Tag Archives: Harold Pinter Theatre

A Little Life – Harold Pinter Theatre

A Little Life (by Jan Versweyveld)

Anyone who has read the book will know what to expect or if you haven’t then there are enough content warnings to prepare you at least for some of what is to come in Ivo van Hove and Koen Tachelet’s stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In practice it is a blistering experience that realigns the source material to create a more integrated theatrical experience using plenty of techniques that van Hove more usually applies to working with his Dutch company – long, overlapping productions that blend past and present, interior and exterior with multi-character perspectives of years, sometimes decades of human experience with multiple layers of story all happening simultaneously. van Hove knows how to direct an epic and A Little Life is certainly that, an astonishing and astonishingly bleak experience that builds across more than three and half hours of performance.

It is never easy to adapt a novel of this scale and particularly one that became a word-of-mouth hit when it was released in 2015 and many will be very protective about how it has been translated. It is not the same on stage and van Hove has taken a number of liberties with the running order of the novel as well as the compression or simplification of some of the surrounding material. Jude is given even greater centrality than even Yanagihara gave him but at the expense of Malcolm, JB and even to an extent Willem, whose characters are slimmed down. But van Hove’s most interesting choice is to scatter more of Jude’s trauma through the story from the start, allowing the audience into the abuse and sexual assaults far earlier than the novelist does.

It is a decision that works really effectively in this adaptation, removing some of the melodrama of the novel and giving it a raw power, constantly underpinning and shaping Jude’s behaviour and reactions in ways that vitally motivate the development of his character and the endlessly tragic cycle of his life. Revealed by degrees, it gives the audience a greater stake in what must be a visual story onstage, creating a scenario in which the viewer knows more than some of the characters and is thus able to understand the different emotional reactions and beat of conversations. The novel is able to ‘tell’ at great length but the theatre-maker must ‘show,’ and van Hove’s reworking of the original text negotiates that adaptive process really effectively.

Part of that comes from the staging choices, a continual flow of activity with no obvious scene breaks but a choreographed sequence of ongoing life in which Jude’s experience reveals patterns of behaviour and self-destruction that becoming horribly compelling. A Little Life is a deeply harrowing story to read and seeing it performed somehow makes it all the more intense. But the repetitive and compulsive cycles of Jude’s self-harm are presented with considerable clarity, and in reordering the flow of memories more completely into the present day trajectory of the central character, van Hove and Tachelet draw a more direct line between the two and their consequences. We see Jude unpack the razor and prep kit he squirrels away in the bathroom and use it, again and again and again. We see the release it gives him and the pressure he feels when prevented from cutting, and there is real impact when his damaged body is carried to the hospital bed on several occasions by his perplexed friends, all in the dark about his past and, largely his present as well. But in giving the audience this extra insight, it makes us as powerless to help as they are.

There are a mixture of quite interesting narrative devices in which the characters address the audience to summarise their own experiences to the viewer directly. van Hove and Tachelet use this as an opportunity to utilise the interior monologue of the novel and dramatise some of the things characters feel about one another but would never say in conversation, such as JB’s early explanation of feeling like an outsider in the group of friends, giving useful background to the falling out the men have over his painting of Jude. At other times characters describe each other’s actions or help time to pass, noting what they did individually or as a group over months or years as they move from their 30s to their 50s, talking about themselves in the past tense as they go, as though their existence together is already a lost memory.

There is also a dead, conscience-like character, Ana, who appears to Jude at times of crisis, of which there are many, to guide him, His former social worker given an expanded role here (and the only female one) to encourage him to talk to his friends about his life – a continual recommendation made in the play that Jude refuses to heed. But, again, Ana becomes a useful device for translating Jude’s internal monologue and reasoning in tangible ways for an audience that works quite successfully alongside the straightforwardly dramatic scenes of ordinary conversation and interaction.

Together the easy flow of the production and these varied storytelling approaches gives the show a magnetism that is hard to look away from. It is horrible and very hard to watch but at the same time impossible not to. And it is almost relentlessly awful as the unbelievably dark truth about Jude’s life is revealed along with his treatment by a series of predators – all played by the same actor, Elliot Cowan, in a shrewd conflation of characters. And van Hove doesn’t hold back any more than Yanagihara does with depictions of self-harm, rape and physical as well as emotional abuse all played with a seriousness that avoids mawkishness and instead focuses on psychological compulsion and the building of a character who believes he deserves to suffer.

Some of this emerges within the physicality of the performance which uses nudity sparingly but to quite powerful effect. Jude’s body becomes a kind of battleground, something apart from himself which is used and damaged by others that turns him against his own flesh, so much so that harming it becomes his only form of control over a corporeal self that disgusts him. The audience is reminded early on that Jude is a character who doesn’t like to undress because of the scars on his body and he is raped twice while fully clothed. So when he is naked in this production, Jude is frail and terribly vulnerable in scenarios controlled by others who coerce or threaten him and inflict suffering on his body. But in that too is a kind of compulsion, exploring the events that are shaping his reaction to his body and the uses it has been put to, so hard-wired that he cannot escape them even with best friend Willem.

There are moments of happiness that temper this, of friendship and love with Jude finding acceptance with Harold who adopts him aged 30 and later in a serious relationship with Willem that, at least at first, is full of innocent goodness. But across the hours of this production, van Hove slowly increases the stakes, the destructive cycles get closer together, Jude recoils more and more from the interference of others, the ghosts of the past intrude more frequently, the levels of harm Jude needs to inflict on himself become larger, building and building to a poignant moment when it all has to end, where something finally snaps and all of the characters know there is nothing they can really do to prevent the inevitable. It is hard to watch but also hard not to.

van Hove has considerable experience with managing tone and the slow reveal of information as well as the building of inevitable tragedy over many hours, here applying similar techniques to his earlier Dutch language productions like Age of Rage that lasted for four hours at the Barbican which mixed Greek tragedies together in a singular story arc, as well as a similar approach to Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies before that. Notably, A Little Life was first developed and performed by the International Theatre Amsterdam at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, although it has lost more than 20-minutes of its running time in the move to London and into English. But this ability to balance staging effects, monumental storytelling and the management of audience engagement over long periods of time is really impressive, and the time flies by.

The show takes place in a minimalist living room and kitchen set designed by long-time collaborator Jan Versweyveld, a confined, intimate space that cuts the Harold Pinter stage into traverse with audience in front of and behind the action. It must feel claustrophobic, especially with actors on stage for long periods depending on how large a role they play in Jude’s life at the time. To the side, architect friend Malcolm has space to sit and design, artist JB paints while Willem, an actor, often sits at the back reading a script – all performing activities from their ‘real’ lives going on in the background of Jude’s struggles. In the centre, a free-standing sink that is the bathroom where Jude performs his harming ritual, and there is a sense of ceremony about it, as well as a space that becomes hospital rooms, the abbey, cars and everywhere the action needs to be. Versweyveld has created a compact but evocative space that feels like Jude’s life is continually and inescapably pressing in on him.

And it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some use of film, here providing scenic backdrop of streets in New York that give location context on the side walls of the stage. But the slow running film never depicts the glamorous TV New York, but a fairly drab series of roads and buildings, endless and largely grey. Also designed by Versweyveld, the pressure Jude feels before cutting fuzzes and crackles through the screens, as though reality itself is distorting until the release brings a pink-tinge to that real world as it slowly returns to normal. An evocative device supported by live music that demonstrates the physical process that Jude goes through, almost immersive in its ability to help the audience to better understand his perspective and the forces driving him to act.

James Norton may not quite be the Jude of the novel but his performance of cumulative and eviscerating trauma is outstanding. His character sets himself apart from everyone else right from the start, always holding back and not fully able to engage. As van Hove takes Jude through a complex sequence of scenes taking place at different stages of his life, Norton moves seamlessly between the broken and destructive present and the childlike clinging of the younger Jude, deeply scarred by his experiences. The damage is palpable in Norton’s performance who seems to disintegrate as the story unfolds, physically bearing the effects of all those cuts and attempts to end his life on his blood soaked shirt. But the effect emerges through the body too and Norton’s Jude shrinks into himself more and more as the performance takes shape, curling inwards and entirely destabilised by the happiness on offer which is moving and deeply tragic.

Luke Thompson is just as impressive as Willem, Jude’s best friend who spends almost as much of the play on stage as the lead. Willem is a good person, kind and generous, supportive of his roommate in all things but Thompson shows the developing affection between them, which has a lovely innocent honesty about it, not seedy or coerced like the other relationships in Jude’s life but somehow purer. Yet that relationship eventually becomes extremely complicated and although Willem could have been quite a bland character, the difficulty of being with and constantly supporting Jude takes its toll in what is one of Thompson’s performances, eliciting a despair and frustrated desperation that is beautifully managed. The contrasting desire to support Jude and the rage at his own helplessness is engaging and painfully real.

There is strong support from the remainder of this small cast, particularly Zubin Varla who brings gravitas to the role of Harold, a kindly father figure who also finds himself at a loss to help his adopted son, as well as Omari Douglas as JB and Zach Wyatt as Malcolm, although neither gets as much stage time as their novel counterparts would suggest. Ultimately van Hove and this team have done great things with a tricky, enormously wide-ranging and imperfect novel, turning it into a tough and unremitting but quite breathtaking and powerful stage production.

A Little Life is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June and then transfers to the Savoy Theatre fro 4 July-5 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons – Harold Pinter Theatre

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted. Making its West End debut following an impressive rise from small regional premiere in 2015 to Edinburgh and London fringe, Steiner’s play, directed by Josie Rourke, is a rom-com of sorts filled with the minutiae and pitfalls that couples experience when getting to know one another and as their relationship matures and fades. But it is also concerned with class distinctions, inequality in various forms and political protest in which language and its control is constrained and then weaponised.

The romantic comedy standards give Steiner’s play its shape – there is a quirky meet-cute in which Bernadette and Oliver get to know one another in a pet cemetery by the grave of a dead cat that belonged to neither one of them. They go on dates, have ‘the talk’ about ex’s, have fights about trivial things that mask larger problems in their relationship, they move in together, endure one another’s colleagues and find themselves drifting apart as they both become complacent about what they have. So as their differences become obstacles rather than exciting opportunities, the play’s emotional stakes rise.

Bernadette is a lawyer who doesn’t always listen to what Oliver is saying and seem to resent any mention of her working class background and the empathetic or political obligations it assumes. Oliver is a musician with middling success but mostly an activist attending regular meetings and marches, spending time with a former girlfriend who he cautiously talks about and fails to accept his current partner’s need for silence. So far, so standard, but it is what the playwright does with this bundle of traits and devices that makes Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons more than a generic stage romance.

This is a play that has quite a meticulous structure but appears smooth and unruffled to an audience. There are no Acts or Scenes across the continuous 90-minute performance, but there are frequent time leaps indicated by a beat and a subtle change in Aideen Malone’s lighting design. These take the characters forward a few hours, days, possibly months and years without giving an exact indication of how much time may have passed, leaving that entirely to the audience and the performers to determine. There is also no suggestion that we see this relationship necessarily in chronological order, only a cluster of scenarios that happen ‘before’ and some ‘after’ a momentous change. Within these segments, dialogue is loaded quite differently and scenes occur at different paces. While some events certainly happen in succession, it is not at all certain that the audience is seeing the couple evolve exactly as they did. And it gives the play energy, forcing the viewer to piece together what happened from the quite selective words the playwright has chosen to represent how this couple verbalise their time together.

And Steiner adds further degrees of complexity to this by also toying with the audience’s exposure to those conversations into which we arrive at different points. Sometimes, the characters have just met, beginning with a “hello” as they get home from work or meet for a date, but more often we enter a conversation with an exchange already underway or drawing to a close. Like a scripted reality show, Steiner has only given his creations so many words to use and the confines of this are all the audience has to understand and connect their story together. Beyond the snapshots provided, their conversations and arguments must go on in oblivion and, unlike their television counterparts, real exchanges don’t just stop awkwardly when the script runs out. Arguments recur, they go round-and-round while even lovers at their happiest continuously talk reassuringly of their affection for one another or all the things their life together might, could and should be. Even in the ‘before’ period, therefore, Steiner is already limiting the characters to small amounts of words that must knowingly act as proxy for a much broader, fuller life together – a task made infinitely more difficult but somehow more moving in the ‘after’ part of the play.

So, before and after what? This is the second major device that Steiner employs that cuts through the scenario that Steiner has established, the passing of a “hush” law that limits all human speech to only 140 words per day, and it creates two dramatic consequences within Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons. The first is to focus the protest sections of the play around the shifting emotional connection of the couple, concentrating on fighting against the planned law and then advocating for its amendment and repeal which gives Oliver direct purpose in the plot, a place to express his desire for freedom from State control and a life away from Bernadette where his primary passion and focus exist.

As a result, this also becomes the root of their many disagreements, with Bernadette taking the potential law less seriously at first and later falsely reassuring her boyfriend that it would be possible to change it within a few months of imposition. It moves the standard relationship into a domestic dystopia where things are essentially the same but different enough to expose the pre-existing flaws in their connection that play-out across the remainder of the story. This ‘after’ section essentially carves the play and this couple’s settled perfect life in two, making it impossible for them to ignore their problems with even fewer words to hide behind.

And that leads into the second consequence for Bernadette and Oliver which is the technical challenge of communicating months of their relationship within set counts for each of them. Steiner generates both tension and pity by changing the number of words left to the pair in each of their conversations and this often happens in ways that reflect their emotional investment in the relationship and how rocky their connection becomes over time. Occasionally they try to save words for each other as a gesture of love, storing over a hundred by the time they come home, but in other scenes one or both of them have few words left, stilting what little communication is possible and forcing them to make choices about how they eek our their attempts to communicate or throw them away on an argument – the title itself coming from an exasperated waste of pointless words as tensions boil over.

The frustration and pain of two people with a lot to talk about yet unable to interact in full sentences becomes very moving as well as comedic, and with each scene beginning with an announcement of their remaining count, the struggle to engage is a testament to the technical challenge Steiner has set himself here. Conveying so much with so little is a balance of dialogue and creating moments where only one person has enough words to speak. Whether they choose to conciliate or attack thus becomes increasingly pointed.

Josie Rourke’s production is beautifully balanced and predicated on the deep connection between two people that is, by definition, unspoken. This is where the Director begins, before the words are introduced by creating a place in which the characters are physically comfortable with one another so that they can lounge, sit and stand at ease together. Without the distraction of a physical set, these tacit signals and the specificity of the words themselves at every point in the play are then magnified, conjuring up the life of Oliver and Bernadette entirely and helping the audience to invest in their story, even as the ways that this is communicated it to the audiences changes as the play unfolds.

Like her production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse where the interaction between Isabella and Angelo was loaded with the things the characters could never say but still managed to express, Rourke also brings that intensity to Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, understanding the slow burn inevitability of the finale. Though Steiner reduces the words as the play continues (occasionally cutting back in time to the chatty good days to show how they once were), Rourke fills that space with something else instead. Where dialogue once existed that absence fills up with a palpable loss, fear and the sorrow of dimming love that the characters try so hard to keep alive.

Jenna Coleman made a significant impression when she made her stage debut in All My Sons at the Old Vic in 2019, and appears here with all the confidence of a seasoned theatre performer. Her Bernadette manages to be both frustrating and put upon, quick to rise to the bait and calmly indulgent of her partner’s whims. She is a complex woman, never wanting to be defined by whatever reductive description is applied to her and Coleman’s Bernadette reacts with equal irritation to the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘working class,’ seeing only the weighty expectations they bring and struggling always to break free of such confining terminology. And Coleman’s performance is full of those many layers, capturing the excitement of love in the beginning, the mundanity of routine and the present absence as her character begins to check out of the relationship. There remains a quiet sadness that follows which Coleman makes just as contained as the words that describe it, trying hard not to hurt her partner but equally bewildered by how they got to this place.

All of this is underpinned by the chemistry that Coleman has developed with co-star Aidan Turner, an ease with one another that makes their individual and collective performance so engaging. Turner loves a chance to flex some comedy muscles, and while his television roles have tended towards the terribly serious, the stage seems to give the actor a freedom that opens up his performances. Following a hilarious and critically acclaimed turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons he is the more gregarious character who finds it hard to contain this emotion within the words that Steiner slowly takes away from him. Oliver has lots of feelings about the world, politics, himself ad his relationship but Turner still makes him seem easy going, caring, even fun, someone that Bernadette would want to be with. But as their situation deteriorates the extent of his concealment becomes clear.

It is an interesting line for Turner to tread, between the overt honesty of his character and the selective holding back of information that contributes to the certainty of its ending, as though by hiding it Oliver can stave-off that inevitability a little longer. The growing jadedness that Turner finds adds an interesting dimension as another relationship fades which Oliver regrets but cannot seem to stop. The fast-paced interchanges with Coleman are some of the production highlights as arguments and truth-telling sessions about their foibles and annoyances become nicely tragicomic.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is a play about the relationship formed by words and the words that form a relationship, of which Steiner suggests are too many and too few at the wrong times. Bernadette and Oliver find that they say a lot when they don’t need to and cannot say enough when they most need to talk. Rourke’s production underscores how entirely the playwright controls how this relationships is expressed with Robert Jones’s curved shelving design highlighting the materiality of the life between them, the objects and possessions that wordlessly suggest who they are or were or have never quite been. As the ordered shelves disappear into the air, their life together comes apart with it with a few remaining items, like the couple, suspended in limbo. Are they or aren’t they? But by this point, there are no words left.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Human Voice – Harold Pinter Theatre

For the second successive week, a superstar director has taken a different course in response to the intimate demands of a character-driven play about relationships. Where Marianne Elliott suspended the breadth of her, often sweeping, vision to create a forensic analysis of sexual identity in Cock, so too does Ivo van Hove put aside his filmic style for an intimate monologue about the end of love. Starring Ruth Wilson, Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, is a sympathetic study of a women driven to distraction by a final phone call with her lover to which van Hove brings shades of meaning and interpretation.

Not since A View from the Bridge has van Hove staged a play with so little paraphernalia. From Obsession to Network to All About Eve, van Hove has been interested in the place where cinema and theatre overlap, not just turning established films into theatrical productions, but how the camera can be used as a platform and as a revelatory tool. Network, set in a TV studio, was largely concerned with how individuals use, respond to and are affected by news media in which the protagonist is able to grandstand to a large, passive audience through live transmission. By contrast in All About Eve, van Hove placed cameras in private spaces where characters obscured from the stage audience but projected on screen held whispered conversations and asides that created confederacy with the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer.

While there are no cameras and no projection in this new staging of The Human Voice, van Hove probes that very same division between public and private, putting the audience in the voyeuristic position of observer to both parts of the lead character’s conversation. It is staged in what at first seems like a wide screen, a long rectangle of space surrounded by black. But it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a window, a sliding balcony door of what we presume is a stylish block of flats for young professionals somewhere in a vast and, crucially, lonely city.

But designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s regularly collaborator, gives us very little else to go on. Behind the window is merely a mottled cream wall with no pictures, no distinguishing marks and a home that has no visible furniture or personal effects. Our character is in a void, shut-off from the outside world and us by this substantial picture window behind which she is emotionally and physically caged, trapped significantly behind glass that mutes and contains her.

The effect is two-fold; first it deliberately empties the action of the play of any individuality, reflecting Cocteau’s text that names neither lover or their dog, gives hints of their daily lives, jobs, families or even the conduct of their affair, and instead creates an abandoned, broken-hearted everywoman in no defined era who has given everything up for a man including most of her friends. In response, van Hove places nothing in this space except the woman herself – or what is left of her – and the phone to which she clings and into which her vision of the world and all her hopes are projected. Things do exist beyond this space and into it she brings a referenced blue dress, paper and marker pens, even cleaning products, but there is considerable meaning in what we see and the life beyond the confines of this boxed space.

The second purpose is to place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of spy or interloper, making us privy to everything that happens; the things she wants her lover to know and the private, potentially shameful behaviours that she conceals at home. As this story unfolds and we observe her through the window, it becomes increasingly exposing as her state of mind and emotional control are shaken. Like Eddie Carbone’s self-destruction in A View from the Bridge, we are passive observers and entirely complicit in the outcomes of The Human Voice.

As a directorial technique, the reduced field of vision also brings considerable intensity and intimacy to this staging, shrinking-down the large performance area at the Harold Pinter to just a single viewing point within which the character can move around without losing the focus on her interior life or the building tension of increasingly unsatisfactory and technically disrupted telephone calls. Performed essentially behind a clear screen, a microphone provides the necessary projection which also allows the character to leave the stage as though entering other rooms of her flat or, quite naturally, walking around while on the phone which adds a dynamic and movement to what could easily be a static piece.

Where van Hove adds texture is through a carefully-chosen soundscape that partly brings additional contextual information but also indicates the chapters of this 70-minute drama. It is some way into the piece when our lead opens the balcony door indicating what it is for the first time and a rush of sound comes with it. A combination of traffic and night creatures instantly imply the buzz of a busy city far below, placing the character at a dangerous but important height above the city. In tandem, van Hove provides a soundtrack, a couple of empowering songs that the protagonist plays as she waits for her call and tries to gee herself up for the conversation to come. But in one spectacular sequence, even this is overlaid by a moodier, indie piece that in very cinematic fashion signals her feeling to the audience. It comes at a turning point in the action and although Beyoncé is audible underneath and we see the character shouting into the phone, her exact words are obscured by this track and brilliant yellow lighting that marks an energy shift, leaving us to question her state of mind thereafter.

Within the text, Cocteau leaves the audience to wonder how much of what we see really happens. This viewer is given one half of a conversation conducted on the phone and in a credit to the writing doesn’t leave the main character to repeat what she has heard for our benefit and instead she just reacts to it. We hear the phone ring and, in reference to an earlier time of telephone exchanges, multiple callers appear to intrude on the same line adding to moments of light relief if not outright comedy to leaven the tension momentarily and allow the writer to alter the shape of the story. But later in the play, we begin to question whether there is anyone on the line at all, is this woman, as she says, claiming a final phone call with the love of her life before resignedly accepting the end of their relationship or is there another explanation entirely?

There is a decided separation between how the woman wants to come across, to be considered and remembered, and how she really is. We see her repeatedly assuring her lover that she is well, her voice is calm, alluring even as she tries to be a good sport about it all. She always knew, she claims, that it would end and has enjoyed their time together on that proviso, a model breakup of adult acceptance. Yet, there are hints that there is a specific reason for this untimely separation, another woman, an engagement announcement that perhaps have hastened its end and affected her far more than she shows with only a few spikey comments revealing a deeper affliction to him at least.

So what is her purpose here? Is this truly a decent and civilised goodbye or is the woman using this platform to remind her erstwhile lover what he is missing? Is her seductive tone on occasion and reference to memorable times a strategy to lure him back, one that backfires horribly when she is unable to contain the resentment and distress that come tumbling out across their multiple attempts to connect. And is he worth this pain? There are several hints that he is lying to her about where he is calling from and presumably also the true nature of his connection with another woman. Why has he refused to collect his own belongings and his dog from her flat, sending a servant or associate known as Joseph to do it instead and why does she never call him, is it only because she doesn’t know where he will be or is it for some other reason of concealment. Cocteau leaves these big questions hanging – what could possibly have happened between this couple that necessitates a final phone call but no meeting in person, and just who is really to blame for its conclusion?

The biggest question of all is what is the woman’s state of mind which a lengthy section of the play asks us to reconsider. In her frustration at being unable to articulate her feelings clearly and calmly, is she practising a further conversation with him in her head the way we all do sometimes, only here she is verbalising her half of the dialogue for the audience’s benefit, or has she been talking to anyone at all? Is this whole hour an entirely imagined scenario in which her emotional despair has led her to believe she is in a 60-minute series of calls saying the things she could never do in real life, or, darker still, are there multiple personalities at play, the constant interruptions from other people on the lines, those ‘listening in’ and the woman seeking a doctor, are these merely other aspects of her broken psyche?

Ruth Wilson is always an actor to see on stage and here she captures all the complexities of feeling and the multiple possibilities her character presents. Teaming-up with van Hove once again following their striking Hedda Gabler, Wilson has a unique ability to turn her characters inside out on stage or screen, showing the audience the tumult beneath, and here the wounded underbelly is on full display across a commanding 70-minute performance.

Evolving seamlessly from rational, controlled caller to brittle ex-girlfriend, from fury with the position she has been put in by this man to shy, seductive and sometimes manipulative, Wilson leads the audience through this unfolding conversation as it reveals all the layers, contradictions and engulfing sadness within the women on the phone. Holding together a person who doesn’t want to be looked at but cannot bear to be left alone, Wilson edges her character nearer to the edge as her outward image and inward agitation contend.

Cocteau’s play still feels remarkably alive and relevant 90-years after it was first performed, capturing the tragedy of lost love and the emptiness it leaves behind. It is a quiet play, full of nuance and subtle moments that require close attention as the tides shift within the narrative, and the combination of Wilson and van Hove once again prove a dynamic pairing in this revival, with its understanding of human emotion and empathy for the broken hearted that feels both timeless and contemporary.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April with tickets from £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Translating poetry to the stage can be challenging for both performer and audience, the importance of the language while alive and vivid on the page can feel verbose or intangible, even static, when read aloud. Get it wrong and it can feel stilted and incomprehensible, get it right, even with the most complex poetic imagery, and it can be a magical, inclusive experience that takes us back to the simplest and most pure forms of communication – a single person telling a story. And of course, much will depend on the verse that’s being adapted; whether it contains multiple characters given distinct voices who can be dramatised even within someone else’s narrative, or whether it is a singular collection of thoughts, impressions and philosophies through which the speaker moves alone or in conversation with the silent reader.

The National Theatre produced a marvellous version of Under Milk Wood earlier this year, arguable a radio play for voices but still poetic in vocal style in which Director Lyndsey Turner gave a deep emotional resonance to Dylan Thomas’s words by pitching it as a memory play, wrapping the central poem in a wider narrative about reconnection between a father and son. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a tougher proposition with no storyline as such, only the protagonist-poet reflecting, like Thomas’s piece, on the relationship between past, present and future, as well as the existence of history and the changing seasons in a thoughtful one man show.

Opening at the Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year and arriving at the Harold Pinter Theatre after a brief tour, Four Quartets is not quite a play but more than a dramatic reading, and, across 80 rather swift minutes, Fiennes extracts the many changes of tone and pace, as well as shifts in energy across Eliot’s work that give the show a dramatic purpose and propulsion. While there is no need to understand every phrase, there is a lovely clarity to the questions that the poet is posing about the nature and circularity of time that carries the audience through the knotty reflections as the traveller explores some kind of meaning for his existence in the present.

In doing so, he reaches for a multitude of examples from the physical and very tangible reality of nature in the rose garden where the poem begins, through to familiar references to particular London locations as he imagines the dark trying to creep through Camden, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, while Edgeware Road is mentioned later. The contrast between nature and the city is a frequent refrain, with these earthier matters balanced against grander explorations of man’s place in a wider philosophy of existence that looks to gods and creation as well as religious duty and understanding.

Drawing these strands into a coherent theatre piece is certainly difficult especially as each poem was constructed separately before and during the Second World War, where it would be tempting, perhaps even terribly obvious, to stage them in the guise of Eliot himself reading the works he created and drawing allusions with the changing political and military circumstances in Europe. Just as The Wasteland is associated with the disillusion after the First World War (although not in Eliot’s view), so too could Four Quartets be interpreted as a direct reaction to the shadow of death and destruction sweeping the continent at the time of writing in which he reinforces a certain patriotic notion of green and pleasant England.

Fiennes, who co-adapts with James Dacre, however chooses to make this dramatisation independent of the work’s original creative context and instead places it in a visual no-man’s land, dominated by two giant stone blocks that seem like tombstones which he rotates and moves to signify shifts between the four poems. The rest of the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler has just two chairs and a table which, in a show he has also directed, gives Fiennes places to move around, changing height and location while using the empty seat to indicate the mystical past or future.

Each segment of the production has its own individual style, opening with the gentler reflections of Burnt Norton written in 1936 which places the speaker in his garden musing on the circularity of existence, not only the cyclical seasons that affect the visual and aural cues of the landscape as well as the scents he detects, but also the merging of past, present and future into a single moment. Here Fiennes beautifully conjures the physicality of the garden, relishing Eliot’s colourful rendering of the warm autumn night, the bird the speaker chases and the dark brown pool at its centre.

There are tones of the Romantics in Burnt Norton, of a mind absorbing the beauty of nature but distracted, even abstracted, by the wider concerns of life and its meaning, a sense of old and new worlds colliding and how humanity can make sense of it. In delivery, Fiennes gives these debates a richness, pausing to let each thought settle before pursuing the next line, and while it can be difficult in a one-man show not to race through without the safety of other actors to ease the burden and pressure of audience expectation, here Fiennes is entirely at ease with the space, letting the words fill the auditorium and unafraid of the silence in between where Eliot leaves room for meaning to emerge.

The second poem, East Coker from 1939 opens with the famous phrase ‘in the beginning is my end’, a refrain that recurs throughout this chapter of the show, momentarily reflecting Ecclesiastes’ A Time for Everything, with several lines based on the same ‘there is a time to’ sentence structure in its consideration of the most appropriate time to live, for the wind to blow and for building homes. Again, Eliot draws associations between the grandness of the natural landscape being enveloped and the ‘underground train, in the tube, [that] stops too long between stations’ as passengers confront their mortality for a fraction of a second. And this is something which Fiennes and Dacre’s adaptation does well, emphasising the fragile structures of humanity against the elements, all facing a similar process of death and rebirth.

But Eliot here is also interested in darkness and as the lights slowly dim in the theatre, Fiennes employs an effectual full blackout to recite the passages in which the late November night consumes the living, referencing death and silence as the wealthy and influential go the same way as everyone else regardless of their status. It’s a haunting moment and not repeated, reinforcing the power of Eliot’s words to create strong impressions and images in the collective mind of the audience in what is a momentarily immersive effect.

The Dry Salvages is perhaps the most dramatic segment, focusing as it does on the allusion of man and the sea, the remoteness of the city-dweller from the vivid brown water of the river and the notion of allowing a life to drift until it is cast upon the rocks. There is much here for Fiennes to draw out in the performance from the onomatopoeic reading of ‘soundless wailing’ to the low ring of a naval bell in the distance, the creation of atmosphere around the third of the quartets is particularly enjoyable, gently guiding the audience through the changing imagery.

This segment also considers man’s desire to predict the future and the need to think ahead or look to the past rather than live in the present. Given the context of war at the end of 1940 when this poem was composed, Eliot is exploring notions of spiritualism and destiny that bring comfort and meaning to the powerless. Fiennes articulates this section particularly well as Eliot talks of conversing with spirits, horoscopes, omens and tea leaves as natural reactions in moments of distress, extending his overall thesis about the intersection of different time periods and the spaces between them that we fail to recognise or understand.

The finale of the quartet is entitled Little Gidding and is built around the soothing notion that ‘all will be well’ which recurs throughout. Written in 1942, Eliot is again drawn back to imagery of the English countryside and the garden, as he was with Burnt Norton, referencing burnt roses and ash which gives a balance and completeness to the Four Quartets as a performance as well as a poetry collective, underscoring once again Eliot’s emphasis on the cycles and destructive effect of time as humanity fights for survival.

This section also gives Fiennes his only chance to play a second character as it contains a story of two strangers meeting on the road, one huddled from the cold as the actor sinks into his jacket while the other is commanding like a god or powerful spirit urging transformation in the other. Their interchange, which is well dramatised here, sets-up the remainder of the poem exploring the compression or relativity of time, acquainting the lifecycle of a yew tree and a rose while noting that ‘history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ And just like that, it’s over

None of these separate poems are named in the piece and Fiennes never overtly indicates the change between them in what becomes a continual monologue. Instead, the rhymes and indeed the separate verses within them are punctuated by music and Tim Lutkin’s often spectacular changes of light, the turning of the stone tablets and the actor relocating around the stage. And while that may sound overly self-conscious, it flows effortlessly between Eliot’s thoughts – we may not fully understand or spend time investigating all of the complex imagery in the piece but the emotional range of it is reflected in both the staging and Fiennes’s changing delivery.

In fact, the actor delivers a quite mesmeric performance, drawing out the nuances of tone, emphasis and imagery with a crisp clarity. Fiennes is always at ease with complex language and linguistic structure which has made him such a great performer of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and here he takes a piece that ordinarily exists as a collection of words on the page and only comes alive in the imagination, and gives it an expressiveness that is almost like dance, helping the words move around the auditorium with a power and resonance that becomes quite beguiling.

Four Quartets is perhaps more an experience than a performance, a series of musings and philosophical wonderings that grip as often as they elude. But Fiennes and Dacre have made this more than an intellectual exercise, and while its intangibility can be frustrating, even puzzling, there is real feeling and purpose to the application of a dramatic construct that makes Eliot’s poetry come alive on stage.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Anna X – Harold Pinter Theatre


Who are we and who are the people we meet? These rather profound questions have, in one way or another, been at the heart of Sonia Friedman’s brief Re:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre which concludes with Anna X. A festival of new writing, Re:Emerge has taken us to deepest America to consider space travel, climate and the conflicting scientific and natural worlds, to Notting Hill where Caribbean Black British identity and heritage ran-up against personal acceptance and cultural appropriation at the Carnival, and finally to the fast-paced, image-centric New York art scene where identity is fluid, mutable and only ever screen-deep. The opportunity provided by empty theatres to try out new work and provide a platform for new voices and experiences has been a valuable reassessment of the West End and just who is (and should be) reflected on its stages.

Anna X is arguably the most philosophical of the three plays under the wider Re:Emerge banner, asking complex and sometimes unanswerable questions about what personality, character and identity mean in the digital twenty-first century, where the notion that we can be anything we choose to be is taken to its extremes through the curation and cultivation of our lifestyles, choices and stories presented on social media platforms.

While the concept that reputational damage and transgressions last forever online, the flipside of that is the opportunity to create false or fantasy impressions of who we are, constructing and reconstructing identities using algorithms that ‘feed’ selective highlights of our lives to the people that we know and to complete strangers – highlights that we have filtered, primed and edited to present the best or optimal version of ourselves.

Into this context comes Anna, a character unlike any other and gratifyingly novel in the way that female protagonists have been written. Anna deliberately builds an identity for herself that moves her into the position of social influencer, using art primarily as the tool to generate cache that in turn leads to real life kudos as she transforms her digital profile. First she lands a magazine job and then ‘it girl’ / socialite status, opening up a plethora of parties, openings and elite gatherings that further build and sustain her reputation. When she meets tech boom millionaire Ariel who created an elite dating app, the beginnings of a modern New York fairy tale are in place.

But writer Joseph Charlton has something far savvier and more interesting to say, because despite Anna’s very public and performative lifestyle, she remains a deeply mysterious and unpredicatable force in the play. Based on a true story, a traditional gold-digger narrative would have been the predictable trajectory of Anna X, yet, proving truth is stranger than fiction, Charlton’s play instead pairs two characters with unstinting access to a rarefied world who are not only conversant with the art of digital platforms but fundamentally employed by or tied to them in their daily lives. Neither is, therefore, dependent on the other to ‘access’ these physical or technological spaces.

Yet, Anna is entirely devoted to the moment, not obviously for money or even the easy gratification of Instagram likes, but for the real albeit fleeting experiences of these events. What makes her so fascinating is the intangible contrast between the fact of her online presence and its real, evidential reality, and the elusiveness of her personality, the refusal to be defined by the massing of information about her. To present a female character in this way with no clearly expressed wants or needs is fascinatingly unusual, her enigmatic qualities and contradictions holding your attention throughout this 80-minute play.

That women on stage are so often defined by love, family or materiality makes Anna so appealing and while Charlton has created this very selective, monied cultural existence, Anna seems never to truly belong to it, always operating at a layer removed. Yet she is still fundamental to it and almost the fulcrum around which everything else is held in balance. She is there but not there, the epicentre of it all yet part of something larger to which she too is drawn but not invested.

To enhance the discomposing effect of his lead character, Charlton does two key things within the play’s structure that continually disrupt the narrative and prevents the audience from identifying too closely or empathising with Anna. The first is to layer the time lines, wrapping present day events in reminiscences and different degrees of memory while using the actors to play a variety of other characters to flesh-out their grounding in New York and the pivotal conversations they have. At all times, Charlton remains firmly in control of the flow, safely navigating the audience through the myriad of information to wherever her left Anna and Ariel.

The two characters frequently break from the scene they are in and are taken backwards in time to explain how they got to this moment or to provide useful context for the viewer. And Charlton chooses to do this at unusual moments in the midst of conversation, so rather than present a linear narrative, he offers up puzzle pieces which the audience must fit together. The effect is enjoyably alienating, allowing us just enough time to peak our interesting in the connection between Anna and Ariel but interrupting their duologues so we don’t become too attached to them.

Charlton’s second technique effectively and thematically enhances the play’s core identity debates by allowing both individuals to tell their version of the story. They break scene to talk directly to the audience and like their social media feeds, there is a feeling of curation to what we are told, each giving us the part of the story they choose to share and want us to hear. Notably, Ariel tends to reflect more on Anna as a personality and an experience than she does on him, but this framing of characters as both narrators and commentators of as well as players in their own lives feels particularly appropriate. At the culmination of this engaging story Charlton’s storytelling approach chimes perfectly with its outcomes as the whirl of parties, dates, meetings and the vibrancy of the New York art and social scene is shown to be superficial and considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Visually, Anna X is exciting and Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden’s video-based design suits the tone and pace of Charlton’s narrative exactly, helping to create tens of locations sailing by as rapidly as scrolling through Instagram, referencing the screen-based nature of this lifestyle but giving a tangible sense of buzz, people and energy in a two-character play set in a crowded and constantly moving cityscape. It is an integral part of the action, constructed from cubes that form a flat video wall with protruding or projected sections to create a multifunctional set that the characters can use as seats, tables or raised platforms.

Not the first time a digital set has been used, but the quality of the images here can be deceptively immersive, creating vivid impressions of grotty New York alleyways behind a lively club, the twinkling skyline view from an expensive apartment or its cunningly implied chic interior as actors appear to sit on sofas emblazoned beneath them. There is a technical precision to it and a genuine thoughtfulness about the play’s themes and the illusion of the screen-based surface which is very pleasing.

For Emma Corrin who plays Anna, and Nabhaan Rizwan who is Ariel, there are interesting dimensions to work with, not quite playing their characters as they are but as real life projections of their digital personas in which the person almost becomes an avatar of themselves. Corrin has the harder job – one she succeeds in admirably – having to convey the unreadable woman who is at once open to all experiences, almost chaotically so, but at the same time entirely shut off from emotional connections or really any sense of herself in the past or future. There is a nuance here though and while the hedonism and detachment is fun, Corrin explores Anna’s discomfort when Ariel gets too close, a desire to flee muddied by her own irrepressible need for human interaction and consistency. She is mysterious but not monstrous.

Ariel by contrast is a far more expressive character, a tech entrepreneur inventing ways to bring people together and perplexed by his inability to shake the impression that Anna makes on him. Rizwan gives Ariel a neediness he didn’t realise he had, chasing the shadow of a girl through the New York social scene, all too willing to believe he is seeing her true self – for someone running an online dating service where digital personas are shallow, the irony appears to escape him. But, Ariel also enjoys the accouterments of wealth and the freedom it gives him to access elite spaces. It comforts his ego to believe Anna is equally wealthy because it overcomes a barrier he seems to encounter in the rest of his life, putting them on an equal footing. Rizwan’s Ariel is deluded perhaps, but no more so than anyone else looking for love and Anna is hardly a benchmark of normality.

Based on a true story, Charlton’s play which received a try-out at the Vault Festival, makes a fierce West End debut as part of the Re:Emerge Season, and whether or not you know the outcome, the exploration of identity constructs and the medium through which they are expressed is hugely engaging. Seen in tandem with productions like Cruise and Public Domain that also debuted in major theatres, Anna X is a fitting end to a trilogy of works that, taken as a whole, ask who gets to tell their stories and the scale of the platform they are given to do it.

Anna X runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 4 August with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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