The absurdities of dogma

Noonday Demons – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

Watching Rough Haired Pointer revive Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, Noonday Demons, Civilian Theatre could not help but reflect on the problems that arise from knowing a theatre company’s past work. Civilian Theatre is a recent convert to the charms of the company, which occurred after being captivated by their sharp, ingenious and extremely funny adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody. It was such a highly stylised work, both in Karina Nakaninsky’s set and costume design and also in the clearly tight-knit ensemble performances of the cast, that an impression was left of a company with a clear, visual identity.

As a result it proved disconcerting to enter the King’s Head Theatre and be presented with a sparse set drenched in a hazy, warm light that very much suggests a barren cave in a distant desert. Equally the sight of Jordan Mallory-Skinner as a bearded, dishevelled monk teetering on the brink of, or possibly have long having lost his grip on, sanity standing in front of a totemic mound of human dung jarred with my last sight of him playing the charming, if long-suffering, Mrs Pooter.

That these feelings arose is clearly not the fault of the company and should not have a bearing on Noonday Demons. Yet it is right to mention them as they may help to explain why, despite fitfully exploding into life, the production never quite manages to convince.

This is the second of Barnes’ earlier work to be restaged in the space of the year. The Jamie Lloyd-directed The Ruling Class had the distinct advantage of being able to call upon the A-list talent of James McAvoy to shift tickets and, looking around the auditorium, the King’s Head Theatre  illustrates the current appeal of the playwright without a star name attached.

Barnes is a fascinating writer, capable of highly inventive scenarios that intrigue, but he frustrates as much as he satisfies. Over the course of an excessive 2½hr running time, The Ruling Class proved itself flabby and rather dull. The humour disappeared entirely for large sections, and it was only thanks to the explosive energy of Mr McAvoy’ brilliant lead performance that the production avoided disaster. Thankfully Noonday Demons is far shorter, and contains a wonderful premise of two saints battling for control of a cave in which to spend their hermetic isolation, the rivalry spiralling absurdly into the extremes as they battle to demonstrate they are the most devoted.

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Lovett’s Pies: Enjoyable but with some questionable content

Lovett + Todd – Another Soup @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.

However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.

The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.

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Big ideas for little people in charming Alice opera

“Curiouser and Curiouser” Civilian Theatre thought to himself as he entered Holland Park. He was lost in the apparent fact that it was supposed to be British summertime and yet here he was and the sun was out and there had been no chance to use his umbrella at all. Disappearing into the machinations of such an absurd situation, Civilian Theatre soon found himself back where he had begun and had entirely forgotten the wise advice to “begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

Pulling himself back together (how silly, he thought to himself, how do you pull yourself together when you can never be apart, because, or unless, you are a part of yourself) he hurried on. “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late” he began to panic, but luckily at that moment he ran straight into a café. It was such a hot day that purchasing a refreshing a little drink in a tall bottle (or was it a tall drink in a little bottle, oh my, everything was getting into quite a muddle) seem an entirely reasonable proposition.

“DRINK ME” the bottle screamed as he headed on towards his destination. And if you are the sort of person who trifles with minor details (or is a Major in detailed trifles) then you may be interested to head to the Yucca Lawn, nestled behind the big house. If you find yourself reaching the chess set from the north then turn around, or, of course, turn around two times if you reach it from the south.

Well what a strange effect this bottle has, thought Civilian Theatre, as he was handed a square cushion for his round behind. Of average height and average rotundness, he soon discovered that he must have gained gargantuan proportions because he appeared to tower over ranks of assembled small people. Some of whom seemed to be under the control of equally oversized people. Closer examination revealed them to be children, lots and lots of children. Of all shapes and sizes. But few larger than medium. And some probably only medium-rare.

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Revisiting Constellations: Do stars lose their sparkle?

Constellations – Trafalgar Studios, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

It is hard to overstate what a runaway success Nick Payne’s Constellations has been. Since it premiered at the Royal Court in January 2012, it has enjoyed a West End run, a Broadway run (with no less a pairing than Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson), a national tour, won Best Play in the Evening Standard Awards and was nominated for three Tony Awards.

In terms of new British drama, the only recent works that match its transatlantic critical and public acclaim are Peter Morgan’s The Audience (whichConstellations received a significant boost from its subject matter and star-led casting) and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (truly brilliant but now almost 5 years old). There may be others but you get the point, Mr Payne can be placed among a select band of playwrights to have written a 21st century play that will be mentioned when we reflect back on this period in the years to come.

There is a risk that re-watching a play leads to a breaking of the spell, a dissipation of the magic that you allowed to be cast first time around when everything was fresh, exciting and new. The peril may have been even greater with Constellations, which is so delicately constructed that the fear is, if one looks closely enough, the unsightly cogs that keep the intertwined narrative threads running smoothly without snagging and fraying will become all too visible.

Yet watching Constellations for a second time is a rewarding experience. For a play that is a rich and considered portrait of love, it is perhaps appropriate that experiences of the first time exist as a blur; the brain is left to furiously piece together a flood of memories and fragmented emotions. You leave the auditorium exhilarated but exhausted, mental faculties taken through a mangle to leave you physically strung out.

Second time around everything can appear that little bit slower. The big surprises may have gone but it is an opportunity to luxuriate in everything you missed out on first time round. With the benefit of knowing what happens and how it all pieces together, the second time allows you to observe the process as much as watch the play.

It is a chance to explore and to probe. Was it just a flash in the pan or is there something longer lasting? Were we all sucked in by a snake-oil salesman’s polish or is there an intellectual depth that rewards repeat experiences?

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Finding magic in The Tempest

The Tempest – Thick as Thieves @ Hope Theatre, until 18 July 2015 (tickets)

There are those who feel that criticising Shakespeare is the theatrical equivalent of apostasy, and to accept just one flaw is to admit the existence of a crack that could fatally undermine his genius. Yet while zealots shout heresy, it cannot be denied that Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays and that not all are masterpieces. Each century has its favourites but time seems to have led to the The tempest hope theatre 2emergence of an A-list and B-list; in the modern age whither have gone Pericles, King John or Henry VI Parts I, II and III?

But there are problems even among his more popular outings; I would argue that Henry V is a second-rate play enlivened only by Shakespeare’s ability for heart-swelling, grandiose speeches (indeed it is hard to even write the sentence without wanting to refer to how he can ‘stiffen the sinews [and] summon up the blood’). Equally if I could go through life without experiencing the entire post-interval acts from Romeo & Juliet then I would be all the happier for it.

Yet The Tempest has always proved a more challenging option. It is held up as the scholarly choice for greatest Shakespeare play. The temptation
for academic insight is too much to bear. It is his last solo play, his farewell to the stage. Prospero can easily be seen as Shakespeare writing himself into the story. As he waves goodbye to the mysterious magical island, his powers fading, how can it not be seen in this light?

This dry academic interest inevitably strips much of the fun out of the play. The Tempest has magic and monsters, comedy and romance. It starts with a shipwreck and teeters towards tragedy. At the very least it should be entertaining. However too many productions get wrapped up in Prospero and it becomes little more than an opportunity for an actor to wrestle with Shakespeare’s last great part, and get under the skin of the man himself (and if that is the aim then I recommend any actor look no further than the challenge of Edward Bond’s Bingo if they want to take on Shakespeare directly).

Cheek By Jowl’s Russian company produced a superb version in 2011, and they did so through an inventiveness and an absurd but near malicious humour that sits easily with Prospero’s casual cruelty towards Caliban and recognition of Ariel being not far removed from the trickster sprite of Robin Goodfellow. If this production falls short in comparison it is because Cheek By Jowl have spent 20 years building a reputation worthy of generating international acclaim. However Thick of Thieves can be applauded for approaching a challenging play with spirited energy and an appealing ingenuity that makes best use of the limited resources offered by a small black-box space. They have set out to entertain rather than inform, and if I left having learnt little I didn’t already know then I must also admit to leaving having not enjoyed Shakespeare this much for quite some time.

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The sins of the father

A Number – The Maria @ Young Vic, until 15 August 2015 (tickets)

Carol Churchill is a playwright that I always feel I should know more about. She writes clever, spiky, experimental theatre and is one of the rare playwrights to critically engage with themes that toy with what some rather  snobbishly decry as science-fiction. Her consistency over four decades of writing plays for stage and radio make a strong candidate for the title of ‘Britain’s greatest living playwright’ following the death of Harold Pinter in 2008 and that alone is enough to make her worthy of considerable interest.

Whenever I read a description of her plays, such as the mixing of historical and fictional women in Top Girls, the rhyming verse of Serious Money, using the Putney Debates in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire or the Brechtian Vinegar Tom, I cannot help be fascinated by the striking originality and clarity of her vision. She rarely seems to experiment for its own sake; her plays appear to have a cohesive and clear sense of what they want to be and how they want to achieve it.

A Number is an appealing science-fiction two-hander on cloning that mines the idea of how knowledge of a replicated self can impact on a person’s sense of identity, but with Churchill’s characteristic sharp eye also delves into psychoanalytic ideas around the impact that the parental environment has on the adult self.

The play is performed excellently by father-son duo, John and Lex Shrapnel, and is never less than interesting. It takes the form of a series of intense, tightly-framed duologues between the father and versions of his son. The audience is kept off-kilter by jumps in time between scenes, and a lack of framing to the wider world. We must pick up our cues from the conversation as it unfolds in front of us.

It is doubtless Churchill’s intention to leave you slightly unbalanced and trapped within the Father’s personal unravelling. Initially sympathetic, the revelations across the conversations reveal an ever-more monstrous side to his character, and the havoc wreaked by his choices many years ago echo down the generations to the present day. This is brought out most clearly in the last conversation with a version of his son that was entirely separated from the father. He is the most at peace with the idea of being a clone and is the one who had least closeness to the original family.

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