Tag Archives: Indira Varma

The Treatment – The Almeida

The Treatment, The Almeida

Life is almost always the basis for art, be it theatre, film or painting, but the finished product often bears little resemblance to the original deed. What happens between the act and the representation of it is a transformation in which reality becomes heightened, frozen and removed from its wider context to give an audience a snapshot of events, a moment in time. The Almeida’s superb revival of The Treatment examines the process of transforming one woman’s story into art – or as one character sees it a “corruption” of truth.

As the play opens, Annie is telling her story to two film ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew who listen intently, apparently sympathising but occasionally interrupting with their expectations of how the story unfolds – expectations based on their movie-led ideas of drama and plot. Sweet, innocent Anne soon learns that her narrative is no longer her own as she is bombarded with improvements and the unsought attentions of Andrew who claims to have fallen for her instantly. Running in parallel the producers also meet playwright Clifford still trading on a late 60s fame that has long since faded. The story he proposes to them becomes mixed in with Anne’s truth, and as the boundary of art and life begins to fray, both storytellers encounter the bizarre world of the producers, the New York streets and the arrival of Anne’s husband.

First produced at the Royal Court in the 1990s, this assured and fascinating revival feels as relevant now as it must have done 25 years ago as the individual need to be heard has been given fresh life via social media while the unstoppable advance of reality TV imposes a glossy narrative order on the chaotic events of daily life. What is most interesting is the way in which the design creates an unnerving world in which the drab grey-panelled offices of the producers where fantasies are created feels more like real-life than the colour saturated and bizarre external locations around New York. And as Anne becomes more embroiled that distinction is increasingly important, so by the second act, designer Giles Cadle and lighting director Neil Austin have created an increasingly false and unreal visual aesthetic, like a Miles Aldridge photo come to life.

And the tone is equally unsettling; it starts out as a comedy with Indira Varma’s hardnosed producer constantly interrupting Anne’s rather simple story of being held captive, by taking the tale off on elaborate tangents that will make it more sell-able to the film’s audience. We suppress a wry smile and roll our eyes as Jennifer tries to preempt Anne only to be rebuffed by a less glamorous truth, but it says much about us that while we recognise that what we see on screen is a heightened version of reality, Jennifer symbolises our own innate expectation that stories will play-out in a certain way. If a man holds a woman captive and tapes her mouth, it must be for a sexual purpose, and Anne’s insistence to the contrary shows us just how clearly our perceptions of truth have been blurred by film and TV representations of similar incidents, and how frighteningly easy it is to start thinking about these things as clichés.

This seems to be at the crux of Crimp’s play and something that is demonstrated with skillful clarity by The Almeida’s production. If we think of the influence of these fictions on real-life as the blind leading the blind, then the bizarrely wonderful scene in which a sightless taxi driver takes Anne on a journey round New York makes perfect contextual sense. It’s utterly surreal but also a metaphor for what’s happening in the rest of the play where what you think you see and what you really see are not necessarily the same thing.

So, when Anne’s husband Simon (Matthew Needham) comes to find her in the city and encounters writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), it leads him to disparage the arts as the corruption of life, to the point where he doesn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and be lied to.  And it’s interesting that this searing analysis comes from the most ordinary person in the play, a man with no link to the glossy world that calls to Anne, but someone able to cut through the pretence with a reasoned and damning condemnation of both the characters and all of us in the audience watching a made-up show about a fantasy world. It’s a light and strange play but one that under the surface has so many things to say about the way we distort reality and use the arts to tell stories.

The performances are uniformly excellent led by Aisling Loftus as Anne, a mouse of woman who despite a girlish reticence that seems her default personality, has a surprising determination to tell her story exactly as it happens, demanding truth in a world of fabrication. Both over-awed by the producers and refusing to be railroaded by them, Anne firmly corrects every attempt to deviate from her tale with a nervous certainty – Loftus showing us that Anne is a raft of contradictions, seduced and repelled by the Hollywood world she is trying to escape to. Her continual confusion is at its best in the growing connection with Andrew as the two a drawn together, but her reserve tethers her to the familiarity of her old life as she faces a choice between true past and fantasy future. Loftus, playing it perfectly straight, gets exactly the right wide-eyed feel that offers many comic and enjoyably bizarre moments.

Equally beguiled by the clash of fantasy and reality is Andrew who falls for Anne’s simple nature and his encounter with her, while initially a trick to win her story, seems to wake him up to the falsity of the life he’s been living. It’s always a treat to see Julian Ovenden on stage and his Andrew is barely readable at the beginning, leaning casually against the wall as Jennifer holds forth, watching and absorbing what’s happening without actively participating. And Ovenden feeds that ambiguity through the performance, never quite sure if Andrew is genuinely taken with Anne or using his allure to make the deal, which adds a touch of danger to proceedings. But whatever his real motive, he is troubled by her presence, and, in a life dominated by other people’s made-up stories, it’s as if he’s been living in a bubble that suddenly bursts, showing him the world as it really is for the first time in years, a confusion which Ovenden navigates superbly.

Equally skilful is Indira Varma’s semi-monstrous Jennifer, who treats her own staff like dirt while stroking the egos of possible clients. Jennifer feels entirely in control of everyone around her, she has a seemingly unassailable power in her office, while knowing how to cajole and manipulate storytellers to deliver the kind of film she knows will sell. There’s very little empathy in her, a brutal business woman thinking about profits and bagging the next big thing, prepared to publicly abuse her staff, but Varma also makes her unexpectedly funny, emphasising Jennifer’s ridiculousness, so lost in the creation of fiction that she has no self-awareness.

There’s also excellent support from several supporting cast members, not least Ian Gelder’s fabulously self-absorbed odd-ball writer who clings to his former grandeur while trying to conceal his desperation, that ends up costing him more than his reputation, and Matthew Needham’s deeply sinister interpretation of Anne’s husband Simon who finds the big city unnerving but thinks it’s perfectly normal to tie his wife to a chair while he’s at work.

It’s all directed with style by Lyndsey Turner, and while there are long scene changes as the audience is shown an increasingly distorted cab ride around New York, it adds to the deliberately disjointed and uncomfortable feel the production strives for. One of the most interesting aspects is the use of layered conversations and at various points two or more separate discussion happen simultaneously, forcing the audience to decide which one they want to tune into. Partly it adds to the confusion but also more accurately reflects the way real speech happens than most stage dialogue.

This revival of the The Treatment is a wonderfully bizarre piece of theatre that has lots to say about the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, and the creation of art. In these days of reality TV and fake news it may be increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and invention but Martin Crimp’s play remains a relevant and enjoyably odd show that reminds us that what we see on screen has been plucked, pulled and ‘treated’ until it barely resembles its original state. Perhaps Simon is right; life itself is fine, it is art that’s corrupt.

The Treatment is at The Almeida until 10 June and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Man and Superman – National Theatre

Happiness is something we’re all looking for, and whatever that means to you, it can be a lifelong pursuit. Whether it be a certain type of luxury, a happy family or just freedom to be yourself, almost everyone will have a dream or goal to work towards. But what if we’ve got this all wrong and the years or decades spent hoping for more are wasted? According to Shaw’s controversial hero Jack Tanner, while we’re all dreaming our lives away, life – the very excitement of just existing and experiencing the here and now – is passing us by.

Despite being more than a century old, this revival of Man and Superman feels extremely pertinent – tapping into questions that are still troubling us now. Many of these are concerned with society’s expectations of the life we should lead and of the characteristics of men and women. As the play opens Jack Tanner is a celebrity, famed for writing a radical book which has set him politically at odds with acquaintance Roebuck Ramsden. Part of his philosophy is that marriage is pointless, a façade for indignity and something women force on men to preserve the biological need to repopulate. Yet when his good friend dies, Jack is appointed co-guardian of Ann who had manipulated her father into the appointment with her own designs to marry Jack. Learning of this plan Jack runs off to Spain with Ann in pursuit and attempts to retain his freedom.

At around 3.5 hours this is a monster of a show and includes the often excluded third Act concerning Jack’s philosophical dream set in hell. Yet this fascinating production zips along and when the interval arrives at around an hour and 45 minutes, I could easily have stayed there and watched it to the end without a break – crazy but true! Admittedly, at times, it’s not an easy thing to watch and with our twenty-first century eyes some of the attitudes about and of the women will certainly jar. Having a central character whose only wish is to be married and conducts a campaign of lies, deceits and manipulation to get what she wants isn’t going to win over modern female audience members.

Yet, beneath the surface, there are also many aspects of Man and Superman that positively reinforce the role of strong and independent-minded women. First, this play is over a hundred years old so at that time to have a character like Ann appear on stage at all was a radical move – yes she is driven by marriage, but one of her choosing to a man who will be her sparring equal, instead of the weak young man Octavius who follows her about. She controls the action of this play, outsmarting and outwitting all the men and can be seen as the basis of many of the strong female characters that followed her. Second, this is a comedy and much like Oscar Wilde’s characters, this production encourages the audience to view everyone, and particularly Jack as rather ludicrous, thus his views can also be seen in this light. Here is a silly man and the scrapes he gets into with a set of silly people presented entirely for our amusement.

By giving this a modern setting, director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram are asking the audience to think about some of the points Shaw raises and how far we have really come in the last century. Jack may applaud the idea of babies being born outside of marriage or not being born at all, but today how often are women in their 30s asked when they plan to marry and have children – it is a pressure society and the media still exerts on unmarried women who have chosen a path other than having families. Rather than seeming old fashioned, watching this production of Man and Superman showed me that Shaw was actually imagining a society that is still some years away from really existing.

Absolutely central to this production is Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Jack which balances a wonderful comic timing with the world-weary philosophising Tanner indulges in during his long speeches. Fiennes is an actor I would happily watch read the phonebook so his almost permanent appearance on stage for 3.5 hours is joy from start to finish. It is only since the Grand Budapest Hotel that the actor has been lauded for this comedic skill, but this comes as no surprise to anyone who had seen In Bruges or his stage work including God of Carnage a few years ago. Many will only know him from Harry Potter and Bond which Fiennes recently explained has given him the financial freedom to do more theatre and will head to the Old Vic next year for The Master Builder. But his performance here is at its best during the longer speeches where he is able to build momentum and tension to create a climactic moment – and this is a skill you see in his earlier films such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair – where he conveys complex and deeply felt emotion or opinion. Jack may hold some ludicrous views but he is convincing and sympathetic.

Supporting Fiennes is the brilliant Indira Varma as Ann, who is every bit his match and although we see her behave in a way modern women may find uncomfortable, she is also someone to root for – even though you know both she and Jack can’t ultimately have their way. Varma ensures Ann never becomes annoying and it’s fascinating to see her turn arguments and discussions around to suit herself, easily controlling everyone around her. Ann is an interesting collection of contrasts, wanting both so much and so little, and Varma’s verbal duelling with Fiennes will keep you gripped throughout.

There is a fine supporting cast too with Tim McMullen almost stealing the show as the bandit Mendoza that Tanner meets in Spain who by coincidence is in love with the chauffeur’s sister. Nicholas Le Prevost is always a welcome addition to any cast, and here plays Ann’s other disapproving guardian. Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful using digital panels across the back wall to project blurred images of flowers, gardens and organic patterns which look stunning against some of the more traditional sets, and adds emphasis to the way this production cleverly navigates old and new.

Much has been said about the inclusion of the dream sequence set in hell where Tanner in the guise of Don Juan debates the philosophy of life and existence with the devil and companions. Admittedly this is the first time I’ve ever seen Man and Superman so can’t comment on what it would be like without it, but it was fascinating to listen to the debates rage between the characters, and a rare opportunity to sit back and think about what life means. Excluding this from the play would seem to me like cutting out its heart.

Man and Superman is then an absolute triumph for the National Theatre; it is a play that espouses views we may not always agree with but this production offers both plenty to think about as well as much to entertain. It’s never a chore to see Ralph Fiennes on stage and he shines here as Shaw’s radical anti-hero destined to be bumped back to earth. If you’re still searching for happiness, then 3 and half hours in this theatre is an absolute treat and as Jack himself would hope, will make you think about the purpose of life itself.

Man and Superman is at the National Theatre until 17 May with an NT Live broadcast to local cinemas on 14 May at 7pm. Most tickets are sold out, but keep checking the website for returns or book for an NT Live screening. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


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