Posts tagged ‘nicholas de jongh’

29 January, 2010

Excuse me, you’re standing in my dead men’s shoes

Written for The Collective Review, 28 January 2010

Theatre reviewing is a dead men’s shoes business.  One someone lands a chief critic position at a national newspaper, they’ll traditionally hold onto that position until they’re buried or senile.  So for all the deputies and second-stream critics, and for all us up-and-comers watching hawk-like for new deputy or second-stream opportunities, the voluntary retirement of two chief critics within a year of one another should have been a cause for (slightly guilty) celebration.

In March of 2009, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard quit so he could concentrate on writing plays of his own.  And this week, the mighty Benedict Nightingale, chief critic of The Times for two entire decades, announced he was stepping down too.

What many of us assumed would happen next – what we’d been counting on happening next – was that everyone would effectively shuffle up one level.  Dominic Maxwell would take Nightingale’s position as chief critic, one of The Times’s favourite freelancers would probably get Maxwell’s job, and a space would open up on the paper’s freelancers list.  In short, there would be opportunities.

Instead, both de Jongh and Nightingale were replaced in pretty short order by, respectively, writer Henry Hitchings and journalist Libby Purves, both figures from outside the theatre journalism bubble.  Bold and unexpected moves by the Standard and the Thunderer – but while Hitchings is doing an excellent job, and it’s difficult to imagine Purves putting a foot wrong, what does this mean for the rest of us?

It means we all stay on the rungs we’re on, of course, but more importantly it means we’re less likely than ever to move up even by one.  There are fewer paid critics’ positions than there’ve ever been, they’re only vacated once in a blue moon, and the message we’re now gettingis that even when one does open up we have zero chance of getting it, no matter how much commitment and drive we show, no matter how much talent we display and develop, no matter how many years we spend working for free to build our portfolios.

Well, fine.  Forget the nationals.  Forget the dream of being paid to do what you love.  Instead, get a day job and embrace the internet.  Make a hobby of it, not a career.  Critics were once commonly viewed as dilettantes and dabblers – and if we aren’t allowed to climb higher, moving backwards towards that romantic image may be our only sensible option.

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27 September, 2009

Orestes: Re-Examined

Southwark Playhouse, 16 September – 3 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The downtrodden women of Argos have imprisoned Prince Orestes, murderer of the adulterous Queen Clytaemnestra, and kidnapped the delegates from the Argos Regeneration conference – the audience – to act as his jury. The women are the prosecution; Menelaus, brother to Orestes’ murdered father Agamemnon, is counsel for the defence; Athena, representative of the Global Justice Commission, presides over proceedings; and Orestes’ fate will be determined by a simple majority, in the style of Ancient Greek democracy (except that women get a vote as well).

The major problem with asking the audience to act as jury is that they know it isn’t real. However engaging the production is, however well immersed they become into its world, they still know no one is really going to die as a result of their vote, and so the whole exercise becomes a purely academic one.

Full Tilt address this issue by showing the audience the consequences of their decision in a brief but emotive coda. And while the point still stands that said consequences aren’t real, and no one in the audience is going to endure a lifetime of guilt over them, the vote and the coda act as a live demonstration of themes that are repeated and reinforced throughout the production.

Orestes believed he was carrying out justice when he killed his mother the Queen, but he failed to foresee the injustice his actions would heap upon her subjects. The women believe they are carrying out justice by punishing Orestes for his crime, but they turn to kidnapping and other acts of terror in order to do so. And finally, the audience declares what the majority believe to be just, and is in turn brought face to face with the injustice that decision brings about.

It isn’t an easy decision, either; Full Tilt layer the apparently black-and-white issue of matricide with class and gender issues, so that far from simply passing judgement on Orestes, the audience must also pick sides in much weightier debates. Both sides constantly spout self-righteous dogma, either with victimised vitriol or phony PR smiles, so it’s difficult if not impossible to develop sympathy towards either party’s plight. They also hammer home their arguments with a degree of repetition that reinforces the issues only up to a point, after which its rhetorical value is exhausted and it begins to feel like Chinese water torture.

Of course the audience still won’t put in as much thought as they would if lives really were on the line, but Full Tilt ensure that the issues are sufficiently complex that even making an arbitrary decision requires a modicum of reflection – which forces each audience member to define, in whatever small way, their own idea of justice. While you won’t leave wracked with guilt, you may leave knowing yourself a little better.

Written by Full Tilt after Aeschylus

Crew includes Emma Gersch (director), Alexie Kharibian (designer), Alex Musgrave (lighting), Kitty Randle (movement) and Katherine Hare (composer)

Need a second opinion?

12 February, 2009

England People Very Nice

National Theatre, 4 February – 30 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.

Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.

The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perspective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.

Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.

The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.

But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.

The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.

Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Nicholas Hytner (director), Mark Thompson (designer), Pete Bishop (director of animation), Neil Austin (lighting designer), Grant Olding (music) and Scarlett Mackmin (choreographer)

Cast includes Olivia Colman (Philippa/Anne O’Neill/Camilla), Sacha Dhawan (Norfolk Danny/Carlo/Aaron/Mushi), Trevor Laird (Yayah/Rennie), Aaron Neil (Iqbal/De Gascoigne/John O’Neill/Chief Rabbi/Attar/Imam), Sophie Stanton (Sanya/Ida) and Michelle Terry (Camille/Mary/Black Ruth/Deborah)

Need a second opinion?

14 January, 2009

Roaring Trade

Soho Theatre, 7 January – 7 February 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In Roaring Trade at the Soho Theatre, playwright Steve Thompson takes the risky stance of apologist for the short sellers, lifting the lid on the cutthroat culture of high-risk bond trading. The pressure to make millions or lose your job on the spot tends to encourage certain personality traits; the play’s central characters are four traders at McSorley’s, “second largest bank in the square mile,” and each is, in his or her own unique way, a complete screw-up.

Donny (Andrew Scott) is a gambler, responding to catastrophic losses by taking ever greater risks. When it’s his turn to see his ten-year-old son Sean (Jack O’Connor), all he can talk about is money markets. Jess (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) isn’t above flirting with clients to seal a deal. PJ (Nicolas Tennant) wants out, but his wife Sandy (Susan Vidler) has already spent his next five years’ bonuses in her head. And as for new boy Spoon (Christian Roe)…

The foursome – nominally a ‘team’ – compete viciously for profits in Kandis Cook’s Spartan office space. The same desks and swivel chairs become restaurants and living rooms; even on their own time, these people exist in the office. Under IT Designer Matt Kirby’s control, the same flatscreens that display market statistics (constantly flickering and updating) also suggest wallpaper or graduation photos.

The characters’ skyscraping egos demand surefooted performances, and under Roxana Silbert’s direction, the whole cast delivers with confidence and flair.

The race for the biggest bonus is just the respectable front for any number of other, more personal conflicts. The quickfire, often comic dialogue crackles throughout with phallic imagery – bonus size equals penis size; the pub after work is “a willy-measuring contest” – so Jess, the only trader lacking a phallus, has to fight to become more than just another measure of success for her male colleagues.

But the play’s centrepiece is actually a class conflict: slack-jawed bootstrapper Donny versus Cambridge graduate Spoon (named by Donny – “Silver Spoon, born with, in your trap”). Disguised as a simple clash of personalities, the issue nevertheless simmers underneath their escalating one-upmanship, never fully acknowledged but erupting in moments of passion.

It’s these conflicts bubbling away in the subtext that allow Roaring Trade to transcend its context. It is not a play ‘about’ the credit crunch. The money markets are simply a topical backdrop in which enormous egos are placed under enormous pressure, and consequently emotions are concentrated and conflicts magnified. Roaring Trade is an outstanding piece of straight theatre – regardless of its relevance to current affairs.

Written by Steve Thompson

Crew includes Roxana Silbert, Director; Kandis Cook, Designer; Matt Kirby, IT and Media Designer; Wolfgang Goebbel, Lighting Designer; Matt McKenzie, Sound Designer

Cast includes Jack O’Connor, Sean; Christian Roe, Spoon; Andrew Scott, Donny; Nicolas Tennant, PJ; Susan Vidler, Sandy; Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jess

Need a second opinion?