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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The sins of the father

A Number – The Maria @ Young Vic, until 15 August 2015 (tickets)

Carol Churchill is a playwright that I always feel I should know more about. She writes clever, spiky, experimental theatre and is one of the rare playwrights to critically engage with themes that toy with what some rather  snobbishly decry as science-fiction. Her consistency over four decades of writing plays for stage and radio make a strong candidate for the title of ‘Britain’s greatest living playwright’ following the death of Harold Pinter in 2008 and that alone is enough to make her worthy of considerable interest.

Whenever I read a description of her plays, such as the mixing of historical and fictional women in Top Girls, the rhyming verse of Serious Money, using the Putney Debates in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire or the Brechtian Vinegar Tom, I cannot help be fascinated by the striking originality and clarity of her vision. She rarely seems to experiment for its own sake; her plays appear to have a cohesive and clear sense of what they want to be and how they want to achieve it.

A Number is an appealing science-fiction two-hander on cloning that mines the idea of how knowledge of a replicated self can impact on a person’s sense of identity, but with Churchill’s characteristic sharp eye also delves into psychoanalytic ideas around the impact that the parental environment has on the adult self.

The play is performed excellently by father-son duo, John and Lex Shrapnel, and is never less than interesting. It takes the form of a series of intense, tightly-framed duologues between the father and versions of his son. The audience is kept off-kilter by jumps in time between scenes, and a lack of framing to the wider world. We must pick up our cues from the conversation as it unfolds in front of us.

It is doubtless Churchill’s intention to leave you slightly unbalanced and trapped within the Father’s personal unravelling. Initially sympathetic, the revelations across the conversations reveal an ever-more monstrous side to his character, and the havoc wreaked by his choices many years ago echo down the generations to the present day. This is brought out most clearly in the last conversation with a version of his son that was entirely separated from the father. He is the most at peace with the idea of being a clone and is the one who had least closeness to the original family.

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Annie (played by Esme Appleton), Robert (Shamira Turner), Golem and Granny (Rose Robinson) Photo Will Sanders

Challenging uniformity in life and on stage.

Golem1927 @ Young Vic Theatre, until 31 January (Tickets)

At its heart 1927’s Golem is a modern reworking of Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, Der Golem, which itself was a retelling of the Prague Golem stories. The legend is a classic piece of Jewish folklore and the oldest narratives date to the Talmud and the very beginnings of Judaism. It is a story that has always held an instinctive appeal. In its most basic form it is about creating life out of golem_new_326x326inanimate matter something that can be identified in most of mankind’s origin myths but as society advanced something about the golem has meant the stories have retained their relevance. Golem’s stories became intertwined with its purpose as he unstoppable, implacable slave of its instruction. It can be seen in the mechanisation of the modern army and again in the prism of the Industrial Revolution that saw the skilled worker become expendable in the face of technological improvements.

The golem, in its nether-changing silence, seems always to reflect the images that a new generation projects upon it. 1927 are just the latest company to breathe life into the clay man and they do so with an extraordinary visual flair and breath-taking inventiveness. Whilst their central conceit, that modern society is a troublingly homogenous mass of cultural identity and branding, is not particularly original and also rather debatable, what cannot be denied is the originality Esme.Appleton.in_.1927.s.Golem_.at_.the_.Young_.Vic_.9.Dec_.2014..17.Jan_.2015..Photo_.by_.Bernhard.M.ller_.2of the company themselves and that they have, with Golem enjoying a sold-out residency at the Young Vic, announced their arrival as a major player on the UK theatre scene.

So what makes 1927 so impressive? Simply put they are leading the vanguard of companies that are using visual effects to question the limitations of the traditional theatrical space. VFX have been a game changer in challenging assumptions about what stories can and can’t be told on stage, and with Golem we are seeing theory turned into practice. Whilst it is not the perfect production – the quality of design, costume and musicianship does outweigh the quality of acting and writing – as a statement of intent it certainly leaves its mark.

VFX are used throughout the West End to provide the ‘value added’ – that extra little bit that makes you feel you haven’t wasted your money and time on a show. However if it is seen in these terms then it is little surprise that VFX rarely do more than add pizazz, it is far rarer to see VFX used to deepen the narrative or to have been carefully considered for its use in producing more complex sets.

The first time I was really aware of the power of VFX was in 2005 with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s wonderful production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It used technology to move the audience between the Art Institute of Chicago and the banks of the Seine. Watching Daniel Evan’s Seurat ‘paint’ the pointillist masterpiece onto a virtual backdrop was to see for the first time the possibilities that VFX brings to the theatre, and to see a narrative that was immeasurably strengthened by being integrated with the technology.

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The Civil Awards – Winners

Competition has been fierce. Tears, wine and blood have been spilt. Not necessarily in that order. All that remains, with votes cast, arguments played out, and money in brown paper bags tallied and accounted for, is to dust off the golden envelopes and announce the hotly anticipated (umm, by who? – ed) results.

If you are under the suspicion that these awards don’t have any real meaning and are just another internet blog’s attempts to round off the year in a show of unnecessary and undeserved self-importance then, well, you would be right.

However I rest happy knowing these are the views of someone who has seen, and written, a lot about theatre in 2014. And that has a meaning above and beyond those offered by a certain awards ceremony funded by a bearded Russian billionaire whose questionable wealth accumulation tactics enabled them to buy an entire newspaper for seemingly the sole purpose of indulging twin fantasies of being a cultural impresario and being photographed with an arm around attractive celebrities.

So mea culpa over, follow the link to check out the winners.

Find out who won here