Monthly Archives: January 2014

From Morning to Midnight, at the National

Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s expressionist drama From Morning to Midnight has been given a bravura treatment in a new version by Dennis Kelly. I joined the queue for day seats at 8:30 on a Wednesday, and snagged two matinee tickets, along with two evening tickets for the second preview of King Lear. What a day of theatre it was!

The National production of From Morning to Midnight achieves an unusual balance between spectacular special effects, and the actors manipulating scenic elements. A snowstorm, for example, begins with actors shaking out sheets, an effect which expands to cover the stage with surging and rolling white cloth. Lovely. At another point, an office set piece is flown upwards, trapping a bewildered actor inside. It is even more impressive that the invention never flags, From start to finish there are surprises.

The plot is the familiar expressionist morality tale, showing society grinding down a character who tries to assert  individuality. A bank clerk, a cog in a monstrous machine, absconds with a large sum of money, and spends a day using the money to find the meaning of life, or rather, the spark of human energy. He seeks through family life (his own family), sex (a fancy brothel), mass enthusiasm (a bicycle race) and religion (a Salvation Army prayer meeting). At every stage, illusions are stripped away.

The path is familiar, so the sights and sounds of the journey are what really matter. And in this, the production succeeds thoroughly. The actors, sharing roles in ensemble fashion, create a multitude of characters, always vivid and clear. Adam Godley, as the Clerk, carries the show on his narrow shoulders with great panache.

A wonderful opportunity to see an important work fully realized.

Women of Twilight by Sylvia Rayman

White Bear Theatre, London

White Bear Theatre, London

One of the highlights of our visit to London was a most ambitious production at the White Bear, a tiny pub theatre in South London. It was Women of Twilight, Sylvia Rayman’s all-women play from 1951, powerfully performed by a profit-share company of eleven, appropriately called 11F. 

Unmarried women who find themselves pregnant are driven by desperation to take lodging in a house that is a front for a baby-farming operation. The characters in the play are from all levels of society and varied backgrounds. The sensitivity and depth of understanding that Sylvia Rayman brings to these women is what makes this script so remarkable, and even more so given that this was her first play, written when she was 28, working as a waitress. Although two of the women, one middle-class, the other the girlfriend of a gangster sentenced to hang, are the focus of the action, all the women are fully and vividly realized. And this accomplished ensemble company does full justice to the work.

Women of Twilight was a sudden surprise hit in 1951, receiving many productions all over Britain, followed by a film in 1952. Somehow, after that, it dropped into obscurity. The director of this production, Jonathan Rigby, became interested in the film, and then undertook to track down the original playscript. This production, once again, has had an unexpected impact, receiving glowing reviews for a run at the White Bear in October 2013, sparking a revival in January 2014.

“Sluts, all of you, with your rotten little bastards. I took you off the streets, when decent people wouldn’t look at you … And this is how you repay me!”

From the White Bear publicity: “Anticipating British theatre’s ‘kitchen sink’ revolution by a full five years, Women of Twilight was first presented in 1951 and filmed the following year. Neglected for over half a century yet still relevant today, this blistering drama – in which unmarried mothers are ruthlessly exploited by an unscrupulous, baby-farming landlady – is a real find.

Women of Twilight is directed by Jonathan Rigby and designed by Olivia Knight. It forms part of the White Bear’s Lost Classics strand, which has previously unearthed John Osborne’s early plays The Devil Inside Him and Personal Enemy (which transferred to the ‘Brits Off Broadway’ festival in New York).

With Claire Louise Amias, Francesca Anderson, Christie Banks, Amy Comper, Elizabeth Donnelly, Ailsa Ilott, Sally Mortemore, Emma Reade-Davies, Maggie Robson, Vanessa Russell, Emma Spearing.”

Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, at the Arcola

The Arcola Theatre, up in rough-and-tumble Dalston, is a hotbed of alternative vitality, always trying out new ideas and approaches, politically engaged, with a perspective that spans the globe. The theatre, formerly in a rambling industrial building on Arcola Street, moved a few blocks south in January 2011, a few steps from the Dalston Junction overground station. 

The area has a cosmopolitan mix, with a strong Turkish presence, evidenced by many Turkish restaurants, authentic and inexpensive. The founder and Artistic Director of the Arcola, Mehmet Ergun, is Turkish, managing a dual career spanning London and Istanbul.

This provides a context for Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, a collective creation about the demonstrations in Gezi Park, Istanbul. The piece, the result of 15 weeks of effort, was performed in Turkish, with English surtitles, by a cast of thirteen.

The production, a series of vignettes, had the uneven quality that often results from group creation. There were powerful moments (two young people, surviving a tear gas attack, finding companionship), and episodes that, one might say, need more work. Two things made the evening memorable: the commitment of the company to what was being communicated and the events that were being described. Where the piece lacked polish, it substituted immediacy, the sense that the performers had rushed away from the fray to give us their report. The performers were engaging and believable, and they had something important to say to us, the audience sitting in front of them.

Afterwards, sitting in the Arcola Bar, we fell into conversation with two Turkish people, one who lives in Moscow, and the other an actor in the company. They told us how, during the protests in Istanbul, they sat in front of their televisions all day, unable to do anything else while people like them, people they knew, fought for basic rights and values. This sense of connection, of our own involvement, came across through this piece of theatre.

Protest Song, at The Shed

The Shed, at the National

The Shed, at the National

The Occupy movement in London had its camp in the square outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, a location that was already occupied by “rough sleepers”, the current British term for what in North Armerica are called “street people”. A new one-person play, Protest Song, by Tim Price, imagines the interaction between one rough sleeper, Danny, and the young idealists who are inventing a new mode of human interaction on the fly.

The play was produced by the National Theatre in The Shed, a large red cube squatting in the forecourt of the National Theatre complex. It is a temporary structure replacing the wonderful, quirky little Cottesloe, which is currently being reconfigured into something to be called The Dorfman Theatre. The Shed is a marvel of prefabrication, steel platforms and walkways surrounding a central playing area,  with chain-link fencing held together by plastic tie-line. There’s an anything-goes feel to it that seems appropriate to the play.

Danny, played with vigour by Rhys Ifans, starts off pan-handling the audience. He’s also collecting phone numbers to store on a mobile phone, to prove to a well-meaning social worker that he is rehabilitating himself. Once that is over with, he starts the story of the Occupy camp, how his initial resentment and disdain is gradually overcome, how he find his voice speaking over the “human microphone”, how he learns that “the politics” matters to him too. In time, however, his street-schooled behaviour clashes with the middle-class values of his new friends, and he is expelled. At the end, he curses the Occupy movement for ruining his life “because you gave me hope”.

This was a powerful evening at the theatre, and it is a fine thing that The National would tackle the subject of the Occupy movement, and treat it sympathetically. Still though . . .

The issues, and the commitment of the participants in the Occupation, are distanced by the playwright’s choice of Danny as the observer. The protest is an exotic event, involving strange lovable people ,that rises up around him and disappears, leaving the world as it was. Danny rails against the unfairness of having his equilibrium disturbed by an illusion. We are left with an impression of naive middle-class idealistic youngsters having a bit of fun before the real world knocks some sense into them. What was happening outside St. Paul’s was something more difficult, more dangerous and more vital that Danny understands, or the play delivers. I missed that.

Fortune’s Fool, at the Old Vic

Saint Paul's from across the river.

Saint Paul’s from across the river.

So our first real day in London (December 31), we rush over to the Old Vic, and are fortunate to get tickets for Fortune’s Fool by Turgenev, in a translation by Mike Poulton. There’s a discrete sign in the lobby saying that due to the indisposition of John McAndrew, the part of Kuzovkin will be played by Patrick Cremin, the understudy. It turns out that Kuzovkin is the main role, dominating practically every scene. What about that? Did we see the play that other’s saw?

For my part, I was very happy with the evening. Patrick Cremin did a fine job. I hope that John McAndrew is feeling better, but I didn’t miss him. The play is very much an ensemble piece, very finely tuned, and it came across beautifully.

The script is very interesting. It pre-dates Chekov by several decades, but you could say that it combines elements reminiscent of Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. The mistress of a country estate returns, after years away, with her new husband, reacquainting herself with the scenes of her childhood, her old serfs and her neighbours. She finds an impoverished gentleman, Kuzovkin, who was a permanent guest of her parents and has continued to live there after their deaths. She and her husband are courteous, but a neighbour reveals that he is to be treated as a object of ridicule. At a drinking party, he is humiliated, until he is driven to reveal a secret known only to himself. At the end of the play, he speaks his mind about the corruption of the aristocracy. Very 19th-century, you could say, but the workings-out are finely drawn by playwright, translator and cast. And the reversal at the conclusion, when the underdog reveals his contempt for the system that oppresses him, still has power to move.  I liked the design very well, a well-orchestrated colour palette, and sets that seemed substantial but actually consisted of fabric drops.

On the subject of understudies, many years ago, in London, I saw the premiere of Stoppard’s wonderful play, Jumpers, with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg (yes, 1972). Only . . . that night, Diana Rigg was indisposed. Let me say that her understudy was terrific, and that play has stayed in my memory as one of the high points of my theatre experience.

(The picture has nothing to do with the play. I didn’t take any pictures of the Old Vic, though.)

Richard II, Royal Shakespeare at the Barbican

It wasn’t easy to get to see Richard II. It was sold out, so we figured we’d get day seats, something we’re quite used to doing. We figured Saturday would be good. Two performances, matinee and evening, thirty tickets each. Horrible weather, surely we’d get tickets? We arrived an hour early to a sight usually associated with rock concerts. People lying on the floor, the queue snaking around and around and around. It seems that that the actor playing Richard, David Tennant, is a teenage heart throb; who knew? We counted the queue, turned around and went back to the flat. On Monday morning, the weather even more blustery, we tried again, getting there even earlier, and this time, we were successful, barely.

I regret to report that the production was disappointing. The staging was static, with the actors forming an arrangement in front of a projected backdrop, and pretty much staying that way for each scene. The lines were delivered emphasizing the verse over the meaning. Perhaps to compensate, the pace was leisurely, with lots of pauses. We have been so used to seeing London productions of Shakespeare that whip along, finding new rhythms and new meanings, that I was really quite surprised. This seemed a throwback to days I had thought long gone, when The Bard was done with dignity. The design was all towering steel pillars and a metal platform wide as the stage that glided up and down. It was a lot like the Barbican, but did nothing to help us understand the play. It turned out that David Tennant was really the redeeming element – not so much in the first half, when he went along with everyone else providing formal stage pictures and stately speeches, but in the second half, he came into his own with the wonderful introspective soul-searching set pieces that Shakespeare gives Richard when he undergoing his extended fall.

A corridor in the Barbican

A corridor in the Barbican

 

 

 

Puss in Boots Dem

The Hackney Empire

The Hackney Empire

I am fascinated by that strange British theatrical phenomenon called the Christmas pantomime. It’s a glorious holdover from the 19th century, featuring a traditional story outrageously sent up, a “principal boy” (the hero) played by a woman in tights, one or more “dames”, played by men in dresses, candies for the kiddies, ribald jokes intended to go over the heads of the youngsters, singalong songs, nasty villains introduced by firecrackers, elaborate dance numbers, and shouts of “look behind you!” and “oh no it isn’t.”

Last night, we went to the Hackney Empire to see their version of Puss in Boots, a traditional British Christmas pantomime. Hackney has a very mixed demographic, including Blacks from the Caribbean, Turks, Kurds, Asians (many from Vietnam), and artists. In other words, the kind of community that we like.

 

TThe Hackney Empire inside

The Hackney Empire inside

The Hackney Empire, has deep roots in its community. Originally a magnificent Music Hall, it fell on hard times and spent a couple of decades as a TV studio and another couple as a Bingo Hall. Threatened with demolition in the late eighties, it was rescued and rebuilt as a theatre.

It has been famous for its pantos. This year, it was Puss in Boots. Puss was played by a wonderfully charismatic Jamaican actor know as Kat B. (No Principal Boy, sigh.) He insisted that whenever he said “Puss” we had to holler “in boots dem”! The entire cast was mixed, and families were too. The usurping Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha is a Jamaican momma, with a spineless white husband and a milk-white spoiled brat of a daughter, Princess Pertunia. Dame Nettie Knowall (white) has a dame daughter, Amnesia (black). Nobody worries and everyone has fun. There’s also an evil witch and an ogre, who is really a prince. My other favorites, after Kat B (the Puss) was Amy Lennox as Princess Pertunia, who had the most amazing spoiled brat body language, and Sharon D. Clarke, Queen Talulah, who can own any stage she walks on. Local references abound, starting with the Kingdom of Hackneyonia. The connection between the community and the acting company was tangible, and gave a lift to the evening. I believe that the supporting chorus was drawn from young people in the neighbourhood. Hats off to Susie McKenna, who has been writing and directing these Hackney pantos for fifteen years. (I know this, because we went on the last night, and she received flowers and made a speech.)

I was hooked on pantomime by my first panto, a smart, sassy, crisply political version of Dick Wittington performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan Littlewood’s theatre (though after she retired). Like they say about drugs, I’ve been looking for that thrill ever since. One Christmas in London, I dragged Judith to about twelve Pantos, always assuring her that the next one would be wonderful. Too often, the principal boy was a boy, usually a TV personality, and the snap and sparkle that I remembered just wasn’t quite there.

One year, we did see a remarkable play called Poppy, at the Half Moon, based on the conventions of Panto. The thigh-slapping principal boy, his lady love, and his friends go off to confront the evil Emperor of China, whom we were instructed to boo and hiss. Their mission: to compel him to reopen the opium trade. As the play goes on, it becomes harder and harder to cheer for our British heroes and boo the Emperor, particularly when the lovely heroine becomes a grotesque opium addict in a wheelchair. A brilliant deconstruction of the form, but not really a panto as such.

I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a panto, and this Christmas I pretty much got my wish. Scroogissimo at Artword Artbar had many of the elements: a send-up of a traditional story, singalongs, magic, a Dame, outrageous jokes (including some groaners). Interestingly, the main character is the villain, “Ebenezu Scrugi”. The ghosts of Past, Present and Future, all played by women, were three “principal boys”. Most people would not have noticed the association with panto, but I had some fun with it.

 

Welcome to London

Band in Trafalgar Square

Band in Trafalgar Square

When our plane landed, December 30, the sun was shining, but the 31st, our first real day in London, was umbrella weather. It didn’t discourage us, or the crowd watching a band from (I’m guessing) the Philippines doing synchronized manoeuvres in Trafalgar Square.

We went to our first play that evening at the Old Vic, Fortune’s Fool, by Turgenev. We thought we’d have a pleasant, inexpensive dinner at the Young Vic, but the cafe was closed. So we walked along the South Bank to one of our favorite restaurants, TAS, across the road from the Globe Theatre. They serve Anatolian cuisine, specializing in many varieties of pide (a little like pizza with its sides turned up.  It’s very reasonable in price, with lovely decor, friendly staff, and a musician playing Turkish music on two unusual instruments. Later, I talked to the musician, who identified the one as a Baglama, also called a Saz (played like a guitar with a pick) and the other, violin-like but held vertically, as a Kemane. He drew little pictures for me and wrote the names — that’s how I know.

Tower of London from the South Bank

Tower of London from the South Bank

After dinner, we walked along the South Bank. The rain had stopped, and there was a lustrous light over all.

 

 

 

Candide in London

Menier Chocolate Factory

Menier Chocolate Factory

Judith and I are in ecstasy. Sparkling sunshine this morning (after dismal yesterday), so we hurried off to the Menier Chocolate Factory (it’s a theatre) to try for returns for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This musical has had a very checkered history, subjected to revision after revision, but it happens to be very dear to Judith’s heart. She played the record of what was probably the first version over and over. After I met her, she used to love to cry out at odd times “I’m so easily aseeemilated! Por favor! Toreador!”, the Old Lady’s song. We saw a COC version a long time ago. The music was wonderful, but the staging with stodgy (as I faintly recall).

This production was breathtaking. It was done just the way we like theatre to be: in the round, popping out from everywhere, full of surprises, with unflagging wit and energy. Everyone sang beautifully, the choral harmonies were luscious, and Scarlett Strallen’s (Cunegonde’s) coloratura truly show-stopping. Candide can be a hard show to make work, folks! But this production nailed it. We just may go back.