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Peaceful

Private Peaceful is another adaptation of a novel by the brilliant children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo (of War Horse fame).

Similarly to how War Horse relates sophisticated ideas about war to young audiences by focusing on the relationship between soldiers and animals, Private Peaceful focuses on the childhood recollections of a sixteen-year old boy who lied about his age to be able to fight alongside his brother in the First World War.

Finn Hanlon gave an amazing performance as Tommo Peaceful, controlling the pace of the piece while not just developing Tommo’s character but also bringing a great deal of life to the characters within his recollections.  This is no small achievement – the play is a 60 minute reflective monologue performed on a stage empty of all but a dilapidated folding bed.

The strength of the play is in how  beautifully it captures how Tommo’s favourite memories are poisoned by his time on the front; his first glimpse of a aeroplane in a country field, running along the mud tracks of a stream with his best friend, and getting piggyback rides from his big brother.

A fantastic piece of children’s theatre.

Private Peaceful
Michael Morpurgo an Simon Reade

Udderbelly, Bristo Square
Until the 31st of August

Morgurgo is also going to be speaking at three events the Edinburgh Book Festival: some tickets still available.

I recently took a trip back to Australia, my sunny homeland, to spend some time with my family (and avoid writing my dissertation).

It’s a long flight.  Three flights actually, plus bad transfers.  Thirty one and a half hours from door to door.

Drifting through Heathrow I noticed the jolly security officer manning the x-ray device take a defibrillator medical card off the man directly in front of me.  The officer suddenly bashed his chest wildly like a one-armed Tarzan.

“We’ve got a ticker!” He hollered, smiling in the direction of  his colleagues behind the metal detectors. Pointing the man towards a little grey gate to the side of the machines.

I laughed only to see the man smiling at me.  “Let’s get those dancing shoes off, missy.”

I handed him my scuffed trainers and he shoved them in a plastic tray.  The shoes and I made it home eventually.

While in Sydney I went to a performance of Elling at the STC.  A play based on an Oscar nominated Norwegian film of the same name (2001), Elling deals with the lives of two men living together in Oslo away from institutional care for the first time.  The film was adapted into a play by Simon Bent in London in 2007, and well received at Bush Theatre, transferring then to the Trafalgar Studios in the west end.

It must be difficult to make a film (or write a play) about mental illness, particularly when aiming for broad humour.  I haven’t seen the film, but I hope it’s a bit more sensitive than the unstable slapstick of the stage production.

The problem with Elling is that the jokes do not hinge on the way that these characters are treated by people in the world, but rather depend on people laughing at mentally unstable people behaving abnormally.  That isn’t a particularly sophisticated type of humour.

There were a two great short sketches of bad poetry readings nicely performed, but otherwise  the funniest part of the whole piece was a brief burst of diegetic music between scenes; Norway’s Eurovision winning ‘I’m in love with a fairytale’.  But I probably found my friend Anna’s instant hysterics on hearing it more amusing than the actual musical interjection.

Australian comedian Adam Hills had a column on the BBC’s online disability resource ‘Ouch!’ where he discusses various aspects of living with a disability – including this great article on clearing security in the US after 9/11 with a prosthetic leg.  In his articles he makes the case for the place of humour when talking about disability, not because there is anything non-intentionally funny about disabled people, but because often the world is organised in a way that makes everyday things a little absurd for the disabled.

That’s why I particularly liked the gruff man on security at Heathrow.  He seemed to understand the absurdity of a safety system that isn’t very well suited to people partly made of metal.

Elling
Adapted by Simon Bent from a film by Petter Næss

Sydney Theatre Company
15/06/09

P.S.  I am very sad to be missing the new production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire in December. Cate Blanchett as Blanche.  I can’t imagine it being anything but fantastic.

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It can be disconcerting when you feel rather lukewarm about a play that ends up getting generally positive reviews.  But I’ll stick with my original assessment.  All’s Well That Ends Well is the National’s new Shakespeare production, directed by Marianne Elliott.  All’s Well is one of the ‘problem plays’ and not very frequently performed.  It’s a bit of a challenge; not a story audiences are familiar with, or one that has a great recent history of interpretations to respond to.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a well regarded daughter, cures the King of France of a fistula.  As a reward the King promises her any man in the kingdom as her husband.  She chooses the son of her Lady, Bertram, who isn’t too keen on marrying a common lass.  He declares he can not be called her husband until she is carrying his child with his ring on her finger.  So with the help of a young lady in Florence, a blindfold, and lingerie with a fox tail attached (in this production), she tricks Bertram into consummating their union.

Here Elliot decided to frame the story as a dark fairytale; with moving castles, animated owls and wolves.  I imagine this was a strategy to introduce the unfamiliar play to the audience without confusing or boring them.  It wasn’t a bad idea, but was probably taken a tad too far.   Helene leaves her sparkling pink slippers centre stage just before interval, with a spot was trained tightly on them as the house went dark – she’s both a lost Dorothy and an abandoned Cinderella.  The rings the two mismatched lovers exchange are fitted with little light bulbs, fairy lights adorn Florence on the soldiers arrival. Ninox would have cringed to see the 1940’s camera flash cliché is still going strong on stage.

The performance I saw was a preview and there were a couple of teething problems.  The lights in the rings kept switching off unexpectedly.  Janet Henfrey (playing the widow) took a tumble on the slippery paper petals carpeting the stage at the end of the play.

I particularly disliked the sound direction – not only did the first half suffer from electronic wind syndrome, wolves howled and owls whooped over almost every softly spoken line.

As I said at the start, the play has otherwise been very well received, and all of the actors’ performances were very satisfactory.  It just seems that theatrical restraint is passé.

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare

National Theatre London
26/05/09

ETA.  The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig isn’t too keen on it either.

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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There are very few books written for children that irritate me more than Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Why would I sit for six hours watching a dramatic adaptation of a series of books I hate?

There could only be one answer.

Puppets.

I love a good puppet.

The big hook of Pullman’s alternate world is that the soul of each character exists outside of their body as an animal.  These animals are supposed to reflect in some way the personality of the owner, and become set at the onset of puberty (when, naturally, the personality of any person is set forever).  The sexuality of characters is also set at this stage – with an animal ‘settling’ to be of the opposite sex for heterosexual people, and one of the same sex for homosexual people (although no major or even minor character described in this world is homosexual – they are mentioned briefly as some sort of very rare anomaly).

While these soul animals are the cause of most of my anger towards the books, they also require creative staging.  Puppets.  In this production designed by the Blind Summit puppet company.  They were great.

The play, performed in two parts of almost three hours each, was first performed at the National Theatre in 2004.  Nicholas Wright (author of the libretto to The Little Prince and Man on the Moon as well as several episodes of the recent BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency)  adapted the play from the books.  This revival was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company with the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

For those unfamiliar with the novels, Pullman is rewriting Paradise Lost for atheist children.  I really like Milton.  Pullman is no Milton.  In his alternate world scientific development has proceeded along a different route and steam power and Zeppelins stand in for electricity and cars.  Lyra, a feisty orphaned girl living under the guardianship of an Oxford college, goes on a magical adventure – discovering not only the deepest secrets of the world, but also the deepest secrets of her own soul. Well…

Pullman intends to use His Dark Materials as a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis for not letting Susan back into Narnia after she discovers boys and lipstick and silk stockings.  But rather than let Susan back into Narnia, Pullman seems to think that Susan’s lipstick alone can save the world.

Lyra kisses and lies down with her boyfriend, unleashing magic dust that somehow fixes everything.  Not that she knows that her sexual awakening will save the world.  Agency is overrated.  The witches who watch over her progress know that a prophecy has named her as a new Eve, but don’t feel the need to tell her.  Why have a female protagonist valued for her thoughts and abilities when you can put pervy overemphasis on her sexuality at twelve?

I don’t have a problem with children of twelve kissing, in life or in fiction, but beyond the strangeness of a plot relying on the kiss of a child to correct the flow of magic dust (really), her male companion Will gets to save the world with a magic knife.  His side of the kiss isn’t of the slightest importance.  Why would it matter when you have a phallic power prop to rule the universe with?

The way the animal souls (called daemons) function is also just rather comical. People can not generally be separated from their daemons by any great distance. Some people’s daemons settle as sea creatures, confining the owner to a boat for the rest of their lives. One wonders if a person with an elephant or horse daemon would ever be able to socialise indoors or take an elevator again.

The animals don’t really do anything but make occasional wise cracks. And make out with each other. There is a rather disturbing scene when the two characters revealed to be Lyra’s secret parents kiss and their puppet souls kiss along beside them (a snow leopard and a golden monkey).

The play sets seething sexuality against a repressive church, an organisation which has begun to quite literally cut children in two to preserve their innocence. I’m quite happy to be on the atheist bandwagon, but this analogy seems a bit of a stretch.

This production was interesting, but I (obviously) find the content irritating.  See it if you like lectures about why religion is bad. Or if you just want to see a monkey try to seduce a gecko.

His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman, adapted by Nicholas Wright.

Festival Theatre Edinburgh.
22/05/09

Touring May 28th to the the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Godot

More odd celebrity sightings. I stopped by King’s Theatre to return a couple of extra tickets I had enthusiastically snapped up when the tour of Waiting for Godot was announced last year. There was a huge queue of people waiting for return tickets for that night’s performance, and as the box office hadn’t yet opened I stood in the line and had a chat with an interesting man in a large hat and two drama students who had travelled up from London for the chance to see Sir Ian on stage. Waiting there in the line I was suddenly whacked in the leg as a man with long white hair, wearing oversized tracksuit pants tucked into his socks and a hairy camel overcoat pushed by.

He was carrying a bright orange Sainsbury’s bag containing a few pointy objects. A few professional autograph hunters crowded around him. I gather Sir Ian was doing the prop run, picking up turnips for that night, and saw his opportunity to take revenge on behalf of British celebrities everywhere.

It was great seeing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Godot. It’s easy to forget when reading Beckett that his plays are not just depressing post-apocalyptic commentaries, but often very funny too. However, the highlight of the performance for me was Lucky’s monologue near the end of Act 1:

…I resume the skull to shrink and wast and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labours abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara…

Having recently read quite a bit of Beckett, including the soul destroying trilogy Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnamable, for me this monologue really evokes the sort of gut wrenching panic that hides just under the surface in Beckett’s prose and drama.

Lucky was played brilliantly by Ronald Pickup – from his biography it seems he’s been in every play performed in Britain in the past forty years, but most recognisably for people of my generation, he is the voice of this guy:

Roar!

Roar!

Aslan in the BBC adaptation of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe! (As I child I was convinced that they had trained up a real lion for that show, and am now devastated at how obviously it is a puppet.) Simon Callow, who plays Pozzo, has also had a very interesting career, rising from a box office job to stage (as the front end of a stage horse) to the west end, to director and critic.

Sometimes it is difficult to fully enjoy something with such famous actors so aggressively promoted, but this Godot is certainly worth the hype.

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett

King’s Theatre Edinburgh
18 /04/2009

Unusually, this production has toured prior to its London run – it is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
See http://www.waitingforgodottheplay.com

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

He kneels, grasps; and with strain slowly raises the chair higher and higher, getting to his feet now. RODOLPHO and CATHERINE have stopped dancing as MARCO raises the chair over his head.
MARCO is face to face with EDDIE, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over EDDIE’s head – and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning to a smile of triumph, and EDDIE’s grin vanishes as he absorbs his look.

A view from the Bridge

A View from the Bridge has a very interesting production history.  Miller based the play on the real-life story of a longshoreman who reported the refugees he was sheltering in his own home to the immigration authority when one of them proposed to his niece.

Miller had also spent time around the Mediterranean and wanted to create an American epic drama, avoiding conventions of realist theatre. The first draft of the play was written in verse, but was revised to prose on the advice of Peter Brook.  Surviving elements of Miller’s original epic structure can be seen in the use of the lawyer Alfieri as a semi-omniscient narrator.

I would love to get my hands on the original verse version.  I’ve only seen Bolcom’s opera adaptation before, and his musical production preserves the tone of the play very well.  But it would be great to compare the Bolcom’s libretto to the first version of the play.

The play in its current form was performed for the first time in London on the 11th of October 1956, at a Comedy theatre masquerading as a nightclub.  Due to the kiss between Eddie and Rodolpho in the second act public performance of the play in England had been banned.

This was a very good production.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Hayley Atwell play Catherine after seeing her in last year’s Brideshead Revisited film and the BBC’s ‘modern costume’ adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

A View from the Bridge is playing at Duke of York’s Theatre until the 16th of May.

A View from the Bridge
Arthur Miller.

Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
27/02/09

War Horse

I was walking to the Tate Modern on Thursday morning when I passed the National Theatre. I had seen reviews of War Horse and wanted to see it, but all the performances on while I was in London had sold out. I thought I might as well see if they had any day tickets left but it was about an hour after the box office opened, and noticing the ‘queue for tickets starts here’ sign, I didn’t fancy my luck.

Last ticket, front row middle, ten pounds. Awesome.

War Horse tells the story of the first World War through the eyes of animals that have no possible interest in political events. The horses are played by brilliant, life-size puppets, operated by up to three puppeteers per horse. They are constructed in a way so that the human characters can ride the puppets. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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The review I saw in The Guardian said that once the performance begins you forget that you’re watching puppets rather than actual horses (and geese, swallows and ravens). But I don’t entirely agree.

I love good puppetry. But I don’t think in watching puppetry you ever forget that the puppets aren’t real. I think that the reason puppets are so enthralling is because they instantly take you to a sort of mythical level of storytelling. You understand and believe the story, but you never loose the sense of awe invoked by watching objects become characters.

That sort of idea is reflected in the puppet design for this production. The makers of the horses were not primarily concerned with realism – the frames of the puppets are a central feature of their design and they have no hide. Later in the play an injured and emaciated horse limps on three hooves and a limb that looks more like a piano leg. The puppeteers are dressed in early twentieth century style farm-hand clothes (rather than stage blacks) and act out the emotion of the horse they are playing on their faces – they are not intended to be invisible.

These puppets do not need to look like real horses to be convincing; the way that they move is entirely persuasive.

War Horse is based on a children’s book, but I think the play is certainly too violent for very young children, particularly when so much of the violence involves animals being abused by people. A woman in the row behind me actually screamed when one of the horses died.

The appeal of the play goes beyond the simple affinity people tend to have with animals.
The helpless horses are a good analogy for the people who put their lives at risk during the war with little motivation but patriotism and trust in authority. I wouldn’t call the play emotionally manipulative, but it was certainly deliberately affecting. War Horse was first performed at the National Theatre in October last year and is already back on stage. I think it is a brilliant example of how effective the broader theatre arts can be.

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War Horse
National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo

Olivier Theatre
11/09/08

National Theatre

I slept through my first fringe show, The Axis of Awesome’s Comeback Spectacular. This was not entirely unexpected as I got into Edinburgh at about 10am and sleep-walked around the old town for five hours (at which point it was about midnight Sydney time) – at least I gave them the ticket sale. It was disappointing because I was looking forward to seeing what sort of response Axis of Awesome would get here in Scotland – they are wildly popular with Sydney uni crowds, and one member of the band was kind enough to play me Ziggy Stardust era Bowie songs on the piano when I was bored and sober at the Arts Revue after party last year.

Fringe underbelly tent.

So the next morning, spurred on by my Fringe failure the night before I grabbed a ticket to a play called Table 23, staring friends of a friend who studied at East 15, a reputable drama school in London. The show was held over at the university campus (near the underbelly tent – pictured above), so I got a chance to orient myself a bit better in the city.

I was quite impressed with the play. It had been given a reasonably warm but not glowing reviews.

The problem noted in those reviews I’ve seen (and I agree) is that the main plot point of the play is implied, but not very clearly. Someone has died, and the main character is sad. Mysteriously sad. He and his sister are estranged. It reminds me of the feeling you get from the overuse of ellipsis in juvenile literary attempts – something bad has happened, but it is so very bad it can’t be mentioned. Often you get the feeling the author hasn’t even decided. I’ve seen plays with the same problem at Short + Sweet in Sydney. Given that the rest of the play works as a dark comedy, the actual story seems overly earnest and not entirely necessary.
All credit for the success of the play really hangs on the physical skill of the actors (they make up a group called Hot Tubs & Trampolines). While the plot of the play was thin on the ground, the puppetry, dance and physical theatre performed by the ensemble cast was enthralling.

They were even lucky enough to get a mention in the Times coverage of the Fringe.

Unfortunately the Times lists Table 23 as one of many plays that “peer into the darker side of online social networking and internet chatrooms”. Mercifully, it didn’t.

Leaflets for fringe.

Table 23
Hot Tubs and Trampolines

25/08/08
Sportsmans, Gilded Balloon

(My review here might be slightly biased as one of the Hot Tub and Trampolines actors once drove me around Essex in search for a Sunday roast. But subjectively, she was brilliant in this.)

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