Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

***** ‘TYPICAL’ REVIEW – RICHARD BLACKWOOD IS MESMERISING IN POETIC TRAGEDY ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/25. Photo:  Richard Blackwood in Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical. Photograph: Franklyn Rodgers. )

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This superb play draws on the final hours of Christopher Alder, who died in police custody in Hull in 1998

Christopher Alder’s last moments, in April 1998, were unforgivably brutal. Injured in a fight at a nightclub, he took his final breath in police custody. It was an abject death: an unlawful killing that, for his campaigners, represented another instance of a black British man dying in a senseless way.

Yet what is marked about Ryan Calais Cameron’s astounding play, written in rap-like rhyming verse and tracing the minutiae of its unnamed character’s final day, is that it bursts with life, zest, humour and hedonism even as it hurtles towards tragedy.

First staged as a solo show in 2019 and now created by Nouveau Riche and Soho theatre for a screen version, it becomes a perfect, if eviscerating, nugget of dramatic performance in its new medium; theatrical in setting but also sharply focused and dreadful in its filmic intimacy. When the violence comes, the camera seems to throw the punches. In a claustrophobic closeup, it tightens its gaze around Richard Blackwood’s face so we cannot avert our eyes, even as his character chokes on his own blood.

Until those excruciating moments, Typical feels like a day in the life of an urban everyman, granular in its detail, Joycean in its steam-of-consciousness as he wakes up, puts on the toast, thinks about his marriage, divorce, an office flirtation, and gets going. It’s a typical day, says Blackwood, but he is determined to make it a special one with a big night out.

The language is playful, kinetic, partly in patois, with sentences that syncopate and waver between poetry and song, and fizz with wordplay: “Looking at the weather, weather looking back in anger, weather look mad, weather looking temperamental, menstrual, weather looking bad.” And later, when the police handcuff him: “I’m being manhandled … heavy-handed men, heavy-hearted men.” It moves at speed and has a polyphonic effect, making the set feel as if it is occupied by more than just one actor. Blackwood keeps up with every note, mesmerising us with every tic, smile or grimace.

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***** ‘WEG MET EDDY BELLEGUEULE’ REVIEW – A FOUR-WAY TRIUMPH (LIVE STREAM, AMSTERDAM) ·

(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/31; Photo: The Guardian.)

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, live stream
Playing multiple roles – and all the music – four young actors dazzle in Eline Arbo’s superb staging of Édouard Louis’s brutal coming-of-age novel

This story of an outsider looks more central each time it is told. Édouard Louis’s 2014 biographical novel The End of Eddy follows a boy growing up gay and bullied in a poverty-stricken town in north-eastern France. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and was given a sharp staging three years ago at Edinburgh, in a version by Pamela Carter. International theatre, livestreamed and subtitled, has come closer during the pandemic. Last Saturday, a 2020 adaptation of Louis’s book by the young Norwegian director Eline Arbo could be caught on screen. Performed in Dutch, but with English subtitles, at the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, it was transcendent.

Juul Dekker’s design encases the action in a shell of crinkled plastic: you can hear it crackle underfoot. It could be a collapsed parachute, a ruffled igloo – or the veined interior of a skull. It is flimsy as shelter but it hides sky and horizon: when lifted away at the end, you realise how much light it has shaded.

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***** ‘OLEANNA’ REVIEW – BRUTAL AND BRILLIANT REVIVAL OF PRE-#METOO MASTERPIECE (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/13. Photo:  Riveting … Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna by Mamet at Theatre Royal Bath. Photograph: Nobby Clark.)

Theatre Royal Bath
Rosie Sheehy and Jonathan Slinger are captivating in David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander about a university student and professor in a battle of power, privilege and consent

 An anxious university student meets her professor about her grades. It takes place in his room and ends up in a college complaint for his allegedly inappropriate behaviour. He believes he has done no wrong. She feels violated and seeks redress.

David Mamet’s combative two-hander might have reflected the issues and anxieties of the day at its premiere in 1992, but it is startling to see this revival following Harvey Weinstein’s watershed rape conviction. Could Mamet have written a #MeToo play long before #MeToo became a movement?

Not quite, though this brutal and brilliant production, directed by Lucy Bailey, gains new resonance in the light of all that has come to pass and perhaps says things now that Mamet did not mean it to say. There have been many recent powerful stories about sexual abuse and consent, from Cat Person to I May Destroy You. Maybe it is within the framework of these dramas that we hear current issues buzzing beneath the surface of Mamet’s script. (It is somewhat ironic that Mamet has more recently written a post-#MeToo drama, Bitter Wheat, that lacks even a fraction of this play’s complexities.)

The professor’s book-lined study has a desk at one end and a sofa at the other, the latter carrying queasy hints of a campus-style casting couch.

Like Philip Roth’s professor in The Human Stain, who feels aggrieved for his sacking over a single word carrying racial undertones, so Mamet’s professor, John (Jonathan Slinger), believes that Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is weaponising political correctness against him. But as he talks, promising her an “A” in exchange for her company, soothing her when she cries and later, questioning the veracity of her complaint even when it has been upheld by the tenure committee, his micro-aggressions and gaslighting are clear to see, though it is just this vocabulary of terms that John might today want to write off as political correctness.

Slinger plays him with such off-hand entitlement that he appears unaware of his own crimes, apparently enacting nothing more than a fantasy of paternalistic, platonic exchange in his own mind, with the under-confident Carol taking copious notes and becoming confused over his academic terms as he lectures and preens.

Though we are nudged to see his point of view – that she is mistaking avuncularity for sleaziness, taking words out of context, turning the metaphorical into the literal – it is this very reasonableness that contains the modus operandi of a stealth predator.

Sheehy reveals Carol’s powerlessness through her body language, first confused by the disappearing demarcations of the teacher-student dynamic and then subtly recoiling – tucking in her legs, wrapping her arms around herself – as he breaches the space between the desk to create new levels of intimacy.

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EAT UP! DRAMA IS SERVED AT THESE FAMILY DINNERS ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; Photo:  The ultimate hellish family gathering: Dinner with the Westons in Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

With fewer guests at the table this Thanksgiving, theatrical reminders that food, drink and reminiscence can unsettle as well as comfort.

The stage loves a dining room table. This single piece of furniture represents sustenance and communion, and domestic dramas set at the table are — pun very much intended — the bread and butter of theater.

But for all the ways family plays reveal truths, trauma and traditions, they take on greater weight as I think about them this Thanksgiving, during a pandemic demanding all of us to figure out whether we can safely see our loved ones, and if so, how.

That’s not to say that family get-togethers onstage tend to go well. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is the contemporary standard-bearer for all hostile family dramas. We join the Westons, a trash fire of a family racked with bitterness, guilt and resentment, in their Oklahoma home on the occasion of the absence, then death, of the patriarch, Beverly Weston.

Fed up with the family’s cruelty, Ivy, the middle daughter, declares to her elder sister: “I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.”

Not exactly an episode of “Full House.” But she (and the play) are right that the myth of family often wilts before the real deal. The Westons twist their intimate knowledge of one another to degrade, intimidate and manipulate. Be careful what you’re wishing for this holiday season: “August: Osage County” shows us that a family around a dinner table can be a battlefield — but here the wounds are personal.

The same is true of Stephen Karam’s fantastically brutal (and simply fantastic) “The Humans,” in which the Blake family, natives of Scranton, Pa., convene at the Manhattan duplex apartment of their younger daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard. Erik, Brigid’s father, is remote, supposedly because he hasn’t been sleeping well, and her mother, Deirdre, tries to connect with her daughters but is often dismissed. Amy, the older daughter, is ill. And Momo, Erik’s aged mother, is barely lucid.

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FOR GERMANY’S THEATERS, A RELUCTANT INTERMISSION ·

(A. J. Goldman’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/12; Photo: Credit…Sandra Then; via Pam Green.)

MUNICH — Before a second nationwide lockdown went into effect in early November, Germany’s theaters — and their audiences — had been adjusting to measures that allowed a semblance of normal cultural life in the midst of the pandemic. Mandatory masks, spread-out seating plans and pragmatic program changes all ensured that the country’s playhouses were operating safely.

But after two months of performing under these changed circumstances, theaters seemed taken aback when, on Oct. 28, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced they would have to close again. This time around, they have not gone gently.

Officially, the second lockdown will last only a month, but few companies expect to return to the stage in early December. Faced with the threat of indefinite closure, they have reacted with refreshing chutzpah, challenging politicians to consider live performance as an essential service rather than a leisure activity.

“There is no danger of infection if you maintain the minimum distance of six feet and properly ventilate the auditorium,” said an open letter to lawmakers signed by arts administrators in the state of Bavaria. “So far, not a single case of infection has been proved to come from a theater visit,” the letter added.

I’ve been impressed with the precautions that playhouses have taken, although I’d be lying if I said that my much-curtailed theatergoing has not been attended by anxiety every step of the way, from riding the subway and avoiding audience members in the lobby to carefully filing out of the theater after the show.

Sometimes, that sense of unease was magnified when a production hardly seemed to justify the risk, like Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s staging of “The Oresteia” at the Volksbühne in Berlin. The show, scheduled to return when the lockdown is lifted, makes for a loud and cluttered evening that has surprisingly little to do with Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy.

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IN AVIGNON, SNATCHING THEATER FROM THE JAWS OF NEW LOCKDOWNS ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/30; Photograph:  Kaori Ito in “The Damask Drum” during the abbreviated “A Week of Art in Avignon.” Credit…Christophe Raynaud de Lage; via Pam Green.)

Delayed from the summer, France’s biggest stage celebration was further curtailed as restrictions again hit the country. That made the moments of grace that were possible all the more powerful.

AVIGNON, France — Festivalgoers who cross the medieval ramparts of Avignon are used to being greeted with a riot of activity. Every July, thousands of posters cover the city’s walls to advertise stage productions as the official Avignon Festival and its Fringe compete for attention. Seemingly every street corner brings hopeful performers ready to pitch their work to passers-by, day and night.

Not this year. Like so many other events, France’s biggest theater celebration was canceled because of the pandemic, leaving the city and local businesses with a major revenue shortfall. As some consolation, the director of the festival, Olivier Py, rescheduled seven of the productions originally planned for the 2020 edition over a week in late October.

The name he picked for this surrogate festival had historical resonance: “A Week of Art in Avignon” was the event’s original moniker upon its inception in 1947. At the time, its founder, Jean Vilar, staged just three productions around the city. While many of this year’s attendees could be heard complaining about the dullness of Avignon in the fall, the low-key atmosphere was certainly much closer to Vilar’s vision than the juggernaut — over 1,500 Fringe productions were presented last year — that usually overwhelms locals.

Still, looking back, Py and his team are likely to curse their timing. With confirmed Covid-19 cases surging again in France, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was announced in the region of Avignon the day before the Week of Art was to start. Like most theaters in Paris and other major cities, the festival opted to work around the regulations. All start times were simply moved forward by three hours, to allow audience members time to get home before curfew started.

It wasn’t enough for some shows. First, one production, Yngvild Aspeli’s “Moby Dick,” was canceled when a case of coronavirus was confirmed in the creative team. Then, midway through the week, the French government announced a new nationwide lockdown, meaning that the festival was cut short.

Yet some live shows did happen, across multiple venues in Avignon. Perhaps any review should include a mention of the herculean amount of planning, precautions and uncertainty that getting to the stage currently involves. Critics would be remiss to ignore the wider theater landscape: When an industry is fighting for survival, the aesthetic shortcomings of a lighting choice start to seem less consequential.

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***** ‘FAITH HEALER’ REVIEW – THIS VIRTUAL FRIEL IS THE STUFF OF MIRACLES ·

 

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/27. Indira Varma, David Threlfall and Michael Sheen in rehearsals for Faith Healer at the Old Vic. Photograph: The Old Vic/Getty Images.)

Does faith healing come about thanks to the faith of the healer, or the faith of the healed, or through faith in faith itself? This question haunts “the fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only”, as his publicity poster presents him; it troubles his wife, Grace, and perplexes Teddy, his manager. Brian Friel’s 1979 play places the audience, too, in a state of doubt. Over the course of four separate soliloquies, these three characters build conflicting impressions of their relationships and their village hall tours of Wales and Scotland. Their slippery accounts do not tally. Only a few features hold firm: place names, a couple of events – and the act of questioning. Are the characters misremembering or deliberately misleading? Who and what should – can – we believe, or believe in?

In our own destabilising times, the Old Vic’s “scratch” production is itself an expression of faith – part of a season of performances played on stage before an empty auditorium and simultaneously livestreamed to an audience that must pay to Zoom in. Given how much recorded work is being put online free, will people find sufficient added value in being connected with performers in time although not in space? Will they stump up for tickets?

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IRELAND: DRUIDGREGORY REVIEW–CAPTIVATING PERFORMANCE ROOTED IN HISTORY ·

(Ciara L. Murphy’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 9/17; Photo: The Irish Times: Druid combines representations of raw sorrow, naked nationalism, and raucous humour to honour Gregory’s legacy.)

Revival of Lady Augusta Gregory’s neglected works is of vital importance

★★★★☆

At Coole, the collision of past and present is delivered through a collection of Lady Augusta Gregory’s neglected works. Druid combines representations of raw sorrow, naked nationalism, and raucous humour to honour Gregory’s legacy at her home, the historical site of Coole Park.

Gregory’s plays have been notably absent from Irish stages for far too long. This revival is of vital importance, not only for a canon in urgent need of revision, but also because, despite the common view, Gregory’s plays provide worthy and clever snapshots of an important moment in Irish theatre history.

The nationalism that underpins two of her best-known texts, The Rising of the Moon and Cathleen Ní Houlihan, can appear a blunt instrument in contemporary times. However, these political allegories bookend DruidGregory, highlighting the political significance of Gregory’s work.

The setting of The Rising of The Moon is perhaps the most effective of the entire series, drawing fully on its surroundings. In Cathleen, Marie Mullen is striking as The Old Woman, leaning into moments of stillness and silence, presenting this well-known character as a literal monument of significance.

Standout

Francis O’Connor’s light touch approach to set design allows the natural beauty of Coole Park to take centre stage across the five short plays. Augmented by Barry O’Brien’s simple yet exquisite lighting design, the entire performance places the audience along a porous boundary line between the historical and the contemporary. These threshold spaces hold the power of this performance.

Unexpectedly, the standout performance moves away from nationalist rigour and atmospheric mystique. Gregory’s raucous comedy, Hyacinth Halvey, is the ideal centrepiece of the production. Gregory’s humour is often overlooked, and Hyacinth Halvey rivals Synge for its considered parody of rural twentieth century Ireland.

Presented as a delightful farce, it delivers comic relief and a breadth of capable performances from the ensemble. Here, the set allows for a more ostentatious addition to the traditional setting, which only accentuates its high-energy delivery.

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REVIEW: CHLOROFORM, LIES AND RACISM FIRE UP ‘THE JACKSONIAN’ ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York times, 8/28; Clockwise from top left: Bill Pullman, Carol Kane, Amy Madigan, Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in “The Jacksonian;” via Pam Green.)

This streamed reading of Beth Henley’s slice of Southern noir offers scorching portraits of bad faith from Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman.

Fred Weber, a proud son of Mississippi and one very scary bartender, is said to have astoundingly acute peripheral vision. Watching the immensely enjoyable (and equally disturbing) reading of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” which streamed live on Thursday night as part of the New Group Off Stage series, you don’t doubt that Fred — played by a priceless Bill Pullman — can detect whatever’s beside him, behind him or above him.

It’s a gaze that penetrates straight through the screen that separates you from this human reptile. When his eyes narrow, but never quite close, into razor slits, Fred gives the impression that he’s also looking through all the kinks and corners of his own twisted interior.

Does he like what he sees? Surely not. But he can live with it. And though he lies with cavalier smoothness, he is probably the most honest person you’ll meet in the shabby hotel that gives its name to this cockeyed murder mystery, a twisty study of the discontents of living in the racist South in 1964.

When I first saw “The Jacksonian” in its New York premiere in 2013, one of the great, spooky treats of Robert Falls’s interpretation was watching Pullman — an actor I had long admired for his scrupulous portraits of conflicted Edward Albee characters — cross over to the dark side. And I am happy to report that seven years later, confined to an isolating box on a split screen, he is, if anything, even more compellingly creepy.

As for his starry, first-rate fellow cast members — Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Juliet Brett, who all originated their parts, and Carol Kane, who is reading the role created by the wonderful Glenne Headly, who died in 2017 — they too are frighteningly vital. Each offers a testament to the notion that being trapped in a certain place at a certain moment in history can cause even the freshest soul to rot. They may have scripts in front of them, but they’re not just reading; they’re being, in ways that can feel too close for comfort.

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***** ‘GHOST LIGHT’ REVIEW – A FEAST OF DREAMS FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND (ONLY UNTIL 8/28) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/8; Photo: Fairy glow … Ghost Light was filmed at Edinburgh’s Festival theatre. Photograph: Peter Dibdin.)

Hope Dickson Leach’s magical, flickering film of past and postponed works is a dazzling theatrical relay race

The test of a good production of Peter Pan is the scene where the audience bring Tinkerbell back to life. For her to survive, we have to prove that we believe in fairies. When a show gets it right, the audience make magic happen. Reviving the little ball of light requires the same leap of faith we take on every trip to the theatre. Its effect can be joyous and devastating.

By kicking off her exquisite film with an extract from JM Barrie’s classic, Hope Dickson Leach finds the perfect metaphor for a theatre forced to go dark by Covid-19. Filmed backstage for the National Theatre of Scotland, Ghost Light treats the company’s repertoire like the glow of a fairy: flickering, transitory, written on the wind.

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