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 – Double Podcast Bonanza

Somehow slipping through the net towards the end of Summer was the latest in my occasional updates from the world of podcast. Brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast, this week brings a double bill of updates covering musicals from Kinky Boots, Dusty and Thoroughly Modern Millie, gritty new writing in And Then Come The Nightjars, less gritty writing in Hatched ‘n Dispatched.

And of course an inevitably in depth look at the mania surrounding a certain Mr Cumberbatch in a certain play by a certain playwright.  a long diversion   This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen to Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hamlet here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

You can listen to Kinky Boots, Hatched ‘n Dispatched, Dusty, The Man Who Had All The Luck and Here Come The Nightjars: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Benedict Cumberbatch related discussion.

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

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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Truth and its many voices

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New MeMade in China @ Soho Theatre, until Sat 26 September (tickets)

Following rave reviews for Made In China’s previous work, Gym Party, and having caught the scorching This is how we die by associate dramaturg, Christopher Brett Bailey, I had already mentally
clocked the company as one to keep an eye on. Their previous work had been built on a reputation for intelligently confrontational productions powered by a strong interest in purposely playful Jess Latowicki, courtesy David Monteith-Hodgenarratives, and their latest proved to be no exception.

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me takes the form of a monologue by Jess (Jess Latowicki) that covers the realisation that the sun was beginning to set on her relationship with Tim (Tim Cowbury). However her performance is subject to occasional interruptions by Tim, who is described as a playwright. As the performers names suggest the meta-fictionality is taken a stage further by the fact that Jess and Tim are a real-life couple and are credited as co-authors of the production; further blurring the level to which the monologue represents a fictional truth.

Through a series of well-handled, informal interactions with the audience, Jess explicitly draws the audience into the action. Whilst a play naturally requires an audience to witness the action, the role is often a passive one. Here we are pulled closely into Jess’ character, through her direct engagement, whilst Tim remains an off-stage blank. We become increasingly complicit in the action, and begin, on request, to speak the lines of the play. Forced through the participatory nature of theatre, and through the natural instinct to follow social convention, we become Jess’ mouthpiece in the acrimonious exchanges with Tim. We become her justifier and her defender against a strangely silent, impassive character.

Except Made In China are too smart for such an obvious narrative structure. The play throws up much more interesting questions about their relationship dynamic as Tim’s role as co-author becomes clearer. Early on he comments that Jess drops a line, and later we are told that he is written his own death scene. We are forced to contend with the fact that Jess’ offhand, friendly on-stage persona may be nothing more than a construct of Tim’s writing. It as if the curtain has been pulled back to show the insides of a room only to discover on closer inspection that it is in fact a trompe l’oiel.

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A bumpy tour around the 1950s

Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched – Park Theatre, until 26 September 2015 (tickets)

Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched, a new play by Gemma Page & Michael Kirk currently running at the Park Theatre, has received a bumpy welcome fromHatchednDisaptched The Family press reviews. The complaints primarily centre on a script criticised for presenting a series of cardboard cut-outs instead of characters, and it does not do itself many favours by presenting itself as ‘a mucky romp through the morals, memories and music of the 1950s’. The line conjures up images of bedroom farce and end-of-pier innuendo, whereas it feels like Page & Kirk are trying to find a way into rather more dark territory. If HatchednDispatched Wendi Peters Photo Philip Lyonssome of the more laboured and crude jokes give it the feel of Carry On Up The 1950s, there is a sense that at its heart the inspiration it draws from is closer to the social commentary that underpinned Joe Orton’s finest work and the pointed class anxieties of Mike Leigh.

It is the tonal inconsistencies that do most to scupper the production. The opening is one of a bawdy sex comedy before developing into broad farce. Whilst it is clear throughout that storm clouds are gathering, it never does enough to justify the shift in mood from the start of the second half. It opens with a misconceived domestic violence subplot (not a bad idea in itself but really uncomfortably handled) and proceeds to lurch between kitchen-sink drama, social realism, black comedy and Ibsen-esque naturalism.

Part of the trouble stems from a script that is not sharp enough to glide through the transitions. The dialogue never reaches the kind of heightened language that makes the baroque melodramas of Tennessee Williams or the Shakespearian monologues of Arthur Miller so memorable. The problem with recreating the kitchen-sink drama is that it was a dramatic style that perfectly fit the developing medium of TV, and as a style it was swallowed up and transformed into what we know as soap operas. Given that the cast is built around Wendi Peters, famous for her role on Coronation Street, it becomes difficult not to think of the play in these terms.

It is a shame because the cast are working hard to round out the characters, and in Dorothy Needham, Wendi Peters has a formidable role to work with. One can argue that she comes close to a caricature of a ‘northern battle-axe’, but Dorothy is still a wonderfully monstrous creation. She dominates her family, and it gives Peters the opportunity to dominate the stage. She takes on the role with lip-smacking relish. It is hard to avoid thinking of Hyacinth Bucket when seeing Peters in full flow, but Bucket’s persona was just a veneer to a fragile ego whereas Dorothy Needham is built of solid oak in comparison. She remains unphased by the foibles of her family members, and demonstrates a stoic self-sacrifice that one can regard as being as admirable in intention, as it is terrible in result.

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“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Hamlet – Barbican Theatre, until 31 October 2015 (returns and day tickets only)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.

Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.

I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.

However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.

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