May 2009 Archives

Tonight I'm in Chichester, watching a new production of Schiller's historical epic Wallenstein. The 30 years' war isn't a period about which we Brits have many preconceptions (big boots, big hair, mud and muskets?), so liberties can be taken, and that's all to the good.

Schiller's most frequently revived tragedy, however, is Mary Stuart - Phyllida Lloyd's intense production is angling for Tonys on Broadway, while you only have until tomorrow to catch Terry Hands' sizzling Welsh production, dark and twisty as a thriller.

The friendly Schiller scholar sitting next to me in Mold not only had a useful steer about Mike Poulton's adaptation ('very free') but also about modern German productions. He noted that we heritage-happy Brits keep the plays in period settings. Do Germans treat their national tragedian with similar reverence, I asked? Hell, no. Their stagings are assertive and interventionist.

Mary Stuart, which centres on the Tudor smackdown between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, presents a particular problem for the Brits. Our image of Elizabeth is so strongly fixed that experimentation is constrained. The monarch was queen of brand, and developed so strong an iconography that 450 years on we still think: pale face, stern expression, ruff and farthingale. It is difficult for British audiences to look beyond the icon.

Recent film versions of Elizabeth's life have all contained scenes of ambiguous epiphany: Elizabeth's assumption into the role of Gloriana. Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Ann-Marie Duff have at moments of crisis been obliged to forgo their flirty informality and climb into the costume of England's Virgin. Face plastered white, head transfixed by ruff and wig, skirts encrusted with gem and thread, wide and unyielding as a mountain range. This is the face of power, but a power that imprisons the woman who yields it.

Schiller also fits this template - he presents Elizabeth as a victim of her own stratagems, and the more cunningly she bolsters her own position against Mary, Queen of Scots, the more firmly her humanity is subsumed in the role of queen and its formal paranoia. In Lloyd's production, Harriet Walter's elegantly pinched face looks out from atop the restrictions of her dark, plush costumes, as if marvelling at Mary's freedom of movement. Claire Price, a sensational Elizabeth in Hands' production, is trapped even more firmly. At her first appearance, she wears not so much a frock as a gilded piece of furniture - she will later step out of it, and we'll see that it's perfectly self-supporting. If Elizabeth falters, the frocks might rule by themselves.

It may take a brave British director to mess with these images. They have been around for a long time: the earliest popular play about Elizabeth was written soon after her death. Thomas Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody is a throbbing testament to the beleaguered Protestant monarch. When Pepys saw a production some 60 years later, he was moved despite himself, but argued that the costumes told the story: 'the play is merely a puppet play,' he complained, 'acted by living puppets.' I've enjoyed watching Elizabeth portrayed on stage as history's marionette, but perhaps it's time for designers to forgo the farthingale and create a new line of iconography?

May 29, 2009 10:27 AM | | Comments (1) |

We're all locavores now - at least, we foodies who slaver to sink our teeth into something soil-fresh, seasonal, preferably harvested only a short stroll from the farmers' market. We get gooey for wild garlic and cultivate 400 ways with asparagus and rhubarb during their transient moments of glory.

Of course, it's easy to think this way in late spring, when each visit to the market brings a new treat (this is a theatre column, honest. Though if anyone wants to swap asparagus recipes, I'm all ears, and stomach). But the depths of winter are a greater challenge: six weeks of parsnips don't hold quite the same appeal.

The point, you'll be relieved to know, is that local sometimes represents the pick of the crop and sometimes a cruel restriction of choice. For example, it's a weary truism that London receives an unjust amount of attention in British arts coverage. Why should all the national press turn out for a play in a minute room above a pub, while neglecting a major production on the regional stage?

The ecology of regional theatre is fascinating. I've visited more theatres out of London in the past few weeks than I have in years: Birmingham, Southampton, Mold and Manchester. It's been bracingly eye-opening: a tiny tasting of the work that is happening around the nation, and a wholly unrepresentative sample, but a couple of things are already becoming clear.

Reviewing for a national paper, the productions I've seen have been mainstream shows in established venues rather than experimental work, but each of these important theatres seems to have a different relationship to its local community. Southampton's Nuffield is on a university campus (though not a university with an arts bias); Birmingham Rep alongside several civic monoliths; Clwyd Theatr Cymru outside town, on top of a hill offering beautiful Welsh scenery. I'm so open to correction here, but of the four venues, only Manchester's Royal Exchange seemed to have much of a buzz beyond showtime. The foyers are tempting, there's art and coffee: when I found myself killing time between shows, it wasn't a problem.

The same wasn't true elsewhere: although the shows themselves were well attended, there was less of a sense of a vital resource, however tempting the programmes on stage. How does a theatre make itself essential, even when the show is so-so? Even when there's no show at all? If you want people to use your building, is an innovative outreach department more or less important than a scrumptious cafe?

Numbers are, inevitably, part of the problem. London gets the attention, not just because so much happens there, but because it has audiences to sustain those happenings. Even a tip-top show in a leading regional theatre (and they don't come tip-topper than Mary Stuart in Mold: God, it's exciting) will only have a three-week run, because there simply isn't the audience to justify a longer span. And of course, if you don't like what your local is showing, you may not have many (any) other choices for performance. Parsnips for week after week, perhaps, and no asparagus in sight.

In Britain, as elsewhere, we're right to worry about theatre beyond the cultural capitals. My ArtsJournal neighbour Laura Collins-Hughes wrote recently about a dismaying narrowing of ambition in her (American) local companies. And on the Guardian theatre blog, the redoubtable Lyn Gardner, among others, has worried over the question. What do you reckon, people? How can regional theatres attract the attention they deserve? And how can they truly matter not just nationally, but locally?

Dept of foolishness: It was Laura Collins-Hughes who noted shrinking ambition in a previously adventurous theatre company. Molly Sheridan, meanwhile, was awed by the glossy elaboration of the Met's subscription brochure. Apologies to both for the muddle.

May 14, 2009 11:17 PM | | Comments (4) |

I've seen many plays where the set tells the story, but Alphabetical Order is the first I remember in which the scene change represents the vital visual image.

Michael Frayn's 1975 comedy is set in the library of a regional newspaper. (Let's just take a moment to savour those nostalgic words: library; regional; newspaper. Anyone need footnotes, or are you happy to look them up on Wikipedia?). The library is in chaos (and, as it's the 1970s, so is the country). Lucy, the loveably scatty librarian does battle against a hopeless tide of clutter, abetted by a clutch of journalists on the paper who make her den their home from home, until a quietly efficient young assistant arrives to impose order on the chaos.

That imposition occurs between the acts, but what Lesley does in the play is actually achieved by the Hampstead Theatre's dauntless stage management team during the interval. It was magnificent to watch, a 15-minute war on stuff. Scattered piles of paper were stacked neatly, folders were returned to filing cabinets. Upended chairs were removed from the tops of said cabinets, along with books, newsprint and random domestic items. A stern clock is placed on the wall, and neat labels fixed on all the cabinets. Only one desk (Lucy's) is allowed to retain its impedimenta - indeed, the team added yet more drifts of paper, and a whimsical pot plant.

When the lights went up fully on the pristine aquamarine cabinets (sorry chaps, it's the 70s), the audience burst into applause. Christopher Luscombe's deeply pleasurable production nicely reclaims a play full of teasing insights, but I suspect that its the wonders of the interval that will cling to my memory. If the Hampstead Theatre can tame an entire office in a quarter of an hour, imagine what they could do for you? Surely, in these financial times of ours, the theatre should consider hiring them out as bespoke declutterers?

May 12, 2009 11:27 AM | | Comments (0) |

Met an interesting actor at dinner on Friday. Experienced actor, lots of Shakespeare, thoughtful gent. So I asked a question, and the question was this: actors necessarily spend much time working out how to inhabit pretty extreme emotional states, and dealing with life's most intimidating problems (death, grief, violent rage). So, does that experience of any help when they subsequently face such situations in their own lives.

The actor didn't have to think about this for very long. He finished his mackerel and described going on stage in The Comedy of Errors immediately after hearing about the death of a young woman he'd met not long beforehand. He thought about the death of his father. And no, he said decisively, having performed situations close to these was of no help at all in dealing with their real-life equivalents.

But, naive question though it is, I have to ask: why? It's perhaps a tempting imaginative leap to a non-practitioner. From the earliest, unreliable actor biographies in the 17th century, people have been conflating performers and the roles they play. Pickering & Chatto has just begun what promises to be a rich and exhaustive series of contemporary accounts of great Shakespearean actors, from the mid-18th century into the early 20th. Looking at the first volume, it is clear that the public personae of resourceful David Garrick and racy Peg Woffington were shaped by the roles in which they specialised.

Equally, a modern autobiography like Beside Myself by the troubled virtuoso Antony Sher makes it clear that, for him, the process of exploring a dramatic character in rehearsal is not unrelated to the process of exploring himself in therapy. Macbeth's ambition, Leontes' jealousy, Richard III defiant rejection of family are all mirrored - though in vastly different degrees - in Sher's own psyche.

But none of that is quite what I'm wondering about. Yes, you draw on your own experience and emotion to create a character. But can you then draw on the characters you've played to sustain you at the most testing periods of your life? And, if not, why not? Does none of the searing intensity of performance map onto subsequent experience? Anyone with a view, let me know.

May 11, 2009 12:06 AM | | Comments (1) |

I've been much possessed by (stage) death recently. Writing a piece about stage deaths for Obit Magazine had me thinking about deaths in the theatre, whether in the text or in production. I brooded happily on the florid endings in Jacobean tragedy (the killer cupids in Women Beware Women just squeak past the poisoned Bible in The Duchess of Malfi for gleeful ingenuity), and also about the variety of deaths - profound, bathetic, and points in between - that I'd seen on stage. In particular, I remembered one or two that hadn't worked out as they should, because accidents in the theatre are no respecter of solemnity.

When I subsequently saw Othello by the Northern Broadsides company, I was reminded of this last rule. A prop refused to behave and threatened to wobble the show into laughter.

This Othello is a plain, sober production, and the second half especially respects a plot that tightens against hope. A snack-crunching audience was stilled as disaster clustered. A looming Othello (Lenny Henry) snuffed out his tiny Desdemona. Iago's vicious machinations were exposed. In anguish, Othello grabbed a corner post on what was clearly a special military-issue bed, in which the bedpost concealed a dagger designed for just such a moment. He thrust it into his belly and collapsed to the floor.

It was a shocking moment - but when Henry dropped the dagger it rolled and it rolled, and it rolled down a little step and continued towards us with its noisy wood-on-wood trundle, until a woman sitting immediately in the front row leant forward with admirable resource and picked it up so we could get back to feeling tragic.

It should have ruined the show, but it didn't, because that's what death is: the ultimate upsetter of plans, an unassimilable element that refuses to behave tidily and let us tie up neat endings. Stage deaths are, literally, interruptions - pauses in a story that will pick itself up and begin all over again the next night. And those little interruptions serve as the faintest shadows of our own mortality - which may more likely be ludicrous than beautifully stage managed.

By the way, ask the Bard fans, how was the show (which moves to London in September)? Advance curiosity here in Britain focused on the casting of much-loved comedian Lenny Henry in the title role - his first Shakespeare, and indeed his first stage play. And he was rather good. Henry's comedy, and his appearances in television drama tend towards the affable - he isn't a cruel comic, but a loveable tease, a charmer. His Othello, toweringly tall, didn't ask to be loved. He's a big man, barrel voiced - this was how authority moves and speaks. But this general was also achingly vulnerable, and his need to be hurt - and to find terrible comfort in that hurt - was remarkable.

It was a taut production, by Barrie Rutter, with Conrad Nelson a nasty streak of spite as Iago. I've seen Iagos (Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale) who carry a whole world of ice within them, a cold will to annihilate. Nelson wasn't one of these, but his very pettiness only heightened the sheer pointlessness of the play's trajectory. He was a mean, small-minded bully who had no comprehension of what he was engaged in, and that only sharpened the tragedy. Until, that is, Henry dropped the dagger...

Seen any good stage deaths? Any that made you gasp, or weep, or that went gloriously wrong? Let me know...

May 5, 2009 10:38 PM | | Comments (3) |

I've been having a very good time reviewing theatre for the Sunday Times this spring (interesting things to see, nice editors: we don't take these things for granted). But the word count is tight, and that presents difficulties: especially if, like me, one of your pleasures is collecting gemstone performances in smaller roles.

These are often cherishable - partly because the part isn't heralded, and the actors may be less well known. And you may not have read about them in the reviews - because, hello - so they feel like your own personal treat. They may not carry a play, but they nuance it, colour its atmosphere in almost imperceptible ways.

Last week, for example, I loved Becky Hindley in Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba in Southampton. She has done tons of great work on British radio, so it was great to attach a (strong, resolute) face to the name. But there wasn't room for a mention - she wasn't playing the terrifying Bernarda or one of her cowed daughters, or even the household's principal servant, all of whom had apparently more significant roles. But Hindley's maid, dog tired and raw with resentment, did much to establish the play's atmosphere of seething entrapment - everyone hates Bernarda, but no one dares defy her. Hindley's wordless cleaning and pacing before the play proper begins makes this clear.

Servants often get cut out of short reviews. It perpetuates vile class inequalities, but how do you judge between a supporting role and a set design (I often aim to mention the lighting designer, but there's another frequently lost cause)? Come the revolution, I'll be sorry (though on that blessed day, we'll also remember that the poshest character doesn't necessarily deserve the greatest stage time and the rewrites will begin). In the meantime, I wish I'd had room to hurrah Stephanie Jacob's lovely performance in Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre: another maid who brought on atmosphere along with the tea, this time as a lachrymose retainer, subject to titters from the genteel family she worked for, her soft face creasing with tears, neglect and shy smiles.

Ensembles are another worry. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman's earnest, fantastical epic now touring in Birmingham Rep's production, had some weak performances in vital roles. But some of the hardworking ensemble deserved medals, especially Nicholas Asbury and Emma Pallant. He brought an unpredictably comic gleam to the baggy story (especially when voicing a pint-sized spy), while she gave it a hollow-voiced solemnity (memorably as a vicious, lonely harpy). Their every appearance, however brief, was vivid, and extended the show's emotional range.

None of these plays would have been the same with other actors in these smallish but vital roles. But at least audiences who encounter them in the theatre will have the thrill of seeing these performances wholly fresh, and of feeling that they are, yes, a personal treat.

May 3, 2009 11:52 PM | | Comments (2) |

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