The Antipodes

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The Antipodes by Annie Baker – National Theatre: Dorfman

Annie Baker writes plays in which nothing and everything happens. Back at the National after last year’s triumphant John, The Antipodes is a similarly absorbing piece of theatre that makes its own rules. Set in the ‘story room’ of what we presume is a company producing ‘content.’ A group of employees sit around a conference table and tells stories. This is the creative process devised by the boss, Sandy (Conleth Hill), his trademark method for coming up with new stories. The play is in part a funny, subtle and vicious satire on the 21st century media world, a woke facade covering the same old sexism and power games and a unshakeable self-belief trumping doubt every time.

The performances, directed by Baker herself with her designer Chloe Lamford, are exceptional. She writes characters who entirely convincing and real, but unexpected. Hill, as rich, company-owning boss is brilliantly self-regarding, thin-skinned and power hungry, despite his evident belief that he is the precise opposite. Imogen Doel puts in stand-out performance as his PA Sarah, controlling the room with a flick of eyebrows. The people assembled around the table are an expertly assembled cast, with some of the best and least showy actors currently working: driven (Arthur Darvill), blokey (Matt Bardock), self-possessed (Sinéad Matthews), sceptical (Fisayo Akinade), behind the curve (Hadley Fraser) and strange (Stuart McQuarrie). The latter tells a funny, bizarre story  his fear of picking up chickens which spectacularly misses the collective mood. The room is supposed to be a place where people can say whatever is in their heads, but this is far from true. Stories have the power to realign or derail reality, which note-taker Brian (Bill Milner) attempts to channel through a shamanic ritual (strongly reminiscent of artist Marcus Coates). Baker’s use of the supernatural in everyday settings is exceptionally disturbing.

Every character has their moment during the play with a string of low-key, weird and hilarious monologues capped by Sarah’s modern fairy tale about the witch at the end of the cul-de-sac, and Adam (Akinade)’s terrifying creation myth.  The Antipodes is a true ensemble piece though, with beautifully directed scene transitions as the cast fast forwarding in their swivel chairs. Baker plays with persistent sense of awkwardness, extending moments of miscommunication full length, and staging a hilarious VR video call with a dodgy signal. While Baker works on many levels, failure to get the message across is a clear theme. Watching people trying to make sense of each other is entirely fascinating and The Antipodes is not only unconventional and unclassifiable, but also brilliant in a way we’ve come to expect from Baker. It doesn’t come to any conclusions, but that is definitely not the point.

Honeypot

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Honeypot by Natalie Ann Boyd – Streatham Space, London

Honeypot is a clever piece of contemporary theatre with social critique at its core. Six female performers reconstruct scenes from stories and fairytales that project idealised, versions of women, and gleefully pull them to pieces. Cinderella is shown in the Ladies before her wedding to Prince Charming, wondering how she got into this situation. The Ugly Sisters have body image issues. Tinkerbell is an influencer, selling beauty products. Red Riding Hood is hassled on the bus by wolf whistling strangers. The show packs in women’s experiences from pregnancy to mental health via FGM and ageing, filtering them through the cultural narratives we accept without thinking too hard. The writing is  enjoyably confrontational, and the young performers exuberant. Abbi Douetil is the stand out performer as everyone from Cinderella’s stepmother, suffering from cystitis, to Wendy. Writer Natalie Ann Boyd has plenty to say, and keeping an eye on how her work develops would be a smart move.

When The Crows Visit

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Asif Khan and Ayesha Dharker. Photo by Mark Douet.

When The Crows Visit by Anupama Chandrasekhar – Kiln Theatre, London

Ibsen’s Ghosts strips 19th century culture bare, revealing the sickness and hypocrisy  hidden beneath moralistic bombast. In When the Crows Visit Anupama Chandrasekhar has cleverly, and bravely, reworked the most shocking of 19th century drama’s exposes to shine a harsh light on contemporary Indian culture. A apparently successful family, their son a software star in Mumbai, hold everything together through a fierce devotion to maintaining appearances. This means ignoring the violence carried out against women, both inside and outside the family, by successive generations of men. They provide a microcosm of India today, each character a rethinking of a stereotype – the dominant mother-in-law, the self-sacrificing mother, the son placed on a pedestal, the immoral, childless sister, and the policeman looking for backhanders. With the appalling gang rapes of recent years hovering over the play, the representation of men as entitled, self-centred, and amoral is chilling. Bally Gill gives a fine performance as the cherished son Akshay, his apparent success concealing his ability, inherited from his late father, to turn on any woman who challenges the status he assumes is his by right. He is convinced their behaviour means they deserve what’s coming to them. Asif Khan’s corrupt, arrogant policeman is part of the same toxic continuum, able to make anything disappear for the right price while using his authority to browbeat the women he forces to pay.

However, it is the women of the play who are the real focus, and far from blameless. Soni Razdan puts in an excellent performance as the gleefully manipulative grandmother. Her old woman’s games and tricks are very funny, but her absolute focus on protecting the men in her life is horrifying. She fought for her son, who beat her daughter-in-law repeatedly, and now she fights for her grandson Akshay, who she enables and even encourages to go the same way. Ayesha Dharker, as Akshay’s mother Hema is the still centre of the play, refusing to acknowledge her struggle to cope with the past as the crows – embodiments of the dead – circle outside her window. Chandrasekhar does not take a redemptive route, but shows her repeating the mistakes of the past with grim consequences. Her play spares no-one in its determination to confront India with its dark present. The combination of brutal misogyny, blatant corruption, social division, and obsession with myth is shown up in all its disturbing reality. Her writing confronts difficult truths, but it does so by creating entirely convincing characters. When The Crows Visit is a powerful new play, and Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a notable success for the Kiln Theatre.

 

 

 

Translations

National TheatreDermot Crowley and Judith Roddy © Catherine Ashmore

Translations by Brian Friel – National Theatre: Olivier

Brian Friel’s Translations is a rich and complex play and, in Ian Rickson’s production which returns for a second run in the Olivier, its layers are drawn out through the performances of a high class ensemble ensemble. Friel wrote that he did not want to write a play about British oppression of the Irish, about map-making, about place names or about the death of Gaelic. He did indeed write about all these themes, but the play is not tethered by its politics. Instead, it uses the seismic changes taking place in 1830s Donegal to write about people. Amidst the military mapping exercise that is fixing and Anglicising place-names and the violent attitude of the soldiers towards the peasants, individuals shine through. Dermot Crowley’s fantasist Jimmy Jack, living in a classical world inside his head is funny and unbearably sad. Ciarán Hinds dictatorial, bereft schoolmaster Hugh is a raging patriach on the brink of collapse. Liadán Dunlea as Sarah, symbolically left without language, is fated to experience the worst yet to come. And Judith Roddy’s Maire is destroyed by her love with an English soldier. The love scene in which she and Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe, in a fine professional stage debut) communicate with no shared language is the deeply moving high point of the play.

The set digs the action into a space the size of Hugh’s cottage, leaving the rest of the Olivier stage to supply the Ballybeg scenery. Rae Smith’s design seems risky, but focusing the play on an interior space under siege makes sense. The Chekhovian detail of Friel’s characters is allowed to blossom, and the production delivers many memorable scenes, from Hugh and Jimmy Jacks reminiscence of their part in the failed 1798 rebellion to Maire’s unravelling when it all goes wrong and the bleak threats of eviction and destruction from the Army captain. The second scene delivers a masterstroke of perspective shifting as we realise the characters have been speaking Gaelic, and the English cannot understand what they say even if the audience can. Translation is  a masterpiece, a play in which the past and the future jostle for space in the shifting present, and people try to locate their identities as language slips from their grasp.

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

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Toby Jones, Louisa Harland and Deborah Findlay – image by Johan Persson

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. by Caryl Churchill – Royal Court Theatre, London

A new Caryl Churchill play is an event, and four at once is an unmissable treat. Churchill, without ever seeking the accolade, has become widely acknowledged as the greatest living British playwright in recent years, wider appreciation of her work helped by National Theatre revivals of Top Girls and A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. However, her mastery of form means there’s no knowing what she will come up with next – a very exciting prospect from a writer whose creativity shows no signs of dimming. Glass, Kill, Bluebeard and Imp are short plays, starting with the shortest and ending with the longest, with entirely different settings but linked by the themes of the intrusion of myth and superstition into reality. They are all extraordinary.

Glass is set partly on a mantlepiece, where a girl made of glass exists both in the world of humans and of ornaments. She is transparent and brittle – everyone can see what she feels by looking through her. It is very strange and very compelling, with everyday teenage scenes cut through with the impossible. Kill is a tour de force for writer and performer, with Tom Mothersdale as a Greek god sitting on a cloud recounting, in bemused tones, the endlessly complex and grim sequence of events that culminated in the story of Oedipus. The insanely violent story exposes the metaphysical as a very thin cloak indeed for the worst humans can do. Kill, the final play in the first half, is both funny and horrible, as a group of friends share their disbelief that their friend Bluebeard was a wife killer and, in a succession of short scenes, gauge their #metoo era reactions. It is not long before they are releasing murder merchandise.

The scene change between these three plays are covered by a juggler and an acrobat, whose performances to melancholy circus music question our need for entertainment. This touch is typical of James Macdonald’s production, which is exceptionally sharp, cleverly use minimal changes of position to move between scenes. The plays appear inside a black box where, in Miriam Buether designs, the action is floats on a shelf, carpet or cloud. The final play, Imp, takes place on a sofa and armchair, and is both the most ordinary and the strangest part of the evening. Dot (Deborah Findlay) and Jimmy (Toby Jones) are cousins, sharing a house, with little in their lives. Their niece, Niamh (Louisa Harland) comes by often and meets another visitor, the homeless Rob (Tom Mothersdale). On the face of it, nothing much happens, but the dialogue is intense, precise and haunted by myth. Jimmy keeps recounting stories he’s heard that sound strangely like King Lear or Romeo and Juliet; Niamh is afraid she may get sucked in by things she can’t control; and Dot, a nurse imprisoned for violence, has an imp in a bottle. The implied intrusion of the supernatural into an everyday setting is brilliantly handled, and reminiscent of Annie Baker’s John as well as Pinter characters who talk about nothing and everything.

Churchill’s fine writing has the cast to match, with performances of the highest standard, not only from Findlay, Jones, Mothersdale and Harland, but across all four plays with, for example, Kwabenah Ansah as a self-regarding clock in Glass and Sarah Niles as a woman who nearly married Bluebeard. The evening is an essential piece of new writing – edgy, haunting and disconcertingly relevant and Churchill, at the age of 81, is still the playwright for our times.

Peter Gynt

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Nabil Shaban and James McArdle © Manuel Harlan

Peter Gynt – by David Hare, adapted from Henrik Ibsen – National Theatre (Olivier), London

Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a sprawling play, which can be both its attraction and its downfall. Many attempts have been made to update and adapt the play to manage its picaresque structure and general supernatural weirdness. David Hare’s version for the National Theatre, with James McArdle in the lead, is the latest. He homes in on the relevance of the self-obsessed fantasist, the now-Scottish Peter, in the era of the self. Keeping the structure but rewriting much of the dialogue, Hare tries to make this a place about an era where people’s stories and the way they present them are as influential as actual achievements. While the theme fits, the result is not subtle and Jonathan Kent’s production is compelling and epic at its best, but dreary and unfocused at its worst.

On the credit side McArdle, barely off stage during a long 3hr 20mins, puts in a full throttle performance. The cast delivers some fine performances: Any Chalotra as impossibly patient lover Sabine (Solveig in the original), Nabil Shaban as a strange guru called The Boyg, Guy Henry as the sprightly Lean One (the Devil), and Oliver Ford Davies as a gentle but implacable Button Moulder, the personification of death. Scenes that stand out are those where the play regains focus by moving closer to the original – Peter’s stories to his dying mother, and the final confrontations with the Lean One and the Button Moulder.

However, there is plenty that does not work. Hare’s version seems entirely unsubtle, replacing the mysticism of Peer Gynt with prosaic repetition of themes. Updating to an early 21st century setting, with strangely specific references to small Scottish towns, creates jarring moments such as a soldier who cuts off his finger to avoid ‘the draft’ to fight in Iraq. Hare briefly turns Peter into a new age guru for some paper thin satire. The production team seem to have lost faith in the middle section, where Peter become a rapacious businessman, and it is staged as a half-hearted musical. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that removing all the songs, especially one in which Sabine croons “What is my story and where will it end?” would cut the running time by a much-needed 30 minutes. There is also a serious problem with the set, which covers half the Olivier stage in a grassy slope and leaves the other half bare, creating an enormous echo for all the dialogue spoke on this side.

Peter Gynt is good in parts and has much to offer, not least a rare opportunity to see this rarely performed piece. However, David Hare does not succeed in repurposing it convincinglyfor these times, and director Jonathan Kent does not find a way to overcome its notoriously episodic, fantastical structure.

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation

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Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation by Tim Crouch – Royal Court Theatre, London

Wherever Tim Crouch is involved, unpredictability is guaranteed. Audience expectations will be tested and the components of theatre dismantled. An apparently gentle experience will, in all likelihood, become steadily more unnerving. Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation fits the template. Seated in a circle, the audience are participants from the start, equipped with a book each and beset with enquiries about reading glasses. The themes of trusting a writer, following a text and seeing clearly, or not, are upfront. What follows is technically ingenious and innovative, as the audience turns through the story page by page, some of it shown in drawing form, some as text spoken by the actors and, sometimes, read by the audience. However, the form seems to dominate the central drama which seems constrained, not released, by these filters.

The group experience of reading what is, effectively, a graphic novel, is strangely compelling. As a family tragedy, subsequent separation and its alarming context is played out by the cast of three (Shyvonne Ahmmad, Susan Vidler and, eventually, Crouch himself) the truth of what is written down in front of us is brought into question. However, the gaps between story and reality come as no surprise, and the drama underwhelms. Ultimately a play about both grief and doomsday cults, the story is hard to credit from a naturalistic point of view. Because it is played dead straight, the story’s metaphysical edge is dulled and the events of the play seem more device than drama. The experience of being experimented with as an audience, however, is oddly exciting even if the experiment does not add up to much more than the sum of its parts.