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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.

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Nigel Slater’s Toast – The Other Palace

Nigel Slater's Toast - The Other Palace

The memories we have of our childhoods are often light and incomplete, we hold-on to emotional responses, particularly good or bad moments like the endless and warm days of summer, holidays by the seaside, snowy Christmases that probably never happened, and perhaps the odd school-based humiliation. But, with our (then) limited knowledge of the adult world, the truth of those years is somewhat more elusive, the struggles of our parents, the political and cultural experience of the times and any sense of danger or national change happening around us. Instead, childhood, for most of us, always seems like a golden age until suddenly it’s not.

There comes a point in every childhood where everything changes, for most people its during their teenage years but often for terrible reasons some experience a lurch into the adult world far sooner than they expected. Chef Nigel Slater knew that better than most when his beloved mother died on Christmas morning when he was just 10-years old. His 2003 bestselling memoir Toast recounts the circumstances before and after that crucial moment as young Nigel inherits a passion for cooking in a seemingly perfect 50s kitchen before that fateful festive period. Exploring the world of the Slater family in Wolverhampton through the food that they shared, the memoir has been dramatised by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Jonnie Riordan. It debuted on The Lowry stage in Salford and later the Edinburgh Festival last year, before receiving a London transfer to The Other Palace where it officially opens tomorrow. Smartly adapted by Filloux-Bennett, this is a show that will warm you through without disguising its darker flavours, a satisfying and hearty concoction that sees the world through the eyes of a child.

Told almost entirely from Nigel’s perspective – and he actively chides his father for trying to muscle in on narrative duties – Toast is a delightful meta-theatrical experience in which the audience is not only asked to understand the world of its characters and their differing perspectives, there is also the chance to eat along without leaving your seat. A multisensory production, in the first Act bags of sweets are distributed around the audience, followed by Walnut Whips during the interval to save for an important scene in Act Two, and later trays of mini-Lemon Meringue Pies.

It’s a delicious surprise that certainly adds an additional dimension to the experience, and don’t worry if you’re seated at the back, the cast and diligent ushers do their best to ensure everyone receives some free goodies in a well-executed piece of audience engagement. Yet, in medium-sized venue like The Other Palace it does have its drawbacks; if you’re annoyed generally by the crinkling of sweet wrappers in the theatre, the ripple effect of the first handout may be frustrating as it last for the next 15-20 minutes of the show.

And while we get to enjoy tastes along with the characters, it equally pulls the audience temporarily out of the story while they await food items to be passed along the row to them. The time taken to settle back down encroaches on the often more emotional scene that follows, and closer to the back of the room, it can be harder to hear over the uniform rustling of wrappers and conversational exchanges between neighbours rooting-out the sweets they want. Even in the second Act, Walnut Whips already in hand, lots of people are waiting for the appropriate scene to eat it, giving rise to an audible relief when it eventually occurs. It is a smart and lovely idea but there are consequences for audience concentration and the flow of the ensuing story.

Nonetheless, what stands out in the sensitive retelling of this tragic memoir is the imaginative technical solutions to how content is presented and the smoothly management of scene changes. Designer Libby Watson has created an idealised 50s world of pale-yellow perfection. Anyone who has seen Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning Home, I’m Darling, will recognise the themes Watson draws upon – utility, grace and finesse – in which culinary objects have their place, everything is sparkling clean and beautifully appointed.

A number of moveable cabinets on castors, as well as rapidly removed furniture allow Riordan to move swiftly between a series of locations including Nigel’s school, restaurants, two different homes and eventually a side alley of The Savoy. As choreographer as well as director, Riordan uses movement to underscore poignant moments and to suggest the passing of time, with a counter-top waltz between mother and son meaningfully handled, as well as second wife Joan’s domestic domination told through a montage of vacuum and polishing actions set to music and sound effects.

There are musical theatre qualities to this approach that work extremely well here while also emphasising the difference between childhood fantasy and adult reality that runs through the story. But they never distract from Toast’s darker moments, in fact they deepen them. Music has the same effect and while Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s selection of 50s tunes played throughout the show as well as during the interval are a nostalgic treat, their inclusion is equally designed to pull at Nigel’s consciously created fantasy childhood, one that splits apart as the truth slowly dawns in his teenage years, at which point the music choices take on a harder quality in the final third of the show.

The Slater household is never flashy, but always homely, a welcoming upper-working class / lower middle-class vision bolstered by the idea of the perfect housewife running the home immaculately while her husband works. As with Wade’s play, that image is not quite right and as the story unfolds Filloux-Bennett cleverly explores the differences between Nigel’s narration and the adult reality from which he was largely shielded. As his mum’s illness becomes more serious, it’s clear to the audience that 10-year old Nigel has no idea what was about to happen. Later, when his dad takes a second wife, Nigel is at first bemused to be at a dinner he doesn’t realise was a date, leading-in to Joan becoming what he thinks is the cleaner. Nigel’s induction into the complexities of adult relationships is carefully managed in Act Two, slowly building as Nigel finds himself in unexpected competition not just with Joan (a very funny Marie Lawrence playing a woman so clearly insecure she needs to best a teenage boy) over baking prowess, but also with his father whose brusqueness with his son stems from his own grief, finding himself in the unexpected role as widower and single father, causing eruptions of violence or threats that shatters Nigel’s formal but respected view of him.

Giles Cooper’s Nigel is an excellent narrator and although Cooper plays his protagonist between the ages of 10 and 17, he wisely chooses not to stretch the childlike characterisation too far. In a way, this acts as a reminder that it is the adult Nigel who is the conduit for this story, remembering events from many decades distance, but it also feels appropriate in the context of the story. Riordan doesn’t want us to be distracted by how well Cooper can ‘act’ these ages, but to focus on the rite of passage that Slater’s tragedy set in motion, something which Cooper manages extremely well.

There is, in his performance, an unyielding adoration for his mother that dominates the first half of the play as they enjoy happy family moments baking, shopping and even holidaying together. Their closeness and Nigel’s contentment are well conveyed, making the circumstantial switch in Act Two all the more affecting. And here Cooper is even better as Nigel recognises the extent to which his mother shielded him from the darker side of his father, the competitiveness of other people and the nuances of adult life, a knowledge forced on him by the collapse of his homelife and his father’s focus on his new wife at the expense of his scared and uncertain son. Most of all, Cooper shows how Nigel clings to the ideals his mother instilled in him, developing a strength that eventually leads him to the doorstep of a famous London hotel and the life to come.

Having Lizzie Muncy play Nigel’s mum and a number of other important female characters including his Home Economics teacher and the woman who gives him his first job in a Wolverhampton hotel kitchen is a shrewd move. It not only means a cast of just five can perform the entire play, but it suggests a certain maternal consistency to the women who set Nigel, accidentally or purposefully, on his path to future culinary fame. Muncy draws out the protective sweetness of Mum which makes Nigel’s devotion so credible, while Stephen Ventura’s Dad manages to convey the difficulty of his own position as a 50s man trying to meet social expectations of masculinity. Through his funny rules and lists (including the gender-appropriateness of particular sweets), we see that he is  unable to properly express his deeper emotions and needs. The distance with Nigel because increasingly antagonistic as Ventura subtly suggests Dad’s inability to manage his own grief and loneliness.

This cleverly staged memoir well captures the moment at which childhood ends and the more difficult transition to adult life begins while using its food-theme to build a sense of the professional Nigel Slater was to become. Free food or not, Toast is a charming two hours in the theatre that carefully presents an idealised picture of 50s life and then cuts through to its harder reality. Honest and inventive, the range of narrative and staging techniques used in Toast impressively create a highly entertaining exploration of memory and meaning.

Toast is at The Other Palace until 3 August, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Barbican

Grief on stage and in popular culture is rarely considered as a psychological state of its own but as a means or driver for other behaviour. Hamlet may be devastated by the loss of his father that leads to his own existential considerations of suicide but it ultimately becomes the root of his desire for revenge. Later in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff rushes to the grave of his beloved Cathy to dig up her body, as Hamlet and Laertes once grappled with the corpse of Ophelia. Even in modern culture, our perspective on grief involves sobbing widows in black veils and, often, angry arguments at the wake – where would Soap Opera funerals be without a revelatory drama and plenty of hand wringing?

But these are all just the physical trappings of mourning, the downcast eye and sullen air that Gertrude chides Hamlet for, behaviours stemming from grief but not fundamentally representative of the internal process and experience of losing a loved one. Max Porter’s 2015 novella is different, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a manifestation of the confusion, pain and self-immolation experienced by one man on the untimely death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two Primary School-aged boys. It is a complex piece of writing in which a crow comes to care for the bereaved family, told from the perspective of the Dad, children and bird that revels in its use of language and sound.

Bringing that to the stage is no easy task but Director Enda Walsh’s production, which premiered in Ireland last year and is now playing at the Barbican, creates an innovative and challenging piece of theatre that captures the multi-layered and non-linear nature of Porter’s writing. Crucial to this is the decision to make Crow a psychological rather than a physical presence, no unsatisfactory puppetry or video design but a clear personification of grief itself in which Cillian Murphy assumes the duel role of Dad and Crow, making them ostensibly the same drowning man. In doing so, this production deepens its presentation of the experience, showing how completely subsumed Dad becomes within his own mind and while his perspective has moments of lucidity, there is a general palling of the world around him, including the existence of his own children.

There’s much here that links to David Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider which took an equally internal perspective on one man’s delusion. There the viewer re-lived recollections of the protagonist’s childhood memories, seen through his eyes, using a refracted technique to create a jumbling effect that cast doubt on the overall veracity of the narrative. With a similar idea of going into the character’s unbalanced mind, Walsh’s production uses a variety of similar techniques to create a distorting effect built around Murphy’s central performance, and utilising his skill as a physical as well as a cerebral actor.

Most notable is Will Duke’s projection that subtly charts the growing dominance of Crow in Dad’s mind, using first the concept of an old slide-show to show large-scale images of his family drawings in which Dad has reimagined his entire family with crow’s heads. As his mind succumbs further to the Crow personality, Dad physically transforms his posture, voice and manner, using a hooded dressing gown and hunched-over shape in which his arms are tucked into a pouch on his back to create pointed wings, a sinister but effective approach which looks especially ominous cast in long shadow against the expansive rear wall.

There is no doubting that this is a level of mania, one that builds as the show unfolds, the occupation of the human mind that results in increasing frenzy as the psychological effects of grief take hold. Consequently, as with Porter’s book, a lot of what is happening or said makes little sense but the overall creative effect is of a fragmented mind bucking against the ordinariness of the real man and his world, a disruptive chaos allowing him to retreat inside while everything falls around him. The central notion of an individual being pulled under is vividly created, not least in the climactic storm scene which, like a rock concert, involves Adam Silverman’s strobed lighting design ricocheting dramatically around the walls as Murphy delivers a thunderous monologue into a close-held microphone. Like the breaking of a fever, the aftermath is a return to calm and rejuvenation.

Duke’s video design is also used to underscore the play’s literary source material and Porter’s fascination with sound and poetic rhythm. In the early moments of Crow’s arrival, the words he speaks in booming voiceover are transcribed in thick black text onto the walls of Dad’s flat, they appear at interlocking angles before being obscured by thick blocks of feathery black. The effect is as though Crow is actively obscuring Dad’s mind, erasing his conscious expression by obliterating his main form of communication, through which the almost parasitical Crow takes control.

The idea of these projections as the interior of Dad’s mind is further reinforced by scenes of his dead wife, memories and videos of days out that are at first too painful to recall, and from which Dad actively turns away. But as his mind fully processes the grief, her image recurs first more strongly and then on a much larger scale, covering the wall with scenes of a windswept beach walk. United with Helen Atkinson’s sounds design in which we eventually hear Mum’s voice (played by Hattie Morahan), there is a sense of development inside Dad’s head and as he comes to terms with her loss he can once again revisit memories with a painful happiness that revives her in his mind, displacing the destructive influence of Crow with a sense of normality once more.

At the heart of all of this is a performance of some intensity by Cillian Murphy, an actor who has demonstrated considerable range across his work choices. All of the many fragments of Murphy the actor seem to distil through this performance, so we get aspects of the sinister villain who sometimes frightens his children as well as himself, the frenzied loon of comic book movies and the soulful devastation of his indie film choices. As Murphy shows, Dad is a character in some flux, trapped in his own mind, both its leader and its victim, a state which can change in a second, while the mercuriality of Murphy’s performance gives gravitas and meaning to the elaborate staging around him.

Using a small microphone as Crow, his physical energy is powerfully conveyed, scampering around the set, climbing up walls and bouncing on tables, reflecting the surge of adrenalin and vigour that can be a bodily effect of mental illness. He’s truly disturbing as the off-kilter Crow, insisting on taking-over family duties but clearly a disruptive and malevolent presence in the household. Even when you’re not sure what is really happening, Murphy radiates such a compelling power that you cannot take your eyes from him.

Murphy shares the stage with the two actors playing his sons, and here Walsh amplifies the internalisation of Dad’s grief by ensuring for a long time he barely acknowledges them. They exist as he does, but Murphy, like a sleepwalker, doesn’t register them or his responsibility for them until much later in the play. Dad/Crow gives them things to do but must also come to terms with the secondary role he has been playing in their lives until now, one that he fears he cannot manage without his wife. It isn’t until the end of the story that he is better able to reach them as a proper father, and credit to both young actors that their own performances are made to feel like Dad’s perception of them.

It is a play, like Pinter actually, that requires you to feel rather than to understand, and by unfolding the stages of grief in this unusual fashion Dad’s ultimate fragility is what comes across so strongly. Some of Murphy’s very best moments are in the lulls between manic episodes, where he cogently and with great feeling tenderly tells the audience how much he’s hurting, how much he misses the everyday objects that his wife touched, the routines of their all too brief life together and how utterly besotted he was with her every day. Here Murphy is small, quiet and broken, a man who cannot compute how significantly his life has been upturned but clearly too weak to fight the arrival of Crow and the loss of mental control that follows.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is never any easy watch nor a cosy night at the theatre. If you’ve never read Porter’s part novel, part poem and go expecting a conventional play about the trappings of grief, then Walsh’s adaptation will be heavy going, resistant as it is the conventions and logic of narrative form. Nor is it a straightforwardly emotional experience, you won’t come away sobbing for this family and, although there are moments of great pain a lot of it is impressionistic – this is really challenging stuff. Yet, real experiences of loss are far more complex than popular culture might suggest and through Murphy’s impactful performance we are given a glimpse of a man struggling with the psychological effects of grief and learning to find a way forward.

Grief is a Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13 April but currently sold out so check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Finding Harold: A Pinter at the Pinter Season Review

Pinter at the Pinter Season

Six months ago, the thought of a season dedicated to Pinter, let’s face it, sounded like a drag, a potential slog through 20 one-act plays and sketches full of weird scenarios, aggressive encounters and endless pauses. But as lovers of drama “this will be good for me” you may have thought, Pinter is beloved of actors and directors, an important voice in the landscape who like Brecht and Beckett we have to learn to appreciate – the equivalent of our theatrical fibre, you know it’s good for you but you don’t have to like it.

What has actually occurred in the last six months is nothing less than astonishing as Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season has transformed hearts and minds, showing us the genius and humanity of a multi-stranded writer whose plays remain as relevant and meaningful as they were in the 1960s. By finally letting the audience in on the secrets of Pinter’s success and making a case for his work in the mainstream, this is how Jamie Lloyd et al has taught us not just to like and understand Pinter, but to love him.

  • The Context

Prior to this game-changing season, there has been plenty of Pinter to see in the last few years with high calibre productions filled with star names. Lloyd himself directed two at the Trafalgar Studios – The Hothouse and The Homecoming with a fantastic cast that included Pinter-veteran John Simm in both alongside Ron Cook, Gary Kemp, Simon Russell Beale and Gemma Chan. A major revival of No Man’s Land toured the UK with legendary theatre knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, while 2018 began with an impressive production of The Birthday Party also at the Harold Pinter Theatre directed by Ian Rickson and starring Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan.

All of these productions were great, all weird, menacing, peculiar experiences that were entertainingly bizarre. They created a chink through which you could sit back and appreciate Pinter’s (then) niche appeal, his focus on unsettling tone and illusory perspectives rather than straightforward narrative and character development. Did we understand these plays? Maybe. Did we love them? Probably not. Using the same criteria for assessing last year’s disappointing Oscar Wilde season, let’s see how Jamie Lloyd changed our minds.

  • Play Selection is Crucial

Building an entire season around rarely seen short works and grouping them together in thematic collections was a stroke of genius. The advantage of this for an audience is the feeling of assortment, knowing that if one piece was less entertaining or meaningful then in 10-30 minutes the next play or sketch might be more appealing. The anthology approach offers plenty of variety in one night, making explicit connections between quite different types of work and  thereby reinforcing the central premise that our perspective on Pinter’s output has been unfairly narrowed by his most revived plays.

Pinter is, Lloyd has forcefully argued, an ever-relevant commentator whose writing incorporates the full spectrum of human experience, that it has a universality that beneath the strange structure and scenarios makes him a major and enduring figure in theatre history. And the timelessness of Pinter’s subject matter was infused through the seven thematic collections, beginning with a set of stories including Mountain Language, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes that examined the totalitarian state, the shifting balance of power in society and the slow erosion of individual rights that leads to violence.

Playing in repertory, Lloyd changed pitch completely in Pinter Two with the oft-combined The Lover and The Collection that examined the politics of relationships, of fantasy role-play and unconventionality. Pinter Three and Four also applied contrasting themes, the latter using Moonlight and Night School to think about external intrusion into the domestic sphere and the complexities of family life, while placing these alongside exquisite productions looking at love and absence – Landscape and A Kind of Alaska – making us see Pinter’s ability to write deep emotion for the first time. Pinter Three was a powerful experience amplified by Lee Evans heartbreaking Monologue which remains one of the seasons most memorable events, one that felt utterly transformative in shifting our perspective on Pinter.

The fifth collection continued to focus on isolation and physical separation finding poignancy beneath the comic in Victoria Station and particularly Family Voices, an exchange of letters between mother and son. This was contrasted with the class-based falsity of pre-selected communities in Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration, before concluding with A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter showcasing the absurdity of language and the rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue. The breadth of Pinter’s work has been gratifying to see, evolving throughout the season and carefully curated to reveal a writer whose multifaceted output elicited deeper meaning the more of it we saw.

  • Vary the Presentation

It has been said many times during the series, but Jamie Lloyd has the most finely calibrated understanding of Pinter of any modern director and this gave his team the confidence to break free of the original period settings and to deliver each anthology with a slightly different, but undeniably modern, approach that underscored the generality of Pinter’s themes. Where Dominic Dromgoole’s Wilde season stuck to its rigid historical focus (much to its detriment), Lloyd and season designer Soutra Gilmour had a clear, stylised vision for each production, united by a series of common factors including the large rotating cube in various states of deconstruction, and the visible “backstage” detritus that lent artificiality at the right moments.

The effect created layers of meaning within the design that united individual collections under their thematic banner whilst also ensuring that they were visibly part of the overall vision for the season. Through careful management of visual clues, Jon Clark’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound and music choices, every time the curtain went up the audience undoubtedly knew they were at a Pinter at the Pinter performance.

It all began with a clear statement of intent, the lurking fear and intensity of Pinter One became a core feature of the stark, grey and intimidating design, with plenty of shadows creating dark corners. This is not the way Pinter’s work had been visualised before, and it set the standard for no ordinary season to come. And so it proved to be, every production offered a different approach, from the heightened reality and colour saturation of 60s sex comedy The Lover right through to the creepy radio booth of a A Slight Ache, each design slightly separate from those that had come before while beautifully serving the themes and content of the work.

The most visually exciting and directorially daring, was Pinter Six in which Lloyd employed very little movement and instead organised his actors in a line during Party Time, each stepping forward to deliver their scenes. The purposefully static nature of these decisions showed a season full of confidence, revelling in an intensity amplified by Gilmour’s monochrome design. As a now dedicated Pinter audience, we were pushed to focus on the text more completely as the season unfolded, a decision that allowed us to get the most from radio play A Slight Ache and Betrayal which followed.

  • Venue and Casting

Holding a Harold Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre is an obvious choice, but the auditorium itself, aside from a series of slim pillars on every level, offers reasonable views from all but the most extreme seats in the Royal Circle and Balcony. Wherever you sit, the audience can feel fairly close to the action and if you booked early enough, you could see the whole season for £15 per show with several marginally restricted view seats in the Dress Circle – a sensible pricing decision for what 8-months ago seemed like an enormous risk. While Betrayal prices are now notably higher, previous season attendees had access to pre-sale tickets for as little as £25, while a weekly Rush scheme was introduced for key workers and those in receipt of social security benefit to see the show for £15, all of which have resulted in what has felt like a relatively diverse audience across the entire run.

Casting, of course, has been one of Pinter at the Pinter’s most notable features and, like the Kenneth Branagh Season in 2016, there has been a clear strategy to align established theatre veterans, those who personally knew Pinter and, most importantly, the industry’s rising stars – reiterating the season’s role in ensuring Pinter’s future survival. Every casting announcement brought fresh excitement with well-known performers including David Suchet, Anthony Sher, Phil Davis, Tamsin Grieg, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman across the run. Rupert Graves was particularly excellent in Pinter Five as a bemused taxi driver before joining with Jane Horrocks for the memorable Family Voices. John Simm excelled as ever in Pinter Six while Janie Dee and Brid Brennan were hilarious as nosey aunts in Night School.

Among the creative team, Lloyd successfully shared the directing honours with Patrick Marber, Lia Williams, and particularly Ed Stamboullian, but it was just as delightful to see substantial roles given to younger actors. Hayley Squires, Papa Essiedu, Gemma Whelan and Kate O’Flynn are well established if arguably not quite household names yet, but each firmly grasped the opportunity that the season offered to deliver excellent performances. And equally we saw brilliant work from actors all but fresh from drama school including Abraham Popoola as waiter with literary pretensions in Celebration, Jessica Barden as the mysterious lodger in Night School, and most impressively from Luke Thallon (soon to be seen alongside Andrew Scott in Present Laughter at the Old Vic) who brought Pinter’s radio play Family Voices so vividly to life in another of those memorable moments that will linger long after the season concludes. Of course, the ever-savvy Lloyd saved his trump cards for the season finale.

  • A Grand Finale

If there has been one key feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season it has been never to do things by halves, so with that in mind, why have one season finale when you can have two! The combined excitement of seeing Martin Freeman and, Pinter collaborator, Danny Dyer on stage in The Dumb Waiter promised to be quite an experience when it was announced last summer when Pinter Seven was intended to conclude the series in February. It may have raised eyebrows at the time, but populist casting would drive new audiences into the theatre. In that time, Dyer has transformed himself into a national treasure, and, with a theatre CV that is predominantly West End or equivalent, it proved to be an insightful evening as the central pair delivered a performance that showcased the layers of comic potential in the text to a house packed full of newly won Pinter fans.

Then came Betrayal. Announced only last November when the season was well underway, Pinter’s beautiful 90-minute play about adultery and friendship became the new season finale. The casting of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox ensured that Pinter at the Pinter would end with one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Fully consistent with the seven insightful anthologies that have come before and visually aligned with the stark simplicity of Pinter One, directed with the precision and choreographical control that Lloyd displayed in Pinter Six, and performed with the intensity and emotional force of Pinter Three, Betrayal is an extraordinary piece of theatre, moving, complex and hugely resonant, the cumulative effect of Pinter’s work over the last 6 months ensuring you’ll never forget this astonishing finale.

  • A Point of View

In just six months, Jamie Lloyd’s creative team and ever-changing company of actors has utterly transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter. Where once we went leaden-footed for a night of inexplicable menace, suddenly we were skipping to our seats eager to be wowed by each new perspective on his plays. The range and value of Pinter’s writing, his inestimable effect on the theatrical landscape and the importance of his commentary feels more relevant, timeless and incontrovertible than it ever has.

The Pinter at the Pinter season set out to change our minds, to make us see, understand and really feel the many kinds of writer Pinter was. Anyone planning a production now will (and should) be intimidated by the wonderful clarity this season has brought us, the creative vision so brilliantly and purposefully delivered by all involved and filled with memorable experiences. We are genuinely sad that it’s over. The season has deservedly received huge acclaim, and plenty of applause, but Jamie Lloyd this figurative ovation is just for you for because in this exceptional season of work, you truly taught us all to love Pinter.

The Pinter at the Pinter Season concludes with Betrayal, now running until 8 June, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Downstate – National Theatre

Downstate - National Theatre

The complexities of the justice system in the UK and America have been a keen focus for playwrights in recent times, and while in theory the trial-sentence-release process ensures that perpetrators are punished for the requisite time depending on their crime, in practice it can be a far more emotive experience. While the Young Vic’s high-quality dramas Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Jumper Factory have give us an insight into the different pressures of prison life, what happens next can be even more difficult when an offender is released back into the community. James Graham showed us in Quiz that Charles Ingram’s family suffered continual abuse and even attacks on their pets just for allegedly cheating on a game show, but if your crime is far more serious that, is justice ever really served?

Co-produced by the National Theatre, Bruce Norris’s Downstate premiered in the US last autumn and now makes its UK debut in the Dorfman. What looks like a normal suburban house is the transitional location for a group of sex offenders who have served their sentences and are now part of a phased release programme. All four of them have convictions for paedophilic activity, the nuances of which, during the course of this 2.5-hour show, the audience learns more about, while understanding the effect this has had on their lives. Catalysed by a confrontation with one of their (now adult) victims, Downstate consistently shifts our sympathies, asking difficult questions about the appropriateness of penalties meted out by the legal system, if there really is a sliding-scale of heinous acts and whether we should try to see the humanity within those who commit them.

At the heart of this play is a concern that no punishment will ever be enough, that whatever the crime – but especially with the serious offences under discussion here – the effect on the victim is far greater than any legal redress, a question playwrights have grappled with for a long time. Shakespeare essentially wrote about this 400 years ago when his Merchant of Venice anti-hero demanded a “pound of flesh”, a revenge theme that has resonated through subsequent crime dramas down the centuries. In Downstate, this manifests in two ways, first in the seemingly cosy existence of the four men in a nice house that in relation to their crimes initially causes the audience to recoil, and second through the character of Andy, a “survivor” whose life has been enduringly affected, who demands to be heard when his abuser is unexpectedly released into this environment.

Norris has chosen the quite traditional domestic setting and structure that is so prevalent in American drama, steering away from the David Mamet-like spare prose and focus on masculinity, that owes much to the hard-boiled simplicity of film noir dialogue, which is a more usual frame for male-centric plays. Downstate instead offers a discursive drama about a dysfunctional homestead, with a feeling of Tracy Letts in the creation of a pseudo-family battling external intrusions. Its fascinating subject-matter makes for several compelling duologues as characters spar with each other and reality, asking the audience to consider whether some crimes are absolute or if there are gradations of guilt and repentance that should offer the chance of rehabilitation. But Norris’s dramatic structure yields few surprises, and is, arguably, rather formulaic – although in performance this is less of a negative that it sounds.

While a major revelation at the end of part two is pretty easy to guess, signalled as it is rather too obviously at the start of the Act, each ex-offender, as you might expect, is given the opportunity to tell and occasionally justify his story. While The Jumper Factory purposefully withheld the nature of the protagonist crime, and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train retained some ambiguity about the guilt of its lead character, there is still much to take from Norris’s concept, particularly the apparent remorselessness of the men in the house, or at least the feeling that they have made peace with their past, served their sentence and moved on.

To explore this idea we are given two particularly compelling character-driven discussions that dominate each Act to dig deep into the thought processes and behaviour of the men in the house. Our sympathies and allegiances are intriguingly tested as Parole Officer Ivy (a superb and chilling Cecilia Noble fresh from her scene-stealing performance in Nine Night) confronts silent housemate Felix (Eddie Torres) who, thus far, has kept himself to himself, quietly eating cereal in his room and trying to stay out of sight. It’s a revelatory conversation that twists and turns brilliantly as Ivy questions Felix on his GPS tracking data that proves he had transgressed the boundaries of his freedom.

As the evidence is presented coldly to Felix, initially you feel for him a small struggle for a moment of liberation and desire to be close to his family that becomes quite affecting. What happens in the next 10-minutes is remarkable drama as Noble’s Ivy plays ace after ace shifting our perspective on the truth and eventually the shocking nature of Felix’s original crime. Torres is excellent in his big moment, suggesting a conviction in the early moments of this discussion that starts to win you round, while delivering some well-timed emotional reactions that reveal his desperate fear and underlying failure to recognise and control his own responses.

In Act Two, this is mirrored in a confrontation between Andy, Fred and Dee which is equally dramatic, a stew of conflicting information and interactions that pushes the audience to see things from every side. The erupting rage of Tim Hopper’s Andy as he is compelled to confront Fred is balanced by the ordinary domesticity of their lodgings and the calm, easy interactions between the housemates. There is a brief period of reminiscence between abuser and victim as they talk fondly of Fred’s piano lessons, a golden age before the predatory teacher made his move. Norris hints that Andy had his own problematic family from which Fred became a welcome respite but also implies an unsevered connection between the men, that Hopper uses in his performance to show the hold of Fred’s charisma despite himself.

As the discussion loops around and Andy pushes to regain his ground, his encounter with Dee is designed to bruise and confound. And seen from a purely theatrical perspective Norris builds the drama well to reveal a level of delusion that affects them all, both men convinced that his perspective is the truth. K Todd Freeman’s Dee, a former theatre Dance Captain with a devotion to Diane Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, is perhaps Downstate’s most unknowingly tragic creation, grown caustic and cynical by time but with a softer heart beneath. He manages the household while caring for the wheelchair-bound Fred yet refuses to believe his own crime is akin to those around him, Nor does he accept that Andy’s desire for purification as anything less than indulgent weakness. The discussion is compellingly written and performed even if Norris’s approach to playing one truth against the other, and Andy’s exposure feel uncomfortable.

The latter is one of the most challenging aspects of Norris’s play, not so much for the content (although there is graphic anatomical description in the second half as part of a legal document) but for the way in which the writer challenges our perspective on “victimhood”, forcing us to  wonder, uncomfortably, who is behaving reasonably in this context. The way in which Andy’s testimony is presented is almost clinical as he tries to read a prepared statement to former piano teacher Fred at the start of the play. It is a recitation of facts delivered with subdued emotion, an outline of events and their consequences presented, at this stage, as a formality that masks Andy’s deeper pain.

It is only later, when Andy fails to feel the catharsis he craves, that he returns in Act Two for a second, more explosive, confrontation that draws the home’s “matriarch” Dee into the conversation. And it is here where Norris’s approach becomes much harder to reconcile as Andy angrily demands Fred takes ownership of the hurt that he feels and the broken consequences of his life by signing a legal confession of culpability that outlines the specific acts committed. Yet, Norris has spent the intervening hour opening out the lifestyle and personalities of the household to us, showing them as a group of now quite vulnerable men trying to survive within ever chastening boundaries that casts Andy’s outburst in a slightly different light, making it seem hysterical and perhaps even, inappropriate.

As the tension rises in what is an increasingly fraught interchange between the three men, Dee accuses Andy of being obsessed, of refusing to move on from something that happened more than 30-years before and drawing on his own childhood trauma to suggest Andy’s essential weakness. It is a tough conversation to stomach with Norris’s point being that cause and effect is never as straightforward as it looks and behaviour patterns have many origins, yet the facts of Andy’s abuse are never in question so this unpicking of an undisputed victim’s story feels particularly problematic and even unnecessarily cruel. While Dee’s own viewpoint is shown to be potentially delusional at other points in the play, this inability to build-up the humanity of the perpetrators without tearing down their victims is something Downstate never satisfactorily resolves, and it leaves a bitter after taste.

This is reinforced by the play’s final character, Gio (Glenn Davis),  the youngest of the group, on a 15-month transition for the statutory rape of a girl he thought was 17. Davis’s performance continually distances Gio from the other inhabitants, his arrogance causing spikey clashes with Dee as the men wrangle over the seriousness of their offences. While you might admire the character’s determination that one mistake won’t prevent him from building a future as a business owner, he too is unrepentant, claiming himself the victim of unfortunate circumstances ensnared by a woman he suggests has gone on to teenage pregnancy and notoriety, which, like Andy, turns the tables on the victim with a purpose that never feels entirely clear.

Whether the crimes of these men are absolutely the same or relative is an impossible question, you see their humanity in Norris’s writing and while in theory they have served their time, even in this theatrical hypothetical scenario the group’s lack of remorse muddies the waters considerably. With excellent performances there are some really engrossing moments that tackle difficult questions about justice head-on, yet, the undermining of victim statements and personalities, however delusional the perpetrator, is never properly justified by Downstate’s discursive approach. Whether rehabilitation is truly possible for such serious crimes,Norris never really decides, leaving only a dramatically engaging but morally troubling outcome.

Downstate is at the National Theatre until 27 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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