Tag Archives: Play

Actually – Trafalgar Studios

Actually - Trafalgar Studios (by Lidia Crisafulli)

One little word can change everything; it can mean the difference between right and wrong, force obligation onto someone and permanently alter the course of their life. Saying Yes or No brings clarity, an unambiguous message to proceed or not based on a mutual understanding of the expectations or consequences that follow. But life if rarely so straightforward and on the issue of sexual consent, can what happens in the heat of the moment between two people ever be entirely divorced from a wider set of circumstances that put them in that place at that moment. And what if the language they use is a little fuzzier, what does it mean for consent if the word they use is not “no” but “actually?”

Anna Ziegler’s play makes its European debut at the Trafalgar Studios, examining the various problems in distilling the events of a single drunken night between Amber and Tom during their first term at Ivy League university Princeton. While their narrative is partially driven by whether Amber agreed to have sex with Tom, Ziegler’s focus is two-fold, considering the backgrounds, characters, peer pressure and expectations placed on both freshmen while asking whether the formal and overly simplistic means of redress helps the victim or the accused.

Actually allows both characters to tell their own story directly to the audience, and Ziegler structures the action carefully to move between several different time periods – the night of the incident, the days surrounding it, the university’s sexual misconduct hearing and some unspecified later period in which Amber and Tom speak to the viewer. The result is to constantly sway the audience, asking us to respond to each protagonist depending on how much we know about them at any given moment, allowing Ziegler to fully control the narrative across the show’s brief 85-minute run time.

Less assured is the approach to consent itself and to a degree Actually ties itself in knots trying to be fair and comprehensive without taking much away from either person’s version of the truth. And, depending on your interpretation of the play’s conclusion, Ziegler never fully takes a position on the events she depicts, whether or not the word ‘actually’ is sufficient basis for a rape charge. Yet unlike Nine Raine’s disappointing play Consent that was essentially another tired story of middle class angst, wine drinking and extramarital affairs, Ziegler places all the evidence before us to demonstrate that clarity may exist for the people around them, but for Amber and Tom what actually happened is almost unknowable to the two people it most concerns.

Director Oscar Toeman takes the steer from Ziegler by allowing the various complexities of this case to take centre stage. Everything else is simplified, movements restricted to directing speech at different parts of the audience, no props, no furniture just the two characters who verbally carry the narrative between different locations including the Princeton Quad, several bars, dorms and eventually the formal hearing where three strangers will determine the veracity of Tom and Amber’s version of events and ultimately the future that awaits them when publicly branded either a rapist or a liar.

The set uses marble-patterned flooring and back panels to entomb the characters in both the formal process that will ultimately decide their fate, but also symbolically trapping them in the hallowed-halls of their esteemed university. Whatever happens in the rest of the their lives, this decision will come to define them. And it is here in the failure of the legal and regulatory codes that Ziegler’s strongest argument is to be found, that the black and white, yes or no approach to the infinite variety of human relationships is reduced, simplified and funneled until it no longer bears any relation to what really happened. As Tom observes, there is something too arbitrary about our evidence-based approach to justice, so when the scales are evenly weighted, a feather blown carelessly one way or the other can tip the balance at random.

Ziegler’s play feels purposefully controlled, using the creation of credible, multifaceted characters to ground her arguments in a recognisable reality. A heavily talky drama that requires your full attention, the wider information Ziegler provides on the backgrounds, personalities and past behaviours of both Amber and Tom help the audience to see the complicated and very flawed people struggling with the momentum of a one-size-fits-all sexual misconduct policy. As with her Rosalind Franklin in the award-winning Photograph 51, Ziegler is unafraid to create ambiguous stage women – difficult, contradictory, sometimes odd and even hard to read – Ziegler avoids the cliched need to make her characters likeable. What is so interesting about Amber is that she may be annoying but it doesn’t mean she’s a liar.

But Tom is Ziegler’s initial focus, a black student who fought his way to Princeton determined to enjoy the freedom that being 18 and away from home for the first time offers him. His core sentiment is “you’ll never get this time again in the rest of you life” expressed to his best friend, the chance to sleep with plenty of willing women every night with little consequence. And while these conquests come easily to him, Tom is far more interesting than a laddish love rat because Ziegler has given him plenty of attractive qualities, sensitivity, devotion to his mother and an important degree of self-awareness that becomes crucial to his character arc as the competing truths about his night with Amber work on his own perspective.

But first, whether deliberately or not, Ziegler gives us every reason to sympathise with Tom. His casual sex life is put into perspective by his love of music and the loneliness he experiences as part of university life that draws him into a deep friendship with a violinist. Tom plays the piano to escape, making the decision not to study it professionally so as to retain the creation of music as a refuge, a private pleasure that feeds his soul, learned entirely thanks to the charity of a kindly teacher who gave him lessons for free. And through this we begin to understand something of the restrictions, expectations and societal barriers that Tom has had to overcome even to make it to any university, never mind this elite American institution.

Ziegler also references the unfairness of the American justice system for young black men and in a startlingly powerful but briefly expressed image, Tom makes an allusion to “all those swinging men,” hanged for a crime they didn’t commit. It immediately connects Ziegler’s scenario to other cultural pieces including To Kill a MockingbirdWhen They See Us and If Beale Street Could Talk, making you wonder if Tom will share the fate of so many other young black men falsely accused in a system stacked against them. He is waiting, he tells Amber during one of their conversations, for the unseen hand to stop him, as it has so many before.

But Tom is no sacrificed angel, and Ziegler never shies away from his cocky arrogance and occasionally “dickish” behaviour, a word he uses twice within his narrative in recognition of his failure to behave appropriately or with empathy for others. Simon Manyonda gives a fascinating performance, you want to like him, to believe that he has been maligned and yet subtly we note that he has a problem reading situations clearly as a couple of encounters with his best friend prove surprising to Tom. Equally with Amber, he’s denigrating about her at first, and while he warms to her personality eventually there is still a marked separation in their perspectives long before they have sex. This cutting between the role of narrator and character in a dramatised scene is well managed by Manyonda, conjuring scenarios and engaging warmly with the audience.

If Amber is less easy to appreciate, it is because Ziegler has purposefully designed a female lead that defies expectations. There is a Dawson’s Creek earnestness about Amber that is hard to warm to initially and she speaks so rapidly that both Tom and the audience may find it difficult to catch every word. But there’s something vulnerable about her, lonely, uncertain of herself and constantly questioning her own existence. Amber is at Princeton on a sports scholarship being as she describes a mediocre player in an unpopular game.

Intriguingly it is Amber who sets the tone when on that fateful night at a party she asks Tom to play ‘two truths and a a lie’ if he wants to sleep with her that night. What these people are concealing from each other and themselves becomes highly pertinent to the twisting tale that Ziegler presents, so as events spool back Amber reveals that not only does she find herself in a state of ‘wanting something and not wanting it’ fairly often but a similar situation had arisen before, only then she didn’t pursue it – and it is pointedly noted early in the play that it is a friend who both defines what happened in simplistic terms and tells Amber to make a formal complaint.

Amber is both overly hard on herself and surprisingly confident when she needs to be. To muddy the waters further, she describes pursuing Tom and, after setting the process is in motion, feels sorry for him, even still likes him. Her romantic reading of their interactions – that incidentally contrast with the more casual perspective that Tom takes –  leads her to be bold but there’s always a suggestion that Amber is behaving how she thinks she should, doing what girls of her age are supposed to do to fit in whether she wants to or not, and eventually that feels like the crux of the consent issue, that there are wider forces at work than the two people in the moment.

Yasmin Paige expresses these many sides to Amber really well and doesn’t try too hard to make her likeable or to dampen her more irritating personal qualities. Instead, Paige sits back to an extent, allowing Manyonda to charm the audience while her talkative and occasionally bird-like Amber stands nervously in the background contemplating always whether she has done the right thing. But Paige charts Amber’s story so clearly that through the cumulative effect of the information we are given, we start to see the pain and to understand that her perspective is undiminished and equally valid.

Actually has its issues as a drama and the heavily discursive competing narratives approach limits how the play is staged that can feel repetitive at times, but Ziegler has created a scenario and two complicated people who feel credibly drawn. Too often we expect shows to tell their story and wrap everything up with a nice bow at the end, but sexual consent and its consequences are never so clear cut. Our legal and governance processes may want to boil everything down to a straightforward one word answer, but as Ziegler’s thoughtful play suggests, that can’t always be yes or no, sometimes there’s an actually…

Actually is at the Trafalgar Studios until 31 August with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Advertisements

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre

Night of the Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre (by Brinkhoff Moegenberg)

The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.

Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.

Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.

Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a  particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.

Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.

There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and  Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of  loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.

An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years  – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.

Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.

But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.

Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.

Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.

In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.

By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.

Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.

As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.

Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 28 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The End of History – The Royal Court

The End of History - Royal Court

Writer Jack Thorne has one of the most interesting CVs in theatre, filled with eclectic projects as diverse as Channel 4’s sexual predator drama National Treasure and more lighter child-friendly fare including the internationally acclaimed two-part stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that seems to run and run. Thorne is difficult to pigeonhole but his work most often focuses on the micro effects of class, economics and legacy in a subgenre you could describe as the political family drama. His latest project is exactly that, examining the experience of one family over 20 years, beginning with the early months of the Blair administration in 1997 and ending just two years ago in the Brexit vote aftermath of 2017.

Thorne is fascinated by the complex and evolving relationships among groups of people tied to one another over a long period of time. The experience of government policy, social and financial forces are the backdrop to that, helping to shape character responses, but Thorne places personality and small-scale often domestic tragedies at the forefront of his drama. These themes were exceptionally well realised in three series of This is England co-written with Director Shane Meadows which charted the working class experience across the 1980s as political activism, violence and small-town deprivation forced their way into the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their place and themselves as their circumstances narrowed. Harrowing at times, and unrelenting, Thorne (and Meadows) optimism, their belief in the fundamental goodness of most people created characters to invest in.

The End of History takes the same essential principle and applies it to the generational chasm between those raised in the 1970s and their own children muddling through our more commercial and self-interested modern times. Thorne uses the tight family unit to explore the changing social and political expectations of the last two decades, accompanied by lasting shifts in technological connectedness and reliance – almost as pop culture mileposts. But at the heart of the play is also the idea of parenting as a “legacy” endeavour where characteristics and beliefs about the world are passed down to your children in the hope that they will continue your work. Does this become as much a burden to individuals wanting and needing to live their own lives as the financial implications of inherited wealth that Sal and David so forcefully argue is destroying society? Thorne is asking where and should history end in order to create a new beginning.

Strictly as drama, the first two acts of Thorne’s play are more successful than its conclusion; played straight through at 1 hour and 50 minutes there is an incredible richness in two thirds of The End of History which proves compelling viewing and neatly shifts our perspective on the characters as more layers of the story are revealed. It begins with a reasonably conventional set-up, a family preparing to meet their son Carl’s new girlfriend for the first time and speculating on her supposed wealth and class. The very first interaction proves to be a crucial one as mother Sal and 19-year old daughter Polly, returned home from university, awkwardly navigate the semi-reluctant distance that has grown between them. Instantly the audience is pulled into the drama where unresolved tensions and personality clashes bubble beneath the surface in a strong opening exchange.

Thorne elicits plenty of comedy from this early scenario, the overly familiar and too open Sal and David putting their foot in it with the timid and terrified Harriet unable to cope with the onslaught of questions about her family finances and misunderstandings about their social position. The increasing chattiness of Sal in particular is both uncomfortable and amusing as she crosses the line again and again, almost indulging the awkwardness of the situation for her own mischievous and provocative effect.

What follows is carefully constructed to change our perspective, so the true purpose of the play evolves and adapts in front of us. The family focus of Act One concerned with cooking, the testing of social niceties and intrusion of an outsider into an established group making everyone behave differently morphs into a heavily politicised Act Two which, 10 years on in 2007, looks at the effect of parental choices on their adult children’s self-assurance and contentment. Here the primary driver is an impending announcement around which conversation circulates for most of the Act, with the consequences offering interesting dramatic ramifications.

Thorne is more overtly political here, drawing on the play’s title – a theory on whether society can evolve to a maximum state –  to including statistics and more complex economic arguments, but having built character so thoughtfully in Act One, it feels natural that they would speak in this way and are mocked by their children for it. So as David expounds on the horrors of landowning entitlement, rather than a lecture you feel for his silent but slightly horrified children who face the knowledge that their parents have a higher regard for their political views than for the security and contentment of their offspring.

This should come to a head in Act Three but now 20-years since the start of the play, Thorne opts for a far more sentimental conclusion that his writing or these characters really deserve. Avoiding spoilers, what occurs here is in a sense a betrayal of the events and decisions taken in Act Two, but one which the characters barely acknowledge. The action itself is understandable, and perhaps inevitably in a play that deals with familial conflict some parting of the ways must occur to provide a satisfactory conclusion but, in the decade that has now passed in the character’s lives, not enough time is given to explaining to the audience why the revelation of Act Two is no longer applicable.

Instead there is an emotional arc to the story in Act Three that doesn’t sit quite properly with the rest of the play. Still in preview until Wednesday with the Royal Court actively asking for audience feedback some elements may change, but even though the scenario itself is credible, the centrepiece of which is an overlong monologue by David, the tone jars somewhat with the richer and more natural dialogue of the younger characters earlier in the scene. Yet, it is in the creation of character that Thorne excels and, as with his other projects, these are strong and engaging.

The End of History centres on matriarch Sal, played with a finely tuned skill by Lesley Sharp. A long-term activist from Greenham Common to marching against the War in Iraq to local causes, Sal is a collected and shrewd woman, although the first time we see her she’s playing the embarrassing, inquisitive mum to Carl’s new girlfriend. And you do feel she is playing, that Sal enjoys provoking the quiet sensibilities of her children as much as she passionately cares about a variety of social issues.

Sharp’s performance has warmth and genuine care for her children, but rather than an indulgent mother, she’s desperately trying to hide her frustration that she has failed to impart the same degree of social conscience to her two sons and daughter. Yet there are many layers to Sal, a character who is difficult for the others to live up to and prepared to stand her ground, but simultaneously blind to her family’s needs. The amusement of oversharing, Sharp suggests indicates a more deeply rooted failure to recognise the crisis she has created in her children.

Kate O’Flynn as eldest child Polly has the lion’s share of the younger generation’s dramas, resenting the Cambridge education she was forced into and her subsequent career as a corporate lawyer almost deliberately designed to most irritate her parents. More like her mother than she realises, there’s a long-running reference to her singledom and childlessness that Polly turns into a strength, but in the scenes with her brothers O’Flynn suggests the vulnerability of a young woman navigating her emotional needs – including married boyfriends and sexting – a suggestion that Polly failed to find the support she really needed at home. There’s also notable work from Zoe Boyle as the nervously out of place Harriet of Act One who completely transforms into a self-assured and slightly catty member of this dysfunctional group a decade on.

The male characters are less fully explored but David Morrissey is a strong presence as father David, who may only come to light occasionally but has a stronger bond with his children that he cannot properly express, realising only too late that he and they are not what he thought. Sam Swainsbury’s Carl has a more traditional trajectory with a family life of his own, but in Act Three he finally comes into view as he struggles to reconcile the events of the past twenty years and while only in his early 40s fails to see a clear path ahead. Laurie Davidson is a fragile Tom and the events of the play seem harder for him to bear. His Act Two conclusion is rather melodramatic but Davidson gives a wider sense of Tom’s instability and interior angst despite a relatively small role in the overall story.

Grace Smart creates a sizeable middle-class kitchen with portions of the walls exposed or broken through to reveal the abundant garden beyond. In a way it reflects the false reality of this family’s life, but even from the rear stalls some of the brick panels are too obviously fake, lending a cartoony feel to the room that gets in the way of the emotional and intellectual confrontations of the play. A simpler, more impressionistic approach might have worked better in which the problem of the political dominating the personal could be more clearly confronted.

Thorne’s writing is meaningful and engaging, enhanced by the reunion with Cursed Child (and The Glass Menagerie) director John Tiffany who brings a televisual feel to the direction, controlling the movement of characters and adopting a swirling montage during scene changes to play out the passing of the years. In The End of History Thorne shuffles various perspectives within the family, examining their different experiences of the same events from multiple angles, and while these differences drive wedges between them, ultimately and with hope for the future, he explores the ties that keep people together.

The End of History is at the Royal Court until 10 August with tickets from £12.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre

Bitter Wheat - Garrick Theatre

With starry revivals of David Mamet’s plays within the last few years, for lovers of his work the prospect of an entirely new play should be an exciting one. Yet Bitter Wheat comes preloaded with controversy for its focus on a Harvey Weinstein-like character set in a sexist and misogynistic Hollywood world. Long before a single line of the play had been seen, Twitter was alight with indignation at the prospect of the first major #MeToo play focusing on the perpetrator of numerous sexual misconduct allegations and written by a male playwright. But protesters were right to be wary because Bitter Wheat is not only frustratingly irresponsible in its treatment of these events, it is also a poorly constructed drama.

David Mamet is deservedly a writer of great renown, producing work that has carefully dissected aspects of the post-war USA while shining a light on the substantial distance between the glittering American dream and the fractured reality it engenders. Mamet’s skill and fascination as a dramatist has been in the skewering of American masculinity, adrift in an era without purpose and the combative structures men have consequently create for themselves in their working and social lives to distract from the essential emptiness and futility of modern living. Deep in their psyche, his urban-based characters yearn for the pastoral simplicity of rural America, an almost romantic longing to connect with the land as a representation of a happier past – not dissimilar to the romantic poets’ rejection of industrialisation and love for the soul-enhancing force of the British countryside. Mamet’s men are in the void between their aspirations and the far uglier reality that truly awaits them.

In a similar vein, his work has always spoken to American social values, of its belief in personal achievement, family and success as the markers of a life well lived. So much post-1945 US literature and art has sought to debunk the essential falsity of these aspirations and expose the dark underbelly of a society pursing them at all cost. Mamet has so brilliantly shown how the commodification of the American Dream has resulted in the soulless destruction of the very society it sought to create and the obsession that many of his characters have with status objects, demonstrations of corporate power, money and fame are redolent of the fundamental weakness underlying modern masculinity in Mamet’s view. We see this clearly in American Buffalo – revived in 2015 with Damian Lewis and John Goodman – is concerned with shifting power dynamics among three friends confined within a junk shop, an all too metaphorical representation of the modern American state.

But nowhere are these ideas more purposefully and successfully explored than in Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the truly great plays of the twentieth-century. Forcefully revived by Sam Yates at the Playhouse Theatre with Christian Slater and recast in 2019 for a superb UK tour, Mamet’s world of aggressive salesman, adversarial business practice and – in a direct link to Arthur Miller’s Willy Lowman – the desperation of the ageing star player losing his touch. 35-years on the play retains every bit of its punch. What makes Bitter Wheat so frustrating and disappointing is that it does none of these things, taking a narrative approach that detaches the action from its wider context, leaving it almost nothing to say.

The central role of Barney Fein is undoubtedly a terrible one, he’s dismissive, entitled, rude, forgetful and entirely without conscience or remorse. Whether he is belittling his mother’s funeral or demanding a newly-married (and unseen) woman visit his hotel room for sex, Fein is a monstrous creation. But, outside of panto, that is insufficient to sustain a 90-minute drama when the psychology of the man and the wider surroundings that both create and facilitate his behaviour remain entirely unexplored. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Ricky Roma et al’s venality is equally obvious but that better constructed drama shows clearly how the target-driven nature of the firm and the toxic culture of 80s America with is status-driven commercial obsessions infiltrate the walls of the office and underscore these characters. In Bitter Wheat, the empty rooms of Fein’s office and hotel suite suggest nothing beyond, Mamet gives us no proper context and instead allows his character to exist almost wholly unchallenged throughout the play.

Mamet’s mistake is to place Fein at the centre of the drama without ever properly exploring how this man was created or how the fear and inattention of others silently justified and permitted his behaviour. John Malkovich’s Fein is a moral void but all Mamet does here is tell a story without truly understanding or exposing the mechanics of his abuse. Turning Bitter Wheat into a comedy means it lacks proper analysis and any serious attempt to untangle why such men have operated unchecked for so long. Crucially, we never understand how the longer-term impact of these experiences have affected the people most involved – the victims.

Fein is surrounded by a handful of characters who have next to nothing to do including two thinly sketched female roles and an extended staff who pad-out his world, procuring and enabling his whims. Yet the focus on Fein means the entire play lacks any real danger or consequence, so it may be creepy when he corners a young female actor in a hotel room promising her a number of film projects, but with much of the encounter played for laughs the whole tenor of the production is destabilised.

Having taken a Viagra tablet and let down by his married mistress (or other unspecified kind of companion – and Mamet takes no time to explain this absent woman’s status, she is just for sex) Fein manipulates and attempts to manoeuvre his pray into sleeping with him. A stuck zipper and a time-sensitive predicament anticipating his imminent engorgement are made farcical  – here is a man who needs to have sex struggling with his trousers and trying to encourage the women in the room to service his needs – hilarious no?

What is even more disturbing about this scenario is the audience reaction which on different nights has included widespread guffawing at this and several other examples of Fein’s dismissive and damaging behaviour. Some are the nervous giggles of an audience confronted by emotional responses they cannot process, but the intention is to provoke genuine amusement at a scene in which a powerful man is about to coerce or potentially even rape a young woman. That Mamet constructs this as a comedy scene is truly disturbing, disgusting even, and such attempts to normalise this behaviour have allowed it to go undetected and unchallenged for decades if not centuries. There is a lightness to Mamet’s approach that not only fails to fully expose the indecency of Fein’s behaviour but also sells short the #MeToo experience under the guise of “black comedy”. Rather than exposing them, Bitter Wheat does much to reinforce these behaviours by badging them as harmless fun.

Compare this to how carefully and intelligently James Graham deconstructed the personality and influence of Rupert Murdoch in Ink which used its comedy sparingly and smartly to make its point. Graham not only managed to reframe our picture of the media mogul but also the birth of populism that has been a driving force of so much recent political activity. Setting his play in the late 1960s allowed Graham to show, without ever sympathising with or excusing him, how Murdoch’s early desire for innovation on Fleet Street was situated within his own rejection by the Establishment and how quickly The Sun creators lost control of the wave of egalitarianism they tried to unleash.

Pointedly, Murdoch is a supporting player in a comedy drama that focuses on inaugural editor Larry Lamb, and while his overall influence runs through the play it is felt rather than seen. Mamet, by contrast, has given his drama nowhere to go by creating an artificial flatness which his own toothless direction does little to enliven. Across four sequential scenes the audience is shown a bad man saying (not actually doing) a variety of bad things which in the farcical construct that Mamet employs equate Fein’s racism, inhumanity and sexual misconduct as a bundle of personality traits that are almost excused or tempered by their existence as comic impulses. To misquote Posner in The History Boys, if you can laugh at something, you laugh it away, and Bitter Wheat’s fundamental issue is to construe Fein’s behaviour as inherently funny and too extreme to be truly credible without a rigorous analytical framework to question his activities such as Graham employs.

Adding to this misjudgement is the production’s general failure as a piece of theatre. Political considerations aside, building-up the protagonist comes at the expense of the other characters and very few meaningful exchanges take place outside of Fein’s self-absorbed and self-justifying monologuing – there’s not even the trademark Mamet rat-a-tat dialogue to entertain you. Primary support is provided by Doon Mackichan as Fein’s assistant Sondra with very few lines and Ioanna Kimbrook as a mistreated actor Yung Kim Li but neither role is properly fleshed-out or given a point of view. Mackichan’s role is particularly perplexing and whether Mamet intends her to be silently complicit in helping to facilitate his assaults or is herself a victim of his dismissive treatment remains unclear.

Kimbrook has more to do in first realising and then fending-off Fein’s unsubtle advances but a surface suggestion of personal agency is entirely devalued by the cipher role the character has in the play in which every line and every laugh is constructed for Fein. Kimbrook builds the role as much as she can but, ultimately, Yung Kim, Alexander Arnold’s second assistant Roberto and Teddy Kempner’s Doctor Wald all dance around the central figure with no obvious existence in their own right.

For Malkovich fans, the chance to see their hero on stage for the first time in more than 30-years will be irresistible and he delivers exactly the chilling, amoral performance the part requires. But the two-dimensional quality of the role makes it a very cerebral, studied performance from Malkovich, full of rehearsed gestures and intonation that feel too consciously formed. There is intimidation in his scenes with Kimbrook but the brutality and earthy hunger of the man able to take whatever he wants with no consequences never comes across. He’s never sympathetic but he’s never entirely real either.

Bitter Wheat is full of curious staging decisions which equally divest the drama of its purpose; between each of the three scenes in the first half a stark curtain abruptly comes down with no music or means to fill the interlude. Christopher Oram’s detailed set is very nice, a series of stylish rooms that fit Fein’s mode of living but the time taken to reset them drains energy from the production while Mamet’s direction never connects the dots so Bitter Wheat becomes a collection of scenarios with little forward-motion or sense of cause and effect. The overall result is disjointed and disappointingly flat and although a couple more previews may inject some chemistry, it’s hard to shake feeling that the play is entirely without purpose.

To argue that the play is told from Fein’s point of view and that the other characters are therefore his reflections is just not good enough in a self-badged #MeToo play. There are eventual consequences for Fein but they feel weak and unconvincing, so ultimately Bitter Wheat has nothing to say and entirely misses the point. It’s not that it’s too soon or even that a male playwright or a male experience shouldn’t be explored, but if they are, they need to be much smarter and more self-aware than this. Alas Bitter Wheat leaves a bitter taste.

Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick Theatre until 21 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


%d bloggers like this: