The evolution of the fox

 

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Ben Aldridge as Charlie

 

Run The Beast Down, Marlowe Studio Canterbury & Finborough Theatre London

This is a slightly unusual post for me. Although I work in a theatre, I rarely write about any of the shows I deal with – but I’ve recently had the rare and unusual opportunity to see a new play develop, from page to first performance and then onwards, and I wanted to share it. For my Twitter followers, this is the play I’ve been going on about recently! Hopefully, this post will help explain why.

The script for Run The Beast Down – by first time playwright Titas Halder – was submitted to a new writing programme called Roar (don’t ask why it’s called that, it’s too complicated to explain), run by The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, where I work. So I first encountered it as a script, passed around the office and discussed.

It is, according to the script, ‘a play for one actor’. This one actor plays Charlie, a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, Charlie loses his job in the City (as the result of a Lehman Brothers-style collapse) on the same day that his long-suffering girlfriend walks out on him. So far, so prosaic. But the script then heads off in some very unexpected directions, as Charlie stops sleeping, and finds himself being haunted by an urban fox… We hear all of this from Charlie himself, and he’s a highly unreliable narrator. How much of this is real, and how much is in his head?

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Although everyone in my office agreed that we liked the script, we found it hard to imagine how it would work as a play. How the hell do you bring to the stage a script which involves a possibly imaginary conversation with a fox in cafe?

Well, after months of waiting, last week, we finally got the answer, with the opening of Run The Beast Down. The key to director Hannah Price’s vision is the music – the play comes with an electronic soundtrack, played by an onstage DJ (Chris Bartholomew). Tales about talking foxes might seem to more the realm of rural fairytales, but this is a very urban story, with a suitably urban soundtrack.

The urban theme is carried over into the back drop, with a set consisting of eight metal poles illuminated by ever changing neon lights. It’s scenery that gives no clue as what is really happening or how much of this is in Charlie’s insomniac imagination. The combination of the lighting and the music gives the whole production the feeling of a particularly vivid dream, the kind you get unexpected flashbacks to the next day.

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But of course, however good the production, a one-man show stands or falls on the performance of one man. The man in this case is Ben Aldridge – he’s best known for his work on TV (in Our Girl, Fleabag and various other things), but, boy, can he cut it on stage too. He’s never off stage, there’s no scenery to hide behind, but he holds the audience’s attention for a solid ninety minutes. He captures the various characters – from his braying workmate to an overworked GP, to the talking fox itself – that Charlie encounters beautifully, striking the difficult balance between differentiating them, without stepping out of his main character. There’s a lovely detail in the way he uses his hands to mimic the ear movements of the fox during that conversation in the cafe.

It was fascinating to see Aldridge’s performance – and the production – develop between the first performance and the second one I saw, at the end of their week-long run in Canterbury. It’s not just that the production gets slicker, or that new elements have been added – although both of those things are true – but it’s got more confident in subtler ways too. For example, allowing more space for the audience to laugh.

This has given me a harder view of the recent controversy about reviewing previews. I might have been neutral before, but now I’m clear: It isn’t fair. I loved both the production and Aldridge’s performance on the first night, but it wasn’t a finished article (although whether live theatre can ever be that is debatable), it wasn’t something on which judgement should be passed.

However, putting that rant to one side – I’ll definitely be looking out for Hannah Price’s work in future, and I hope it’s not too long before Aldridge can be tempted away from TV and back to the stage. If you can squeeze into the Finborough Theatre in London in the next month, do go and check out Run The Beast Down – it’s a unique experience.

http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2017/run-the-beast-down.php

 

 

 

 

 

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A spectacular storm

 

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Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

 

The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

I first saw Simon Russell Beale on stage when I was still at school, in another RSC production of The Tempest, in which he was a physically unlikely but utterly compelling Ariel. Since then, enough years have passed for me to consider lying about my age, meaning that Russell Beale has now graduated to playing Prospero. Now that was a prospect that had me scurrying to the RSC website to book tickets.

And he doesn’t disappoint.  This is a masterful performance by a master performer. He’s good at suggesting the various layers of Prospero, from his tenderness to his daughter, to a finely delineated mix of anger at his usurpation and guilt that his neglect allowed it to happen. The moment when he forgives his usurping brother is especially beautiful. 

But if it was the return of the mesmerically brilliant Russell Beale to the RSC that had me packing my bags for a trip to Stratford, most of the pre-publicity about this production has been about the technology involved in it. In partnership with Intel and Imaginarium Studios, this show features the first live theatrical use of motion capture technology, to create avatars of Mark Quartley’s lithe and watchful Ariel,  which are controlled by the actor’s own movement, frequently giving us two Ariels for the price of one (although this technology cannot come cheap).  So, does it work? Does it overshadow the actors? Yes, and no, respectively, but I’m not sure it adds very much.  The Ariel avatars are fun, although I suspect they are better viewed from front and centre stalls than our perch in the cheap seats (one end of the Upper Circle).  From here, the sequence in which  Ariel appears  as a Harpy might as well have been a pre-recorded projection, as Quartley was hidden from view (he was perched at the side of the stage one level down from us, so that even leaning  perilously forward all I could just see was a glimpse of one of his one shoulders). Quartley’s best moments were his one-on-one moments with Russell Beale, especially his delivery of the line “Mine would sir, were I human,” which sums up Ariel’s strange, otherworldly emotions.

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Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Seating gripes aside, there’s no denying that this is a gorgeous production. Framed between the giant rotting timbers of a wrecked ship, projections evoke Prospero’s spirit-filled isle. More projections are used in the masque sequence, with its three operatic singing goddesses. It’s a huge contrast to the last production of The Tempest that I saw, which was set in a prison and used rubbish as props (see here). Do I have a favourite? No. I’m just glad British theatre has room for both.  

As well as the technology, there are some great performances. I especially liked Jenny Rainsford’s engaging Miranda, Tom Turner’s caddish Sebastian (brilliant moustache!) and the comedy duo of Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder. The moment when the latter hopped down into the audience and onto an audience members’ lap was a very funny. Wonder if the audience member ever reacts badly?

But in the end, it’s Russell Beale’s show. The most moving and powerful moment comes not from the flash-bang whizzy technology, but simply from him standing alone on stage with a simple spotlight.  I’d follow him through the storm anytime.

The Tempest is at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 21 January, before transferring to The Barbican in London.

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-tempest/

 

Summer Lovin’

 

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Geoffrey Streatfeild as Platonov and Justine Mitchell as Anna Petrovna

 

Wild Honey by Anton Chekhov & Michael Frayn, Hampstead Theatre

It’s Chekhov, Jim, but not as we know it – and not just because of the presence of Michael Frayn as co-writer.  We are dealing here with early Chekhov, adapted by Frayn from a sprawling and nameless manuscript discovered in a Moscow vault sixteen years after Chekhov’s death.  This is Chekhov via Feydeau, Chekhov as writer of farce, albeit a farce with a tragically human heart.

Wild Honey is the story of Platonov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), and the various women who pursue him during one hot summer. Platonov  is almost a personification of failed promise. Once a future Byron in Moscow, he’s ended up as a school teacher in a country back-water, married to a wife he doesn’t respect.  We’ve all met a Platonov – essentially useless, self-serving and pathetic, but possessing enough charisma that you allow yourself to be charmed anyway. They’re dangerous but enjoyable to be around. But although he hides it, Platonov is horribly aware of his failure. He’s thrown off his axis by the question posed by Sofya, a former girlfriend from his Moscow days: “Why haven’t you done better?”  It’s from this one question that events begin to spiral out of control.

There are many recognisable Chekhovisms in Wild Honey – whether the themes of unfulfilled promise (“Why do we never lead the life we have it in us to lead?” is the play’s key question), the dream of escaping from the provinces, or the debt-ridden aristocrats – but all refracted through the unexpected lens of farce. Even as the story gets darker, this is a very funny play, which reminds us of the sheer absurdity of human loves and lusts. It’s a highly effective antidote to the grey and damp British winter, with the gorgeous birch tree-filled set and lighting evoking a longed-for hot summer and its consequent lusts.

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I have written elsewhere on this blog (see here and here) about my devotion to the acting talent that is Geoffrey Streatfeild, and he continues to more than justify my (cultural) stalking of him. After last seeing him as the tortured Ivanov at the National, it’s nice to see him display his comedy timing again. He gets a run for his money from Platonov’s quartet of women: Justine Mitchell as the impoverished aristocrat Anna Petrovna, a widow beset with such useless suitors you really can’t blame her for taking the initiative and going after Platonov; Sophie Rundle as Sofya, Jo Herbert as the bluestocking victim of Platonov’s teasing; Rebecca Humphries as his devoted and neglected wife. It’s notable that Platonov does not deserve the devotion of any of these women.  In fact, none of the men in the play come out of this very well – they are all weak or otherwise unpleasant.

Wild Honey is at the Hampstead Theatre until  21st January. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2016/wild-honey/

The Imprisoned Storm

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The Tempest, Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross

A prison buzzer sounds. “Please stand aside. Inmates coming through.”

Being bossed around by uniformed prison guards is not what you expect from an afternoon at the theatre, but it’s how Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Tempest  begins. This is the third of a trilogy of productions, all starring Harriet Walter at the head of an all-female cast, and all set in a women’s prison.

Here, she’s playing Prospero. My love for Harriet Walter is boundless, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her Prospero captures both the mystical manipulator and the protective parent aspects of the character perfectly. You need a certain presence to bring Prospero to life, and she has it.

She’s got a good cast behind her, of which my favourite was Jade Anouka’s rapping, body-popping Ariel. I also liked Leah Harvey’s wide-eyed Miranda, and Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar as the drunken duo of Stefano and Trinculo.

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Jade Anouka as Ariel, with The Tempest company

It’s easy to know how to feel about performances as good as these. Trickier for me is the women’s prison setting, with which I have to admit, I have a few issues.  To start with the good: it does bring out the themes of imprisonment within the play, which I hadn’t really noticed before – and references to Prospero’s ‘cell’ suddenly gain a whole new meaning. The minimal set, and basic prison uniform costumes, prove that you don’t need fancy and beautiful settings to make Shakespeare work, lovely though they sometimes are – if you have performances like these, the words are enough.

 

But to me, the whole thing feels… apologetic, as if they felt the need to come up with an elaborate construct to justify the all-female cast. Why? Propeller Theatre  – for example – do all-male Shakespeare, but they don’t feel the need to justify it by setting their productions in an Elizabethan playhouse. Performances this good do not need justification.  I think my unease was increased further by a phrase used by director Phyllida Lloyd in the programme: “We felt that by putting the girls into prison uniform they were instantly freed and instantly androgynous.” Perhaps that’s true, but it also has shades of the patriarchal demand that if we wish to be taken seriously we must be less female.

Maybe all this felt necessary just four years ago when the first of this trilogy (Julius Caesar) was staged, but I’m not sure it is now, given some of the casting we’ve seen in recent years – whether that’s Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, or Michelle Terry as a brilliant Henry V (see here) in the highly mainstream setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, or Glenda Jackson’s upcoming Lear.

Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the rest of the trilogy, as I’ve only seen this last part of it. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as I’d like to think. Perhaps we’ll only know in twenty years’ time, when Jade Anouka might be playing Prospero on the main stage at Stratford. Here’s hoping.

https://www.donmaratkingscross.com/

 

Albion in crisis

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Lear and his daughters. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC 

 

King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, Live from Stratford-Upon- Avon

The realm is in great confusion. The nation is divided, rulers abdicate their responsibilities, and doom-laden prophecies are whispered everywhere…

Not, as you might be tempted to think, modern Brexit Britain, but the Albion of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  In his pre-broadcast chat, this production’s director Gregory Doran (who’s also of course the RSC’s Artistic Director) said that rehearsals had begun in the week of the referendum, and it’s hard not to find modern parallels in the story of Lear.

We first glimpse Antony Sher’s Lear as he’s carried aloft, screened from unworthy eyes, like a kind of Medieval eastern potentate. The court he’s carried into had definite hints of Byzantium for me. Sher’s performance is masterful – well, he’s Antony Sher, you wouldn’t really expect any less, would you? His Lear is both loathsome and pitiable, beginning as a commanding figure, bulked up by a huge fur coat, and gradually dwindling as the play progresses.

This play is the ultimate portrayal of familial dysfunction, and there are plenty of clues as to how his daughters ended up the way they did – having dealt with a man by turns autocratic and emotionally needy, the real miracle is that Cordelia didn’t go the same way. Nia Gwynne’s magnificently scornful Goneril  has clearly developed a hard skin to deal with her father’s constant resentment that she’s not the male heir he hoped for, whilst Kelly Williams’ simpering Regan has had to develop an act to survive. 

Although Lear has his name in the title, he and his family don’t hog all the action. In the first half especially, some of the best lines go to Paapa Essidedu’s Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester. This is another dysfunctional  relationship – Edmund’s resentment at the contrast between his father’s treatment of him and his legitimate half-brother Edgar drives him to try to destroy both. Essiedu, recently a brilliant Hamlet  (see here), is a fiery and charismatic Edmund. His excellent performance is matched by that of Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, who grows from a Tim-nice-but-dim figure at the start, to nobility by the end.

Edgar is one of the few survivors at the end of this most unremittingly bleak tragedy, which has a tendency to reduce its audience to emotional wrecks. I had already started welling up at Sher’s Lear grieving over the body of Cordelia, but what tipped me over the edge were Antony Byrne’s last lines as the Earl of Kent, promising to follow after his dead master.

The old leave the stage, leaving the surviving but leaderless young to try to pick up the pieces. Brexit Britain again?

Alka-Seltzer for the soul

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Geoffrey Streatfeild as Ivanov. (c) Johan Persson

 

Ivanov, part of Young Chekhov at the National Theatre, London.

Chekhov with a hangover. That’s one that could go either way really isn’t it? Either perfectly in tune with the despair induced by over-indulgence, or just too existentially crushing. I have to admit that the only reason I hauled myself into London for this was that the ticket was too damn expensive to waste. But I was so glad I did. What a hangover cure.

The main reason for this is Geoffrey Streatfeild’s performance in the title role. What is it that tips an actor from being just good into something mesmerising? Is it just an extra helping of talent or some weird kind of charisma? Whatever it is, I reckon he’s got it. I suspected it after seeing him in last year’s The Beaux Stratagem, (see here) but this performance confirmed it.

Just as you can’t have Hamlet without the prince, this play stands or falls on its central performance, and Streatfeild’s is a tour de force. His Ivanov is a man suffering not from the self-indulgent Russian melancholy  that Chekhov characters are sometimes accused of possessing, but a deep and genuine depression, with all the paralysis interspersed with self-destructiveness which that entails.

There may be other Hamlet parallels there, but I found Ivanov more sympathetic and less irritating than I usually find Hamlet. Even as the play narrows towards its unhappy ending , you’re still hoping against hope that Ivanov will somehow pull through (apologies if that’s a spoiler – but this is Chekhov, after all).

Aside from Streatfeild, the stand-out performances for me came from the play’s women. Olivia Vinall as Sasha, the young woman who offers Ivanov a hope of redemption, is a real discovery for me. She captures beautifully  all the touching ruthlessness of a teenage girl trying to turn her first crush into a real relationship. The ever-brilliant Nina Sosanya is touching as Ivanov’s dying first wife, making you pity her even as you understand his irritation with her devotion. Emma Amos brings genuine heart to social-climbing Marfusha Babakina, who could too easily topple over into caricature.

Ivanov – alongside the other Young Chekhov plays – is at the National Theatre for just one more week!

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/ivanov

 

 

 

 

Girls go wild

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The cast of Our Ladies. Photo (c) Manuel Harlan

 

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, National Theatre of Scotland/Live Theatre Newcastle

“Let’s go fuckin’ mental!!”

The brilliant Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, currently partying in the Dorfman auditorium at the National Theatre in London, is not a play for the easily offended.  The above refrain is the oft-repeated battle cry of the Ladies of the title – six Catholic schoolgirls in Edinburgh for a choir competition, trying to get back home to Oban and the Mantrap nightclub – and the newly-arrived submariners they’re hoping it will be filled with.

This is a play that captures the raw energy of teenage life in all its foul-mouthed glory. The young and ridiculously talented cast of six (all female) play both the girls and all the other characters they encounter, ranging from nuns to a whole cornucopia of dodgy blokes. They also sing, with music an integral part of the play (although it’s still a play with music, rather than a full blown musical). The music gives the play some of its strongest moments – whether that’s the girls stripping off their school uniforms to reveal their partying outfits while angelically singing Handel, or the poignant rendition of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ at the end.

The clever set places the action in the aforementioned nightclub –you can almost feel the stickiness of the floors. This and the references to Hooch (essentially a highly alcoholic lemonade, for anyone who doesn’t remember) reminded me of clubbing in my student days, mostly in a nightclub called Fifth Avenue, ‘affectionately’ known as ‘Filth’. Our Ladies is clearly a period piece: there are no mobile phones or internet references, and based on the Hooch reference and the clothes, I’d guess we’re somewhere in the mid-nineties. But it isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Perhaps because teenage growing pains are universal, whatever technology is available.

What’s not exactly universal is the sympathetic representation of girls gone wild – men behaving badly we’re used to, and we live in a culture which expects and even encourages that, but girls who behave in the same way are a cause for disapproval and hang-wringing. If you’ll forgive me another 1990’s reference, look at the reporting of the so-called ‘ladette’ culture of that era.  But, refreshingly, by the end of the play, the girls may have grown up, but they are still defiant. While their actions don’t come without consequences, they’re not victims of them.

The only flaw in my experience of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour came from the audience. From the reaction at the end, they clearly loved it, but they seemed to take a long time to warm up – there were times when it felt like me and my husband (and a random bloke sitting next to us) were the only people laughing. These Ladies deserve an audience that can compete with the raucous joy and sheer energy they bring to the stage.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour runs at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre until 1st October.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/our-ladies-of-perpetual-succour