Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Angels in America Part Two (Perestroika) - Belvoir (at Theatre Royal)

Having now seen both plays in this two-part cycle - or epic or whatever you want to call it - I cannot say I am anywhere nearer to understanding what it was all about. The plays had what I can only call a psychedelic quality to them - in the Belvoir's production at any rate. What the audience experienced was bright, shiny, kaleidoscopic, messy to the point of disjointedness, but almost always enthralling, (the one exception would be the opening speech of the second play, given by the oldest Bolshevik; at the performance we went to the actor in question seemed distractingly concerned that her stage beard was about to come off).

I suppose the central theme is the biggest of them all - what it means to be human, what life is meant for, the old 'what is it all about' conundrum. Within this sprawling context, the play queries America, ('lawyers are the high priests of America', one character claims); religion; politics and the human need for a theory on which to model the state and its institutions; modern life; and how to love. Its main characters include an AIDS sufferer; a Mormon, married homosexual, (plus his wife and mother); a charming coward; a 'heart of gold' Queen who is also a black male nurse - he believes that heaven will be like San Francisco and in it 'race, taste and history will finally be overcome'; a corrupt and powerful lawyer; and a company of angels who claim that 'ecstatics are the engine of the universe' and that god has abandoned them - and the world - and who demand that the human race stops travelling and striving for progress so insistently. Stasis is what they want but, in spite of an angelic edict to 'Submit', the humans pay no heed, choosing life instead, with all its drawbacks.

The cast of the Belvoir production were superb, particularly Luke Mullins, Paula Arundell, (who I'm sure I remember, wearing much smaller wings, as Ariel in a Bell Shakespeare Tempest), Amber McMahon and Mitchell Butell. Interestingly, the nurse character was played by an Englishman - is it possible that there are not enough homegrown Australian-African actors - and, while he was good and raised lots of laughs, his acting style was a bit at odds with that of his colleagues and he seemed unable to calibrate his approach to their more sophisticated, subtler ways of acting. The set in both productions was absolutely minimal - white tiled floor and walls, with a few folding chairs coming and going, plus beds rolled on and off when necessary, and a recessed alcove, also white tiled. This last aspect was put to particularly good use in the second play: lit from within it acted as a frame to scenes that were set to evoke memories of medieval religious paintings.

Angels in America is not a small-minded pair of plays. It is excessive and untidy and possibly a bit inclined to be portentous. At times the references to events that were contemporary at the time of its writing give it a slightly dated feel. The abandonment of any attempt to tie up loose endings is annoying - the Mormon homosexual character is simply cut out of the final scenes, without any resolution or explanation. Nevertheless both plays are written with a confident energy that carries you along, particularly in good productions like the Belvoir's. Partly thanks to the script itself, partly thanks to Eamon Flack's as always excellent direction, the hours flew by, both in Part One and Part Two. Better still, when they were over, what I'd seen still engaged me and even now scenes and episodes continue to resonate in my mind.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Dragon adapted from a play by Evgeny Schwarz - Malthouse Theatre

Dragon was written originally as a criticism of the cult of personality in Soviet Russia - and consequently suppressed. Like the original, the Malthouse version concerns a town, ruled over by a three-headed dragon who the locals dare not criticise - and even have come to love for the calm its rule appears to bring them - into which a knight called Lancelot comes one afternoon. Lancelot falls in love with the girl who is about to become the town's annual sacrifice to the dragon. He slays the dragon, to spare her, and then apparently dies himself. The Mayor of the town subsequently assumes all the powers and dictatorial characteristics of the dragon and things seem to return to their normal state of tyranny, before, at last, a happy ending.

The Malthouse production incorporates the musical comedy trio Tripod, who play both a sort of animal chorus - cat, dog and ass - not present in the original, and the three-headed dragon. They are hilarious and have written some very funny songs to accompany the play. Lancelot is performed with gusto. The sacrificial maiden is excellent.

Sadly, Kym Gyngell as the Mayor rather lets the side down with a pretty uninteresting performance, playing his character in the first half as a mild buffoon and in the second half as a person apoplectic with rage and paranoia.

His sinister sidekick looks very much like our new Treasurer, and I think there may be a halfhearted attempt going on to convey that Gyngell is Kevin Rudd - a lot of swearing is the main evidence for this, as Gyngell bears no physical resemblance to our Prime Minister and makes no effort to adopt any of his mannerisms, besides the bad language.

My sense is that the company's heart is not really in the business of attacking the ALP and that they would much prefer to be building some kind of analogy between the dragon, totalitarianism and the other side of Australian politics, perhaps incorporating Tony Abbott's celebrated 'budgie smugglers'  into the thing, somehow.

Despite these reservations and my impression that no-one involved knows or cares much about the real horrors of Stalinism, from which the play sprang originally, the Malthouse's Dragon is largely entertaining. The set is excellent and Tripod in particular make the evening worthwhile.

This Is Where We Live by Vivienne Walshe - Griffin Theatre

The Griffin Theatre space is tiny, comparable to the one at The Bush Theatre in London. It is just a square room, lined on two sides with benches. For This Is Where We Live, the stage was simply the floor in front of the benches and the brick walls on either side, painted black.

If I say the play is a two-hander about teenage love and disadvantage, that makes it sound grim, solemn and preachy, when in fact it is funny, poignant and enthralling. The two actors worked without props, conjuring school yards, mobile homes, creek beds and a suburban dining room.

Ava Torch, who plays Chloe, captured my heart with her portrayal of a girl who possesses an intelligence she will never get the chance to use and a knowledge of the world that would be sad at any age but is especially so in one so young. Yalin Ozucelik's character is less the focus of the play - it is Chloe's eventual fate that we are told of, not his - and he is an awkward adolescent boy, where she is worldly. Nevertheless, Ozucelik does an excellent job of bringing this rather less charismatic figure to life.

The sad impossibility of the couple's love story and the lack of any prospect of escape for Chloe made me cry in the end. Along the way though, there were many moments of hilarity and laughter. Best of all, for the entire time I was in the theatre, the two actors, equipped only with Vivienne Walshe's excellent script - and, I would guess, the very good direction of Francesca Smith - enthralled me. They created the magic that is what makes live theatre so wonderful. Out of nothing, they conjured real people with lives and feelings and personalities and stories. It was one of the best evenings I've spent at the theatre in ages.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Angels in America Part 1 - Belvoir Theatre

To be truthful, I was dreading going to see Angels in America Part One. I'd been persuaded by one of my daughters that it would be terrific, but I still had memories of the original television production, which struck me at the time as slow moving and worthy. I needn't have worried. Performed at the Belvoir on a stage whose walls and floors were entirely tiled in white bathroom tiles (perhaps a reference to hospitals - and the public lavatories where gay sex, I'm told, has been known to take place?), the production was directed by Eamon Flack, who, judging by this and the production I saw last year at the Belvoir of As You Like It, knows better than anyone in Australia - or possibly the entire English-speaking world - how to get a group of actors working brilliantly together. Although I have no real idea what the hell the play was trying to convey, the performance was a clever, gripping, entertaining and moving example of theatre at its best. As a result, I'm actively looking forward to Part Two

The Maids - Sydney Theatre Company

Jean Genet's play The Maids was in part inspired by a murder case in which two sisters who were maids in Le Mans killed their mistress and her daughter in 1933. In the Sydney Theatre Company production the action is updated to the present and the stage set suggests a penthouse apartment in a glass high-rise. On the left stands a double bed, in the centre a dressing table, to the right two cream-coloured contemporary sofas - "Ooh, they're just like the ones we're getting for the coast house", my neighbour told her companion, "except ours are charcoal - we're doing everything in shades of grey."

Along the back of the stage there is a clothes rack on which hang women's clothes in every colour imaginable. Above the stage hangs a screen on which, at the start of proceedings, a close up of one of the many, many vases of flowers dotted about the floor of the stage is projected, but which, as the play progresses, is used to give the audience different perspectives on - or simply close-ups of - proceedings, as well as allowing the action to shift to what is supposed to be a bathroom, from which images of Blanchett passing her mistress lavatory paper, et cetera, can be transmitted. Possibly because of the screen arrangement, the actresses are wired up and, when they undress (just to put on other costumes - there's no full frontal nudity or anything), various gadgets strapped to their backs are exposed, which struck me as clumsy.

The action of The Maids mainly consists of the two maids - played by Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett - acting out fantasies in which one is their mistress and the other tries to kill her. The two actresses do not actually resemble each other much, even though this is supposed to be a key aspect of their characters - they are meant to be sisters who look very much alike. However, given that  Genet supposedly wanted the production cast entirely with males, I guess quibbling about the women's looks is missing the point somewhat. The maids' mistress does turn up briefly to announce that her husband or lover, who has been falsely convicted of a crime, thanks to letters the maids have forged, has been set free. The maids try to poison her but fail and the play ends with one sister on the point of poisoning the other (at least I think that's what was happening - my attention was wandering, due, I'm ashamed to admit, to an overwhelming sense of boredom).

The STC production, as well as updating the action and adding the above-stage screen element, uses a so-called 'translation' by Andrew Upton. As seems to be usual with Upton, 'translating' here means larding the text with new and improved obscenities and persuading the actresses do a bit of that groin-grinding that seems to be a beloved way of conveying 'raunchiness' among theatre folk. Unfortunately, the updating is a particularly odd decision, as it robs the play of logic. As the maids rail against their loathed mistress and howl about their hated work, it's impossible not to wonder why they don't just hand in their notice and whip down to Centrelink to sign on for benefits. Of course, this could have been rectified had there been some attempt to hint that they were illegal immigrants or indentured in some way, but as things stand the vile hatred they feel for their employer makes little dramatic sense.

Perhaps Genet wanted to convey the idea that the maids' plight is really the plight of all humankind, perhaps the maids' employer is in some sense meant to be god and they exemplars of humanity, forced to exist, even though they didn't ask to. If so, this production gives little hint of any such broader significance - unless you count the possibility of some vague critique of celebrity culture (the mistress is pursued by paparazzi as she enters). The performances are curiously unnuanced, with the actresses merely belting out their lines at a high pitch of irritable hysteria. No impression of emotional development is built up during the performance. All I felt, emerging at the conclusion was relieved and ennervated, as if I'd been yapped at by bad-tempered lapdogs for nearly two hours. Theatre sometimes creates a sense of the marvellous, but sadly on this occasion the Sydney Theatre Company only  created a sense of being mightily ripped off.

The Crucible - Melbourne Theatre Company

A good director exercises a kind of sorcery over his cast, so that they become possessed with the characters they play, rather than merely mouthing the words in the script. Sadly, while The Crucible tells the story of an obsession with witchcraft, no magic alchemy was evident in this production.

Instead, the whole thing was almost hilariously terrible. One of the reasons for this was the set, which, in contrast to the period costumes, was featureless - just plain white surfaces, providing no nourishment for the eye - and restricted the action to a very narrow slice of the unusually spacious stage. Its smallness meant the actors had to be squeezed up together, with virtually no room in which to make large gestures or movements. As a result, I became more and more awkwardly aware of the actors' arms, which dangled stiffly at their sides, making the cast look like Thunderbirds puppets.

David Wenham - who for some reason was wearing the world's most ridiculous wig (and, in this regard, the theatre's publicity, which showed him with his normal hair and a military coat, rather than the girly smock shirt and culottes he was actually dressed in, was misleading) -  devised a physical tic to resolve this: every couple of minutes he would roll up his sleeve while he talked. However,since he'd only rolled that sleeve up two minutes earlier, it never actuallly needed any rolling up, which made things even more squirmingly embarrassing.

Things improved slightly when the judges came on in the second half, but, despite their heightened energy, it was much too late. The excruciatingly amateurish impression created by the first half could not be erased. There was no empathy built up between audience and actors, and the witless refusal to draw from the text any parallel with events in the contemporary world meant the production lacked resonance on any level.

In the final scene, which ought to have felt tragic and heroic, the sight of David Wenham clanking about barefoot in chains, stiff carrot-coloured locks framing his inexpressive face, evoked no sympathetic feeling in me. As he delivered himself woodenly of passionate lines, my thoughts kept turning to his bare feet. In place of compassion and sadness, my head filled with images from the current TV advertising campaign which promotes a treatment for toenail fungus. It was all I could do to stifle my guffaws.

October 2011 - Riverline, Tempest, Playboy of the Western World

In the demented frenzy of the provincial visitor, I went to as many plays and films as I could while in London. I saw Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic, a theatre I'm very fond of. I'd read the play at university but never quite got the point of it. I'm not sure I still do, although at least I now understand that it's an extremely black comedy - I'm ashamed to say that I didn't entirely pick up the joke back then. It had some good lines, my two favourites being a) when one character admonishes another for 'shaking the fat of my heart' and b) when another, (a creature entirely without passion, in fact), describes his fate as to be 'simmering in passion until the end of time'. Also-rans were, 'It's true mankind's the devil when your head's astray', and 'There's a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed'. The play was performed with gusto, although I'm not sure the lead boy was perfectly cast.

I also went to The Tempest at the Haymarket, because it is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays and also the first play I remember seeing in a theatre - we were taken from school in the late sixties to the then dazzlingly new Chichester Theatre to see a wonderful production.

I pity any schoolchildren who have been introduced to the theatre or to Shakespeare by the production I saw on this occasion though. Ralph Fiennes played Prospero as if he were Caliban, mixed with Coriolanus, in which part I'd seen him on film the night before, Ariel was played as if he were a gabbling drag queen who'd taken Lyn Barber's mother's elocution classes (see note below) - only his 'You are three men of sin' speech had any resonance and that was largely due to the fact that it was amplified by loudspeakers, which is not my idea of good acting.

Miranda was like something out of the kind of play that you might see at a school where Gussie Fink-Nottle gives out prizes. She managed to stress every line badly, her hands held stiff by her side, jabbing down to emphasise each phrase, her whole body bent forward stiffly as if the words were being forced out like squirts of toothpaste. 'What brave new world that has such people in it', she blurted, looking round, with a little giggle and then grinning inanely as she shifted from foot to foot. Oddly, the comic scenes, which are usually a little pathetic, were the best bits of the production. I think the fact that, in a performance of the play that contains some of Shakespeare's greatest poetry, the bits of nonsense about drunken sidekicks stood out probably demonstrates just how dire the evening was.

The costumes appeared to have been dredged from a very ancient dressing-up box, and for some reason Prospero's cloak seemed to have been constructed from those American Indian dream-catcher things that hippy shops sometimes sell. Most of the cast gave the impression that they considered it miraculous enough that they'd managed to memorise their lines without prompting and that to expect them to acknowledge the extraordinary poetry of the play was really too much to ask. Depressingly, the audience, mostly foreigners, agreed with this assessment, rewarding Fiennes and his cohorts with a quite undeserved standing ovation at the end.

What I wished was that Lydia Rose Bewley, who I saw at the Jermyn Street Theatre, (which I love), had played Miranda. She was playing the part of a young girl in a revival of a 1950s play called Riverline and she had that rare magic quality that allows a performer to light up a theatre. The dilemma is that she is not a slim woman and I am torn between thinking that it is most unfair that she will probably miss out on parts because of her weight, when she is so clearly a really marvellous actress, and recognising that, good though she is, my first reaction, and that of other people I overheard talking at interval was, 'Isn't that girl rather fat?' As soon as she opened her mouth she completely transcended that impression, but the trouble is that current fashion is against the meaty and all for the thin.

(This is from Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education and mirrors exactly the kind of performance Ariel provided: "For elocution competitions and exams, it wasn't enough just to recite a poem - all the words had to be accompanied by gestures. Thus, references to moonlight, sunlight, stars or any form of weather involved looking upwards; references to storms, rain, frost, involved pulling an imaginary shawl round one's shoulders and blowing on one's nails. (Does anyone, in real life, ever blow on their nails? I have never seen it.) Weeping or even mild regret meant wiping one's eyes with the back of one's hand; laughing meant much shaking of the shoulders, a la Edward Heath. Elves and fairies always started their speeches in a crouching position and then leapt up, spun round, and dashed madly across the stage with arms outstretches. Skipping was sometimes required. Searching for anything or even just looking necessitated a hand above the eyebrows shielding the eyes, accompanied by a pointing gesture.'"