Monthly Archives: September 2018

Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

Anthony and Cleopatra - National Theatre

After a genuinely exhilarating Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre a few months ago, Shakespeare’s subsequent tale Antony and Cleopatra has arrived at the National starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, continuing the story of the Roman Empire as the Triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius and Lepidus descends into consolidated governance under one Emperor. It’s been a big year for this particular period of ancient history, along with the West End transfer of the RSC’s two-part Robert Harris adaptation Imperium which focused on the life of Cicero, we have seen three completed separate perspectives on the same set of characters.

It has been more than two years since this production was originally announced, with Fiennes’s name already attached, and after a disastrous Macbeth in the Olivier earlier this year, the National will be keen to demonstrate that its command of Shakespearean tragedy in the most exposing of theatre spaces is untrammelled. With press night a couple of performances away, and a couple of caveats, this is already shaping up to be a very respectable and possibly even powerful staging of Shakespeare’s tragic romance.

One of the key questions Simon Godwin’s production asks is whether this was really a great love story at all. Shakespeare often leaves plenty of room for interpretation and his greatest works give the actor plenty of scope to play the role in a variety of ways. Antony and Cleopatra is particularly ambiguous, never solely categorising itself as a grand tragedy or a shrewd political piece in which two of the world’s greatest politicians create the image of love to protect their status. The very openness of the play is one of its biggest assets allowing each new interpretation to decide whether their love is real, equal and unyielding or calculatedly one-sided, cynical and desperate.

One of this production’s most notable features is just what a stylish and luxurious world set designer Hildegard Bechtler has created, superbly supported by Evie Gurney’s costumes who notably counts Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen among her former employers. The emphasis in Alexandria is on relaxed wealth, loose expensive fabrics with a subtle bohemian flavour, particularly in Cleopatra’s beautiful array of dresses comprising floaty cloaks, gauzy materials and plenty of gypsy skirting. Tonally, the colours of the Egyptian court are earthy, warm and life-enhancing, bright whites, warm oranges and terracotta, all bathed in soft yellow light.

Bechtler has created a relatively simple palace set drawing on North African architecture to create what seems like an upmarket spa complete with shallow, maze-like pool that will give someone an inevitable dunking. The whole effect reflects the allure of Cleopatra herself, of an eternal summer filled with every kind of easy joy as well stocked bars sit beside sun loungers and comfortable chairs all wrapped in a hint of exclusivity.

By contrast, the Italy led by Octavius Caesar is more formally well-appointed – tasteful, minimal and subtle but austere and almost joyless. Courtiers wear distinctly Mediterranean tailoring, styled with turtle necks, paisley silk scarves and shiny slip-on loafers. It reeks of recognisable Italian design in colder hues of navy blue, grey and, later, military khaki, while Bechtler’s set here draws on the simple marble flooring of expensive hotels. It’s sparsely decorated with odd sculptures that suggest Rome’s international reach, a collection of purloined goods from the places it has conquered. Like Cleopatra’s palace, it reflects Caesar’s own personality, slick, emotionless and ordered, the military hierarchy never far from the unforgiving surface.

Godwin’s approach is visually detailed and impressive, using all of the tricks and techniques the Olivier space has to offer. Much of the earlier part of the play uses the standard revolve to cut between Alexandria and Rome, occasionally using the foremost part of the stage to connect the action as the various sets turn into view. But as the show unfolds, Godwin becomes increasingly inventive with bolder approaches to scene setting that create some impressive spectacles and help to build an escalating tension as the story unfolds.

As submarine hatches open from the stage floor the Pompey subplot emerges, soon to be followed by the fin-like growth of a whole submarine wall curving into view, utilising the variety of the Olivier drum to striking effect. While a dividing wall reduces the stage space in almost every production these days, Godwin takes a more varied approach to the second half, and as events hasten, the shifting location becomes much more fluid, notably using the disintegrating set to mark the decline of Antony and Cleopatra’s fortunes.

Godwin reimagines the land battle between Antony and Caesar’s troops as a particularly brutal skirmish around the doorways and enclosed spaces of Actium, drawing on more fractured modern experiences of warfare in Afghanistan and Syria in a carefully coordinated sequence that takes Shakespeare’s fairly remote discussion of armies clashing out of view and giving it more tangibility. Depending on where you sit, blocks of set are occasionally obstructive which is a particular problem in one of the play’s most emotional moments, and only once is the stage completely divested of all clutter, but more on that later.

It is clear how much thought and research has gone into each scene, cleverly showcasing the detailed work behind the scenes. And while this may sound like a lot of style over substance, it’s never at the expense of the core emotional drama. Instead, every decision underlines a core plot point or personality trait that feels consistent, creating a growing anticipation across the show. Sadly, the two most important moments are so mishandled that the meticulous care taken in the rest of the production undermine what should be a shattering conclusion.

The respective deaths of Antony and Cleopatra are the climax of story which could have turned out very differently. Outmanoeuvred and outwitted the lovers are left with nowhere to run, lost to each other with their political lives destroyed, their suicides should be the most impactful moment. These take place on a poorly constructed wall and staircase that acts as proxy for Cleopatra’s monument, but in the Olivier amphitheatre where there are supposed to be no bad seats, core moments of action are completely invisible to some of the audience, taking away from the power of this double death ending that set the Roman Empire on an entirely new course.

When Antony’s bleeding body is delivered to his love it has to be awkwardly winched up to the plateau at the top of the block, requiring Fiennes to mostly heave himself up while the supporting cast shove him from underneath – most undignified. It’s horribly clunky and should be impossible for a man so close to death. Exhausted from the effort his final breath is completely obscured by the set. Likewise, the tantalising and terrifying prospect of a fairly large real snake elicits an unfortunate round of sniggers as Cleopatra’s maid struggles to return it to its receptacle.* Godwin’s approach is simpler but the lack of pomp in the Egyptian Queen’s final moments is surprisingly disappointing, splayed on the floor in a plain gown in a supposedly magnificent monument that is nothing more than a set of stairs – a shame.

As the central couple, Fiennes and Okonedo are an intriguing pairing, keeping the audience guessing on the real nature of their relationship all the way through. It certainly feels more like a cynical alignment of status and political weight, driven by exotic lust, than a pure but doomed romantic love. This ambiguity adds a fascinating power between them that drives the plot as they pursue their own agendas. There may be an implied mutual desire that sits on the surface, a need to have the other want them, but they never let their relationship prevent them from enhancing their own individual status or protecting their own skin when it suits them.

Okonedo easily has the best of it in the early scenes with a wonderfully mercurial and petulant performance, a monarch who demands the devotion of all around her. Seemingly unwilling to do anything for herself, her servants run around after her, locating Antony and awaiting the frequent calls for “Charmian.” Whether or not Shakespeare had this in mind, there is something of Elizabeth I about Okonedo’s approach, demanding romantic attentions from the men around her and enjoying the game of courtly love without necessarily any of the commitment.

When Antony leaves for Rome, this Cleopatra’s concerns seem less about being parted from the man she desires than fear of losing her protected status. Her manipulation of Antony throughout seems shrewdly calculated, wearing an air of girlish jealousy for effect while happy to abandon him when fortunes turn against them in battle. Arguably Okonedo isn’t quite adding enough variation across the production, and while it is an enjoyable performance, there is no clear insight into her motivation. Ambiguity is fine for most of the show, but for her suicide to make sense the audience needs to understand where it originates, is it the realisation that her abiding love for Antony was real after all and she cannot face a world without him or does the failure to charm Octavius, and take a third Roman ruler to her bed, signal the end of the road?

Having played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar at the Barbican back in 2005 and decided to resume the mantel more than two years ago, Fiennes portrayal of a man lost in illusions of youth and driving himself to destruction is considerably assured, and at times deeply moving. When we first meet Antony, he is ensconced in a breezy hedonistic lifestyle and dressed for a pool party in wide legged trousers and open tropical shirt. Rarely without a drink in hand, even when he first returns to Rome, Fiennes portrays a man grown mentally and physically soft, still a masculine leader, but a shadow of the great military commander he once was.

Drawn back into securing the military surety of Rome, and in league with fellow Triumvirs Lepidus and Octavius, a part of Mark Antony is awoken demonstrated by Fiennes in the boisterous party scene following peace with Pompey Junior and in the occasional display of high spirits that always separated him from the seriousness of Italy. What follows is a superb depiction of self-delusion and hopeless decline as Antony’s confidence is rocked by losses and betrayals. With diminishing options, he grows to recognise his dependence on Cleopatra – which feels more like a sexual hold than anything else – but it never stops him from pursuing the course he thinks best for Rome. Before the strangely managed end, the entire set clears from the stage and Fiennes alone holds the Olivier in his hand as Antony movingly wrestles with death. For all its reported difficulties, it’s nice to see that this room can be kept entirely in thrall by as little as a great writer and a single actor at the top of his game.

The sparsity of genuine emotion between the lovers allows Tim McMullan’s noble Enobarbus to bring real feeling and conflict to his scenes as Antony’s troubled friend – a rarity in Shakespeare to have a secondary character address the audience with small soliloquies – while good support comes from Nicholas Le Prevost’s Lepidus, Sargon Yelda’s Pompey, Fisayo Akinade’s Eros and Cleopatra’s maids Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) and Iras (Georgia Landers). Tunji Kasim’s Octavius Caesar is shaping up nicely but a touch more coldness would enhance the performance, while some thinly-veiled threat would add to the drama of his final confrontation with Cleopatra.

A long time in the making, the National Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra thoughtfully uses design and performance to build the story, heightening the tension ready for a climactic finale which in its present form doesn’t quite pay off. With two performances before press night there may not be time for remedy but that shouldn’t take away from a production that delivers on so much of its promise. After some disappointing tragedies this year (Othello and Macbeth in particular), the National can rest assured that this one was mostly worth the wait.

Antony and Cleopatra is at the National Theatre until 19 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

*Post-Show Note – this scene has now been altered.

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Pinter Two: The Lover / The Collection – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter

The Pinter Season is off and rolling, and after a strong start, the second collection of one-act plays completes the repertory opener. Pinter Two is a complete change of tone from its companion collection, moving from social politics to more familiar Pinter territory, relationship politics. From the dystopian world of Pinter One where power and violence played openly together, The Lover and The Collection transfer to the 1960s to focus on deception, betrayal and game-playing where characters may or may not be active participants in a marital subterfuge.

This is not the first time director Jamie Lloyd has approached this particular Pinter pairing, 10 years ago he presented the same double bill at this very theatre to mostly positive reviews. As much as this entire season marks a decade since the playwright’s death, in Pinter Two the audience can also observe Lloyd actively revisiting his own past, exploring new ways to interpret and visualise the same plays and thinking about the extent to which his perspective on the work has shifted with experience.

The evening opens with The Lover a 45-minute duologue between a very ordinary married couple in which they openly discuss the regular afternoon visits by the Wife’s lover while her spouse is dutifully at work. When the titular character is finally revealed, it becomes clear that the Husband is tiring of such shenanigans and tries to convince his Wife that the open arrangement should cease. As decent domesticity and wantonness collide, the Wife refuses to change and decides to take control.

If you’ve seen Pinter One, then Soutra Gilmour’s sugary pink world of early 1960s homely perfection will be a charming surprise. Lloyd has set this new version of The Lover in a slightly exaggerated scenario that calls on unattainable ideas of domestic aspiration that filled post-war advertising. Not so very far from Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling, initially this seems a meticulously managed household, everything in its place with a central couple who look and dress the part, even addressing each other in slightly singsong tones to emphasise the exterior charm of their union.

But, of course, beneath this placid surface the rot has set in, with plenty of unhappiness and tension waiting to burst the bubble. Lloyd draws out the contradiction so well, contrasting how characters look and sound with what they say, building-up to the disintegration of their fantasy life. Somehow Lloyd makes the veneer of civility look increasingly unsavoury as imposed social expectations of behaviour fight against natural urges and desires. In this way Pinter is showing us the nonsense of externally-created notions of decorum that work against human nature.

At the same time, this is an intimate story about fantasy creation that requires the collusion of two people with a mutual understanding of the rules. When the Husband decides to alter them, it allows reality to creep in, bringing with it implications of shame and guilt that reveal his inherent weakness. Pinter places the Wife entirely at home, so the fiction she creates for herself is far more integral to sustaining her sense of self, of allaying the frustrations of being a housewife which play out in her stronger need to maintain the illusion. Pinter is full of sensible strong women and it is her sexuality and pragmatism that drive the conclusion.

Hayley Squires’s supporting role was easily the best thing about last year’s rather cold Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and here she perfectly portrays the duality of the Wife, a domestic goddess on the one hand and practised seductress on the other. The couple’s entire life feels like a performance and Squires never let’s the audience know where the real woman begins and ends. Likewise, John Macmillan shows the Husband playing multiple roles and while he becomes increasingly frustrated, his true purpose is ambiguous. Does her really want to stop or is he trying to take the game to a new level?

Lloyd creates a feeling of chapters using occasional music but predominantly a sudden change of lighting to shift the tone, making scenes look richer when the couple are similarly-minded, and adding a greyer tinge when they are at odds – we even see a projection of the frequently mentioned Venetian blinds as the sun sets between scenes. Daylight, darkness and time matter in this play, and we see the Wife entertaining her lover only in the afternoon, noting she’s never seen him at sunset, whereas her Husband’s face belongs to the evening. The clock races through time as the couple’s clear distinction between day and night starts to blur.

Set entirely in the velvet-curtained night, Lloyd keeps The Collection in the 1960s but takes an entirely different approach to staging this tale of apparent adultery at a dress-makers event in Leeds. James believes his wife Stella has betrayed him and calls-up her supposed lover Bill to confront him, but Bill’s older lover Harry answers the phone instead. On finally tracking him down, James and Bill become friends, spending intimate evenings listening to opera, but the question of Bill and Stella keeps returning. Affronted by Bill’s sudden distraction, Harry seeks the truth.

This is a production that requires two locations and in his 2008 production Lloyd’s split-staged approach was criticised, so this version blends the respective homes together, trusting the audience to recognise that characters in the same space are not necessarily in the same room. It’s an excellent compromise, allowing the action to flow freely without restricting the view or impeding the performance, while being absolutely clear on who is where.

This time Lloyd and Gilmour call upon the tone and style of 60s movies to shape their new interpretation, sparingly using musical highlights that suggest a dark crime caper or mafia movie. The set uses deeper colours than The Lover, with a palette of forest greens and khaki tones that give the piece a wintry feel, while Lloyd emphasises the unnerving edge to the play. For Pinter fans, there’s much here that will resonate, the snappy dialogue and use of working-class characters to add a homoerotic implication feels like moments from No Man’s Land, drawing attention to (for the 1960s) the seemingly unusual domestic set-ups.

Despite it being a play about female infidelity, much of the interest centres around the three men and their changing interactions. Macmillan and Squires again play the central couple, but almost as an alternate reality from their previous incarnation. Stella and James are really another version of the Wife and Husband from The Lover, creating what may be a fantasy and openly sharing details with each other. In these plays no one appears to hide their betrayal.

Yet, the focus is predominantly on Harry and Bill whose relationship remains both clear and obscure at the same time. David Suchet’s Harry is possessive and demanding, a rich man who has some kind of hold over Russell Tovey’s Bill that keeps them together. Harry is petulant and uneasy, continually demanding Bill’s gratitude for the lifestyle that he provides for them. Suchet has the measure of the Pinter man exactly, registering low levels of menace throughout the performance tempered with intriguing moments of camp that elicit much of the play’s humour. His furious outburst in response to Bill’s disdainful attitude hint at a much larger backstory as he talks of rescuing him from a slum – the deliberate care with which Suchet weighs each word implies a seedy world based on class, money and prostitution which Stella and James have wandered into.

Harry never suggests any particular affection for Bill, which Suchet uses to create a sense of ownership, Bill is brought and paid for, maintained by Harry in a business transaction in which he expects loyalty in return – the tension comes from Bill’s casual response which infuriates his partner. The lengths Harry goes to protect that arrangement suggest a deeper feeling but Suchet translates that into jealousy and quiet fury, wanting nothing to interrupt the fantasy he has created around the two of them. It’s an engaging performance from Suchet, and one which suggests a Hirst at some point in his future.

In a way Russell Tovey’s Bill is aware of his dependency on Harry, but as with many of the Working-Class men in Pinter, he has an anarchic streak that likes to push against the confines of his existence. He’s certainly a game-player, equally attracted to men and to women which draws James into his sphere. Tovey slightly overdoes the “geezer” accent which occasionally brings an imbalance to his scenes, which should smooth out as the run continues, but he does suggest the level of Bill’s self-knowledge, a physical creation who must rely on his body to maintain his position.

Intriguingly, although the plot is driven by the alleged one-night stand between Bill and Stella – a possibility that despite Bill’s homelife seems credible in a character driven by grubby pleasure – Pinter never allows them to meet. In most drama there would need to be a scene in which all the characters come face to face and the truth is revealed, but here Pinter denies the audience this to emphasise the ambiguity. Stella becomes almost a secondary character, and it is Bill’s lies and the way he explores scenarios for his own amusement which dominated. Tovey’s Bill is therefore self-assured, almost permanently smirking as he toys with James and Harry, while still knowing how far he can take such entertainment without losing his very pretty situation.

As a pairing, these two plays offer light and shade in their presentation, one all about the shiny surface of advertising-like perfection and the other a more complex examination of dishonesty. Both reveal the underbelly of desire, where behaviours are driven by human need rather than decency or loyalty, and the ease with which individuals can throw-off the idea of responsibility. The Lover and The Collection deal with the idea of collusion, where characters deliberately opt-in to some form of game-playing but are destabilised when one partner decides to change the rules. The drama comes from reactionary attempts to return the status quo.

This is another great double bill in a season that’s already showing its mettle. The cast and creative team, led by Lloyd, are bringing a real clarity to the work that will help to engage new audiences who may have previously found Pinter rather inaccessible. Lloyd will direct the third collection from late October before temporarily handing the reins to others including Lyndsey Turner and Patrick Marber, which will make for an interesting changing of the guard as the season unfolds.  But with two very engaging and differently-styled repertory collections now playing, Pinter at the Pinter is proving to be exactly what a season ought to be – inventive and meaningful, reminding us why Pinter remains such a force in modern theatre.

Pinter Two is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20 October, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.      


Pinter One: One for the Road / New World Order etc – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter One -  Pinter at the Pinter

As one season ends another opens and, as the Oscar Wilde season slowly fizzles out at the Vaudeville, attention turns to the short plays of Harold Pinter all of which will be staged by the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company to commemorate a decade since the influential playwright’s death. In the next 6-months every single one act Pinter play will be presented together for the first time across seven specially curated ‘collections,’ and hosted at the theatre posthumously named after him. With 20 plays to look forward to and a host of star names already attached to the project as both actors and directors, the seasons builds to a much-anticipated stage appearance by Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in February.

First though, Pinter One will run for just 23 performances, tackling four plays and a sketch in two hours and 15 minutes – The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes. With any season, it’s vital that the first production sets-out the Company’s intentions, taking a perspective on the work that will guide the audience through the run and, ideally, generate repeat-business for the subsequent shows. By emphasising the common themes in Pinter One and the topicality of their subject matter, this a very strong start for the Pinter at the Pinter season.

As a director Lloyd has a particular skill in drawing out the dark absurdity of the plays he selects, finding the point where the comic surface meets the sinister underbelly, and from this Lloyd often finds an uneasy or threatening tone where characters seem unable to escape the confines of their limited existence. While his work tends to polarise audiences, Lloyd has a special affinity with Pinter helping to make the work more accessible than it can sometimes be, resulting in a particularly fine version of The Homecoming a couple of years ago.

It’s ok to admit that Pinter is hard and often very weird, which to audiences used to straightforward narrative plays with a discernible beginning, middle and end, means watching Pinter can be a disconcerting and difficult experience. And he’s not a writer that you can just walk into a theatre and make sense of straight away, it takes practice, you need to time to get used to his style, to disconnect from the safer dramatic conventions we are familiar with and, like the theatre of the absurd (which is closely related to Pinter’s style) to refocus on the play’s themes and tone rather than character and plot. Pinter is all about tone.

Lloyd directs the entire first half of Pinter One which contains three of the plays along with some other monologues and sketches, but don’t expect to know exactly where one piece ends and another begins. Set in a dystopian world, these works focus on Pinter’s political commentary in which a series of scenes shows the audience different aspects of an oppressive regime where free speech, individuality and dissent are violently crushed. Set in a series of metallic grey rooms housed in a revolving cube that carves the stage into a variety of angular shapes, Lloyd and regular design collaborator Soutra Gilmour have created a singular setting that unifies The New World Order, Mountain Language, The Pres and the Officer and One for the Road in one terrifyingly bleak series of prison cells and interrogation rooms.

The emphasis across the plays is on power and powerlessness, where one group of people dominate and control the existence of another, often toying with them and enjoying the easy recourse to violence that is a frequent feature of Pinter’s work. The show opens with a burst of ticker tape released onto the heads of the stalls audience to celebrate the birth of a new regime. At the lectern, a consummate politician (Jonjo O’Neill) delivers smooth answers to the disembodied voices at a press conference. It all feels remarkably familiar until this Minister of Culture reveals he used to work for the Secret Police and his smiling answers belie the fiercely repressive policies he’s promoting, putting you instantly in mind of Hamlet’s line ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

This proximity to everyday experience feeds through the show so, like all good science fiction, Pinter slimly disguises fears about heavy government regulation, attacks on outsiders and the ease with which the thin veil of society can disintegrate. With New World Order we see a naked man blindfolded and tied to a chair about to undergo some kind of torture, but first his respectable looking, even effete, attackers (O’Neill and Papa Essideu) goad him with what they’re about to do to him. It’s a wonderfully sinister piece about the anticipation of violence that becomes almost as frightening as the act itself which we never see. Both actors exude the kind of quiet menace that is so particular in Pinter, rarely needing to raise their voices, the surface and the reality being not what they seem.

Mountain Language begins seamlessly as two women (Kate O’Flynn and Maggie Steed) are questioned by camp guards, told their regional language is no longer permitted. Both are looking for their abducted husbands and eventually discover the brutal truth of what happened to them. Here identity and communication are the focus, where a regime can destroy a distinct group by erasing or forbidding its language – not so different from the themes of Brian Friel’s Translations and pertinent to our multicultural society. This rapidly turns into the recently rediscovered sketch The Pres and the Officer in which a foolish American President orders the destruction of the wrong place. It’s the only duff moment of the night, less for Pinter’s writing and more for the all too obvious Trump allusion, performed by Jon Culshaw. The rest of evening creates such a subtly hostile tone that the buffoonery of this section feels misjudged.

Just before the interval the final piece of Lloyd’s sinister world is revealed and, as with the preceding works it looks very different below the surface. As the lights go up, the gently-spoken Nicolas (Anthony Sher) is questioning a frightened companion (Essideu) in what looks like a therapy session, but very quickly becomes much odder as Nicolas demands to know if Victor likes him. The former does most of the talking, posing questions and emphasising the power he has to do whatever he likes while believing that God speaks through him. As Nicolas goes on to separately interrogate Victor’s wife Gila (O’Flynn) and son Nicky a ritual of violence and sexual assault beyond the walls of the room emerge, which Nicolas enjoys in the abstract.

Sher is wonderful as the intimidating but strangely needy interlocutor who seems to revel in the repeated acts of terror the family have endured, as though organising the pain from afar. Sher draws out the ambiguity in Nicolas’s need for this human interaction but is callous in his dismissal of their suffering, a powerful statement again about the smiling villains that seem to unite these shows. Essideu is the image of wide-eyed terror as he crumples under Sher’s menacing glare, while O’Flynn is a powerful presence as the repeatedly violated Gila.

At the interval the actors take an unusual bow and most won’t return for the final play Ashes to Ashes directed by Lia Williams. Visually and stylistically this initially seems very different to the work earlier in the evening, set in a more modern flat as two lovers return from a night out and fall into conversation about the past. But Williams easily demonstrates how well Pinter’s play fits with the earlier shows, as conversation gives way to interrogation and intimidation with fragments of intruding memory that the audience must slowly piece together, linking a traumatic event with the totalitarian state presented by Lloyd.

Essideu as Devlin takes on the role of the increasingly sinister man whose motives are distinctly hazy, whether he’s acting out of jealousy or fear of discovery is left entirely open, but an early throwaway line about hypnotism feels crucial as the play concludes. O’Flynn is the troubled Rebecca torn between declaring her love for Devlin and the two memories that continually interrupt her thoughts.

What we see across the works in Pinter One is an examination of power and how rapidly it can be corrupted. The selection of plays reiterates modern fears that division, isolation and prejudice quickly descend into the brutality of Orwellian military states, where an innate love of violence is too easily awoken. This is a very political anthology of work that collectively asks big questions about the stability of current society, the intelligence and charm of our politicians and our openness to difference and diversity. Pinter’s work here is a warning against complacency, to accept that we’re always on a knife-edge where good people can want to do hideous things with the smallest inducement.

Theatrically, Lloyd’s opener, co-directed by Williams, sets-out a clear thematic vision for the season ahead, with common plays presented together to offer insight into Pinter’s political and dramatic purpose. It’s also a trademark Lloyd production, innovatively staged and quirky, and although the pop culture references are more restrained than usual, snatches of Jerusalem and Zadok the Priest suggest the exploration of British identity may play a significant role across the season. Pinter is difficult, but a one-act season is a good way to get a taste for his style, and in Lloyd’s hands it’s a compelling start.

Pinter One runs in repertory until 20 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.      


Dance Nation – Almeida Theatre

Dance Nation - Almeida

September is upon us and at this time of year, as the night’s draw in and the first signs of autumn appear, our thoughts turn to dance. For the last 14 years, the BBC’s behemoth dance show Strictly Come Dancing has dominated our screens, guiding the viewer from early autumn to Christmas with endless paso doble’s, tangos and foxtrots. And as the celebrities for the 2018 series set to work, the Almeida Theatre’s new play about American pre-teen dance troupe competitions has coincidentally, or perhaps purposefully, been scheduled to capitalise on the annual return of dance fever.

Set predominantly in a dance studio in middle America, Dance Nation follows the members of a dance troupe who enter a series of national competitions in the hope of winning the overall championship. Led by “Dance Teacher Pat” who choreographs a brand new number evoking the life and spirit of Gandhi, he pushes the team to live-up to the school’s reputation for producing winners, using the power of dance to heal the world. As Connie and Zuzu land the leading roles, star dancer Amina is left on the side-lines, but as their bodies and minds develop are any of the girls destined for a career in dance?

While Barron’s play mimics its teenage charges in not feeling fully-formed, it clearly draws on a variety of influences. There is a coming-of-age feel to the narrative, exploring that awkward transition between childhood and becoming a young adult where the mind and the imagination feel streets ahead of the body. The girls frequently think and talk about sex, love and their changing physiology  in the down-time between sessions, but while they cringe and giggle about it, their bodies are far from ready for such adult experiences. Barron shows us this confusion in a striking scene from the middle of the play as three of the girls are shown simultaneously at home, one washing her blood-stained tights, one exploring her sexual responses and one still playing with toy horses.

Barron also explores this progress into adulthood through referenced to their increasingly competitive interactions with one another, belying the idea of them as a team, as well as their perception of the play’s unseen men. Ashlee (Kayla Meikle) has a forceful monologue in which she becomes increasingly aware of the male gaze appraising her 13-year old body and the defiance she feels she has to subdue. Likewise, as the pressure to win increases, the girls move seamlessly from congratulating each other’s successes to accusations of selfishness and arrogance, adopting cut-throat behaviours that signal the end of childhood. There’s even one nicely-handled flash-forward a decade on, as Connie (Manjinder Virk) celebrates her lasting friendship with Ashlee and the deep troubles they have shared in the ensuing years.

While old Broadway song and dance shows have been a nostalgic feature of the West End in recent years, with 42nd Street and An American in Paris among the revivals that have won plenty of plaudits, the roots of Clare Barron’s short play are actually in independent film, and it is here, rather than the stage, that the world of dancers, competition and ambition have been more purposefully explored. By merging examples of competitive dance with the behind-the-scenes locker-room drama of six girls and one boy on the cusp of adulthood, characters reveal their inner selves directly to the audience while participating in the rituals and rivalries of teenage life. Barron’s approach is reminiscent of the satirical documentary-style films such as I, Tonya, Best in Show and Strictly Ballroom that are driven by competition and the financial or talent barriers to individual ambition.

There is a purposefully grubby, unpolished look to Samal Blak’s design that picks out an underfunded and slightly careworn space. The rotating mirror and glitter curtained panels are just that bit too well used, the glass warped and stained, while Moritz Junge’s costume design for the competitor outfits have a cheap glitz, evoking the soulless conference rooms and halls where these events take place, dressed-up but tacky and a bit bleak. So much of that aesthetic is realistically drawn from the various documentaries we’ve seen on American child beauty pageants or the  “mockumentary” film referenced above.

But there’s also an influence from the teen movies about preparing for a finale competition where the central narrative focuses on the protagonists’ will to win, and the various impediments they must overcome to triumph. The Pitch Perfect series is a prime example but also either version of Hairspray and even High School Musical, essentially anything in which the cast grapple with personal development issues while artistically competing for some kind of unifying end goal. Barron’s characters and scenario are deliberately less glamorous than these big screen examples, but the underlying desire to explore the confusing search for identity and future purpose is certainly the same.

Where Dance Nation fails is in bringing all of these strands together in a meaningful and dramatically satisfying way. There is a lot happening in Barron’s production which manages to be both engaging and alienating at the same time, without quite resolving the dilemma it creates by attempting to wrap a philosophical discussion in a narrative frame. The scenes focused on the dance competition, rehearsals and locker-room interaction feel much stronger than the rest of the play, unified by the need to move the story along while exploring the perspectives of its young teenage protagonists. When Barron focuses on character, she creates plenty of meaningful exchanges, loaded with empathy that bring the audience into the story as we are asked to weigh-up the difficulty of supporting the morale of the whole team while creating space for Amina to achieve her potential, even if it means trampling on her friends.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer from earlier this year, this production is on shakier ground when it branches into the surreal or makes jarring attempts to deliver its feminist messages – those messages are visible in the rest of the play and could have been better woven into the central story. Barron wants to experiment with technique and spotlight individual characters, allowing them to talk directly to the audience outside of the core story. This is a way to draw attention to the writer’s purpose and to help the audience to connect with the experience being presented, but here they feel like digressions, like another show trying to break-out from the middle.

Ashlee’s monologue about objectification, intelligence and the power she feels lies ahead of her is a great speech, it’s truthful, impassioned and inspiring, but it’s not clear enough how it applies to the wider team competition story Barron is telling. Young women are sexualised and taught to judge themselves from an early age, but this needs to be reflected properly in the main plot to underscore Ashlee’s concerns, to show the audience that in practice this happens to these girls in how they’re asked to dress, the make-up they have to wear and the suggestive dance moves choreographed by their male teacher. But Barron doesn’t draw the inference through the show, so this becomes an untethered monologue.

Likewise, a (presumed) fantasy sequence in which the new dance first becomes overtly erotic and then turns into a cannibalistic horror-film equally makes no sense in the overall piece, nor does the final section chant which attempts empowerment and respect for the female body. Again, as a stand-alone sections, choreographed by Aline David, they could be interesting but their relation to the consuming nature of dance, the outcomes of the story we’re being told and the imagination of teenage girls is much more obscure and makes for a frustratingly uneven experience.

Dance Nation has a pleasingly diverse cast, including actors with a broad age range, where each convincingly plays a teenage character and collectively create a group dynamic in which the individuals must work together. There’s a fine balance between the last flourish of childishness and young girls wanting to convey an impression of being older, more mature than they are which comes across really well in all the performances. The dance sequences, like the visual design, are purposefully a little blocky and after an opening number that feels like a memory – evoking something of The Entertainer and the flashback sequences from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – the subsequent choreography is designed to amuse with the deadly seriousness with which the team perform balanced against their overall lack of finesse.

With the plot and the message occasionally pulling the play’s construction in different directions, there is less time to fully explore the character traits and experiences that Barron introduces, leaving plenty of interesting ideas unexplored. Some fair better than others and Karla Crome’s Amina has the most to do in exploring the isolating consequence of genuine talent that separates her from the rest of the group and her best friend ZuZu. Crowe’s earnest delivery feels just right for a young woman, notably given less time for non-dance activities, struggling to fit in but unable to downplay her abilities.

As Zuzu, Ria Zmitrowicz is a shy and occasionally sulky presence, a girl desperate to do well but with less talent than she would like. There is a subplot here about whether talent is innate or can be shaped with the right mentor, but Zmitrowicz emphasises the growing disillusion with dance, a dreaming loner with some difficult years of self-discovery ahead. By contrast Virk’s Connie is more confident but her centrality to the Gandhi dance is soon side-lined in favour of other stories, and we’re only given one tantalising psychological insight as she returns to an empty house – do her parents not care, do they disapprove, or have they just forgotten? Teasing these circumstances out would give us more insight into why Connie’s is so keen to dance.

Not all the characters are permitted a homelife and Miranda Foster offers a series of sketches as three ‘Dance Moms’, ZuZu’s pushy former dancer, Luke’s cosy mother and Maeve’s supportive parent, but it’s not clear what point Barron wants to make. Among the rest of the characters Sarah Hadland’s Sofia is the most interested in her developing body, while Nancy Crane’s Maeve is still more child than young woman. While they have interesting conversations and represent particular issues, they don’t feel entirely complete.

The male dynamic is also rather underdeveloped. Apart from Irfan Shamji’s Luke who is the only boy in the dance troupe which is barely referenced, Dance Teacher Pat is a highly ambiguous character but not in the way he could be. Brendan Cowell presents a complex figure who pushes the team to perform, a believer in tough-love but why he’s teaching and his overall role in the story is less clear. Barron doesn’t make him a predator – neither of the male characters is designed to reflect the issues she raises in Ashlee’s monologue – but nor does he really act as a catalyst for the events that unfold.

Dance Nation is a bit of a strange beast, a play that mixes straightforward dramatic narrative with more disruptive techniques but doesn’t quite marry the two aspects successfully. Like Against last year, a little more development time may have resolved some of these issues, helping to align the story arc with deeper characterisation to create a clearer picture of the complicated transition into womanhood. With plenty of influences from across film, there’s still a lot to take from Barron’s play, and as annual dance fever arrives in the UK once again and mingles with a year of female-led stories, Dance Nation is timely if not quite a ten from Len.

Dance Nation is at the Almeida Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1 and Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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