Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Review The Beaux' Stratagem

The Beaux' Stratagem
by George Farquhar

The Company They Keep

TLT and her horsepowered coach  galloped along after a last-minute online seat booking to the South Bank for The Beaux' Stratagem, a bold comedy of 1707. 

It’s the usual round of Restoration stock characters.  Two wastrels, one Tom the brother of a Viscount Aimwell (Samuel Barnett),  the other, Frank  Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a gentleman masquerading as his man servant, have quickly gone through their fortunes in London. Now they seek to woo and win wealthy wives in the Staffordshire cathedral city and coaching hub of Lichfield to replenish their income and return to their dissolute ways.

Yet these highwaymen of love are matched by the hostelry where they take rooms. The landlord Boniface (Lloyd Hutchinson) and his buxom daughter Cherry (Amy Morgan) act as fences for a gang of real highwaymen headed by Gibbet (a striking performance by Chook Sibtain). 

The landlord of the landlord (are you keeping up?), the local squire Mr Sullen (Richard Henders) is unhappily married to – er – Mrs Sullen  - (Susannah Fielding), targetted by Mr Archer, and has a single half sister Dorinda (a winsome Pippa Bennett-Warner), love interest for Tom Aimwell.

Squire Sullen and Dorinda share the same mother,  herbalist healer widow Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker) with whom son, single daughter and chafing-at-the-bit daughter-in-law all  live. Oh yes, and there’s a French Count (Timothy Watson) and a supposedly Belgian priest with an Irish tang (Jamie Beamish). 

According to advance publicity, director Simon Godwin says Northern Ireland-born George Farquhar, the son of a Protestant clergyman, was a feminist

Awww, according to online biographies (and The National Theatre’s programme), Farquhar had a father, but no mother. So we are lucky he felt so deeply about women to include them, even by name, in his plays ...!!! 

But something else struck TLT and her four-wheeled cabriolet watching this version of The Beaux' Stratagem dramaturged by Simon Godwin and playwright Patrick Marber. While marriage conditions and family (rather than purely wifely) settlements were raised  above the parapet in the script, life seemed to be organised into companies, regiments, gangs, as well as families.

So it came as no surprise, looking up afterwards John Vanburgh’s earlier play The Relapse  mentioned in The Beaux' Stratagem, to discover  London theatre had been riven by a chaotic rivalry between two theatre companies.

Actors were  even said to be “seduced” (the legal term) from one company to another, with thespians brought in from Ireland to make up the dearth of actors in the United Company. 

Divorce business-wise seemed to be in the air and political marriage also with the Act Of Union between England and Scotland. 

So the final arrangements for the marriage of Tom and Dorinda and  Mrs Sullen’s  separation from her ill-matched spouse, while maybe hearking back to 17th century pamphleteering about divorce, could equally gesture perhaps towards other issues, theatrical and political, with lawyers' meddling still relevant?

This  production is costumed with Hogarthian relish and carefully designed with a three-floor set (designer Lizzie Clachlan) serving as inn and transforming into Lady Bountiful’s home, with lowered chandeliers, paintings,  mirrors, flowers, red velvet drapes and sliding wallpaper panels.

A band of musicians smooth the transitions, not only with music of the time but glancing at other styles, all of which work well (music: Michael Bruce). The scenes are carefully choreographed with clean and sharp action cut into resonant Hogarthian tableaux. 

Yet the attention to elegant silhouetted detail also can hamper the energy of the piece, making it seem a tad lengthy and sometimes repetitive. Meanwhile a scene with muskets doesn’t have the visceral impact, one might expect. The descent into darker issues with accompanying lighting (lighting designer: Jon Clark) equally so.

It’s the earthier characters who tend to stick in the mind such as Scrub the servant (a lugubrious Pearce Quigley) who terms himself the “butler” and a “perfect slave” as he attempts (in the sense of “lead away”) to seduce Frank Archer in the wine cellar. 

All in all, much for an audience to enjoy but maybe this production doesn’t quite have the muscle and the spontaneous drive to take by surprise. An amber light.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Review The Harvest

The Harvest
by Pavel Pryazhko

Hard Graft

Who knew apples were such a hot topic? Researching the Belarus apple industry for this review with that well-known expert, Google ;), Belarus appears a relatively small apple producer but used as a transit country for major political shenanigans in a refrigerated apple cold war ...   

Does this have an impact on this Belarusian black comedy transferred from The Theatre Royal Bath? Maybe. But while an interesting hook in reality, an audience for The Harvest doesn't necessarily have to know about this.

An effective white box, designed by Madeleine Girling and Tom Piper,  serves as backdrop for regimented grafted green unblemished apples hanging down from roof railings on strings of various lengths.

Four young people compete to pick Reinette apples from the tree on a clear winter's day (lighting: Charles Balfour).  According to Google, Reinette is an 18th century French variety first described by Edward Bunyard  in the year of the American Revolution.

And winter? Apparently, according to the script, they ripen off the bough before they are supposed to be brought to market as perfect specimens packed in the wooden crates provided.

Provided by whom? We never get to know. 

There is no gangmaster, no supervisor, no apparent orchard owner as the four descend into at first comic and then increasingly darker desperate strategies. 

A bee sting disrupts the ideal harvest day for the two males and their tantalising female companions, Ira (Beth Park) and Lyuba (Lindsey Campbell) and from then on, it’s all downhill. 

Valerii (Dyfan Dwyfor) in the best-written role, clad in sports gear, is sometimes able to furnish a hammer to knock “new nails in old holes”.  Nevertheless sometimes he’s as incompetent and self-harming as  his chunky bee-stung mate Egor (Dafydd Llyr Thomas) and eventually roams the stage maniacally thinking up new schemes, peering indistinctly from behind the fourth wall. 

The apples themselves turn into vulnerable beings,  bruised, tossed, pulled and  pushed  in and out of collapsing crates. Meanwhile the four human beings spiral into mayhem with the crop ultimately  crushed in the prevailing anarchy. This is a production which must use up a considerable quota of apples every night!

Does the orchard represent a state enterprise? At this very moment state enterprises in Belarus are being privatised  (“it is the work collective that has to decide whether or not privatization will take place”, according to a real-life news story quote of the President).]

Or could it equally, from our world, be a corporate, with the state hidden?  Certainly local and national government and insurance company health and safety inspectorates never appear in the ensuing bloody orchard chaos. 
As one character says, “Well, it could happen to absolutely anyone”.  

And the result? The four youngsters,  physically and psychologically maimed ultimately turn from productive apple-picking citizens into aimless patients in a pharmaceutical stupor. The once idyllic landscape goes into freefall, breaking up like the crates and then freezing over.

This 2011 play is given a sprightly poetic translation by Sasha Dugdale, energetically directed by former RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd and performed with humour and vigour by the actors. 

Jaunty recurring old-fashioned music (sound: Andrea J Cox – no pun intended!) gives a possible clue to a gallop through history. It’s short enough at 70 minutes without an interval to hold the attention. 

Yet the production also feels – a little grafted, put together. Too broad and repetitive for the fragile  seesaw  between artificiality, farce, vulnerability, danger and tragedy, as delicate as the easily-damaged apples hung by slender string. 

Collectively, TLT and her juicy jalopy did wonder whether film, with its naturalistic setting yet descending into surreal moments, might be a fitting medium for this piece? So not quite an apple green light but a golden delicious amber.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Review Hay Fever

Hay Fever
by Noël Coward 

Bohemian Rhapsody

“Why is Hay Fever called Hay Fever?”, mused TLT and her ruminating roadster about Noël Coward’s play, still in preview, as they gazed at the white stucco facade of the Duke of York’s Theatre in the heart of London’s theatreland. 

Barely two hours later, after the final curtain, this exquisitely structured, melodic (and like Private Lives), “comedy of bad manners”, written by a young Coward in 1924 following a trip to the USA, nevertheless  struck us  as rather sinister (or should that be, in Coward’s case, dexter?).

Are we meant to infer hay fever as feverish disruption and disarray? Or sexual peccadillos as in “a roll in the hay”? Or was it already slang for marijuana or cannabis or for ready cash?  Or should we reach for the anti-histamines? And what about scenes where house guests “play up” to hosts from hell like sane detainees in a mental home feigning madness to advance the career of the chief psychiatrist? 

The seemingly kooky hosts, inappropriately surnamed Bliss, reside in a manor house on The Wind In The Willows banks of the River Thames in the village of Cookham

The Bohemian “independent family”:  Veteran actress – and tippler --planning-a-comeback Judith (Felicity Kendal as a delicious domestic tyrant); Pot-boiler novelist David (Simon Shepherd looking just a tad like Coward biographer, the late Sheridan Morley) and late teens’ children Simon (boisterous Edward Franklin) and Sorel (boyishly played by Alice Orr-Ewing) settle down for the weekend, each having, unknown to the others, invited a guest. 

For Judith, Simon and, more ambiguously, Sorel, love trysts with a hearty sportsman, Sandy Tyrrell (a Wodehousian Edward Killingback), a society vamp (authoritative Sara Stewart) and  diplomat Richard Greatham (willing-to-break-protocol-by-the-play's-end Michael Simkins) are respectively on the cards. 

Meanwhile David wants to “observe” a young female flapper, Jackie Coryton (an equally pitch perfect performance by Celeste Dodwell) as a prototype for a character in his novel.  Funny – but rather sinister.

Coward famously said of Hay Fever that “it has little plot and remarkably little action”. 

Well, maybe at its own 1925 opening, there were more than enough plots going in countries mentioned in the play: Spain (military dictatorship and bullfights), Italy (dictatorship and lira crisis), Japan (Imperial Royal Family and US immigration quota) and Russia (Soviet Union? 1920s? Enough said). 

As Coward added, the play depends on “expert technique from each and every member of the cast”. But in TLT and her automotive sidekick’s opinion, every character, including dresser cum housekeeper Clara (Mossie Smith), who by the end has participated by proxy in the world of international finance, is inventing his or her own plots, trying to best the other characters. Plus it’s difficult to say how long any short-lived peace will reign.

Drawing on the music-like play structures of Bernard Shaw (there are more than a few Shavian references in Hay Fever), maybe there’s also  a clue in the hiccups which the sportsman Sandy Tyrell suffers in the final act.  

The play hiccups along like a guffawing playwright-erly musical hocket, an alternation of notes, pitches or chords for several voices.  Hocket from the French word hoquet meaning a sudden interruption -  or hiccup. 

All the characters are sucked into the playacting, the melodramatic tropes, the creation of literary works, the coming together in, then breaking of alliances and the injured parties. While even the apparently bumbling diplomat doesn’t care about throwing around other people’s baggage, as long as his own diplomatic bag is safe. 

Perhaps the family itself is a construct for the press. This is a play which delights in its own technical prowess and nuts and bolts. Maybe the father of the family David Bliss’s definition of his work in this febrile international atmosphere, where novelists, actors, playwrights, artists, diplomats, sportsmen, newspapers, critics (!!) and anyone with a secret play a dangerous tactical game, is sinister:

“The only reason I’ve been so annoying is that I love to see things as they are first, and then pretend they’re what they’re not”

This Theatre Royal Bath revival directed by Lindsay Posner benefits from a terrific Judith Bliss in scion of a theatrical family herself, Felicity Kendal. Backed all the while, with home county midsummer lighting (Paul Pyant) flooding through the French windows, by the finely-detailed wood-panelled galleried set design by Peter McKintosh, becoming a character in itself.

The production has toured extensively nationwide and in Australia before coming into the West End and shows every sign of bedding down nicely. At the same time, it may need a look at the pacing in the first act and some tightening to hone its brittle humour. But TLT and her hatchback are unashamed Coward groupies and present a coveted emerald-green light.

But we still haven’t learnt the definitive explanation as to why Hay Fever is called Hay Fever ;).

Tickets to Hay Fever courtesy of 
Official Theatre

PS Interestingly, as well as supposedly being inspired by an American couple, actress Laurette Taylor and Anglo-Irish playwright Hartley Manners, there was a Bliss family around at the time of Hay Fever. 

Between 1923 - 1925 the composer Arthur Bliss, whose career had taken off after 1918 and became famous at the same time as Coward, lived, met his wife in 1924 and married a year later in California. His wife's mother, aunt and uncle were all actors with her uncle also being a playwright.  Arthur, whose American father was from Massachussets, of course shares a surname with the family in Hay Fever. 

Does one mention of the name MacKenzie refer to  Compton (known as "Monty") McKenzie, (writer, actor, Scottish nationalist, member of British intelligence and later supporter of the abdicated Edward VIII (along with his drug-taking brother George, Edward also knew Coward)? Compton MacKenzie's sister Fay Compton also appeared in Coward's plays. But TLT and her cabriolet are only willing to share Google search hunches with the reservation that they are definitely only vaguely circumstantial and nothing more ...

Friday, 1 May 2015

Review The Merchant Of Venice

The Merchant Of Venice
by William Shakespeare

In The Ghetto

On a clear April evening, TLT and her (fully-paid-off) coupé made their way to The Merchant of Venice, the well-known legal loophole play (we want Portia - Rachel Pickup - not Mr Loophole, for any future driving charges!). 

But to the case in hand: Director Jonathan Munby’s well-judged production, with fine ensemble cast playing, pitched at the exactly the right level to hold the attention of an international Globe audience, draws out every ounce of comedy  with double-takes, pauses and clever interaction with the audience.

Designer Mike Britton gives us a luscious oil painting Venice of rich russets, filigreed and solid gold, velvety purples, greens, blacks, startling scarlets, swaying peachy brown gauze surrounding Portia like harem veils. 

Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) seeks money from Antonio (Dominic Mafham), the eponymous Merchant of Venice, to pursue the hand of  Portia, still controlled as a chattel even from the grave by her father as she is entered into the marriage stakes. 

Instead Antonio agrees  to act as guarantor when Bassanio borrows from Shylock (Jonathan Pryce), confident of being able to repay any loan at the appointed date. However when his ships and cargo are reported shipwrecked, Shylock demands the pound of flesh in the contract ratified when Antonio was sure of his fortune.  

The Merchant of Venice still remains, at heart, difficult - viewed as both a subversive and conservative  play, vulnerable to different interpretations. As vulnerable as a bare-headed Shylock in this version, his scarlet cap, a mark of his place in the Venetian hierarchy,  ripped from his head, leaving him  defenceless, an alien without the rights of a citizen in a slave culture. 

However, as Portia disguised as a lawyer/judge asks tellingly at the play’s climax, raising an instinctive late bitter laugh from the audience, “Which is the merchant here and which is the Jew?”

Who knows if this is the modern gloss or if the ambiguity was there for Shakespeare’s audience? 

Yet, in this production of great clarity, the three businessmen,  Antonio, the merchant guarantor, the previously spendthrift Bassanio  and the moneylender Shylock are as  bound tightly together as three men thrown off the side of a ship in a barrel.  

This is a modern Shylock in a world of medieval savagery,  unable to stop himself sinking to its level. A  man who  seeks to be “loved” in the business den of Venice, alongside other businessmen. Yet as his attempts are frustrated and his anger grows, betrayed by a tremor in his voice, he  becomes a trapped animal. Robbed of his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) and other chattels, pursuing a civil law case without the insurance of state support, then branded a criminal.

Nevertheless, it seems to us to go strangely against the grain of the play to bring it to a definite close with an evangelically white-robed Shylock brought to the baptism font.  Rather than allowing the actual fate of Shylock (plus his dependent borrowers left without their Jewish moneylender), and even of Venice itself, to hang outside the play unseen, as in the original text. 

Especially when  Bassanio and Gratiano (David Sturzaker), husbands of Portia and her handmaid Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), easily sacrifice vows  to their wives and wedding rings in favour of those they suppose to be a Doctor of Law and his clerk who have won the case for Antonio. A whiff of chatteldom and corruption to the still very strong end. 

Still, a minor quibble in an otherwise imaginative production, with magical comic touches, delighting the audience. Jonathan Pryce gives a finely-nuanced  performance as the moneylender, who has come to represent the play, in the midst of a uniformly strong ensemble. A green light.