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Privacy – Donmar Warehouse, booking until 31 May 2014

Privacy or, according to the Donmar’s listing, PRIVACY. Pri-vacy or Priv-acy. In James Graham’s latest play, which follows the unexpectedly huge success of this This House at the National, everything is up for debate. Indeed the amount of audience interaction and feedback means far more democracy is on display in Privacy than in This House’s exploration of parliamentary backchannel deal-making.

It does Privacy a disservice to think of it as a ‘play’; judging against these criteria one has to acknowledge that the fictional narrative is rather slight. The idea of a playwright writing a play about the subject and entering Privacy at Donmar WarehouseSocratic dialogue with those he encounters is lazy for a playwright at this level. We have been living in post-modern culture for over a quarter of a century and this is approach is pretty much meta-101. From a purely textual perspective Privacy is also hindered by the fact that this fictional plot is far less interesting than the people he talks to and the subjects discussed.

Privacy may be sold as a play but in truth it is less play and more a fascinatingly structured lecture that has been fictionalised. It is not dissimilar to the most entertaining TED Talks and the purpose of the evening is more edutainment than anything else. In this environment the characters of writer, director and psychiatrist are entirely secondary to, and at the service of, the relying of information from source to audience.

The structure is familiar to Black Watch; it interweaves verbatim dialogue with dramatized situations. It is unclear how much, if any, of Graham’s work comes from first hand interviews and what has been lifted from other sources, for instance much of the detailing of the Guardian’s involvement in the Snowdon affair and in the destruction of the hard drives felt as if it had been previously recorded elsewhere.

privacy donmar warehouseThis weaving of sources is an entirely appropriate academic technique for synthesising information but without the accompanying intellectual rigour it leaves the production open to criticism over how it represents its material. Theatre does, and should, present partial viewpoints; it is not the role of theatre to present unbiased reportage. Indeed the best verbatim theatre – the tribunal plays produced at the Tricycle under Nicolas Kent – used unbiased reportage to create a clearly partial view.

However Graham’s play sits in a grey area where we are invited to take a view on how shocking it is what the government and big business get up to, and we are meant to feel it is strengthened by including ‘real experts’ speaking ‘real dialogue’. It is a fast-paced and highly enjoyable journey but on reflection doubts over whether it is a substantial whole begin to creep in.

It is a rather superficial gaze on the issues – perhaps reflected in the fact that many of the accounts are given by politicians, journalists and the omni-present Shami Charkrabarti, pretty much the epitome of the liberal media darling. These are all people used to speaking in sound bites, regurgitating complex issues into digestible chunks.

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The-Testament-of-Mary-Fiona-Shaw-photocredit-Paul-Kolnik-copy-630x310

Breathing life into a statue: Fiona Shaw as Mary, Mother of God

The Testament of Mary – Barbican Theatre, until 25 May 2014

The Testament of Mary opens with a quite remarkable image that captures in tableau the vision of the director, Deborah Warner, the mesmeric focus of Fiona Shaw and the inspiration of set-designer Tom Pye; Fiona Shaw’s Mary is in her most recognisable garb, portrayed as a Raphaelite Madonna, but the seemingly tranquil pose is undercut a furious muttering, is it a liturgy or is it something more, which suggests that all may not be as it seems.

Shaw’s Mary presented in a Perspex box with the audience invited on stage to gawp at the figure within; this image hints not just towards Mary as one of art’s most famous faces but also towards the public spectacle of MaryMary as a carnival attraction, the figure of endless fascination.

There is something grotesque about the scene and it is hard not to think of visitors to P.T Barnum’s famous circus. The voyeuristic aspect is brought home by the vulture that sits and watches proceedings and reflects both on the way that the acolytes would feast upon Jesus’ legacy after his death and the role that we continue to play as audience members.

So begins this brilliant adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novella that consists of a monologue from Mary reflecting upon her son and the events leading up to his death. Tóibín gives voice to Mary and presents a human relationship that deftly prizes open the centuries old fallacy presented by the Christian church of Mary as a form of virginal purity; this Mary is a mother, not just in name but also in deed.

Crown of thornsShaw embodies this earthy, human Mary. She is raw, alive and mourning the loss of Jesus as only a mother can. There is a humour amid her grief, thick and black, as she considers the impact her son had on others. Her Mary is Irish, this is both important and unimportant; what nationality should she be? She could be from anywhere but in making her Irish Shaw finds a folksy grounding and enables access to a natural informality in dialogue that can both raise the everyday to the state of the miraculous whilst grounding the miraculous in the everyday.

Running through the play is a strong feminist undercurrent that gives voice and power to the women in Jesus’ life. Advertising the play is an image of Mary gagged by a crown of thorns. It is a heavily symbolic image and suggests the fact that Mary, as woman and mother, is isolated in the aftermath of the crucifixion by those creating the mythology. One could argue that Shaw’s Mary is outlandishly modern but this critique seems misplaced, this is not being presented as history but as fable. Mary’s modernity is only as misplaced as the existence of miracles that she is so sceptical of.

Shaw’s Mary is no true believer – time and again we are pulled back to the central mother-son dynamic and, like many mothers, she cannot bring herself to trust her son’s friends and the actions that the ascribe to him. Her outsider status gives her an angle on to the famous miracles. The Lazarus myth is skewered quite brilliantly and demonstrates the horror that might accompany bringing someone back from dead. She is able to delve into the darkness of the story and the Lazarus that returns is closer to a zombie, reduced to wandering in a near-fugue state or sitting alone halfway between one world and the next.

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Watch the trailer

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92254717″>The Testament of Mary – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/barbicancentre”>Barbican Centre</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

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Around the web

Searching around the interweb for the best of the blogosphere, the following articles have caught my attention over the last few days. Happy reading.

1) Following the continuing success of Jerusalem (now gaining rave reviews on Broadway for both the play and Mark Rylance’s stunning performance), the Guardian have interviewed Jez Butterworth. Considering how Londoncentric the cultural world tends to be in the UK, it is interesting that he really only rediscovered his mojo (nothing like a high-concept pun) by moving to the countryside. Be warned it is slightly painful to discover that he was the script doctor on Mr & Mrs Smith, it feels like Picasso being asked to touch up a potato print. Full article here…

2) Matt Trueman’s Carousel of Fantasies continues to review all the plays that I wish had seen but never got round to (and now don’t need to!). This week its I am the wind at the Young Vic.

3) The always intriguing West End Whingers have taken their idiosyncratic approach to Edward Albee and have given a rather luke-warm reception to A delicate balance. An interesting contrast to the hugely positive review (but still only 4*) in The Guardian

4) The Independent brings tales of a very Summer-y Alice in Wonderland. Far too much potential for audience interaction as far as I am concerned but it does sound like you get a slap-up meal to go with it so if you happen to be in Norfolk between the 18-21 May then give it some thought.

5) Last but not least, the Guardian’s theatre blog muses on whether critics give too little focus to the actors’ performances during their critiques of plays. As usual the comment board is open and getting feistier and more personal by the minute.