After the Curtain Call

Theatre-Curtains460_276I’m just emerging from my long weekend of theatrical extravaganza and am still a little dizzy with it all.  I remember a colleague once saying that he could tell when I hadn’t been to the theatre for some time because it was so apparent that my batteries needed recharging.  Well, at the moment I think said batteries may have been charged to the point where sparks are coming out.  Certainly, I am buzzing with all the thoughts that the productions I’ve seen have given rise to.

Overall, the performance to which I keep returning is the one I saw last Thursday.  For me the best theatre is that which speaks to the audience about the society in which they are living now and with its emphasis on the question of assisted suicide Ghosts did precisely that.  However, it was also the most powerfully staged and performed and the chill with which it left me is still palpably running up and down my spine.

Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Written at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s governmental power, it is about the consequences of greed at every level of society and while it is very funny it is also very concerning.  Jack McCracken has just taken over the family business when he is faced with the dilemma of what to do when his daughter is charged with a minor shoplifting offence.  Should he offer work to the private detective who has the power to drop the case or should he let her go to court?  As in so many of Ayckbourn’s plays, a relatively small decision has consequences that snowball until Jack finds himself enmeshed in a web of corruption that threatens the future of both family and business.

I can understand how, when this was first staged in 1987, it would have been cutting edge satire but we have seen so much more of what corruption can do since then and somehow for me this didn’t transfer to 2014 as well as I had expected.  I couldn’t fault the production or the acting but at best it left me squirming with embarrassment and at worst feeling thoroughly grubby.  Not Ayckbourn at his incisive best for me.

The Tempest was typical Globe Theatre and coming from me that isn’t always a complement.    I can’t come to terms with their need to play everything for laughs.  If you don’t know what I mean and you want to see them at their worst then try and get hold of a copy of their Richard II.  The funny bit in that ought to be the scene with the gardeners and even that should have you laughing through your tears.  What shouldn’t be the comic relief is Richard’s performance. Why you should want to make Richard a clown is beyond me.  I had a problem with their Twelfth Night as well, which admitedly is a comedy, but not surely at the expense of Olivia?  Anyway,  what I’m getting round to saying is that I don’t like being asked to laugh at Prospero.  If he isn’t scary then the play doesn’t work for me and much as I love Roger Allam he came over as far too avuncular.  In fact, he played him pretty much as if he was Fred Thursday.  And, what is more, although I’ve only just thought of it, Ferdinand became his Endeavour.  When the final curtain call is for Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Ferdinand, and Caliban is banished to take his ovation with the smaller roles then you know the balance of the play is out, especially, as James Garnon acts the socks of everyone else on the stage.

Reading this back it sounds as though I had a pretty miserable weekend, but in fact, for me, almost any theatre is better than no theatre at all because you have to engage on a minute by minute basis and even if you’re disagreeing with the interpretation at least you are involved.  This coming weekend I’m going back to Stratford to see the other two plays in the Midsummer Madness series, so I’ll write about the ones I’ve already seen along with those.  I’m afraid I have to say, however, ‘don’t hold your breath’.

It was a good weekend, really!

Twelve Angry Men

12-ANGRY-MEN-POSTERThis is just a very quick post, aimed primarily at those of you in the UK, so apologies to everyone else.  I’ve just come in from seeing a production of Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men which is at the Birmingham Rep until the end of next week. It’s on a pre-West End tour and I know it’s also going to Malvern but I’m not sure where else it’s going to turn up.

If you get the chance to see it, either on tour or in London, where it’s at the Garrick, then don’t miss it.  I have been going to the theatre since I was two, so over sixty years, and I can safely say that even this early in its run this is already one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

If you don’t know the story then without giving too much away I can tell you that it takes place in a jury room in New York in the 1950s at the close of a trial for murder.  Eleven of the jurors are for a quick conviction but one, known only as Juror 8 and played in this production by Martin Shaw, thinks that they should at least test out the evidence in discussion.  He’s not saying that the accused is innocent, simply that they shouldn’t send a man to the electric chair without  some deliberate consideration. And from there the play, two hours in one set with only the characters we meet at the beginning, develops to its own electrifying conclusion.

I saw the Henry Fonda film when I was about twelve and I have never forgotten it, so clearly this is an exceptional piece of writing but this production is even finer than the film.  Shaw is brilliant, but almost better is Jeff Fahey playing Juror 3, a man who cannot leave his own family issues behind him when he comes into the jury room.  But then that is what the play is really about.  How is it possible for any of us to sit in judgement on another human without bringing our own situation and prejudices to bear?  How is it possible to be able to say that we do not have reasonable doubt?

Please, if you get the chance to see this don’t pass up on it.  And act now because the Rep was full this afternoon and I suspect that once it moves to London it will very quickly be playing to packed houses.  This is going into my list of all time great performances along with the National Theatre’s Ghetto, Derek Jacobi’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Antony Sher in Stoppard’s Travesties and I would hate for you to miss it because you didn’t know it was out there.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

imagesI’ve just come out of a very dramatic weekend, in, I hasten to add, the theatrical sense of the word.  On Saturday I was at the Birmingham Rep for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s play, Dunsinane, followed on Sunday by the National Theatre’s Othello, screened around the country as part of the NTLive initiative.  Walking into The Rep on Saturday afternoon I hadn’t given much thought to any possible way in which the two plays might reflect on each other, but by Sunday evening I found myself deliberating about what each of them has to say about the nature of war and, more especially, about what military conflict does to those who are caught up in it.  It wasn’t just a dramatic weekend but also a war torn one.

I first saw Dunsinane two years ago when it was staged in the Swan Theatre at Stratford.  As the title suggests it has close ties to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although part of what Greig sets out to do is give a more accurate portrayal of Scottish history at this time, which means acknowledging that Macbeth actually ruled for over fifteen years and that compared with a lot of his counterparts he wasn’t a bad king at all.  It also means that as the play opens Lady Macbeth is still alive and fighting to put her son on the throne rather than the English backed Malcolm.  The central dramatic interest is the relationship between Gruach (Lady Macbeth) and Siward, the commander of the English forces, with a cynical political commentary from Malcolm running alongside.

In the Swan, which is a small theatre that draws audiences in and very much encourages involvement with the characters, what came over most strongly was the way in which the ‘common man’ was destroyed by the whim of those above him.  There is a choric figure, called simply the boy soldier, who speaks directly to the audience and who we watch becoming hardened through the course of the play.  Forced to acts of violence himself and seeing his comrades killed before his eyes, he soon loses the innocence of his opening monologue but nevertheless he is bound by his duty to his commander and the play finishes with his dogged obedience to Siward’s order that they go on searching for a child almost certainly dead, in the name of a cause they have both forgotten about.

The Rep is a much bigger theatre with a wide stage that is configured completely differently to that of the Swan.  Although the sight-lines and acoustics are superb it is still possible to be a very long way from the action and so, although this was the same production, by the same director and with almost the same cast, there were times when I thought I was watching an entirely different play.

What came through most strongly this time was the nature of war itself rather than the effect it has on the individual.  This time I found myself listening more closely to what MacDuff has to say about war in Scotland and by extension to any country where there are tribal groupings fighting for domination in a landscape that makes survival itself a battle.  When Siward suggests that it would be best if the English went home and left the Scots to live in peace, Macduff just laughs at him and points out that all the presence of the English has done is give the clans someone new to fight against.  If Siward withdraws the conflict will go on because the Scots will simply go back to fighting each other.  In tribally organised countries it isn’t peace that is interrupted by war but rather a continuing state of war that is very occasionally punctuated by a fragile peace.  Disturbing as this is as a concept when you look back in history it is hard not to acknowledge the truth of what MacDuff is saying.  Even more disturbing is the way in which it resonates with current conflicts.  I came out of the theatre even more unsettled by the thought of the damage done by Western intervention in overseas war-zones than I was before.

And then there was Sunday’s performance of Othello.  Set in the present day with all the main male participants in battle fatigues I realised for the first time that it is the fact of the army environment that is key to this play. When you have the constant reminder before your eyes that these are soldiers suddenly the motivation and the means that propel Iago’s plot make complete sense.  As Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British-led Division in Basra, says in the programme notes trust is the basis of all soldiering and Othello himself tells us that he has known nothing but the life of a soldier since he was seven years old.  In all probability he and Iago will have found themselves in situations on the battlefield where it has been necessary to put implicit faith in the knowledge that each has the other’s back.  There will almost certainly have been occasions where each has saved the other’s life.  What hope does a marriage of a few weeks, an acquaintance of no more than months, have against a bond like this? Othello knows he can trust Iago, not just in his word but in his deed.  Desdemona doesn’t stand a chance.

And what of Iago and his motiveless malignity?  His trust has been betrayed as well.  He has every right to expect the preferment that instead goes to Cassio.  He has proved himself, not just as a fighting man but also as a comrade.  In a profession where promotion ought to follow merit that position as Lieutenant should have been his.  When he doesn’t get it, when Othello betrays his trust, he tips.  There was absolutely no overt suggestion of this in the performance, but I found myself thinking about the number of army personnel that we now know develop some form of mental health issue after years of service and in the light of that what Iago does seems not only completely believable but also completely understandable.    In fact, excellent as Adrian Lester’s performance as Othello is, this production belongs to Rory Kinnear’s Iago.  The menace of the man who can smile and smile and be a villain when seen in the dress of a modern day soldier is remarkable.

The other thing that the modern day setting emphasises is the dynamite that is the situation Othello finds when he reaches Cyprus.  He has set out thinking that he is going to be commanding troops in battle, a role he knows well and for which he is supremely suited.  What he finds instead is a war that is over.  Just like the Armada in 1588 the enemy has been drowned and as a result his role changes to that of overseeing a garrisoned force with not enough to do.  This demands the skills of a politician rather than those of a battlefield tactician.  Skills that Othello knows are not his strongest point.  When you are faced with a bunch of bored squaddies play fighting like a litter of growling puppies it is so much easier to appreciate the powder-keg waiting to explode.  And, to understand the fatal mistake that Cassio makes.  Officers do not go drinking with enlisted men.  You cannot do that and expect to retain the authority which is essential to army discipline.  If Cassio had had the years of experience that Iago has he would not have made such a basic mistake.  Othello has no option but to demote him.  Had he done otherwise military discipline would have fallen apart.  It is this which Desdemona completely fails to recognise.

I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to see both these productions, but more especially to have seen them in such close order. Not only did the one play inform the other in terms of understanding how central to life the army and the fight can become to those who have known nothing else but also in combination they forced me to think again about the nature of warfare, the role of Western nations in the foreign field and the implications for society of the integration of military and civilian life.