Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Question: what do you get if you cross Bertolt Brecht and Dr Seuss’ The Lorax? Answer: the Donmar’s current production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

If you know your Dr Seuss - and if you don’t then you need to sort that out, stat - you’ll know that the moral and most famous quote from The Lorax goes thusly: “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. And although the quote isn’t included in the Donmar’s Resistible Rise - a missed opportunity - that same moral, that ordinary people have to get up and do shit to make things get better, regardless of time and place, is very much writ large in this production.

The second play in the Donmar’s Power season follows in the footsteps of the first, the excellent Limehouse, in that it has a message that it is not ashamed to shout about. Loudly. What is a bit different in this production is that it does the shouting through the staging as well as the text. It’s an interesting approach and one that is largely very successful and always a huge amount of fun.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a largely self explanatory title. It tells the story of Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui, and his use of his criminal gang and activity to worm his way into politics, in this case the politics of the Chicago and Cicero grocery trade. Ui is incredibly charismatic, though not very bright, and relies on a coterie of small time crooks, his adoption by local political types and increasingly serious criminal activity to propel him into power.

Remind you of anyone?

Whilst Brecht’s play was originally written as a thinly veiled satire on Hitler’s rise to power, the Donmar’s new adaptation, by Bruce Norris, is a not at all veiled satire on Donald Trump. There is 0% subtlety in the attack on this new contemporary reference, which might have become tiresome very quickly were it not so funny. Much of this is down to the presence of the actor who has to sell it, Lenny Henry on fantastic form, but also some very clever and unapologetic writing and staging. All of Trump’s current obsessions get an airing - the size of the crowd at a rally, the need to build a wall, vicious attacks on immigrants and even a ‘Make This Country Great Again’ banner. The best scene in this regard is when Ui needs to wrest control of the Cicero grocery racket from a female rival. The staging of the ensuing argument scene evokes the infamous final debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton so well, including a quick slip in of the phrase ‘nasty woman’ to much wry laughter. All of this is done with a certain swagger that is essential to its success. There would be no point in doing this sort of blatant satire half heartedly and this production goes all in to make it work.

As mentioned above, this production is totally aimed at bringing its audience in and forcing them to be active participants in Ui’s rise and/or fall. This starts with the most basic aspect of staging - the stage. There isn’t one, in short. This production takes place in a speakeasy, even the programmes are wrapped in plain brown paper, with the actors milling around the audience, arranged around them in a circle, at all levels. Audience members are frequently used in lieu of actors, which is gimmicky (my hatred for audience participation being well documented elsewhere on this blog) but very entertaining from the safety of the circle. The one exception to this is the very last scene where the audience is challenged to come and sit on the floor of the performance area to show their opposition to Ui. This is a powerful moment and illustrates the wider theme of the production really well with barely a word spoken. There’s also an interesting use of live performance of sections of contemporary music, on the one level a simple way to mask scene changes but also yet another way to remind the audience that time and place are immaterial because there are always men like Ui who need to be stopped.

The cumulative effect of this commitment to message does feel a bit overcooked sometimes, almost inevitably given how many levels it’s operating on. Perhaps a fraction of a percentage more subtlety would be welcome. The production also has a slight pacing issue, in that act one is less engaging and more ‘Basil Exposition’ than an excellent act two. I’m not really sure what director Simon Evans could have done any differently here though; there is a lot of story that needs to be told before the full horror of Ui becomes apparent and it makes sense to get that out of the way and really let the piece explode in the second act, which it undoubtedly does. Maybe a couple of judicious cuts could have been deployed just to make the first act shorter but, again, I’m not sure where my knife would fall. I just feel that the production is so close to getting the balance right that it’s a shame it didn’t quite get there. It detracted only a fraction from my enjoyment though, I am nitpicking a bit here.

Any faults that this production may have do certainly not extend to the cast however. In a relatively small and multi-talented ensemble it’s very difficult to find fault and the energy and sense of fun they all bring is infectious. As mentioned above, Lenny Henry takes the title role and is hugely convincing and charismatic. That he does the comedy fantastically is an utter non-surprise, that he conveys the menace and violence of Ui so well was a surprise (for me at least, this is the first time I’ve seen Henry on stage). He brings a huge presence and physicality to the role that other actors would struggle to match and his occasional Donald Trump impressions are subtle but well executed. He has very strong support across the board but in particular from Giles Terera, a real superstar in the making, as Ui’s righthand man Ernesto Roma who matches Henry’s charisma blow for blow and gets to show off his considerable chops with some quite dark material. Great singing voice too. (Lin Manuel Miranda has done well to sign him up for the West End version of Hamilton.) Justine Mitchell is a great, affecting presence in the relatively small role of Betty Dullfeet, Ui’s Hillary, and her ultimate defeat by him is the saddest of all of those that we see in the play.

This Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is, in short, great fun. Is it occasionally overcooked? Yes. Is it funny and affecting and superbly staged? Also yes. I suppose if you’re bored of political theatre then this may not be for you, but otherwise? Well worth your time. And if you are bored of political theatre then you probably need the kick up the bum that this production delivers. Remember the words of The Lorax.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17th June.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Theatre Review: Angels in America

If the point of a review is to offer a critique of the subject at hand, to criticise it, then I’m not sure that this post qualifies.

I’m don’t know what I’d class it as instead, mind. A rave? Some kind of weird written down orgasm? A love letter to Nathan Lane? It could be any and all of these. It certainly contains the latter.

Whatever it is, the subject matter of this post is Angels in America currently being revived, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, in a huge, all star, sold out production at the National Theatre. And I’m struggling to call this post a real review because there’s nothing I want to criticise; this production is perfect theatre, all seven and a half hours of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage. I feel just so inordinately lucky to have seen it.

Angels in America is, of course, an absolute classic and the writing remains some of the best you will ever hear. Told across two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Tony Kushner’s epic, in every sense of the word, tale of gay life in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis is both an excoriating critique of conservative, and particularly Reagan-era US, politics as well as a more hopeful message on the inevitability of human progress and improvement.

It’s fantastic to see both plays shown as far as I can tell more or less uncut - certainly there are lengthy passages included here that were cut from probably the best known version of these plays, HBO’s Al Pacino/Meryl Streep starring TV version. Kushner’s writing is incredible throughout and even seemingly tangential passages, such as the Oldest Living Bolshevik scene that opens Perestroika, are a joy to hear. There are passages, too, that are so much more resonant now than they have been at any time since the plays were written. The plays’ concern with the arguments over immigration and its benefits are depressingly relevant again, for example. Most striking, and frightening, though is how much more important the character of Roy Cohn has become again. The real Cohn was a key adviser to one Donald J Trump and listening to the plays’ version speak, even though his words are fictionalised, is a chilling reminder of the attitudes and worldview of the most powerful man in the world.

On the other hand, and perhaps partly in response to this, this production plays up the humour in Kushner’s writing to an unexpected degree. I had no idea how much I was going to laugh over the course of the seven and a half hours nor how much the production was going to be halted by bursts of spontaneous applause for the comedy moments. As much as it was unexpected, though, this was welcome and totally worked in the context of the production; both to increase the impact of and provide some relief from the darkness of other scenes. It was fun to see a knowing wink being paid to some of the casting decisions as well, in particular watching Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn offering his verdict on La Cages Aux Folles.

Angels in America in general, and Perestroika in particular, can be difficult plays to stage because of their overt theatricality and the presence of a very literal Angel in many key scenes. This production doesn’t hide from this for even a moment, in fact quite the opposite. It seizes the theatricality with both hands and has an enormous amount of fun with it. Much of this must surely be down to the influence of director Marianne Elliott of, amongst other things, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time fame. Many of the techniques used in these other NT blockbusters are in evidence in Angels, most notably puppetry and the use of black clad acrobats to maneuver the Angel (human puppetry, I suppose). These are used incredibly effectively again here and are consistent with Kushner’s stage direction that the audience should be able to see how these moments are created without the mechanics getting in the way of our willing suspension of disbelief.

The best examples of this are, unsurprisingly, in the Angel sequences which are jaw dropping in their creativity and visually stunning. The Angel herself is given a worn, almost steampunk, aesthetic which extends to her threadbare wings - two giant puppets - and tattered US flag costume, and reflects both her story of God abandoning Heaven and her shabby message of regression perfectly. As actress Amanda Lawrence is lifted, carried and occasionally almost thrown across the stage by her ‘Shadows’, you never completely forget that there are people underneath and around her but you also never for a moment doubt that this is the Angel, a single character with a personality all of her own. I sat and watched many of these scenes with my mouth gaping open like a fish (attractive). Even after seeing the Angel multiple times the impact never lessened.

Despite the bounty of joy available throughout this production, it’s still the acting that really sells it. This is a long and huge production but there are only eight principal actors all playing multiple roles. Each and every one of them is superb and it says much about the outstanding quality of this cast that the peerless Denise Gough is one of the least memorable - in any other production her defiantly sad Harper would run away with the show, but this is not any other production. A number of the cast truly excel: Russell Tovey’s conflicted and earnest Joe is such a touching and subtle performance, Susan Brown’s dual big roles of Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg are both perfectly pitched, especially in Perestroika where she is barely off stage but utterly masterful nonetheless, and the surprise package of James McArdle who blew me away as Louis, completely unrecognisable from his James Plays/Young Chekhov characters and with an American accent so perfect it’s almost impossible to remember that he is in fact very Scottish.

Then there’s Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In a production filled with the best acting you can currently see in London he is utterly peerless. It’s not so much that he’s in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing a whole different sport. There were moments in Lane’s performance that were so good that I found myself crying just because I felt so honoured to be watching them, which I realise is such a dickhead stagey thing to say but it’s true. His scenes with Russell Tovey in particular are an utter joy to watch, the confrontation at the end of Millennium Approaches is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen and, literally, made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t really do justice to how good this performance is in words, save to say that it’s three days later and I still can’t comprehend how lucky I am to have seen it.

Which is the perfect place to leave this review, I think, as it could equally apply to the production as a whole. I’ve never had a theatrical experience like Angels in America before. I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, I gaped in wonder for embarrassing amounts of time. This production is unforgettable and perfect and profound. I am privileged to have seen it.

Angels in America is sold out at the NT, but there are limited tickets available on the day and through the Angels Ballot. It’s also getting the NT Live treatment in July. Do what you need to to see it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Theatre Review: Woyzeck

Anyone who’s seen the poster art for the Old Vic’s new production of Woyzeck will have noticed that it includes a guide on how to pronounce the play’s name. “That’s probably not a good sign,” said my friend as we arrived at the theatre.

Programme art, sans pronunciation guide.

Woyzeck (Voy-check, if you were wondering) tells the story of the titular soldier, his fight to get on in a society determined to deny him and his descent into madness and inevitable - somewhat predictable - tragedy. It’s a famously tricksy play, left unfinished as a series of non-ordered scenes by original playwright Georg Buchner when he died and variously assembled by contemporary writers to fit their ideas ever since. It’s often presented in an avant garde style, to some degree at least. The Old Vic has tried to do a more ‘normal’, accessible production - as the fact they feel the need to tell us how to say the word on the poster alludes to - but, honestly, I rather wish they hadn’t bothered.

My main issue with this production is the adaptation, which I must say rather surprised me given it’s the work of current playwright du jour, Jack Thorne. It’s not so much that the writing is bad - it’s generally not; it’s punchy and treads the comedy/tragedy line very well - but the fact that narratively I just found the whole thing a bit of a mess. For all the hyping in the programme notes about how accessible this version is supposed to be, I struggled to follow the thread throughout. The first act is somewhat clearer but it seems to be setting up for a payoff that the much less linear second act fails to deliver.

Thematic strands somehow also get lost along the way too despite them, paradoxically, being rammed down the audience’s collective throat. Clearly this is a play about class and age exploitation but this is illustrated by the occasional ‘theme’ sequence, usually involving Woyzeck acting as servant to his Captain, rather than being properly laced into the plot. Ultimately, there was just too much of this production where I couldn’t connect with what was happening on stage because I was too busy trying to work out what the fuck was going on. And often failing. This version feels trapped between the play’s avant garde tradition and an attempt at a more natural modernity. What it delivers as a result is the worst of both worlds - not natural enough to be easily understood, not artistically daring enough to be avant garde.

I feel for John Boyega in this production, marketed as it is so heavily on his appeal. He is clearly a fantastic, charismatic young actor but for my money he’s not yet got the chops to carry off a part as big as Woyzeck. And let’s be real it is a huge part; as demanding as any of the big Shakespeare leads and inevitably placed on the shoulders of a much younger man. There are moments of greatness in his performance - he carries off Woyzeck’s early cheeky chappy-ness to a T and in the final scene he gives us something big, bold and deeply affecting - but there are also moments of not-greatness. It’s this lack of consistency and polish, particularly towards the end of the first half, that undercut the performance as a whole. He clearly will be an actor more than capable of this sort and scale of part, but I didn’t leave the theatre convinced that he is that actor yet. Which, given how much of the play revolves around him, is a not inconsiderable issue. It certainly doesn’t make the narrative easier to follow either.

If Boyega’s performance fails to take off, there are plenty around him that do; the supporting cast here is excellent. Sarah Greene as Woyzeck’s doomed girlfriend is a highlight; spirited but sad, almost as angry at the world as her other half but hiding it behind a quiet strength that he lacks. Ben Batt is also incredibly watchable, and brings some much needed, well sold light relief (and nudity), as Woyzeck’s fellow soldier who is much better at playing the system and has no compunction, happily for us, about doing so. But for me the collective scene is rather stolen by the vastly more experienced Steffan Rhodri, who is never not excellent, and Nancy Carroll as the Captain and his wife. Both manage to make what feel like very slight characters (the evil posh people, essentially) into something considerably more rounded whilst still conveying the thematic point that they are the oppressors. Carroll in particular gives a performance of greater nuance than the script seems to provide. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the ability of Rhodri to be reliably top drawer in any accent (here, it’s clipped RP) and in even the most ridiculous of costumes.

Also working in the show’s favour is the fact that it looks and sounds amazing. Using the Cold War Berlin setting extremely effectively and without ever falling into lazy parody, Tom Scutt’s design is atmospheric and menacing, comprising as it does a series of bare walls (stripped to their insulation) that fly on and off the stage on industrial winches. Lighting is projected in stark spots and strips of pure white, leaving much of the stage dark and adding to the feeling of wrongness. It’s used cleverly as a highlight as well, subtly lighting the large British Royal crest over the proscenium at key points (and I like the way that having this crest and a very traditional set of red velvet curtains across the stage, rare at the Old Vic, emphasise the points about class that are being made in much less subtle ways elsewhere). The almost inevitable use of an electro soundtrack is well done too; again effective without being overdone and piling on the levels of menace.

That this Woyzeck is a frustrating thing is no better illustrated than by the final, tragic scene. This is where the production finally takes off, with Boyega and Greene both bringing their A game and delivering big, brave and uninhibited performances on a bare stage lit only by white strips of light. It is incredibly powerful and deeply moving. If the rest of the show was at this level, or even approaching it, then I would just have written a very different review.

Woyzeck is at the Old Vic until 24th June.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Theatre Review: Occupational Hazards

A couple of years ago, in my day job, I found myself having to chase a junior Defra Minister up a flight of stairs at an event (don’t ask).

This fact stands out in my memory mostly because I was low key amazed at how quickly he had ascended said stairs, physical fitness hardly being a prerequisite for a Ministerial career. A subsequent Google stalk shone some light. He was an ex-military man with what I think you can charitably describe as an obsession with walking (trekking across the mountains of Afghanistan for fun is obsession in my book) and a fascinating career which included a spell as de facto governor of a province of post-war Iraq; Rory Stewart (for it was he) was and is not your average junior Minister.

Stewart’s time in Iraq is the subject of a self-penned booked, Occupational Hazards, which has now been adapted for the stage and is playing at the Hampstead. It tells the story of the failure of British and American forces in the southern Maysan province to ‘win the peace’ as they try and rebuild after the devastation of the most recent Iraq war. Any and all views on that war aside, it’s an absolutely fascinating piece.

On adaptation duties is Stephen Brown who has done a fantastic job with what must be a messy source, in that Stewart’s book isn’t a simple chronologically arranged story. Brown has taken key scenes from the book and whipped them into a timeline of key episodes, judiciously cut the number of characters with many becoming fictionalised accounts of real people and, at the apparent suggestion of director Simon Godwin, used the character of Stewart himself as a narrator, directly addressing the audience throughout as well as acting as a character in the drama. The latter in particular is something of a masterstroke: not only does it take what is essentially a series of standalone scenes and make them feel like a real story by, literally and figuratively, filling in the gaps it also draws the audience in and makes them active observers, complicit in the action. The overall effect is to create a vital and compelling story which is hugely engaging and totally absorbing.

Quite apart from the adaptation, Brown’s script is fantastic in its own right. It’s quick, it’s wry, it’s very funny, dramatic and authentic. It has a voice of its own, as well as communicating Stewart’s. There are some eminently quotable passages - “It’s democracy. Everyone is equally unhappy. That’s how the system works.” - peppered throughout. It really grasps the audience from the first moment to the last. And, crucially, at no point does it become an issue play. Occupational Hazards isn’t about whether the Iraq war was right or wrong or who is to blame that the aftermath was so badly handled, it just tells a fascinating story without implying judgement. Some people won’t, but I love it all the more for that.

Simon Godwin, who regular readers will know is one of my absolute faves, adds considerable directorial nouse to proceedings. Dispensing with the Hampstead’s normal elevated end on stage, Occupational Hazards is presented on a floor level thrust stage. Actors enter and exit using the auditorium doors and some key pieces of dialogue are delivered, at least in part, from the auditorium. The action is quick, scenes are short and the whole piece is full of movement to avoid (about 90% successfully) the issues with blocking and audibility that are inherent in this sort of stage-audience arrangement. The design is sand coloured, made up of sliding walls and screens (a Hampstead trademark) with a clever and sparing use of projection and an evocative soundtrack.  It’s a staging that really works and really, really works when combined with Brown’s whip sharp writing.

It really, really, really works thanks to an extremely strong ensemble, many playing multiple parts. The characters Brown has included are an eclectic bunch who really effectively show off the diversity of views and motivations not just between the British and Americans on the one hand and the Iraqis on the other, but between all of the characters as individuals. The cast work hard to do justice to this plurality and it pays off. Silas Carson as charismatic tribal leader Karim is a highlight, bringing real menace, gravitas and a touching weariness to proceedings. But it’s Henry Lloyd Hughes’ Rory Stewart who is the cream of the crop. Barely off stage at all, after wandering in through the audience and beginning with a ballsy direct address to introduce the story, he works extraordinarily hard and delivers a performance that is charismatic, energetic and detailed. He picks up many of the real life Stewart’s mannerisms and speech patterns without ever veering into impersonation and some of his delivery is really outstanding; a favourite being the beautifully quiet and perfectly timed final syllable in the line, “Like any right thinking person I’m suspicious of Powerpoint”. He really makes Stewart a character for the audience to root for, regardless of whether or not you agree with his actions or his point of view. It’s a superb performance.

If it’s not obvious, I really rated Occupation Hazards. It’s one of the most engaging and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year (and one with the most tickets still available during the run, unfairly). Regardless of your politics, your views on Iraq or indeed on Stewart himself, it’s one to make the effort to catch.

Occupational Hazards is at the Hampstead Theatre until June 3rd.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Theatre Review: Salome

If I were to draw up a list of my absolute favourite people in theatre, Yaël Farber would 100% be near the top.

I don’t really like the word visionary, and it’s thrown around a lot, but Farber definitely is one. The imagination of her productions is incredible and nobody builds the world around a play like she does. There’s no question that she’s an aesthetic director, in that staging plays a huge part in her world building, but she always chooses to work on plays of significant substance as well.

In her new production, Salomé at the National Theatre, Farber is on double duty as both director and playwright, though in reality even that probably does her influence on this production a disservice; this truly feels like Farber’s baby and Farber’s world in every way. Her new version of Salomé tells the Biblical story of the dancer girl who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a plate but with one major amendment: it places Salomé herself back at the heart of her own narrative. It’s thoroughly depressing how radical this feels. Combined with Farber’s usual aesthetic flair this creates a production of this oldest tale that feels completely modern. And ever so slightly bonkers, which is also pleasing.

The creation of Farber’s Jerusalem (for that’s where we are) begins the instant you enter the theatre with a very distinctive smoky smell and a barren, black stage lit with bright white spotlights. This forms the aesthetic base for the entire production, with the harsh white spots used incredibly effectively as highlight points, directing audience gaze in some unexpected ways. It also adds to an air of voyeurism that is maintained throughout the production, important given Farber’s thematic focus on colonisation of the female body, which is also highlighted by the continued presence of the entire cast on stage more or less all the time.

Music and sound is a huge part of this production, and there is a soundscape of both live and recorded sound that runs constantly throughout the show (the resultant, echoey use of microphones by all the cast is a minor bugbear) courtesy of sound designer Adam Cork. The highlight of this is the presence of two singers in the cast who provide a live soundtrack for Farber’s world - their voices are exquisite and the music they create adds considerable depth to the setting.

This is also a production that’s constantly in motion. The Olivier’s huge stage is used to great effect here with the revolve in near continual use throughout the play, moving cast and setting around in a way that is disconcerting and presents something of the tumult that Salomé and her story cause in her world. The other thing that features frequently, and is often moving, is sand. I’m not sure I altogether understood this as a reference point but as far as I can interpret it suggests a connection to the land, hence why it’s Salomé herself who is often interacting with said sand. Or perhaps the key is in Farber’s script - “the sand erases everything” - and it’s actually a comment on the way that Salomé’s story, her real story, is forgotten. Or perhaps I’m over thinking this and actually the sand is just there because it looks cool. But I doubt that in a Farber production.

As already alluded to, thematically Farber’s Salomé pins its colours very firmly to the mast: colonisation, of the land and of women’s voices, bodies and stories. There is no question that it works these themes very well, if anything it is occasionally overplayed and feels a bit Guardian columnist. The contemporary resonance is obvious and, thankfully, merely alluded to. There are some striking passages of text around the intentions of the coloniser, benign and not (I happened to be reading a book about the Nuremberg trials when I saw this show and was really struck how one passage in particular, Pontius Pilate talking about his hatred of the Jews, could have come straight from the transcripts). The points around the colonisation of women are arguably more interesting though, for me, slightly undermined by the fact that the only character who appears naked in the play, Salomé, is female whilst the male character who is specifically described as being naked, John the Baptist, is clothed. Though her nakedness does sometimes feel empowering - as during the powerful, decidedly unerotic dance of the seven veils sequence, which is great - for a lot of the time it simply feels like the classic Game of Thrones nudity double standard - women must be naked, but men absolutely cannot be. However, I realise this is more a question of interpretation than anything else and, in context, it certainly is not gratuitous.

The aesthetics are undeniably the star of this production which leaves relatively limited space for the cast to make much of an impression. To the extent they do, Paul Chahidi is a beautifully creepy Herod (though I didn’t quite buy his more straightforward ‘overcome with lust’ scenes) and Isabella Nefar is a striking Salomé. The standout though is Olwen Fouéré as Nameless (the older Salomé who serves as the narrator of the story) who gives one of the most unconventionally charismatic performances I’ve seen in a long time. She is utterly compelling - I could watch her for hours.

I was completely captivated by Salomé. It’s a short play (no interval) but is so enchanting and such a complete example of Yaël Farber’s unique brand of world building. It’s a beautiful thing and is absolutely worth your time and money.

Salomé is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 15th July.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Theatre Review: Consent

Is it possible to connect with a play when all of the characters are utterly hateful?

It may not be the intended takeaway but that was my main thinking point after watching Consent, Nina Raine’s new play currently on in the National’s Dorfman Theatre. It’s fantastically written, superbly acted and immaculately staged. Objectively, it does almost everything right. But I just didn’t connect with it. At all. And I really do wonder how much of that is because I cared 0% what happened to any of the characters.

Consent discusses depressingly pertinent issues to do with rape and women’s agency over their own bodies, something it does cleverly by both directly portraying and then subverting the legal form and language of the opposing arguments in a rape trial as put forward by two barristers who are, at least in theory, friends. With the trial as its initial catalyst, the play expands out to carry on exploring the issues by imposing them onto the clusterfuck home lives of the two barristers and their families. This structure - legal forms and norms used both in and out of context - works extremely well and allows Raine to make her overriding point without Consent ever disappearing into the realms of an issue play (although that is clearly what it is). For example, there’s a great sequence immediately after the actual court scene, where barrister Ed cross-examines a clearly traumatised victim, where Ed and wife Kitty ‘cross-examine’ their barrister friends Jake and Rachel whose marriage is in the process of falling apart using the same mannerisms, choreography and linguistic ticks. It’s subtle, but it totally works in making the point that discussions of consent should and do go far wider than the courtroom.

Raine’s writing is superb in dealing with what is, let’s face it, a pretty grim subject in an entertaining and provocative way. For my money, the humour is the highlight of the writing; punchy, biting, brutal, often black as pitch and with some top class swearing peppered in throughout. A favourite example comes when Ed, who seems to monopolise the best lines despite being the absolute worst, is railing against the man his wife is having an affair with and who believes his flat to be haunted: “opportunist prick, using a poltergeist as a wingman!” Raine is excellent too at putting lines and thoughts into characters’ mouths and minds in a way which subverts audience expectations. For example, and though I take issue with the idea that there is any debate to be had about it, it’s a pleasingly leftfield step to have Rachel taking Ed’s side and Jake taking Kitty’s in the question (it’s really not a question though) of the play’s second rape (that definitely is a rape): Ed’s of Kitty. (Seriously, there was a lot of chatter about this in the various cast and creative pre-opening interviews and how they all wanted the ‘did-he-didn’t-he’ discussions to be had. There is no discussion. He definitely rapes her; as Jake says in the play, it’s textbook marital rape.)

Now, this play is, as previously noted, staged in the Dorfman so you didn’t expect that you’d be aloud to leave without me having a pop about sightlines did you? And, as ever, they are a problem in this awful space. I know I’ve made the joke before, but Max Bialystock’s line from The Producers about “theatre in the square: nobody has a good seat” applies here once again. Like, I don’t mind spending an afternoon staring at the top of Ben Chaplin’s head, because he has excellent hair, but it doesn’t always help you understand what he’s doing as an actor. However, by Dorfman standards this play actually uses the space pretty well. It’s produced in the round (square) with the audience stacked up around the stage to add to the general atmosphere of conflict and adversarialness (clearly not a word but I’m going with it). The staging itself is pretty much nonexistent, with no scenery bar a few lights, minimal props and no soundtrack of any sort except occasional music to mask the change of scene. Combined with Roger Michell’s so-light-touch-as-to-feel-completely-absent direction, it provides the perfect platform for the writing and the acting to shine. To the extent you can see the latter, of course.

The acting is fab across the board, not least in its level of detail and subtlety (which rather reinforces the issues with sightlines). Special praise on that front to Ben Chaplin (more handsome in real life, Apple Tree Yard fans) who not only has excellent hair but, as Ed, also serves up a performance of supreme control and detail - the use of eye contact, hand gesture and body language is superb even without reading the programme note which highlights its importance to someone playing a barrister - whilst making sure that his 100% unsympathetic shit of a character stays completely plausible and never becomes a caricature. His wheedling, almost oddly singsong, delivery is a great piece of characterisation too. The reliably excellent Anna Maxwell Martin is, reliably, excellent as his wife Kitty, as is Adam James as human trashpile Jake, giving a performance that almost made me feel sympathy for him. Almost.

However, ultimately despite all the good things going for this production, I found it just too difficult to care about what happens to a group of six of the most awful human beings ever represented in drama (and one normal person, who commits suicide, which did make me sad). I sat and admired the play, but I never really got into it and, despite all of the above, couldn’t honestly say I liked it. Still, because I enjoy being complex and contrary, I do recommend it.

Consent plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 17th May (though currently only the 11th May performace is not sold out).

Monday, 1 May 2017

Theatre Review: Alice's Adventures Underground

On Thursday evening, I was invited to a blogger event for Les Enfant Terribles' immersive adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Alice's Adventures Underground, at The Vaults.

Despite accepting immediately, mainly due to the suggestion that there would be free food and booze, I was apprehensive about this one. Being a classic introvert, slightly claustrophobic and generally anxious about literally everything immersive theatre didn't seem like something that would be for me. Too unpredictable, too few points of familiar reference to cling on to, too much audience participation (two of my least favourite words in the English language).

Now, I don't like to admit when I'm wrong, but happily I was so completely wrong about this one. Like, 100% wrong. More than 100% wrong, were it mathematically possible to be so.

I loved Alice's Adventures Underground. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before - and likely will see again. Calling it theatre or a production, though it is undeniably both, seems to do it a disservice. It's an experience in the fullest sense of that word, and one that's very difficult to do justice to with a few photos and a few hundred words. But that's what I'm here for so let's give it a go, shall we?

The badge and the suit card were part of my story for the evening.

The first thing to note with this show is that it's actually more than one show. As each audience moves through the series of rooms that comprise the gigantic set, it's split up (bear this in mind if you're going in a group, you're unlikely to stay together). First by whether you choose to 'eat me' or 'drink me' (I went eat, the little peach jelly sweet you get was yummo) and then, randomly, by suit (I got hearts). Certain audience members also get selected to do particular tasks too, including me - and it says a great deal for this show that I both got totally into my task, helping the Nine of Hearts write a love note for the Two of Hearts and secretly delivering it over the course of the story, but also was so into everything else that was going on that I frequently forgot all about it.

Adding to the variations, the cast basically works in rep within the show. Each cast member is assigned to a team and each team covers four parts, cycling through them so that each actor gets a chance to play each part. That little factoid blew my tiny mind. I cannot fathom how on earth you prepare for that in a show like this. Learning four sets of lines aside, the level of precision of timing involved, the fact that you have to know where you're going through the huge multi-room, multi-storyline set, the proximity of the audience to you at all times etc etc etc - how can you keep that level of information in a human brain and still properly lose yourself in the part you happen to be playing that night? But everyone manages it - the entire cast were great; so charismatic, so talented and so completely into it.

Alice holding court at the afterparty.

The other thing that I must mention here, as they are also cast members in their way, is the amazing use of puppetry throughout the show. In my story, I got to spend a lot of time with the Frog, a fantastically well realised human size and operated puppet (think Timon in the stage version of The Lion King) who melded object and actor so well it started to mess with my head. The butterfly and the Jabberwocky, that the whole audience met in the climactic trial scene, were more traditional puppets but still so effective, the latter in particular. I was just sad that I never got to meet the Cheshire Cat who apparently was equally impressive.

The star of the show for me though is the set. Covering I don't know how many rooms on I don't know how many floors the first thing that's impressive is the sheer scale of the endeavour here. The Vaults is a huge, cavernous space immediately under Waterloo station (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise what the rumbling noise overheard was...) and every millimetre of it has been transformed for this show by set (and costume) designer Samuel Wyer. Scale aside though, the thing that completely floored me is the level of detail in every room. If this were a book, you'd describe what Wyer achieves as universe building. Layer upon layer of minute detail - from the obvious fun to be had with making your audience feel that they're growing or shrinking right down to ensuring that every letter and book that anyone could possibly see has something meaningful written on it - is built to create a very distinct atmosphere of a faded, dirty, slightly wrong but still wonderful land.

I was really lucky as part of the evening to be able to take some photos of one of the best sets - The Mad Hatter's Tea Party - at an afterparty with some of the cast and creatives.

Tea party place settings.

Afterparty at the Mad Hatter's.

Time, also party of the Tea Party set.

This gives you a sense of what I mean both about the general universe building that runs through the whole show and also the level of detail involved. This scene in the show was one of my favourites as it so totally captured the essence of its part of the story and was, for my money, where set, characters and plot united the most effectively. The fact you get a cup of 'tea' (vodka and something, not sure what, but emphasis on the vodka, regardless) probably helped.

The fantastic theming stretches to every moment of your experience in Wonderland, not just in the show but in the whole building - the Wonderland Bar, designed by Darling and Edge, for example is just as carefully themed and home to amazing cocktails by Smith and Sinclair and yummy comfort food by Saucy Chip. A small caveat here: though I was lucky enough to be able to try them for free, the food and drink are at proper London prices. They are also *so* good and the cocktails are super imaginative, super on theme and super strong (the latter is probably why I got into my task so thoroughly tbh).

The Wonderland Bar.

Entering the space.

Smith and Sinclair cocktails: The Cheshire Cat (L), a colour changing gin and
green teas concoction and Painting the Roses Red (R), rose gold liqueur, lemon,
honey, hibiscus paint and prosecco.

Saucy Chip's Dodo Dolce Vita mac n cheese

I absolutely adored Alice's Adventures Underground. It's so imaginative, so much fun and so completely immersive in every possible way that I can't imagine how anyone could not enjoy it. As I've said though, it's also completely impossible to do justice to in words and pictures - you really have to experience it to understand its power. Suffice it to say it's the best thing I've seen in London this year and I can't imagine how anything else will dethrone it.

Alice's Adventures Underground is at The Vaults until September 23rd.