Posts Tagged ‘Young Vic Theater’

Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Young Vic Theater

October 28, 2013

It’s been a three years since I saw The Scottsboro Boys in New York. At the time I saw it as a failure, in part because of its negative reception by local audiences (and rather quick closing) and in part because of my feeling that the music was just a bit of a hash of older music from the Kander/Ebb repetoire. But I was still very excited about a chance to see it again in London. What was it, I wonder? Was it because actually … it was really very good? Or did I just want a chance to see a show made by people who actually knew how to write music?

After seeing Friday’s preview performance at the Young Vic, I’ve changed how I feel about this show: I now think it is a modern masterpiece, one that we are lucky to have performed in the intimate confines of the Young Vic with a prodigious shower of talent. Five of the eleven core cast (the nine “Scottsboro Boys” plus the key characters of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones) are from the original Broadway show, and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with excitement at seeing that much black talent on the stage at the same time, including British black talent. I don’t like that my favorite art form doesn’t seem to look at all like the society I live in, and it makes me really happy to see fantastic actors of color given a chance to shine. It’s good for their careers, it’s good for the industry, it’s good for diversifying the audiences that come to theater – and, in this case, it means we are getting to see a story that’s totally new, because it’s about a section of (American) society that isn’t portrayed on the stage very much.

And, wow, what a story. I knew where it was going but other people in the audience didn’t: I heard a young woman gasp with disbelief at a key moment in the story. The story of The Scottsboro Boys isn’t in British text books, and it was probably about one sentence in my high school American history class; but I don’t want people to be told what it’s about. Let the tale unspool as a surprise, so that every twist and turn can be as horrifying as it ought to be. In my homeland, black men were imprisoned for looking at white women. They were hung for getting out of line, and by their fellow citizens, not by any “law.” This was America. Nine men could go to jail for trumped up rape charges and still be kept there even when the evidence was shown to not exist. And yes, we kept 13 year old children in jail on charges of rape – two of them, in this case, and a fifteen year old, and two seventeen year olds. And my glorious “land of the free and home of the brave” systematically denied them every protection of law available.

Kander and Ebb take this tale of horrors and present it in the form of a minstrel show, with the traditional comic roles of Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon) (they play the jailors, the judges, drunk attorneys and so on) while the one white character – the interlocutor (Julian Glover) – moves the action along. Or does he? In some ways, his role as the “master of ceremonies’ (per a traditional minstrel show) is actually transmuted into the “voice of white Alabama,” and his attempts to act as if his role as a superior is natural and accepted by the black men is blatantly subverted in the song “Southern Days” (which also makes clear the abuse of blacks that existed continually along the “genteel” side of the South). Attorney Samuel Leibowitz (also Forreset McClendon) shows up to give us a moment of hope for race relations – he is, at least, offended by the separate entrances and drinking fountains for “colored” – but as he sings “That’s Not the Way We Do Things,” it becomes clear he believes just as much in the superiority of whites – the people up north are just more subtle in their racism. And then we get “Financial Advice,” where the Alabama Attorney General starts talking about Jew money, and, seriously, sitting there in the audience, it’s just so incredibly dirty and distressing that it’s hard to stay in your chair.

Surrounding all of this like the praline around a pecan is the music and dancing that flesh out this work. Never trivial, always beautiful, I feel as if the creators of this show tried their hardest to keep us put by giving us beautiful singing and hair-raising choreography (oh, that electric chair song!) to help balance out the horrors we’re watching on stage. In some ways, it’s the Cabaret approach all over again, minus the sex and the drugs, with us hoping against hope that “I won’t lie to be free” Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe – how does he do it night after night?) is going to get a happy ending. Because, you know, that’s how it happens in Cabaret, right?

I could go on and on about how good the performances were, mutter a bit about the strange presence of “The Lady” (obviously meant from the beginning to be Rosa Parks – Dawn Hope), cheer about the inventive choreography, beam at the stripped down set that lets you build trains, jails, courtrooms, and plantation homes with your imaginations. But instead, I’ll just note that top price tickets for this show are 35 quid, and that, even at that price, I judge them to be a giveaway for what you get in return. It’s been extended to December 21st, and the running time is 1:45, by which time you’ll be exhausted and exhilarated and possibly wanting a drink. Book early: I think this might be the show you decide to go see twice – as it’s not British history you’re watching, there’s just enough separation to truly revel in the amazing thing the actors have created. The Scottsboro Boys is the crowning glory of the diamonds of American musical theater: don’t miss it.

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Review – The Secret Agent – theatre O at the Young Vic Theater

September 20, 2013

My husband’s obsession with Joseph Conrad has led me to many a theatrical experience I might otherwise have missed. But the thought of a retelling of his short novel The Secret Agent with updates to make it relevant to today’s terrorist obsessed audience was one which had me standing in line at the Young Vic, nervously hoping for a return ticket to a mid-week matinee.

Well! A good choice this was, except for the giggling teenagers that made up a large percentage of the audience (and did their best to wreck a tragic scene late in the play), with a snappy 1:25 interval-free running time that should make it popular amongst after-work theater goers despite its 7:45 start time. Theater O performed it in an expressionistic style that reminded me of The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari – all angular lines, hyperexpressivity, and madness. The tiny cast moved effortlessly between granny and anarchist, handicapped child and spymaster (although I thought Carolina Valdes, as Winne Verloc, was too heavily accented to be a believable ignorant housewife). The stage was very stripped down, but hey, there was always the audience there to fill out any missing roles (and I was easily bribed by the promise of a malted milk biscuit).

While The Secret Agent seems to be a story about late Victorian paranoia, anarchists, and the mysterious workings of governments told in almost a “everyday guy caught in events out of his control” style, in fact, Theater O make it clear that it’s still 100% relevant to today. We may not walk around in bowler hats and take horse drawn carriages to the almshouses, but we do still live in a world where governments recognize the power of fear to keep the people under control. Does “These cameras are here for your safety and security” ring a bell? And yet, do you really think cameras keep people from attacking you or stealing your wallet? Do videos made in a place where property crime is the only thing that would likely happen do anything to make YOU secure? Or has the language of “protection” become a way for everyone to be made docile?

I found this snappy show quite enjoyable and appreciated the contrast between the unreality of the style and the rather depressing banality of the topic. Sure, the specifics (there are two deaths) are particular to the story … but the universalities are what count. And someone tell the sixth formers to shut up during the death scene. Where are the instruments of the security state when you need them, eh?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 18th, 2013. It continues through September 21st.)

Review – A Season in the Congo – Young Vic Theater

July 18, 2013

It’s rare that I see a history play and immediately want to run out and read more about the subject at hand. The birth of a free nation in Africa: who would have thought it could be such compelling theater? This play, written shortly after the events in it took place and by an African (Aimé Césaire) is electric and unapologetic. It takes facts and people and builds personality and immense drama; all centering around the central, charismatic figure of Patrice Lumumba, the father of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Things may have gone south afterwards but, well, when he speaks of his dreams for his country – all of the tribes united, everyone under one banner – I couldn’t help but hear Henry V speaking before the battle of Agincourt, or Martin Luther King giving the “I Had a Dream” speech – a truly great leader with an endless well of optimism and a dedication to building the best future for his countryman. You could hardly have asked for a dreamier casting than Chiwetel Ejiofor, because he carried across that passion and dedication without a trace of egotism or self-consciousness. He spoke, and I believed; knowing, with my awareness of modern history (and gaps in my knowledge of the 50s or 60s, when this play is set), that somewhere along the line things did not go to plan.

This could-have-been-dry story is enlived by music and dance (not at the expense of story, but illustrating it); puppetry (actually, this was a weak point); a set with no moving pieces that still effortlessly changes from living room to prison to bar (the front rows are at tables as if they are out for cocktails) to market square; and twelve or so actors who somehow fill the space as if they were forty. It’s all sparse, actually, not heavy handed in its creation of a time and a place, giving us room to use our imagination to create airplanes and battlefields, dance halls and torture rooms. I was amazed at how quickly time had passed between the start and the end of the first act, and was ready to get back and see the rest of the story – I could not have asked for a more compelling drama. It was like the energy of Fela! combined with the passion of Malcolm X (per Spike Lee) – the whole theater was crackling.

In fact, it was so compelling that I wanted to research it more to figure out to what extent it was pure hagiography and to what extent true; Aimé Césaire must have omitted a few dark decisions to make Patrice Lumumba appear so … well, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as presented to my eyes as an American child came to mind. But … that’s something I’ll look into on my own time, rather than dumping it in my review. I went to see this as a work of theater, and it was every inch a success. Don’t miss it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013. It continues at the Young Vic through August 24th.)

Mini-review – My Perfect Mind – Told by an Idiot at the Young Vic Theater

April 24, 2013

“Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”

I booked to see My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic because the subject matter – an actor about to play King Lear is suddenly incapacitated by a stroke – thinking that much of it was going to be about the frustration that stroke patients endure, retaining their mental faculties but losing their ability to control their bodies. The character’s name is Edward Petherbridge, but in this production he’s actually played by the real Edward Petherbridge, because this is his own true story adapted to the stage (although early on we are told he is actually King Lear and is hallucinating that he is an actor called Edward Petherbridge). But what a story, eh? I was curious how we were going to show that frustration that stroke victims have, of not being able to do or say what they clearly know they want to, and how we would be let into Lear when Petherbridge wasn’t able to get the words out.

What I didn’t realize, first, was that this play was going to be really funny; second, that it was going to be, essentially, a one man King Lear (a la Alan Cumming’s also-not-really-one-man Macbeth), with another actor filling in the many other roles; third, that the play would strongly explore the parallels between Lear’s loss of his mind (I tend to think of the mad bit as being a “scene” but as per the quote above, Lear goes through quite a period of self-doubt) and the actor’s loss of control over his body. Very little of this play, in fact, was about being in a hospital or recovering from a stroke; rather, it was a journey through Petherbridge’s life as an actor, with rather a lot of King Lear happening alongside. There were scenes in Bradford, scenes with his mom, some made-up scenes in a university lecture room, lots and lots of scenes from Lear (sometimes as done in rehearsal with the company in New Zealand; sometimes as done with the cleaning lady from Romania as Petherbridge is learning the role; others more straight); and lots of reminiscences about actors and acting life gone by (Lawrence Olivier wearing fake blackface for Othello while doing a Richard III limp was pretty good).

I laughed far more than I thought I would, enjoyed the in-jokes about theater, and laughed at the sadness of a seventy-year-old actor performing a children’s song at a sea-side resort (in a melding of memories past and present that perfectly captured the way the mind wanders under stress). The actors improved off each other, the audience, and the captions above the stage, so the whole thing was very fresh feeling and not at all like a medical or personal history. In fact, it was extremely touching, and when it was over 90 minutes later, I thought it had been about 45 and I’d misread my watch. Congratulations to both Petherbridge and his Fool (Paul Hunter) – you’ve created not just a performance about one person’s experience, but a fine play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 23rd, 2013. It continues through May 4th. I could only fit in one more play before May 5th and I feel confident that I made a good choice picking this one.)