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I saw Chimerica recently at the Harold Pinter theatre.  I came out feeling extremely positive – it’s an exciting piece of theatre.  The set really is extraordinary, and usually if one is commenting on the set, the production must have been pretty insignificant.  But in this instance, the set and the production are of a very high standard.  It’s a piece that exercised my brain, made me concentrate on keeping up with the ideas.  It wasn’t until later that I started to feel it had all been a bit…hollow.  I think it was because the Western characters felt a bit like cyphers.  They didn’t convince as real people, with complex emotional hinterlands.  The love story was just cheesy (although when the characters were less emotionally involved I found their relationship credible – awkward and hesitant and funny).  Some lines felt lifted from a bad movie (‘I love you, and I think I’ve been in love with you for a very long time’), and the revealed pregnancy at the end was cliched and unconvincing.

Zhang Lin seemed a much more believable character.  I found his emotional statis compelling, the tragedy deepened when we learn, or remember, how the events of the Tiananmen Square uprising have been utterly excised from Chinese history and public discourse.  He cannot grieve, because what happened to him did not happen to him.  He is completely lost.  This storyline has enough poignancy, it does not need to be made into melodrama by turning Zhang Lin into ‘Tank Man’.  Perhaps it was supposed to be representative, but it felt heavy-handed.

I’m not sure I learnt much that was new to me, not because I’m any kind of expert in Chinese politics, but because we were not presented with viewpoints that would suprise us.  That doesn’t make them untrue, or even cliched, but I would like to have had some of my preconceptions challenged, rather than reinforced.  I hadn’t, however, thought much about Tiananmen Square since not long after it happened.  It was therefore important to be reminded.  Particularly because the Chinese public are not allowed to be.

It’s a very impressive piece of writing and staging.  I enjoyed it a lot.  The playwright is still very young, and what lies ahead must be work of even more sophistication, deftness and emotional maturity.

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I went to see Old Times, for the first time, in 2004.  I went alone.  That is important.  I’d never been to a Pinter play before.  That too is important.  Nine years ago.  A long time.

I remember that the language captivated me, the odd and unsettling use of words.  I remember that the set was very plain, all white, open therefore to whatever interpretation you wished to place on the piece.  I remember that it made me laugh, but mostly it made me ache.  I remember that the actors became the characters, inhabited them completely.  Jeremy Northam’s artificial loucheness that gradually shatters, Helen McCrory’s sheen of sophistication that gradually slips to reveal the naked longing and vulnerability beneath, and Gina McKee’s impassivity, which suddenly, shockingly, holds all the power.  I remember I’d recently seen the film they make reference to, Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’.  I’d seen it with someone I was quietly obsessed with.  That too, at the time, was important.

Afterwards, I travelled home, alone, in silence.  I went and sat in my dark nighttime garden, and smoked, and felt as if I was still living in the world of the play.

Pinter’s pauses have become a clichéd shorthand for the way he lets the audience participate in the drama.  There is space to enter the text, to interpret.  People who don’t know his work don’t know how funny it is, or how shocking.  There is a great deal of violence in his plays, and in Old Times it is an unseen emotional violence, the struggle over possession.  Possession of another, of the story, of the power in the room.  It is terrifying, and horrifying, and nothing happens.  Just ripples.  ‘…always wait…for the ripples to pervade and pervade the surface, for of course as you know ripples on the surface indicate a shimmering in depth down through every particle of water down to the river bed…’

All these things I remember.  They may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.

I saw Old Times again, last night.  Rufus Sewell, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna and Lia Williams as Kate.  The performances were very accomplished, and credible.  But this director’s view of the play was completely at odds with my own.  Even the set was far more ‘real’, the colour scheme in the second, final, section far too deterministic (the colour of the characters’ clothes matched the piece of furniture they ended the play occupying). This was played like a farce.  It is farcical, in part, but there is more strangeness and terror in a minor key (not necessarily true of The Birthday Party, but true, for me, of Old Times).  This was played like a brass section, trumpeting, loud.  My first experience was played like a woodwind piece, a strange, mournful, unsettling, frightening lament.

All these things I remember.  I would like you to understand that I came here not to disrupt but to celebrate.

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I’ve never walked out of a theatre before.  (I’ve wanted to actually only a couple of times, but a rather British politeness prevailed.)  On this occasion, I walked out on Juliette Binoche, because the production of Mademoiselle Julie in which she was starring was the worst play I’ve ever seen.

When Strindberg wrote Miss Julie at the end of the 19th century, the story of a relationship between a landowner’s daughter and her father’s servant broke class as well as sexual taboos.  Transposing the story to the present day dissipates the transgression, unless an adept writer/director can find something new to say.  Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie famously managed to capture another moment of upheaval in the world order, and the unbearably visceral South African version Mies Julie by Yael Farber had plenty to say about race in post-apartheid South Africa.

Frédéric Fisbach’s Mademoiselle Julie starring Binoche and Nicolas Bouchaud brought the story into the present day, but gave the story nothing new.  The setting is a sleek modern kitchen, and when the action begins Jean and Kristin could easily be the owners.  When Julie enters, there is little sense of separation between their two worlds, and the power play between the lovers is so muted as to be almost moot.  These are a pair for whom nothing is at risk.  Binoche and Bouchard are too old for these parts; when Jean tells Julie (a wealthy forty0something year old woman) about the beauty of the Italian lakes, and she says wistfully “I’ve never been there”, it is risible rather than poignant.  Strindberg’s Miss Julie has nothing of her own, she is her father’s possession, and John has nothing because he is a servant.  In Fisbach’s adaptation credibility is stretched to breaking point to make the audience believe that this sophisticated middle-aged woman has no means of either accessing or earning her own money, and that Jean is trapped by his own obeisance and lack of job prospects.

If a modern adaptation can no longer deal comfortably with the class and sexual transgression of the original, it could focus on Julie’s psychological disintegration.  But to do that would require a script that has depth, and a staging that has resonance.  This was a self-satisfied, flaccid affair that insulted the audience with its view that a lifestyle-magazine beautiful staging and beautiful well-known lead actress would stand in stead of any insight or passion.

Perhaps the only thing salvaged from the evening was that my admiration for Binoche’s films has not been negated, and the hope that this will be the last time I walk out on her work.

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A verbatim musical about the Ipswich murders of 2006 sounded to me a bit like ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – squirmy, in bad taste, and with no artistic merit.  Fortunately London Road is none of these things.  Alecky Blythe (book and lyrics) and Adam Cork (music and lyrics) have created a piece of theatre that is innovative, funny and moving.  The verbatim script, complete with hesitations, repetitions and cliches is transformed into music that is a hymn to everyday speech.  These are people’s real lives, the poetry and the prose of it.

The murders of the women working as prostitutes in a quiet suburban town was dealt with salaciously by the tabloids and with moral hand wringing by the broadsheets.  Alecky Blythe went and talked to the local residents to ask ‘how has this affected you?’  The answers are touching, peculiar, inspiring, and chilling.  The community, angry at the portrayal of the area as a seedy red light district, rallied together and formed a residents association.  This led to a ‘London Road in bloom’ competition, a beautifully, quirkily British affair.  The residents hated the prostitution happening on their streets, they hated the men kerb crawling and accosting local women, they hated the associated drug problem, they mostly hated seeing the prostitutes themselves.  The residents have varying degrees of sympathy for the women, and the circumstances that led them to become sex workers, and the most chilling moment comes when a resident says, unapologetically, that she would like to shake Steve Wright (the murderer)’s hand for cleaning up the area.

For a liberal, London, National Theatre-going audience, this is a complicated moment.  The resident’s (literal) sang-froid feels pitiless, horrifying.  And yet, the result of these terrible murders has been a community reinvigorated, engaged as citizens, looking after each other, taking a pride in their environment.  The horror, the indifference, the hope and the the joy coexist, morality is muddied, because life is muddied and morally complex.

The residents are presented as they really, are, because these are their actual words.  They are as normal, as odd, as funny, as un-self-aware, as lonely, as inspiring, as kind, as cruel and as loving as all of us.  When their words become song, it is moving and beautiful to hear the poetry there is in prosaic, quotidian life.  The production ends with a stage filled with hanging baskets.  The English obssession with gardens garlands the hopes of the community, and perhaps also signifies a wreath-laying of sorts for the dead women.  In a small community, these things lie side by side.

 

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Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of many to have been (thankfully) defeated by plans to stage The Master and Margarita. The interweaving strands of 1930s Moscow and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, magical realism and social realism coexisting in the same storylines, not to mention a naked woman flying across the night sky towards a huge, opulent and hedonistic ball hosted by Satan, make any potential staging of this novel a daunting challenge. Simon McBurney and his theatre company Complicite are known for their experimentalism and innovation, and their production at the Barbican in April was both. The stage was bare, the furniture minimal. The extraordinary lighting and laser projections did the rest. Paul Rhys as Woland and The Master was sinister as one and tragic as the other, Sinead Matthews as Margarita was fearless and committed.  Behemoth was a life-sized puppet, foul-mouthed and Liverpudlian-accented. The Variety Theatre scene used the audience, filming the first few rows and commenting on the clothes and shoes of audience members, modernising and adapting the source material.  It was an experience of ‘total theatre’, intense and compelling, and without being cowed by the source material Complicite did justice to Bulgakov’s masterpiece.  As B and I stepped out into the Barbican, B commented on how ugly a place it is.  I have mixed feelings about it, but the architecture that suggests at a utopian communality and dystopian brutalism seemed like an apt place to stage such a production.

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It is a lifetime’s journey – watching versions of Hamlet.  Different actors, different directors, different times.  Olivier’s Freudian Hamlet was a sensation, Branagh’s stage version a sombre Edwardian affair.  Ben Wishaw was a teenage Hamlet, David Tennant was wild, witty and impressive.  My mother reminisces about Peter O’Toole, I wish I’d seen Simon Russell Beale.   Recently, I saw Michael Sheen at the Young Vic, directed by Ian Rickson.  It is set in a mental hospital in the early 80s, the audience enters through the corridors and rooms of this secure psychiatric unit.  The Young Vic is tiny, and we were in the second row, voyeurs as much as audience members.  Sheen is electrifying, disturbing, pathetic.  But this is high concept stuff, and the concept begins to show the strain.  Is Hamlet imagining this?  Are the other characters inmates or staff?  Are Gertrude and Claudius really his mother and uncle?  When Laertes goes to England, he really leaves the place, but when Hamlet goes, has he just been heavily sedated and put in isloation?  So the politics have gone, and so, for me, has the weight of responsibility on Hamlet’s shoulders.  There is little at stake here, there would be everything at stake were he in a castle, pondering the magnitude of killing a king.

This is a truly creepy production, James Clyde’s Claudius is sinister and oleaginous, and Vinette Robinson gives the most convincing portrayal of a complex and nuanced Ophelia I’ve seen.  I enjoyed the final sleight of hand, finding it entirely consistent with what had gone before.  But this production does away with ambiguity, with context and for me, loses more than it gains.

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I went to see Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. It was the second or third performance.  The recent reviews have been glowing, so perhaps I saw it before things had settled down. The audience was full of Dr Who fans, and they were very vocal and very interactive.  I found that strange, annoying, but S said, rightly, that these days we revere Shakespeare far too much, and the original Globe would have been full of shouts, clapping and audience participation. 

The production was a romp, set on Gibraltar during the 80s.  It was funny, lewd, fast.  I enjoyed the spectacle of it.  The cast made the language come alive, the intonation and rhythm felt modern, conversational, accessible.  But I felt as if I could have been watching anything, not specifically Shakespeare.  For me, even in the comedies, there is a darkness, or a poignancy, or an emotional resonance.  I felt like this was played only for laughs, it was too broad.  It’s a difficult play for modern audiences, Claudio’s rejection of Hero is almost impossible to stomach, and can only be balanced by Beatrice and Benedick’s conversation afterwards.  Beatrice’s instruction to ‘Kill Claudio’, should send a shiver down the spine, and one of my favourite lines,  ‘O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place’, should leave the audience in no doubt of Beatrice’s fury, impotence, and also her power.  Instead these lines seemed without depth, context, force.  For me, Tate didn’t have the dignity or the gravitas to make a great Beatrice, and whilst Tennant fared better, he still seemed a little too in love with the audience’s reactions.

But… I am a snob, and perhaps a narrow-minded one at that.  I feel strongly that people are turned off Shakespeare by lacklustre teaching, and a dull choice of GCSE set texts.  It doesn’t seem relevant, important.  So if a production featuring TV stars means that people who might not have watched much classical theatre can love Shakespeare, that’s a good thing.  I just feel that with a bit more subtlety this production could have been an investigation of human experience, rather than much ado about not very much.

In contrast, I saw ‘Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!’ last week.  Dave St Pierre is a French-Canadian choreographer, whose biography (living with chronic ill-health) is quietly inspiring.  His production (A little bit of tenderness for God’s sake!) is hardly quiet.  When S and I took our seats, the stage lights were up, as well as the house lights.  A naked man in a blonde wig was sitting on a chair, squealing at the audience like an overgrown child.  It was discomforting and a bit embarrassing, not the nudity but the infantile noises.  The stage gradually filled with these baby-men in blonde wigs, and they were joined by fully-clothed women.  The very sexy compere, a performer known as Sabrina, gave a commentary on proceedings, on life, on dance theatre in general.   

The performance was all about breaking the fourth wall, very post-modern in all its innovation and all its annoying self-referential smugness.  The naked men climbed into the audience, even up into the second circle where S and I were sitting.  They squealed at audience members, flinging their own members in front of people.  It was funny, shocking, and very unsettling.  Audiences feel uncomfortable being singled out, given attention.  The role of the audience is to sit in darkness and appreciate the performance, not to become part of it.  So this was a clever way to discombobulate and disorientate.  Meanwhile the women on stage were attacking each other, ripping each others’ clothes off and simulating sex. 

The rest of the performance was a Freudian, post-modern assault on taste, delicacy and composure.  It was sometimes funny, sometimes boring, sometimes sexy, sometimes embarrassing. The dancers were not otherwordly creatures, they were professionals with dancers’ bodies, but they looked more liked real people than classical dancers.  The movement was more subtle than first appeared, but it wasn’t the focal point of the experience. It was quite the strangest thing I’d ever seen on stage,  I was enjoying it, but I also wondered what the point of it was.  Towards the end, the dancers stood on stage with bottles of water.  Sabrina teased the audience, asking us if we knew what was going to happen next.  I’m sure the first few rows of the stalls were bracing themselves for a soaking.  Instead, the dancers poured the water over themselves, and on to the stage.  They all moved to the back the stage, into darkness.  In the spotlight, Sabrina took off her clothes (she’d been fully clothed throughout) and started to roll around in the water.  She was then joined by the other dancers, emerging from the darkness, also naked.  The lighting changed to a soft orange, so the dancers’ bodies were in relief against the black stage.  To strains of Arvo Pärt, the naked dancers slid across the wet stage on their tummies, on their backs, on their sides, gliding alone and together.  It was adults finding their childlike innocence, it was joy in the beauty of movement, after all that had come before it was a scene of serene tenderness.  I’ve cried at films and plays before, if something is sad I’m crying in empathy.  I’ve been moved by visual art as well.  But I’ve never experienced a complete cathartic release (not a euphemism) at a peice of theatre before.  Tears were pouring down my face, although I wasn’t sad.  As the dancers slowly slid towards each other, forming couples, wrapped around each other, what they were demonstrating, and I was experiencing, was that despite the alienation we can feel, despite the cynicism and discomfort and overstimulation of modern life, what we all seek and move towards, is beauty, serenity, a little tenderness.

 

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