Full Cast - Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Rufus Wright and Lu Corfield

Brutal or brutally funny?

The One – Soho Theatre, until 30 March 2014

In the middle of one of the many conversations between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright) that tread an impossibly fine line between needling argument and verbal foreplay, Jo’s mobile phone goes off. The ringtone is familiar but not quite identifiable, moments later, before the chorus kicks in, Jo answers the phone with ‘Hi Mum’ and at the same moment you realise that she has set the ring tone to be I Touch Myself by the DiVinyls.

Vicky Jones’ The One is a play that is peppered with jokes that rely on an audience with an eye for high and low cultural reference points and a penchant for filthy dialogue. It is as comfortable expounding on Madame The one  Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus WrightBovary as it is in displaying the realities of unengaged sex. There are some brutally funny lines in The One and there also some just plain brutal ones. It is a play that sets out to shock its audience and it more than succeeds in doing so.

DryWrite, the theatre company created by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was the force behind two of the most unexpected treats of 2013, Mydidae and Fleabag. With The One this creative partnership have created a trio of plays that, while formally unconnected, work together to create a portrait of dysfunction within a certain strata of well-educated, middle class women in 21st century Britain. As a whole they form a serious and important contribution to the ongoing cultural debate about whether there are ways that women should live and behave in the context of feminism as being something that had been ‘won’.

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Waller-Bridge excels in each of the plays. She inhabits characters that clearly show the challenges of women who have grown up to believe in the freedoms hard won by their parents but struggle to shape an identity for themselves in a society that is still undeniably masculine.

At the heart of Mydidae and The One is the presence of a formidably intelligent woman who self-censures herself in order to maintain the fantasy of the dominant male. In both cases the self-censuring has a warping effect and the emasculating quality of the action (even as it seeks to avoid this very outcome) ultimately leads to displays of violence; physical, sexual and emotional.

The One demonstrates writing of exceptional quality and Jones’ displays a real talent for carving heightened language out of the banality of the everyday; creating prose that is grounded in reality whilst seeming disturbingly unreal. That the play is set over the course of the evening and scenes are intercut with Phantom of the Opera’s The Music of the Night adds to the sensation that is closer to nightmarish dreamscape than the real world.

Yet this is no Athenian forest and here there is no honest Puck to make amends and to ensure that Jo and Harry ‘think no more of this night’s accidents’. Rather than sleep and awake to a new dawn, they continue their conversations until sunrise when they are forced to look at each other in the harsh light of day.

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The 2013 Civil Awards – The Winners

The Civil Awards

So the judges have ill-met by moonlight, the runes read, the die cast and the Oracle consulted. Bribes have been counted, tallied and sent to the accountants to be stored in one of Civilian Theatre’s numerous tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. And so, without further ado, here are the winners in the inaugural Civilian Theatre Awards: The Civil Awards

Best Actor – Male

  • James McAvoy – Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • David Tennant – Richard II (Richard II)
  • Serge Maggiani – Berenger (Rhinoceros)
  • Henry Goodman – Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
  • Rory Kinnear – Iago (Othello)

In the most hotly-contested category of the year we see the usual array of brilliant Shakespeare performances. The difficulty in choosing between them is that they take such different routes into interpreting the Bard for a modern audience. James McAvoy may not be the greatest Shakespearian but he put body as well as soul into a hugely physical performance in the intimate Trafalgar Studios. His was a magnetic Macbeth that may have offended the purists but did make this GSCE-favourite come alive.

There is a notable contrast in David Tennant’s Richard II; Tennant’s quick-silver tongue has made him the most fluid verse speaker of his generation and he reveled in Richard’s fascination with words and language, showing flashes of interpretative genius to draw out the subtleties from the text’s formidable complexity. The final Shakespere on the list was Rory Kinnear’s Iago. Civilian Theatre felt that he edged out Adrian Lester in the Othello double-hander; his Iago was brought into the present as a credible presence in the modern world, immediately recognisable to those watching.

Henry Goodman’s wonderful Arturo Ui was a marvel, blending an ability to move seamlessly between slapstick and seriousness, and proving once again of the fertile life of plays outside London. But the winner comes from even further afield and demonstrating that language is no barrier to great performance. Playing the everyman is often seen as one of the hardest roles to recreate on stage, and Bérenger is presented as the archetypal everyman. Maggiani beautifully captures Bérenger in all his contrarian frailty and gives to the audience a momentary insight into what it is to be truly human on stage. It is a performance that achieves a rare transcendent universalism and makes Maggiani a worthy winner.

And the Winner is… Serge Maggiani as Bérenger in Rhinoceros (Barbican)

Best Actor – Female

  • Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Marion / Fleabag (Mydidae / Fleabag)
  • Harriet Walter – Brutus (Julius Caesar)
  • Hannah Waddingham – Kate (Kiss Me, Kate)
  • Neve McIntosh – Claire (The Events)
  • Ruth Wilson – Monologue (The El Train)

The year started off with fireworks as critics, for no obvious reason, got flustered by the idea of all-female Julius Caesar; however Harriet Walter proved why gender should not be a barrier by giving us an utterly spell-binding Brutus. It showed that given the chance a great actor (male or female) can find a depth and subtlety to Shakespeare’s leading roles, which are full of rich texture and fascinating new interpretations.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge finds herself nominated twice over, with both Mydidae and Fleabag superbly showcasing her skills. Both challenging parts that required both emotionally and physical intimacy, Waller-Bridge proved herself as an actor unafraid of taking risks and a star to watch rise over 2014. It is rare for a musical to generate a nomination but Hannah Waddingham (Kiss Me, Kate) combined a wonderfully vocal performance with solid acting and superb comic timing that lifted the whole production, whilst effortlessly stealing the show from those around her.

Neve McIntosh’s Claire in The Events was the threat that held this powerful work together. It was the sort of performance that was laced with a quiet grief, an understated emotional core that supported rather than threatening to overwhelm the whole. It was the kind of performances that are rarely noticed because by playing small you allow the play itself to take centre stage, and that is a rare enough skill in an actor.

Ruth Wilson’s performances in The El Train came just in time for nomination and proved once again that few British actors do American better. She has developed the rare skill of stillness that cannot help but draw the audience to her. Wilson’s performance in The El Train was an acting masterclass in the art of the monologue and in building a full realised character out of the smallest of scraps.

And the Winner is… Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kyle Soller – Gaveston (Edward II)
  • Vanessa Kirby – Isabella (Edward II)
  • Jonathan Slinger – Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Ben Whishaw – Baby (Mojo)
  • William Gaunt – Dogsborough (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)

After the tremendous disappointment of Peter and Alice it was a relief to see, in Mojo, what an electrifying actor Ben Whishaw can be. His presence onstage ramped up the wattage by some degrees and he once again undercut his somewhat fey persona with a dangerous malevolence. Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles in the RSC’s All’s Well That Ends Well continues his fine run of form for the Company. Growing in presence and with a Hamlet under his belt, Slinger is continuing his rapid rise through ranks.

Two supporting nominations for the uneven but often entertaining Edward II at the National; Kyle Soller is a clear rising star and has become a go-to for beefing up a supporting presence over the last couple of years but it was Vanessa Kirby’s Isabella who takes even more praise. Gaveston is a clear supporting role but Kirby carved out a weighty role for a part that could have sat far more in the background. Her role as one of Lear’s daughter in the upcoming Sam Mendes’ production should be one to watch.

However the award must go to the old guard and William Gaunt’s fabulous Dogsborough in Arturo Ui. It’s not easy play Brecht – Gaunt must represent the entire failure of the German establishment seen through Hindenburg as refracted the role of a southern gentleman. Gaunt gives the role a tragic grandeur – of a man who betrays his principles and realises far too late how far he has been outflanked.

And the Winner is… William Gaunt as Dogsborough in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Duchess Theatre)

Best Director

  • Susan Stroman – The Scottsboro Boys
  • Katie Mitchell – Fraulein Julie
  • Jamie Lloyd – Macbeth
  • Declan Donnellan – Ubu Roi
  • Gregory Doran – Richard II

All the directors on the list deserve acclaim for rich and involving productions. It is no surprise that only one failed to make it to Civilian Theatre’s Top 10 shows of 2013 (and even then Doran’s Richard II only missed out by the most slender of margins).

Each brings something different to the table but in the end the prize must go to the formal inventiveness of Katie Mitchell’s Fraulein Julie. There are many British companies pushing boundaries but Mitchell does more than this. She seems less concerned with the question of what theatre is and instead is wholly focused on how to deliver greatest truth to the audience. Her blurring of traditional mediums reached its greatest coherence to date in Fraulein Julie; a grueling but stunning reinvention of the Strindberg classic.

And the Winner is… Katie Mitchell for Fraulein Julie (Barbican Theatre)

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

  • Young Vic
  • Barbican Centre
  • Trafalgar Transformed
  • Harold Pinter Theatre

The Harold Pinter Theatre is a surprise entrant on the list but it has shown impressive diversity for a West End theatre; Old Times, Mojo and Merrily We Roll Along all proving to be canny acquisitions and audience hits. The Barbican and the Young Vic continued their traditionally strong programming with a mixture of plays to suit every taste at prices that remain, just about, on the affordable end of the spectrum. However the prize goes to the Trafalgar Studios for their audacious Trafalgar Transformed season and for giving Jamie Lloyd free-run of their main space. It was a move that could have potentially backfired spectacularly but The Hothouse, Macbeth and The Pride proved that there is life for serious drama in a more commercial setting.

And the Winner is… Trafalgar Transformed

Surprise of the Year

  • The Scottsboro Boys
  • The Events
  • Hamlet de los Andes

Three very different plays united in their complete unexpectedness. Between them they made three of the top four places in Civilian Theatre’s Top 10. It proved once again that you just need to scratch the surface to find innovative, powerful and challenging theatre. In the end Hamlet de los Andes edges it purely because nothing about it seemed promising. The Events had the weight of David Greig and The Scottsboro Boys had Kander & Ebb; Hamlet de los Andes was an unknown– in the UK – Bolivian company that had the audacity to rip apart Hamlet for their own ends. The result was brilliant.

And the Winner is… Hamlet de los Andes

Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The amount of £10 seats for the Michael Grandage season
  • Rupert Goold appointed as the next artistic director of the Almeida
  • The opening of The Shed

Even despite the disappointing season that was offered, Michael Grandage must be applauded for the amount of affordable tickets – and not all in rubbish seats – that were on sale for his plays. If the Stalls seats are going to be extravagantly priced then at least it was used to subsidise others. The Shed looks exciting but the prize goes to Rupert Goold taking the reins at the Almeida. Our most innovative director in charge of his own theatre, and one that blends public and commercial sensibilities at that; it should be an interesting few years and this move positions Goold perfectly for something even high-profile the next time the roundabout turns.

And the Winner is… Rupert Goold at the Almeida

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • The fact that The Book of Mormon won Tony awards and The Scottsboro Boys didn’t

Well on a personal level it was being too lazy to see Chimerica. Clearly one of the plays of the year and it was through indolence alone that it was missed by Civilian Theatre. However the out and out winner is the Michael Grandage season. Having bought into the hype, and into the tickets, it produced disappointment after disappointment. Peter and Alice was dross on every level, The Cripple of Inishmaan did scrape over average and then an immediate downturn into a boring baby boomer A Midsummer Night’s Drum before a dull as ditchwater Henry V rounded things off.

Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The growing trend to not allow people to book seats so that there is only one left on its own
  • The continuing upward creep of top-end theatre ticket prices
  • The cull of theatre critics across the mainstream press

Any of the three above are more than worthy of winning the prize. However a late entrant steals the show for being both terrible, and for being so unexpectedly terrible. Mark Rylance. James Earl Jones. Vanessa Redgrave. Shakespeare. The Old Vic. Nothing in those words suggests anything other than a production of the highest calibre and undoubted interest from audience and critics alike. However the unmitigated disaster that was Much Ado About Nothing led all that saw it to attempt to blank the experience from their mind. It was a catastrophe of the like that is rarely seen on the London stage and although it gives no pleasure to do so, it must be awarded the prize of: worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013.

The Civil Shortlist

The Contenders

Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the inaugural shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns].

Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received. Your comments and opinions are also welcomed.

Winners will revealed next week following a countdown of the Top 10 plays of 2013.

Best Actor – Male

  • James McAvoy          Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • David Tennant          Richard II (Richard II)
  • Serge Maggiani        Berenger (Rhinoceros)
  • Henry Goodman       Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
  • Rory Kinnear            Iago (Othello)

Best Actor – Female

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kyle Soller                     Gaveston (Edward II)
  • Vanessa Kirby               Isabella (Edward II)
  • Jonathan Slinger           Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Ben Whishaw                Baby (Mojo)
  • William Gaunt                Dogsborough (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)

Best Director

  • Susan Stroman              The Scottsboro Boys
  • Katie Mitchell                  Fraulein Julie
  • Jamie Lloyd                    Macbeth
  • Declan Donnellan           Ubu Roi
  • Gregory Doran               Richard II

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

  • Young Vic
  • Barbican Centre
  • Trafalgar Transformed
  • Harold Pinter Theatre

Surprise of the Year

Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The amount of £10 seats for the Michael Grandage season
  • Rupert Goold appointed as the next artistic director of the Almeida
  • The opening of The Shed

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench in Peter and Alice 

Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The growing trend to not allow people to book seats so that there is only one left on its own
  • The continuing upward creep of top-end theatre ticket prices
  • The cull of theatre critics across the mainstream press

Fleabag: A very modern heroine

Fleabag – DryWrite @ Soho Theatre, until 22 September 2013

In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a terrifying portrait of a person who embodies two of the major movements in modern society; the continuing reverberations of the feminist movement running headlong into society’s obsession with individualism and self-actualisation. It is of a person whose self-involved narcissism and belief in the right to be free to control one’s life-choices blinds them to any impact their actions may have on others. Fleabag continually rejects culpability for the paths she takes and even refines poor decisions into positive self-affirming actions. Fleabag is a 21st century manifestation of the id, rampant and uncontrolled.

It is also the funniest play that has hit London this year.

Rare is the playwright that truly captures the language of real life and turns it into something dramatically interesting. I have regularly extolled the virtues of Nick Payne for his skill in crafting modern, believable dialogue for his Fleabag - our eponymous anti-heroinecharacters; Waller-Bridge shares this talent whilst going further to infuse it with a poetic, heightened language that is rooted in the everyday.

It is startling to be confronted by a modern text that so positively drips with a love for sonorous language but yet doesn’t strive to root itself in the past. Every line feels written by someone with a deep respect for classical theatre but who understands that respect is best shown by not looking backwards and instead immersing yourself in the culture that surrounds you.

Monologues are as pure a form of theatre as it gets for writers and performers; there is no hiding place, the production rests and falls on the skill of the actor and the quality of language. Waller-Bridge spent a fair proportion of her last production, Mydidae, naked on stage so is better placed than most to quibble about the nature of exposure but Fleabag contains a ruthless emotional honesty that is shockingly, brutally, exposing.

Mydidae explored how removing our physical covering makes it easier to create a passage to the emotional core, whereas Fleabag removes all pretence and from its first moments delves into the deepest crevices of the mind of an independent, assured modern woman and probes it for cracks in the surface; the vulnerabilities that face all woman in an age of supposed liberation – political, economic, social and above all else, sexual.

For this is a monologue that is steeped in the current dialogues surrounding feminism and what it means to the generation that did not have to fight for it. It is here that Fleabag demonstrates the elements that have seen it be championed as one of the picks of the Edinburgh Fringe. It studiously avoids the polemics and instead displays its arguments through subtle highlighting of how hard-won equality under the law is still being undermined by socio-cultural norms.

©Richard Davenport 2013. 2nd August 2013. Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag at the Big Belly, Underbelly. Photo Credit: Richard DavenportWaller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a monster – a ravenous sexual entity that seemingly cannot discriminate between friend and conquest, desire and lust, attraction and obsession – but constantly the audience is reminded of how this may be viewed if the person delivering the monologue was a man.

The player/slut debate that Fleabag circles has been around for years and may seem like a hoary old trope but that doesn’t make it any less valid a reference point. A generation of woman have been brought up to believe that the battle has been won but changing the law does not lead to changing lives. The Twitter trolls and the campaigns over the increased use of sexualised imagery on the front covers of lads mags has shown that skirmishes continue.

Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag uses her body as a tool for her own personal gratification and talks in the frankest terms of an obsessive relationship with pornography. Does this debase her or does it set her free? Has she been enslaved by a masculine-fantasy of feminist equality – the idea that freedom to choose means becoming a hedonist to pleasure – or is she is a liberated self-actualised feminist who has rejected the traditional gender values of chastity and purity placed on woman by a patriarchal society?

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Buy the text from Nick Hern books here

Emotions laid bare in stripped back production

Mydidae – Trafalgar Studios, booking until 30 March 2013

Arriving at the Trafalgar Studios you may unwittingly feel that you have walked into the wrong venue given the amount of signage for what appears to be a rather bombastic Macbeth with a certain Mr McAvoy seeming to dominate events.

Take closer order and you will discover that their intimate studio space is currently playing host to a drama that packs an equally shocking emotional punch. However it is one that sets aside the grandiose Shakespearian Keir Charles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Mydidae, Soho Theatre, 5 December 2012 (courtesy of Simon Annand) 16tragedy and instead hits you unaware from its home within a destabilising, and ultimately disturbing, modern naturalism.

Jack Thorne is a very promising writer, whose previous credits have included co-writing Greenland for the National and adapting The Physicists at the Donmar. In Mydidae, Thorne demonstrates the knack of not just writing well-crafted naturalistic dialogue but also developing concepts where a surface simplicity artfully hides unexpectedly complex depths.

Setting a play in a bathroom is such an obviously winning idea that it begs the question why it hasn’t been explored to this level of precision before. Playwrights are constantly searching for new ways to shine a light onto the way people relate to each other and the bathroom as a location is one that throws up intriguing questions about the public/private nature of the space and the contested and malleable boundaries that are placed upon it.

Throughout the play this question of boundaries keeps reoccurring. We see the boundaries of David’s job constantly shift into the private. The boundaries of their relationship are seen to constantly dissolve and reform. The balance of power is a contested space between them and even the audience is challenged on the assumptions it makes.

It is telling that one of the opening images of the play is the invasion of Marion’s private world by David’s very public phone conversation. In the technologically connected modern world the public persona blurs the boundaries of what was traditionally accepted to be the private.

A person can no longer easily control their own private space outside of what exists internally. However Thorne shows how this world of connectedness does not necessarily lead to more openness. Whilst Marion and David believe they have shared everything, they have in fact used sharing as a mechanism for locking away what most needs communicating.

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