Afterplay

 

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Rory Keenan and Mariah Gale in Afterplay. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Afterplay by Brian Friel – Coronet Theatre, London

I’ve been putting this review off, for lots of reasons. Theatre is, amongst other things, what I do. Although I was well aware of the turbulent history of the stage in this country, interrupted by plagues and politics, it had never crossed my mind for a moment that I would find myself writing in a time when the theatres were closed. If audiences feel bereft, the effect on performers, writers, producers and all those for whom this is both life and livelihood is hard to imagine. But we are all in the boat, waiting for something that may happen in the unforeseeable future. In the meantime, I still have one last play to write about, from before the theatres closed. I went out on a high.

Afterplay, at the lovely Coronet Theatre, was a revival of Brian Friel’s one-act play imaging the aftermath of Chekhov. Two characters from different plays – Sonya from ‘Uncle Vanya’ and Andrey from ‘Three Sisters’ – meet by chance in a Moscow cafe in the 1920s, in a different time. after the Russian Revolution. They both sense something in common and together they compare and explore their experiences, before going their separate ways. It is a perfect miniature with the precision of writing and thinking that Brian Friel often produced – drama without a flourish, just clear-eyed, razor sharp character study. To describe this as ‘slight’, as one reviewer did, is to suggest that a short storey is a waste of time compared to a novel. Something about Chekhov’s endings, which leave everything and nothing possible, evidently nagged at Friel, as did these two characters. At the end of their respective plays, both are trapped – Sonya rejected and stuck on the estate, Andrey a disappointment to his sisters and himself.  Afterplay updates their stories, explaining their presence in Moscow and dismantling the fronts they have both erected for others.

The two performers, Mariah Gale and Rory Keenan, are well attuned to their parts. Keenan is a highly convincing combination, caught between the old pomposity and a genuine interest in Sonia. Gale is kind and vulnerable, without bluster to protect her, and ultimately just as desperate if not more so. Both performers are excellent – unshowy but entirely engaging, just as the play demands. The production by John Haidar is, was, finely paced and nuanced, bringing out the depth of writing experience that placed Friel in a position to follow up his hunch, that Chekhov’s characters had something more to tell us.

Friel does not suggest time would have solved Sonia’ or Andrey’s problems, or that anything would. He doesn’t provide a different ending for either – there is hope, but as always it’s in the future. But he provides a story, a coda that tells us that if nothing else both Andrey and Sonia are still alive, and that is worth our attention. Of course, like all theatre it tells us – the audience – that we are alive too. We will have to find other ways to remind ourselves of this, the only thing that matters, over the next few months.

The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge 2020 Maggie Steed, Jasmine Hyde (c) Alex Brenner, no use without credit (_DSC0358-dxo)Photo © Alex Brenner

The Cutting Edge by Jack Shepherd – Arcola Theatre, London

Jack Shepherd is the author of some impressive plays (including the excellent ‘In Lambeth’ – a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine) as well as a much-loved actor, a director and a jazz musician. He has more going on than most which is, perhaps, why ‘The Cutting Edge’ is his first new play for 13 year. It has a high calibre cast, but  is unlikely to be remembered as one of his best. A middle-aged couple have left the rat race for a farm where they struggle to become self-sufficient. Their exhaustion and uncertainty is disrupted by the intrusion of a pair of ageing rebels who arrive on a motorbike, drink all the gin and generally add to the stress of preparations of a party later that evening. It sounds like a set-up for a drama of crisis and resolution but, unfortunately, not that much happens.

The problem with Shepherd’s play is a lack of focus. It is never entirely clear what the real driver really is. Several themes are aired: the naivety of moving to the country to get away from city stress; the unequal burden of looking after a partner who is depressed; women’s choice between responsibility or escape; and the indignity and emptiness of being a drop out in old age. The play is ostensibly about art and commodification. The couple whose in whose kitchen we spend the evening, Anna and Chris, met on an art magazine. He was a high flying critic who had a breakdown when he came to see his work as empty. However, the wide-ranging speeches about modern art seem hackneyed, and leave the audience none the wiser about what really matters to Shepherd. The era the play addresses is also confusing. The action explicitly takes place in the late 1980s, but it features props that appear 21st century and there is no sense of social context to help locate individual dilemmas.

The evening is enjoyable for its cast. Maggie Steed as artist Elvira, visiting the house where she was happy as a child, now sits in front of bars rather than easels. Her version of herself is a couple of decades out of date, and Steed is fabulously fragile, a walking liability it’s hard not to love. In contrast, Jasmine Hyde is excellently long-suffering as Anna, making soup live on stage throughout the first half. She cleans up after everyone literally and emotionally, her cheerful facade is in constant danger of collapse. Michael Feast, as her biker companion Zak, is brilliantly committed and convincing – a chancer too old to get away with it any more, but still working the charm. However, despite the combined skills of its performers, ‘The Cutting Edge’ lacks pace and drive and the key moment of crisis, which always seems around the corner, never arrives.

 

 

Nora: A Doll’s House

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Nora: A Doll’s House by Stef Smith based on Henrik Ibsen – Young Vic, London

Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ has one of the most famous endings in theatre, deeply shocking when first staged, as Nora walks out on her husband and children. She leaves only the faintest of hints that marriage, perhaps, has a future. It is typical of Stef Smith’s reimagined version at the Young Vic that this climactic moment is then deflated, with three third party narratives about what happened next. In ‘Nora’ nothing is left to the imagination, everything is signposted and the focus and impact of the source material goes missing along the way. It is the culmination of a frustrating evening that fails to improve on Ibsen’s original either in terms of coherence or dramatic impact.

Smith has written about three version of Nora, each 50 years apart, living in parallel marriages – equally stifling and oppressive – in 1918, 1968 and 2018. The three women replicate the same dilemmas in their three eras suggesting that, although circumstances have changed, the position of women has remained fundamentally the same. This is an interesting thesis, but unfortunately ‘Nora’ does not explore it with sufficient clarity. Instead, there are constant, unsubtle references to social issues of the time – women getting the vote, contraception, legalisation of homosexuality. These give the impression of a checklist, diluting the play’s focus, while variations on the original plot also confuse. Nora (1968) leaves with her friend Christine, after discovering the courage to declare her hidden love, a twist which is parachuted in late on. Nora (2018) has nowhere to go because, as she mentions for the first time during the final 30 seconds of the play, cuts have closed the local shelters.

Nora’s dark secret – the fraudulent loan she has taken out – carries particular weight in Ibsen’s play because women did not then have the right to make their own financial arrangements. This absolutely crucial fact doesn’t make sense in all three of the time periods in ‘Nora’, so the reason for the fraud is lost. The play’s fragmentation has the effect of dissolving its inherent drama, with all three Noras on stage throughout, interchanging arbitrarily, and scenes that constantly flip eras. This leaves husband Thomas particularly exposed as he is required to change character in the middle of key scenes, becoming earlier or later versions of himself. This structure no doubt contributes to a performance style that relies too heavily on people from the past speaking in funny voices. The tension that Ibsen builds so effectively, is scattered to the three winds. On paper, the concept of using ‘A Doll’s House’ to explore women’s experiences in the subsequent century makes sense, but in practice ‘Nora’ does not work. Ibsen’s play is regularly revived because it still packs an unrivalled dramatic punch, and ‘Nora’ only succeeds in showing why intent alone does not make good drama.

The Welkin

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The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood – National Theatre: Lyttleton

The title of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is an antiquated term for the heavens – both the sky itself, and the heavenly judgement beyond. The condemned woman at the heart of this ambitious enthralling show, in the words of Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Cary, has no recourse on earth and “must look to the welkin” for her salvation. The year in 1759, and Lady Cary is one of a “jury of matrons” brought together to examine Sally Poppy (Ria Dmitrovic). Convicted of the brutal murder of a child, which she admits, she has “pleaded the belly” and twelve local women are summoned to confirm or deny her claim.

Kirkwood has lighted on a clever device, a little known historical setting that allows her to write a sort of ‘Twelve Angry Women’: a tightly woven, tense drama played out in a single room, with a cast consisting principally of twelve women. They are supervised by a male employee of the court who, symbolically, is forbidden to speak. Kirkwood’s writing is impressive, and she clearly relishes the task of teasing out the characters of the twelve and of using – and not over-using – the rich language of the time. From Maxine Peake’s midwife, Lizzy Luke – a woman in a position of responsibility, with more on her mind than she admits – to Mary Middleton (Zainab Hasan), who believes her house contains a haunted tankard, every character is real and often funny, as well as heart-breaking. It is difficult to single out performances, because the exceptionally strong ensemble work is the point of the show, but June Watson is inimitable as Sarah Smith, whose wisdom is based on experience.

The Welkin is a tragic story and the setting, with women in charge, is at odds with everything else outside the room. It provides a temporary respite from beatings, childbirth, never-ending hard work, and a constant status as a second-class being. Kirkwood uses this lens to focus important themes, but allows them to emerge naturally from the pressures placed on the women in the room, and the way they talk when they are alone together. Peake is excellent as the conflicted Lizzy, the play’s moral compass, while Ria Dmitrovic adds to her fast-growing reputation as a key actor of her generation with a performance full of spite and vulnerability. Haydn Gwynne is also a fine, haughty presence although her story arc is, perhaps, the play’s weakest aspect. Expertly directed by James Macdonald, the play opens with a tableau of women doing the domestic tasks from which events to come provide a brief respite, and is calmly staged with space for characters to breathe and the occasional, well-judged coup de theatre. These include an extraordinary scene with  the cast, in the only breach of the play’s setting, singing an home-made acapella version of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, asking for the ‘deal with God’ that can never come. It is a moment of wonder, in a play that delivers on many fronts: as an epic, as a comedy, as a historical drama, as a voice for the voiceless, and as a thoroughly entertaining night out, with performers of the highest quality. Rufus Norris has just signed up for five more years in charge of the National Theatre and, judging by The Welkin, his mission to stage serious, new writing by women is properly on track.

 

The Incident Room

The incident Room Production photos.

The incident Room Production photos.

The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne – New Diorama Theatre, London

The grinding, five-year Yorkshire Ripper investigation was an essentially a filing problem. At the very end of the pre-computer age, even the largest inquiry team ever assembled could not find the answer, hidden all along in the mountains of data. Instead, West Yorkshire Police went through a  collective breakdown that laid the bare the failings of the 1970s social order, particularly the treatment of women, as brilliantly documented in Gordon Burn’s book ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’. The Incident Room, acclaimed at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, takes us into the claustrophobic Millgarth Incident Room at the heart of the case, where the horrifying, and bizarre real life drama played out.

The play, devised by the whole cast, focuses on Megan Winterburn, an investigating officers and one of the first women on the West Yorkshire force. Hers is a story based on real life, just like the rest of the drama, and we eventually discover she went on to hold senior rank. In 1975, though, she is an overlooked for promotion in favour of inferior male colleagues, her contributions are overlooked and she is asked to do the typing. Her position in the force reflects the situation outside, where the police only start to take Peter Sutcliffe’s brutal murders seriously when he beings attacking ‘innocent women’ rather than prostitutes. As the killings continue and public panic grows, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield loses his perspective and makes disastrous decisions, driven by personal obsession. Women take the brunt and are subjected to a police curfew to keep them safe rather than, as is pointed out, the men who might attack them. The exponential growth of information that packs out the set, made principally of a floor-to-ceiling filing stack, represents the staggering proportion of men in the north using prostitutes.

Simply recounting the events of the time is fascinating. It is a time that seems stranger and further away by the moment. However, in Beth Flintoff and David Byrne’s production, The Incident Room does much more than that. A strong ensemble cast drives the show forward. Charlotte Melia, as Meg Winterburn, is on stage throughout – a strong, sympathetic pivot for the evening. Colin R. Campbell is excellent as the beleaguered Oldfield whose arrogant tips him over the edge. Kay Brittan puts in a pair of show stealing performances as an investigator and a victim – Maureen Long, the only person to survive an attack – who is tiny, fierce and heartbreakingly lost.  The writing is sophisticated, explicitly avoiding simplistic judgements and leaving the audience space to see the layers. Meg is dogged by a female journalist – played by Natasha Magigi – who constantly questions her decision to work within a failing, male-led system. The play frames events as a retelling, many years later, allowing Meg to ask why she didn’t question the way she was treated at the time, as the Hollywood version would have it.

The Incident Room is not only dramatic and engrossing – recreating the fevered claustrophobia of the time – but also multi-layered and satisfying drama, a proper assessment of a story that gripped, terrified and obsessed the nation. This excellent production confronts our dark past head on.

 

I, Cinna

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I, Cinna (The Poet) Write a Revolution by Tim Crouch – Unicorn Theatre, London

Tim Crouch has developed a line in one-man shows based on characters from Shakespeare show do not get their dues. I, Cinna is his fifth and is based on the character who, perhaps, has the toughest time of all. Cinna (the poet), has a single scene in Julius Caesar in which he is mistaken for Cinna (the conspirator) and murdered by a blood-thirsty mob. He is, as Crouch puts it, in brackets. This unpromising material quickly becomes a multi-layered exploration of the power of words and writing, the influence of rumour and social media, and the question of whether the poet has a duty to be politically engaged.

Crouch’s performance as the anxious poet, who wears a ‘This is what a poet looks like’ t-shirt, is subtle and highly persuasive. He draws the audience into his attempts to write an explanation of the charged political events outside his front door as Caesar offered the crown of a republic. The small things (“Mark Antony – with no ‘h’. What’s that about?”) combine with the unstoppable flow of events that we know will lead to his death, even if he does not. As footage of street violence is projected onto a huge sheet of crumpled paper, Cinna fills a wastepaper bin with discarded drafts as he fails to find his subject.

The familiar events from Shakespeare unfold on his laptop and phone, in a manner that is both dramatic and  entirely credible without straining for relevance. Cinna enjoys the Soothsayer’s online column, which warns about the Ides of March. He is amused by the reports of chaos the night before (“The graves opened up, thrusting up  their dead? No way!”). Then the ‘Breaking News’ alerts start to ping, as he sees live footage of Caesar’s assassins steeping their hands in blood, and Mark Antony winning over the crowd. Cinna is a republican, and his dismay when Antony’s propaganda works propels him outside to his scripted doom.

Cinna finds his subject, but so do we. Crouch uses audience participation in a sparing but effective way, giving us all a notebook and pencil and instructing us to write. It would give away too much to say what he asks, but the audience is asked to look into its soul in a way that is surprising, and revealing. The production, directed by Naomi Wirthner, is a small masterpiece of unshowy writing and performance that is some of the best small-scale theatre of its time, equally satisfying to audiences of young people and adults. Crouch makes theatre that punches way above its weight, and I, Cinna cuts to the heart of what it is to have a voice, and to decide how to use it.

Far Away

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Simon Manyonda and Jessica Hynes

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Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Far Away by Caryl Churchill – Donmar Warehouse, London

Caryl Churchill wrote Far Away in 2000 and, 20 years on, it feels more current by the moment. This is truth both of its setting – an unnamed dystopian location outside an identifiable time – and to its themes of oppressive, authoritarian governments who place people in opposition to one another, and to the natural world. At only 45 minutes and six scenes, Churchill does not waste a moment, making every word tell.  The precision of her writing burns each scene into the mind and, by saying only what is necessary, she leaves wide open spaces beyond the stage to be filled by the imagination.

Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Lizzie Clachan’s design deliver moments of low key but devastating emotional impact. The entire play emerges from under a menacing steel box which lifts, lowers and lifts again to reveal new sets beneath. Apart from being technically very impressive, this containment reflects what seems to be going on beyond what we can see on stage. The play covers three time periods. A woman called Harper (Jessie Hynes) tries to shield her young niece Joan who has questions about the terrible things she has seen her uncle doing, involving children, cages and blood. Two milliners – Todd (Simon Manyonda) and the now grown-up Joan – are new colleagues. There is sexual tension and discussion of working condition before we see, in a devastating reveal, the context for their work. And finally, Harper, Todd and Joan are together and Joan is on the run, from a baffling realignment of nature in which nature has turned on people and formed alliances. Rivers may not or may not be on ‘our’ side, crocodiles are in alliance with the Latvians and dentists cannot be trusted. It is, in equal measure, funny and horrible.

The Donmar’s production is pitch perfect, with an intensity of focus that spotlights the universal elements in this dark story. While the scenarios play out ‘far away’, it is terrifyingly clear how this could be a portrait of our own future. The issues of our time, from the imprisonment of children to the collapse of our relationship with the natural world, are all in this darkly prescient work. Churchill writes her characters with a complete naturalism, enhanced by the performances which are uniformly excellent. This makes the strange context in which they find themselves all the more believable. Churchill’s writing is only now coming into its own as new creatives discover what she has left for them to find. This production is a mesmerising account of a play with a disturbing amount to tell us.