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.
But 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.)
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.
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.
Inevitably, researching yesterday’s post got me nostalgic about the many good times at various theatres in London. From time to time I particularly recall my good fortune in getting to see Patrick Stewart perform three different Shakespearean roles on West End stages in 2007. This was a time when Stewart had moved back to the UK and was specifically focusing on reconnecting with his theatrical roots at the RSC and with other regional arts organizations. It was also, arguably, a time when he wanted to put distance between himself and his Star Trek/X-Men/general Hollywood pursuits. I don’t think he feels as strongly in the present era, judging by his current status as a resident of Brooklyn and marriage to an American film producer. His social media and pop culture notoriety have reached a new height in recent years thanks to his many pairings with friend Ian McKellen.
In February of 2007, I was very excited to see Stewart onstage for the first time. I eagerly wrote about it in my LiveJournal the next day.
Last night I had a front row seat to see Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter perform the title roles in the RSC production of Antony & Cleopatra. It was the BEST show I have seen since returning to London, and you can see more info about it here. The energy of the show was incredible, carried by the two leads but ably supported by the rest of the cast. They also all seemed to be having fun with their roles (impressive, as they’ve been performing them off and on for almost a year) and with a keen understanding of what the story meant in a larger context. Those feelings were also accomplished through intriguing usage of set and light design, with Cleopatra’s “lair” being high above and then center stage, the usage of lights to create a unique map on the rear wall which seemed to change shape every so often, and creative music on the sides of the stage, including Buddhist-esque usage of gongs and cymbals near the end of the play, to denote the Egyptian slant. Seeing everyone in the play remain so committed and energetic, as exemplified by a warm glance that Stewart gave to Walter just before they took their center-stage curtain call, extremely impressed me.
A few weeks after I saw Antony and Cleopatra, Stewart moved right on to rehearsing The Tempest, with him starring as Prospero, for a London run. He gave an interview to The Stage theatre magazine (excerpted here) that seemed to imply he wanted to distance himself from his Star Trek fame. I don’t think he is in that same creative place today.
I caught The Tempest with a friend near the end of its run. For some reason I did NOT write about that experience in my LiveJournal. I recall it came at the middle of a particularly tiring week for me, which probably contributed to my lack of interest in writing about it. Stewart was on his own dramatically in that production, not paired with a marquee name and bringing an expectedly high level of gravitas to the role of Prospero. I do recall much emphasis on the isolation of the character and the plot, with windswept drapes across the stage and foreboding sound design throughout both acts of the play.
Nine months later, I was back in London for an “encore” visit to tie up some loose ends from my stint living there and enjoy another abbreviated round of area theatregoing. I was pleased that the plays would include Macbeth featuring Stewart in the title role, and bought a ticket two weeks ahead of time to ensure that I would be able to see the hot – ticket production. I again summarized it on LiveJournal.
Macbeth was a good, strong and edgy production, although perhaps not as spectacular as the critics were claiming it was. Interesting conceptual work (setting it in a Russian hospital, the witches became nurses, the horror film elements of the story were played up) but I had a hard time sustaining my attention at times, either because of an uneven supporting cast (aside from Patrick Stewart’s magestical performance) or knowing the story very well.
Bonus: the following night brought the first time I saw my favorite British actress Diana Rigg onstage. So naturally that experience received more attention in the blog post.
All About My Mother was excellent, anchored by tremendous ensemble-centring performances from Lesley Manville and Diana Rigg, who, as many of you know, remains my favorite British actress. Rigg in particular held her scenes very strongly with a combination of humor and vulnerability, and I loved how she struck completely different dramatic angles for each part of the story. In the earlier scenes, she’s just a strong-egoed actress, but as her character begins to be revealed, she took on deeper resonance with the mothering themes of the storyline and showed vulnerability. Additionally, the direction of the play was inventive, incorporating frequent use of promenade staging, inventive reverse angle curtain calls as part of the story, and a strikingly spare wide-stage perspective towards the end of the play.
November 19 has been a somewhat bittersweet anniversary for the last several years, as this day of the year (in 2007 – now 7 years ago) was the last time I was off the North American continent. This is significant primarily because the preceding 8 years saw a wide range of international travel adventures for me… but nothing since 2007. I’m happy the extended hiatus will be ending next March, and, obviously, to be continuing with domestic travel in the present era.
Nonetheless, the anniversary made me recall blog writing before and after that 2007 international flight, and so I turned to LiveJournal to look at the entries again, and re-post them here. It’s worth noting that my theatregoing on that visit included War Horse, which went on to be an international smash, acclaimed film, and is still playing today in London.
November 19, 2007 – “Country Coda Prior to The Journey Home”
It’s a misty morning here in the suburbs of Surrey. The view from my family friends’ house — of thatched brown roofs, tiny streets, and wide swaths of greenery — is suitably “English” to be visually comforting and a relaxed coda for this trip. I’ll be making the journey over to Heathrow via train and bus in time for a 7pm flight that’s due to return to MA at around 10pm EST.
The last few days in London continued to be jam-packed, between seeing two more plays (War Horse, a family drama, and The Country Wife, a raucous Restoration comedy), going around to other parts of the city I hadn’t visited before, including Speaker’s Corner and the area around Spitafields’ Market, and spending time with friends. It concluded with some souvenir shopping yesterday morning and while it was slightly disconcerting how easy it was to $pend (as is often the case in London…) I’m confident I made good purchases of mostly books. I was struck by a wave of sentimental nostalgia, since I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be back here in England will be. However, as was the case when moving out of London in April, it’s double-sided by the reality here of high costs of living, high taxes, vast difference in standards of living and an increasingly tight-knit government…but overall, it’s intriguing to ponder, and I did devote some research to possible theatre grad schools back here, just to consider.
I’m grateful to have been able to take the time for this trip and, as always, to have made the most of the endless artistic experiences here.
November 20, 2007 – “Home in Massachusetts and Staying for Awhile”
I got back to the States around 10pm last night and had a remarkably easy travel/flight process – the speediest airport check-in I’ve ever had (at Heathrow Airport of all places), a cordial customs greeting, somewhat tasty airplane food, and decent films to watch. Even an hour’s delay in taking off from Heathrow didn’t make the flight late getting to Boston.
Am experiencing the usual slightly surreal feelings of being home again, especially where I was walking around rural England yesterday and am in rural Beverly today. I’m sure the adjustment process will ease over the course of this week…
In honor of the Hilberry Theatre‘s about-to-open production of Boeing Boeing, a look back at when I first saw the play:
The West End felt like a foreign land to me yesterday after nearly a week of commuting from the city to the country for filming. It was good to be back “in town”, even though I splurged a bit on food and theatre tickets for the day. Yesterday the British press was downright gleeful over the pound’s recent (Monday) cracking of the 1 pound=$2 barrier. I grimaced, but again, am grateful to be paid in the local currency.
Returned to the theatre scene after nearly a week’s gap for a double-bill of glitzy West End shows. First up was a new revival of Cabaret done in a socially conscious yet still very sexual and emotionalist style. The cast of the play has recently completely changed, which might have been a reason that their creative energy felt un-even to me. It probably didn’t help that the audience, at least in the stalls, was only ½ to 3/4 full and somewhat somber. In the second act, the ensemble built up to a powerful climax of the play that I didn’t remember having the same devastational feel when I saw the Hampshire version in 2004. Also, Honor Blackman, whose presence in the cast was the primary reason I went to see the show, gave a warm, thoughtful performance as Fraulein Schneider, and has an amazing amount of vitality. I waited outside the theatre in hopes of getting her to sign my program, but unfortunately she didn’t appear for the (short) break between matinee and evening performances. Will go back next week for another try, and if successful, I will have met 3 of the 4 Avengers leading ladies – and that’s important to me since that series was my first, endearing taste of Britain.
The second play, Boeing-Boeing, was the best comedy I have seen all year, and has attracted glowing reviews from critics and audiences alike since its February opening. The show is written as a French farce, and originally premiered in the West End in the mid-60’s. The slightly updated, but still dated-feeling plot concerns a bachelor who practices polygamy in Paris, juggling romantic lives with three different air hostesses who never intersect due to differences in their flight timetables. But when the man’s best friend comes for a visit and one by one, all three women’s work schedules get delayed, it creates a dramatic domino effect leading to a farcical, clever climax. Those type of plays can only really work if the cast members are “on” with energy and dramatic commitment, and that was clearly present with nearly all the actors here. Frances de la Tour (the female teacher in The History Boys, here playing the protagonist’s long-suffering maid in on the trick) and Mark Rylance (a British actor who used to direct the Globe Theatre, as the protagonist’s best friend) stood out amongst the six-actor ensemble. They were helped by an on-the-ball script, skilled comedic direction (from the same man who is now putting finishing touches on The Lord of The Rings: The Musical), opulent set design and a swinging sixties soundtrack that I wanted to buy in album form.