Reviews, features, interviews.
Review: Seduced by Sam Shepard at Theatre Ste-Catherine.
Review: Sherlock Holmes at Segal Centre.
Review: Red by John Logan at Segal Centre.
Feature: Raise the Stakes Theatre Company.
Reviews: Montreal Fringe 2011.
Film Review: Heartless by Philip Ridley.
Playtext Review: Birthday by Joe Penhall.
Playtext Review: The Roman Actor by Philip Massinger.
Playtext Review: Penelope by Enda Walsh.
Interview: Corin Redgrave.
Interview: Linda Brogan.
Interview: Greg Doran.
Interview: David Edgar.
Interview: Edward Fox.
Interview: Frank McGuiness.
Interview: Barrie Rutter.
Interview: Ed Stoppard.
Seduced by Sam Shepard. Le Nouveau Theatre Ste-Catherine, produced by Raise the Stakes. Nov 2013
The last days of Howard Hughes seem like the perfect material for a certain kind of play. The kind where the human machine has gone kaput yet still coughs out dreams and desires. The kind of play, in fact, that Samuel Beckett would write, which is why Sam Shepard’s Seduced often feels like a Texan-accented Endgame, or the one where a chirruping old lady is gradually engulfed by the literal sands of time.
Seduced isn’t precisely about history’s most famous recluse. It’s about Henry Hackamore, an aging misanthrope washed up in a Caribbean penthouse, raging against the dying of the light even as he shutters himself in darkness and mummifies himself in toilet paper. But the extreme OCD, the airline connections and the tawdry Hollywood past are enough to make it clear exactly who Shepard is talking about.
That Seduced is a play about decrepitude and the terror of life’s inevitable last stop makes it seem an odd choice for a young, fresh-faced company like Raise the Stakes, whose residency at Theatre Ste Catherine has included David French’s Salt Water Moon and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. This disparity looks as though it might prove fatal once Laurent Pitre’s Hackamore appears, stripped to his trim waist, Methuselahic make-up and whiskers slapped on his youthful face under a bouncy mop of healthy hair. Nobody is going to mistake this young shaver for a rotting old codger, especially not at the close quarters afforded by the almost in-the-round staging. But Pitre, with his creaky voice and angular gangling, conjures up, if not the three-score-years-and-ten of the character, then something just as startling, a crazed desert prophet of the locusts-and-honey variety, railing at his seemingly loyal minder, Raul (nicely played with deceptive gentleness by Joe Garcque), lolling on his bed as the spark flickers out, then suddenly hopping around under the influence of some mad vision of rejuvenation. He also captures Hackamore /Hughes’ tragic unresponsiveness to the good things of life put right before his rheumy eyes.
Which brings us to Michelle Langlois-Fequet and Anna Springale-Floch as Luna and Miami, the two alluring lovelies specially shipped in to, as it were, blow on the embers of Hackamore’s desire. Now, not to dwell on the salacious here (though director Anton Golikov certainly does – quite rightly, given the play’s unabashed sexiness). But it has to be said, for the record, that these two actors’ voluptuous vamping would make anybody with a livelier pulse than Hackamore’s quite pleased they braved the miserable November weather for an improving night at the theatre. But it also has to be said that Langlois-Fequet and Springale-Floch more than transcend the Jessica Rabbit-style trappings of their roles to deliver pitch-perfect portrayals of hard-bitten cynicism and watchful opportunism.
It’s a shame that, with all this winning commitment and flair on show, the play itself isn’t exactly top-notch Shepard (possibly his efforts were concentrated on his Pulitzer Prize winning play Buried Child of that same year, 1979). To paraphrase Luna’s frustrated complaint at the vagueness of the reason for her being there, it kind of goes nowhere fast, hampered by the ennui and indecisiveness of the main character. In the end, it’s saved, just, by Shepard’s signature hardscrabble poetry and surreal inventiveness. Whatever merits it has are served well by Golikov and his team, whose readiness to tackle ever more challenging material demonstrates that the company’s name is an especially well-chosen one.
It would hardly have taken the world’s greatest detective to deduce that Hollywood pulling-power, in the shape of local boy Jay Baruchel, combined with the brand name recognition of Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, would make Sherlock Holmes a surefire hit. Guttingly, the death of playwright-performer Greg Kramer just before rehearsals began have made this not just a major cultural event for the city but a celebration of the life and talent of one of its most mercurial theatre artists. Ticket sales have of course gone through the roof, and it would take the criminal genius of a Moriarty to get an available seat at this stage.
Kramer’s adaptation could hardly be in better hands. Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, under the stewardship of Andrew Shaver, has proven itself to be one of the most consistently inventive ensemble companies around, and Shaver’s dazzlingly physical direction keeps Baruchel on his toes – literally, in one hilarious moment where he dances daintily around a crime scene.
Baruchel, more used to the short bursts of acting before camera than the endurance test of stage performance, clearly finds it a challenge, and at times he seems to lack focus and to come over as more at home goofing around than grounding his character. Strangely, this actually ends up working rather well, with his slouch-shouldered stoner of a Holmes constantly exasperating the more conventionally correct Watson (Karl Graboshas likeable and intelligently solid), not only with his twitchy eccentricities but by the fact that – devil take it – he always turns out to be right.
Although Kramer has kept things in the Victorian era, with an elaborate plot involving the drugs trade, murder, kidnapping and police corruption, Baruchel plays the superhero sleuth very much in the modern key: dissipated and unshaven, red-eyed from hedonistic pleasures, dropping in the odd anachronistic insult, and knowingly arching his eyebrows at the absurdity of the stage conventions around him. “Mrs Hudson!?” he exclaims, when he notices it’s his homely housekeeper driving the Hanson cab that’s taking him on a madcap pursuit. “Why not?”, he shrugs.
And ‘why not?’ seems to be the presiding philosophy of the production, where anything and everything goes, all beautifully designed, lit and video-projected into a world of steampunk industrial clutter. Stylistically, it dashes between blood-curdling Victorian melodrama, the lowbrow varieties of the music hall, and the high-energy wackiness of traditional British panto. Some of it gets a good-hearted groan, some elicits an uncomfortable cringe, much of it bursts into pure brilliance, as when the whole cast launch into a nightmarish, opium-fueled Cockney knees-up which comes over like Lionel Bart’s Oliver! on smack.
It also plunders the grammar of early cinema, with a flashback to a dastardly crime played out like a hand-cranked What-the-Butler-Saw show, and Gemma James-Smith’s Lady Irene hilariously signaling her damsel-in-distress alarm through panda-eyed make-up.
The twelve-strong cast keep things moving quickly along, despite the occasional peasouper of complicated exposition. There are stand-out performances from Graham Cuthbertson as a murderous, mutton-chop-whiskered henchman, and from Chip Chuipka and Trent Pardy between them populating London with a gallery of grotesques. But, appropriately, it’s Kyle Gatehouse who steals the show as criminal mastermind Moriarty, a louche, witty Lucifer in an infernal red suit.
Much to enjoy then, and if in a kinder world the script might have benefited from the sure theatrical instincts of Greg Kramer during rehearsals – a bit of plot-tightening here, a spot of gag-polishing there – this is a spectacular and joyous realization of his last act of magic.
Red by John Logan, Segal Centre Nov 2012 Artists, bless ‘em, are habitually indulged – on stage and screen at least – when it comes to talking, ranting and pontificating ad nauseum about art. As long as they have the imprimatur of troubled genius, we’ll happily watch them behaving outrageously and splenetically throwing their paint brushes out of the pram whenever the world refuses to understand them. So it is with Red, John Logan’s multi-award-winning portrait of Mark Rothko. Or perhaps that should read ‘so it seems’, for after some forty-minutes of insisting we endure this middle-aged enfant terrible volubly unpacking the contents of his tortured soul, Logan smartly switches perspective and the play becomes a critique of artistic navel-gazing and, it might be argued, of the artist-as-genius genre itself.
Set in Rothko’s New York studio at the tail-end of the 1950s, Red pits Abstract Expressionism’s leading light, played by Randy Hughson, against his gauche, initially awe-struck young assistant, Ken (Jesse Aaron Dwyre).
Rothko is working on a new commission, a series of works for the walls of a fancy Park Avenue restaurant, and he’s about to get very rich indeed. Ken, for his part, is only too happy to learn at the feet of the master and maybe get an appraisal of his own painting, which is tucked away, still unwrapped, alongside Rothko’s monumental canvases.
Much of the play consists of a high-flown discourse between the two about Nietzschean aesthetics, the tussle between Dionysian and Apollonian impulses, and the multifarious meanings of the colour red, Rothko’s weapon of choice in the war against the encroaching blackness of his life.
It’s all fascinating stuff, delivered beautifully and often at boiling point by these two riveting actors under Martha Henry’s muscular and sensitive direction. But just when the audience might be forgiven for fidgeting at what sometimes sounds like an animated version of an exhibition catalog, it becomes clear that all this talk-talk-talk is really a smokescreen hiding the conflicts and contradictions which finally burst into the open. Rothko’s hushed, sometimes hollered, hymns to his own Muse begin to ring a little hollow, and it becomes apparent that Ken isn’t as sold on Rothko’s philosophies as his puppyish adulation would seem to suggest. And so after much theorising comes full-blown drama and epic confrontation. Logan, who’s written for big screen blockbusters like Gladiator and Skyfall, proves he knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to precisely drawn dramatic arcs and devastatingly delivered emotional payloads.
There are one or two missteps along the way. The revelation of bloody tragedy in Ken’s past seems too neatly apposite to the play’s colour scheme – ironic given this character’s scepticism towards the cliché of what he calls Rothko’s “anthropomorphising” of the colour black. And though Ken acknowledges that Rothko doesn’t do small-talk, one longs for them both to take a little time out every now and then to just shoot the breeze, if only to let us see what makes them tick when their guards are down.
Overall, though, this is a compelling, often deftly funny masterclass not only in modernist art, but in how to convey so much using a deceptively small dramatic canvas. And whatever one thinks of Rothko’s paintings – majestic portals to other planes of consciousness or stuff your five-year-old could knock off inside of an hour – their presence on the stage makes for a wonderfully visual and sometimes cleverly interacting counterpoint to all that wordiness. Full marks to scenic painters Jeremy Gordaneer and Nadia Lombardo for pulling off some pretty convincing forgeries.
FEATURE August, 2012
An intimate two-hander from the late Canadian playwright David French launches a new Montreal company at Le Nouveau Theatre Ste Catherine this week
Two people shooting the breeze on a porch underneath that big old moon: there’s a lot in David French’s 1985 play that can’t help but remind the more seasoned theatre-goer of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For the Misbegotten.
But whereas O’Neill’s play is characteristically awash with bile and bitter hopelessness, French seems to take a more benign view of the human condition. For one thing (spoiler alert!), his squabbling lovers Mary and Jacob eventually stop their sniping long enough to walk off into the moonlight together. (Actually, that’s not such a spoiler if you know that Salt Water Moon is part of French’s ‘Mercer cycle’ of plays, the next of which takes in the married life of Jacob and Mary.)
Set in 1929 in a Newfoundland fishing village, the play’s deceptively intimate scope broadens to include class conflict, the sensesless slaughter of the Great War (a Newfoundland regiment was all but wiped out on the first day of the Somme), dodgy doings in the Bible and the universe itself.
At heart, though, it’s a will-they-won’t-they love story centring on a couple of engaging and bolshy late-teens, played here by James Soares-Correia and Julia O’Donoghue of the newly formed Raise the Stakes Theatre Company. It’s an apt name, that, for a group of Dawson theatre program graduates who’ve decided to launch themselves into the world with a formidable and tricky play full of lengthy elegiac monologues and acrid humour.
Director Anton Golikov fell in love with French’s oft-performed play (200 productions world-wide) after being handed a copy by Soares-Correia. He was particularly taken with its distinctive Newfoundland patois, as well as the poetry mined from the image of the moon reflected in the ocean as the characters reminisce about their troubled past and ponder various possibilities about their future.
For all the play’s lively humour, it’s unusually preoccupied with death : the action takes place during a wake, the destruction of the Somme still weighs heavily on this tiny community, and Mary’s contemplation of the stars gets even these two youngsters reflecting on the transience of their lives.
Sadly, the playwright’s death less than two years ago brings a keen edge to the melancholy motif at the heart of the play’s good-humoured optimism. Golikov tells me that Raise the Stakes next production, also at Le Nouveau, will be Sam Shepherd’s razor-sharp black comedy True West. Like Salt Water Moon, it’s a two-hander, and this time he’ll be relinquishing the director’s chair to play one of the play’s seriously messed-up brothers. That will be happening some time in November. For the moment, we wish them the best of luck with this highly promising inaugural venture.
Salt Water Moon plays at Le Nouveau Theatre Ste-Catherine, Wed 15th & Thu 16th Aug. 8pm. $10 (plus fees). More info at 514 284 3939.
Montreal Fringe Reviews (2011)
FBI Warning: this J. Edgar piece doesn’t quite work
How to Become Jayee presented by plaTeauTheatre at Club Espanol
No portrayal of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover would be complete these days without liberal reference to his penchant for ladies’ attire, and on that score, How To Become Jayee doesn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, on just about every other score, it does.What went wrong?
The subject matter and the impressive publicity material promised much, and Hoover’s notorious life and times were anything but dull. Perhaps the main fault lies with David Kovacs’ play, though on paper it looks never less than interesting, an articulate deconstruction of theatre, cinema, and political biography that throws a bizarre sidelight on the Kennedy and Nixon years. (It’s frustrating that the program notes make no mention of Kovacs’ background. Is he a new writer? Is he the older writer who has translated Greek classics?)Similarly, a bare description of the production makes it seem more enjoyable than was the actual experience of sitting through it.
Zach Amzallag plays Hoover wildly against type, giving us a smooth lothario who deadpans his way through the potentially explosive material, while Jennifer May Walker’s Hollywood “mediatrix” sternly coaches him in the correct way to “be” both J Edgar and his female alter-ego Jayee.
Meanwhile, Caroline Gauthier’s bubbly starlet dons comedy Russian gear to play a macho Soviet agent. Every now and then, the cast launch into brief bursts of Hawaiian hula (it annoyed the hell out of one local critic, but it was one of the few things that made me smile).
Given all these eccentric elements, you’d have thought it would have had something going for it. But it just sort of…lay there. Lifeless. Feet in the air. Kaput.Perhaps if director Jacqueline van der Geer had brought all its intriguing and disparate elements into a more integrated and dynamic whole, it might really have been something special. But, of course, summoning stage magic is easier said than done.At the end of the day, that’s what the Fringe is for: to try out all kinds of wild, wacky stuff, some of which is going to land, some of which is going to go belly-up. How to Become Jayee, for me, was one of the latter. But at least the company ventured out on a limb, and for that reason, I sincerely wish them better luck next time.
Worst Playwright in Not Bad Play shock!
Remember Ezra by Andre Simoneau presented by Last Tape Productions. Mainline Theatre Andre Simoneau is officially Montreal’s worst playwright. Wait, wait, wait; before you go scratching his name off your shows-to-see list, let me just mention that he took the title at this year’s Dramaturkey awards for deliberately concocted theatrical stinkers.
It takes stamina to write a really bad play, and luckily he didn’t have it in him to repeat the trick this time around. True, Remember Ezra is pretty ragged around the edges, and it could do with pulling into the pitstop for some ruthless re-tuning. But what it does have is a raft of interesting ideas and lots of bold theatrical moves which mark Simoneau as a playwright to keep an eye on.
Played amongst a web of taut threads that recall those ballistic trajectories you see in cop-show crime scenes, it centres on a twisted relationship between two film-making brothers. One of them is the nice if blankly insipid Gideon, the other the sociopathic and misanthropic Ezra, whose recent disappearance doesn’t prevent him from goading his brother into facing his demons and becoming a more assertive, if not better, person. Simoneau name-checks David Lynch at one point, and there’s something recognisably Lynchian in the way he takes on the themes of merging personalities and slippery identities.
It also sometimes plays out – consciously, it seems – like a ripe old Hollywood psychodrama, with “cheesy lines” (as one character admits) being flung about with abandon. As well as writing the play, Simoneau also directs, and takes the the part of the detective assigned to Ezra’s case. Inevitably, he’s stretched himself too thinly to get the best from his cast. Ezra seems, on paper, like a memorable dramatic creation, all twitchy paranoia and malignant wit. But Daniel Rowe isn’t there yet. He needs to be pushed into going the whole hog that the part needs to work, though a punter’s post-show comparison of him to “a young John Malkovich” nails his oddly appealing stlye.
How We Went to Mars could do with a bit more thrust
Mostly remembered as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke isn’t a name you readily associate with zany comedy. So it’s to Scotch and Cookies Theatre’s credit that they’ve managed to track down this ripping and deliberately silly yarn from Clarke’s juvenelia period.
As you’d guess from the title and the year of its publication (1938), How We Got to Mars is one great big fib, a none-too-subtle satirical nudge at H.G. Wells’ and Jules Verne’s rusty nuts-and-bolts space travel tales.
The show takes the form of an illustrated lecture delivered by eccentric adventurer-boffin, Charles Willis, who claims to have beaten all competition to the Red Planet with the aid of his trusty space jalopy, a gaggle of fellow enthusiasts, and a safety pin. Once there, he and his chums encounter a super-intelligent and rather bad-tempered race of Martians who grouchily take them on a tour of their futuristic megapolis.
All jolly good fun, you’d think, and the show does nicely capture the colorful proto-geekiness of 20s and 30s sci-fi pulp (the publicity material brilliantly disguises itself as a mock-up mag called “Arresting Tales”.) The slides Willis uses to substantiate his claims are also pleasingly bonkers.
But in the absence of anything more substantial, the gag soon starts to run out of oxygen. Which is a real shame, partly because that publicity material promises so much, mostly because the actor flying solo up there is Chris Nachaj, who as local critics have pointed out is one of the most committed and gifted young actors around (full disclosure here: Chris once acted in one of my plays, very much to its advantage) .It’s thanks to him that the show achieves lift-off at all, his blimpish Edwardian relic initially browbeating the audience into appreciative guffaws. But the show’s increasing resemblance to an over-extended Monty Python sketch eventually leaves him drifting aimlessly.
At Scene-Voir Stage, 4247 St-Dominique ______________________________________________
Has somebody moved the goalposts in the Dramaturkey awards, the annual open-air celebration of sheer dramatic incompetence hosted by Playwrights Workshop Montreal? The goalposts are still stuck in piles of steaming dog-crap, but it seems the rules have been altered somewhat. Where once the organizers demanded that playwrights hand over the putrid garbage they’ve been hiding in their bottom drawers, now it seems those playwrights are being actively encouraged to, as it were, stick their fingers down their throats in readiness for the competition so they can vomit all over the audience on cue: in other words, sit down and knowingly commit, with full premeditation, their crimes against the art of playwriting.
Now this seems slightly beside the point of the exercise, surely – a bit like Simon Cowell, having run out of deluded saddoes to torment, turning to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and saying “go on, be rubbish.” Alright, maybe the metaphor doesn’t stretch. Dramaturkey was never really about deluded saddoes, more about accomplished playwrights making a break with their mortifying apprentice years and giving the rest of us a good laugh in the process. Or was I just being naive all along, trustingly believing those bottom-drawer stinkers somehow got there by a special crap-conjuring magic? Ah well, I suppose we all have to grow up some time.
Which isn’t to say Dramaturkey doesn’t remain a lot of fun. Entertainingly hosted by last year’s winner, Uncalled For’s Dan Jeannotte, it got off to an excrutiating start with Ricky Blue’s dopey tale of first fumbling love, The Kiss. But Ned Cox really got the manure spraying with Doctor Schweinhund and his Wonderballs (or something), a sci-fi extravaganza with lots of double entendres about time-travelling gonads and some good old-fashioned paedophile humour.
And so it went on until, inevitably, God got in on the joke and chucklingly opened the heavens on everybody.The rest of the event took place at the Bayou bar across the way, but I checked out early: something called, I think, Three Dudes, about some dudes repeatedly saying “dude” to eachother, had me muttering “dude, where’s the exit?” So I didn’t get to hear that Andre Simoneau took the title for his hostage-crisis-love-story-with-a-really-predictable-twist (God help me – I liked his metaphor about dandelions growing through the cracks!).
As ever, oodles of fun, then – the playwrights gamely soiling themselves in public, the host being wryly hilarious, the actors keeping more or less straight faces, and the audience baying like debased, bloodthirsty animals.
So long may Dramturkey gobble. But come on, playwrights, don’t be chicken. Show us your real crap. You know it’s there, hidden away in the dark somewhere. Festering, twitching, squirming…longing to be let out. ______________________________________________
Small Talk: Six short plays by Eric Fallen.
While divine madness and whoop-inducing silliness fuels much of the fringe, it’s arguably a lot harder to catch the hyper-stimulated passing trade with a quiet and unshowy spot of good old-fashioned naturalism. But New York-based playwright Eric Fallen attempts to do just that with his six short plays gathered under the name of Small Talk.
Each of these diminutive and perfectly formed duets starts out, as the collective title implies, with some idle shooting of the breeze before coagulating into a dark cloud of human misery, pain, or menace. With only a few chairs and the odd prop, the four actors, under Eric Michael Gillett’s crisp direction, never put a foot wrong and, out of the quiet assurance of the ensemble playing, each gets to deliver at least one tour de force moment apiece – Christopher Halliday as a man plunged into spritual agony by a dying relative, Henry Famam as a private security guard who embodies all the malignant paranoia of post-9/11 America, and Sarah Kate Jackson and Carter Jackson as an initially super-confident motorcycle salewoman and her prospective customer who turns out to have a very disturbing reason for wanting into the saddle of a turbo-charged mean machine.
It’s this beautifully constructed and disquietingly haunting short, “The Monster”, that’s the real stand-out piece here, Fallen managing to nail, in one deceptively simple exchange, the hidden psychoses awakened by America’s recent wars. Immediately after the show, I was more taken with this kind of meaty examination into the political (echoed by the opening story set within glowering distance of a Turkish Embassy made jittery by the ghosts of the Armenian genocide) than with the seemingly more inconsequential personal stories of lost love in a jeweller’s, say, or the stoned giggle-fit of a couple of porn stars. I couldn’t help wondering, in fact, why the show didn’t climax with “The Monster” and its creepy final image of something wicked this way coming.
But Fallen’s writing, precise and controlled, has the knack of staying with you, and images from those other, less immediately grabby pieces still keep popping into my head (whywas that guy at the library so desperate for a book on basic plumbing? what was with all that talk about a merry-go-round between porn shoots?). So while many other fringe shows aim to leave their punters high on adrenaline or weak from helpless guffaws, kudos to Fallen and his company for a show that stirs a little more calmly, and perhaps a lot more deeply.
At Club Espagnol, 4388 boul St-Laurent
Ian Curtis Wannabe a Joy at The Only Bar
Everybody seems to be in agreement that Aaron Turner is storming it in the acting honours in The Only Bar, Alan Mercieca and Robin (Dance Animal) Henderson’s collaboration over at the Diffusé aux Verres Stérilisése watering hole on Rachel-St Hubert.T
he play, about a swarmlet of bar-flies in a last chance saloon, is tootling along nicely with the odd song here and the odd boozy maxim there, when, half-way through, Turner’s tanked-up, ego-fuelled punkster crashes the party. He’s Fritz, a peanut-brained singer who thinks he’s God’s gift to the chicks and to rock history. He hates on the other customers, kicks male-female relations back to the Stone Age, then launches into a song he seems to have ripped from an obscure Billy Idol b-side, accompanying it with his own deranged version of that strange St Vitus dance the late Ian Curtis used to do with Joy Division (the actor was pleasantly surprised when I grabbed him after the show and told him I got the reference, but hailing from Curtis’ home town of Manchester does give me the advantage). It’s as big and brash a performance as I’ve seen for a long time and deserves a show of its own.
The rest of the play was enjoyable enough, and the authentic pub setting adds to the fun, what with the conversational buzz and the occasional drunken holler wafting in from the other bar area. I particularly enjoyed the songs bemoaning the actors’ bad dancing and bad singing when actually they were pretty good. But I didn’t feel Alain Mercieca (who co-runs Le Nouveau International at Theatre Ste Catherine) was firing on all cylinders here. A review from the Charlebois Post blog mentions the polish of this production compared to other Mercieca productions, as well as the the fact that it doesn’t have the writer’s usual gimmickry. But, for me, these “improvements” weren’t necessarily to its advantage. What I’ve enjoyed about Alain’s shows in the past was that sense of everything chucked at the wall in the hope that something sticks. When it didn’t work, it could be painful to behold. When it did work, it achieved something of that punk transcendance he aims for, what one reviewer described as “a beautiful train wreck”. I also missed his presence on the stage in this one. Alain isn’t exactly a shrinking violet in the ego stakes, and his performances in his own plays, all wolfish grins and knowing winks at the audience, are always big, brazen fun.I think bringing aboard a director of the calibre of Robin Henderson was the right idea (she won, of course, a raft of awards for her incredible work with her own company, Dance Animal). Alain’s wayward talent definitely needs taming and shaping, and The Only Bar is in some ways a transitional staging post between the anarchic free-for-all of his previous work to more solidly grounded productions.
The right balance hasn’t yet been struck. But Alain is so damn prolific that the sheer aubundance of opportunities for trial-and-error experiments can only push him in the right evolutionary direction. Let’s drink to that at least.At Diffusé aux Verres Stérilisése, 800 Rue Rachel E ______________________________________________
Who had the best blurb this year?
For many die-hard fans of live entertainment, the absolute wealth of choices the Montreal Fringe has had to offer this year (over 80 shows!) has meant only one thing: staring for ages at the publicity material around the Fringe Park before going back home in a stew of indecision. Which is why the choice of image used to sell a show is so important – to some people (tightwads and pantoufleurs, mainly), the publicity material remains the only experience of the Fringe.
So now that the Fringe is saddling up to ride into the sunset, let’s have a look-see at all those flyers, posters and postcards soon to be blowing up the Main like so much tumbleweed (I’m being metaphorical here; you can be sure those nice people at the Fringe will be disposing of them responsibly).
Below is a short list of images that particularly caught my eye over the weeks. Not a definitive list, obviously, or even one I’ve given that much thought to. And anyway, the Frankie Awards has a Best Poster category which is perhaps a bit more prestigious than the cursory pat on the back I’m offering.
Still, so much sterling work has been done by all those designers, artists, and casual doodlers in turning the Main and beyond into a veritable sunburst of colour that it surely won’t hurt to give them a bit more attention. And so, in reverse order of merit, though without much in the way of authority as to whether they matched the content of the shows they were advertising, I present to you: The Theatre Funhouse Awards For Outstanding Blurb.
5. What seems to be a nice kooky romantic cuddle turns, on second glance, into something altogether more sinister in the poster for Crazy Love. Look at the eyes on that chick. Check out the talons digging into that poor sap’s back. For God’s sake, man, run: run for your life! Lovely touch with the Pregnancy Test flyer too.
4. Sometimes simplicity says it all, and Jem Rolls said it all and more with his bold statement of a black-and-white poster, that bold statement being “I can’t be arsed with all that photoshop crap because it just PISSES ME OFF!” Yes, in at number 4 is Jem Rolls is Pissed Off. Happy now, mate?
3. Shameless exploitation of feminine allure inevitably sells at the Fringe, and there have been some smashing birds on the publicity material this year. But the one that takes the biscuit for cheek (really a lot of cheek) is Voluptuous, with its coy glimpse of a Rubenesque beauty generously filling a fishnet stocking.2. And let’s not forget the shameless exploitation of totally ripped guys. Actually, I didn’t really spot any, so Quarter Life Calamity’s really quite blood-freezingly awkward image of four naked men in the sack experiencing the Mother-of-All-Mornings-After will have to do.
1. And the winner is – the poster for Arthur C. Clarke’s How We Went to Mars, a wonderful, sepia-toned mock-up of Edwardian England’s sci-fi pulp fiction, complete with crappy-looking rockets doomed to be defeated by gravity. Actor Chris Nachaj gazes into the camera with the kind of monumental British disdain that once carved an Empire, and the kind of stiff-upper-lipped stoicism that watched it go down the toilet with a pretence of dignity. So there we have it. Feel free to comment at the bottom of the page if you whole-heartedly agree, vehemently beg to differ, or – if you’re one of the lucky winners – simply to express your undying gratitude.
Of Demons and Demolition
Heartless (dir. Philip Ridley, 2011)
A few words about Heartless, which I was very much looking forward to and have to admit was a bit disappointed by.
Now, I love Ridley’s plays which, if you’ve read or seen any, you’ll know take place in a not-so-alternative unviverse of polymorphous perversity, chintz furnishings, spangly suits, and gut-churning cruelty. His most famous play is probably The Pitchfork Disney , and his most recent one, the dystopian nightmare Mercury Fur, had the critics frothing at the mouth that such things could even be imagined, let alone staged.
Heartless, stars Jim Sturgess as a gauche twenty-something driven to debilitating shyness by a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. A Faustian twist has him making a pact with a satanic father-figure who wipes the blemish away in return for a little favour – have a guess how well that works out for him.
It’s very much a Philip Ridley creation, what with its creepy urban demons, its devilishly charismatic villain, a blackly comic turn from a flash rentboy swooning over his own gorgeousness, and most of all its sympathetic and awkward hero who’s nevertheless capable of barbaric bloodletting.
Marketed as a horror flick, its wild, sometimes exhilirating lurches from one mood to another make it impossible to slot into any genre other than Ridleyesque. At times, though, Heartless topples into the messiness and contrivedness that Ridley inevitably courts with that big bold brash imagination of his. It’s too often grossly sentimental, the demons metaphor feels old hat (some twenty years after Jacob’s Ladder), and the overbearing mood music (and, lord, those ropey songs!) give it an inescapable air of naffness.
There are flashes of brilliance, most notably the too-brief appearance from Eddie Mars as the devil’s own debt-collector, while a central murder is genuinely alarming in its mix of the bizarre, the banal, and the downright creepy.
Moments like these give an idea of how much better Heartless might have been with a bit more control of the material. Then again, one thing you can’t say about Ridley is that he’s a journeyman filmmaker plodding along well-worn paths. So for that we should be grateful even for the big messy half-baked splodge of Ridleyesqueness that is Heartless .
Birthday is a rôle reversal play, or maybe a body-swap drama. It’s the kind of high concept we usually get at the cinema, say in Freaky Friday or the recent The Change-Up. Mostly, it resembles – and playwright Joe Penhall will possibly not be best pleased by the comparison – the film Junior in which Arnold Schwarzeneggar finds himself up the duff, with, in that case at least, not so hilarious results.
Birthday is also a comedy in which a man gets pregnant, but Penhall, mostly famous for the play Blue/Orange, is aiming a little higher with his own take on that oft-considered conceit. Yes, it gets most of its laughs from the idea that men are rubbish at pain and from the likelihood that they wouldn’t be able to undergo the bloody horrors and invasive indignities of childbirth with anything approaching stoic bravery. But it also uses its not-so-original premise to explore, without flinching from the dark stuff, what it means to be human, both biologically and psychologically.
Whereas film directors like Cronenberg and Ridley Scott (in Alien) hide male pregnancy anxieties inside monstrous metaphors, Penhall, with a stylistic lack of fuss, serves it up straight. The action takes place on what we must call the paternity ward, with Ed and Lisa awaiting the birth of their second child. After Lisa’s near-fatal first time, Ed has volunteered to undergo a relatively new but seemingly established medical procedure, the implanting into men of an artificial womb (we learn that it was, or will be, developed to allow gay men to “enjoy” childbirth.
From the off, Ed moans, groans and grizzles at every inconvenience, from Lisa’s forgetting to bring him his precious copy of The Guardian newspaper (Ed is naturally a middle-class wuss) to the impudence of the midwife who breezily declines to treat his predicament with any solemnity. So when dangerous complications set in, it’s inevitable that Ed will respond with the mother of all breakdowns, not least when the no-nonsense Registrar rubbers up, ready to insert her fist into his anus.
Penhall cannily places this eye-watering moment at the end of the first act, and one can imagine the explosive effect of uproarious farce and sheer body horror on the audience. But it also raises the unspoken question as to why we would find hilarity in such a scene in a way we wouldn’t if it were Liz up there on the bed, enduring the double agony of physical violation and tearful panic over her baby’s well-being.
Penhall explores such considerations throughout the play while enlivening Ed and Liz’s long dark night of the soul in grim NHS surroundings with enjoyable if occasionally overly well-crafted one-liners. There’s little back-story for the characters beyond their earlier experiences with childbirth and it feels at times like an overextended sketch, with Ed and Liz’s back-and-forth dialogue coming over like sitcom exchanges. Heartfelt it might be (Penhall reportedly wrote it after his own experiences as a new father), but you get the feeling that, creatively speaking, this latest play from the multi-award-winning Penhall didn’t have too much of a difficult birth.
The Roman Actor by Philip Massinger (published by Nick Hern Books)
As with The Merchant of Venice, the title of Philip Massinger’s Caroline-era tragedy is a little misleading. The Roman actor himself, like the merchant Antonio, plays a secondary rôle to the main event of the play. Here it’s the monstrous Roman emperor, Domitianus Caesar. He’s Caligula, Saddam and Darth Vader rolled into one, a villain so depraved he almost becomes a comic character, a grand guignol parody who would twirl his diabolical moustache if moustaches had been in fashion in ancient Rome.
And yet Massinger gives this devilish grotesque his due, or at least a streak of troubled self-awareness as his evil doings begin to have unlooked for consequences for himself as well as his terrorized court. Against the backdrop of Caesar’s reign of terror is a sober disquisition on the dignity of the acting profession which, at the time Massinger wrote it (1626), was coming under sustained attack from Puritan sourpusses just itching to close down the theatres (they would succeed within a couple of decades).
The action begins with a troupe of thesps bemoaning the infelicity of the times for their art and the tastes of a public more interested in sadistic reality shows and pornographic tat. Plus ca change indeed.
Massinger was also writing at a time when impudent questions about the legitimacy of the doctrine of divine right of kings were in the air, and Massinger gives a portrait of what the logical end of such a doctrine might be if the sceptre were to be taken up by a genuine monster (as opposed to the then king thoroughly being monstered by the Puritans). Massinger’s Caesar is very much of the belief that whatever tickles his fancy should be rendered unto him and quick about it. Unfortunately for everybody, himself included, what he particularly fancies is the wife of one of his courtiers. But what’s good for the goose etc, and once installed in power, the newly-titled Domitia’s own eye begins to wander, finally resting on Paris, the handsome and idealistic Roman actor of the title. Meanwhile, a group of conspiratorial courtiers, heartily sick of Caesar’s depravities, are plotting his overthrow. There are plenty of striking passages of florid, meaty, often sanguinary poetry as Caesar relishes berserk cruelties done and yet to be done. But it’s all less densely written than the plays of the preceding Jacobean era – there’s far less word play, and far less standing around soliloquising about every little metaphysical speculation that pops into a character’s head, .
Although this Royal Shakespeare Company edition (published to co-incide with a celebrated 2002 revival) eschews explanatory notes, the rattlingly paced plot and relatively direct language makes for an easily comprehensible read, as well as a fascinating artefact of a society about to undergo far more cataclysmic events than even those depicted by Massinger. ______________________________________________________________
Penelope by Enda Walsh (published by Nick Hern Books)
Four men drinking cocktails and swapping macho banter in a drained-out swimming pool. A barbecue that won’t fire up. Herp Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Orchestra playing in the background. A mysterious woman watching it all on a CCTV camera.
It’s not obvious at first, but in Enda Walsh’s latest play, it gradually dawns that these are the last of the suitors vying for the hand of the wife of Odysseus, the general of the Greek army blown off-course on his return journey from Troy. But now, ten years on, he’s coming back. The four suitors – here called Burns, Quinn, Fitz and Dunne – know this, because they’ve all had the same terrifying dream that the barbecue spontaneously bursts into flames in anticipation of roasting the flesh that’s been filletted from their bones by the unstoppable avenger they’ve all been trying to cuckold.
A kind of Waiting For Godot crossed with Greek tragedy and basted with the Mediterranean geezer kitsch of Jonathan Glazer’s film Sexy Beast, Penelope initially showcases Walsh’s flair for absurd and seemingly disconnected verbal arias, about how best to describe the taste of sausages, amongst other things.
Soon, though, the hierarchy of alpha males and zeta wimps begins to make itself clear, with the middle-aged Quinn seemingly the front-runner for success with Penelope (the woman behind the surveillance cameras), and the put-upon Burns, the youngest of the group, reduced to gopher and hobbled by a troubled conscience over the suicide of another suitor. Walsh is mostly famous for his ‘90s play Disco Pigs, and more recently, for the screenplay of Hunger, an impressionistic study of the last days of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Penelope has more of the savage, surrealistic comedy of the former than the impassioned politics of the latter. But he’s also making a serious point about the notion of having to tunnel through your darkest nightmares to get to the heart of real, authentic love.
The four suitors initially think they can find it in the arms of the unchangingly beautiful Penelope. With their minds concentrated by prophesies of their very grisly deaths, they each get a turn in the spotlight to deliver a monologue of longing and repressed fear, ostensibly directed at Penelope but really refelcted back at themselves. One “monologue” is actually an extended bit of theatrical business involving more and more outlandish costumes – a demontration of Walsh’s flair for wildly visual as well as word-based language.
At times, Penelope seems like a collection of deliberately bad taste gags, disconnected dream memories and Pinteresque affectations, all strung along that famous narrative with its classically fail-safe pedigree. But there’s no doubting its off-the-wall originality. The Odysseus / Penelope story has been re-worked many times before, notably in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and the Cohen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Walsh’s relegation of the army of suitors to four pissed-up losers stuck in the fag-end of a Costa-del-Hell-holiday is a brilliantly bathetic and irresistably mad conceit. ____________________________________________________________
ARCHIVE THEATRE INTERVIEWS
Below is a selection of interviews I conducted with various theatre people while working as an arts journalist in England. Other interviewees (the articles of which I’ll dig out when opportunity arises) include Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Thelma Holt, David Hare and Amanda Donohoe. ________________________________________________________________
For actors of a certain age, finally being offered the monumental role of King Lear must bring a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, it’s the grand, glowering peak every young slip of an actor feels himself destined to conquer one day. On the other, it must seem akin to the industry giving you a hearty golden handshake before nudging you off towards the dying of the light.
Now past his mid-sixties, Corin Redgrave “feels as though it’s come at the right time”, though he’s quick to point out that this has nothing to do with a first step towards a retirement plan.
“I don’t think being ready for Lear need have anything to do with age. Actors have played Lear in their ‘thirties. It’s important not to leave it too late, because it’s difficult to play him beyond a certain age. You have to grab the chance when it comes. Your limbs and your lungs are going to be stretched to the limit whatever age your playing it, as a matter of fact”.
It’s only to be expected that, as a senior member of the nation’s most famous acting dynasty, Redgrave has had a particularly distinguished stage career. Recent highlights have included his Tony Award-winning prison warder in Not About Nightingales (a “lost” Tennessee Williams play re-discovered by sister Vanessa), and his living-dead poet in Pinter’s No Man’s Land. You might also recognise him as the inadvertently spliffed-up teacher in an episode of Channel Four’s Shameless.
Bill Alexander’s production of King Lear is one of the four great Shakespearean tragedies being staged in the current RSC season as an opportunity, according to RSC boss Michael Boyd, to explore “the anxieties of our own age.” Anybody who’s followed Redgrave’s career – or just caught the latest vitriolic denunciation of his political activism in one of the tabloids – will know that here is a man who is more than a little anxious about our age. Last year, he organised a conference of international lawyers questioning the legality of the Iraq war at the Young Vic. He also co-founded the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission, and is actively involved with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Given all this, would it be too glib to ask whether his Lear will be a particularly political animal?
“I regard Shakespeare as a very political playwright, and this is a play that’s written at a time of great political uncertainty, and great anxiety about what the future would bring. Or even if there was going to be a future. So in that respect, it seems to have a special relevance now. The challenge of doing tragedy is that, to some of us at least, life around is so tremendously tragic. It takes a Shakespeare to render it in a way that doesn’t seem pale.”
Marriages of attrition are familiar territory in drama. Think of Strindberg’s Dance of Death, or Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But Manchester playwright Linda Brogan’s new play succeeds in ploughing a circle of marital hell with enough ferocity to make those two writers look like emissaries from Relate.
The publicity image for Basil and Beattie shows a white woman and a black man linking arms. A picture of them trying to throw a half-nelson on each-other might be more appropriate.
The play focuses on a Jamaican-born man and an Irish-born woman who collided in a Moss Side dancehall back in the ‘60s and married in haste. Now in his ‘seventies and terminally ill, Basil dreams of returning to his beloved Jamaica, but his wife exerts a restraining grip on him that smacks equally of love and loathing.
You might have encountered Basil and Beattie in a previous incarnation. They were the subjects of Brogan’s previous play, What’s In the Cat, which previewed at Contact last year (due a full production soon). Except in that play they were two forty-somethings called Bogey and Margaret. Brogan explains:
“Basil and Beattie is kind of a development of that play. It’s the second part of what a lot of people are telling me should be a trilogy. In a sense, the two plays have exactly the same premise. What’s different is the characters’ age. The reason I changed the names is that as the characters grew older, they became different people”.
What’s In the Cat first saw the light of day in 2000 when Brogan sent it to new writing organisation North West Playwrights (who are now co-producing Basil and Beattie to celebrate their 21st anniversary). Brogan’s unique talent was unmistakable even then, but she’s the first to admit that she had some way to go.
“I had a kind of bolshiness about saying what I thought was right with what I was doing. I think my instinct was correct in a lot of ways, but what I didn’t know was the craft of it. I think in time, and through perseverance, I did learn it.”
Aspiring playwrights looking to learn “the craft” could do worse than take Brogan’s shrewd definition to heart.
“It’s like if you’re in a jury. The prosecution says certain things, and even if the judge orders you to dismiss it from your mind, you’ve already heard it anyway. That’s what I think I’ve learned to do with my writing. I want you to know certain things, but I want it to appear as though that’s not what I’m doing. I’ve learned to be devious.”
Somehow, in that relatively short period since those first attempts, she also learned to write blazing, emotionally devastating drama. Basil and Beatty is a raw open wound of a play that also shimmers with poetic tenderness. It’s enough to make you demand – with menaces – that proposed third part forthwith.
“Well, I’ve just been commissioned to write a play for Clean Break [the company originally formed by female ex-prisoners]. I’m thinking I might use that for the third part of the trilogy. I’m thinking of setting it in an old people’s home, which is another kind of prison, really. What intrigued me, looking into those places, was that these old people often used repetitive actions that sort of told their life story.”
If Basil and Beattie suggest a supremely assured playwriting talent, Brogan’s self-effacing manner suggests somebody who’s still reeling from everything that’s happened since she first scribbled North West Playwrights’ address on the front of an A4 envelope.
“I was always good at writing at school. If I did a poem about Bonfire Night or something, it’d end up on the wall. But I never dreamed it was something I could do as a job. I still catch myself walking down the street, thinking ‘Oh, I’m a playwright’ and feeling dead chuffed about it.”
Shakespeare has left the building. At least he has until next year, during which every single word that dropped off his quill will be finding its way onto the boards of the main stage, The Swan, The Courtyard, and probably the RSC broom cupboard as well. But for the centre piece of its Shakespeare-free Winter season, , the RSC have turned to England’s other Bard, Chaucer.
On the face of it, a production of The Canterbury Tales might seem about as risky as a quiff at an Elvis convention. But don’t expect anything too comfy from the RSC’s associate director, Greg Doran who, after all, told audiences what they wanted before they realised it themselves with his recent groundbreaking season of Jacobean rarities. Indeed, far from cherry picking Chaucer’s greatest hits, as is usually the case, Doran has chosen to do the whole thing in two self-contained shows. Well, almost the whole thing.
“The Canterbury Tales isn’t really complete anyway,” he explains. “When the pilgrims gather at the inn, the host says that everybody will tell two tales on the way there and two tales on the way back. But we don’t see them coming back. So either Chaucer gave up on it or, if you believe Terry Jones in his book Who Murdered Chaucer, he was bumped off before he had the chance to finish them.”
Still, even at one tale per character, that leaves us with a whopping twenty-four tales. (here adapted by Mike Poulton, who previously worked with Doran on his production of The Mystery Plays at York Minster). It also means including some frankly iffy material, from the blandly good (the Second Nun’s Tale), to the lumpenly bad (the Tale of Melibeus), to the downright ugly (the Prioress’ Tale, which has a gang of Jews murdering a child).
But if there is, inevitably, a variable quality in the tales, Doran thinks it’s a price worth paying, not least because they add up to so much more than the sum of their parts.
“Rather than just do five or so of the most famous ones, I wanted to see how the whole sequence works together, how the tales rub against each other. How, for instance, a bawdy tale would then be answered by a moral tale.. In fact, two other directors, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby, have joined me because there’s so much variety and so many different styles.”
Given the current vogue for crow-barring the classics into modern settings (Chaucer’s Tales were themselves recently updated by the BBC), perhaps the most radical aspect of the production is that it remains resolutely medieval. Doran’s recent production of Ben Jonson’s Roman epic Sejanus His Fall managed to speak across the centuries about realpolitiks and rampaging Superpowers without resorting to actors in CIA-style suits or orange jumpsuits. With Canterbury Tales, Doran is trusting the audience to find similar historical parallels without, for instance, having his characters shout “I’m on the pilgrimage” down mobile phones.
“It was written at a time when people were reassessing the whole hierarchy of society. It really was a very turbulent time, with the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and so on. Chaucer embraces all those different changes, criticising the clergy in particular for the abuses of the church. We might say ‘oh that’s an interesting historical element’, but we can also apply it to today, with what’s being done in the name of religion. Any interpretation is going to tell you something about the people who are doing it and the times they’re in.”
And what will the production tell us about Greg Doran. “Well, I was brought up a Catholic and I suppose there’s what Sartre called a ‘god-shaped hole’ inside me. There’s sometimes that sense of spiritual yearning in the play because, for some of the characters, it’s a very devout pilgrimage. For others, of course, it the medieval equivalent of a Saga holiday.”
(The following article was published in Metro to coincide with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of David Edgar’s adaptation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo in 2005)
Having recently penned Playing With Fire, the National Theatre play about local councils, dodgy auditing, and race riots, you might think that David Edgar’s latest project for Birmingham Rep, a translation of Life of Galileo starring Timothy West, would afford him the opportunity to rise above such earthbound matters and go swinging among the stars.
Brecht’s pre-war masterpiece, however, is more concerned with this world than with what Galileo sees through his telescope. What Galileo saw, of course, was irrefutable proof that the earth goes around the sun and not vice versa. Irrefutable, that is, if only Galileo weren’t living in an age when state religion was lethally in denial that two plus two equals four.
“The conventional view of the play was that it was an allegory of Brecht’s own relationship with communism,” says Edgar. “But obviously at that stage, people didn’t know that fundamentalist religion was going to come back so dramatically. So I think that now we’re more likely to see the play as being about the direct conflict between the values of rationality and those of organised religion.”
It’s easy to snigger now at the Inquisition’s insistence not only that the earth is the centre of the universe, but that the stars are glued onto a big glass ceiling. But it’s also hard to look at the play without thinking about Creationism creeping onto the syllabus, or indeed about the violent intolerance that greeted the play Behzti at this very theatre. Edgar, though, is keen to avoid using Brecht’s play as a kind of custard pie in the face of the New Fundamentalism.
“Brecht slips into satire if you’re not careful. I wanted to avoid doing that because I wanted to make the Church a worthy opponent. Part of the way I do that is to make Galileo’s daughter, who is a fervent believer, into a more considerable figure, as she was in Brecht’s earlier versions of the play. She was a lot tougher, more active, with a sense of wit and irony. I’ve tried to restore that.” Now in his late ‘50s, Edgar (whose parents first met on the steps of the old Birmingham Rep) had his major breakthrough with the 70s play, Destiny, about fascism in Britain, though he’s probably best known for another adaptation, that of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC. Throughout his career, his name has been linked to David Hare and Howard Brenton in a kind of triumvirate of heavyweight political playwriting. Intriguingly, both Brenton and Hare have already staged their own versions of Life of Galileo. “I actually had both their translations in front of me while I was working on mine, just to see what decisions they’d made,” say Edgar. “David’s translation is much more elegant, much more musical, while Howard’s is more muscular and uses a radical choice of vocabulary. It rather confirms the old joke about David being Paul McCartney to Howard’s John Lennon.”
And where would that leave Edgar?
“I don’t think either of the alternative options would be entirely accurate,” he laughs.
As well as being one of the country’s most successful playwrights, Edgar is also held in warm regard for the opportunities he’s given to new generations of playwrights. From 1989 to 1999, he ran Birmingham University’s playwriting course which launched the career of, amongst others, Sarah Kane. He still drops in on the students every now and then, “which is very nice, though I’m conscious that I don’t have to mark them now.”
It’s interesting, then, that his version of Galileo seems to foreground the great man’s laments about having to teach when he could be gazing through his telescope.
“Yes, I see what you’re getting at. Although Galileo didn’t have the problem of trying to book rooms at the University of Birmingham. If he had, he really wouldn’t have found the time to discover that the earth goes round the sun.” Jim Burke 2005 _______________________________________________________________ Edward Fox (First published in Metro to co-incide with Birmingham Rep’s production of Old Masters, 2004)
There are multiple meanings to the title of Simon Gray’s latest play, Old Masters. First, it’s about two real-life elderly art connoisseurs, critic Bernard Berenson and multi-millionaire dealer, Joseph Duveen. Second, there are the great Renaissance artists, one of whom may be responsible for the painting that takes centre stage in the play. And most importantly (at least from the perspective of Birmingham Rep’s box-office), it might just as easily refer to the quartet of venerable stage-and-screen luminaries involved in the production – writer Gray, director Harold Pinter, and stars Peter Bowles and Edward Fox.
On the face of it, a play about two old geezers discussing the authenticity or otherwise of a dusty old painting might not seem like theatrical dynamite. There is, though, the recent precedence of Michael Frayn’s comic novel, Headlong, which proved that the subject of artistic provenance can make for rip-roaring entertainment. Added to this, there’s the often waspish brilliance of Gray himself, whose way with a bitchy one-liner or a flight of eloquent fancy has made for some memorable plays (among them Butley and Melon, both starring the late Alan Bates).
And if Gray is sometimes criticised for writing about insular academic types remote from the real world, it’s unlikely that the same charge will be levelled at Old Masters. The play is set in Fascist Florence in 1936. Berenson and Duveen were both Jewish.
Fox might be playing a character agonising over the genuineness of a work of art, but for him there was no doubt that this play was the real deal.
“I think actors as old as Peter Bowles and me, we’ve done so many plays, you get to develop a kind of litmus paper approach. Most of the time, you get a play sent to you and it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. But when you see a play that really is the thing itself, one you know will catch the audience’s brain, it’s like the litmus paper turning green. “It’s like Hamlet to the extent that that play is about a man who sees a ghost who tells him to kill his uncle. And that’s all it’s about. But of course, it isn’t . It’s about everything else in life. That’s how I felt about this play.”
The publicity material points out that Old Masters is about forgery and fraud, both artistic and personal – which, as Fox agrees, sounds like vintage Pinter.
“It’s certainly in the territory that Harold works in, yes. That territory of what is honesty, what is integrity?”
Fox and Pinter last worked together twenty years ago, also on a play by Simon Gray, Quatermain’s Terms. Then, as now, Fox found it to be “a very happy association. I don’t know if people really know this, but Harold is a brilliant director.”
Reminded of the famous anecdote in which a young Alan Ayckbourn, when being directed by Pinter, asked what a character’s background was, only to be told “mind your own f – ing business”, Fox merely chuckles and remarks “We got along very harmoniously.”
Certainly it’s hard to imagine even the famously abrupt Pinter daring to get narky with Fox once that equally famous steely gaze has fallen on him. Critical descriptions like “chilly”, “cold-hearted”, and “aristocratic cruelty” have accrued to Fox’s list of characters down the years, particularly his memorable turn as De Gaulle’s would-be assassin in Day of the Jackal. “I played him just like any professional, really,” he says. “Someone who just didn’t give any room for anything else in his life except the job.”
One other question. Gray’s recent hit book, The Smoking Diaries, is partly a hack of rage inspired by his being forbidden to light up inside Britain’s rehearsal rooms. Is he managing the odd crafty one at Birmingham Rep? Fox pauses, perhaps considering whether he’s being asked to snitch. “He does occasionally have a puff,” he concedes. ________________________________________________________________ David Halliwell
(First published in Metro to coincide with Bolton Octagon’s production of Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs, 2004)
David Halliwell is alive and well*. Now into sixth decade, the Brighouse-born author of one of the key plays of the sixties, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, did not, he would like you to know, dispatch fellow playwright Joe Orton with a claw hammer. Nor did he then dispose of himself with an overdose of Nembutals. It’s important to stress this, because for years, Halliwell’s career has been dogged by people assuming that it was he, David, rather than Orton’s lover, Kenneth, who died on that day in 1967.
“It hasn’t really done me much good, that business. I’ve had companies doing my stuff without permission, and when they’ve had a talking to by my agent, they say ‘Oh, we thought he was dead’. People think I just did that one play in 1965 and then died a couple of years later. I’ve done lots of other things since, so I’m a bit sick and tired of that play, to be honest with you.“
Sick and tired of it he may be, but Little Malcolm is still a terrific play. Deft, playful, absurd, and laced with a caustic critique of the lurking savagery of would-be revolutionaries, it centres on a student drop-out in Huddersfield and his beef against a gutless world. Recruiting a bunch of gormless pals to his cause, he plans to pull down the citadels of bourgeois hegemony. The catalyst will be a fiendish plot against the professor who expelled him from Huddersfield Tech’s art department. Unfortunately, Malcolm and his fanatical co-conspirators never make it out of his freezing bed-sit.
Although first performed (in a production that marked Mike Leigh’s directorial debut) three years before the upheavals of the student revolts of 1968, Halliwell denies there was anything prophetic about his play. It was, in any case, based on Hitler’s grab for power rather than on the Maoist and Trotskyite movements that took hold of the campuses.
“The Nazis obviously made a big impression on people of my age. Well, they almost destroyed Europe. But as well as being pretty frightening, they were also seen as being a laughing stock, even during the war. People used to laugh at them. So, yes, there’s a lot of Hitler in Malcolm’s outlook and dreams of power.”
Despite this, Malcolm is still a recognisably human figure, a dynamic mix of frustrated ambition, comic fecklessness, and absurd self-delusion. It’s not surprising that Ewan McGregor was tempted back to the stage by the part for a major revival a few years back.
Bolton Octagon’s big draw for their new production is Jeff Hordley, best known as Emmerdale’s Cain Dingle, but in fact an accomplished stage actor too. Hordley has chosen to play not the central character but his scraggy cohort, Dennis Nipple, a would-be cutting-edge novelist and arch-deflater of Malcolm’s pomposity. It’s a shrewd choice, because although not strictly speaking the main event, Nipple is nevertheless a marvellous comic creation and arguably the most memorable character in the play.
It’s an unfortunate irony that Malcolm’s thwarted ambitions for greatness have been somewhat reflected in Halliwell’s career. After winning the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award back in 1965, bad luck seems to have dogged him. As well as that Kenneth Halliwell story, there was also that business with The Beatles.
“They came to see Little Malcolm, the lads, and they liked it. There was talk of me writing their next film. I even went to see them make a record at Abbey Road, Then later on I met Karel Reisz, the film director, at a party, and he told me he’d been offered to make a film of Little Malcolm with the four Beatles in it. I was overjoyed , because I knew it’d be a smash hit. Then he told me he’d turned it down because they couldn’t act, and that was that. I could have bloody strangled him.” *David Halliwell died in 2006, two years after this article appeared. Jim Burke, 2004 ________________________________________________________________
When excited kiddies gather on 5th November this year to torch a stuffed dummy and light up the sky with fireworks, their parents might like to reflect on the dubiousness of the proceedings. Sure, there’s the oft-asked question of just how appropriate it is to celebrate the burning alive of a fellow human being, even if he was the central figure in a conspiracy to commit mass murder. But there are other reasons that all those back-yard autos-da-fe might be considered a bit iffy. Turns out that Guy Fawkes wasn’t even burned at the stake after all. Nor, in fact, was he the chief figure in the Gunpowder Plot. Such are just two of the revelations arising from Frank McGuinness’ new play, Speaking Like Magpies, which winds up the RSC’s Gunpowder Plot season on, appropriately, November the Fifth.
The title refers to a remark made by James I’s, spymaster Robert Cecil. In Catholic houses, Cecil believed, even the birds were plotting to steal the king’s life. The codeword he used for the plotters, therefore, was magpies: thieving birds. But a play about the events which inspired Guy Fawkes Night, with the man himself only appearing in two scenes?
Says McGuinness: “He certainly wasn’t the leader. He was a mercenary, really. He was regarded as the muscle, and that’s how he saw himself. He didn’t see himself as a political leader or an intellectual conspirator. He knew how to achieve the big bang, and that was reason he was involved in it. Essentially he did what he was told.”
All fascinating stuff, of course, but if you’re expecting a dry, fact-laden history lesson from the multi-award-winning McGuinness, you’re likely to be disappointed.
“They’ll know pretty quickly they’re not going to get that,” says McGuinness. “For one thing, the opening scene is between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth, and they’re both dead. What I really didn’t want to do was to write a play about thirteen men in big hats, going around whispering behind cloaks. I’ve created a character called the Equivocator as one way to get round this. He’s a purely theatrical figure who’s like a shape-shifter. He can be what he wants to be, and can provoke extraordinary revelations from people.”
As a playwright, McGuinness is a bit of a shape-shifter himself. He’s a gay Catholic Irish writer, but in defiance of those who would pigeonhole him as a writer of gay, Irish dramas overlain with a Catholic sensibility, his subject matter has been eclectic to say the least. He’s written about the women in Marx’s life (Mary and Lizzie), the hostage crisis in Beirut (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me), and the Protestant experience of the First World War (Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme).
But, although ostensibly about events across the water (McGuinness is still based in Ireland), Speaking Like Magpies comes back to the core of McGuinness’ identity.
“As a gay writer, what I found fascinating about James I was the way he became an icon comparable to Elizabeth, even to the point of being eroticised by his subjects. And what was particularly unsettling for people was the fact that he was so clearly into young men. I found that a really subversive element to the play. “Also, if you go to an Irish writer and say we want you to write a play about religious extremism, well, fair enough, we’ve got plenty of that as well. Plus, if you want to write about the first great act of political terrorism in British history, well we come from that kind of background as well. “What I found intriguing was the mindset of those who would dare to do this act. And to justify it in the name of religion. I wanted to expose the massive danger of fanaticism. Because fanaticism is going to be the end of us. I have no doubt about that” _________________________________________________________
(first published in Metro to coincide with Northern Broadsides production of School For Scandal, 2005)
If Halifax-based theatre company Northern Broadsides were known only for dragging Shakespeare away from the plummy accents of Oxbridge, that alone would be enough to earn them a place in the theatrical history books.
There is, of course, far more to the company than that. Their inaugural, determinedly non-RP production Richard III back in 1992, demonstrated not only that the musicality of Shakespeare’s language didn’t necessarily depend on “love” being pronounced as “lav”, but that a change of accent was just the first step towards making for some of the most vigorous theatre in the country.
Under founder and artistic director Barrie Rutter (whose name is usually preceded with “ebullient”, “blunt” and, in a recent profile, “professional Yorkshireman”), their high-octane performances of not just Shakespeare, but obscure comedies (von Hovarth’s The Crack’d Pot), Miltonic drama (Samson Agonistes) and Greek Classics (Ted Hughes’ adaptation of Euripides’ Alcestis) has meant that their reputation has spread far beyond their base in a converted underground viaduct in the Calder Valley.
Their latest production, Sheridan’s School For Scandal, a sparkling and wonderfully vicious satire on slander and tittle-tattle, is, on the face of it, a surprising choice for this resolutely down-to-earth company. Restoration Comedy after all, represented the triumphant return of royalty and aristocracy after their ousting by Cromwell and his dour chums.
But as Rutter points out, Sheridan’s play is an example of late-Restoration Comedy, which means that he wrote it long after the toffs’ post-Puritan hurrah produced a spate of plays celebrating blueblood sex athletes and courtly fashions. School For Scandal concerns itself rather with the moral superiority of no-nonsense country folk over shallow and decadent metropolitans (which arguably makes it more apt for this company), all delivered in that classical tradition so beloved of Rutter.
“It’s always been a favourite play of mine,” says Rutter, who both directs and plays the decent but booby-ish Sir Peter Teazle, “ever since I first appeared in it in 1968 – my first professional production, in fact. It’s still very classically conceived in terms of the language. In 1777, there was still no electricity, so it had to be performed in a shared light where the text has to call attention to itself. Which is what I always love with the classics.” Rutter’s enthusiasm for the play is evident in the exuberance and energy of the production which, at nearly three hours length and with a mesh of plots, sub-plots, and counter-plots, still manages to whiz by. Drawing on the spirit of 18th century cartoonist James Gilray, its gallery of gossiping grotesques leads to a wealth of laugh-aloud moments. At the same time, Sheridan’s preoccupation with exposing the tendency of vice to lurk in the guise of virtue and sentiment, casts a shadow over the play’s otherwise sunny disposition. A chat with Rutter usually ends up with him sniping at some aspect of modern critical fads and, true to form, he audibly bridles at the observation that this is Restoration Comedy with a dark side. “Yes, they’re very fond now of saying ‘oh, they missed the dark side’, aren’t they? That’s all you bloody get sometimes, the DARK side. People miss the fucking celebration of theatre, the joy and the romance of it, the defeat of death. Not literally, but the way Ted Hughes meant it, through language and celebration.” You can see what he means. Whatever the sourness of Sheridan’s vision of 18th century hypocrisy, the abiding memories of this production are of the jolly oom-pa-pa music which punctuates the action – all performed by the impressively multi-tasking cast – , the roistering drinking songs of young Charles and his pals, the marvellously inventive comedy of the cartoonish gossipers (particularly Andrew Pollard’s Backbite, who inspires gales of laughter just by the way he oozes onto the stage), and the warm glow of reconciliation and fellow feeling that wraps up the evening. And there’s nowt wrong with that.
Jim Burke, 2005 _____________________________________________________________
(First published in Metro to coincide with English Touring Theatre’s production of Hamlet, 2005)
Recently, world renowned playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard returned from a fact-finding trip in what is regarded as Europe’s weirdest dictatorship, Belarus. Around the same time, his son Ed was preparing to spend a few months in a similarly inhospitable outpost of Europe, namely Elsinore, that Danish seat of murder, incest, and madness.
The more savvied up reader will recognise not only that this last place is actually fictional – the setting for Hamlet, in fact – but also that that opening sentence is a slightly tenuous way of bringing up the family connection. But, given Ed Stoppard’s occasional irritation over reviews which gratuitously drag his dad into it, some pretext had to be found.
“Yes, I do find it slightly annoying when reviewers write ‘Ed Stoppard, son of playwright Tom Stoppard’,” he says. “I just wonder what the hell they bother saying it for. But if it’s in some kind of context, I don’t mind. For instance, I’m quite happy for them to talk about my dad’s connection with Hamlet.”
Which is, come to think of it, a much better excuse for bringing it up. Because not only is Stoppard (that’s Ed) currently starring in English Touring Theatre’s production of the play that prompted Stoppard (that’s Tom) to write his celebrated existential skit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but ETT actually toured Stoppard senior’s play earlier this year.
Family connections notwithstanding, however, the thirty-year-old Stoppard has proved he’s very much his own man. He was a commanding Konstantine in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and gave a memorable performance as Adrien Brody’s bolshy younger brother in Polanski’s The Pianist. (“Polanski could be a pain in the arse,” he recalls, “but at the end of the day, we were all so enthused by him, we were totally prepared to do anything.”)
Despite his theatrical roots, though, Stoppard’s choice of career was by no means inevitable.
“I always thought I’d end up doing a proper job – which was anything but being in the theatre. Dad didn’t really encourage me to follow him into the family business, because he knew how hard it is to make a living at it. But I think he’s happy that I finally took an interest. And it is something for him that I’m now playing Hamlet. I mean, that’s the pinnacle, isn’t it?”
Stoppard speaks warmly of his director, Stephen Unwin (who last directed Hamlet for ETT in 1995, starring the then unknown Alan Cumming), with whom he found himself in instant accord from the outset.
“When I first sat down with Steve, I felt here was a guy I could work with. He’s got an absolute – reverence is maybe too strong a word – but the most important thing for him is the text. I’m really not interested in getting carried away with amazing special effects or trying to force the play into modern relevance, and neither is he. Keep it simple. After all, more than any other play, the words are all important in Hamlet. Steve has his own ideas about the play , but he didn’t impose them on us. He’s not a dictator. It’s something we worked out in the rehearsal room. He didn’t come in and announce that Hamlet wants to screw his mum then tell me to stick my hand up her skirt.”
Which is good news for Stoppard’s co-star, Anita Dobson. And also, you suspect, for that shadowy figure in the thirty-seventh row, struggling against the impulse to nudge his neighbour and mutter: “That’s my boy.”
(First published in Metro to coincide with the premiere of Sweet Little Thing, 2005)
Who said that one of the things they’d like to do before they die is to sleep with a black man? Was it a) Sharon Osbourne or b) Ron Atkinson? Well done if you chose the first one. But when Fulham-born playwright Roy Williams (who qualifies for Mrs Ozzy’s wish-list) heard those comments on a Channel 4 promo, he was sufficiently irritated to argue, in a newspaper think-piece, that the attitude behind them wasn’t so far from Big Ron’s big racist rant. An indication, he went on to observe, that all isn’t rosy in Britain’s multicultural garden.
Williams has returned to the attendant problems of multiculturalism again and again in his plays – which, collectively, have won him just about every major playwriting award going – from his early Liftoff, about inter-racial friendships, to his biggest hit to date, his terrific hard-as-nails National Theatre debut, Sing Yer Heart Out For the Lads, which picked out the hidden and not-so-hidden fascist mind-sets of a bunch of footie fans watching the 2000 England v Germany qualifier in a South London pub.
“The point about multi-culturalism,” says Williams “is that it’s here, there’s nothing anybody can do about it, it’s in the air that we breathe. Now, there are some who say it’s not working. Well, that’s life, I’m afraid. Sometimes life doesn’t work the way you want it to. And then there are those who think multiculturalism means we’re going to live happy ever after, like a rainbow with all these different colours getting along. Well, no, that’s not necessarily the case either.”
That the plot of Sing Yer Heart Out turned on a black characters’ collusion with his mates’ hateful attitudes is a fair indication that Williams is a playwright who doesn’t opt for obvious questions or pat conclusions.
His latest play, Sweet Little Thing takes as its starting point a black teenager, Kev, just out of a Young Offenders Institution and struggling with the impulse to succumb to the cultural stereotype expected of him both by his peers and by society. Gun crime and gangsta culture soon rear their ugly heads. Which raises a question: is Williams following the lead of right, even ultra-right thinking, in its depiction of black youth caught in a downward spiral of criminal behaviour?
“I am pointing to what can be seen as a lack of morality in young people, but I don’t take the route of saying if they don’t become better, they should just be discarded. Hopefully, my work is more complex than that. In fact, I’m not so much looking at a lack of morality, but of definition of who they are. Young people can get caught up in stereotypes and street cred, and what their friends think of them, and they find themselves in roles that don’t make them happy. My play’s about them trying to find themselves as young people again, without the influences of what’s going on in the streets.”
At 37, Williams’s teenage years are a distant memory. So how did he go about immersing himself in the world of his troubled protagonist?
“Hearing the way young people speak and act, it’s really not that different from the way I was when I was their age. The language of the streets has changed, but I try to keep abreast, and the only way to do that is to listen. The language you hear, it’s a bit like music. You hear a melody and it stays in your head.
“Teenage angst is pretty much common to every generation, so it’s possible to draw on memory as a writer. But it really does feel as though they’re being made to grow up so fast these days. It’s a fast food culture. Everything’s quick. There’s no striving for things. Should we be surprised if some of them go off the rails?”