange Tree Theater

November 21, 2012

Once again (the second time this year!) an early work of Ibsen’s is making its extremely delayed debut in London. This time it’s Love’s Comedy (at the Orange Tree Theater), and I, with my Ibsen obsession, was drawn to it like a fly to a pitcher plant (and giddy about the prospect of falling in). I was also excited to see a new performance space: the black-box Orange Tree theater, which has been producing shows for ages but which sits outside of my normal circle despite being much easier to get home from than, say, the Arcola. And it was lovely inside, with the room decked out to represent the garden, patio, and external entrances to a Norwegian country home, complete with pear blossoms, adorable carved balcony railings, and a starry night sky in the distance. It all looked so inviting that I was ready to plop myself in one of the café chairs and pick up a basket of embroidery, but restrained myself and took a cushioned seat on the perimeter instead.

Written nearly a decade after St John’s Night, Love’s Comedy deals with some of the same themes; young lovers, town versus country, the changes in Norwegian values, who is right for whom. It even has a very similar main character, with the dreaming, iconoclastic poet Birk reimagined as the trouble-stirring (and yet still entirely just as egotistical) Falk (Mark Arends). But with ten year’s time, Ibsen seems to have lost his patience with Falk, who seems, in his vision for his lover Swanhild (Sarah Winter), to be eager to put her in a box that limits her own existence as an individual despite claiming to love freedom himself. He is every bit limited by his own provincial notions of women’s capabilities, and I wanted to whisper to her to run away from him before she wrecked her life.

Interestingly, Falk, as he tried to seduce Swanhild into taking up a life that would most flatter his self-importance, seemed to me an incarnation of a character from Ibsen’s final play: the sculptor from When We Dead Awaken. I wondered if Falk recognized that ultimately he would break Swanhild and leave her to seek her revenge from him decades later …

or if, as a comedy, there might be a more conventional and Victorian appropriate ending, which, in fact, there was. I dearly enjoyed seeing what seemed to be nearly familiar people on stage reliving parts of their lives I’d had questions about, but I’m afraid it did all get a bit tedious. The in-plot poetry was bad; the spoken verse was kind of clunky when it made it into the dialogue; and there was just a bit too much philosophizing about the different stages of love to really keep my interest. Mind you, it was almost all worth it to hear someone say, “Goodnight sweet chintz” to a set of ruined curtains; but not enough – unless you are an Ibsen completist. And for me, the excellent acting softened the failings of the script; and my own raging imagination took over (asking questions about where people were going with their lives) when was was being said failed to keep my attention. It was a good production of a very weak play, and I’m glad I got to see it done well.

(This review is for a play that took place on Friday, November 16th, 2012. It continues through December 15th.)

Review – St John’s Night – Jermyn Street Theater

July 22, 2012

Tuesday marked a special night for me: not just a trip to a new theater, but a trip to see an Ibsen play I’d never seen before! St John’s Night was receiving its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theater more than 150 years after it was written – actually rather a run of local enthusiasm for Ibsen since his play Emperor and Galilean (1873) had just made ITS debut last year. I was very excited to see a new play by my favorite 19th Century playwright – at this rate I might actually get around to all 26 before the end of 2020 (my total is now 9).

I was also excited to go to a new theater space. Jermyn Street is a tiny little theater just steps away from the chaos of Picadilly Circus. Technically it’s in the West End, but as I went down the stairs off of an alleyway, it seemed like I might have been heading to an evening of rather seedier entertainment than usual. Still, there in a cubbyhole was a tiny theater seating about 80 folks, most of whom needed to be very very short if their legs were going to fit comfortably between their chair and the row in front of them.

People: there is NOT ENOUGH SPACE IN THESE DAMNED SEATS. I sat sideways the whole time. Be warned that of the five or so rows in this theater, the first is (obviously) fine and the row that is on the walkway around the theater is also a reasonable seating option. However, in the second row, I found I had to sit sideways the whole time. Be advised if you come to this theater that you should take advantage of the fact it is general seating and FIND THE GOOD ONES. No real worry if you’re five foot tall or less, of course, but most of us aren’t.

Venue shortcomings aside, let us return to the play. Inside the theater, I was met by two goblinesque men playing musical instruments strangely (tunelessly and, in the case of the violin, upside down). To their right were two houses, one a fairy-tale pink with white lace curtains – practically a gingerbread house – the other a grey, weathered shack that looked like the kind of place chickens would meet their end. Yet it’s the gingerbread house that has the witch, in the form of widow Berg, whose goal in life seems to be to make sure her daughter Juliane is married well. Meanwhile she barely tolerates the continued presence of her stepdaughter Anne and Anne’s grandfather (who lives in the scary hut). Anne and her grandfather are very close, but the “new” family (Mrs. Berg and her two adult children from her previous marriage) see them both as mentally off, dismissable, and generally speedbumps in the road of progress. It seemed to be the “old Norway” and the “new Norway” meeting each other together, the old valuing its folktales and traditions, the new valuing, well, money.

Things look to be going well for Juliane as she is about to be engaged to a young man from town, Johannes, an alliance which will result a farm for the young couple … but there seems to be something fishy about Mrs. Berg’s rush to make the marriage, and something not on about the title to the farm. And Juliane, the “modern” young woman, begins to seem less sensible than “crazy” Anne, who shows qualities of loyalty and sensibility (while professing a belief in goblins) especially when contrasted with the freshly arrived poet, Birk. It’s clear that the two male/female pairs are mismatched somehow, but a change of alliances seems impossible. That is, of course, until the goblins stick their noses into it, via some spiked punch.

This play is a strange and wonderful mess, not as psychologically advanced as Ibsen’s last works, but wonderfully contrasting the banal (Mrs. Berg) with the imaginative (Anne and her grandfather). Ibsen then adds to the mix a character who professes to support “the national traditions,” but only as a method of self-aggrandizement. In fact, this character, Poulsen, seems to see anything he is interested in as basically another decoration for his own wonderful world of Poulsen-ness. His commitment to art of any sort seems as tenuous as Bunthorne’s in Gilbert and Sullivan’s play Patience – basically he’ll feign an interest in anything that draws more attention to himself. The mannerisms and patterns of speech of this character are so like Bunthorne that I thought perhaps Ibsen had lifted the character and dropped it in his play – but apparently vain poets are a more universal phenomenon than I’d expected, as it’s Ibsen that beat G&S to the punch by at least 30 years!

At any rate, Poulsen is a hysterical addition to this play, and wonderfully performed by Danny Lee Wynter in a painfully inappropriate blonde wig. To top it off, his friend Jorgen (David Osmond) is on the same level of over-the-top-ness – and while it could have made the play a camp carnival, instead it made it easier to swallow. Goblins? People hallucinating in the woods? Fairy tales coming to life? WHY NOT? Add a dollop of greed courtesy of Mrs. Birk and wide-eyed first love googliness from Anne (Louise Calf) and Birk (Ed Birch), and you’ve got more than enough plot and characters to make for a full night. I found it charming and enjoyable, a good value for the money and very fine performances to boot. Just be warned to snag those front row seats or you’ll find yourself limping out the door.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday July 17th, 2012, and continues through August 4th.)

December theater mini-reviews – A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Little Angel), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham’s) and Judgement Day (Print Room)

December 30, 2011

It’s nearly the end of the year and I’m realizing that I haven’t been able to keep up reviewing shows this month at all, an unsurprising consequence of thirteen shows, four dinners with friends, three parties, two full days on the road and two evening classes in a twenty-two day period. My time on trains has been used for napping; and my job has been too busy for me to write at work. What’s left? Why, an eight post extravaganza over the Christmas season. Don’t say you weren’t looking forward to it. Everyone else is doing recaps; hell, I haven’t even discussed the shows in the first place!

Right, so first off is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a collaboration between Kneehigh and the Little Angel. As a Marquez fan, I found much to recommend it: the incredible feeling of sadness (despite the chipper, English seaside setting) of both the angel and the underlying Marquez truth that people are perfectly willing to ignore magic in favor of making money; the lovely puppets; and the moments of wonderful … cinematography? (The scenes of the storm over the ocean and of the hosts of angels singing were particularly good.) It took advantage of its format to tell the story in a way that made the magical realism easy to swallow (and which would be nearly impossible to do with actors). Yet I was frustrated by the pointless songs and the occasional dumbing down of the story – both things that helped make the story more palatable for  younger audiences but which I found cluttering. Overall I enjoyed enough lovely moments in this show to find it worth the trip to Islington on a Sunday, but it frustrated me too much to really get behind it as a show. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 11th, 2011: continues through January 29th, 2012.)

Next up was Driving Miss Daisy at the Wyndham’s Theater. I wanted to see this in New York but couldn’t afford it: happily, at the end of the run, 10 quid tickets were available way up in the 2nd balcony – and for that price, I wasn’t going to complain. I mean, Vanessa Redgrave! Darth Vader – er, James Earl Jones! I knew the story generally from seeing the movie, but the undercurrent of the evolution of race relations was stronger than before – the scene where Daisy has her driver leave her at the door so she can attend a Martin Luther King dinner was particularly bitter. I couldn’t help but think of the Cracked magazine article on “Old Timey Prejudices in Movies” and its final assertion, “We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People.” This play totally seemed to be drawing from that vein of American popular culture. But still, the other story in this play – the one about aging and independence and friendship – was a joy, and I let myself be completely emotionally manipulated for the entire enjoyable ninety minutes of this show. I didn’t even care that most of the set was cheap projections of the sort that normally piss me off with their obvious cost-cutting; instead, I got into the characters and the story and even got sniffly at the end. Really, it was a perfect after work treat and I’m glad I managed to break away from Christmas programming in time to see this before it closed. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 12th, 2011. The final performance was December 17th.)

Next up was Mike Poulton’s “Judgement Day,” his version of Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken.” This was a must-see for me, as I love Ibsen and have never seen this play performed in any version: it got bonus must-see points for being straight through (about 80 minutes I think) and from the latter era of his writing (which I think is stronger) and in a lovely intimate space (the Print Room). However, the play is a bit melodramatic at its heart: an old sculptor (Michael Pennington) has lost his ability to create art anymore, but winds up being tracked down by the muse (Penny Downie) whom he’s convinced stole his artistic soul away – but she thinks he stole hers and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the sculptor’s wife (Maia, Sara Vickers) is married to someone who doesn’t respect her in the least – a relationship that had me confused as it had very little to do with the central story other than to provide a contrast of a couple who is embracing life (Maia and massive jerk Baron Ulfheim, Philip Correia). The whole thing was so heavily metaphorical that it just didn’t work for me, and while Pennington was perfect, Ms. Downie just didn’t seem to get “crazy.” To be honest, I haven’t seen a crazy person portrayed believably on stage (except by Ben Daniels in Haunted Child) in so long I think maybe actors don’t actually realize how generally sane crazy people are – it’s an important survival tactic if you want to stay out of the loony bin. Anyway, I found myself still getting a bit bored despite what should have been a whip-cracking running time, so I must consider this play to have ultimately been a failure, not helped by the fact that the main characters were just painfully unsympathetic: you shouldn’t be hoping as hard as I was that they’d just fall down a cliff face and be done with it. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 13th, 2011: it closed on December 17th.)

That done, I’ve hit all of the reviews for this year I’m going to write (unless I do a round up of the Suspense Adult Puppetry festival, highly unlikely now that it’s almost two months over): time for the end of the year roundup!

Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre

August 3, 2009

On Friday night, J, W, Mel, Bill and I went to the Arcola Theater to see their production of Ghosts. I was, of course (if you’ve been reading this blog for long), interested because of my deep love of Ibsen’s work (and a previous mostly successful interpretation of Ibsen by the Arcola) – and then there’s also the pre-show carnivores’ banquet at the nearby 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, always a motivation for a trip to Dalston.

Ghosts run for three acts with no interval, meaning roughly a two hour running time. But unlike the overblown Phedre, Ghosts blazed along from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a 19th century version of August, Osage County – incest, drug use, suicide, and deep dark family dysfunctions – but set in a Victorian society ruled by Biblical morality. As the show tumbled from one horrific revelation to another, it felt like being in a car during the last seconds before a crash – everything was hyper-real and felt completely unavoidable.

Yet somehow it never seemed too over the top, like Osage ultimately was. We started with a woman who was excited to have her son visiting after a long absence, we’re told about the orphanage she’s opening in honor of her husband, we meet the maid who’s in love with the son. One by one, the things we thought we knew unravel, each new tragic element reframing to the whole, as we find out what the actual truth iss underneath the inaccurate pretty picture we started with. Finally it comes back to the only original truth, that Mrs. Alving loves her son, and what that now means for both of them and their lives.

Of the characters, my favorite was Pastor Manders, whose lines Paul Hickey somehow managed to say with a straight face. This closed-minded preacher starts the play by lecturing Mrs Alving (Suzanne Burden) about how wrong it is to read the corrupt literature her son (Osvald, played by Harry Lloyd) has brought home – then admits he hasn’t read it himself as he prefers to criticize based on second hand knowledge! Over the course of the evening we see him tempted and twisted and finally served his come-uppance (as I saw it) – as tasty a theatrical treat as one could ever hope to bite into.

This play really hinges on Mrs Alving’s performance, given that she is on stage for about 90% of the show, and Ms. Burden generally did a good job of creating a woman who’d spent most of her life living a lie and was ready to move into a new world of openness and freedom from social shackles. However, at the end when she was cracking under the stress of her son’s illness, she went rather more histrionic than I was willing to swallow. That said, who knows what the proper response should have been at the end of the play … but it was only about 5 minutes when I lost connection with the drama, and I’d been caught up for the rest of the show, so it was a minor flaw.

I also very much enjoyed the performance of Natasha Broomfield as Regine and Jim Bywater as her slimy dad Engstrand. Engstrand is such a schemer, a real laugh to watch on stage, and I pretty much forgot he was acting because it all sounded so natural, like he’d just thought it up while he was standing there! Meanwhile Broomfield really seemed to “get” the bizarre social limitations of 19th century society and how it would make both Regine’s dad’s job offer and the situation at the Alvings’ house completely unacceptable for her. She also formed the face of the society the Pastor represented, the conservative Norwegian society, and showed just how much Osvald and his mother were shaking up the social order with their radical ideas. Of course, the idea of a woman choosing to pursue her own happiness over her duty and to think her own thoughts was radical enough – living together “without benefit of matrimony” really was just pushing it too far. No wonder Osvald felt the darkness of Norway sucking the life out of his body … in that day and age, I would have, too.

In short: Ghosts was a really fun evening out and, as an Arcola play, fairly easy on the budget. It’s an interesting script and well worth watching. Our two hours flew by! And it certainly deserved better than the half full house it got on Friday. Check it out while it’s on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 31st. Ghosts continues through August 22nd.)

Late summer 2009 theater schedule

July 21, 2009

This time of the year is full of Russian ballet and barbeques and beach time and precious little else other than the Union Theatre’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan show. The Mariinsky/Kirov is running a bit rich for my tastes, unfortunately (though the programming is so unimaginative I’m not too hurt), Anastasia Volochkova was a disaster, and I’ve already been to the Union. What, then, is on my schedule for the next month an a half?

Shockingly, I’ve still managed to get pretty busy, with an average of two shows a week. Carlos Acosta is at the Coliseum this week – an event long awaited and for which I bought tickets back in April or so – and I’ve also got some Kirov Swan Lake tickets for August so I won’t be completely balletless this summer. The Arcola is doing Ghosts, so I’ll get to add to my life count of Ibsen shows. And the West End Whingers have given me a hot tip on a new show, Jerusalem (at the Royal Court), that I’m hoping will take the tang of the crappy Peer Gynt I saw away (and have also apparently saved me from seeing The Black Album – I want to see new theater but only if it doesn’t suck).

On a lighthearted, summer appropriate, wallet-friendly musical kick, I’m going to see “Blink! – and you missed it,” ” hits from the shows you missed” (including The Act, The Rink, and Ragtime), which should be thoroughly tickling my musical theater geek funnybone, as well as La Cage Aux Folles, which for some reason Ambassadors was hawking at a “fill the theater at any cost” price (£10) back in June. I’ll be hitting Forbidden Broadway for a second go-round in mid-August, then winding everything up with Alan Cumming’s solo show I Bought a Blue Car Today on September 1st. What a great way to wrap up the summer!

Schedule:
23 July Thursday: Carlos Acosta & Friends (have an extra ticket FYI)
24 July Friday: La Cage Aux Folles
31 July Friday: Ghosts, Arcola
6 August Thursday: Blink! … and you missed it
7 August Friday: Jerusalem, Royal Court
8 August Saturday: Swan Lake, Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House
19 August Wednesday: Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory
25 August Tuesday: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Donmar Warehouse
1 September Tuesday: Alan Cumming’s I Bought a Blue Car Today

(Other shows TBA.)

Review – A Doll’s House – Donmar Warehouse

June 23, 2009

Just when you think social media is just a bunch of garbage, you get a tweet from the Donmar Warehouse letting you know that a show you failed to book before it sold out (two months before it opened) has had some seats released. SWEET! And that is how I managed to make it to A Doll’s House last night. I feel like a fool that I wasn’t able to commit to £15 tickets much earlier than I did, but after reading the West End Whinger’s review, I realized I’d made a mistake I was likely to regret for a long time and needed to remedy it – yet without stooping to day standing seats (a sure recipe for three days of aching feet). Saved by Twitter – who’da thunk it?

Because this show is so very sold out (though it’s running for three more weeks), there seems little point in providing an extensive review. I loved that the new version (by Zinnie Harris) is set in England with politicians instead of in Norway with bankers; the painful freshness of being dragged through the papers for some pecadillo and just what you could expect to happen to your reputation if you were accused of fraud added a lot of energy to the text and, I think, led to far more laughs (and tensions) that you often get with Ibsen. And it sharply emphasized the shortcomings of David Hare’s Gesthemane – politicians can make for interesting plays, but the focus needs to be on human relations and timeless concerns, not on some flash-in-the-pan scandal everyone will have forgotten in two months. Of course, Ibsen is a master of social ties, and creates characters who are so real you can pretty well imagine what they were doing before the play started and even twenty years later – not really Hare’s forte but one which makes the question of how will Nora’s husband respond? a matter of vital importance to the theatrical audience. This is expecially impressive given that, well, I knew exactly how he would respond … and it still hurt to see it. Ouch!

Gillian Andersen (Nora) was gorgeous and a bit fluffy as Nora -for some reason, it seemed to me that she had a bit of Marilyn Monroe in her portrayal. She was, however, absolutely convincing as a woman whose husband was vitally sexually interested in her and as someone who could have lived the coddled life she’d had quite happily for a decade. Toby Stephens “Thomas,” Nora’s husband, I couldn’t help but call him Torvald when discussing the play later) had a bit of work trying to portray someone who’s an unbelievable prig and rather unsympathetic … but he generally handled the twists and turns (of self-deception) well, and actually managed to be completely pathetic at the end. And, gosh, Tara Fitzgerald (Nora’s friend Christine Lyle) and Christopher Eccleston (Kelmer) actually made what I thought was a throwaway plot point when I read the script ages ago seem extremely vital (I kind of want to re-read it to see how Ibsen had originally developed it – and surely Christine wasn’t such a socialist?). Actually, the cast was just really good, as was the show – which means – maybe you ought to break down and go for the day seats, and as for me, I think I’m going to gloat a bit for getting to see this gorgeous show in this lovely, intimate space. Yay Team Donmar!

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 22nd, 2009. A Doll’s House continues through July 18th at the Donmar.

Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican

May 3, 2009

On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”http://www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk/2007/10/peer-gynt-october-2007.html&#8221;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.