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.

 

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.

10 ways to spend 100 minutes that are probably better than an Evening at the Talk House

The culture: ‘Evening at the Talk House’, National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre

The cheap seats: £5 side of stage Entry Pass tickets. These were actually great seats but the play is impossibly bland, full of uninteresting characters who speak in self-centred riddles and disjointed monologues, and plays for one hundred bewildering minutes without an interval.  

Maybe it was an ill-judged attempt at meta-theatrical irony? I mean, there was a bit at the beginning about how theatre was just sitting in the dark watching people on a stage. Yes. Very clever, Wallace Shawn. But it does have to be interesting/engaging/exciting/thought-provoking/something/ANYTHING too. By the curtain call the audience atmosphere was frosty at best but honestly my dominant emotion was pity for the cast – this beast of a play runs until the end of March.

Save yourself all the unpleasantness. Here’s what you could do with one hundred minutes instead:

  1. Go for a walk – you can get a long way away from the Dorfman in an hour and forty. Buy yourself a beige supermarket meal with the money you saved by not buying a ticket
  2. Watch one of these films – all under 100 mins: La Haine! Napoleon Dynamite! The Lion King! Elf! Go on, it’s almost Christmas…
  3. Or maybe Toy Story – Wallace Shawn (author of Evening at the Snore House) was the voice of lovable dinosaur Rex, once upon a time
  4. Have a nap
  5. Clean your fridge out, even that bag of kale lurking at the back
  6. Put a load of washing on
  7. Tidy up your desktop. Treat yo self
  8. Accompany your significant other to a reunion where no one really likes each other. Really enjoy the fact that you neither know/care about any of them, nor understand any of their references to absent persons
  9. Write your own play about unrelatable characters in a vague dystopian setting. Probe aforementioned dinner party for inspiration
  10. Watch some paint dry. Magnolia, if you’ve got it

‘GREAT BRITAIN’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆

The culture: Great Britain, The National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

The cheap seats: £5 Entry Pass seats in Row D – two in front of lots of famous people (from Jennifer Sauners to David Tennant) who were also at the World Premiere of this new play! 

The National Theatre receives a lot of criticism for its programming, with a lot people believing that it tends to spoon-feed its largely white-middle-class-retired audience with lashings of the classics only lightly seasoned with new work. I’ve never understood this: almost everything I’ve seen at the National has been challenging  or new or exciting in one way or another to me, a 20 year old student. But its latest move would be enough to give those pensioners a heart attack, for a couple of weeks ago this Southbank Stalwart pulled a Beyoncé. Just before Nicholas Hytner bows out after a majestic turn as the theatre’s Director, he dropped a surprise show – and what a show it is.

Great Britain, written by Richard ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ Bean, is a satirical review of the phone hacking scandal, police scandals, the politicians’ expenses scandal… It is essentially Private Eye: the stage show. Bean leaves no stone unturned as he paints current affairs with a tar brush – black comedy, foul language and sex are at the top of Great Britain’s witty and subversive agenda.

The story follows power-hungry, power-suited young Paige Britain (Billie Piper), News Editor of trashy newspaper The Free Press, as she does anything she can to get to the top. When she stumbles across a way to break news before anyone else – by simply sneaking into voicemails of z-listers and the odd royal – her question to the audience is ‘Well, wouldn’t you?’ Bean’s script is absolutely hilarious but has moments of real, harsh scrutiny which challenge the way the audience think about the phone hacking incident that has so damaged our media. Billie Piper is extraordinary as ballsy blonde Britain, abusing her feminine wiles to wind the men around her tightly around her little finger. She heads up a very strong cast of thinly-veiled caricatures with highlights including Dermot Crowley as a Rupert Murdoch-alike, Robert Glenister as a loutish version of Andy Coulson and Jo Dockery as a frizzy-haired horse fan proclaiming her innocence at every opportunity. Aaron Neil and Oliver Chris lead the shambolic police force with brilliant performances.

Great Britain parodies serious politics and then parodies youtube parodies. It gets far darker post-interval but the overall tone is firmly ‘outrageously funny’. This full-scale rapid response play is sure to be a hit with audiences but the reason for its success (and its raison d’etre) is also its fatal flaw: this play is just not built to last. Its biting humour depends on the kind of thorough knowledge of our current media/social/political landscape that you only get from keeping up with current affairs and won’t be half as funny in seasons to come.

This is almost certainly a flash in the pan play, but not one you will want to miss.

‘From Morning to Midnight’ – review ☆

The culture: From Morning to Midnight at The National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

The cheap seats: £5 third row stalls (Entry Pass scheme)

My mum once told me ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. This is true in many instances, like when your friend decides to sport a particularly ill-advised new hairdo (oh yes, it looks lovely!) or when that girl in your Thursday afternoon class just won’t shut up with her outlandish, unfounded opinions. However, with theatre I have learnt that you have to take the rough with the smooth. Watching bad theatre helps to appreciate the good plays more. So, here goes – my review of The National’s brave but misjudged venture into the mad world of 1920s German Expressionism with Georg Kaiser’s From Morning to Midnight.

I will start with a little disclaimer: this production did have its moments where it was utterly brilliant. The scene with the massive sheets, for example, was beautiful. The end scene was inspired and a real aesthetic achievement. I’m not just a culturally ignorant girl who didn’t get it. Though many reviewers such as the Guardian who clearly loved it and gave it four stars (maybe it had greatly improved between the performance I saw and Press Night), I thought that the moments others have called ‘exhilarating’ and ‘extraordinary’ were obscured by the messy deluge of Things-that-were-interesting-on-their-own-but-didn’t-make-a-choerent-theatrical-experience-together that director Melly Still poured onto the stage. It didn’t surprise me at all that the audience found itself much depleted after the interval.

The performance I saw featured Jack Tarlton in the lead role as The Clerk as Adam Godley was indisposed due to injury. The show’s failure  was by no means down to this though – Tarlton poured all his passion into the role like a Captain tying himself to the helm of his sinking ship. The fatal flaw of From Morning to Midnight is that despite the many appeals to the senses – the sheer noise of it, the clever Foley artists, the extravagant sets, the fake snow, the lighting, the innovative real-time video, the lashings of existentialism – the production is decidedly bland. There was nothing to draw you in. I go to the theatre to be wowed: I want my mind to be challenged and then blown by a play. From Morning to Midnight just did not deliver the goods.

With expressionism you must expect the abstract. While Kaiser’s play left me cold (oh so cold, freezing in fact), it certainly packs a lot in. The Clerk is stuck in a monotonous world until a beautiful woman sweeps into the bank one morning. He falls in rashly and passionately love with her and absconds with a fortune. When he finds the woman it quickly becomes clear that she does not return his affections but, realising that he has stolen a vast sum and is now a criminal on the run, The Clerk embarks on a journey to find something worth buying. He searches high and low, from a cycling race to a seedy club, for a purchase to make him feel alive at last. Kaiser’s assault on the capitalist system and the importance we place on money is framed by The Clerk’s breakdown which explodes onto his whole world. The play is bursting at the seams with religious imagery. In a nutshell, the new (and presumably Communist) Eden can only be obtained when The Clerk forsakes the cash. But in a cruel twist he ends up shafted by the Salvation Army and finds himself electrocuted/crucified against their cross. It’s utterly brutal.

From Morning to Midnight has the potential to be brilliant. It has a lot to say but sadly goes about it in a jumbled way. This was most disappointing evening I’ve spent at The National to date, perfectly summed up by the elderly man who turned to me at the end of the play and asked, earnestly, ‘Well, what the bloody hell was all that about, eh?!’

‘Othello’ – review ☆☆☆☆

The culture: Othello at the National Theatre, London

The cheap seats: £5 second row seats (Entry Pass. This performance was in the Olivier Theatre so much more comfortable than my last trip in the Lyttelton)

‘Hamlet’ has long been hailed as Shakespeare’s most psychological play. Yet after seeing the National Theatre’s ‘Othello’ I would beg to differ. The production accentuates the play’s military aspects and sets in in the present day where desert camo costume evokes the all too familiar horrors of our own wars (think Afghanistan or Iraq).

It is against this inescapable backdrop that the tragedy is staged and this exposes the greatest depths of the plot. More than ever before, Othello is a soldier not a lover. He has the mind of a soldier with the violence and fierce loyalties that this necessitates. He is under the great pressure of war. Of course he is these things in any adaptation but the National’s production, under Hytner’s expert direction, makes this pressure and precarious mindset so palpable that it is impossible to see Othello as foolish for believing Iago’s calculated lies, as I had at other productions.

Adrian Lester is wonderful as the doomed Othello, by turns authoritative war lord and vulnerable man with heaps of raw emotion. Rory Kinnear is the greatest Iago I have seen. His soliloquys are funny and chilling and his character incredibly well developed with an anxious twitching hand and sly glances to the audience. Desdemona is a character I usually have an issue with. Casting never seems quite right to me but the National Theatre’s choice, Olivia Vinall, was almost perfect. The tiny actress looks so young, innocent and vulnerable next to the muscular, greying Othello that the disparity of the couple is instantly apparent and very effective. The production also has a very good Roderigo, Tom Robertson, who injects interest into a usually dull character.

My only criticism of ‘Othello’ at the National Theatre is its failure in Desdemona’s death scene. This is the test of any production of this tragedy. There was emotion aplenty but my view of the ill-fated beauty’s death was largely obscured by a cushion. This was probably due to my position (middle of Row B) and the scene was still very powerful so I can’t complain too much but would have enjoyed it much more if Othello had knocked the offending pillow off the bed before he used the other to smother his wife.

This small issue aside, the National Theatre’s ‘Othello’ is a stunning modern day adaptation. Desdemona and Roderigo stand out as (very well dressed) civilians in Othello’s camouflage-clad world and this enforces the reality: Othello is a man of war whose ties to fellow soldiers (notably his ensign Iago) are ultimately stronger than the ties of marriage. The fatal clash of domesticity and military has tragic consequences which are performed with great talent by the cast. Even at a staggering 3 hours 20 minutes running time it was a thrill from start to end.