Category Archives: Current Affairs

FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 6 – OCCUPATIONS (1970) BY TREVOR GRIFFITHS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/5,)

The collapse of the 1968 protests left this incisive political dramatist searching for answers – and his response delved brilliantly into the dilemmas of revolution

Aside from Comedians (1975), the work of Trevor Griffiths is shockingly neglected. Yet he is one of the most questioning, intelligent political dramatists Britain has ever produced. Why does no one revive The Party (1973) which marked Olivier’s farewell to the stage? Why does the BBC, as we celebrate the NHS, not reshow Griffiths’ TV play about Aneurin Bevan, Food for Ravens (1997)? Above all – assuming theatre ever returns to something like normality – how about re-examining Occupations, which is a genuine modern classic?

First seen at the Manchester Stables in 1970, Occupations was given a superb Buzz Goodbody production, starring Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley, the following year by the RSC. Like a lot of Griffiths’ early work, the play was a response to the failure of the 1968 revolution in France. But, rather than deal directly with recent events, Griffiths finds what he calls a “historical correlative” in the abortive socialist uprising in Italy in 1920. We see Christo Kabak, a Bulgarian communist and representative of the Third International, arriving in Turin to await, and even influence, political events.

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HAMILTON REVIEW – BROADWAY HIT IS NOW A BREATHTAKING SCREEN SENSATION ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30; photo: The Guardian.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is smart, witty, funky and leaves us reflecting on America’s past and future

Hamilton was hailed as revolutionary theatre in 2015, with its rapping 18th-century statesmen, its funky, feelgood hip-hop and a cast predominantly comprising actors of colour. It went on to conquer Broadway and West End audiences. How does that original Broadway staging fare on the flat screen, streamed by Disney+ in the midst of lockdown?

It spoke to the moment then, and it speaks to us now, say director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, in their short, socially distanced preamble to this highly anticipated film of the show. “We are all thinking about what it means to be American,” they add. Even if these words are not in direct reference to the America of the past few weeks, with its upsurge of anti-racist protest, their story of the Caribbean-born immigrant hero and founding father of the US, Alexander Hamilton, speaks to us obliquely of all that remains neglected in America’s history while shifting the parameters at the same time.

Its rousing opening scenes remind us of that great American ideal of equality and speaks of slavery and civil rights in the 18th century. “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from, some get half as many,” sings Hamilton at the start, and his words echo the dangerous fate that awaits so many of America’s black or immigrant underclass now, as debate around Black Lives Matter protests has highlighted.

Even more remarkably, it keeps all the power of a live performance while simultaneously adding a filmic pizzazz including some breathtaking aerial shots. There is extraordinary direction – again under Kail – so that the cameras capture the mise en scène of theatre without losing any of the closeup intimacy of film.

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BEYOND BROADWAY, THE SHOW DOES GO ON ·

(from the New York Times, 7/4; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Inside a former firehouse in Richmond, Va., a lone actor performs “The Picture of Dorian Gray” for audiences as small as two. In a Denver parking lot, theatergoers in cars watch, through their windshields, four performers costumed as grasshoppers. On a 600-acre property in Arkansas, a cast of about 130 re-enacts the story of Jesus for several hundred ticket-holders spread across a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered Broadway through the end of the year (at least), and the nation’s big regional theaters and major outdoor festivals have mostly pivoted to streaming. But even as infections surge in the United States, many theaters are finding ways to present live performances before live audiences.

Of course, there is social distancing. Also, in some places, masks. Temperature checks. Touchless ticketing. Intermissionless shows. And lots of disinfectant. At the Footlights Theater, in Falmouth, Maine, actors will perform behind plexiglass.

But these precautions mean there is dinner theater in Florida. Street theater in Chicago. Drive-in theater in Iowa.

Members of Denver’s Buntport Theater, thinking drive-in theater would be pandemic-proof, tried to imagine what kind of creatures belong on a lawn. Their solution: “The Grasshoppers.”Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

“Our commitment is to do live theater — there’s a huge difference between that and seeing something on a computer screen,” said Susan Claassen, managing artistic director of Invisible Theater in Tucson, Ariz., a state that has emerged as a Covid-19 hot spot. The theater, which has been running a four-character play called “Filming O’Keefe” indoors, installed an air ionizer, allowed patrons in only one-quarter of its seats, mandated that they wear masks, and put on a show.

“Our theater got its name from the invisible energy that flows between performers and the audience,” Claassen said. “Even with 22 people in the audience with masks on, that energy is so strong.”

There are also financial reasons for continuing: Some theaters say they cannot survive a year without revenue.

“We’d rather go down creating good theater than die the slow death behind our desks,” said Bryan Fonseca, the producing director of Fonseca Theater Company in Indianapolis. The company plans to stage “Hype Man,” a three-character play by Idris Goodwin, outdoors, for 65 mask-wearing patrons. “I am hopeful and also very cautious,” Fonseca said, “careful that I don’t create a problem.”

By putting on shows, some theater artists are, in effect, making the case that it is a mistake for the industry to wait for New York to lead the way, given the risks there. “Someone has to be the first to take that cautious step into the dark to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Phil Kenny, a sometime Broadway producer who has a role in “Willy Wonka” in Orem, Utah.

But even in New York City there are signs of theatrical life. Food for Thought Productions, a company that presents staged readings of one-act plays, is planning to restart in a private club on July 13, with Louise Lasser and Bob Dishy performing and attendees required to have taken coronavirus tests.

“If we can prove that we can do this safely, maybe other groups can do safe theater as well,” said Susan Charlotte, the founding artistic director.

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CARL REINER, MULTIFACETED MASTER OF COMEDY, IS DEAD AT 98 ·

(From the New York Times, 6/30; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Carl Reiner, who as performer, writer and director earned a place in comedy history several times over, died on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Annie Reiner.

Mr. Reiner first attracted national attention in 1950 as Sid Caesar’s multitalented second banana on the television variety show “Your Show of Shows,” for which he was also a writer. A decade later he created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of the most celebrated situation comedies in television history, and teamed with Mel Brooks on the hugely successful “2000 Year Old Man” records. His novel “Enter Laughing” became both a hit Broadway play and the first of many movies he would direct; among the others were four of Steve Martin’s early starring vehicles.

He won praise as an actor as well, with memorable roles in films like “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and, more recently, “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels. But he spent most of his career just slightly out of the spotlight, letting others get the laughs.

His contributions were recognized by his peers, by comedy aficionados and, in 2000, by the Kennedy Center, which awarded him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was the third recipient, after Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters.

In his performances with Mr. Brooks and before that with Mr. Caesar, Mr. Reiner specialized in portraying the voice of sanity, a calm presence in a chaotic universe. But despite his claim to the contrary, he was never “just the straight man.”

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 5 – ‘OWNERS’ (1972) BY CARYL CHURCHILL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/28; photo: Urge for ownership … David Swift and Jill Bennett starred in Owners at the Royal Court. Photograph: Frank Barratt/Getty Images.)

The writer unleashed her gift for black comedy to excoriate British attitudes to property and possessions in this sprightly drama

Caryl Churchill is rightly admired for many qualities: her formal inventiveness, her questing intelligence, her dystopian vision of everything from cloning to climate catastrophe. But she has one gift that is rarely discussed: her wild humour. It is there in the sudden eruption of a 10-foot bird into the family brouhaha in Blue Heart (1997) and in the backyard banter in the more recent Escaped Alone (2016). It is also vividly present in one of her earliest stage plays, Owners. Given that the piece had a brief run at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 and, as far as I know, only one revival, it is one of Churchill’s least-known works yet cries out to be rediscovered.

On the surface, it sounds bleak. It is about the urge for ownership and shows Marion, a rampant property developer, eating up everything around her: she’s not only prepared to turf two old friends, Alec and Lisa, out of their top-floor flat but seeks to claim the passive Alec as a lover and forcibly adopts the couple’s new baby in exchange for cash. The play has a lot to say about landlords and tenants and is full of intimations of Churchill’s later work. The English belief in the sanctity of property is central to the historical documentary, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976). When the go-getting Marion states her philosophy as “be clean, be quick, be top, be best” you also hear the voice of the Thatcherite Marlene in Top Girls (1982).

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MISERY AND MEGALOMANIA: HOW DAVID ADJMI BECAME A PLAYWRIGHT ·

(From The New York Times, 6/24; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

It took David Adjmi 10 years to write his new memoir, “Lot Six” (HarperCollins). The last four months were spent ensuring there were no legal issues.

“I never wanted to write a roman à clef but it ended up being that because you can’t use all these names,” the playwright said recently. “I had enough trouble already,” he added, laughing.

Perhaps he was alluding to his satire “3C,” which brought on a legal battle with the copyright holder of the sitcom “Three’s Company.” (Adjmi won the case in 2015.) Or perhaps the reference was to his experience at Juilliard, when he fell on the bad side of a teacher he calls Gloria in the book.

Adjmi’s Off Broadway debut, “Stunning,” in 2009, drew from his childhood in Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish enclave. The book’s title refers to a pricing code for three, an odd number associated with gayness — “as in three-dollar bill,” he said. The stylized, bitingly funny show, and its author’s unorthodox back story, attracted the attention of HarperCollins. Adjmi, now 47, set out to compose essays about his cultural influences, but started sliding toward more personal territory — a move his publisher encouraged.

“They said, ‘You need to make it about how you became a writer,’” he recalled.

Adjmi may be a relatively niche playwright (the memoir ends with the closing of “Stunning”), but his lifelong devotion to art as an identity-defining tool of self-expression gives the book a fervid tone that is hard to resist; his talent for laugh-out-loud funny set pieces does the rest.

He is the same in conversation, pin-balling from raucous laughter to tears, and sending an interviewer to the dictionary to check out what “agon” means (it’s ancient Greek for conflict, naturally).

“David is so witty and he’s also quite precise,” said the actress Cristin Milioti, who counts “Stunning” as one of the best shows she’s ever done. “The way he writes is so rhythmic.”

It’s not a surprise, then, that music features prominently in Adjmi’s new stage projects. These are edited excerpts from the conversation, by FaceTime from Los Angeles.

Your life has not always gone smoothly but the Juilliard period, with the instructor you call Gloria, stands out as a painful low. How did you recover?

To this day, I talk to my peers about that experience and they’re like, “No, she likes you, she cares about you.” I think I was looking for a certain kind of permission, and I had to give myself the authority. Art is a disruption, you’re declaring war in a certain way, you’re telling everybody else, “This is my point of view.”

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‘ENDGAME’ BY SAMUEL BECKETT: LIFE CONSPIRES TO MIMIC ART … YET AGAIN ·

(Terence Killeen’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 6/15.; Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, directed by Conor McPherson (left) and Michael Gambon at the Beckett Film Project. Photograph: Pat Redmond.)

In all great plays, a calamity can be adapted to any circumstance – pandemic, for example

“Outside of here it’s death.” No play better captures the experience and the meaning of lockdown than Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In it, four people – the blind and immobile Hamm, his elderly parents Nagg and Nell, who are confined to dustbins, and his relatively able-bodied servant Clov – are stuck together in a dwelling, frequently referred to as a refuge, which is very evidently the last place where humanity can survive.

Some kind of catastrophe has apparently rendered Earth uninhabitable. In 1957, when the play was first staged, the catastrophe was of course interpreted as nuclear destruction. But like all great plays, the nature of the catastrophe can be adapted to any circumstances – a pandemic is just as possible. That the disaster may be ecological is also quite evident: the likelihood that the world outside is dead and cannot support life is frequently indicated. (HAMM: Nature has forgotten us. CLOV: There’s no more nature.)

So the four characters are isolated (self-isolated?) in this very restricted space, with only Clov’s small kitchen, off-stage, to which he sometimes retreats, as an alternative area. The play simply “takes its course”, with no indication that the day has moved on in any way, or that there is any day and night alternation, unlike in Beckett’s previous play, Waiting for Godot.

A sense of timelessness, very like what the more senior citizens especially have experiencing during lockdown, is a crucial part of the work. What happens onstage happens in a state which bears no relation to normal conceptions of time’s progression. For its full effect, it needs to be played very slowly, with a sense of even theatre time only barely passing – hard for a director and actors to get right, but crucial if the play is to work.

How do the characters fill up this strange interregnum, this permanent stasis? By acting, since actors are what they are and this is a theatre. Endgame is what would now be called a “spin-off” from Godot; it represents a development of two marginal figures in that play, Pozzo and Lucky, into the protagonists. (The two marginal figures in this play, Nagg and Nell, will give rise to further developments in later Beckett work.)

Hamm is a more reduced Pozzo: by the second act of Godot, Pozzo is already blind and barely able to walk; here in Endgame he is confined irrevocably to a chair. Lucky, conversely, has come on somewhat since Godot; as Clov, he is now more independent and can talk and act independently. The correspondences are not exact, but close enough to warrant the inference of a basic continuity.

In Godot, Pozzo, on his first appearance, is a ham, a grandiose, strutting figure very inclined to magnify himself and his non-achievements. He expects Didi and Gogo to know his name and is most put out when they don’t. So it is appropriate that he should be renamed Hamm (with its connotation of ham actor) in the later work. Hamm still keeps up the great tradition: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he asks in his very opening words: as a good old theatrical prima donna, he expects to outshine all the others, even if only in terms of the degree of his misery.

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THE ANGLE PROJECT IS INVITING YOU TO SHARE YOUR STORY ABOUT COVID-19 HEALTH PROFESSIONALS ·

The Angle Project is inviting you to share your story.

We are creating a storytelling series to showcase humanity behind the COVID 19 pandemic. TAP is seeking partnerships with hospitals, community organizations, and individuals who had direct experience with battling the virus and who would like to share their stories with us. We will then develop the stories and produce an event where the storytellers will have an opportunity to present in front of a live audience.

What do we look for in a story? A detailed account of a personal experienceThe event described in a story can be big or small, joyous or sorrowful (or both); most importantly, it has to be personal and transformative.

We are specifically interested in hearing from first responders, persons of color, seniors, refugees, and immigrants. For the live presentation in front of an audience (planned for late fall or early winter this year), The Angle Project will organize an expert panel discussion that will follow the performance and have a reflective and interactive conversation about the systemic changes that are necessary to take place today to strengthen and uplift our society and the less advantaged communities in particular.

If you wish to be a part of the project, please email Irene at info@theangleproject.com with “Heroes of Our Time” in the subject line.

Can’t wait to hear from you!

contact the Angle Project at info@theangleproject.com

A BACKSTAGE WALK THAT’S PURE DRAMA ·

(from The New York Times, 6/11; via Pam Green.)

STUTTGART, Germany — Midway through “We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On,” a theatrical walkabout through the Stuttgart State Theaters, I had one of the most intense experiences of my theatergoing life.

Standing in front of a two-way mirror, I stared in fascination, and a little discomfort, as the actress Therese Dörr locked eyes with me from the other side and recited a monologue that conjured up an apartment — and a life — gone to ruin, “like in Pompeii,” she kept repeating. The world around me faded away, too. I seemed to fall into her eyes and into her speech.

It lasted no more than five minutes, but that was enough time for the hypnosis to take effect. Such theatrical intimacy came about because of, not despite, the social distancing requirements that have made conventional live performance — onstage before a packed house — impossible so far during the pandemic.

All over Germany, cultural life is sputtering back to life, with new distancing and hygiene protocols. In Stuttgart, in the south of the country, the State Theaters, which administer a playhouse, opera company and ballet troupe, have flung their doors open for a one-of-a-kind backstage tour curated by Burkhard C. Kominski, who leads the drama division. Rather than trying to merely work around the new rules, Mr. Kominski has taken these regulations as a set of formal constraints and created a new kind of aesthetic experience.

Along the 12 stations on this packed, 75-minute route, dance, theater and music are performed with a rare level of intimacy and immediacy, coalescing into a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. The audience is led through in groups of up to four. The carefully plotted and executed journey at times brings to mind a haunted house or carnival ride.

The production unfolds across the State Theaters’ building complex, and my group began in the theater’s foyer, where I waited wearing a face covering along with two other people. When summoned by our guide, we were allowed to remove our masks as we wended our way backstage, maintaining a five-foot distance from one another.

Sometimes, our calm and deliberate chaperone seemed to be leading us through a theatrical underworld. Parts of the opera house looked abandoned, with dried leaves littering the floors and blown into the stairwells, and toppled chairs and upturned and overgrown plants in the lobby. But these gothic elements were kept to a minimum, and things never got hammy. In hallways and on landings, we regularly passed ushers in face masks, their eyes downcast and their arms outstretched, pointing the way like human signposts.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 4 – ‘BLOODY POETRY’ (1984) BY HOWARD BRENTON ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/22.)

This magnificently honest play about the Shelleys and Byron’s summer of sexual experimentation raises difficult questions about the cost of utopian aspirations

Howard Brenton’s output is massive. I reckon there must be more than 50 plays ranging from early, disruptive pieces including Revenge and Christie in Love (both 1969) to mature historical studies such as 55 Days (2012), about the trial and execution of Charles I, and Drawing the Line (2013), charting the arbitrary partition of India. But if I had to pick out one work that deserves regular revival, it would be Bloody Poetry which deals with a utopian experiment in living, and describes both its aspirations and resulting angst with magnificent honesty.

Brenton leans heavily on Richard Holmes’s book Shelley: The Pursuit for his story. He shows the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, meeting up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. The plan, in Byron’s words, is that “we will all go communist” which, in reality, means a summer of free love, shared creativity, book talk and party games: the most significant of these being a shadow-play in which the group enact the parable of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In the more sombre second half, we see the aftermath of the experiment: Shelley, forever haunted by the ghost of his first wife, pens some of his greatest poetry and Mary writes Frankenstein yet love is betrayed, lives break up, children die. Was it all worth it?

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