Monthly Archives: October 2009


(Michael Billington's article appeared in the Guardian, October 18.)

Annie Get Your Gun

Young Vic, London

Irving Berlin's great musical has been marginalised of late for obvious reasons: its apparently patronising attitude to Native Americans and its dubious sexual politics. This, after all, is a show where the legendary Annie Oakley only gets her man, Frank Butler, by deliberately losing to him in a shooting match. But Richard Jones's brilliant production not only overcomes these obstacles but also offers the wittiest musical staging London has seen in years.

For a start, Jones and his designer, Ultz, update the action to the 1940s when the American West was a vital part of the national myth, a point made through two pieces of interpolated film. The first shows a couple of kids, kitted out as cowboys, gawping at iconic images of the West.

The second shows Annie, on a European tour, receiving medals from wartime leaders: even if one winces slightly at her instant hostility to Hitler but easy acceptance of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, it makes the point that the American West had by then become a form of global fantasy. And Jones gets over the racial difficulties through astute multicultural casting: Annie's young sidekick and Buffalo Bill are both played by black actors while Sitting Bull is performed by the white Niall Ashdown, ironically puncturing Native American stereotypes.

(Read more)

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Directors like David Cromer and Ciaran O’Reilly are taking on the challenges of breathing new life into has-been American classics like Our Town and The Emperor Jones; what’s most surprising about these enterprises, however, is that they’re actually working.  Our Town wasn’t anyone’s idea of a hit for Off-Broadway, yet, transplanted from the Hypocrites in Chicago, it became one, despite its text’s demotion, over the years, onto junior high reading lists. Continually extended downtown, the new production showed us not only how we’d been rushing by our own lives, but also Wilder’s play itself.  Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 drama, The Emperor Jones, far easier to marginalize, is a representation of a “gross stereotype,” as noted by The New York Times on October 4, 2009.  Brutus Jones, an illiterate Pullman porter who became a corrupt capitalist and “emperor” of a Caribbean Island, “squeezes dry” the inhabitants of his kingdom through over-taxation and intimidation (his white cockney sidekick, Smithers, it should be added, is no one’s idea of a moral or linguist role model himself).  Yet, The Emperor Jones is an important creation that, besides being an theatrical tour de force, allowed the color barrier at the Drama League of New York City to be broken—the actor who played Brutus, Charles Gilpin, won a citation for his work—and immediately rose to stardom–but, inanely, he was not even allowed to attend the awards dinner.  After disagreements with O’Neill, Paul Robeson took over the lead from Gilpin for the 1933 film, which may well be more familiar than the play.   DuBose Heyward, known for his sympathetic depictions of the denizens of Catfish Row in his novel, play, and opera Porgy and Bess, adapted the material—perhaps, as an effort to soften O’Neill’s rougher verbal and experimental edges (Travus Bogard points to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt as important influence on the play). Certainly, Hollywood made the story more realistic.   

In a rambunctious mood during the first scene of The Emperor Jones, O’Neill is a braggadocio with lines like, “Dey wants de big circus show for deir money. I gives it to 'em an' I gits de money. (with a grin) De long green, dat's me every time!” Soon, thereafter, he writes, “You heah what I tells you, Smithers. Dere's little stealin' like you does, and dere's big stealin' like I does. For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks. (reminiscently) If dey's one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca's listenin' to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.”  Recall that during this same time period–two years after the completion of Beyond the Horizon (he’d win a Pulitzer for it in 1920)O’Neill was very much on the rise—and might not have minded “winking” to the audience a bit. Of course, during the same scene, we hear racial labeling–everyone called just about every name, as if we’re hearing students coming out of school, jostling with one another–and that may be what especially sticks with difficulty in our minds today, whether O’Neill’s ear for the period is impeccable or tin. John Douglas Thompson in his excellent portrayal of Brutus Jones, now playing at the Irish Rep, however, refuses to take the bait and play the character broadly, reining in the playwright, whether he’d like it or not.  Thompson doesn’t see the part as O’Neill’s autobiography in any way—maybe that’s one of the reasons why the role can be misconceptualized as being done in blackface? Instead, he gets past the malarchy to play the character straight: He and director, O’Reilly, return The Emperor Jones to its script.

The play is more interesting than I recalled, even knowing how theatrical the use of the continuous native drum can be.  O’Neill, of course, always gets into trouble when discussions of stage directions rear their ugly heads.   John Fiero has pointed out the impossibility of having “Mary’s eyes grow increasingly brighter in Long Day’s Journey Into Night . . .  as she sinks more deep[ly] into her morphine-induced narcosis.” I seem to remember John Guare discussing the reason O’Neill’s stage directions are so long: In the past, people read plays as they would novels—and the explanations were considered de rigueur.  Today, or always, many actors immediately strike out the blocking. O’Reilly, however, hasn’t been so hasty, seriously considering O’Neill’s choices.   Bogard discusses characters known as The Little Formless Fears in The Emperor Jones as signs of the influence of Peer Gynt; as if crawling from the interiors of Norwegian mountains, they “creep out from the deeper blackness of the forest. They are black, shapeless, only their glittering little eyes can be seen.  If they have any describable form at all it is that of a grubworm about the size of a creeping child.” Without giving the staging away, I was reminded of the trees throwing apples in The Wizard of Oz, even though, of course, The Emperor Jones predates that film by many years; at the same time, the garb of the figures seemed reminiscent of the hoods used in Iraq beheadings, which gives an inkling of how startling and menacing this production can seem. At one point, O’Neill also writes of convicts being like “automatons—rigid, slow, and mechanical”—in a totally unnaturalistic way, this is exactly what is represented on the stage. Finally, O’Neill describes a market in the late 1800s with “something stiff, rigid, unreal and marioneettish about their [the character’s] movements.” Again, what you see on the stage is true to his words, completely unexpected, totally creative. 

On the way out of the Irish Rep I found myself unable not to blurt to a woman also coming out of the theatre, “That was really great.”  She readily agreed, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Somehow, during the course of the evening, we were returned not to O’Neill’s life, not to his theatre’s history, but, instead, to his imagination. Do you know, in the excitement of seeing this new Emperor Jones, being released into this work in this way, neither of us thought to talk about race? 

–© 2009 by Bob Shuman    

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The Irish Repertory Theatre kicks off its 22nd Season

with Eugene O'Neill's 1920 classic


Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly

Starring OBIE and Lucille Lortel award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson ("Othello")


Performances of THE EMPEROR JONES run October 7-November 29 at The Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues): Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm; plus 3pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays (with the following exceptions: no performance Thursday, November 26; and an additional performance Tuesday, November 24 at 8pm). Tickets are $65 and $55, and are available by calling 212-727-2737.  For more information visit


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(The following articles are from The New Yorker, October 26.)

Can’t Stop the Beat

Scoring with rock and roll and hip-hop.

Rock and roll first hit the airwaves in the mid-fifties, and it didn’t take long for its creators to understand their ability to corrupt an audience with pleasure. “They’re really rockin’ in Boston / In Pittsburgh, P.A. / Deep in the heart of Texas / And ’round Frisco Bay,” Chuck Berry boasted in “Sweet Little Sixteen.” The thrill of the new sound—the way it made our hearts race and ruffled the feathers of authority—is almost impossible to describe now. Rock captured and broadcast our rogue adolescent energy. It was galvanizing. When the ululating falsetto of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” first played through the radio of the family Chevy, as we were driving back from a fishing trip in Canada, my father had to stop the car; he laughed until he cried. When Elvis made his mass-media début on “The Ed Sullivan Show”—his notorious gyrations filmed only from the waist up—I fell off the family chaise longue with delight. The “doo-doo-wah”s and the “shoo-dooten-shoo-be-dah”s may have sounded like nonsense, but they spoke to the buoyant and vague horizons of our dreams. We were postwar middle-class white kids living in the slipstream of the greatest per-capita rise in income in the history of Western civilization; we were “teen-agers”—a term, coined in 1941, that was in common usage a decade later—a new, recognizable franchise. We had money, mobility, and problems all our own. Rock and roll was pitched directly to us and to our dawning sense of our own power: A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-wop-bam.

(Read more)


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Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's famous 1928 play with music, featuring a collaboration between BBC Radio Drama and the BBC Philharmonic.

Listen now:

When Peachum discovers that his daughter Polly has secretly married London's most notorious gangster Macheath 'Mack the Knife', he wants revenge. Will Macheath be forced to go on the run?

Macheath …… Joseph Millson
Polly/Whore …… Elen Rhys
Mrs Peachum/Whore …… Ruth Alexander-Rubin
Mr Peachum/Rev Kimball …… Zubin Varla
Lucy/Whore …… Rosalie Craig
Jenny …… Ute Gfrerer
Tiger Brown …… Conrad Nelson
Matt …… Kevin Harvey
Jack/Beggar …… Sean Oliver
Walter …… Declan Wilson
Sawtooth Bob/PC Smith …… Peter Edbrook
Jimmy/Filch/Policeman …… Graeme Hawley
Ballad Singer …… HK Gruber
Betty …… Olwen May
Chorus …… Manchester Chamber Choir
Music by the BBC Philharmonic
HK Gruber (conductor)

Directed by Nadia Molinari
A BBC Radio Drama North and BBC Philharmonic co-production.

Listen to Lotte Lenya sing on the 1930 original cast recording: 

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(David Hare’s article ran in the Guardian, October 17.)

It all started 96 hours after 9/11

'Over chicken noodle soup, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, began to yield to the dazzling temptation of deliberately pursuing the wrong suspect. Hey, said the Americans, Let's Look Away'

In theatres up and down the country, it used to be that anyone, whatever their job, was pulled magnetically towards the stage. All through the day they would find themselves venturing down into the auditorium. They would casually try to catch a glimpse of the actors, a glimpse of the action, because that was where their job was rooted. Today, 10 years into the new century, theatre workers, like the rest of us, sit staring at computer screens all day, and sometimes all night. Hardly surprising, then, that this has been the decade of Looking Away.

Visit us, please, from a previous century and you'll see us walking down the streets, wired cockleshells in ears, jabbering like lunatics in a Victorian asylum. It has long been understood in any line at any shopping till that the electronic will take precedence over the physical. The queue will wait while the sales assistant answers the phone. In any given situation, Absence always trumps Presence, presumably on the grounds that the unknown has more potential for excitement than the known. "Is he all there?" we used to ask of our neighbours' idiot children. Now we ask of everyone, "Is he there at all?"

Every period throws up its own favoured means of mass distraction, but you're going to have to pull every history book off the shelf to find a distraction quite as nothing-to-do-with-anything as the US invasion of Iraq. The decade's significant date of choice for most historians is taken to be 11 September 2001. An airborne suicide attack on the twin towers in New York killed 2,948 people of 91 different nationalities. But if I was going to choose the day when the destiny of the new century really took shape, then I'd opt for 96 hours later. On 15 September, George Bush assembled his cabinet in casual clothes at Camp David (Paul Wolfowitz came without invitation and wore a suit) and, over chicken noodle soup, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, began to yield to the dazzling temptation of deliberately pursuing the wrong suspect. Hey, said the Americans, Let's Look Away.

(Read more)

Plus, in conjunction with Hare’s new play ‘The Power of Yes,’ recommendations from the National Theatre on a wide range of books about the current financial crisis–from the perceptive to the shocking to the downright hilarious:

  • The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, ISBN 9780141035482 £9.99
  • Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed by Paul Mason, ISBN 9781844673964 £7.99
  • Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett, ISBN 9781408701676 £12.99
  • The Storm: The World Economic Crisis and What it Means by Vince Cable, ISBN 9781848870574 £14.99
  • Who Runs Britain?: and Who's to Blame for the Economic Mess We're in, ISBN 9780340839447 £7.99
  • The Crash of 2008 And What It Means, ISBN 9781586486990 £9.99
  • Chasing Alpha by Philip Augar, ISBN 9781847920362 £20.00
  • The Crunch: How Greed and Incompetence Sparked the Credit Crisis by Alex Brummer, ISBN 9781847940094 £7.99
  • House of Cards by William D. Cohan, ISBN 9781846141959 £25.00
  • And The Roof Caved In by David Faber, ISBN 9780470474235 £17.99
  • The Credit Crunch by Graham Turner, ISBN 9780745328102 £14.99
  • The Fall Of Northern Rock by Brian Walters, ISBN 9781905641802 £10.99
  • Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World by Stephen Green, ISBN 9781846142369 £25.00 
  • The Euro: The Politics of the New Global Currency 9780300127300 £25.00 
  • Keynes: The Return Of The Master 9781846142581 £20.00

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(David Hare’s work is included in Duo!: The Best Scenes for Two for the 21st Century from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.)

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(Nicholas Pickard's article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, October 18.  Thanks to Billy Stritch for bringing it to our attention.)

After all these years it's still Liza with a zing

Regal yet humble, the Cabaret star still has energy and talent to enthrall her fans, writes Nicholas Pickard

It's the eyes and the giggle that do it for you – that innocent glare that Liza Minnelli flashes at you to give you a window into the career of a musical star who has been honing her talent for more than 50 years.

The voice has become shaky and the body isn't as agile as it once was but this is Liza – with a Z – and no one in the packed 2000-seat auditorium at the Sydney Opera House was complaining.

When she appeared dressed in her white sequins it felt like the roof of the Opera House was about to lift off. Everyone rose to their feet for the star who first came to Australia with her then husband, Peter Allen, 42 years ago.

But that was then and this is now and, despite her 63 years, it's Minnelli's eyes and her charming giggle that are timeless.

With pianist Billy Stritch and her 11-piece band she pumped out a show full of raw and breathless energy with all the Bob Fosse movements you'd expect. Based on a Tony award-winning show she has performed in New York's Palace Theatre this year, Minnelli was almost giddy as she went from crowd-pleasing show tune to heart-felt love serenade.

(Read more)

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(The following article by Dave Itzkoff appeared in The New York Times, October 12.)

Did Shakespeare Write This? Computer Says Yes

When it is not being used to bust cheating college students, a computer program used to detect plagiarism may have helped show that Shakespeare was an author of an unattributed play about Edward III, The Times of London reported. Brian Vickers, a professor at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London, told the newspaper that a comparison of phrases used in “The Reign of King Edward III,” a play published anonymously in 1596, with other works by Shakespeare published before then showed 200 matches of phrases of three or more words.

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(Sri Carmichael's article appeared in the Evening Standard, October 15.)

The Queen’s secret trip to theatre stuns audience

The Queen stunned a London theatre audience by slipping in to see a performance unannounced, minus an entourage.

She and Prince Philip apologetically squeezed into their seats for War Horse at the New London Theatre as the lights dimmed for curtain-up.

The Queen wore a simple dark green dress and any bodyguards she had were “so discreet as to be invisible”, according to theatre-goers on Monday night.

A journalist from The Lady magazine, who attended the performance, said: “The Queen and the Duke sat down as the lights dimmed and it was a huge shock when people realised who they were.

“They were incredibly apologetic for asking people to let them past and there was no hubbub or fuss about it all. It was amazing, they just sat among the audience and enjoyed the performance. At the interval they disappeared and reappeared very discreetly. When they left at the end, they were given a round of applause, which the Queen acknowledged with a wave.”

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(Ben Hoyle's interview appeared in The Times of London, October 13, 2009.)


Young actors too impatient for success, says Dame Judi Dench

Too many young actors are bent on achieving instant screen stardom and fail to develop their craft by learning from their predecessors in the theatre, Dame Judi Dench believes.

The Oscar-winner and unofficial national treasure rarely gives interviews and almost never criticises other performers. So the people who came to listen to her at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival were surprised to hear her scolding the new generation of actors for showing so little interest in the history of theatre.

Her comments brought an instant response from Rupert Goold, the most in-demand young director in Britain after a string of strikingly bold productions of everything from Shakespeare to Oliver!

He told The Times that it was already hard enough to find fresh ways of doing things in the theatre because “most of the audience is middle-aged, the critics are all middle-aged” and it often feels as if “you are seeking to win the approval of your parents all the time”. The result can be a caution that “strangles theatre [and] having a senior actor saying things like that could further strangle it”.

(Read more)


(The following article by Benedict Nightingale appeared in the Times of London, October 13.) 

Rupert Goold is wrong: Judi Dench is not 'strangling theatre'

To claim that Dame Judi Dench is “strangling theatre” by suggesting that younger actors ought to have a bit more respect for the traditions to which they belong, as Rupert Goold has done, is insulting, absurd and maybe even self-serving. The director is hugely gifted, but he’s surely guilty of Year Zero, clean-slate thinking.

For him, freshness is too often about imposing his own clever-clever ideas on plays, not in discerning and fulfilling an author’s aims and intentions. And that’s not a generational problem, as Goold must have discovered when members of his own cast rebelled against his reinterpretation of King Lear, with the result that it was a bit more Shakespearean when it moved from Liverpool to London.

On the other hand, he’s right to defend younger actors from any inference that they’re less able than their predecessors. He’s equally right to add that they’re more physically adroit than, say, many members of the Gielgud generation. One can only judge the quality of actors from their performances on stage and my own recent experiences tell me that the future of acting and therefore of the British theatre is very bright indeed. Just last month I went to the little Bush Theatre in West London to see a play called 2nd May 1997, was delighted by a mainly young cast, and thrilled by a total unknown, a recent RADA graduate called Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

(Read more)



(Michael Simkins's article appeared in The Guardian, October 13.)

Is Judi Dench right – are young actors only obsessed with fame?

Wannabe stars don't always understand the importance of theatrical history, but it's showbusiness that's to blame

The American star Jason Robards once told me about the first time he ever walked onto a stage to rehearse a professional part, requiring him to enter through a door and deliver his first line. He'd no sooner turned the handle and put one foot through the doorframe when the director screamed from the stalls, "ALREADY BAD!"

To young actors jostling for a space in the acting profession, this must seem typical of how they're regarded by the oldies. Experienced performers are always bewailing the shortcomings of young actors, the most recent of them being Judi Dench, who, in a rare interview last night at the Cheltenham literature festival, lamented the fact that, although talented, young graduates show no interest in developing their craft through studying their predecessors or the traditions of the profession.

(Read more)

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