“Peter and Alice” is the second play in the Michael Grandage season after the excellent “Privates on Parade” and, as usual, Grandage delivers the goods. Tony award winner John Logan’s new play is a complex narrative about childhood innocence and the pains of growing up, fantasy and harsh reality, and in its wake disillusionment and personal failure.
Logan imagines what the encounter between an elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves with a middle-aged Peter Llewellyn Davies must have been like when they meet each other at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. Liddell is of course the original for Alice in Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Davies one of five brothers who were the model for Barrie’s “Peter Pan”. They both exchange their versions of what happened when they inspired the two famous fictional figures, and what happened when “the boy who didn’t want to grow up” did indeed grew up and Alice in Wonderland lost two of her three sons in World War I. At the end of their stories is one peaceful death at the age of 82 and at the other a suicide by jumping in front of a tube train at Sloane Square.
At first I was disappointed by Christopher Oram’s simple set design of an old bookshop in the first scene but this of course was a stroke of genius, as the tattered old shop gave way to the fantasy land of Peter Pan and Alice, inhabited by the fictional counterparts, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie and other important figures from their past. The play juxtaposes the re-telling of what might have happened in real life with bits and pieces from the children’s books. This montage is curiously effective, especially when talking about the strange relationships between Carroll and Barrie and each child respectively or setting Peter Pan’s cry of ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure’ next to the suicide by drowning of Peter’s brother Michael. Strong acting throughout, not only by the leads Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw but also by Nicholas Farrell (Carroll), Derek Riddell (Barrie), Olly Alexander (Peter Pan), Ruby Bentall (Alice in Wonderland) and Stefano Braschi who convinces both as Peter’s dying father, suicidal brother and Alice’s future husband.
A fine production throughout but not exactly an evening of light entertainment.
At the Noel Coward Theatre until 1 June 2013
Politics is a dirty business. Even more so when you have a minority government. James Graham’s new play is set in Westminster during the period between 1974 and 1979, when every vote counted in the war between Labour and Tory. Based on the memories of the party’s whips from that period it recreates an exciting time for British politics.
Being German, I knew, of course, nothing about the historical background to the play but I thoroughly enjoyed Jeremy Herrin’s production of the play. Westminster is depicted as one big machinery with the whips oiling the machinery and the MP’s as their fodder. Literally so, as the set with a miniature House of Commons revolves and new allegiances are found and lost, MP’s go astray or die. This is a huge opera, emphasised by the fact that on the viewing gallery a rock band comments the shenanigans downstairs like a modern Greek chorus. Real drama embroils the Labour Whips (Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, Vincent Franklin) and Tory Whips (Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards, Ed Hughes) whose political membership is instantly recognisable by the way they dress, move and talk. It even gives a nod to the film “Quadrophenia” when Phil Daniels, who starred in the film and is one of the Labour whips, starts singing a punk song.
The only drawback to the play is that after almost three hours of political maneuvering, the play does start to feel a bit too mechanic itself. Still, I enjoyed this show more than the much hyped “The Audience”.
In the National Theatre until 15 May 2013
More than once I thought “what’s the point?” when watching the much hyped production of “The Audience” written by the star writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Deal, Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon), directed by the famous Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) and having at its centre another star – Dame Helen Mirren herself, reprising her role of Elizabeth II from “The Queen”.
The premise of the plot sounded interesting enough: the relationship between the queen and eight of the twelve prime ministers in her sixty years long reign, from Churchill to Cameron – shown through imagined scenes in their weekly tête-á-tête, the audience (thus the title of the play). Sure enough, Ms Mirren was superb in her role, changing from a young queen to an old queen to a middle aged queen and back. The supporting roles were top-notch as well, with Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, Paul Ritter as John Major, Nathaniel Parker as Gordon Brown and an Edward Fox who did sound like Winston Churchill himself. Plus two real corgis on stage who stole the show. And Daldry’s direction was fine as well…. but the play… oh my oh my the play… was really just like a staged version of a Hello Special Edition on the queen’s reign. Here she is with Wilson in Balmoral *flash* here lectured by Churchill *flash* here with Thatcher *flash* here bored by Brown *flash*. The play clearly lacked focus and edge and provided only platitudes and clichés on the prime ministers and the queen but no new insights. The only time the play developed something like relevance was when the queen interrogated Anthony Eden on secret memos on the Suez crisis – clearly set up as a parallel to Tony Blair’s handling of the Iraq war (who by the way is otherwise absent from the play) but this interesting moment in the plays’s narrative comes soon to an end and it changes gear and focus again with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. What really surprised me was how little use Morgan made of the opportunity to let the prime minister comment each other by letting the different audiences overlap and thus adding a bit of edge to the proceedings. Compared to Morgan’s brilliant “Frost/Nixon”, this play is a disappointment: a nice piece of fluff, greatly acted but nothing more.
In the Gielgud Theatre until 15 June 2013 http://www.theaudienceplay.com/home/
Matthew Dunster’s revival of Rodney Ackland’s play, originally performed in 1949 and based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, is a marvel. It describes the mechanics within a conservative upper class family once one of its members reveals a dark secret. Superbly cast with Katherine Parkinson as the “prodigal daughter” Laura Skinner pitted against her forbidding sister Kathleen played by Michelle Terry, her utterly hypocritical politician of father (Michael Thomas) and her naive mother (Stella Gonet). Special mention should also go to Polly Dartford as the youngest daughter Susan (alternating the role with two other actors) whose inquisitive questions of a child reveal the double-standards of the adults and Anna Fleischles great costume designs. The play manages to walk the fine line between satirical criticism and psychological insight, between humour and torment. It reminded me of recent revivals of plays by Terence Rattigan (“After the Dance”, “Cause Célébre) but “Before the Party” is much funnier. And darker. A must-see.
In the Almeida Theatre until 11 May 2013 http://www.almeida.co.uk/
Set during the War of Independence in the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris’ new play “The Low Road” traces the life and death of the rather dubious Jim Trumpett as an example for an early conman and harbinger of free market economy.
The play, whose production is Dominic Cooke’s swan song as an Artistic Director of the Royal Court, is obviously steeped in Brechtian theory of “epic theatre”: it uses all kinds of Brechtian devices such as a narrator – who in this case is the philosphical father of neoliberal economy, Adam Smith -, signboards that explain where and when the scene is set, and several distancing effects. It is essentially a reworking of Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage and her children” for the 21st century. Like the earlier play it has a rather unpleasant lead character, played by the talented Jonny Flynn (Last seen as Viola to Mark Rylance’s Olivia in “Twelfth Night”), who is only interested in his own financial gain during times of war and who we see encountering different people in the episodical structure of the play – each commented on by Adam Smith who coined the phrase of the “invisible hand that guides the market”, played by the ever efficient and amiable Bill Paterson. Like Brecht, Norris has a clear message in the play and that is ” the philosophy of neoliberal econonmy is evil”. This message is underlined by the fact that Jim Trumpett’s father is not George Washington as he claims but a common thug. Neoliberal economic philosophy, Bruce Norris seems to claim, is not in the spirit of the American founding fathers but just an off-spring of criminality disguised as the former.
Subtle it ain’t, but the play has a rich tapestry of literary, religious and visual allusions that give it a lot of depth. One example are the continuous references to honey and bees that quote a forerunner to Smith, the political economist Bernard Mandeville and his “Fable of the Bees” (1714), in which man is essentially described as evil and egoistical and needs guidance through policies. Another is Heinrich von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas” with its theme of man against state (at one point there are even German soldiers asking for tax if Jim Trumpett wants to cross the border, just like in the German novella), Goya’s “The Third of May” and even Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” with Jim Trumpett sitting in Jesus Christ’s place, preaching the gospel of neoliberalism. Plus one of the most surprising uses of a deus ex machina I have ever seen. Strong acting thoughout, not only by the leads but also by Simon Paisley Day in three roles – an arrogant British officer, the disabled Poor Tim and a modern day economist – and the lovely Ellie Kendrick, last seen as a female werewolf in BBC’s “Being Human”. Slightly too long (an episode on the usefulness of political theatre could have been easily cut) and sometimes overindulgent in its political zest, it is still worthwhile seeing and offers a lot of food for thought, especially in the light of recent benefit cuts in the UK.
At the Royal Court until 11 May 2013 http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/
I recently spent two weeks in London and managed to see fourteen plays in fourteen days, spending the meagre sum of 127 pounds on them, mainly for day seats in the first row or for standing. Here is the overview of the plays I’ve seen where:
NT: 5, Globe: 3, Royal Court: 2, Donmar: 1, Wyndhams: 1, Duchess: 1, Old Vic Tunnels: 1
Since both “Chicken Soup with Barley” in the Royal Court and “Luise Miller” in the Donmar have finished, I won’t review them but they were superb!
Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre, runs until August 18. Director Howard Davies. Cast includes Phil Davies, Ruth Wilson, Rory Kinnear, Conleth Hill, Mark Bonnar, Justine Mitchell
Dysfunctional families engaging in argument and political discussion are all en vogue on the London stage at the moment. The Royal Court gives us a contemporary American family in “The Pain and the Itch” whereas the National Theatre presents us with its equivalent in pre-revolutionary Russia in “Philistines”. What both plays have in common is that the members of their households continously argue with each other – and that in outstanding brilliant dialogue. Maxim Gorki’s play has been ingeniously translated and updated by Andrew Upton (Mr Cate Blanchett to you) who gives a certain zing to even the most elaborate of Gorki’s phrases.
Everything in this play is movement and conflict as the different members of the Bessemenov household come through different doors and stairs, collide with each other in argument and go out again. In one memorable scene, after the botched suicide attempt of the daughter, the door to her room hardly ever closes as people rush in and out while from the front door curious members of the public rush in to see what has happened. Talk becomes discordant as people interrupt each other or play on the piano while someone else is talking. There is hardly a scene of dialogue between two characters where not a third charcters is involved in something completely different, even if it is just the carrying in of a heavy samovar. Howard Davies has beautifully orchestratesd this cacophony of different voices. The household is ruled by the dominant self-made man Vassilly (an outstanding Phil Davis who manages to give a thoroughly unpleasant character a human face) who only believes in materialism and status in life. Pitched against him is his idealistic foster-son Nil (played by a fiery Mark Bonnar) , a socialist activist, who believes you can change the world if only your will is strong enough. Standing between them are Vassilly’s children Pyotr and Tanya. Pyotr (a wonderful Rory Kinnear seething with frustration and anger) is a disillusioned law student who got suspended for revolutionary activities. Unable to embrace or completely reject his father’s materialism and Nil’s idealism and with his professinal future eclipsed, he evidently is stuck in this house. His sister Tanya ( a heartbreaking Ruth Wilson) is even more trapped than him, unable to fly a nest where neither her domineering father or Nil are able to love her. Surrounding them are a host of lodgers and servants such as the drunken nihilist Teterev (Conleth Hill) with a cynical view on life who probably has some of the best lines in the whole play and the widowed party-girl with revolutionary tendencies, Elena ( played with dry wit by Justine Mitchell). In the end, Vassilly betrays the revolutionary friends of his children to the police and both Nil and Pyotr are fleeing the flat with their prospective spouses, leaving a vulnerable Tanya in the clutches of her parents.
The first time I saw the play as a preview I was struck how moving and dynamic the play is under Howard Davies direction and a thoroughly strong performance through the ensemble cast. The tragic underbelly of the play is lightened up by sarcastic wit and romantic entanglements. And how wonderfully flawed the characters are! Phil Davies’ Vassilly is a greedy, corrupt and anti-Semitic patriarch whose explosive fits of rage hide his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority towards his children. Tanya is a tragic figure with a twist as she torments the servant girl Polya for her romanticism and being loved by Nil who in his turn has no qualms in leaving Tanya in despair after she witnessed their romantic encounter. Pyotr leaves his suicidal sister to enjoy the love of Elena who is amazingly cold hearted when it comes to other people’s pains: ” There’s a type of person seems to bring it on themselves…all they do is whinge…how alone they are and how dark and pointless life is and I just – Those people, I can’t help myself, I want them to be unhappy. I just. Do.” The play is like a dramatisation of W.H Auden poem “Musee de Beaux Arts” which states that suffering “takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
Watching the play a second time a few days ago, I could however understand a recent review that this is a “five star production of a three star play”. The ending is strangely flat. After Nil has left with Polya, you expect the long awaited final confrontation between Pyotr and his father. It starts promising enough with the frustrated Pyotr in full flow:”What are you trying to say?… That I owe you? that I obey, like what? An employee? There are no more serfs. There is no more of this…what you think. What you imagine. Blind obedience. It’s not like that anymore.” And then nothing. Neither father and son are able to defend their point. Pyotr virtually shuts up after stuttering that he wants to marry Elena as if he was Hermia and Helena in the final act of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. And that from a character whose eloquence was evident in phrases like “hearing him, you’d think life was like some long-lost American uncle who will shower you with unexpected wealth” and who lectures his revolutionary friends on the futility of their tasks. It is as if Gorky suddenly lost interest in the character and his conflict with his father which is all the more damaging to the play as Pyotr in his disillusionment towards both capitalism and socialism is a close contemporary of ours and probably the character we most identify with. It is left to Elena to give the final speech of the couple to Vassilly and his wife – and in Andrew Upton’s modernised version this ends rather crudely as “I will fuck him. All the time.”
Still, this is one of must-see productions of the year…
Filed under howard davies, justine mitchell, london, mark bonnear, maxim gorky, national theatre, phil davies, philistines, review, rory kinnear, ruth wilson, theatre