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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Revisiting Constellations: Do stars lose their sparkle?

Constellations – Trafalgar Studios, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

It is hard to overstate what a runaway success Nick Payne’s Constellations has been. Since it premiered at the Royal Court in January 2012, it has enjoyed a West End run, a Broadway run (with no less a pairing than Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson), a national tour, won Best Play in the Evening Standard Awards and was nominated for three Tony Awards.

In terms of new British drama, the only recent works that match its transatlantic critical and public acclaim are Peter Morgan’s The Audience (whichConstellations received a significant boost from its subject matter and star-led casting) and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (truly brilliant but now almost 5 years old). There may be others but you get the point, Mr Payne can be placed among a select band of playwrights to have written a 21st century play that will be mentioned when we reflect back on this period in the years to come.

There is a risk that re-watching a play leads to a breaking of the spell, a dissipation of the magic that you allowed to be cast first time around when everything was fresh, exciting and new. The peril may have been even greater with Constellations, which is so delicately constructed that the fear is, if one looks closely enough, the unsightly cogs that keep the intertwined narrative threads running smoothly without snagging and fraying will become all too visible.

Yet watching Constellations for a second time is a rewarding experience. For a play that is a rich and considered portrait of love, it is perhaps appropriate that experiences of the first time exist as a blur; the brain is left to furiously piece together a flood of memories and fragmented emotions. You leave the auditorium exhilarated but exhausted, mental faculties taken through a mangle to leave you physically strung out.

Second time around everything can appear that little bit slower. The big surprises may have gone but it is an opportunity to luxuriate in everything you missed out on first time round. With the benefit of knowing what happens and how it all pieces together, the second time allows you to observe the process as much as watch the play.

It is a chance to explore and to probe. Was it just a flash in the pan or is there something longer lasting? Were we all sucked in by a snake-oil salesman’s polish or is there an intellectual depth that rewards repeat experiences?

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A lack of logic destablises the virtual world of The Nether

The Nether – Royal Court Theatre, until 09 August 2014 (tickets)

If it is not surprising that there are aspects of the modern world that barely exist on the stage – the sheer ubiquity of mobile phones, the centrality of TV and increasingly the internet to our lives – it doesn’t mean that this is a position that shouldn’t go unchallenged. It is true that traditionally these objects and our interaction with them have been seen as profoundly un-theatrical; they are products that led us to insularity and internal monologues, they are still and render us likewise. However it is up to theatre to challenge these assumptions

So to see The Nether, a play that tackles the internet – or at least a future-net – on the main stage at the Royal Court is a welcome sight. That it is supported by snazzy graphic designs (Luke Halls) which blur the transition from the real to the virtual world signals that some thought has gone into how to dramatise such a personal, internal activity – and, once again, it showcases just how far technical effects for the theatre have come.

It follows hot on the heels of Privacy at the Donmar and, whilst covering very different ground, they share an attempt to demonstrate that theatre is a medium that can not only engage with human and social issues but also has a role in challenging audiences on the technological issues that are increasingly blurring the boundaries between internal and external thought and action.

To describe the plot risks giving away rather too much of what makes the play an interesting watch. Although since the Royal Court refers to the fact that it is about a ‘virtual wonderland’ and that it covers ‘paedophilia in a digital world’ it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to recognise that this is a play that, in the words of a BBC voiceover, ‘some viewers may find offensive’.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley, Royal Court, LondonThat said this reviewer is surprised to hear talk of walkouts from the audience; whilst the concept may be distasteful, the production itself is pretty clean-cut and there is nothing that comes close to Blasted or Ubu in terms of disturbing visual imagery. In fact if anything the casting of the child actor (Zoe Brough as Iris – and exceptionally good in the role with a stunning, and quite disturbing, maturity) has perhaps restricted how far they could push the elements that people would find most troubling.

There are a number of problems with the play. Despite the sterling work of Luke Hall’s visual imagery and the wonderful Victoriana set design by Es Devlin, the play never rids itself of very static direction. This is not helped by the writing that turns every other scene into a dialectic between two sides of the argument, and setting these conversations in an interrogation room leaves very little freedom for movement.

Jennifer Haley’s script has nice touches but is also surprisingly weak in a number of areas; the core problem is that Haley strives for balance between her characters in order to create a ‘debate’ and make the play something more than a moralising rant. However the challenge of creating balance when one character is clearly morally repugnant has been tackled by making the ‘other’ appear artificially weaker and flawed. The balance is upset because Amanda Hale’s Morris has been nobbled from the get-go and will never match the personality given to Stanley Townsend’s Sims. As a side-note, it is almost impossible to believe that these names aren’t supposed to evoke the world of Pinter but sadly the dialogue itself falls rather short of this.

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Doing time with Birdland

Birdland – Royal Court Theatre, until 31 May 2014

There are few playwrights whose output is as prodigious as Simon Stephens; since 2010 he is credited against 15 works either as writer or adapter. He has built a fertile partnership with Katie Mitchell leading to a new translation of The Cherry Orchard arriving at the Young Vic in the autumn and, like Mitchell, he is highly feted abroad; working with Patrice Chéreau and Estonia’s Theatre NO99 on audience-challenging work that utilise multiple levels of abstraction and woozy dreamscapes to threaten the entire disintegration of narrative. However he is proved himself equally adept at producing crowd-pleasing adaptations and enjoyed great success with Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–time and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Andrew Scott in Birdland - Royal CourtAround Stephens’ swirls this air of the unknown, which makes any new work by him an enticing proposition. However this inability to pigeon-hole him has also led to him becoming one of Britain’s most divisive playwrights and Birdland is no exception to this.

What’s On Stage has pulled together how it has split the major newspapers, the blogging world has been generally united in criticism and it has been left to the always insightful Matt Trueman to attempt a passionate and cogent defence of the play.

Having been intrigued by Three Kingdoms and its radical Lynchian take on cross-border crime drama – possibly the only bright spot of the otherwise dire attempt to produce a theatrical ‘cultural Olympiad’ – Civilian Theatre has always been prepared to give Stephens a degree of slack. However it is troubling that flaws evident in Three Kingdoms crop up again in Birdland.

Three Kingdoms portrayal of female characters and sexual violence came very close to glorification rather than dispassionate reportage and whilst the work of multiple hands in the authorship of the piece made it hard to assign responsibility, it is depressing to see that three years later Stephens’ female characters remain ciphers for his fascination with charismatic men.

His work also remains far too long, Three Kingdoms was a punishing three hours whilst Birdland clocks in at an interval-less 110 minutes. It is slickly directed by Carrie Cracknall and the plot bounces along but as Andrew Scott’s rockstar Paul ends up in yet another European city, you do wonder if they could have shortened this endless tour by just a little.

It is down to the magnetic and compelling performance by Andrew Scott that the evening did not feel even longer. Whilst many of the audience may be drawn to this by his work in Sherlock (and one can see echoes of Moriarty in Scott’s dangerously charismatic Paul), he is no novice to the stage and took the lead in the (unfortunately woeful) Emperor and Galilean at the National. The snippet of Angels in America, shown as part of the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, also provided a chance to see an unusually intelligent and sensitive actor at work.

He turns Paul, on the surface a rather two-dimensional rockstar damaged by the sudden accumulation of wealth and fame, into a living creation. Scott finds a kernel of humanity within Paul’s increasingly disaffected personality; that part of his soul that led him to create the music that first brought him to people’s attention and which he is in the systematic process of destroying.

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Birdland Trailer

 

Read…people in defence of Birdland

Matt Truman

Michael Billington

The Other Bridge Project

Read…people criticising Birdland

Charles Spencer

Huffington Post

Cream of Vampire Soup

Spotlight on: John Arden

John Arden (1930 – 2012)

In a recent article Michael Billington wrote about five flops that deserved a revival. For those who have read Billington for a long time the choices are relatively unsurprising; playwrights that were either writing or hitting their peak in the late 1950′s / early 1960′s and plays that address the great social changes and political upheaval that the period was witness to. Of all those chosen, it was most heartening to see John Arden, who died in 2012, on the list; Arden seems destined to become one of those unfortunate writers regarded as brilliant by their peers and critics but failing to gain traction with the public at large.

Over the last few years there has been a definite shift towards reevaluation of writers from this era, which was perhaps prompted by the Rattigan Centenary productions that has done much to restore the reputation of a writer that was all too lazily dismissed as representing, with Noel Coward, an old-fashioned Edwardian sense of theatre. With the status of Pinter and Osborne set in stone and recent productions of Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delagny in London, it feels the time is right to re-examine a writer whose radicalism has never quite found a fit within the British theatre scene.

Like so many writers who never quite achieve the status they deserve, Arden proved to be too radical for mainstream consumption. Radical in his politics – he was a Marxist intellectual who used his plays to challenge the established order and was an ardent pacifist- he was also a radical in his writing. Arden’s plays are a rich and vivid affairs that blend prose, poetry and songs. He had a remarkable talent for dialect that allowed his characters to spring fully-shaped from the page. He also offered the audience no obvious direction as to whether their moral sympathies  should be directed –  characters that would normally be signposted as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ remain equally vibrant and engaging, leaving critics unsure as to what the message of his play were supposed to be

Reading his plays (because you won’t find many on stage) leaves an impression of a writer who had managed to distill the spirit of Brechtian theatre into the British landscape. There are hints of the stringent criticism of the political order that blend with an understanding of the changing social pressures of 1950′s England and the sense of the pastoral you find in the English folk traditions. Whereas Osborne and Delagny delivered critiques from the level of the domestic, Arden works on a more panoramic scale and sets his plays in a Britain that is both immediately recognisable and entirely alien.

Like so many other writers of the period, Arden came through the Royal Court’s Writer’s Group and his first play, The Waters of Babylon, highlighted his desire to engage with the social issues of  the time but also to avoid the trap of moralisation and gritty social realism. It also demonstrated Arden’s uncanny ability to pre-figure national events that were yet to break into the public consciousness, with a plot that identified the simmering tensions over immigration that were to explode in Notting Hill, eleven months after the play opened.

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