The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several National Theatre productions from 2002 together. This makes for a long page, but scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Bacchai - Coast of Utopia - Frozen - Gagarin Way - Hinterland - Ivanov - A Laughing Matter - Powerbook - Prayer for Owen Meany - She Stoops to Conquer - South Pacific - A Streetcar Named Desire - Vincent in Brixton
The Bacchai Olivier Theatre Summer 2002
I can't imagine any theatre-lover not rushing to see this extraordinary National Theatre production, not just because it is an opportunity to make amazing discoveries about how theatre works, but because it's good -- exciting, engrossing, thrilling, moving, entertaining.
Historians have always known that the great fifth century BC tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed with masks and music, but no one knows exactly what they looked and sounded like. In recent years director Peter Hall has been experimenting with blank-faced masks and the performance styles they inspire, and has developed a core group of actors who report paradoxically that not being able to use their faces has liberated them to find new ways of using their voices and bodies.
Now Hall brings his company to Euripides' Bacchai, a tragedy of how Dionysus, the god of drunken revelry, punishes those who do not respect and worship him, and it is a breath-taking experience of pure theatre. Three actors -- Greg Hicks, David Ryall and William Houston - play all the major roles, backed by a Greek chorus, and with nothing more than blank-faced masks, costume changes, and their acting skills to create a range of characters and profound emotional effects.
Let me pause and note that about twenty-five years ago something about a spear-carrier at the RSC made me notice him, and I have been following Greg Hicks' career with pleasure ever since, as he has evolved into one of the British theatre's strongest and most reliable character actors. He's never quite broken through to star status, and it will be ironic if this production, in which we only see his face at the very beginning and end, is the one that takes him to the top level.
Certainly Hicks, with several Hall-directed masked productions behind him, has mastered this special art and dominates the play with a series of bravura performances, as the worship-demanding Dionysus, the no-nonsense seer Teiresias, and a frightened messenger reporting on offstage horrors. (A touchstone of his absolute authority is that that last sequence, whose gory descriptions would seem doomed to rouse nervous giggles in the audience, holds us silent and spellbound in horror.)
But the whole production is spellbinding. Colin Teevan's new translation has a modern sound without the grating feel of anachronism, and even manages some warn natural humour, as when the two old men Teiresias and Cadmus (Ryall) keep interrupting a serious scene to bicker over which is the older. The only thing that doesn't quite work is a half-hearted attempt at contemporary relevance in presenting the Dionesian religion as an Asian cultural force that the xenophobic West disdains at its peril. Peter Hall moves the Chorus around in visually beautiful ways, while Harrison Birtwistle's score finds a rhythmic sacramental sound for them in an almost Latin American boom-chicka-boom underlay.
The play runs for two hours without an interval, and I promise that you will be caught up from the first minute a human being appears onstage, and not turned loose until the curtain call. Go.
The Coast Of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage) Olivier Theatre, Summer 2002
Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy of nineteenth-century Russia is one of the largest projects the National Theatre has undertaken. It is also an almost complete dud. In the course of this review I will list some of its failings, but let me make clear at the start that its biggest problem is that it commits the one greatest theatrical crime. It's dull.
Stoppard's subject is the generation of Russian would-be revolutionaries who came of age in the 1830s and who, by thirty years or so later, found themselves dismissed by younger thinkers as impotent, out-of-date and irrelevant. He focuses on the historical figures of Alexander Herzen and Michael Bakunin, but a few dozen other real-life figures wander through the play, most of whom you've never heard of and will have trouble keeping separate in your mind, though the novelist Turgenev plays a featured role and Karl Marx makes a couple of token appearances.
The first play, Voyage, watches the young Bakunin and his friends as they play at philosophy, quoting long swatches of half-understood theory at each other as they switch allegiance from Rousseau to Shelley to Kant to Hegel like teenage girls discovering new boy bands, while Bakunin's sisters take turns falling in love with each new visitor to the family estate. The scene then shifts to Moscow and Petersburg, where we see the more serious political implications of their thinking in the repressive Tsarist society.
In the course of Shipwreck most of them leave Russia, willingly or not, are excited but then disappointed by the abortive 1848 French revolution, and debate whether Russia should follow European models or find its own future. Attention shifts to Herzen, whose gradual move toward a philosophy of gradual change occurs alongside his cuckolding by his best friend.
In Salvage they, and half the failed revolutionaries in Europe, wind up in London. Herzen gets his turn to have an affair with another friend's wife, the more revolutionary Bakunin goes in and out of various prisons and, though dismissed as irrelevant by younger thinkers, they go on debating revolutionary theory.
OK, so what's wrong with it? In no particular order, the jumble of historical characters, historical events and philosophical debates makes it virtually impossible to follow from minute to minute. Almost none of the secondary characters matter, so you can't care about them or even tell them apart. Even the main figures are barely more than two-dimensional mouthpieces for debate, so that Herzen's domestic adventures, for example, do little to make him real to us. (Until he's killed off halfway through the second play, the minor figure of the literary critic Belinsky, played by Will Keen, actually outshines the leads because he makes us believe he really cares about the state of Russian literature, in contrast to the empty speech-making of the others.)
And the hours and hours of philosophical and political debate are never Shavian. Stoppard at his best, and sometimes David Hare and Michael Frayn, can make intellectual debate theatrically exciting and engrossing, but not here. Whole chunks of the writings of Herzen and the others are just dumped on the stage until your mind goes numb the way it did in dull school lectures. Even if you manage to stay awake enough to follow what is being said, you are never made to believe it matters. And while there are occasional flashes of Stoppardian wit or eloquence, they come so rarely that they seem almost accidental.
Douglas Henshall's acting as Bakunin consists of shouting at the back wall like an amateur trying to project, while Stephen Dillane as Herzen offers a pretty good impression of a younger Anthony Hopkins. Turgenev functions in the trilogy as the aristocratic liberal, meaning well and constantly providing financial support but not really committed to anything, and Guy Henry does what he can with a character who is more symbol than real. In a series of secondary roles John Carlisle uses his trademark languor to good effect, and Rachel Ferjani, Eve Best and Lucy Whybrow play various wives, sisters and lovers with some individuality.
Aside from failing to bring any of it alive, director Trevor Nunn has odd difficulties with the enormous Olivier stage, the dreary rhythm of the plays slowed down even further by slow crossings and set changes. Designer William Dudley's major contribution is a series of remarkable video projections that turn the blank walls of the stage into cinematic vistas.
It may be that this attempted epic of a piece of history nobody cares about will someday become like Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, a challenge that more inventive and successful directors will be able to turn into living theatre. Or it may be that Trevor Nunn has actually done the best with this material that can be done. In any case, right now you almost certainly have far more valuable and rewarding things to do with nine hours of your life.
Frozen Cottesloe Theatre Summer 2002
Bryony Lavery's play, which won all sorts of awards in Birmingham four years ago, finally comes to London in this National Theatre production by Bill Alexander. Some will find it a deeply moving portrait of human emotions and resiliency under extreme conditions. Some will find its treatment of a very disturbing subject and its exposure of raw emotions unbearably harrowing. And some will find the play mechanical and emotionally manipulative. I felt all three at various moments, but it is the last element that keeps my essentially positive response from being fully enthusiastic.
Lavery was moved to write the play, a programme interview tells us, by a desire to explore the banality and non-Satanic quality of evil. (That interview, incidentally, gives away several plot and character developments in the play, so don't read it in advance.) The topic she chose was serial paedophilic murder, and her characters, followed through a period of 20 years, are a murderer, the mother of one of his victims, and a psychological researcher using the man as a case history to support her theory that the most heinous criminals are all brain-damaged and thus not responsible or culpable for their crimes.
The play is structured almost entirely of monologues -- it isn't until an hour has passed that any two characters share the stage for conversation, and such scenes remain in the minority. That same interview tells us Lavery wanted to show that the characters were all coming from very different places and took a long time to find points of contact. In practice, the sense one gets is more of a trio of separate character studies than of a real play.
The central figure is the mother, who we follow through all the stages of grief from the minute her daughter goes missing --hope, denial, the false sense of empowerment that comes from joining an action group, despair, hatred, emptiness, reconciliation. Actress Anita Dobson takes us through this roller coaster, presenting a different highly intense emotion (and a different costume and hairstyle) every time she walks onstage. You can't help but be moved and even frightened by some of the raw emotion she displays, though you also can't help recognising occasionally that you're watching some show-off acting that has touches of the mechanical and external.
Tom Georgeson's performance as the murderer is considerably quieter and more subtle, and thus likely to be more satisfying in the end. Accepting her psychologist's theory, Lavery creates him as an emotional idiot, simply lacking in the capacity for certain feelings, and trying to make as much sense as he can out of the world with the limited equipment he has. Georgeson is chillingly convincing as, for example, he shows that, unable to imagine his victim's pain and fear, he simply assumes they share his pleasure. (The author's compulsion to give each character an emotional journey makes her violate this insight at the end, in one of the play's weakest plot turns.)
The psychologist is more a plot device than a character -- Lavery needs someone to voice her theories about diminished responsibility -- and Josie Lawrence really can't do much with her. Lavery's attempt to flesh this figure out by giving her a soap opera subplot of her own is without question the weakest part of the play.
If you don't feel (as I did from time to time) that you're being manipulated by a writer and performers showing off their craft; if you don't find (as I ultimately did) the theory of they're-all-damaged-and-shouldn't-be-blamed a bit simplistic and offensive; and if you don't find (as I did not) the whole subject too painful to consider, the play can be a very powerful theatrical experience. But that's a lot of Ifs.
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Gagarin Way Cottesloe, then Arts Theatre Spring 2002
A second look at Gregory Burke's play, first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, confirms the sense that it is one of the best-written, sharpest-edged new plays around. Like the American David Mamet, Burke has the rare skill of turning the natural language of contemporary men into an obscene high poetry (be alerted - all the usual four-letter suspects are present in rich abundance). Burke positively revels in language and (unlike Mamet) in the ideas it can convey - obscenities aside, his play resembles Shaw's in the ear-filling, mind-stretching ballet of verbal debate.
The plot is simple - a couple of Scottish workers, along with a third who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, kidnap an executive of the multinational corporation that is taking over their plant, to kill him as a revolutionary political act. But they get the wrong guy, a local middle-management type who actually sympathises with their goals while seeing (and able to verbalise) the futility of their methods.
What enriches the play is that Burke's working men are self-educated and almost comically sophisticated in their erudition and thinking. The more politically-committed of the two comes from a long line of working-class socialists and fully appreciates his legacy, while his more thuggish companion can lecture eloquently and tellingly on the internal inconsistences of Sartre's Existentialism. Add in the callow but fact-full knowledge of the university-trained third guy and the life experience of the captive, and you have the materials for a Shavian debate of the highest order.
The subject - the relevance or even possibility of political action in a world in which the individual worker has become ever more powerless and irrelevant - is interesting, but it is the richness and intensity of the debate - after all, this is literally a life-or-death matter for at least one of them - that make the play theatrically exciting as well as intellectually stimulating.
Michael Nardone, as the philosophical hardman, is the coiled spring that drives the play's energy, and his delicate balance of quick mind and violent nature maintains its tension even as he jokes about it: "I'm a troublemaker. I like causing trouble. It's my hobby. I think it's important to have a hobby. Keeps you out of trouble."
Billy McElhaney captures exactly that level of intelligence and self-awareness in the political kidnapper that lets us see that he really does understand the dogma he verbalises but also can recognise when his opponent is scoring debating points against him. The college boy is really just a plot device, but Michael Moreland conveys his confused mix of fear, excitement and intellectual engagement.
The one cast change since the Edinburgh premiere has John Stahl replacing Maurice Roeves as the captive. Roeves had played him as sharp-edged and a spirited debater, giving a real crackle to the play's battle of ideas, but Stahl invests the man with a world-weariness that suggests that he almost welcomes this fate, and thus deepens and enriches the human story.
Hinterland Cottesloe Theatre Spring 2002
Sebastian Barry's new play is a geography of the backwoods of political exile, a study in the painful giving up of power that comes with age, an analysis of the conflict between idealism and realpolitik, a domestic melodrama, and a portrait of the psychology of dying. And, like all Irish literature, on some level it is a metaphor for the current state of Ireland. It doesn't work at all, but even as you find yourself fighting sleep in the theatre, you have to admire the guy's ambition.
A co-production of the National Theatre, the Abbey and the touring Out Of Joint Company, it may have played better in Dublin, but in the Cottesloe it simply never comes alive. Patrick Malahide (unrecognizably aged and puffy to those who know him mainly from his TV roles) plays Johnny Silvester, a fictional former Irish prime minister who served his country honourably while enriching himself in the process. Financial scandals, along with the revelation of a 15-year extramarital affair, join with his wife's anger and some medical bad news to threaten the peace of his retirement.
What we are meant to be seeing are the sometimes conflicting efforts of a dying man to settle his affairs, by making sense out of some parts of his past, saying farewell to others, offering and requesting forgiveness for others, and just gradually letting go. That is potentially the subject of great drama - it's a fairly good summary of King Lear, for example - but Barry's play never rises above an earthbound and methodical by-the-numbers level in construction, characterisation or language.
This is the kind of play in which a man has to talk to himself at great length whenever he's alone (and sometimes when he's not), just to get the information out to us, the sort of play in which a dead friend appears out of the walls to play scenes of memory and reconciliation, the sort in which his adult son has mental and emotional problems for no reason except to externalize Johnny's sense of failure, the sort in which the discarded mistress shows up near the end, actually rather innocently, just to create a mechanical complication in his relations with his wife.
And none of it - not a single moment - rings true or has any theatrical life. Director Max Stafford-Clark has tried to make a virtue of necessity by making Johnny's drifting away from life the tonal key to the play, so that Malahide plays his encounters with living people as even less real than his scenes with the ghost, as if they were fading from his view even as he spoke to them. But that is anti-dramatic by its very nature, and by the time Johnny reverses his tack and decides not to go gently into that good night, there's not enough passion or grit left to the character for us to be moved.
Secondary characters are either sketched in too mechanically - his unforgiving wife played by Dearbhla Molloy, for example, or given distracting hints of more than is delivered, like James Hayes' loyal but intermittently unreliable servant. The sad fact is that you don't care about any of these characters, and the actors, Malahide included, never really inhabit them or find any reality in the words they recite lifelessly.
Unlike some recent West End flops, you don't resent Hinterland's failure, no matter how soporific it is, because you can see the vague outlines of the ambitious play Barry wanted to write. But the best you can do is grieve for what might have been.
Ivanov CottesloeTheatre 2002
Nikolai Ivanov is bored. He says so repeatedly. His uncle is also bored, and so is his dying wife. When he visits his neighbours, he finds a house full of people who all complain of being bored. If you get bored (and I'm afraid you will, for long stretches) you can divert yourself by counting the number of times people complain of being bored.
Actually, Chekhov's first play, seen here in an adaptation by David Harrower, is about something deeper than that. Ivanov has lost all his zest for life, and the loss confuses and paralyses him. He married for love, but because he doesn't feel exactly the same passion after five years, he begins to resent his wife just for making him aware of the loss. He went into local politics to do good, but it has degenerated into office drudgery. His farm is bankrupt, and he doesn't have the energy to save it. And when the neighbour's daughter falls in love with him, with the I-can-save-him fervour that only the young and innocent can have, he simply doesn't know what to do.
There's a legitimate subject for drama there, both in the personal story and in the implicit metaphor for the decline of Russia's petty aristocracy that lies behind all Chekhov's plays. But in this instance, despite wrestling with it and rewriting it through his life, Chekhov didn't achieve the heart-breaking tragedy of his masterpieces. And Katie Mitchell's lifeless production can't disguise the failure.
I can only recommend this, half-heartedly, to Chekhov-lovers who will find some interest in this minor footnote to the major plays. You'll find observations and character types that recur far more evocatively later -- the bored provincials of The Three Sisters, and the bitter parasitical old man; the enervated landowner and ambitious proto-capitalist of The Cherry Orchard; the self-dramatising youthful passions of The Seagull; and so on.
What you won't find is any reason to care, any reality to these little people's little lives that raises them to tragic stature. And without that, you'll be as bored as they say they are.
Owen Teale makes Ivanov a cipher, giving no sense of a core of feeling beneath his constant complaints of unhappiness. The rest of the cast -- Philip Voss as his bitterly dependant uncle, Juliet Aubrey as his dying wife, Indira Varma as the lovestruck girl, Peter Wight as the well-meaning neighbour, Robert Bowman as a frustrated doctor, and the others - all give totally external and mannered performances, falling back on old technique and stereotypes in the absence of any real sense of character.
It's a truism that when everyone in the cast is equally poor in the same ways, the fault is the director's. But in this case the mistake may have been in searching out this deeply flawed play.
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A Laughing Matter Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2002-3
To accompany their revival of Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, the National Theatre and Out of Joint company have commissioned this new backstage play by April de Angelis. (London theatre veterans will remember that the Royal Court did something similar in 1989, pairing The Recruiting Officer with Timberlake Wertenbaker's play about that play, Our Country's Good.)
The new comedy-drama is a collection of successful parts that falls just short of adding up to a successful whole, as de Angelis seems uncertain from minute to minute what its subject, its focus and its tone are. The play starts as a witty comedy about Goldsmith's attempts to get She Stoops produced in 1773, but then suddenly shifts its attention to the comic dilemma of David Garrick (the greatest actor of his day and manager of Drury Lane Theatre), as he's torn between staging Goldsmith's play or another more politically expedient one.
The subject and tone shift again as a series of flashbacks take us through the high points of Garrick's early career, with a special focus on a melodramatic subplot involving his protege and rumoured illegitimate son, only to flash forward again to a low farce sequence somehow involving three characters rushing about dressed as King Lear, and then on again to a few more loosely-connected bits before it's done.
I should say that de Angelis has done her homework and, allowing for a little myth-history and dramatic license, her account and characterisations are pretty accurate. Indeed, for anyone who knows about this period in English theatre history, her depictions of such figures as Garrick, Samuel Johnson, Peg Woffington and Charles Macklin are part of the fun.
But the problem with the play is that, while at any given minute the comedy or melodrama is completely successful, you don't know from minute to minute how to respond to what happens next, or even who you should be identifying with or caring for. And this slight disorientation does get in the way. You'll leave the theatre with the memory of having laughed a lot, but may be unsure just what the play was about.
In a large cast, almost all of whom double and triple roles with striking versatility, Jason Watkins is an amiable and attractive Garrick gently kept in line by Fritha Goodey's eminently clear-headed Mrs. Garrick. Monica Dolan jumps so seamlessly between the bawdy actress Peg Woffington and the bluestocking Hannah More that you have to check your programme to verify that they're both her, and Ian Redford hovers slyly around the edges of the action as an epigrammatic and mildly bullying Dr. Johnson. Max Stafford-Clark's high-energy production falters only in being unable to keep the play from constantly trying to fly off in different directions. .
The Powerbook Lyttelton Theatre May 2002
Jeanette Winterson's novel is about a writer of e-mail erotic stories-to-order who gets caught up in a client's fantasies until neither can be sure who is in control or what is real. Winterson has joined director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw in adapting it to the stage as part of the National Theatre's experimental summer season, with limited success.
What works best dramatically is a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy. Since we see some of the writer's obvious fictions staged - a comically bawdy Renaissance romp, a tragic Launcelot-and-Guenevere tale - there is no clear difference between them and the seemingly real-life erotic relationship between the author and a woman who may or may not be just an on-line client.
Less successful is any capturing of the on-line world. Despite a lot of high tech gadgetry on stage, and occasional tapping away at laptops by one or another character, there is little sense of the freedom and mystery of being able to claim to be whoever you want, or of the internet's way of making time and distance disappear. The two main characters might just as well be writing letters, or talking on the phone, or living next door to each other, for all we can tell.
Fiona Shaw is an actress I'm prepared to watch doing anything, and she can never be less than fascinating. But what she brings to her character and to the play is really almost all that is there - a sense of a confident-on-line but socially-inept-in-person woman getting drawn into what is either fantasy or actual sexual obsession. Saffron Burrows plays the mystery woman with cool beauty and imperious power, not allowing us a hint of how real she is, and Pauline Lynch provides perky support in some of the more obvious fantasies.
Whether the limitations of the adaptation are inherent in the original novel or the result of Deborah Warner reaching for more than she could achieve, I can't say. The evening offers strong performances by the two leads, so I can recommend it to their fans and to fans of the novel. But I fear that others would find little to attract or hold them.
A Prayer For Owen Meany Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2002
I read John Irving's novel more than a decade ago, and remembered almost nothing about it except that I didn't like it. So it is real praise of Simon Bent's stage adaptation that he has made engrossing and even moving theatre out of it.
Bent has trimmed Irving's characteristically sprawling novel, focussing it effectively on the spiritual journeys of the two central character. Owen Meany is one of Irving's grotesques, an undersized boy with a loud, high-pitched voice and two defining characteristics, an absolute faith in God and the conviction that he has been chosen by God for some great work. John Wheelwright, narrator of both book and play, is Owen's only friend, a boy (and then man) whose own religious doubts are painfully shaken by watching the acting-out of Owen's fate.
Faith is a difficult thing to portray, but Irving and Bent succeed, in part by punctuating the play with a series of powerful visual and dramatic moments whose meanings reverberate later. As a child Owen has a series of encounters with adults that play at the moment like wise-guy repartee but gradually accumulate into an eloquent expression of his beliefs. He is prone to visions and dreams, whose unexpected prophetic import becomes clear only at the end. Even an innocent-looking childhood game in Act One proves the key to the fulfilment of Owen's life at the play's climax.
The episodic play is staged by Mick Gordon in a fluid manner that captures all the novel's humour while creating striking stage images. A recurring trope has two scenes played simultaneously to ironic or thematic effect a school nativity pageant and a production of A Christmas Carol, consultations with a psychologist and a pastor, a marriage and a funeral, two conversations twenty years apart.
As Owen, Aiden McArdle is saddled with a gimmick a shouted, throat-risking falsetto that threatens to overshadow the intense conviction of his performance, while Richard Hope has the thankless role of John, forced to combine narration with the insistence that his life has been changed by an event that the character's psychology and the play's structure don't let us witness until the very end. In a large cast with lots of doubling, Kelly Reilly stands out as John's mother, who becomes a symbol throughout the play of both sexuality and salvation.
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She Stoops to Conquer Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2002-03
This revival of Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 comedy is a co-production of the National Theatre and the touring Out of Joint company, and will tour after its London run. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it captures much of the humour of the play (which is one of the very few plays between Congreve and Shaw to still be part of the repertoire), but lacks the sharp pacing and high style that would make it a complete success. The production too often ambles amiably where one could wish it to romp and sparkle.
This is the one about the bashful suitor sent to the country to meet a prospective bride and the victim of a practical joke that makes him think her home an inn. So he treats his potential father-in-law like an innkeeper and flirts brazenly with what he thinks is the barmaid. She's in on the joke, and plays along to see what he's really like (which turns out to be pretty nice), thus temporarily lowering herself to defeat his shyness.
There's opportunity for a lot of mild farce there, in the mistaken identities and inappropriate behaviour, and for a certain amount of wit, but the impression from this production is of skilled actors who are not natural comedians, working hard to find the laughs in the text but adding too little to it. Ian Redford successfully harumphs his way through Mr. Hardcastle's bewilderment at being treated like an innkeeper in his own home, but Owen Sharpe as the practical-joke-playing Tony Lumpkin is neither vulgar enough, high-spirited enough or canny enough (to mention just three directions the character might have been taken) to really register, nor does Jane Wood make much of the stock comic figure of his mother.
Christopher Staines and Monica Dolan are appropriately attractive as the lovers, but register comically only intermittently, he exploiting a facial and vocal resemblance to Tony Blair to give unexpected resonances to his lines, and she allowing hints of the frustrations felt by a plotter trapped within her own schemes. Stephen Beresford and Fritha Goodey as the second young couple in the obligatory slightly-more-serious subplot are reduced to straight-man roles, with even a farcical business about a misdirected box of jewels not really catching fire.
Julian McGowan's design, partially shared with alternating performances of April de Angelis' contemporary backstage play A Laughing Matter, incorporates some stage boxes, in which a few audience members find themselves wittily drawn into the action. Stephen Jeffreys has written a clever new prologue, which Jason Watkins delivers with affable slyness.
South Pacific Olivier Theatre Winter-Spring 2002
The Royal National Theatre celebrates the Richard Rodgers centennial with this lavish new production of what is unquestionably one of the American musical theatre's absolute classics. And almost the only criticism I can make of it is that it is never quite as wonderful as one keeps wishing it would be.
One of Rodgers and Hammerstein's biggest hits, the staging by Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan of some short stories by James A. Michener epitomised the Broadway musical of what we now see as a golden age: a star vehicle with a noticeably serious book, and song after song that have become classics, peaking in the iconic Some Enchanted Evening. And if Trevor Nunn's new production never quite catches fire, it still does ample justice to this classic.
Set during World War II, the show depicts two Americans facing life-changing culture clashes: Southern-born and self-described hick Nellie Forbush falls in love with older Frenchman Emile de Becque but can't handle the discovery that he had a previous liaison with a native woman that produced mixed-race children, while dashing Lieutenant Joe Cable falls in love with a native girl but realises he could never take her home with him. Tying the two romances together is a plot that has Cable and de Becque going on a dangerous spying mission.
And through this all come song after song Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Hai, Cockeyed Optimist, In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, Honey Bun - that made up the sound track of a generation.
And that might be a key to what goes not-quite-right-enough about this revival - that it is put together by people fifty years younger than the originals, for whom the war, the social context and even the musical vocabulary are as foreign as the world of Shakespeare.
That might account for what is at times an almost bizarre performance by Lauren Kennedy as Nellie, so manic in its unrelenting teeth-and-twinkle cheeriness as to make her seem like a demonic marionette. It took a while for me to figure out what was going on: Nellie has some of the perkiest songs ever written (the last four in that list a few lines back), and Kennedy has pitched her entire performance on their high level.
Perhaps after a while she'll settle in and discover that playing some scenes more quietly and rising to the energy level of the songs is more dramatically effective. But right now she seems to have overdosed on perky pills, and the artificiality of her performance makes any empathy or believability impossible.
Philip Quast is much stronger and effective as Emile, conveying realistic emotion in his acting and singing. Indeed, his evocative interpretations of the songs more than make up for a slight hard-edgedness in his voice, and you respond to the man inside songs like Some Enchanted Evening, and not just to the lovely melody.
Others in the cast are uneven. Edward Baker-Duly is appropriately dashing as Cable, and far less wooden than actors tend to be in that role, but he spoils it by practically smiling his way through You've Got To Be Taught, the angriest song Hammerstein ever wrote. Nick Holder domesticates sailor Luther Billis (a prototype for Phil Silvers' Bilko) into a harmless teddy bear.
Just as the one thing you want of a Joe in Show Boat is that he break your heart with Ol Man River, the only thing you ask of a Bloody Mary here is that she sing Bali Hai in a way that transports you, but Sheila Francisco just doesn't deliver (and it may be that disappointment that made me feel for the first time that this Bloody Mary was pimping her daughter for Cable).
Trevor Nunn keeps things moving, and Matthew Bourne's choreography starts very promisingly with a military drill version of the Bloody Mary song, but lapses into the merely serviceable later.
Much of this revival of South Pacific is good, and some is very good. I have no real basis on which to do anything but recommend it. But it is never quite wonderful, and with a show like this one, anything less than wonderful can't help being a disappointment.
A Streetcar Named Desire Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2002
Tennessee Williams' drama is one of the two or three greatest plays ever written in America (depending on how you rank O'Neill's Journey and Miller's Salesman). And, unless you were there in 1947 to see Tandy and Brando, Trevor Nunn's new production for the National Theatre is the best you're likely ever to see.
Is a plot summary necessary? Fading Southern aristocrat visits her sister in New Orleans and is shocked by how far she seems to have descended the social scale. Gradually we learn both that the sister's marriage to her uncultured but life-affirming husband is healthy and satisfying, and that the visitor's claims to culture and purity are suspect. Unable to handle the multiple exposures, she is mentally and spiritually destroyed.
Streetcar is thus on one level very Chekhovian. Like The Cherry Orchard, it recognises the ultimate superiority of a crude practicality while still regretting the loss of the beautiful past it supplants. On another level it stands comparison to Shakespeare. As at King Lear, we are forced to watch the almost unbearable tragedy of someone broken by pains few could survive.
American film star Glenn Close has been imported to play Blanche DuBois, and she gives the most powerful sustained performance I've ever seen in the role. She may seem at first to be too over-the-top in Southern mannerisms and flirtatiousness, but gradually you realise that very excess is a key to her characterisation. She is playing a woman who has gotten by all her life on a handful of mannerisms -- flirtatious smiles, gestures of mock helplessness and the like - so that they have become almost mechanical, and the very fact that we notice them is evidence of their failing effectiveness.
And Close does carry us through Blanche's painful journey, as it intermittently sinks in that her lifetime's worth of coping mechanisms are not working, and she faces the horror of quite literally not knowing what to do next. Streetcar is full of famous speeches and set pieces that are fully the American drama's equivalents of 'To be or not to be', and it is very much to Close's credit that she makes them all sound fresh, growing out of the dramatic situation rather than standing alone as self-contained arias.
But this is not a one-woman show. As Stanley, the role forever living under the shadow of its first performer, Iain Glen wisely doesn't attempt Brando-like brutishness. Rather, he uses his own type of attractiveness to play a man casually at home in his beauty and sexuality without having to flaunt it, like a young Peter Fonda (whom he resembles) or Sam Shepard. And to that he gradually adds a subtly feral intelligence and wit that hints at Jack Nicholson. The combination is more magnetic and powerful than any Stanley since Brando. And, like Close, he has been guided by director Nunn to play some of the role's set pieces, like the iconic call to his wife Stella, in fresh and natural ways.
Essie Davis introduces Stella in a way that makes her seem an air-headed, sensual kewpie doll, but quickly lets us see how well-grounded and level-headed she is, and this makes more of this usually thankless role than I had imagined possible. And Robert Pastorelli captures the difficult mix of sensitive yearning and macho dullness that make up Mitch, Blanche's putative suitor, in a fresh and believable way.
Bunny Christie's revolving set is a bit too elaborate and clever for my taste, repeatedly calling attention to itself rather than supporting the play, though it does allow several rooms that are usually squeezed onto a stage to be given more space.
And, of course, there is the language. Williams was the greatest poet the American theatre ever produced, and even casual conversations have a heightened rhythm and eloquence that lift the play into the realm of tragedy. You come out of this play on a contact high, from the language, the operatic passions, the pure thrill of superb theatricality.
It really doesn't get much better than this.
Vincent In Brixton Cottesloe Theatre Spring 2002, West End Summer-Autumn, Revival Summer 2003
It is perhaps not widely known (by which I mean that I didn't know it) that Vincent Van Gogh spent a couple of years in London in the early 1870s, almost 20 years before he seriously began painting, working for an art dealer and eventually beginning his ill-fated attempt at preaching. Out of the scattered records - mainly some letters to Theo - Nicholas Wright has created a charming, sad and funny picture of an innocent abroad, a young man carrying in him only the slightest hints of his genius.
Wright's Vincent, as played by Jochum Ten Haaf, is the embodiment of naive openness, virtually unable to censor or consider his words or reactions before they burst out. Fortunately, at least at the play's start, his shyness limits him for the most part to small talk, as he takes a room in the home of a Brixton widow. But it is only minutes later, and after seeing her once, that he announces that he is in love with the landlady's daughter.
What follows is part comedy of manners, since the daughter is involved with another boarder, and it takes Vincent forever to spot this, part quiet drama of character revelation, as Vincent and the widow prove actually more simpatico, and part speculation on the nature of talent and genius, as the rival boarder is also a budding artist, whose life takes a different direction from Van Gogh's.
Along the way there are scenes and performances of subtle beauty, interspersed with others of broad comedy. Clare Higgins as the landlady shows us a widow who has given up on life, gradually drawn back to it by the sympathy of a young man whose own neuroses make him able to appreciate the depths of her depression, and tentatively beginning to express emotions that have been long repressed. In a deeply moving climax to the first act, Wright pulls off something that many playwrights attempt and few succeed at, a delicately written love scene between two people who don't realize for most of its length that that's what it is.
Emily Blunt plays the daughter with more cool beauty than personality, but Paul Nicholls captures the guileless openness of the friendly fellow-boarder who accepts life's twists with an equanimity built on solid character. Emma Handy has a short scene of broad comedy as Vincent's sister, sent by his burgherish family to rescue him from the imagined fleshpots of the wicked city. Richard Eyre directs it all with sensitivity and a sure hand.
If occasionally, ever so briefly, you catch the playwright reminding himself to check in with the biographical facts (as when Vincent suddenly plants a garden mentioned in one of the letters to Theo) or with our awareness of who Vincent is going to become (as when the landlady, looking at some sketches, advises him to put more emotion in his art), it in no way interferes with the beauty and warmth of this very attractive dream-like imagining of what-if.
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Review - The Bacchai - National 2002, Review - The Coast of Utopia - National 2002, Review - Frozen - National 2002, Review - Gagarin Way - National 2002, Review - Hinterland - National 2002, Review - Ivanov - National 2002, Review - A Laughing Matter - National 2002, Review - The Powerbook - National 2002, Review - A Prayer for Owen Meany - National 2002, Review - She Stoops to Conquer - National 2002, Review - South Pacific - National 2002, Review - Streetcar Named Desire - National 2002, Review - Vincent in Brixton - National 2002