Saturday, 22 December 2012

A second week in London theatre

Jacobean playwrights played well together. They were forever dividing up the playwriting labours. Shakespeare sometimes wrote with others, but for Thomas Middleton it was a happy habit. His best play, The Changeling (1622), was written with William Crowley, who probably wrote the beginning, the end, and the subplot. But it's Middleton's play.

This production of The Changeling at the Young Vic is instructive. It was a big success in the theatre's small space and here has similar success in the main space, its season already extended. It's good to see Rowley's subplot, so often cut, treated equally. In fact, considerable effort has gone into equalising the two layers of the story. All are bedlam. And there's a lot of wedding dessert that finds its way into bed, in a very Jacobean way. When the food fights begin, all are equal.

But the production instructs in a different away. This kind of production, with its febrile sense of play and its refusal to be bound to a fast concept, despite its contemporary dress, is quite common in Australia. I found it familiar. But here it's unusual. English productions of plays of this period tend to be straight-jacketed to a particular time and place. The Donmar Warehouse Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary women's prison, and now playing, is a good example. It could never break from that simple idea. It was interesting to read reviews of Benedict Andrews' production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in this same theatre just a few months ago. I've had a few conversations with colleagues over the last few days who saw it and thought it a good and relatively tame and quite friendly version of the play from Benedict, especially compared to his version for Sydney Theatre Company in 2001, which I saw and mostly admired. But the Young Vic version sent some of the English critics into apoplexy.

Why is it that?

The rest of my week was taken up with new work. 

I've always considered Alan Bennett, perhaps unfairly, as a miniaturist. The world of his art is small and English to the core. In fact, 'Englishness' is probably his principal subject. It's true that over the decades some of his plays have been large in scale, but there is a reason why they have not played much in Australia. But within that finite world, he has a turn of phrase that catches moonlight.

In recent years, his world has inched open. The History Boys was an important stage in Bennett's late-life embrace of his homosexuality. Still, while claiming to be set in the 1980s it was clearly about Bennett's 1950s childhood. Its attitude to teachers having a fiddle with the students was more Ancient Greece than contemporary Britain. Still, he managed to get away with it and had a huge hit on his hands, his first of this century. A couple of years ago I saw his then new The Habit of Art, featuring many of the same team. It was a secret joy for me. I am fascinated by the Auden-Britten-Isherwood world, and this play is set mostly in Auden's Oxford rooms, in which the poet is visited by the nervous composer wondering if an opera of Death in Venice is a good idea,
given that it's a little queer. Oh, Ben! It's a truthful and insightful play and one I found quite affecting.

I saw Bennett's latest play, People, mainly just to check in with where this writer was at. It was a disappointment. The story concerns a crumbling English stately home, occupied by the same family since the 15th century. A lesbian Archdeacon and her sister (Frances de la Tour, a Bennett stalwart) are at loggerheads about whether to donate the home to the National Trust or maybe rent it out for porn films. At some level the play suggests itself as a state of the nation play, while overtly denying the metaphor. The play seems to say that those people who visit National Trust homes are part of the national problem, because they only recognise a corporate version of England. In the 1980s it all went wrong. Porn is more honest, the play seems to suggest in a peculiarly naive way, and indeed one member of the porn film team, in the final scene, is given a rosary bead once owned by Henry VIII. It's a gesture that is planted as 'meaningful'. The director Nicholas Hytner, who has shepherded most of Bennett's recent plays to the stage, appears to have been asleep here. The acting is boulevard at best, and there are many lazy lines masquerading as profundity.

Sometimes the British theatre can be trapped in tropes. This production and play have been reviewed too well, and too kindly. This is comfort, not commentary.

There has never been anything comfortable about Shunt's work. This performance collective have been making work since 1998, but are best known for their cult residency in the London Bridge vaults between 2004 and 2010. They specialise in surprising, site-specific immersive work, just like their more famous cousins, Punchdrunk, who kicked off in 2000. Shunt's first new show in three years, The Architects, takes place in a massive warehouse, the old Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey.

There are three parts to the experience. We enter via in a labyrinth of MDF rooms and corridors. They are beautifully made and lit, with hints of art deco. Eventually, you find your way to what appears to be the bar of a cruise liner. You know it's a cruise liner, because you see the water (video) though the windows. You buy drinks (I recommend the mulled wine). Then the band starts up - a regular feature of Shunt shows - and for an hour a 'Danish' family are our hosts on the 'cruise of a life time'. A woman collects her stiletto from inside a bull, which much later becomes a kind of sex contraption. Another makes a long speech about architecture. Gradually, the cruise begins to break down. We are told, via a sequence of announcements, that a piece is missing from the Eiffel tower jigsaw, that the heating has failed, that someone has lost a finger, that there are children on board, and so on and so on. This is mildly entertaining.

Then in the third part, a mock evacuation divides the men from the women and we are led into huge, dark, cavernous spaces. In the distance, an aerial act is performed. A woman in an an animal mask appears. She stands there, like a Minotaur. 

This was a big disappointment. There is a conceptual basis for the work: labyrinths and the Greek myth of the Minotaur sit in and around what's going on. But here is a show which has largely forgotten its audience. The material, and the experience, is not arranged in a coherent way - the three sections of the show seem entirely unrelated - and most of the meaning (a notion Shunt shun) is still sitting in rehearsals somewhere, alone and unshared. What's perhaps worse, from an experiential point of view, is that the sensational possibilities of the space remain unexploited. A let down.

Over at the Almeida, I met a poet. Edward Thomas was unknown to me, a difficult Englishman with 140 poems who died in battle in 1917. Yet I've learned that he is revered by many other poets. Ted Hughes, for example, called him 'the father of us all'. A new play from Nick Dear (who built the unconvincing text for the recent National Theatre Frankenstein) unravels some of his life, centrally his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost, his wife Helen and his friend Eleanor. These three, who all love Thomas, take turns narrating the story as it jumps around in time. Both Frost and Thomas were fascinated by a new kind of poetic diction that drew on rural common speech. Modernism gets a serve. When Ezra Pound suggests to Frost that he should try free verse, Frost says that would be like playing tennis without a net.

The play, called The Dark Earth and the Light Sky (a title no one can remember) is efficiently directed by Richard Eyre and the rural dirt floor from Bob Crowley sits authentically in the beautiful Almeida Theatre space. Pip Carter's Edward Thomas feels spot on. The play itself provides a peculiar pleasure. Thomas himself is a deeply unlikeable personality, particularly in the terse dismissiveness of his wife. This is one of the main interests in the play: the playwright worrying away at the poet's mystery. It's one of those literary bio-plays that somehow gets under the skin despite your initial resistance. It certainly sent me to the poems, no bad thing, and had me worrying away at someone who inspired love but were themselves incapable of it.

Depression is part of love. To love is to invite the possibility of grief. The effect of the loss of a lover can create chemical imbalance that brings emotional disarray. Or perhaps the chemical imbalance comes first. If you think about it too much, it's like a camera trying to take a photo of itself. All we can do is breathe. This is the subject, and argument, of Lucy Prebble's new play, The Effect. Prebble, with her director Rupert Goold, had a huge hit in 2009 with Enron. That production, which I saw in its West End transfer in 2010, tackled corporate fraud with insight and a sometimes startling theatrical framing, a Goold speciality. Here, Goold once again delivers a wonderfully acted and staged show.

The National's Cottesloe Theatre is transformed into a corporate waiting room of a drug company trialling new anti depressants. The design is impressive, in-the-round, and comfortable. As we enter, some are given clinic wristbands, though they are never referred to and so this attempt at an 'immersive' gesture is actually a bit naff. But that's a minor point. The staging is sophisticated, buoyant and gets as much out of the play as anyone could reasonably expect.

The play itself, though, while often incisive and felt, is conservatively constructed. It concerns two triallists, one of whom is supposedly on a placebo. They fall maddening in love. Is it the drugs? Or is the presence of love causing the chemical changes? The brain is interrogated in several scenes as an organ of deep mystery and power. There are a couple of plot developments involving the doctors and the traillists which mostly, but not always, keep the thing moving. The program argues aggressively against our contemporary propensity for 'neurobabble'.

This neuroplay is not always sound. There is one long scene, for example, in which the two doctors argue out their opposing positions. One argues that the idea of 'chemical imbalance' dealt with by drugs will one day seem as silly as the ancient Greek and Roman idea of the four humours, which lasted until the nineteenth century, seems to us now. The other argues, well, the opposite. The scene should not have been necessary. The play itself should have dramatised these views, and the grey bits in between, without the need for a scene that laid the themes on the table for easy if bloating consumption. Too much of the play resorted to this kind of chunky, clunky dramaturgy. But the good bits were very good, and many in the audience were very moved, as they often are in plays and films that deal with depression. It's a subject close to our modern hearts. We might have Facebook, but we have never felt more alone.

Prebble, 31, is a young writer at the beginning of her career. She has clear talent and is not afraid of difficult subjects. It's great to see her so well supported. I was very pleased to be in her presence, neurologically and in other ways.

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