Posts Tagged ‘National Theater’

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.)

Review – Peter Pan – The Companies at The National Theater

December 5, 2016

There’s one thing you can expect from the National Theater: if they’re going to do a show, you can trust they’re going to do it right. No “empty space,” no actors all dressed in black because there’s no costume budget: you’re looking at the full meal deal. So when the Theatre Bloggers offered me a chance to go, I was eager. I’d seen a few versions of this book, most recently the side-splitting Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I jumped at the chance to see this show.

Notice, though that while the National tends to go for explicit realism, but can balance that out with “less” rather than “more.” Peter Pan, as performed by The Companies, is decidedly of the “less” aesthetic; rich costumes in front of a nearly empty stage; visible stagehands slipping up and down scaffolding to very visibly make actors “fly” countered with a fully drivable steampunk pirate boat; a crocodile that on one hand looks to be made of tin cans but then seems to leap ten feet into the hair. The air is that of something that is low tech and made up, but no undersupported production get as much as the wig budget must have been for this show. It’s faux poor.

The story itself is so rich that it’s hard to figure out how to approach it, because we have FLYING and PIRATES and FAIRIES. But the text is also troublesome, because it has, um, native Americans and, er, lots of children dying (if you’ve actually bothered to read it it’s not just Tinkerbell who dies, and let’s not mention the extremely bloody fates of the pirates). The script needs a bit of amendment, and with the cast members participating in the writing, we’ve wound up with a lot of free translations that help keep the story up to date with modern sensibilities. Our Captain is a woman, and Tink is played by a man; Tiger Lily’s tribe is gone and she’s morphed into some kind of modern day Princess Mononoke complete with wolves. And the sensitivities of the modern British audience are tenderly coddled by a near entire elimination of death from the script, except for the Tink’s heavily softened passing and of course the dramatic end of our Pirate Queen. I think we managed to frighten some audience members when Tink briefly stopped moving; fortunately Hook’s end was so dramatic it was hard to find it upsetting but rather an act of fantastic bravery. I’m sure anyone else who’s wound up inside a crocodile was far less sanguine (and more ensanguine) than Anna Francolini when she took her swan dive. Still, what an image for little girls to go home with: the wonderful, fierce, brave, New Rocks wearing Gothic pirate queen. I’d be asking for boat to play on in my back yard, no doubt about it.

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

But: the show. There are points to hit in the script, are there not? And the company seems to move between them with some sort of forward motion, but a lack of clear purpose; we have the bedroom, the parents, the woeful dog, Peter Pan, some business with a shadow, flying, Rasta Lost Boys, Wendy as Mummy, and so forth. And, because there are children in the audience, there are songs, none of which are particularly memorable. I mean, there are some really interesting points to be made, and some strong characters, and all of the World War One overhead lurking beneath the surface, and just really so much you can do …. but there are children to entertain but not overwhelm, and since this is devised there’s no actual author trying to make a grand vision come together but instead (perhaps) an attempt to recreate the great success of the Jane Eyre this same company did just last year. In that case, the formula worked … in this case, the sum was less that the whole of the parts, and I found myself, despite my love for this story, trying not to nod off before the interval. Alas.

(This review is of the opening night performance, which took place December 2nd, 2016. It continues until February 4.)

Review – Amadeus – National Theater

October 28, 2016

I admit, I did not know that Amadeus, which I saw in 1984, was originally (1979) a play … written for performance on the Olivier’s huge stage. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn’t know in 1984 … but I was already familiar with the music of Mozart (give me some credit!). But since then, I’ve listened to and seen The Magic Flute many times, laughed at Don Giovanni, mostly enjoyed The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutti … and, well, for me to write about seeing Amadeus I have to come clean: I cannot talk about this play from the position of innocence with which I like to approach the theater. I got a lot more little jokes in this play than I would have if I did not know that a woman going to see an opera wearing a tiara of giant stars was likely to very quickly throw off her coat and return to the stage as the Queen of the Night. Anyway, I really, really wanted to see this show and was pleased as punch when the marvelous folks at Theatre Bloggers wrote me with an opportunity to come see this show on press night. Was I happy to fill in a few extra seats in the house of this sold out night? Yes, ma’am; or, more appropriately, “Rock me, Amadeus!”

The play gets off to a rather slow start, which, in retrospective, is probably a good thing given that the play is three hours long and we might as well just get our heads around the fact that we’re going to be sitting there for a while. Salieri (Lucian Msamati), the most famous musician of his time, is explaining to us how it was that he came to hate Mozart. There’s a LOT of back story, and rather a lot of musicians on stage, and not a lot of decor, so your choices as an audience member are to get bored (the guy next to me fell asleep!) … or to actually dig in and engage.

This, dear reader, was my choice. What I was given in return was a chance to have a world built for me with actors, costumes, and the mere breath of a set; and, most importantly, music. MUSIC music music. I listened to music described by people who think about it and (possibly) by people who try to understand how to MAKE it and … it was magic. And it was an amazing story. I came out of the movie oh so many years ago thinking the character of Amadeus Mozart was just insufferable; and, amusingly enough, Adam Gillen was probably even more extreme as the insufferable, poorly socialized, oversexed genius (in pink Doc Martins, loved that so much) … but somehow all of that swirling chaos made the emergence of his ridiculous, beautiful, pattern-breaking music sensible. Of course it could come out of this peculiar/crude/garish vessel … and perhaps it was all of that music sitting in him that turned him into the freak he was written.
queen1
Salieri’s theory is that God chose to express himself though Mozart, leaving Salieri silent, and Salieri (at least as written by Peter Schaffer) has thus been forced to act to repair this injustice, to act against God by punishing Mozart. And we, yes, we, are the lucky recipient of the fruits of his frustration, which is glorious music played deliciously and fantastic conversations about what makes music work. Alongside we get some kind of artistic reconstruction of the lives of both of these men (this is not a history lesson), but, more importantly, a compelling fiction of revenge with bonus gold lame and harpsichords that was so much more compelling than the movie. I have so rarely seen the huge stage of the Olivier so wonderfully used – the experience was nearly overwhelming.

It’s a good thing that the National is planning on broadcasting this production (2 February 2017) because THIS is what people need to remember – a glorious theatrical evening of scintillating music with extra spectacle and great storytelling – and, well, it’s also sold out for the run except for day seats, the Friday rush seats, and returns. So keep your eyes peeled!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 26th, 2016. It continues into February – the additional dates are yet to be announced.)

Mini-review – The Flick – National Theater

May 12, 2016

It seems so appropriate that a Pulitzer prize winning play would get its UK debut at The National. The Flick, though, is such a profoundly odd show that it seems, retrospectively, strange to me that this play would be done in the UK at all, even with two years since it won its crown. The three people who tell this story seems to have no story at all to tell, and all of the time in the world to not tell it. They’re geeks and rejects, struggling to make any sort of small talk, with a “waiting for Godot” feel to all of the nothing that happens in their lives. Pinter may have accustomed us to silences, but underneath his nothingness his characters seemed to have furiously working minds, with Pinter expecting us to figure out what those unsaid words were. But in the case of The Flick, the three characters seem to be quiet because, in fact, they have little to say to each other. They are, in some ways, killing time before they die, working jobs that are repetitive and joyless, and seeing a future that gives them little reason to think that anything else will ever be their lot in life. This is the world that we are plunged into; a world very different from that of most people who go to the theater: a world where just holding on to a shit job is really about the best you can hope for, where you spend years having the same old nothing to say to anybody because your life just doesn’t have anything in it worth talking about.

Interestingly to me, this play is being billed as the ultimate “millenials” story, because it’s about people who are really burnt out about life and don’t see hope in the future. (It is, actually, really funny, though, and you’re never laughing at the characters … well, anymore than they would be laughing at each other.) But I see this play as actually being pretty spot on for what it’s like to be in your twenties even twenty years ago, for us Generation X types, for basically anyone who can think and who does the math and realizes that there really isn’t much of a chance of any of us having a fabulous life. Our hope is to create meaning for ourselves where we find it, but what is crushing about The Flick is that it seems to be pushing toward the Big Message that it’s our relationships with other people that really can make life bearable underneath the intolerable burden of meaningless work. Yeah, sure, people have cell phones and Facebook like we didn’t have in ’92, but this is the same crap job as Rachael had in Friends (and I had in real life only without the glamor of being in New York). And the dialogue and the relationships are so very, very real and believable and so entirely American and comforting and …

then the carpet gets pulled away and we see that the friendships you make aren’t really going to save you from life being shit, because maybe people are kind of shit. And it’s so very un-Hollywood that I had a moment of thinking “only a play would do this,” but then I remembered, yeah, those really good movies would do this, too, the same kinds of movies that are never popular and that never make it to the big cinema chains because people only want to see things with happy endings and this is why the cinema The Flick had to die and really nobody wants to talk about how shit life is for people that aren’t leading a glamorous life. And nobody wants to spend over three hours doing that. Except Richard Linklater. And Annie Baker. And maybe, just maybe, you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. It continues through June 15th. I recommend NOT drinking before this show, and putting a little box of candy in your purse so you can have a proper cinematic experience.)

Mini-review – Les Blancs – National Theatre

May 11, 2016

So big surprise isn’t the National Theatre (RE this one time to distinguish it from the one in Washington DC) doing a play by Lorraine Hansberry, but that they’ve chosen to do Les Blancs – an play that this fantastic American playwright left unfinished at her early death. And the National hasn’t just revived the Broadway version cobbled together from her manuscripts, but has developed a new text with involvement from the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. This is more than a revival: it’s a substantial investment in an American writer dead some forty years …

Did you want to know the plot? An American missionary has just arrived in some unnamed country Africa to write about a group of missionaries who are holding on as the world around them is slowly turning into civil war – a war where those the missionaries have helped will come to exact vengeance against them. This play looks at just what exactly has this help been, and the answer is not pretty. And instead of taking the white American as the protagonist, we are sent to focus on a different outsider – Tshembe (Daniel Sapani), a man who was born, black, in this country, but has lived for years in Europe. So this story is not about who “we” as a European (or American) theatrical audience might focus on, but what the true story of this country is, and what the true story of colonialism is.

Hansberry struggles with pulling this tale out of its historicity (people’s thoughts about colonialism have evolved since it was written), unable to become unAmerican in her viewpoints and (per the script presented) not entirely able to develop the characters out of viewpoints and into three dimensionality. (I found A Season in the Congo much better because of its historic specificity but also because of its choice to plunge deep into character.) At the time, though, I think her revelations about the kind of atrocities the white settlers exacted on the black populace – i.e. cutting off the hands of the locals – would have been real news to the people attending this play.

Despite its shortcomings, however, this play is clearly still relevant, and to an audience that was of varied ethnic and national origins. The house wasn’t full (shamefully), but it was hugely diverse, with maybe as much as 50% non-Caucasian audience the night I went. This programming choice makes me think the National got the gist of my point about the lack of diversity in UK theater audiences: it’s about subject matter and (possibly) casting. Does this show speak to the black audiences of London? Oh yes it does. And I, a white member, benefitted from being in this more diverse audience, because I was able to hear laughter and rumblings and all sorts of (polite) responses to what was being said, responses that were coming from people who had had a different experience of the world than I have, who saw the relationship of white settlers to the people they colonized much more clearly than I did, people who knew a hell of a lot more about the self-delusions of racists than I did. (Note: as an American I often find myself laughing or not laughing entirely off synch from audiences here: in some ways I always know where I do not fit in, but in the case of this show, I felt like I was getting an insight into Hansen’s play I would not have had if I had watched it in a room by myself.) This show is really a high note in the National’s programming for the year, and, as an American, I can’t help but feel grateful that they went to so much work to ensure the work of my compatriot could get the attention (and investment) it deserved. Thanks, guys!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 5, 2016. It continues through June 2nd.)

Review – Cleansed – Katie Mitchell directing, National Theater

February 22, 2016

Although the National Theater’s website warned that Cleansed “[c]ontains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence,” I did not expect that my evening in the Dorfman would be one of such an extreme nature that an audience member would be carried away, fainting, midshow. (“We get a few every night,” said the man in the cloakroom afterwards, also kindly suggesting I have a sit down to help me deal with what I’d just witnessed.)

I had really discounted the notice as a bit of protective hype, but the show that I got – full of rape, gore, torture, abuse, nudity, sex, and cruelty – operated at a level that seemed designed to batter the audience. Gloucester’s blinding, the maiming of Lavinia … these were moments of theatrical horror, but as arranged in this show the brutal moments were placed so snugly against one another that there was no room to breathe, and the violence in Sarah Kane’s text became nonsensical.

I decided the way to process it was to imagine that, in fact, I had signed up for a night at the Grand Guignol. The relationships that developed between the characters were truly works of fiction existing only to heighten the sensation of horror; the people we were watching, seemingly, suffer, were merely actors playing a role which they would repeat nearly exactly in the next performance. No one was being hurt physically or emotionally, no matter what the bursts of stressed out sweat coming off the man sitting next to me might say. It was fake shots, fake rape, fake suicide and fake murder, all bundled up to deliver the most heightened experience possible. And, although it looked like we were going to have vomiting and emptied bladders/bowels, those lines were not crossed. (Although I think on some nights the vomiting might happen.) I had to <I>actively</I> distance myself from what was happening on stage to get through the show.

Er, so, what about the story? Cleansed seems to me a mélange of short pieces tied together poorly with its asylum setting. We have a woman seeking her lost brother; a gay couple the authorities are attempting to get to betray each other a la 1984; and a peep show stripper being manipulated by a stranger. I couldn’t feel that there was really an overarching narrative to this, although the desire for human connection ran through all of the scenes like a knife slash across a belly: bleeding, dripping, wrenching in its reality. But these threads did not ultimately make a plot, and while each was sharply (horrifically) acted, I couldn’t help but feel all I had was tacked together sketches – or, perhaps, surgical staples across the wound of Kane’s script.

In the end, Cleansed will find its audience; fans of Katie Mitchell, fans of Sarah Kane (myself) … but, I think not in a way Kane would have wanted, fans of gore who come for a night of gut turning theatrical trickery. It’s not what I want to see on stage, but there’s got to be somebody out there who enjoys it; I just wonder if this really, really in any way is how this script was meant to come across.

(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on Friday, February 19th, 2016. It continues through May 5th. It took me three days to recover from how deeply disturbed this show left me. You have been warned.)

Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

January 31, 2016

There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)

Review – Wonder.land – National Theater

December 1, 2015

Last night’s performance of Wonder.land (“Wonder Dot Land”) was a first for me in many ways: an hour into the performance, a disturbance upstairs proceeded to get louder and louder until the lights started coming up and a black dressed stage manager type announced to the performers, “Ladies, stop the show.” And the Red Queen and Alice paused, said about one further word, then walked off the set. An audience member had taken ill, and in the ten minutes of nervous mumbling and staring that followed as he (or she) was attended to by a first aider and then taken out of the auditorium, we had some time to discuss what had been going on in this “Alice for the online generation.”

Spectacle: yes, there’d been a fair bit of it, including some exquisite costumes (wonderfully previewed in Vogue); rotating, neon lit skyscrapers; and so, so much video (about which more later). The story – of an Aly (Lois Chimimba) who lives in a broken home and goes to a dingy (and somewhat violent) high school – is substantially about online adventures, both in terms of social networking stuff (Facebook and Twitter) and the interactive online games that provide opportunities to make real friendships. It also hits on some extremely fresh topics: the truth of how awful social media bullying can be (uploading videos of someone being beaten up in the girl’s bathroom; posting ugly shots of them to be mocked on Facebook; getting a hate campaign organized online); the vicious impact of online gambling; the importance of the parallel cyber world that exists around us all of the time even if “the adults” want to pretend it’s not there and it doesn’t matter.

Taking the Alice story and making it the story of one girl’s online adventures is interesting, but, I think, a tale profoundly unsuited to be told in theatrical format. Alice benefits from updating, and it’s always nice to see the familiar characters revisited, but this tale of a girl attempting to get back a stolen identity never manages to pack an emotional punch. It is also burdened down with affirmative messages (“Accept yourself! Know yourself! Be yourself!”) that I felt watered down the narrative to the point of floppiness. Alice’s various online friends fail to have any purpose other than giving her someone else to bounce off of besides the bullies in her school; so why are they even there? The most real parts of the story wind up taking place in the girls’ toilets, where Aly is bullied and then winds up befriending another student who is also trying to escape bullying.

So somewhere in there is a story or three, and nowhere any songs worth remembering or singing, and EVERYTHING is polluted by the excess of video projections, which succeed exactly once in creating a neat and difficult effect (Alice falling down a tunnel) but otherwise look crappy (c’mon, we all watch Pixar, and while I realize these graphics cost real money unfortunately they didn’t have impact proportionate to their expense). I couldn’t help thinking longingly of The Light Princess, with its forest of waterplants that had me gasping with delight; and of Coram Boy, with its amazing underwater scene – all done without benefit of video technology. And, finally, I thought of Opera Holland Park’s shoe string budget Alice in Wonderland opera, which had cardboard sets but very engaging characters and a nice modern twist at all and basically left Wonder.land gasping in all its high res glory.

I’m guessing there’s an SF book about stolen identities hiding in Wonder.land (I’ve probably read four of them just this year), maybe a fun little video game, but what there wasn’t was a compelling night of theater. In fact, watching all of the whiny kids (on stage) standing around playing with their phones complaining about their shit lives, I couldn’t help but think I was stuck in a theater with everything I sought to escape: a world where people look down instead of up, in instead of out, and away instead of toward. It might be suitable for ten year olds who are dazzled by a bunch of bling; but I suspect this prize free Kinder egg will be forgotten hardly before the final curtain drops.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 30th, 2015. It continues through April, 2016. This was also the first time I saw a selfie stick used in a play. And I did go back after the interval, well fortified with wine and chocolate. Good job to the actors and crew for managing a very difficult situation last night.)

Mini-review – Jane Eyre – Bristol Old Vic at the National Theater

October 28, 2015

What are you supposed to do when one of your best friends says that the theater tickets they would like as a birthday present (see why she rates so highly?) would be ones to Jane Eyre at the National? You think I’d jump up and down – it’s a story I like – but instead I felt a horrible foreboding. No, it was not the ticket cost (£50 or so), or the lack of availability, it was the LENGTH. Three and one half hours, my darlings. THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS. One interval. HOW COULD I EVER SURVIVE?

This kind of thing requires a plan of attack. The National has helped by starting the performances at 7 PM (NOTE THIS!!!), so that you’re done around 10:30; I decided to assist by going only for a Friday night or weekend performance, then prepped my body with a minimum of liquids beforehand (wine an absolute no – no, it’s nearly two hours before the interval) and … well, a light dinner. Because, believe it or not, when I got to the theater I discovered that I was running a temperature and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. (I did attempt to return my ticket but could not. My apologies to people sitting near me except that the woman who kept explaining plot points quite audibly to her 11 year old daughter, I sincerely hope your whole family comes down with whatever I had.) For normal people, I might recommend sweets, except NOT in the case of (again) the family sitting next to me, who crackled their packet of fudge so loudly they were shushed TWICE from people sitting behind them. Intolerable. Stick to the home cinema, people, or learn how to respect other audience members.

The amazing thing is that despite being weak, dehydrated, and at the end of a long work week, I had no problems at all making it through the near two hours it took to get to the interval. Jane Eyre is damned good story telling, and the decision to strip it back to almost no set and the barest of costuming served it well, making us focus on the characters, with little hints – a cap, a shawl – and the ever present Eyre – Madeleine Worral – and “woman in red” – Melanie Marshall (pretty easy to figure out who she was to be even in the first half of the evening where she only sang). The constraints of the multiple casting took away some opportunities for subtlety, but the flexibility of the cast ensured that we were never confused about who we were watching – a spoiled daughter, a starving girl, a slightly arrogant priest, et cetera. Instead we focused on Jane Jane Jane and Jane (with a little Rochester), for it is her story, and we must understand her journey, her sense of her own truth, and commit to and love her like nearly nobody else in this story is ever able to.

After the miracle of her survival of boarding school (and our survival of the first act), it was practically a romp getting through act two, set up in a grown up world and full of big reveals. Now, I know that these days Jane Eyre is such a classic that there seems no reason to even comment on her as a character, but a character with such a strong sense of self and of right and wrong seems to me rare in literature. I could feel the struggles of the poor in Jane’s every action; and I could see how there might have been thousands of other Eyres who ended their lives dead of starvation (even if they’d taken up prostitution to make the money that wasn’t there – Bronte doesn’t seem to include this as a possibility but we have to know that it’s a parallel track alongside the one Jane follows). In modern eyes, she is inflexible and moralistic, but for her indomitable spirit, she is infinitely inspirational. When flocks of women in Austen’s tales accept an unexciting marriage for financial convenience, Bronte’s heroine says no – not for love, but out of self-respect. I found it all a bit exhilarating, and not at all what I was expecting after such a long time. In retrospect, the price for the tickets was good, as it actually broke down to two plays for the price of one – again, a bit of a surprise for me. But having friends with good taste does have its rewards – even when I’m the one playing the Fairy Theater Godmother.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 23rd, 2015. It’s running through January 10th, so plenty of time to catch it still.)

Review – People, Places and Things – Headlong at the National Theater

August 29, 2015

Considering how much I loved The Effect – a show which has stayed with me strongly even three years on – there was little doubt in my mind that I had to go see People, Places and Things at the National. But the cost of tickets put me off – £35 quid in previews and all of the cheap seats sold out! What was a girl to do? The situation was not helped by the general sold-outness of the shows – if I didn’t get in, I was going to miss out. Argh! Fortunately I remembered I had a credit slip from my cancelled trip to Everyman, so I was able to tell myself I was really only paying 20 quid and just went ahead and bought a ticket. There, done.

I’m glad I did, because People, Places and Things is a very interesting look at a slice of modern life I haven’t seen on stage much: addiction recovery. That said, this was also hit quite recently by The Motherfucker with the Hat, and one particular aspect of twelve step programs came up in both: the “give up responsibility for yourself to God” or something like that, it’s the big issue I have with twelve step programs as well – what’s the point if it’s going to be so focused on the Great Sky Father that I don’t believe in? Emma (later revealed to be named Sara, Denise Gough), the protagonist of People, Places and Things goes through this mental journey quite convincingly – I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see an almost Shavian confrontation with modern bullshit philosophies.

Earlier on, though, when Emma checks in to the clinic, we get an extended section of classic Headlong work as she comes on to whatever drug she ingested before she walked in the door and then starts coming off of the anti-anxiety meds (and God knows what else) she’s become addicted to. The exit signs warp and twist (thanks to some excellent animated projections – I hadn’t realized they weren’t real), the tiles on the walls slowly warp and float away, and an entire bevy of Emma clones come crawling out of the bed she’s been sleeping in. It was an excellent depiction of hallucinations and nicely captured the unreality of what Emma was going through, including all of the vomiting and loss of bladder control.

Almost a third of the play seems to center on Emma’s experience dealing with the group therapy aspect of the treatment, and, while this provided a great opportunity for many members of the cast to show their chops, I didn’t really get a good feel for how it was supposed to work in terms of her experience. Clearly, when she embraces doing it, we’re meant to see that she’s had some kind of internal change that has pushed her to committing to the program, but exactly what this is is never revealed; and, unfortunately, it’s this giant missing plot point that undid the play for me. So many good performances, such a well-crafted production, and yet the script completely failed to deal with something so very vital to character evolution – ultimately letting down the whole evening. While this is a very engaging show, I think Duncan Macmillan is going to have to find something a little more solid than Wile E Coyote’s outlook on life to get us to buy into the overall arc of this play. Ah well, it nearly got there.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 27th, 2015. It continues through November.)