The silent tragedy of Western men

Song From Far Away – Young Vic Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (tickets)song-from-far-away2

Famously Harry Houdini died not during one of his daredevil feats of escapology but due to the after effects of having been caught unawares by an abdominal punch. Twenty-four hours after seeing Song From Far Away the unexpected power from Simon Stephen’s emotionally devastating work has left me as effectively floored as a punch to the gut, and wondering when I’ll be able to regain my footing.

As a translator, I have admired Stephens’ work; The Cherry Orchard and A Doll’s House showed an impressive talent for treading a light path through the works of others. Of his own writing I had been less convinced, I found Birdland – another study of the fragile male ego – a particularly disappointing experience, whilst Three Kingdoms was as perplexing as it was brilliant.

The main draw was a chance to revisit the Ivo Van Hove / Jan Versweyveld partnership that delivered the truly wonderful, A View From The Bridge, and an Antigone; a production that suffered due to the inevitable failure to match the incredible heights set by his previous work. Van Hove and Versweyveld bring the stark, minimal approach that has brought them so much recent success. In a monologue there are fewer options for a director but one can feel the hand of Van Hove in Eelco Smits numbingly superb performance. All extraneous movements have been taken out, action is simplified and becomes mere gesture. Scenes change by a tilt of a head, and a new tone in the voice. Versweyveld’s set naturally echoes this minimalism. It is functional and representative of the rooms that Smits’ Willem finds himself in.

However the brilliance of this play rests in Stephens’ writing and Smits’ performance. It is a very long time since I have seen writing that captures truth so precisely. The evening is a gruelling experience, leavened with only the most mordant humour and sardonic observations, and Stephens’ has surely purposefully chosen a slightly unsympathetic lead character in order to make the impact of the monologue more powerful.

It becomes clear as Willem reveals more (both within the text and on the stage) that he is going through a severe mental health crisis. The trigger of this seems to be his brother’s unexpected death but the relations with his family and his ex-boyfriend suggest that there are deeper issues at root. At the core of this play, Stephens’ is bringing to life one of the silent crises of the Western world – the damaging impact of man’s emotional inarticulacy on his own wellbeing, and the damage caused by a failure to openly communicate in a world that places an ever greater premium on emotional openness.

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Jade Anouka in Chef @ Soho Theatre

A chef with a tongue as a sharp as a knife

Chef – Soho Theatre, until 04 July 2015 (Tickets)wpid-wp-1434742428681.jpg

There are few things more satisfying to a regular theatre goer than watching an actor emerge into the spotlight. Go and see enough plays and you soon realise that the same familiar faces keep on cropping up. The personal nature of the theatre – the intimacy of the shared space giving a sense of an assumed connection between audience and actor – can lead to a greater sense of investment and emotional connectivity with the actor than you find in film. Seeing actors like Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Mydidae and Fleabag) or Rudi Dharmalingham (The Events and Oresteia) develop has been the biggest privilege of writing this theatre blog over the last 4 years.

To that list it is safe to add the considerable talents of Jade Anouka (Henry IV and The Vote); currently at Soho Theatre with Sabrina Mahfouz’s Fringe First-award winning Chef. A one-woman show, Chef gives Anouka free range to showcase the considerable skills and highly kinetic performance style that was so captivating as a completely atypical Hotspur in Phyllidia Lloyd’s radical and brilliant Henry IV.

Jade Anouka in Chef @ Soho TheatreAs a reviewer there is a lot of trepidation in viewing a one-person show. It needs an exceptionally high level of writing and acting talent in order to keep an audience from start to finish. Without any actors to bounce lines off there is a risk that the show will soon become one-note and tonally flat. A poor script can sometimes be hidden by action between characters but it dies on the mouth of even a talented actor, whilst a poor actor trying to deliver a strong script is one of the more painful theatrical experiences.

Sabrina Mahfouz is a recipient of a Sky Arts Scholarship Award for Poetry, and this background may be what grounds the play in the rhythms and structures of performance poetry. Whilst clearly a play, it feels highly sensitive to the flow of language, and is at times more interested in the beauty of language than capturing the naturalism of delivery.

It is unlikely that anyone would say “I’d never been in love / but I decided that I’d know when I was / because the man would remind of the way/ seagulls glide out of stalactite clouds, / suddenly, / smoothly, / that’s how he’d find me” but within the show – delivered after describing how she had left her estate and joined her dad on a fishing boat – it is given the dreamy lyrical wonder of someone who has just begun to realise the limitations of her world.

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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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Woe, the humanity!

Oh, the Humanity and Other Good IntentionsTabard Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (tickets)

Will Eno has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Lynn Gardener called him a ‘supreme monologist’ and was described in the New York Times as ‘Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation’. On the back of ‘Oh, the Humanity…’ I must admit to being utterly mystified by any of these facts.

Comprising of a series of monologues and duologues, Oh, the Humanity is primarily a display in the type of vacuous, meaningless pretension that you would be disappointed to see from a student in the first year of a creative Oh-The-Humanity-3-1024x682writing course, let alone an award-winning playwright. It is supremely self-indulgent, remarkably irritating and, for a play that is clearly interested in the fragile connections that exist between people, stunningly lacking in self-awareness.

It is difficult to not feel sorry for the actors – more than one of whom looked genuinely uncomfortable as they delivered lines that fell flat against the stony silence of the audience. One can imagine that discomfort that comes from having to play a semi-comic supremely insensitive PR Rep for an airline company that has just seen one of its planes go down in flames. If timing is everything in comedy then this has butted rather too uncomfortably against reality.

OhtheHumanityNEWframe2I had really wanted to like this production if for no other reason than because I wish End of Moving Walkway every success. Whilst not a habitual attendee on the fringe-scene, I appreciate anyone willing to challenge the existing iniquitous model where access to performing is limited to those with the deepest pockets. End of Moving Walkway have taken the brave step of guaranteeing actors at least minimum wage for rehearsal and performance. It may not be a lot but it is better than expecting actors to exist on a wing and a prayer, and for this the company deserve praise.

One can see the logic of choosing Oh, the Humanity as a first play. A series of monologues means that you can keep rehearsals to a minimum and staging relatively simple. However this has been a year of sensational monologues, and whilst this may have heightened awareness in the form it has also set the bar very high. We have had terrific performances from Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson and Lisa Dwan early in the year. There was Kevin Spacey chewing up the stage in Clarence Darrow and Danny Braverman’s low-key but potent Wot! No Fish? Even now it is up against The Me Plays and, more pertinently, Neil LaBute’s Autobahn.

I have always struggled to like Neil LaBute plays but one has to admire them; his control over his writing, his use of language and the way that words become recurring motifs lead to powerful and impressive work. He is able to grab the audience and hold them in his sway no matter how distasteful the subject. In comparison Will Eno’s work is flabby in content and flaccid in power. In thrall to his own brilliance, he lets his monologues go on and on. Oh, the Humanity clocks in at over 90 minutes for five pieces and does nothing to justify holding the audience’s attention.

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If life gives you lemons, make monologues

The Me Plays – The Old Red Lion Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (Tickets)

Filed by our roving reviewer, Emily Howe

Written and performed by Andrew Maddock, The Me Plays are a couple of self-penned, semi-autobiographical monologues, currently showing at The Old Red Lion. The space is perfect for the piece; intimate yet with a buzz to it, and it certainly helps that this little theatre is sold-out for tonight’s show.

Maddock is bursting with energy and self-deprecating humour. Both of his monologues are directly addressed to the audience in a brave performance where (although I don’t know with any surety how much of the content wasAndrew Maddock, photo by Hannah Ellis Photography true or how much fiction) it feels like he is opening his life up for us to see.

The first of the two pieces, “Junkie”, describes Me’s modern life in the digital-age, and seems to be aimed more towards the men in the audience. Covering Tinder, internet-porn, facebook and pill-popping, its message is that there is a declining need in us to make real connections with the rest of humanity, as we can so easily find what we need online. Me is comforted by the safe, virtual atmosphere of the internet which allows him to switch off when he gets bored, and where there is no chance of rejection and pain.

In the second play of the evening, “Hi Life, I Win”, Me is in hospital and is nostalgically re-living his formative years for us; reminiscing about his school-life, discovering weed for the first-time, being shipped off to a Catholic camp, and the death of his beloved grandad, amongst other very personal moments. Interspersed with his present-day situation in hospital, this is a much more personal journey than “Junkie”, but the experiences that Maddox shares with us, although engaging, were too unique to the writer for me to be able to wholly relate to.

The direction in the first play was clear and consistent; nice use was made of the interesting set and lighting, and the audience believed in the different scenes that were played out in various locations of the set. The second play seemed less slick and was perhaps too static for a stage performance. Although some of the emotional instances were a bit clunky and overly sign-posted, there were also some lovely, subtly-nuanced melancholic moments, particularly during the end of the first play.

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Spotlight on Spacey

Clarence Darrow – Old Vic Theatre, until 15 June 2014 (Day Seats and Returns only)

And so here we are, eleven years after the decision to hand the keys to one of London’s oldest theatres to one of Hollywood’s most complex faces, Kevin Spacey stars in, what one presumes, is his final turn on the Old Vic
stage. Bringing in an actor to run a major theatre is a wonderfully archaic notion in the cut and thrust of West End economics, but Spacey has stayed the course and quietly become an integral part of the London theatre scene. He has helped bring grandeur back to the theatre and can surely take some credit for the current golden age of performance in the West End (even if writing and directing often remains troublingly conservaKevin-Spaceystrikertive).

Clarence Darrow is the curtain call that Spacey richly deserves. The reviews have been predictably close to hagiography for a performance piece that feels every bit of its 45 years old. Critics are studiously not reviewing the play but instead reviewing the performance. The audience rose as one to acclaim him, over 90% giving a standing ovation both for this role and as a thank you for the last decade.

And indeed why not? This is a moment to loosen the tie, unbutton the shirt and just relax into the company of one of the most charismatic actors to grace the stage. There are very few actors on either side of the Atlantic who I would rather spend 90 minutes in the company of. Even from up in the gods and with almost half of the stage out of sight (although this is not the time to unleash my opinions on the Old Vic’s definition of ‘restricted view) the charisma of the man intoxicates.

Spacey has maintained a visual presence outside of the theatre and Frank Underwood may become his defining role – and one cannot imagine anyone more perfect for the part – but his career has always been marked by the ability to create gloriously ambiguous characters that blur the lines of moral judgement.

While his Richard III may not have been technically perfect it was a gloriously enjoyable performance, the theatrical equivalent of going to see the latest summer blockbuster. With Spacey as Richard it was not hard to see how this crippled hunchback would have so little problem with Lady Anne despite the difficulties of “was ever woman in this humour wooed?” The potency of Spacey’s Richard was more than enough to make us detest and admire him in equal measure.  

He is the kind of actor who has the self-confidence to disappear entirely into the role. So often we see a performance but with Spacey we always see the person. He acts without it being entirely clear that he is doing so, and by so inhabiting the part that there is no space left for the actor. You could pick any of his roles but perhaps it is in Glengarry Glen Ross, American Beauty and, of course, as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects that we see Spacey giving us real people – actual beings, bringing the darkness and the light together – rather than just characters.

The figure of Clarence Darrow is the perfect sign-off role; at a glance his impeccably liberal views may make him seen a rather anodyne figure but Darrow is essentially a small-town boy turned big-city lawyer in Chicago and no-one does that at the turn of the 20th century without a confidence that is born out of one part ferocious intelligence, one part moral purpose and about five parts barn-storming hucksterism.

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