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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The Ruling Farce

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, until 11 April 2015 (Tickets

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios. Credit: Jonas Persson

It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.

It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.

Credit: Jonas PerssonHowever by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited long broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.

While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983.  Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.

However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next.

I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.

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The making of a king

Richard III – Trafalgar Studios (01 July – 27 September 2014)

Richard III, as proved by his miraculous reappearance in a car park in Leicester, is someone who will not stay dead. In the last three years we had already seen three major productions, including turns from the cream of both stage and screen; Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey. It is a brave performer who follows in those footsteps and even braver one who takes it despite minimal recent stage experience and a screen persona that has been fine-tuned to be the polar opposite of the larger-than-life, charismatic king.

However Jamie Lloyd has been using the opportunity presented by Trafalgar Transformed to revitalise the space with high octane productions cast with performers that have been carefully chosen to appeal to a younger Martin Freeman as Richard IIIdemographic without destroying the vitality of Shakespeare’s language.

Richard III, and last year’s superb Macbeth with James McAvoy, blurs the lines between cinematic and theatrical expectations. It is reasonable to quibble with the handling of the language but it is wrong to deny they contain a thrilling visceral energy that may counter the preconceived notions of those whose only experience of theatre is via how drama is taught in schools.

There has been criticism in how Martin Freeman approached the text and it is true the verse of the famous opening monologue is all but destroyed through his delivery. However this is less marked in the rest of the play and often the iambic meter is fluid and complete. He may not have the rounded tones of a natural stage actor but this may be a combination of lack of experience and also the directorial decisions underpinning the play.

Richard III JLC PROD-1522The decision to tackle ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ in that way would not have been taken lightly and, on balance, the production gets away with it because it is being delivered as an address to the nation. If we accept the opening premise that changes it from a traditional monologue to a public speech then it is logically justifiable to deliver it in the clipped rhetorical tones of a politician rather than in the fluid verse of someone expressing their inner-thoughts.

Whilst changing the tone of one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches is controversial, it does allow a wonderful moment that would not otherwise be delivered. To use the language of cinema there is a brilliant smash-cut at ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’; Freeman’s Richard switches instantly from the exterior to the interior, from the public to the private. We see clearly the calculating nature of his public persona and the private contempt of others.

For an audience less literate in the convoluted back story of the play it also makes it easier to recognise the inappropriateness of the good humour he shows to Clarence as he is being sent to the tower. We have already been shown the duplicity of Richard and his ability to – use the jargon of modern politics in which it is set – ‘work the room’. Here with Clarence we witness this as a fine art; understanding, consoling and, naturally, mastering the double-speak that contains no lies – ‘well, your imprisonment shall not be long’.

If this Richard has one overriding trait it is that of the small-man syndrome writ on a national scale. This is most clearly witnessed in the wooing of Lady Anne; a scene that demonstrates both the driving force of this Richard, along with a sense of what makes the production ultimately problematic.

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A whistle-stop tour of the antebellum South

Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios, until 30 August 2014 (tickets)

At the start of a new musical there is often a frisson of excitement that doesn’t often occur with new plays; the rarity of a new book, and the possibility that you could be in the audience for the next Chicago, Cats or Sound of MusicDessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,10 or, alternatively, Gone with the Wind or (fingers crossed) Carrie: The Musical seems to add a certain expectation to the evening.

As a result it is with something approaching disappointment that it must be reported that Dessa Rose proves itself to be an entirely functional musical, with performers and musicians’ skilfully executing what is, in the main, a rather humdrum book from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

Whilst the production has a number of highlights it covers so much ground that you are pulled across decades as quickly as you are across musical styles. It is often not clear when or where you are, and this causes its central theme – that there is a bond between ‘women’ that can cut across the race and income divide of the prejudiced 18th century South – to never be satisfactorily addressed.

Ahrens and Flaherty have some form in producing surface-level musicals that work more as a Wikipedia summation of American history than as a complex emotionally engaging narrative. Ragtime, last seen in the summer of 2012 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, was taken from E.L Doctorow’s novel, and was similarly fated to be rendered down into a deeply and problematically oversimplified tale of the oppressed masses instead of a complex view on America’s rich social-cultural history.

Musicals have taken a leading role in addressing racial prejudice and the experience of black people in America. Porgy and Bess is often held up as one of the greatest American musicals, The Scottsboro Boys finally emerged in the last couple of years as one of Kander & Ebb’s finest creations and, in the same year Ahrens & Flaherty produced Dessa Rose, The Colour Purple was also adapted for the stage.

Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,28These are not small shoes to fill and Dessa Rose, for all the heart of its performers, never comes close to filling them. There is nothing that comes close to matching Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So as musical numbers, it doesn’t have the natural, shocking wit of The Scottsboro Boys and the twin themes of racism and sexism are far more clearly articulated in The Colour Purple.

Dessa Rose is strongest when the performers and musicians are doing what they do best and the message gets forgotten about for a while. There is a tight-knit quality to the ensemble that suggests a strong rehearsal process and credit must go to Andrew Keates (Director) and Sam Spencer Lane (Choreographer) for some remarkably agile set-pieces on the tiny Trafalgar stage. It is not easy to work on a thrust stage with a cast of twelve but it is an impressively fluid production, and rarely do the actors get under each other’s feet.

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