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.

Bartholomew Fair

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Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

It may seem a little perverse to stage Ben Jonson’s sprawling, outdoor Bartholomew Fair in the Globe’s indoor theatre but, as the highly informative programme points out, it was staged both indoors and outdoors at the Hope Theatre when first performed. Despite the heretical use of electric lighting in the normally candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Blanche McIntyre’s engaging and entertaining production gets the atmosphere right. Hanging the rear of stage in butchered pig carcasses provides the roast pig stall setting while also hinting at darker themes – essentially people trafficking – that lurk among the fun of the fair. Jonson’s city comedy, rarely performed, can be unwieldy but this version, judiciously cut, conjures up the carnival and takes us back to the early 17th century while bridging the gap to our times.

There are thirty-plus roles in the play, but they are cleverly doubled among an eclectic, busy cast of twelve. Jonson’s gloriously earthy, accessible, rich language roles off the tongue of Jenna Augen as the fearsome,  pork stall owner, surrounded by pickpockets, pimps and an Irish ‘horse courser’ and all-round villain, played by Bryony Hannah when she is not Grace Wellborn, an uimpressed French woman in sunglasses at the other end of the social scale. Forbes Masson stands out as an increasingly angry Scotsman, also finding time to play a crusty hustler and, spectacularly, a ludicrous simpering woman selling pears. Zach Wyatt is highly entertaining as the rich young man who is everybody’s gull.

The Fair brings a motley collection of the cunning and the foolish, and most the latter think they are the former. Foremost is Dickon Tyrrell’s Clousea-esque JP, Adam Overdo, scoping wrongdoing in disguise. As the figure of authority he might be expected to restore order at the end of the play, but instead the dominant figure is Jude Owusu’s ambivalent, menacing Tom Quarlous who bests everyone. The play is full of energy, and highly entertaining throughout, while making no attempt to glamorise the city’s underbelly. It seems modern and ancient in equal measure, rather like Smithfield where the St. Bartholomew Fair was held for centuries. McIntyre makes a powerful case for this play, one of Jonson’s greatest achievements, to be seen far more often.

The Doctor

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© Manuel Harlan

The Doctor by Robert Icke, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler – Almeida Theatre, London

Robert Icke’s final production for the Almeida, after spectacular successes including Mary Stuart, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and The Wild Duck, is a complete reworking of a play by Arthur Schnitzler. He rips the original play, Professor Bernhardi, out of its turn-of-the-century Vienna setting, and drops it into the information age. Disturbingly, the central theme of anti-semitism remains seems as relevant. However, other 21st century issues have been added to the mix: specifically sexism, other forms of racism, ageism, and transgender prejudice. Icke makes a fascinating move by using complete gender-blind and racially-blind casting. This holds the play’s identity politics up to immediate question when a white actor declares himself the only black doctor in the hospital. However, there are too many issues for any one play to carry and, while, the performances and staging are exemplary, the evening seems more like an episode of The Moral Maze than a natural, inevitable drama.

Anything with Juliet Stevenson is worth watching, whatever its faults. She plays Ruth Wolff, a dementia expert at the top of her profession. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. She refuses a priest access to a dying girl and, within three days, her career is destroyed in a social media-fuelled cataclysm. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. Stevenson is brittle, fierce and vulnerable. Her mastery of emotional nuance means it is hard to take your eyes off her extraordinarily expressive face. Two performances stand out in a strong cast. Ria Zmitrowicz, who recently made her mark in the Almeida’s Three Sisters, puts in a perfect performance as Ruth’s transgender teenaged friend who she inevitably betrays. And Nathalie Armin, as calculating yet sympathetic Government minister, is excellent but under-used.

However, while the standard of performance is high it is hard to believe in Icke’s adaptation. It relies on a couple of transitional moments which are essential to the plot, but hard to credit. There are complex and current questions to be explored but, ultimately, the play needs greater focus and simplicity to make it seem like real life.

 

Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats

Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats by Sh!t Theatre – Summerhall, Edinburgh

Sh!t Theatre duo Rebecca and Louise are having a great time, serving drinks to the audience and showing photos from their trip to Malta. They’ve recreated The Pub, Valletta’s prime ex-pat drinking hole, where Oliver Reed drank himself to death. The fun starts to seem a little dark when we seen just how relentlessly Reed’s alcoholism is merchandised, with his lethal final drink order available on t-shirts with the heading ‘Legend!’ Louise and Rebecca, operating beneath the heavy disguise of their supposed amateurism, turn this odd, post-colonial, disturbingly corrupt setting into clever, sophisticated political theatre. In Malta to make a show for Valletta’s European Capital of Culture slot, we gradually understand that the version we are seeing could not be performed there. Political content was banned, and they were concerned for the safety of their Maltese friends.

The politics is dark and significant, centring on the 2017 assassination of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Still unsolved, her murder links to the sale of Maltese passports and the question of who gets to be European. Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants drown in boats off the Maltese coast, while the authorities deny any such people exist. It is a real achievement to make such a powerful and important show, tackling a complex web of themes, while also finding time for crowd-surfing. This is Sh!t Theatre’s strongest show yet, a tour-de-force told in their inimitable voices.