Tag Archives: Theatre

Dance of Death – Coronet Theatre

This review expands an alternative version originally published by The Reviews Hub.

One part of the theatre ecosystem has taken a little longer to get back on its feet than any others and that is the opportunity to see some of the very best European theatre touring shows in London. And although there are plenty of European theatremakers who have made their homes here, seeing how familiar productions are interpreted quite differently in a stage tradition that is not always the same as our own is an important part of the ecosystem and a chance to reflect on how and why classic texts continue to offer up new and resonant interpretations. Usually, European productions find a home at the Barbican but The National Theatre of Norway has gone west to Notting Hill for the UK transfer of Dance of Death performed in the original Norwegian with English surtitles. This often thrilling production that explores the melodrama and violence in a 25-year marriage is compelling stuff, demonstrating how to make 120-year-old material feel brand new.

August Strindberg’s play is a glorious dystopian vision in which three over-familiar people tear each other to pieces for 85-minutes. The remote island setting and isolation of the central couple Alice and Edgar is palpable, particularly in this sparsely-staged National Theatre of Norway production that creates claustrophobia and distance between the characters in both a physical and emotional sense. Drama is filled with duos trapped in their own version of hell, from the oddities of Beckett including Waiting for Godot and Endgame, to works like Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams, all of which place their protagonists in complicated love-hate relationships with no way to escape their situation even though much of the drama focuses on the futility of their attempts to do so.

Strindberg essentially invents this concept here, long before it became an absurdist standard by placing a married couple at the heart of the play and exploring the complex dynamic between them, initially as a pairing, but later when old friend Kurt joins them and a triangle of sorts is created, shifting the power structure. However, Strindberg continues to execute his drama as primarily a series of duologues and only occasionally bringing the three characters together to examine how the balance has changed between them in the intervening scenes.

We are equally used to a third element signifying a change of power, an outsider whose purpose is to distort and intrude, usually claiming some kind of ascendancy over the other characters at the expense of one or both who are consequently displaced – and we largely have Pinter to thank for this model. But Strindberg has quite another purpose in mind, using Kurt to bring to the surface the various issues and ugliness in the lives of Alice and Edgar but ultimately drawing him into their problems and style of interaction rather than providing a potential solution to it – although Alice certainly (and perhaps even Edgar to an extent) believe Kurt will break the impasse between them. Strindberg is looking at the human capacity for self-destruction and degradation, a shameless need to exert power and influence over others that emerges from an emotion that was once love but has since crystallised into hate. That neither spouse attempts to conceal their nature from their guest is a clue to how far beyond redemption they are and why the creation of a mini-hell on this small island consumes them all.

Directed by Marit Moum Aune, this production creates a really strong sense of corrupted abandonment in which the two leads, despised within the community for reasons that the writer does not explain, have withdrawn into a cycle of loathed existence. Their routine annoys them and they live only to torment and hate the other, the only thing sustaining them in their vastly unvarying lives. That Edgar has a military authority to govern seems almost ludicrous and while essential to the plot following Kurt’s arrival, his lack of respect within the town and consequent inability to buy goods leaves the couple scratching an existence and creates further reasons to despise each other. Their life is the same every day, their interactions with others few and filled with the contempt of service providers and the privation of their living arrangements only worsens the punishment of their enforced co-existence.

But Aune notes a kind of mutual joy in their misery, even flickers of residual sexual attraction that lingers between them as the couple’s physical encounters border on the flirtatious even when Edgar violently grabs at his wife’s face and body. Whether he intends to harm her or wants to possess her is ambiguous in this production and neither option is fully confirmed, although it does make sense of the long years spent together as well as their continued engagement in a dangerous kind of game that both could have left or ended years before but chose not to. Life without each other is almost as inconceivable as more life together.

That this cycle of relationships exists outside of the central marriage as well is something that Strindberg explores during the few days that the audience spends with these characters, unpicking their intertwined history and how it affects their present. The misremembered idea that Kurt introduced the couple is repeated, leading to discussions on whether he is their cupid or the person to blame for the quarter century torture that has ensued. There is a strong chemistry between Alice and Kurt in the National Theatre of Norway’s production, noting a pre-existing frisson between them that may finally come to fruition more than a decade since they last saw one another.

But Strindberg is far more cynical about this than the audience and our conditioned notions of movie love stories suggest, encouraging us to believe in happy endings. Instead, Alice and Kurt fall into the same pattern of behaviour later in the play with an equivalent feisty attraction meeting potential violence and the wearing experience of too much of one person’s company with little respite. They bicker as Alice and Edgar do until the once abstemious Kurt falls into the same alcoholic pattern as his friend – is Alice the cause, this production wonders, as a common factor between the men, or is this just what all relationships are like in the end?

The second strand of this complicated dance that Aune’s production emphasises is the use of wider family members for blackmail purposes and as a tool for extorting compliance from others. This is principally Edgar’s trick and several references are made to Alice’s children being taught to despise her by their father, kept from her, she believes, by the lies their father has told them. Part of her decision to stay is the result of this use of her children. Similarly, later in the play, Edgar does the same with Kurt, a man whose relationship with his own sons is not straightforward, with custody awarded to his wife. Whether or not he abandoned his family is something Edgar is able to use to control Kurt’s time on the island and determine his future. Family for Strindberg is just another emotional connection that can be manipulated and Aune’s interpretation makes the separate dilemmas faced by Alice and Kurt quite central to their continued compliance with the demands this island places on them.

It is the wish for an ending that captivates all of them in different ways. The desire to break the cycle leads them all to terrible things and a series of spiteful acts, but it is Edgar’s health that creates the most dramatic opportunity. But Strindberg quickly suggests the double dilemma his possible demise would create for Alice, potentially evicting her from the home she has lived in for 25-years with no rights as a military widow, while assurance from the doctor of his longevity may equally encourage him to seek alternative comfort, leaving her unprotected and without finance in a period that was not kind to divorced women.

The central drama is melodramatic and excessive, sometimes aiming for big performances where perhaps the British tendency is to lower the mood and underplay the bombast or shrill emotional encounters which is quite interesting to observer. Yet it works really effectively here with Aune using a more allegorical staging to balance out and make space for the intricacies of these intense exchanges that bubble and spill out of the characters without any attempt to contain them. The lack of emotional restraint, the inability and unwillingness to hold back love, hate, passion or even mild indifference fills the stage instead and Aune’s approach does enough to suggest the wildness, disrepair and stranded state of a group of people who have not only forgotten how to live in society but no longer care.

Even Børsum’s set is in three parts that might be part of the same room but may equally be entirely separate locations, in some sense representing the three entities of this play who try but fail to come together. Sometimes characters walk across the breadth of it and others contain themselves to particular areas. Aune directs in one continuous flow with few obvious breaks between scenes or moments of complete darkness. At every point a character is onstage contemplating what is happening to their life or what the options might be, adding a growing and unremitting tension to the production that gives the audience as little relief from this situation as it does the characters.

Alice is such an interesting and impressive woman in many ways, demonstrating a level of forbearance and endurance that is admirable. But she also has an equal capacity for cruelty, just as strong as her husband and really quite unaffected by the possibility of his demise. Her complete disinterestedness in him and active attempts to harm are brilliantly realised in Pia Tjelta’s performance that vacillates between seductress, bored housewife and vicious avenger, all the while grasping at anything that will help her to escape, although she is never exactly sympathetic. Whether her feelings for Kurt are real or convenient is something Tjelta plays with throughout the show but having embarked on a particular course, she is determined to make him her life raft but seems unsurprised when she ends up back where she started.

Jon Øigarden’s performance as Edgar is sometimes harder to fathom, a largely comic approach relying on a childlike explosion of anger or sulkiness that tends to suck the air out of the room with over-elaborate fits that leaves the audience unsure whether Edgar is really sick or deliberately feigning illness to win the argument. But Øigarden makes Edgar quite dangerous, there is real threat in the way he mauls his wife and pure calculation in the latter half of the play when he tries to punish Alice and Kurt quite separately for their perceived failures towards him. No cuckold, this Edgar may have little respect in town but somehow he still has power.

Thorbjørn Harr’s is initially the only grown up in the room, an old friend dropping by and hoping to find welcome. Instead his seriousness instantly rankles, at least with Edgar who tries to drawn him into a battle about his family while Alice hopes to stir up old emotions between them. That they both succeed and drag Kurt into their game is well managed by Harr who shows his character’s gradual decline really effectively and how easily a good and decent man can be broken – underpinning Strindberg’s point that humanity is never far from degradation and it actually takes very little to destroy the thin surface of civilisation and politeness that we all cling to.

The National Theatre of Norway’s production of Dance of Death only has a short run but is an interesting and meaningful exploration of the excesses of emotion and desire in Strindberg’s play and the destructive routine of a long unhappy marriage. That this takes place in a period setting explains the limitations placed on character behaviour but Aune’s production and the complex central performances make this a really worthwhile experience and a fascinating opportunity to see Norwegian approaches to staging a classic Scandinavian text.

Dance of Death is at the Coronet Theatre until 31 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Further Than the Furthest Thing – Young Vic

Malevolent forces shaping small communities is a strong premise for all kinds of drama, from the arrival of outsiders that tend to be the focus of horror to the power shifts of Pinter plays that upset the status quo with new authorities forming that overshadow the existing order. Zinnie Harris’s 2000 play Further Than the Furthest Thing combines these ideas with broader notions of industrialisation and the religious management of a community relatively untroubled by the outside world until one if it’s returning sons brings change. But who exactly is in danger here, the islanders or the people that enter this place from outside? It may take close to three hours to find out but there is plenty to engage with along the way.

Staged in the round at the Young Vic, this revival is a purposefully disconcerting experience with long sections of deeply compelling conversation around which the story unfolds. Some of these feels quite tangential in the long first Act that runs for close to 90-minutes but the avenues that Harris pursues eventually coalesce in the second where the testing of family loyalties interacts with a fear of change and a romantic connection to home and the natural world. Throughout, there is an almost supernatural feeling of impending doom, of tragedy waiting to strike but not of the innocence of these island people being unfairly tested. This atmospheric play is ultimately about delayed retribution and the choices humanity makes for itself whatever the cost.

Harris has created a peculiar half world somewhere between an unsmirched Eden and a troubled land deliberately quarantining itself from the life beyond. It exists in a nowhere place that is accessible from Cape Town and England but with accents that mix Scottish and Irish with northern England. The extent to which the returning Francis and his factory-owning friend Mr Hansen bring some kind of evil with them is open to debate, or perhaps it exists on the island already with something stirring the sea, individuals behaving strangely, two fresh eggs being smashed to reveal a blackened centre and a new life on the way that does not necessarily indicate a welcome or fresh start for the characters.

The return of Mill and Bill’s nephew Francis from Cape Town is a happy event initially, although Mill’s refusal to be touched or hugged at first keeps Francis at bay, creating a separation between the generations as the younger seeks assimilation and development while the elder wish to preserve and honour their traditions. As Francis lays out a plan to build a factory on the island, something supported by the community in an unseen vote, Harris adopts an Enemy of the People feel but soon takes the play in another direction, referencing works as diverse as The Crucible in the closely observed interactions of a defined and frightened society, as well as Jerusalem in the unpicking of notions of illusory nationality and connection to the pastoral while something rotten or broken occurs on the surface. These portents of doom and the effect of nature itself steer the play towards a more uncomfortable, even pre-dystopian destination.

The two parts of Further Than the Furthest Thing are tonally quite different from one another, although they are thematically linked through discussions of cause and effect as well as the clash of rural and urban life. The first is set entirely on the unnamed island, a place reliant on ‘the boats’ to bring them food and people but largely unengaged with the countries beyond, entirely sitting out the Second World War as the audience discovers later in the play. It is nominally the early 1960s but Harris effectively creates a timeless and rootless place, using a linguistic quirk that gives the islanders a child like and colloquial sentence structure with few having attended school or ever left the place that they were born. But Harris uses only three characters to represent the community – Mill and her husband William known as Bill, along with young woman Rebecca.

The implication of unearthly influences on the island is not something that the play satisfactorily resolves, although a rational explanation is given in Act Two. Bill’s overwhelming encounter with the rumbling water in a mountain lake that almost causes him to drown is staged as a supernatural event in this Young Vic production with a dramatic opening scene directed by Jennifer Tang in which Ian William Galloway’s video design and Prema Mehta’s lighting create gentle waves that evolve into rapid, violent swirls of black and coloured light. That Bill is a Christian who saw the war and brought both a church and the practice of baptism – an significant ritual of renewal – to the community is an important theme in the context of these strange occurrences, implying a godly intervention, a punishment perhaps, that sits alongside the scientific reasoning of the second part of the drama. Yet in the characters’ devotion to the island, they never questions the factual cause or the possibility that this creator has turned on them.

This is given further emphasis in Rebecca’s story, pregnant by a man she refuses to name and viewed within the village as part scarlet woman in the style of Mary Magdalene and part maternal figure, perhaps experiencing an immaculate conception. Harris uses Rebecca as the catalyst for the drama and having established the strange wonders of island life, the attempt to keep Francis on the island through marriage and the true story behind Rebecca’s pregnancy take the story in a darker, almost horrifying direction with an act of conspiracy the characters must pay for later in the play. The powerful scene in which Rebecca gives birth with only Bill to support is sparsely staged by Designer Soutra Gilmour using black cloths and a coloured paste-like substance in place of both blood and water, implying the rottenness that has been born in this community, a place where nothing new can live.

Act Two is a very different proposition, set a year later in an English factory run by South African manager Mr Hansen in which Francis has assumed a supervisory role. Harris presents a far clearer concept of dystopia in a heavily populated industrial city that the islanders struggle to adjust to when their freedom is replaced by long hours of repetitive work, the sunless confines of the production line and boiler room as well as the damp-filled temporary homes they have been given. The writer examines notions of forgetting here, linking up with part one in the romantic examination of the idealised natural environment that the islanders-turned-workers hold in their heads in contrast with the place they now exist in (and never appear to leave). Their desire to return to their apparently devastated home is the dramatic driver.

There are also character developments in this part of Further Than the Furthest Thing that return to the generational divide in which the indecisive Francis refuses to remember the island or believe in returning to it, accepting instead the new life and career opportunities a much larger world can offer. Harris and this production present a gloomy picture of the factory world but cast no particular judgement about the choice Francis and unseen others make to stay in England. By contrast, Mill clings to the physicality of the place she once lived in a dreamlike speech in which she refuses to accept the ruin of everything she knew without seeing it for herself and determines to fund a return trip. And it is at this point that revolving slowly on the central stage at the Young Vic, Harris’s doom-laden story finally reveals itself as Mill quietly confesses the recent history of this romanticised place and the human choice from which the suffering of this community has emerged and turned against them.

Harris tells a long and complex story filled, in this production at least, with a somewhat incomplete balance between Christianity and the supernatural, the power of industrialisation and nature, remote and urban living. The depth of these debates is partially sacrificed to plot and character resolution, providing firm answers where perhaps a little ambiguity would be valuable. The changing tone is very engaging though in Tang’s production, making the audience work hard to keep up with the shifting sands of the narrative and involved in these concepts of good and evil, along with who is being punished and why. It is an elusive drama at times but one that has a cumulative power, captivating in its scant physical detail a vast conceptual framework particularly when the different strands of the story come together and characters attempt to come to terms with what they have done.

There are tones of Yaël Farber in the production choices and aesthetic, staged on a slow revolve designed by Gilmour, the first Act being largely representative, with four chairs and actors ever present around the room. This creates space for their relationships to grow while implying the expanse of the beautiful island vista with mountains and the sea that are left to the audience’s imagination while creating enough room for shadows to fall that alter the viewers perspective on this supposed idyll as the drama unfolds. Act Two is far more proscribed by Gilmour with crescent two-tier bars dominating the stage, implying the claustrophobic nature of the factory space as well as doubling for offices and the important boiler room control panel where Bill’s choices eventually confound him.

Jenna Russell leads the drama in the complex presentation of Mill, an almost ethereal character at times who represents the simplicity and beauty of island life but also has a deeply practical, even controlling streak that tries to retain the life she knows. Russell with a soft Scottish accent barely raises her voice in close to three hours of performance, softly inciting others to action, whether it be the nervous Bill holding the warm but fragile eggs that herald so much drama or convincing Francis to stay and marry into the island. The steelier determination of Act Two feels more frenzied but there is both pathos and conviction as Russell calmly reveals the truth about her community.

Bill is more subject to external forces than his wife and Cyril Nri charts a course in which the character becomes overwhelmed by the choices he makes, fearing the Christian retribution that the rumbling sea foretells. His nervousness develops into fear and guilt in the second part of the drama, suddenly thrust into the noisy and chaotic world of the factory, a kind of hell that in Nri’s performance sets a path for inevitable tragedy. Kirsty Rider is also particular good as Rebecca, a character scorned but also beloved, childhood sweethearts with Francis but who suffers uncomplainingly throughout the first act, seeing a far darker perspective on the world than any of her neighbours. But Rebecca undergoes an important transition through the things that are done to her body, and in Rider’s performance, a return to the island is less about salvation than independence and self-sufficiency.

Francis is a harder character to understand, and seems to make choices depending on where he is, wanting to stay on the island when he’s there but happy to forget it ever existed when he’s not. Such extremes of unaccountable behaviour are not an easy thing for Archie Madekwe to navigate but he makes Francis feel convincing, representing the desire to move beyond childhood into another kind of experience. Finally, Gerald Kyd as Mr Hansen is an increasingly empathetic figure who has far more to do in the second part of the play and his own demons to fight for which guilt consumes him eventually.

Like Jerusalem, Further Than the Furthest Thing muses on the rural past that Britain has left behind and the simpler but more fulfilling way of life lost with it. But Harris remains unblinkered about the problematic nature of that lifestyle and the costs of absenting yourself entirely from the world beyond. This Young Vic production exposes some of the unresolved thinking that sits around Harris play but with so many contrasting malevolent forces cutting through the lives of these characters, it will also keep you riveted in your seat wondering how it will all end.

Further Than the Furthest Thing is at the Young Vic until 29 April with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The City and the Town – Wilton’s Music Hall

The City and the Town (by Karl Andre)

Working Class dramas are almost always about aspiration, about wanting to get out, away from the circumstances in which individuals grew up to find a better, calmer, more stable life away, somewhere, perhaps anywhere else. But what happens next? Because those ties to home, to family and even to memory do not just break. Even if just for a day, eventually you always have to go back and face them all again. Anders Lustgarten’s new play The City and the Town is about that day when 13 years after he left Ben has to go home to his father’s funeral and to his older brother Magnus who he left behind. Playing for a few nights at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of a nationwide tour, Lustgarten’s play is about the confrontation between past and present, about the consequences of staying and leaving, and whether the ones who leave have any right at all to decide what happens to the ones who stay.

With Standing at the Sky’s Edge opening a couple of weeks ago, Romeo and Julie last week and now The City and the Town, there has rarely been a better time to consider how Working Class lives are being represented on stage and the more meaningful associations those experiences are being given. Centered around characters with complex interior lives in scenarios that try to steer clear of cliche and think in more rounded terms about the humanity and, crucially, the value of their subject. Too often, Working Class experiences have been represented as a singular, often homogeneous group but this new wave of work is attempting to redress the balance and to explore the many shades of experience as well as the complex challenges that ordinary people face as they try to conduct decent lives in modest circumstances.

For Lustgarten, that focus is grief, a universal human concept that makes for dramatic turning points in a character’s life as an old way of being comes to an end, a connection to the past is severed or it presents a chance for people to come together for an occasion after many years apart, whether they want to see one another or not. In this case, it reunites brothers Ben and Magnus who haven’t been in the same room or interacted for more than a decade after Ben left for a new life in London. But this is more than a tale of long-lost siblings, chalk and cheese opposites discovering they have more in common than they thought, and instead Lustgarten muses on the limitations of Working Class life and how the removal of agency from communities leads to other kinds of political expression as individuals seek more extreme means to reassert control over their lives and the way in which it has always been lived.

Some of this stems from a fear of change perhaps and the rapid acceleration of the post-industrial era where skills, education and opportunity have not evolved at an equal pace. But The Town and the City also suggests this comes from a kind of broken promise in which individuals grew up expecting to live the kind of lives their parents had, only for it to be snatched away from them, and in the end from their parents as well, when it was too late for any of them to find something else to fill the gap.

The play is, however, at its best in Act One where the story of the two brothers rediscovering who they are is most effective. The shyness of virtual strangers who have grown from boys to men with lives and responsibilities in the intervening years is well managed, especially as they both move around a complicated relationship with their father, something alluded to but never fully explained. Lustgarten’s control of conversation is extremely effective, managing flows of interaction that move smoothly from shared nostalgia and something approaching confederacy to conflicts that expose the extent of their differences now and the secrets they seem determined to keep from one another.

It is a model that Lustgarten applies across the play as discussions breed connection and then fury, with shared memories and momentary enjoyment of each other’s company and of thoughts about their younger selves only serving to remind them how much distance exists between them now. The brothers want to feel close again, to be what they once were to each other, but continually catch themselves with the fallacy of that desire as the writer effortlessly flows back into the grudges, resentments and irritations they still bear. And it is never as simple as Ben left and Magnus stayed, although that is frequently how both men chose to express it, but instead the writer notes the betrayal the siblings feel and the extent to which they view each other as symbols or proxies for wider problems in their lives and the nation. These are problems that also emerge from their masculine role models and the support for family that they both struggle to articulate.

At the centre of this is the strong absent-presence of their father and the different relationship they both had to a man who was once admired as a pillar of the community, a leader at the local factory and a strong advocate for his neighbourhood. Whether both sons felt they had to live up to or run from this mode of male behaviour is the crux of the play and drives the drama around the funeral as well as the revelations that accompany Ben and Magnus’s reunion. That both have very different opinions about who their father was, his beliefs and reactions is telling, asking how far we see heroism in father-son relationships and dismiss the parts of a parent that are too negative to reconcile with a perfected impression of them. Perhaps though, people change over time, becoming, as the urban myth suggests, more right wing as they age.

There are strong parallels here with Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s The Death of England cycle, and particularly with the opening monologue in which Michael faces his father’s, and by extension his own, demons at Alan’s funeral, confronting not only the loss he feels as a different kind of man to his father and the weakness he draws from that, but also all the contradictory things that Alan was both personally and politically. Here, Lustgarten splits that consternation between the sons, Magnus trying to be most like his father in personality and presence, claiming an ownership of the man in more recent years that he was left alone to tend to, while Ben has fled from being the same type as his father. The more political Act Two tries to explore the consequences of those choices and how far the brothers feel they measure up or even truly knew who their father was.

That comes in the form of a discussion about nationhood and changes in the last two decades for economically deprived communities who have become increasingly disenfranchised while London (the play argues) has grown richer and more middle class, prioritising the needs of the few over the many. The reality is far muddier than Lustgarten suggests, but the playwright weights the drama in favour of the local community in spite of Magnus’s alignment with supremacist groups and political extremism. The introduction of Ben’s former girlfriend Lyndsey adds a second town-based perspective that helps to explain why being left behind is so painful without the the taint of alt-right arguments. And it is clear Lustgarten is keen to show that Magnus’s approach is not the only possible outcome, hence the more reasoned but nonetheless bitter perspective that Lyndsey (Amelia Donker) represents.

This is also the only place where a female character could feasibly be inserted to provide some gender balance while giving her an independent agency that doesn’t rely on her being someone’s girlfriend or wife. Yet, it changes the dynamic of the play with some of the intricate character and relationship work of Act One dissipating slightly with the need to write for a third, unrelated person in the conversation. By extension, it surfaces those political discussions, separating them more and more from the triangle of father and sons to make bigger but more expositional points about the outlets for local dissatisfaction. Lustgarten never excuses Magnus but nor is there sufficient time in the end to really see Ben’s point of view either.

Both town characters point the finger at Ben as the root cause of all their woes, partly as someone who personally left them and as a representative of everything they deduce is economically and socially constraining them. Yet Ben never gets the opportunity to properly explain what it is like to get out and not get out at the same time – that Educating Rita and Eliza Doolittle problem of not quite belonging in either place, where characters like Ben can’t go back but they can’t always go forward either. It would have been interesting to explore some of Ben’s feelings about ‘fitting in’ in other places and whether he felt lost between the classes, an imposter of sorts ill-equipped for the life he wanted.

Designer Hannah Sibai has created a crowded living room set that suggests a particular generation and era of living where there is an unwillingness to change decor or furnishings over many years. The visible decline, dirty sofa, copious litter and stained wallpaper speak to the political rot at the the heart of the play, and nicely represents the former owner of this flat, once so meticulous about his home but as age and illness descend, no longer able to maintain it with the fastidious care that the homeliness under the grime implies. It is also a place riven with the character of a dead man, filled with his books, not all of which are far-right related, and the years of a life being packed away quickly into boxes.

Gareth Watkins’s Magnus is an interesting figure, hugely admiring of his father who he has tried to emulate but equally frustrated with his brother for forgetting about him, channeling various personal decisions and limitations of circumstance against the easy target his sibling represents. Watkins makes Magnus subtly sensitive, belying his height and physical appearance with a softness expressed through caring for his father in later years as well as the evident grief he expresses after the funeral. This noted humanity makes his later revelations and role in extremism harder to reconcile but Watkins moves the character through the story arc convincingly.

Samuel Collings’s Ben is more sympathetic in some ways, even if the writing doesn’t always allow him to be, and Collings manages the feelings of oppression that colour Ben’s return really well. The desire to be close to his brother and to understand his life is nicely contrasted by a prissiness about the surroundings and Collings does some nice physical work as his Ben refuses to let his clothes touch the various surfaces. There is regret and fear mixed in with that disdain which balances the character and Collings also takes him through a range of emotional responses as the play unfolds.

The City and the Town is a play with much to say about the contrasting experiences of Working Class lives and the responsibilities of those who leave to find ways to protect or improve things for those who stay behind. Although Act Two becomes more of a polemic than a drama, this is a meaningful piece that has more to say about the overwhelming prospect of returning to a place you never thought you would see again and the relationship between the breakdown of Working Class agency and the extreme political outlets waiting to channel all that rage into something far more dangerous.

The City and the Town was at Wilton’s Music Hall until 25 February and continues on tour until 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Women Beware the Devil – Almeida Theatre

Women Beware the Devil - Almieda Theatre

What are the limits of a woman’s ambition at a time when she had no power? Lula Raczka’s new play Women Beware the Devil explores accusations of witchcraft and the meaning of evil at the outbreak of the Civil War in the early part of the 1640s, but while that makes for an interesting premise and context, the story is really about the ambitions of three women of different ages and class in the same house trying to control their environment and the future through their actions. It is not always successful as drama, however, struggling to find an even tone between comedy and commentary, with activities and motivations emerging in haphazard and often obscure ways, but there is an underlying purpose here that considers the physical structures in which women lived and the extent to which they had power through their relationship with menfolk as well as how their bodies became battlegrounds that could be overcome as well as deployed to achieve their ends.

The Almeida Theatre has had a strong run of form, a series of particularly acclaimed work culminating in the almost instantaneous transfer of A Streetcar Named Desire to the West End. Women Beware the Devil is its first stumble in a while, a work that feels unfinished, not quite aligning its dramatic ambitions and messaging with the structures and management of the material to convey the plot to the audience. There is a strong basis here, however, in which a young stable-girl, to whose name is attached considerable suspicion, is invited to become a lady’s maid by the mistress of a large country house who needs her brother to marry and produce an heir in order to save the estate from entail to a loathed cousin. This combination of mercenary motives and the potential for devilry is filled with possibility, combining magical means and earthly ambition with the need to arrive at a practical outcome.

Raczka creates that initial scenario well, particularly the ambiguity of a forbidden and highly dangerous method by exploring the power dynamic between the high-born Lady Elizabeth who in manner and confidence is intimidating and certain of herself, and the lowly and introverted servant Agnes who denies any alleged powers but agrees to the bargain nonetheless. That Elizabeth needs her and cannot manage her brother or their family destiny alone is significant in a play that seeks to subvert established notions of governance and position, although it is unclear until the second part of the story just how important the role of dynasty and heritage will be when Raczka’s visions for presenting a ‘world turned upside down’ emerges in more ways than one.

Christopher Hill, the Marxist historian who used that phrase as the title of his seminal book about radical religious groups in the Civil War, would be jumping for joy at Raczka’s interpretation of an event that forms the backdrop to this drama in which the Royalist central family endure chaos without and within. The play begins in 1640 and ends shortly after King Charles leaves London and war breaks out, with the slow dissolution of the monarch’s power mirroring the events occurring within the household. As the old, established order crumbles outside it is frequently referenced in the text, with characters debating the Godly appointment of the monarch, the duty to serve in his army and, later in the play, Charles’s human failures that lead to violence.

Within the house a similar challenging of authority takes place, although that is perhaps not explicit enough until Act Two when Agnes embraces opportunity and, bored with her victory, looks to destroy everything she has won. But it is Lady Elizabeth that sets out the stakes, repeatedly referencing the fabric of the house that she holds so dearly and risks her soul to preserve. The house, she argues not unsympathetically, is both a landmark and a source of employment for generations of local families, a symbol of constancy and continuity whose privilege provides reassurance and stability – a sentiment echoed by the other servants. Agnes’s enthusiasm for destruction is less convincing and harder for the audience to follow, although Hill might enjoy its notions of leveling the playing field.

It is here that Women Beware the Devil becomes most muddled as the piece moves towards its dramatic crescendo, Parliamentarian forces heading for the house bringing, to Agnes’s mind, a form of liberation from oppressive rule and stale codes of behaviour that prevent stable-girls from becoming great ladies. And while Raczka allows Lady Elizabeth to fleetingly suggest that Agnes’s supposed saviours will be far harder on witches than the previous regime, it is not pursued any further. This rather romantic and simplistic view of the Parliamentarian forces is as old as Hill’s 1970s book, and serves no clear purpose in this play. It is never clear why Agnes can predict King Charles’s fate – which was certainly not a possibility in 1642, even as late as 1648 few believed that regicide was a serious consideration – but not foresee the extreme Puritanism that will grow out of the Parliamentarian cause in the years ahead, and, most importantly, why in a play about the strength and ambitions of women, Agnes puts her faith in a group of men who will pursue witchcraft with a fervency as yet unseen.

Raczka’s play is most frustrating in its presentation of women’s relationships, pitting them against one another and thereby reducing the fault of men in the pursuit and pronouncement of witchcraft. The central triangle between servant Agnes, lady of the house Elizabeth and the woman her brother marries, Catherine, starts well enough, the characters forming allegiances with one another and working towards a common goal, to produce a male heir to protect the estate. Elizabeth and Agnes are united by a blood pact that brings Catherine into the story, and having fulfilled her side of the bargain, Agnes is appointed as Catherine’s maid where the women become friends of a kind, sharing confidences almost as equals.

But just as Raczka seems to be heading towards an exploration of male failures, demonstrated through the inability of Catherine’s husband to consummate his marriage and instead exploits the bodies of his servants, the writer takes the story into a less satisfactory direction, creating situations in which the women betray and condemn one another for personal gain. Each one has their own ambitions to pursue, Elizabeth wants to maintain her family name and home, Catherine wants to fulfill the duties of a wife and Agnes, when pushed, longs to wear silks and know the finery of aristocracy. Setting women against one another is a tired trope, particularly in a story that not only allows men to prosper from their demise but absolves them from any responsibility for it, but it also makes little sense in a play that is ostensibly about witchcraft.

Raczka’s plotting feels arbitrary at times, a jumble of scenes that picks up and puts down different character motivations without sufficient explanation. Why Elizabeth feels that asking an alleged witch for help is her only option is never clear, nor why her brother refuses to marry when so much is at stake. The relationship between brother and sister is once shown to be inappropriate, resulting in an act of attempted sexual violence which remains unexplained and why Agnes seeks revenge against this family, and Elizabeth in particular, when this is the only place she been treated with humanity and without suspicion makes little sense either. Likewise, Catherine makes some strange choices that lead to her own downfall but few of Raczka’s decision create a coherent whole. Moments are compelling but Women Beware the Devil lacks a consistent message, implying women should be far warier of one another.

Ultimately, there is very little examination of witchcraft itself, and while the early part of the play suggests Agnes may be maligned, protesting her innocence and a desire to be ‘good’ repeatedly, Raczka doesn’t offer any rational alternatives to the possibility that Agnes is a witch and therefore controlling events, a decision the writer fully embraces later in the play, while the unpleasant and torturous methods of the Witchfinder are glossed over in a single scene. It means the play struggles for dramatic momentum, mixing together lots of different kinds of scene that distract from rather than support the eventual resolution, leaving the audience wondering what much of it was for.

Director Rupert Goold has found some pacing through the staging, a beautiful long-room set created by Miriam Buether and a checkerboard floor that suggests heritage but also creates space to imply lots of different places in a grand house, largely implied with no furniture. A four poster bed emerging from the floor is a great piece of design by Buether, allowing scenes to take place fluidly between different characters in different rooms at the same time. Evie Gurney’s costumes are equally impressive and redolent of the period, while still suggesting character – monochrome but seductive for Lady Elizabeth, while Agnes and Catherine pointedly share a dress design.

The performers too are working really hard ahead of this week’s Press Night to make this play come to life, although there is too little time to address these intrinsic concerns. Not seen on a London stage since Oslo, Lydia Leonard is particularly excellent, a confident and ultimately likable Lady Elizabeth who will go to any lengths to protect her family legacy, and Leonard invests her with a consistent dignity even at her character’s lowest moments. Alison Oliver moves from reticent and beleaguered to invincible as Agnes, a character whose trajectory and motivation is not easy to plot, while Ioanna Kimbrook adds to a growing CV with her childish Catherine who eventually finds some inner steel when her ambitions are crushed. Leo Bill is a little cartoonish as as Elizabeth’s brother, another character whose behaviours feel inconsistently realised while Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea is the face of every other man and the devil. These may all be his disguises but again it’s not a device that Raczka does anything with.

Three characters directly address the audience in Women Beware the Devil, drawing contemporary parallels by asking whether we still value country houses, heritage and duty in the same way and if we even need the devil now that more human evils have taken his place. In a stronger piece, those might be interesting questions to ponder, but the play gets so lost in its exploration of the witch trope that it forgets to object to the malignity of three women betraying each other over a man and never challenges the role they played in hunting and destroying women accused of witchcraft. In a story that puts ambitious women at the forefront of the drama, it seems a shame today to watch them destroy each other instead.

Women Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons – Harold Pinter Theatre

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted. Making its West End debut following an impressive rise from small regional premiere in 2015 to Edinburgh and London fringe, Steiner’s play, directed by Josie Rourke, is a rom-com of sorts filled with the minutiae and pitfalls that couples experience when getting to know one another and as their relationship matures and fades. But it is also concerned with class distinctions, inequality in various forms and political protest in which language and its control is constrained and then weaponised.

The romantic comedy standards give Steiner’s play its shape – there is a quirky meet-cute in which Bernadette and Oliver get to know one another in a pet cemetery by the grave of a dead cat that belonged to neither one of them. They go on dates, have ‘the talk’ about ex’s, have fights about trivial things that mask larger problems in their relationship, they move in together, endure one another’s colleagues and find themselves drifting apart as they both become complacent about what they have. So as their differences become obstacles rather than exciting opportunities, the play’s emotional stakes rise.

Bernadette is a lawyer who doesn’t always listen to what Oliver is saying and seem to resent any mention of her working class background and the empathetic or political obligations it assumes. Oliver is a musician with middling success but mostly an activist attending regular meetings and marches, spending time with a former girlfriend who he cautiously talks about and fails to accept his current partner’s need for silence. So far, so standard, but it is what the playwright does with this bundle of traits and devices that makes Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons more than a generic stage romance.

This is a play that has quite a meticulous structure but appears smooth and unruffled to an audience. There are no Acts or Scenes across the continuous 90-minute performance, but there are frequent time leaps indicated by a beat and a subtle change in Aideen Malone’s lighting design. These take the characters forward a few hours, days, possibly months and years without giving an exact indication of how much time may have passed, leaving that entirely to the audience and the performers to determine. There is also no suggestion that we see this relationship necessarily in chronological order, only a cluster of scenarios that happen ‘before’ and some ‘after’ a momentous change. Within these segments, dialogue is loaded quite differently and scenes occur at different paces. While some events certainly happen in succession, it is not at all certain that the audience is seeing the couple evolve exactly as they did. And it gives the play energy, forcing the viewer to piece together what happened from the quite selective words the playwright has chosen to represent how this couple verbalise their time together.

And Steiner adds further degrees of complexity to this by also toying with the audience’s exposure to those conversations into which we arrive at different points. Sometimes, the characters have just met, beginning with a “hello” as they get home from work or meet for a date, but more often we enter a conversation with an exchange already underway or drawing to a close. Like a scripted reality show, Steiner has only given his creations so many words to use and the confines of this are all the audience has to understand and connect their story together. Beyond the snapshots provided, their conversations and arguments must go on in oblivion and, unlike their television counterparts, real exchanges don’t just stop awkwardly when the script runs out. Arguments recur, they go round-and-round while even lovers at their happiest continuously talk reassuringly of their affection for one another or all the things their life together might, could and should be. Even in the ‘before’ period, therefore, Steiner is already limiting the characters to small amounts of words that must knowingly act as proxy for a much broader, fuller life together – a task made infinitely more difficult but somehow more moving in the ‘after’ part of the play.

So, before and after what? This is the second major device that Steiner employs that cuts through the scenario that Steiner has established, the passing of a “hush” law that limits all human speech to only 140 words per day, and it creates two dramatic consequences within Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons. The first is to focus the protest sections of the play around the shifting emotional connection of the couple, concentrating on fighting against the planned law and then advocating for its amendment and repeal which gives Oliver direct purpose in the plot, a place to express his desire for freedom from State control and a life away from Bernadette where his primary passion and focus exist.

As a result, this also becomes the root of their many disagreements, with Bernadette taking the potential law less seriously at first and later falsely reassuring her boyfriend that it would be possible to change it within a few months of imposition. It moves the standard relationship into a domestic dystopia where things are essentially the same but different enough to expose the pre-existing flaws in their connection that play-out across the remainder of the story. This ‘after’ section essentially carves the play and this couple’s settled perfect life in two, making it impossible for them to ignore their problems with even fewer words to hide behind.

And that leads into the second consequence for Bernadette and Oliver which is the technical challenge of communicating months of their relationship within set counts for each of them. Steiner generates both tension and pity by changing the number of words left to the pair in each of their conversations and this often happens in ways that reflect their emotional investment in the relationship and how rocky their connection becomes over time. Occasionally they try to save words for each other as a gesture of love, storing over a hundred by the time they come home, but in other scenes one or both of them have few words left, stilting what little communication is possible and forcing them to make choices about how they eek our their attempts to communicate or throw them away on an argument – the title itself coming from an exasperated waste of pointless words as tensions boil over.

The frustration and pain of two people with a lot to talk about yet unable to interact in full sentences becomes very moving as well as comedic, and with each scene beginning with an announcement of their remaining count, the struggle to engage is a testament to the technical challenge Steiner has set himself here. Conveying so much with so little is a balance of dialogue and creating moments where only one person has enough words to speak. Whether they choose to conciliate or attack thus becomes increasingly pointed.

Josie Rourke’s production is beautifully balanced and predicated on the deep connection between two people that is, by definition, unspoken. This is where the Director begins, before the words are introduced by creating a place in which the characters are physically comfortable with one another so that they can lounge, sit and stand at ease together. Without the distraction of a physical set, these tacit signals and the specificity of the words themselves at every point in the play are then magnified, conjuring up the life of Oliver and Bernadette entirely and helping the audience to invest in their story, even as the ways that this is communicated it to the audiences changes as the play unfolds.

Like her production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse where the interaction between Isabella and Angelo was loaded with the things the characters could never say but still managed to express, Rourke also brings that intensity to Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, understanding the slow burn inevitability of the finale. Though Steiner reduces the words as the play continues (occasionally cutting back in time to the chatty good days to show how they once were), Rourke fills that space with something else instead. Where dialogue once existed that absence fills up with a palpable loss, fear and the sorrow of dimming love that the characters try so hard to keep alive.

Jenna Coleman made a significant impression when she made her stage debut in All My Sons at the Old Vic in 2019, and appears here with all the confidence of a seasoned theatre performer. Her Bernadette manages to be both frustrating and put upon, quick to rise to the bait and calmly indulgent of her partner’s whims. She is a complex woman, never wanting to be defined by whatever reductive description is applied to her and Coleman’s Bernadette reacts with equal irritation to the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘working class,’ seeing only the weighty expectations they bring and struggling always to break free of such confining terminology. And Coleman’s performance is full of those many layers, capturing the excitement of love in the beginning, the mundanity of routine and the present absence as her character begins to check out of the relationship. There remains a quiet sadness that follows which Coleman makes just as contained as the words that describe it, trying hard not to hurt her partner but equally bewildered by how they got to this place.

All of this is underpinned by the chemistry that Coleman has developed with co-star Aidan Turner, an ease with one another that makes their individual and collective performance so engaging. Turner loves a chance to flex some comedy muscles, and while his television roles have tended towards the terribly serious, the stage seems to give the actor a freedom that opens up his performances. Following a hilarious and critically acclaimed turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons he is the more gregarious character who finds it hard to contain this emotion within the words that Steiner slowly takes away from him. Oliver has lots of feelings about the world, politics, himself ad his relationship but Turner still makes him seem easy going, caring, even fun, someone that Bernadette would want to be with. But as their situation deteriorates the extent of his concealment becomes clear.

It is an interesting line for Turner to tread, between the overt honesty of his character and the selective holding back of information that contributes to the certainty of its ending, as though by hiding it Oliver can stave-off that inevitability a little longer. The growing jadedness that Turner finds adds an interesting dimension as another relationship fades which Oliver regrets but cannot seem to stop. The fast-paced interchanges with Coleman are some of the production highlights as arguments and truth-telling sessions about their foibles and annoyances become nicely tragicomic.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is a play about the relationship formed by words and the words that form a relationship, of which Steiner suggests are too many and too few at the wrong times. Bernadette and Oliver find that they say a lot when they don’t need to and cannot say enough when they most need to talk. Rourke’s production underscores how entirely the playwright controls how this relationships is expressed with Robert Jones’s curved shelving design highlighting the materiality of the life between them, the objects and possessions that wordlessly suggest who they are or were or have never quite been. As the ordered shelves disappear into the air, their life together comes apart with it with a few remaining items, like the couple, suspended in limbo. Are they or aren’t they? But by this point, there are no words left.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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