Tag Archives: Young Vic

Who Killed My Father -Young Vic

Who Killed My Father - (by Jan Versweyveld)

A page to stage transfer can be difficult, especially when the novel only contains a singular narrative voice or interior monologue that may struggle to find dramatic impact and depth in the theatre. Do you defy the original author and tell the story from the playwright’s perspective instead, dramatising the individual scenes from multiple angles or make it a monologue in which a single actor must recreate the voices and experiences of other characters in memory or fantasy sequences? For Ivo van Hove’s treatment of Édouard Louis’s 2018 book Who Killed My Father, it is the latter, a socio-political one-man show staged at the Young Vic as part of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s European production tour.

van Hove is a superb director of intimacy and tension in confined settings, marshaling the emotional beats of a story that often build to a final devastating and decisive conclusion, particularly in personal relationship between lovers or within families. His recent West End revival of The Human Voice staring Ruth Wilson was a carefully constructed examination of a woman on the edge of destruction, trapped in her box-framed flat and unraveling as the play unfolded. Likewise, van Hove explored the private and layers of relationships in Arthur Miller’s family tragedy A View from the Bridge – still one of his most memorable productions – also at the Young Vic. In Who Killed My Father, van Hove is back in similar territory where masculinity, social expectation and inevitability play out across the life of one family in the last two decades.

And citing these two examples is pertinent because in staging the play, van Hove merges elements from both in the visual language of Who Killed My Father and in the emphasis that van Hove in his role as adapter and director gives to different elements of the story. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, like The Human Voice, this show takes place in a defined box-like structure, a device that instantly gives the contents a screening feel but also a sense of containment, reflected further in the interior which is a single room – not a high-rise flat like The Human Voice but possibly a cell or hospice room that contains the narrative markers of the story; some are sparce furnishings like a bed and a television used to illustrate particular memories while others are more ethereal concepts that speak to a life defined by violence such as the fist-pummeled walls.

Versweyveld has created the perfect canvas in fact onto which van Hove can paint Louis’s story, a set that will contain decades of family life, multiple rooms and conversations as well as the bombastic ebullience of a working class masculinity that becomes as brittle and lifeless as it was once dominant and powerful. These tonal changes are captured through Versweyveld’s cinematographic lighting design – another feature shared with The Human Voice – in which darkness or shadow have as much to contribute as the rich golden hues that flood the stage when the narrator talks about paternal love and the clinical starkness of the greyish white light that even tinges the audience as the manly force of the father is broken and then prevented from ever rising again.

Into that physical space van Hove places a story that has some similarities with Miller’s troubled Carbones. Both involve strong patriarchal figures whose dominance of their families kindles destructive impulses from within and both focus on the intense consequences of that power waning within a small household unit. Louis’s text really looks at cycles of inherited masculinity and the difficulty of breaking out of those traits. It asks some large and generally unanswered questions about where manly ideals come from, how they become ingrained and the methods of transfer between generations. The expectations pressed on a father are then equally expected of a son, gendered norms that are initially oppressive but soon become learned behaviours that perpetuate toxic and harmful myths about what is means to be a man.

van Hove makes this the centrepiece of his play, the complex interaction between two men who are so different yet entirely the same. But, with some initial information given about a violent and abusive grandfather who physically harmed his wife and children, there is a clear pattern of and template for male behaviour that is being passed down the generations here, one which we are left to assume, but cannot be fully certain, that the narrator has broken free from. In telling this story, in which the son is speaking directly to the father, is he accusing or concerned he might be the same as the man who raised him?

The place where hate ends and love begins is murky so while a particular scene may condemn a character entirely, there is complexity across a lifetime of knowing someone that never vindicates them but suggests, for this son and his father at least, that there was more to their relationship than a polarised feeling of hate or appreciation, that day-to-day, fear and love were bound up in each other and with other kinds of responses like shame, guilt, resentment, pride and admiration.

Like Louis’s novel, van Hove retains the non-chronological order of events so the audience is never entirely sure when things occurred and to what extent it suggests patterns of behaviour in either man. Several crucial things appear to happen when the narrator is seven; his father is thrown out by his mother but may be taken back, he performs a pivotal dance sequence to Barbie Girl by Aqua, performing the female role, which his father ignores and there are arguments about what manliness looks like. Lots of other contextual information is hinted at including the father’s movement between different factories, the relative poverty of the family who feel judged by others and a latent homophobia that comes from both parents, although the narrator briefly states he takes male lovers in Paris as an adult.

This blurring of time is there to create an impression rather than a distinct blow-by-blow account of family life, and often the information conveyed is contradictory. The notion of love and hate are at the heart of this complexity and there are many stories about the father’s verbal and mental abuse of his children using silence and insults as a means of shaping his boy into the man he needs to be, occasionally referencing neighbours and outsiders who compound these ideals. Yet there is real love for his father as well, a man who rejects his son’s birthday present idea but buys it anyway and then goes to some effort to feed the boy’s interest afterwards. The audience never quite knows whether the father is the monster we are presented with – and crucially he is barely personified until quite some way into the play. Or is the narrator only remembering particularly high and low moments that shaped him rather than the less notable constants of day-to-day life?

And what of the women who barely seem to feature in this story at all. The narrator’s mother is generally referred to as a rather saintly figure which is common in domestic violence households where children want to protect and save their mother from harm. But in the few scenes she appears in, the mother either nags her son or uses gossipy neighbours as a reason to chastise her son for publicly exhibiting homosexual behaviour, something she is embarrassed by. Yet, there the narrator suggests no resentment of his mother or takes time to reflect on her as a real character, exploring neither the relationship she had with his father, her decision to take him back or, crucially, what happens to her at the end of this story. It is also very late in the play that our storyteller mentions a couple of sisters, people not known about before or afterwards who have been entirely excised from this history and from the scenarios the audience has been asked to imagine. Louis and van Hove leave this information hanging, but where are and who are the women in this story?

Taking place in the last twenty years, music has quite an important function in Who Killed My Father, particularly pop and dance that continually reference a surrounding popular culture that so often defines van Hove’s productions. Aqua appear a number of times as the crucial Barbie Girl dance routine recurs in several roots of memory but there is other music too, particularly Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On which is relevant to and underscores a section about paternal love, and there is a beautiful spinning disco ball scene early on as the narrator embraces dance as a means of expression. Versweyveld creates a vortex of swirling light that is equally beautiful and disorientating in keeping with the themes of this piece.

But Who Killed My Father does come a little unstuck in its final 10-minutes with a scene of directed political rage that breaks free of the intimate and becomes a tirade against French health policy. Violence against the body as an act of State is the theme and while there is some useful connection here with the notion of bodily attack committed by men in their own homes, the withdrawal of health benefits and declassification of conditions feels suddenly out of place in what has been a tightly focused domestic story. The switch from the effects of the father in that space to the State’s betrayal of its citizens is too sudden and even as the narrator quite literally steps out of his box to berate a series of male French ministers and Presidents who perpetrated these widescale betrayals and attacks on the working classes, the audience loses some sense of what this play has been about – the individual, complicated connection between father and son trapped in their own social roles.

Appearing recently as Menelaus in Age of Rage at the Barbican, regular collaborator Hans Kesting is tremendous in the leading role, holding the audience in thrall for the show’s entire 90-minute running time. This is a monologue that demands considerable stamina and control, not giving too much away too soon and managing the rhythm of a tale that generates plenty of tension. Its structure seems fluid as memories and thoughts overlay one another but it demands a great deal from Kesting who rises to meet the challenge, drawing the audience in with impressive characterisation yet holding them at arms length to maintain the ambiguities of the central perspective and its protagonist.

It is always exciting seeing van Hove’s work for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam with its cinematic vision encapsulated in theatrical form. Here in Who Killed My Father there is both intimacy and scale that neatly capture the contradictions and complexities of loving a family member. The title of this work may not be a question but it certainly makes a statement.

Who Killed My Father is at the Young Vic until 24 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Of the Cut – Young Vic

As theatre eyes largely turn to Edinburgh, several prominent venues are giving over their spaces to community and student projects that showcase the important outreach and engagement work that has been happening all year. The National Theatre has its Public Acts scheme which this year heads to Yorkshire for a new production entitled The Doncastrian Chalk Circle and next week the Donmar begins The Trials, a climate activism piece developed through its Local and Young Associates programme that builds on ASSEMBLY performed digitally last year. But first, the Young Vic celebrated the quarter century of Taking Part, its community and schools engagement strand with a week-long series of promenade performance dedicated to the theatre’s physical home on The Cut.

Combining local residents and schools from Southwark and Lambeth, Of the Cut is a fascinating multi-narrative, multimedia production taking place at the Young Vic and in its neighbouring spaces, moving audiences physically along this road but also through time as it sets out to explore the history and meaning of The Cut, as well as its importance as a place of community and creativity. Its purpose is to emphasise the importance of this strip of shops, restaurants and theatres as a focal point for community interaction and engagement down the generations.

But it also argues that theatre itself is both the starting and end point as well as the tool for these kinds of collaborative endeavour, that the Young Vic must inspire community and reflect it in equal measure. And in the coming together of different voices, ages and ideas through dramatic scenes, film and semi-immersive experiences, Of the Cut is an innovative and warmly engaging example of theatre outreach in action.

Created by Yasmin Joseph in collaboration with the company which includes over 20 performers, this 1 hour and 45-minute show is structured around a series of scenes that can be experienced in any order, book-ended by two segments based in the Maria studio space of the Young Vic. Joseph also wrote J’Ouvert, one of the premiere plays that reopened the Harold Pinter Theatre in Sonia Friedman’s RE: EMERGE season alongside Anna X and Walden. Also filmed for the BBC, J’Ouvert was a community-focused play set at the Notting Hill Carnival which also examined multicultural neighbourhoods brought together by a singular event through which individual and self-knowledge and collective understanding emerge.

Of the Cut has similar themes, using an emergency scenario that draws different groups together to solve a problem while simultaneously showcasing the community subsets, businesses and personalities that make this area a distinct but welcoming place – a theme that interests Joseph, considering the interplay between the changing urban face of London which brings tourism and commercial endeavour to exist alongside the experience of long-term residents that bring consistency and connection to those who have gone before and the geographical uniqueness that builds loyalty and investment.

The first notable aspect of Of the Cut are the number of locations in which the show takes place, a logistical feat not just in safely moving the audience from place to place but in negotiating with multiple venues and different kinds of enterprises who have made space for this endeavour – proof enough that the Young Vic is plugged into its immediate community. From the local St Andrew’s Church to a table by The Windmill pub, a nearby courtyard restaurant and the entire foyer of Southwark College, it is no small job to construct a show of this scale – a production, it should be noted, offered entirely for free to audience members. The absence of the Old Vic is notable however, an equally valuable part of this strip offering another place for creative encounters within the same community.

To have managed numerous separate performances over several days last week is impressive, relying on considerable good will and months of planning to facilitate. And the experience for the audience is seamless, divided into two more manageable groups of around 15 people who experience the pre-prepared scenes in a different order, coming together at the beginning, in the middle and at the end for defined experiences. Each group is also given a manager and a lead performer who act as principal guide as well as a couple of ushers to ensure everyone crosses the road safely but also to maintain the narrative thread, directing the viewer through the story as a tag team of actors provide links to the next space and scenario.

And the result is extremely effective, convincingly moving to different perspectives within the central story as well as the longer term, evolving view of The Cut itself and its residents. Meeting a local knitting circle, a deconstructed pie seller, market traders and construction workers, the vibrancy of this street is reflected in the somewhat fantastical story about a neighbourhood trying to balance an identity shaped by its past while being sufficiently open to all the things it could be in the future.

A key concern here is gentrification and the arrival of generic chains that denude the area of its distinctiveness. Joseph and her collaborators are not so crass as to name this directly but instead choose an allegory through which the audience can draw its own conclusions. The synonym Joseph selects instead is ‘magic,’ a secret source of which has long existed underneath The Cut, gently infecting all who live and work there with a special and unique power. An accidental leak sends this magic – depicted as plumes of coloured smoke emerging from the Young Vic and other places on film – into the air where the intensity of its undiluted form creates dangerous levels of exposure and means people beyond the immediate vicinity will experience it as well.

It is a light-hearted concept, one that is neatly and consistently fed through the production, from the Victorian market stall traders who first introduce the notion and explain their role in burying the concentrated magic in the first place, all the way to diverse contemporary residents agonising over the future without it. And as the audience moves between these stories, the open secret of the existence of magic underpins the purpose of each scene, even with warnings en route about items that may magically appear during the performance or the portals that might take character-leaders away unexpectedly (to perform for the other group). Sainsbury’s on The Cut is marked out as a particularly powerful doorway to a magical realm – which anyone who has ever needed an emergency sandwich before a Young Vic evening performance will already know!

But all of this levity does have some serious political and social points to make about the formation and maintenance of community. These do not spring fully formed but, as Joseph’s production shows, come partly from investment in spaces for like-minded people to engage such as the knitting circle encountered in St Andrew’s Church, partly through heritage and local history connections with those who came before, as the expensive pie shop on the site of a fish and chip emporium from decades before suggests, but also in the throwing together of people with different needs, backgrounds and lifestyles as displayed by a group of neighbours in a close quarters courtyarded block performed in Southwark College’s large foyer. One of the big set pieces of this production, how community ‘magic’ is created is a major concern as the day-to-day business of living harmoniously (and disharmoniously) side-by-side gives way to notions of collective dreaming, enjoying what they have and deciding to hold the responsibility for it and power to change it in their own hands rather than relying on external, non-invested groups, like the local council – if you want community, Jospeh is saying, you have to make it for yourself and then keep it going, arguably precisely what the Young Vic is doing with Of the Cut and Taking Part.

So what does all this mean for the Young Vic? Well, it has a crucial role to play in the creation of community, both as a place of engagement, a focal point for schools, residents and young adults to congregate but also as a means to expand and reflect on the world beyond SE1. Part of Of the Cut includes a group of school pupils filmed arriving at the theatre and being taught by their straightlaced but exasperated teacher how to interact in the auditorium with comedic results. But as the filmed actors become live performers in the Maria studio, they eventually hear the building speak to them in multiple voices, expanding on all the stories, places and people that have ever been contained within its walls. That is the ‘magic’ that theatre can offer, perspective and inclusion which, as this sequence demonstrates, by breaking down barriers to participation for those who would never set foot in a theatre or may think even the building is not for them, these kinds of initiatives can be transformative.

Theatre after all brings people together but it also takes them to unexpected places physically, intellectually, politically and emotionally, and Joseph’s play has all of that, the community comes together and the audience is transported. The balance for the Young Vic is in representing its community on its everyday stages, so that everyone who comes to a show can see an aspect of themselves reflected back at them, but also in then transporting the whole room to places they never imagined, and in reality will almost certainly never go to. The most resounding message of Of the Cut is that community is not a static state so how do you maintain a collective essence while allowing it to grow into something more?

In the Young Vic’s main house, Chasing Hares is about the power of a story to inspire and upend the structures we take for grants so this summer programme of community and student productions is an opportunity to see things a little differently, to shake up what we think theatre can be and what it should do. Joseph’s Of the Cut is ultimately about what theatre means to a community, the chance to see it, make it and perform in it as well as have it respond to who you are and what we can be. And the Taking Part team are absolutely right, there is real magic in that.

Of the Cut was performed at the Young Vic from 30 July to 6 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Chasing Hares – Young Vic

Exploitation can take many forms and sometimes it even begins with a creative opportunity. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s lead character in new play Chasing Hares takes a while to find themselves confronting a major moral dilemma but the road to it begins with storytelling, imagination and character creation. Bhattacharyya is interested in where these stories come from, what they represent and their meaning to the individuals and local groups from which they emerge. A play that navigates the hope and aspiration of working class communities in urban India yearning for rural and natural landscapes set against the cold political and economically deprived reality, Chasing Hares experiments with its theatrical form.

Dramas about strikes and factory unrest tend to follow a defined pattern, one in which solidarity and the humanity of the workers is developed before unfolding heroic, David versus Goliath tales of standing up to management in the pursuit of liberty and equality. Stage musical Made in Dagenham and the recent Shake the City appearing in Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprint’s Festival are jaunty perspectives about female unionisation and pay disputes while a defining work like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat was not so much a play but a howl of pain for one-industry towns in rust belt America decimated by the move to imported cheaper labour.

Chasing Hares sits somewhere between these extremes, using allegory and theatre to create visual spectacle but equally concerned with the plight of factory workers in Kolkata where jobs are scarce and a major international contract creates a mad scramble to make money. And like Nottage, Bhattacharyya focuses on the difficult middle management role when Prab a former worker is raised to a position of power and ultimately compromised by it as he chooses between protecting his own salary for the sake of his young family and, in the face of unscrupulous management that pushes against his moral code, the pressure to care for the people in his charge.

But while politically fired, this is not a story in which right and wrong are presented as black and white concepts, and more than once Bhattacharyya notes the central character’s active consent to the events of the play and, despite his history as a former activist and agitator, we see Prab’s willingness to ‘sell-out’ his ideals for material comforts and, more seriously, to advance his creative ambitions. But there are other compromises too and while the workers of the Khub Bhalo factory are never seen, their financial desperation forces them to take significant risks, putting themselves in danger in ways that inform the ethical quandary at the heart of the show.

But Bhattacharyya’s point is an important one, mirrored in a modern-day conclusion based in the UK, that argues choice in these circumstances is a misleading concept when social constructs of power, money and influence create the conditions in which one group of people can exploit another. What the factory families chose to do may be morally and ethically troubling and the owners may argue that all applications to work are voluntarily given, but ultimately Bhattacharyya shows there is no other option when the alternative is to go without an income, food or housing.

Bhattacharyya dramatises that through the gentle rise and trajectory of Prab’s family, growing from a small set of rooms where they live with his wife’s mother to regular work, a stable job and the chance to live in a better neighbourhood. At the start of the play, Prab is one of many out of worker breadwinners who stalk the factory gates every morning in the hope that it will reopen and work will be plentiful. But Bhattacharyya creates conditions in which contracts are awarded to competitors operating at lower cost and the regular early morning clamber for work is a futile hope in an area in terminal decline. The sudden end to the drought brings with it another set of problems, an employers market in which the factory owners can offer almost any terms and still be inundated with applicants. And slowly Bhattacharyya starts to tip the balance where opportunity becomes no choice at all.

The journey that Prab is taken on is a complicated one as he navigates the shift from worker to manager urged by his wife, Kajol, to remain passive and do whatever is asked him of him to protect their young family. As the rewards for that flood in, improving their financial and, to a degree, their social status, Bhattacharyya’s Prab is troubled by the consequences that give grounding to the play, turning what could be a solely high-minded story about workers’ rights into a more complicated portrait of individual, family and social needs conflicting across the experience of one man.

The extent to which the protagonist is taken in by the factory owner’s son Devesh who is also a theatre performer is shaped by Prab’s personal desire for creative recognition and fulfillment, when an opportunity to write and perform alongside him and fellow actor, Chellam, in a Jatra troupe presents itself after a night at her show. It is an unusual entry point to the play’s central dilemma but it does create depth in the characterisation by giving Prab a separate interior life and aspiration that Bhattacharyya intricately works into his political ideals, creating opportunities to compromise Prab with multiple implications for his professional integrity as well as his morality. But the writer is also arming her character, giving him different ways to reach the same audience of workers by looking to the social power of theatre to reflect and inspire.

This leads into the world of narrative and imagination that anchors the play and Bhattacharyya has Prab create an allegory that runs through the show, an original piece that speaks to the mystical traditions of India storytelling with its fairytale characteristics including an oppressed princess, talking animals and an evil landlord destroying the natural habitat but with fervent political undertones that speak to worker conditions and the possibility of a utopian equality. Bhattacharyya feeds the audience this story in chapters running throughout the show, told first to Prab’s baby as he tries to lull her to sleep and later as acted scenes performed by Prab’s famous new friends as he dramatises his imagined world for them.

What Bhattacharyya is doing here is quite interesting, on the one hand exploring the consistency of these ideal societies, partly referencing communism but also deeper traditions in not just Indian writing but in broader international romantic responses to the growing pressures and confinement of urbanisation. This fantasy world that Prab creates is entirely rural and equitable – there would have to be a lot of meetings as one character jokes but there is a wistfulness in the creation of these places that is both aspirational and, the storyteller knows, almost certainly unachievable. For Prab and Chellam the question becomes to what degree are they motivated to do something, to make a small difference while all the time knowing what they truly want is nothing but fantasy.

In order to tell his tale, Prab allows himself to be bought, initially for financial security but also for art, to be able to work with creative people. His head is turned by their flattery and interest in his ideas, giving him a platform that it takes him some time to recognise and use, eventually prompted by events elsewhere in the play. But there are other costs too, not just to his integrity but there is a price to speaking out both in muted and amplified forms which are explored in the final section of the play as the consequences of the two sides of his life come together, that in themselves create a whole new direction for his family. Within Chasing Hares then, Bhattacharyya asks what power does a story have and what should be the cost?

In staging the play, designer Moi Tran has appropriately created two playing spaces, parallel stages, one of which sits in recess. And across them the two worlds of Chasing Hares intersect – Prab’s reality and the illusory dramas performed by the actors allowing director Milli Bhatia to move between these stories, retaining their distinction but blending them and their outcomes together. Akhila Krishnan’s striking video design projects across the stage, creating spectacle by filling it with an animated version of the forest landscape that Prab develops in his mind, unfolding its trees, creatures and tonal shifts as he recounts his dark but hopeful story.

Across the piece, Krishnan’s work begins to creep into the sparse simplicity of the everyday that Tran implies with only a few props to represent the changing spaces from family homes to the factory floor and its backrooms. The appearance of silhouetted birds edging into the corners of this story is pointed, taking on a foreboding quality that adds to the atmosphere. Jai Morjaria’s lighting and Tran’s costume contrast these subtle moments with an explosion of theatricality when the actors perform with interesting reflections on the visual effects of messaging and, as our very best political theatre shows, commentary and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

Irfan Shamji as Prab settles into his role quickly, a likable lead that the audience can invest in and follow through the stories as a representation of thousands of similar lives. Shamji moves well between the straightforward scenes in which Prab comes to understand his own limits and the jackanory moments in which he conjures a whole world for baby Amba, although really for the audience. A good man in an impossible situation, the character grows in confidence as Chasing Hares unfolds and Shamji captures well the energy and enthusiasm for Prab’s creative endeavors, his increasingly troubled conscience and the pressure to hold onto any job for the sake of his family.

Zainab Hasan as his pragmatic wife Kajol offers a contrast, a woman who knows the price of things and wants to make less high-minded choices but nonetheless complements Prab as a partner. It would be useful to see more of her perspective, particularly as she too works multiple jobs and is the primary carer for Amba but Hasan makes much from the material she has. Scott Karim brings nuance to the show’s main baddie Devesh who could easily have become a bland boo-hiss villain. Instead, there is personality in his lack of empathy and ability to manipulate that make Karim a strong and compelling presence on stage. As is Ayseha Darker’s Chellam, a starlet tired of the classic works she must endlessly perform and eager to tackle something more meaningful. But Chellam is also a character with some depth and a similar pragmatism that makes her almost cynically dismissive of her work until inspired by Prab’s writing. Darker also has great comic timing and a cutting delivery that brings some alternative moments of levity to the piece.

Chasing Hares is a short play, running at just over two hours with an interval and there is much in this world particularly among the secondary characters and their motivations that could be expanded. Not seeing the factory workers isn’t a problem given the play’s setting in middle management and domestic spaces but towards the end a sense of the widespread fervour for change and the impact of Prab’s actions on the community needs a little more might behind it. Nonetheless, Bhattacharyya’s play is packed with commentary about the power structures that support political and economic elites, the limits to freedom of choice and the optimistic possibilities of one great story as the means to tear it all down.

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic until 13 August with tickets from £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Best of Enemies – Young Vic

Best of Enemies - Young Vic

Political commentators despair that the polarisation of debate has radically shaped our national life in recent years with Brexit, the election and removal of Trump, and the poisoned well of social media creating a context in which extremism and hate have flourished, even been rewarded in their dominance of our discourse. In the dismantling of reasoned, healthy but respectful debate, entrenched positions have bred a distrust of facts and experts as well as increased notions of States conspiring against their citizens, while embedding the idea that an individual’s worth is indistinguishable from their views on a single contentious issue. James Graham’s new play Best of Enemies takes us back to the 1960s, demonstrating that the roots of our division partially lay in the creation of televised intellectual debating.

Based on a 2015 documentary of the same name, this series of debates on the American ABC network between two public intellectuals in 1968, left-wing writer Gore Vidal and the right wing commentator William Buckley took place during the selection process at the Republican and Democratic conventions as each party selected their Presidential candidates. Graham puts this fractious interaction at the centre of a play that builds on many of the themes that define his work – the role of the media and especially news outlets in shaping public political understanding and belief, and the separation between grand political theory and the practical application of government, law and power beyond the political elite.

Graham’s work is always carefully structured and however the narrative is then overlaid, the play’s drive and shape come from a very precise framework that underpins the show. Across his canon, the writer has played with different structural bases – Quiz centred its two Act argument around the Case for the Prosecution and then for the Defence; Ink gave The Sun‘s Larry Lamb a year to increase circulation, punctuating the play with sales updates; Labour of Love ambitiously did a journey backwards and then forwards in time while plays like Bubble, The Angry Brigade and This House use an us and them perspective to cut between two sets of characters telling different parts of the same story. The mechanisms may differ but these structures set an audience at ease, giving reassurance that wherever the story is heading, the playwright is entirely in control of the material.

Best of Enemies absorbs dramatic lessons from the television and film work that Graham has undertaken, starting with a pivotal exchange at the end of the story – or at least the outrage following it – and spooling back to understand the combination of factors that led to this moment – a cinematic device. The play largely happens in chronologically occurring flashback that mixes the separate personal and preparatory stories of Vidal and Buckley as they ready themselves for their televised verbal skirmishes, before repeatedly bringing them together to recreate excerpts from the debates themselves.

In doing so, Graham blends the known historical reality with the imagined (although well researched) private interactions off camera to create a drama that, like Quiz, reinserts a rounded humanity into real historic characters flattened and reduced by the simplistic nature of media reporting which shapes the collective memory. More than spikey antagonists with opposite lifestyles and political affiliations, Vidal and Buckley instead take shape as individuals in a much wider of context of rapid and often quite violent political statement.

Key reference points include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year as the debates take place in a nation still not quite reconciled to the Presidential shooting five years before. This was also the year of protest and activism across Europe and America with student demonstrations in France noted briefly in the plot, while the pivotal anti-Vietnam rallies sweep across the stage at various points between the debates. This bubbling tension, outbursts of violence and a growing combativeness in political interactions and State responses to them is vital in couching the Vidal-Buckley debate in a much wider and increasingly unstable context where polarisation of views was becoming more commonplace.

The echo of history and its preservation on television is woven tightly into the production directed by Jeremy Herrin for Headlong who builds on Graham’s textual approach that marries thoughtfulness with entertainment. Staged in the round at the Young Vic, in creating that wider context Best of Enemies has a complex technical set-up in which real footage of orations, rallies and protests is projected on screens around the room while the actors representing historic figures voice the speeches in time with the film. It’s a technique that is used sparingly but one that brings the wider social and political tides to life and, as Graham does with Vidal and Buckley, draws the two-dimensional screen image more purposefully into the room and the story.

The presence of cameras then becomes integral to the approach, placing the debating titans in the centre of the space while simultaneously capturing and projecting their comments and reactions around the room. This is not solely for visual purposes, the Young Vic is a contained space with good sightlines from all locations, but it reinforces the problematic nature of trying to understand history from film alone. While it may capture what is said, and the explosive outburst that Best of Enemies is building to which has, to some extent, subsequently defined perspectives on both men, the play demonstrates that why it was said and what it really meant is far more complicated – a warning that resonates well with a social media culture of soundbites and snippets that is equally reductive.

And Graham is scrupulously fair to both his characters and the positions they represent, offering all the shades of grey between them that leave the audience to decide whether these men are heroes, villains or something far more rounded. While the men are categorised by others as Republican or Democrat early in the play, Buckley immediately reorientates this as a discussion between conservatism of which he proudly advocates and the liberalism that Vidal represents while Graham rather neatly brings the two together. As the men work on their arguments, the tactics to lure the other onto the rocks and the witty remarks that form part of their pre-planned showmanship, the playwright subtly suggests the interlocutors perhaps have more in common than actually divides them – something Buckley’s wife goes on to say – and like This House the surface separation of the two camps slowly crumbles as the story unfolds even though their public personas take more antagonistic positions.

This is particularly notable in the extent to which both men are shown to play to the cameras, flattered by the idea that their views are being sought while the climbing ratings and evident enjoyment in the process of televised debating adds a hollow-ring to what they say. Graham is asking some really interesting questions here about the alignment between public posturing that brings rewards including acceptance and celebration by their respective communities, and their private beliefs, suggesting that the attention pushes both men to entrench in positions that, carried away by their platform, they (perhaps) don’t truly advocate. Being seen to win and having the means to outwit their opponent is more important than the content of their speechifying Graham suggests – a position reinforced in private scenes off-screen where surface strategies to goad one another and best the enemy dominate conversations in place of preparing arguments on their points of political division.

But more than their own reactions, it is the structures around them that Graham seeks to investigate, questioning the role of news channels in shaping modern political antipathy and the dilution of intellectual discourse through a focus on celebrity commentators and panellists. Like Larry Lamb’s team, the ABC news division purposefully uses the debates to disrupt traditional output and to save their ailing viewing figures. A central pillar within the play looks at the role of newscasters in presenting the facts while increasingly creating space for amateur commentary from those with political interests but without official intellectual credibility or credentials.

At the same time, Graham asks in the second half of the play about the value of intellectualism in politics when it separates those like Vidal and Buckley from the day-to-day reality of governance. Best of Enemies asks who really won? Vidal may have offered a suave and culturally-knowledgeable perspective that advocated reason and tolerance against some of Buckley’s less palatable views, but Nixon wins the election and the Hollywood actor, of whom Vidal is dismissive, is namechecked as a future President, so to what extent are social intellectuals out of touch with the general public and their needs – another theme that resonates with the vortex of recent US and UK politics which relates this story to the simpler, emotional messaging of modern politicians and their representation in the media.

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in the roles of Buckley and Vidal both play against type in some compelling and well nuanced performances. Harewood gives his ultra conservative character a gruff arrogance, a certainty that he can easily best his adversary and score significant political cache that would aid his own future aspirations within the party, following a failed mayoral bid in New York a few years before. But Harewood has the harder job in making his character appealing to a theatre audience, capturing Buckley’s changing fortunes and their effect, the slip in confidence in the early debates as Vidal outpaces him before a resurgence at the Democrat Convention as a growing frustration feeding off the anti-war protests courses through Harewood’s performance here leading neatly to the final confrontation that collapses his motivation in the rest of the play, eliciting some sympathy for the human cost when Buckley becoming enmeshed in his own rhetoric.

Edwards is superb as Vidal, balancing a widely-read intelligence with a catty bitterness that is never overplayed. Surrounded by a literary and celebrity following, Edwards places his interpretation of Vidal in a cultural bubble that separates him from the reality of the views he espouses while at the same time presenting quite as much ego and self-satisfaction as Buckley, enjoying the public performance and his time in the spotlight a little too much. Often very funny, particularly when rehearsing the bon mots that later appear in the debate, Edwards captures the waspishness of Vidal but balances it with a slow erosion of that confidence as the debates give Buckley the upper hand.

It ends with a fascinating imagined scene in which the men finally confront one another, no cameras, no posturing just reasonable and respectful interaction, a scene that pointedly underlines the separation of the political character that both men played in public and their multifaceted reality, two sides that the play attempts to reconcile by exploring the consequences of what should have been a small debate on a poorly received news station yet somehow came to symbolise and channel state-of-the-nation American political division. There is some equivalence with Frost / Nixon in the journalistic scrutiny applied to great men and the strategies used to entrap and chasten them, but in carefully selecting these turning points in modern political history and looking slightly to the side of well known figures, Graham’s plays more clearly reflect on our own political culture and the unreasonable debates we are now having every day.

Best of Enemies is at the Young Vic until 22 January with broadcast performances online from 20-22 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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