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.

 

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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.

 

Song from Far Away

The culture: ‘Song from Far Away’ by Simon Stephens & Mark Eitzel, directed by Ivo van Hove and performed by Eelco Smits

The cheap seats: £10 front row seats, uncomfortably close to the anguish

It starts as a shiver over your arms, pushing the hairs up on end as he sings a song he heard on the radio in his empty New York apartment. It forces its way to your heart, forming a clenched fist as he howls before the father he disappointed. Knockout. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. It fades away when he laughs and tells you about that Brazilian guy he met in a bar. Then it’s back. It’s in your throat, big as a golf ball, and no amount of scotch and ginger ale could wash it down as his mother tells him to go home; as his niece asks him when he will next be back home. Home. The little word tugs at you, like ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and ‘love’ and ‘lonely’. ‘Home’.

It feels as if it’s about to spill out down your cheeks and the pain is unbearable but you clench your fists and listen to that Song from Far Away.

A man stands naked on the stage. He is alone and strong and vulnerable. His brother is dead. He is alone.

‘GOLEM’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆

The culture: Golem, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £10 Under 25 stalls seats. Central. Perfect (though maybe a bit close to the animation at points).

Golem is totally and utterly original. It might be early to call it but I think this show might make my 2015 Top Ten and we’re still less than a fortnight into the year.

With an aesthetic of nuclear warning sign yellow, 70s cookbook nostalgia and skew whiff pen drawings, a loud soundtrack of live drums, and imaginative animation, the show dazzles its audience before bringing them back to reality with the harsh thud of its subversive message: a dystopia for the iphone generation.

Robert Robertson is an outsider working in a Binary Back-Up department, living a happy though humdrum life at home with his Gran and sister. But one day he brings a clay man called Golem who will obey his every command and life for the Robertsons is drastically changed. To begin with Golem is helpful: once awoken by a special incantation, he can write Robert’s rows of binary in double time and even get the chores done while the family sleep. But after a software update the line between servant and master gets blurry. By the term Version Two is released the tables have fully turned. Golem becomes a physically embodied quasi-Siri, the latest must-have gadget, and begins to run the world. It glues itself to the TV, spouts advert jingles and turns everything neon yellow. Robert is promised promotions, prosperity, pretty women and that ultimate reward: ‘moving with the times’. He eagerly swaps his devoted but ‘frumpy’ girlfriend for two better models, his brown attire for a geometric romper suit and snazzy new boots but it all comes at a higher cost than poor Joy’s broken, ageing heart: man has stopped controlling technology, technology now controls man.

With a super talented small cast, a sideways glance at our modern world, and a fresh approach to the possibilities of theatre, Golem is game changing. It’s a big reality check after the capitalism-fest we call Christmas. It’s a sneer at the vintage-loving normcore sheep kids. It’s a two finger salute to The Man and The System. It’s a call to arms to the individual, to the artist, to the child in us all. It’s unmissable.