Tag Archives: Young Vic

Blood Wedding – Young Vic

Blood Wedding - Young Vic

A wedding is seen as the start of something, a new beginning for a couple about to build a life and potentially a family together, yet weddings also signal the continuation not just of social tradition and moral expectations but of a longer dynastic legacy which throughout history has united whole groups of people, tribes, clans and nations by the joining of hands and the recitation of set vows. For marriage is a political act, one that may be dressed-up as an expression of true love today but extends beyond the two people at the alter to forge ties that bind their family histories, legacy and future together. When that goes wrong, all hell breaks loose – “Marriage is not for the weak” insists one of the characters in Marina Carr’s atmospheric adaption of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding at the Young Vic.

Lorca’s plays are revived with some regularity, with several productions of The House of Bernarda Alba in recent years as well as a memorable update of Yerma by Simon Stone that took Billie Piper to award success and an off-Broadway transfer. Completing his rural trilogy, Blood Wedding is seen least often but equals Lorca’s companion works for its ferocious understanding of the stifling nature of remote village life and inter-generational struggles. It bubbles with barely contained violence that erupts with inevitable consequences, the wisdom of the elders unheeded by the headstrong younger characters determined to fight against their fate, however futile.

Most notably, Lorca writes so well for women, understanding the strictures of expectation, duty and domesticity placed on them by external forces with which many of his female characters struggle to conform. Although Yerma longs for children she cannot behave meekly and rails painfully against her lot, while uncontainable passion comes between the Alba sisters and proves the undoing of the bride in Blood Wedding, as her father arranges a match for her with a local family whose land he covets. Lorca’s female characters are then backed into a corner, forced into a state of heightened emotional desperation from which rash acts trigger the dramatic and tragic conclusion of his plays, endings in which women are both the unfortunate victims of societal control but also the powerful arbiter of their own destiny.

It is particularly notable in the Young Vic’s new production, directed by Yaël Farber, that it is a woman’s nature that needs to be contained, with the Groom’s Mother and the Bride’s Grandmother making repeated reference to women being kept at home, their rightful place being a kitchen, purposefully isolated from all society except their husband’s. In Carr’s version, rather than men being untameable beasts, there is a fear that women who don’t conform will upturn the delicate balance of power in this community, where violence is the only possible outcome; restraining their wildness is a way to protect them from the darker fate that befalls women who transgress.

Carr has trimmed the play to a neat 1 hour and 50-minutes, running without an interval, and transposed the action to a hybrid Irish-Spanish location that works extremely well. The three interlocking families are Irish, with those of the betrothed couple set apart as land-owning farm and mountain people, while the hated Felix tribe are frequently described as gypsy, representing a freer lifestyle with a greater connection to nature. Designer Susan Hilferty uses Spanish stylings in the clothing and set-design to retain a Lorca-like visual effect with the Groom’s Mother and Bride’s Grandmother in plain black dresses and headscarves, while the men wear working clothes of the 1930s. And while this feels like a play in which the women drive the action while dressed in doom-laden black, the Groom and Leonardo Felix (the Bride’s former partner) present themselves respectively as lovers and warriors, like Greek heroes battling the Gods.

And this classical notion stretches to Hilferty’s configuration of the Young Vic auditorium, a Roman amphitheater in which the audience sits almost all around the action, waiting for the tragedy to unfold beneath us. The same space simultaneously conjures notions of the Spanish bullring, in which the two male leads will eventually go head-to-head, a gladiatorial battle that takes place on the same ground where many have died before them – it is notable in Carr’s text that the Bride’s Father refers to his wife and her family being buried beneath the stage, while the floor is stained with blood from some previous encounter, the last of which we see being wiped away in the play’s very first scene. The simplicity of Hilferty’s staging exposes the play’s emotional and violent undercurrents which are then amplified by the arena-like shape of the room in which characters stalk around each other until ready to make their move.

Carr has also incorporated the mystical elements of Lorca’s piece with a role for Thalissa Teixeira as the white-suited moon who sets the mood by singing in Spanish and English, her voice a continual warning of the looming danger exuded by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s composition. Likewise, death muses philosophically as a woman at the spindle (Brid Brennan) later in the play, while some woodcutters act as a chorus for the action, although their presentation sits awkwardly, slightly unclear of their purpose in this version. Farber’s mix of realism and slightly heightened fantasy scenes are tonally aligned, supported by Imogen Knight’s intriguing movement choices, including a liberating horse ride performed as a circular swing round the stage at speed – a different kind of solution than those presented in Equus.

Farber controls the unfolding tension very carefully, maintaining momentum in the loaded interchanges between different groups of characters as the deal is done between the central families. And there is an overriding sense of danger throughout Blood Wedding, of how the bitter fallout between the tribes is reawoken by each new generation, looking to past hurts and transgressions to excuse and fuel further attacks. This inability and unwillingness to shake off family legacy is strongly conveyed and underpins the psychological construction of a play in which characters are driven by or fight against this inheritance of blood, and Farber allows the intensity to build, keeping the action taut across a production that seems far shorter than its run time suggest.

The specter of death hangs heavy over these characters – not just in the permanent funeral colour scheme – but also the frequent references to the unpleasant murder of family members at the hands of rival tribes or for failure to conform to local expectation. The deaths of the Groom’s father and brother are mentioned often by his mother, oddly seen by her as a relief, an ending that places them beyond the permanent atmosphere of violence and fear of death which the living must endure. Carr brings real clarity to this aspect of Lorca’s play in her adaptation, creating a wider sense of the warring clans and the devastating relief of death felt by those left behind, adding to an overarching sense of predestination that Farber unfolds well – the real union of the play being the final and inevitable confrontation between the Groom and Leonardo Felix, something the latter acknowledges to the Bride is the rightful consequence of their actions.

Olwen Fouéré as the Groom’s Mother is a forbidding presence with a strong feel for the rights of her family. Obsessed with the death of her husband and eldest son, Mother dotes on the Groom, insisting on his physical perfection and talks about the investment of a parent in physically growing her son. Fouéré dominates much of the action with a clear idea of her family’s superiority in the local area while still fearing the world of men that threatens the stability and harmony of her relationship. Annie Firbank as her equivalent female presence in the Bride’s home gets most of the jokes and a charming scene with the Groom at the wedding in which he physically sweeps her off her feet, but like Mother, she equally insists on maintaining the status quo, protecting the status of the family name and parcelling out wisdom to her granddaughter.

Aoife Duffin’s Bride is a classic Lorca woman, trapped in a situation not of her own making and initially fighting the circumstances that might set her free. The Bride’s motivation is sometimes difficult to follow as her emotional trajectory vacillates between the two men as the action unfolds, but Duffin evokes the struggle between duty and passion pretty well, and while her characterisation borders on sulkiness, bringing out a childishness and lack of maturity in the Bride that makes her a less explicable prize to these two men, her final reckoning is well conveyed.

David Walmsley and Gavin Drea are the Groom and Leonardo Felix respectively, each suggesting their ultimate lack of suitability for the Bride. Walmsley’s Groom has a blind certainty in his right to marry the woman he chooses and never openly objects to his mother’s exuberant boasting, while Drea’s Felix is already a terrible husband to a woman he married in anger, refusing to settle for the life he chose. Their eventual confrontation is full of drama, and although far too short for the build-up it receives, it is a showdown that purposefully links together the mystical and quasi-religious elements of the play that collide fate and inevitability with the brutality of the world in which these men exist, where knives rather than weddings are the real solution to family conflict.

Carr’s coherent vision for Blood Wedding delivers a production that is unforgiving, creating a portentous world in which notions of love and freedom will always be trampled by the stronger inheritance of history, violence and family legacy. The bleak landscape of isolated farmsteads and rocky mountains which Farber and Hilferty create is steeped in death and destruction, an inescapable fate for all involved as well as a relief from the burden of life. A wedding is more than the beginning of a love story, it is a powerful union of families – in this engaging and atmospheric adaptation, it’s certainly not for the weak.

Blood Wedding is at the Young Vic until 2 November with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Advertisements

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic

Death of a Salesman - Young Vic

With high-quality Arthur Miller revivals across the West End this Spring, the arrival of his much-revived 1949 tale of travelling salesman Willy Loman and his family at the Young Vic has elicited much expectation, not least because celebrated director Marianne Elliott is at the helm. Good direction can often go unnoticed, when the play flows seamlessly or builds the requisite tension and emotional investment for an audience the writer is often credited, but good direction gets to the heart of the play, amplifying and clarifying its themes and resonances. And then there are the directors you do notice, the ones who see beyond the text and its history of performance to entirely change our perspective on the work, these are the visionaries.

We are lucky enough to have a handful of truly visionary directors working regularly in the West End today, all of whom have produced shows in the last few months. Love or loathe their work – and the burden of their approach is to be so divisive – it has a distinctive and recognisable style of its own and is unlike anything else you will see. Ivo van Hove is one such director, liberating the classics like Hedda Gabler and A View from the Bridge from their set-based imprisonment while introducing cinematic techniques into his stage translations of Network and All About Eve. Jamie Lloyd has transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter over many years, not least in the ground-breaking Pinter at the Pinter season and a moving new version of Betrayal, while his take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita this summer will be something to see.

Female directors too are carving a path to visionary status, with Rebecca Frecknall, though early in her career, finding her own style in the astounding Summer and Smoke, followed by a solid revival of Three Sisters. But it is Elliott who has surprised us again and again, not just changing the way theatre is made in her management of technique and production scale, but also upending our perspective of a well-known work with one radical, but fairly canny, decision. When Elliott approached Stephen Sondheim for permission to change the gender of the protagonist in Company the result was inspirational, leading to a long West End run and a new life for a show that felt as though it had always been written that way.

Now, working with Miranda Cromwell, her approach to Death of a Salesman is doing the same, shifting Miller’s perspective on a working family struggling to find their place while reaching for the fabled American Dream. In Elliott and Cromwell’s new version which opens to the press on Thursday, the action takes place in the home of an African American family for the first time, which in some respects makes no difference to the text – suggesting the universality of Miller’s themes and their easy transposition to all kinds of family life – but simultaneously offers a new angle to view this familiar story that, with little change, brings new and meaningful tones to the dialogue.

Miller’s play, on one level, is about ageing and the shift of responsibility and power from parent to child played out within the family, as well as in the commerce-based subplot in which the titular salesman Willy’s ability to perform comes into question. But, the continued infantilization of his two sons, Biff and Happy, means neither is ready to assume responsibility for the household despite being well into their 30s. The intricate balance of fears, resentments and false illusions that connect the Lomans is particularly well created in this production as these men are forced to confront who they really are.

All of the Lomans are fixated on a period 15-years previously when popular eldest son Biff was captain of the school football team and expected to go to College – strongly implied here that he would have been the first member of the family to do so. Willy too was a successful salesman, well-known and welcomed amongst his clients in a time of great prosperity for the family. A flunked maths test and an unknown breach sends the entire family in a different direction; Death of a Salesman is the story of the slow and painful death of these dreams and, as ever with Miller, the acceptance of the truth that remains.

Elliott and Cromwell’s production is full of innovation and while it’s not quite coming together yet, it has all of the building blocks in place to reach where it needs to be in a few performance’s time. With the RSC’s recent production still present in the mind, designer Anna Fleischle eschews the two-story home we’ve seen so many times before and instead opts for a granite tomb-like single floor, with raised platforms to denote different rooms. A barely visible rear staircase shrouded in darkness is used subtly by the characters to occasionally suggest action on the mainstage is now taking place on a different storey. Most visually arresting however are the items of furniture, lighting and windows suspended above the stage and lowered into place to create different rooms.

It’s an impressionistic approach that yields considerable insight into the themes of the play, the characters’ attachment to material possessions as indicators of success, and most especially to the physical home that contains their family history, which they have spent decades slowly paying-off. With almost continuous action and few obvious scene breaks, what Fleischle suggests with this flowing scenery is the tantalising yet illusory nature of these symbols of achievement (both family and objects), that as easily as they lower into place they are removed, and it is matriarch Linda Loman who clearly draws on this point in the play’s pointed conclusion.

The sparring use of music is one of the most notable aspects of this new production which under the musical directorship of Femi Temowo uses the African-American setting to bring additional layers of tragedy by aligning it with the pain and storytelling of mid-century jazz, blues and, at times, even gospel. It opens with cast members singing a sober melody, occasionally lines are sung softly for emphasis while the conversation continues above it, and it ends with an equally sorrowful lament that feels poignant and exciting as a technique. The emotive quality of jazz and blues in particular seems to suit the action without being intrusive while reinforcing the call away from New York to the south and a different kind of living which is one of Miller’s main points of exploration.

Perhaps more than any production of recent times, this version of Death of a Salesman with its hard city surface and not a hint of green, draws out the character’s yearning for the pastoral world and the cleaner, more physical life it offers. This is particularly true for Biff who speaks with passion for his work on a cattle farm and the satisfaction of being within the rhythms of nature and the earth. But other characters also muse on the wonders of life beyond Brooklyn as Willy recalls happy times travelling across New England admiring the countryside which speaks directly to his soul in Wendell Pierce’s performance, and despite his wife’s insistence and the exhaustion that affects his mind, he is reluctant to return to New York for good.

The artificiality of the American Dream and the life it creates for people cooped-up in cities, buying status-based conveniences they don’t really need has major consequences for Willy Loman. Working with Pierce, Elliott and Cromwell create a strange dreamlike quality to Willy’s memories that frequently intrude on the present day. His increasing bewilderment marks a crisis point in the lives of the Loman family, one in which the provider is no longer capable, a reality from which the family seek to protect him and themselves. This schism is given physical form using a series of flashbulbs to cut between fragments of memory, interspersed with slow-motion sports posing and movement as he remembers his son’s heroism and converses in his mind with his own brother Ben about making money. The hyper-real nature of these sections though deliberately stylised are a little awkward, veering into cheesy at times, and although Miller’s message is clear, there is work to do here to increase the efficacy of the scenes.

The production is on much firmer ground with its compelling real-world conversations, and in the sympathetic portrayal of Willy’s breakdown. There is no King Lear-style grand dementia but smaller shifts in personality and lucidity that, as the story unfolds, claim more of Willy’s mind. Pierce gives a meaningful and compassionate performance as a man who has no idea what is happening to him but implies the frustration others experience in caring for his present condition as well as the intimidating man he once was. The rupture in his family began long before, so Pierce adeptly manages this complex bundle of character traits from different eras of his life very well, but as aspects of the fiery antagonist that occasionally reappears with Biff becomes clouded with mutterings about the professional respect he once enjoyed and a desire to escape it all, Pierce’s performance becomes increasingly saddening.

As with previous productions, Biff is probably the most interesting member of the Loman family, and Arinzé Kene captures the duality at the heart of the character. In the early scenes as he reconnects with his brother, the youthful enthusiasm for the rustic work he adores lights him up, but as events play out the pull of his sports-star past and the burden of his parents’ expectations weigh heavy. The intensity Kene brings to the exchanges with his family are excellent, but full of rage as the self-appointed bearer of truth, Kene’s Biff is riven with his own sense of failure, at 34 still hiding from the realities of adulthood, the catalyst for change in his family as he tries to throw off the past in the quest to discovery who he’s meant to be.

Martins Imhangbe as the womanising Happy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda complete the family unit, with the ever-reliable Clarke bringing texture to the role of devoted wife. Full of pity for her husband and the cruel hand life has dealt him, she’s determined to defend him to the end, even if it means losing her sons – and Clarke gets to use her beautiful soulful voice which helps to flesh-out a small role, suggesting her stoicism while carving out her own motivation by linking to her faith.

Despite being set in what seems to be the 1950s, the Second World War and the implication that both sons may have fought doesn’t frame the Young Vic’s production with the same kind of inevitable intensity that drives All My Sons down the road at the Old Vic, and at 3 hours and 15 minutes it is overlong. Yet, with a focus on “not fitting in” or belonging to this urban world of workers and nepotism, Miller’s play is slightly re-orientated to subtly expose the very different challenges and barriers for African-American families in this period. At this early stage the many well-crafted elements haven’t fully woven satisfactorily together but even if they don’t, with visionary director Marianne Elliott leading the way with such insight, it’s more than enough that this eye-opening production exists at all.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Jumper Factory – Young Vic

The Jumper Factory - Young Vic (by Leon Puplett)

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first season as Young Vic Artistic Director is now hitting its stride. Beginning with a musical Twelfth Night, that may not have been to everyone’s taste, it certainly emphasised The Young Vic’s passion for community and diversity in every aspect of production and performance. Since that inaugural show, The Convert garnered rave reviews as did Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train which is still playing to deserved acclaim in the main house. But, in the small space upstairs shorter runs of experimental, in-development and community-led one-act plays are also a notable part of the programme, not least Luke Barnes’s The Jumper Factory developed with the inmates of HMP Wandsworth.

Prison and theatre have a long history and there are countless full-length plays set in various parts of the criminal justice system from classic courtroom plays including Twelve Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution to more recent smaller-scale works that look at the root causes of young male disillusion that leads to cycles of antisocial behaviour and violence, charted so well in Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians which premiered at the Young Vic in 2015. Yet, the plays that focus on the containment and strictures of prison life often give the strongest sense of a system so broken that the purpose to punish or rehabilitate remains unclear, including Esther Freud’s Stitchers which had it’s first outing at the Jermyn Street Theatre last June and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.

Barnes’s play starts by breaking the fourth wall, the actors step forward and make it clear that what we are about to see was created inside Wandsworth prison by its incarcerated men, that the stories, incidences and experiences relayed belong to people who are still there serving their time. For 45-minutes the audience may be gripped, stimulated and entertained but this remains the everyday experience of all the men who contributed to the show, and it slightly changes our mindset to have this made clear at the start.

Before The Jumper Factory settles into story-telling mode, the actors also share their own brushes with the law either through a minor conviction for chasing a fox, a prison-guard brother or friends they have visited inside. Decisively, they insist in unison, that none of them have ever been to prison, that they are just actors assuming the words of other men. It’s a smart opening section, one that instantly frames the viewer’s perspective, encouraging them to look beyond the surface to the grounded reality for the inmates of Wandsworth, a reminder that this is not escapist drama but the recreation of real events in theatrical form. It immediately instils a purposeful reconstruction / documentary-feel to what follows with a clear understanding that the six actors are ciphers for the personalities, complexity, humour and poignancy that prison-life engenders.

Barnes uses a single unnamed character to represent the experiences of so many, a man who leaves behind a girlfriend and two children, as well as a mother he refuses to admit the truth to. “The Jumper Factory” becomes the euphemism for his time in prison, an excuse for not visiting his home for a year, for only making brief calls at set times and, in a particularly effective visiting room scene, the lie he tells his young stepson for not seeing him anymore. Perhaps surprisingly, they all accept it, a hint that maintaining the pretence of family life and the unsullied opinion of his loved-ones is essential to the prisoner’s sense of pride.

With the lead character played simultaneously by all six actors, the show uses individual monologues, dramatised scenes and some choreographed full-group sections to relay different aspects of prison life. There is a universality about these experiences that is aided by different actors playing the Prisoner throughout while also emphasising that the backgrounds, ethnicity and nationality of the men who created the play with Barnes are also quite varied. None of their crimes, including that of our representative protagonist, are ever revealed, a deliberate move to ensure we see only their humanity and not the crime and record of behaviour that anonymously defines their existence in the legal system.

Told in a loose chronological order, The Jumper Factory begins with the Prisoner waiting to be arrested, sitting on a couch in his living room, knowing they are coming for him. Rushand Chambers vividly describes his surroundings, a sense of dread looming while the first panicked thoughts about fleeing breakthrough. Yet, Chambers shows the Prisoner pull himself back, convince himself that a life of on the run would be only too brief and giving himself up is the only way.

We skip forward to the first day, imprisoned with an older man who tries to support him, aware how lucky he is to be there instead of with the various groups and gangs he soon observes on his wing. A panorama of prison life follows; we hear about skinny newcomers bulking-up with steroids and hefty gym sessions after joining some of the more dangerous gangs; we are told about the men who’ve lost all hope of getting-out permanently turn to drugs and violence to release their pent-up aggression; we hear the hissing fury of the landing when everyone’s hour of freedom is rescinded for a misdemeanour including cell fires and ripped-out sinks, and we see in crouching, clutching physical form as the 23-hour a day containment grinds them down.

Most revealing are all the human stories of hope that run through the play, which Barnes uses well to counterbalance the danger and frustrations of incarceration. In a section performed by the collective actors, different coping strategies are revealed which for the men hoping never to return includes anything from reading novels – Pierre Moullier playing the Prisoner is given a James Patterson thriller by his cellmate – to trusting in God to studying A-levels in order to get a job on the outside. Giving structure to prison life, creating routines, having things to look forward to, counting the minutes to the next period of exercise or web development class all help to control the expanse of time in much the same way that men in combat structure their fears hour-by-hour.

Hope also resides in family life and recreated scenes with girlfriend Kai become a core motivation for the ailing Prisoner – a brief rhythmic section chants the days between visits, with 1 instantly resetting to 14 again, an endless cycle of anticipation. It is only inside that he really understands and comes to rely on his feeling for her and their children, the paranoia and fear of abandonment plaguing him in the time between visits, worrying about lives being lived without him, that he will be forgotten. This darkens the mood between them in person too as he looks for signs of commitment and trust.

Barnes balances the changes in tone really effectively, often obscuring the light moments with a sudden twist into the more unpleasant sides of prison life, some of which the Prisoner experiences later in the piece. It is impressive that such a brief play is able to provide such a vast perspective on life in Wandsworth, collating a lot of testimony while maintaining a strong sense of character throughout, a man who wants to be good, to get through it by keeping his head down but struggling to retain his balance against the overwhelming pressure and loneliness he experiences all the time. Sometimes he’s funny and buoyant, looking for the brightness as Tej Obano’s sections do, while often these moments become quite affecting including a tearful speech performed by Moullier and a significant confessional moment from Raphael Akuwudike.

The Jumper Factory is simply presented by director Josh Parr, the actors in a line facing the audience with each stepping forward with their chair to deliver a speech. But there is considerable variation too, Lighting Designer Jess Glaisher’s creates a central square box for several of the monologues, replicated around all of the actors for the group sections (which also include Ayomide Adegun and Jake Mills), each one a small, individual cell restricting their movements. Sound Designer Mike Winship has cut together interview snippets from the real men behind the play, sparingly peppered through the show, as reality continues to lurk just beneath the surface – the recorded sounds of piano and song a memorable interjection from the people really living this life.

With Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train gripping theatregoers in the Young Vic main house with its fascinating discussions about masculinity, faith, justice and the price of redemption, adding an extra 45-minutes to your trip to see this small but hugely powerful one-act show is highly recommended before it embarks on a brief tour later in the month. Created as part of the Young Vic’s ‘Taking Part’ initiative The Jumper Factory has so much to say about the what happens after the crime has been committed and the punishment determined. It’s a heartfelt plea to be remembered and understood by the men counting the seconds until their next milestone, whether that’s their parole date or just dinner time. Barnes, you feel, is not done with this play and beyond its visit to the Bristol Old Vic it certainly deserves a longer stretch – the men of Wandsworth will be pinning their hopes on it too.

The Jumper Factory is at the Young Vic until 9 March and tickets are £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train – Young Vic

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train - Young Vic

Over the next couple of weeks, the Young Vic has new shows exploring the effects of the criminal justice system and the experience of prison on young men convicted of violent crime. The Jumper Factory has been created with the men of Wandsworth prison, a chance for writer Luke Barnes to dramatise the multifaceted effects of life behind bars and its consequences for individual confidence, rehabilitation and reabsorption into society. But first, there is a revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a layered story of two violent criminals, the system they hope can save them and the redemptive power that comes from confession.

In a New York prison, Angel Cruz is being held on remand awaiting trial for shooting a vicar who has recruited Angel’s best friend into a cult. There he meets eight-time murderer Lucius when they exercise together in the yard while the unrepentant serial killer talks about finding God. When Angel’s lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, convinces her client to be patient and play the system to their advantage, he starts to dream of freedom, but with Lucius in his head and hateful guard Valdez gunning for them both, Angel’s certainty begins to waver.

Kate Hewitt’s production, played out on Magda Willi’s traverse stage, is on the surface about the legal definitions of guilt and justice as two seemingly quite different men navigate the outcomes of  similar crimes in a one-size-fits-all judicial structure. It asks insightful questions about the comparative severity of offences which in context appear so different – Angel’s an unfortunate accident resulting from concern for his friend, while Lucius’s spree was a merciless act of a clearly disturbed mind. Yet, writer Adly Guirgis has placed them both in the same outdoor cage at exactly the same time in corresponding orange uniforms.

One of the drivers of this production, then, is the question of how different these men really are – the frustrated and withdrawn Angel alongside the confident and vibrant Lucius. And as the story unfolds, Hewitt expertly shifts our perspective on them both as they stand at opposite ends of the courtyard, engaged in the different stages of a tennis match. Willi uses movable plastic doors to demarcate their confinement, showing us the reflected and refracted nature of identity when seen through a transparent surface that at times also acts as a mirror. They are simultaneously themselves and a distorted version of that image, what the world sees is not the face they think they are wearing.

As these men engage in their battle of wills, there is also a more complex discussion of faith and forgiveness. A central pillar of the judiciary system (in theory) is to accept punishment and then be returned to society a reformed man, but Adly Guirgis suggests that this is only possible if the condemned man feels penance for his crimes and accepts that he was wrong. In fact, he goes further to imply that societally-imposed concepts of right and wrong crumble entirely under the idea of a merciful God, and with sufficient faith God will determine who is damned and saved. The born-again Lucius even insists that his conscience is cleared of the multiple homicides he committed because it was God’s plan for those people to become his victims and they did not receive or deserve God’s protection.

While noting the religious naming of the characters, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train becomes an argument between Angel and Lucius about culpability, one that forces Angel to question his own role in the crime he perpetrated. Angel insists that human agency and free will are the cause of his predicament rather than the unseen predestination that Lucius subscribes to. The intensity of their conversation, so brilliantly portrayed in this production, is underscored by religious evocations throughout the story, in Lucius’s chants and verbal exclamations to the sky as he exercises, in Angel’s stumbling attempts to recall the text of the Lord’s Prayer as the play opens, and the shady relationship between the man Angel shot in a church – a Reverend no less – and the “cult” he appeared to be part of, all raising questions about belief, salvation, human agency and the price of clemency.

There are also more grounded themes at play, not least in the structure of prison masculinity and its effects on modern male interpretations of bravado – something which The Jumper Factory is likely to address as well. Across this production’s two-hour run-time, Hewitt and her performers show us the flowering and reduction of the two men at its heart. Angel’s initial weakness blossoms into a much harder form of self-possession as he becomes more used to the forms of prison life and to the growing expectation of his imminent liberation. Where he was largely silent in his first meeting with Lucius, the tables are turned as the latter faces a transfer to Florida and looming death by lethal injection.

Religious debate, then, becomes just one of the battlegrounds on which Angel and Lucius flaunt their masculinity, with their conversation increasingly embittered and vital as they spar and rail at each other’s personalities, crimes and likely future. Both are searching for a space to exist as themselves in a structure that dehumanises and anonymises them, whole complicated beings reduced to reference numbers and the felonies they committed (redolent of policeman Javert eternally referring to Jean Valjean at 24601 in Les Misérables). While physically separated by their individual cages – and this maddening sense of being trapped is evoked well in the claustrophobic set where the walls frequently draw-in on them – the two men try to physically intimidate and threaten each other, locking horns in an attempt to establish precedence, a desire to project a fearlessness they are far from feeling as they get under each other’s skin.

This masculine bristling is given a slightly different form in the behaviour of the prison guards, the first who forms an attachment to Lucius is quickly removed for showing him too much humanity, while his replacement the goading Valdez is a cliché of the evil warden, but in the power games presented in this production, he acts as a reminder that however much they may jostle for position, ultimately they are at the whims of larger forces, an Old Testament God-like presence who makes them bend and submit at will, baiting them with the power to destroy at any time.

No one really cares about these men or what led them to their crimes, and while a line close to the end gives an insight into Lucius’s childhood that makes some sense of him, it is a small moment in an externally controlled structure designed specifically to reduce and restrict them. As well as the guard’s behaviour, Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan uses her client to forward her own career, and as she monologues to the audience directly as well as interacting with Angel, it soon becomes clear that law is a game she needs to win, one in which coaching her client on how to behave and besting the opposition are more important than the man standing trial and the truth of what happened on the night of the crime.

All of this is designed to take the power away from the men in prison, and crucially the audience is not shown key events like Angel’s trial and Lucius’s final moments, but have them relayed to us by characters with a paid role in the criminal justice system – the men themselves are prevented from telling the audience their own story directly, and we must deduce how much of the “official” version of events is correct from the performances. Ukweli Roach as Angel has an early vulnerability that instantly makes his character incredibly sympathetic, he’s overawed by the severity of the situation and the strangely distorting feel of the prison.

Yet as the story unfolds, Roach shows Angel’s slow emergence as at first a brittle confidence begins to take shape which, as he starts to believe the lawyer’s hype about his certain acquittal,  forms into something much less appetising. Roach never allows us to know for certain how guilty Angel really is and as the toll of prison life leads to several increasingly agitated confrontations with Lucius, an innate aggression and potential for violence is revealed. Whether Angel is really the victim of circumstance he claims to be or his own worst enemy is something Roach grapples with extremely effectively in the show’s final scenes, as he begins to doubt his own self-image.

Likewise, Oberon KA Adjepong Lucius, pseudonymously known as the Black Plague, is also forced to reassess his knowledge of himself as Angel challenges his fervent trust in God’s work. Ebullient, energetic and bombastic at the start, Adjepong creates a character who frequently evangelises, utterly confident and unshakeable in his devotion to his faith. Yet there is considerable texture here too and Adjepong uses the strange contradictions of Lucius’s character to draw attention to the psychology of a man who sees himself as a victim of the state’s prosecution process.

Lucius is beloved by his former guard, personable and friendly to Angel, sharing cigarettes with him and trying to ease his early experience of confinement. Yet, simultaneously, Adjepong convinces us that Lucius has coldly and guiltlessly murdered eight people on the spur of the moment. Similarly, he uses his build to intimate, refusing to be cowed by a bullying guard, yet relents when instructed by Valdez and is clearly affected by Angel’s insistence that Lucius’s guaranteed salvation is less than certain, that he rather than God should take responsibility for his crimes. All of these facets are made credible in Adjepong’s compelling performance of a man facing death and ultimately clinging to some kind of certainty to remain afloat.

There is good support from Dervla Kirwan as the hotshot lawyer determined to acquit her client and relishing the courtroom battle ahead. There is an arrogance and a similar kind of delusion in Kirwan’s Mary Jane, a woman who also fails to see herself they way others see her. And Joplin Sibtain as the evil Valdez is equally contained by his role, both relishing the small-scale power he has over the prisoners, taunting them, while, as Lucius points out, equally trapped in the jailhouse and unable to show any kind of weakness that may undermine him.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a multi-layered discussion about morality in all its forms and how the artificiality of prison with its removal of humanity and, perhaps quaint, concept of punishment, challenges concepts of responsibility and redemption. With so many themes to explore some get little more than a cursory nod, but in this Young Vic production these debates are enthrallingly staged.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is at the Young Vic until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


%d bloggers like this: