Thursday 21 April 2016

Theatre Review: The Flick (National Theatre)

With Dominic Cooke’s solid revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  in the Lyttelton, and Yaël Farber’s sensational staging  of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in the Olivier, the National Theatre can certainly claim to be doing pretty well by American-authored plays at the moment. Those two productions are now joined by a third: Sam Gold’s staging of Annie Baker’s The Flick, which has just opened in the National’s smallest auditorium, the Dorfman.

Debuted Off-Broadway back in 2013, Baker’s play, which focuses on the interactions of three employees in the small, struggling Massachusetts movie-house of the title, arrives in London carrying a considerable weight of expectation, having scooped both the 2014 Pulitzer and the 2013 Obie awards. Despite such success, The Flick wasn’t universally adored in the States, however, with reports of walkouts by audience members who were challenged by the play’s 3 hour plus running time, its slow pace, and its lack of obvious dramatics.

Judging by early responses, The Flick looks set to prove equally divisive here. With great perspicacity, a few critics have already noted that the play is “very long and very slow,” and accused it of “self-indulgence.” But while the production will likely frustrate people who have urgent business with their smartphones, those who do attune to its languorous rhythms will find that The Flick yields considerable rewards. While I didn’t love Gold’s production unreservedly, I found it to be a very refreshing and consistently absorbing experience overall.

It’s not that there’s anything overtly radical about Baker and Gold’s approach here. Rather, The Flick’s novelty lies in the way that it takes its time, allowing us to get to know the protagonists as they get to know each other, and not doing so in the pushy, flagging-it-up way that can be typical of stage drama. Indeed, with its young “loser” characters, and the preponderance of awkward “likes,” “ums” and pauses in the dialogue, the play is about as close as contemporary theatre has yet come to embracing the lo-fi aesthetic of mumblecore.

Baker’s protagonists are a rumpled, unprepossessing trio, already aware that their lives aren’t going in the direction they’d hoped. There’s new employee Avery, a film nerd who’s working at the cinema during a break from his studies, and who’s being guided through his first days by co-worker Sam, a thirty-five- year-old who’s bitter about being passed over for promotion, and who’s fixated on Rose, the deadpan projectionist.

As these three mop floors, chat about movies, or make ill-advised passes at one another, a portrait of their individual lives gradually comes into focus. And so too does Baker’s concern with changing patterns in film consumption: 'The Flick' is one of the few cinemas to still project movies in 35mm, but the inevitable conversion to digital is coming, a prospect that Avery, ever the movie snob, thoroughly disdains.

Louisa Krause and Jaygann Ayeh in The Flick (Photo: Mark Douet)
In terms of its cultural references, attitude and mood, The Flick is the most American of plays; so much so, that when Avery starts naming the likes of Pierrot le Fou and Andrei Rublev among his favourite films, it almost comes as a shock. Touching glancingly on issues of race, education, and economics, and offering, at the last, a fairly bitter perspective on the brutal way that co-workers can end up pitted against one another, The Flick is at its best when least obviously straining for effect, and when focusing on the protagonists’ chat during their work routines. Though undeniably funny, the more crowd-pleasing set pieces – such as Rose’s excruciating hip hop bop – are somewhat less convincing.

Gold pitches the quieter moments perfectly, though, and Baker’s refusal to sentimentalise any of her characters is admirable. All three remain engaging, despite the fact that the acting isn’t (quite) everything you might hope for here. Louisa Krause, as Rose, and Matthew Maher, as Sam, were in Gold’s original production of the play, and while both actors have effective moments, their performances may have become a little too set over time, resulting in some affected, self-conscious delivery. Tellingly, the freshest performance comes from British newbie Jaygann Ayeh, who brilliantly makes Avery a compelling mixture of awkwardness and pretension, nailing a challenging phone monologue with heartbreaking precision.

The production’s naturalism is splendidly served by David Zinn’s set of cinema seats, with projection booth above. Presenting the action from the perspective of the screen, the production effectively establishes a single static “shot,” with the only variety coming from the activity of the actors in the “frame.” In between scenes, the projector turns its light on us (a little menacingly) and dramatic film music swells and soars: ironic counterpoint to the mundane happenings that make up life for these characters.

Among those happenings, a favourite pastime of Avery and Sam’s is playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” with Sam challenging Avery to link the most unlikely of actors (“Pauly Shore to Ian Holm!”). It’s a thematically apt choice of game, of course, for The  Flick is all about exploring human connection. When Sam tells Avery that he looked him up on Facebook, and  Avery tells Sam that he would have “friended” him already if he had an account, a moment of potential seems to open up between the characters, and leads Avery to a surprising confession.

This strange space between reticence and revelation is the one in which Baker’s drama achieves its quietly subversive power. While the approach can at times feel overly calculated, at its best The Flick wrests humour and pathos from the ways we know others, and from its mature appreciation of just how failed, fleeting and yet indelible such interactions may be.

Booking until 15 June.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Film Review: Louder Than Bombs (Trier, 2015)

Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from Cannes 2015 here

Book Review: Living On Paper: Letters From Iris Murdoch 1934 - 1995

My review of Living on Paper: Letters From Iris Murdoch 1934 - 1995 (edited by Anne Rowe and Avril Horner) is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Theatre Review: The Brink (Orange Tree)

“How can I teach on top of a bomb?!” wails Nick, the harried hero of Brad Birch’s new play The Brink. A secondary school history teacher, Nick has been experiencing weird dreams which seem to portend some imminent catastrophe. Stress and depression are variously diagnosed and dismissed as the causes by his girlfriend Chloe and his colleague Jo. But Nick’s visions appear to have an all-too-real root when the school’s slightly loopy Head, Mr. Boyd, lets slip that there’s an unexploded bomb under the playing field, a revelation which sends Nick into a tailspin of anxiety, shared only, it seems, by the sympathetic student, Jessica, in whom he (sort of) confides.

There’s considerable buzz already around The Brink, which is receiving its premiere at the Orange Tree, in a production by Mel Hillyard, who’s directing the piece as recipient of the J.P. Morgan Award for Emerging Director. With a crisp design by Hyemi Shin (in which glowing blocks are the only props) and Bowie’s  “"Heroes"” on the soundtrack, the production looks set to capitalise on the hipster-friendly hype of Alistair McDowall’s Pomona. There are definitely some parallels between the two pieces: this, too, is very much a young man’s play, with an attendant paranoia about power, some (overly-)broad comic strokes, and a slightly studied opacity.

A little like Florian Zeller's The Father (which is being performed just a few steps away from the OT at Richmond Theatre this week), The Brink doesn’t just explore a mental state; rather, it attempts, through its form, to embody one. As Nick (Ciarán Owens) unravels, role doublings, well-executed by the competent cast (Vince Leigh, Shvorne Marks, Alice Haig), prove more significant than you might initially have thought, the line between projection, dream and reality gradually blurring. 

Alas, also like Pomona, The Brink doesn't add up to the sum of its parts for this viewer, ultimately frustrating more than it rewards. Birch’s writing has flashes of acuity when it comes to showing the dynamics between teachers and hinting at the weirdness beneath the daily routine. But certain moments - such as a truly awful scatological speech allotted to Jo - seem entirely pointless, and some bad gags (“Pick, pick, pick! They should have called you Picholas, not Nicholas!”) fall totally flat.

Starting in quippy one-liner-heavy mode, before attempting a more menacing turn, the tone is wobbly and uncertain, and the play feels sadly superficial where it really counts. By far the most interesting relationship is between Nick and Jessica, the lone student in his "Maths Club" who wants desperately, touchingly to believe that her teacher’s right. Yet Birch backs off from really exploring this relationship, which might have provided a relatable human centre to the drama.

Hillyard certainly succeeds in keeping the production brisk and fluid, with some nifty scene-changes that evoke the overlaps and parallels forming in the protagonist’s consciousness. And Owens contributes a skilfully modulated performance of increasing desperation. Yet, by the showy, twisty yet strangely limp conclusion, The Brink has promised more than it’s delivered.

The Brink is booking at the Orange Tree until 30 April. Further details here. 

Friday 1 April 2016

Theatre Review: Les Blancs (National Theatre)

When Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965, aged just 34, she left uncompleted a final play, Les Blancs, a large-scale saga about an unnamed African country’s struggle for independence from colonial rule. The unfinished play was entrusted to the care of Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s ex-husband and creative associate, who gathered Hansberry’s drafts into a performable text which was presented on Broadway in 1970 with James Earl Jones among the cast. However, the play received a mixed response and has hardly been seen since.

Les Blancs’s status as a lost classic of the 20th Century American stage is fully confirmed by Yaël Farber’s sensational new production, which has just opened at the National Theatre. Benefiting from a text that combines Nemiroff’s adaptation with fresh revisions by Farber and dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg, the production grips and sometimes startles, igniting the Olivier stage across its 2 hour 45 minute running time. 

A considerable move away from the form of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Les Blancs is a prismatic play, combining naturalism with bold expressionist flourishes, and the genius of Farber’s production lies in the scrupulous way in which it attends to the work’s contrasting modes and moods. The echoes and associations run deep through the evening. At times the play suggests Chekhov in its attention to a coming new order; at others it reaches back to Ancient Greek drama or incorporates an interlude of Shavian speechifying; and in the next moment it can remind you of something as contemporary as Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (2005) or Claire Denis’s White Material (2009).  

At its heart, though, the play is a family story, for which an alternative title might be Three Brothers. Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) returns to his native village in Africa after the death of his father following time spent in the US and Europe, which has included marriage to a white woman. There Tshembe reconnects with his two siblings: Abioseh (Gary Beadle), who, to Tshembe’s disdain, is about to become a Christian priest, and his younger half-brother Eric (Tunji Kasim), who appears to be sliding into alcoholism. As the complexity of the family’s history, and their relationship to the colonisers who’ve ruled and “educated” them, gradually becomes clear, Tshembe finds himself in the middle of an escalating violent conflict between natives and settlers, and is challenged with finding his own place in the struggle against oppression.

Hansberry’s play is a work in which the personal and the political are so interlinked as to be inextricable, and Farber’s staging offers a dynamic mingling of the intimate and the epic. From the eerie wordless opening onwards, the atmosphere is heady, charged, dreamlike, thick with rot. Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set makes the Mission compound of the absent “patriarch” Reverend Neilson its focus, spinning to the powerful chants and ululations of a quartet of South African female musician/singers: Nofenishala Mvotyo, Nogcinile Yekani Nomaqobiso, Mpahleni (Madosini) Latozi and Joyce Moholoagae.

If a hint of cliché occasionally hovers, Farber ensures that the production feels fully inhabited at all times, with sweeping servants and children standing as mute witnesses to atrocity. A wide variety of perspectives accrues: as the set spins, we see the characters from multiple angles, the actors working together as a true ensemble.

There’s Siân Phillips, as the Reverend’s blind elderly wife, recalling past friendship with the Africans and reaching out tenderly to touch the face of the returned Tshembe. There are two doctors (Anna Madeley and James Fleet), the one briskly efficient and unquestioning, the other disillusioned and self-loathing. There’s an American journalist (Elliot Cowan), who’s come to write a piece on the Mission and whose naïve can-do perspective receives some harsh tests. There’s Clive Francis as Major Rice, a chilling embodiment of the coloniser’s sense of possession and entitlement.

The production even succeeds in rendering effective one of Hansberry’s hokier conceits: the appearances of a “Mother Africa” figure named The Woman (Sheila Atim), who stalks the stage, labouring and observing, and appears at moments of crisis in Tshembe’s narrative. At the centre, of course, is Tshembe himself, and Danny Sapani inhabits the role with a searing combination of passion and nuance that hot-wires us to the character’s conflicts. His scenes with the excellent Beadle and Kasim are particularly fine.

Les Blancs is a rich, robust, challenging evening of considerable rewards, a production whose depths require more than one viewing to fully assimilate. Opening with smoky apocalyptic rumblings, the proceedings are brought full circle at the end with an incendiary climax that’s as startling as it is inevitable. Part nightmare, part dream of fulfillment, these final moments confirm the production’s greatness and the extent to which Farber and her collaborators have done justice to the breadth and reach of Hansberry’s vision here.

Les Blancs is booking at the National Theatre until 2 June 2016.