Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Prebble’

Review – The Last Yankee – The Print Room

September 9, 2013

You wouldn’t think a 75 minute play could really be as intense as The Print Room’s production of The Last Yankee was, but, wow, what a roller coaster ride this was. Firmly in the continuum of plays about mental illness stretching from Long Day’s Journey into Night right up to last year’s The Effect, The Last Yankee had nearly no sense of datedness to it thirty years later. Mental illness is still a problem, and people still don’t know how to deal with it; the people who have it struggle, while their families frequently have to deal with shame as well as the difficulties of managing the situation.

This play is set in a mental institution in a New England town. Two men, Mr Frick (Andy de la Tour) and Mr Hamilton (Paul Hickey), meet in the lobby, where they’re both waiting to see their wives, who are patients. Frick is an older go-getter, owner of a successful hardware store/lumber yard and possibly a car dealership or two; he and his wife have no children. Hamilton is a 40s-ish father of seven who works as a carpenter and is learning to play the banjo. Frick tries to make small talk with Hamilton, but his obsession with money and status grate on the younger man; Hamilton finally blows up at Frick, saying, “This is why people are mentally ill in this country!” (or something of the sort). He then backs off and apologizes, and the scene ends uncomfortably.

This scene was utterly fascinating for me to watch with a British audience. The obsession with class here has been a constant mystery to me, but here were two American(s) (characters) discussing it in the American way: the focus on clothing, occupation, and parentage seemed so familiar, while the fluidity with which one casts off one’s “birth” caste and moves into another was completely foreign in my new country’s experience. I think people were fascinated by the clues Americans process to see how to “slot” one in to their class, but I was also completely willing to accept that Hamilton really didn’t give a rat’s patootie about what his dad did for a living and was utterly happy working as a carpenter – and with no sense of having “stepped down.” It’s not an American way to feel. In fact, it was the rich man who wanted to see him as “one of my sort” who was the crass and inappropriate one – but to be honest, I think he read that way to everyone.

Hamilton’s speech, though, to me seemed like a Shavian soap box moment on Miller’s part. Class and an obsession with money is what makes people mentally ill? It was a bit hard to swallow – impossible, actually. And Miller took a much more nuanced approach to the causes, effects and impacts of mental illness in the rest of the play, making this bit of posturing seem both out of place and fortunately forgettable as a blip in an otherwise excellent play. Miller will be Miller, standing up for the nobility of the common man … you just have to let it pass. My engagement in this scene was not helped by the fact that de la Tour’s acting was a bit heavy – aimed more for the second balcony rather than the extremely intimate print room. His character wants to be the center of attention, sure, but he was almost vibrating to my eyes and ears.

The second half of the play takes place inside of the women’s ward of the institution, where a woman I assumed to be Mrs Hamilton (Patricia – Matilda Ziegler) can be heard playing ping pong in the rec room with another patient (at least I think they were playing together). Patricia comes into the room with her friend, Karen (Kika Markham), and it quickly becomes clear they are on very different stages of their recovery. Patricia seems a bit manic and a little paranoid, but she’s able to consistently talk in full sentences. She reveals to us that she’s stopped taking her meds, which immediately made me wonder if she was going to have a breakdown during this scene – which would have immediately cut short the chances of her coming home, something her husband clearly wants – if she’s well.

Karen, meanwhile, is having trouble forming sentences and jumps from one thought to the next, frequently leaving things hanging in the air, clearly struggling to get by. Patricia quite matter-of-factly says to Karen that her medications are probably making it hard for her to think, providing Karen with genuine compassion. It’s so odd to think that these women would have bonded while they were in, especially given that Karen’s condition is so severe that you might expect “normal” people to want to stay away from her. In fact, it’s actually rather shocking to think that both of these women are in for what is merely called “depression.” It turns out that Karen is actually Mrs Frick, who’s only there for the first time as opposed to Patricia’s third; what has gone wrong with her, you have to ask: she’s so much more broken than just “she likes to sleep all of the time and can’t go out of the house to do the shopping,” as her husband described her.

Sometime during the scene with Karen and Patricia I started to lose the sense of being in a theater and began to feel like I was actually watching real people and began to get very emotionally caught up in what was going on. Markham’s depiction of a very unwell woman was frighteningly believable, as were the petty, ridiculous fights that Hamilton and Patricia get into later in the scene. But the end, where Karen attempts to show her husband how good she’s become at dancing, just about broke me: Frick’s look of disgust at what he clearly considers his now-freakish wife had me struggling not to cry. Thank God Patricia – accused by her husband of being negative and materialistic – came to her friend’s rescue – along with her “useless” husband and his “stupid” banjo. Both of them accompany Karen through the rest of her dance routine when Frick turns his back on her, while Patricia also cues Frick on how to behave like some semblance of a decent, supportive human being – which Karen clearly, clearly needs to believe he is. And somehow, in doing this, Patricia and her husband find there sense of trust in each other. But I felt gutted for Karen. Hamilton – descendent of Alexander Hamilton – may be the last Yankee, but there’s no shortage of people like Frick who think that a person who isn’t producing maximum value – whether a person who choses carpentry over law or a wife who’s too afraid to go out and do the shopping – have lost their value and should be tossed on the scrap heap.

Miller’s play seems to me an indictment both of the overmedicalization of depression but also of the underlying pressures that cause so many women to experience bad mental health in middle age. I left feeling gutted, forced to remind myself that I was just watching actors and Markham was doing just fine, probably smoking a cigarette and having a laugh after the show. But it felt real and it hurt – a sign, I think, that Arthur Miller was fully in control of his writing during this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It continues through October 5th.)

Review – The Effect – Cottlesloe Theatre, The National Theatre

November 8, 2012

It seems presumptuous, somehow, to write a review of a play so quickly that the salt of your tears is still crackling on your face. But I wanted to get my thoughts on Lucy Prebble’s new show down while the ache is still fresh. I saw it on a day when I was extraordinarily susceptible to the emotions of love and abandonment; it took the raw emotions I provided, stuck its fist in my psyche, and pulled out my guts.

What is love, really; what is depression: what makes any of us think we are happy? Is it just really chemicals? Does life, does the way we treat each other have anything to do with it? Are we safe to say,”I’m not responsible, you own your own feelings,” or do we say,”This is all just chemicals nothing is real” so we can discount our hearts breaking inside us?

These questions come up in the context of a clinical trial involving two college kids who may or may not be getting placebos …or real drugs possibly simulating love. Or is what they’re feeling real? As they laugh and tell each other the stupid stories that make up the banal reality of whom each of us is, you, the audience member, can’t tell which is real and which is fake anymore. It’s really love. It’s just a placebo. But the emotions are strong, ridiculous, authentic, like every crush you’ve ever had, like every boy who was just too perfect and left you.

And what are we all in the end but sad depressed people trying to medicate ourselves through the harsh winter of reality. Are we lying to ourselves and just pathetic? Is it preferable take drugs to protect ourselves from the psychological damage of being honest about our ability to affect outcomes? Is it even reasonable to hope that maybe, somewhere, there is one human enough that can love us, horribly flawed though we are?

As the show ended I cried openly, trying to restrain myself from sobbing, hoping the actors could see me trying to clap through it all. I love plays that explore what it means to be in the now, in a world of cell phones and drug trials and tap dancing in mental asylums; but even more I love a play that explores what it means to be human, and to live and love and try to be ethical in the crazy world of conflicting emotions and priorities that is life with other people .

(This review is for a preview seen on Thursday, November 7th or so. It was awesome. Book now.)

Review – Enron (by Lucy Prebble) – Royal Court

October 6, 2009

In the darkest gloom of 9/11, in those days when it seemed like everything was collapsing – the stock market, the job market, the American infrastructure, my ability to pay my rent – in the short, short days of a Seattle winter when it seemed the world was coming to an end, day after day I remember going to work following not Survivor (for reality TV was a new thing) but rather NPR’s nightly reporting on the implosion of Enron, the company that seemed single-handedly responsible for the ruin of the American energy market, for the blackouts in California and the sudden huge surge of costs for tiny cities in Northwestern Washington.

I’d watched my industry, the dot coms, go belly up in a huge Tulip Madness balloon – but what was this Enron mess? Day after day the personalities played out over the radio like a strange soap opera told in three minute increments, a story that finally ended in jail and death … and, if I’m not mistaken, a sentence that actually allowed someone to alternate “being out of jail time” with his also guilty wife so their kids could have at least one parent raising them … yet somehow didn’t result in anyone being shot by stockholders or the thoroughly betrayed and ruined employees of this corporation. It seemed to almost be at the level of a Greek tragedy, a corporate scandal that was more than just a few lined pockets and a quick flight to Brazil, rather a Trojan Women-style tale of a civilization utterly destroyed.

For me, the concept of Enron seemed completely sensible. We had the larger than life figures (Mama Rose!), the great brought low – why not give it a score and toss in dance numbers? The whole thing was so ludicrous it deserved to be turned into something we could all laugh at. This thought in mind, I managed to (barely) get a seat some two months before it opened at The Royal Court (even that early there was hardly anything but obstructed view for a matinee) and was quite eagerly looking forward to seeing the play despite still suffering from a most persistent lung infection.

As it turns out, Enron is very much a theater piece driven by personalities and plot, with just a few surreal moments thrown in. The key drama is the relationship between arrogant industry climber Jeremy Skilling (Samuel West, rising nicely from newb to player to pathetic has been with delusions of grandeur), brilliant lady executive Claudia Row (Amanda Drew, perfectly capturing the Texas blonde in all her complexities), and Skilling and desperate math genius Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill, believably pathetic). Somehow their own desires to do well in their careers make them both look normal (and easy to relate to) while also believably blinding them to any ethics considerations about their behavior. Their various moments of desperation are all sharp and full of drama – although the arc of each of their stories peaks at different times.

The intervening explanations of how Enron was truly built on a house of cards (or empty boxes) and just how energy deregulation served almost immediately to bring down the power grid in California are interleavened in such a way as to be very much digestible, both easy to understand and important to the story. Of course, it helps that a lightsaber fight is used to illustrate the California debacle, serving also to emphasize they way the real life traders actually treated the whole thing as a game, despite being directly responsible for the deaths of many people.

Two and three quarters of an hour later, dancing mice, tame velociraptors, and Siamese twin bankers were feeling almost normal, proving that creating a fantasy world that seems a representation of reality isn’t really that difficult. Enron convinced heaps of people that it was a going concern that actually made money by selling nothing and telling people they were making a profit; it’s not really all that much different from many of the financial scandals going on today. In fact, with its core of hubris, it’s a tale that transcends its historicity just as easily as John Gabriel Borkman did. Plus: lightsabers! In short: it was a good night out and I recommend it.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2009. Enron the Musical continues at the Royal Court through November 7th, 2009, but is about as sold out as it gets. It transfers to the Noel Coward theater January 16 – booking is now open, fyi. A better review is here)