Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Travesties by Tom Stoppard, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 7th, 2016

Is it possible that humour dates more than most forms? Is it possible sometimes a collective madness takes over, which makes everyone for a while find funny something that isn't actually funny, (I think that is what happened with the television series Little Britain, which briefly I thought brilliant - and now find original but really quiet horrible).

I ask these questions because Tom Stoppard in my youth was the playwright who seemed to streak across the firmament as the most exciting theatrical comet around, whereas now I can't help wondering if he is the George Bernard Shaw of our era. Shaw was, similarly, widely revered in his life time, whereas now his plays, on the rare occasions they are staged, bore their audiences rigid. There is such effort on display in Shaw's works that each joke lands with a thud, each example of cleverness draws attention to itself so eagerly that the audience feels almost bullied into reluctant admiration. Sadly, in my experience these days the same is true of Stoppard's plays.

There is no doubt that Travesties is clever. It is so clever in fact that for an audience member to even vaguely understand what is going on and who the characters are, it is advisable to read the script and Stoppard's introduction before setting foot in the theatre. Is this a good thing?

The play  takes place mainly in 1918 in Zurich where its main characters - James Joyce; a Romanian Dadaist called Tsara; Lenin and his wife; and the central figure, Henry Carr, an invalided veteran of World War One, attached to the British Consulate - all lived at the time. Two female characters may or may not have had an independent existence in reality. A character who is a butler in the play definitely existed but not as a butler - in reality he was the British Consul.

Actually the play doesn't exactly take place in Zurich - it takes place in the memory of Henry Carr, who conjures up Zurich in 1918 in his mind. Rather than action or plot, Stoppard gives us an extremely complex interplay of ideas - mainly about art and its place in human life, with a sideline in the function of war - all tangled up with very clever but not necessarily particularly interesting allusions to Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a production of which Joyce helped to stage and Carr performed in.

Of course, it is brilliant to write a whole scene in the form of a limerick but, sadly, just because it is brilliant does not make it necessarily all that entertaining - and isn't the brilliance rather of the crossword-puzzle-solving variety? Stoppard also appears to have been satisfied with the various sallies he includes that echo the cadences of Wilde, even though they do not succeed in making amusing fun of Wilde's habit of aphorism or in matching his level of wit in that form.

For instance, when one character is offered some tea cake and says, "But I don't like tea-cake. Besides, I have sworn never to shake hands with you again" and the other replies. I don't want you to shake hands with me when I'm eating muffins. Muffins should never be eaten with shaking hands", it is fairly obvious that Stoppard hopes to exploit the absurdity of the word "muffin" and somehow create mirth from the slight bending of the concept of shaking hands, yet is the result actually funny or merely wordy and contrived? Again, while I can hear the Wildean echo - who couldn't - in the assertion, "There is no one so radical as a manservant whose freedom of the champagne bin has been interfered with" and in the statement "The newspapers would never have risked calling the British public to arms without a proper regard for succinct alliteration" and in countless other lame efforts scattered through the play, the echo is not the equal of wit itself, (leaving aside the question of whether Wilde himself was really all that amusing - or retains the ability to provoke laughter today, to return to my original question about humour and whether it dates).

The ruminations contained within the dialogue on what art's role is, what constitutes art and what makes an artist are all fascinating, but they are not dramatic. The lessons on Lenin's life and on the formation of the Dadaist movement are, no doubt, accurate, but I don't drag myself out to the theatre for history lessons. The characterisation is non-existent as each person in the drama is really just the bearer of a set of arguments. None of them is given anything remotely resembling an emotional life.

All the same the Menier Chocolate Factory production did its absolute best with the material, and Tom Hollander was terrific. One exchange, parodying or paralleling a similar exchange in The Importance of Being Earnest, that takes place in the second act between the two female characters is so beautifully staged that it has been ringing in my ears ever since, although whether it is quite worth the price of the ticket is debatable.

I imagine most people would say that Freddie Fox is impressive as Tsara, and in a way he is. However, his performance is more akin to an Olympics gymnastic mat exercise than something involving genuine heart and spirit. Perhaps if he were somewhat less impressed with himself - indeed if he could simply forget himself and how well he is performing for a fraction of a second - it might be easier for the spectator to find him genuinely impressive - although one could argue, not in the end successfully, I think, that he is merely mirroring Stoppard's own self-absorbed delight in himself.

The decision to cast a woman "of colour" as Lenin's wife is something that I suppose just has to be overlooked in the interests of equality but it is distracting. Would a coloured actor be chosen for the more central parts of James Joyce or Lenin? If not, is this piece of casting just a tokenistic gesture? If we are going to be colour blind, can we also cast a white man in the role of Othello?

Ultimately, despite absolutely valiant efforts by the cast and magnificent choreography to try to enliven proceedings, the evening is big on speechifying and very small on heart. It seemed a surprising coincidence when, walking through Regent's Park the next morning, I overheard a woman telling her companion: "I go to the theatre for emotion; I want to laugh or cry and I didn't do either." Could she also have been at the Menier the evening before I wondered? Who knows.

If you can get tickets, the play is worth attending, in order to see just how far ingenuity goes in trying to convert an amalgam of philosophical essays into an evening of theatre. The performances are mostly excellent, the direction and staging and design are brilliant, but the fundamental material they are working with means that, dramatically, the evening cannot be a great success

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Cause by Jeremy James at Jermyn Street Theatre

The Cause opens with the left stage only lit. There we are introduced to an aged Hungarian painter, who has come to visit an old friend of his family - he is going to paint her portrait. At the end of his visit, when he sees the old friend's daughter for the first time, he collapses. It later emerges that his left side is paralysed - with no clear physical cause - as a result. "Luckily" the family friend is a psychoanalyst so together they undertake a journey into his past, convinced his inability to move his painting arm is due to past trauma.

The past, as the artist remembers it bit by bit, is then reenacted centre stage. It turns out the elderly was one of four wild Hungarian students who, gripped by a desire to free Hungary from the Austrian yoke, decide to assassinate Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

Er, what? The Hungarians may not have been keen on Franz Ferdinand's Three Crown proposal, which would have given autonomy to Slavs, but by 1914 they had already fought their own battles for autonomy within the empire - and won. The foursome do mutter at one point about not wanting to have an emperor who is doubling up as emperor of the other part of the empire - a similar kind of argument to the Australian Republican movement's one about the current Queen of England having the role of Queen of Australia as a sideline - but the students' fervour doesn't make historical sense to me. Perhaps there was in reality a bunch of hot heads like those portrayed in the play, in which case I apologise and limit my criticism to the very clunky dialogue of this group, the rather school play acting standard and the dreadful costumes - why couldn't they have had plain white shirts (and given how little painting they appear to do, must all of them have their hands smeared so thickly with different shades of paint the entire time?) - but as things stand I am baffled about how such a historically flawed play could be put on.

As if all this were not enough, on the righthand side of the stage, officers of the Black Hand movement appeared from time to time, to provide, rather astonishingly, a bit of comic relief. The two actors in this section were the best thing in the production but using the Black Hand as a humorous recurring interlude struck me as an error. Some sections of the audience were provoked to laughter by their pantomime villain jolly japes but, as the Black Handers were actually vicious terrorists, whose actions turned the world into an infinitely worse place, I just felt uncomfortable.

In the final preposterous plot twist, the old Hungarian painter recalls that he murdered someone - although not Franz Ferdinand. How do you forget you shot someone point blank in a vicious, cold hearted and thoroughly pointless gesture? It slipped my mind, guv,sorry. Having rediscovered what he's done, the old painter faces the actor playing his younger self and is urged to forgive himself. I don't think there is any reason to do so - and I think there is even less reason to forgive the playwright for producing this drivel or the theatre for staging it. What were they thinking? This is one of the most misconceived dramas imaginable. I am sorry to say that I cannot come up with a single good thing to say about it.  The suspension of disbelief was absolutely impossible. Complete and total rubbish. the kind of thing that gives theatre a very bad name

Monday, 15 February 2016

Waste by Harley Granville Barker, directed by Roger Michell, National Theatre until 19 March

The National Theatre's production of Waste is beautiful to look at. It opens with the wide Lyttelton stage empty except for a scattering of pretty antique chairs and a baby grand piano. Music fills the theatre as the audience finds its seats. As the lights go down, a vast blank wall slides across the stage and, when it passes, the chairs are revealed to have become occupied. The music fades until we are left with the sound of a single instrument - the piano, which is being played by a character who is now sitting on the music stool in front of the baby grand.

Sadly, the set is the best thing about this production.

I had not seen the play before - it was written in 1906 and then revised in 1927, but banned when its author first wanted to put it on stage, (speculation about why it was banned ranges from the fact that its action revolves around reference to a botched abortion to a theory that the Lord Chamberlain felt that politicians should not be portrayed as having feet of clay; I suspect the reference to abortion was the problem).

When I went to see it a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't even read the script. And yet all through the performance I had the uneasy feeling that a different play from the one I was seeing was being stifled within the current production - this time not by the censor but by the director and his cast and their wilful misinterpretation of the text.

Afterwards, I bought the script and, reading it, my impression was confirmed.

Waste tells the story of Henry Trebell, an independent MP who is passionate about the disestablishment of the church. Probably disestablishment was more central to the passions of the population at the time the play was written, but the current National Theatre production makes no effort to convey this to today's audience, which left me, at least, slightly baffled as to why anyone could get quite so worked up about such a dusty issue. Disestablishment took place decades ago in Wales, but so far as I know conditions of life in that part of the British Isles are not markedly better than in the areas where disestablishment remains a distant possibility, so what exactly is so great about it?

Anyway, when Trebell is drafted in to shore up a minority Tory government, he abandons himself to the pursuit of his disestablishment dream. Unfortunately, he has already abandoned himself to seducing Amy, a married, but separated, woman, who becomes pregnant - although by the time she discovers she is Trebell has dropped her entirely and moved on to lofty matters.

Being a high-minded fellow, Trebell does not want Amy to have an abortion, nor is he able to abandon his principles and show her a moment's affection or kindness. Well what do you want him to do? He doesn't love her; should he lie or something, (he does have standards, don't you know)?

Unfortunately for Amy - and, in my view, for Trebell himself - Trebell does not love people; he only loves issues. As he tells his doctor,

"I found I'd fallen in love. No, not with a woman, you old sentimentalist. I am in love with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England".

What an unattractive fanatic, I couldn't help thinking, when I heard this - exactly the kind of person the later 20th century was plagued with. And yet the National Theatre team see Trebell as a visionary smashed by the Establishment.

Granville Barker's stage direction, introducing Trebell suggests a rather more equivocal attitude on the part of his creator, possibly closer to mine than theirs:

"With most of us opposing qualities are ... fused in compromise. What one remarks in Trebell is that with him this is not so. The idealist and the cynic, the sensualist and the ascetic, gentleness and cruelty, could, any one of them, have undisputed sway, if he'd let them. But not the least remarkable thing about him is the rigid control which some inner man seems to exercise over this outer man, yet with indifference, almost with disdain ... He flirts a little grimly."

Clearly a complex character, but a sympathetic one? I don't think so - especially as he has a gift for waffling that always marks out the kind of politician I loathe - what, for instance, does this rather lovely sounding statement of his actually mean:

"Time's no measure, is it, of the things men have made honourable?" he says to his sister at one point, continuing, "And whatever our failings, Frankie, we've meant to live ... you and I ... in the large freedom of the mind"

if anything?

Amy, on the other hand, the woman with whom Trebell, "flirts a little grimly"and whom he consequently seduces, is introduced as "a charming woman, who takes care she does charm" and is later described as capable of being "very innocent at times", which to me at any rate makes for a rather sad personality, someone who is a little out of her depth but knows enough to grasp that her position is far from secure in the circles in which she moves. It is also revealed that she was orphaned at two and left to the care of an atheist parson with a temper. She married at 17 to escape.

Despite being rather amusing - remarking, on hearing that it is possible the shooting season may be overrun by participants not from the upper class, "Poor partridges, with nobody but nobodies to shoot them"; and responding to a question about a headache she complained of earlier, "No-one pitied me; that must have cured it" - Amy is disliked by her hostess in the opening act, (although one suspects the woman is merely jealous of her guest). Meanwhile, Trebell's sister, (a character who is oddly devoted to her brother, in a way that might make more sense were she his wife, except that a wife would not be able to stand by and observe her husband's affair - and in any case Trebell does not know how to love enough to have a wife) , recognises that "there is something of the waif about her" and Ferrant, who, although rather naive, is possibly the character with the most humanity in the play, likes her and sticks up for her, when men - most particularly his Prime Minister* - try to level at her the age-old hypocritical masculine charge of being "a harlot"*.

Somehow though the actress who plays Amy sides only with the PM and the hostess's point of view, perceiving none of the poignance of Amy's situation. She appears blithly indifferent to the fact that her character's position is made impossible by virtue of the fact that she is a female in a world run entirely by men. Astonishingly in such an early work, Granville Barker has Amy arguing for a woman's "right to choose" - surely this should have struck some kind of a chord in her interpreter's psyche, (I do not like abortion and believe demand for it arises from the fact that society is structured for males, not females, but I do recognise that it is an issue centrally linked to lack of female power and the choice issue is not something to be brushed aside as the problem of a neurotic).

Disappointingly, in an interview on the National Theatre website, Olivia Williams, who plays Amy, makes it clear that she interprets her from the viewpoint of Trebell; poor Trebell, she says, "thinks he's found a party girl and finds he's got someone who's quite mad". She plays Amy as hysterical and, worse still, charmless. At least the playwright allowed the character that grace. In fact, to me, Williams's performance was a complete betrayal not only of her character but of her own sex - Amy played by Williams, is a reprehensibly silly and hysterical woman, one who should have known better than to imagine that intimacy and love were intertwined, one who is careless about her own fertility (at a time when fertility was not easily managed by the female partner) and one who, faced with the prospect of birth and motherhood, following a life that appears to have been marked by no love or support from anyone, in a society where single motherhood is not easy, to put it mildly, is terrified of how she will cope. None of this is sympathetically presented by the actress.

In any case, it seems to me that what the play is really about is not the personal relations between Trebell and Amy but politics and whether a fanatical, uncompromising approach to it is, however grand and morally pure it may appear, the right one. Against the Trebell romantic's stance:

"I'd never, so to speak, given myself away before. It's a dreadful joy to do that ... to become part of a purpose bigger than your own. Another strength is added to your own ... it's a mystery. But it follows, you see, that having lost myself in the thing ... the loss of it leaves me a dead man.

Granville Barker sets Cantilupe, a reluctant collaborator of Trebell, who articulates a very plausible countervailing point of view, (one that, to me, seems a great deal more persuasive than Trebell's - as I should have thought it might to a post World War I audience, disillusioned by years spent at the mercy of the grand visions of men with high ideals:)

"I find myself inevitably at war with the master fallacy of a godless age - the belief that the things we do can be better, or other, than the thing we are"; and

"The church's wisdom has been to know how much, on the whole, may be expected of men. And the hells of this world have been paved, don't you think, less with good intentions than with high ideals."

Ultimtely, the play is a demonstration of something a character called Blackborough, who is played as a demon but is really a pragmatist  - (Trebell would probably say something passionate about that being the same thing, but Granville Barker is very clear about what Blackborough is, describing him as "able" and "not an unkindly man", despite being devoid of sensitivity and with a "voice ... louder than it need be") - says very early on in the play, when he asks an aspiring young Tory politician why he doesn't work in Central Office and learn how the House runs.

The young man replies, "I think I'm more interested in ideas", to which Blackborough replies, "Then why go in for politics?"

Politics is the art of compromise. Whenever it has become the single-minded pursuit of an idea  - whether Fascism or Communism - the result has been disaster for the majority of the population. Therefore, to my mind, Trebell is an example of a dangerous man.  In the play his carelessness leads to the death of one character and an unborn child. The waste that we are shown in the play is not, as the character who speaks the final line about waste believes, the waste of Trebell's talent but the waste of a life that an individual doesn't know how to live. Trebell may be a visionary about disestablishment, but he is not a visionary when it comes to living - that is the lesson of the play, in my view. But in this I know that I am at odds with the director and cast of the current production. Whether I am at odds with the playwright is another matter.

Recommendation: Go. I don't regret it at all; it is an interesting, thought provoking play, with many good lines, (I particularly liked the Irish husband of Amy, saying re the English: "It is just possible ... to prefer the folly and passion of my own people to the sloven good humour which is the boast of yours", but there are many others). It is a pity about the way it is interpreted, but somehow it remains worth seeing.

*Harlots don't exist without customers, of course, but that's a whole other argument.

*Granville Barker gives the Prime Minister some great lines about politics and being a Prime Minister:

"When trouble begins, political or personal, write one letter only, the one that you know will get you  safe out of it. And let that be a short one"

"Most men's careers work to a climax and if they miss their moment the best of them may sink back to non-entity"

Summing up the skills needed to be PM, speaking to members of his Cabinet: "What authority will make men abler or more honest or less selfish than they are? I have to match you with - and against each other, so that from the heat of your differences a little power to do something may, if possible, result. The art of the thing lies in having such a quick sense of what won't work that before we've all quarrelled irretrievably I have set you to something else that will"

and, finally, in answer to an exhortation to exert himself: "No leader who needs to do that must ever dare to."

Sunday, 31 January 2016

As You Like It - directed by Polly Findlay, National Theatre London

Initially, we were distracted by a really misguided set - a facsimile call centre or some other kind of modern employment nightmare, where Orlando is office cleaner & his brother supervisor. It is peopled by a dozen or so men & women in bright pink or yellow jackets and its colour scheme takes its lead from licorice allsorts. Rosalind and Celia thread their way between the computer terminals, and the wrestling scene is set up at the front of the stage, with all the call centre staff as audience, (is my recollection wrong or does it usually take place out of sight?) The setting is never explained and makes no sense, so far as I can see.
Luckily, in the end the misguided set design does not matter, as it turns out to be the one and only weak element in the whole production. The important thing, obviously, must always be the acting - and Polly Findlay has directed her actors brilliantly. Together they appear to have read and weighed the script, line by line, with huge intelligence and attention. And, so, despite initial visual signs to the contrary, they create a truly wonderful performance.
No one in the cast is weak, but I can’t help mentioning how particularly winning Patsy Ferran is as Celia. Just looking at her can make you laugh. Rosalie Craig is also very good as Rosalind , and Paul Chahidi reveals a much stranger, more interesting and funnier Jaques than I have seen before. Even the parts of the script that may have struck me in the past as a bit toward the dull, expositiony side of the spectrum come alive in this staging. The music and choreography - plus the unusual approach to sound effects - are also brilliant and original. I did wonder if the portrayal of the sheep had been borrowed from Eamonn Flack’s production at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. Perhaps though it is just a case of great minds thinking alike
The play runs in repertoire at the National Theatre In London until 5 March, 2016. I highly recommend it, if you have an opportunity to go.