Monthly Archives: October 2022

Mary – Hampstead Theatre

Mary - Hampstead Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that all the best stories are true and you don’t need to go to the trouble of making something up to find dramatic twists and turns, larger than life characters and events so mind-boggling that they would never make convincing fiction. Rona Munro knows that all too well having penned successful historical trilogy The James Plays at the National Theatre a few years back, drawing on the real life complexities of Scottish monarchy, politics and power play in the fifteenth-century. Now her latest piece treads similar ground in its examination of Mary Queen of Scots and the series of fateful activities that led to her being deposed in favour of her infant son in 1567. This superbly written 90-minute drama passes in the blink of an eye but the fate of a country, a Queen and a scandal-ridden woman are brilliantly contained within.

For the women of the sixteenth-century, it is their virtue for which they are best remembered and for which history continues to judge them. Elizabeth I will forever be the Virgin Queen, aligning her chastity with the peace and success of her reign, seen as an act of great sacrifice and shrewdness in order to protect her realm from foreign invasion and the machinations of over-mighty subjects. The life of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, however, is far more checkered, a tale of lust, murder and three husbands, a lured life that ended in imprisonment and execution by her English relative.

The compromised virtue of Mary Queen of Scots is her most renowned feature but as Josie Rourke did in her recent film, Munro looks to reposition Mary’s reputation, not perhaps absolving her completely but at least opening up sufficient doubt about the ways in which history has recorded her life and actions. Also very much in tune with recent societal shifts, Munro’s play asks if Mary was the wanton murderess of record or a multiple rape victim unable to escape her captors and the shame they heaped upon her?

Mary focuses on two extended conversations, that the writer imagines, taking place in those pockets of history where everything changes, barely remembered moments between great events where decisions happened that affected the course of history. Munro’s writing is sharp and fearsome, barely a word wasted as time presses her characters to act before it is too late. These are two moments of national crisis, a few months apart, in which, crucially, the monarch herself is given no voice. Her life and the future of the crown is being decided for her by the three characters in this play standing in for the multitudes of Scottish citizens and nobility with divided but certain opinions about their Queen and the respectable way government should be conducted. The first moment of decision comes immediately following the murder of Mary’s first husband, the English Lord Darnley, and the second a little while after marrying the Earl of Bothwell, alleged to have killed Darnley, for which her throne is taken from her.

But Munro’s play is no straightforward rehash or re-enactment of well-known events, and instead the writer explores first the personal connection to Mary through her champion James Melville whose loyalty and belief is the subject of this drama, and then the very concept of a royal but principally of a female body that is either freely given or seized by force. As Munro unfolds her debates, presenting both sides of the argument in an attempt to convince Melville to reveal and re-evaluate what he knows, the two strands of this story become emphatically entwined. Mary’s disputed body and the future of the nation as expressed through the devotion of the man who has know her since she was 9-years-old are the same. But to make that into tangible drama, Munro plays out power-shift conversations that demonstrate the acquiescence of her court and, ultimately, the 450-years silencing of a woman’s voice.

And Munro wastes no time getting into the drama and the audience arrives mid-crisis, almost mid-sentence. Melville is in control, an assumed power in a room with two subordinates in government rank and class in which he must convince an actual gatekeeper to allow his Queen to leave against the wishes of her lordly Council. Thompson, then, is in the hot seat for this opening salvo, debates directed at him as Melville and local orator / maid Agnes try to sway his soul and his duty. And conversations that the play will revisit several times begin here – is Mary devil or angel? But to give these discussions shape, Munro presents something akin to a courtroom drama, a virtual trial of a woman who never gets to provide her own testimony. Whether Thompson will submit to Melville’s entreaties creates shape for the drama, while the influence of the only female voice in the room is particularly complex, almost reveling in the scandal but also noting the division between Mary’s much disputed Catholicism, her moral value and a country trying to build a Protestant faith.

The allegiance between Thompson and Agnes becomes increasingly pertinent to the much longer scene that follows in which a complete inversion has taken place. Thompson is now another kind of gatekeeper, the right-hand man of the Early of Moray who has set himself up as Regent to the tiny James VI and who requires Melville to submit to the enforced abdication of the Queen. How significant that the authority that Melville held only a few months before has disintegrated. The extended exchange is absolutely gripping, particularly as the question of Mary’s sexuality becomes the centrifuging force of this debate. Who saw what and when is the key to this discussion, and the pressure Thompson exerts on Melville to shift or rethink not just his position on Mary’s queendom but on the evidence of his own eyes about her character.

And it is terrifically exciting to watch yet another ‘good’ man exploring his own guilt-ridden feelings of disloyalty, of the refusal to admit even quietly to himself that he doubts the integrity of the person he has always had such faith in. This is the heart of the show, what do people close their ears and eyes to when they don’t want to make an uncomfortable choice and, having been so certain of what he thought he knew, can Melville be dissuaded from his own evidence by the impure motives of others?

This, Munro argues, is where history and reputation are forged, not in the great moments or the dubious motives of those making a grab for power, but in the silent agreement of those who go along with it or at least allow it to happen. Something extraordinary occurs in this conversation that moves more than one heart as Munro presents two alternative realities or two Marys for the audience to consider. Is she the most maligned woman in history or the most foolish? Did she follow her heart and exact poor judgement or was agency routinely stripped from her by a world of powerful men who sought and succeeded in controlling her via her body?

And over this Munro lays another useful filter for us to consider, using the character of Agnes to explore the extent to which these notions of Mary are part of a subsequent historical design recorded and perpetuated by men who, first, justify her removal for significant failings in her virtue but, even more importantly, cannot understand or correctly interpret behaviour associated with sexual abuse and victimisation. What is seen by them as Mary’s willing compliance is, as Prima Facie has recently shown, never quite that simple. Was the blaming of the victim a convenient tool for political expediency as male voices conspire to condemn her, and why is the word of women so clearly distrusted in this play? Munro presents two claims at eye-witness accounts, one by a man who allows himself to rethink his memories into a more amendable position and one by a woman other than Mary whose alternative testimony is instantly dismissed.

These kinds of precise and pointed drama require real skill and energy in performance, particularly in Roxana Silbert’s tightly controlled production that barely pauses for breath before upending the structure it has established. Douglas Henshall brings real range and control to the role of Melville, convincingly charting the slow degrees of movement within his mind as his certainty diminishes. This is almost a deconstruction of character and Henshall leaves Melville in a very different social and emotional position than he started from. In the opening scene, Henshall’s character is full of swagger, so entirely sure of himself and his cause, as well as his status in the room, that the execution of power is clearly something that Melville is at ease with. The contrast a few months later – only a few seconds in stage time – is so impressive, Henshall’s James is already a changed man, instantly aware he is not the most powerful man in this room and throughout the lengthy second scene, exploring his inner conflict as he reads the writing on the wall and finds a different truth buried within himself, one he barely knew was there, precipitating a collapse with significant consequences for everyone.

Matching Henshall, Brian Vernel has the same shift to effect, first as the servant needing to be convinced and later as the man making the argument and certain of his own power to control what happens in the second room, and thereby what happens to a Queen and her baby son. Vernel is excellent in both circumstances, his performance absolutely relishing the rapid rise to influence that only significant and radical political flux can facilitate. He basks in the shift in responsibilities between himself and Melville, all the while determined he knows, in both conversations, what his duty is and how to fulfill it.

Rona Morison has a very different purpose for Agnes whose movement between points of view is better grounded in a personal and religious integrity than either of her companions. Certain she too knows the truth about Mary, Morison’s Agnes forms allegiances that cross between the two conversations and while she may believe that gives her a special status, both men are quick to remind of her that her station and her gender count against her opinion. The role Agnes plays in changing the audience’s perceptions of Mary as the debates unfold is crucial and Morison provides just enough grounding for Agnes to make her opinion one worth hearing even if her voice is officially silenced.

Arguably, this drama doesn’t need a couple of segue moments that bring Mary to life, the audience has enough of a sense of her from the ways that other characters describe her, and unlike many other historical stage epics, Mary suggests you don’t need three hours of Schiller to capture the essence of this divisive story and turn it into a exacting thriller. Between a murder and a scandalous marriage to the man who may have raped her, history may be built around big personalities and memorable events but the decisive moments are the ones in between, where small cabals of men sit in rooms and draw up what the future will look like. They even decide how a woman and Queen will be remembered.

Mary is at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 November with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

King Hamlin – Park Theatre

King Hamlin - Park Theatre

The slow compromise of a good man is again the focus of a London play, a fascinating subject in which external circumstances as well as character and internal predisposition change an individual’s life. While C.P. Taylor’s Good, running at the Harold Pinter Theatre, examines the decline of a man who was arguably not particularly good to begin with and who stubbornly fails to see the warning signs as he slides towards Nazism, Gloria Williams takes a more decided position on good and evil in the world premiere of her play King Hamlin at the Park Theatre in which an almost inevitable decline into crime is born out of poverty, desperation and class as the protagonist becomes an all-too-aware if unwilling participant in his own destruction.

With a focus particularly on the complexities and stereotypes of black, British masculinity, the first Act of Williams’s play focuses on the creation of circumstances, a set of conditions in which a type of behaviour and reaction is born and, despite attempts at agency by the hero, he is unable to escape from it. The earliest moments of this drama seed this idea instantly as the actors playing 17-year-old Hamlin and his friends improvise for around 10-minutes before the performance begins. Williams is feeding the audience a context where power, status and aggression is typical even between friends, a jockeying for position and influence that colours their interactions, and the line between banter and ribbing can easily flip into something more combative as boys get in each other’s faces, gesture and exude an angry outrage that none of them, even the arbiter, can be sure is made up in the moment. It sets the tone for the drama to follow in which a good ‘legitimate’ boy is slowly compromised by a lack of opportunity, by peer pressure and the expectation-laden projections of others based on his race and economic situation that slowly shut down his options for the good life he wants to lead.

The play itself begins in the aftermath of a fatal stabbing among their group, a friend called Alex who is the linchpin of the boys who now leaves a power vacuum of a kind, although this is not yet a group on the edge of gang violence, only slowly moving towards it. Within this context of grief and shock, Williams adds a double sense of social redundancy in which both Hamlin and his mother are unable to find work or purpose, making it near impossible for them to pay the rent on their small flat close to a notorious Council estate in Guildford. With Mama H facing a wait of several weeks before she will receive any social benefit, Williams puts the family in a compromised position where opportunities to pay their way start to close off.

And still this is not quite enough to propel Hamlin in particular across the fuzzy dividing line between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and so Williams plays out an interview scene in which the young man becomes the unwitting victim of his circumstances while acutely aware of the cliches and prejudices his presence alone evokes. In trying to present the most positive version of himself, Hamlin actively tries to hide his background, adopting a persona expected by the interviewer and trying desperately to avoid giving any clues about where he lives and the assumptions it brings. But in doing so, he appears cagey, even deceptive, something that torpedoes his chance of success anyway. Williams emphasises the vicious circle in which her character is trapped regardless of his attempts to escape it.

And within this short scene, the writer looks to establish some insight into her character’s internal struggles that will prove vital to his trajectory as events play out. Hamlin is shown to actively argue with himself, stepping outside of his interview persona to weigh up the problems of being too honest and chastising himself for the mistakes he makes, his internal rage climbing to the surface and, more importantly, the position he has been put in by others presenting an insightful moment that defines his future reactions. But we are also given further circumstantial information that, of itself, doesn’t perhaps make Hamlin’s decline pre-destined but further stacks the scales against him, adding to the formation of his resentment and feeling of injustice. A chain of events from a deceased father and single mother to the lack of money to buy a laptop and the death of his friend create a pressure-cooker effect across the months of the play that push Hamlin down a path he actively tries to resist.

Structurally, Act Two is where the consequences of all of this scenario-building eventually come to fruition, taking Hamlin first to the brink and then far beyond the line where another kind of retribution awaits. Williams begins the second half of her play with a punchy and violent scene that shifts the tone quite materially, ushering in a new energy and purpose to what had been a cerebral discussion, a basic exploration between right and wrong, to something far greyer – the good man is compromised but, rather than deceiving himself about these qualities like Halder in Taylor’s work, he fully embraces the darkness that emerges. And, we notice a deliberate shift in the language Williams uses to create a masculine bombast and a greater sense of jeopardy. Here, as the gang culture takes hold, the characters – particularly wannabe leader Nic – start to talk about forming an army, setting up a rivalry with another local group headed by an unseen individual named Blades. Williams starts to drop words like ‘soldier’ and ‘warrior’ into the mix, building to a couple of pointed speeches that add fuel to the situation, first threatening Hamlin and then inspiring him.

Much of this is centred around what it means to be a man, or at least this ultra-aggresive and bristlingly violent interpretation of manliness that circles around the need to prove loyalty and fearlessness through public demonstrations of support and willingness to attack ‘enemy’ others. The result of trauma in Act Two is, then, to inflict trauma on others, channeling grief and rage against the world in general and turning it into what Hamlin thinks of as power. Like Halder’s goodness and decency, this violence-led authority is however delusional and some of the best moments in King Hamlin come from watching the title character believe he is taking control, graduating to an ascendancy over others with his application of violence. By stepping outside of the social structure that keeps rejecting and constraining him, and outside of his own personality as well, Hamlin believes he is King and, by extension, untouchable, even invincible, and it is notable that the boys in this play do not like to be touched either by their mothers or one other, making a point, even a threat, out of anyone’s attempt to try.

What is missing here is an attempt to understand or even analyse where the templates or need for this behaviour originates. Williams is creating the scenario with a stew of ingredients that take Hamlin across the line, but how and why these challenges present as violent masculinity is never really addressed. Yes, much of it is inherited and self-perpetuated – one boy does it and others follow – but what does Williams think is the root of this reaction? Is it, perhaps as Traplord so powerfully suggested earlier this year, the cartoon aggression of film and video games, play-acting soldiers come to life and allowed to get out of hand as one death escalates to a many-sided idea of revenge?

Or are there perhaps broader societal explanations as well – there is a strand of work in masculinity studies that explores concepts of stunted heroism among contemporary generations of men who have had no warlike outlet in which to ‘prove’ these characteristics of manliness as their twentieth-century predecessors had. It is a pat theory perhaps but one that could be worth unpicking in this context where boys are simulating conflict and adopting the language of war in order to resolve their powerlessness and inability to control the outcomes of their own lives either economically or socially. Williams could strengthen King Hamlin with some discussion of why gangs become self-sustaining outlets for young men seeking agency and why it is violent impulses, almost a civil war within communities, that is being provoked rather than other kinds of reaction or targets beyond their immediate neighbourhoods.

Director and Designer Lara Genovese creates an immersive feeling, filling the Park 90 studio space with graffiti-covered hoardings that instantly awaken the audience to their urban, deprived environment that contains and propels the play. Within the staging itself, Genovese creates a small living area and Hamlin’s mother’s small greenhouse where she grows sage plants – an undeveloped theme that speaks to a strand of superstition and totems that we learn little about. It is a set that is filled with character though, run down and well lived in, stuffed with the clutter of their history together but still suggesting the claustrophobia of close-quarter living in which the closeness of Hamlin and Mama H becomes an emotional if not a physical distance when Hamlin’s new life comes between them. The domestic dominates though so as the play increasingly shifts from Hamlin’s home to unspecified urban locations, the scene-setting feels less convincing in the Park’s smallest theatre, and perhaps a more representative design might have better aided the transition between these interior and exterior locations as well as Hamlin’s own character journey from family to external influences.

As Hamlin, Harris Cain has a difficult path to tread and one that isn’t quite the same gradations of change which Halder experiences in Good, even though Taylor’s play also takes a number of time leaps. Hamlin by contrast is a starker jump from resistant to conflicted to vibrating with rage which Cain does really well, particularly the latter as almost two hours of performance culminates in a pulsating monologue in which Cain exhibits a restless energy, a bravado and braggadocio that is both ferocious and tragic. The softness inside the character, an essential decency is always under the surface though in Cain’s performance that make him sympathetic and understandable throughout. There is a nice contrast with the consistent decency of Hamlin’s mother, quite an underwritten character with few dimensions whose purpose is to represent the alternative path for her son and be the voice of a conscience that plagues him throughout. Kiza Deen brings some light and shade to the role however, an anchor for Hamlin who even as he is travelling away from her, she is trying to reclaim him. It would be interesting to create more for this character, a deeper exploration of her own employment issues, why she finds salvation in plants and their meaning as well as the life she has endured as a teenage single mother that offers a feminine and maternal contrast to the pulsating masculinity offered by Hamlin’s friends.

There is a barracking in the interactions with Inaam Barwani’s Quinn and Andrew Evans’s Nic that can feel distorted and difficult to distinguish in this small room, but it captures an unvarying pitch of forceful interaction that feels unrelenting for Hamlin as one-upmanship and posturing underpins their interactions which in Act One at least makes for consistent if flat drama. In Act Two, though, Evans excels as Nic makes a ferocious play for power evolving from a childish bully showing off to an almost psychopathic crusader obsessed with becoming top dog and exerting both power and vengeance over those who cross him. The coercion that forces Hamlin to follow and then emulate him is well managed while the shyster’s knack of insisting he isn’t responsible for his own actions through shear mental will adds an interesting dimension to the performance.

It is a rather grim picture that Williams paints, of forces beyond the control of her characters pressuring them in only one direction and with a building sense of inevitability as violence begets more violence. It could go further in understanding why this rage against the system and the shutting down of opportunity manifests specifically as violence, but in what may feel like the only option, King Hamlin offers some hope of reprieve, safe in the knowledge that, unlike Taylor’s play, a good man may stay a good man even when corrupted.

King Hamlin is at the Park Theatre until 12 November with tickets from £14.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Playwright on Screen: Martin McDonagh and The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh is a writer able to adapt his style to the medium he is using and there are usually notable distinctions between his stage and screen work, responding to the quite separate demands of these outlets. But in his latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin which screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 last week, there is a keen crossover between these worlds in a movie that in location, style, themes and structure draws on some of McDonagh’s most renowned Ireland-set plays. Looking specifically at The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there are plenty of similarities with his new film as McDonagh uses the intimacy of Insiherin and its characters to explore his much visited notions of gentle masculinity, isolation, friendship and violence that slowly seeps into the community from the world beyond.

Remote Locations

McDonagh’s work is quite tightly focused in its nature, usually built around a small group of characters in a confined place and often untouched by the world beyond. Even when he creates a modern setting as with In Bruges or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, that location is made to feel confining and old-fashioned, a place that traps the characters and, crucially, is to them ‘boring’. But while both of these films have a cinematic expanse, it is in McDonagh’s stage work where the claustrophobia and limitation of location are best felt, and this idea sweeps across McDonagh’s Ireland plays particularly, set in places where little happens and there is no means of escape beyond the bounded existence in which they live. That this often resonates as a mental as well as a physical confinement is part of the psychological dimension of the plays in which education and opportunity are often lacking as well as financial freedom to choose a different path.

There are beautiful shots of the vast arable landscape in The Banshees of Inisherin which link directly to the material isolation of the characters. Houses miles from one another are a feature of the playwright’s Irish work where the concept of neighbours may mean farmsteads many miles apart where separation from other human beings is a way of life and characters must actively seek connection in places of social gathering if they want company. This is manifest in The Banshees of Inisherin with seemingly great distances across beautiful but often rugged or steep countryside to reach the village or a friend’s home. When Padraic (Colin Farrell) calls for his friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) at 2pm every day for their pub visit, that journey is not easily accomplished nor is the subsequent walk to the pub or harbour. These are beautiful locations but McDonagh is doing two things here; first, emphasising the investment of time required to physically move around this space – with arguably little else to do – that offers an insight into the restrictions they live under, but second, it brings a different kind of charge to character conversations, giving them a far more serious purpose if individuals will trudge or ride for miles for entertainment or, as is the case here, for important confrontations, telling us much about their psychology and feelings. The sufficient depth and immediacy of that rage and sorrow can seemingly outlast the long time it must take them to reach their object in order to unload it.

And it is within those physical limitations that McDonagh generates a kind of drama in which characters rub along quite badly together through years of over exposure. Sometimes, as with mother and daughter Mag and Maureen in the Beauty Queen of Leanne, this manifest as a familial jadedness, two people who have lived together for a long time and find each other’s company tiresome. Similarly in Hangmen, where most of the action takes place in a single pub run by a bickering family unit among a group of derided regulars, they nonetheless unite against a suspicious interloper. These are places where little love is lost within and between households, and McDonagh draws both humour and drama from the interactions of people confined together in an almost Beckettian hell waiting for something to happen.

Elsewhere, McDonagh uses the tight-knit community as a place where gossip can spring up, and secondary characters often like nothing more than to pass comment on the business of their neighbours. It is a dreadful rumour of moggy mortality that brings crazed Padraic back to Inishmore seeking the truth while the almost fantastical possibility of her daughter eloping with her childhood sweetheart causes Mag to intervene disastrously. In The Banshees of Inisherin, then, McDonagh draws on his theatre work and uses this small island lifestyle to great effect, establishing both a weariness between a brother and sister – another Padraic and Siobhan – between Padraic and his friend Colm as well as a hilarious backdrop of gossipy islanders either directly trading in scandal in the convenience store or openly challenging Padraic in the pub and other locations with hearsay about the breakdown of his friendship with Colm. The success and credibility of these interactions as well as the jokes that develop from them emerge directly from McDonagh’s experience of writing for the stage where the fine-grained creation of small places and the incumbent behviours they generate is sharply pointed towards the drama and developing sense of violence beating beneath the surface.

Masculinity and Violence

Male violence and disrupted notions of masculinity are essential themes in McDonagh’s work on stage and screen, often developing out of their physical and emotional confinement. Many of these works end in quite gruesome and candid attacks on individuals that take on a cartoonish savagery that the viewer only half takes seriously. But this is often tempered with personal grief, decline and even a form of justice being rightly served. That these can be simultaneously shocking and moving is characteristic of McDonagh’s style but it always leaves room for an ambiguous if somewhat bleak ending with an unresolved resolution in which characters get a conclusion they deserve but not one that necessarily ends the scenario itself.

But masculinity in McDonagh’s work is not solely defined by violence and instead the writer tempers his characterisation with depths of feeling or affection which may be comic, cultural or intellectual. In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh draws a direct line between Padraic’s love of his miniature donkey and “Mad Padraic’s” love of his cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore in which both men express greater connection to and affection for a cute animal than to any human characters in their stories. And this becomes a means to explore ideas of manliness and particularly violent masculinity through humour. The notion that a psychopathic INLA man’s greatest love is a black, fluffy cat is inherently funny, that there is a deep well of tenderness and feeling for this creature that not only sends him home in haste on a revenge spree but, crucially, causes him to publicly weep upon first hearing the news.

Likewise Padraic’s equivalent love of the small donkey is a comical projection, but one that ultimately asks bigger questions about his violent impulses and the softer aspects of his character. It becomes an important plot device which in one sense is quite different to the cat-loving terrorist because The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Padraic is a nice, albeit “dull” man at the start of the film who is led to violent outcomes through the course of the story in which the tiny donkey plays a significant role. This Padraic is also a broader animal love, wanting his farm animals to freely enter the house, a scenario that is again pitched as hilariously sweet, but speaks to the connections McDonagh draws between brutality and the far gentler psychology that underpins it, challenging stereotypical concepts of aggressive masculinity and its origins.

But a love of cute animals is not the only way that McDonagh does this, and his male characters also have an almost soulful desire or need to express their inner selves through culture. Colm in The Banshees of Insherin abandons his friendship with Padraic largely to pursue a role as a composer, wanting to leave behind a tangible legacy through the creation of an Irish melody. His friendship, he explains, consumes time, talking about very little and could be better spent in contemplating his own mortality by creating a piece of music that can outlast him, for which he engages a group of students to perform it in the pub. The denial of this by others also becomes the catalyst for other kinds of personal savagery, and, like both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, present a gaudy and excessive violence as part of its conclusion.

Warlike aggression is also the backdrop to many of these works as unseen men vie for land and power off stage or screen, usually with a political dimension that foreshadows or even creates the conditions for that violence entering into the consciousness of the remote dwellers of Inishmore or Leenane and it almost makes itself the inevitable outcomes of their interactions. Whether it be national struggles between Ireland and Britain as in the Lieutenant of Inishmore set in 1993 at the outset of the peace process or in The Banshees of Inisherin staged in 1921 where the distant sounds of guns and bombs during the Irish Civil War can be heard on the mainland. These are great moments where political and social instability, uncertainty about the future and new outlets for male aggression present themselves, creating the conditions in which the characters of McDonagh’s plays and those in this film feels those effects filter through and shape their own lives, regardless of their direct involvement in them.

A Theatrical World

The Banshees of Inisherin is then a theatre film, not because it is based directly on a stage play or involves long and static scenes of complex dialogue but because it draws so heavily on McDonagh’s theatrical creations in which characters are hemmed in by their physical, psychological and emotional space. While cinematographer Ben Davis creates considerable cinematic beauty in the island landscape shown in aerial shots as well as the several scenes taking place on country roads or at the beach, nonetheless much of the film’s action occurs in interior locations that resonate with his theatre work including Padraic’s farmhouse, the pub and to a lesser extent Colm’s home and the shop.

There is a simplicity to this that accords entirely with equivalent places referenced in plays about Inishmore, Leenane and Inishmaan. These are ultimately domestic plays grounded in a latent violence that makes its presence felt as both the exterior world and, in the case of The Banshees of Inisherin, an existential obsession intrude upon the simple and unremarkable lives of the inhabitants. His most theatrical film to date, these elements would make a reverse adaptation fairly simple to construct, turning a cinematic experience into a stagey one.

The Banshees of Inisherin was screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 and is released in the UK on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

NB This post expands an idea first presented in a review of the film published on The Reviews Hub website.

Good – Harold Pinter Theatre

Being wanted is an incredibly intoxicating feeling and militaristic societies thrive on the notion of inclusion. Veterans and historians write a great deal about comradeship in the armed forces which in any era binds men together and helps them to fight for a set of ideals even if they don’t fully embrace them. But being part of it, being included, being on the inside of an elite group can carry normal men a long way. C. P. Taylor’s play Good, written in 1981 is about the easy slide into extremism, how a decidedly ordinary, peaceable even tolerant man with no obvious belief in the outcomes of Nazism can actively choose to join and then rise through the ranks to exert a kind of doctrinal influence. And the reason is the thrill of being wanted, of belonging and of being welcomed with open arms even by the leader himself.

Taylor’s play has a complex construction, one that makes several demands of an audience as it cuts back and forth in time, blurring conversations happening with different people and at different times in academic John Halder’s life. Taylor smashes them together in really interesting ways, placing John at the centre of several interlocking and decisive events that take him towards Party membership initially and then full collusion. The notion implied by the play’s title (one of many interpretations of its meaning) that he is a ‘good’ man is challenged immediately and Taylor asks some philosophical questions about the characteristics of goodness and the balance of behaviours that determine whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, the childlike simplicity of which Taylor also challenges.

The happy family scenario that the audience is presented with – of Halder’s home life with a chaotic but devoted wife and unseen children he claims to love dearly – strike a false note when he immediately suggests to friend Maurice that he only says the words for effect, for his own sake, as though requiring an anchor to steady his other impulses about which he yet knows or expects nothing. But there is a lingering doubt in Halder from the start that his instincts try to protect him from.

And soon Taylor is provoking the audience’s perception of John again with the arrival of a young student that Halder is drawn to almost in spite of himself, professing love for his wife but hardly resisting the girl about whom he speaks openly. It becomes a familiar characteristic of John’s journey through life that he flows easily from one state to another, jettisoning his old life as though it never existed in favour of a new one, never resisting or denying himself the things he is freely offered. From here across nearly two hours of performance we experience the slow degrees of assimilation and acceptance of the extraordinary as the norm as well as the incremental deconstruction of any humanity external to John’s own immediate feeling.

The concept recurs repeatedly, first in a lecture he gives on the primacy of the self in literature rather than the community-first notion that Nazism espouses which evolves into an Anti-Semitic rejection of Jewish scholars and creatives. Later, John’s failure to feel or prioritise anxieties beyond those immediately affecting his personal life becomes quite stark as the 1930s wears on and his Jewish friend is increasingly endangered. That few of us have the capacity to think about broader social ills while balancing our own troubles is Taylor’s all to pertinent point but the very concept of goodness becomes a nonsense in the reductive simplicity of its impossibly selfless characteristics. We see it eroded one step at a time by John’s desire for inclusion and respect from the State as well as the separation that the Professor of Literature acknowledges between his inner self and the public man.

The word ‘good’ becomes then a crucial pivot point throughout the play, littering the text with a deliberate emphasis as characters seek to reassure themselves that they are good people or, more dangerously, that they are acting for the greater good, whatever that means at any given moment. Taylor gives John an internal monologue where he can explore this idea more fully which he exercises between and within conversations, sometimes as speeches to the audience and others asides to himself, reacing to his interlocutor privately in his mind and then often more blandly to their face. This becomes a place of increasing disinterest or detachment from the external world that grows and takes root in John despite being an active participant in the life he lives – John is not a man without agency.

This stream of consciousness frequently becomes an argument with himself, particularly about his feeling for Jewish friend Maurice who he is ambiguous towards as his own panic and fear drown out any empathy he may have for others. Likewise, his own mother whose growing disorientation as a result of senile dementia becomes an irritant to him and leads to a role in determining a drastic solution that this good man comes to believe is humane. By degrees, then, we see the good man John always believed himself to be was already deeply compromised long before he joined the SS, National Socialism merely speaks to something that already exists in him and makes John its tool.

Dominic Cooke’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre which has its press night later this week is an increasingly affecting experience, presented on a representative set that saves its biggest shocks for later in the play. A fluid experience as scenes merge with only a beat and a change of lighting between them, this production builds a slow tumbling energy, a collection of conversations and off-stage activities that reach a tipping point beyond which the protagonist is no longer the man he thinks he is or the easy figure we first met. Where he, crucially, passes a point of no return is less clear and this version of Taylor’s work leaves the audience to wonder whether this was always John’s destiny due to a character defect in all of us or that the accumulated experiences push him forwards on a wave of mob mentality within that crowd he was so keen to be part of.

Cooke is particularly good at finding the emotional subtext and thrum of a piece and here he finds the humanity in John. The director is especially interested in the gap between illusion and delusion, the way in which people cling to outmoded or unrealistic ideas of themselves and how their life could or should be, particularly when the memory of what you once were is not necessarily who you are now. And in that sense Cooke draws a direct line between characters like Sally in Follies and John here.

But this does not create a sense of artifice or romance in this interpretation of Good, and instead, designer Vicki Mortimer has produced a representational space, a blank room made seemingly of steel or dark stone in which what characters say and what they do are not aligned – drawing a key theme from the text. It feels like a hinterland between worlds and, as the actors are often shown to speak of actions then they do not perform, and while it is set in the lead up to the Second World War, the design choices suggest a wider applicability to this scenario and some universal truths about human nature in a period of conflict. While there are no obvious scene changes, the design slowly takes on the characteristics of brutality, stark rooms and chambers where lives were extinguished. Zoe Spurr’s lighting design instead becomes the tools of tone, atmosphere and relocation, suggesting cosy domestic spaces and dehumanised official ones, summer days in the garden and wintry afternoons in the park as the chilling effects of the play unfold, helping Cooke’s production to seamlessly change scenario as conversations blur and overlap.

Music too is essential to this vision which is part of Halder’s world view, hearing music in his head as reflections of the conversational mood he is involved with. The specificity of these is incredibly important as German band music with its upbeat pomp encourages John to join the Party, the smooth vocal qualities of the crooner take him towards another woman and, as the world darkens, the melancholy strings of Schubert plague him. Music is a psychological reflection of John’s feeling if not quite his conscience – and it is not at all clear in Taylor’s play that he is troubled much by conscience – so Will Stuart’s musical arrangement along with Tom Gibbons’s sound design create an important connection for the audience with the things we cannot see either because they are in John’s mind or they are not acted – the latter an interesting examination of culpability, as though the characters are divorced from their actions.

David Tennant’s return to the stage wasn’t meant to take so long and Good was originally programmed for 2020. But 5 years it has been. His John is full of contradictions exploring the surface detachment and the growing absorption into the Nazi Party that begins to shape the expectations he has of himself and the situations he is willing to put himself in. The connection to the First World War and his experience as a veteran is essential to his desire to feel that same kind of comradeship and belonging again, but there is a coldness in John that is fascinating, taking the idea of a good man to its extremes, although not necessarily to delusion in Tennant’s interpretation, and he suggests instead that John is ultimately no different to the rest of us who could so easily follow the same path.

The technical control of the different narrative strands is superb, switching in a second between scenes and character intention as John moves from the domestic to the official, from muted declarations of affection to evasive interactions with friends and SS leaders, while clearly demarcating the personal notes to self that are initially funny but eventually troubling. What is so interesting in Tennant’s performance here is the understanding and presentation of all the things that John is and becomes, the way he adapts himself to the company he keeps as well as the control and concealment of information that doesn’t suit the immediate moment, something he seems to do by instinct. But again John is reflecting all of us in this, the casual and guarded behaviour to friends and the public professional at work. That Tennant still makes this feel like one person, and someone evolving across the years of the play is extraordinary as the degrees of self-compromise and failure to truly know himself or want to resist the man he is becoming build to an affecting costume change in Good‘s concluding scenes that is chilling.

Sharon Small and Elliot Levey play everyone else in fragmented interactions with John over time. Both superb character actors, the physical transformation in stance and vocal style are pronounced, taking the audience into the surrounding lives of SS officers, Jewish friends, lovers and collaborators who, though distinct, feel somehow like John’s unengaged impressions of others that while not exactly caricatures are snippets of the reality he sees. And the way in which this intimate ensemble work together to maintain John’s point of view is very skilled.

People love to belong and it is far harder to resist the tide in practice than in theory. Taylor’s play is a warning that we are all capable of terrible deeds but they won’t overwhelm us all at once but take control slowly, moving us gently away from who we think we are. E.M. Forster wrote that having a choice between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped to have the courage to betray his country. Good is the story of those who don’t possess that courage and, as John abandons his friends to be accepted by the Party, his goodness is moot, and it becomes too late to stop him.

Good is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 24 December with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.

Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.

The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.

But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.

And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.

When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?

Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.

This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.

Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.

Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.

Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.

There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

%d bloggers like this: