Nicola Walker and director Dominic Cooke refresh dated play
The Corn Is Green is a production that is worthy to stand alongside the best of the National Theatre. It almost seems a bonus that it features a star performance from Nicola Walker.
It’s a hundred years ago and an Englishwoman Miss Moffatt, played by Nicola Walker, arrives in a Welsh mining village. It’s her mission to educate the children. One of them, Morgan Evans, played with feeling and humour by Iwan Davies, is exceptionally clever and becomes her protégé. Much of the play hinges around the question, will he or won’t he go to Oxford University?
Apart from Morgan, the other characters are one-dimensional so anyone playing Miss Moffatt is required to carry the show. In the past, the part has attracted some big guns: Sybil Thorndyke, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr. Hard acts to follow, and it seems for the first half that this is going to be a one note performance from Nicola Walker. I mean a beautiful pure note, but essentially she is determined and haughty toward everyone she meets and in everything she does. Then as she becomes more emotionally involved with making Morgan a success, a throatiness and slight hesitation pervades the previous stridency. It’s a subtle, powerful performance.
This semi-autobiographical play is dated in some respects and could have failed as a production but for some brilliant ideas by, I assume, director Dominic Cooke. First he introduces the author onto the stage, giving the stage directions and in that sense showing he is both is telling a story and that the story is very much about him.
Morgan talks about the conflict he feels about leaving his community but this is not dwelt on in the play. Again Dominic Cooke’s production comes to the rescue. The use of a miners’ chorus throughout is a reminder of the draw of the community.
The production opens with a 1930s ball shown in silhouette behind a curtain. A man steps out from it to the front of the stage. We soon realise this is Emlyn Williams. He begins to type his semi autobiographical play and creates the characters and story before our eyes. We’re back in a Welsh mining village in the early twenties. A group of miners sing in Welsh. The great Bill Deamer choreographs the moments of dance.
We meet some of the characters: the village children, who only speak Welsh, and the English who stand above and apart from them, showing contempt for people they regard as savages. Themain characters are amusing but fairly one dimensional: Richard Lynch is the saved Christian Mr Jones, with red-faced passion bubbling under his proper exterior; the dim, nervous Miss Ronberry played by Alice Orr-Ewing and the even dimmer landowner that she loves, simply known as The Squire, played by Rufus Wright. Then Miss Moffat appears.
Educating the children means teaching them arithmetic and to read and write, English, that is. The playwright appears to support this and treats the many racist attitudes towards the Welsh as a bit of a joke.
Morgan is the a cocky and clever leader of the boys (all of whom are played by adults). He becomes Miss Moffatt’s star student and she is tyrannical in her determination to pursue her ambitions for him, without care of any enemies she might make.
At first the actors mime on a set, designed by ULTZ, that is a blank and black with minimal props, perhaps indicating the emptiness of the prospects of these people who start down the mines at age ten. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but ULTZ’s set design is gradually populated with more detail and, when you come back after the interval, the curtain goes up on a transformed stage, like an Aladdin’s cave after the austerity of the first act. Just as Miss Moffat has become emotionally engaged and the educated Morgan has become committed to leaving for a wider world, the set becomes a naturalistic with colourful wallpaper and detailed furnishings.
Sure, The Corn Is Green is sentimental, patronising, and not overly challenging but, in the hands of Nicola Walker and Dominic Cooke, it is also heartwarming, and a hymn to the power of education.
The Corn Is Green can be seen at the Lyttelton Theatre within the National Theatre until 11 June 2022.
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.
The old songs still soar in this new look at Oklahoma!
If the optimistic, can-do nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals grates on you a little, the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!, now the Young Vic, will be right up your Stetson.
Daniel Fish‘s production, co-directed at the London end by Jordan Fein, examines this 20th century classic from a 21st century perspective. It’s even been nicknamed ‘Wokelahoma’ by some wags. Curly is less heroic, Judd less of a villain, the previously admirable strength of the Oklahoma community more sinister.
Let’s start with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher ‘s design. Most of the audience is on either side of the stage, traverse style. On the back wall is a painting of open plains with sketches of a couple of farm buildings. At the other end is a live band. The unraised stage is bordered by long trestle-style tables; the cast stays on stage most of the time. It feels and is meant to feel like a community hall, all the more so because the entire auditorium is evenly and brightly lit. The last time I experienced this kind of lighting was when I went to see my daughter in a school play. It’s as if we the audience are part of that community and that the community is commenting on their own story. Very Brechtian. But this does mean emotional involvement and dramatic tension are kept at a distance.
The famous opening song Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ is sung initially by Arthur Darvill accompanying himself on guitar before others join in. Straightaway you know that this is going to be a different kind of Curly because, although he’s an attractive guy, he’s nothing like the famous Curlys of the past, tall, well built men like Arthur Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman. Mr Darvill is small and wiry, and, unlike those rich baritones, he has a beautiful tenor voice, with a nice falsetto.
There was a certain way in which romantic male leads were expected to behave in the mid 20th century when Oklahoma! was written. Even if sensitivity does actually figure in the finest male roles of the period, Hammerstein clearly admired the strong self-assured roll-up-your-sleeves type of hero: the common man who built America. Like Curly. He is even contrasted with weaker male figures like Ali Hakim and Will Parker, played for a great many laughs by Stavros Demetraki and James Davis. Now, we can and usually do choose to take Curly’s character as being of its time, but in this production, looking through 21st century eyes, his charm does lean over into smarm, his cockiness becomes arrogance, his laddishness seems awfully like harassment, and his possessive jealousy spouts toxic masculinity. So he’s not as obviously attractive as one would normally expect.
Then again, nor is Jud the hired help as nasty. Curly’s prospective spouse Laurey is frightened of Jud, which is why she doesn’t reject him and thus he’s encouraged in his pursuit of her. By making him less sinister and more misunderstood, this production undermines the basis of her fear. Patrick Vaill plays Jud with sad-eyed sensitivity showing that he’s awkward with women. There’s a hint of the ‘incel’ about him and, although he’s potentially violent, it does seem that he’s despised by everyone simply because he’s a loner. He’s considered a genuine outsider, not simply someone from outside like Ali Hakim, who’s been accepted into the community. People’s descriptions of this nicely coiffed clean boy as dirty seem to stem from simple prejudice.
When Curly talks with Jud and encourages him to think about suicide, which I guess was always weird, the talk becomes distinctly nasty because it takes place in pitch black. Normally exit signs or some sliver of light enable your eyes to pick up something, but here you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then in the second act, when Curly is determined to outbid Jud in an auction, the humiliation of the outsider seems less like punishing him for his unpleasantness and more like simple malice.
The lighting isn’t always bright or nonexistent. Sometimes Scott Zielinski’s design bathes the room in orange or green or shines spotlights, as befits the moment.
Rather than the country music you might associate with a southern state like Oklahoma, the band plays bluegrass style: in other words, lots of stringed instruments. And, under Musical Director Tom Brady, what a marvellous sound they make. That most romantic of songs People will say we’re in love is as beautiful as it could be.
Three women dominate this production
Anoushka Lucas plays Laurey as confused, vulnerable and passionate in equal measures. She’s not only a fine actor, she’s another fantastic singer. Lisa Sadovy plays Aunt Eller with a twinkle in her eye, but harder and more cynical than you might expect. And all the better for that. The women definitely hold their own in this production.
The plot is unchanged, at least until the end. Curly makes clear he likes Laurie but plays it down a bit. Laurie feels the same about Curly but won’t admit it. The suppressed sexual desire rises like steam. When you think about it, an awful lot of this musical concerns young people desiring one another. The surrey with a fringe on top is not the familiar jaunty tune that matches the rhythm of a horse and carriage. Instead, it’s slow and sensuous. The line ‘Don’t you wish it could go on forever and you’d never stop’ is delivered with a lascivious smile. It’s clear it’s another kind of ride Curly’s thinking about.
The emphasis on sex continues when we meet Ado Annie and her big number. I cain’t say no. She’s not portrayed as an amusingly silly girl but as a woman confident in her sexuality. Marisha Wallace is not only hilarious., she also has a tremendous voice that blasts the song into the category of showstopper.
Oklahoma! is famous for being one of the first, if not the first, musical to be led by the book, or story. So the songs serve the book, which was written by Oscar Hammerstein II, by revealing character and driving the narrative forward. It may also be the first to fully integrate dance. In fact, Agnes de Mille‘s choreographed dream sequence is one of the iconic moments in the original and her name still appears in the credits, even though her choreography has disappeared.
Now Laurey’s dream is a contemporary dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham. It starts with an electric guitar screaming a stretched out version of Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ that generated the same startled surprise in me as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing another classic, The Star Spangled Banner. This is the moment when Laurey is supposed to see clearly that she should choose Curly but it’s less explicit than Agnes de Mille‘s ballet so it confuses more than clarifies.
This production isn’t the only one recently to try to update Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chichester Festival Theatre‘s South Pacific, which is due a London run, dampened down the sexism and bolstered the anti-racism. The Open Air Theatre‘s Carousel faced its domestic violence head on. And I think this is right if we’re to continue to enjoy the positive qualities of their musicals.
However, the ending of this reimagining of Oklahoma! left me disappointed. Not a word has been changed., remember, but the actions have. For me, the reassessment of Curly’s character is pushed too far. I don’t want to give you a spoiler, but I’ll just say that the sham trial now seems like a real miscarriage of justice brought about by a community that sticks together against outsiders. And it makes the ending considerably downbeat.
While I love the new arrangement of the songs, the comedy, the sexiness, and the examination of maleness, I did hope to leave with a smile on my face. It felt like Daniel Fish had tried too hard to shoehorn the actual Oklahoma! into his vision of it.
Oklahoma! is performing at the Young Vic in London until 25 June 2022.
Impressive but confusing immersion into the Trojan War
The Burnt City is hard to understand and difficult to find your way around. So, this is not only a review of the show but a guide to how to get the best out of it.
Punchdrunk are the leaders in ‘immersive theatre’, in which you are right in the middle of what’s going on. There are lots of stories being told in The Burnt City. They add up to a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. Like anything you’re in the middle of, you don’t have the big picture until afterwards, if then.
I usually love this form of theatre so I was desperate to see The Burnt City, but once there, my desire turned to disappointment. I had expected this show about the myths of the Trojan War to be non-linear. As you walk around the 100 thousand square feet of floorspace, you don’t expect to understand what’s going on. As you might be told if you ask for directions, ‘Let fate be your guide’.
There are many stories being told simultaneouslly throughout two buildings,. They are repeated but don’t expect them to be chronological. I had a general idea of the many Ancient Greek myths connected with the Trojan War but I still struggled to identify or connect them. It doesn’t help that they’re mostly told through through dance, rather than spelled out using the spoken word.
I witnessed many events. What I didn’t expect was how uneventful the events would be, how lacking in dramatic tension. The biggest tension is the fear that while you’re watching one event, you’re missing something much more dramatic in another room.
I may not have been as engaged as I would liked to be, or found the events as dramatic as I think they should have been, but it’s still a great experience to be immersed in this world of war and revenge, and to be standing right next to its inhabitants as they meet their fate.
So what is The Burnt City about? It’s based primarily on two Ancient Greek plays, Euripides’ Hecuba and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, that cover the war between Mycenae (or Greece) and Troy, the largely mythical Trojan War. Will it help if you know these plays? Probably not that much.
What does help is that, as you enter the building, there’s a brief audio history of the Trojan War and its aftermath, so you’ve a fair idea of the big moments you may see. You go through a faux museum which is even more helpful in explaining the events. So, my advice is to take a few moments to look at the exhibits. The case containing the last exhibit has been broken open, as if to say the past is now coming to life. You’re then in for three hours with no interval, unless you choose to take a break.
Punchdrunk have acquired their own home for the first time in their twenty plus year history, and have converted their building at One Cartridge Place in Woolwich and the adjoining one into Mycenae and Troy. The sets by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns are extraordinary. There is astonishing attention to detail. Mycenae is inspired by perhaps Fritz Lang’s 1920s film Metropolis. Troy suggests a period before the Second World War with a neon sleaze reminiscent of 1920s Berlin.
After the museum, you make a choice about where to go first. Lights beckon you but, to help you find your choice, look carefully and you see signs, one welcoming you to Troy which is down a long tunnel, the other a border crossing gatehouse to Mycenae. Each space has two floors. In both, you witness violent acts or feel the threat of violence but in Troy you find people having fun, while the city is under attack, and you can wander through small spaces and a warren of rooms. On the other side, there’s gloomy Mycenae, a military state where the warriors prepare for war, then return and face its consequences. Here there are two large open areas, downstairs is what appears to be a military camp, upstairs a palace. There are only a few rooms off.
This show, directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, is much more about the effect of war than the fight itself, and cycles of revenge dominate. So what are the big moments?
First, at the start of the war, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the Gods in exchange for good fortune. You need to look for a bride getting ready for what she thinks is a wedding. This is in one of the few rooms in Mycenae. You can then watch her taken to the ground floor and placed on one of two giant tank traps, which look like misshapen crucifixes, on which she is killed. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra is not happy about this, but more of that later.
Over in Troy, the Greeks invade using the famous Trojan Horse (which apparently is there is some form but not obvious, so it’s something to look out for). Queen Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena is murdered by invaders and strung up. I found this to be one of the most upsetting scenes.
Hecuba has learned that King Polymester, an ally of the Greeks, has murdered her son, whom she sent to him for safekeeping. He doesn’t know she knows. When he arrives in Troy, she and fellow women do a friendly dance with him in a red room, possibly a nightclub, on the top floor, that eventually turns violent as they overwhelm and blind him.
Back in Mycenae, Agamemnon arrives home in triumph with Cassandra in tow. You can recognise him by his splendid gold head mask, just one of dozens of imaginative, almost superhero costumes by David Israel Reynoso, inspired by Ancient Greece. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra greets him. He goes upstairs where there is a huge block, made of concrete (I think), like a fashion show runway, where he is at first feted, until he takes a shower and Clytemnestra, in revenge for his killing of their daughter, goes all Psycho. It’s one of the more horrific moments, but even so, I found that, because of the time it took to get to that point, with all the slow entwined dancing, it became boring rather than tense.
All the events are repeated so you have three opportunities to see them. If you know what you’re looking for, you can hope to see them all in three hours
Stay until the end because, given that killing is a dominant theme, there is a climax in which many of the performers take part in a kind of techno dance of death, half naked and possibly in hell, but more literally in Mycenae.
A useful approach may be to follow what you might call the wisdom of the crowd. If a group of spectators has accumulated, there’s usually something going on. Their spookily anonymous masks, which we are all required to wear, take away individuality, even more so when they form a crowd and are so focused on following a particular train of events, that they almost crush you or push you to one side.
Some people like to fix on one performer and follow them, because these various stories do have beginnings, middles and ends, unlike the overall show, and those beginnings usually start small, build to a climax which may well be a killing, with some kind of anguished coda. I found these events strangely uninvolving but I think I might have felt more involved if I had adopted this approach.
Much to my surprise, and perhaps because there is so much room, I found there were times and spaces when nothing was going on. I went round a whole floor of Troy at one point and saw nothing going on.
While you may feel you want to spend all your time watching things happening, there is much to be gained from exploring some of the nearly 100 (apparently) small rooms in Troy. These are often bedrooms, sometimes shops, seemingly abandoned in the course of the siege or attack. Go into them, or some of them, take a look at the books and pictures, look behind the clothes in the wardrobes. Not only will you get amazingly detailed insights into their lives, but you will also be rewarded with clues as to what’s going on around you.
Perhaps, before you even buy a ticket, I should give you this tip, and it won’t be a surprise if you know Punchdrunk’s past work. This is a dance show, and I don’t mean Anything Goes dance, I mean contemporary dance. There is next to no speech to help you understand what’s going on, and the dancing is nearly always in slow motion, and stretched out. I’m not questioning for a moment the brilliance of choreographer Maxine Doyle or her dancers but, if you’re not familiar with the language of dance (which I’m not) you may struggle to comprehend what it is the dancers are trying to convey. The performers embrace erotically or sinisterly, push each other apart, swing one another around. You’ll find it portentous or pretentious, depending on your opinion of contemporary dance. Personally I like that kind of dance but in small doses, which this isn’t.
This show is not for the claustrophobic, or people with visual impairment. You may find being in the building overwhelming at times because it’s mostly dark, with haze as well on occasion. And there are some trip hazards, even if they are highlighted with tape.
Given such an underlit environment, it seem odd for me to compliment the lighting designers but F9, Ben Donoghue and Felix Barrett have done a great job of adding to the sense of fear and wonder, with their mixture of murkiness, sudden flashes, and bright spotlights.
The sound by Stephen Dobbie with its screeching thudding reverberating chords adds to the febrile atmosphere.
Let’s start at the beginning. The organisers quite rightly would like you to use public transport to get to the show. But it is in Woolwich, which is a long way from the centre of London, so you, like me, may have to go by car if you’re not going to spend most of your day travelling. The best place to park, I found, is Calderwood Street multi storey Car Park, which is a ten minute walk away from the venue.
Arrive in good time at the venue, at least 15 minutes before your allocated slot, because there will be a queue to get in, even with staggered entry times. You are asked to put your mobile phone in a locked bag which you then carry around with you. Bags and coats and even bottles of water will need to be checked into the cloakroom. So I advise that you travel light to avoid the massive queue at the end the show. Can you manage without taking a phone? Big decision I know, but if you do leave it behind, don’t forget to print out your tickets and take a payment card (if you want to buy something at the bar). But here’s a tip, the bar stays open after the show ends, so you can go there to wait for the queues to die down.
You will be asked to wear a Covid-safe face covering. This is pretty sensible since you will be in close proximity to a lot of people as you walk around. On top of that, you will be required, in the Punchdrunk tradition, to don a carnival style mask which is actually quite comfortable. Also, this is a promenade show: you will doing a lot of walking, so wear sensible shoes.
There are toilets throughout the building. But finding the one Bar is another story. Here’s a clue. It’s in Troy. Here’s another: ask a steward. They won’t give you any information to do with the show but they will point you to toilets, exits and, crucially, the Bar (which incidentally is a good ploy if you can’t find Troy). You can remove your two masks (hurrah), buy a drink, find a table, and enjoy excellent live entertainment. The whole decadent feel gives Cabaret a run for its money.
It opens an hour after the start, so Troy may be the best place to begin. That way you can spend an hour or so looking round, then take a break in the bar, before moving on to the bleak foreboding of Mycenae. As I mentioned before, it stays open after the show, so you can use every minute of your three hours on the Trojan War if you wish, and still enjoy the cabaret.
The above tips are from my own experience of visiting the show and also from other people’s reports. They are not in any way official information. In fact, Punchdrunk go out of their way not to give you any directions or timetable, and the stewards won’t help. Therefore I apologise if there are any factual mistakes.
Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City continues at One Cartridge Place until December 2022. Tickets available from onecartridgeplace.com
Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith promises a ‘decadent world of sex, hypocrisy, parties and power’. The theatre website warns about ‘nudity, drug use and smoking’. If that leads you to expect something edgy, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Mike Bartlett’s new play is a clever but underwhelming pastiche restoration comedy. It purports to be shocking but barely raises an eyebrow. A scene with people in their underwear miming sexual acts is hardly going to cause a fit of the vapours amongst today’s audiences. The smell of herbal cigarettes was a bit overpowering though.
Scandaltown is Mike Bartlett‘s third play to open in London in just over a month, which is a rare achievement. We’ve already had the revival of his first ever play Cock and The 47th which adopts the style of a Shakespearean tragedy to imagine Trump standing at the next Presidential election.
So Mike Bartlett is prominent but is he preeminent? Well, he can certainly write clever, amusing dialogue and his plays are never less than interesting, but, from what I’ve seen, there is a lack of depth in what he does. And I include probably his most famous work, King Charles III.
It’s not that Scandaltown is bad. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. Mr Bartlett takes the style of a restoration comedy to satirise today’s rich and famous. He is adept in his use of the conventions and language of that genre. The trouble is, how many of us are familiar with restoration comedy? A better reference point might be panto, which it certainly resembles- in a good way. The plot is as complicated and ludicrous as a restoration comedy, or indeed the Netflix thriller (I’ve just arched Anatomy Of A Scandal).
Restoration Comedy is the name given to plays that were produced when theatres reopened after Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government closed them for nearly 20 years. The ‘restoration’ refers to the return of the monarchy. In fact, Charles II loved theatre, and encouraged the mockery of an older generation’s puritanism as well as the shocking portrayal of an immoral high society. You don’t see as many plays from this period as you do from the Elizabethan but The Beaux’ Stratagem pops up every so often, as does The Country Wife, which for centuries was regarded as the filthiest play ever written.
Today’s theatres have reopened after a period of closure, so you can see why it might have seemed like a good idea to do a pastiche of a restoration comedy, and in doing so, look at today’s immorality, hypocrisy, intergenerational conflicts. However, it soon becomes clear that there aren’t enough sins of the flesh to put on those bones of a 17th century comedy. Firstly, our theatres have only been closed a couple of years, and, secondly, there’s been no major generational clash over matters of morality since the 1970s. The ‘decadence’ of casual sex and drug use has been around for a long time, so we’re hardly shocked by it.
The play admits this and adopts a more nuanced position as it goes on, but the softer the punches, the more power it loses despite the sharpness and pace of Rachel O’Riordan’s direction.
The big issues of the day, and ones that do to an extent divide generations, like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo or attitudes to trans women are pretty much ignored. Here the target is social media which is a low hanging fruit on a well-trodden path.
The set, designed by Good Teeth, tells us straight away that this is going to be more like panto fun than penetrating satire. There are painted flat clouds filling the top half of the high proscenium opening and various curtains provide the background. Quite often a couple of pieces of furniture set the scene. Now, this may have been the style of late 17th century theatre, but it also says we’re in cartoon land. As do the outlandish but hilarious costumes by Kinnetia Isidore.
Restoration Comedy was also known as the Comedy of Manners. Some of the dialogue might remind you of the Importance of Being Earnest or an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel even though both of those examples are more recent than Restoration Comedy. And of course, hearing the restrained language of the past combined with modern day swearing and references to targeting and the like is amusing.
The characters are given names that tell us about their roles within the story such as Phoebe Virtue, Freddy Peripheral and Lady Susan Climber. This seems to tell us not to expect any depth to them. So it is actually a pleasure to find that while there may be caricatures, they’re well drawn and what they say is funny.
The actors are able to make a meal of their roles. They’re all good, but I’ll pick out a few. Rachael Stirling as Lady Susan climber, a vicious, self centred, (well, they’re nearly all self centred) reality show celebrity with a smile thaty could charm a traffic warden and a cutting tongue that could open a can. Richard Goulding as Matt Eaton, a David Cameron look-alike politician, whose slimy salesman style epitomises all we hate about today’s self serving liars. He gets a laugh every time he opens his mealy mouth.
I’ll also mention the two young people barely out of stage school: Cecilia Appiah as Phoebe Virtue, a moral young woman from the north who goes to rescue her brother Jack, played by Matthew Broome, from the immorality of London. Once in London after a short time disguised as a man and what Restoration Comedy or panto would be complete without some crossdressing. She gets sucked into the London life.
The main plot concerns Lady Susan Climber trying to make a comeback, after some faux pas has caused her to be cancelled, by employing a social media consultant. The latter turns out secretly to want to destroy her, for reasons which become apparent, but seem, when we find out, somewhat feeble. Even the would-be explosive revelation of how she proposes to carry out the destruction turns out to be a damp squib.
There are many other plots concerning mistaken identity and surprising parentage. But the play comes to a conclusion that is liberal rather than libertarian in a way that a restoration comedy definitely wouldn’t be. The promsed Rottweiler turns out to be toothless.
So, yes, it’s inconsequential, but as I may have already mentioned, it is fun with many laugh-out-loud moments.
Scandaltown is running at the Lyric in Hammersmith until 14 May 2022. Tickets from lyric.co.uk/shows
Kate Mosse’s first play provides a dramatic opening to new Chichester season
The opening of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season could not be more dramatic. I’ve rarely felt such goosebumps as when the lights went up on The Taxidermist’s Daughter began: an initial jump at the loud discordant sound and disturbing lighting, churchgoers frightened by hanging dead crows, a chilling recitation of Who Killed Cock Robin.
This play has Chichester running in its veins. It is written by Chichester resident and Festival Theatre stalwart Kate Mosse, and set in nearby Fishbourne. I don’t know how much of the credit goes to Kate Mosse and how much to director Roisin McBrinn, but this is a play designed for the Festival Theatre space and the production works perfectly there.
Unfortunately, the gothic horror story doesn’t quite live up to the production. The evocation of a bygone time and place, and the sense of the past contained in the present are excellent. However, Kate Mosse has made the decision to turn her original mystery story into a revenge play while retaining a question mark over the whys and wherefores of what’s going on. The belated explanation means that I for one found it hard to understand or sympathise with the revenge that a mystery woman is carrying out.
The play lacks the tension of the best thrillers: the killing spree doesn’t even begin until the end of act one. And the mystery doesn’t grip enough to justify the delay, despite raising many questions: who are the women who have escaped from the local asylum, who has hung dead crows in the church, what happened all those years ago, why are people being killed, are these connected? Spoiler alert- yes they are!
Connie Gifford can’t remember the details of a traumatic event in her childhood. She is trying to continue her drunken father’s tottering taxidermy business and is troubled by both the past and present. Daisy Prosper conveys well her sweet disposition and vulnerability.
We eventually learn that a group of leading men from the community committed crimes and, because of their position in society and because the crimes were against women, they have got away with it. ‘The men charged to protect us are the ones we must fear the most.’
The message is perennial. Inevitably we will think that not enough has changed a hundred years on, when powerful men like Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein get away with crimes against women and girls for years. But, for audiences of revenge fiction, taking the law into one’s own hands is a cathartic response to the failures of the system.
The stars of the show are the creative team
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not as spooky as The Woman In Black nor as bloody and grand guignol as the recent production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which starred Aidan Turner. Nevertheless, it does a decent job in both those genres.
In this, the play is helped enormously by the creative team, who are the real stars of the show. Sinead Diskin’s frightening music and sound and the stark, flashing lighting designed by Prema Mehta. Paul Wills’ set design keeps the stage bare. Sinister black-and-white projections proliferate- on the back wall, the floor and on hanging screens. These often take the form of extraordinary videos by Andrzej Goulding, which show us fragments of faces, dark foliage, water- oh yes, the water. I’ve seen a lot of water on this stage over the years but this projection of splashing water onto the floor was more convincing than any real water I’ve seen.
And water is significant because Fishbourne is marshland and it’s 1912, the year of the great flood, and the action takes place as the deluge begins. So the mystery woman may be seen as washing out evil from the community.
The production uses every square inch of the stage. There are entrances from all directions, and pieces of set- often stuffed birds in display cabinets- rise from a multitude of holes in the floor. It does what theatre does best: it inspires the imagination. In fact, the scariest moment is probably when we finally see the crime, and that’s because we don’t actually see it, but are given all the information we need to imagine it.
Many of the characters are sketched rather than detailed portraits. Pearl Chandra as the mystery murderer is passionate and energetic without going over the top. Forbes Masson does well as Connie’s father Crowley Gifford, a man plagued with guilt about what happened in his past, who is now barely holding himself together.
We also meet a nice man: Harry, a gentle young artist, played by Taheen Modak. Although the play focuses on the position of women in early 20th ventury society, men too had to know their place, so it’s good to see at least one young man whois nice and gentle and breaks free from the chains of a professional career to become an artist. It’s not overtly stated in the play but it’s hard not to remember that this young man is only a couple of years away from being sent to the slaughter of the first world war, a victim of powerful old men, in a war that will change the village more than the flood.
But maybe that’s putting too much weight on what is in the end an enjoyable gothic horror story in a glorious production.
Shobna Gulati, Ian Kelsey and Christina Bianco delight in Jim Cartwright’s classic comedy
Touring productions are the Cinderella of British theatre. Given the choice, actors will often prefer to work in one place, preferably London. So, when I saw that two former soap actors and a YouTube sensation were heading the cast of the new touring production of The Rise And Fall of Little Voice, I feared the worst. How wrong I was.
Jim Cartwright’s play about an introverted young woman mourning her father and badly treated by her mother, who finds escape in the music of classic female singers, has been revived many times. The challenge for all the actors in this show is that there has also been a film version that is imprinted on most of our brains. Brenda Blethyn as the horrendous mother Mari Hoff, Michael Caine as the smooth talking showbiz manager Ray Say, and of course Jane Horrocks as LV, or Little Voice. So the cast have to work very hard to make you forget those definitive performances. None more so than the person playing LV. In some ways, the challenge is not to mess it up.
With the part of Mari, Jim Cartwright created one of theatre’s great monsters: a selfish woman with no redeeming features whose only concern is her own love life, and who abuses not only her daughter but the English language. Shobna Gulati grabs the part with both hands and extracts every ounce of comedy out of it. She relishes the outrageous puns (“I did it my Ray’) and dishes out malapropisms with a perfect deadpan delivery. When criticising LV for her lack of politeness, ‘She can’t even be swivel’ or, referring to her age, ‘at my time of strife’. Visually, her bosoms are barely contained by her garish outfits, and she totters precariously in tight skirts and high heels. In fact, the dresses and makeup are so over the top that many drag acts would find it hard to compete. Her physical comedy is a joy, especially when she’s playing being drunk. She literally throws herself into the role and gives it, as her character would say, one hundred pesetas. I loved the moment when she pulled Ray onto the sofa, her legs flailing in the air.
Ian Kelsey gives us just the right mix of sleaziness and desperation. I last saw him thirty years ago as Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s still offering roguish allure but, here, as Ray attempts to exploit LV, he adds an underlying nastiness. Mr Kelsey conveys perfectly the ageing charm and sense of failure that make his character comically pathetic.
Christina Bianco creates a good impression
I’d never heard of Christina Bianco until now, which is clearly my bad since she has 123,000 followers on YouTube and her impressions of singers have been viewed over 25 million times. So, how well can she sing? We get glimpses as the first act progresses, then there are two nightclub performances, which LV is pushed into making. Not only does she sing beautifully but her impressions of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and many more are spot on. After all these years, very few in the audience will be taken by surprise when, after all the silence and whispers, LV reveals her diva singing voice, but the tingle down the back of the neck that Ms Bianco creates is still powerful enough to merit a round of appreciative applause.
If you want a taste of how good Christina Bianco is at impressions of singers, watch her on YouTube singing Let It Go (there’s a choice but I’d recommend the video from a year ago). As for her Lancashire accent, admittedly she’s an impressionist, but it’s spot on. You would never know she’s from New York.
She is uncannily like Jane Horrocks but it would be unfair to dismiss her performance as an impression because there is little leeway for playing the role differently. Jim Cartwright wrote the part of LV for Jane Horrocks and she played it both in its National Theatre premiere and on film, so that is how the part is meant to be played. The important point is, Christina Bianco is entirely convincing as someone traumatised by grief and parental abuse, who continues to be bullied until she finds her own voice.
Akshay Gulati is believable as the shy would-be boyfriend of LV and William Ilkley makes a cringe-worthy Mr Boo, the club owner and MC.
Fiona Mulvaney is excellent as Mari’s friend Sadie. I can’t help feeling the part of a stooge who says very little other than ‘Okay’ is reminiscent of the kind of one-dimensional character you’d find in an old fashioned sitcom. That’s just one of the ways this play is now showing its age. Also, this mainly pacey play seemed to me to be drawn out at the end.
The set designed by Sara Perks takes the form of a two up-two down house with the front and part of the roof torn off, as if giving us an unauthorised glimpse into what would normally go on behind closed doors. It’s crowded with furniture and other cheap objects, adding to a strong sense of the tastelessness of Mari’s tawdriness, and the claustrophobia of working class life.
Bronagh Lagan is the director responsible for a production that gives laughter, pathos and joy in equal measures.
[Edited 2 April 2022: extended description of Shobna Gulati’s performance.]
Fiennes shines in David Hare’s play about a strong man
George Bernard Shaw said in his play Man And Superman: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’
In Robert Moses, we have the quintessential ‘unreasonable man’. David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy begins in the 1920s when we meet Moses, an authoritarian figure with a vision of how New York State should develop. And, as he said himself, ‘when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.’ Hack he did, running his straight roads through whatever got in the way.
The play is divided into two parts. In the first, we see the appeal of the strong man. He won’t compromise. He gets things done. He is non-partisan, he uses the law. We admire the way he won’t kowtow to politicians or rich elites. Almost by the sheer driving force of his personality, he gets his roads built: long straight roads to carry working class people (what we in the UK call the middle class), newly liberated by cars, to the countryside. He builds parks and pools and beaches for them to enjoy in their newfound leisure time. In many ways, he’s a hero.
In the second act, at the end of his career, we are presented with the case against his single-minded, big project approach to planning.
Ralph Fiennes is a perfect choice as the bombastic, heartless Moses. It is a privilege to watch him perform, as he strides across the floor and often planting himself downstage, isolated from the rest of the cast, eyes staring, speaking in that slightly English way that many American patricians had last century, in his case, stemming from his time at Oxford University. However, he is a one-dimensional character. We never really understand what makes him tick, he never expresses any doubts, any warmth or indeed any feelings.
In some ways, Straight Line Crazy is a history of the twentieth century. The love affair with strong men: the Picasso type of artist or the Mussolini style of politician (who supposedly ‘made the trains run on time’), followed by a reaction in favour of co-operation and collaboration. More recently, there’s been a return of interest in so-called strong leaders who get things done, so the play is timely.
If you’re unfamiliar with New York State, you may find it hard to follow what’s going on. In the first act, Robert Moses, a public official who dominated urban planning from the 1920s to the sixties, is pursuing his first great project: to open up the peninsula of Long Island that juts out to the east of New York City and houses Brooklyn and Queens at its beginning and the Hamptons at the other end- home to some of the richest people in America. He wanted to create not only roads but a public beach.
In the second act, he meets his nemesis when, at the end of his career, he seeks to extend Fifth Avenue through one of the city’s most beloved areas: Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
This first act spends a lot of time establishing Moses’ commanding personality, with some good dialogue but not a lot happening. Some of the best moments come when Moses interacts with Al Smith, the New York State governor from a poor community and a wily politician who smoothed the way for Moses’ early projects. The ever reliable Danny Webb gives Smith a warmth that enables you to see why he was so popular and persuasive.
Like others who know their own mind and are blinkered to other possibilities, Bob Moses can be a monster. From the start, we get hints that there is a dark side to his character. The people around him work for him, not with him. An employee alters a road design on the instruction of Governor Smith. Moses will have none of it. They are not there to have ideas, simply to carry out his vision.
Act Two is the case against Moses. Much more of his unsavoury side is revealed. He doesn’t change, but by the 1950s the world has. People power is growing. Jane Jacobs declares that cities are about people and communities, talks about the tyranny of the motor car, and has a vision of revived (or gentrified, we might say) urban areas. The writing is on the wall for Moses but he still refuses to consult or compromise.
Bob Crowley’s thrusting set
It looks like David Hare is setting up a battle between Moses and Jacobs, but a clash between two strong leaders would have been counter to the theme of act two. So, although we meet Jacobs, acted with authority and humour by Helen Schlesinger, the play becomes a conflict between Moses and the people (significantly they’re represented by women), a battle between two ages. Speaking for the community is Shirley Hayes, forcefully played by Alana Maria.
So the rise and fall of Moses is interesting but the fundamental problem with the play is that Moses doesn’t change, except to get older. It is fascinating to see Ralph Fiennes change physically from the upright, vigorous young man to the slightly stooped and more ponderous old man. There is none of the guilt and fear that adds depth to the single-mindedness of Solness, the character Mr Fiennes played in Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the Old Vic in 2016 in an adaptation by David Hare.
There are similarities between the two plays but I’m afraid any comparison would be to the detriment of Straight Line Crazy. Unlike Solness, Moses’ downfall doesn’t come from fear or love or other ‘weakness’, but from a much more mundane cause: changing times and his refusal to change. However, by then, he had achieved so much of his vision, his place in history was assured, so it’s hard to have much sympathy.
The play leaves us pondering about strong leadership and people power, asking ourselves which in the end was more beneficial and which more damaging to the city.
Bob Crowley’s set underlines the debate by using a flat runway that goes from the back of the stage and thrusts out into the audience, like one of Moses’ straight roads. Whenever we meet the protesting community, a wall is flown in that symbolically cuts right through the middle of it, at the same time creating a less thrilling but more intimate space.
Siobhan Cullen and Samuel Barnett play Moses’ two assistants, the former extrovert and good humoured, the other more shy and self deprecating, but both, in their defence of him, giving us an insight into why charismatic leaders attract a following. The younger and less compliant generation is represented in the second act by a new employee, played with passion by Alisha Bailey.
Nicholas Hytner directs proceedings, as he seems to do most productions at The Bridge (we can look forward to him directing The Southbury Child in the summer, and John Gabriel Borkman in the autumn). It’s not only his choice of plays that make him missed at the National Theatre where he was once Artistic Director. His direction is unobtrusive and fuss-free: he puts the script and the actors centre stage. Not for him, distracting gimmicks or clutter; and he has the confidence of a modern strong man who doesn’t need the production to be about him.
Let me make clear from the start the ‘cock’ of the title does not refer to a penis, although there are quite a few references to penises in the play. So, no jokes about limp performances (there weren’t any), standing up at the end (they did) or Mike Bartlett’s Cock not being very long (it’s only 105 minutes).
The title alludes to a cock fight, because it’s about a love triangle in which two people are rivals for a third person’s love and he struggles to choose between them. It’s a play about an ostensibly gay couple one of whom finds himself attracted to a woman, and, although interesting questions are asked about how we define people’s sexuality, it’s primarily a comedy.
And since you ask, although sex is referred to regularly throughout the play, and it is quite erotic at times, the actors keep their clothes on and use stylised movements to indicate physical activity. I’m pretty sure no intimacy advisor was needed.
There are two star names in this play. So, let me start with their performances, and say that both earn their place on the stage, not because they’re celebrities but because they’re damn good actors.
Taron Egerton is best known for his performances in the films Rocketman and Kingsman, but he is RADA trained and has appeared at the National Theatre. Here he is the unnamed M (for Man, get it?). He gives a nuanced performance as what appears to be the dominant lover in a long term relationship. He plays to perfection this swaggering character who hides, in a very masculine way, his need for love. Mr Egerton has a wonderful ability to switch from a jaw jutting bully to soft and red-eyed with tears, and he delivers lines of waspish humour with a lashing tongue.
Jonathan Bailey is one of the many ridiculously attractive people from Bridgerton and destined to become the central character in the second series. He too has a good track record in theatre, including an Olivier Award. He plays M’s partner, the only character given a name, not that ‘John’ is much of an ID. His character is painfully indecisive. Mr Bailey provides many enjoyable moments of comedy, as he grimaces with his face and contorts his body in a child-like way, whilst avoiding making his mind up. If anything, there is just a little too much goofiness. We know he is suffering because there are moments outside of the action when he is alone and bathed in harsh light screaming silently, but in his interaction with the other characters, he doesn’t show quite enough of this angst.
Both are physically right for the parts, Mr Bailey thin and gangly, Mr Egerton stocky and muscular. Not quite Laurel and Hardy, but it would hard to imagine either playing the other role.
An impressive production
What you notice when you enter the auditorium is Merle Hensel’s impressive set. It’s chrome or some similar polished metal curved around the sides and back of the stage. There’s no escaping it. There are no distracting props and the one way in and out is a concealed revolving door. All that happens is reflected back on itself, conveying the way these characters are trapped in their relationships and unable to see beyond them. There are some hanging fluorescent strips which come down from time to time and these along with other lighting changes from dark to brilliantly bright, orchestrated by Paule Constable, match and enhance the mood changes.
First, we meet M and John. They’re relaxed in each other’s company. There’s a lot of affection. There’s also a lot of sniping and bickering, but anyone who’s been in a long term relationship will recognise how natural this is, because it is easy to get into negative ways of behaving.
However, there is a problem with this relationship. The cliché of a seven year itch perhaps. John has had sex with someone else. Shockingly for both of them, given that M is gay and until now John has thought of himself as gay, the other person is a woman. M’s dominating character and the way he resorts to unpleasantness hint at why John might have been tempted to stray. It has to be said that, while the insults may hurt John, they are funny for us to hear, for example when he launches into a string of offensive terms for someone who is attracted to women.
In the second act, we see how this other relationship began and developed. Jade Anouka (you may recognise her from His Dark Materials) is excellent as the woman with whom John has an affair and falls in love. Her character is called W (for woman). There isn’t so much potential for comedy in this part, but Ms Anouka exudes the love and need for love of her character. John shows nervousness but clear attraction, and there’s a gentleness and respect between them that wasn’t apparent in John’s relationship with M. But of course he is still attracted to M, and Mr Bailey is at his comic best when he is confused about what he wants, beyond wanting to please everybody. It is his indecisiveness that enables his lovers to mould him into what they need.
Stylised movement is moving
This is a good point to mention the way they first make love. As I said earlier, there is next to no physical intimacy beyond a kiss or a hug. They keep their clothes on. You’ll also remember I said the set is bare of any props. Throughout the play, body movement expresses thoughts and feelings without resorting to obvious mime. So much of the physical action is left to your imagination. For example, a whole meal is served in the third act without any sign of a table a bowl or cutlery.
Going back to this first encounter between John and W, they indicate through the dialogue what they are doing, while staying physically separate on stage. She wants to see his naked body. He moves his hands to indicate the shedding of clothes without literally miming taking off each item. Similarly, they describe him exploring her vagina but what we see, from memory, is him touching his leg and her using her body to express the excitement she is feeling inside. This exploration of each other’s bodies is highly erotic, proving perhaps that the best sex is in the brain. I congratulate director Marianne Elliott is for utilising this remarkably effective element, and the movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster for making it work so well.
This and the set and the lighting could only happen in a theatre and all contribute to a complete experience that enhances what’s said. Talking of which, Mike Bartlett has an excellent ear for dialogue- just the exchanges you would expect both from a long term relationship and a first meeting.
If I have a criticism of the production, it’s that it looks too good. It’s so stylish with its cold encompassing metal and its stylised movement that it takes away some of the raw feeling from these relationships.
The third act is the cock fight. M invites W to join him and John for dinner. It feels contrived but gives us the showdown we want. M brings along his father for good measure. He’s called F (of course) and is played by Phil Daniels, in a performance that shows a parent’s blinkered affection – he wants his son to be happy- and gives us insight into the limitations of both liberal tolerance and a view that defines people by their sexuality and gender.
M and W each think John has chosen them and is going to take the opportunity to reject the other. As the evening progresses, there’s verbal sparring, and increasingly desperate emotion as it becomes clear how much each of them needs John. He meanwhile continues to be pulled one way and another both by his feelings and by what box he should tick, with the possibility that it’s all ‘cock’, as in cock and bull.
Cock is funny a lot of the time, it lectures some of the time, and it’s not as deep as I suspect it thinks it is, but as a look at the way hearts break the rules set by our brains, it’s full of insight, especially in the hands of its starry cast.
Cock is running at the Ambassadors Theatre in London until 4 June 2022
Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope light up this fascinating play
The Collaboration at The Young Vic is a special occasion. The two stars are Paul Bettany – Vision no less from the Marvel Universe, and the very unpleasant Duke of Argyll in A Very British Scandal – and Hollywood rising star Jeremy Pope.
The play is written by Anthony MacCarten, best known for his screenplays The Theory Of Everything, The Two Popes and Bohemian Rhapsody.
It’s about two of the great American artists of the late 20th century- Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat– who worked together on a number of paintings. As you enter the Young Vic, you see scattered examples of their work scattered throughout the building.
When you walk into the auditorium, before the play even begins, there are flashing lights and the loud beat of a DJ – Xana – live mixing music and videos from 1980s New York project onto the set. There’s more. The director is Kwame Kwei-Armah, your actual artistic director of the Young Vic. And for good measure, the set is designed by Anna Fleischle, who triumphed just last week with The Forest at Hampstead Theatre, one of a long line of amazing productions, and now conjures up the two artists’ studios, both versions of the same white-painted brick walls, skylights and paint splattered floor, but each quite different in the details that represent the artists’ very different personalities. It is, as I said, an occasion.
In real life, when Warhol and Basquiat collaborated, the critics’ response was lukewarm, so was this collaboration of theatrical talent a similar damp squib? Quite the opposite. It’s an explosion of heat and light.
You can see why a play about this famous collaboration seemed like a good idea. You couldn’t get more different people. Warhol the established king of Pop Art, and Basquiat the young pretender whose neo-expressionist work went from street art to multi-million dollar sales at auction. Warhol old and in decline, Basquiat young and on the rise. Warhol the reserved germophobe who hid his heart, Basquiat, messy, prolific, spontaneous and wearing his heart on his sleeve.
They are The Odd Couple, as portrayed in the film of that name, or they could be a comedy duo like Morecambe and Wise, one that depends on a straight man and an anarchist. The conflict is the grit that creates this pearl of a story.
And what a great story. There are comparisons to be made with John Logan’s superb play Red which also features conversations about art, in that case between Mark Rothko and his young, critical assistant. Here, though, the two protagonists are shown as equals. Initially, they hate each other’s work. “So ugly’ says Warhol. ‘Old hat’ says Basquiat. So not exactly Elton John and Dua Lipa.
Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit their roles
Then they meet and in the first act they explore one another’s ideas of art. Warhol sees himself as taking out the feeling by repetitive reproduction so that surface becomes all that matters, deliberately turning art into a commodity. ‘Trash. Trash. But we have to celebrate something’ says Warhol, (he might possibly have said that in the second act, I’m not sure). Basquiat passionately believes that art means something and can be an instrument for change. ‘Art disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed’ he says. In this play of natural conversation, even the aphorisms sound spontaneous. There are times in the first act when you may wonder, interesting and enjoyable as the conversation is, whether it’s getting anywhere.
The second act dispels all doubt. It takes place when they have been working together for a couple of years, and starts with a splendid moment when Warhol unhappy with the standard of cleaning in Basquiat’s studio starts vacuuming. The two have got to know one another well and, while they remain very different artists, they have come to feel a kind of love for each other. And it’s heartwarming in this current era of echo chambers and cancel culture, to see two people with very different views, not shutting each other out, but listening, and talking, and eventually respecting one another.
The intimacy the artists now have means that we find out a lot more about their inner selves: Warhol opens up emotionally in ways you would never have imagined, and we learn about Basquiat’s demons too. In some ways, the collaboration has reinvigorated Warhol. There’s a wonderful moment in the first act when he first picks up a brush for the first time in 25 years and seems to marvel at its feel in his hand. He has become a kind of father figure to Basquiat who seems to be on a downward spiral of paranoia and drug addiction.
This all works so well, partly because of the strength of the dialogue, partly because of the way director Kwame Kwei-Armah drives the play towards a dramatic climax. Most of all it’s because of the acting. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit the roles of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr Bettany looks the part with his gangly body, his nervous tics and his pale skin and white wig. When he talks with Warhol’s superficial ‘gosh, gee’ way of speaking, his controlled body language conveys that this is a way of hiding his true self, just as he hides behind a camera.
Mr Pope with hair like a crown of thorns is all bouncy and Tigger-like then suddenly switches to anger, both moods concealing a pain that can be seen in the way he physically slumps or has a watery look in his eyes.
These two outstanding performances turn this theatrical collaboration into a momentous occasion.
The Collaboration can be seen at the Young Vic until 2 April 2022.
Toby Stephens and Paul McGann share the honours as a man on the edge
French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become familiar to British audiences thanks to plays like The Truth, The Lie, The Height Of The Storm and the trilogy of The Mother, The Father and The Son. His new play The Forest is the first to receive its world premiere in the UK, and comes on the back of the award-winning film of The Father with Anthony Hopkins.
So you probably know Florian Zeller’s approach to playwriting. It started as an innovative way of getting inside people’s minds. In The Father, it was a brain confused by dementia, in The Mother, a mid life crisis, in The Son a depressed teenager. He achieves this by having the characters act out their lies, self deception, false memories, fears and desires, often repeating scenes with variations of dialogue or even characters, and none of it is necessarily in a linear narrative. So it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout his plays, we are asking ourselves What is the truth? What actually happened? For which there may or may not be an answer.
As time has gone on, what was surprising and original has become a signature style. It may even be in danger of becoming a cliché- but not yet! Once again, Zeller brings alive a potentially mundane story.
In The Forest, the subject is a married hospital consultant who has been having an affair with a younger woman. As she demands that he legitimises their relationship, he is overtaken by fear about what that would do to his marriage and career (the two of which are tied together, at least in his head), not to mention guilt at betraying his wife.
From the start, we are in familiar Zeller territory. We are plunged into a confusing jigsaw of scenes in which we see the adulterer’s changing memories, fantasies and fears. The title refers to a story about a prince out hunting, who in pursuit of a stag that ultimately disappears, becomes lost in a forest.
Each of the three acts (there’s no interval by the way) begins with the same or at least a similar scene. The first scene sees Pierre, referred to in the cast of characters as Man 1, and played byToby Stephens, arriving home. His wife is clearly agitated. Their daughter’s long term boyfriend has been having an affair. Pierre talks to the girl about his indiscretion. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’ll work itself out’ he says. Pierre uses a conversation with the daughter to talk about his thoughts about a man having affair. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks because on the second occasion, the daughter isn’t there and he talks directly to his wife. This time he’s talking about their child’s reaction, indicating that he is concerned about his wife’s reaction to his own affair. The third time, the daughter barely gets a mention but the room has filled with flowers.
The no-strings affair is now tied up with his marriage and career
Then there’s scene two. A middle-aged man, referred to as Man 2 and played by Paul McGann, is in bed with a young woman. We’re not in doubt for very long that this is also Pierre. I’m guessing that, in his mind, Pierre has separated his affair from the rest of his life. In other words, he becomes a different person, a kind of alter ego. Before long, we are seeing the same or a similar scene but with Toby Stephens, just as Man 2 is Pierre in the third iteration of the opening scene. This indicates I think that the once no-strings affair is now tied up with this marriage and career.
Toby Stephens is brilliant as Man 1. His ready smile becomes a nervous grin. He leans back which at first seems relaxed but eventually looks like he’s reeling from blows. Paul McGann holds his own as Man2, showing a brittle harshness that soon collapses into panic.
Pierre’s character is complex and rounded. The other characters less so, perhaps because they’re part of his memory and imagination.
The treatment of the Girlfriend in the first bedroom scene is a case in point. When she gets out of bed and you see her partly naked before she puts on a shirt. Perfectly normal in real life of course but these days, you rarely see gratuitous nudity on stage, so we must assume there is a good reason for this. Actually, in the script, she is fully naked for the whole scene. I take it that this underlines that Pierre saw her as no more than someone he has sex with. She’s only given a name later as he starts to take her threat more seriously. Excellent as Angel Coulby’s acting is, there is little personality for her to get her teeth into.
Gina McKee makes the most of her limited role
Despite the limitations of the script, the glorious Gina McKee shows fine acting skill in managing to suggest there’s a lot going on the Wife’s head. Through a combination of strangled speech and sideways glances, she conveys a lack of passion that might have been a reason why Pierre strayed, insecurity, and the possibility that she suspects something.
Anna Fleischle‘s set is in three parts: a living room, a bedroom above the living room, and an office to the side. Each setting is invisible until the lights come up on it. The first two are built with tremendous attention to detail, and this naturalistic setting helps suggest that all that is going on in Pierre’s brain is happening while he continues to live out an everyday life.
The office is the exception. It’s pretty bare and seems to be where Pierre’s conversations with his conscience take place, or possibly interrogations by the police. He is being held in the room by a white faced man in black, chillingly played by Finbar Lynch. He looks like a character from an early horror film and wheedles Pierre with questions as he alternates between a good cop and bad cop style from a police procedural. The biggest question being ‘What happened?’
So what did happen? How did the affair end? What was the fate of the Girlfriend? Well, we can never be quite certain. There are some dramatic and shocking moments which turn this play into almost a thriller as well as a who-dun-it. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated for the pace, and imbuing all that goes on with an almost Hitchcockian suspense, helped by Isobel Waller-Bridge‘s edgy sound design.
By the end, we have been given some explanations (or are they?). The problem for this and other Zeller plays is that the truth, if and when it’s discovered, may not be as interesting or exciting as the process that led to the revelation.
The Forest continues at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March 2022
Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producer