Posts Tagged ‘Young Vic’

Review – Once in a Lifetime – Young Vic

December 11, 2016

Tell me what the movies Singing in the Rain and Prix de Beaute have in common? What, you haven’t heard of the second one? Well, this 1930 Louise Brooks film, made in two versions, is a real treat. So the secret is that both films are deeply immersed in the effect that the introduction of sound had to the evolution of the movies … and, if you look over your shoulder, to the effect that movies had on the support for live theater (as it’s sound cinema that killed vaudeville/music hall culture, putting Gypsy on the stage and making Norma Desmond mad). I am very interested in the change that The Jazz Singer brought to the world of cinema … and having the chance to see a play set during this fruitful era was one I could not let pass me by. And it was written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman … my hopes were high!

I’ll warn you that this show will go down best if you have a taste for the “screwball comedies” of 1930s Hollywood – with plots built around things like debutantes taking care of chimpanzees (or maybe cheetahs) while wearing an improbable series of expensive dresses. Yes, reality isn’t really a consideration, and the sooner you stop expecting it, the easier it will be for you to enjoy Once in a Lifetime.

The show opens in the hallway (?) of the tacky hotel the vaudeville troupe of May (Claudie Blakley), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and George (John Marquez) are sharing. May has some bad news: they’re running out of money. It seems like this group has run out of steam. But suddenly Jerry bursts on the scene and announces he’s sold the act so they can run to Hollywood and, somehow, make a fast buck out of the rise of the talking picture. He’s just seen The Jazz Singer and he’s sure there’s money to be made in Hollywood. Give him credit: he has certainly seen the sea change moment. However, he has no idea WHAT to do, and it winds up being May who comes up with the idea of running an elocution school. While the trio are on a train to the promised land (Hollywood), May somehow manages to convince an influential friend of hers, film critic Helen Hobart (Lucy Cohu), to get behind their crazy idea, and suddenly, boom, it’s Hollywood at one of the most chaotic times ever, and our silly little play is off careening down an iced slalom with a complete disregard for logic.

Along the way, we get to see all of the people constantly thinking they have something that ought to be in pictures, tons of glamorous dresses (no cheetahs or chimpanzees, alas), an endlessly rotating stage, way to many Indian nuts, a complete simpleton running an expensive Hollywood production, and an endless paean to the idea that it’s not skill but luck that leads to success.

The acting is not as energizing as it could be (and neither is the script at first), but there are so many astoundingly comic characters for the rather bland leads to bounce off of that I began to feel like I was, actually, watching a 1930s movie, with the incredible depth of character actors they had to choose from. Throughout it all, though, I maintained a high degree of ironic separation from the unreality of what I was seeing on stage … only, underneath it all, it seemed the lesson that the monkeys are actually in charge at the zoo seemed as correct in real life (say, in banking, business, and politics) as it was in this play. Oh, it’s all so funny because it’s just all so true. Skill and talent mean nothing; the ability to spin a convincing line of bullshit and get powerful people on your side is everything. And how can that not make you laugh? This play may have its faults, but I found it an effervescent slice of topsy-turvy reality wholly suited to the end of this most topsy-turvy of years. Who needs panto when you’ve got Once in a Lifetime?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. It continues through January 14th.)


Double Header Review – Weald, Finborough Theatre and Battlefield, Young Vic

February 24, 2016

There are two sweet, short shows on right now that end this week, and if you’re trying to decide which to book, you’re probably going to have to choose one or the other. Weald, on through the 27th at the Finborough, is a highly naturalistic show set in present day England that looks at the relationship between an older and a younger man working at a horse stable. Battlefield (at the Young Vic through the 27th), written and directed by Peter Brook (and Marie-Hélène Estienne), is a highly stylized slice of the Mahabharata, an epic story of battle and family rivalry. Night and day, right?

Well, actually, seeing the two shows so closely together, I found many more similarities than differences between them. Peter Brook, as world famous director, seems the likely choice to have created a better product, but in some ways his style has very much informed the production of Weald, which is (seemingly) all about horses with nary a horse on stage. Brook has us seeing gods walking on stage, people transforming into animals, souls leaving bodies and fires raging on stage; Weald similarly takes tiny cues (a bridle, feed buckets) and creates the snuffling, kicking, smelly, warm ungulates that are never represented by so much as a single hoof. It’s all about the actors and the words, and in both cases, our actors take us on a journey: to scenes of tragic death; to scenes of horrible betrayal; to scenes in which the golden light of humanity shines out of a mere actor’s eyes. I saw the grassy countryside through which Cromwell’s army marched, and the blood covered banks of the Ganges; and the goddess of the river rising and crying.

Weald isn’t a perfect script (Battlefield is doubtlessly stronger), and while Peter Brook has honestly created something I can mostly only describe as a perfect theatrical experience, well … I’d like to encourage you to try to see Weald, especially if you have seen a Brook work on stage before. I feel language that is so believable – and is about the world we live in now – is not often come by, and this work by a younger playwright could use you more that Brook can. But, really, they were both very special. Might I suggest you catch the final Sunday show and do the Brook as well? I think you will not consider it time poorly spent; I found it lovely.

(This review is for the Sunday February 21st performance of Weald and the Tuesday February 23rd performance of Battlefield.)

Mini-review – Song from Far Away – Toneelgroep Amsterdam at The Young Vic

September 6, 2015

Right. You’re an international investment banker living in New York, and your brother has died.

You go home. Amsterdam. So many memories. Your family. So much baggage.

Sex. And death.

Watching this play, a love song to Amsterdam, an examination of how people handle the impact of death, I found myself admiring the simplistic design: a quarter room in which the protagonist sits, still, silhouetted; the other room, with beautifully reflective windows that sometimes show the snow and allow him to pontificate about what Dutch design has to say about Dutch values. And I slowly but surely found myself being lulled to sleep, a condition against which I fought courageously but not strongly enough.

I didn’t lose the words of this show as I flickered back and forth between consciousness and free association, but I was left as unmoved as the narrator. Death hurts; death is more than tears. Bella Heesom covered it far more emotively in My World Has Exploded a Little Bit and didn’t even need to charge us 35 quid or take her clothes off to get her point across; for Ivo van Hove to do both of these things and yet leave us at the end indifferent to our narrator seems positively criminal both artistically and creatively. The brevity of the piece did not stop other audience members from making their leaps at regaining those few lucky minutes granted to us on earth: I only wished I had joined them.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 5th, 2015. It continues through September 19th.)

Review – Ah, Wilderness! – Young Vic

April 22, 2015

I’ve really warmed up to Eugene O’Neil since seeing his Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo some years ago. I’d previously thought of him as a writer of go America rah-rah schmaltz (based upon reading the script for Wilderness in high school, apparently), but now I see him as a modernist with a well-honed ability to create characters with real depth. Maybe that’s the secret to the great American dramatists of the 20th century – being born to families that were deeply, deeply messed up, providing them with rich source material to build their semi-fictions upon. However, there’s none of his usual grimness visible in this play, which is quite accurately described as his “warmest, most delightful play” (some slight references to alcoholism do NOT take it to the “dark undertow” stage). Instead, what you get is a family where the mom (Janie Dee) is absolutely devoted to and protective of her children – while being aware of their faults – and a father (Martin Marquez) who claims to be willing to wallop his offspring and yet chooses to give up the main advertiser for his paper rather than punish his son unjustly. How can _that_ be a dark world?

The Young Vic’s Ah, Wilderness is set in a clapboard house with sand spilling through every door into a pool on the stage, where Old Eugene (David Annen) watches his younger self relive his memories. Now, Old Eugene is not a character in the play – he’s used to read bits of description and to occasionally show emotion in response to things that happen – but he effectively adds layers of sadness and nostalgia to what happens, in this house that’s full of memories and near the beach, the ocean sand covering nearly everything a metaphor for all of the overlayers of years and passing time. Young Eugene – er, Richard Miller (George MacKay) – is a hysterically overemotional teenager who reminded me of nothing so much as a modern day Goth kid. Who’d think the trappings of rebellious, literate teenagerdom would be so exactly the same in 1906 as in 2015? He’s reading Oscar Wilde, talking about taking the rich away in tumbrils to the guillotine while waving around his copy of Carlyle’s French Revolution … all he needs to do is start carrying on about Morrisey and wearing eyeliner. My friend and I were practically in tears in the opening scene, as his family debates Richard’s tastes in literature while butchering one British word after another (I thought “gaol” was pronounced “gay-el” as well before I moved here) and an elder brother declares to all that Wilde’s great crime was bigamy. Oh God. When Essie Miller came in at the start of the scene complaining about her son’s “awful books” I would have never thought I’d have read all of them or that it would be the springboard for such a moment of shared literacy (and laughs) amongst the audience. (For details on his horrible books, this author did all the homework for me.)

For good comedy, not having everything be funny is key: and underneath this play is the pain of lost love, suffered temporarily by Richard and eternally by his uncle Sid Davis (Dominic Rowan), both of whom address their ills with alcohol. Sid’s bender with his brother in law leads to an uproarious dinner scene with Sid chewing on lobster shells and making fun of both his sister and her husband to great effect; but his funniness loses its edge when we realize he’s drunk himself into unemployment and out of a marriage both he and Lily (Susannah Wise – dad Miller’s sister) want. These four characters – the mother, the father, his sister, her brother – are all likeable and yet none of them perfect; on stage, their interactions speak of lives that have touched each other for ages before and will continue to be entwined into the future. They’re masterpieces of writing and absolutely pitch perfect on stage, each one of them, the actors inhabiting them as if they carry them around like their own skin when they walk out of the building.

In fact, the only real complain I could have about this show is that it’s a bit too happy. Nobody I know has an entire family familiar with Omar Khayyam and able to leap to the defense of an overreaching youth on an instant’s notice; running out of work, especially when you live in a small town (and have been run out of your work) is much more of a tragedy than this show plays it. And we all know that this is not his life he’s showing us, and somewhere bubbling under the giggles is the wretched truth brought out in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But this is the play that rewrites the facts of O’Neill’s life to find comedy and warmth; and there’s more than enough misery out there, in real life as well as on the stage, that I think it’s okay for us to take the opportunity Natalie Abrami has given us to sit back and enjoy ourselves for a while. Here, it’s the Fourth of July; put your rose-colored glasses on and join me on the moonlit beach and let’s watch the fireworks for a while and just live in the moment.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 20th, 2015. It continues through May 23rd. I suggest sitting so that you’re slightly on the right side of teh stage – if you’re facing it – so you can see Sid’s face during the dinner scene. This play is an excellent value at £20 and a good night out at £35, with bonus value if you want to have a good laugh and walk out feeling like the world isn’t such a bad place after all.)

Mini-Review – Happy Days – Young Vic

February 20, 2015

I’m pretty sure that nobody in London would have bought a ticket for Happy Days at the Young Vic thinking that they were going to be listening to 50s music and watching The Fonz. No, amongst theater goers it’s quite famous as the play where the actress spends the performance buried from at least the waist down. It’s a play from the Absurdist period, and, given that it’s a Beckett, its themes are predictable at the start: our impending annihilation, the futility of existence, et cetera. The play can be accused of being about how people attempt to maintain their equilibrium in the face of unavoidable death (or perhaps a big metaphor on the hopeless loneliness of marriage or, more broadly, life), but I don’t want to examine it in that way. It’s certainly more powerful to see a play than just to read it, and this is a fine production (lively, unironic Winnie – Juliet Stevenson) with a truly impressive set (it looked like a slice of a mountain and even had regularly trickling rocks burying Winnie just a tiny bit more while we watched) and painful sound effects (I was tempted to pull in a health and safety inspector as I suspected ear damage might have happened – it really hurt my ears) – and for many of us, it’s a play you want to have on that life list.

But … why bother? I’m not interested in seeing a play just so I can sit around and discuss the symbolism of it all, especially given that this topic has been stamped into the ground long ago. It’s an existentialist museum piece brought to life. The sad thing, though, is that the Absurdism style is still massively relevant and an incredibly powerful theatrical tool when brought out in a vibrant context. When we need to shine a light on the ill doing of the powers that be, you can hardly do it any better than in a theatrical piece that mocks them. But how much safer to watch this gelding than go see the stallion currently prancing at the Bush Theater (Islands, closing this Saturday). If you want to see an animated (but convincingly life like) dinosaur, go see Happy Days, but if you want to see absurdist theater that leaves bruises, you’d be a fool to miss Islands – in fact, I would advise you to abandon Happy Days tickets bought for this weekend, take the loss, and see Islands instead; and if Beckett or Ionesco were around, they’d say the same thing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 18th, 2015. It continues through March 21st. Ice creams are compulsory at the interval.)

Mini-review – Bull – Young Vic

January 30, 2015

I’m someone who very much will follow playwrights rather than actors from stage to stage, and Mike Bartlett is one of a handful of currently active playwrights (Neil Labute, Nick Payne) that I try to see every time they do something new. Bartlett’s forte, to me, is correctly capturing how people think and behave now, in the modern world (Contractions being another one in this vein). He’s especially talented at showing how people lie to themselves – an element I find particularly attractive in plays – and is responsible for my favorite new work of the last five years, Cock. So there was no doubt in my mind that when I was told his short play Bull was going to be making its London debut at the Young Vic, I had to go, sold-out-ness be damned. And, as I hoped, a few tickets came though before the show, though through what seemed to me like very bad luck, my seated seat became a standing seat on the day of (a mix up of some sort, I was told, that affected about 20 people).

The small space at the Young Vic has been set up like an arena for this show, with waist-height glass walls surrounding a carpeted square defined only as an office by the presence of a water cooler. This look, with two rows of spectators standing at its edges, felt very much like a boxing ring: we paid our money to watch the action. As the besuitted actors walked in and immediately began to bicker with each other, I began to feel like I was backstage at a reality TV show, but the coworkers I was watching – who were clearly, each one of them, individually dedicated to destroying the others – displayed none of the pandering, “appealing to the home viewers” attitudes of people performing on TV. No, this was more like one of those nature documentaries in which happy gazelles bound across the plains until they’re taken down by a cheetah, only in this case it was a lion/rhino/crocodile battle – all muscle and heaving violence, but fought with the scalpel blades of words. Thomas (Sam Troughton) initially appears to be the rhino, stomping in and bellowing at Isobel (Eleanor Matsura), quickly going for personal insults on her sexual availability – but Isobel completely avoids his jibes and manages to deftly point out how his style of argumentation highlights his own shortcomings. Then Tony (Adam James) appears and the full level of the head games being played comes out. They all know that only two of them will survive, and, smelling blood, Tony and Isobel are bound and determined to make sure they’ve done their best to ensure survival of themselves. Bullying, insults, bringing up a colleague’s personal life, hiding vital information … all of the weapons of the office jungle come in to play, while we watch, breathless, on the side, as if at a bull-baiting pit with the dogs occasionally fighting each other and their handler egging all of them on, as if for maximum viewer enjoyment.

The cumulative effect of all of this verbal violence is overwhelming; it feels too real, too immediate. My brain was sending “thank God that wasn’t me” messages as the inevitable end played out, with pinstripe and patent leather clad predators slinking away while a third animal bled its life into the waterhole. All it needed was a vulture swooping in to take a first bite. It was an absolutely fantastic, hair-raising night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 27, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)

Mini-review – Golem – 1927 at Young Vic Theater

January 14, 2015

Although it opened in December, I still very much wanted to go see 1927’s new show, Golem, especially given the usually affordable pricing structure of the Young Vic (my ticket was £19.50) and the fact their previous show had been one of my favorites of 2011. Four years … that’s a long time for a show to stay with you. Think about it. So, despite the warnings from Stewart Pringle (I didn’t read the review but I saw the stars, or lack thereof), I went to see Golem, hoping a difference in personal tastes would lead to an enjoyable night. And hey, it was cheap and promised to be only 90 minutes long, so surely it couldn’t be such a bad evening (despite my epic jet lag).

Golem was in no ways a retelling of the golem tales of yore, other than that it has a golem in it – no Prague setting, no spell casting, no Jewish themes, no parallels with Frankenstein. But when you get an animated human creature who does your servant, you nearly automatically get the opportunity for requests to go a bit haywire (i.e “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and narratively the possibility of the creature somehow acquiring free will is a powerful path to go down. For this story, however, the creature doesn’t seem to develop its own sense of will so much as have it taken over by someone else. It’s all done as a sort of morality tale about consumerism, twined around a deliberately quirky tale of a family of two nerdy kids (they have an anarchist punk band together that never actually performs due to their anxiety issues) and their grandmother, whose lives are invaded and eventually taken over by this strange, evolving, semi-subordinate creature.

As ever, this show was done with live people and animated back and foregrounds – a truly original style that almost comes off as a sort of living claymation, this time with more of a St Pepper’s/Monty Pythno feel rather than the Soviet Expressionism of their last show. But I’m beginning to think that the lack of possibility of spontaneity reduces the input of the human elements too much for my tastes – they are practically performing a live movie, not a play, with all of the dialogue recorded (unless I’m seriously mistaken – the music did seem to be performed live but I don’t think all of it was). The effects created by this format is really beautiful, but at some point it has to move beyond trickery and visuals and actually become an engaging story; but somehow for Golem this did not happen and I found myself, 40 minutes in, feeling uncomfortable in my chair and wondering just how this show could redeem itself. The point that was being deliverered – the social satire – wasn’t really subtle, and, well, I was bored. And for a ninety minute show to become boring … well, that’s quite an indictment.

As I walked out, I heard the excited witterings of all of the other people who’d had an enjoyable evening (obviously not including the woman sat in front of me who’d limboed backwards out of her back of stall seat and made a run for it 10 minutes before the end). Maybe, like Punchdrunk, this is the kind of thing where initial novelty can really provide a tidal wave of enthusiasm, but, in the end, content wins out over form, and this show just didn’t cut the mustard. Ah well, I’ll still go back at least another two times to see what comes next.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 13th, 2015. It continues until January 31st. There is a really nice preview of this show on the Telegraph‘s website which I’m going to read because I do still consider myself a 1927 fan even if I didn’t care for this show.)

Review – Sizwe Bansi Is Dead – Young Vic

February 23, 2014

How do you pick plays to see? Do you go to everything starring a favorite actor? Do you see all of the productions of a certain theater (like The Royal Court or The Donmar)? Or do you operate from a series of imaginary (or real) life lists, such as “everything by playwright X” (for me this is Pinter, Ibsen, and Shakespeare) or … something else?

In addition to playwright driven goals, I’ve got an ill-defined life list that is “all of the great plays.” Even if membership in this list comes (and but rarely goes) depending on what I learn about as I continue on as a theater viewer, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was absolutely on it. I missed out seeing it at the Young Vic in September, so this time I jumped on the bandwagon and bought tickets before it opened. I mean, the last time had completely sold out, and they brought it back; when it comes to deciding whether or not this was a quality production, to me the dial was definitely turned toward “yes.” And I’ve seen other plays by Athol Fugard and found him an infinitely watchable playwright, soaked in the core mysteries of what makes people tick and a creator of fully believable plays enhanced (not limited) by the seasoning of his own national background.

This brings us to his most famous work. As ever, I did not research it before I went: other than “quintessential apartheid play,” I was in the dark. I walked into the theater, diverted by a sign (and guard) pointing one way for blacks, and another for whites. The couple in front of me went into a different door than I did. Ah yes, I thought: the world of the Scottsboro Boys; my country did this, too.

The play is practically split in two halves, the first a folksy introduction to the life of a typical black man living under apartheid. Perhaps he was not truly typical, for our protagonist, Mr Styles (Tonderai Munyevu) is employed at a good job in an industrial plant. I enjoyed his story of the daily indignities he endured and his comic ways of keeping his spirits up in spite of it … though eventually he decides to leave it all and become the owner of a photo studio. I wondered how realistic it was that any particular individual could become a successful sole proprietor during that era, and if things were actually more peaceful then than they are now. And it was all very upbeat. Was I being served up Fugard’s idea of the happy oppressed South African, all full of laughs and irony? I was disappointed that such a slight (if entertaining) play had garnered so much attention. On the other hand, given that I was expecting it to be a pile of gloom and doom, I was pleasantly surprised at the tone.

As it turns out, this is very much the sweet coating to to the much weightier story underneath. A second character, played by Sibusiso Mamba, finally appears … but after all of this time waiting, he, too, is not Sizwe Bansi! What the hell, was I actually at a Southern Hemisphere take on Godot? Two actors, no Bansi, NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO DIE and I am going to be stuck listening to Mr Styles making jokes about cats and cockroaches.

And then with a flash of the camera, we are taken to the world of South African in 1972, when the permits on your tribal identity card – and the word of the white man – determined where you could live, where you could work, if you could see your family, whether you starved or scraped by. And at last we get to meet Mr Bansi, and we, the audience, can sit back and wait for the unpleasantness that is watching a character we have grown attached to die on us.

Seeing the Kafkaesque struggles of the pathetically decent family man Sizwe Bansi as he attempts to overcome the white bureaucracy’s heroic attempts to keep him penniless and his children hungry, I couldn’t help but think of the modern British state, working so hard to save us from dangerous, non-British people like Mark Harper’s cleaner and fighting to make sure that loving married couples aren’t together unless the British partner earns some predetermined amount (set, again, by the bureaucracy). Because, you know, government wants to support families by keeping them poor and, better yet, living apart, so their children only know mom/dad via Skype.

Now, I’m not going to deny that I saw how this story was going to go from a mile off. I did. But what I didn’t think was that as I sat there, watching it, I would feel so strongly that this play was not just about the injustices of the apartheid era – for so it is – but so universally about the injustice of any government that stops treating people like human beings and starts treating them like numbers – like problems, as “targets to be reached” (does this one sound familiar) with no accounting for the impact on their lives. I’ve had hoop after hoop put in front of me to allow me to stay in this country, supposedly to “make sure I’m gainfully employed,” but, in truth, to try to keep every opportunity for me to be one more number on the negative side of the balance sheet. This country has managed to get up in arms about identity cards, but fights to escaped from being governed by the EU’s laws on human rights. It’s shameful.

Sizwe Bansi: still incredibly powerful. Still relevant. 100 percent tip to toe a must see.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 15th, 2014. It continues through March 15th, although it is almost entirely sold out.)

Review – Public Enemy – Young Vic

May 9, 2013

As an Ibsen completist, I was excited by the opportunity to see a production of Enemy of the People (charmingly retitled as Public Enemy but no rapping), so much the better that seats at this Young Vic production were available for £10. Be warned, though, cheap seats fans, of the danger of the front row, far left seats: for a good section of the first scene, of two actors I could only see a hat; and for the second act, a long section in which the actors were actually in front of the curtain required me to crane my neck so far (and so long) to the right I thought I was going to get the theatrical equivalent of deep vein thrombosis. Balcony seats will likely save you from cramping.

Plotwise, Public Enemy is just as on topic now as it would have been when written – well, mostly. The lead character is a doctor who is going to save a spa town from the pollution that’s making spa-goers sick; however, when it turns out the consequences of fixing this problem will cause the ruination of the town, suddenly even his wife is asking him to reconsider letting the cat out of the bag. The situation, of a small town with a small economy and a whistleblower who’s going to upset things, has all sorts of easy-to-see parallels with our society; but the political environment is quite different. The local government in the play is far more prone to cronyism than today (not so many people appointing family members to public office); there’s a real fear of communism and yet the local publisher is proud to be a socialist; and, shockingly, the doctor himself posits anti-democratic beliefs that are right out of the Ayn Rand handbook. “The majority makes the rules, but you’re willing to admit that most people are stupid! You should all be shot!” (Oh my.)

This leads to some interesting tension as a play viewer. You want the doctor to stand up for what is right (not having people die from the poisoned water at the spa), you want him to do it more than he worries about his career (or even his family), but suddenly when he starts talking about his own superiority to the people of the town he lives in, your sympathy for him evaporates. Yeah, he is probably better educated than most of the townspeople; sure, a lot of people “vote with their wallets” (private interest over public interest); but … if he really believes that everyone is ignorant and the ignorant should be “put out of their misery” rather than be allowed to participate in government, well, all I can say is Nietzsche did it better and the consequences were pretty horrible, and maybe the good doctor should be looking at a better investment in education for his fellow citizens.

But there is no way to not feel the pull of individual greed in influencing bad decisions: you can see it today in the factory collapses in Bangladesh and the recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Both individuals and governments influenced by the self-interest of the rich work to try to do things on the cheap; and the result is that people die in entirely preventable incidents. It’s amazing to watch both the newspaper editor and the publisher collapse in the face of their own loss were the doctor’s report to be published: suddenly their concern for “the public good” and “the people” are revealed to be easily punctured in the face of reduced revenue. And it’s hard not to value someone who’s willing to stand up to public pressure to save people’s lives. I’ll agree with the doctor: the minority is the one from which ideas and change generate, and minority interests need to be protected. But at the end, when he says that the strongest man is the one who stands by himself, well, in this version at least, he’s shown to be a madman. Frankly, I prefer him as a slightly misguided hero, but … well, it’s lovely that Ibsen has created a show so vibrant that there’s this much to talk about, and I was very happy to have the whole thing race along in less than 1:45 (a possible interval was replaced by a set change). If you like your theater served with a heavy side dish of politics, this play is highly recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. It continues through June 8th.)

Review – The Suit – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Young Vic

May 28, 2012

I’m a horrible one for remembering names, but I am a fan of director Peter Brook. His “Empty Space” aesthetic suits me as a fan of theater that tells rather than shows, that allows the user to fill in the detail with their imagination. (It’s the total opposite of the video screen theory of set design, which not only shows you everything you need to see but does it in a way that sucks the viewer’s creative powers.) So I was very excited to see a brand new show by his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord come to The Young VicThe Suit, based on a story by South African author Can Themba.

The premise of the show was simple (per the Young Vic’s website): “a young worker returns home to find his wife in bed with her lover. The lover escapes, leaving behind his suit. In revenge, the husband instructs his wife to treat the suit as an honored guest” – not just for dinner, but every day. It sounded like classic absurdist/surrealist theater, and I wondered what sort of wild extremes they would go to as the story unfolded. I imagined her bathing the suit, putting it to bed every night, taking it to the zoo, et cetera.

The reality, however, was much less than I had hoped for. The suit is sat down for just one meal, and, while supposedly it gets a spot in their bed (I think), it didn’t seem to happen night after night like I expected. In fact, after the first day, the suit doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the lives of Philemon and Matilda except for one humiliating Sunday walk. It comes to life (as it were) when Matilda pretends to dance with it; but otherwise it seems to fall away from the main story.

And what the main story is, well, I don’t know. It seems to be about Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) coming into her own and finding her value as a woman in something more than entertaining herself with young hotties; but it also seems to be about celebrating the life of blacks in a South Africa that was about to be destroyed (referred to in the play but not seen). People go to work on horribly crowded buses; they drink and dance in shebeens; they deal with racism on a daily basis but live in strong communities where women organize self-education groups through their churches. This second bit was my strongest takeaway from the show, the feeling of seeing bits of a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed; and it was lovely.

This, however, must have been an aside, for surely we were meant to be focusing on Philemon (William Nadylam) and his wife, and their journey toward forgiveness/reconciliation or whatever other ending the playwright might have chosen (madness, death, murder, the introduction of a dress – I didn’t know what was going to happen so don’t want to spoil it). But somehow they came to seem like an aside, like a ten minute story that didn’t have the ending that Albee or Sarte would have given it, as they worked it toward an intense exploration of the human psyche. It left me feeling dissatisfied – and unhappy that I’d gotten bored in a play that was only supposed to be 70 minutes long. I sat through 1:50 of Master and Margarita without once losing my focus … why wasn’t this play able to hold me for even two thirds of that time? While I was happy to see another play done in the wonderful Brook style, I’m afraid this one won’t be one I recommend to other people – it was just too slight.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 18th, 2012. It continues through June 16th.)