A tribute to a treasure

Looking for Lansbury – St James Street Theatre, until 17 October 2015 (Future dates click here)Looking for Lansbury 400x400

The target audience for Looking for Lansbury may be one that is already quite well-versed in the life of its subject. However if Fiona-Jane Weston’s one-woman show exploring the life of Angela Lansbury provides little in the way of revelation (even to a novice Lansburyian), it does a creditable job in avoiding falling into sugary hagiography.

Weston pitches her all-singing, some-dancing, variety show part way between biographical lecture and conversational cabaret. It starts off with a strong statement of intent as Weston sets out her case but as Lansbury’s career as a leading light of the stage begins to take off it increasingly resembles a procession of Broadway belters interspersed with conversational snippets.

The opening provides a backstory that takes in Angela’s grandfather, George Lansbury (former Labour Party leader) and his role as a social reformer. We get a potted history of her English upbringing before being whisked across the Atlantic, and into her remarkable early successes in film – two Oscar nominations in her first two roles (Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray) – before charting her life on stage and screen.

A slight problem is that Lansbury is an intensely private individual; there is little in the public domain to draw on and much content is given by way of inference or supposition. The snippets we do get, such as a Hollywood magazine article on her first husband Richard Cromwell, are uncomfortably salacious for a show that seems to wish to avoid the tittle-tattle of unauthorized biography.

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Myth, masculinity and modernity

Song of Riots – Awake Projects @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 17 October 2015 (tickets – limited availability)

It may act as a sad indictment of the limited attention span of the modern news cycle but the 2011 London Riots feel like they belong to a different era. People talk about the Poll Tax Riots but we seem to collectively forget that just four years ago large parts of London were filled with anger, frustration and nameless faces howling their protest against the body politic. Deprivation and opportunity came together in a furious explosion of pent-up energy. London burned. Not metaphorically but actually. Shops, homes and even our cultural treasures turned to ash (Back catalogues from Rough Trade, Warp and Ninja Tunes, alongside Nick Park original figures, can be countered among those lost to the destruction).

The story has been told, but not well and not often. Song of Riots gives us a version that is relevant and theatrical without feeling didactic. It is not here to preach, it is not here to understand. It tells stories unrelated to the riots but intrinsically understands the root causes. It is of life now but it tells a timeless tale.

It hones in on the idea of frustrated masculinity. In the more deprived areas of inner-London we have a generation of young men growing up without the job opportunities afforded to their parents. In London there are always hundreds of jobs, but they are not for the unskilled and under-educated. Young men live in a consumerist society in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and yet their existence goes unnoticed and unspoken.

Lucy Maycock has focused on the link between folk myth and modern life, and weaves the relatively unknown Grimm Brothers tale of Iron Hans into an exploration of what it is to become a man in London. It is co-directed with Chrisopher Sivertsen (Song of the Goat – and responsible for the remarkable Songs of Lear), and between them having created a wonderfully dynamic work that fuses dance, live music and storytelling.

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Kramer vs Kramer for the ancient Greek generation

Medea – Almeida Theatre, until 14 November 2015 (tickets)

Under Rupert Goold’s unusually restrained direction, the Almeida Greeks season closes with Rachel Cusk’s brutally open updating of perhaps the most intriguingly ambiguous of ancient tragedies, Medea. It is a production teetering on the edge of brilliance and one that leaves no doubt that there are few stage actors who can match Kate Fleetwood’s ability to humanise the most complex of characters.

Watching Medea, and reflecting on Oresteia and Bakkhai, the carefully chosen nature of the three plays becomes apparent. In the ancient world, the personal, political and religious were fundamentally intertwined but the strength of Goold’s season has been to disentangle these threads so as to give them a clearer contemporary relevance. The season opened with a stunning reinvention of Oresteia – a political tragedy in so much as it was a tragedy of events, where a forced decision leads to an endless echo chamber of destruction. This was followed by Bakkhai, where tragedy is orchestrated by a capricious and vengeful god.

Medea is a problematic play because for all its greatness, it has an almost unresolvable contradiction at its core – as much as we can see Medea as a wronged figure, the act of filicide can never be seen as justifiable to a modern audience. This was precisely where last year’s version with Helen McCrory at the National, based on a Ben Power translation, became unstuck as it updated the setting without finding a way to modernise the plot.

0332798d-e0e7-41b1-af41-9414fbd8949b-680x365_cTo get around this problem Cusk has substantially reworked the play to the extent that a person could watch this production and not realise that it is taken from an ancient Greek play. Purists may decry the lack of poetry and question whether this is can truly be called Euripides’ play given the narrative reworking that takes place. This should be countered by the fact that it arrives with the note that it is a new version by Rachel Cusk, and that the myths have always been adapted to meet the needs of the time.

Where Goold and Cusk succeed is to entirely reimagine the play. It is not a tragedy brought about by the divine, or by individuals caught up in grand events. It is a tragedy found in the domesticity of everyday life. Cusk’s interpretation thrusts the play into the modern world. The time of gods has passed and instead we live in a world of men (and the use of the word ‘men’ is entirely intentional).

Medea has become a domestic tragedy about family breakdown. It is a snarling, vituperative text that sets Jason against Medea, with the children a battleground and reputations as weapons. Anger courses through the play, and confrontations between the two are ferocious all-out assaults that have a dangerous, spiteful venom rarely captured on the stage.

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A House Repeated Landscape promo

Turn to page 235. You encounter an angry goblin. Do you…

A House Repeated – Battersea Arts Centre, until 24 0ctober 2015 (tickets)

The first thing to note about A House Repeated is that it really shouldn’t be considered as theatre. Rather than this being intended as a criticism, it is something that should be taken as fact. The description on the Battersea Arts Centre website is of a performance-game, and for many this will be the reality.

Depending on your childhood reference points, it may remind you of choose-you-own adventures, point+click computer games, or even Dungeon and Dragons. Each of these is a kind of game, but they are also interactive experiences based around the idea that the player can create their own story (even if it is within prescribed limits).

Telling stories predates almost all other art-forms. It strips human imagination back to its most primitive level, and creates an intimate bond between teller and listener. The experience is quite unlike the standard theatrical experience. It encourages a less passive engagement. There are no visual stimuli to rely on, and we are constantly forced to respond to the text to keep the story alive in our minds.

Split into two groups and following similar, but slightly divergent, narratives, it creates a sense of camaraderie within your team and friendly competition against the other. The normal rules of theatre do not apply. Talking as a team is encouraged, and as the evening continues it is easy to find yourself in conversation with a stranger entirely outside of even these the loose boundaries. It becomes a social event that normal staging conventions could never hope to achieve.

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Irish Blood, English Heart

Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets – returns only)

Transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre confirmed, from 01 December 2015  (tickets)

Expectations ran high for Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s first new play for the London stage after ten years away. In the intervening years he turned his attention to Hollywood and delivered one of the most impressive debuts of recent times with In Bruges – a film that is remarkable for having managed to make it through the torturous process of film financing with its jet black content largely intact and, equally impressively, managing to get a good performance out of Colin Farrell.

For Hangmen he moves out of the small Irish villages where he made his name. However even as the landscape changes, the faces remain resolutely familiar. In the depressed Northern landscape of the 1950’s comes a cast of characters every bit as recognisable as those inhabitants of rural Ireland; spending their days congregating in the local pub, and being every bit as feckless as those seen in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Lacking any real clear sense of backbone, they spend their time revolving around the kind of minor celebrity that can hold together a kingly court in a land like this; David Morrisey’s Harry Wade – Britain’s last hangman, and every bit the self-proclaimed equal of that ‘bloody Pierrepoint’.

What makes a McDonagh play so enjoyable to watch is that you genuinely have no idea what direction it is going to go. Within the opening quarter there is a spectacular coup d’ theatre that changes the dynamic of the play entirely and throughout the plot jack-knifes at unexpected angles. Many playwrights attempt this kind of shift but few are very successful. It requires building an implicit trust in the audience that the pay-off is worth undercutting the narrative flow. McDonagh has wit and plot devices to burn, and there is a ghoulish horror in suddenly recognising that where he has decided to go with a story is so much further than you would have thought someone would have dared take it. His earlier plays have amply demonstrated that he is a master at finding the absurdities in the grotesque, and if Hangmen never quite reaches the blackest pitch of his early work then it still displays enough of his trademarks to make it an entertaining, if very slightly more West End friendly, production.

McDonagh is an actor’s writer. He gives charismatic performers the chance to revel in scintillating dialogue that is in shockingly poor taste but always undercut by a roguish charm that makes even the blackest heart slightly lovable. At Hangmen’s core is David Morrissey; a man built for the stage. He effortlessly commands proceedings and dominates the stage with a physicality and intensity that suggests there is the potential for truly great performances.

He plays the part to perfection – a man totally in hock to the legend that he has created for himself. It is no doubt with a knowing smile that McDonagh allows Wade just enough rope to hang himself with. The interview he gives to the local newspaper – full of bravado and pomposity –  is one of an emperor parading in front of the crowd safe in the knowledge that his court would never dare mention the questionable choice in clothing. He is a man drunk on adulation and with enough intelligence to crush any dissenting voices. Yet like any king who reigns without power, ultimately he is at the whim of his subjects and when he needs them the most he finds they abandon him.

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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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