Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Broadbent’

Review – Grand Guignol – Theater Royal Plymouth at Southwark Playhouse

October 29, 2014

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse – or, rather, I thought I knew what to expect … a series of short and terrifying/bloody plays, perhaps all from the original plays of the Grand Guignol, or perhaps all or some new but “in the style.”

What, you say you are unfamiliar with the Grand Guignol Theater (perhaps only knowing it as a a euphemism for the bloody stage predecessor of the slasher flick)? Then this play may be perfect for you, because what it really is is a recreation of the theater at the time, a sort of homage slash farce featuring shocking (but ironic) overacting, buckets of body parts (laying about the stage like laundry), and delicious pocket run-throughs of such classics as “A Crime in the Madhouse” and “The System.” You say you’re unfamiliar with them? Well, it’s not surprising: André de Lorde (depicted on stage by Jonathan Broadbent) wrote over 150 plays, but very few of them have been translated into English. Yet somehow each horrible play we see seems to exist in a reality of pure horror that exists outside of the normal bounds of mere storytelling and into the world of the mythic … a place inhabited by writers such as Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. This blending of metafictional reality and historical inspiration seems to me to support the choice to perform this as a farce, letting us step back into and then away from the “reality” of what’s going on. We are watching a play about a theater, with actors playing actors who had roles in the plays written by … you see what I mean? But it all starts out with a wink, and so we accept that it’s a bit of a joke, but once we’ve taken that step, then we come a little closer to believing the falseness on stage (I have to say having the ceiling swaying over head about did me in) and then, when the “reality” of the play – that there are real murders going on and genuine madness in the cast – starts to creep into the story, then suddenly we no longer know if we are watching a play or an actual murder. And the walls start spurting blood and the actors are dying and IT’S ALL JUST TOO SCARY!!! and then it’s bows. Wow! What a trick!

What’s amazing about this play, in retrospect, is how close it seems to have stuck to historical truth: psychologist Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) was de Lorde’s real life collaborator; Poe (one of the roles played by Andy Williams) was an inspiration for the Guignol plays, if not necessarily a spectral presence threatening de Lorde with harm if he didn’t do as instructed; and Paula Maxa (Emily Raymond) was the most murdered actress in Paris. I suspect that all of the plays that we were given tiny snippets of were actually based on real works of de Lorde’s; it all adds verisimilitude to the actual plot, which involves a Jack the Ripper style murderer (who could it be?) and Binet’s search for the source of de Lorde’s inspiration. Meanwhile, jokes are thrown in about the difficulties of working with audiences, the fickleness of actors, and how most critics deserve the fate of de Lorde’s fictional victims: given that I was there on press night, these jokes were met with gales of laughter.

As it turns out, even switching the comedy with horror is a technique lifted from the original Grand Guignol: I think it’s that the laughs put us into a heightened emotional state and somehow more receptive to revulsion (as a character we have begun to sympathize with is actually cruelly murdered on the stage). This play is pretty much perfectly written and performed in campy “turn the volume to eleven” glory; I can’t imagine a more perfect Halloween play or a more brilliant celebration of the infamous accomplishments of The Grand Guignol.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 27, 2014: it continues through November 22nd. Don’t hesitate to go because Halloween is over: if you’ve got any taste for farce or passion for theatrical history, it’s a must see, and really so well acted!)

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Mini-review – My Night with Reg – Donmar Warehouse

September 5, 2014

I’ve now seen three AIDS plays held up as classics: and of them, My Night with Reg is the only one that breaks my heart. As Is is full of rage but has a soap opera soul; Angels in America has lost all of its urgency as 9/11 made it a quaint recollection of a more innocent time. My Night with Reg, currently being revived at the Donmar, stays focused on what really matters in theater – human relationships – and slips in AIDS like a stiletto that slides between your ribs unfelt, taking your breath from you forever.

The plot, such as it is, is trivial; men gather together in a house and talk to each other about each other. Each scene is set in a nearly unchanging house; it’s difficult to tell that any time has past- in fact, the second scene seems like it may be “evening of the same day” after a dinner part, but as the conversations play out, it becomes clear that much time has passed, and while little seems to have changed, hearts are aging and memories are accumulating and the great, sad accretion of life (and death) is taking its toll on all present, no matter how handsome and witty they still seem, scene after scene.

The group of men around whom the play centers are all old college (uni in English parlance) friends, and when the get together – which happens rarely (and never with the invisible Reg) – you can see the exuberance and lust for life of the early twenties zinging out of them as they joke, dance, and sing with each other with the easy camaraderie (and hints of old lusts) that really only happen with friendships of a decade or more. You laugh a little at host Guy (Jonathan Broadbent), so pudgy and nerdy and supportive; admire sexy John (Julian Ovenden) while wondering if he actually has any heart under his perfectly sculpted exterior; and wish you could have Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) over to your party because he really is just that funny and smart. Despite this being a reunion for the men, to me it had that timeless feeling of any friendships that resume right where the left off years ago, while also having an interesting touch of British reserve in the amount of emotional honesty the various characters allowed themselves. It still had the thick lashings of sexual honesty I see (enviously) in gay men’s relationships … but their hearts stayed hidden.

Until, well, scenes two and three. Death rises, sex becomes less a sport than a grief control mechanism, and the happiest songs in the world become paeans to the dreams we’ve all had to give up on and the banal realities that have been left behind. It all became a bit like the Japanese love of cherry blossoms – beauty is so much easier to appreciate in the face of its ephemerality. And when we’re living life, we so often don’t realize that a goodbye really is an ending, that the people you see every day will suddenly just never be there again. And for a brief period of time, those lovely, loving, lovable fonts of life were being mowed down one after another and it seemed like it was never going to stop. In the face of that, all you get is a dance and maybe a singalonga and maybe somebody to keep you warm at night, but mostly what you get is the realization that we all end up alone. Even though I had to remind myself I was just watching actors go through a script, that message was still entirely real, and beautifully conveyed. It was an excellent evening and well worth the many, many time I sat there hitting F5 and hoping someone would change their minds at the last moment and decide not to go: and even at top price it was absolutely worth every pound I paid and every minute of my time.

(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday afternoon, August 30th, 2014. I spent the rest of the week wishing I had time to write it up just in case someone else who’d appreciate this play didn’t know how good it was. It closes September 27th.)