Posts Tagged ‘Royal Court 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.

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Mini-review – Fireworks – Royal Court Theater

March 23, 2015

Ostensibly Fireworks is a play abut the effect of war on children (as I read the synopsis), but it’s clearly just as much about the effect of war on adults; the parents of our two young protagonists, Lubna and Khalil, are slowly crumbling under the relentless pressure of constant imprisonment and impending death. Outside is definitely not safe; inside is only maybe safe; you can only tell stories to each other and hope that the hand of death passes over you.

But meanwhile, the little families holding on like weeds in a sidewalk are losing their ability to stay sane and support each other. Lubna’s mother Nahla (Sirine Saba) cannot let go of the grief for her young, dead son; she idolizes her memories of him and has utterly abandoned any connection to her husband and (living) daughter and talks frequently of wanting to join him. Her husband Khalid (Saleh Bakri) is trying to maintain the sanity in his household singlehandedly, telling a wide variety of lies to his daughter both about her mother and about the situation outside (with the “fireworks” in the sky). Lubna tells herself stories about visitors from the world of the dead, horribly informed by having seen too many recently dead people. Meanwhile her friend and neighbor, Khalil, is caught up in power and violence and seems to have lost both his ability to be afraid of dying as well as any clear concept of the consequences of death. His parents are much saner, but they seem to be harboring a possibly explosive stranger in their midst – their son.

Although a short play with a few memorable moments, I found this play hard to buy in to. In part, it’s due to the acting of the children (why do they have British accents when their parents don’t) but also due to how they were written. I believe that children will play “checkpoint soldiers” just as children now are playing “burn the captive alive in a cage,” but Khalil’s strange obsession with hitting and violence didn’t ring right with me. And the friendship between the two children also didn’t seem to have much of a basis to it. I think I could have been made to believe that they had just formed a friendship because there was no one left, but I wasn’t seeing the naturalism I expect in children. Overall, it seemed like the writer had some key concepts and scenes she wanted to write, and her characters had to take a back seat to where she wanted to go. I almost completely forgot about it after I saw it; but a bit more work and this idea would certainly resonate in conflict after conflict – God knows it probably reflects the daily life in the Ukraine as well as the Palestine.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 12, 2014. The show has since closed.)

Mini-review – God Bless the Child – Royal Court Theater

December 1, 2014

I have to say, given my general dislike of child performers, God Bless the Child at the Royal Court seemed like a show custom designed to send me screaming out of the theater. And then as I walked into the Jerwood Upstairs, and lo and behold, I was walking into a primary school classroom, going down the hall past the low-hanging coathooks and lockers, and then sitting on plastic chairs on the edge of a room with shortened tables (and lilypads and toadstools) in the center, and paper maché mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and posters covered with class projects. And then the actors marched on stage and suddenly the weird comments in the program (“Thank you Vicki Featherstone for never being tempted to use puppets”) made sense – because there were, what, nine kids of about 8 years on stage? The horror! The horror!

The story was actually not only new but quite modern in its concerns and electrically focused on modern politics – to be honest, blazing quite confidently into Shavian territory but with nearly no need to lecture us as the expense of entertainment (unlike some shows I could mention). Yet even without the politics the premise is interesting: a young girl decides that the teaching program she’s being a subject of/subjected to is ridiculous, and begins to protest against its methods in ways that underline its ineffectiveness. The heat is turned on when it’s revealed to us by Headmistress (aka school principal for us Americaners) Ms Evitt (Nikki Amuka Bird) that she’s putting the squeeze on the class’s teacher Ms Newsome (Ony Uhiara) to make it work or else … or else the school will continue to struggle financially. So despite us sympathizing with Louis (Nancy Allsop)’s campaign of undermining this corporate sponsored pap, we can’t help but also feel that the adults are trying to make it work out of generally positive concern for the school.

However, as the play carries on, while Louis (now styled King Louis) continues her reign in increasingly mad fashion, we get the addition of both the not very nice creator of the Badger Does Best system, Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington, chilling), and some frightening realizations about just why having Badger teaching the kids might not be a good idea. In fact, by the time the denoument rolled around, between the increasing hysteria of Sali and The King, I was beginning to think we were looking at a very grim play indeed. That’s some of the fun of seeing a new show – you never know what to expect. And for this show, I think you can take my word that it’s just a really great ride and go for it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 24, 2014. It continues through December 20th.)

Mini-review – Birdland – Royal Court Theater

May 20, 2014

It seems almost pointless writing up Birdland given that it’s closing in less than two weeks: but I just have to stand up and say HOORAY! for a show that makes me feel like we are truly living in a golden age of theater. I can almost imagine fans of German theater saying, “Oh, but British theater is all so realistic!” or perhaps other people saying, “Oh, but this show is gloomy!” but to me, any play that makes me experience real feelings, that makes me, for example, genuinely embarrassed for actors reading a script as if I were actually listening to a real conversation between two people in a semi-public place … while, in reality, I was just watching people who were being paid to speak lines which they had said again and again night after night … WHEW!

Now admittedly there’s a bit of typecasting in putting poor old Andrew Scott in the role of yet another whiny git we’d just love to slap (as Paul, an egotistical front man for some kind of chipper pop band), but then, wow, look, there’s the utterly amazing Daniel Cerquiera just seamlessly playing so many utterly different roles … Paul’s smarmy band manager, the distraught father of a suicided groupie, and Paul’s completely grounded and rather sad dad … I mean, where has Cerquiera been hiding? He’s the kind of perfectly formed actor that the London theatrical scene seems to be exhaling through its gills, so perfect at so many roles that, even with the (mere) six actors on stage for nearly the entire two hours (I could see them! right there!) I kept thinking some other guy had shown up to do whichever role I was watching. I mean, listen to this speech Cerquiera made as the father whose daughter has died, it’s going to sound so trite but I have to quote it:

[S]he’s in my head all the time. Do you see? I feel heavy with sadness. I feel like my clothes are heavy with sadness. The physical effort of getting up in the morning is crippling to me.

I felt heartbroken listening to him say that. For God’s sake, I was just listening to an actor! On a stage that didn’t even pretend to be realistic! (Actually it was like the Old Vic’s Much Ado set was recycled by someone who was determined to make a point that it could be used in a way that was not shit, with a bonus “drowning” metaphor thrown in to make the entire experience not just a little bit more beautiful but, I have to say it, profound.) How could I lose my sense of separation? He was speaking words that were WRITTEN for him to say (by Mr Simon Stephens, and full credits for your plot twists, sir), I shouldn’t have felt a thing.

And it was all … perfect. And it wasn’t some shit celebrity rehash of Shakespeare that nobody really needed to see or put on. I was fully in the moment even when the idiot six seats over had her MP3 player go off late in the show. (I imagined throwing it into the canal surrounding the set. A fitting end, I think.)

At least, well, I can feel good knowing that this show is pretty well sold out for the whole run, like it ought to be. Five stars, baby, five stars: it doesn’t get any better than this. I can prove it with numbers, and numbers never lie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday May 19th and cost me all of TEN POUNDS, baby. Ten pounds isn’t even real money. Well, not to Paul, anyway. Maybe to his dad. If they were actually really people, which they’re not. I think. I kind of wasn’t sure for a bit. Anyway, Birdland runs through May 31st. Please try really hard to go see it.)

Review – Love and Information – Royal Court Theater

September 23, 2012

A long time ago a theater far from the bright lights of the West End set itself a course dedicated to new theater. This being a risky venture for profit making theaters, many looked upon this decision and thought it was good, both the hard core theater fans looking for a new buzz and the conservative programming directors at the big theaters. And the seats were cheap (and huge and made of Corinthian leather) and the theater was usually full. And it was good.

And then, well, some of the productions became very popular. And then there were West End Transfers and queues at the box office and the website was overloaded at the start of booking and even for those who were supposedly Friends there was the bitter disappointment of The Shows That Would Remain Unseen. And lo, the secret was out, and it was fork over for the transfer or suck it, and as a special bonus we’re going to make the tickets for the most popular show of the year available on a luck only basis. Great was the gnashing of teeth, and many were the rendings of the friends memberships.

Hey ho, the fall of 2012 is upon us, and I’m pleased to report that the Royal Court is consoling us for the shows we weren’t able to see by providing us with a run of shows that will make us believe we’re actually not missing anything when we’re forced by finances or the vagaries of the ticket allotment system to stand one out. I present as proof Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 50 miniscule scenes that hit the subjects of the title without illuminating them. It’s as if Churchill was given the task of creating fifty audition pieces and we get to watch the entire collection performed in sequence.

I’ll admit, the audience did laugh, and there were wee moments of poignancy, but I was grossly disappointed by a show that made me feel like I’d been channel surfing.  I found myself thinking,”This show was perfect for the Royal Court,” but sadly I thought this because its deeply literate audience is able to roll with a non-standard format rather than just walking out even when it proves itself unworthy of their time. I want things to be perfect for the Royal Court because they’re new and awesome, not because no other theater would waste their audience’s time with it.

I love my cheapie £12 seats at the Royal Court because they so regularly have overdelivered value; what a change (and a disappointment) to walk out thinking, “Thank goodness I didn’t pay any more for that …”the third time running.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 21st, 2012.)

Mini-review – Birthday – Royal Court Theater

July 3, 2012

Great news, guys! For this episode of Saturday Night Live, we’ve managed to line up not just Jerry Hall, but, for one crucial segment, we’ve got her husband Mick Jagger! And this is going to be a funny one, guys: we’re doing a bit in which the gag is that MEN CAN HAVE BABIES. Yes, that’s right, we’re going to have Mick Jagger in a hospital bed, nine months’ pregnant, with Jerry Hall comforting him as he’s about to go into labor! We’ve thought about some of the medical details, which since they’re not possible means it’s going to have to be set a little bit in the future, but basically this is going to be PURE COMEDY GOLD, people. Imagine him whining about how “she can’t really understand the pain” while she tells him that “the children make up for all of it.” Then we’ll have a nurse come in and make him undergo humiliating medical procedures!

Yes, that’s right, we’re going to have Mick Jagger on his knees in a hospital bed while he has a rectal manipulation! And for extra fun, we’ve made the nurse character black, so she can be an unsympathetic, practical, and somewhat cruel stereotype of what you expect when you have to go to a publicly owned hospital! I mean, the jokes practically write themselves! I’ve got twelve waiting to go right now, but just picture this: Jagger, in a preggo suit, saying, “I’m hormonal, I can’t help myself!” IT’S GOING TO BE BRILLIANT!

…. only instead it was 90 minutes long and it was Lisa Dillon and Stephen Mangan and the jokes stopped being funny long before the show was over. Oh well, win some, lose some, and at £10 I could at least be grateful I hadn’t paid much for the experience. It was a missed opportunity to point out the shortcomings in investment in the NHS, but then the play might have been longer, so … well, you know, at least I was home by 10.

Review – Cock – Royal Court

December 1, 2009

How good was Cock? How very good was Cock. Cock was the play that keeps me going to shows night after night, waiting for that magic to happen. Cock was the play that, when my lover says, “You see theater too much,” makes me think, “No, I barely go enough, because if I hadn’t been dedicated and willing to stand in line in the mere hope of getting a ticket, I would have missed seeing this comet shoot across the horizon, illuminating us all as it passed.” Cock made it all worthwhile.

In the round, we have presented to us a conundrum; a man all but married to his (male) lover, who has left and found himself a very new thing; a woman, intelligent and gentle and so very different from this blundering, powerful man he’s left behind. But then, he’s not left him behind; he’s left neither behind; he’s left himself behind and can’t find his way back. Is he straight, is he gay, is he just a manipulative cock who wants to feel important, somehow, by hurting other peiople and seeing just how much they’ll humiliate themselves for him? Or is he really torn between two identities, or maybe two lovers, not sure which – identity or lover – is right for him? Which is family? Which is his future?

While I could have hated the in-the-round staging of this show, in fact, the incredible intimacy overwhelmed the occasional frustrations of not being able to see an actors face. Almost always, I felt I could tell what they were doing, because the brilliant characterizations filled in the gaps. The twitching cheek; the arrogant poses: I felt no gaps in the action anymore than I would have felt I was “missing the expressions” while watching a domestic dispute in my living room.

Andrew Scott was especially brilliant as the tortured boyfriend; never once did I find myself doubting his arrogance or the pain he was going through. Now that it’s done, though, I find that I’m getting lost in the conundrum of which gave the perfection, the cast or the play, and I have to just sit back and smile, or dance with joy, for Thanks Be that amidst all the dreck and staleness that too frequently hits My Lady – the theater – the other woman in my life – there can still be nights like these, when I spent two hours watching and then another hour questioning, What did this mean? Why did he treat her/him so cruelly? all the time willfully forgetting that it was all sound and fury – and instead buying that what I saw was real and worth caring about and feeing hurt over (and with) the characters as I watched them suffer. Truly, this was a night that repaid every evening I spend in the dark waiting for magic to happen in front of me.

(This review was for a performance that took place on December 2st, 2009. I did drink rather a lot of wine afterwards but I can say, if you didn’t get tickets to this show, I fully authorize you to cry about what a great experience you missed. Thanks to Mzendle for braving the returns line to get us seats; you are ace!)

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)