Tag Archives: Monica Dolan

Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse

Appropriate - Donmar Warehouse

Family troubles are an essential subject for drama, particularly the difficult relationships between parent and child, as well as strained interactions between siblings. Plenty of writers are keen to explore the complex possibilities that the family unit can offer; Chekhov found plenty of variety in the roles, expectations and desires of his Three Sisters, and Shakespeare used the same format with the competing daughters of King Lear. More recently, Jack Thorne used three siblings struggling with a parental legacy of social change while now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins builds his narrative around two brothers and their elder sister drawn home to sell their family’s plantation house after the death of their father. With expectations of responsibility and questions of parental favoritism, three turns out to be a significant number.

Appropriate premiered in the States in 2014 and now makes its UK debut as part of Michael Longhurst’s first season at the Donmar Warehouse. Europe was a clear statement of intent from the new Artistic Director, an unusual almost abstract work that spoke to ideas of community, society and the creation of shallow boundaries of exclusion. Appropriate equally pulls no punches in its examination of the ever-presence of history and the extent to which we ever fully know those we love. Longhurst is taking a broad canvas approach to his programme, telling intimate stories focused on a small group of people but with a much wider resonance for how we define and determine the values we live by.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s play has three key drivers; first unpicking the decades-old relationships between three very different siblings which are discovered through detailed character study and the shifting nature of their conversations across a 24-hour period; second Jacobs-Jenkins looks at how attitudes, expectations and behavioural lessons are passed down the generations to understand how children actively differ from their parents and the outlooks they osmotically absorb to frame those behaviours; and finally, the central narrative is dominated by a pseudo-mystery plot in which the discovery of an unsavoury and ethically dubious photo album alters everyone’s perspective on their own past and its meaning.

It is the first of these which is by far the most successful aspect of Appropriate, and one that links Jacobs-Jenkins to the great American dramatists of the last hundred years. Character is at the heart of these plays and managing their interaction is a skill that can seem effortless with a great dramatist. Act One is possibly Appropriate’s most interesting and carefully drawn section as the audience is immediately and bracingly immersed in the middle of a contentious family arrangement. Toni and Bo are playing-out years of the same fight about providing day-to-day care or monetary support for the ailing father bolstered by petty resentments, jealousies and assumptions about the other’s lives with their own spouses and children.

Into this wanders Frank (now styling himself as Franz), the younger brother with a shady secret and a much younger fiancee who hasn’t been seen for 10-years and now expects his share of the estate sale as well as a chance to make amends. What unfolds here gives rise to and sets in motion the contentious business of the rest of the play, whilst instantly conveying the troubled complexities of a family that we, as outsiders, will never fully understand.

Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Ola Ince for the Donmar, commands this first Act with skill, creating a densely wordy but fascinating slice of Lafayette family life where even the most mundane discussions about sorting their father’s effects are loaded with recrimination, grievance and expectation. In these early scenes there are tones of Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts and August Wilson in the creation of the potentially combustible family dynamic, and the inter-generational clashes of perspective that underscores the story.

The unfolding pace with its narrative dead-ends and focus on the small everyday conversations that eventually unite to form a tapestry-like impression of their family are also reminiscent of Annie Baker whose plays The Flick and John have been widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. As a writer, Jacobs-Jenkins sees clearly how his unti fits into the wider socio-historic and political context of the South, but also how they co-exist in their more modern urban experience of US professional living in the northern States.

What unfolds in the other strands of the play is less self-assured, never quite matching up to the promise of this opening portion, and Jacobs-Jenkins moves away from these core sentiments where the purpose of Appropriate becomes a little muddled. The stories given to the younger generation are predominantly played as comedy, and while this may not be intentional, it is harder to accept the credibility of characters who feel like thinly-drawn stereotypes from every sardonic, grumpy teenager textbook without adding meaningfully to the overall story. The comedy can amuse but too often it either misses the mark or competes with Appropriate’s dramatic structure, as with the farcical fight two-thirds of the way through, making the three siblings more ridiculous than empathetic – the fact you retain an interest in Toni and Bo especially is credit to how well they are drawn.

There is also a strand of mysticism and haunting that feels at best half-hearted, as though Jacobs-Jenkins was unable to decide if he wanted to write a saga, a comedy of a ghost story. These spooky happenings include mysterious breezes and poltergeist-type activity – ably created by designer Fly Davis and the stage management team – such as lamps switching on unexpectedly and ornaments falling over. There is frequent reference to the barely visible graveyard beyond the window in which the bodies of plantation slaves were buried, and the characters of Frank and his girlfriend River are motivated by a New Age sensibility where spiritual connection to the earth and its rhythms are their grounding point.

But while these strands exist and the question of how the building’s heritage affects the modern family is uppermost, the ghostly elements are fairly light-weight and hardly integral to the central story. The ideas compete for attention with the comedy and family aspects without feeling fully formed as a concept or properly woven through the action. What works best is Jacobs-Jenkins’s sense of reality through the charged and often pounding dialogue that so effectively captures the family dynamic.

To emphasise this, Davis has designed a detailed set that revels in the infinite detail of the former patriarch’s lifestyle. This absent character is well conjured through the hoarded junk that overwhelmingly litters the living room set at the start of the play as Toni picks her way through ancient cameras, dolls, books and tat from an entire life. But beneath, Davis subtly suggests the grandeur of these plantation houses with a sweeping (now uncarpeted) staircase, a decorated frieze around the upper level and the large windows with fitted shutters to protect from tropical storms. It is evocative enough to feel like Big Daddy’s home from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Boss Finley’s mansion from Sweet Bird of Youth, a feeling of heat and oppression hanging among the faded grandeur.

Central to this reverence for the past is Monica Dolan’s Toni who struggles to accept the various aspersions cast on her beloved father by the rest of the family and their readiness to leap to conclusions with only an unmarked set of photographs as evidence. Dolan suggests Toni’s fury throughout the play as a having an ebb and flow that reacts to events but always places herself at the centre of conversations. As the senior sibling and matriarch, Toni is hugely resentful of the disproportionate share of caring she has had to undertake first for her brothers and later for their father, unappreciatedly sacrificing her own relationships to tend to the family. Many of the arguments that follow stem from this perceived disparity in fairness.

But Dolan is such a wonderful stage actor because she never lets Toni feel out of reach of the audience. Her volability and competitive control are sympathetic as she suggests deeper vulnerabilities stemming from the expectations placed on her as the eldest, and an inability to measure-up to Bo especially. Whether she is seen by them as a good sister, daughter and mother-figure combust with some sympathy in Dolan’s layered and thoughtful performance.

Matching her is Steven Mackintosh as the second child Bo, a family man clinging to a successful job and feeling the pressure to assume financial responsibility for his less self-assured siblings while raising his own children with solid moral values. Pulled in many directions by his wife and sister, Mackintosh’s Bo appears as a man with no clear desire of his own, a peacekeeping middle child in some respects navigating between the contentious elements in his life which bending under the weight of his own barely voiced concerns.

But it is later in the play when his own perspective comes into focus and Mackintosh presents a man trying to do the right thing while dealing with a variety of unspoken pressures to be the right kind of man in the right kind of job with the right kind of values. Exhausted by this, there is an underlying chemistry with Dolan’s Toni where Bo can be his true self, the long relationship with his elder sister suggesting that even on the basic level no one can entirely escape their past. Notable among the supporting characters is Jaimi Barbakoff as Bo’s wife, a prissy helicopter parent unafraid to speak her mind to the wider family that came with her marriage as soon as she senses any threat to her children’s morality.

Appropriate is part of a larger strand of American drama that uses the domestic to examine big socio-political questions about the modern era in an attempt to reframe what we know about the present. And while a couple of its elements are underdone, using the three-sibling structure Jacobs-Jenkins explores how even fairly recent national history can be sanitised and reduced when examined from only one perspective. Appropriate suggests that the past is never just the past.

Appropriate is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre

All About Eve by Jan Versweyveld

Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.

Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.

It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.

The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.

van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.

Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.

As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.

Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.

All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.

It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.

Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.

Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.

The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.

The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.

It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.

The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May, with tickets from £15.Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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