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Arcadia

I saw a few days ago in The Independent that Johann Hari had declared Arcadia to be the greatest play of our age (whatever that age is). It’s a big call. It’s also a very nice play. While I’m quite a Stoppard fan I hadn’t seen it before yesterday – when I was visiting London in 2006 I saw Rock n’ Roll in its première season and had tickets to see it again in New York in 2007, but Broadway was shut down by industrial action.

Like many of Stoppard’s plays, Arcadia is decorated with intellectual in-jokes and mechanical tortoises.  Ok.  It’s probably the only one that requires a remote control tortoise, but I haven’t read Jumpers in a while and I wouldn’t bet any money on it not featuring one at some point.

Arcadia jumps between two points in time in the history of Sidley Park: the tutoring of young genius Thomasina by a contemporary of Byron’s at Cambridge and the preparations for a garden party in the present day. In the modern scenes the books and objects of Renascence Sidley Park remain on the table, to be discovered by a pair of literary historians: Bernard Nightingale (Neil Pearson), investigating Byron’s stay at the property and Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) investigating the man who lived until his death in the garden’s hermitage.

This production was really well performed. I particularly enjoyed seeing Dan Stevens (who played Septimus) after seeing him in the BBC’s adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Ed Stoppard (son of Tom), playing Valentine. Ed Stoppard appeared in last year’s film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, adding extra humour to Nightingale’s dismissal of his character as “Brideshead Regurgitated”.  Direction was by David Levaux. In London in 2006 I saw his Glass Menagerie staring Jessica Lange and found it very moving, so it was lovely to have another chance to see his work.

Leaving the theatre we saw at least six autograph hunters standing with folders of posters and DVD covers, some already signed by other celebrities. Most of the posters seemed to be from the Harry Potter films. This gives you some idea of how intense the attention actors in these blockbusters get – Hugh Mitchell (who plays Gus/Augustus) had appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Jessie Cave (Thomasina) is in the film to be released later this year, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Arcadia
By Tom Stoppard

27/05/09
Duke of York’s Theatre London.

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Eye and ben

I dropped round to the National Theatre on my way to Borough Markets and the Tate Modern on Saturday to try and grab a day ticket for a matinee.  Given the choice between Mrs Affleck and the controversial England People Very Nice, I went for the later, thinking that I could compare perspectives on immigration in this contemporary play and Miller’s 1956 New York.

The National holds back about fifty seats for each performance for sale on the day.  They go for ten pounds (limited to two per person).  I arrived at about ten to nine and there were already about twenty five people waiting in line.
Line for day tickets

They sold out by ten.  I imagine on weekdays it would be a bit less busy.  I grabbed a ticket and headed off for a morning of venison burgers and chai, stopping to marvel at a great instillation piece at the Tate Modern.

The National Theatre has a great book shop.  I went back a bit before the play to manhandle the McDonagh section and see if they had the verse edition of A View from the Bridge.

So there I was, minding my own dorky drama business, when I hear a very familiar voice behind me.  I turn half around and find Alan Rickman striding towards the DVD section.  I don’t often recognise celebrities, so I thought I should mark the occasion, and surreptitiously sent a text message to a friend back in Edinburgh.  Just as I pressed send on “I’m standing next to Alan Rickman!” I noticed that Rickman was now actually standing right next to me.  I dropped my phone in my pocket and hid in a copy of Meyerhold: A Life.

In the biography section Meyerhold sits right next to Miller.  I got distracted by all the Miller books  looking for possible clues as to where I could find copies of his working drafts.

Five minutes passed.

Suddenly the shop’s anti-theft alarm went off.  Startled, I flailed my arms ridiculously (somewhat out-of-character for me as I’m not usually afraid of loud noises) and hit the person standing to my left in the stomach with The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller.  I turned to apologise.  Rickman again.

I squeaked.

He said “I’m sorry” (in his deep and distinctive Alan Rickman voice) .

For those unfamiliar with yoof culture, Alan Rickman plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies. This is what he looks like:

Snape

Snape

Scary.

We didn’t have wizard duel. But I reckon I could have taken him out.

England People Very Nice is a terrible play.  It has been criticised as racist, and it is, but that was only the start of my problems with it.  It was also overly didactic (quite an accomplishment for a play that also relied so heavily on bad racial jokes), too long, repetitive and not at all funny.

It’s a great pity, because it is unusual to have a play written for such a large multi-racial cast.  And it was generally well acted, as far as the performances were able to transcend the material.  I recognised some familiar faces – like her and this guy.

Richard Bean builds England People Very Nice from a basic play-within-a-play format – a group of asylum seekers writing and acting about immigration to Bethnal Green through the ages.  This allows the cast to take breaks to make glaringly obvious meta-diegetic comments about the narrative.

“Is this a play about immigration or a play about love?”
“Intermarriage is the first sign of cultural integration.”

The influence of  Caryl Churchill is clearly identifiable in the work, with the director character in the dentention centre flouncing about saying things like “Our characters are children and their playground is time!”  But rather than the archetypal characters exploring changes in attitudes to gender and sexuality like in Churchill’s Cloud Nine, they just behave the same way in each time period they inhabit.  It’s a sad vision.

I wasn’t the only person that didn’t enjoy it.  I overheard two gentlemen talking as we shuffled out:

“I guess it just shows how racist we all are.”
“I don’t think so.  I think that’s the last time June recommends a play to us.  There should be a number we can call that issues a statement letting us know whether or not she’s still sane.”

The play operates under the assumption that if you mock every race and culture you can get away with making stupid jibes like “As Jewish as the hole in the sheet” and “For Jewish people, there’s no smoke without salmon”.

What was particularly disturbing was not the content of the play itself but noticing how and when the audience actually laughed at the poor taste jokes.  I guess it’s my fault for going to see a play described as “A riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today.”
But then again, to quote the play:
“Only a liberal blames himself for getting mugged.”

England People Very Nice
Richard Bean

National Theatre
28/02/2009

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