Tag Archives: Anna Fleischel

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    

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Don Juan in Soho – Wyndhams Theatre

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho by Helen Maybanks

‘Satan in a Savile Row Suit’, Patrick Marber’s leading man is devious, debauched and morally bankrupt, without a single care for anything except the pursuit of his own pleasure and without a single scruple of conscience for all the people he hurts along the ways. He is all these things, a man we are warned right at the top of the show not to love, a man with no soul and seemingly no heart to save even himself. But he’s also irresistible, living, by his own admission, as a man in his purest natural state, away from the façade of modern life, driven entirely by instinct and want and desire. He is Don Juan.

We are fascinated by villains, by people who live to extremes in a way none of us would dare. We baulk at the outrageousness of their lifestyle while inwardly admiring the sheer bravado of their choices. And deep down it’s all about our relationship with morality, where it comes from – either socially constructed or religiously imposed – and how it changes as society evolves, which explains the continual revivals of plays about Don Juan and his counterpart Faustus, and it is no coincidence in our more than troubled modern times that both have been seen in London’s playhouses numerous times in the past couple of years.

Marber wrote Don Juan in Soho a decade ago and has updated it slightly for this wonderful new production which has its press night at the Wyndhams Theatre tomorrow. Before we meet the man himself the audience is offered a none-to-flattering character sketch by his Butler/ Chauffeur, Stan, who waits in the lobby while “DJ” is in the penthouse with a Croatian model. Cheating on his wife of only two weeks, this is a man whose appetites are rapacious, having worked his way through three women a day for twenty years, what follows are a series of comic scenarios as Don Juan pursues his need for wine and women. But high on drugs in Soho one night he thinks a statue has come to life warning him he has one more day to live. Will he repent at last?

This new production, which Marber also directs, is a riot, full of life and full of fight. This Don Juan is not a man who apologises or kowtows to social influence but fights every second for his right to do whatever he pleases, and between scenes Marber fills the stage with swirling projections, light, music and colour, with images of Soho flashing onto the screens. For Don Juan this is his life, a constant sensory experience, the only thing he craves to keep him alive.

Yet Anna Fleischel’s multi-purpose set brings out a battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, tapping into a single melancholy moment as Don Juan half regrets that Soho is not the decadent place it once was. The worn marbled effect of the tomb-like rooms reflects Don Juan’s moral decay and the ultimate journey to the grave that awaits us all. Even in the park scene he is surrounded by mildewed benches and cold grey statues. His experiences may be explosively colourful but when they stop, all that’s left is a dark emptiness – a truth about himself Don Juan never wants to face but also accepts.

Tennant’s glorious performance leaves us in no doubt that Don Juan is not a man to feel any sympathy for, someone who will do anything to anyone so long as he has a good time – no regrets, no guilt and absolutely no shame. This is an interesting role for Tennant because one of his hallmarks as an actor is finding the humanity and sensitivity in his characters, creating a layered understanding of why they behave as they do. But Don Juan is without those kinds of depths, he is a lothario living entirely on the surface and has no moral compass of any kind, which is a different kind of challenge for actor who usually conveys depth so well. Instead he revels in the gluttony of Don Juan’s sexual escapades with some beautifully timed comic moments, particularly in a notorious but shockingly hilarious scene in a hospital waiting room which has to be seen to believed.

And there’s lots to admire in the pure certainty of Tennant’s leading man; he doesn’t swagger artfully so much as stumble from each lust-fuelled incident to the next, often looking wrecked from his activities but unable to stop himself or others from pursing the next opportunity however immoral or inappropriate. And Tennant lures you in before pulling the rug from under you – as Stan warns us he would – with some deeply dubious games like attempting to bribe a devout man to sully the name of his God. There is some nuance of course and Don Juan clearly fears his foretold death but not enough to go against his own nature and change his lifestyle – however unpleasant, he is always entirely conscious of what he is and unyieldingly true to it.

But best of all is the complete blankness with which he receives the opinions of others, particularly his wife and father, who tell him in detail how badly he has behaved and the pain he has caused. Lesser actors would have to prove they were reacting with a head shake or eye roll, but Tennant receives each lambast without expression and perfectly still, as if every word were flowing right over him without making the slightest ripple. It’s very skilled work to convey so much without a flicker, but none of it touches him and it speaks volumes about his lack of morality.

Marber has added some great up-to-date references to Trump which get several knowing laughs, while Tennant has a couple of fabulous comic monologues to rant about the state of the world and people’s need to be seen and heard at all times doing the most mundane things. These are few, and perhaps are not entirely plot centred, but they are an excoriating indictment of modern life and when Tennant is in full flight you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil as Don Juan’s long-standingly exasperated companion and documenter of his many amours. Stan is our way into the production and in some sense its moral heart as he tries to extricate himself from Don Juan’s employ. Overwhelmed by his Master’s deceits. Scarborough shows us that the marriage, contracted merely for seductive purposes and then cast aside, feels like a final straw but that Stan is more than a cipher for Don Juan’s story, having his own frustrated desires and demands, unable to retrieve the £27,000 in owed wages or start a family. Stan talks directly to the audience on a couple of occasions warning us not to be drawn in, but at the same time Stan is us, repelled and annoyed but endlessly fascinated by Don Juan’s seductive charms.

The surrounding cast taking on a number of roles is more mixed and at times quite stagey. There are plenty of women who pass through Don Juan’s life during the play, none of whom really make their mark, which seems to be a deliberate choice, reflecting his own lack of engagement with them. Danielle Vitalis as DJ’s wife Elvira has the difficult task of playing earnest and innocent in a world of louche so can seem a little stilted, but Gawn Grainger has a small, enjoyable role as Don Juan’s buffoon parent disgusted by his son but as easily fooled by his entreaties as everyone else in a very fine comic scene.

Marber’s production feels like the cousin of Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus from 2016 with Kit Harrington that tackled similar themes about morality, death and the individual in modern times, but with a deliberately distinctive visual style that was hugely divisive. It’s probably reasonable to say if that wasn’t your cup of tea, then this might not be either and it’s likely to split the critics. As a health warning there’s lots of swearing, drug-taking, sex, violence and fantasy elements including a surprising rickshaw moment that anyone who’s seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on stage might appreciate. It was clear from the interval chat that some people found the content difficult but if this sounds like a perfect recipe for a night at the theatre then this is the show for you.

Don Juan in Soho is crude, lewd, shocking, morally skewed, vicious and frankly lots of fun. At times genuinely hilarious, innovative and exuberant, it’s a show that zips along with its protagonists need to keep moving, but there is a shadow of nostalgia, of a happier past that cannot be reclaimed that keeps this from being all farce and fluff. Tennant’s Don Juan may be repugnant and unsalvageable, and despite all the warnings you don’t want to love him… you just do.

Don Juan in Soho is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June and tickets start at £10 for standing seats. An age recommendation of 16+ has been added to the show and most seats at the Wyndham’s offer a good view. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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