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London Theatre Doubleheader

What a treat it is to be back in a place where I can choose my theatregoing based on the venue’s reputation – and my previous experiences seeing shows there – rather than the title itself.

That’s just what I did for two plays yesterday at the Royal Court and Almeida theatres at opposite ends of London. I joined the legions of tube and on foot commuters in the interim period with an extended stop at Leicester Square, which just happened to be on full showman mode with the UK premiere of Cinderella.

IMG_1002But back to the plays. First up was How To Hold Your Breath, running at the Royal Court. In some ways it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on in this story, but as the tale went on, it became clear that was part of the point. We’re introduced to Dana (Maxine Peake), a woman who appears to be in her 30’s or 40’s and is struggling to make ends meet. In the beginning of the story, she may or may not have sold herself for romance with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), but (since this is a play!) they have an argument that sets the plot in motion and leads to Dana thinking that Jarron also holds supernatural powers which haunt her as the story goes on.

Dana brings her sister and roommate Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) into the action, and is trailed by a mysterious librarian (Peter Forbes) as her journey goes on. The supernatural thread expands with the story, leading to a series of arresting and memorable physical images near the climax when Dana is isolated against an army of people also suffering from her plight.

Because the plot meandered from point to point, it was difficult to tell when the conclusion was being set up and led to the story feeling anticlimactic for me – it would have surely been more effective with a dramatic denouement in the image described above, for instance. However, the design team offered a crackerjack sense of compactness, with backdrops rising on top of each other in the modestly sized Royal Court stage, and effective hints of sound design sprinkled throughout the narrative.

When the script by Zinnie Harris played with its lines and a sense of repetition, also near the end, that also created a feeling of taut anxiety and uncertainty. Although in a broader sense the play remained successful simply from showing two strong female leads and the sense of a realistic world nestled within current events.

(If I knew more about current political affairs in Europe I might have appreciated the play more, but I certainly felt like it could still be appreciated on its own merits.)

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In the evening I ventured back up to the Almeida Theatre in north-central London’s Islington district. Their current production, Game, drew me in with its promise of a unique viewing experience, and convenient “late show” 9:30pm start – the performances are actually twice per night because it’s a short length play. The show has drawn strong reviews from all major local sources.

The show takes a provocative premise and really runs with it. We’re introduced to a young couple moving into an affordable house and getting to know their new living quarters. But it immediately becomes apparent that their presence in the house is part of a sadistic plot for members of the public to improve their shooting skills. In a sharply constructed 60 minute viewing experience, we’re given a sense of what the couple must endure to live in that environment and how their efforts to live a “normal” life are severely compromised. Although the voyeuristic shooters remain somewhat thinly drawn, they get a moral conscience with one character who rises in importance during the story.

I’m sure I will remember the show most for the novelty of its staging, in which the Almeida’s modestly sized auditorium was reworked into a series of arcade style viewing experiences, with the audience (divided into three or four separate sections) seated on backless benches looking in at the central set. Viewing was also augmented by medium sized televisions above the set, and all of the scenes not involving the couple took place in areas that are part of the audience seating area, with the images being transmitted to those in other sections. Finally, the audio of the experience was through headphones rather than live listening, and the actors had to expertly coordinate between their lines onstage and off, and sometimes overlapping.

It’s clear that the writer, Mike Bartlett, intended for his piece to be cultural commentary in our ever – expanding age of reality shows and celebrity obsession. I would say that he and the design team, led by director Sacha Wares, succeed in balancing a sense of satire and one of nervous drama.

While it’s possible this show experience would be different if it was a longer or less radically conceived piece, I think it was right in tune with the challenges of today and how things could turn if we collectively don’t take more humane charge of our future lives.

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A Satisfying and Overdue Return to London Theatregoing

Barbican SignI’m writing this from my old stomping grounds of London, England, and very happy to be back here for the first time in just over seven years.

Although this is a short trip, theatregoing is naturally still a focus, and so I made sure to include at least a few plays on my itinerary. First up this afternoon was Antigone at the Barbican Centre, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Coincidentally I worked on another Sophocles translation by Carson with The Penny Seats last summer.

It was such a pleasure to be back amongst the appreciative UK theatre crowd, who treats theatre like Americans treat the movies (as a frequent and enjoyable pasttime) and are respectful about the process of putting on the show without being overly gregarious; standing ovations are rare!

As for this production, I feel like it did not fully realize its potential, although there were certainly some strong moments. And perhaps the performance will improve as time goes on, where the cast is proceeding on an extensive tour after the London engagement, traveling to multiple countries over the next six months.

Binoche anchors the story with an expected gravitas. However, I was intrigued and pleased by her choice to play the character much softer than many of her film roles. I feel that she often projects a natural confidence or comfort onscreen in many of her performances, whereas in this role, there was a humbleness and meek quality I picked up on that seemed like a completely new component of her work. As Antigone, she’s not quite as visible in the story as one might think, leaving a large chunk of the story to the work of the ensemble cast.

That was where my challenges with the show came in. Not so much with the ensemble performers, who all worked strongly with each other, although I can’t single them out because I don’t know their other work. The performers worked off a modest but spacious set and a generous lighting design. A key component of the lighting was a large center stage moon that changed as the play went on from smaller to larger. But once it expanded to its full size, it was right in my line of sight from my seat, and kept taking my attention away from the actors, like if a television was on at the same time you’re trying to talk with someone in a casual setting.

Similarly, the production couldn’t seem to decide how much modern touches it wanted to include. A large screen was occasionally used to accentuate the narrative, and led to some dramatic moments, but also felt jarring in its inclusion, like the narrative wanted to add a grander touch and move away from the focus on the words.

To conclude, it’s commendable that the Barbican hosted a production like this and clearly continues its objective to bring a wide global range of theatre to discerning audiences in London. I’m thrilled to have made the effort to see this show and to get a chance to update my experiences with one of London’s most unique artistic venues.

Barbican Flyers

European Film Expeditions

This week I have caught up on some recently released and filmed in Europe films, making me stoked to go back to The Continent during spring break next March.

Two FacesFirst up was the new thriller The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith and from the writer of Drive. Hossein Amini retained his costar in the earlier film, Oscar Isaac, and added Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst into the mix as a central trio caught up in a deceitful web within 1962 Greece. All three actors find several elements to highlight of their roles, with Mortensen nailing the disheveled intrigue of a shady businessman, longtime cinema veteran Dunst offering a mature portrayal of a young woman caught between several worlds, and Isaac continuing to come up the ladder, cinematically, filling in the role of a man who has his hands in several parts of Athens life.

The actors are aided by carefully chosen photography and film work, emphasizing the colorful contrasts of Greece, and a reminder of an era when locations felt more far away (presumably) than they do in the present day, with real effort needed to get a specific plane ticket, to make your next travel connection, or make sure you still have everything you need for your out of the country identification and security.

The film might suffer from what I assume is a flimsy source material. Highsmith’s interest in shady characters, same-gender relationships and European locales is all there, but at a 90 minute running time, there isn’t much depth aside from the inciting event and what happens after that experience. A more seasoned director might have gotten deeper performances from the leads, though Amini’s experience with narrative tension comes in well late in the film with a series of “will they or won’t they succeed in _______ activity” sequences.

The second film of the week, My Old Lady, is a cinematic interpretation of a play originally seen at my “other” hometown theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, in 1996 and 2005. (I remember hearing of both productions but did not see either of them performed.) The film also marks the belated cinema directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, former artistic director of GSC and well – known in the theatre world. Throughout the film, its stage origins are clear, with some positive and some negative results.

my old ladyThe film also seems to be an excuse for its central trio – Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas – to flex their acting muscles in a new project. Scott Thomas has been seen onscreen before with both Kline and Smith, but not in the same film. IMDB says her role was originally scheduled to be played by Jane Birkin, which might have made more sense in the story.

As it is, the start of the film introduces Matthias (Kline), a down on his luck New Yorker who has recently traveled to Paris to inspect an apartment his recently deceased father has left him. He quickly learns that the apartment has been inhabited for many years by Mathilde (Smith), a woman now in her 90’s, and her daughter (Scott Thomas), neither of whom is receptive to his intention to sell the house for income purposes. The focus alternates between the three central characters as Matthias debates whether or not he wants to go through with the sale, while through a series of circumstances, Mathilde reveals that she knows more than she lets on about her family history and how the two younger people are connected to her and each other.

The script’s stage origins are clearly visible throughout the film, with several long monologues still in place and a few scenes clearly added to “open up” the plot and take advantage of the perennially picturesque Parisian locations. Most of the story settles in the central location of the Marais apartment, which seems to be quite large and endless, complete with an attached garden.

Kline seems to be enjoying the demands of the part, showing awkward alcohol – induced stodginess in several scenes, but then following it up with hints of long emotional neglect. Smith also goes beyond her current Downton Abbey stereotype of twinkling eyes and cutting comments, not hesitating to be forceful in several scenes while also showing genuine heart. Scott Thomas falls somewhere in between with a difficult part that seems to be in the middle of the two-character seesaw solely for reaction – based purposes. I can’t say that the film fully convinced me as a drama, but if its taken as an acting class from veterans and perhaps isolated out with just a few of the character monologues and moments, then the best parts come to light.

It was cool to see the full Art Deco experience of the Main Art Theater in action last night.

Main Art

Theatrical Throwback: a negative show experience can sometimes be a memorable one

Early on in my fall 2004 London studies, I got to know the West End’s equivalent of the TKTS booth in New York City. The British version is located in Leicester Square, the heart of central London, and, at the time, advertised its daily deals using a mix of paper and digital advertising. (I would assume they are all digital by this point in time.)

One day I “went round” as they say in London and saw that there was a 10 pound ticket deal for a show that night. I hadn’t yet equated that the price of the ticket was a fair judgement in quality, and so I purchased the ticket for Murderous Instincts: The Salsa Musical. Over the course of the day I became aware — maybe I saw a feature article or two — that the musical had been in “development hell” and wasn’t expected to be well – received. I think I had a few misgivings about going to the performance, but ultimately decided to attend. After all, it was at the Savoy, a storied location in London, and had to have some redeeming qualities, right?

I went.

murderousinstincts04What a train wreck! The musical closed not long after that night, and I was slightly embarrassed to have bothered to attend. Despite the artistic troubles, or perhaps because of them, they had a large advertising budget, and I remember it took some time for their posters to disappear from the several Tube stations I’d seen them in.

For some reason, now 10 years later, I can still clearly recall a handful of moments and brief musical snippets from the show. Was it so bad it was good? An oddly fascinating experience to see such a messy show in the West End? Apparently the star, Nichola McAuliffe, referenced the experience in a later book. One review expressed the broad negative sentiment.

I’m sure these lasting memories of Murderous Instincts are some version of “can you believe that! I can’t either, but I can still tell you about it.” I wish that I hadn’t bothered to see that particular musical, but it was a great learning exercise about the quality of productions and an early clue about the relationship of production, marketing and PR.

From the archives: Equus in London, March 2007

Intending to write a commentary about Daniel Radcliffe’s recent film What If, I instead found myself recalling when I saw him perform live onstage at the Gielgud Theatre in London, in a role that drew significant media attention. Thankfully, I wrote about the performance on LiveJournal a few days later…

This production lives up to the hype, in nearly all elements. Coming into the Gielgud Theatre with a significantly better seat than when I saw Frost/Nixon, I was immediately struck by the scope of the set. A plain proscenium stage had been turned into an almost theatre-in-the-round style area, with a central elevated level that could be turned if needed surrounded by openings off stage, symbolizing stable doors, and also, perhaps, different tracks of life from which Alan and Dysart could proceed onto when the show concluded. There were also audience members seated above the stage in a semi-circle to continue the effect of observation. Lighting design stood out from the beginning, as the show opened with Radcliffe proceeding centre stage with one of the horses (actually a performer in costume with a large head of a horse) and being symbolically isolated from all, just a kid and his horse.

Richard Griffiths came onstage as soon as the play began and almost never went off, requiring great concentration on his and the audiences parts. But he succeeded in so many ways, stepping in front of Radcliffe’s press-attention (as other reviewers have noted) to deliver a complex portrayal of Martin Dysart, sympathetic psychotherapist. In Griffiths’ hands, Dysart became a warm filter, or magnifying glass, through which the audience could observe and comment on the actions of the play. He also conveyed Dysart’s shifting motivations and impassions over the course of the story. Initially he was eager to take on a new client and thought that he could relatively easily break through to Alan, leaving the job done and the Strang family reunited together again. But in the reality of the narrative, Dysart only continues to be more and more buried in his work, developing more and more distance from what little home life he has and throwing himself into talking with his clients. This predicament was both noble and tragic, and Griffiths’ slightly remorseful line inflictions highlighted his character’s personal challenges throughout the show.

Daniel Radcliffe deserves enormous kudos for being bold enough to step out of the Harry Potter typecasting into a role so different from what his fans (and critics) are accustomed to seeing him in. He almost completely pulled off the part, in my opinion. I’m sure that he could project from experience in the early scenes of Alan demonstrating his jaded-teenagerdom life and his disdain for his family and friends. However, the characterization often seemed to end there. When Alan was supposed to be younger, or more intimate with his friends and family, Radcliffe continued to speak in a forceful tone (not quite a monotone, more of a vocal strain) that showed his built up anguish, but not his scared-ness beneath that anxiety. I wanted to see him dive deeper into the psychological problems that Alan faces. However, I suspect (or hope) that his character investigations might continue as the show’s run goes along. He remained completely committed and in the moment with the stage actions, especially in the scenes that are causing the most controversy. Also, the relationship between him and Richard Griffiths was strongly balance – counterbalanced in their scenes together. At the curtain call it was clear that they are dependent on each other but enjoying the process, as they preceded centre-stage with their arms around each other, like a grandparent-grandson relationship might be.

The rest of the cast was somewhat victimized by the thinly-drawn nature of the supporting characters in the script. However, Jenny Auggiter (as the magistrate), Joanna Christie (as Alan’s girlfriend), and Jonathan Cullen (Alan’s dad) all invested meaningful levels of psychological realism in their portrayals. All three of them carefully balanced a level of character inquiry and being in the moment with a full awareness that in reality there would not be a clear, immediate resolution to the plot.

In conclusion, this version of Equus is a compelling evening of theatre. Although it’s not quite as good as the hype machine may have lead you to believe, it certainly lives up to the publicity, and Griffiths’ and Radcliffe’s double-act stands high as a professional theatre example of actorly collaboration and rich investment in full dramatic art.