Monthly Archives: February 2023

The City and the Town – Wilton’s Music Hall

The City and the Town (by Karl Andre)

Working Class dramas are almost always about aspiration, about wanting to get out, away from the circumstances in which individuals grew up to find a better, calmer, more stable life away, somewhere, perhaps anywhere else. But what happens next? Because those ties to home, to family and even to memory do not just break. Even if just for a day, eventually you always have to go back and face them all again. Anders Lustgarten’s new play The City and the Town is about that day when 13 years after he left Ben has to go home to his father’s funeral and to his older brother Magnus who he left behind. Playing for a few nights at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of a nationwide tour, Lustgarten’s play is about the confrontation between past and present, about the consequences of staying and leaving, and whether the ones who leave have any right at all to decide what happens to the ones who stay.

With Standing at the Sky’s Edge opening a couple of weeks ago, Romeo and Julie last week and now The City and the Town, there has rarely been a better time to consider how Working Class lives are being represented on stage and the more meaningful associations those experiences are being given. Centered around characters with complex interior lives in scenarios that try to steer clear of cliche and think in more rounded terms about the humanity and, crucially, the value of their subject. Too often, Working Class experiences have been represented as a singular, often homogeneous group but this new wave of work is attempting to redress the balance and to explore the many shades of experience as well as the complex challenges that ordinary people face as they try to conduct decent lives in modest circumstances.

For Lustgarten, that focus is grief, a universal human concept that makes for dramatic turning points in a character’s life as an old way of being comes to an end, a connection to the past is severed or it presents a chance for people to come together for an occasion after many years apart, whether they want to see one another or not. In this case, it reunites brothers Ben and Magnus who haven’t been in the same room or interacted for more than a decade after Ben left for a new life in London. But this is more than a tale of long-lost siblings, chalk and cheese opposites discovering they have more in common than they thought, and instead Lustgarten muses on the limitations of Working Class life and how the removal of agency from communities leads to other kinds of political expression as individuals seek more extreme means to reassert control over their lives and the way in which it has always been lived.

Some of this stems from a fear of change perhaps and the rapid acceleration of the post-industrial era where skills, education and opportunity have not evolved at an equal pace. But The Town and the City also suggests this comes from a kind of broken promise in which individuals grew up expecting to live the kind of lives their parents had, only for it to be snatched away from them, and in the end from their parents as well, when it was too late for any of them to find something else to fill the gap.

The play is, however, at its best in Act One where the story of the two brothers rediscovering who they are is most effective. The shyness of virtual strangers who have grown from boys to men with lives and responsibilities in the intervening years is well managed, especially as they both move around a complicated relationship with their father, something alluded to but never fully explained. Lustgarten’s control of conversation is extremely effective, managing flows of interaction that move smoothly from shared nostalgia and something approaching confederacy to conflicts that expose the extent of their differences now and the secrets they seem determined to keep from one another.

It is a model that Lustgarten applies across the play as discussions breed connection and then fury, with shared memories and momentary enjoyment of each other’s company and of thoughts about their younger selves only serving to remind them how much distance exists between them now. The brothers want to feel close again, to be what they once were to each other, but continually catch themselves with the fallacy of that desire as the writer effortlessly flows back into the grudges, resentments and irritations they still bear. And it is never as simple as Ben left and Magnus stayed, although that is frequently how both men chose to express it, but instead the writer notes the betrayal the siblings feel and the extent to which they view each other as symbols or proxies for wider problems in their lives and the nation. These are problems that also emerge from their masculine role models and the support for family that they both struggle to articulate.

At the centre of this is the strong absent-presence of their father and the different relationship they both had to a man who was once admired as a pillar of the community, a leader at the local factory and a strong advocate for his neighbourhood. Whether both sons felt they had to live up to or run from this mode of male behaviour is the crux of the play and drives the drama around the funeral as well as the revelations that accompany Ben and Magnus’s reunion. That both have very different opinions about who their father was, his beliefs and reactions is telling, asking how far we see heroism in father-son relationships and dismiss the parts of a parent that are too negative to reconcile with a perfected impression of them. Perhaps though, people change over time, becoming, as the urban myth suggests, more right wing as they age.

There are strong parallels here with Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s The Death of England cycle, and particularly with the opening monologue in which Michael faces his father’s, and by extension his own, demons at Alan’s funeral, confronting not only the loss he feels as a different kind of man to his father and the weakness he draws from that, but also all the contradictory things that Alan was both personally and politically. Here, Lustgarten splits that consternation between the sons, Magnus trying to be most like his father in personality and presence, claiming an ownership of the man in more recent years that he was left alone to tend to, while Ben has fled from being the same type as his father. The more political Act Two tries to explore the consequences of those choices and how far the brothers feel they measure up or even truly knew who their father was.

That comes in the form of a discussion about nationhood and changes in the last two decades for economically deprived communities who have become increasingly disenfranchised while London (the play argues) has grown richer and more middle class, prioritising the needs of the few over the many. The reality is far muddier than Lustgarten suggests, but the playwright weights the drama in favour of the local community in spite of Magnus’s alignment with supremacist groups and political extremism. The introduction of Ben’s former girlfriend Lyndsey adds a second town-based perspective that helps to explain why being left behind is so painful without the the taint of alt-right arguments. And it is clear Lustgarten is keen to show that Magnus’s approach is not the only possible outcome, hence the more reasoned but nonetheless bitter perspective that Lyndsey (Amelia Donker) represents.

This is also the only place where a female character could feasibly be inserted to provide some gender balance while giving her an independent agency that doesn’t rely on her being someone’s girlfriend or wife. Yet, it changes the dynamic of the play with some of the intricate character and relationship work of Act One dissipating slightly with the need to write for a third, unrelated person in the conversation. By extension, it surfaces those political discussions, separating them more and more from the triangle of father and sons to make bigger but more expositional points about the outlets for local dissatisfaction. Lustgarten never excuses Magnus but nor is there sufficient time in the end to really see Ben’s point of view either.

Both town characters point the finger at Ben as the root cause of all their woes, partly as someone who personally left them and as a representative of everything they deduce is economically and socially constraining them. Yet Ben never gets the opportunity to properly explain what it is like to get out and not get out at the same time – that Educating Rita and Eliza Doolittle problem of not quite belonging in either place, where characters like Ben can’t go back but they can’t always go forward either. It would have been interesting to explore some of Ben’s feelings about ‘fitting in’ in other places and whether he felt lost between the classes, an imposter of sorts ill-equipped for the life he wanted.

Designer Hannah Sibai has created a crowded living room set that suggests a particular generation and era of living where there is an unwillingness to change decor or furnishings over many years. The visible decline, dirty sofa, copious litter and stained wallpaper speak to the political rot at the the heart of the play, and nicely represents the former owner of this flat, once so meticulous about his home but as age and illness descend, no longer able to maintain it with the fastidious care that the homeliness under the grime implies. It is also a place riven with the character of a dead man, filled with his books, not all of which are far-right related, and the years of a life being packed away quickly into boxes.

Gareth Watkins’s Magnus is an interesting figure, hugely admiring of his father who he has tried to emulate but equally frustrated with his brother for forgetting about him, channeling various personal decisions and limitations of circumstance against the easy target his sibling represents. Watkins makes Magnus subtly sensitive, belying his height and physical appearance with a softness expressed through caring for his father in later years as well as the evident grief he expresses after the funeral. This noted humanity makes his later revelations and role in extremism harder to reconcile but Watkins moves the character through the story arc convincingly.

Samuel Collings’s Ben is more sympathetic in some ways, even if the writing doesn’t always allow him to be, and Collings manages the feelings of oppression that colour Ben’s return really well. The desire to be close to his brother and to understand his life is nicely contrasted by a prissiness about the surroundings and Collings does some nice physical work as his Ben refuses to let his clothes touch the various surfaces. There is regret and fear mixed in with that disdain which balances the character and Collings also takes him through a range of emotional responses as the play unfolds.

The City and the Town is a play with much to say about the contrasting experiences of Working Class lives and the responsibilities of those who leave to find ways to protect or improve things for those who stay behind. Although Act Two becomes more of a polemic than a drama, this is a meaningful piece that has more to say about the overwhelming prospect of returning to a place you never thought you would see again and the relationship between the breakdown of Working Class agency and the extreme political outlets waiting to channel all that rage into something far more dangerous.

The City and the Town was at Wilton’s Music Hall until 25 February and continues on tour until 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Women Beware the Devil – Almeida Theatre

Women Beware the Devil - Almieda Theatre

What are the limits of a woman’s ambition at a time when she had no power? Lula Raczka’s new play Women Beware the Devil explores accusations of witchcraft and the meaning of evil at the outbreak of the Civil War in the early part of the 1640s, but while that makes for an interesting premise and context, the story is really about the ambitions of three women of different ages and class in the same house trying to control their environment and the future through their actions. It is not always successful as drama, however, struggling to find an even tone between comedy and commentary, with activities and motivations emerging in haphazard and often obscure ways, but there is an underlying purpose here that considers the physical structures in which women lived and the extent to which they had power through their relationship with menfolk as well as how their bodies became battlegrounds that could be overcome as well as deployed to achieve their ends.

The Almeida Theatre has had a strong run of form, a series of particularly acclaimed work culminating in the almost instantaneous transfer of A Streetcar Named Desire to the West End. Women Beware the Devil is its first stumble in a while, a work that feels unfinished, not quite aligning its dramatic ambitions and messaging with the structures and management of the material to convey the plot to the audience. There is a strong basis here, however, in which a young stable-girl, to whose name is attached considerable suspicion, is invited to become a lady’s maid by the mistress of a large country house who needs her brother to marry and produce an heir in order to save the estate from entail to a loathed cousin. This combination of mercenary motives and the potential for devilry is filled with possibility, combining magical means and earthly ambition with the need to arrive at a practical outcome.

Raczka creates that initial scenario well, particularly the ambiguity of a forbidden and highly dangerous method by exploring the power dynamic between the high-born Lady Elizabeth who in manner and confidence is intimidating and certain of herself, and the lowly and introverted servant Agnes who denies any alleged powers but agrees to the bargain nonetheless. That Elizabeth needs her and cannot manage her brother or their family destiny alone is significant in a play that seeks to subvert established notions of governance and position, although it is unclear until the second part of the story just how important the role of dynasty and heritage will be when Raczka’s visions for presenting a ‘world turned upside down’ emerges in more ways than one.

Christopher Hill, the Marxist historian who used that phrase as the title of his seminal book about radical religious groups in the Civil War, would be jumping for joy at Raczka’s interpretation of an event that forms the backdrop to this drama in which the Royalist central family endure chaos without and within. The play begins in 1640 and ends shortly after King Charles leaves London and war breaks out, with the slow dissolution of the monarch’s power mirroring the events occurring within the household. As the old, established order crumbles outside it is frequently referenced in the text, with characters debating the Godly appointment of the monarch, the duty to serve in his army and, later in the play, Charles’s human failures that lead to violence.

Within the house a similar challenging of authority takes place, although that is perhaps not explicit enough until Act Two when Agnes embraces opportunity and, bored with her victory, looks to destroy everything she has won. But it is Lady Elizabeth that sets out the stakes, repeatedly referencing the fabric of the house that she holds so dearly and risks her soul to preserve. The house, she argues not unsympathetically, is both a landmark and a source of employment for generations of local families, a symbol of constancy and continuity whose privilege provides reassurance and stability – a sentiment echoed by the other servants. Agnes’s enthusiasm for destruction is less convincing and harder for the audience to follow, although Hill might enjoy its notions of leveling the playing field.

It is here that Women Beware the Devil becomes most muddled as the piece moves towards its dramatic crescendo, Parliamentarian forces heading for the house bringing, to Agnes’s mind, a form of liberation from oppressive rule and stale codes of behaviour that prevent stable-girls from becoming great ladies. And while Raczka allows Lady Elizabeth to fleetingly suggest that Agnes’s supposed saviours will be far harder on witches than the previous regime, it is not pursued any further. This rather romantic and simplistic view of the Parliamentarian forces is as old as Hill’s 1970s book, and serves no clear purpose in this play. It is never clear why Agnes can predict King Charles’s fate – which was certainly not a possibility in 1642, even as late as 1648 few believed that regicide was a serious consideration – but not foresee the extreme Puritanism that will grow out of the Parliamentarian cause in the years ahead, and, most importantly, why in a play about the strength and ambitions of women, Agnes puts her faith in a group of men who will pursue witchcraft with a fervency as yet unseen.

Raczka’s play is most frustrating in its presentation of women’s relationships, pitting them against one another and thereby reducing the fault of men in the pursuit and pronouncement of witchcraft. The central triangle between servant Agnes, lady of the house Elizabeth and the woman her brother marries, Catherine, starts well enough, the characters forming allegiances with one another and working towards a common goal, to produce a male heir to protect the estate. Elizabeth and Agnes are united by a blood pact that brings Catherine into the story, and having fulfilled her side of the bargain, Agnes is appointed as Catherine’s maid where the women become friends of a kind, sharing confidences almost as equals.

But just as Raczka seems to be heading towards an exploration of male failures, demonstrated through the inability of Catherine’s husband to consummate his marriage and instead exploits the bodies of his servants, the writer takes the story into a less satisfactory direction, creating situations in which the women betray and condemn one another for personal gain. Each one has their own ambitions to pursue, Elizabeth wants to maintain her family name and home, Catherine wants to fulfill the duties of a wife and Agnes, when pushed, longs to wear silks and know the finery of aristocracy. Setting women against one another is a tired trope, particularly in a story that not only allows men to prosper from their demise but absolves them from any responsibility for it, but it also makes little sense in a play that is ostensibly about witchcraft.

Raczka’s plotting feels arbitrary at times, a jumble of scenes that picks up and puts down different character motivations without sufficient explanation. Why Elizabeth feels that asking an alleged witch for help is her only option is never clear, nor why her brother refuses to marry when so much is at stake. The relationship between brother and sister is once shown to be inappropriate, resulting in an act of attempted sexual violence which remains unexplained and why Agnes seeks revenge against this family, and Elizabeth in particular, when this is the only place she been treated with humanity and without suspicion makes little sense either. Likewise, Catherine makes some strange choices that lead to her own downfall but few of Raczka’s decision create a coherent whole. Moments are compelling but Women Beware the Devil lacks a consistent message, implying women should be far warier of one another.

Ultimately, there is very little examination of witchcraft itself, and while the early part of the play suggests Agnes may be maligned, protesting her innocence and a desire to be ‘good’ repeatedly, Raczka doesn’t offer any rational alternatives to the possibility that Agnes is a witch and therefore controlling events, a decision the writer fully embraces later in the play, while the unpleasant and torturous methods of the Witchfinder are glossed over in a single scene. It means the play struggles for dramatic momentum, mixing together lots of different kinds of scene that distract from rather than support the eventual resolution, leaving the audience wondering what much of it was for.

Director Rupert Goold has found some pacing through the staging, a beautiful long-room set created by Miriam Buether and a checkerboard floor that suggests heritage but also creates space to imply lots of different places in a grand house, largely implied with no furniture. A four poster bed emerging from the floor is a great piece of design by Buether, allowing scenes to take place fluidly between different characters in different rooms at the same time. Evie Gurney’s costumes are equally impressive and redolent of the period, while still suggesting character – monochrome but seductive for Lady Elizabeth, while Agnes and Catherine pointedly share a dress design.

The performers too are working really hard ahead of this week’s Press Night to make this play come to life, although there is too little time to address these intrinsic concerns. Not seen on a London stage since Oslo, Lydia Leonard is particularly excellent, a confident and ultimately likable Lady Elizabeth who will go to any lengths to protect her family legacy, and Leonard invests her with a consistent dignity even at her character’s lowest moments. Alison Oliver moves from reticent and beleaguered to invincible as Agnes, a character whose trajectory and motivation is not easy to plot, while Ioanna Kimbrook adds to a growing CV with her childish Catherine who eventually finds some inner steel when her ambitions are crushed. Leo Bill is a little cartoonish as as Elizabeth’s brother, another character whose behaviours feel inconsistently realised while Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea is the face of every other man and the devil. These may all be his disguises but again it’s not a device that Raczka does anything with.

Three characters directly address the audience in Women Beware the Devil, drawing contemporary parallels by asking whether we still value country houses, heritage and duty in the same way and if we even need the devil now that more human evils have taken his place. In a stronger piece, those might be interesting questions to ponder, but the play gets so lost in its exploration of the witch trope that it forgets to object to the malignity of three women betraying each other over a man and never challenges the role they played in hunting and destroying women accused of witchcraft. In a story that puts ambitious women at the forefront of the drama, it seems a shame today to watch them destroy each other instead.

Women Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Standing at the Sky’s Edge – National Theatre

It is still a relatively rare experience to see a Working Class drama that invests its characters with a profound and complex, even a poetic interior, life, but from the first moments of Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge when a workman stops to greet the beauty of the dawn and the sound of birdsong, it is clear that this is no ordinary representation of
Working Class life. Set on what was a council estate in Sheffield, Park Hill, where the last residents were lured out in the early 2000s, Hawley and Bush’s musical imagines three stories lived across 60 years in one flat and the changing social and political circumstances that affects the individual lives during their time as residents as well as the changing face of Britain during
this period. Most importantly, the writers invest each of these scenarios with a deep and wide-ranging humanity supported by Hawley’s often soulful composition that gives these Working Class lives both resonance and significance in ways that theatre rarely manages to achieve.

What gives purpose to these stories is the changing political climate and the governmental elections that decisively shape the fortunes of the residents of Park Hill as well as the broader decline of the physical structure in which they are contained, noting the shifting patterns of Sheffield itself. It opens with the optimism of people moving into their new homes in 1960, 1989 and 2015, enjoying the promise that this opportunity to begin a new life brings, yet the clock soon ticks forward, eating up the years and taking each set of characters to the eve of a Conservative election victory in 1979, 1992 and 2017 that shatter these expectations and facilitate the social ruin of a once happy and desirable estate.

By the twenty-first century, time and policy has erased the Working Class tenants, turning the building into a commercial endeavor sold to wealthier escapees from London, dulling the social history of this both illustrious and notorious location. Aligning crisis moments in the lives of the inhabitants with these decisive political changes is effective and affecting in a story that reflects the state of the nation at key moments since the Second World War and the ultimately disastrous effects of Conservative governments on ordinary people who in class, wealth and geography are far from the seat of power. But these themes are subtly woven through Act Two as time moves on again to the end of 1986, 2005 and 2019 where the consequences of personal and political decisions play-out.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is lightly navigated by a narrator, the Estate Agent who introduces the final resident Poppy to her now chic brutalist home, a device used to coincide with the changes of years, helping to move the audience’s understanding along, the infrequency of which gives the role a Greek chorus feel able to step back from the day-to-day dramas the characters are living through to make more explicit or ominous statements about the changing face of Sheffield and its potential consequences for the residents of Park Hill. It works in a similar way to the Narrator in Blood Brothers, deepening this sense of the profundity and importance of Working Class lives that Hawley’s lyrics in particular evoke.

Directed by Robert Hastie and performed on a semi-staged set by Ben Stones, the action takes place simultaneously in the living room and kitchen of a flat, one space which all three residents occupy at the same time but decades apart, allowing scenes and stories to overlap while occasional activity from the wider estate bleeds in through the invisible walls. Choreographer Lynne Page uses these moments to create the bustle of multiple lives happening side-by-side with residents passing by, above and around, a changing community that surrounds the inhabitants of this particular flat which gives a sense of scale to Standing at the Sky’s Edge by adding an unexpected macro non-verbal texture to the micro stories that Hawley and Bush create.

And this is an unusual production in other ways, particularly in the presentation and style of the musical numbers which largely eschew traditional forms of presentation. Songs are incorporated into the narrative with characters singing their troubles in the moment essentially to themselves – few of the numbers here are duets by couples sharing feelings with one another and instead unrelated characters reflect on similar emotional experiences across different eras simultaneously along with a wider ensemble representing a community of similar feeling. But musical numbers are also presented directly to the audience sung with stand microphones in which the character steps out of the scenario to perform a concert solo of their feelings

This approach asks the audience to think less about the drama of the story and to see the specific character for who they are, giving their lives the profound and poetic importance that Hawley and Bush seek. All of the principals have at least one solo moment and even in ensemble numbers, such as the beautiful title song that opens Act Two with everyone on stage, there is a sense that they are all singing a solo at the same time telling us that these are important, meaningful lives. Hawley’s musical choices only underscore that notion with deeply soulful melodies and even a bluesy feel that is so rarely applied to Working Class lives on stage but creates deep wells of emotional resonance that roll out into the audience.

The three stories, all connected by the pursuit and changing experience of love, are variably engaging and with six decades to cover in the two hour and 50-minute running time, there isn’t always enough space to really explore each individual in sufficient detail across the three eras they experience. The most affecting of these is the middle story starting in 1989 when Joy (beautifully voiced by Faith Omole) comes to live in the UK with her aunt and cousin, given a flat on the Park Hill estate where she worries for the safety of her parents who may face war at home while she endures racist taunts from the local boys. But it is the meeting with former Park Hill resident Jimmy (a charming Samuel Jordan) that soon proves the heart of this story as a tender emotion develops between them despite having so much in the way.

But we are soon in John Osborne territory, at least in the first Act, as their story starts to echo Epitaph For George Dillon (co-written with Antony Creighton), as this Working Class couple filled with aspiration and hope for the future, of the possibility of getting out of the, by now insalubrious, Park Hill estate is inevitably trapped by fate into surrendering all those dreams and living the same life as everyone else. This is particularly affecting in Act Two having followed their path for several years, when Jimmy sings of feeling trapped, of wanting to escape and leave it all behind, something he barely has the courage to do. Turning down a chance to leave in Act One, this recurring desire to reassert his true self is very moving, but he loves his now wife and can’t let her down leaving him deeply and affectingly torn between seizing the chance to be more and quietly accepting he must subsume himself into his family life.

Joy too endures the same trajectory although she is more accepting of the life she develops, scaling down her own dreams to support her marriage and trying to be happy with what she has. The connection between Joy and Jimmy is lovely, developing from a shy childhood meeting to a fear of losing one another and a genuinely happy relationship despite the financial and emotional compromises the couple make to keep their life together afloat. There are big consequences for Joy that make this the most effective of the stories, understanding more about the sacrifices of self imposed on Working Class lives by circumstances that these individuals must then live with.

The middle tale follows couple Rose and Harry, newlyweds who move into Park Hill in its heyday from the slums, filled with the optimism that 1960s social housing was designed to inspire. Initially, there is little to this couple, they are blissfully happy in their relationship and their home, and while they struggle to conceive, Hawley and Bush don’t really get under the skin of the pair until much later in the show when the arrival of Margaret Thatcher brings the closure of the steel factory where Harry (Robert Lonsdale) works, striking miner friends that they support and long-term unemployment that puts a strain on their marriage after 20 years of relative contentment. It is the most overtly political strand of Standing at the Sky’s Edge that, like Mickey in Blood Brothers, looks at the consequences for men like Harry driven to inertia and alcoholism by the removal of whole industries and any opportunity to find alternative work.

This is also an era in which the social decay of the Park Hill estate, begins the underfunded consequences of which begin to affect the residents during the Act One finale, showing the dilapidation and deterioration of the physical estate and the social fabric that had kept the houseproud inhabitants invested in maintaining their environment. One of the show’s best moments places the future Jimmy and Harry side-by-side at home feeling the same sense of dislocation and abandonment many years apart as notions of masculine providers shifts the burden of supporting the household, leaving both with an aching despair about the lives they now endure.

Rose’s character is less well investigated, a surface housewife for much of the show, she is a sweet and likeable woman but the audience learns little about her life beyond, where she came from and what she wanted from life. But Rose gets her moment, a heartbreaking song, movingly performed by Rachael Wooding, when facing the consequences of all those political impacts on her marriage when she opens her heart to the audience. The loss she expresses is deeply felt and consuming, reiterating the depth and meaning within Working Class lives that drama so often overlooks.

The final strand is the least believable, a contemporary story of a Middle Class character Poppy who moves from London to escape a broken relationship and, much to the consternation of her mother, moves into the now renovated flat where she builds a new life but refuses or is unable to move on from her former partner Nikki who inevitably turns up. The story is well performed by Alex Young as Poppy while Maimuna Memon as Nikki provides an extraordinary vocal, but this character faces none of the external shaping that so meaningfully affects the other women who front this musical. Poppy may get caught up in some angst about whether the wealthy deserve to buy former Working Class homes but much of her self-focused introspection feels generic. It means she is presented in the way that theatre always sees Middle Class women, blandly drinking wine alone and feeling sorry for herself in what we assume is an expensive kitchen. Even her conclusion works against the determined independence that Poppy has insisted upon throughout – it certainly feels like some of these stereotypes need updating.

The bright and breezy opening section of Standing at the Sky’s Edge grows into a rich and layered piece about communities shaped by their external landscape as well as their own desires and aspirations. It invests Working Class stories with a meaning and purpose that, as Harry insists, asks you to see their individuality, the hope and pain, of good people doing their best. That Hawley and Bush allow their characters to express all of that in such a soulful way is their biggest achievement and this co-production, transferring from Sheffield to the National Theatre, gives the writers an even greater platform to present the vast humanity of Working Class lives as they really are.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the National Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Phaedra – National Theatre

Phaedra - National Theatre

There are many ways to update a classic text; you can relocate it to another time period where the play’s themes and political subtext can find accord with the tone of a later era – a popular option for Shakespeare adaptations where alternative period settings seek to reinforce universal truths about human nature in the writer’s work; you could make drastic cuts to the dialogue to create a leaner and more pointed story or replace some of the text with alternative forms of expression as Ivo van Hove often does with film, or dance and movement as Frantic Assembly have done with their recent Othello. But Simon Stone makes theatre a little differently, by creating a new contemporary version of the story using the shape of the plot and its messaging but in an entirely new and accessible language.

His adaptation of Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016 was a triumph, a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s original play into a contemporary obsession with female reproduction and the expectation to be a mother. Staged in a confining glass box, Stone created an original scenario onto which he successful grafted Lorca’s story to understand the endless pressures placed on women of childbearing age to conform to both external and internalised expectations to procreate. Stone’s sensitive but balanced production was a huge success from a writer who understands and so well represents the complexities of womanhood on stage, with his central character able to reach across generations and link to Lorca’s original.

Now, Stone turns his attention to another important literary woman, Phaedra as imagined by Euripides, Seneca and Racine and given a modern retelling in a production at the National Theatre written and directed by Stone. With its Press Night later this week, Stone’s production has a number of technical issues to resolve, complicated changes that are creating overlong pauses between some of the scenes and intruding on the pace of the show which hopefully repeated performance during the preview period will resolve. Nonetheless, Stone’s vision for Phaedra is riveting in a piece that explores mature sexuality, fantasy and generational competition between mother and daughter.

Phaedra in this production is relocated to the modern day where she is the head of a wealthy and consumerist household. A senior politician in the Shadow Cabinet, Phaedra, renamed Helen (a pointed choice given the tragedy of beauty and masculine aggression to follow) has what appears to be the perfect life with two children – a grown-up daughter, Isolde, who is married and a teenage son Declan – as well as a devoted and supportive husband and father of the children, Hugo, who is of Iranian descent. Stone creates an instant sense of their life, of white privilege and self-satisfaction, of believing themselves to be liberal, people of the world but with a surface engagement not only in the political consequences of their lifestyle but also in their relationship to one another, only they don’t yet realise it.

So, Stone puts them in another glass box where we can watch it all go wrong. And as the light’s come up on Chloe Lamford’s quite spectacular set, in the first minute of the show, the audience has all the information it needs to understand this family. The living room and kitchen visible at the start is expensively and tastefully decorated with marbled surfaces, minimal but chic furnishings and a deference to showcasing their taste that Lamford notes may be filled with life but is ultimately hollow. The spectacular coup de theatre some way into this first scene is quite remarkable as the glass case revolves showing its cubed structure for the first time and a plush home that turns into a bedroom and en suite that characters can fully circumnavigate during conversation. This perfect stage picture is something Stone is about to shatter.

Having established who Helen/Phaedra is, Stone starts to bring her to life and in doing so teases out all kinds of complex responses that explore female sexuality and fantasy. The arrival of Sofiane – the son of her former lover Achraf – is the catalyst for the inevitable disaster that plays out across the following hours of performance and Stone creates an added layer by recasting this relationship, and making Sofiane a non-relation. This helps to generate some of the empathy that Helen must elicit while also keeping just enough inappropriateness to make the relationship between them a little uncomfortable and not only due to their age gap.

Stone’s Helen wallows in a form of lost fantasy, the chance to rekindle a ghost of passion with a lover who died in a car accident that left her unable to resolve her feelings for him. Playing those out with his son, who she knew as a young child, creates a kind of substitution in her mind. And while the affair with Sofiane is incredibly passionate, reawakening a side of Helen that she had thought dormant in her long marriage to the less inspiring and over-familiar Hugo, a danger arises when she repeatedly references Achraf, showing the extent to which the two men merge in her mind as Helen is transported back to a carefree time in her life that she desperately wants to recapture.

This father-son dynamic is then mirrored in an equivalent mother-daughter perspective in which Sofiane also begins an affair with Isolde who then leaves her mild husband Eric for the man she knows is having an affair with her mother. The younger woman is also besotted by a fantasy about this stranger that she barely knows, struck by his different conversation from the first encounter in Helen’s house and reading deeper feelings into discussions and meetings they have offstage. Isolde too is projecting a romantic fantasy onto Sofiane who likewise replicates his childhood desire for Helen with her daughter, with Stone creating a complicated but credible series of projections in which none of the characters see one another as they really are.

But there is an important political dimension here too that comments on the impressionistic exoticism with which both Helen and Isolde see Sofiane, a reductive overlaying of his complex heritage and agency that prioritises their romantic and sexual needs above his existence as a real person – a point made so well in the final Act in which a visit to Morocco finally gives the audience a greater understanding of this man and his needs. That Phaedra returns repeatedly to the memory of Helen’s time in Morocco with Achraf is important, and through the fog a picture of this past relationship emerges, one of a group of Oxford-educated intellectuals enjoying a tourist’s perspective on the country and expecting it to meet their cliched expectations, suggesting Helen’s engagement with reality was limited even then as well as her capacity to lie to herself about her own desirability.

That this mutual fantasy becomes the basis for sexual jealousy and competition between mother and daughter is at the root of the tragedy that ensues, while Sofiane’s own muddied desires also make him a more rounded character. Stone works hard to ensure the audience don’t see this man the way that the women do, providing extra layers of Moroccan politics that allow him to clash with Hugo over more than his wife, while the masculine aggression stemming from a need to possess or even exceed what his father had runs through Sofiane’s motivation and emotional responses – feelings that become increasingly confused as his relationship entanglements begin to suffocate him.

A set-piece moment immediately after the interval where this all plays out at a restaurant birthday gathering for Helen is extremely effective, as the quietly sniping birthday girl who misses her now errant lover slowly brings the party to its knees and reeks havoc in all of her relationships, the consequences of which play out across the remainder of the story. The trajectory from smug, confident politician at ease with herself through a desperate illusory passion to destructive rage is something Stone manages particularly well, and, as he did with Yerma, the writer increases the tension, the personal need and the stakes bit by bit as his characters lose any sense of control, giving themselves over to pure emotion.

Structurally, Stone takes the same approach as he did with Yerma with time leaps between each scene in which the audience must infer all that has happened in the interim, but each time the characters appear before us, the stakes are considerably higher and there is further for them all to fall. Scenes appear suddenly out of the blackness as though a light has been flipped on and a key moment is illuminated for the audience before it too fades to black and another takes its place. In between, Stone inserts a tense musical composition by Stefan Gregory than creates a sense of anticipation mixing vocal ululations with classical and North African tones to reflect and guide the audience’s changing perspective on the story and it’s thematic implications.

It doesn’t all work and – technical issues of the early run aside – there is a lack of clarity in the long penultimate scene that would benefit from a little tightening and rewriting. This is a very different and decisive moment in the play, where all the romance and clutter of the jumbled sexual relationships has been swept aside and the action decamps to the snowy roads of Morocco where the UK characters seek Sofiane once more and Helen decisively confronts her past. Much of this dialogue is spoken in French and Arabic with slightly out of sync subtitles (which will be rectified), yet the consequences for Sofiane are a little muddy and not as clearly expressed as perhaps they could be. It is a long scene with multiple conversations but it’s not always clear where lies and misdirection are being used to defer Helen and if all of what we’re told in multiple languages is true. This is a pivotal scene for Helen, a moment when the scales fall from her eyes and she sees a reflection of herself so it’s important that the production can find the clarity it needs to make her fate really powerful.

The National’s production is suffering from the practicality of its genuinely magnificent set, and while the structure of the Young Vic space meant Yerma‘s pacing could be assisted by the use of a treadmill to carry sets on and off at speed in the darkness, the nature of the Lyttleton space and the level of realism that Lamford and Stone have chosen make this a far more cumbersome process to effect. When locations appear they are incredible, a testament to the ingenuity of the National’s in-house workshops but a couple of scenes could be simplified, made more representative in order to facilitate the swifter scene changes Phaedra needs to maintain its momentum and to showcase the interesting scenic approach that Stone employs so well.

The actors though are already well ahead of the play’s logistics creating an immersive and compelling story as soon as the lights go on. Janet McTeer finds incredible range in Helen/Phaedra, a woman whose confidence and self-satisfaction is at its height during the early part of the show. But she also has an excessive sexual confidence, a certainty that men should respond to and fulfill her regardless of her marital status, so when Sofiane comes along her ‘right’ to pursue him and the possessiveness she reveals is all consuming. McTeer also connects Helen’s physical expression to the image of the woman she once was (and is still in her head), driving a single-mindedness that blocks out other people’s emotions or needs, failing to listen when they speak and unable to subvert her own desires to support others.

Making his UK stage debut, Assaad Bouab is something of an enigma as Sofiane, a character whose ‘otherness’ underscores the drama, making him both an object of exotic allure to the women but also a man struggling to define himself. A process of loss bubbles through Bouab’s performance as the character tries to reconcile a paternal resentment and a kind of jealousy, coveting the things his father had but destroying them the moment he finally has them. Bouab is particularly impressive at reflecting on Sofiane’s disarranged mind as the multiple secrets and expectations lead to a dramatic conclusion.

Supporting the leads, Paul Chahidi is particularly good as Hugo, a seemingly lightweight personality at first, a figure of fun than Helen is easily able to cuckold, but Chahidi finds sympathy and depth as the story unfolds. Mackenzie Davis as Isolde echoes the selfishness of Helen as mother and daughter play our a similar life pattern, determined to follow their own desires regardless of the consequences, while John Macmillan as her husband Eric fits into a Hugo-like role, a nice man who is easy to betray but the better person in the longer term. Helen’s political life is given context by friend Omolara (Akiya Henry) who attends personal functions and becomes Helen’s main confidant but she finds their connection one-sided.

Stone’s play has so much potential, meaning if the technical and pacing issues can be resolved, it could be a very powerful production indeed. Phaedra is a contemporary reworking of a well-known tale that fits its new context extremely well and with an understanding of the evolution of female sexuality that has an affecting and poignant resonance. Most of all Phaedra is about the tragedy of self-delusion and the failure to the see the world and other people as they truly are.

Phaedra is at the National Theatre until 8 April with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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