“Huis Clos” at the Southwark Playhouse

Philosophy is not full of one-liners and few of those one-liners pass into general currency. Sartre’s idea that ‘hell is other people’ is now commonplace and sees dramatic exploration in Huis Clos (translated here as No Way Out). Whether you either heartily agree or dismiss Sartre’s pessimism, in either instance a night at the theatre will probably not change your mind.

Sartre presents us with three incarcerated characters who discover that their hell is to be imprisoned with one another. As the play progresses, we learn why they have been condemned. An audience will either sympathise with the characters presented or find them too contrived to be believable. Actors presenting such characters need to tread a fine line, and the cast of the Southwark Playhouse’s production manages this tension pretty well.

Although Miguel Oyarzun’s strong accent takes some getting used to, he plays Garcin, editor of a radical newspaper, with an appropriately brittle machismo. Alexis Terry’s Estelle’s desperate sexual needs are less convincing, but her confused remorse about the murder of her child is moving. The highlight is Elisa De Grey who plays lesbian Ines with great physicality. Her confusion is palpable and manic.

In all instances however, the actors are hindered by Sartre’s out-of-date sexual politics and by a directorial concept that burdens the production.

Director Luke Kernaghan attempts to broaden Sartre’s concerns by making the work more political than the author intended, and he picks up and runs with the theme of torture. From Sartre’s original idea of a bourgeois group torturing themselves in a well-appointed sitting room, we are transferred to a sterile office that surprises characters anticipating the fiery inferno. More dramatic perhaps, and certainly timely, but a great deal less subtle and pointlessly forced.

Making this concept even more contrived, Kernaghan selects the period of Argentina’s desaparecidos and adds tango to the action. Tango was banned in Argentina during the 1970s because of its potential for public gatherings, and it was also played deafeningly loudly by authorities to hide the screams of those tortured.

The surreal atmosphere and good choreography from Kele Baker means that characters bursting into dance do not provoke laughter – but they don’t add much either. A further attempt at contemporaneity also fails. With a nod to our surveillance society, video footage of the characters is played back to them. Not only does the television contradict character’s frustration that they cannot see themselves in hell, the set itself is too small for the audience to see either.

This final shortcoming is surprising when so much thought about the venue has obviously been given. The Southwark Playhouse’s relatively new home may not actually be underground but it feels subterranean. Pictures of ‘the disappeared’ line the entrance and even the bar is designed to take us back to the 1970s.

During the production, apparently random noises from the trains overhead, which could be frustrating, add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the context that has been forced upon the play fails to hold the attention. Rather than questioning whether hell really is other people, the trains made me think about the hell of commuting.

Until 12 September 2009.

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Marc Antoni Cifre

Written 23 August 2009 for The London Magazine

“The Importance of Being Earnest” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Director Irina Brown has said that she hopes her production of The Importance of being Earnest at Regent’s Park takes a fresh look at Wilde’s masterpiece.

Considering how well loved the work is, she may be in danger of offending but this risk is necessary.  When almost every epigram in the play seems to have been quoted on gift cards and the whole audience sits mouthing lines and nudging one another at what they recognise, something needs to be done.

Brown’s most notable effort is to make the play more physical.  With language as wonderful as Wilde’s it is all too easy to make his play static.  Instead, we have a slapstick fight between Dominic Tighe’s Algernon and Ryan Kiggell’s Jack over a cigarette case, their verbal jousting is matched a great physicality as they chase each other around.

Jo Herbert’s Gwendolen seems metallic in a wonderful costume that looks deliberately difficult to move in. Lucy Briggs Owen conveys a naïve sexuality in Cecily and is happy to flounce down on the ground when commanded to sit or whenever it suits her.

Movement also comes from the servants in the piece. Not only do we have both a memorable Lane and Merriman but also a cast of silent servants.  Like the audience, they watch and listen and in doing so bring us closer to the action, eavesdropping and acting out their own dramas as they respond to events or during an artful scene change.

In Brown’s efforts to make the play entertaining to the eye as well as the ear, she is aided by wonderful design from Kevin Knight. The actors have a great space to (quite literally) play in.  They have pretend flowers to pick, a miniature bridge to run up and down and even a dolls’ house to hide in.  A magnificent ramp might be treacherous in bad weather but, reminiscent of the old penguin house at London Zoo, it is a great comic touch.

Yet this is not just a question of our viewing the cast as if they were animals in a zoo.  As the production opens, a huge mirrored surface reflects the audience also.  The ensemble’s first action is to view the crowd.  Using glasses, binoculars and telescopes for a brief moment and taking advantage of the light conditions in an open-air theatre – we are on display.

Throughout the first act pretty much everyone checks themselves in this mirror, even if only to confirm their superiority – that everything is as it should be – of course, we cannot be sure that they also aren’t looking at us as well. Brown opens up this possibility along with many others.  This production makes us think about the class system at work within the play raises those eternal issues between the sexes.

It is surely telling that Cecily hides in her dolls’ house when her future is being discussed.  Most importantly, in emphasising Wilde’s observation of society and human nature, the source of his comedy is retained and enhanced.

All the laughs are still there, we just get to hear the jokes afresh.

Until 3 July 2009

www.openairtheatre.com

Written 10 July 2009 for The London Magazine

“Arcadia” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

If there is one thing in the theatre world everyone can agree on, it is that Tom Stoppard is clever.

He knows a lot about a lot and is good at explaining complicated things that leave the rest of us baffled.

The subject matter of Arcadia is a case in point – a heady brew of landscape gardening, literary studies and physics, played out in one room with alternate acts set in the 18th century and modern times. A rich mix, indeed, and one that potentially overwhelms. The cleverest thing about Stoppard is that he manages to get the audience not just understanding these subjects but also caring and laughing about them.

Credit goes to the cast. Dan Stevens plays the charismatic tutor Septimus Hodge . His role is to explain 18th-century arts and science to both the audience and his prodigious pupil Thomasina Coverly . A painful desire for his mistress Lady Croom is complicated by a touching flirtation with his pupil, and he conveys not just a passion for his studies but also a great sexual presence. Both women, Jessica Cave and Nancy Carroll respectively, present their characters with fitting complexity and make the most of Stoppard’s wonderful ear for period language to great comic effect.

In the present day, the explaining is done by mathematics student Valentine (Ed Stoppard). His brooding presence is so intense as to be unlikeable, and his irritation over the supposed simplicity of iterated algorithms sounds false. This time, explication is for the benefit of the audience and Samantha Bond ’s historian, whose performance becomes inexplicably shrill.

The love triangle in modern times is completed by rival academic Bernard Nightingale , a morally distasteful character portrayed by Neil Pearson, who has surely paid far too much attention to one textual reference about his bouncing around.

Through science and art these two worlds come together. Thomasina’s brilliance foresees the great mathematical discoveries Valentine is working on. Both historians retrace events concerning the earlier set of characters.

But, despite its humour, Arcadia is a melancholy work with a gentle sense of tragedy. The mathematics aren’t understood in the 18th century – with disastrous consequences. Both historians are blinded by their ambition for either professional advancement or to prove an ideological point and make mistakes about what really happened in the past. Attempts to created a paradise garden on earth or to explain that earth with a grand Theory of Everything are inevitably doomed to failure .

Despite all the laughs, destruction seems to be the only outcome of our investigations. What hold us are those brief moments of joy along the way – the journey through Arcadia rather than the place itself.

Until 12 September 2009

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 8 June 2009 for The London Magazine

“Hamlet” at Wyndham’s Theatre

A key ingredient to the year long, highly ambitious Donmar in the West End project has been its ‘celebrity’ casting. Younger members of the audience at Jude Law’s Hamlet would certainly feel that the venture has saved the best until last.

It is always great to feel the excitement a star creates in a theatre and heart warming to see the different crowd of people that they attract. But while devoted fans are sure to have a thrilling evening, the rest of us are bound to ask if Law justifies such a charged atmosphere?

It is good to report that he does.

Jude Law’s delivery of Shakespearean verse is clear and confident. His stage presence, if not commanding, is conscientious and a real effort is made to engage the whole auditorium. He seems fully aware of the space surrounding him, in a manner many actors working mostly in film frequently forget.

And Law’s engagement with the text genuinely adds something to our understanding of the play. His approach is to show us an angry Hamlet – one of the loudest we might have seen and certainly the most potentially violent. His is not just a brooding and tortured presence but also one who really does seem capable of the play’s bloody ending. Any melancholia has a dangerous edge, which adds drama. Viewers may find this bombast unconvincing, even humourless, but it is a refreshing take on the role.

Unfortunately, Michael Grandage’s production neglects the rest of the cast. So much attention has been focused on Law that other performances appear weak. Kevin R. McNally’s unfrightening Claudius seems to have stumbled on to the throne rather than plotted his way there – we get the impression that the murder of his brother was something that happened by chance. A fine actress, Penelope Wilton sadly makes little of Gertrude. While we can see that she comes to repent her marriage, we cannot fathom her motive for it. In avoiding a Freudian interpretation of the play we are left with a sexless Queen who wears comfy looking trousers. It is difficult to feel anything for her.

One problem might be the speed of this production – commendably, it is just as fast as a thriller and often as gripping. Yet while Hamlet’s soliloquies allow him to take time, the other characters seem rushed. Nobody else in the cast really gets the chance to stand up to Law – it they did then this might have been a great production.

As things stand, we simply have a great Hamlet.

Until 22 August 2009

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 7 June 2009 for The London Magazine

“When The Rain Stops Falling” at the Almeida Theatre

With a story spanning 80 years and a cast of characters who seem to share the same name, Andrew Bovell‘s play is not the easiest one to follow. It is clear from the start that we are dealing with a mystery, half explained in a rambling fashion by a man whose sanity we instantly doubt.

This man is Gabriel York, son of another Gabriel, whose mother’s name was Gabrielle.  His father died before his was born, while searching for his own father who disappeared when he was a boy.  His mother also suffered a loss – this time a vanished brother who was abducted, abused and killed by that very same grandfather.

The mystery surrounding these two families is at the heart of the play. The characters themselves live in confusion and deal with half-remembered facts – stories are hidden, only partly revealed with tragic consequences, and ultimately fade away.

As changeable as the weather, the threads of these histories, as they are presented to characters and audience, resonate. The tragedy of lost parents and the repercussions of evil spread far and wide. Recurring events and echoing pain are reflected in the language with speeches repeated by different characters across time and space.

Through time, motives become lost.  Objects become treasured that should be abhorred.  Once precious treasures become meaningless.  Nobody understands the pain that should be attached to a dead child’s shoe or remembers a token from a lover’s first meeting.

As time devours memory, the characters themselves feed on one another.  Gabriel’s paedophile father introduces the motif of Saturn devouring his children, yet all filial relations seem to share a vicious quality and are doomed to failure.

The cruelty of parent to child is matched only by that of child to parent.  Gabrielle makes both observations at different stages of her life, portrayed with conviction by Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley.  As she laments her child’s cruelty to her she forgets how she felt when she was young.

In the play’s most heart-rending moment, on learning of her estranged son’s death, a superb Phoebe Nichols mounts a frosty yet meek defence of her cold behaviour to him.  She warns us we should presume nothing until we know the whole story.  Satisfactorily for an audience, we do discover the sacrifice she has made for her son – one that does not fail to move us.  Tellingly, the play’s other characters never know the full story.

A Shakespeare workshop in Australia has inspired director Michael Attenborough to craft this fine production. The Almeida stage, with beautiful lighting by Colin Grenfell, manages to convey the claustrophobia of a dingy London flat and the frightening expanse of the Australian landscape.  This landscape includes both The Coorong, a dangerous wetland where sea combats with sand, and the desert around the ancestral Uluru where characters encounter the past.

Like much symbolism in the play, this may seem heavy handed but it has emotional weight and is effectively conveyed.

Until 2 July 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 25 May 2009 for The London Magazine