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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

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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


Yerma – Young Vic

Yerma - Young Vic

The decision to have a child is something that most women will grapple with at some stage, but the notion that an individual has the right to decide what happens to their body is far from widely accepted. The politics of fertility are hugely controversial with many countries around the world still unprepared to ‘meddle’ with nature, while even here in the UK scientific intervention at any stage of a pregnancy or before can still be incredibly divisive.

In society that is still fairly traditional at heart, through the media and all forms of popular culture we are constantly bombarded by the notion that all women want marriage or a long relationship with children – you can have your career and travel the world but by the time you reach your mid-30s (at the latest) this is all we should want to do. Culturally then we’ve ended up in a position of two extremes, at one end are the women who choose not have children at all and are still seen as odd or deluded – and who didn’t applaud Jennifer Aniston’s comments on this recently – while for those who have children there is an overwhelming pressure to be a pre-defined perfect mother.

But there is a place in the middle that hasn’t been properly addressed, the women who desperately want children but can’t have them. Ben Elton considered this in his surprisingly moving 1999 novel Inconceivable but now Simon Stone’s new play at the Young Vic (which is in preview until Thursday) takes another look at exactly this issue and the all-consuming effects it has on one couple and their family. Yerma is based on the Federico Garcia Lorca 1934 play of the same name which Stone has updated and reset in modern London. Yerma and John are moving in together as the play opens, outwardly they have it all, a beautiful new apartment and a solid exciting relationship. But Yerma is 33 and begins a conversation about having a child, and as the months and years pass without success the couple are torn to pieces by her growing obsession.

This is a tragedy in a true Shakespearean sense; a protagonist with a fatal flaw is driven to absolute destruction by an inability to see beyond their immediate context. And Stone’s production is incredibly powerful, at times disconcerting, alienating and devastating, it helps the audience engage with both perspectives understanding why Yerma’s family are so alarmed by her behaviour, but maintaining incredible sympathy for the pain of the women it follows.

The action takes place in a glass box with mirrored ends designed by Lizzie Clachan, with the actors wearing microphones to allow the audience to hear them. Partially this represents the very public life Yerma is leading because, as a respected journalist, she is sharing the story of her reproductive problems with the world through her blog, which as the years pass becomes increasingly embarrassing and detrimental to her partner’s business. Like last year’s The Trial it uses a traverse style and presumably a treadmill to move sets between scenes, and having the audience face each other creates an even greater sense of the caged animal Yerma becomes, as well that notion of the whole world watching the ‘freak show’ as she lives her trauma in public. The play is also divided into chapters with some scene descriptions giving you a sense of how much time has passed and additional context which again reiterates this idea of something complex and unknowable being boiled-down into a linear story for public consumption.

Stone’s interpretation of Lorca’s work is fresh and exciting, not just in the bang up-to-date references to very modern London including Brexit and our new mayor Sadiq Khan, but also in the use of technology particularly later in the play, to heighten the drama and impact. In a particularly impressive scene Yerma spirals out of control at a festival, high on drugs and losing her grip, while Stone drenches the whole scene with rain and uses strobe lighting to emphasise her heightened and manic state of mind.

It doesn’t all work yet, occasionally the microphones muffle some of the text, particularly early on and a lot of the scene changes are quite long so there’s a lot of sitting in the dark waiting for things to happen, but this will quicken as the run continues. There’s also a potential problem of depth to the secondary characters – Yerma’s mother, sister, ex-boyfriend and younger colleague, as well as occasionally her husband John. It’s not quite clear whether they’re supposed to be fully functioning people in their own right or just become shades to Yerma as her obsession grows, in which case their lack of rounding is less important. But the production should be clearer about their purpose.

Billie Piper’s performance as Yerma absolutely crackles, dominating the production from start to finish. Piper has grown into a hugely watchable and skilled actor with a rare everyman quality that brings real audience engagement to all her roles, and amazing to think now that eyebrows were raised when she was originally cast as the Doctor’s companion. Here she initially seems incredibly relaxed, and her Yerma is a woman who has created a very nice life for herself, a bit smug maybe but with a nice committed boyfriend, a smart home and accelerating career success.

Watching Piper pull that to pieces is like watching her pull petals off a flower – so easy and careless but needlessly destructive. And initially this Yerma takes the reproductive failings in her stride, but when the cracks begin to show in her marriage she becomes more and more like a caged animal, pacing around her glass jail, helplessly and entirely hopelessly trying to fight against her own biology. The performance becomes even more thrilling in the final third as self-destruction takes over, exposing the raw intensity as her obsession and pain get the better of her. But Piper expertly manages to retain a shred of audience sympathy even in the most extreme moments, making her final scenes pitiable and moving.

Australian actor Brendan Cowell takes on the role of John, the often absent boyfriend / husband who perplexedly watches the women he knew change into something else. Initially, there’s not much too him as he floats in and out, but again this is a character that takes some time to build as we see the growing estrangement with his wife. Cowell is particularly good at showing us how John was almost railroaded into having a child he wasn’t that bothered about and how much easier it becomes for him to face the truth. But the real emotional punch comes much later as the relationship breaks down and Cowell shows us the wide-spread cost of Yerma’s obsession and the toll it’s taken on their once perfect lives.

While the other actors have little to work with, special mention for Maureen Beattie’s unaffectionate mother who gets to represent an opposite and ironic view of motherhood as a women who never really wanted the children she had.  With press night to follow later this week, Yerma looks set to reignite debates around fertility politics and a woman’s control over her body.  Simon Stone has created an insightful and compelling vision that gives voice to the suffering and extremity that an unrealised desire for children can create. With a standing ovation for Piper’s performance after just a few previews, this is surely one of the most unmissable performances of the summer.

Yerma is at the Young Vic until 24 September. Tickets are £10 – £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Trial – Young Vic

I’m not going to lie to you, this is a tough one. The Young Vic has had a string of award-winning successes in the past 12 months leading to West End and now Broadway transfers. Understandably then, there is a buzz about the place these days and most shows sell out fairly quickly. This adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial was all but gone even before the press night so confident are audiences in the quality of Young Vic productions. And of course the lure of Rory Kinnear cannot be underestimated either. He’s an actor that’s been in everything, including roles in Bond and the recent Casual Vacancy on the BBC, and while he may not quite be a household name yet, is very highly regarded among theatre watchers – much as Benedict Cumberbatch used to be, and we all know how that turned out.

The Trial is a part absurdist, part-Brechtian, part-naturalistic drama about a totalitarian state that arrests Josef K a seemingly upstanding citizen one morning for an unspecified crime. But he’s not detained and while he awaits a series of hearing dates at ‘The Court’, Josef tries to discover what his crime has been and attends a number of surreal encounters with court officials and a potential lawyer while becoming increasingly famous for his unknown misdemeanour. There is a slim chance he could be set free but he must try to recall every bad deed he has ever committed which means filling out endless reams of yellow forms. Before long Josef discovers that a sure case of mistaken identity has taken over his entire life, but will he ever clear his name with the faceless Court?

The first thing you’ll notice as you enter the auditorium is the crazy design which has turned the Young Vic’s space into a giant orange courtroom with the audience seated in raked boxes facing each other. In the centre is a giant keyhole which rises up to reveal a treadmill on which the set is built underneath. It’s a neat way to imply the nature of this world based on secret observation although you might have to push pictures of David Frost and Lloyd Grosman from your mind as you muse on ‘who lives in a house like this’. The treadmill is clever way to move the action smoothly from scene to scene while implying a sense of inevitability in Josef’s story – once he’s set on this path it (somewhat literally) only goes in one direction.

But this is no 1984 and the audience is never allowed to get too close to the action, as well as being deliberately alienated from the central character by the language. In his monologue moments Josef speaks in a heightened way using ‘im’ and ‘ooo’ to refer to himself which reminded me of a James Joyce style deliberately intended to stop you feeling too much sympathy for him as we almost clinically observe his decline. This is the most challenging aspect of the play which clearly made it difficult for some members of the audience to understand what was going on. If straightforward, naturalistic theatre is your preference then this may not be an easy thing to watch, and would probably suit you better if you prefer more alternative and surreal styles.

On the whole the acting is extremely good and while your engagement with the plot can falter (and certainly did for a lot of people) there are some great performances. Rory Kinnear is of course superb as Josef, expertly plotting his increased frenzy as the process of discovering his crime begins to take over his entire life. Kinnear’s previous work, including a wonderfully malevolent Iago at the National in 2013, has created a great sense of expectation around his stage appearances, so it seems timely that he should join forces with the equally trendy Young Vic. In Kinnear’s performance you also get the sense that Josef was himself once a faceless man, trundling absently through life and working in a bank, making no mark on the world, but the layers of bureaucracy that suddenly make him famous are impossible to manage. The distancing of the audience means we never really get to know Josef and this story becomes a faceless man taking on a faceless system.

Kate Flynn is also excellent playing a number of key women in Josef’s life including the neighbour he is in love with and a school girl assistant to the lawyer who falls for him, as well as a stripper (who is too obviously wearing flesh coloured shorts) entertaining him as the play opens. If the text is making a point about the facelessness of these women who possibly in Josef’s mind all look the same, it is never made entirely clear but certainly suggests the interchangeability of the individual. There’s also a decent cast of additional characters who are all part of this treadmill of bureaucracy from Bogart-esque people in macs who are not even slightly scary to surreal court officials talking administrative nonsense and Josef’s bustling bank colleagues.

It does suffer from projection problems with the sound of the treadmill and the music periodically obscuring the dialogue, especially when the actor is facing away from you, which certainly doesn’t help audience engagement. While the acting is good and there is the germ of an engaging story at times, it is a hard piece to appreciate. Part of that this heightened brightly coloured world feels as though it’s trying too hard to be full of metaphor and meaning, which combined with the arms-length feel of the production creates a tension between wanting us to understand and pushing us away, thus making it difficult for some people to stay awake, never mind keep the story and themes straight long enough to form an opinion on whether they enjoyed it.

There’s some good stuff here in both the use of innovative techniques and yet another complete transformation of the Young Vic space. Rory Kinnear is certainly marvellous and probably deserves an award for maintaining 2 straight hours on stage, but ultimately something is not quite coming together here and you don’t leave mulling over the injustice of this state or being suitably warned about the over-systematisation of government. Although it was practically sold out before it opened, I have a feeling some of those pre-sales will regret their hasty purchase, so if it sounds like your thing returns will probably be fairly easy to come by. It’s not dreadful by any means but is likely only to suit particular theatre tastes, and not quite as engrossing as other recent Young Vic successes.

The Trial is at the Young Vic until 22nd August. Tickets are from £19-£35.

NB: An alternative version of this review from the press night performance was previously published on The Public Reviews website. The review above refers to a separate performance.


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