Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival (Orange Tree)

Orlando James in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall
(Photo:Robert Day)

As Paul Miller and Imogen Bond remind us in their programme note to the Orange Tree’s new Directors’ Festival,  “[d]irector training is part of the Orange Tree’s DNA”, with successful alumni going on to become artistic directors of the Open Air Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, Birmingham Rep, and other high-profile venues. During founder Sam Walters’s tenure, the fruits of the labour of the theatre’s trainees were presented at the end of each Spring season in the “Directors’ Showcase”, resulting in terrific productions of such challenging plays as Jon Fosse’s Winter [review], Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke [review] and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, the latter featuring a galvanising performance from Hamlet-to-be Paapa Essiedu.

The End of Hope (Photo: Robert Day)

Now, the OT has teamed up with St. Mary’s University to develop an MA course in Theatre Directing, and presents the work of the first graduates of the programme over ten days. The five plays staged  - James Graham’s Albert’s Boy, Brad Birch’s Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall, David Ireland’s The End of Hope, Enda Walsh’s Misterman, and Kate Tempest’s Wasted - are all contemporary works, and while it’s a shame that some older plays have not been engaged with, the high quality of the five productions is bracing.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall (Photo: Robert Day)
Directed by Hannah de Ville and Max Elton respectively, Birch’s Even Stillness… and Ireland’s The End of Hope are both dark-hued male/female two-handers that receive pin-sharp productions here. Even Stillness … is particularly jaw-dropping. Men in meltdown appear to be a speciality of Birch’s, and while I wasn’t much of a fan of his play The Brink [review], which was produced at the OT last year, Even Stillness… is much more effective in its spiky take on the existential anxiety beneath the daily grind.

The play’s nameless protagonists are a couple undergoing two parallel corporate hells: Georgina Campbell’s Her is subjected to harassment from male colleagues, while Orlando James’s Him oscillates between cockiness and defeat: “My degree in business studies did not prepare me for being this inconsequential.”  The couple’s unhappiness ends up leading to revolt, gloriously rendered in an anarchic destruction scene scored to “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s an apt choice of song, as Birch’s play comes close to romanticising the couple as a form of resistance before complicating that position in the final stretch.

Birch’s default mode of swearing and scatology can become tiresome, but he’s good at honing in on divergent, discordant aspects of the contemporary world, from impotent rage at foreign wars to the embarrassment of not having contactless. The opening up of the OT’s floor may be in danger of becoming a fetish, but de Ville’s fleet, highly physical production – with a witty design by Max Dorey that freshly puts the orange into Orange Tree – is consistently dynamic and boasts brave, exposing performances from Campbell and James. 

Misterman (Photo: Robert Day)

A tour de force turn also ignites Grace Vaughan’s visceral, gripping production of Enda Walsh’s Misterman, with Ryan Donaldson’s exhilarating performance as Thomas capturing every shade of the volatility and vulnerability of a character whose harsh judgements on the inhabitants of his town inevitably lead to violence. Whether viciously ventriloquising the voices of his foes, or settling into a moment of repose as he softly sings a hymn at his father’s grave,  Donaldson’s physical inhibition and command of Walsh’s wild, poetic text, with its Beckettian and Biblical echoes, is masterful, and Richard Bell’s rich sound design pulls us further into the protagonist’s disordered psyche.  

Wasted (Photo: Robert Day)

The writing of Wasted, by the popular Kate Tempest, is less assured: punctuated by self-conscious poetic sections, this tale of three twentysomething friends, each questioning their life direction as they look back to carefree days of clubbing, is sometimes too explicit in its approach to its themes. Still, Jamie Woods’s often very funny production keeps the energy level infectiously high, and Daniel Abbott, Gemma Lawrence and Alexander Forsyth sketch out a believable rapport as the trio, with Forsyth particularly effective in conveying the condition of the title in a hilarious display of morning-after befuddlement.

Albert's Boy (Photo: Robert Day)

First seen at the Finborough in 2005, Albert’s Boy by the prolific James Graham is more sober, lower-keyed fare, and Kate Campbell’s production treats it with tenderness and wit. The play, Graham's second, dramatises an encounter between Albert Einstein and a friend, Peter Bucky, a Korean War veteran, in the former's study in 1953. As the men catch up, it becomes apparent that each has a contrasting view on warfare, with Einstein crippled by guilt over his role in the development of the atom bomb.  

Some of the dialogue in Graham's play smacks of flaunted research, but Andrew Langtree and Robert Gill - whose Einstein is sockless, avuncular, haunted, and finally disconsolate - make it a compelling duet. They're aided by a another good design by Dorey, with warmly inviting lighting that turns nightmarish in a final expressionist flourish. Throughout, Campbell's sensitive, unfussy staging is perfectly attuned to the material.

That goes for all the productions here, in fact; the work of a talented and enterprising group of directors who would all seem to have bright futures ahead of them.

The Directors' Festival runs until 29th July. Further information here.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Book Review: Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, 2017)

Nicholas Hytner’s twelve year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming; the inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season allegedly prompted one NT regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the NT’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the NT (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those of us who saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the NT were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach. The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the NT, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

But, in totality, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287). Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-NT musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the NT’s workings.

Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the  personalities of the directors and actors and designers  involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of  another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe. 

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the NT receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the NT job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the NT.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying  “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation.” In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play: “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26). As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions  with general reflections on theatre as an art-form,  this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.