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Faust Box

Now this is what I was ranting about the other day.  Quirky, slap-dash, brutally abbreviated Goethe and a bunch of lip-synched pop songs. 

Written and performed by German actor/dancer/singer/author Bridge Markland, Faust in the Box is the sort of thing you’d be pressed to find outside of festival season.  Classic German literature performed in a cardboard box.

You might not find it as fun if you’re not familiar with Faust, or don’t like hearing a devil hand-puppet singing snippets of Placebo songs.

You don’t like Faust, singing devil hand-puppets or Placebo?

Really?

Are you dead inside?


Faust in the Box
Bridge Markland

Underbelly @ George IV Bridge
Until the 29th of August

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 heard an interview with Nigella Lawson where she talked about her experiences as a restaurant reviewer.  She said that she was always reluctant to write really negative reviews, saying that she thought on some occasions it was more charitable to just say nothing.

Horse

That is my inclination about Horse.  I always think I’m going to love physical theatre, then about ten minutes in I’m itching to leave and cursing myself for thinking an hour of dramatic movement and half-arsed dancing will be entertaining.

Rather than write a full review I’ll just briefly summarise what audiences can expect:

Woman dances like a horse with a mop for a tail.  Falls into a stack of hay bales.  Is heckled.  Gets into jodhpurs and a riding jacket (slowly) and reads from a riding manual.  Changes into pastor’s outfit (slowly) and holds a equine religious service.  Strokes members of the audience.  Changes back into original outfit (slowly) and pretends to ride a hobby horse.  Stands topless on said hobby horse.  Jumps into a water trough, emerges dripping wet and dressed in formal attire.  Sings.

Actually the last costume change was quite impressive.  It was a fairly small trough.

I don’t think my disappointment after seeing Horse was just the inevitable realisation that I don’t really like physical theatre.  For one thing the somewhat misleading positive reviews on the promotional poster are actually for one of Company FZ’s previous fringe productions.  For another: half the audience walked out.  Seemingly from boredom rather than shock or excessive hay inhalation.

It’s the Edinburgh Fringe! I don’t care if you’re provocative, silly or poorly rehearsed.  Just don’t be boring.

Horse
Company FZ

The Bosco at Hullabaloo
until the 31st of August

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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.

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Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, like Doctor Atomic, examines the personal and political events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb during the second world war.

The play dramatises various possible conversations that could have occurred when Niels Bohr visited Werner Heisenberg in German occupied Copenhagen in 1941.  The structure of the play is not linear – it revises and re-imagines events, attempting to mirror principles of quantum mechanics in dramatic form: complementarity and uncertainty.  Aside from the politics and physics, Frayn’s play is a quite moving exploration of the changing relationship between  mentor and pupil over time.

It is an incredibly interesting piece of drama – the only real downfall being the (perhaps necessary) simplification of the scientific issues.  The way that the physics is discussed is not the way that two of the brightest physicists of the twentieth century would have talked to one another.  It breaks the illusion.  And as with many plays dealing with this time, an irritating female character is used as a device to explain events to the plebs in the audience, and occasionally gasp ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?‘ (in this case, Heisenberg’s wife Margrethe).

This production was directed by Tony Cownie and designed by Neil Murray.  Compared to the average play Copenhagen allows some scope for interpretation – it is written without any stage directions and only requires set peices to describe the Heisenberg’s house and garden.  At the Lyceum the walls, floor and a few vertical poles were covered with oversized handwriting, with a few chairs and piles of paper for props – placing the events clearly in a world of ideas and recolection.   The production was really very good – if you ignored the moment just before the curtain call when a ridiculous projection of the earth spinning suddenly appeared.  I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen.

Copenhagen
By Michael Frayn

Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
09/05/09

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

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