Thursday 12 September 2019

Theatre Review: For Services Rendered (Jermyn Street Theatre)

(Photo: Robert Workman)

A tea service set out on the table of a garden terrace decked with climbing roses... With a fine set by Louie Whitemore, Tom Littler's production of W. Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered exudes Autumnal Englishness even before a word is spoken. When Diane Fletcher, elegantly grey-haired and clearly carrying an emotional burden or two, enters the scene and takes a seat, the picture is complete.

As in many Maugham plays, though, biting insights and tough ideas belie the cozy, decorous surface of the drama. Written in 1932, when Maugham was at the peak of his power and popularity as a writer, For Services Rendered follows such works as The Breadwinner (which firmly defended a parent's right to leave their family) and The Sacred Flame (which endorsed euthanasia - a theme that returns here) by offering a perspective on WWI that makes clear the damage that continued to be done to former soldiers (and their loved ones) after their return home.

Maugham accomplishes this through a situation that owes a self-conscious debt to Chekhov. Three sisters, Eva, Lois and Ethel, and a brother, Sydney, are the children of Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley. Sydney has returned from the war blind and cynical, and Ewa, who lost her fiance in the conflict, has - increasingly begrudgingly - become his carer. Ethel is unhappily married to a tenant-farmer and the younger Lois has attracted the attention of a an older, married family friend.

Littler's production plays up the Chekhovian echoes, creating a buzz of overlapping funny/sad activity that gives the play's portrait of generational divides and the wider societal damage wrought by war believable human contours. The characters are drawn with Maugham's customary intelligence, and, if this production isn't ideally cast across the board, several of the actors come through with memorable performances.

(Photo: Robert Workman) 

Sally Cheng, Rachel Pickup, Leah Whitaker and Richard Keightley compel as the contrasting siblings and Jotham Annan underplays effectively as a cash-strapped naval hero struggling to make it as a businessman. Fresh from the success of the Orange Tree's Rattigan revival While the Sun Shines, Michael Lumsden brings ardency and pathos to undercut the absurdity of a character who is not adverse to offering a girl money to elope with him, while Viss Elliott Safavi moves beyond comic caricature to convey the desperation of a wife who realises she's about to be ditched.

And the velvet-voiced Fletcher is exceptional as the matriarch, bringing a lifetime of technique to create a performance of great naturalness, one that's restrained and economical but full of feeling. The astute Charlotte, whose reaction to a terminal diagnosis is not the expected one, suggests a relative of the equally surprising Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame: an older female character whose conventional demeanour masks unorthodox views. The same goes for the play itself. Littler's production occasionally looks a bit cluttered on the small Jermyn Street stage, but it succeeds in capturing both the sensitivity and sharp subversiveness that defines Maugham's writing at its best.

For Services Rendered runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 October.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Interpersonal Situations: on Retroperspektywy Theatre Festival, Łódź, 2019

The ill-informed might scoff at the notion, but Łódź's boast of hosting "more festivals than Rio" often feels entirely accurate. No sooner has one arts event finished in the so-called "Manchester of Poland" - Transatlantyk's film, food and music extravaganza in July, say - than another one is starting up. Occurring just prior to the Four Cultures event, last week saw the latest edition of the experimental international theatre festival Retroperspektywy. This festival brings together CHOREA Theatre, a company based at the city's Art_Inkubator venue, with a range of practitioners and companies from across the world for eight days of shows. 

Presenting work from Greece, Ukraine, Sweden, Russia and the US as well as Poland this year, the programme - and indeed the whole atmosphere of the festival - is inclusive. Plays, dance performances, concerts, kids shows, and Q&As make full use of the flexible spaces of Art_Inkubator - and also spill out a little into the city beyond. In addition, the festival had further occasion to mark this as a special year - the celebration of CHOREA's 15th birthday. 

ja, bóg  (Photo: Rami Shaya)

As diverse as the programme is, most of the shows presented, bear, to some extent, the influence of Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theatre, mobilising what the director/theorist called "the principle of reduction, to find the essence of theatre: actors and audience, fundamentally an interpersonal situation". That influence was emphasised not only in the form but also in the subject matter of the opening show "ja bóg", an investigation into the metaphysical questions underpinning Grotowski's texts, created by and starring CHOREA director Tomasz Rodowicz and Joanna Chimelecka.

After the Birds (Po Ptakach) (Photo: Rami Shaya)

I wasn't able to attend the opening performances, which sadly meant missing the acclaimed likes of Tragedia Jana  (John's Tragedy) and Akty (Acts). The first show I did see proved a vibrant and compelling introduction to the festival, though. After the Birds (Po Ptakach) is a collaboration between CHOREA and the Welsh dance company Earthfall, which was first presented in 2005, and retains the same company of perfomers today. Following Grotowski's tendency to base work on classical narratives - the better to tap into mythic resonances and evoke a collective, internal response in viewers - the show, co-directed by Rodowicz, Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, takes off from The Birds, using Aristophanes's comedy as the inspiration for a distinctive piece of physical theatre that dynamically combines the ancient and the contemporary.  

Opening in playful, clowning mode - three men and a ladder greet the audience and soon have us participating in a Mexican wave - the show ultimately runs the emotional and stylistic gamut. The performers flock together, form duos, or break apart via choreography that is breathtaking in its range and expressiveness. Live music and folk song, as well as bespoke compositions by Maciej Rychły - including a deeply moving growled Tom Waits-esque number - add to the intensity of the event. The show inspired a rapturous standing ovation, indicating that this is a piece that audiences would like to see return very soon. 

Othello/ Ukraine / Facebook (Photo: Rami Shaya)

Shifts between the absurdist and the serious also characterised Othello / Ukraine / Facebook, a piece for seven actors from Kyiv Academic Theatre "Golden Gate" directed by Stas Żyrkov, which uses elements of Shakespeare's text and the context of the current "fake news" climate to investigate Ukraine's present, past and possible future. The show is physical - with the cast variously donning fat suits or stripped to their pants - but also verbose, and, presented without English subtitles (something that the festival might consider adding in future years), some contextual elements inevitably remained obscure.

Other moments communicated powerfully, though, not least a homoerotic interlude in which shouted slurs give way to embraces, and a haunting sequence about the Holodomor - the famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in the early 1930s which is the subject of Agnieszka Holland's fine new film Gareth Jones. The show renders as expressionist nightmare what Holland's film presents in an observant, straightforward, classical-filmmaking style. The absence of any female presence feels like a lack,  but Othello / Ukraine / Facebook remains a powerful and subversive piece at its best. 

(The End, The Beginning - SOMA)
(Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)
Male and female energies combined to exciting effect in Koniec, początek - SOMA (The End, the Beginning - SOMA) which introduces its five brilliant performers moving insect-like in separate relays across the floor, before Marta Bury's choreography brings them together explosively for a series of by turns playful and dramatic encounters. Video projections and the dynamism of bodies in motion also distinguished the outdoor performance of Właśnie tu. Właśnie teraz (Right Here. Right Now), created by CHOREA and Laboratorium Kreatywnego Działania. Presented in the social space between the buildings of the former factory, this piece addressed young people's hopes, struggles and dreams through movement and words, also inviting audience members to take to the mic. 

Pygmalion (Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)

Meanwhile, Wojtek Ziemilski's Pygmalion soon subverted any notion that the performance would have anything to do with a certain George Bernard Shaw text. Instead, the piece found the personable Rozalia Mierzicka genially asking for the assistance of a volunteer from the audience to join her - in order, as it turned out, to help her move and manipulate a large piece of cardboard around the stage. Said cardboard is gradually revealed to be a container into which performer and volunteer disappear, moving it from the inside.

Stated themes of socialisation, education and training - of performer or child - gradually emerge and the show retains interest as a kind of minimalist spectacle, especially when its cardboard "creature" is making its way across the space, suggestive at times of fortress and tank, prison or playpen. 

Miasto (Photo: Rami Shaya)

With exciting, challenging concerts by the Kukła Żywa Collective and Magos Makriyannis ("Pythagoras Meets Euclid") closing the event, another surprise highlight of the last day of performances was the morning show Miasto (The City), a delightful piece devised and developed by CHOREA's kids theatre group. The show presents a day in the life of the city, taking us through various spaces - park, airport, museum, cinema - which are all creatively embodied by the young performers. As the group take their seats at the movies (hand-drawn posters for Frozen 2 and Moana to the fore!), the film they watch turns out - wonderfully - to be a document of the research that inspired the show itself.

The scene served as a synecdoche of sorts for the festival as a whole, uniting not only actors and audience but also the theatre with the world outside which it draws on, evokes and transforms. In our divisive, harshly judgemental times, and with Brexit looming, the vibrant "interpersonal situations" experienced at Retroperspektywy offered a timely reminder of the power of performance to unite and connect us across borders of language, culture and nation. 

Retroperspektywy Festival 2019 ran at Art_Inkubator between 23 August - 1 September. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:

The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Angels in America
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)