Disappointing dystopia

Pomona – Temporary Theatre @ National Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets)

Ever since rave reviews greeted Pomona when it premiered at the Orange Tree, I had cursed myself for not summoning the energy to cross London to see a new play that promised dystopian terrors and whose advertising pomona photcredit Richard Davenportcentred on a wonderfully striking image of a Cthulhu sitting cross-legged in an underground car park holding a Rubik’s cube. It certainly seemed a world away from the usual fare of star-led Shakespeare, earnest Russians and undemanding musicals.

Hearing that it had secured one of the prestigious slots in the Temporary Theatre, I placed it alongside People, Places and Things as top of the list of shows to see in the National’s latest season. Full credit for Rufus Norris’ bold booking, and for helping to develop a clear identity for Temporary Theatre space, which is becoming a stage where the National can take risks on young playwrights and emerging theatre companies, and represents precisely what they should be spending their public funding on. It attracts new and diverse audiences, and the arrival of Pomona had clearly resulted in an audience at least a couple of decades below the average age of regular National attendees.

I entered the theatre in a state of anticipation. I exited the theatre (with apologies to Rogers & Hart) baffled, bemused and bewildered. I wish I could say that it was due to the challenging questions that Alistair McDowell’s imaginative script had left me with. I was hoping that it would be because the genre mash-up that throws together RPGs, cinema, Lovecraft and an array of dystopian fiction writers had resulted in a brave new world of theatre.

Unfortunately my bafflement was more with every critic who had seen the workings of a profound masterpiece, whereas I felt more like I had seen a play written by a precocious undergraduate talent severely in need of a dramaturg. There is no doubting McDowell’s talent. It shines through at times, illuminating the suitably dim and dank surroundings. The story makes leaps of the imagination that suggest an elastic mind, and the telling of it is done with verve and wit.

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And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

People, Place and Things – National Theatre, until 04 November 2015 (Tickets)

Event theatre is a curious phenomenon that is hard to predict and can emerge from a number of paths. Most often it is due to an attachment of a star name that turns a popular play into a must see; the Cumberbatch Hamlet being an extreme examples of this. Sometimes, such as with Jerusalem or Constellations, word-of-mouth and press reviews suddenly turn an unknown new play into the thing people are queuing round the block for. Most gratifyingly is when it assigned to a theatre company on the basis of their hard PPT Photo by Johan Perssongraft built over many years; Complicite gained this status, and surely Headlong have now joined their ranks. Among those versed in theatre, Headlong are a by-word for theatre that promises endless invention built on energetic staging working in harmony with high class visuals.

People, Places and Things is without doubt pure event theatre – it matches a theatre company that can sell-out a show before it opens with a lead performance that is rightly being described as career-making. You leave the theatre feeling that you have seen a very special production, with an exhilaratingly powerhouse piece of acting from Denise Gough at its heart. It is the highlight of Rufus Norris’ early tenure at the National, and a production that reminds you how truly invigorating theatre can be.

Denise Gough in People Places and Things Photo Johan PerssonBy pure chance I had seen it within days of seeing the devastatingly powerful Song From Far Away at the Young Vic. They work as superb companion pieces, and anyone who sees both cannot help but reflect on what they tell us about the mental outlook and wellbeing of the younger generations in affluent, western societies.

Both cover individuals at the point of crisis, but touch on different ends of the spectrum. In Stephens’ play, Willem is unable to articulate his need for help and his crisis reaches a more acute phase as he exists outside of supportive systems. In Duncan Macmillan’s play, we have Emma (or possibly we do, even her name remains ambiguous), another white, privileged and mainly unsympathetic character.

However, unlike Willem, she is vocal and able to recognise that there is a point where she must ask for help. Yet even at that this stage she uses her facility with language to keep people at a distance; she uses words as a defence mechanism to keep people away from her true self. Her extrovert nature is the polar opposite to Willem’s introvert, but ultimately her personality finds her unable to find ways of expressing herself in order to avert a significant crisis.

Denise Gough’s performance as Emma has drawn deserved plaudits. Her role in Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb hinted at her vast potential, and was one of the performances of the year. It was fluid, totally unselfconscious and demonstrated an assured facility for portraying characters on the edge of mania. She brings this and much more to Emma.

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Talking Theatre – More Podcasting

Another week, another episode of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast. This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcas

Plays under discussion are Bakkhai, 3 Days in the Country and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Joining our host, Tim Watson, was JohnnyFox, PaulInLondon, Nick from Partially Obstructed View, and Gareth James.

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Ben Whishaw related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Whose line was it anyway? A Tim Crouch theatrical experience

An Oak Tree – Temporary Space @ National Theatre, until 15 July 2015 (Tickets)tim-crouch-97210

Whether you would enjoy An Oak Tree might be best based on the response you’d give on learning that the play is named after a Michael Craig-Martin artwork in which an artist asks the viewer to suppose a glass of water has become a tree, and that Crouch is someone who described theatre as ‘a conceptual artform. It doesn’t need sets, costumes and props, but exists inside an audience’s head’.

There will be many who find the 70-min play – where Crouch performs opposite an actor who he meets an hour before and arrives on stage not having seen the script, or knowing anything about the play – exactly the kind of pretentious garbage that justifies the swingeing cuts currently being delivered to the Arts Council. However those who see in theatre a medium naturally open to the world of almost infinite possibility will surely be invigorated by this revival of an early work from one of the most formally inventive writers of the 21st century.

In recent years we have seen the flowering of a new generation of playwrights, with few ties to the in-yer-face dramatists of the 1990s. Nick Payne, Lucy Prebble and Lucy Kirkwood have burst onto the scene with superbly delicate plays that balance strong writing with inventive design and narrative trickery. Yet for all their skill none have come close to Crouch’s assault on the nature of theatre.

Coming in under the radar, Adler & Gibb – his most high profile play to date – was a shock to the system and a welcome reminder that there are still people willing to use theatre as a means to interrogate itself. It was infuriating, brilliant and radical. Exactly what theatre ought to be.

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As much wonderful women as super men

Man and Superman – Littleton Theatre @ National Theatre, until 19 May 2015 (Tickets – day seats & returns only, NT Live on 14 May 2015)Man_and_Superman_poster_notitle

Judging by reviews it appears difficult to talk about Man and Superman without first beginning by highlighting all the intimidating facts that surround it. So yes, it is three and a half hours of densely packed text, cut-down from closer to five, written by a formidably – and forbiddingly – intelligent committed socialist who straddled late-Victorian/early Edwardian Britain. And yes, back in 1903, it was described as ‘unstageable’.

With that introduction it may come as a surprise that tickets are also as rare as hen’s teeth (day seats and returns only). One suspects that it hasn’t been produced because the public have been crying out for a revival of a play that was last staged at the National two years before this critic had even been born. It is possible that the presence of an actor who can plausibly claim to be an A-lister of both stage and screen may be the cause of ticket scarcity.

Stage appearances by Ralph Fiennes have been limited over the last 15 years; he was last seen as Prospero back in 2011, in what was unfortunately a rather interminable production by Michael Grandage (a sentence I seemed to have repeated more and more in the intervening years), but reminded everyone of his talents with a blistering snippet of Pravda’s Lambert La Roux during the National Theatre’s 50 Years celebration in 2013.

'Man and Superman' Play by Bernard Shaw performed in the Olivier Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, London, UKAnd what a performance it is. This is no stunt casting. No director would be foolish to let an inexperienced actor loose with Jack Tanner. The part is as difficult as they come. It requires the ability to enable a 21st century audience to find common ground with a figure who spends most of the play declaiming grandly about the machinations of women and who, one suspects, would only be happy marrying himself (and, as is the nature of such plots this is, in a way, exactly what happens).

The other difficulty is the sheer challenge of the language. The play runs to over 57,000 words and most of those are Tanner’s. Actors cannot rely on lovingly crafted Elizabethan verse-speaking to help settle the lines in the head, dialogue is akin to the densely packed social commentary of Dickens. When one hears Tanner it is hard not to detect the hectoring tones of Bernard Shaw in a room full of weary brow-beaten gentleman thoroughly bored with being told about the inequities of the Edwardian world. This is a challenging part, getting the wrong tone will lead to the comedy seeming tin-eared, or the moralising too earnest.

Fiennes is quite magnificent in the role. His performance fizzes with an energy that is vital for driving the momentum of a plot that seeks to extend a seemingly traditional comedy of manners into an epic spanning more than 200 minutes. Fiennes energy feels justified by the character – his vitality in keeping with the slightly pompous air of the revolutionary driven by ideology but supported by money.

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We came hoping for a new arcadia and instead ended up with Welwyn Garden City.

The Hard Problem – Dorfman Space @ National Theatre, until 27 May 2015 (Tickets)

This production will be broadcast to cinemas on 16 Aprilthe_hard_problem398.jpg

The ‘hard problem’of the title refers to ‘consciousness’; a concept under assault from a battalion of neuroscientists laying claim to greater and greater certainty in their understanding of brain functionality as something that can be deconstructed to the micro-level of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters. As neuroscience is in the ascendancy we are left with awkward questions over whether humans are left increasingly shackled by the tyranny of genetic determinism? Where does our freedom of thought – our freedom to act in ways contrary to the principles of evolutionary science – fit into the equation? In essence does the philosophical ‘mind’, as opposed to the functional ‘brain’, exist?

These are fascinating questions and truly weighty topics. It is the sort of subject we have come to expect from Tom Stoppard, who has demonstrated his formidable intelligence on countless occasions over the last forty years and in so doing has contributed some of Britain’s finest plays of the post-war era. This includes two genuine classics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia and many others that found audacious approaches to create unabashedly literate drama enthused with a wit that refused to bow to the lowest common denominator.

Stoppard is 77 years old and it is his first new play for nine years. So perhaps the hard problem for the audience is reconciling itself to the idea that the play – quite possibly his last – is a bit of a dud. Critical reactions have been mixed and supported by an undercurrent of good will but, on reflection, can anyone seriously challenge the view that this is but a pale imitation of what has come before?

The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.

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