Friday, 17 April 2015

King Lear - Northern Broadsides

I saw this production at a matinee at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For perhaps two minutes at the very start I was worried that it was going to be stiff and somehow not work.

What a fool I was. I ought to have trusted the company, under the direction of Jonathan Miller. After all, the last play I saw directed by Miller - Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol - was astonishingly good. His approach on that occasion had been to put the script at the centre of everything. He did not, as is so common these days, try to update the drama to some other time or place, to drag in current issues or to make it about some preoccupation of his own. He listened to the words.

The same was true of this production. The words were thought about, each phrase had been examined by each actor. The play was the thing.

For some reason, despite the fact that there were many, many things revealed to me that I had never noticed in the text before, now, some weeks later, the only one I can remember off the top of my head is the way that Barrie Rutter, towards the end of the play, says to Cordelia, "Bear with me". Suddenly, the phrase meant not the usual being put on hold cliche. Lear was asking Cordelia to help to bear his weary weight.

The Northern Broadsides cast were splendid. If you get a chance - the production is touring all over the place at the moment, Yorkshire, Scarborough, the Rose, Kingston, various other places - go. It is a really astonishingly beautiful production of King Lear and I wouldn't have missed it.

Monday, 16 February 2015

After Dinner by Andrew Bovell - STC at The Wharf

After Dinner was, I think, Andrew Bovell's first staged play. It is a farce about three women and two men who go to a pub bistro one Friday night in the 1970s. Two of the women - Dymphna, a prickly, competitive, plain woman who is hard to like and consequently lonely, and Paula, a kind, happy go lucky kind of person for whom the song "Girls just want to have fun" might have been written - go to the bistro every Friday night. They work in an office together and this Friday night they have decided to invite a colleague whose husband has died, in order to cheer her up. Of the two men, the one we first meet has recently been divorced.  He is hoping to spend an evening talking about his feelings with two other males. One of those two doesn't turn up; the other does, but his aim is not to talk.

Hilarity ensues. The timing, the acting, the script itself are all excellent. What is more, as really good comedy often can, the darkness beneath the laughter is cleverly exposed. Dymphna's loneliness is achingly painful and the absurdity of human activity - especially the attempts males and females make to get together - is highlighted, particularly in the scenes where the characters dance.

It was what Sandy Stone would have called 'a very nice night's entertainment'. Although I don't suppose Sandy would really have approved.

Great Britain at the Haymarket and King Charles III at the Wyndham

In October I went to see Great Britain, a satire about a newspaper that is a thinly disguised News of the World during the period in which hacking became a form of news gathering that that paper favoured. The play had transferred from the National Theatre and it seemed to me that the production did not fit very well on the more constrained stage of the Haymarket. It was brisk and competent but pretty unsubtle. I struck me as ephemeral and both geographically and historically extremely particular. In other words, it was very clever but not universal, purely a play about a certain time in one country's development. Of course, a play about a certain time in one country's development can also become a play about universal issues, but this play is parochial and I doubt it will last beyond its own era.

King Charles III shared a similar navel gazing 'What is Britain, who are we, what have we become?' theme with Great Britain. I suppose the interesting thing to an outsider is the very fact that Britain is feeling so extremely concerned about itself and its place in the world. However, if you are not particularly involved with Britain, spending two whole evenings watching plays in which issues of national identity other than your own are examined can feel a bit like observing the Christmas dinner squabbles of a family you haven't been introduced to.

All the same King Charles III is impressive in that the playwright chose to write it in blank verse and did a very good job. To begin with, it has some rather wonderful theatrical tableaux too - moments that make you glad you have come out into the night to sit with strangers, witnessing something beautiful and strange. However, after the interval the character of Charles loses coherence - from being a man of principle in the first part, he turns into a power-crazed nutter, with very little transition to explain this shift, in the second. In addition, the constitutional crisis that is the crux of the play lacked drama for me because, a) I'd seen how a very similar crisis was dealt with without any violence in my own country and b) Belgium was able to deal with their monarch's inability to approve a bill dealing with abortion (he was a devout Catholic and he and his wife had suffered numerous miscarriages, so the issue carried a great deal of emotional weight for him) without a crisis ensuing.

I also experienced a growing sense of discomfort as the play went on and I became more and more aware that the characters were not even flimsily disguised but, instead, actually meant to be the stage counterparts of living flesh-and-blood people who lived just down the road. There was a kind of cruelty to having the actors playing out the ill-motivated imaginary actions of real human beings who were still alive but had no right of reply.