Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The ORESTEIA - the daddy of them all...

This year has seen us visiting the Globe Theatre a stonking five times - last year I finally got to like the space after four visits - but here we were at our sixth and last visit this year to the main stage (we have a couple of productions booked for the indoor Playhouse later in the year) and we went out on a biggie... the daddy of them all, Aeschylus' THE ORESTEIA.

THE ORESTEIA is the only existing trilogy from the ancient Greek theatre and pre-dates Sophocles' ANTIGONE, OEDIPUS THE KING and ELECTRA as well as MEDEA, THE TROJAN WOMEN, ANDROMACHE, HECUBA and THE BACCHAE by Euripedes.  It is known that THE ORESTEIA was presented with the first prize at the Dionysea festival in Athens when it was first performed in 458 b.c. and was his last great success as he was killed two years later, famously by a falling tortoise dropped by an eagle flying overhead - it's worthy of one of the tragedies!

Aeschylus had been a successful soldier before his playwright years and it was as a soldier that he was memorialised but his work was so highly prized that his were the only plays that were allowed to be re-staged in following festivals - it was the rule that plays were only to be staged once.

Down the years the plays have inspired all great tragedies with their mixture of cracking revenge plots - where would today's soaps be without the revenge storylines? - and memorable, vibrant characters: proud but doomed Agamemnon, calculating Clytemnestra, tragic Cassandra, conniving Aegisthus, driven Orestes and distraught Electra.  There is another production currently running with the absurd adline: "Part The Godfather, Part Breaking Bad" - you could equally cite Hamlet and/or Game of Thrones... they all flow from The Oresteia - and apart from Hamlet, it still has the power to wipe the floor with all successors.

I have seen the trilogy twice: the legendary Peter Hall production at the National Theatre which staged them in masks and with an all-male cast and the more director-theatre version directed by Katie Mitchell in 1999.  Adele Thomas' production mixes various styles of dress and imagery and uses a new translation by Rory Mullarkey.  Despite the odd bit of clunky business - and an out-of-nowhere finale - I enjoyed it very much.

Of the three plays I enjoyed the first, AGAMEMNON the best as it is the perfect revenge drama with Clytemnestra proving to be one of the great women's roles in drama.  Mullarkey's plain-English text speeds the action along with edge-of-the-seat tension: a watchman finally sees a far-distant beacon burning - the sign he has gone without sleep to see which lets him know that the Trojan War is over and King Agamemnon is returning home.  The chorus of dejected Greeks cannot believe their ears that the ten-year war is finally over but get confirmation from a weary soldier herald.

Queen Clytemnestra makes frequent appearances from the House of Atreus to scornfully mock the chorus for their doubts and to alert us that Agamemnon has a deadlier foe at home.  Ten years before, to implore the gods for a fair wind for his ships to sail to Troy, Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphegenia in sacrifice... and Clytemnestra wants her revenge.

The second play THE LIBATION-BEARERS finds their son Orestes returning back to his home after years away and finds his sister Electra in misery at their father's death and together they plan to revenge their father's murder - so often during this play one is reminded of HAMLET.

The final play, THE KINDLY ONES, brings the action full-circle with Clytemnestra's ghost awakening the Furies to chase Orestes forever to avenge the matricide.  He travels to Athens to be judged by the goddess Athena as to whether he is guilty or not.  And so the courtroom drama was born too...

As I said Rory Mullarkey's adaptation was direct and unambiguous which worked well and certainly made plain the thoughts that will never date - the weary herald's rebuking the chorus for their glorying in Greece's triumph of Troy when all he wants is to return to his home which is also mirrored in Agamemnon's statement that the time for attributing blame in the run-up to war will be decided at a future time - Chilcott anyone?  However there was a lack of poetry in his text which was probably highlighted by my previous experience of the trilogy's previous rough-hewn adapters, poets Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes.

As I said Adele Hughes' production was uncluttered and spare, concentrating all the action on the word and the character speaking it - only at the end did it all go a bit up the Atreus.  Now we know that the Globe always ends it's productions however body-strewn with a dance - as in Shakespeare's day - and THE ORESTEIA when first staged would have been followed with a fourth play, a Satyr play poking fun at the blood and guts that had gone before - but it was still a shock when just after Athena - in full golden disco frock - turned the Furies from avenging creatures into the sacred, beneficent guardians of Athens - brassy music started playing and all the cast got happy-clappy around a large golden phallus with a blacked-up tubby and small Pan running around!

Despite this nerve-jangling coda, I would urge you to experience this production and to also applaud the performances of George Irving as Agamemnon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as the distraught Cassandra - the only drawback is Thomas has most of her speech sung which throws the rhythm of the scene - Dennis Herdman's war-weary herald and Joel MacCormack's vengeful Orestes - he didn't even let an upstage exploding brazier put him off his stride!

The performance of the night was Katy Stephens' marvellous Clytemnestra.  Some with long memories may remember I used her as my e-mail address for a long time - such a 2YK tribute - so you can probably guess that she is truly one of my favourite characters in theatre. Sarcastic, proud, lustful and intent on enacting her revenge - it is a mighty role and Katy Stephens was magnetic, you simply could not watch anyone else when she was onstage - and not just because of her a-line Bridget Riley formal!

By the way, the onstage golden phallus at the end reminded me of one of my favourite Coral Browne stories: she went to Peter Brook's 1967 modern-dress version of OEDIPUS for the National Theatre when at the Old Vic.  After Irene Worth stabbed herself and John Gielgud blinded himself, onstage suddenly appeared a huge golden phallus while the cast danced into the auditorium while a jazz band played "Yes We Have No Bananas".  Browne eyed the giant knob and turned to her companion saying "Well, nobody *I* know!"

Now... what a Clytemnestra Coral would have been!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

KINKY BOOTS at the Adelphi.... Standing Tall in Heels

Every so often there is a "little British film" that can usually be simmered down to the following plot - individual or small, mis-matched group decide that they must make a stand and assert themselves against their fate, two-thirds in there is usually a major set-back when it all looks lost but the final act brings a little triumph that leaves them all changed for the better.  BILLY ELLIOTT, THE FULL MONTY, CALENDER GIRLS, BRASSED OFF, MADE IN DAGENHAM, even PRIDE can be included in the genre.

It's interesting that these films have all been adapted into plays or musicals - there is talk that PRIDE will be on stage next year - and one more to add to that number is KINKY BOOTS, the 2005 film that told the odd but true tale of a Northamptonshire shoe factory that, when faced with possible closure, diversified and found a USP in making boots for drag queens with strengthened heels to take a man's weight.

I must admit that when I saw the film I found it under-whelming with Julian Jarrold's uninspired direction drearily sticking to the all too-obvious template as described above.  It was made bearable only by Chiwetel Ejiofor's striking performance as Lola, the amazonian drag queen who drives the plot.

But in the recent trend to make stage shows out of known films, the quality of the source material is of no great matter and I found KINKY BOOTS: THE MUSICAL to be much more enjoyable than the film.

The show premiered on Broadway in 2013 and was an immediate success so it was only a matter of sitting it out until the show transferred here.  By the way it's interesting that it replaced the flop musical of MADE IN DAGENHAM at the Adelphi, one former-film-set-in-a-factory replaced by another!  The Broadway production won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Choreography and Best Score and now it's here - bright, brassy, bouncy and the most enormous fun.  I didn't even mind that it was an American version of England!

Jerry Mitchell directs with a panache that skillfully skirts over some of the more threadbare patches of the plot and his choreography has a muscular punch that is thrilling.

Harvey Fierstein has written an excellent Broadway musical book which is well-paced and hits the right balance of humour and emotion - who better to write a musical about a drag queen than the writer of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES?  Lola has the best lines of course but he has also created sympathetic roles in Charlie, the diffident young man who inherits his father's failing shoe factory and Lauren, one of his workers who discovers the man behind the shoes.

The star of the show turns out to be Cyndi Lauper's wonderfully-varied score.  It reminded me of Boy George's score for TABOO as it too had a wide range of ballads, show-stoppers and character numbers.  That it is her first-ever score makes it even more impressive, she fully deserved her Tony Award.

Essentially it is a show with only two lead roles and the production has been well-cast.  At first I was worried about Matt Henry as Lola as he seemed to be commenting on the role rather than simply being, being flamboyant doesn't seem to be a natural fit.  But as the evening progressed and we get to see Lola's more private side Henry came into his own and belted out his big numbers with a real strength.  No such problems with Killian Donnelly as Charlie - he played the role with just the right air of bashfulness cast adrift in a world where so much is expected on him and he also belted out his numbers with real emotion.  Maybe I might have enjoyed MEMPHIS more if I had seen him and not his understudy (doubt it though),

Amy Lennox is delightful as Lauren the factory girl with 'The History Of Wrong Guys' which also happens to be her big solo which is the score's most Lauper-esque number and which Lennox lands right on the button.  I also liked Michael Hobbs as the mild-mannered foreman George and a special mention must go to Lola's club dancers The Angels - imagine Les Cagelles but with beaucoup attitude!

David Rockwell's stage designs are a bit of a disappointment but Gregg Barnes's costumes are suitably dazzling.  I would recommend you to zip up those boots and sashay away to the Adelphi for a show that will lift you up in more ways than one.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD at the Olivier - Freedom Through Theatre

In 1990 I saw Timberlake Wertenbaker's OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD in it's last few weeks at the Garrick Theatre and was taken by it's simple production and the way Wertenbaker interpreted Thomas Keneally's book The Playmaker which dealt with the first convicts who were sentenced to be transported to Australia for a range of both petty and serious crimes and how an officer uses the prisoners to stage an amateur production of George Farquhar's THE RECRUITING OFFICER.

This originally opened at the Royal Court and won the Olivier award for Best Play and, by the time I saw it after it's transfer, it had an impressive cast of Julian Wadham as the well-meaning officer and his convicts included Amanda Redman as quiet Mary Brenham, Tony Rohr as volunteer hangman Ketch Freeman, Nigel Cooke as keen amateur actor Robert Sideway, Ron Cook as the Jewish prisoner John Wisehammer, Caroline Quentin as bolshy Dabby Bryant and Linda Bassett as loose cannon Liz Mordern.  It is now revived at the Olivier Theatre and while the performances rarely match these, it was interesting to see it again.

What I did not realise when I saw it first was that the characters - officers and prisoners - are all, by and large, based on the real people involved in the first ever transportation to Australia that resulted in the staging of the amateur production of THE RECRUITING OFFICER in 1789.  Yes, while The French Revolution kicked off and George Washington was made President, while Fletcher Christian led the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty and William Blake published "Songs of Innocence", a small group of prisoners performed Farquhar's popular comedy to celebrate George III's birthday - I hope the irony was not lost on them.

Wertenbaker' has written a fascinating play which looks at the subject from both the officers and the prisoners perspectives but the latter come out as the real heroes of the piece.  However I felt there were times when Nadia Fall's production looked too exposed on the expansive Olivier stage on Peter McKintosh's stylised set with it's Australian desert backdrop but Neil Austin's lighting design was as exemplary as ever.  However I think the Lyttelton would have been a better fit.

Admittedly we saw a preview so hopefully the production might bed in better when the cast have the measure of the piece.  Standouts in the cast were Ashley McGuire as the wonderfully gobby Dabby Bryant, all bolshy front while quietly yearning to return home to Devon, Lee Ross as Robert Sideway the eager actor-to-be who has seen David Garrick onstage, Tadhg Murphy as the convict who is despised by the others as he has volunteered to be the colony hangman, Matthew Cottle as the word-loving Jewish prisoner and in particular Jodie McNee as Liz Mordern, burning with anger and resentment who is the most transformed by being exposed to kindness and the chance to find her own voice.

Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, the officer who is also the play's director and Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham, the convict he fell in love with, should stand out more but their plot-line felt under-played as did the sub-plot of the scenery-chewing Paul Kaye as the mid-shipman slowly losing his mind over his love of the convict Duckling Smith.  The latter was played by Shalisha James-Davis in a barely adequate manner.

Nadia Fall has made a major change with her production by adding a sung score supplied by Cerys Matthews which I suspect was done to give it more of an epic feel in keeping with the Olivier auditorium.  Some times it was effective - the convicts would surely have sung to themselves to keep their spirits up - sometimes it felt a bit too obvious.

If you have never seen the play before I would recommend seeing it as it makes for a moving, thought-provoking experience.