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The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.

Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.

The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.

But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.

And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.

When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?

Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.

This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.

Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.

Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.

Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.

There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Who Killed My Father -Young Vic

Who Killed My Father - (by Jan Versweyveld)

A page to stage transfer can be difficult, especially when the novel only contains a singular narrative voice or interior monologue that may struggle to find dramatic impact and depth in the theatre. Do you defy the original author and tell the story from the playwright’s perspective instead, dramatising the individual scenes from multiple angles or make it a monologue in which a single actor must recreate the voices and experiences of other characters in memory or fantasy sequences? For Ivo van Hove’s treatment of Édouard Louis’s 2018 book Who Killed My Father, it is the latter, a socio-political one-man show staged at the Young Vic as part of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s European production tour.

van Hove is a superb director of intimacy and tension in confined settings, marshaling the emotional beats of a story that often build to a final devastating and decisive conclusion, particularly in personal relationship between lovers or within families. His recent West End revival of The Human Voice staring Ruth Wilson was a carefully constructed examination of a woman on the edge of destruction, trapped in her box-framed flat and unraveling as the play unfolded. Likewise, van Hove explored the private and layers of relationships in Arthur Miller’s family tragedy A View from the Bridge – still one of his most memorable productions – also at the Young Vic. In Who Killed My Father, van Hove is back in similar territory where masculinity, social expectation and inevitability play out across the life of one family in the last two decades.

And citing these two examples is pertinent because in staging the play, van Hove merges elements from both in the visual language of Who Killed My Father and in the emphasis that van Hove in his role as adapter and director gives to different elements of the story. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, like The Human Voice, this show takes place in a defined box-like structure, a device that instantly gives the contents a screening feel but also a sense of containment, reflected further in the interior which is a single room – not a high-rise flat like The Human Voice but possibly a cell or hospice room that contains the narrative markers of the story; some are sparce furnishings like a bed and a television used to illustrate particular memories while others are more ethereal concepts that speak to a life defined by violence such as the fist-pummeled walls.

Versweyveld has created the perfect canvas in fact onto which van Hove can paint Louis’s story, a set that will contain decades of family life, multiple rooms and conversations as well as the bombastic ebullience of a working class masculinity that becomes as brittle and lifeless as it was once dominant and powerful. These tonal changes are captured through Versweyveld’s cinematographic lighting design – another feature shared with The Human Voice – in which darkness or shadow have as much to contribute as the rich golden hues that flood the stage when the narrator talks about paternal love and the clinical starkness of the greyish white light that even tinges the audience as the manly force of the father is broken and then prevented from ever rising again.

Into that physical space van Hove places a story that has some similarities with Miller’s troubled Carbones. Both involve strong patriarchal figures whose dominance of their families kindles destructive impulses from within and both focus on the intense consequences of that power waning within a small household unit. Louis’s text really looks at cycles of inherited masculinity and the difficulty of breaking out of those traits. It asks some large and generally unanswered questions about where manly ideals come from, how they become ingrained and the methods of transfer between generations. The expectations pressed on a father are then equally expected of a son, gendered norms that are initially oppressive but soon become learned behaviours that perpetuate toxic and harmful myths about what is means to be a man.

van Hove makes this the centrepiece of his play, the complex interaction between two men who are so different yet entirely the same. But, with some initial information given about a violent and abusive grandfather who physically harmed his wife and children, there is a clear pattern of and template for male behaviour that is being passed down the generations here, one which we are left to assume, but cannot be fully certain, that the narrator has broken free from. In telling this story, in which the son is speaking directly to the father, is he accusing or concerned he might be the same as the man who raised him?

The place where hate ends and love begins is murky so while a particular scene may condemn a character entirely, there is complexity across a lifetime of knowing someone that never vindicates them but suggests, for this son and his father at least, that there was more to their relationship than a polarised feeling of hate or appreciation, that day-to-day, fear and love were bound up in each other and with other kinds of responses like shame, guilt, resentment, pride and admiration.

Like Louis’s novel, van Hove retains the non-chronological order of events so the audience is never entirely sure when things occurred and to what extent it suggests patterns of behaviour in either man. Several crucial things appear to happen when the narrator is seven; his father is thrown out by his mother but may be taken back, he performs a pivotal dance sequence to Barbie Girl by Aqua, performing the female role, which his father ignores and there are arguments about what manliness looks like. Lots of other contextual information is hinted at including the father’s movement between different factories, the relative poverty of the family who feel judged by others and a latent homophobia that comes from both parents, although the narrator briefly states he takes male lovers in Paris as an adult.

This blurring of time is there to create an impression rather than a distinct blow-by-blow account of family life, and often the information conveyed is contradictory. The notion of love and hate are at the heart of this complexity and there are many stories about the father’s verbal and mental abuse of his children using silence and insults as a means of shaping his boy into the man he needs to be, occasionally referencing neighbours and outsiders who compound these ideals. Yet there is real love for his father as well, a man who rejects his son’s birthday present idea but buys it anyway and then goes to some effort to feed the boy’s interest afterwards. The audience never quite knows whether the father is the monster we are presented with – and crucially he is barely personified until quite some way into the play. Or is the narrator only remembering particularly high and low moments that shaped him rather than the less notable constants of day-to-day life?

And what of the women who barely seem to feature in this story at all. The narrator’s mother is generally referred to as a rather saintly figure which is common in domestic violence households where children want to protect and save their mother from harm. But in the few scenes she appears in, the mother either nags her son or uses gossipy neighbours as a reason to chastise her son for publicly exhibiting homosexual behaviour, something she is embarrassed by. Yet, there the narrator suggests no resentment of his mother or takes time to reflect on her as a real character, exploring neither the relationship she had with his father, her decision to take him back or, crucially, what happens to her at the end of this story. It is also very late in the play that our storyteller mentions a couple of sisters, people not known about before or afterwards who have been entirely excised from this history and from the scenarios the audience has been asked to imagine. Louis and van Hove leave this information hanging, but where are and who are the women in this story?

Taking place in the last twenty years, music has quite an important function in Who Killed My Father, particularly pop and dance that continually reference a surrounding popular culture that so often defines van Hove’s productions. Aqua appear a number of times as the crucial Barbie Girl dance routine recurs in several roots of memory but there is other music too, particularly Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On which is relevant to and underscores a section about paternal love, and there is a beautiful spinning disco ball scene early on as the narrator embraces dance as a means of expression. Versweyveld creates a vortex of swirling light that is equally beautiful and disorientating in keeping with the themes of this piece.

But Who Killed My Father does come a little unstuck in its final 10-minutes with a scene of directed political rage that breaks free of the intimate and becomes a tirade against French health policy. Violence against the body as an act of State is the theme and while there is some useful connection here with the notion of bodily attack committed by men in their own homes, the withdrawal of health benefits and declassification of conditions feels suddenly out of place in what has been a tightly focused domestic story. The switch from the effects of the father in that space to the State’s betrayal of its citizens is too sudden and even as the narrator quite literally steps out of his box to berate a series of male French ministers and Presidents who perpetrated these widescale betrayals and attacks on the working classes, the audience loses some sense of what this play has been about – the individual, complicated connection between father and son trapped in their own social roles.

Appearing recently as Menelaus in Age of Rage at the Barbican, regular collaborator Hans Kesting is tremendous in the leading role, holding the audience in thrall for the show’s entire 90-minute running time. This is a monologue that demands considerable stamina and control, not giving too much away too soon and managing the rhythm of a tale that generates plenty of tension. Its structure seems fluid as memories and thoughts overlay one another but it demands a great deal from Kesting who rises to meet the challenge, drawing the audience in with impressive characterisation yet holding them at arms length to maintain the ambiguities of the central perspective and its protagonist.

It is always exciting seeing van Hove’s work for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam with its cinematic vision encapsulated in theatrical form. Here in Who Killed My Father there is both intimacy and scale that neatly capture the contradictions and complexities of loving a family member. The title of this work may not be a question but it certainly makes a statement.

Who Killed My Father is at the Young Vic until 24 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


I, Joan – Globe Theatre

History wasn’t only written by the winners, but by the men on the winning side so what can it really tell us about the lives, experiences and identities of anyone else? That is the central debate in Charlie Josephine’s new play for the Globe Theatre, I, Joan, a re-examination not only of the supposed facts and assumptions made about Joan of Arc but also her subsequent presentation predominantly by male artists and writers who retrospectively project shape and meaning onto her story, replacing Joan’s voice with their own. An instrument of God called to rebalance the kingdom of France through war or a convenient peasant girl who outgrew her usefulness to the elite, Josephine’s play explores constructed, imposed and lived identities and the limitations of patriarchal vocabularies.

Of the many women in history, Joan of Arc probably offers the most fascinating opportunity to explore the fluidity of gender identity. Whether or not Joan actively questioned notions of gender or believed in gradations of identity we will never know, but the early criticism of the fictionalised I, Joan rather misses the point. This is not so much a speculation on whether Joan would have used a different pronoun but instead how the wider contemporary perceptions of Joan as a woman were a barrier to be overcome as well as a tool to confine and destroy her.

That Joan of Arc assumed and exhibited traits and behaviours that were seen as exclusively male – the desire to lead armies, to physically wage war, to receive and interpret God’s word and to adopt masculine dress – suggest a blurring of gender identity far beyond that exhibited by other powerful women in early modern history. Elizabeth I may have donned a breastplate at Tilbury and commended her kingly heart to the troops but much of her public image was predominantly feminised and chivalric in tone throughout her reign. But Joan, Josephine is suggesting, never appeared as anything except herself and that is the basis on which the character engages with the French court and with the audience.

And there are many interesting aspects to I, Joan that open out these concepts of performative identity and the fear of otherness that creates a conservative backlash against Joan as her fame and success grow. Josephine includes the rituals of dress more than once, moments in which the initially skirted Joan adopts a unisex boiler suit that matches the soldiers she leads, creating a uniformity and androgyny that is liberating – an act crucially perceived as Joan deliberately adopting masculine characteristics rather than an innate expression of self. Later, as the king grows jealous of her fame, powerful men try to push Joan back into the dresses that were forever abandoned, while even the Queen Mother lectures the veteran leader on more womanly ways to influence power.

Between these two markers of fortune, Joan grows in confidence, starting to question and embrace an identity that comes with, an albeit temporary, freedom to decide. It is here that Joan struggles against the imposition of inappropriate pronouns, rejecting ‘she’ for the more satisfying ‘they’, and Josephine repeatedly makes space within the play for Joan to have this conversation, to feel that they don’t fit and have the space to express the dissatisfaction with inadequate binary choices. As Henry V contemplates the burden of monarchy and power on the night before Agincourt, so does Joan stop to wonder what their identity means in the spaces between battles as the bodies pile up in the name of the cause – be it God, France or the wannabe King.

The body then becomes an important point of contention – as non-male bodies so often have – wondering who gets to own, name and make decisions about it. For all Joan’s liberty, they struggle initially with the physicality of the blood-soaked battlefield at Orléans, the destructive price of their inner destiny inflicted on the bodies of others. Later when Joan is tried, accused by the church of false prophesy, heresy and a kind of vanity in adopting men’s clothing, the force of patriarchal conformity and the boundaries placed around Joan’s apparent liberty feel even more constricting, demonstrating the illusory nature of their freedom and how quickly tolerance is replaced with fault when the hero falls from grace.

But Joan also expresses contention within their own body, a striving and dissatisfaction resulting from inaccurate and imposed gender assignment that physically contorts their own body. This is an under-developed aspect of I, Joan, although it is referenced several times, and there is a greater opportunity here to contrast the sword-point impact that Joan has on the bloodied and mutilated bodies of men left behind in her campaigning – arguably with the rank and file at least having as little control over the purpose of their own bodies as Joan does – and Joan’s own constrained physicality. Joan certainly becomes more arrogant as the successful campaigns pile up but there is no reflection on the human cost of that to someone who expresses such frustration with the confinement of their own body and the external controls pressed upon it.

That they are referred to as ‘girl’, ‘she’ or ‘maid’ by others throughout the play is pointed, a refusal from the men and women of the French court and army to engage with Joan’s right to self-determine, as well as a blinkered persistence that the world exists purely in black and white. Josephine extends this into consideration of the deficiencies of vocabulary, a repeated refrain throughout the play for Joan is the notion of feeling bigger than the tiny words invented by men allow. When they look at the star-splattered sky they don’t feel small but vast, a reference picked up again in the final portion of the play when the impassioned Joan prowls the audience in rallying monologue, descrying the constraints of tiny words like ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ that cannot contain the full meaning of a person while no combination of the alphabet has yet been invented to fully encapsulate them – a poetic and powerful moment that gets to the heart of Josephine’s interpretation.

It is a shame then, that so much of this interesting reconceptualisation of Joan takes place in a vastly overlong and tonally varied piece of drama, and while Josephine rejects the perspective of male writers who have shaped Joan’s legend in their own words, far too much of I, Joan relies on the structure of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that proves repetitious and sometimes too hesitant in its stridency. There seems to be an informal rule at The Globe that no show should finish before 10.30pm and I, Joan suffers for it while there is a notable disconnection between the ferocious marketing poster that presages a gritty, warrior drama and the comic presentation of much of the production as design and directorial choices seek jaunty ways to entertain the audience.

These decisions undercut almost every serious scene in the play, pulling focus from the high-stakes religious and monarchical drama that makes the emotional pay offs difficult to justify. The physical staging is strikingly modern, and designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen has created a wooden arc that sweeps from gallery to stage with a urban skate-park feel giving the actors a semi-velodrome curvature that offers height and pace to the movement sequences that represent fighting or moments of emotional distress. In practice, however, director Ilinca Radulian larges uses it as a slide from the gallery and every time the actors slip down it, it evokes laughter from the audience.

And that is not always the response the scene demands. In a crucial scene after Orléans, Joan is troubled by the massacre around them, a weighty moment about the path God has seemingly chosen for Joan who has seen true battle for the first time and is grappling with a disconnection between the honorable notions of it and the ugly reality. Into that moment come several boiler-suited soldiers sliding down onto the stage in different positions, creating levity in what should be a grave and sober reflection. Likewise, when Joan is tried by the Bishops towards the end of the play, the impassioned refusal to accept their charges and the recognition that death will be the consequence is undermined by Jennifer Jackson’s shuffling choreography as the clergymen stutter and bumble around each other – a joke repeated several times before the scene’s conclusion.

And this tendency to waggishness happens again and again, the production opting to find a laugh rather than allowing any emotional complexity to ripple through the Globe audience. And some of that is very clever, the petulant King Charles leaving the winning and running of his campaign to his wife, mother-in-law and Joan is very funny but the balance isn’t quite right. I, Joan takes the subject of gender very seriously so the moments in which Joan reflects on that, often in monologue, are sensitive and engaging, but the rest of Joan’s identity – soldier, crusader, Christian – isn’t given equivalent importance. It means the tone wavers considerably across what is a vastly overlong piece, and while the audience really does invest in Joan, the broader emotional impact of her final sacrifice and betrayal just isn’t given the space it demands.

In their debut performance, Isobel Thom is an excellent Joan, playing well to the audience and making them confederate in Joan’s story. Commanding when they need to be, but also vulnerable, Thom’s Joan is driven and certain that God is speaking through them, but during the play learns to trust their own instincts when reading people and situations. It is a performance that grows across the production, building to an important rallying statement delivered on the ground among the people in which Thom electrifies the audience. But there is nuance in their Joan, subtle hints at arrogance and complacency, a quickness to dismiss the feelings and needs of others in the singular quest to fight on that the play could also delve into a little deeper. Joan may be certain but how faith in them quickly sours, how the perception of Joan goes from saviour to dangerous extremist needs more time.

Adam Gillen as Thomas, Joan’s chief supporter within the French court also develops across the show, becoming increasingly disillusioned with his royal master, an amusing Jolyon Coy who embraces all of the peevishness of King Charles, especially as his subject’s fame begins to outshine him but Charles’s determination to trust non-male voices against the advice of his courtiers is an interesting strand that could be better explained. There is good support from Debbie Korley and Janet Etuk as the powerful women who also try to impose gender compliance on Joan, even after they have proved themselves in battle, an important note about the sometimes unexpected sources of patriarchal control.

Josephine’s play shouldn’t be remotely controversial and its exploration of gender identity aligns pretty seamlessly with the known activities of Joan’s military endeavours, pushing at the meaning of assigned sex and the ways in which history has reduced and recorded different perspectives. But I, Joan has some more theatrical and dramatic questions to address about the balancing of gender with other identity markers in representing a complex life story.

I, Joan is at the Globe Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Miles & The Fall – Original Theatre Company

The focus on new writing schemes has been reassuring in the last year, quelling pandemic period fears that venues would proritise ‘safe’ revivals of well-known work in a new risk-averse landscape. Instead, initiatives such as Sonia Friedman’s well-cultivated RE:EMERGE season at the Harold Pinter Theatre have made important statements about the value of new voices and stories to the growth and recovery of the theatre ecosystem. Others soon followed suit with debut plays including All of Us by Francesca Martinez at the National and Jack Holden’s Cruise appearing across subsidised and commercial theatres. And that support continues with new work recently announced in seasons at the Royal Court, Jermyn Street Theatre and the Arcola Theatre among others. Meanwhile, Riverside Studios has partnered with the Original Theatre Company to make their three competition-winning plays from debut writers available for on-demand viewing.

Across three nights in July, these three plays were performed in the small space at Riverside Studios with all-star casts and simultaneously live-streamed to an international audience. The showcase for debut writing excellence is now for sale as a triple-package with the third piece, Tikkun Olam, also available as a distinct digital entity. Separate release dates for Miles and The Fall will follow, but watching them as a collective is just as valuable, transporting the viewer to three very different locations and into diverse lives, a chance to reflect not only on why this renewed emphasis on new writing is so valuable but also how effectively these schemes select their competition winners.

Miles

First up is Miles by Eilidh Nurse, a 95-minute play about a caravan park receptionist and her colleagues in a remote part of Scotland with few tourists and even fewer opportunities for its stymied youth. This is a real character piece and while there are underlying plot drivers, the creation of people the audience can invest in is the focus, with much of the first hour given over to building a sense of the individuals through slow-burn conversation and, often, conflicted interaction. So, when the drama finally comes, its impact is more deeply felt. Although Nurse keeps those reverberations subtle and small within the context of this work and the particular personalities involved, the outcomes nonetheless feel seismic for the lives depicted.

Miles opens with a new arrival, 18-year old -Ed (Cristian Ortega) – who comes to work at the caravan park alongside 24-year-old Janey (an excellent Hiftu Quasem) and 48-year-old owner Bobby (Gary Lewis), their ages only relevant to the similarities and differences that the characters feel exist between them. But while there has been a harmony of sorts for many years, Ed’s presence becomes the catalyst for the drama, precipitating a greater self-knowledge for the team, including himself, and like an inverse Pinter interloper, actually bringing people together. Ed has no awareness of his role as an instrument of change and nor do other characters recognise him as such, but Nurse uses the break from routine to take the cast forward.

But Miles is not a play that shies away from difficult subject matter, and beneath its comedic surface are some tougher themes about loneliness and lost opportunity, about the sacrifices people make to protect themselves from facing a frightening reality and about the limitations of living in small rural locations where economic deprivation and limited chances to meet or interact beyond the immediate community are both stifling and oppressive. Nurse’s skill is in weaving all of that through a show about day-to-day lives and the ordinariness that comes with it. No one actively steps back to address these themes in unlikely dialogue or dramatic encounters, but through the things they say and don’t say, the things they do and don’t do, the revelatory contextual backdrop to Miles looms large.

Central to this is the character of Janey whose story this really is and whose prickly, rather acerbic demeanour keeps other people at arms length while she quietly relies on their interaction as her primary sustenance. This isn’t the first creation whose hard surface reveals a more vulnerable layer beneath but Nurse has written a complex young woman who barely knows herself, unable to control the attitude she projects, mixing a world-weariness with her own frustrations about where she lives and feeling trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling existence that Janey is unable to escape from.

But for all that, there is a growing affection for her, a respect for her quippy no-nonsense style that develops in the early part of the show as the audience comes to understand that there is far more to Janey than she allows others to see, that before the curtain falls on this play, there will be revelatory explanation that will justify the allowances the audience is asked to make for her. Like almost everyone else in this drama, she is a product of her circumstances and experience against which, in reality, it is far harder to fight than fiction often acknowledges.

The other characters have less stage time but the snapshot of their lives also proves enlightening and engrossing. Bobby in particular proves the perfect foil and although appearing selectively throughout, Bobby supplies much of the backdrop to Janey’s story while retaining a credible life of his own. An equally lonely figure, Bobby’s reliance on the younger woman to help run his business while he attends to practical maintenance is tempered by a gentle subplot in which Bobby starts dating. It isn’t a showy storyline but it explores the desire for companionship and the hope of a different kind of life that still appeals to him despite how long he has felt trapped in his own recurring role – a glimmer of hope that things can always be different if you let them. While Bobby represents a possible future for the young adults if they choose to stay in this place, his essential kindness and the fatherly care he projects for Janey in particular add substance to the caravan park set-up.

The discursive nature of the play becomes more tangible in the final third of Miles when another interloper arrives, this time seeking to disrupt the steady state that Nurse has so carefully established and the unfolding drama occurs rapidly. It would be valuable to spend more time in this part of the play, expanding the causes and consequences of the central revelation and how it has shaped the behaviour of the characters it affects as well as what that means for their lives in the period beyond the play. Having spent so much time with them and been drawn so well into their experience, this moment of reckoning and its meaning need just a little more development in what has been a gripping and thoughtful character study.

The Fall

Drew Hewit’s The Fall couldn’t be more different. The second play in the Original Theatre Company sequence, it is an intellectual and conceptual piece about the nature of performance, memory and personality. Essentially a psycho-drama set across a therapist’s office and a family home, Hewitt is focused on suppressed trauma emerging slowly through behavioural tics during a period of several weeks that affect a woman’s ability to speak. At 1 hour and 40-minutes, The Fall is quite a dense play with lots of psychological and medical discussion carving out the differences between character Jan’s past and present as well as her emotional safety in various locations. It has a filmic quality that perhaps better suits this digital format than a traditional stage treatment.

Hewitt’s core concern is with the nature of reality and concepts of predestination or predetermination in how an individual life might unfold. It opens with a heightened scene, a drunk exuberant woman flirting with a young lodger and criticising her staid husband whose subsequent entrance creates a melodramatic argument. But it is a scene from a play written by the characters, also a husband and wife team who suffer a medical emergency that stops their performance, after which Jan (Sara Stewart) is unable to speak. It is an interesting way in from Hewitt, catching the audience off-guard, unsure what exactly they are seeing and setting up the play’s central premise about the layers of falsity between reality and dramatic fiction.

What ensues is a complex examination of personality, separating Jan and Liam (Adrian Lukis) from their characters Vicky and Bill within their drama, as well as Jan’s fears that her life is pre-scripted, that free will is impossible in medical terms because the brain has already triggered the requisite motion or response before we are consciously aware of the need to do so. Jan feels like she is in a play, a sense that her life is a reflection of a reflection, a theory enhanced first when her doctor (Alex Kingston) continually muddles Jan and Vicky as distinct entities but also when husband Liam hires an understudy to play her role. It is a notion that isn’t fully realised in the play, particularly as plot twists and dramatics are employed to force a resolution but where individuality begins and end, whether lives, speeches and responses are entirely predictable is an area that Hewitt could expand.

There is something of the screenplay about the short-scene style and use of music as a segue between locations and moods. Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a large portion of the drama is set in therapy sessions – the only place Jan is willing to speak, although not necessarily with any structure or purpose – in which the psychoanalyst tries to unpick her mental state and its trigger. Unlike Miles, this isn’t really a character study and nor does Hewitt ask the audience to fully invest either in the individuals or their lifestyle, they are not purposefully sympathetic creations that warrant pity or pathos from us, remaining at a distance, perhaps intentionally behind the glass camera lens where they can be coldly observed and monitored.

Instead, the primary focus is far more clinical, looking at the medical and social explanations for Jan’s predicament as the pair explore her memories and responses that pushes the secondary characters and even the therapist slightly unsatisfactorily into the background. It makes the dialogue weighty and sometimes hard to absorb, with a slightly overcooked finale that leaves little room for ambiguity or alternative explanations for Jan’s actions.

The debates about the formation of self and the limits of individual action are themselves interesting, particularly as Hewitt moves closer to the ultimate ‘explanation’ for Jan’s actions that, like Anthony Edwardes’s treatment in Spellbound, culminates in a tense personal and narrative breakthrough that anticipates a resolution of sorts. Built around the exploration of a behavioural theory that uses drama quite differently to its fellow finalists, Hewitt’s play is an experimental and stylistic one. The risks don’t fully pay off but Hewitt nonetheless explores the boundaries and possibilities of the form.

Tikkun Olam completes the group with its focus on local politics, social trends and the compromises of governance, making this is a fascinating and varied collection of new plays that are now available on demand to a much larger audience. What happens next for each of these works and their writers will be very interesting in a period where new writing is being given a more substantial platform at major venues as well as online. If competitions and investment can unearth work of this diversity and quality, then there could be an some interesting months ahead.

A package of Originals On Demand including Miles, The Fall and Tikkun Olam is available on demand from the Original Theatre Company for £30. Tikkun Olam is available separately for £18 with pre-order for Miles and The Fall also open. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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