Hansberry vs. Horrocks

The culture: ‘Les Blancs’ by Lorraine Hansberry, National Theatre and ‘If You Kiss Me Kiss Me’ by Jane Horrocks and Aletta Collins, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £15 Travelex National Theatre ticket (front row, side view), £10 Young Vic Under 25 ticket

The best thing about London’s theatre scene is that you can see wildly differing things within a mile of each other. The worst thing is that within 0.6 miles you can see great theatre and not so great theatre. Because the quest for cheap seats involves booking before reviews come out – and sometimes before a show is anything more than a blurb on a booking page – sometimes I end up with tickets for not so great theatre. This week, I saw both kinds.

And so, after discovering a booking in my diary that I couldn’t even remember making, I found myself at the Young Vic watching If You Kiss Me Kiss Me. It’s basically Jane Horrocks singing her way through her favourite new wave songs while a theatre audience looks on, a bit awkwardly toe-tapping (and not the hits, really, either – perhaps Horrocks is trying to prove her eclectic taste, or perhaps the rights to ‘Tainted Love’ were too expensive). The Smiths, Joy Division, The Human League, The Buzzcocks, Soft Cell, they’re all here, beautifully sung and beautifully lit by Andreas Fuchs, with talented contemporary dancers throwing shapes against Bunny Christie’s seriously impressive set. There’s a giant plug socket, a fridge, lots of strip lighting. It’s all very ~conceptual~ and I wanted to like it, I really did. In fact, it reminded me of the recent ‘Macbeth’ at the Young Vic, which I also really wanted to like.

Horrocks is pretty good. The zombie-like dancers in sports gear and suits are really, really sexy. There’s even some cunnilingus choreography that had most of the front row looking anywhere but the stage. It’s pretty out there, but it just doesn’t come together (ahem) into a meaningful whole. There’s a vague, pessimistic theme of the brutality and pointlessness of love which would usually be my thing, but there’s no narrative to hang it on so it flounders. It feels a bit voyeuristic, too, and not just because of the gyrating bodies. There’s a real gig vibe but we’re at the theatre with our hands in our laps, not sure when to clap, instead of sweating and grinding too. There are some beautiful moments, though, especially when a heartbroken Horrocks sits on the giant plug and sings The Smiths’ ‘I Know It’s Over’ and I almost cried because that song hits too close to home, especially during the stresses of essay Hell month.

It would be wrong to call If You Kiss Me Kiss Me a vanity project because there are the seeds of something interesting here. Is Jane Horrocks telling us something (important) about being a woman trying to love past the age of 50? Maybe. The problem is, it’s not clear. It’s all a bit ‘Mum-does-the-school-run-in-a-leather-jacket-with-the-hits-from-her-youth-on-and-then-struts-to-the-school-gate’ (tragic) when it could have been ‘Yes-we-still-want-to-be-wanted-and-look-we’re-still-sexy’ (powerful). Maybe it just went over my (young) head. There’s some great clothes, though. The show got me coveting the copper bomber jacket that Horrocks really rocks, and Fabienne Débarre’s wardrobe/haircut/keyboard skills. And if nothing else it’s reignited my love/loathe relationship with The Smiths. *cue feelings*

 

What really got under my skin this week was Yaël Farber’s production of  Les Blancs by playwright and civil rights activist Lorraine Hansberry at the National. Set in an unnamed African country at the brink of revolution, it’s a complex drama about national ties and dislocated belonging. As “the terror” prepare for war and the colonial settlers prepare to flee, Tshembe returns from England for his father’s funeral and finds himself in a land he barely recognises. Les Blancs is incredibly rich and constantly shifting, with delicate characterisation brought out by a really superb ensemble. It’s powerful from the pungent incense that hits you as you walk in to the shocking conclusion that leaves your mind spinning as you walk out. The production is so brilliantly put together that the revolution feels dangerously real. Despite the clever speeches, it’s the sensual elements that I still can’t shake from my mind – that smell, the smoke, the singing matriarchs, the gorgeous, filmic lighting. Another real highlight is Sheila Atim, who I last saw up at the RSC, whose performance captivates without her saying a word. As The Woman she silently haunts the shattering world of Les Blancs, an everywoman/Mother Africa figure who is both powerful and vulnerable and moves like nothing I’ve seen before. I was breathless by the time they set the old world aflame in search of new hope. Staggering stuff.

 

An experience of Uncle Vanya

The culture: ‘Uncle Vanya’, by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Robert Icke, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view side seats (mostly fine but a poor view of the characters whenever they stepped outside of the box to soliloquise)

Even bad Chekhov hits me right in the guts. There’s something about the way he writes and effortlessly captures human experience in all its miserable beauty and beautiful misery that just reduces me to a quivering mess of existential crises every time. But the Almeida’s new Uncle Vanya isn’t bad Chekhov, it’s brilliant Chekhov, and I spent a surreal journey home on the Overground staring into the middle distance, hopeless and hopeful, surrounded by St Patrick’s Day drunks.

Robert Icke’s new version of the play updates it and chops it into pieces. The night is three intervals and over three hours long but doesn’t feel it. It opens on a hazy midsummer day with beautiful rich people languishing in the heat at their country house. They’re a middle-class cliché. I know these people and I dislike these people but I identify with almost every one of them. As the set slowly turns round and round (and round and endlessly round, it’s a metaphor, get it?), I slip into the production, lulled into a false sense of something by the sunny lighting and birdsong, and my personality, my being, is picked apart while I’m not paying attention. I see myself in them all. As the night progresses and the characters reveal their virtues and their flaws I’m confronted by myself at every turn of that really irritating creaking set. It’s claustrophobic and disgusting. It’s fascinating. They start to fall apart and so do I. Or at least we all start to realise that we were never ‘together’ in the first place.

There’s a stunning moment in which Uncle Vanya goes mental with a bunch of autumn roses and I want to be him, thrashing everything in sight out of pure frustration. I want to be Elena, beautiful and admired and lethargic and looking on horrified. I want to be Sonya, cowering in the corner, hiding from the sheer sorrow of it all. I am all of them, even the well-dressed great aunt who barely speaks. Even that chicken with a two minute cameo. Especially the grandmother who knits and drops occasional pearls of obscure wisdom. When the hot doctor’s morphine goes missing and the tension is ramped right up to really-fucking-unbearable I realise my knuckles are white and my nails are digging into my hands. It’s really that good. Those 3 hours could have been 3 days, 3 minutes, or 3 seconds. It’s really that good.

 

Ode to Joy

The culture: ‘Wonder.land’, National Theatre Olivier; ‘The Woman Hater’ by Edward’s Boys, King’s College London Chapel

The cheap seats: £5 Entry Pass stalls seats (upgraded to centre, row D); £10 general tickets

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen some brilliant and brutal theatre, starting with Sarah Kane’s torturous masterpiece ‘Cleansed’ and then Jean Genet’s tricky drama ‘The Maids’ at Trafalgar Studios. Both had brilliant casts and powerful women galore. They were hard hitting, tackling issues of race, gender, class. They were sweary and violent but also beautiful in a twisted and disturbing way.

They were also difficult. Both plays are firmly lodged in my brain but I didn’t really ‘get’ them. I left the theatres feeling a bit floored, but not feeling like I understood the plays, and certainly not like I had been entertained. I also think I’ve gained a brow-wrinkle from thinking about them.

There’s something to be said for something that’s pure joyful fun. Last weekend I finally saw ‘Wonder.land’ at the National Theatre, the new musical based on Alice in Wonderland by Moira Buffini and Blur’s Damon Albarn. I booked before it got savaged on press night and, having seen the reviews, almost returned my tickets. But I’m so, so glad I didn’t. ‘Wonder.land’ is high-camp fun of the highest order, the kind that is usually reserved for pantomime season. Aly is a troubled teen from a broken home who enters ‘Wonder.land’, a virtual reality game where you can be whoever you like, to escape the bullies at her new school and the fall-out from her parents’ break-up at home. Yes, it was a bit patronising in places. But the theme of self-acceptance was so uplifting, there were so many inspired moments, so much glitter, and a very sexy white rabbit, that I left grinning like the Cheshire cat himself.

Sunday’s treat was a little more high-brow. As part of King’s College London’s Beaumont400 conference (an antidote to all the bardolating that’s going on at the moment), Edward’s Boys, a boys’ company from Stratford-upon-Avon, staged Francis Beaumont’s forgotten gem of a comedy ‘The Woman Hater’. The entire show was brilliantly stolen by its madcap subplot in which a glutton will do anything, including marrying a prostitute, to sample the rare delicacy of his dreams – a fish head. There was even a Dean Martin song thrown in. I’ve never laughed so hard in a chapel.

While I love a serious piece of drama as much as the next frequenter of the NT, there’s a lot to be said for fun theatre, and for revelling in childish jokes, belly laughs, glitter cannons, pimps dressed as priests, and fish heads.

REVIEW: The Tempest

The culture: ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets (very restricted side view, although I managed to sneak onto an empty seat with a central sightline after the interval)

The Tempest wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play, no matter how much we wish it was. It would have been perfect – a life in art, the master of theatre’s carefully orchestrated last goodbye to the stage before burning his books and begging his audience to set him free with their applause so he could retire to the country and turn his thoughts to death. But it was not so. After Prospero exits stage right, Shakespeare would return to write Henry VIII and a collaborative play, Two Noble Kinsmen. Editing these out of the Late Works canon according to the Sam Wanamaker Winter Season creates a much neater set of plays with a pleasing narrative arch, of which Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Tempest is the climax. The problem is that it’s not quite a climax. It’s nice: nice candle-work, nice costumes, (mostly) nice acting, and a (mostly) nice play. As a good, old-timey piece of bardolatry it’s a masterpiece, though as a piece of drama it’s hardly ground-breaking

But if you want radical Shakespeare you will have to wait for Ivo van Hove’s upcoming trilogy at the Barbican; you go to a show at the Globe for its conservative, historical approach to the Complete Works. However even by these high standards resurrecting old Will himself and planting him on stage as the well-read wizard Prospero might be a bit much. For although he has more beard and less forehead than classic portraits of Shakespeare, Tim McMullan’s Prospero is clearly meant to be an incarnation of the playwright in a production that subscribes wholeheartedly and unapologetically to the autobiographical reading of the play. This Prospero is intensely dislikable – he’s irascible, smug, and, with a female Ariel (Pippa Nixon) and his daughter Miranda (Phoebe Pryce) as his main companions, appears misogynistic until the men of Milan show up and he’s just as abrupt with them. He is a genius, but also a man who likes the sound of his own brilliant, booming voice to such an extent that it’s hard to dredge up any pity for him at all come the play’s conclusion. There’s some great character work here and if his main role in this production wasn’t ‘Shakespeare Impersonator’, Tim McMullan might have been up there with the best Prosperos I’ve seen.

‘Shakespero’ aside, the production doesn’t do much out of the ordinary (although it does feature some fabulous dinosaur dogs in the second half). With the exception of halfwit drunkards Stephano and Trinculo (affable Globe favourites Trevor Fox and Dominic Rowan, who take considerable liberties with their scripts and ad-lib with all kinds of brilliant modernisms), this Tempest is a usual doublet-and-hose affair with traditional values and a jig at the end, just what the Globe does best.

I found my eye drawn to the musicians’ gallery several times (and not just because of the startling thunderclaps), to Dominic Dromgoole’s smiling face which looks down at the audience, immortalised, painted atop the wings of a cherub. This truly is his swan song. Like Prospero and Shakespeare before him, Dromgoole is saying goodbye to the thing he has loved and invested so much in. His Tempest is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but as well as being a solid production it’s such a fond farewell from, and to, that marvellous director and master of bardolators that, however much I disliked it, I have to admit that I admired it hugely too.

Lagers and Trombones and Bears, Oh My!

The culture: ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, National Theatre Lyttelton; ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, National Theatre Temporary Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets at the Sam Wanamaker; £5 Entry Pass in the Circle for ‘Ma Rainey’ (which gave me a great view of the set); £20 full price side view for ‘Iphigenia’ (Entry Pass ones had sold out but I’m so glad I splurged).

I’ve seen a lot of beige theatre lately, stuff that’s not got me excited enough to write about, stuff I’ve neither loved nor hated. To be honest I was worrying that, after a dodgy tail-end of 2015 (I’m looking at you, Young Vic Macbeth), 2016 was going to be a duff one. But in the first grey and miserable week of February I scored a hat-trick. Here’s my week in review, and it’s full of strong women, powerful words, and brilliant theatre.

Tuesday: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The ‘Late Shakespeare’ winter season at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been an interesting project so far. After a strong start with Dominic Dromgoole’s Pericles, I was a little disappointed by a Cymbeline (dir. Sam Yates) that although clear and beautiful lacked the magic and wow-factor of its predecessor. Michael Longhurst’s Winter’s Tale, the third production in this repertory, is gripping, dark, and powerful from its opening moments. The first half ends with the auditorium plunged into a chilling darkness, populated by bears and lonely candles, before the second half lifts the spirits from the depths of despair, gathering everyone round the fire for a good old-fashioned knees-up and a hey-nonny-nonny sing-song led by James Garnon’s cheeky Autolycus and a whole flock of ruddy-faced country folk. There’s some weird, primal sheep dancing that is really best buried somewhere deep in your subconscious where you’ll never have to encounter it again, but overall this Winter’s Tale is a joyous production of my new favourite Shakespeare play and worth seeing for Rachael Stirling’s Hermione and Niamh Cusack’s passionate Paulina alone.

Thursday: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, National Theatre – Lyttelton 

Another one for those who like their theatre with a strong kick of feisty femininity, Dominic Cooke’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Sharon D. Clarke as the titular Mother of the Blues, has a woman calling the shots in a music world dominated by white men. The story follows a diva’s battle to get control of her music in 1920s Chicago, and her band’s own struggles as black men in America. It’s an incredible story inspired by real-life and told with a whole lot of soul in this adaptation. The cast is faultless and it is so refreshing to see such diversity on a National Theatre stage. The two young black guys sitting next to me were, tellingly, not discussing the current whiter-than-white repertoire (As You Like It, Waste) but remembering their last trip to the National (Amen Corner, the last time I saw so many non-white faces on this patch of the South Bank) and getting excited for their next theatre trip – Red Velvet at the Garrick. This just goes to show that all the NT need to do to improve access and participation is to finally put more brilliant, diverse work in their programme!

Friday: Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, National Theatre – Temporary Theatre

This was absolutely the jewel in the crown of my week of great theatre. Gary Owen’s one-woman play – furiously, movingly, beautifully brought to life by Sophie Melville’s phenomenal performance – is a battle cry for the NHS, screaming in the face of the Tory government and laying bare the bruises and bodies caused by Conservative cuts under stark neon lights. Effie is the kind of girl that seems more likely to be doing heroin down a dark alley of her rundown hometown than acting like a national heroine. She gets so wasted that she’s wiped out for the rest of the week just to pass the time. She staggers about with a two-day hangover, barely surviving on 25p instant noodles, smoking weed with her good for nothing boyfriend Kev. She’s a horrible symptom of a sick nation riddled with unemployment and weakened by a toxic drinking culture. We are repelled. She owns it. Effie aggressively confronts our prejudice against her before telling her story in her own words. It’s bitterly tragic and harrowingly told. By the end our horror isn’t focused on the ballsy, bad-mouthed, bleach-blonde Effie but on ourselves, our privilege, our ignorance of a country in tatters and a whole section of our society forced to be heroic because there’s no other way to keep going. I cried big ugly tears, gulping down sobs, like so many others were, so we wouldn’t ruin the stunned silence smothering the Temporary Theatre. What Iphigenia in Splott does in 75 minutes is more than most plays can do in three hours. This is what theatre is supposed to be like. I’m getting a bit emotional just thinking about it.

REVIEW: Jane Eyre

The culture: ‘Jane Eyre’ dir. Sally Cookson, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, National Theatre’s Lyttelton

The cheap seats: lovely £5 Entry Pass seats in the centre of the stalls, row B.

Telling the story of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre on stage was never going to be an easy task. It’s a huge book, to start with, and has just under 170 years’ worth of readers with their own ideas of Jane, Mr Rochester, and their turbulent journeys of love and loss. A production could have gone over the top, à la Barbican’s CumberHamlet, with lavish sets and starry casting. It could have condensed it down to a slim and sleek 2-hour affair, stripping the story to its bones.

The take on Jane Eyre currently playing at the National Theatre manages to achieve the perfect balance in its adaptation. A carefully pruned version of the Bristol Old Vic’s two-parter (which ran for 4.5 hours total), Sally Cookson’s production comes in at 3 hours 20 minutes. Many audience members were a bit aghast at the sight of that running time in the programme, but every second is necessary and every minute is magic.

Storytelling at its finest, and loyal to the plot in spite of (or perhaps because of) its quirkiness, women play men, adults play babies, and Craig Edwards even acts the part of Rochester’s dog, Pilot. The bare stage – all metal ladders, timber frames and atmospheric lightbulbs – has a captivating kind of rough beauty against which the talented cast scrawl Brontë’s story and a live band bring a haunting (and often funny) score to life. It’s endlessly inventive and really does justice to the book. This is high praise indeed coming from a literature student; Jane Eyre was the first book to make me cry, and I had tears in my eyes as I joined the standing ovation.

The energy and emotion the whole cast, but especially Madeleine Worrall as a refreshingly strong Jane, pour into the show is incredible. It burns – literally as well as metaphorically – with passion and creativity. It’s more like a thrilling recreation of Jane Eyre than a stage adaptation. I was awestruck from the very first scene of Cookson’s gorgeous, feminist show, and covered in goose-bumps from start to finish.

Shakespeare: Our Contemporary?

The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’, Young Vic; ‘As You Like It’, National Theatre; ‘Henry V’, Barbican

The cheap seats: restricted side view at the Young Vic (a nice, safe distance from all those sex dolls), £5 central front row seats at the National so I could enjoy a particularly beautiful Orlando, £5 RSC Key tickets at the Barbican – my sweet spot seat (M22, Stalls).

The thing with playing with the canon is that it can explode – either with a damp squib or brilliant pyrotechnics. Watching three recent London productions of Shakespeare, I’ve had very different experiences. If my trips to productions of  Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Barbican were a game of Snog, Marry, Avoid, I would steer clear of Measure for Measure, kiss As You Like It while grinning in a brightly coloured, frilly underskirt surrounded by origami flowers, and I’d marry dear, dependable Henry V because the RSC’s production would be the kind of amiable husband who would never cheat or forget to put the bins out, but would tell a dirty joke every now and then just so you didn’t entirely regret plumping for predictable, comfortable, suburban matrimony.

Sticking to what they do best, the good ship RSC and captain Greg Doran create a clear Henry V. Alex Hassell, who was the perfect Hal, doesn’t quite seem to have settled or grown into the role, even after a full run in Stratford, but the ensemble, as ever, is brilliant. A particular highlight is Robert Gilbert as pouting court poser the Dauphin of France. Henry V is the RSC at its finest doing what it does best – dressing up in lots of leather, doing a bit of sword fighting and speaking verse exceptionally well. It was very entertaining but not a single patch of ground was broken.

But then super modern doesn’t always work either, as the Young Vic’s Measure for Measure (dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins) can testify. Maybe they sent a hapless production assistant to Ann Summers as a joke. The mountain  of blow up sex dolls is certainly funny to start with, but soon the laughter wears thin. The actors are literally wading through pink plastic, pushing genitals aside to do their monologues and it suddenly seems a bit grotesque.

Then there’s the filming. The prison scenes are like a weird sex dungeon episode of a dodgy MTV series filmed on shaky handheld cameras and projected onto the wooden board at the back of the set. Romola Garai’s Isabella is strong – all angry shouting, eloquence and stubborn righteousness where poor Mariah Gale was restricted to wide, wet eyes and disbelief over at the Globe this summer. The ending’s good too and making the Duke a bit mad is a really clever way of dealing with the play’s greatest problem.  As a heavily cut text running for two hours with no interval it’s underdeveloped and rushed but at least clear and concise in its vision. There is, however, no escaping the gimmicks, especially since at least a hundred of them are slap bang in the centre of the stage with gaping mouths. It’s not sexy or shocking, just a little bit awkward, and it adds little to nothing to the play.

Perhaps, then, the best answer to the question To Modernise or Not To Modernise? is just to sidestep it and make a production timeless. Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National’s Olivier Theatre begins in a modern setting. The Duke’s court is an office with whirring technology smartly dressed workers. Neatly clipped bonsai trees under lamps and forest desktop screensavers seem to replace the forest of Arden and it looks like a clever metaphor for how we’ve forgotten nature in a sea of capitalism. Someone from the house of Dubois comes in to trim the bonsai, sticking out like a sore thumb in the chic black office with his rustic chest of tools. It turns out to be wholesome Orlando (Joe Bannister), come to rescue fair Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) from the corporate court.

The scene change is nothing short of spectacular and from this point the play is radical Shakespeare. When the tables and chair fly up and the office set wheels back I expected a lush green forest. Instead, we’re given a post-apocalyptic scene with a smashed tarmac floor. Everyone wears camo colours and chunky knitwear, shivering and huddling for warmth, occasionally bursting into folk song to boost morale. Polly Findlay’s “Forest” of Arden can be cruel or kind and the spooky gothic feathered spirits perched on suspended office furniture chirp like sparrows or squark like ravens.

The dangling desks, covered in Post-It love notes by Orlando, are a bit odd until you embrace them and appreciate them as a kind of dark cubist set. The lines are often anachronistic but the performances are strong, particularly Bannister’s Orlando and Patsy Ferran’s show-stealing Celia, not usually a character who gets to shine but played for all she’s worth and more by Ferran, with her gift for comedy, timing, and kooky facial expressions. The ending is very ‘Wizard of Oz’ but it’s so fun and beautiful that it’s impossible not to get totally swept up in it all – just as you should by a good Shakespeare comedy.

These three London productions have shown me just how picky I am about my Shakespeare productions.Essentially, it’s been like a theatre-based rewrite of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.  The Young Vic’s Measure for Measure was too hot and left me cold. The RSC’s Henry V was good (and a great end to the King and Country Cycle I’ve enjoyed over the past few years) but too conventional for my taste. Polly Findlay’s dynamic As You Like It at the National Theatre, however, was just right, and just as I like it. More than this, these productions illustrate three approaches to staging canonical texts and prove that playing with Shakespeare can still create infinite variety.