The Dreaming – Union Theatre

The-DreamingFirst published on The Public Reviews website.

Genuinely novel interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are few and far between, it’s even rarer to find one that wholly dispenses with the original text, throws in some musical numbers and transports the entire thing to the mythical perfect summer of 1913, a year before the outbreak of the First World War. People can get very precious about Shakespeare, especially new-fangled productions, so it can be a risk. Yet this revival of The Dreaming (first performed in 2001) in the round at The Union Theatre incorporates all these elements to provide an entertaining evening that offers new insights into a well-worn play.

The plot is familiar, young lovers, now renamed Charlotte (Hermia), Alexander (Lysander), Jennifer (Helena) and David (Demetrius), run off into the woods pursued by Charlotte’s father and the local Lord of the Manor. There they become unwittingly embroiled in a domestic spat between the King and Queen of the Woodland Folk and for one night in the dark forest lives are turned upside down.

One of the most interesting things about The Dreaming is the fresh perspective it takes on a number of the key characters particularly the Woodland folk who replace Shakespeare’s fairies. They are not the usual fey, floaty beings playing tricks for fun, but a tribal group of prowling creatures who harass any who cross their path. Syvia’s (Titania’s) retinue crawl onto the stage, somewhere between a female version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Macbeth’s witches, shortly followed by their male counterparts who have a similar earthy nature, but are scared of their master’s wrath – an additional twist.

Another clever plot device is to give Jack (Puck) some proper motivation rather than just a mischievous nature. Here instead Jack is a runaway Blacksmith’s son who wants to join the male Woodlanders’ tribe and so he must complete an initiation rite – finding the drugged plant and bewitching Sylvia. It’s a unique approach and really helps to keep the story on track. The Rude Mechanicals led by the local vicar are, by contrast, hilarious and although many productions run out of steam after the lovers are returned to normal, their staging of St George and the Dragon at Lord Julian’s birthday party is an absolute treat.

One of the real successes of this production is how all these tiny innovations are used to add to the humanity of the characters without veering too far from the original story. It really is a team performance with equally enjoyable and distinct contributions from the leads and chorus. The Dreaming is simply staged with a few make-shift trees, but uses clever lighting to denote changes in day, mood and tone. There is a high energy-level throughout as characters run alarmingly around the audience, making full use of the space as well as ensuring the action is visible from all angels – full credit to Paul Clarkson for some nifty directing here.

Most of the songs also seem quite fitting, giving the audience a nice mix of romantic ballads, rousing comedy tunes and big ensemble set-pieces. Sometimes the words get a bit lost in the music and it is clear that some cast members are primarily singers, but the merging of solo performances and multi-character songs is nicely balanced.

It is great to see a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that does not shy away from the darker aspects of the play and that is the greatest strength of this production. So rarely does a period setting suit a play but Edwardian England is consistently realised and used to subtly reinforce the theme of dreams and reality. It may be happy endings all round for now, but in a year this generation will face something much more destructive than the Woodlanders’ mischief. In fact, this sense of darkness as a counterpoint to light is clear throughout and no happy moment remains untainted by shadows of what is to come. This production of The Dreaming has bags of charm and is lots of fun, but its inventive take on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays will leave you in no doubt that the Larkin poem printed in the programme is right – ‘Never such innocence again.

The Dreaming is at the Union Theatre until 27 September. Tickets are £20 or £17 for concessions.

 

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Up at the O2

Londoners love to go up stuff. We like to be able to stand high above the city and look over its vastness, as far as the eye can see, and point at buildings we recognise. The viewing platform comes in many guises these days and it is something that has become peculiar to city life. No one seems to build these in the middle of the countryside where arguably there are lots of beautiful things to look at – this is presumably because any suggestion of building in green places tends to result in the locals brandishing pitchforks; if you want to see views in the country, you go up a hill.

Nonetheless, city dwellers love standing hundreds of feet above ground and looking down at the cars, train stations and densely packed buildings in order to feel part of it all. You can go up the Shard, up St Paul’s, up the London eye, up the unpronounceable Orbit-thingy at the Olympic Park, and increasingly up to roof-top gardens and events across the city. Now, you can also go up the Millennium Dome. And yes, I know it’s called the O2 these days but another thing Londoners do is to call things by their original or ‘quirky’ name no matter how many times it’s rebranded (see also Olympic Park – no offence to HRH but who is going to remember the Queen Elizabeth bit?).

The first person to go up the Millennium Dome was actually James Bond when he accidentally fell on it, and there are references on the website cautioning you against a repeat of this iconic moment. The excellent pre-title sequence of The World is Not Enough in 1999 sees Pierce Brosnan’s Bond chase some baddies down the Thames in a boat before he ends up falling off a hot air balloon and bouncing down the side of the dome. It’s a great film opener and also a great film if you pretend Denise Richards wasn’t in it – “I’m a nuclear physicist”, yeah course you are love.

Anyway I digress. Your journey begins at base camp – yes I know but go with it – where you are shown a safety video and how to use your kit.  This includes a lovely sleeveless jacket, a safety harness which wraps around your shoulders and legs, and a special pair of hiking style boots designed to maintain grip on the bouncy walkway. This is still quite a new activity so the shoes are in good condition, don’t worry it’s not like going bowling. Once you’re fully rigged up, the instructor / guide checks everything and you climb the steps to the base of the roof, where you stop for a quick promotional photo (available later in the shop).

It’s like abseiling, so you’re attached by a pulley-like contraption on your safety harness to a line which runs to the top of the dome, 52 meters above ground, and one-by-one you begin your ascent. It’s step-free but the initial angle is quite steep, although as you climb higher the gradient is reduced until it flattens out completely at the Summit. The climb itself isn’t too bad, and certainly far less strenuous than the steps to the top of St Paul’s, taking around 20 minutes depending on the group’s ability. You may find the bouncy walk-way a little disconcerting at first but it doesn’t move as much as you might fear.

Once at the top, you’re given 15-20 minutes to look around and take photos – cameras and phones are the only items allowed with you, anything else is left in the locker-room. From the top you can see close by to the naval college in Greenwich, across to Canary Wharf and down to the Thames Barrier, as well as getting the Bond-eye-view over the top of the Dome itself. Then you begin the descent down the other side of the Dome, which some may find a little steeper, but here’s where the shoes come into their own with their helpful grip to keep you slip-free until you reach the bottom. All the way along the instructor is beside you ready to help if needed or point out particular landmarks, but otherwise leaves you to get on with it, which is great and certainly increases your sense of achievement.

Unlike most of London’s other viewing platforms, this one is completely outdoors from beginning to end which makes it a much more interesting experience. The whole process from checking-in to packing up your kit on the other side is smoothly managed and you never feel even remotely unsafe. It’s also really fun and certainly feels more of an accomplishment than getting the lifts in the Shard. So as one of the more unique experiences, I would definitely recommend climbing the Millennium Dome to survey our fair city from yet another angle. It may not make you James Bond but as Londoners (or visitors to London) it is our duty to go up as much stuff as we can – do it, you know you want to!

Up at the O2 costs £26 on a weekday and £33 at weekends and all equipment is supplied. Restrictions on climbers do apply and is not suitable for anyone under 10 years old, shorter than 1.2 meters or weighing more than 21 stone. Twilight climbs are also available.


A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic

As the summer theatre season draws to a close, A Streetcar Named Desire is just about the last of the big-name productions that has elsewhere seen film stars Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan and Kathleen Turner pitch up on the London stage. A sell-out before it opened at the Young Vic, Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois was hotly anticipated and widely praised, with critics unanimously hailing it the performance of a lifetime for her. Written in the late 40s, Tennessee Williams’s most famous play is the story of Blanche who has lost possession of the family home and comes to stay with her sister Stella in a New Orleans tenement block during a hot summer. Blanche’s refined manner and romantic ideals are at odds with Stella’s macho husband Stanley and the two engage in an intense battle of wills. As the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tiny flat sets in, the truth about Blanche and her history emerges with dangerous consequences.

The most striking thing about the Young Vic’s production is its modern setting, bold use of coloured lights and slowly revolving set which gives the entire audience, seated in the round, a chance to see Stella and Stanley’s apartment from every angle. The design, by Magda Willi, is a simple kitchen, bedroom and bathroom with a gauzy curtain which can be pulled across the centre to form semi-separate rooms. Scenes are dazzling lit in bold purples, greens and yellows – no coincidence in this world of domestic violence that these act as symbolic bruises.

The rotation in some sense adds a great deal, both reinforcing the growing instability of the central relationships and bringing things in and out of focus, while acting as marker for significant shifts in tempo. It speeds up at moments of high drama, particularly when Blanche and Stanley are alone, or the spin changes direction suddenly to increase the disorientating effect. The movement also gives a sense of the characters being on that titular Streetcar, unable to alight until it reaches its final destination – reinforcing that the battle between Blanche and Stanley is being fought to the end. It has its downsides of course; you do miss bits of the action, and sometimes the words, because bits of stairs or kitchen block your view. This did happen several times at crucial points which was frustrating and actually a little alienating.

Needless to say Gillian Anderson is spectacular as the troubled Blanche. She totters around in enormous heels and big sunglasses, playing the southern belle with a girlish ease. Yet, for all her simpering mannerisms, there’s something of the predator about her as well, dark and threatening. She all but inhales the boy who comes to the door, and parades wantonly in front of the thin curtain as she gets undressed near Stanley’s poker game. Anderson’s vocal control is very impressive moving effortlessly from giggling flirtation to sultry seductress, and then as Blanche is overwhelmed by the truth and begins to lose her grip, she shows her drunkenly clinging on to the tatters of her character and not quite sure which of her identities to assume. This is the real strength of Anderson’s performance, you can never quite tell which version is the real Blanche – lady or temptress – and as these two personalities merge and then splinter, neither does she.

Despite Vanessa Kirby’s variable accent, her Stella does a good job of conveying her obsessive love for her husband and how her loyalties are tested by her sister’s visit. You certainly get the sense that something shifts in their marriage during the course of the play and it will never be quite the same. Ben Foster’s Stanley is imposingly macho, quite capable of crushing the fragile Blanche, yet somehow unable to entirely outwit her. I didn’t quite believe in his irresistibility however and it would have been interesting to explore the class dimension in his performance – the extent to which Stanley is out of his depth with people with different backgrounds and aspirations which could add an extra layer of vulnerability to his clash with Blanche.

I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit disappointed when I left the theatre but that’s because my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high. Their earlier version of A View From the Bridge was so powerful that I was thinking about it for hours afterwards. I thought I’d feel the same about Streetcar, and while this is an all-but-perfect production the occasional alienation from the action meant it didn’t quite blow me away as I’d hoped. But it certainly deserves its unanimous plaudits and is absolute must-see theatre, particularly for Anderson’s astonishing Blanche that really overshadows everything else. There’s a daily ballot for tickets at 5pm (1pm for matinees) so put your name down every day until you get in. If not, then NT Live are wisely broadcasting it to cinemas on 16 September. This may be the end of the season but this exciting production will send it out in a blaze of glory.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Young Vic until 19 September with a £20 daily ticket ballot drawn at 5.30pm (put your name down at 5pm). It will be broadcast to cinemas via NT Live on 16 September.


The Human Factor – Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery is fast becoming one of my favourite exhibition spaces in London. Of the three things that I’ve now seen there, all of them have been enjoyable, thought-provoking and good value for money. Even more important, I’ve been able to pitch up at any time and get a ticket for immediate entry. It’s sadly increasingly difficult to do this in London and more than once in recent weeks I’ve had to make multiple attempts to see exhibitions which are either sold out for the day or not availability for several hours. It’s August and the school holidays I suppose, but London used to be more care-free for those who don’t like the confinement of booking ahead.

So that makes the Hayward on the busy Southbank a temporary haven, even at the weekend. It’s a great exhibition space and I want it to do well, but it’s almost surreal to be alone (with a security guard) in a gallery room these days as I was a few times on my visit to The Human Factor, and I’m secretly hoping no one else cottons on to this place – so shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

In their current display 25 artists who have created sculptures of the human form in the past 25 years are showcased, giving a diverse and sometimes challenging view of the body. For lots of people the word sculpture immediately makes them think of classical white marble figures with scary blank eyes and missing limbs, but there’s none of that here… ok there’s one use of marble but it’s of a young child wearing a sheet to look like a ghost which is about as far from the ancient statues as you can get. The rest is a balanced combination of frighteningly real and entirely abstract representations of the human body.

You’re greeted by 2 giant wooden warriors with bottle-top heads, suggesting their original size, considerably scaled-up and realised in wood by German artist Katharina Fritsch, next to a two faced Falling Woman by Paloma Varga Weisz wrapped in cloth and suspended from the ceiling – from one angle the face is the right way up and it looks like a calm gymnast but walk around and you see an upside-down person which looks dead, the only change being the face – an interesting way to play with perspective.

My favourite things though are either abstract or completely bizarre, which the Hayward always delivers. First the giant sculpture by Georg Herold made of wood and covered in a bright pink wax, it’s a human form bent backwards at the waist with its arms stretched up along the wall and one leg tucked behind the other. Despite its geometric structure and material it looks almost balletic. Just across are 4 mannequins standing in bright blue gunge to depict the increasing violence of the world and its effect on the body. Each corresponds to different horrific images of a single dead man whose death has been more brutal and more destructive of his body than the one before. Thomas Hirschhorn’s dummies are increasingly buried in the gunge and gain more tattoos as the corresponding deaths become more horrific. This not a family show as you can tell.

If that wasn’t shocking enough, round the corner are 2 sculptures of Pawel Althamer and his then wife, made from straw and covered in decaying animal intestine – yep it’s pretty gross and fascinating at the same time. He describes them as ‘failed mummies’ because they are rotting as you look at them, not obviously but you know they are. Affecting in a different way are four people by Ugo Rondinone which are displayed in a room with no other work. Each one is in a different seated position against the mid-position of the four walls, so they form the points of a cross, and each is completely still in silent contemplation and deliberately with no evidence of action. Being alone (with security guard!) in this room with them was quite affecting – they were more than just still, they were melancholy as well – walking around each individually and stepping back to see them as a set, they seemed to imply a loneliness of the human form. A little more fun in the upper gallery is a playful skeleton on a dusty park bench which artist Urs Fischer explained is a more humorous idea of decay.

Of course with art a lot is about personal taste and there are a few pieces that I didn’t like or, dare I say it, were on the pretentious side. But other will no doubt think differently. That said, these were few and the vast majority of this collection was genuinely enjoyable to view.  The success of this exhibition is its ability to get you thinking about not just how the human form is constructed in a real and abstract sense, but also the ways in which it is used to perpetrate and receive violent attacks, to inflict and feel pain, to intimidate, to observe, to convey grace and beauty, shame and admiration, to revile, to exist, or as a political and historical tool to write and rewrite history at will, while its preservation and decay can become almost obsessive. If the Hayward Gallery made me think about all of that, then this exhibition has done its job. From October it will be showing London artists on the theme of What is Real? Given its random ticket availability and amazingly quiet galleries I’ll certainly be making my way to that – bit don’t tell anyone!

The Human Factor is at the Hayward Gallery until 7 September. Full price is £12 (with gallery donation) and a range of concessions are available.


Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – Royal Festival Hall

Cinema is changing and, in the last couple of years especially, its role in culture and entertainment has undergone a significant shift. I’m not talking about 3D films which haven’t quite had the revolutionary impact some were expecting, but of the cinema as a place to participate in community-building events and to engage with wider art forms. First came the sports – football matches, Olympics and more – followed swiftly by NT Live, which more than anything else has democratised theatre-going by relaying the biggest shows direct from the West End stage to people not just across the UK, but around the world. Add to this operas, exhibition openings and ballet, and cinema is fast-becoming an affordable one-stop-shop for multiple forms of cultural engagement.

Alongside this, another quieter development has been taking place in how classic films are being revived. I’ve written before about the smattering of silent movies accompanied by live orchestra that appeared in London in the last eighteen months, largely pioneered by the BFI, but in 2014 this has become even more ambitious. Talking pictures have now replaced their silent counterpart as they did 90 years ago, so the new way to enjoy classic films is to remove their musical soundtrack and have it played by an orchestra in front of you as the actors speak on screen. The Royal Albert Hall began the trend with West Side Story earlier in the summer, and the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love has made Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra the centrepiece of its Love at the Pictures season at the Royal Festival Hall.

Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean, is one of Britain’s finest films, produced at the tail end of the Second World War. It tells the story of two married people – a housewife Laura Jesson, played by Celia Johnson and Alec Harvey a doctor, played by Trevor Howard – who meet by chance in a railway café and begin a chaste but intense affair. It’s doomed from the start, and they both know it, but their Thursday afternoons together become the highlight of their week, even though it brings guilt, regret and ultimately heartbreak. Based on a one act Noel Coward play (Still Life), and brought to the screen by the man himself, the film both expands and reduces its source material, taking the action out of the station and into the local area, but reducing its time to just a few weeks. There are two comical romance subplots involving station staff to lighten the mood, but to the emotional strains of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2, it is Alec and Laura’s relationship that moves the action forward.

The evening at The Royal Festival Hall begins with and introduction from Lucy Fleming, Celia Johnson’s daughter, reading letters Johnson wrote from the set to her husband serving abroad. This is a lovely touch, giving an insight into the film’s production, the cold in Lancashire where it was filmed, and Johnson’s reservations about the eight-year age gap with Trevor Howard, she being the elder. Fleming also tells us about the technical process of removing the soundtrack from the film, which involved the technicians meticulously going through it second by second to identify and remove the music sound waves, whilst leaving the speech and sound effects. In one day, they would only manage to treat 60 seconds of a film that runs for 107 minutes.

Then, before the interval, the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays the entirety of Rachmaninoff’s piece which lasts around 40-45 minutes. Conducted by David Charles Abell and with Leon McCawley as the solo pianist, it is a very affecting performance. I never go to concerts but it is difficult not to be engaged in this piece of music, with its melancholic and emotive feel which suits the film so perfectly. Although it predates Brief Encounter by 45 years, it seems to have been written especially for it. The film makes use of the concerto in sections so it’s a great decision by The Royal Festival Hall to play the entire piece before the screening and a real chance to appreciate it on its own merits.

After the interval, the film screening begins, again accompanied by the orchestra, which is an incredible experience and hearing the music live makes the film all the more poignant. The only tiny fault is the film’s projection which occasionally looks stuttered, which must be the result of taking it to pieces and putting it back together. You only really notice it when characters are walking and it didn’t impede the enjoyment of this mixed audience, ranging from children to pensioners. For those who have never seen it, yes at first you will find the clipped accents funny and it will feel a bit unlikely in places. The audience laughed their way through the intentional and unintentional comedy of the early scenes, but by the time Laura and Alec go rowing on the lake, the film had worked its charm and everyone was gripped by their affair. When they finally realise they have to part and Laura slumps defeated onto a railway bench even the most stony-hearted viewer will have a tear in their eye.

So the nature of film engagement is changing and this evening of Brief Encounter is not to be missed. While a night at the local Odeon or Vue is becoming habitual, this Southbank Centre event is the sort of ‘occasion cinema’ that London does so well, making it both memorable and special in a way that ordinary cinema no longer is. My seat at the back of the rear stalls with a perfect eye-line view of the screen was £20 – excellent value for money given this lasts 2hrs 45 mins providing an introduction, mini-concert and film viewing. It’s hard to get theatre seats for £20 these days and you could easily spend as much for a cinema ticket in Leicester Square. I would recommend the back actually; I sat near the front for Casablanca last week where looking up at the screen resulted in a painful neck. There are a number of unaccompanied films in the programme including Moulin Rouge, Dirty Dancing and Grease, but there are two more chances to see the live orchestra version of Brief Encounter, on the 22 and 29 August at 7.30pm. Most of us will probably never go to a film premier, so take this rare opportunity to indulge in some ‘occasion cinema’ and see this incredible presentation of one of Britain’s greatest films.

Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is at the Royal Festival Hall until 29 August. Tickets start at £20 as part of the Southbank Centre’s Love at the Pictures season.


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