Tag Archives: Alex Austin

“Thebes Land” at the Arcola Theatre

Warning: this blog may contain hyphens. Lots of them. Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s acclaimed piece returns as part of its director-translator Daniel Goldman’s CASA Latin American Theatre Festival. Ostensibly an exploration of patricide, we watch a dramatist’s encounters with a murderer in prison. But we also watch the construction – writing and rehearsals – of the very play we are watching. Confused? Don’t be. Described as a multiple-reality drama, Thebes Land uses its novel approach to fantastic results.

Blanco sets up layers within his play marvellously; unravelling the motives behind a brutal murder, while commenting on the process of any play coming to the stage. The playwright, performed by Trevor White, greets us and makes what’s going on transparent… and then not so. But Blanco and Goldman wear their learning lightly. Deflating any pretentiousness only adds to the cleverness and the humour – White is excellent here – and it’s a lot of fun.

Take meeting our convicted killer Martin – first as a ‘real’ criminal, then as the actor called Freddie who plays him. Alex Austin makes both roles convincing, switching with skill and reflecting the text’s magnificent dynamism. Austin is more than good – he is Daniel-Day-Lewis-in-1985-good. The play gets funnier, as our RADA grad questions the motivations of a character whose life is so far removed from his own. Suddenly this whole theatre thing starts to look silly!

There’s drama in Thebes Land, too. Austin makes his literally caged character bristle with violence. There are a good few jumps as tension is heightened by Goldman’s direction. As for unexpected twists, Blanco urges we don’t read the play before we see it, and he’s worth listening to. I was genuinely shocked at one revelation here, and by the way the metatheatricality develops.

Ultimately, of course, making theatre is serious stuff. The elision between art and life gains power from Blanco’s approach. Randomness in the creative process is examined brilliantly – with a little help from Whitney Houston. While the link to myth and Oedipus Rex (predictably a red rag for our over-earnest writer) is broadened to explore the darkness that is within us all. There’s a connection and responsibility between artists, audience and subject that’s not to be laughed at.

Emotions blossom from the play displaying artifice so blatantly. We feel an insight into our writer (yet more credit to White) and affinity with the actor whose work we see progress. As for Martin – there’s respect for the serious investigation into his crime and punishment. The fictional status of all three becomes mind-bogglingly blurred, likewise their relationships. An unbearably touching moment of filial affection is followed by erotic tension. Having both in the same play, without being creepy, is an indication of how complex this text is: an intellectual-comedy-thriller-satire-tragedy like no other.

Until 7 October 2017

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Fury” at the Soho Theatre

Damsel Productions’ third show confirms that this young team can pick a great play. And that co-founder/director Hannah Hauer-King is a confident, fresh talent. An intelligent interaction with the story of Medea, achingly contemporary and set on a South London council estate, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script has a brave lyricism and the production is gut-wrenchingly gripping.

There are more topical concerns here than you can shake a stick at: gentrification, a clash of classes and the collapse of the welfare state. Yet there’s no trace of ticking boxes, rather a sincere wish to question the demonisation of a “terrified and lonely” single mother. Sarah Ridgeway takes the main role, a performance magically more than the sum of its parts, made intense by the play’s aim of “showing us the pieces of her life”.

An Argonaut is notably absent here. Instead there’s an upstairs neighbour, a student called Tom who comes to dominate and abuse. The role is perhaps the play’s weakest link as he’s too creepy from the start, besides the fact that anyone at college who hires a cleaner is suspect. Thankfully, when a truly evil side is shown, Hauer-King has established enough momentum for Alex Austin to shine in the part.

Eclair-Powell’s most fruitful synthesis from Euripides is the reconfiguration of the Greek chorus. Performed by a talented trio, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Daniel Kendrick and Anita-Joy Uwajeh, they are beautifully choreographed and their singing sounds great. They do so much: shaping action and interpretation, by turns interrogatory, accusatory and sympathetic. Adopting secondary characters roots us in the real world and ensures Fury is stimulatingly layered.

Towards the bloody finale, the chorus appear as social workers. This Medea’s revenge and desperation is not focused on a single man. Casting her net as wide as can be, Eclair-Powell’s ambition is brilliantly refocused – it isn’t just one woman’s life we see on stage but our whole society.

Until 30 July 2016

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by The Other Richard

“Yen” at the Royal Court

Anna Jordan’s play won the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 and has already had an acclaimed run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. A bold look at the ever-topical issue of our problem youth, Jordan’s unflinching eye earns her work the distinction of being one of the most depressing plays you could go and see.

Hench and Bobbie, 16 and 13 respectively, have been left to fend for themselves. Jordan lists signs of poverty and depravity relentlessly: dirt, crisps, lager and pornography. Incapable of caring for themselves, let alone the large dog they have imprisoned in their bedroom, the boys can’t call for help as they have no credit on their phones. Remind yourself the situation is unusual – but it isn’t unbelievable.

Writing gritty is relatively easy. Writing something this grim is harder. To steer clear of a documentary feel there are embellishments. A portable heater stands in for the dog. And Bobbie becomes literally feral at one point (he barks when distressed) – a brilliant and powerfully unsettling moment. And there’s the PlayStation, their only source of solace (which they pass out while playing), superbly staged as a bank of lights.

Annes Elwy as Jenny

The performances and Ned Bennett’s direction are first class. Sian Breckin manages to evoke sympathy as the boy’s awful mother, indicating a tragic back story: throughout the play we are reminded that you can love someone (or a dog) yet treat them horribly. Annes Elwy makes a credible character out of Jenny, who tries to stop the animal cruelty and then starts an unlikely romance with Hench. It’s Jenny’s nickname that gives the play its title, but having another young character as such an obvious foil, painfully showing what it is boys yearn for, feels forced.

In the lead roles Alex Austin and Jake Davies’ performances are marked by an awesome physicality. A mix of hormones, menace and boredom, they inhabit their characters fully and it’s all about frustration. Each instance of physical contact, indeed the potential of touching, becomes intense. It makes the unspecified trauma that affects Hench and the violence Jennifer experiences all the more potent. Austin and Davies’ efforts bring out the very best in the text and do justice to a play that is both hard working and hard work.

Until 13 February 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Richard Davenport