Thursday 23 February 2012

Theatre Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night (Richmond Theatre)

It’s Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece and perhaps the masterpiece of the American theatre. It’s ranked fifth on the National Theatre’s survey of the 20th century’s “most significant” plays. It’s the best play about the past’s ability to trap and control us. It’s “the saddest play ever” (per Richard Eyre). It raises the family theme to “mythic heights” (Pauline Kael). It has “the greatest last line that’s ever been written” (Harold Pinter).

Such comments suggest a monument: a play that we should all bow down before in reverence. But watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the theatre it’s surprising just how un-monumental it feels. Rather, this powerful and poignant play - wrenched painfully out of its author’s own family history, his memories of his morphine-addicted mother, his skinflint actor-father and his lush of a brother - seems to me to achieve its greatness through its concentrated intimacy, adding up to a compulsive portrait of familial conflict and familial love that, for all its specificity for O’Neill, stimulates very personal feelings of recognition in the viewer.

The play was last seen in London in 2000 in an extremely intense production by Robin Phillips that gave a subtle expressionist flourish - suggestive of ghostly reverie - to the proceedings. Anthony Page’s major new revival - which opened at Richmond Theatre last night and tours briefly before settling into the Apollo in April - doesn’t have a sense of atmosphere to match Phillips’s. Page - a director I always think of as a “stay-out-of-the-play’s-way”-type - takes a traditional, straightforward approach. Lez Brotherson’s wood-panelled set (nicely lit by Mark Henderson) is merely serviceable and Gareth Owen’s sound design is spare and unobtrusive.

The play has been trimmed, however: usually coming in at around 3 hours 30 minutes it’s down to a running time of under 3 hours here. There are no significant losses - and arguably some gains-  to the cuts: a lot of tedious poetry-quoting has been ditched. But there’s certainly an oddity to the placing of the interval: a lengthy, 1 hour 45 minute first half (which clearly tested the endurance capacity of certain irritatingly fidgety audience members) is followed by an hour-long second half comprising Act 4.

There is, inevitably, some fine-tuning still to be done here, but the production casts its spell, primarily through the strength of the performances. Without sentimentalising, David Suchet makes his James Tyrone a more genial and sympathetic figure than most actors have managed: he’s touchingly sincere in his expressions of love for his wife and moving when reflecting upon his sense of wasted potential, or recalling the early poverty that’s at the root of Tyrone’s miserliness. Laurie Metcalf, last seen on the UK boards at the NT in 2001 in All My Sons (a.k.a my all-time favourite production), digs deeply into the guilt, anger and fear that have driven Mary back to morphine, writhing in anguish as painful memories surface, radiating maternal concern and then pointing the finger of blame with devastating ferocity. The performance lacks the lyricism and sheer vocal gorgeousness that Jessica Lange brought to the role in Phillips’s production, and Metcalf may need to find a stronger sense of becalmed serenity in Mary’s doped nostalgic reveries. But as it stands she contributes a twitchily intense and sometimes frankly disturbing turn.

And as the sons, adding their perspectives to their parents’ refrains of blame and complicity, affection and accusation, Trevor White as Jamie and Kyle Soller as Edmund are just right, with Soller (what a great actor he is!) especially moving and impressive as the consumptive aspiring poet: his delivery of Edmund’s florid late speech about his connection to the sea is particularly fine.

Despite the intensity of the key scenes, the ending feels strangely muted and anti-climactic here: Metcalf’s muttered, rapid recitation of Mary’s final aria is a daring choice of delivery but it doesn't resonate (there were complaints about inaudibility from some audience members) and might need to be rethought in future performances. Still, Page’s production is in fine shape already, and looks likely to only get stronger as time goes on. Good enough reason to sign up for an emotionally bruising but highly rewarding evening in the company of the tormented Tyrones.

The production runs at Richmond until March 3rd, tours to Milton Keynes (12-17 March) and Theatre Royal Glasgow (26-31 March) and moves into the Apollo from 2 April.

Friday 17 February 2012

Propeller-spinning: An Interview with Chris Myles

Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller has been responsible for some of the most distinctive and memorable Shakespeare productions of the last fifteen years. Equal parts reverent and irreverent, endlessly inventive but rooted in tradition, Propeller’s wide-ranging approach combines imaginative physical elements with scrupulous attention to the text and has resulted in productions of often startling inventiveness, emotion and wit, productions that make you view plays afresh.

Key to the company’s success has been its versatile ensemble of actors. The set-up works like this: once an actor has created a part in a production he automatically receives an offer of a role in the next play. Inevitably, some have chosen to move on, but among those who’ve stayed is Chris Myles who has appeared in every single one of the company’s major productions since 1997.

Among a multitude of diverse roles he’s been a fishnet-stocking-clad Maria in Twelfth Night, a befuddled, bowler-hatted Vincentio in The Taming of the Shrew and a whip-cracking, lavender-booted Abbess arriving to a chorus of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” in The Comedy of Errors. He’s also met a memorably gory end as Buckingham in Richard III and flung a scarf in the face of yours truly as a rabble-rousing Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. He’s currently to be seen doubling as a Montgomery-inspired Exeter and a wry Alice in Henry V, and as Camillo in The Winter’s Tale. As the company prepared for their week’s run at the Lowry Theatre in Salford I spoke to Chris for British Theatre Guide about his time with Propeller, and what keeps him on board.

It is, he says, the company’s collaborative ethos and its spirit of “inclusiveness” that he finds especially appealing. “Ed’s rehearsal process is different to that of a lot of other directors. In traditional rehearsals, you meet at the read-through and then work on your individual scenes. With Propeller you’re in every day and you feel completely included in the whole process. If you don’t have lines in a scene you’ll be given something to do, whether it’s banging on a pot or playing the flute. And when it comes to ideas we can all pitch in and contribute.

“It’s a bit like Henry, in a way. Ed’s the leader; we’re the troops. But he values our input. It really does create this instant camaraderie. In addition, we’re all on the same money, so there’s none of that ‘Oh, your agent got you a better deal than mine did, did they?’”
That inclusiveness also extends to performance and the company’s interaction with the audience. “We always seek out moments where we can move through the auditorium, or appeal to the audience directly, finding ways to include and involve them.”

Discussing the wide mix of influences and references that makes Propeller’s work so exciting, Myles affirms that it’s always “about telling the story. For example, The Pogues song [‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’] in Henry. That line: ‘But when we got back, labeled parts one to three…’ The Chorus wants to tell the story of a hero, and this song speaks about the experience of war. Again, anything is permissible - so long as it serves the story that we’re telling.”
Henry V was the first play that the company staged in 1997, and they first performed The Winter’s Tale in 2005. Have there been any surprises in returning to the plays for the current tour? “Well, Henry V was so long ago now that it really did feel like working on a new play this time,” Myles says. “The 1997 production was promenade and about a third of it was performed outside the Watermill Theatre.
The Winter’s Tale was also at the Watermill - on that tiny postage-stamp stage - and my main memory of it is a feeling of claustrophobia. The sheer scale of the production makes it different this time around. And of course I was playing the Shepherd then so had his perspective on events, whereas this time, as Camillo, it’s a very different journey.”  

Are there any moments that he especially looks forward to in the current productions? “I really love marching into the French court as Exeter in Henry V [below]. And appearing in disguise in the festival scene in The Winter’s Tale is a definite highlight.” (Ah, that disguise. To give away more would be unfair to those yet to see the production. But let’s just say that it’s a classic “Myles moment.”)

Does he see the two plays as complements in any way? “It’s always about creating two separate experiences for the audience and of course these plays are very different. But it’s surprising, the various echoes that occur. Polixenes and Camillo’s lines about ‘honour’ in The Winter’s Tale make me think of Henry’s speech to the soldiers before Agincourt, for example. One thing about performing two Shakespeares is that it resolves the authorship question for you to some extent. No way do you think that these plays weren’t written by the same person.”

With regard to Propeller’s intense touring schedules, Myles is enthusiastic. “It keeps plays alive, performing them in different spaces. Plus, it’s great fun, going around the world with your mates. We’ve now instituted ‘Leisure Friday’ when we’ll get together for a game of football, or to go to a gallery, or see a film. Of course, you’ve got to enjoy travelling. I love seeing cities, including English cities: Salford, Newcastle… My family has been able to come along on some of the international dates. My wife came with me to Girona, Verona, Madrid. My kids had a wonderful time in Boston.”

Asked about some of the incidents outlined by his long-time cohort Tony Bell on the latter’s fabulous blog - Chris, Bell writes, has “rescued me from Mexican gangsters, Filipino lady boys, the Watermill river and incurable ‘foot in mouth’ disease” - Myles laughs. “Tony does tend to wander off sometimes with his head in the clouds and has to be brought back from the brink. In Mexico we did get mistaken for anti-government guerrillas. It was the balaclavas we were wearing for that production … The TV crews turned up.” Life on a Propeller tour can be as dramatic off-stage as on-stage, evidently.
Myles also speaks of the differences in responses to the productions country-to-country, including American audience’s occasional discomfort with some of the more low-brow, ribald elements in the plays. He singles out the audiences at the Shakespeare Festival in Neuss as especially responsive and clued-up: “They ‘get’ the most obscure jokes.”

The issue of “all-male companies” has been raised again recently, with Jo Caird, in a blog for, highlighting the “chronic underrepresentation of women on the British stage” and suggesting that she would boycott the work of companies such as Propeller. What’s Myles’s take? “We’re doing the plays as they were done originally. And there are things in them that resonate in a different way when it’s a male actor saying those lines as a female character. There’s a reason that so many of Shakespeare’s heroines cross-dress and it’s because boys were originally playing these roles... I should also point out that women are very present in Propeller, from our stage management team to our executive producer, Caro MacKay.
“When this issue comes up at talkbacks we often say, ‘Well, why not do an all-female production, like the Kathryn Hunter and Janet McTeer Taming of the Shrew?’ Many people say that Kathryn Hunter’s Lear was the best they’ve ever seen, and the same with Fiona Shaw’s Richard II…
“That being said, I do have female friends in the business who will comment ‘So you’re playing another role I’d love to play.’ Sometimes all you can say in response is ‘Sorry…’”

Does he approach playing a female character differently in any way? “No. I think that the biggest mistake you can make is to think that you have to approach it differently. Acting always requires a ‘leap’ of some sort: of age, of ability. Gender is no different.”

Myles, who is also a local councillor in Hackney, was drawn to acting from a fairly young age, and recalls being inspired by his father who performed with an amateur theatre group. “I remember going to see him in a farce. He got a lot of laughs, and I was impressed by that. Then I did plays at school. And at University I found that I wasn’t going to lectures but I was going to rehearsals. So it became clear that that was where the interest lay.”

Most Propeller followers have a wish-list for future productions. Does Myles have a longing to do certain plays or to take on certain roles? “Hamlet and Iago. Of course most actors would say those two, but it doesn’t hurt to mention them in print, just in case your director happens to be reading.

 “I also think that it would be fascinating to see Propeller do a non-Shakespeare play. I think that’s something that will happen, long-term. There’s no reason why our ways of working on Shakespeare wouldn’t work for a range of other plays.”
With such an expansive vision for the future, and actors as talented and versatile as Myles on board, Propeller, it seems certain, will keep spinning creatively for many years to come.
Propeller tour Henry V and The Winter’s Tale until July this year. See the Propeller website for full dates and details, and catch them wherever you can.

Monday 13 February 2012

Theatre Review: Muswell Hill (Orange Tree Theatre)

Muswell Hill is the third play by Torben Betts to be staged at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in the last 11 years. I missed the first, Clockwatching, in 2001 but did catch the second, The Company Man, in 2010 [review here], and found it to be an uneven but sometimes very beautiful family drama that was most memorable, in Adam Barnard’s production, for a staggering performance by Isla Blair that didn’t receive anything like the acclaim that it deserved. Directed by Sam Walters, Betts’s new play is less structurally ambitious than The Company Man, and without a central performance to equal Blair’s. But it’s a more focused and consistent piece of work, and one that offers some considerable pleasures.

The drama unfolds on a nicely-detailed kitchen set by Robyn Wilson (one which recent Bush Theatre attendees will have fun comparing to those in The Kitchen Sink and Our New Girl) in the North London flat of a young couple, Mat (Leon Ockenden) and Jess (Jasmine Hyde), who are hosting a dinner party. Those attending are two garrulous chums of the couple - the twitchy firebrand Simon (Dan Starkey) and the pernickety widow Karen (Katie Hayes) - and Jess’s adopted sister Annie (Tala Gouveia), an aspiring (and, it emerges, none-too-talented) actress/singer who brings along her fiance, the much older Tony (Timothy Block), an oily and pretentious theatre director who’s teaching Annie “all about Shakespeare. And David Hare.” It’s the 13th January 2010, and news of the Haiti earthquake is filtering through on the group’s iPhones and on Mat’s ever-present laptop. And as the wine flows freely, tensions and anxieties predictably begin to surface, as it emerges that the assembled company are all, in one way or another, dissatisfied or disappointed with the direction of their lives.

It’s an exceedingly familiar - even shopworn - dramatic set-up that Betts has resorted to here, and the spirits of Alan Ayckbourn and, especially, Mike Leigh loom a little too largely for comfort at times. Betts’s play may also put those who saw it in mind of David Lewis’s How To Be Happy, which was staged at the Orange Tree last November, and boasted similarly sharp humour and a final melancholy twist, and which also attempted to place middle-class malaise in the context of wider global and political concerns.

I liked How To Be Happy better than Muswell Hill overall, and not only for its musical selections (though Schubert and The Ronettes beat Mozart and Norah Jones in my book). But in spite of its derivativeness, Betts’s play still has much to recommend it. In particular, it brilliantly skewers the oddities of contemporary communication and a world in which global news stories form a mere “backdrop” to domestic travails. The characters squint and jab at their iPhones, responding to the events unfolding in Haiti with knee-jerk, superficial sympathy, and often only half-heartedly engaging with those who are physically present. In this atmosphere, the often ghastly and pedantic Simon’s rants against the state of the world - which culminate in a startling tirade against his hosts - gain a certain piquancy and force. When he exhorts those assembled to “riot, riot, riot!” there’s a collective in-take of breath in the auditorium.

A strength of Betts’s writing is its even-handedness. His characters are drawn in more than one dimension: he doesn’t dash to demonise them, and instead allows the audience’s sympathies to shift throughout. (I must admit that I failed to warm to Ockenden’s Mat at any point, though whether that’s due to Betts’s characterisation or the actor’s interpretation is difficult to judge.) But Gouveia, Hayes, Block and Starkey pitch their performances perfectly, while Jasmine Hyde beautifully and understatedly conveys the discontent that has led Jess to become involved with another man. The quality of these performances and the sharpness of Betts’s writing at its best make for a witty and perceptive evening that gets the Orange Tree’s spring season off to a sprightly start.

Note: I’d recommend a pre-show supper for this one, since the monkfish stew smells very, very good.

Muswell Hill is booking until 10th March. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Friday 10 February 2012

Film Review: A Closed Book (Ruiz, 2010)

I still haven’t got around to seeing the late Raul Ruiz’s The Mysteries of Lisbon (2011), the final film by the Chilean auteur which made several critics’ Best Of 2011 lists. But I did just have the pleasure of seeing Ruiz’s penultimate work, A Closed Book, a poorly received but, I thought, nifty and entertaining adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel. It’s a small-scale piece - a chamber thriller, really - that unfolds in the grand country estate (Knebworth!) of Sir Paul (Tom Conti), a blind writer  who seeks to hire an amanuensis to help him complete his memoirs. Passing up on a variety of male applicants (introduced in an amusing credit sequence), the candidate he chooses is the softly-spoken Jane (Daryl Hannah). But as the pair set to work on the manuscript, it’s an uneasy rapport that’s established, and Jane’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange.

Doffing its cap to the blind-person-in-peril sub-genre, A Closed Book teeters on the TV movie-ish brink at times. But Ruiz’s cool, wry style - which provides some arresting moments of disorientation - and a witty, nicely inflected performance from Conti give the proceedings class. Moreover, Paul’s blindness isn’t just there to accentuate the scares: this is a movie that’s deeply concerned with perception, and especially the perception of art-works. (A key scene involves a jigsaw puzzle of Holbein’s The Ambassadors.) And there are some enjoyably unsettling moments as we witness Jane giving Paul information that contradicts what we’re seeing in the frame.

A Botoxed or otherwise surgery-ed Hannah has become one of those actresses who - rather distractingly - doesn’t quite look like herself anymore. But she gives a decent performance that shifts intriguingly from sweet concern to possible malevolence. Miriam Margolyes (non-Botoxed, I think it’s safe to assume) brings bustling normality to her scenes as Paul’s Scottish housekeeper. And there’s a hilarious cameo for Elaine Paige (!) as a canvassing Conservative candidate (!!) who shows up at the house.

A Closed Book unravels somewhat in its final stretch, when it gets to its - over-explicitly delivered - revelations. (Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Adair’s having-his-cake-and-eating-it conclusion manages to implicate critics as dastardly beings on the one hand and to completely vindicate them on the other.) The pay-off doesn’t match the build-up, and may leave you feeling a little deflated. But since the build-up is most of the movie, there’s a good deal to enjoy here.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Theatre Review: The Winter's Tale (Propeller; Lyceum, Sheffield & touring)

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” states young Mamillius, ill-starred scion of that Oracle-proclaimed “jealous tyrant” King Leontes and his falsely-accused Queen, Hermione. Judging by the overall mood of Propeller’s production, Ed Hall would seem to agree with the young prince’s statement. Make no mistake, the dizzying tonal shifts in Shakespeare’s genre-bending late romance are accomplished with characteristic Propeller panache here. The action moves from a dark, steely Sicilia to a riotous, colourful, music-fest of a Bohemia presided over by an ageing rock God Autolycus (Tony Bell, natch) and complete with back-up singing sheep and Beyoncé  dance routines. And yet for all the anarchic joy that that sequence generates, the overriding mood of Hall’s production is melancholic, its final flourish offering one of those indelible Propeller moments that takes you by surprise and yet feels exactly right. Reunions and reconciliations accomplished, there’s a memorable sting in this Tale.

Paired up with their solid but (to me) slightly disappointing Henry V, Propeller return to pretty much peak form with this hugely entertaining production, which suggests a mixture of self-made adult nightmare and child’s playtime dream-world. It’s an enchanting , funny and very moving staging that makes sense of the play’s uncanny amalgam of disturbing psychological study and restorative pastoral fantasy.

As Leontes - “an Othello who is his own Iago” to use Harold Bloom's nifty appraisal of the character - Robert Hands gives a subtle, astutely judged performance: he unravels without grandstanding. Richard Dempsey is an elegant, moving Hermione, especially strong in a (brilliantly done) trial scene. Vince Leigh’s Paulina is stately and commonsensical, defiant but un-shrewish as she makes the case for the Queen. John Dougall and Karl Davies are warm and hilarious as the Shepherds. And the incomparable Mr. Bell  is a perfect cutpurse MC, by turns arthritic and spry, strewing thongs and condoms. In an especially deft touch Mamillius (Ben Allen, who’s also a fetching Perdita in the Bohemia scenes) remains a ghostly presence at key moments, giving  the most notorious stage direction in Shakespeare a brilliant twist. But for all the inventive conceits it’s the heart-wrenching, exquisitely judged ending that haunts the most, and that lifts a very good production into true greatness. A sad tale’s best for winter, indeed.

The production tours with Henry V until July. Full information on dates and venues details at the Propeller website.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Theatre Review: The House of Bernarda Alba (Almeida)

The last time The House of Bernarda Alba was seen in London it came complete with song and dance: Triptic’s dynamic production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musicalisation of Lorca’s 1936 play was one of the highlights of the Union Theatre’s programming last year. Now the play returns to London, again in an adapted form. Bijan Sheibani’s new production at the Almeida relocates the action from southern Spain to rural Iran, in an attempt to give Lorca’s classic about a tyrannical matriarch maintaining a stranglehold over her five daughters a fresh, contemporary context.

It’s a transition that promises more than it actually delivers, though. The play’s engagement with issues of gender and oppression can’t be said to be illuminated by the location shift, which, if anything, feels entirely cosmetic: a little light name-changing here, some Dashti song there. Otherwise, Emily Mann’s translation stays close to the structure and imagery of the original, including its none-too-subtle sexual symbolism. (Yep, that ol’ stallion is still out there in the corral, seeming to grow to “twice its size, filling the darkness!”)

Aided by a nicely-detailed set by Bunny Christie, an excellent sound design by Dan Jones and evocative lighting by Jon Clark (plus an effective visual flourish that concludes each Act as a photographic portrait) Sheibani’s production has atmosphere and visual richness. What it doesn’t quite have is the sustained, tightly-coiled intensity that the piece really requires. The drama seems set at an oddly low temperature here, and never reaches boiling point. Key elements - from Bernarda’s face-off with her servant to the passion of Adela (Hara Yannas) for her half-sister's fiance Pepe el Romano (renamed Parviz Rumani here) - feel muted; they lack bite. LaChiusa’s adaptation dug out the feminist underpinnings of the piece, locating a withering critique of patriarchy and its tendency to pit women against each other. Here, in contrast, the play seems considerably less radical, a minor ode to the neuroses of “women without men.”

One of the production’s primary draws is the casting of the Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo - so memorable in  House of Sand and Fog (2003) and The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008) - in the title role. It’s an absorbing performance because Aghdashloo brings an entirely unexpected quality to Bernarda: namely, sexuality. Whether this makes much sense in terms of the character as written is debatable. But it does set up an intriguing tension between the character’s statements on women’s propriety and the languid, sultry cadences in which she delivers them. (This Bernarda’s case for female repression is undermined every time she opens her mouth.) Aghdashloo's Bernarda doesn’t quite have the fearsome authority that actresses such as Glenda Jackson, Lynn Farleigh and Beverley Klein have brought to the role, since Aghdashloo's voice can’t help but seduce: it turns curses into caresses. (It’s the exact opposite of a Jackson voice.) But she still provides the production with its primary source of interest, though Jane Bertish is shrewd as Bernarda’s servant, and, of the daughters, the always-inventive Amanda Hale as Elmira (Matirio) makes a strong impression, externalising her character’s distress with the unnerving transparency that she brought to her Laura in Rupert Goold’s 2007 Glass Menagerie. Still, this production - elegant as it undoubtedly is - never truly ignites.

The production runs until 10th March. Further information at the Almeida website.