Among otherwise level-headed people musical theatre remains a peculiarly divisive form of popular culture. There are many of who would happily sit through two and a half hours of magic-soaked love stories in the forests outside of Thebes, or will extol the merits of a Turner-prize winner whose contribution to the artistic world is to create soundscapes under Glaswegian bridges.
However present them with a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written musicals as diverse as an examination of the life of pointillist painter, George Seurat; or the gore-spattered grand guignol of the demon barber of Fleet Street; or even an unpicking of the psychological darkness at the heart of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, and they will raise their eyebrows and silently mouth the words ‘jazz hands’.
Watching productions like Merrily We Roll Along act as a constant reminder why such narrow-minded viewpoints need to be challenged. Certainly the landscape of musical theatre has changed markedly since Stephen Sondheim made his career by writing the lyrics for Bernstein’s West Side Story. The rise of Andrew Lloyd-Webber that introduced pop-sensibilities and extravagant staging to Broadway couldn’t be further away from the nuanced lyrics and subtle melodies that encapsulate the magic of Sondheim.
The divide only got greater in the last two decades, as the rise of the mega-musical from Mamma Mia! to We Will Rock You saw a new way for theatre producers to cash-in; tapping into the recognition factor of proper bands set against a licence to perform them in a sub-par way with a witless plot under the banner of ‘musical theatre’ – surely as lowest common denominator entertainment goes these productions are right up there with ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
The Menier Chocolate Factory must be applauded for setting itself against the tide and producing a string of Sondheim revivals that remind us that there are people out there who see no distinction in artistic merit between a ‘play’ and a ‘musical’. In bringing us A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and now Merrily We Roll Along – transferred to the West End – the Menier has proved time and again that there is a space for intelligent, difficult musicals that can be both commercial and critical hits.
Merrily We Roll Along, a notorious flop when it opened, has taken two decades to gain similar levels of acclaim to what are seen as Sondheim’s masterpieces. However the intervening years have only served to increase its relevance to the audience. Charlie’s bitterness at Franklyn’s desire to follow the money and to leave ‘proper’ writing behind him only seems more familiar to a theatre-scene where, despite writing the lyrics for the commercial smash-hit of Matilda, Tim Minchin finds it difficult to raise any funding for a musical that isn’t based on an existing concept.
Continuing from where he left off with Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Richard Jones’ production of a Public Enemy at the Young Vic delves deeper into small town communities and how the introduction of an outside force – be it the arrival of a government official or a report of a contaminated water supply – inexorably leads to the exposure of the venality and hypocrisy of those in positions of responsibility, and those who are able to exercise power.
Running at a brisk 100 minutes and dispensing with the interval in order to allow the play to build towards a frenetic and frenzied conclusion, David Harrower’s updated text reworks Ibsen’s Enemy of the People into a 1970’s setting. In this he is aided by a superb set design from Miriam Buether and costumes from Nicky Gillibrand that immediately places the location in a Scandinavia of the 1970s.
Updating Enemy of the People has an advantage of other Ibsen plays in that the central plot device feels as relevant today as when it was written. The tainting of the water supply is something that doesn’t seem so unlikely to a society who has seen the Yangtze River turned the colour of blood and minor earthquakes hit Blackpool following adventures in fracking.
Jones’ Public Enemy reminds us once again of Ibsen’s skill of placing characters in the most exquisite of personal dilemmas – forced into positions that expose their venality and corruption to the world. Each passes under the lens of his microscope, and each ultimately fails to take the action that would potentially redeem them.
It is always a joy to spend an evening at the Battersea Arts Centre as, no matter the quality of the production, it provides an opportunity to spend an evening inside one of London’s great Victorian buildings. Many companies have looked to make the space an integral part of the performance; Punchdrunk exploded into the public consciousness with the Masque of the Red Death, a production that exposed the development of their unique style to a wider audience. They turned the BAC on its head – celebrating its beautiful interiors whilst building pocket worlds within it and ending with a strange blend of gothic classicism.
The BAC has a strong history of supporting new companies and providing spaces for those whose work doesn’t fit into more obvious spaces. The roll-call of success stories show a keen eye for understanding what works and what has audience appeal; providing a London-base for Kneehigh and partnering with Ridiculusmus, Complicite and Told by an Idiot demonstrates an important ability to spot the difference between the threadbare and the deliberately ramshackle.
It remains to be seen where the emerging company, Little Bulb Theatre, slots into this picture but if awards were given for fitting productions to locations then their charming and quirky take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice would be walking away with a basketful of silverware. The BAC proves a lovely backdrop to an evening that strives valiantly to give a flavour of the 1930’s Parisian scene but knows enough of its flaws to have its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.
The problem, encountered in dreamthinkspeak’s latest production, with site-specific work is often they try to shoehorn a concept into a space that does not fit, or that the budget cannot do justice to. What remains is often a po-faced production that hopes you won’t notice that more time was spent dressing the set then developing characters.
Little Bulb’s Orpheus has similarly paper-thin characters – Orpheus is apparently Django Reinhardt but, other than explaining his ability with the guitar, that fact has no bearing on the play and is not developed with any real sense of purpose – but it spends a great deal of energy winning over its audience with an exuberance that is in keeping with the vaudeville staging.
The silent movie backdrop is another way of avoiding explicit character development in favour of style without undermining the production. It allows for big, expressive gestures and emotion demonstrated through action rather than internalised – another reminder to the world of the music hall. This creates a deliberate undercurrent of comedy that runs through the production; to the modern audience this style of acting seems so alien – a strange hybrid of Victorian stage-acting, mime and early 20th century cinema – that it is difficult not to warm to despite it undermining the tragedy within the Eurydice story.
Little Bulb are well supported in their endeavours by beguiling central performances; Eugenie Pastor as Eurydice and Dominic Conway as Orpheus look as if they have just stepped of the set of the latest Dietrich film. Pastor’s doe-eyes deserve a special mention of their own, as they retain a now almost-lost Clara Bow-like ability to portray a moving tableaux of longing to tragedy to absurdity in one fluid movement, whilst Conway’s profile is every-inch the slightly louche heartthrob – never the matinee idol but the one that parents would warn their daughters about.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie never seems to quite fall out of fashion but even by its standards, London has been awash with the play. This is the third major version in less than a year, and it has been only six months since audiences at the Barbican were left underwhelmed by the high-profile casting of art-house favourite Juliette Binoche in the title role, whilst those who saw Mies Julie were rather more thrilled by the South African reinvention and the Young Vic took it upon themselves to revive Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie.
For all the different qualities these productions brought to Strindberg’s original they must be regarded to be drifting in the wake of Katie Mitchell’s exceptional production, which contains a lacerating truthfulness that makes it almost unbearable to watch. The most remarkable element of the exposure of the truth in this most naturalistic of plays is that Mitchell’s deliberately subverts audience expectations of naturalism by introducing many layers of artifice in order to produce a dislocating, alienating experience.
Fraulein Julie contains all of the directorial tics of a Katie Mitchell production; television cameras are used almost continuously alongside the action, a set creates physical barriers between audience and actors, sound booths overlay conversation and Foley artists provide live sounds effects. The audience are left in the position of watching both the back of a TV studio at the same time as watching a radical reinvention of the Strindberg play – and yet despite all this feel no dissonance as the events unfold.
These traits in Mitchell seem appropriate – in so far as there are auteurs in theatre, it is hard to imagine many British directors fitting the bill better. Her natural reference points seem to be from Russian cinema – with the slightly woozy quality of Sokurov’s The Sun and its obsessive focus on Hirohito being particularly reminiscent in the utter focuus on one character even as events of more dramatic significance happen external to the action. .
It is not that Mitchell has a filmic quality to her work but that she has the auteur’s passion for pursing a singular vision with seemingly little regard for the enjoyment of the audience. It expresses a confidence in her own belief, and that if the belief is proved correct then the audience will be taken with her. Fraulein Julie is an experience and rarely a particularly pleasant one; it is draining, august and defiant in its lack of concession to those watching. It seems a rare person who can increase the level of austerity attached to Strindberg but this is what Mitchell has achieved.
A day after performance it is still impossible to attach a sense of how ‘good’ it was – even in tragedy there is usually a way to qualify enjoyment, be it through plot, character or performance. Here the plot is stripped away to focus entirely on one character, but the character is provided with very little interior life and the performances themselves are muted through their heightened naturalism.
However there is something about the whole affair that is undoubtedly brilliant and possibly makes it the most genuinely ground-breaking production of the year. In Mitchell’s previous work there has been an attempt to force her ideas onto plays that are not best suited to the technique. With Fraulein Julie, Mitchell has found the content to harmonise with form.
So the Olivier Awards have been and gone for another year, and as a result what have we have learnt the state of theatre – London theatre, sorry to anyone reading further afield but it is a very parochial affair – in 2013. Well their own website leads with ‘A curious night at the Olivier’s’, which rather sums it up for me. It was a list of winners that doesn’t reflect the experiences of this website’s year in theatre.
To look at those celebrating last night would be to imagine a rather staid and conservative theatre scene. However there has been a vitality and verve to theatre – witness the excitement over Punchdrunk announcements, tickets to see Branagh’s Macbeth selling out in less than 10 minutes in Manchester or new plays by young playwrights that embraced quantum theory (Payne), neuroscience (Prebble) or a play that covers everything and nothing in eighty minutes (Butterworth) – that is broadly absent from the list of winners.
Perhaps this could have been guessed at by looking at a nominations list where Lucy Prebble’s The Effect was almost shut out and where the Best New Play category included just one play not reflecting on historical events or retooling an existing story for the stage.
One may argue that last year’s big winner – Matilda – is hardly a broadside against conservatism. However Matilda was the first time anything had walked home with seven awards and it was deservedly seen as a stunning achievement and that a brilliant production had been rewarded for managing the rare feat of capturing hearts, minds and wallets of critics and the public alike.
It does rather undermine the perceived value of the achievement if the next year we see another play walk-off with exactly the same number. Whilst critics have warmly received ‘A Curious Incident…’ and the public continue to throng through the doors, it does not seem to have reached the groundswell of public love and critical affirmation that marked the success of Matilda – which swept everything before it and which was the must-see performance from its very first outing in Stratford.
It is clear A Curious Incident… is good but is it seven awards good? Is it so good that we feel happy that the ‘A Dolls House’ at the Young Vic, ‘Constellations’, ‘This House’ and Complicite’s ‘Master and Margarita’ walk away with nothing? And when we talk about magnificent interpretations of novels, how did the adaptation of Bulgakov’s impossible Master and Margarita not even get a mention? The problem with placing so much attention on just three productions – A Curious Incident, The Audience and Sweeney Todd – is that it doesn’t even remotely capture the spectrum of success of what has been, in all honesty, a relatively mediocre year for theatre in London.
The success of The Audience has more than a little of a smattering of one eye on the need to reward the private sector for at least trying a new play, and a more cynical person may suggest that the value of the international market may have had a role to play. Helen Mirren as Best Actress? She might have won it for her awards speech more than the actual part.
It was a pleasure to see Nicola Walker win for ‘A Curious Incident’, a stalwart of TV and of downtrodden wives and mothers everywhere, and without having seen the production it is hard to imagine a more perfect piece of casting for the mother of the 15-yr old lead. Equally commentary seems satisfied with the victory of Luke Treadaway in the role; a part that is catnip for award judges, as it is basically the modern day answer to the ‘idiot savant’ – something that is a little bit out-of-kilter with modern understandings of mental health. As usual it was a strong year and personally a win for Rupert Everett would not have been amiss but Treadaway seems deserving of the accolades.
With an equally impressive set and technical team it suddenly becomes easier to count up those seven awards. However the Complicite team can feel short-changed not to have picked up a single technical award for their visually stunning take on Bulgakov’s masterpiece. As usual it is mind-boggling that Cheek By Jowl were not nominated for anything – despite the Barbican being a home from home.
Everyone on the Best New Play shortlist can feel hard done by for losing out to something that restaged an existing story – surely there are so many adaptations that this can be a separate category. And ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ Best Revival – a truly interminable evening that deserved nothing and for which the praise of critics from every quarter is something that is genuinely unfathomable, even the cast – Suchet, Metcalfe, Soller, all usually so excellent – were dire.
If this year’s Olivier Awards has proved anything to me, it is that this was not a stand-out year for British Theatre; that this reviewer has, Sweeney Todd excepted, has missed most major plays of the year; and that the Donmar needs to re-establish its identity with great haste. A lot of attention has come Josie Rourke’s way and so far the response has been muted at best – where is this year’s Inadmissible Evidence or Anna Christie?