Posts Tagged ‘Orange Tree Theatre’

Death, Sex and Robots: Three play round-up

May 23, 2018

In the last month I’ve gone to see two plays about robots and one play about grief/death/suicide – Instructions for Correct Assembly (Royal Court), Mayfly (Orange Tree Theatre) and Sex With Robots and Other Devices – and the thematic similarities between the three plays is quite remarkable. All three of them are not, obviously, the same, but the same questions are asked by all three of them, and definitely between two of them, with lesser or greater success. Seeing them all definitely gave me food for thought – I present these crumbs now for you.

Summary: Assembly is an extremely episodic play in which a family buy a robot to replace (in far too many ways) their dead son; Mayfly is about a family (mother, dad, 20sish daughter) coping very poorly with the death of the son/brother (and using a total stranger to help fill the gaps he’s left in their lives); Robots is a series of vignettes of how having a sex robot has affected various individuals and couples. Clearly, the grief element unites Assembly and Mayfly; robots unite Assembly and Robots; but death and loss unite the three. Short summary: Mayfly, while imperfect, is the superior play – I only say this because it is still showing and if you find this commentary interesting you should hurry up and go.

While the couple that opens (and perhaps the couple that ends) Robots is dealing poorly with the loss of a child, (still born, I think), the emotional impact of this is pretty well nil given the 5 minutes or so length of the scenes. Assembly is nearly entirely about grief, a grief that unspools and entangles you within it over the course of its running time. The mom and dad seem to just want a robot around the house for the amusement it provides; but over time, they slip into things like having it call them “mum” and talking about it going to school and getting an education as if it were their actual child. Most tragically, both the mother and father work out their own guilt at their complicity in their son’s death (drugs overdose, I think) by playing out the past with the robot doing or saying what they wish their son had. Sadly, though, the impact of these scenes was frittered away by the generally light and comic tone of the rest of the play; the anger the couple had toward each other and the way they were dealing it was, in my mind, the real story that needed to be told, far more so than “oh how embarrassing to have a robot say something rude at a dinner party.” I left this play convinced that using technology had led to a mistelling of what was a profoundly human story; otherwise it was a bit of a blend of Pinocchio and AI and similarly not very moving.

Between Robots and Assembly, the best technology moments were when people were developing real feelings for what were essentially machines; or when the machines themselves were showing signs of developing feelings themselves. This made me think of the ever popular SF trope of “what makes us human,” which is fun to explore, but honestly neither play went into it at all deeply. However, the scenes in Robot in which a woman was dealing with the mental degradation (dementia) of a robot companion she had had for a long time was starting to show where this show could have been really touching; I could easily have imagined a lovely work of fiction coming out of this. Or just some interesting ways of dealing with Alzheimer’s and also (in the case of this play) a same sex relationship in which one person needed to go into a care home. Unfortunately given the short nature of the scenes this wasn’t developed nearly as well as it could have been, but it hinted at depths that were available to the topic.

Overall most successful of these three plays was decidedly Mayfly. It seemed heavy handed at making its points about how people don’t talk about grief and missing very well (and the ending was nauseatingly writerly); but the trio of damaged family members seemed pretty believable after their initial ridiculousness; each had a manifestation of grief (or several) that seemed quite believable and in which I was able to become emotionally invested. The punch in the gut was in one tiny scene, which is so good I can imagine the playwright building the whole play out from it: in it, the mother asks a stranger to call her, using her dead son’s cell phone, and talk to her, pretending to be him. This is very much looking at how technology is helping us deal with being human; but in this case, I was utterly bought into the tragedy of this scene.

So: sex, death, and robots – in the theater, it’s ultimately the things that show people’s feelings – and weak spots, and illogical spots – that most clearly illuminated being human.

(Mayfly continues through May 26. Robots continues through June 2nd.

Review – Pomona – Orange Tree Theater

November 23, 2014

Let’s be honest: I got interested in seeing Pomona at the Orange Tree Theater not because it’s a new play, but because in the poster there was someone dressed with a Cthulu mask on. I’ve been into Lovecraftian stuff since I was in college, and I’ve gotten more into it since Charles Stross integrated the mythos into his Laundry books (so much so I made my own knock off of it). Then when I found out it was also about role playing games (RPGs to the initiated, Dungeons and Dragons to the rest), I was feeling very strongly a trip to the distant wilds of Richmond was called for – but Stewart Pringle’s enthusiastic blurblings were what tipped me over into finding the most immediately open slot on my calendar and booking tickets. Yes, yes, I want to support the production of new works, but it does take something really special to support it in a location that can mean I spend the next day at work being totally exhausted.

Backstory out of the way, I’m going to go for an experiential rather than a narrative based review …

In the darkness, you are suddenly faced with two people: a man, explaining the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark; and a woman, listening to him, while handing large, twenty sided dice to a Cthulu-headed figure. The woman is looking for her sister, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Why is he telling her a story everyone must know? Why is he dressed in white underwear? Who has convinced her to come to him for help? Are they real? Is he going to hurt her? Is this actually a game?

The lights flash, chaos descends. A red haired woman briefly appears, trying to rip off the gag and wrist cuffs binding her. Two men, friends apparently, hurt each other terribly to save themselves from a worse fate. While the vignettes take place in the square pit in the middle of the theater, other people lurk on the edges. There is the feeling that everything that happens is being watched. A woman making a desperate phone call to tell someone (her sister?) to lock the doors and stay inside add to this feeling. Is she real? Is she part of a story someone else is telling? One person after another is frightened of a really horrible death that they believe to be unavoidable. And suddenly, like a scene from the Shining, the set is covered with buckets of blood that all trickle away down the drain in the middle. My God, what is going on?

The narrative bits seem to stretch out and more richly developed characters bob up like corpses in a river. One of the interactions is about Keaton, an autistic seeming young woman (Sarah Middleton), playing an RPG with Charlie (Sam Swann), who earlier had a hallucinatory scene where he explained his desire to mark an entire city with his bodily fluids. Why do he and the other security guard he works with think there is something strange going on where they are? Is it all a backstory build up for Charlie’s RPG? Is it somehow real?

As I was taken on this flickering, constantly shifting narrative, with sinister female criminals, worried sisters, a young woman running around a maze, big city prostitutes, and the constant miasma of evil, I gave up on trying to decide what was supposed to be real within the context of the play and just let the storylines wash over me and form the connections they wanted to form. I was impressed by how buried in their parts the actors were – I found myself wanting to reach out and comfort the red haired woman (Rebecca Humphries) when she was being particularly terrorized, yet I also found her cold blooded rage in a proximate scene had me frightened about what would happen next. I never guessed who the ultimate villain would be, or what the terror that lurks beneath would wind up being – in some ways it was very much modern Grand Guignol but with less blood – because you don’t need lots of blood to destroy people. You just need to control them. Pomonoa wonderfully created the atmosphere of terror standing just behind you: because ultimately, the most frightening thing out there isn’t some alien creature: it’s other people.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. It continues through December 13th.)

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.)