Thursday 29 August 2013

Theatre Review [sort of]: Edward II (National Theatre)

As much as I find his work a pleasure to teach, the plays of Christopher Marlowe don’t seem to suit me on stage, somehow. I experienced my first-ever faint during a blisteringly hot performance of Doctor Faustus at the Globe back in 2011 and, last night, a combination of sickness (me, again) and total aversion to the production (my companion) drove us from the first preview of the National Theatre’s highly anticipated Edward II at half-time - something I really hate to do. Still, I wanted to record just a few impressions of the first half of the production here.

The evening began with director Joe Hill-Gibbins taking to the stage to confess that the company hadn’t had time to complete a full dress rehearsal due to the technical complexity of the show. Given this, Hill-Gibbins’s team are to be praised for delivering a surprisingly confident first performance under difficult circumstances. The strainingly “inventive” staging that the director has given the play is another matter entirely, though.

It’s not so much dramaturg Zoe Svendsen’s tinkering with the structure and coarsening up of some of the language that’s the problem, or the design’s - often effective and beautiful - mixing of elements. (Sparkly gold capes meet skinny jeans.) Rather, the production’s principal bone of contention is its recourse to grainy, shaky, sub-Dogme 95 video footage to capture the behind-the-scenes goings-on in Edward’s court (the Barons’ scheming, an Eyes Wide Shut-meets-XXL orgy), the images relayed on two large, dizziness-inducing screens on either side of the Olivier auditorium. Initially striking, these interludes gradually become irritations – as does the use of spelling-it-out captions as a York Notesy gloss for anyone having trouble following the plot. (Sam Mendes’s Old Vic Richard III set the precedent.)

Beneath these embarrassments, some interesting things are happening, it must be said. There’s the prodigious John Heffernan, for one, capturing every nuance of Edward’s vulnerability, childishness, pomposity and passion. There’s a delectably swaggering Kyle Soller who gets a superb through-the-auditorium entrance that’s truly worthy of the upstart Gaveston. And, as in his productions of The Glass Menagerie and The Village Bike, Hill-Gibbins once more proves adept at making some intimate scenes resonate (witness Edward abasing himself before Gaveston and a lovely mother/son interlude between Vanessa Kirby’s Queen Isabella and Bettrys Jones’s Prince Edward) – when he’s not swamping the play in fussy gimmickry, that is. The memory of such moments might just be enough to lure me back to this production later in its run, under, I hope, more auspicious circumstances than yesterday’s turned out to be.

The production is booking until 26th Oct. It’s running time is 2 hours 45 minutes according to the programme but apparently the performance lasted an extra half an hour last night.

Friday 16 August 2013

Another Sorta Fairytale: A Second Conversation with Samuel Adamson About The Light Princess

Samuel Adamson: Photo by Simon Annand

Back in summer 2008 I had the opportunity to talk with Samuel Adamson about The Light Princess, the musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s 1864 fairy-tale that the playwright was collaborating on with Tori Amos for the National Theatre. (You can read that interview here.) At the time Adamson confirmed that there was still “a lot of work” to be done on the show, and, a full five years on, The Light Princess will be making its much-anticipated debut at the NT’s Lyttleton in September. In the interim, Amos and Adamson have worked on refashioning and redrafting the piece, while not slacking on their other individual projects. The ever-industrious Amos has released four major studio albums in the intervening five years, while continuing to tour extensively everywhere from Anaheim to Zabrze. Adamson, meanwhile, has had his plays Mrs. Affleck and Frank & Ferdinand produced at the National, contributed to Headlong’s 9/11-themed Decade project, and adapted Alexander Ostrovsky’s Larisa and the Merchants for the Arcola. His latest work, Gabriel, is currently at Shakespeare’s Globe. Adamson kindly took some time out from a busy rehearsal schedule to talk frankly and insightfully about the evolution of The Light Princess, the pleasures and challenges involved in the show’s development - and how “music is it.” Here’s our conversation.

AR: Sam, it’s been five years (!) since we first spoke about The Light Princess. Musicals famously take a long time to develop and you said back in 2008 that there was “a lot of work” still to be done on the show: that you and Tori were “still discovering it.” I’m sure that you won’t want to give too much away at this stage, but could you talk a little about some of the ways in which The Light Princess has evolved in these last few years, in terms of its characterisation, structure, themes, tone? In what ways has it become, as Tori said in an interview, “a different show” from that which you had five years ago?

SA: Both Tori and I have been working on lots of other things in that time, and yes, all musicals have a long gestation. Most take at least this long. What I really think is this: Tori and I didn’t know each other that well when we started. We thought we did, but we were too reverential with each other back then. Tori’s a tough cookie, but we’re both quite polite people. She did her work, I did mine, we tiptoed around the fact that often we were not writing with one voice. I suppose I was a bit awed by the enormity of her talent. She’s an astoundingly original composer. I don’t think she’s written one melody I haven’t been moved or surprised by in some way, often because of its harmonic complexity, those wild chord structures that come deep from her gut.

And yet reading back over the interview, I can see why Tori and I are still together. We have a mutual respect for each other’s work and the different demands on us. There was hope for us as a writing team, back then. Hope that given time we would be rigorous with each other, that we would have the courage to really analyse whether we were speaking as one. It’s a cliché, but it’s like a marriage. I needed to spend a lot of time with Tori, really get to know her as a writer and person. She needed to do the same with me. We needed to become friends and sparring partners, and leave the project to then come back to it. We needed to really ask ourselves how writing a musical was different from our other work, even when that other work was collaborative. At first, I spent a lot of time fitting in with Tori’s schedule and travelling to work with her in Cornwall. That’s changed over time: she’s worked a lot with me in London, as well. We’re not afraid to be honest with each other, to question each other. So the piece has evolved because Tori and I have evolved. Whatever happens to our musical, we are a proper team. I haven’t really answered your question, but regarding all four of those things you mention, we have been on journeys related to our own lives and our relationship to each other. So big changes! Honestly, when I gave the interview last time, we were nowhere near finishing, and I knew that, I bloody knew it, Alex, which is why I said “there’s still a lot to do”!

What have been some of the main challenges that you and Tori have had in redrafting and rewriting the piece? How has the process of reworking the text compared to some of the other adaptations you’ve worked on: All About My Mother, for example?

Although The Light Princess started with an existing story, we have departed from that source in all sorts of ways. It’s not an adaptation in the sense All About My Mother was. The form of the play of Mother is unlike the original film, because film and stage are completely different. But the content didn’t differ, so much. This really has been about building everything from the ground up: characters, story, themes, music, lyrics, dialogue. And most of the story is conveyed by music, by song; it’s unlike a “straight” play in every way imaginable, so the process has been unlike any play I’ve worked on. It’s a musical, and a music-dominant one: it’s nearly through-sung. The challenges? Being patient, I think. With each other and with our collaborators and with our characters, who have often needed wrangling. Also, the challenge of making songs truly dramatic. In a musical, or at least in the integrated musical Tori and I found ourselves wanting to write, at the end of 90% of the songs or musical sequences, the character must be in a different place from the place where he or she started. And in 100% of them, the story must have moved on, and moved on engagingly. Songs are dramatic scenes, in the theatre. This isn’t necessarily true of other kinds of song-writing, where you can swirl around an emotion or an event but the character (if there is one) or the narrative (if there is one) can remain unchanging. You can have a song about a break-up in a relationship and the emotion of the song can be extremely powerful because everything except the music is essentially in stasis. You broke my heart, you broke my heart, you broke my heart you bastard, end song. This doesn’t work in a musical, really: the intensification of “you bastard” isn’t enough. Even if the music has taken you to a completely different place, the words haven’t taken the character to a new place. You can have purely emotional songs in musicals, but only for one or two song moments. Elsewhere songs and musical sequences need to drive forward the plot.
That’s a great point. One of the things I’ve always admired about Tori’s song-writing is that her songs tend to be mini-dramas with definite emotional arcs. Her characters are usually in a different place, a different psychological state, by the conclusion of the song.

Yes, Tori is to her very core a story-teller, and that is why the theatre is a natural home for her. But the discipline of active, dramaturgically sound musical narrative with stakes and jeopardy for three-dimensional characters was a challenge we both had to meet. With time, we began to see that we could work as if we were one writer. Tori is all about story and character. She feels dilemmas and predicaments and wants and obstacles deeply. So she is the “book” as much as I am and I like to think that I am part of the “score”. I don’t compose notes or write harmonies and she doesn’t write dialogue lines or build the overall architecture, but we have both had enormous roles in the other’s job. In addition, she has welcomed me as a lyricist. Rewriting is fun. I’m not sure it was what Tori was used to. But she’s used to it now, that’s for sure. She loves it. When we need new music, or when something existing needs rethinking in order to make the moment clearer or to help with staging, or simply to make things better, you cannot keep that woman away from the piano. Always, of course, wearing heels.

When we spoke before, the show had really been developing from your close collaboration with Tori (in heels), but obviously you’ve been workshopping the piece intensively since then. How has that workshopping process been helpful in terms of the show’s development?

I might as well tell you that early on we had what was, for me, a tough workshop … After that, and, by the way, after Night of Hunters, we really pulled our socks up. Tori and I wrote two big sequences, one in each act, in which music, lyric and dialogue were truly integrated, and this changed the entire score, story, tone, form and, most excitingly, our process. We got our confidence back. The next workshop was much more creative. Tori and I had our own room at the National Theatre Studio, and with Tom Brady, our pianist, we would rewrite most days, whilst the actors and Marianne Elliott, our director, were trying things out in another room. I’d go home at night and rewrite lyrics and write new ones and refine story and Tori wrote music where she was staying. We’d meet early in the mornings and present our work to each other and then make it better all day. We reworked a lot of existing material in our little room with tea on the go and sandwiches and people popping their heads in every now and then like we were exotic animals at London Zoo. It was pretty exhilarating, like how you imagine movies were written under the studio system, two Dorothy Parkers in the Writers’ Block. No booze, though.

We learned a lot from seeing actors putting the material on its feet, and having Marianne interrogate the story. I think that workshop was three weeks – which was very luxurious, not something either of us took, or take, for granted. Only a subsidised theatre could allow writers such time and space to refine their ideas. The bulk of our writing has happened at home, at my house and at Tori’s in Cornwall, but that workshop was a really productive one, very tiring and exciting. At the end of it, we felt we had a show. That really was the start of life proper for The Light Princess. And I’ve really felt the benefit of that workshop now we’ve started rehearsals. Of course rehearsals mean changes for the writing but on the whole the rigorous testing-out of the words and music happened in the workshop.

Have you had occasion to sing to Tori again, following the rendition of a Carousel number that you talked about last time?.

Poor Tori. I sing to her all the time. On the phone, in her office, in my kitchen, down the flipping street. I have to: the best way to convey lyrics to her is to sing them at her. She has been wonderfully patient. Only once did she lose her temper, and start clicking her thumbs at me to keep me in time. I thought, “Fair enough”. I can read music, I can hold a tune, but I’m pitchy, and it’s not attractive, and Tori has been remarkably kind to me. She acts, you know. We read to each other. It happened very early on. She performed her songs to me, and she just expected me to read scenes back at her. I thought, “Fair enough”. We act and sing up a storm together. You’ll just have to believe me.

There’s an Amos/Adamson duet album somewhere in the future, clearly! Given that the show is recommended for ages 13+ it’s obvious that you’re not going for a cosy family musical here, but something darker and more subversive. Was this a conscious decision or something that just naturally evolved as you developed the themes of the piece? From the publicity blurb, grief seems to be major concern in your version in a way that it’s not, so explicitly, for MacDonald.

 A conscious decision. What is lightness? Why is the girl light? I must be clear about this: I love the original story. It’s a delight. [But] I think for a contemporary theatre audience, it’s not enough to say “the princess never cried and found everything hilarious till the prince sacrificed himself for her”. She’s not a very interesting character in a dramatic context if she is not only light-bodied, but also light-minded. Lightness, for us, is a form of grief. A retreat. An emotional buffer against the darkness of the world. We explore this in our story: why she is like she is and what life teaches her to get over it. The same for the prince. So it’s a story about finding out who you are as you’re entering adulthood. It’s for everyone older than 13. It’s really not for young kids. MacDonald’s central idea remains, his very brilliant, beautiful and powerful metaphor. The girl must understand loss, and cry, “feel weight”, before she can come to earth. And the theme of sacrifice remains, as well. But we’ve made the story our own, and we spend time giving our two lead characters a voice, so that we can truly understand why the princess is light, what it means to her, what it says about her and her world.

I presume that one of the key characters in the story, the evil aunt who curses the Princess, hasn’t been reinstated in your version. What have been the challenges of creating a new kind of antagonist or “conflict” for the show?

There’s no story without conflict. I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is: you’ll have to come and see it! Suffice to say the prince and princess are from opposite sides of the tracks and the princess has to take on evil in her world. We weren’t that interested in lightness being a curse. More that it was the princess’s personal response to bleakness. The evil aunt is of course a fairy-tale trope, and in the context of the original story, which is a delicious satire of the fairy-tale, she’s crucial; she’s the Maleficent character who propels the plot, and MacDonald takes some pleasure in satirising her. His readers were familiar with the archetype. For us lightness is a complex emotional and psychological state, not an enchantment, so she wasn’t necessary. Our story chooses to be about fathers and children, in a fairy-tale context, not stepmothers or evil aunts and children. That’s just the path we’ve chosen.

I’m glad you mentioned MacDonald’s “delicious satire of the fairy-tale.” Re-reading the story recently I was surprised by just how funny and irreverent it is – in its attitude both to the fairy-tale genre and to Victorian social morality. Given the great humour of your and Tori’s work, I wonder how you’ve gone about translating the comedy of the text into a musical context. Are you being as irreverent with the musical genre as MacDonald is with the fairy-tale?

That’s a really interesting question, Alex. In fact MacDonald’s irreverence with the fairy-tale genre is something that got us into a bit of hot water early on. Tori was writing comic songs that I think she thought were “musical” and I was writing dialogue that sent-up fairy-tales. It was pastiche we were up to, and we were up to no good really, because neither of us is that kind of writer. Pastiche is different from humour. When MacDonald was writing, it was fresh, radical even, to make fun of the fairy-tale. Now, everyone does that. And the second you start, unless it’s a very sophisticated take like Into the Woods, which has obviously been done, it’s very easy to end up in Men in Tights territory. What we found was that it was a mistake to send up the fairy-tale. Instead we had to find the centre of the girl’s story: who is she, how does she feel, what does she want? In pursuing all of those things, we began to see it on the one hand as more modern, but also, curiously, on the other, as more traditional in terms of its form and tone. I went back to Grimm and Andersen and Angela Carter and really looked at how fairy-tales work and why they are timeless. I said to Tori, I want to start this show with the words “Once Upon a Time”. I wrote this phrase: “Once upon a once a, once upon a time, lived a princess and a prince in kingdoms gold and blue” and Tori set it to music. I said, we can’t send it up like the Shrek, movies or make it sophisticated, sardonic and essentially metropolitan like Into the Woods. And we can’t hope to achieve the light, knowing irreverence of MacDonald, who lived in a purer time. I want to tell the story straight. Find humour of course – but not place it in any particular time. So we put our protagonist on a traditional Red Riding Hood-type journey through the forest. The rite-of-passage.

As for the musical theatre form, I hope it’s fresh in a few ways: there’s a piano in the pit for starters, which is surprisingly rare. The songs rarely - if ever - conform to traditional AB, AB, CB structures. We’ve looked a lot at musicals. Tori and I both love musicals. Disrespect musicals at your peril if you’re writing one: the best are finely wrought. We’re not trying to reinvent the form, though hopefully we’ve done our own thing. I’m obsessed with the notion of music as the engine for story. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s as much “opera” as “musical” but honestly all these terms are unhelpful, as anyone who creates or sees music theatre knows. There it is: it’s a piece of music theatre.

In the comment you made for PopMatters about collaborating with Tori last year you talked about her music having “the expansive drama of opera” and referred to “the twists and turns of her compositions, her complex harmonies … with their sudden curves into brightness.” Could you comment any further about the variety of musical styles in The Light Princess?

I’d prefer not to give too much away about the score! Tori’s music is rhapsodic and folk-like at times; jagged and rhythmic; there are extended sequences of musical story-telling that I’d describe as tone poems. I’m not being too indiscreet if I say that the orchestral world of Night of Hunters is not dissimilar to The Light Princess. One thing you do get with this score is that Tori has written every note. Certainly Martin Lowe our musical supervisor and John Philip Shenale our orchestrator have made invaluable contributions, but Tori has written all of the underscoring, all of the dance music, in addition to all of the music for the songs and sequences. That’s rare in musicals: it’s difficult for the composer because it means she has to be on hand at all times during rehearsals. Someone else is often engaged in rehearsal to create music for dance sequences based on the show’s themes. Tori is having none of that! She’s there all day every day. Every single note is story and character-based, as per our journey together as writers. And every single note is the note Tori wanted in relation to the notes around it. Even for transition or underscoring, the music has been carefully composed after many discussions with me. I do think she has written a very cohesive score. We weave themes not just through individual songs, but through the course of the evening. It’s a score that will bear repeated listening, I hope! It’s full of little surprises, little thematic cells that appear then reappear in new guises. It’s also one of the benefits of taking our time. We’ve been able to do lots of interesting things with leitmotifs. Pardon the pun.

Both your work and Tori’s reveals a fascination with complex, nuanced female protagonists. How does the Princess fit in? What kind of heroine is she?

She is a smart, funny, grieving, truculent, defensive, adventurous, contradictory and ultimately loving teenager. The story is her journey towards adulthood in a world that doesn’t understand her.

Let’s talk about some of your other collaborators on the show. You’re working again with Marianne Elliott, fresh from her great success with another very challenging literary adaptation, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. What makes Marianne an ideal director for The Light Princess, in your view?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Marianne on several projects. She doesn’t stop. I like that in directors. Some do stop. They have short days and things like that. Marianne just keeps working. I’m not going to say that’s always easy. Marianne never lets up. If there’s something she doesn’t like, and you can’t convince her of it, or you don’t address it, she will not let it go. Ever. She’s very meticulous, very funny, very dry. She has a first-class bullshit-detector. She has a strong visual sense. She loves fairy-tales. She knows how to run a room full of big personalities. She’s developed a very specific method with actors, though it’s quite traditional in some senses; actioning every line, all that. We have a great team — Steven Hoggett, the choreographer, Rae Smith, the designer — and many of us have worked together before, so there’s a shared language. Marianne is the best skipper I know.

The cast assembled for the show is exciting, and I know that some of the performers have been attached to the project for quite a while. I wonder if you’d care to comment on the cast, and, in particular, your two accomplished leads, Rosalie Craig and Nick Hendrix?

I think Rosalie has been with us since the beginning. She can do it all. She has helped us, inspired us. It’s a challenging role, a big sing, and Rosalie has been training for it for some months. Nick also came to us through the audition process. He’s a young actor with a great voice. It felt right for us and the character of the prince, as it’s very powerful and he has a lovely falsetto, but he trained first as an actor, and it’s not traditionally “music theatre”. Not that there’s anything I don’t love about a music theatre voice. We have plenty of big powerful show voices. Laura Pitt-Pulford, Amy Booth-Steel, Jamie Muscato, Kane Oliver Parry, Clive Rowe — these are talented people with great pipes. The casting process was pretty rigorous. Finding those double- and triple-threats was fun. And it wasn’t just Rosalie who inspired us. Certain vocal lines in the show have been fashioned around the talents of particular actors. Tori doesn’t get precious about keys and things like that — we cut the dress to fit the girl; Tori’s phrase. And the suit to fit the boy. I think Tori’s loved writing for men, by the way. Only the week before last we fashioned something for Kane — he’s an incredible rock tenor.

Over the years, Tori’s spoken about how working on The Light Princess has influenced her approach to her concept- and narrative-driven projects, from American Doll Posse’s character studies to Night of Hunters’s dynamic adaptations of classical pieces. Do you feel, similarly, that working on the show has influenced your other recent projects? I was interested to see how central song and dance were to Larisa and the Merchants, and you have Gabriel currently at the Globe.

To put it simply: if I could, I’d work with musicians all the time. Let’s face it, music is it. What else is there, really? I’m not being facetious. Music is it.

To what extent do you see The Light Princess as “complete” now – and how likely is to continue to evolve through the rehearsal process? Do you and Tori anticipate more rewriting?

We’re in rehearsals now, and daily little things come up. This week, I’ve been observing in the main rehearsal room, keeping an eye on story, book and lyrics, while Tori’s been in another room painstakingly going through every bar of the orchestration with the musical supervisor. Always things to do. But the core of the show is there.

What’s been most rewarding for you in terms of working on The Light Princess – so far?

Tori. Her musical gifts, her energy, her persistence, her grace under fire. Being a small part of her world from a privileged position — watching her perform on tour and so on.

And what are you most looking forward to about the next few months before the show opens?

I love rehearsals. I’ve learned over the years to savour them as they’re over so quickly. Just sitting there, observing. Tori whispered to me yesterday, in a moment when she and I as the writers weren’t really needed and boredom was creeping up on us: “Just keep observing: patience comes from observation. Watch what all these people are doing. Think about what it takes to do it.” We both sit there with our scores and scripts and tea and pipe up when it’s necessary. We’re lucky.

What are your hopes in terms of what audiences will get from The Light Princess?
Well, I hope they enjoy it! I hope they get swept up in the fairy-tale romance of it. I hope they see in the central characters and their journey towards adulthood a little bit of themselves.

A couple of quick questions to end. What was the last book you read that had an impact on you?

Rose Tremain’s Restoration — a great novel I only recently encountered.

The last films?

Frances Ha and Amour.

The last theatre productions?

This House, The Amen Corner and Death in Venice.

The last album?

Alison Balsom’s Sound the Trumpet conducted by Trevor Pinnock. I’m biased, because I’ve just worked with Alison and Trevor on Gabriel at the Globe, but it’s a glorious album.

Complete the following sentence: “Writing a new musical is …

 … like living in a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 The Light Princess previews at the National Theatre from 25 September, and opens on 9 October. Adamson and Amos talk about the production in an NT Platform on 18 October.
Further details here.

Theatre Review: The Pride (Trafalgar Studios)

My review of Jamie Lloyd's production of Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Theatre Review: Armstrong's War (Finborough)

Armstrong is the surname of both of the (unrelated) protagonists of Colleen Murphy's wonderful latest play: the 21-year-old Canadian soldier, Michael, who's recuperating in an Ottawa hospital from the injuries he sustained in Afghanistan, and the 12-year-old Pathfinder Girl Guide Halley – wheelchair-bound following an accident and a self-proclaimed "reading fiend" – who comes to read to him, as a route to obtaining the "community service badge" she covets.
"I picked you because we have the same last name," the perky Halley tells the taciturn Michael on her first visit. After abortive stabs at teen lit and Wuthering Heights, the duo settle on Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as their novel of choice, a selection that proves significant. For "Armstrong's War" turns out to be the title of the two texts that result from their shared reading: the first penned by Michael as a way of dealing with a traumatic experience; the second written by Halley as a critical riposte. 
A wounded soldier bonding over books with a disabled pre-teen... The premise of Murphy's play sounds super-worthy and studded with sentimental pitfalls. But what's striking about Armstrong's War, which is receiving a fully staged workshop production at the Finborough prior to its official world premiere in Vancouver, is just how deftly such traps are avoided. While the overall arc of Halley and Michael's relationship isn't unpredictable, there are several surprising twists along the way – along with details and emotional nuances that ring absolutely true, and that Jennifer Bakst's production brings beautifully to the fore.
Murphy – a firm Finborough favourite following her tenure as the theatre's Canadian Playwright in Residence 2011-12 – writes sharp, humorous, wryly perceptive dialogue that hotwires us to the hearts and minds of her characters and makes us care for them, deeply. She ensures that each reading encounter has a different tone and creates a marvellously distinctive young heroine in Halley - curious, full of facts, eager to show off her literary prowess ("That's called foreshadowing!") - while providing an understated yet resonant portrait of war's effects in Michael.     
A critique of the military mission in Afghanistan is certainly discernible, when Halley's naïve query "Are we winning the war?" prompts a response from Michael that outlines the complexities of being combatants in the counter-insurgency. But a political position isn't hammered home, as it surely would be if this were a play by one of Murphy's compatriots, Jason Sherman. Armstrong's War is all about redefining courage and heroism, and exploring how "death is always your battle" whether in or out of a war-zone. But it's equally concerned with the power of story-telling, and how writers remake and reshape their experiences through fiction.   
Canadianists in the crowd might quibble with Murphy's choice of The Red Badge of Courage as the play's Urtext rather than its Canuck counterpart (of sorts), Timothy Findley's The Wars. But her references to Crane's novel are exemplary, demonstrating how the text impacts upon Michael and Halley in ways that reflect the characters' contrasting approaches to life and to the narratives that they fashion. The play's construction is intricate, but doesn't succumb to the clever-clever fussiness that can mar stories about stories; if anything, some spelling-it-out speechifying in the final scene could be snipped.   
Ultimately, though, the success of a play as intimate as Armstrong's War is dependent upon its performances, and it's hard to see how those in Bakst's production could be bettered. Mark Quartley and Jessica Barden's immaculately Canadianised "outs" and "ehs" are to be admired, but these are the mere surface details of their performances. What counts more are the emotional insights that the actors bring to their roles, Quartley's perfectly-caught wariness and reserve complementing a performance of heart-melting gorgeousness from Barden who, glowing and chipper, naive and wise, gradually reveals the depths beneath Halley's spry eagerness. The candour and conviction that both actors bring to the stage make Murphy's play into a thoroughly involving and beautifully sustained duet.         

Saturday 10 August 2013

Theatre Review: As Is (Finborough)

The Finborough Theatre’s admirable commitment to staging “gay plays” old and new continues with Andrew Keates’s deft and lively take on William M. Hoffman’s award-winning As Is. Keates’s production is, in fact, the first British revival of Hoffman’s play since its 1987 UK premiere at the Half Moon Theatre. And it proves a welcome occasion all around.     
The importance of the play lies in its portrait of the effect of AIDS on New York’s gay community, told in a way that’s equal parts intimate and expansive. The focus is on Rich (Tom Colley), a young writer just beginning to find success with his first book of poems. When we meet him he’s in the throes of bitterly breaking up with his long-time lover Saul (David Poynor) the better to pursue a too-good-to-miss liaison with a younger guy, Chet (Tom Kay). But the revelation that Rich has AIDS ends up sending him back to Saul who, despite his anger, grief and confusion, finally elects to stand by his man.     

Hoffman structures As Is as a series of sharply rhythmed scenes - some naturalistic, some highly theatrical - that explore Rich's relationships not only with Saul, but also with his friends and family, with healthcare professionals, and with a diverse spectrum of the gay community. To this end, the action is whisked through several locations – from sex club to support group, city street to hospital –as the piece presents the divergent reactions to Rich’s condition and shows other characters dealing with the illness, not to mention the fear and ignorance that surrounds it.
Hoffman’s writing of the play was inspired by the deaths of a large number of friends from AIDS in the early eighties and the urge both to commemorate and to overturn prejudice is evident throughout. Across a relatively short running time, the piece attempts to provide as many perspectives as possible, from that of a former nun, now a hospice worker (Clare Kissane), who describes the “privilege” of working with the dying, to that of a pregnant woman (Anna Tierney) who reports the reaction of her neighbours to the fact that she has the disease. 

The material’s occasional dips into TV movie-ish melodrama – notably in a reconciliation scene between Rich and his brother  - are mitigated by a surprising amount of humour: Hoffman makes most of his characters jokers, ever ready with a quip or a quote no matter how grim the circumstances that they or those close to them are facing. Thus a play about approaching death feels full of life.

Returning to the Finborough following his recent successes with ROOMS – A Rock Romance and his revival of another iconic gay text, Martin Sherman’s Passing By, Keates delivers another confident production here, one that’s sensitively attuned to the play’s movements in mood and that manages the location shifts with economy: a necessity, if ever there was one, on the Finborough’s tiny stage. If the tone is often broad, and occasionally a bit shouty and shrill, Keates ensures that the quieter, less showy episodes resonate, more so, in fact, than the sometimes strained striving for theatrical effects tend to do.
For what Hoffman has written is, in essence, a love story, and one that captures Rich and Saul’s relationship in all its complexity and contradiction. Rich is no mere “nice guy” a la Tom Hanks’s Andy in Philadelphia but a temperamental and often selfish individual whom AIDS doesn’t magically rid of his characters flaws. Tom Colley’s dynamic, physical performance conveys all that – witness the withering disdain with which he regards and discards a niece’s get-well-soon card – while also suggesting a latent vulnerability beneath the caustic wit, and painfully showing Rich’s deterioration.

He’s expertly matched by David Poynor who communicates the concern and frustration of the lover – and reports a late epiphany – without sentimentality. (Though the actor could work on Americanising his “h’s.”) Whether recalling their promiscuous (or, in Rich's terms, “anti-authoritarian”) sexual histories, or fighting for real or for play, these two suggest a genuine history together; you believe in them completely as a couple, and their dynamic builds convincingly to an admirably subversive and moving final moment.

If certain key characters feel underwritten by comparison, the production’s eight actors - most of them multi-tasking across several roles and often serving as a Chorus of sorts – manage to sketch some vivid creations: Jordan Bernarde and Paul Standell, in particular, do a stand-out duet as two workers on a health service telephone line (“Our motto is: ‘On me, not in me’”) in one of the best- written scenes.  As Is’s significance in 20th century American drama may lie, ultimately, in its status as a snapshot of its moment, but Keates and his cast certainly succeed in making the play’s human heartbeat heard.   
Booking until 31 August. 

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Film Review: Wadjda (Al Mansour, 2012)

Here’s a suggested subtitle for Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda: "The Kid Without A Bike". That vehicle – and the sense of freedom and possibility it represents for a child in tricky circumstances – is as central to Al Mansour’s movie as it was to the Dardennes’s - and the heroine of the title has something of the doggedness of a Dardennes character in her pursuit of it. The tale of a spirited middle-class Riyadh girl (Waad Mohammed) who enters a Koran-reciting competition not out of any devout feelings, but rather as a route to getting the bike she covets, Al Mansour’s movie uses an intimate story to construct a wider social picture. Presenting Wadjda at school, at home with her distracted, hard-working mother and on the streets with her friend Abdullah, the film juxtaposes private and public spaces to show the daily segregations and expectations of Saudi society and their gendered underpinnings. (Even Wadjda’s mere desire for a bike is a subversive one – since bike-riding is frowned upon for girls.) In its focus upon a girl pushing against the patriarchal culture she’s stuck in and its use of a will-she-or-won’t-she quest narrative that somehow never feels contrived, Al Mansour’s movie recalls Jeremy Teicher’s great Tall As the Baobab Tree and the quietly observant, unhysterical, sometimes humorous tone of the film evokes Teicher’s as well.

Wadjda’s significance goes beyond its subject matter, though, loaded as it is. For this is not only the first full-length feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (a country where cinemas have been banned for over thirty years), but also the first to be directed by a woman: Al Mansour reports that, since she’s not allowed to work with men in public, she directed the actors from a van, using a monitor and walkie-talkie to communicate. The story of the movie’s making runs parallel to its plot, in a way: not only is it remarkable that the difficulties of the shoot don’t show up on screen, the fact that the film got made at all is remarkable in itself, and vindicates the finally hopeful, affirmative perspective of the movie.

There’s lots to love about Wadjda: the movie has an open-heartedness, an emotional directness, that’s practically impossible to resist, and that pays dividends in the film’s superb final third. There’s the odd undercooked aspect (Wadjda’s relationship with her father, for one, isn’t explored in enough detail), but clearly it’s the women who Al Mansour wants to focus upon: the movie makes Wadjda’s interactions with her teachers and her mother (a terrific turn by Reem Abdullah) the most telling encounters throughout. Holding the whole together is a great performance from Waad Mohammed who makes Wadjda by turns loveable, irritating, goofy, insensitive and perceptive: in short, a real kid.