Wednesday, March 19, 2014

100 x 2

That's an odd title isn't it?  But it ties in with the revival of OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR at Stratford East, the theatre where this groundbreaking show was born.

In case you haven't noticed, this year is the Centenary of the start of World War I but at Stratford East they are also celebrating the Centenary of the birth of the theatre's unique former artistic director Joan Littlewood.  Ironically, Littlewood came close to not even doing the show in 1963.

Her partner Gerry Raffles heard Charles Chilton's radio programme "The Long, Long Road" in 1962 which interspersed soldier's reminiscences with the songs they sang among themselves.  Raffles told Littlewood about it and suggested it might make a good show for her company Theatre Workshop but she turned the idea down as she was an avowed pacifist.  Undeterred, Raffles invited Chilton to the theatre and while going through the songs, Littlewood began to see the potential in making a show that was a critique of the war and the warmongers but to also celebrate the lives of the ordinary people swept up in their power-games.  Her idea to present the company as a Pierrot troupe gave the show a suitably Brechtian twist and featured such characterful actors as Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Larry Dann and Fanny Carby.  The show was a huge popular success and moved on to both the West End and Broadway.  Richard Attenborough then went on to make a leaden, joyless screen version in 1969.

I have seen two revivals of the show and was looking forward to seeing this one on the stage where it was created.

There are several scenes in the show that always start the silent waterworks and again this production hit those moments with a quiet power - the Christmas Eve, 1914 scene on the western front when the English and German soldiers stop fighting and meet each other in no man's land to share makeshift Christmas presents always sets me off and the powerful scene of the French soldiers baa-ing their way towards the guns, literally 'lambs to the slaughter' is still unsettling.  The production uses the original trops of slides of contemporary photographs and a moving display that rolls out the awful casualty totals for the battles but the micro-sign that is in the current production uses too large text which makes it difficult to follow what is being scrolled.

What remains the success of the show is the use of the contemporary tunes as well as the snatches of song that the soldiers would sing while marching or in the trenches which constantly reach down the years and jolt you with their jaundiced and savagely ironical lyrics.  The chilling detachment of their words curdle the pretty melodies that they appropriated and are put across by the present company with both gusto and despair.

Sadly for me the show is now hampered by the too-frequent scenes where those who hold the strings - the Generals, the politicians, the businessmen - disrupt the more interesting ones with the soldiers.  What makes it all the more frustrating is that these are the real legacy of the Littlewood agit-prop style but now they are too blatant, too obvious and ultimately too damn long.  At the start of the second act, there is an interminable scene between American, English, German, French and Dutch businessman comparing the fortunes they have made off their munition-trading while on a Grouse shoot (geddit?).  It's so heavy-handed and obvious that it outstays it's welcome very quickly.  You want to shout at the stage "Yes we get it!!"  A re-write of these scenes could easily be done to make these scenes more effective for a modern audience but I'm guessing the show is frozen in deference to Littlewood's wishes.

The show seemed to take an awful long time to get going - namely down to the interminable "War Game" scenes setting out how the war started but start it did with the first real appearance of Caroline Quentin as the Music Hall star singing the recruitment song "I'll Make A Man Of You".  She shook the production awake by the scruff of the neck with her galvanising rendition and her two other major scenes were very effective - speed-singing "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts" and also as Mrs. Pankhurst being hectored and pelted as she tries to deliver a pacifist speech to an angry street crowd.  It's actually refreshing that Littlewood included this scene as it showed how most of the general public refused to believe there could be any other way forward apart from through killing.

Among a generally good cast, Ian Bartholomew was particularly fine as General Haig, Shaun Prendergast had a good Max Miller-like quality as the MC of the evening and I liked the contributions of Oliver J. Hembrough, who I remembered as the put-upon husband Edgar in last year's TITANIC.  Terry Johnson has directed the show with a sure but possibly a too-reverential hand and I liked the Lez Brotherston's stage design which copied the theatre's proscenium arch and stage boxes in metal scaffolding and filigree.

Constant Reader, as we are on the subject of revisiting shows, I went to see Richard Eyre's pressure-cooker production of GHOSTS again which has now transferred from the Almeida to the Trafalgar Studios (my blog from the original Almeida production is here) and I am happy (?) to report that it is still holds you in a vice-like grip of increasing despair and again I found myself breathless at the power and intensity of Lesley Manville as Mrs. Alving.

It was a pleasure to see her performance again and to see how she subtly shades the reactions and actions of her character and how ultimately she descends into her own living Hell.  She is magnificent and it's amazing she has kept up this remarkable performance with all that is asked of her during the course of it's 90 minutes when she is rarely offstage.

Run to see GHOSTS before it closes on March 23nd, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR ended it's run on the 15th.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Interpreting Shakespeare

How to interpret a Shakespearean character?  I have had two opportunities to find out recently...

For the second time in as many years, there is a production that has been heavily anticipated so much you can feel the cognoscenti holding their breath.  Last year it was the combination of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in OTHELLO and now this year we have Simon Russell Beale as KING LEAR, directed by long-time collaborator Sam Mendes.

I felt OTHELLO was less than was expected and at times KING LEAR was a bit disappointing too but on the whole it fulfilled the expectation raised.  It certainly was a huge production which opens with a huge flaming sun being slowly eclipsed and then gives us big open spaces on the Olivier stage, big statues, a big cast, torture by water-boarding - and even a big dead stag - but at times I yearned for the claustrophobic Cottesloe production from 1997 which was directed by Richard Eyre with a landmark performance by Ian Holm.
Mendes has set his production in a 20th Century totalitarian state that is ruled over by the hunched and shaven-headed Lear who calls a summit conference to ask his three daughters the famous question of which one of them loves him the most.
Interestingly this was the first production I have seen where the dual plot device was really apparent to me.  Lear isn't the only one who fatally makes a wrong decision regarding his children, Gloucester also chooses to believe his bastard son Edmund's lie that his legal son Edgar is plotting to kill him, his eager belief in the lie echoes Lear's banishing of his favourite daughter Cordelia for her perceived lack of love for him.  Both actions are catastrophic but, as I said this is the first production where I noticed the obvious parallel lines of the plot.
I think this is mostly down to the exceptional performance of Stephen Boxer as Gloucester, a career politician who realises too late, and at a terrible cost, his miscalculation.  The performances of Sam Troughton as the venal Edmund was very good, played like a faceless Special Advisor who seizes his chance in the power vacuum.  Troughton had good fun with his soliloquies where Edmund shares his delight in his machinations.  Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare suggests that the same actor would have played Iago in OTHELLO and I believe this to be the case as they both share a delight in their villany,  Sadly Tom Brooke's Edgar was a trifle anonymous, even with his old boy flapping about as 'Poor Tom'.

Stanley Townsend, not a performer I usually warm to, was excellent as Kent.  Gruff and burly and quick to anger, yet he could touch the heart especially with his dignified final lines "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no."

Adrian Scarborough was also very good as The Fool, becoming more and more despondent as his truisms fall more an more on deaf ears.  How do you solve a problem like the Fool?  He vanishes halfway through the play and there is a good reason put forward in the Ackroyd book that possibly the boy actor who played Cordelia also played The Fool which explains the character's disappearance as Cordelia comes back into the action. 
Mendes solves the problem the same way that Adrian Noble's 1982 production did, namely that during the trial scene Lear, in the depth of his derangement, kills the Fool in place of an imagined Goneril.  Here the violent act springs from nowhere and as such, was doubly shocking.

Sadly the daughters didn't do it for me at all.  Kate Fleetwood's Wallis Simpson lookalike Goneril seemed too under-charged while Anna Maxwell Martin was overly-screechy and too obvious as an over-sexed Regen.  Mendes has also chopped and changed the text in areas so in this production, the sisters die on stage: Maxwell Martin poisoned and dying huddled under a table while Fleetwood cuts her own throat.  It certainly moves the characters a bit more into the limelight but it all looks badly staged and not organic to the play's flow.
The good news was that I quite liked Olivia Vinall as Cordelia who showed a lot more presence than she did as Desdemona in last year's OTHELLO.
I have seen five Lears on stage and they have been inching up in ages: Michael Gambon (1983, aged 43), Richard Briars (1990, aged 56), Robert Stephens (1994, aged 63), Ian Holm (1997, aged 66) and Derek Jacobi (2010, aged 72).  Simon Russell Beale drops the scale back down as he is 53 but he gives a consummate performance, maybe just missing greatness.
Playing an obviously dictatorial Lear, Beale in the first scene gives a clue to his encroaching incapacity with a trembling hand that twitches behind him, and with each subsequent downturn in his fortunes the twitch becomes more pronounced.  Despite his fearful whispered "O let me not be mad" to the Fool, by the heath scene - oddly staged on a levitating ramp - he is deranged, even stripping down to a pair of baggy underpants in sympathy with the naked Poor Tom.
Beale appears in the Dover scene as an escapee from his hospital bed, wearing his hospital smock, the Fool's hat and a carrier bag of his meagre possessions.  The subsequent scene where he is reunited with Cordelia was also finely played as a man slowly recovering his memory of his daughter from a fit of anger.
The final scene was beautifully played and you could hear a pin drop when he said "Thou'lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never!" each repetition pitched differently.  I am not sure why on reflection I feel he missed greatness, maybe a feeling that he missed the pathos that Ian Holm and Derek Jacobi brought to the final moments.
With this production so fresh in my mind, it was fascinating to then see ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS at the new Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe's companion theatre.  Built to replicate a Jacobean indoor theatre, it's tiny auditorium would feel claustrophobic if you were seeing a production the length of KING LEAR but this show's running time of 80 minutes was fine.
In 1910 the great 19th Century actress Ellen Terry was 63 and after failing as an actor/manager of her own theatre, she decided to do lecture tours on Shakespeare, especially his women.  Eileen Atkins has adapted these latter ones into a one-woman show which has her become Terry to tell us her thoughts on Shakespeare, stories from her career playing his heroines and also perform speeches and scenes from them.  In 1989 Eileen Atkins adapted Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN into a one-woman play with much success and she has triumphed again with Ellen Terry.  I was transfixed by her.
As Ellen Terry she takes us back to when she played Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM aged 9 years old and how in the final scene one night, her bare toe was caught in the trap-door.  As she wailed and sobbed, the producer of the show ran on stage and freeing her whispered "Finish the show and I'll double your salary".  Needless to say the always-practical Terry finished the show,

Through her insights into the roles she played, Terry shares her unique standpoint as the person who had to bring those characters to life.  She also includes Rosalind which she never got to appear in due to the fact that Henry Irving would not let her play the role at the Lyceum as there was no good role for him!

Eileen Atkins said in an interview that she would not attempt to act the scenes in Terry's style: "She was extremely clever and passionate, but we all know that acting is subject to fashion. You’re in, then you’re out. It makes me sad that even some of Laurence Olivier’s performances look old-fashioned now. So I’m pretty well Eileen Atkins when it comes to the actual parts" - and how wonderful for that as it's when Atkins plays the scenes that the true magic happens.

With no props or costumes - or even lighting cues - she became Rosalind, Portia, Mistress Page, Beatrice, Viola, Juliet, Desdemona and Emilia as well as Othello, Cordelia as well as King Lear, and finally Ophelia.

Several times, this most under-rated and astonishing actress brought tears to my eyes.  Her Juliet, trembling and afraid of having to swallow the potion that will make her appear dead; her Emilia, righteous in her fury at Othello's killing of Desdemona; Portia's 'The quality of mercy' speech; Ophelia's mad scene, and most poignant of all, Cordelia and King Lear's reconciliation.  Coming so soon after seeing the full production along the river, I know which one I would kill to see again.
It was an evening that will stay with me for a long time, it was living proof of that alchemy that true acting genius can achieve.