Tag Archives: Theatre

Othello – National Theatre

It’s an interesting decision for the National Theatre to tackle Othello again when their last production in 2013 still looms large in the memory even a decade on and available via subscription service, National Theatre at Home. But it was a lifetime ago in theatre terms, under a previous Artistic Director that existed in a quite different cultural and political context to Clint Dyer’s equally contemporary but far darker perspective on a play about systemic racism and the social system stacked against not just Othello but the women of the play as well. And this is a production that recognises its place in the history of performance, scattering the stage with a digital montage of Othello posters and playbills across the centuries including the RSC’s notable version in 2015 with a black actor playing Iago and interpretations from all around the world. Co-designed by Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, as the audience take their seats, it’s clear that Othello continues to reinvent itself for every generation and that its central messages matter more than ever.

There are a number of striking decisions in this new production designed to emphasise how greatly the scales are weighted against Othello as his rise to power is stymied by jealousy and racial denigration. It may take some time before the audience see them all but the National has deliberately eschewed diversity in its casting making Giles Terrera the only person of colour in the cast, a decision that reflects Othello’s isolation in the play and must have created some interesting tones in the rehearsal room, particularly for the lead actor exploring the unusual position of this character, a self-made man who rises to a position of influence in a world that views his race with suspicion and disdain – and we note early on that the Duke of Venice happily takes advantage of Othello’s military prowess but pointedly refuses to shake his hand.

And Director, Dyer digs deep into this notion in an attempt to deconstruct the inevitability of Othello’s decline despite his soldierly successes. In a brief scene that could have been lifted from Coriolanus, Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst choreographs a sequence in which Othello is successively cheered by the crowd and then jeered as his popularity rapidly wanes. Over the course of the show, Dyer then expands this concept, inserting a bank of silent characters known only as the ‘System’ who become a physical manifestation of the status quo with a vested interest in destroying Othello. They lurk like malevolent spirits behind Iago as he unfolds his dastardly plans to the audience, showing signs of joy and rapture as he derails Othello’s marriage and unbalances his mind, while leaning in hungry for the drama as the tension rises.

It works very effectively, adding both a broader sense of the Venetian society that Iago and Othello represent, mirroring the Duke of Venice’s willingness to use the title character but abstain from him, while drawing out the feeling of an Establishment closing ranks, actively keeping people like Othello on the outside, destroying them if need be. Dyer arranges his intimidating Chorus around Chloe Lamford’s dramatically tiered stage, who, perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, may be driving the action or merely observing it. But the stillness of their chilling presence also speaks to the growing confusion in Othello’s mind, almost becoming the physical representation of the poison that infects him when the sinister System bears down on him in the final portion of the play as he feels a kind of spiritual possession take hold.

They reach their apotheosis with the final deal done over the bodies of the dead. And it adds to the tragedy that, knowing the truth about Iago’s game, no one is then sorry about or for Othello. Here, quite the opposite, after the frenzy of that multiply-murderous scene, the remaining white men forget about the dead laying before them and merely offer new jobs to one another with congratulations. The final insult to Othello that his death, like his life, means nothing to those in the System because power is restored to those who always have it.

Although it may be Dyer’s intention to point the effects of the System towards Othello, the final section of this production also makes clear its effects on the play’s three female roles – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca – who also suffer its suffocating strictures (quite literally in Desdemona’s case). Women in Othello are treated little better than ‘The Moor’ himself and perhaps even a little worse in some ways. They are routinely disbelieved, suspected of treachery and wantonness and called ‘strumpets’. The plot is built around Desdemona’s supposed adultery and her vibrant sexuality which Shakespeare writes about often in graphic terms, referencing her body and her lusts first for her husband and later for multiple men either accused with or coveting her. She is pitched as a betrayer from the start, deceiving her father to run off and marry Othello which causes a parting between them and after which he dispatches a warning to her new husband about her trustworthiness, a warning that hangs over her character throughout the play.

Notable too is the additional domestic violence subtext that Dyer adds to this production, making Emilia, wife of Iago and maid to Desdemona, a quiet victim of abuse. Appearing with a bandaged elbow at first but later with bruises, her deference to him becomes an important motivational device in which Emilia becomes enmeshed in Iago’s plot against Othello. But it lays the groundwork for Othello’s own acts of violence towards his wife, creating a model for male brutality against women that leaves them with no recourse to justice. Pointedly, no one believes in the virtue of either woman until it is too late.

Bianca too, though featured only briefly, endures taunts about her own chastity and decency, hauled away by soldiers before she can reveal the truth with Shakespeare equally uninterested in what happens to her. The presence of the System is then a multi-layered one that seeks only to protect its own, showing no grief or care for the fate of the people it tramples over so long as it triumphs and is sustained. These harbingers of fate separate this Othello from the National’s 2013 version, reflecting very contemporary concerns about social justice and the inbuilt biases of modern power structures that ultimately deflect and deter even the smallest incursions.

Dyer and Lamford’s vision is a gloomy one, a world of shadows in a classical meets dystopian-utility design that draws out the embedded political processes stacked against Othello and the women, dwarfing and enclosing them even when they think they are the height of their power or happiness. Lamford has created a tiered set, almost ampitheatrical that nods to Greek and Roman democratic tradition upon which the System imperiously sit, watch and guide the action like Olympian Gods observing their instrument Iago. There is something solid and unshakable about the design, a stone edifice that seems carved into the stage representing millenia of stable, unmoving and unchanging power resting with the elite, one that by default creates a pit or arena at the stage level where individuals from outside the System contend for victory and place. Yet, before the story even begins Lamford’s imposing structures shows us that they will always lose.

Michael Vale’s costumes dovetail very neatly into this concept, using military uniforms for men and women as a base but making them feel like everyday wear, a utilitarian consistency in how everyone must dress that suggests a rigid right-wing despotism of the kind that George Orwell might have written. The most obvious allusion is to fascist blackshirts which underpins the racial tension in the play and Vale exclusively uses blue and black in his colour scheme, combining 1930s tailoring with the simplicity of futuristic and orderly design to enhance Lamford, Dunn and Green’s notions of a sad timelessness in which the story of Othello plays out again and again. Vale gives the protagonist only one moment of true power in the play, when he appears after his wedding wearing a tunic that suggest his cultural heritage – also in midnight blue – matched by Desdemona as the pair are momentarily ascendant and in sync before their attempted conformation and assimilation consumes them.

Dyer controls all of this really nicely and while there is no sense of urgency in the performances – with a three hour running time – the methodical destruction of Othello by degrees unfolds with precision, giving space and clarity to all of the complex crossover plots and devices that Shakespeare uses. Iago’s plan are complicated and multi-dimensional with no pre-determined direction at the beginning of the play. Instead he tries a few things out on Othello and others to see if his venom will work and when it does amplifies his plan accordingly. This production is very good at making those moments particularly clear and marrying together the emotional manipulation and linguistic tricks that Iago employs with the trail of physical evidence he creates as the decisive handkerchief is passed between characters. Notable too is Iago’s influence on others and his ability to coerce not just his wife but Michael Cassio and Roderigo which are well presented here.

Terera’s Othello is a complex figure, a doomed tragic hero unable to account for the very different forces that assail him, not recognising the gradations of difference between his own internal jealousy, and the external influences of racism and the System willing him to fail in marriage, job and status. It makes his Othello extremely trusting, taking things at face value be it his wife’s professions of love or Iago’s words, and as a consequence he slips very easily into paranoia which soon consumes him. And Terera charts that descent confidently, creating a sense of the voices plaguing him as doubts and fears drive him to a form of insanity. That this then connects to the masculine aggression for which the Venetians use him makes sense and Terera feeds this into the production’s take on domestic violence and the effect of male rage acted upon female bodies and reputations.

Paul Hilton’s Iago is given leave to be a big, bombastic villain that seems to suit the grandiosity of Lambert’s surroundings, making his character something of the graphic novel baddie. Hilton relishes every word of Iago’s speeches, enjoying the mischief he makes and even when finally caught out, laughing dismissively and with great self-satisfaction. Hilton nonetheless makes his Iago tangibly intimidating, using every inch of his height to tower over Tanya French as the cowed Emilia and dominate any space he is in. That this Iago can choose to stand unnoticed in the shadows while equally forceful when he needs to be be makes him doubly dangerous, leaving the audience in no doubt of the physical strength that matches his vicious oration.

Among the rest of the cast, Rosy McEwen does her best with the fairly thankless role of Desdemona, a little too giggly in the first half perhaps but certainly demonstrating a fighting spirit in the second. French is suitably ambiguous as Emilia who well presents the symptoms of abuse that appear as devotion to her husband but she is ruled by fear, while Joe Bolland makes much of Roderigo as a creepy chancer chasing Desdemona and Rory Fleck Byrne makes a dignified patsy in Cassio. Together with the Ensemble who flesh out the System, the cast convincingly create a sense of society keeping Othello at bay using gesture and body language consistently to isolate and ultimately shape his destruction.

This is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Dyer’s perspective, which has its Press Night this week, is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before. Othello continues to resonate not only for its jealousy themes but because now, as in 1604, while the System remains, those on the outside of it will never be safe.

Othello is playing at the National Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Sex Party – Menier Chocolate Factory

You start the evening bristling with excitement, maybe you have even dressed up for the occasion, put on something a bit special. The anticipation builds as people start arriving, perhaps there’s some small talk over a few drinks as everyone readies themselves for what’s in store, but one thing is certain, everyone is here to have a really good time. So how disappointing when the evening turns out to be damp squib. Maybe the timing was off or the chemistry just wasn’t right, but somehow all that hope and excitement has ended in disappointment. But that’s the gamble you take with a night at the theatre, one that is sadly replicated onstage in the world premiere of Terry Johnson’s new play The Sex Party, reopening the Menier Chocolate Factory. What could have been an entertaining farce or even a dramatic exploration of middle-class yearning is instead as unsatisfactory for its audience as it turns out to be for its thinly drawn characters.

A suburban past time most associated with the 1970s and 80s, there should be endless mileage in the notion of bringing a group of semi-strangers together in a leafy enclave of North London for an evening of sexual exuberance and liberality. The contrast of their respectable daily lives and the outward privilege of middle-class dignity with the seedy wife swapping and orgiastic abandon of the sex party is replete with tragicomedy.

Victoria Wood based a rather superb stand-up piece on the concept that mined the awkward balance of repressed personalities with the very 80s incidental observations about brushed nylon sheets, DIY woes and bad backs. And although Alan Ayckbourn has never directly set one of his plays at an orgy (at least not yet), the scenario speaks to his interest in the interaction of uncomfortably formed groups where home truths and long-hidden resentments pour out of his characters as their facades finally crack, not to mention the template that Abigail’s Party has set for suburban excess and bitter desperation. Johnson’s play, therefore, is couched in some strong comedy ancestry, if only The Sex Party has been less distracted by identity politics.

The set-up is a good one, a group of semi-strangers known mostly only to the host, invited to the Islington home he shares with a younger girlfriend for an exclusive sex party. And Johnson sets his story primarily in the kitchen, a location that immediately suggests plenty of avenues for comedy where people can hide or feel awkward away from the excesses taking place in other rooms – which Johnson’s scene-setting suggests well. Kitchens at parties serve partly as a functional space, a place to pass through in search of drinks or sustenance while the real business of the evening – be in conversation, dancing or something more licentious – happens elsewhere.

Consequently, as Johnson recognises here, the kitchen is both deliberately detached and a place of refuge, even a space for a different kind of intimacy or problem-sharing. This proves a useful backdrop to The Sex Party, a place where conversation is the thing on most people’s minds and from here, Johnson quite successfully establishes the tone of the play, beautifully represented in Tim Shortall’s set design of teal units and a spacious island counter that offers plenty of places to sit, stand and lean as the size of the group changes and morphs across the evening while speaking to the clearly well to do aesthetic that drives so much of the drama. Beneath the shiny facades and catalogue-perfect furnishings lurk multiple demons as well as the psychological emptiness of the characters’s lives which, although never outwardly stated, manifests in this desire for status symbols and a projection of self-satisfied success.

From this solid platform, Johnson then interjects a series of characters and relationships that explore the need for individual gratification and the complex dynamics of different marriages; some fine, some troubled, some that become troubled as a result of this evening. And there is a real mixture of personalities and backgrounds that Johnson uses to create variety within the attendees of the party, some more successfully drawn than others, which certainly begins to feel like Ayckbourn territory with the potential to be either explosive or caustic depending on the strings the writer chooses to pull.

Indeed for a sex party, relatively few of the attendees seem comfortable with the notions of abandon and promiscuity that the situation, you would think, demands hence why the kitchen becomes the safe focal point for those seeking retreat. And there is huge potential in these dynamics that Johnson doesn’t mine to their full extent, not sure where the balance of comedy and drama should lie. And while performances will sharpen as the run continues, there are underlying structural difficulties in The Sex Party that stymie its development.

Character trajectories are one of them, and although wider problems or fears are hinted at, the play’s uncertain tone means these are never brought to a head. Host Alex, for example (played by Jason Merrells) has multiple levels to him, organising this party and personally selecting friends and acquaintances to attend. And we learn that this is not his first party, something it appears he has done many times before. In Merrells’s performance, he is open and unembarrassed about the evening, not cocky or seedy but a good host keen to encourage everyone according to their comfort levels. Yet, Alex has a much younger partner (Molly Osborne), we learn he has never married and seems to hold a candle for married friend Gilly and enjoys being seen as the liberal Islingtonite.

Yet, he spends almost all of the party in the kitchen, the anchor around which the show pivots as different individuals and groups come to talk to or across him. And Johnson never really let us know why. There are some interesting hints about his feelings for Gilly which could have been the emotional core of the drama but never quite takes up the room that it should, while questions about his own lack of fulfillment go answered – is he secretly prudish about his own body, is it just Gilly’s presence that makes him so reticent, why is he so keen for girlfriend Hetty to have sex with any or all of the other men and is there an impotency or libido issue as she implies later on. Just who is this man and why is he holding this event? Johnson takes us frustratingly close to the answer, and Merrells does a great job in finding an inner landscape, but it feels incomplete.

Similarly, Gilly and husband Jake have acres of possibility that is never fully realised with a marriage that seems to be filled with contradiction and unresolved conflict. They appear to be in a fairly anomalous position in this drama, attending a party but only to have public sex with one another, as Jake’s awakwardness and jealousy prevents them from indulging with others. And, other than a way to push the limits of their marriage, particularly through Gilly’s connection with the host, Johnson doesn’t know quite what else to do with them or to present their relationship with any consistency.

We are told very early on that they have sex seven or eight times a week so what is the appeal of the party if their desire for one another is still so notable – not that they appear to be particularly enamored of one another despite this supposed close physical intimacy. Later, Gilly’s frustrations bubble up, an unfulfilled need for a more adventurous life and clear wish for them to join in with the rest of the party, so there are great possibilities for marital revelation and the culmination of years of hidden resentment, but Johnson doesn’t build up his characters enough to tear them down. That Lisa Dwan creates depth and credibility for this character is a credit to the actor, but the trajectory is weakly resolved.

Likewise, husband Jake played by John Hopkins never gets beyond the surface of an unexplained possessiveness. There is great comic opportunity in being the uncomfortable one who feels overwhelmed, perhaps forced to be there through fear of losing his wife, but none of that is properly realised and it is unclear – given Jake’s refusal to share his wife – why he was convinced to come, especially as Johnson had already allocated the kitchen-lurking to the host. What does The Sex Party gain from the presence of this character if not an eventual implosion or, conversely, an unexpected overindulgence as the main outcomes for him?

Everyone else is too basically drawn to really grasp their role or input into the play’s final outcome; the mismatched party bore Jeff (Timothy Hutton) and his Russian wife Magdalena (Amanda Ryan) are tools to showcase contemptible political views and comic outbursts, drug-taker Tim (Will Baron) is almost from another show while his similarly unlikely partner Camilla (Kelly Price) is the mouthpiece for contemporary sexual politics on consent and gender identity but she has so little personality beyond this that she barely feels like a real character.

Now, having set the pieces in motion, Johnson throws a curveball at their night, one that inadvertently also sinks the play. The arrival of a trans character Lucy played by Pooya Mohseni feels brash and unsatisfactory, turning the story from a light tragicomedy to something more political but without anything particularly sensible to say about trans rights or the attitudes of others at this party. Lucy’s body suddenly becomes the battleground about which some attendees demand genitalia information while her presence causes confusion about any further sex that may be expected. Questions about Lucy’s sexuality are equally crass and while Johnson is trying to mock the clumsy ignorance of this set, the way in which the volume of other people’s opinions are imposed on this last-minute guest as well as a particularly clunky exposition on the concept of womanhood with references to J.K. Rowling are inadequate at best, even lazy.

A generous reading of this scenario is Johnson’s attempt to explore a complex issue and highlight the inherent or multilayered prejudices of almost everyone else at the party, and showing the various negative inferences that trans bodies are subjected to. But it doesn’t work and, as the primary focus of the play, this becomes a storyline that distracts from and undercuts comic potential elsewhere, and feels unnecessarily reductive in its exploration of the issues it raises, boiling gender down to bodies, sex and sexuality in which the character is blamed for attending and, thereby, making it awkward for everyone else. A trans person at a sex party isn’t a basis for comedy and Johnson just isn’t the person who should be writing that story.

As the piece concludes, the writer cuts to the end of the party where everything has gone wrong and a slightly chaotic scene of recriminations, arguments and boundary violations culminate in an equally lightweight scene about consent. The audience never sees what goes wrong and perhaps it should as the imaginative leaps from characters debating trans rights to confused outraged about the outcomes of the party itself is too sudden, picking up none of the threads from earlier in the show or weaving together character behaviour with the things that happen in their time off stage. As a result, The Sex Party provides neither comic or dramatic resolution.

There is so much potential here, a scenario that has so many interesting facets and comments to make about middle-class dissatisfaction, sexual expectation and status that could move the image of 1970s suburban orgies on and reflect on the practice in the twenty-first century. And there are worlds of possibility within the character sketches that Johnson creates, more than enough to fill a play without focusing on these patchy political debates on gender. But without this injection of humour, the characters and the audience go home unsatisfied.

The Sex Party is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 January with tickets from £39.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Playwright on Screen: Martin McDonagh and The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh is a writer able to adapt his style to the medium he is using and there are usually notable distinctions between his stage and screen work, responding to the quite separate demands of these outlets. But in his latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin which screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 last week, there is a keen crossover between these worlds in a movie that in location, style, themes and structure draws on some of McDonagh’s most renowned Ireland-set plays. Looking specifically at The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there are plenty of similarities with his new film as McDonagh uses the intimacy of Insiherin and its characters to explore his much visited notions of gentle masculinity, isolation, friendship and violence that slowly seeps into the community from the world beyond.

Remote Locations

McDonagh’s work is quite tightly focused in its nature, usually built around a small group of characters in a confined place and often untouched by the world beyond. Even when he creates a modern setting as with In Bruges or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, that location is made to feel confining and old-fashioned, a place that traps the characters and, crucially, is to them ‘boring’. But while both of these films have a cinematic expanse, it is in McDonagh’s stage work where the claustrophobia and limitation of location are best felt, and this idea sweeps across McDonagh’s Ireland plays particularly, set in places where little happens and there is no means of escape beyond the bounded existence in which they live. That this often resonates as a mental as well as a physical confinement is part of the psychological dimension of the plays in which education and opportunity are often lacking as well as financial freedom to choose a different path.

There are beautiful shots of the vast arable landscape in The Banshees of Inisherin which link directly to the material isolation of the characters. Houses miles from one another are a feature of the playwright’s Irish work where the concept of neighbours may mean farmsteads many miles apart where separation from other human beings is a way of life and characters must actively seek connection in places of social gathering if they want company. This is manifest in The Banshees of Inisherin with seemingly great distances across beautiful but often rugged or steep countryside to reach the village or a friend’s home. When Padraic (Colin Farrell) calls for his friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) at 2pm every day for their pub visit, that journey is not easily accomplished nor is the subsequent walk to the pub or harbour. These are beautiful locations but McDonagh is doing two things here; first, emphasising the investment of time required to physically move around this space – with arguably little else to do – that offers an insight into the restrictions they live under, but second, it brings a different kind of charge to character conversations, giving them a far more serious purpose if individuals will trudge or ride for miles for entertainment or, as is the case here, for important confrontations, telling us much about their psychology and feelings. The sufficient depth and immediacy of that rage and sorrow can seemingly outlast the long time it must take them to reach their object in order to unload it.

And it is within those physical limitations that McDonagh generates a kind of drama in which characters rub along quite badly together through years of over exposure. Sometimes, as with mother and daughter Mag and Maureen in the Beauty Queen of Leanne, this manifest as a familial jadedness, two people who have lived together for a long time and find each other’s company tiresome. Similarly in Hangmen, where most of the action takes place in a single pub run by a bickering family unit among a group of derided regulars, they nonetheless unite against a suspicious interloper. These are places where little love is lost within and between households, and McDonagh draws both humour and drama from the interactions of people confined together in an almost Beckettian hell waiting for something to happen.

Elsewhere, McDonagh uses the tight-knit community as a place where gossip can spring up, and secondary characters often like nothing more than to pass comment on the business of their neighbours. It is a dreadful rumour of moggy mortality that brings crazed Padraic back to Inishmore seeking the truth while the almost fantastical possibility of her daughter eloping with her childhood sweetheart causes Mag to intervene disastrously. In The Banshees of Inisherin, then, McDonagh draws on his theatre work and uses this small island lifestyle to great effect, establishing both a weariness between a brother and sister – another Padraic and Siobhan – between Padraic and his friend Colm as well as a hilarious backdrop of gossipy islanders either directly trading in scandal in the convenience store or openly challenging Padraic in the pub and other locations with hearsay about the breakdown of his friendship with Colm. The success and credibility of these interactions as well as the jokes that develop from them emerge directly from McDonagh’s experience of writing for the stage where the fine-grained creation of small places and the incumbent behviours they generate is sharply pointed towards the drama and developing sense of violence beating beneath the surface.

Masculinity and Violence

Male violence and disrupted notions of masculinity are essential themes in McDonagh’s work on stage and screen, often developing out of their physical and emotional confinement. Many of these works end in quite gruesome and candid attacks on individuals that take on a cartoonish savagery that the viewer only half takes seriously. But this is often tempered with personal grief, decline and even a form of justice being rightly served. That these can be simultaneously shocking and moving is characteristic of McDonagh’s style but it always leaves room for an ambiguous if somewhat bleak ending with an unresolved resolution in which characters get a conclusion they deserve but not one that necessarily ends the scenario itself.

But masculinity in McDonagh’s work is not solely defined by violence and instead the writer tempers his characterisation with depths of feeling or affection which may be comic, cultural or intellectual. In The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh draws a direct line between Padraic’s love of his miniature donkey and “Mad Padraic’s” love of his cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore in which both men express greater connection to and affection for a cute animal than to any human characters in their stories. And this becomes a means to explore ideas of manliness and particularly violent masculinity through humour. The notion that a psychopathic INLA man’s greatest love is a black, fluffy cat is inherently funny, that there is a deep well of tenderness and feeling for this creature that not only sends him home in haste on a revenge spree but, crucially, causes him to publicly weep upon first hearing the news.

Likewise Padraic’s equivalent love of the small donkey is a comical projection, but one that ultimately asks bigger questions about his violent impulses and the softer aspects of his character. It becomes an important plot device which in one sense is quite different to the cat-loving terrorist because The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Padraic is a nice, albeit “dull” man at the start of the film who is led to violent outcomes through the course of the story in which the tiny donkey plays a significant role. This Padraic is also a broader animal love, wanting his farm animals to freely enter the house, a scenario that is again pitched as hilariously sweet, but speaks to the connections McDonagh draws between brutality and the far gentler psychology that underpins it, challenging stereotypical concepts of aggressive masculinity and its origins.

But a love of cute animals is not the only way that McDonagh does this, and his male characters also have an almost soulful desire or need to express their inner selves through culture. Colm in The Banshees of Insherin abandons his friendship with Padraic largely to pursue a role as a composer, wanting to leave behind a tangible legacy through the creation of an Irish melody. His friendship, he explains, consumes time, talking about very little and could be better spent in contemplating his own mortality by creating a piece of music that can outlast him, for which he engages a group of students to perform it in the pub. The denial of this by others also becomes the catalyst for other kinds of personal savagery, and, like both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, present a gaudy and excessive violence as part of its conclusion.

Warlike aggression is also the backdrop to many of these works as unseen men vie for land and power off stage or screen, usually with a political dimension that foreshadows or even creates the conditions for that violence entering into the consciousness of the remote dwellers of Inishmore or Leenane and it almost makes itself the inevitable outcomes of their interactions. Whether it be national struggles between Ireland and Britain as in the Lieutenant of Inishmore set in 1993 at the outset of the peace process or in The Banshees of Inisherin staged in 1921 where the distant sounds of guns and bombs during the Irish Civil War can be heard on the mainland. These are great moments where political and social instability, uncertainty about the future and new outlets for male aggression present themselves, creating the conditions in which the characters of McDonagh’s plays and those in this film feels those effects filter through and shape their own lives, regardless of their direct involvement in them.

A Theatrical World

The Banshees of Inisherin is then a theatre film, not because it is based directly on a stage play or involves long and static scenes of complex dialogue but because it draws so heavily on McDonagh’s theatrical creations in which characters are hemmed in by their physical, psychological and emotional space. While cinematographer Ben Davis creates considerable cinematic beauty in the island landscape shown in aerial shots as well as the several scenes taking place on country roads or at the beach, nonetheless much of the film’s action occurs in interior locations that resonate with his theatre work including Padraic’s farmhouse, the pub and to a lesser extent Colm’s home and the shop.

There is a simplicity to this that accords entirely with equivalent places referenced in plays about Inishmore, Leenane and Inishmaan. These are ultimately domestic plays grounded in a latent violence that makes its presence felt as both the exterior world and, in the case of The Banshees of Inisherin, an existential obsession intrude upon the simple and unremarkable lives of the inhabitants. His most theatrical film to date, these elements would make a reverse adaptation fairly simple to construct, turning a cinematic experience into a stagey one.

The Banshees of Inisherin was screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 and is released in the UK on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

NB This post expands an idea first presented in a review of the film published on The Reviews Hub website.

Good – Harold Pinter Theatre

Being wanted is an incredibly intoxicating feeling and militaristic societies thrive on the notion of inclusion. Veterans and historians write a great deal about comradeship in the armed forces which in any era binds men together and helps them to fight for a set of ideals even if they don’t fully embrace them. But being part of it, being included, being on the inside of an elite group can carry normal men a long way. C. P. Taylor’s play Good, written in 1981 is about the easy slide into extremism, how a decidedly ordinary, peaceable even tolerant man with no obvious belief in the outcomes of Nazism can actively choose to join and then rise through the ranks to exert a kind of doctrinal influence. And the reason is the thrill of being wanted, of belonging and of being welcomed with open arms even by the leader himself.

Taylor’s play has a complex construction, one that makes several demands of an audience as it cuts back and forth in time, blurring conversations happening with different people and at different times in academic John Halder’s life. Taylor smashes them together in really interesting ways, placing John at the centre of several interlocking and decisive events that take him towards Party membership initially and then full collusion. The notion implied by the play’s title (one of many interpretations of its meaning) that he is a ‘good’ man is challenged immediately and Taylor asks some philosophical questions about the characteristics of goodness and the balance of behaviours that determine whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, the childlike simplicity of which Taylor also challenges.

The happy family scenario that the audience is presented with – of Halder’s home life with a chaotic but devoted wife and unseen children he claims to love dearly – strike a false note when he immediately suggests to friend Maurice that he only says the words for effect, for his own sake, as though requiring an anchor to steady his other impulses about which he yet knows or expects nothing. But there is a lingering doubt in Halder from the start that his instincts try to protect him from.

And soon Taylor is provoking the audience’s perception of John again with the arrival of a young student that Halder is drawn to almost in spite of himself, professing love for his wife but hardly resisting the girl about whom he speaks openly. It becomes a familiar characteristic of John’s journey through life that he flows easily from one state to another, jettisoning his old life as though it never existed in favour of a new one, never resisting or denying himself the things he is freely offered. From here across nearly two hours of performance we experience the slow degrees of assimilation and acceptance of the extraordinary as the norm as well as the incremental deconstruction of any humanity external to John’s own immediate feeling.

The concept recurs repeatedly, first in a lecture he gives on the primacy of the self in literature rather than the community-first notion that Nazism espouses which evolves into an Anti-Semitic rejection of Jewish scholars and creatives. Later, John’s failure to feel or prioritise anxieties beyond those immediately affecting his personal life becomes quite stark as the 1930s wears on and his Jewish friend is increasingly endangered. That few of us have the capacity to think about broader social ills while balancing our own troubles is Taylor’s all to pertinent point but the very concept of goodness becomes a nonsense in the reductive simplicity of its impossibly selfless characteristics. We see it eroded one step at a time by John’s desire for inclusion and respect from the State as well as the separation that the Professor of Literature acknowledges between his inner self and the public man.

The word ‘good’ becomes then a crucial pivot point throughout the play, littering the text with a deliberate emphasis as characters seek to reassure themselves that they are good people or, more dangerously, that they are acting for the greater good, whatever that means at any given moment. Taylor gives John an internal monologue where he can explore this idea more fully which he exercises between and within conversations, sometimes as speeches to the audience and others asides to himself, reacing to his interlocutor privately in his mind and then often more blandly to their face. This becomes a place of increasing disinterest or detachment from the external world that grows and takes root in John despite being an active participant in the life he lives – John is not a man without agency.

This stream of consciousness frequently becomes an argument with himself, particularly about his feeling for Jewish friend Maurice who he is ambiguous towards as his own panic and fear drown out any empathy he may have for others. Likewise, his own mother whose growing disorientation as a result of senile dementia becomes an irritant to him and leads to a role in determining a drastic solution that this good man comes to believe is humane. By degrees, then, we see the good man John always believed himself to be was already deeply compromised long before he joined the SS, National Socialism merely speaks to something that already exists in him and makes John its tool.

Dominic Cooke’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre which has its press night later this week is an increasingly affecting experience, presented on a representative set that saves its biggest shocks for later in the play. A fluid experience as scenes merge with only a beat and a change of lighting between them, this production builds a slow tumbling energy, a collection of conversations and off-stage activities that reach a tipping point beyond which the protagonist is no longer the man he thinks he is or the easy figure we first met. Where he, crucially, passes a point of no return is less clear and this version of Taylor’s work leaves the audience to wonder whether this was always John’s destiny due to a character defect in all of us or that the accumulated experiences push him forwards on a wave of mob mentality within that crowd he was so keen to be part of.

Cooke is particularly good at finding the emotional subtext and thrum of a piece and here he finds the humanity in John. The director is especially interested in the gap between illusion and delusion, the way in which people cling to outmoded or unrealistic ideas of themselves and how their life could or should be, particularly when the memory of what you once were is not necessarily who you are now. And in that sense Cooke draws a direct line between characters like Sally in Follies and John here.

But this does not create a sense of artifice or romance in this interpretation of Good, and instead, designer Vicki Mortimer has produced a representational space, a blank room made seemingly of steel or dark stone in which what characters say and what they do are not aligned – drawing a key theme from the text. It feels like a hinterland between worlds and, as the actors are often shown to speak of actions then they do not perform, and while it is set in the lead up to the Second World War, the design choices suggest a wider applicability to this scenario and some universal truths about human nature in a period of conflict. While there are no obvious scene changes, the design slowly takes on the characteristics of brutality, stark rooms and chambers where lives were extinguished. Zoe Spurr’s lighting design instead becomes the tools of tone, atmosphere and relocation, suggesting cosy domestic spaces and dehumanised official ones, summer days in the garden and wintry afternoons in the park as the chilling effects of the play unfold, helping Cooke’s production to seamlessly change scenario as conversations blur and overlap.

Music too is essential to this vision which is part of Halder’s world view, hearing music in his head as reflections of the conversational mood he is involved with. The specificity of these is incredibly important as German band music with its upbeat pomp encourages John to join the Party, the smooth vocal qualities of the crooner take him towards another woman and, as the world darkens, the melancholy strings of Schubert plague him. Music is a psychological reflection of John’s feeling if not quite his conscience – and it is not at all clear in Taylor’s play that he is troubled much by conscience – so Will Stuart’s musical arrangement along with Tom Gibbons’s sound design create an important connection for the audience with the things we cannot see either because they are in John’s mind or they are not acted – the latter an interesting examination of culpability, as though the characters are divorced from their actions.

David Tennant’s return to the stage wasn’t meant to take so long and Good was originally programmed for 2020. But 5 years it has been. His John is full of contradictions exploring the surface detachment and the growing absorption into the Nazi Party that begins to shape the expectations he has of himself and the situations he is willing to put himself in. The connection to the First World War and his experience as a veteran is essential to his desire to feel that same kind of comradeship and belonging again, but there is a coldness in John that is fascinating, taking the idea of a good man to its extremes, although not necessarily to delusion in Tennant’s interpretation, and he suggests instead that John is ultimately no different to the rest of us who could so easily follow the same path.

The technical control of the different narrative strands is superb, switching in a second between scenes and character intention as John moves from the domestic to the official, from muted declarations of affection to evasive interactions with friends and SS leaders, while clearly demarcating the personal notes to self that are initially funny but eventually troubling. What is so interesting in Tennant’s performance here is the understanding and presentation of all the things that John is and becomes, the way he adapts himself to the company he keeps as well as the control and concealment of information that doesn’t suit the immediate moment, something he seems to do by instinct. But again John is reflecting all of us in this, the casual and guarded behaviour to friends and the public professional at work. That Tennant still makes this feel like one person, and someone evolving across the years of the play is extraordinary as the degrees of self-compromise and failure to truly know himself or want to resist the man he is becoming build to an affecting costume change in Good‘s concluding scenes that is chilling.

Sharon Small and Elliot Levey play everyone else in fragmented interactions with John over time. Both superb character actors, the physical transformation in stance and vocal style are pronounced, taking the audience into the surrounding lives of SS officers, Jewish friends, lovers and collaborators who, though distinct, feel somehow like John’s unengaged impressions of others that while not exactly caricatures are snippets of the reality he sees. And the way in which this intimate ensemble work together to maintain John’s point of view is very skilled.

People love to belong and it is far harder to resist the tide in practice than in theory. Taylor’s play is a warning that we are all capable of terrible deeds but they won’t overwhelm us all at once but take control slowly, moving us gently away from who we think we are. E.M. Forster wrote that having a choice between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped to have the courage to betray his country. Good is the story of those who don’t possess that courage and, as John abandons his friends to be accepted by the Party, his goodness is moot, and it becomes too late to stop him.

Good is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 24 December with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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

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