Posts Tagged ‘this time the projections weren’t so bad’

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.)

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Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

June 11, 2013

For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)

Mini-review – Hamlet – Tiger Lillies at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center

September 20, 2012

There’s only two days left to see this show, so this review needs to be quick if you’re looking to make up your mind. I’m going to assume you know about Hamlet: to me, it’s the very best play in the English language; as a classic, it’s very open to being “interpreted” as a play as well as being able to form a basis for many other works of art. The Tiger Lillies, well, if you know them I don’t need to say more (and you’re already going), but if you don’t I’ll summarize as: dark clown cabaret music, heavy on the accordion, with liberal helping of Edward Gorey and sex.

Right! So, about that Tiger Lillies’ Hamlet happening at the Southbank Centre for two more nights: it’s 2 1/2 hours long, it has about 10% of the text of Hamlet, and it has five performers doing six characters (Polonius/Laertes is doubled up – well, actually Rosencranz and Guildenstern do make an appearance but they hardly count), so you’re obviously not going to get it all. Instead, you get a journey through the psyche of Hamlet (and a bit of a tour de Gertrude et Ophelia), which, unsurprisingly, the Tiger Lillies find obsessed with sin and death – which, considering the play, isn’t really much of a stretch. There’s far more acrobatics than you get in a normal Hamlet, and very effective puppetry and projections.

Let me go on about the last two for just a bit. Hamlet’s father is a projection, a face bounced onto the cast that contracts until he is only a tiny projection on Hamlet’s body: a powerful expression of his hold over the story as well as his intense sway over Hamlet. This was a nearly shocking use of a frequently lazy medium to convey actual artistry and metaphor: would that all projections were so well used. Ophelia’s drowning scene was also done as a projection, of various waters and splashes behind her while she was suspended from the ceiling; I could have hated it but water (like fire) can just be hard, splashes are impossible (without real water), and the whole thing was just beautiful as well as a summary of Ophelia’s mind (I am particularly thinking of a bit I was sure was blown snow).

The puppets were also very good: Polonius is such a figure of ridicule that he _is_ just perfectly expressed as a giant puppet; and the scene with the players, done as the actual cast with strings holding them to the ceiling, captured nicely the feeling of the performance being controlled by Hamlet as well as the bigger metaphor of the characters in they play all being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Did the Tiger Lillies intend their design to hit deeper levels so effectively, or was this merely a side effect of someone else’s artistic choices? Oddly, their songs did not really add too much to the show other than atmosphere, a fault that was not entirely caused by the murky sound design (Hamlet’s mike totally gave out at one point). Still, I’m not one to complain; this was a very engaged adaptation of this play and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012.)