High-energy/High-concept

BallyturkLyttelton @ National Theatre, until 11 October 2014 (Tickets)

The pull quote for The Telegraph’s review for Edna Walsh’s Ballyturk is simply ‘hard to fathom’ – well, they got right. Twice I have been pulled into the Lyttelton for a Cillian Murphy / Edna Walsh collaboration and twice I have left frustrated with the outcome. The high points have remained the same and they lie in the wonderful sets created by Jamie Vartan and in the virtuoso performances by the cast.Cillian Murphy Ballyturk

In Misterman, Vartan turned the Lyttelton’s stage into a cavernous warehouse that seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, whilst Murphy was magnificent in a performance of spectacular energy and verbal dexterity. My main reservation was the play seemed to operate under the illusion that it was a far more complex than it really was. The ending, presented as a big reveal, was something that could be seen a mile away.

Well in Ballyturk, Vartan creates another ingenious set and Murphy gives another high-energy performance. This time he is joined by Mikel Murfi, who is given every chance to showcase the benefits of a Jacques Le Coq schooling as he is jumps nimbly into the shoes of an entire Irish village’s worth of characters, and also by Stephen Rea, playing a languid, louche Stephen Rea-character.

The cast are all excellent in what they are asked to do. There are issues with the clarity of their speeches but this feels more of a studied directorial decision to give the play a frenetic feel in order to keep the audience off-balance at all times. Played on the edge of mania it is exhausting just to watch; The sudden explosions of music, the high-octane performances, the rapid fire dialogue, the conversational tics and character changes ensures that the 90 minutes is a mental strain.

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Small family business yields little profit

A Small Family Business – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 27 August 2014

The National Theatre website currently advertises its revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business as running until the 27 August 2014; given middling reviews and, more damagingly, the desolate swath empty seats all around, this now seems a trifle optimistic. One wonders if Ayckbourn has lost touch with his heartland and whether that distant sound is of Geoffrey Howe readying his poison pen.

If the above analogy seems tortured and meaningless in 2014 then try sitting through two and half hours of Thatcher-era satirical farce played, almost without exception, as if actors were being paid by the minute.A_Small_Family_Bus_2875957b

Astute readers may have gathered that A Small Family Business is not considered a success. There are many problems with the production but at its heart is the play. Ayckbourn is a fine dramatist – one whose reputation has grown as the subtle radicalism of his writing and staging has become ever more appreciated – but his work has always run the risk of being too identified with the period that he critiques.

Whereas writers like Pinter and Beckett examine the universal, Ayckbourn’s skill has always been the microscopic. He is one of the great observers; capable of skewering the social charade and unveiling the fissure lines that runs through society, the unspoken conventions of the British that permeates life and ensures everyone conforms to their class.

Family businessThe conclusion that can be drawn from A Small Family Business is that we have entered a period where his targets are no longer recognisable. It may be quarter of a century old but the world that Ayckbourn has pictured seems embarrassingly quaint; quintessentially English, it is not comforting in the same way that we relax into a Miss Marple and it is not a period piece in the way we might enjoy something by Noel Coward.

With the benefit of hindsight it does not seem like biting satire but instead offers a naïve view of the world. Living in an era where companies like Amazon pay £4.2 million in UK tax on generated sales of over £4 billion, it is hard not to recognise the scale of the ethical corruption of big business. In this work the idea that a small family concern needs to pay off a private detective to the tune of £50,000 does not really hit the mark. It is all a little reminiscent of Austin Power’s Dr Evil:

 

Indeed one of the more charmingly amusing ideas in the play is the idea that Britain has any small family-run businesses at all, let alone ones that aren’t riddled by corruption.

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Spotlight on: Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney (1939 – 2011)

With A Taste of Honey enjoying a revival on the National’s Lyttlelton stage it seems a timely point to revisit one of my earlier posts on this blog, which was written in response to the sad death of Shelagh Delaney at the age of 73. One of the first things to note on coming back to this review is the realisation that even pinning down her date of birth is not clear. The Guardian went with 1939 in their obituary, which fits with the generally held Shelagh-Delaney-007idea that Shelagh was 19 when A Taste of Honey exploded into view but according to the New York Times, and apparently confirmed by her daughter as such, it was actually 1940. Either way a few months here or there does little to change the most remarkable fact about her; that seemingly out of nowhere she produced a play that was gloriously alive, that, in the words of Keith Tynan ‘smelt of living’.

Originally intended as a novel, it was watching late-era Rattigan – enjoying a current renaissance but at the time about to be engulfed by the new generation and held up as an example, somewhat simplistically and most unfairly, alongside Noel Coward as all that was wrong with British Theatre – that sparked Delagny into turning it into a play and sending it down to Joan Littlewood at the hugely influential Theatre Royal in Stratford.

Rough around the edges and raw in the middle, A Taste of Honey, was notable for offering not just a working-class but also a defiantly female perspective. At a time when the ‘Angry Young Men’ of British Theatre were setting their mark at the Royal Court; here was a play that shared their world but offered a vibrantly different viewpoint on post-war Britain.

Written in 1958 and considering the social mores of the time, it is almost inconceivable to think that A Taste of Honey contained sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, interracial relationships and homosexuality. A critical hit and a counterpoint to the masculinity of Osborne, Arden and Pinter, A Taste of Honey secured Delaney’s reputation as a crucial figure in the development of female playwrights.

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What makes these hard hearts? Finding warmth in King Lear

King Lear – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 28 May 2014

King Lear, in its monumental scale and overwhelming desolation, is a play that can defeat its audience. It continues to stand alone as the greatest of tragedies due to Shakespeare’s seamless transition from initial personal tragedy to something that contemplates human suffering at a universal level. It may be commonplace to reference the existential nature of the latter stages of King Lear but it is only within the last hundred years that the world has caught up with what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote of Gloucester and Tom atop the cliff that never was or gave voice to the depths of Lear’s madness.

That Shakespeare was writing a play set in the years before England had become England, taking his sources from the Middle Ages and developing interior thoughts that would only be given a name four hundred years later gives an idea of Simon Russell Beale as King Learthe totality of the play and its all-encompassing nature. Indeed our understanding of the importance of the play appears to be only increasing over time; as Jonathan Bate notes, King Lear it has been performed more times in the previous fifty years than in the preceding three hundred and fifty.

Famously Samuel Johnson could not bring himself to re-read the play until forced into doing so by his role as an editor and even to audiences inured to a global world of senseless cruelty and terrible injustice, Shakespeare decision to move away from the original chronicles and deny his characters and his audience one final redemptive moment is both shocking and hard to bear.

It is as if Shakespeare determined to summon up all the miseries of the world and present them in the most elegantly poetical language so that those listening could not close their ears. To make matters worse this is not the tragedy of Euripides or Sophocles; events in Lear’s England do not hinge on the fickle nature of the gods, rather they are summoned into being by a mankind fully in control of their own destiny.

Shakespeare repeatedly shows that in a world without divine intervention suffering falls, without mercy, upon the just and the unjust alike. As we see Lear crumble and Gloucester blinded Shakespeare refuses to relent and even uses Edgar, in the persona of Mad Tom, for a piece of audacious foreshadowing of the horrors to come. By telling the audience that ‘…the worst is not / so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’’ [IV.i] we can hardly claimed to not have been warned.

Is it any wonder that for almost 150 years an alternative version in which the play ends with Cordelia marrying Edgar was the preferred version? What audience could countenance such grotesque horror without the possibility of redemption?

There is so much contained within the play that the role of the director is absolutely central to any production of King Lear. If the director has in mind an actor then it is likely he has already determined how his Lear should be. Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale have a long and fertile history, and a production of this scale must have been on the cards for some time.

One may argue that, at 53, Simon Russell Beale is too young to play Lear and one consequence is that makes the decision to pass his kingdom to the next generation seem even more short-sighted than usual. However the reverse of this is that there is always the tantalising prospect that he may one day return to the role with the wisdom of two further decades behind him.

Mendes introduces us to Lear’s England with a striking opening image; the Olivier space dominated by what appears to be a huge solar eclipse. Other reviews have mentioned its similarity to the eye of Sauron in the Lord of Rings films and it is unlikely that Mendes, no stranger to cinema, missed this clear reference point. Yet the recognition of such a link may be no bad thing as it acts as a subtle primer for the obsession with eyes and sight that exists in King Lear and affixes the notion into the audience; we are to enter a world where even the sun can become blind, so what hope for mere humans.

The image, reminiscent of a giant 0, can be seen to reflect Shakespeare’s repeated reference to ‘nothing’ within the text. In the opening scene Cordelia’s nothing, repeated by Lear as ‘nothing will come of nothing, speak again’ [I.i] begins this trend and we will later have Gloucester’s ‘This great world / Shall so wear out to naught’ [IV.vi].  Lear himself will find himself with nothing after having everything and Gloucester loss of sight is another form of encountering nothingness. King Lear is a play where people suffer the worst privations and are gradually reduced until almost nothing remains; Gloucester is stripped of his sight, Lear his mind, Edgar his status and the Fool and Cordelia, the two characters who perhaps exude the greatest moral worth, are stripped of their lives.

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Clarity of thought amidst the blurred lines

Blurred Lines – The Shed, National Theatre until 22 February

Watching Blurred Lines, Nick Payne’s latest play created in close collaboration with director, Carrie Cracknell and the eight members of the all-female cast, is not a particularly comfortable experience for a male reviewer. This is not because it consists of seventy minutes of radicalised polemic damning all men to one of Dante’s more unpleasant circles of hell but rather because it does the reverse; performances are restrained, arguments are calm and reasonable, but clearly lying underneath the surface is an anger. An anger one suspects is born out both of individual experience and universal frustration.

It is primarily directed at rather oblique targets; the unthinking gender stereotyping that is ingrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded Blurred Lines, The Shed by the relentlessly battery of consumer culture.

To describe the production as a play is not quite accurate, as it suggests a more cohesive piece that has a narrative thread running through it. What is presented is more a series of case studies – template models of the gender imbalances women face on a daily basis. This approach is perhaps not surprising, in part because it is based on Kat Banyard’s book, The Equality Illusion, and also because the purpose is to present the universal alongside the individual.

If this all sounds a little dry then the collaborative feel of the work, performed by an excellent cast, give the scenes the relaxed feel of a community workshop rather than the cold air of a lecture theatre. The bite-size chunks also suit the modern world’s preferred way of digesting information; in the internet age grand narratives are out and bullet-point lists are in. If you don’t engage with one scene – and not all of them work perfectly – then don’t worry as another will be along in a moment.

Blurred Lines is bookended with two stand-out scenes. Nick Payne, as he has demonstrated in previous work, has a poet’s ear for finding something musical in everyday language. This is showcased in the first scene, which reminds of the opening to London Road, itself a piece of verbatim theatre, and that demonstrates that real speech, taken out of context, can contain a tremendous power and vitality.

The scene sets the play’s direction with a wonderfully observed perspective of what being a woman means to other people. The cast come together as one voice with many mouths to present the audience with a series of tart one-liners of how women are portrayed. In the scene women are broken down to nameless, definable adjectives; when they are deemed worthy of being given more status it is directly through their relationship to a male. They become ‘wife of…’, ‘mother of…’ and through this their lives are given an implicit meaning.

The round starts with common descriptions that soon descend to absurdity and anger with the relentless repetition and the fall-back to common descriptors. Rose West’s ‘character face’ repeats again and again, and any initial amusement fades as the audience understands that it is another example of the malleability of the English language that has learnt to hide overt misogyny behind a second, socially acceptable double-speak.

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Rufus Norris: New Artistic Director of the National Theatre

Congratulations to Rufus Norris on the news that he has been appointment to follow in the footsteps of NicholasRufus-Norris Hytner to become the next artistic director of the National Theatre. Generally seen as just about favourite for the role, he has clearly exuded a behind-the-scenes confidence that has outshone his relative lack of experience.

I have read more about his work than seen it – but what I have seen has been absolutely first rate, and whilst the National has looked to broaden its horizons in recent years it has always felt that it was just dipping its toe in the waters. With Norris in post it is perhaps time that the National will truly dive headlong in what it is to produce theatre in, and for, modern Britain.

Hytner has left some big shoes to fill – and clearly they decided not to fill them with more of the same, the National have also sidestepped the opportunity for a ‘big name’. However in all reality what chance did Daldry, Mendes and Branagh really have if they were not willing to forego their cinematic commitments? Watch the bun fight when Kevin Spacey steps down at the Old Vic; a theatre that has more than understood how a ‘celebrity’ name can be a huge draw, vastly outweighing any accompanying problems.

In leaving Norris the Shed space, Hytner’s has bequeathed an excellent legacy that will pay dividends. It gives him room, in those important early years, to work in a smaller, less pressurised space to develop innovative work that may be initially hard to put though the Olivier. It gives Norris breathing space whilst he sets about changing any internal negative attitudes to his direction, and to clear house where houses need clearing.

A couple of years down the line, we may be looking at a National that really does reflect Britain today, and whilst the lack of Shakespeare is a concern (or at least it is for the purists) but perhaps fresh eyes on the playwright is really what is needed.

Norris is an excellent choice and I can’t wait to see how he leaves his mark.