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