Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

All harmless fun?

Game – Almeida Theatre, until 04 April 2015 (Tickets)

This review contains spoilers. If you want to know nothing about Game then read no further.Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

Civilian Theatre rarely bothers with spoiler announcements as it usually possible to talk about a play without needing to go into any specific elements that would ruin the element of surprise. However the Almeida has been tight lipped about the production and going in blind – having avoided reviews entirely – really enhanced the impact of the show.

Game is Mike Bartlett’s follow-up to the crowd-pleasing smash-hit King Charles III, which started life at the Almeida before setting up camp in the West End. Where  King Charles III paid homage to Shakespeare’s history plays, was written in iambic verse and clocked in at over two hours, Game more than nods towards Big Brother, is written in modern English and is wrapped-up in less than hour.

However they share a common theme in that they both exist in an off-kilter near-future world where events occurring seem unlikely but are not impossible to imagine. In both Bartlett displays an interest in society’s relationship with privacy. In King Charles III we see the issue played out on the grand scale – a ‘great men of history’ perspective that sees change arriving from the top down.

In Game we see another reality; a constant chipping away of our notion of privacy from the bottom-up. It is a world where entrepreneurs continually test the boundaries of acceptability until we have reduced people to the same voyeuristic abstraction that we hold for animals in the zoo. The starting point may be hard to pin down but Big Brother will be remembered as a watershed moment; the point where we realised that people would volunteer to be placed under constant surveillance to entertain the masses, and the masses tuned watched in their droves.

Game takes this moment and follows the idea to its natural conclusion. Eventually watching isn’t enough. Voting people out satisfied needs for a while but, as I’m A Celebrity proved, given the choice we prefer to also have the option of meting out ritual humiliations on those who take part. John (Daniel Cerqueira) keeps prodding at those boundaries; initially renting out a house to a couple where it appears we get to watch them live their normal lives, before it becoming apparent that they are in fact prey for those who can afford it.

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Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves

The Merchant of Venice – Almeida Theatre, until 14 February 2015

There are few directors who have the ability to divide audiences as much as Rupert Goold. It has become standard for his reinterpretations to brim with ideas and display an exuberance that can irkmov-364-merry-holden-emily-plumtree-and-rebecca-brewer-and-susannah-fielding-by-ellie-kurttztraditionalists as much as they excite those who believe a play to be a living text.

His production of The Merchant of Venice, reaching the Almeida after a season in Stratford, does more than most to alienate, and even his most fervent supporters reach the interval trying to grasp at the point of transferring the play from renaissance Venice to 20th century Las Vegas.

We must consider the play one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. Any director must think through how it can be staged effectively and it is a cop-out to provide a traditional setting in order to avoid the context that the modern world brings to how we must approach Shylock and his humiliation. It is clear what may have been acceptable for Elizabethan audiences will not play as well to the modern theatre goer.

MOV 045 - Rebecca Brewer and Susannah Fielding by Ellie Kurttz for webAs much as Shakespearian scholars can claim there is more to the interpretation of Venetian Jewry than may be initially apparent, it is hard to avoid the grubbiness with which he portrays Shylock debasement and Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo. As much as we can argue that art should live in a vacuum it is impossible to watch the play without holding an awareness of what has happened in the 20thcentury.

It is also a structurally difficult play that ends entirely peculiarly. It is, technically, a comedy but it fails to fulfil many of the rules that we might associate with Elizabethan comedies. It doesn’t end in a wedding and rather than finishing with the duke bringing order to the chaos, it ends with Gratiano, a lower character, making a rather inelegant ribald remark about his betrothed.

Well Goold makes the decision to turn the play on its head, and leaves us with an ending so bleak, so suggestive of storm clouds gathering, that if not quite being equal to the great tragedies it is at least worthy of an HBO series.

As the final curtain descends we are left with three couples who, in destroying Shylock, have destroyed themselves. The audience are left with Bassanio’s question to Shylock, ‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’ [IV.i] to mull over. In their single-minded pursuit of what they thought they desired they have ultimately left themselves a future built on lies and deceit. The warning on Portia’s caskets that ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves‘ returns to us with a startling relevance.

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Fever 0272 - Tobias Menzies by Perou

A hallucination from my fevered brain

The Fever – Almeida Theatre @ The May Fair Hotel, until 07 February 2015

The use of The May Fair Hotel is spot-on. It isn’t so much that it is a luxury hotel, but it is that type of global, anonymous luxury that means absolutely nothing. The Savoy, the Ritz or the Carlton;the fever banner they may be pricy but there is a distinct personality to them. From the lobby, through the corridors and into the exclusive high-end suite where Wallace Shawn’s incisively powerful monologue has been set, the most striking feature is the sheer facelessness of this wealth.

Generic abstract ‘world’ art hangs on the wall, the corridors have a plush carpet but are really not so different to those found in any Travel Lodge and there is absolutely no personality to the room. Containing huge flat screen TVs, top-end speakers and a bathroom as big as a London studio flat, it doesn’t thrill but importantly it doesn’t offend. Perfect for the wealthy Russian and assorted euro trash clientele that swarm around Mayfair, keeping London’s economy buoyant in the face of the latest dismal news emanating from the eurozone.

Fever 0242 - Tobias Menzies by PerouIt is perfectly chosen for a monologue that captures the global dynamic of modern wealth, the faceless hotel room culture of the high-flying worker from the developed world. Take a photo of it and you could never hope to guess what city it is located in. London to Mumbai, New York to Lagos, we have joined the hermetically sealed world of the international class.

Wallace Shawn wrote this tremendous piece back in the 1990’s. Even if some of the terms have dated – there is an almost charmingly old-fashioned bit on Das Capital and, of course, there is no mention of the threat posed from a resurgent Islam – it is sadly even more relevant than when it was written. Day after day we hear how yet more of the world’s global wealth has fallen under the control of the richest. In 15 years we haven’t turned this tanker around, and the terrifying aspect of Shawn’s play is the chilling realism of it not trying to suggest we will do so in the future.

Shawn wrote words that he felt needed to be said. Well, this production demonstrates we need to keep saying them. He brilliantly frames issues in a way that have an immediate resonance. His section on the fanaticism of the metropolitan class – how their brains refuse to even allow themselves to consider the inherent unfairness of the global capitalist set-up because if they did then they couldn’t function – is one of the most singularly incisive critiques I have heard on the issue.

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A two and three quarter hour play based on a 20 minute cartoon – that sounds like a great id…D’oh.

Mr Burns – Almeida Theatre, until 26 July 2014

Regular visitors to the blog will have noticed that Civilian Theatre is often as, if not more, interested in exploring what leads a director to stage a production in the style they have chosen or why a playwright has written the
play they have, than in the quality of acting or the production itself.

As such the idea of Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns is appealing. The available synopsis suggests that we are going to witness an exploration of these very topics, an insight into how myths arise and the form that mythic creations arising out of our modern cultural legacy may take. Just as Homer would have drawn on the collective memory passed down through generations of oral story-tellers to leave us with the Iliad and the Odyssey; with its world containing the larger-than-life figures of Achilles and Ajax, Paris and Hector, Washburn promises to delve into how a very different Homer will be built into the mythos of a future civilisation.

TMr Burns_10his is really interesting stuff, and the concept of three standalone acts that appear to echo the cultural development of storytelling is intriguing. The cast begins around a campfire – an updated version of those first ancient people telling each other stories round a fire, repeating them so often that they become fixed as an early truth. The second act, seven years later, has seen them morph into travelling players, spreading knowledge and culture across a divided and disparate society, before the third act, 75 years later, sees the performance fully embedded in the prevailing culture, taking on aspects of religious tradition, characters becoming symbols of good and evil, with Mr Burns emerging as a figure within modern folklore; a demonic embodiment of the dangers of nuclear power and its destructive influence.

It is the kind of play that signifies its intent early, and the signs that title each act may as well have written on them that this is a ‘big play’ tackling ‘big themes’. We know it is important because it is two and three quarter hours long and contains two intervals. Only big important plays get to have two intervals.

It is definitely an opinion-splitter and will almost certainly be championed by the kind of metropolitan hipster who carries around a well-thumbed but mainly unread copy of Infinite Jest and idolizes Douglas Copeland. For everyone else I fear it will prove to be a remarkably unentertaining evening; for it is quite a feat to develop a production that has so many interesting ideas, inspired costumes and high-concept set-pieces that returns so few engaging moments.

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King Charles III Poster

‘Go some of you and fetch a looking glass’; writing for kings in the 21st century

King Charles III – Almeida Theatre, until 31 May 2014 (Day Seats & Returns only)

Civilian Theatre was one of many celebrating when Rupert Goold snagged the job of Artistic Director at the Almeida and given the unenviable task of continuing the success of Michael Attenborough’s 11-year tenure. Based on his opening salvo; the intentionally eye-catching American Psycho: The Musical before bringing in his former company with the Headlong-produced 1984, it appears Goold has a canny sense of how to blur the KING CHARLES III by Bartlett,        , Writer - Mike Bartlett, Director -  Rupert Goold, Design - Tom Scutt, Composor - Jocelyn Pook, Lighting - Jon Clark, Almeida Theatre, London, UK, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.comboundaries between popular and elitist theatre.

Appropriately enough the issue of succession is at the heart of the first play Goold has personally directed at the venue; Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. Another well-judged choice, Bartlett’s play cannot fail to appeal to all audiences. Much has been made of the Shakespearian overtones but the true success of the play is that it is a hugely enjoyable piece of, what Bartlett calls, ‘future history’, which also raises questions that Britain as a country will need to confront in time.

Like Jerusalem this is proper state of the nation theatre and it is heartening to see a playwright unapologetically examine ‘big issues’ on such a grand scale. Bartlett demonstrates that verse has its place in modern drama and that audiences needn’t be turned off by the use of heightened language. The use of iambic pentameter isn’t purely to demonstrate Bartlett’s skill as a poet but because he is dealing with characters that are simultaneously entirely real and, to the majority of us, entirely unknowable.

King-Charles-III-Almeida-LondonThe greatest PR trick that royalty has ever pulled off was to create this public image and then to strenuously avoid revealing their true face. Our current Queen has studiously kept to this template and it is notable that it is only when the mask slips that the public begins to question their value. As we enter a new era, the age of Will and Kate and of smartphones and public accessibility, this model is in a state of flux and Bartlett has pitched Charles’ succession as the moment that the new and old world will collide.

The use of verse is a way into this private world. How can prose be placed into the mouths of people who are so recognisable but so unknown? We cannot know how they really speak behind closed doors and so creating a state of unreality through artifice is a way to reach some kind of truth. It also allows Bartlett pre-existing conventions to slip seamlessly between conversation and monologue. We are permitted into an inner-realm, not just the closed world of the monarchy but the private consciousness of its key figures.

The allusions come thick and fast and for those who know Shakespeare there is much fun to be had in spotting the references. However Bartlett ensures that this is not to the detriment of those who haven’t been schooled in all the History plays and a fair portion of the tragedies. The characters he draws are fascinating in their own right and capture the essence of who they are. It is perhaps Prince Harry who is closest to caricature but how could one resist when he is built to be modelled on the classic arc of Hal in Henry IV Part I and II.

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