Posts tagged ‘theartsdesk’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

Advertisements
29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

16 August, 2010

Gutted. A Revenger’s Musical ***

Assembly @ George Street, 7 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Orphaned Sorrow has finally married her parents’ murderer, step one in her elaborate but strangely poorly thought-out revenge. Early on her resolve fluctuates for the sake of making her redeemable, instead making her a ditherer: an even less sympathetic quality than irredeemability. The book is mostly prosaic and uninspired, but not offensively so, and the production isn’t without a certain boisterous, admirably carefree charm.

Need a second opinion?

11 August, 2010

Tiffany Stevenson – Dictators ***

Tiffany Stevenson in Dictators

Tiffany Stevenson in Dictators. Image courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

The Stand Comedy Club, 4 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 664)

A quick glance at the leaderboard Tiffany Stevenson uses to rank and display her top five dictators reveals all you need to know about this comic and her style.

First, that she scores power-crazed and often genocidal individuals like they were Top Trumps (stats include ‘Nicknames’ and ‘Death Count’). Second, that she rates her own mother in the top five. Third, that she thoughtfully accessorises the board with a picture of her cat Bumbles sitting in a box looking adorable, as a comforting visual lifebuoy for anyone that feels she’s stepped off the deep end.

That whimsical touch sees Stevenson safely through some pretty toe-curling subject matter. Robert Mugabe executes homosexual people: that’s a harrowing thought. How to deal with him? Book him into Pineapple Dance Studios. Poetic justice. Bashing Mugabe, Hitler and Gaddafi is not exactly a controversial position; the real strength of Dictators lies with the two less conventional entrants in Stevenson’s top five. The worst kind, after all, is the one dictating specifically to you.

Need a second opinion?

24 March, 2010

4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis. Image by Stefan Okołowicz

Barbican, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

4.48 Psychosis is a gift for a director. Kane’s text – her last – is more prose poem than script, lacking stage directions or delineated characters: a nearly blank slate onto which a director can impose context, character and narrative. To Grzegorz Jarzyna, of Polish company TR Warszawa, that creative freedom is a double-edged sword: by over-exercising it in certain areas, he almost crowds out the strongest elements of his interpretation.

Every scene of this Polish language production has its conceit. In one, pills rain from a table onto the floor. In another, lead performer Magdalena Cielecka is silently mirrored by a small girl. Later, a naked old woman circumnavigates the stage while Cielecka speaks. These images are more of a visual accompaniment to the dialogue than an interpretation of it, and actually serve to distract from the production’s main strengths.

One of these is the oppressive atmosphere, sustained largely by the monotonous bass drones and seasick pitchshifted showtunes of Piotr Dominski’s soundscape. Combine that with lighting designer Felice Ross’s palette of confining spots and sickly washes and even the 1,166-seater Barbican Theatre starts to feel claustrophobic.

But the production’s stand-out, defining feature is Magdalena Cielecka’s performance. Her every twitch, tic and gesture is more fascinating and meaningful than the production’s whole complement of devices and visual metaphors.

As she details her planned method of suicide, she clutches her belly, or wrings her hands together masturbatorily through her trouser pockets. Eloquently but venomously she rails against the doctors that rattle off easy chemical fixes for her every symptom, and against the people and circumstances she blames for them.

It’s clear without any supplementary imagery that this person is grieving rather than self-pitying, that she’s damaged as much by unfeeling diagnoses and labels as by whatever’s happening inside her, and that, far from taking the easy way out, she’s desperate to free herself by any means, however extreme.

It takes until the play’s final passage for Jarzyna to whisk away all the window dressing. Here Cielecka’s face, softly illuminated by a narrow spot, is all that’s visible on an otherwise darkened stage; Jarzyna decodes Kane’s final lines solely through the medium of his star’s delivery and countenance. It’s revealing that this understated moment, rather than, say, Cielecka’s earlier crazed, blood-drenched assault on the cyc, is the production’s most enthralling.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Grzegorz Jarzyna (director), Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set design), Piotr Domiński (music and sound design) and Felice Ross (lighting design)

Cast includes Mariusz Benoit, Janusz Chabior, Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman and Rafał Maćkowiak

Need a second opinion?

18 February, 2010

Mercury Fur

3-4 Picton Place, 17 February – 13 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Theatre Delicatessen couldn’t conceivably have picked a more ideal play with which to kick off their latest found-space residency. Mercury Fur is a perfect fit for a bold young company (provided it’s staged with maturity), as well as for the space, a disused office block just off Oxford Street – though it may not be exactly the right play for the moment.

Accessed via a fire escape overlooking a bleak concrete non-space hemmed in by buildings, the space is dingy, litter-strewn and neglected – but the soft furnishings remain intact (if grubby), a solitary unbroken china bowl is discovered amongst the empty crisp packets, and a dark, weighty wooden bookcase endures against one wall. It’s a setting immediately evocative of the play’s alternate London: of affluence and prosperity run rapidly to ruin.

Hastily tidied and swept, the space becomes the setting for a rich city worker’s sick wish-fulfilment, organised by a group of youths in exchange for the means to their own survival. The young cast – especially leading duo Matt Granados and Chris Urch as tight-knit brothers Elliot and Darren – fearlessly harness and ride Ridley’s powerful dialogue, embracing the thought-provoking contradiction between their determination not only to survive but to protect one another, and the means they’re willing to use to achieve that end.

This is the play’s first major London revival since it opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005. Having since arguably passed into canon, it’s unlikely to cause as much of a stir this time around; and though Ridley’s near-hopeless future may chime with the national mood of doom and gloom, the breakdown of civilisation via widespread habitual hallucinogenic drug abuse is hardly the apocalypse du jour. We only have ourselves to blame for the crises we face at the turn of the teenies (climate change and the credit crunch), while outside agency plus human nature plus time is the formula for the end in Mercury Fur.

Hence, while in no way sidelining or shying away from the violence, Delicatessen place heavy emphasis on the role of Elliot: the de facto guardian of humanity’s culture, mythology and history, by dint of being the only non-user in the group, and therefore the only one that remembers the world as we know it. The childlike eagerness of Darren and Naz (an incongruously innocent-seeming Mikey Bharj) for tales of life before the fall, and the delight Elliot takes in the telling, provide the only threads of hope that either the characters or the audience can grasp.

It’s evidence that the controversy that greeted its premiere was not all Mercury Fur had to offer; even with its shocks somewhat blunted by foreknowledge, it just takes the right company in the right space to reveal the heart behind the horrors.

Written by Philip Ridley

Crew includes Frances Loy (director), William Reynolds (designer/lighting), Fergus Waldron (sound design), Anna von Eicken (costume design) and Roger Bartlett (fight director)

Cast includes Debra Baker (Duchess), Mikey Bharj (Naz), Matt Granados (Elliot), Isaac Jones (Lola), Jack Sweeney (Party Piece), Chris Urch (Darren), Tom Vickers (Party Guest) and Ben Wigzell (Spinx)

Need a second opinion?