Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar

When you go to the theatre as much as I do, it’s sometimes difficult to connect with anything on more than an academic level. Even with stuff I really enjoy, I often find myself sitting in the audience mentally composing the accompanying blogpost. And in a sense that’s fine - I still really enjoy it.

But I do like it when something comes along that really punches me in the gut.

Julius Caesar at The Bridge punches the head, heart and gut simultaneously. Which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one. It’s a technically faultless production which is also alive and exciting and dangerous and visceral. I’ve never seen Shakespeare that’s so relevant with only the barest amount of effort to make it so. I loved this show.

A controversial (apparently) opinion to start with: Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Yes, the final battle scenes can sag a bit but I love the complex, political build up to them. The Brutus vs Mark Antony eulogy-off alone is enough to make me applaud like a seal. It is unarguably the most relevant play for the omnishambles that is politics/the world at the moment too; just sit and read the aforementioned eulogising and think about the Brexit campaign or any of Caesar’s lengthy pronunciations of his own greatness and think about Donald Trump if you’re in any doubt of that.

One of the joys of this production is that it feels so achingly relevant without ever labouring the contemporary political parallels. Yes there are bright red baseball caps and a Caesar with an eerily familiar swagger but the baseball caps do not say ‘Make Rome Great Again’ and the sublime David Calder is certainly not doing any kind of Trump impression. There are so many contemporary references that can be drawn from this play and this production but director and General Hero Nick Hytner allows the audience to make those references for themselves. Essentially, he sits back and lets the text, and the cast, do the talking. It’s a laissez faire approach which totally pays off. Though I do think they missed a trick by including Seven Nation Army in the show’s brilliantly wild live musical opening and not having anyone start an ‘Oh Julius Caesar’ chant.

One of the most talked-about aspects of this production so far has been the fact that it’s staged in promenade. The decision to go this way, with the audience-mob becoming a character in its own right, is so ballsy on Hytner’s part and a lesser director would surely have struggled. Hytner and his team do not. Like, at all. It helps that he has the amazing Bunny Christie as his designer. Her astonishing set almost deserves an acting credit all of its own it moves around so much and is so much part of the action. It’s also a great example of the way this production plays to both head and gut: my head would like you to know that, technically, this set is baffling in its complexity and effectiveness (book a seat high up in the circle to appreciate it in all its glory - don’t feel you have to stand to enjoy this show because you really don’t), my gut on the other hand is just blown away at how beautiful it is, even if that beauty is sometimes extremely bleak. It’s a design that deserves all of the awards and if it doesn’t get them I will be very cross indeed. The use of music - both live and soundtrack - is so effective throughout too, as is the lighting design. The latter really comes into its own during the battle scenes whilst the former is at its best during the aforementioned opening musical segment.

It almost goes without saying in a show directed by Nick Hytner these days, but the cast is also utterly superb. There are some big names here and they are all on top form. I’ve mentioned David Calder, veteran of, like, everything, already and he is an excellent Caesar. There was a great video interview with him as part of the show’s marketing campaign where he talked about being “a Caesar worth killing” which I struggled to understand a bit until seeing his performance. He is much more than the bit of a dick that Caesar can be in this play: he is charismatic, he is nasty and he is dangerous. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus is acutely well observed as a paradigm of liberal elite loserdom, almost always visually separated from everyone else and too concerned with signing copies of his book on political theory to notice that all of his decisions are terrible. As a gender swapped Cassius (a great decision - it makes the play feel even more contemporary to have the character who everyone seems to deride most of all be a clever, ambitious woman, sadly), Michelle Fairley is spectacular; far more principled and clever than Brutus and just a better human being to boot. In some of the smaller roles, Adjoa Andoh is the sassy Casca of my dreams (and so funny) and, in many and varied parts, Abraham Popoola is exceptional, dripping with charisma and cajones, which sounds gross but you know what I mean. He’s surely one to watch in the future. A shout out too to the incredible team of auditorium staff shepherding the audience and the set around, in what must surely be one of the most stressful and difficult jobs in British theatre.

It’s David Morrissey that steals the show for me though - as you can tell by the fact he’s getting his own paragraph. Praise by grammar. His Mark Antony is a proper rockstar who I would legit follow into any battle. He sets out Antony’s stall early and mutely, running through the crowd wearing a tracksuit with his name on the back during the musical opening and jumping on the stage with the cast-member band. Arriving late and hungover for Caesar’s fateful trip to the Senate, getting a huge laugh from the crowd for his ‘sorry/not sorry’ face in the process, this is the sort of Antony who would definitely have been the most popular guy at school. As soon as Caesar is good and murdered though, Morrissey transforms him into the most consummate - and threatening - populist politician. His ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ is exceptional, a real Moment, and a feat of political manoeuvring - figuratively and literally, given the staging. The speed of the switch of frightening and the nasty side he allows to shine through is great. Of course the mob love Antony, why would they not? To quote another of David Morrissey’s current crop of semi-fictionalised Roman leaders: he is Rome, and where he walks is Rome. It’s a completely magnetic performance full of energy, malice and charm. And just oh so exciting to watch.

Julius Caesar is the sort of theatre that makes me remember why I love theatre. It speaks to the head in its technical brilliance; it speaks to the heart and the gut in its sense of life, danger and real, blood pumping excitement. Whether you choose to be part of the mob or sit at a safe distance and observe - or, as I intend to do, see it twice and do both - this is just a stunningly well done production. A depressing cautionary tale about the state of our world at the moment that’s rendered shatteringly compelling by this gem of a show.

Julius Caesar is at The Bridge until 15th April.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Theatre Review: The Believers Are But Brothers

In terms of exciting programming - and proximity to a Westfield, also a plus - the Bush Theatre has got London theatre sown up.

Always exciting, always diverse (I have yet to see a play there written by a white man) and always innovative, almost everything I’ve seen recently in the category of ‘well I’ve not seen that before’ has been at the Bush. Also they have an onsite play library and excellent coffee both of which are just fucking A. 

Their latest commission is a transfer of hit Edinburgh show The Believers Are But Brothers, written, performed and co-directed (with Kirsty Housley) by Javaad Alipoor. This is a super interesting piece which, like many past Bush pieces, is difficult to really describe without giving away too much about it. So in the vaguest possible terms, Believers is a show about the internet and social media; how it can be used for good fun stuff and decidedly ungood unfun stuff. It tells the surprisingly interwoven stories of a wannabe British jihadi trying to join Isis, a British teacher caught in the crossfire, literal and figurative, of the Syrian civil war and an American alt right keyboard warrior spreading his hateful credo across the world. Fun and lightness this is not; fascinating and insightful it definitely is. 

Alipoor has done his research to a slightly terrifying degree and the pictures he paints of the three men - and kudos to him for acknowledging and explaining his lack of female protagonists as part of the show - are vivid, nuanced and disturbing/sad (as appropriate). He doesn’t seek to excuse anything that these three men do, but he does seek to understand it in a way that it would be hugely helpful to international politics for other people to do. He avoids making this a piece about the failings of Western foreign policy in the Middle East or the rise of Isis or Brexit or Trump, though all of these are certainly touched on. He does have a lot to say about the wonders and dangers of the internet and social media though and the explanation and analysis here is razor sharp. And very frightening. My phone will be staying in my pocket a bit more over the next few days I think.

By and large though Believers is not an issue piece, it’s a people piece and all the better for it. It’s never better than the lengthy segments where it’s just Alipoor at a microphone - beautifully lit by Ben Pacey - telling the stories of his three protagonists in a beautiful act of old fashioned oral storytelling. His writing in these segments is particularly strong: punchy and emotional and complicated and rich. His stage presence and charisma is thrilling. I would probably have loved the show even more if it had just been 100% this. 

The staging of Believers is great too, with an effective and not overdone use of video and a great but simple set that evokes the sort of computer dominated geek-holes that his protagonists inhabit. It also normalises them in a really clever way - we’ve all seen someone with the sort of computer dominated bedroom that this set represents. One thing I wasn’t overly sold on though is the production’s use of an audience WhatsApp group. Again, I won’t go into too much detail here for fear of spoilers but for me it was very rarely something that added to the show and very often something that distracted from it. Perhaps I’m just too old fashioned to ever get with the idea of phones in the theatre being ok - and you’re told to leave your notification sounds on too! - but the constant ping of everyone’s show-related notifications, non-show-related notifications, assorted BBC News Alerts and amazing Bruce Springsteen ringtones* was just a bit annoying. It is used effectively a couple of times, but overall I didn’t feel the show would have lost anything if it wasn’t there. I applaud the attempt at innovation though and it’s exciting to see the Bush yet again toying with the idea of what a theatre audience is and can be.

I really enjoyed, though perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word, The Believers Are But Brothers. It’s such an interesting, thoughtful and thought provoking piece and it’s difficult not to get excited about watching someone with Javaad Alipoor’s vision and creativity. The Bush’s commissioning is as brave and bold as ever with this piece. I look forward to many more visits this year.

The Believers Are But Brothers is at the Bush until 10th February.

*Yep, that was mine. And I have never felt more guilty in a theatre. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

Theatre Review: Pinocchio

If you were going to make a list of the most frightening and screwed up Disney films - and honestly that seems as good a way to spend a Monday evening as any - I would argue that Pinocchio should be at the very top.

Have you watched that shit recently?! It’s such a nightmare! Quite apart from the fact that I find marionettes creepy AF, any film which contains lengthy sequences depicting children turning into donkeys, being locked in cages and eaten by a fucking whale does not qualify as wholesome, uncomplicated family fare in my book.

It does make for an intriguing premise for the latest Disney Theatrical screen to stage transfer though. One that is made all the more intriguing for being staged at the National Theatre. Not obvious producing bedfellows, I would argue.

Dennis Kelly is the man tasked with adapting the Disney classic for the modern stage and he delivers an enjoyable skip through the story. My main criticism of this show is that a sense of fluent storytelling and character motivation is notably lacking (which, to be fair, on the latter point at least is something that could equally be said of the film). What we get instead is a series of semi-independent individual scenes and characters doing whatever the hell they want within them. That said, these scenes are well written and extremely good fun. For a family show, they pitch both the emotion, simply expressed but pulling no punches, and the humour exactly right. The for-the-grownups humour is especially well done with some cracking lines mostly delivered by a Jiminy Cricket reimagined as a neurotic millennial - the show’s best touch by far (to Pinocchio, on things that he must watch out for: “then there’s this thing called gluten”).

What the show lacks in written depth it certainly tries to make up for in spectacle. Some of the stagecraft and visual effects on display are fantastic: the glowing blue fire of the Blue Fairy’s star, the flying sequences, the whale, Pinocchio’s growing nose. Even from the third row of the stalls it wasn’t always clear how these things were done, so I’m going to extra-suspend my disbelief and claim they’re actual magic. The oversize puppetry used to make the human-sized actor playing Pinocchio seem small gives a fun sense of perspective (and menace) but I was disappointed that the faces weren’t animated. It sort of ruined the effect of these puppets being actual characters, especially given how sophisticated puppetry in theatre can be these days (War Horse anyone? The Lorax?) Jiminy Cricket is the exception here; by far the smallest puppet but by far the best. The design is a great evocation of the Disney original - and the lighting is amazing - but at times I felt it was a bit swamped in the somewhat cavernous Lyttelton space. Given this is a show backed by glitz-and-hugeness-purveyors-in-chief Disney Theatrical it just felt a bit...beige, I guess. Not bad, not by any means, just not enough.

In a production that’s so puppet heavy, there’s not much by way of traditional acting to talk about. There’s a lot of singing and dancing - the use and expansion of the original Disney songs is very effective - which the energetic and versatile ensemble manage with considerable aplomb. As the only entirely non-puppet actor (somewhat ironically) Joe Idris-Roberts delivers a charismatic, fun and physically dexterous Pinocchio who’s always a pleasure to watch, even though the character himself is much more of a shit than I remembered. Audrey Brisson steals the show though as millennial Jiminy. She’s a joy: tremendous fun, pleasingly annoying and the only actor who really gets to grips with her puppet and embodies their character. Gender blind cast cricket puppets are 100% the way forward.

Pinocchio is not a great piece of writing, or a great production, but for all that it’s impossible to dislike because, more than anything, it’s a show full to bursting with warmth and heart. And the small boy sat next to me absolutely loved it which, I rather suspect, was always intended to be the point.

Pinocchio plays in the Lyttelton Theatre at the NT until 10th April.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Theatre Review: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Over Christmas and New Year, Ellen McDougall - the new AD of Notting Hill's teeny Gate Theatre - seemed to be all over the sort of middle class, metropolitan elite media that I consume. 'Hmm,' I mused to my parents' greyhound Shelly, who honestly seemed quite uninterested, 'I think I need to check this out for myself'.

How cute is this theatre though?

So it was pretty ace to be able to start my theatrical year off at The Gate, checking out the first play of McDougall's season, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The premise of Twilight: LA is one which, when I told people about it, made them make The Confused Face. And on paper/screen it is a bit of a tough sell: a one woman verbatim play about the LA race riots in the early nineties. But if the concept, by Anna Deavere Smith, sounds a bit odd then in execution it's really not. It's fantastic. Urgent, compelling and oh so depressingly relevant in its stories of prejudices, injustices and complex identities (all plural used intentionally there).

I've never seen a more effective use of verbatim speech in theatre, ever. The selection of excerpts chosen and the voices they represent are vibrant and diverse and tell their story so effectively without ever being a straightforward narrative. It almost goes without saying, too, that they don't just tell the specific story of LA in 1992. There were several places where, without context, the words spoken could just have easily have been spoken today. They also shy away from ever presenting this story as some kind of simplistic one race versus another story. This is a complex piece, that raises complex issues and it's refreshing to see that no easy answers are offered save a powerful expression of hope that things will be different. It's nice to see too that, in this tiny enclave of Notting Hill at least, 2017's trend for political theatre with a capital everything is not going away.

The Gate is not a theatre I'd been to before, more fool me, and it's a brilliant little space that this production makes super use of. With much of the room sprayed Barbie pink and lit by multicoloured neon tubes it's instantly clear that this is going to be an inventive affair and it absolutely delivers on that early promise. Jacob Hughes' design is clever without being distractingly flashy and the way the performance space is laid out - the audience more or less in the round with 'stages' in the middle and, elevated, at either end - is really well thought through. Anna Watson's lighting is a joy throughout, including an incredibly effective pitch black segment. Ola Ince's direction is spot on. And whoever decided that the sort-of-interval should come with free tea/coffee and biscuits (Party Rings no less!) deserves a special award at the Oliviers this year.

This piece would be nothing - literally and rhetorically - without the sublime Nina Bowers though; the firecracker performer taking on the unenviable task of playing all 19 (!) characters. It's a feat of performance that it's just thrilling to watch up close. Each character has a distinct personality which never, ever relaxes into stereotype and it's incredible that Bowers is as effective as both male and female characters of all races and none. She is supremely charismatic, charming and chameleon-y and I will be supremely aggrieved if this is the last I hear of her. She deserves to be a superstar.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is a little gem of a production and an incredibly deft piece of theatre. If you're in any way interested in social justice, verbatim theatre or, like, being a human person then you should see it. Go for the Party Rings, stay for the drama.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is at the Gate Theatre until February 3rd.