Category Archives: London

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Bridge Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Bridge Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be a perennial favourite, a light romantic comedy of tampered relationships and fairy magic, but on closer inspection it’s not quite the harmless fun that we think it is. Last year, The Faction gave us a darker interpretation, full of sinister woodland creatures and lurking danger amplified by the shadowy gloom of Wilton’s Music Hall, insisting that meddling sprites were spiteful interlopers keen to disrupt the human world. Now, Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production at the Bridge Theatre has a new dimension to add, one that highlights and rectifies the shameful treatment of women in the play.

It has been another difficult year for the Bridge, with new play commissions continuing the theatre’s disappointing run. Nightfall, Alys, Always and Allelujah! opened to lukewarm reviews while the much-anticipated A Very Very Dark Matter from the celebrated pen of Martin McDonagh was an anger-inducing waste of major theatre space. No wonder then that Hytner and co. have gone back to the Bridge’s only true smash hit for inspiration.

It may have been established to house new work but it fell to an ever-reliable writer called William Shakespeare to save the day, and last February the Bridge Theatre unveiled its immersive production of Julius Caesar – an innovative and tub-thumping triumph that was everything theatre should be. Energised by its judicious two-hour run-time, excellent performances and smart design, Hytner’s approach was both slick and full of staging surprises that played well to its in-the-round audience whether seated or part of the crowd in the pit.

Hytner adopts a lot of the same methods for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and achieves much the same, although perhaps an ever so slightly less rousing, effect with spectacle aplenty and some wonderful comic performances that shake-up a tired play. But it is the slight rearrangement of the text and its implication for the female characters that is Hytner’s most notable achievement here, adding additional perspectives on the social structures of Shakespeare’s piece while making greater sense of the overall story.

It opens in a grey dystopian world, Hippolyta dressed in nun-like garb is trapped in a glass box listening to a choral choir as the audience take their places. Soon the severe Theseus speaks in solemn tones about his forthcoming wedding to the bride he won in battle – a throwaway line that’s easy to miss – a dynastic union of conquest and humiliation for the ensnared Queen. Christina Cunningham’s costumes nod to The Handmaid’s Tale as the women cover their hair with a scarf and dress in loose-fitting uniforms that demand their subservience and silence.

Normally it is the men who run this play, Theseus and Egeus decide who The Lovers should marry, while in the play’s fantastical middle section it is the jealous Oberon who enchants Titania so she humiliatingly cavorts with the ass-headed Bottom, while impish Puck mistakenly bewitches the wrong man resulting in frustration and further indignities for Helena and Hermia. Hytner however subverts the way in which these magical ministrations play upon the feelings of the women by partially transposing the characters of Oberon and Titania to political and comic effect.

After fighting over the changeling boy, it is Titania who decides to teach Oberon a lesson by dowsing his sleeping eyes with a magical flower so that he falls in love with Bottom instead. The result is hilarious in a production that hints at sexual fluidity in several characters and makes for an unusual but very smart re-imagining of the play’s core comic scenes in which Oliver Chris as Oberon and Hammed Animashaun are delightfully funny. But this well-judged silliness holds a deeper meaning, and Hytner uses these woodland antics to underscore the revolution taking place back in Athens in which women are liberated from their secondary role. With Theseus and Oberon essentially the same character, the events of this midsummer night in which Hippolyta/Titania decides to teach him a lesson before she can marry him, start to make perfect sense in this slightly amended narrative arc. The result is a captured Queen regarded now as an equal rather than a prize.

It is a notable change to the original play but one that brings a fresh, more contemporary feel to the play’s major relationships without altering the overall plot or even much of Shakespeare’s original text. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bear such playful rearrangement and in a year where two other professional productions lay ahead at The Globe and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, one or both will surely provide a more traditional approach for purists. And it’s reassuring to know that such a well-known play can still yield plenty of insight with a little fairy ingenuity.

Equally impressive is Bunny Christie’s wonderful set, and as with Julius Caesar last year a variety of small block stages rise from different points in the floor to create variety and a dynamic energy within the show. But the magical elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are also explored using several iron bedsteads (focusing on the title’s final word – dream) that appear around the room on which the various relationship pairings will sleep and be drugged. As the action unfolds, these become increasingly entwined with the forest as vines and flowers wrap around the frame and, after a quick change at the interval, a maze-like structure of bunkbeds, grassy patches, mattresses and single bed frames link together through the centre of the pit to create the confusing woodland layout.

But Christie has even more tricks to entertain us and so the fairies become circus performers suspended from the ceiling on loops of cloth in which they can perform a gymnastic display above the heads of the pit crowd. At several points Titania and Puck watch and guide the action from the air, while the fairies perform a full acrobatic routine during the interval to reinforce the immersive magic of the overall production. Beds too rise into the air as sleeping lovers are placed on pause while other activities take place. These carefully choreographed and well executed sequences are delightful, while the complex transitions are really well managed by the creative and technical team who create an effortlessly busy and fairy-tale effect.

Already a very fine comic actor, Oliver Chris has a particular ear for Shakespeare’s rhythms and his Oberon is one of this production’s most successful choices. His overly enamoured fairy King is perfectly pitched mining different aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy to maximise all the hilarity of the love affair with Bottom. The earnest and exuberant enthusiasm with which Chris delivers lines that elsewhere belong to Titania contrast brilliantly with the equal solemnity of his Theseus, a grave and joyless man leading a dangerous state. Yet it is the visual comedy that so well underscores this middle section of the play without distracting from Shakespeare’s characterisation, and whether cavorting with Bottom in a variety of comic guises or revealing the shy and bold characteristics of his enchanted love, Chris delivers a well-balanced physical and intellectual performance that is a highlight of the evening.

His fairy Queen Titania, played by Gwendoline Christie, is a commanding presence enacting her mischievous plan not just for her own amusement – as a straightforwardly gendered production suggests – but to reveal the limitations of Theseus/Oberon’s view of the world. Christie is simultaneously an ethereal presence in her sweeping green gown (a stunning creation by Cunningham) and a warrior Queen. The continuity of character from the captured Hippolyta who may be the spoils of war but whose power to change the course of the action is undiminished as she becomes the revenge-taking Titania has a nice clarity in Christie’s performance, making greater sense of the play’s happier ending once her future husband has been tamed by her power rather this his army.

The Lovers are difficult, often quite tepid roles but Isis Hainsworth’s Hermia, Kit Young’s Lysander, Paul Adeyefa’s Demetrius and Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena form a more interesting quartet than often seen, driven by different lusts and moments of sexual fluidity that reveal the extent of the fairies’ meddling, while David Moorst channels a bit of Lee Evans in his servile but cheeky Puck who feels equally at home as an otherworldly presence on the circus ropes as he does down in the pit bantering with audience members failing to make way for him.

The Rude Mechanicals can be one of the hardest sections of the play to get right and the final enactment of the Pyramus and Thisbe tale a late-stage distraction that prolongs our home time. Not so in this production where the enthusiastic amateur players become a unified comic force in their matching sweatshirts (very Pitch Perfect) while retaining just enough individuality to distinguish between them. Led by Felicity Montagu’s Quince the jealousies and frustrations of this little group are revealed, but it is Animashaun’s interpretation of Bottom that invariably steals all the best lines, building a rapport with the audience that lasts right through the play-within-a-play. Bottom’s lack of self-awareness about his acting ability within the Mechanicals and his physical attractiveness as a lover is very funny, and Animashaun’s chemistry with Chris adds so much to their scenes together. Perhaps the most surprising achievement is how well the actors work together to make that final scene genuinely funny with a few extra nods to the in-the-round and immersive nature of this production that send the audience home on a high.

Hytner’s production is not quite as good as last year’s Julius Caesar, partly because it’s a better play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also, to a degree, the novelty of the immersive staging has a touch less impact the second time around. It’s also not as slick with the advertised run-time already adding 10-minutes to make it 2 hours and 50 minutes currently. Nonetheless, Hytner always directs Shakespeare so well, and his approach to the text offers considered and genuinely interesting insight as well as more than enough spectacle to reinforce the play’s magical quality. The Bridge Theatre has made these immersive productions its own, and unlike the usual proscenium arrangement that flattens all their new work, the energy and excitement of these immersive shows is fully engaging whether you are seated or standing in the pit. There are a few more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to come before the summer is out, but it’s unlikely there’ll be a better one than this.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st August with seated of standing tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Education, Education, Education – Trafalgar Studios

Education, Education, Education - The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Spice Girls are touring, slip dresses and in fashion and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is making the news, you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back 20-years. In fact, the pop culture of the 90s is having a mini renaissance where its influence can be felt across cultural boundaries, not least in The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new play Education, Education, Education that makes its way to Trafalgar Studios after a critically acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.  Specifically, they take us back to one day in 1997, the 2 May to be precise the day everything changed.

The landslide New Labour victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, at the time, felt like a turning point in modern history. 18 years of Conservative rule had been categorically swept away on a tide of optimism, the popularity of a young charismatic leader and promises of Cool Britannia. The future would be fresh, youthful and provide greater opportunities for everyone. “Education, Education, Education” Blair proclaimed would be the new Government’s priority, and after years of underfunding and decline for Britain’s schools, things could only get better.

The Wardrobe Ensemble set their 70-minute play in the full-flush of that hope, the day after the election when anything and everything was possible. This frames the drama, but it’s the daily business of the school that comes immediately under scrutiny. Six teachers and a receptionist face “muck-up day” and presentation assembly, the final day of school for Year 11 pupils about to begin study leave before sitting their GCSEs. Disastrous pranks, disciplinary problems, variable teaching methods, staff rivalries and broken promises all feature in one chaotic day that highlights the gap between ministerial rhetoric and life in the classroom.

The play uses a narrator, a German teaching assistant who arrives at Wordsworth School on that very day, speaking directly to the audience and relaying his impressions both of the Britain he has come to admire and the disordered nature of school life for staff and pupils. On one level Education, Education, Education is a light comedy, full of nostalgia for the music of the decade which plays in the Trafalgar Studios bar and auditorium, as well as peppered throughout the play. But politics lurks beneath the surface and like The History Boys and Labour of Love, this is far from a ringing endorsement of the Blair administration, and in fact builds on Bennett’s technique by looking briefly at the future consequences for particular individuals and the physical school building, insisting that despite D Ream’s promise very little actually got better after all.

For anyone who was there, what hits you first is Ben Grant’s sound design, piped through the building and blasted loudly as you take your seat. M-People, Oasis, Gina G, Celine Dion, the Verve, Suede and Take That as well a series of dance classics are among the songs that will take you right back to your 90s common room or first club night experiences. Before the play starts it quite smartly creates a false idea that somehow the world was better then, simpler and more united. With references to the Spice Girls and the UK’s last Eurovision winner Katrina and the Waves, we are primed to agree with headmaster Mr Mills, 22-years ago we were living in a much better time.

But The Wardrobe Ensemble have far more to say than that and a key debate focuses on the faux surety of British concepts of identity and the extent to which we too readily believe our own myth-making. Again and again in the post-war era we keep tripping over hollow ideas of past national glories, of an Empire, military victories and hundreds of years of history that mark out our national identity. Despite the dictates of Cool Britannia, of musicians and rock-star film directors flocking to New Labour parties by 1997, the writers argue, Britain was no longer as special as we imagine, which, as teaching assistant Tobias (James Newton) drily points out, we need to make some kind of peace with.

This idea plays out at the micro-level through the story of disruptive pupil Emily Greenside (also the name of the actor) whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic when denied a school trip to York with violent consequences. The culmination of this plot leads to one teacher insisting to the assembled group that none of the pupils are special, at least no more special than anyone else, take away the school structure, the ranking within classes and underneath everyone is the same.

At the macro-level, The Wardrobe Ensemble use English teacher Susan Belltop-Doyle’s (Jesse Meadows) lessons in which the pupils enact scenes from Arthurian legend to make points about the inculcation of those damaging national myths. In one of the oddest sections Susan hallucinates King Arthur who comes to tell her that our entire concept of identity is based on a false premise. Its silly and jarring but it skewers the polarising preoccupation with Englishness and sovereignty that led to Brexit, and continues to fuel the right-wing leave parties that feed on these emotional attachments to a largely imagined past.

All of this is subtly – and not so subtly – woven through the show, but directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton use a variety of interesting physical theatre approaches to entertain the crowd. In a highly stylised and fast-moving production, the cast are brought together at key moments to say or enact the same gesture simultaneously. Sometimes furniture is rapidly spun around the stage to form classrooms and other locations in a quick montage of scenes introducing Tobias to the subject’s taught at the school, at other times they use dance and movement to energise the quick-fire nature of the piece as we skim through a not very usual day-in-the-life of a 90s school.

There is a comic-book caper to some of the show’s scenes which whirl through in colourful forms, emphasised by Katharine Williams’ lighting design and the two movable doors of Lucy Sierra’s minimal but creative staging. And Education, Education, Education is a lot of fun, references to Tamagotchis and Titanic fly around a combustible staff room where everyone avoids the P.E. teacher’s pleas for a pub outing, secretly hates the over-enthusiastic headmaster and have ill-advised liaisons after the election victory. At times, it paints in big, broad strokes, with plot and character development considerably simplified creating several unlikely comic contrivances to drive the story in the right direction.

Yet, what we see in the staff room is the history of education played out in microcosm as two streams of thought clash as unresolvedly as they have for a hundred and fifty years. Educationalist Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth-century belief in individuality, learning through play and personalised curricula for each child is manifest in Tom England’s Mr Mills, the enthusiastic headmaster who is always a very physical presence, moving his body in waves and gesticulating wildly to indicate his softer approach and belief that the New Labour victory heralds a new dawn in school funding and individual pupil investment. He clashes with his disciplinarian deputy who equally vehemently believes that, like the Victorian schoolmasters who preceded her, that rules and punishments are the only way to create a valuable member of society.

They are supported by Tom Brennan’s Paul McIntyre whose unchecked but unapologetic personal choices inadvertently create much of the drama as he unreasonably denies Emily her trip to York and fights with Ben Vardy’s gauche P.E. teacher Mr Pashley kept on the periphery of the teaching community and amusingly asked to cover a French lesson. Meadows’s Sue is the archetype of the wafty teacher who loses control but connects with the children, while Greenslade’s version of herself is filled with teenage injustice and emotional responses she cannot control, while nonetheless showing the cycle of denial and punishment that stoke her behaviour.

However light its frame, ultimately this play has serious points to make about the short-termist approaches to education funding used cynically as a political tool to win voters. The cost, The Wardrobe Ensemble argue, are the pupils and pointedly it is them and not the teachers who appear on mass to dance enthusiastically to D Ream’s rallying call in the final moments. Pictures of the actors as they were in the 1990s flash across the back of the stage to make us think about the consequences of these policies. Those children became the actors in front of us, but in their pupil characters their future is yet to be shaped. Education, Education, Education suggests pupils should be sent into the adult world full of hope and possibility, we know now looking back that the optimism of 1997 faded as fast as the funding for schools. Without it and for as long as we refuse to face-up to who we really are as a nation, whether they know it or not, our schoolchildren don’t stand a chance.

Education, Education, Education is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Arcola Theatre

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

“The tyranny of women” is at the centre of Tennessee Williams first and most autobiographical play. Every time audiences see this work about family, memory and the cost of self-determination, new layers are revealed. Now, in a co-production with the Watford Palace, the Arcola Theatre has redefined Williams’s work for the twenty-first century by shifting the action to an African American household in the heart of St Louis. If this concept sounds familiar its because the Young Vic has successfully applied the same treatment to Arthur Miller in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman which opened to rave reviews. The Arcola’s version of The Glass Menagerie is sure to do the same.

A recent, and very classy, revival directed by John Tiffany played at the Duke of York’s a couple of years ago, but Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production uses the intimacy of the Arcola to set Williams’s seminal drama in an entirely new context without changing a word. Like Elliot and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman, transposing the characters to a different type of family, entirely redraws the context in which they live. The poverty of the Wingfields, the deluded nature of their dreams and Amanda’s almost manic desperation for her daughter to find a suitable husband are further tinged with impossibility when the first tentative moves towards racial and gender equality were still decades away.

The context of Williams very domestic play is significant and while the action barely leaves the Wingfield home except to a small terrace on the fire escape, the external world of 1930s America keeps bursting in. Within the action of the play we see a continual battle between memories, dreams and reality in which each of the characters tries to come to terms with the limitations of their current lives. In one sense they all seek the ideals of the American Dream, hoping for success, happiness and family contentment that society urges them to attain, yet the truth of life in St Louis in 1937 is far uglier – Tom works in a relatively junior position in the local warehouse, while his shy and emotionally broken sister Laura has only secretarial work or marriage before her.

The great tragedy of The Glass Menagerie is how hard and fruitlessly these characters struggle to shake off the ties of the past, their abandonment by the father and husband that matriarch Amanda still idolises and her insistence on living with the customs and manners of twenty years before. Just as past and future, dreams and reality pull against one another, so too do the masculine and feminine energies of the play; in Williams famous line it is Amanda’s emotional tyranny over her children that shapes the drama, driving Tom’s need to escape her suffocation with nights at the movies, drunkenness and a flirtation with the Merchant Navy, which acts in perfect balance with the soft, quiet delicacy of Laura’s unassuming gentleness.

What is clear from Elufowoju jr’s production is the overall fragility of the world in which these characters exist; one wrong move and jobs can be lost leaving a family destitute, but they must also tread on emotional eggshells around one another, afraid to speak their minds and give voice to their true aspirations. Amanda’s rather nervy state of mind forces her children to hide truths about their lives and while she can be fearsome, nagging or shouting them into submission, this production makes clear that these behaviours come from a place of fear, one which is amplified for an African American family trying to retain respectability in a town that would never notice if they fall.

Rebecca Brower’s set does wonders with the tiny Arcola space, using the main stage as the Wingfield sitting and dining rooms that attempts refinement, while adding fire-escape staircases to utilise the permanent balcony which doubles as the vital terrace where Tom escapes to look at the moon and listen to life-giving music that emanates from the Palace dancehall across the road. Brower neatly implies the close tenement living with washing lines and other people’s windows visible on the rear wall, while the main room is a small space in which the family also sleep on rolled-out mattresses placed on the floor. The set carefully facilitates the physically confines of the Wingfield home and the emotional combustion that erupts between its three residents.

What Elufowoju jr does so well is to develop and manage the growing intensity as the action unfolds. Williams sets this up as a memory play with Tom as the conscious narrator as well as one of the lead characters. The creation of atmosphere is strongly conveyed, as Michael Abubakar’s Tom directly addresses the audience, warmly drawing us into the narrative. Arnim Friess’s lighting design creates the feel of sultry summer nights out on the fire escape, while inside the electrically lit living area burns bright until the pivotal power-cut. There is a feel of desperation and hope of a better future that Elufowoju jr sets up and knocks down as the action unfolds, using Yvonne Gilbert’s selection of nostalgic jazz music to underline both the yearning for freedom as snatches of tunes pervade the night air but also to represent the weight of the past that shackles the characters to their less gilded fate.

Lesley Ewen’s Amanda Wingfield is a complex ball of anger and frustration with her children, while reliant on the appearance of a girlish supplication that is far from a real reflection of her personality. As she describes her heyday and the arrival of numerous “gentleman callers” Ewen flirts and wheedles, imprisoned in the happy memory of her ultimate self. She falls back on those characteristics when Jim comes for dinner in Act Two, fanning herself elaborately, giggling and trying to convey a picture of sophistication and poise where only desperation remains. But beneath the all-too cracked façade, Ewen’s Amanda is a tigress, dominating her beleaguered family and unleashing furious tirades that thunder through their tiny home.

She is a frustrating character, difficult to like, full of self-delusion about her beauty and her worth, whose personality is designed to grate. Yet, Ewen unveils the psychological state that has created the monster in front of us, and in doing so renders her a little more sympathetic. Amanda may bare her teeth – a gesture Ewen introduces to reveal both determination and a lifetime of painful disappointment – but she is fragile, abandoned by the husband she managed to catch and what small gift she once possessed (or thought she did) for controlling the world.

Abubakar’s Tom is our way into the story, a frustrated hard worker forced into the man of the house role through circumstances beyond his control. As our narrator, Abubakar’s warm and inviting tone immediately welcomes the audience but also does much to create the tone of the piece, those atmospheric interjections setting the pace and feel of 1930s St Louis as he takes control of the audience’s imagination to set the scene.

Within the story, Tom’s relationship with his family is layered and complex with Abubakar finding a credible duality in his dissatisfied love for his mother and sister, accepting his duty to provide for them while dreaming of a more fulfilling future. The furious encounters with Ewen’s Amanda are particularly well performed as permanent irritation suddenly erupts when the stifling experience of the Wingfield home becomes too much for them. Of all the characters Tom looks most to the future and his need to escape, to change his life, which Abubakar explores so subtly, takes Tom to the bars and cinemas of St Louis, and ultimately to a more callous place with only self-interest and regret.

Naima Swaleh as Laura is certainly as fragile and exposed as her beloved glass ornaments, and despite an early moment of rebellion in which Laura lies about the business course she attends, Swaleh suggests an ephemeral presence, as though the character is made almost transparent by the Amanda’s dominance and Tom’s distraction. Occasionally a little mannered – although arguably the role lends itself to such an interpretation – Swaleh is at her best in the final encounter with Jim, the intensity and pathos of which wins incredible sympathy for a girl with no prospects and only further to fall.

Jim’s arrival is a turning point in the play and finally dispels the illusions of the Wingfield family setting them all on a new path. In Charlie Maher’s performance this takes on extra layers as Jim, a white Irish-American, suddenly lends fresh perspective to Williams’s words. Amanda visible falters as he appears in the dining room and despite attempts to resurrect her plan the impossibility of a relationship with Laura in this time and place is clear.

But the contrast between Jim and the Wingfield’s experience is further elucidated in Maher’s performance. Jim – like Biff in Death of a Salesman – is a former High School hero whose subsequent life has never measured up, yet his first conversation with Tom is full of arrogance, bravado even salesmanship. When he accidentally leaves devastation in his wake, the audience knows that the white boy with every privilege and opportunity will also be fine, whereas the Wingfields who struggled for every ounce of respectability ultimately have no rights or history to support them – despite Amanda’s obsession with the past, it cannot save their future.

Elufowoju jr’s production is fascinating with the tense and vibrant second half in particular proving both gripping and illuminating. With a couple more performances before Wednesday’s official press night, there’s really little to do except plug deeper into the family connections in the first few scenes. Williams does a lot of the work for you in The Glass Menagerie creating a combustible environment and unhappy but somewhat compassionate characters about to hit the point of no return, but Elufowoju jr’s has reframed the play entirely, showing us that for the African American Wingfields clinging to what society they can the tyranny of one woman is disastrous.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Arcola Theatre until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Our Town – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Our Town - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.

Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.

It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.

Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.

Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.

The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.

Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.

Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.

Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves  and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.

As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.

We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.

Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).

We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.

The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.

With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.

Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Orpheus Descending – Menier Chocolate Factory

Orpheus Descending - Theatre Clywd

The rediscovery and restaging of the lesser known works of major playwrights has been something of a trend in London theatres recently. Duncan MacMillan and Ian Rickson’s critically acclaimed production breathed new life into Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its modernist female-lead and political storyline that found new resonances, making a reasonable case for the play’s inclusion amongst Ibsen’s finest writing. Last year Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran did the same for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but despite the many good things about Tamara Harvey’s new production of Orpheus Descending it’s never going to be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Yet even a middling Tennessee Williams play is better than most, and this one still has plenty to say about sacrifice and suffocation in small-town America. Written in 1957, this is mid-period Williams, it comes after greats such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately followed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but before Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana a revival of which opens at the Noel Coward in June. Orpheus Descending didn’t last long on its debut and the play has a number of structural problems which even Harvey’s fine production cannot entirely overcome.

With the entirety of the play set in the Torrance store, much of the action happens off-stage either in other locations or between scenes, so what the audience hears is either character memories or town gossip which can make the action feel a little static or, in places, too fast moving. What set Williams’s greatest works apart is the family setting in which long-buried tensions and frustrations are triggered and released by the catalytic action of the play, examined through long character-driven exchanges. Additional context has happened before and around the action, but Williams ensures the storm gathers and breaks in front of us.

Orpheus Descending has elements of that but with the key focus on the disconcerting arrival of a handsome stranger causing chaos in the town, Williams is only partially successful. His protagonist here Valentine Xavier, known as Val, is the agent of change despite his intention to live a cleaner life now he’s 30. His arrival is a chance for the townsfolk to exorcise a past act – the burning of the wine garden and orchard which resulted in the death of Lady’s father – and to confront the truth about its consequences many years later. Val may exacerbate this knowledge, but he has no connection to it which reduces some of the play’s tension.

Val and Lady (daughter of the deceased owner of the wine garden, derogatorily referred to as “The Wop” throughout) have most of the conversation but with less than four months acquaintance by the end of the play there are no damaging secrets or withheld frustrations between them that energise Williams’s better works. Val’s travelling loner status and wild past is interesting, but he lacks the raw jealous control of Stanley Kowalski or the stunted boyhood bitterness of Brick Pollitt that reverberates around the family unit caught helplessly in their self-destructive force. Instead, Williams has to place these legacy resentments and secrets in the hands of characters we hardly get to see, lessening their impact even in the play’s dramatic and revelatory final scene.

But Orpheus Descending is by no means a bad play, and Harvey’s production which opened at Theatre Clwyd in April, makes the best of it with a well-paced ¾ round production that focuses on Williams’s engaging character studies and the impressionistic sketch of a small town full of fears and repressed emotion. Jonathan Fensom takes a simple approach to setting, and rather than creating a general store full of stock and a shop counter instead offers a scattering of fold-up chairs and a few tables to give the look of a café or outside picnic area. Serving as the shop doorway, the rear wall is dominated by a large wooden archway with slightly singed boards – quietly referencing the fire at the Moon Lake wine garden that took Lady’s father’s life. This obscures the “Confectionary” that Lady is adding to the building, and the town beyond where so much of the drama takes place away from the audience’s view.

One of Harvey’s most intriguing inventions is to use the character of Uncle Pleasant as a kind of Chorus, echoing the Greek legend on which the story is based. An almost mute character in Williams’s original, a local “Conjure Man” who frightens some of the more highly-strung ladies but used to imply freedom from the oppressive rules of this exclusionist and racist town that resists all outsiders, Val included. Harvey has given Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant carefully selected passages from the stage directions to read at various points through the play, almost as though the character is “conjuring” the store and its people as a moral warning to the viewer. It’s an interesting and welcome technique that adds additional layers to the production, although perhaps is used too sparingly to create a sense of inevitability to the same extent as the narrated structure of Greek legends do.

The repression of wildness and its consequences is a key theme, one which Williams handles with particular skill. The notion of the store is juxtaposed as a metaphor for commercial exchange repeatedly referenced in the play, and something which Harvey’s version draws attention to, the idea of people being bought and sold in marriage and other forms of oppressive relationship. Lady is central to this and right at the start of the play townswoman Beulah (Catrin Aaron) explains to the audience that store owner Jabe “bought her, when she was a girl of eighteen! He bought her and bought her cheap.” Later in the play, during a slightly rushed and unlikely conversation with David Cutrere who left her to marry a richer woman Lady tells him “You sold yourself. I sold myself. You was bought. I was bought.”  Even Val says “I’m telling you, lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops!”

This is designed to show us the psychological state of many of the characters, limited by the confines of their location and broken down by lives they never wanted. While women like Beulah and Dolly (Laura Jane Matthewson) are happier with their lot, the three more central characters – Val, Lady and Carol Cutrere – are caged animals like many a Williams character, unable to tame their natural wildness however many years they live in confinement. Carol is perhaps the most tragic of these with Jemima Roper at first suggesting a woman much more at ease with who and what she us, unashamed and almost proud of the stares and the gossip her appearance and behaviour elicits. Carol is the only character to be friendly to Uncle Pleasant, while openly and lustfully pursuing Val throughout the play.

Yet, Roper allows us to see the vulnerability and essential fragility in Carol as the action unfolds, explaining that her over-made-up appearance is a mask of expectation, a self-proclaimed “exhibitionist” oppressed by the family name and acting out for effect. But Roper shows us that Carol’s bravado, the drink, the partying, the men on Cyprus Hill are manifestations of her broken spirit, the obsession with Val and her increasing desperation has a real tragedy in Roper’s performance that underscores Williams’s core theme about the artificial restrictions places on people not build for ordinary society.

Hattie Morahan’s Lady is in a slightly different kind of cage, one she built herself by aligning with the much older Jabe. At the start of the play her strength and determination are emphasised, there’s a no-nonsense feel to her that seems practical and different to the other women in the town, unaffected by Val’s handsome face. Lady sits on the boundary of insider and outsider status, still seen as the daughter of someone who didn’t belong but through sheer determination forced herself into the town’s structure through marriage and in maintaining the focal-point store.

Yet, as the play unfolds, Morahan allows this resignation to slowly unpeel, revealing a woman more deeply scarred by the death of her father and the former relationship that would have offered a happier life. The early conversations with Val are played as two equals, employer and employee without an underlying sexual tension which suggests Lady’s emotional centre is more tightly controlled, that she’s not looking for an escape route. Morahan instead implies that the passion between them is more spontaneous, their eventual chemistry growing out of being listened to and respected for the first time in years, which unleashes a torrent (linking to her married surname) of emotion and a trembling hope that makes the finale both poignant and powerful. It’s an approach that yields rewards in Morahan’s interesting and meaningful interpretation of a woman rediscovering her spirit.

Seth Numrich is an experienced Williams leading man, having previously starred alongside Kim Cattrall in The Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and his Val finds himself at a crucial decision point in his life. Having just turned 30, he’s trying to turn his back on his former fast-paced lifestyle and unlike Carol struggles less with the desire to find something more wholesome. Numrich presents a calm figure, detached from those around him seeking a kind of peace. His chemistry with Lady develops slowly, as friendship becomes something else. It may not be a grand burning passion, but the steadier coming together of two damaged souls.

But as the play unfolds his old life starts to call him back, releasing he cannot so easily switch-off the old desires and struggling to transition to the better, more stable man he wants to be. Numrich’s finest moment is later in the play at a crucial point of revelation, one which Val embraces with genuine delight, finally offered the chance, albeit momentarily, to be all the things he hoped for, a scene that Numrich suggests is crucial to the psychology of Val, a traveller looking for direction.

Following Harvey’s recent West End success with Home, I’m Darling, this production of Orpheus Descending similarly examines the one-size-fits-all role women have been expected to play in society and how damaging that can be. The chilly auditorium may reflect Lady’s frequent complaints about the coldness in the store after dark – the Menier perhaps making it a little too immersive – but this well-performed and considered production is a consistently interesting and valuable experience. It’s not Williams’s best work by any means but the complexity of his character portraits and its comment on “them and us” attitudes still hold considerable meaning for modern audiences.

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 July with tickets from £40. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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