Tag Archives: Almeida Theatre

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre

Three Sisters - The Almeida

Across the creative industries the right collaborations can yield huge rewards and finding the right person to work with can result in years of success. Long-standing partnerships are more common than you might realise, designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd have worked together not just on the recent Pinter season but on countless productions before that and will be tackling Evita together in Regent’s Park in August. At last week’s Olivier Awards, director Marianne Elliott and her collaborative designer Bunny Christie walked away with an armful of awards for Company following previous international success with Angels in America and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but they weren’t the only partnership clutching trophies.

Last year, Director Rebecca Frecknall and actor Patsy Ferran joined forces for the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke, a new alliance that last March produced a striking and emotive production of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known plays. A West End transfer followed in the autumn and, last week, two Olivier awards for Best Revival and Best Actress – a notable achievement for two early-career theatre-makers. Just over a year since it opened, and days after their Olivier victories, expectant eyes now turn to the Almeida once more where their new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has started previews before facing the press tomorrow.

In recent years, traditional approaches to staging classic plays have been swept away, removing cluttered sets and stuffy costumes to allow the human stories to resonate more forcefully with an audience. While period-specific adaptations still occur, some of the most successful productions in recent memory have freed themselves from the confinement of place and time to focus on the psychology and emotional experience of the characters. van Hove’s approach to Ibsen and Miller, the National Theatre’s Chekhov trilogy, and now Frecknall’s own treatment of Williams and Chekhov have eschewed heavy sets and instead drawn from the writer’s creation of atmospheric suffocation and inevitable devastation within the text.

Three Sisters like much of Chekhov’s work is a rural story of isolation, loneliness and stunted dreams in which the glittering possibility of city life and freedom of intellectual expression weigh heavy on characters unable to escape their present circumstances. Few Directors have such a meaningful grasp of a play’s emotional beat as Frecknall, and in her production the competing frustrations of one family and the surrounding townsfolk ebb and flow as years and opportunities slip away from them. In this minimally-staged approach Chekhov’s comment on the erosion of knowledge and the individual unhappiness it subsequently causes sits alongside philosophical discussions on the rights to happiness and the creation of a better future.

And you feel those emotional beats from the start as Frecknall and writer Cordelia Lynn frame the drama with the funeral of the beloved patriarch. The stage is set with rows of chairs and a single piano, both – like Summer and Smoke – have a symbolic quality that underscores the drama. This proliferation of furniture represents the emotional clutter at the start of the play, the many obstacles standing between the family and their desired migration to Moscow. At Irina’s name-day celebration that marks the first scene, most of the characters are on stage, a reasonably happy occasion full of expectation, hope and possibility with this still young family mixing contentedly with the locals and stationed military officers.

But Frecknall ensures that the undercurrents subtly make themselves known through the positioning of brother Andrey on a shelf-like platform behind the stage suggesting not only his own semi-separation from his siblings but also the extent to which his actions will soon dominate and determine the outcome of all their lives; first in the expectation that his Professorship will allow the siblings to relocate to the city, and later through his ill-starred marriage to the prickly Natasha – note too that as her influence grows in later scenes, she physically assumes his place watching-over the household.

The slow removal of chairs from the stage throughout Act One represents the characters’ move towards self-realisation during the four years of the play, as they come to accept the difference between the dreams they harbour for the future, their own self-delusions that sustain them and the crushing reality that shatters these illusions. And while Summer and Smoke used a collection of pianos to add musical emphasis at key moments, here there is only one which remains unused throughout, embodying Irina and Masha’s comments on their livs being like an unplayed piano, a crucial insight into Masha in particular and the outpouring of emotion her affair with Vershinin unleashes. The closed and soundless piano comes to represent the shutting down of the female bodies in the play where marriage is a much a barrier to Masha’s happiness as purposeless maidenhood is for Olga and Irina.

Three Sisters is a story with many different currents and Frecknall emphasises the youth of her characters in the early part of the play as the Sergeyevich family – all under 30 – mix with the equally youthful townsfolk and soldiers. Older characters are present, but you feel the youthful surge of hope and of a different kind of future before real responsibility and burden make their mark. One of this production’s most interesting attributes is watching that shift as the story’s various entanglements play out; first we see Vershinin’s growing despair at the drastic behaviour of his mentally unwell wife and the pressure on his two young daughters (none of whom we see), and the audience must take their cues from Vershinin’s  world-weariness despite being only a little more than a decade older than the family. Likewise, the frustrations inherent in both Masha and Andrey’s marriages show how quickly the optimism of romance sours into regret, bitterness and, in both cases, reckless attempts to escape their confinement.

As events play out, the oldest characters come more sharply into focus, so that when the now somewhat eroded Irina turns to the Doctor for comfort four years and four Acts after her celebratory name-day, he too is unable to provide any solace that life becomes more explicable or navigable as he sinks once more into alcoholism and depression. Even the small role of Anfisa the servant, a much-discussed figure, becomes too old to be of use to the hard-hearted Natasha, a bone of contention with the kinder Olga. Frecknall’s meaningful inter-generational drama shows age as a series of disappointments and eventual disposal – perhaps the philosophising Vershinin is right and the only meaning in life is to live in the hope that someone else’s future will be better.

Surprisingly, eldest sister Olga (always dressed in blue) is the least substantial of the roles, appearing in far fewer scenes than her sisters. Ferran is excellent as the reluctant schoolmistress cast aside at 28 with no question of marriage, only a career she doesn’t want. It’s a subtle performance from Ferran who, with less stage time, infers much about Olga’s role as pseudo-matriarch, trying to protect her sisters and silently keeping the household together, while clearly struggling with the expected self-sacrifice, duty and the reliance of others.

While Ferran is the show’s biggest draw, it is Pearl Chanda whose performance as the asphyxiated Masha that you will remember, along with Peter McDonald’s sensitive and affecting Vershinin. Their relationship is one of the production’s most exciting and beautifully rendered storylines, charting a slow falling in love that overwhelms them both, realising only too late how devotedly attached they have become. It begins gently, a look, a preference for each other’s conversation and a tendency to gravitate towards one another without consciously realising it. As time leaps forward with each Act so too does the depth of their passion and reliance on one another to keep afloat in spite of their terrible marriages, an intimacy that Frecknall skilfully extracts from her actors.

With a notable role in Ink as the first Page Three girl, Chanda’s Masha is detached, cynical and coldly withdrawn from the husband she now considers a fool. Permanently in black, she is a dark presence at most family gatherings, suggesting a jaded depression far beyond her 24-years. Yet, the affair with Vershinin creates a kind of hope, transforming her into a warm and vital woman whenever he is in the room. The connection between them is electrifyingly portrayed by McDonald and Chanda, far more than lust, there is a true meeting of souls that lights them both so even in the background their intimacy and happiness in each other’s company is manifold, full of shy smiles and a need to seek each other’s eyes.

McDonald is equally empathetic, delivering his philosophical speeches and declarations of love with credulity and passion. There is an inner torment that McDonald elicits well, driven by the pain of his wife’s problems and the strain of caring for his family. The freedom Vershinin experiences with Masha is genuinely lovely, despite its adulterous nature, and its essential tragedy makes their stolen moments so moving. When the inevitable occurs in Act Four, its all the more affecting for being the most demonstrative either has been in public, and while McDonald’s Vershinin tries to retain a manly dignity, the crumbling of Chanda’s Masha is genuinely powerful.

A similar experience of snatched dreams affects the rest of the family; the development of youngest sister Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz – always in white) is engagingly handled as we see her grow from a childish 20-year old into a sadly resigned woman of 24, trying to balance the pressure to marry with a desire for independent work as the family dreams of Moscow come apart. Her collection of potential lovers are, however, thinly sketched and hard to keep track of in a busy show which does draw some power from what should be a dramatic finale.

Freddie Meredith finds all of Andrey’s weaknesses as the head of a household who actively separates himself from it. His self-inflicted decline has much to say about the hollow nature of power in rural masculinity, while Lois Chimimba captures all of Natasha’s foibles as a local girl determined to punish and dominate a family who despise her lack of intellect. Laura Hunt’s decision to dress her in pink and green throughout after Olga criticises the combination is an inspired choice that reveals so much about Natasha’s destructive resentment.

A production has to do a lot to earn a three-hour run time and this new version of Three Sisters very nearly does. The first couple of Acts fly by, full of gripping narrative and, surprisingly for Chekhov, plenty of comedy largely provided by Masha’s silly but ardent husband Fyodor (Elliot Levey). Aspect of the last Act aren’t yet fulfilling their dramatic potential, partly because Irina’s various suitors never properly come into focus and their encounter is a large driver for the finale, but also the various comings and goings from the stage mean that, other than the Masha-Vershinin parting, the conclusion doesn’t feel as cataclysmic for everyone else as perhaps it could.

Following up on the heart-stoppingly beautiful Summer and Smoke was never going to be easy, partly that’s because the latter was just one of those extraordinary theatre moments where everything comes alive, but there are also differences between the writing styles of Chekhov and Williams  – they certainly have themes in common but express them and the emotional vulnerability of their characters quite differently. If perhaps Three Sisters isn’t quite as ravishing as Frecknall and Ferran’s first collaboration then that’s hardly a criticism, it is still a vibrant and meaningful interpretation of Chekhov that reaps rewards. Keep on an eye on this new theatre partnership, it could be around for many years to come.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida until 25 May with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Advertisements

Dance Nation – Almeida Theatre

Dance Nation - Almeida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Machinal – Almeida Theatre

Machinal - Almeida Theatre

Violent crimes committed by women always seem more shocking, as though the idea of overcoming their supposedly nurturing and gentle natures somehow amplifies the evil of their bloodthirsty acts. Some of the most famous cases stay with us – Lizzie Borden who killed both her parents, Alma Rattenbury who murdered her husband and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Time and again these stories are examined in cultural spaces, including endlessly revived plays like Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, society is fascinated by women who don’t conform, unwilling to accept that some are equally capable of the most savage acts.

Based on a similar case, in 1928 journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell captured the soul-crushing restrictions placed on women in her impressive expressionist play Machinal. Far more than just a shocking murder story, it is an anatomy of a woman driven to despair by the stifling pressure to marry and have children merely because it was expected of her – a theme that will resonate powerfully with those who 90 years on are still encouraged to do the same. The central character’s continual cry to be let alone rings true today, society hasn’t changed so very much after all.

Taking place over nine scenes Machinal follows “Young Woman”, who through marriage, children and notoriety earns the name Helen Jones, and is working as a stenographer in a busy typing pool. Frequently late for work because of her subway claustrophobia, her colleagues speculate that the boss Jones wants to marry her. Equally confined by the tiny tenement apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, the play cuts to the wedding night and later to the birth of their first child where she becomes increasingly disgusted with her life, and desperate to escape. Then, a liberating encounter with “First Man”, leads Helen to take a drastic step to secure her freedom.

Revived at the Almeida Theatre, Natalie Abrahami’s production has a post-film noir aesthetic that adds a seedy darkness to Treadwell’s story. Miriam Buether has created a proscenium arch set with a tilted mirrored ceiling, a black box that confines Helen to a series of shadowy rooms in Jack Knowles’s low light. The action is then directly relocated to a series of passing decades, with each scene taking place in a slightly different era to its predecessor. Some critics found this either distracting or unnecessary, creating a rootlessness that upends the production, but there is much to admire not only in the way Buether recreates the essence of each period, but also in the expectations of women.

Had director Abrahami left the story in the 1920s, or picked any time until the present day, its purpose would have remained as relevant and clear – the joy of such a well-constructed play – and in that sense this transience is superfluous. Yet Buether’s design underscores, without distracting from, its political point that women’s essential freedom to design their own lives is no more a reality now that it was in the 1920s.

And it’s gorgeous to look at; darkness envelops every peripheral point of the stage, creeping around our beleaguered heroine as if about to drag her into the its folds at any moment. The focus of each scene, while dimly lit, are boldly picked-out often in burning lurid colour in the centre, purposefully constructed to emphasise the continuing isolation of the protagonist as her world shrinks from office to family. From a 1920s/30s typing pool full of rhythmic staccato clacks, to the hot pink blanket covering the honeymoon bed, to the citrus sofa of the marital home, the deliberate use of vivid colour contrasts so brutally with Helen’s emotional experience – she couldn’t feel less vibrant, refreshed or passionate as she slowly suffocates.

The visual effect appears to owe much to high fashion photographer Miles Aldridge, and its not hard to see his influence in the creation of striking stage images. Often in his work he places doll-like models in domestic environments – kitchens, supermarkets, gardens – playing on the Stepford Wives association of these empty-minded, plastic creations. Most relevant to Buether’s choices in Machinal, is the way he clashes and contrasts tones of highly saturated colour to add a sense of heightened reality, a falsity that suits the pressure on Helen to conform to societal expectations of marriage and parenting. Cunningly, Buether rolls-back these ideas in the three scenes where Helen feels most free, the gorgeous softly lit 1970s bar, the warm bedroom of her lover and the grey formality of the courtroom.

One of the joys of Machinal, is the sparsity of information offered in the text. Treadwell shies away from excessive exposition to show us only the crucial or formative moments that set Helen on the road to destruction. Plot is not quite the point of this clever play, but the emotional build of the character as she is ground beyond endurance, unwilling to submit to further automation. There is so much we don’t (or need to) see as the action skips from office to hotel to delivery room. Even the crime itself only becomes clear long after the fact as the prosecution delivers its attack, pushing Helen for the final time – a scene that lacks the sharply-honed dialogue and stylistic flair of the earlier action – as 90 carefully-controlled minutes arrive at their still shocking conclusion. This is referenced throughout by Knowles’s blinding flash of light that takes the audience between scenes, a jolt of electricity transporting us through time and a symbol of the greater force to come.

It’s not just the visual effects that are striking as Helen’s mental solitude is also under permanent aural attack. Designed by Ben and Max Ringham, the soundscape here is extraordinary, blasting in at the beginning and end of every scene, and almost muted to a low rumble of sound as the action plays out, appropriately reflecting the machine-gun-like delivery of Treadwell’s pointedly-constructed dialogue. There are typewriters nosily in tune with one another, drills beyond the maternity ward, music from the bar floats into the wedding night, all implying an exciting world beyond which Helen is prevented from enjoying, entombed as she is in a series of dark rooms.

As Helen, Emily Berrington has exactly the right tone of exhausted defiance, a woman standing slightly back from her own life as though observing from a distance, unable to stop the machinations of duty and expectation from pulling her under. None of the performances are designed specifically to earn audience sympathy, but instead act as representations of social archetypes, and Berrington, with considerable skill, consciously muffles the performance to convey an idea of Helen being constantly underwater, abstracted from her own actions as though impelled by some external force.

As Helen ticks the boxes of marriage and family, we see her develop from the fatigued young secretary, physically buffeted by those by around her, to a no less frustrated but more confident woman who takes a drastic step to release herself. The credibility of Berrington’s performance carries the audience through all of these stages, building up a picture of someone who has shouldered all they can bear, while clearly relishing the one taste of freedom she’s ever offered that becomes the tipping point.

Everyone else in Treadwell’s stylised piece becomes a vivid sketch, moments of unbearable noise -like the sound intrusions around Helen – that she cannot block out. Her former boss and husband Jones, played by Jonathan Livingstone, is a decent enough man with a good job and seemingly devoted to his wife and family, but Livingstone ensures we see him from Helen’s point of view. He too has a societal role to fulfil as provider and employer, so his demands for her affection seem to him something he is due by right, an access to her attention and her body bestowed on him by marriage. It’s subtle work from Livingstone who only hints at these ideas while using his appearances to suggest a man satisfied with his consumption-based life.

In a limited speaking role, Denise Black has a wonderful scene as Helen’s mother early in the show who in equal measures pushes and chastises her daughter for deciding to marry. Her mother is another noise in Helen’s life, dragging her down with responsibilities of care while Black captures her own struggle as a working-class woman raising a daughter alone. Abrahami uses her large supporting cast to create the crush of the city in the opening scene on the subway, the busy office and later the courtroom which in Buether’s box-like proscenium arch makes even the small Almeida stage feel claustrophobic. The extended cast also bring energy to Arthur Pita’s choreography used to underscore the punchy rhythm of Treadwell’s text.

Machinal is the type of production that only the Almeida seems able to produce, with an inventive vision that simultaneously draws you into the story while still keeping you at arms length. As observers, Treadwell is asking us to see Helen’s pain but remain numb to it, and instead to reflect on the mounting pressures that pushed her to an extreme act of violence. The sensationalism of female crime hasn’t much changed since the 1920s, but nor have the voices telling us our primary purpose is to marry and reproduce. Treadwell certainly feels ahead of her time, and the Almeida has produced a first-rate version of her finest work.

Machinal is at The Almeida Theatre until 21 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Writer – Almeida Theatre

The Writer - Almeida Theatre

It feels as though we’re living through a golden age for new writing, unsurprising given the heightened political circumstances of the last two years, but this has coincided with a period in which mainstream theatres have been prepared to take greater risk, making space amidst the musicals and classic revivals for a blossoming of new work. The Ferryman may have had all the best new play categories sewn-up in the recent award season, but its fellow nominees – Ink, Oslo and Network –  in any other year would have been equally deserving. And there were plenty of impressive new shows that were overlooked including Anatomy of a Suicide and The Grinning Man.

2018 is proving to be equally rich, and along with The Inheritance which premiered at the Young Vic last month (Part 1 and Part 2 reviews), three new plays have opened in as many weeks in London’s major theatres – Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre, Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court, and now Ella Hickson’s The Writer at the Almeida, her much anticipated follow-up to Oil. While all of this writing has been innovative, exciting and engaging, it also set a high bar exposing the weaknesses in less satisfying work.

The creative process is a complex and fascinating thing, but Hickson argues there is a personal cost for those who put something meaningful into the world and, if the artist happens to be a woman, there are also significant obstacles to overcome in a system that favours and empowers men. The Writer reflects our current interest in sexual misconduct and gender inequality to tell the story of a young writer whose early encounter with a sleazy male director and later a passive-aggressive boyfriend affect her work and emotional development. While she actively rejects many of the social expectations placed on women and embarks on what seems a more contented path, she cannot quite escape the expectations of others and her own self-sabotage as reality fails to match the world of fiction she wants to create.

Hickson uses an abstract approach that constantly keeps the audience guessing about the nature of truth and fictionalised versions of it. The Writer opens with a post-show confrontation between an audience member who claims to have left a bag in the auditorium (Lara Rossi) and a member of the crew (Samuel West) who asks her opinion of this hit show and receives a lengthy and impassioned diatribe about theatre reflecting the sullied gaze of the male director who sexualises his female, but not male, actors, patriarchal blocks to the progression of women, the overly middle-class subject matter and attendance at theatres, as well as the desperation of men who marry much younger women. At one point, the nameless audience member astutely remarks that whenever a woman walks on stage we instantly assess her attractiveness and clothes, but when a man walks on we wonder what he’s going to say.

It’s a great scene, uncomfortably long for some as we learn why the conversation becomes increasingly embittered, but Hickson prevents it from being too one-sided, subtly shifting sympathies between the two sides before delivering a knock-out blow. It’s a discussion many women in theatre have longed to have and to see it played out onstage feels significant. With the house lights staying up for the first two scenes on a virtually bare stage, there is no artifice, and the company are eager for us to know that the audience is equally complicit in the prolongation of this aspect of the industry.

And Hickson maintains this energy through the next two scenes. As we discover that what we have just witnessed is part of a play written by another writer about her own experience (played by Romola Garai) the scene dissolves into a Q&A in which the ‘real’ overbearing Director gives her pretentious and patronising notes. This is followed by a deliberately artificial scene in which the audience watches the stage crew construct the set, before the Writer goes home to pressure from her boyfriend to commercialise her work, get married and have children because these are the ‘expected’ measures of a successful life.

Blanche McIntyre takes an alternative approach to staging each new section which comments on the variety of ways in which real life is filtered into different kinds of theatre, making it harder to tell which parts of the play represent reality or its reconstruction, all of which are interesting viewing. The purposeful artifice of the boyfriend scene is particularly effective, not just in drawing attention to the pressure of social expectation and how one couple could have such opposing approaches to the same circumstances, but also emphasising the idea of constant female (and to some extent male) performance in society, expected to dress, look, sound and even think a certain way, and the exhaustion that engenders.

So, by the play’s midpoint, you’re convinced that The Writer is an innovatively envisioned and mind-expanding piece of work that uses the very idea of theatre to explore the pain of female creativity within our socially constructed value system. But then it starts to unravel, with a confused second half that removes the male characters almost completely to focus on the Writer’s journey of self-discovery. It takes her into a more satisfying emotional and sexual connection with another woman but lacks a coherent link with the power of what’s come before.

The tone switches completely and a new form of theatrical presentation is used for the fourth scene as the Writer calls on the style of Greek mythology to offer a third person narrative of her experience of retreat from reality. She finds both love and a sense of calm, told using a bit of physical theatre, complete blackout and swirling video design designed by Zakk Hein. Despite openly acknowledging the scene’s flaws in one of the many meta-theatre references, as the ground shifts from under the audience’s feet, you can actively feel a lot of the room disengaging with the production and no one’s quite sure what this is about any more, Arguably, distancing you from what has come before is exactly the point, Hickson actively wants to push you out and shake your complacency, but its less clear what she wants you to take from this part of the production.

The final section almost exactly mirrors the earlier boyfriend scene, using a similar approach to uncover the Writer’s own relationship with a partner but in new circumstances. Its still artificial but in a much classier and more expensive-looking set which, again, we watch the crew construct before us. However, this time, the purpose is slightly more opaque, and while there’s a connection to the idea of cost referenced earlier, and the difficulty of being with someone who cannot understand the creative process, this scene is rather ponderous. A couple of sex scenes, some silent eating – which admittedly hardly anyone does on stage – and lots of pauses don’t quite do enough to join-up the various bits of the show. It sends the audience away slightly frustrated because The Writer has front-loaded the most powerful sections and left a somewhat diluted ending that will take away from the important point the play is making about women in theatre, as well as, unfortunately, giving others a reason to dismiss it.

The inherent strangeness of the show is one of its strengths, and, as we saw with The Treatment, heightened reality is something that the Almeida is quite adept at presenting. McIntyre directs creatively, not allowing the multiple-staging techniques and Anna Fleischel’s exciting flat-pack set to distract from the central purpose. McIntrye also balances the transition between the layered scenes, offering a clarity to the Russian doll-like distillation of argument as Hickson uses her the fictional Writer played by Garai as her mouthpiece, while she in turn uses her own creation played by Rossi to open the debate.

As the protagonist, Garai presents a woman – if indeed each scene is the same woman – who has endured all the hurts and frustrations the industry can inflict, and while we see a slightly timid person learning to defend herself against these external assaults, its always clear how profoundly the initial encounter with the Director has shaped her. As we know from her other work, the subject matter is something Garai is passionate about and she uses that anger to great effect to rail against other people’s expectations and their failure to recognise her own essential difference. The purpose of the final section is an enigma, but Garai here makes her character less sympathetic, as though the she’s now enjoying a selfish freedom that makes her unable to connect to others.

It’s always a pleasure to watch a Samuel West performance and here he takes on the duel role of the fictional Director in the first scene and the real Writer’s boyfriend. As the former, he has an easy charm, displaying a comfort in his own skin that reflect a certain type of powerful man. During the sparky confrontation that opens the play, his quips and sense of detached amusement almost win you over, and you see why these figures have remained unchallenged for so long. As the boyfriend, he is equally engaging but offers a gentler portrait of a good man, accepting of life’s unglamourous reality and unable to really understand his partner’s creative scruples.

Rossi’s fictional Writer opens the play with a strong performance delivering a credible and heated speech that will resonate, possibly unnervingly, with many in the room. But there is a vulnerability too as Rossi slowly introduces her character’s backstory that gives nuance to what could be an unrelenting force. As the real Director, Michael Gould is initially condescending and dismissive, but in a later scene reveals his own inability to explain his own emotions, to praise someone he admires hinting at the persona he too must project to maintain his status.

The Writer is a show about women, made by women celebrating the creative strength of women which is still all to rare on any stage. But for all its use of technique and intelligent staging, only half the production really delivers its intellectual and political purpose with significant vigour, while the remainder doesn’t quite feel as impactful. This is, and should be, a show that will divide audiences, making tomorrow’s press night a particularly interesting occasion, but while The Writer is pointed social commentary, it also has dramatic flaws that start to put out its own fire.

The Writer is at The Almeida until 26 May and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


Summer and Smoke – Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

This time last year, the Almeida was in the middle of a purple patch, one that would produce a successive run of West End transfers with Mary Stuart, Hamlet and Ink all quickly secured hugely successful extensions. Now, their new production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams once again reminds larger theatres of the power of this small Islington venue; it’s ability not just to attract emerging talent among a pool of actors, writers and directors, but also to reimagine classic plays as fresh and invigorating stories for modern audiences.

Unlike last year’s Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, which proved to be a “cold seduction” where nudity became a rather insubstantial substitute for chemistry, the Almeida’s interpretation of Summer and Smoke creates an astonishing balance of emotional fragility and electrifying sensual charge. Williams’s work is largely associated with these ideas of repressed or frustrated sexuality that struggles to break free during the course of the play, but he also writes sensitively about the tender pain of impossible love and the often stark self-realisations that follow.

Summer and Smoke is the rather wistful story of young lovers separated by their physical and spiritual concept of relationships. Neighbours since childhood, the anxious Alma becomes drawn to newly qualified doctor John, and in doing so goes against the rules of life, conduct and decency that she aims to live by. Demanding a connection of souls, the young medic’s concentration on the body repels and attracts her in equal measure, never able to fully commit herself. But, as his louche lifestyle takes him into the arms of another woman, the pair find their views begin to change and a decisive moment offers one last chance to breach the divide.

One of the key things you notice in this mesmerising production, skilfully directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is how like D.H. Lawrence it is, and how Williams uses Lawrencian themes to quietly devastating effect on both his characters and his audience. One of the key characteristics of Lawrence’s major novels is the tacit push and pull between two potential lovers, as their ability to form a loving relationship rests not in the external activities and plot devices that surround them, but in the silent and inexplicable moments of ease and discord that spring up wordlessly between them.

In Sons and Lovers, Miriam finds herself at odds with protagonist Paul where a feeling of distance and disagreement seems to exist when they are alone even though they appear destined, or at least they expect, to be together. And it is this inability to reconcile the peace between their souls that sets them on an entirely different course than the one they imagined. This is exactly the tone that Frecknall creates in Summer and Smoke, of two lonely souls craving each other but unable to find a rhythm despite the fervent desire of their bodies and minds.

And loneliness tears through Frecknall’s charged interpretation, manifesting itself in many different ways, as two quite opposite personalities seek solace outside the self. Like Lawrence, Williams is writing about young people at a precipice, where the next choice will define the rest of their life and making the wrong one (or having it made for them) will forever extinguish some kind of flame within them. Desperation reeks through the Almeida’s show, as the moving story of Alma and John becomes a fight for life in which they must find a perfect union or are lost forever not only to each other, but also to themselves.

Cannily staged by Tom Scutt with a circle of pianos played by a small supporting cast in multiple roles, Mark Dickman uses music to infuse the production, perfectly underscoring whole scenes and individual moments with an emotionally-driven score and, even more crucially, wells of silence that engulf the principals’ and audience hearts. Lee Curran’s lighting supports the creation of mood and location which, in a minimal setting, brings out the sunlit heat of the Mississippi town by day and the sultry shadows of night, perfectly reflecting the physical and emotional state of the leads. Scutt and Curran underscore, Williams’s fragmented story as Alma and John’s experience drifts like smoke into view before floating away, fragile and light.

But Frecknall weaves this into a hugely impactful experience, building the tension between the characters in Act One, loading their interactions with greater passion and investment, before allowing Act Two to dissolve around them, emphasising the growing distance and impossibility of their relationship. Deftly directed, Frecknall allows Williams’s story to fill your heart only to break it.

Still early in her career, Patsy Ferran has gathered quite the portfolio of impressive performances in what is still a relatively short CV. With notable roles in Speech and Debate as well as My Mum’s a Tw*t in the last year alone, Ferran is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors on the London stage. She has a particular gift for presenting the perspective of the outsider, showing the human fears and pain that sit beneath the surface, so she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but nervy singing teacher Alma whose struggles eventually consume body and soul.

Told predominantly from the perspective of restrained Minister’s daughter Alma, Ferran’s performance is full of beautifully judged small gestures which build to form a picture of a young woman emerging from emotional seclusion into a world of feeling. The tragedy lies in the timing. Having chastely loved the boy next door for years, Ferran shows how physical sensation starts to blossom in Alma as she shares a succession of increasingly intimate moments with John. You feel the rippling effect as he lightly takes her pulse for the first time, the virtually scandalous intrusion of a stethoscope to listen to her heart and Ferran makes each act a tug of war between shame and desire, fearing the unexpected flutter of yearning John’s proximity creates while desperately craving it.

As the story unfolds, Alma blooms and her initial awkwardness around him where she’s all heavy limbs and nervous laughter, evolves into a visible determination to be near him, to overcome her reticence and lean into him. In lesser hands, Alma could be frustrating, gawkish and even irritating but it’s so gently done that Ferran holds you in thrall with a performance that subtly merges hope with an inevitable sadness.

John is no less interesting, and while his story is not the central focus of Williams’s play, Matthew Needham builds an equally tragic story of jaded disappointment. John, like Alma, is trapped in a predetermined role, forced into becoming a doctor by his difficult father Dr Buchanan. So, John rebels and Needham brings a sad desperation to his attempts to find solace in the seedy local entertainments. He may womanise, drink and gamble but it’s clear that none of it makes him happy, so every aspect of his life, even the defiant acts against respectability, seem to chip away at his sense of self, drawing him unstoppably towards an unremarkable future.

His physicality is palpable throughout the story and Needham shows John visibly waking-up when he’s with Alma, responding to her presence and feeling drawn to some essential purity in her. As that becomes increasingly complex, Needham charts John’s retreat extremely effectively, so as the tables turn between them and he gives up the fight, watching him succumb to the life he never wanted is very moving. Ferran and Needham have an incredible chemistry, these are two characters that don’t just love but actually infect each other with devastating effect on who they become.

The surrounding cast create a whole town’s worth of people and with some clever doubling of roles get to play opposing interpretations of similar characters. Forbes Masson is both Alma and John’s fathers, the kindly Reverend Winemiller who fears for his daughter’s moral safety and the dastardly Dr Buchanan whose strict rules and uncompromising character drive his son to rebellion. Anjana Vasan plays both the sexy Mexican girl Rosa who John becomes involved with at the same time as Alma, while also performing as the innocent Nellie who makes a play for him in the Second Act – having both roles played by the same actor indicating something about John’s view on the generic face of women who are not Alma.

Much of the play’s humour is centred in the more liberated character of Mrs Winemiller, Alma’s mother who had a breakdown before the start of the story. Nancy Crane brings a sense of uncaring freedom to the role, defying social convention to make jokes at her daughter’s expense, behave childishly and not care. It’s a fascinating contrast not just with the buttoned-up Alma, but also with the more conventionally rebellious John, who doesn’t find a tenth of the happiness that the genuinely free Mrs Winemiller obtains.

Summer and Smoke is a glorious adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known works, and like Peter Gill’s The York Realist entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse, the business of the play is handled with such subtly that it allows the deep emotional connection at the heart of the story to flourish. With a magnetic central pairing, Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke is unmissably beautiful, and the Almeida at its finest.

Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: