Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Trial – Young Vic

I’m not going to lie to you, this is a tough one. The Young Vic has had a string of award-winning successes in the past 12 months leading to West End and now Broadway transfers. Understandably then, there is a buzz about the place these days and most shows sell out fairly quickly. This adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial was all but gone even before the press night so confident are audiences in the quality of Young Vic productions. And of course the lure of Rory Kinnear cannot be underestimated either. He’s an actor that’s been in everything, including roles in Bond and the recent Casual Vacancy on the BBC, and while he may not quite be a household name yet, is very highly regarded among theatre watchers – much as Benedict Cumberbatch used to be, and we all know how that turned out.

The Trial is a part absurdist, part-Brechtian, part-naturalistic drama about a totalitarian state that arrests Josef K a seemingly upstanding citizen one morning for an unspecified crime. But he’s not detained and while he awaits a series of hearing dates at ‘The Court’, Josef tries to discover what his crime has been and attends a number of surreal encounters with court officials and a potential lawyer while becoming increasingly famous for his unknown misdemeanour. There is a slim chance he could be set free but he must try to recall every bad deed he has ever committed which means filling out endless reams of yellow forms. Before long Josef discovers that a sure case of mistaken identity has taken over his entire life, but will he ever clear his name with the faceless Court?

The first thing you’ll notice as you enter the auditorium is the crazy design which has turned the Young Vic’s space into a giant orange courtroom with the audience seated in raked boxes facing each other. In the centre is a giant keyhole which rises up to reveal a treadmill on which the set is built underneath. It’s a neat way to imply the nature of this world based on secret observation although you might have to push pictures of David Frost and Lloyd Grosman from your mind as you muse on ‘who lives in a house like this’. The treadmill is clever way to move the action smoothly from scene to scene while implying a sense of inevitability in Josef’s story – once he’s set on this path it (somewhat literally) only goes in one direction.

But this is no 1984 and the audience is never allowed to get too close to the action, as well as being deliberately alienated from the central character by the language. In his monologue moments Josef speaks in a heightened way using ‘im’ and ‘ooo’ to refer to himself which reminded me of a James Joyce style deliberately intended to stop you feeling too much sympathy for him as we almost clinically observe his decline. This is the most challenging aspect of the play which clearly made it difficult for some members of the audience to understand what was going on. If straightforward, naturalistic theatre is your preference then this may not be an easy thing to watch, and would probably suit you better if you prefer more alternative and surreal styles.

On the whole the acting is extremely good and while your engagement with the plot can falter (and certainly did for a lot of people) there are some great performances. Rory Kinnear is of course superb as Josef, expertly plotting his increased frenzy as the process of discovering his crime begins to take over his entire life. Kinnear’s previous work, including a wonderfully malevolent Iago at the National in 2013, has created a great sense of expectation around his stage appearances, so it seems timely that he should join forces with the equally trendy Young Vic. In Kinnear’s performance you also get the sense that Josef was himself once a faceless man, trundling absently through life and working in a bank, making no mark on the world, but the layers of bureaucracy that suddenly make him famous are impossible to manage. The distancing of the audience means we never really get to know Josef and this story becomes a faceless man taking on a faceless system.

Kate Flynn is also excellent playing a number of key women in Josef’s life including the neighbour he is in love with and a school girl assistant to the lawyer who falls for him, as well as a stripper (who is too obviously wearing flesh coloured shorts) entertaining him as the play opens. If the text is making a point about the facelessness of these women who possibly in Josef’s mind all look the same, it is never made entirely clear but certainly suggests the interchangeability of the individual. There’s also a decent cast of additional characters who are all part of this treadmill of bureaucracy from Bogart-esque people in macs who are not even slightly scary to surreal court officials talking administrative nonsense and Josef’s bustling bank colleagues.

It does suffer from projection problems with the sound of the treadmill and the music periodically obscuring the dialogue, especially when the actor is facing away from you, which certainly doesn’t help audience engagement. While the acting is good and there is the germ of an engaging story at times, it is a hard piece to appreciate. Part of that this heightened brightly coloured world feels as though it’s trying too hard to be full of metaphor and meaning, which combined with the arms-length feel of the production creates a tension between wanting us to understand and pushing us away, thus making it difficult for some people to stay awake, never mind keep the story and themes straight long enough to form an opinion on whether they enjoyed it.

There’s some good stuff here in both the use of innovative techniques and yet another complete transformation of the Young Vic space. Rory Kinnear is certainly marvellous and probably deserves an award for maintaining 2 straight hours on stage, but ultimately something is not quite coming together here and you don’t leave mulling over the injustice of this state or being suitably warned about the over-systematisation of government. Although it was practically sold out before it opened, I have a feeling some of those pre-sales will regret their hasty purchase, so if it sounds like your thing returns will probably be fairly easy to come by. It’s not dreadful by any means but is likely only to suit particular theatre tastes, and not quite as engrossing as other recent Young Vic successes.

The Trial is at the Young Vic until 22nd August. Tickets are from £19-£35.

NB: An alternative version of this review from the press night performance was previously published on The Public Reviews website. The review above refers to a separate performance.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist – Imperial War Museum

As the centenary commemorations for the First World War began last year, it has led to a plethora of war artist exhibitions in London. From Stanley Spencer at Somerset House to the disappointing Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate there has been plenty of material covering many of the wars of the last century. Despite the rather messy re-launch of the new First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum which are a poor use of their incredible material, the one thing the IWM can do is interesting art exhibitions.

Last year the Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War was a high point of the Great War commemorations, containing some of the most fascinating conflict art ever produced. Now political artist Peter Kennard famous for his photo-montages gets a fascinating retrospective that references key moments in the last 50 years, from mass protests to modern day conflict. And few exhibitions have such a powerful opening statement. Entitled Decoration, a number of thin full length panels line the wall each showing a form of military medal but the ribbons made from American and UK flags are shredded and frayed, and instead of some kind of medallion at the bottom, there’s a series of negative war images emphasising the real cost of fighting and the meaninglessness of awarding a sanitised medal to obscure what really happened. From debris to a man being tortured with his head in a sack, from a bandaged and bleeding head to a ghostly face, these images make a startling impression, and one that shouts about the futility of war from the start.

Kennard’s most recognisable images were used for posters, badges and the front of magazines particularly in the 70s and 80s where threats of nuclear war in particular were at their height. Interestingly the IWM displays these on wooden panels that you can flip through, much as you would flip through the music posters in HMV, and it’s a useful space-saving initiative for a small gallery. But this doesn’t make Kennard’s message any less stark, as you see his montages of destruction and danger. Some of the most striking include a gas-masked face where the mouth is stuffed with rockets or a skeleton whose head has been replaced by a mushroom cloud explosion of gas. There are more images of specific politicians, artfully lampooning their lack of heart and naturally Thatcher appears in many of these including a particularly blistering attack showing her cutting the tubes of a baby on life support.

However much you agree or disagree with Kennard’s views his skill in the days before photoshop are impressive, repeatedly using skeletons, nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds as symbols of the threat. So, even if you didn’t live through this period his work gives you a strong sense of the tensions and fears both of nuclear fallout and the freedom of politicians to casually stoke the fires that could endanger the population. You see this idea of gambling with people’s lives in a number of images, most significantly in a scene of people playing Blackjack using rockets as stakes in the game. Unsurprisingly Kennard’s later work includes an image of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of an explosion.

Interestingly some of the most powerful works are quite different and the penultimate room has two groups of work based on the inequality of wealth. In the centre of the room are a number of large easels with the financial page of a newspaper opened on them. Entitled The Reading Room, each double page spread has a portrait photocopied into it of a person clearly poor and starving.  It’s hard not to be affected as their large eyes stare directly out at you, a haunting image of western greed. Around the room, using a similar technique, Kennard has created a number of hands photocopied across stock market results, each clawing and tearing at the paper. They look ferocious as these two dimensional hands create three dimensional rips, like a horror movie come to life. Again whatever your own views, there is a searing anger in these pictures which is surprisingly potent and for me the high point of the exhibition.

The final room is a strange one, a sort of retrospective within a retrospective; a new installation summarising some of the most famous images along with some statistics indicating the costs of various wars in the last 50 years. Now the IMW as a research institution should know better than to purvey unverified or at least unreferenced facts to the public – although as part of an ‘art work’ arguably not their fault – but when I visited one of the ‘facts’ had already been redacted (i.e. covered over by tape) and other writers have mentioned further errors. The difficulty of this section is perhaps a lack of perspective on how things have changed in the last 50 years. The political situation of the 1970s and 2000s is quite different and although purely chronologically one has led to the other, more nuance needs to be given to his message that all wars and governments are the same.

In an interview for Time Out Kennard mentioned how interesting it is to have his work shown at the IWM because people don’t come there specifically for the art so it’s a new (and largely younger) audience and the effect the work has on them may be interesting. And that is true to a point – seeing war art in a place dedicated to understand conflict and translating it for those who have never experienced it, creates a level of consistency and approach that is impossible in a standard gallery that inter-mixes war art with other forms. Here the art is positioned in the history of war rather than the history of art, allowing the viewer to make broader connections with other parts of the museum. In practice though I’ve never seen more than a handful of people in the IWM’s art gallery, tourists whip through as if they’ve wandered in by accident and I was even completely alone in there for 5 minutes at a time (not that I’m complaining!). But given that the crowds have now died down in the First World War Galleries, perhaps realising what a poor investment they have been, the IWM should do more to promote the gallery space because the curators really have done an excellent job with both the recent exhibitions there. Kennard’s work is fascinating and this exhibition is a worthy showcase of civilian fears of modern warfare.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum until 30 May 2016. Admission is free.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Barbican

On 14th July Harper Lee publishes Go Set a Watchman possibly the most eagerly anticipated sequel of the year if not the century (although technically not a real sequel as it was written before the original). To Kill a Mockingbird has been a staple of school curricula for years and one of those books that most people seem to have read in GCSE English classes. Considered a major American classic the affection for its characters has been cemented partially by the fact that Lee never published anything else. So much like pop culture’s obsession with Marilyn, Elvis and James Dean, there’s a sense of unfinished business about it, and of Lee’s unrealised potential as an author, that has captivated readers for decades.

I should probably admit then, that all this has rather passed me by, and I read it for the first time only a few weeks before seeing this stage adaptation at the Barbican – you know how it is, so many books, so little time. But I’m glad I finally got round to it and could instantly see why it’s held in such high esteem, so I could approach this play with the story and the language fresh in my mind. This production was first staged in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago and returns to London after a UK tour with most of the original cast still intact.  For those who haven’t read it, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Scout and her brother Jem in a small southern American town in the 1930s, covering a year in which their father, the local lawyer, defends a black labourer accused of raping a white woman. Through the eyes of the children we learn about the town and its people, their reactions to these events and how its violent outcomes divide a community.

There is really only one significant misfire in this production but it is one that is obvious from the beginning – the use of changing narrators, drawn from the cast and each holding a different copy of the book, to read out passages from the story to the audience. I can see that they are trying to make points about the universality of the text, how the book has affected people all over the world, and how Scout has become a symbol of the audience’s perspective, but really it just feels a bit daft. Part of the problem is the varying quality of the reading, some of it is incredibly patronising as though the audience is made up of 6 year olds, and some actors just seem to have difficulty reading aloud in a way that feels natural. Depending on how cynical you are, and I am, it’s also a bit cheesy – plus it might have been more meaningful to have one narrator, potentially an older version of Scout, recalling events (as Lee’s sequel is about to do).

Aside from that this is actually a very good representation of the book which manages to evoke both the atmosphere and tone very nicely, despite its move from an outdoor to indoor venue. Most impressive are the children portraying Scout, Jem and Dill; now it can go either way with child actors, most of the ones who appear in films for example are awkward and let’s face it annoying, but it’s hard not to be thoroughly impressed at how good they are in this production, and in some scenes actually better than adult cast members. It’s a changing group of youngsters but on the night I went Ava Potter played Scout and was the perfect mix of tomboyish bravado and devotion to her father, much as you would have imagined her in the novel; Arthur Franks as Jem and Connor Brundish as Dill are good foils coping impressively with the darker elements and timing the comedy well too.

Robert Sean Leonard has quite big shoes to fill as Atticus Finch, especially as the vast majority of the audience will be mentally comparing him to Gregory Peck’s film version. And he’s extremely good at conveying the calm stoicism of the lawyer thrust into the town’s spotlight with the thankless job of defending Tom. There is both an element of world-weariness in Leonard’s portrayal but mixed with a fundamental certainty in the rights of the law and of the basic application of common humanity to all which Atticus so strongly believes – a nice balance of accepting inevitably failure but going ahead anyway because it is the right thing to do. Leonard also brings a tenderness to Atticus’s role as a father who although upstanding and authoritative clearly adores his children. It’s a restrained but appropriate performance which anchors the production.

Most impressive is Zackary Momoh as Tom, falsely accused of a hideous crime he knows is only going to end one way. Momoh’s fatalistic resignation to this is heart-breaking to watch and his testimony during the courtroom scene is tense and full of pathos, as well as underlining Tom’s role in the social order. Momoh gives us a nice feeling of a decent man being respectful to the people and due process he is part of, but understandably bewildered and afraid, given his social position, at having to mount a defence.

The rest of the cast play multiple parts and jump in and out of being the narrator using costume which breaks the tone a little. In the courtroom scene it was disappointing to see Bob and Mayella Ewell returning to the side instead of reacting to what Tom was saying but really all eyes are on Momoh in that electrifying scene. Director Timothy Sheader has done well to transfer this indoors without losing too much of the small town rural atmosphere that Regent’s Park could provide, although perhaps a tad more of the stifling heat needs to come through to emphasise the growing tension in the town and for Atticus as the case plays out.

Jon Bausor’s design is interesting, with the town of Maycomb drawn onto the stage in chalk indicating where all the houses are in relation to one another. Otherwise it’s fairly minimal and there’s some nice inferences to be drawn from the blurring and messing of chalk lines as the actors’ feet scrape them away, all but eroding the town. The publicity poster contains a tree with a tyre hanging from it which is on stage throughout to reiterate the rites of passage move from childish games to adult problems, which is all nicely meaningful. There are some corrugated burned iron panels all around the edge which were a little unclear – representing the slums maybe? – but only came into their own when lit during the courtroom scene. Otherwise they had too much of the modern urban city about them.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a welcome addition to the Barbican’s summer programme and a great opportunity for those of us that missed it in Regent’s Park the other year. As Harper Lee publishes the sequel, it will create renewed interest and speculation about the original novel which should have audiences clamouring to see this adaptation. Whatever happens in the new book it is bound to cast fresh light on this classic American text so this production frankly could not be more timely.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Barbican until 25 July. Tickets start at £19 in the Gallery.

Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre

Classic American theatre seems to be riding high in the West End at the moment with some stellar productions achieving critical acclaim and winning handfuls of awards. With the Young Vic’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson heading to New York in 2016 and the monumental A View From the Bridge with Mark Strong juggernauting into the West End and now heading to Broadway from October, not to mention Damien Lewis’s appearance in American Buffalo, clearly London is offering leading interpretations of US theatre. In the year of Arthur Miller’s centenary there has probably been no better time to see top-notch productions of his famous plays including the West End transfer of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman.

Willy Loman is a travelling salesman living in an increasingly urbanised district of New York, returning home one day to find his two grown-up sons have come to stay and long-held frustrations soon bubble over. But Willy’s grasp of time has begun to slip meaning he frequently slides back and forth between the present and a variety of happy times he recalls raising his favourite son Biff, a one-time High School American football star who squandered any promise he once had. Biff, now 34, is home to try and make his latest big idea happen, going into business with his brother Happy, if only they could raise the capital. Happy is an inveterate womaniser constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, even though he has fulfilled all the dreams is family once had for his sibling. Over the course of 24 hours the Loman’s must face the truth about themselves and each other before a very different future is left open to them.

The critics have been incredibly enthusiastic about this production and while I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them, seeing a play for the first time is a different experience. Comparison with the recent multi-award winning version of A View from the Bridge, which I also saw for the first time, at the Young Vic (and again at the Wyndhams) means Death of a Salesman isn’t quite in the same league. So while the main critics may say this is the finest production they’ve seen, I felt it took a little too long to get going and to establish the underlying tension within the family, whereas it was immediate in A View from the Bridge and the inevitability of the outcome drove the action more obviously. I’m splitting hairs of course, we’re talking about the difference between a 4 and 5 star production but it’s worth considering how consistent critics are in how they award those coveted marks.

Greg Doran is pretty good at creating tension and drive within (overly) familiar Shakespeare plays and once you start to get a sense of who everyone is the pace picks up nicely, wringing engaging drama from the events of this day. The movement between past and present, as Willy’s mind re-enacts key moments of contentment with his, then, teenage sons is cleverly handled at the front of the stage, while the actors convincingly offer lighter versions of their older selves. Design and projection are cleverly incorporated into Willy’s memories, offering a more pastoral and idyllic feel to the past when a large tree cast a light shadow on the Loman house and the density of the surrounding apartment blocks becomes transparent, suggesting the light and space that once existed in this place. How much of this romantic past is true the production doesn’t entirely explore, however, and although it seems Miller hasn’t clarified it in the text, it might have been interesting to make these sequences even more dreamlike and suggest Willy is taking refuge in an idealised version of the past that never existed. What if Willy wasn’t the loving father he’s suggesting in these flashbacks and the tension with his sons in the present reflects his failure and their unwillingness to forgive?

Antony Sher’s performance is very good, playing Willy as a man unable to keep the threads of his life together and struggling to deal with the changed circumstances that time has brought. Like his son, when once he was the ‘star player’ in the office, he can no longer compete with the younger generation and new techniques that drives his work as a salesman. Those difficulties peak in repeated confrontation with his sons and Sher seems constantly on the edge of agitated outbursts which seem to be as much about the frustrated inaction of his children as his own failure to be the man he once thinks he was. There seem to be a number of ways to play Willy, and Sher goes for anger but perhaps doesn’t quite give enough sense of the loneliness of his job or evoke too much pity from the audience.

Biff is possibly more interesting a character than his father whose failures he somehow mirrors. Alex Hassell gives him an interesting air of disappointment and pain at being unable to fulfil his family’s early expectations of him. Biff has gone from job to job, never settled down and now at 34 is finding doors closing very quickly. There’s an interesting cross-over with Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whose early sporting career was also curtailed by the same self-destructive impulses that drive Biff to unnecessarily destroy opportunities that come his way. Brick also has a similarly love-hate relationship with his father where the two can only exist when they’re not together, because home reminds Brick and Biff of how much they’ve lost.

Harriet Walter gives good support as matriarch Linda, a classic Miller woman, like Beatrice in A View from the Bridge, who stands back and almost allows events to unfold despite realising the consequences. There is a resignation in Walter’s performance and devotion to her husband’s needs that means she will sacrifice seeing her sons to maintain his happiness – again as Beatrice rejects Catherine to retain Eddie.  Happy Loman meanwhile (Sam Marks) is looking for his family’s attention and clearly his frequent affairs are a manifestation of the anonymity and lack of love he feels at home.

The open-fronted two story house design works fairly well, particularly for the first half where most of the scenes are set in the kitchen or bedroom, but it dominates the stage so entirely that it crushes a lot of external scenes into the small space at the front of the stage, which is harder to see from the upper levels of the theatre. While the looming house is a constant reminder that these people can never escape the way their family name and shared history defines them, something a little more flexible, such as a rotating stage would have given them more space to create offices and restaurants as characters interact with the wider world, and offered a little more variety in the visuals.

Death of a Salesman is a classic of American theatre and arguably Miller’s most famous play. This RSC production certainly gives the audience plenty to think about as it examines the curdling of the American dream. As Willy and Linda edge closer to finally owning their own home, they realise the thing they’ve worked their whole lives doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While this may not quite have that epic sense of inevitable tragedy offered by Ivo Van Hove’s stripped back A View from the Bridge, this version of Death of a Salesman examines many similar themes. Reasonably priced tickets are available from Last Minute and it’s worth catching before the run ends; it’s the second best Miller production you’ll see this year.

Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 July. Tickets start at £12.25, while Last Minute also has tickets for £22.50 for the Upper Circle. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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