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The Normal Heart

This is not a real review of ‘The Normal Heart’ having spent the last four years writing about AIDS and theatre I’m too invested for that. 

I’ll admit I was wary. As anyone is about a new adaptation of something they love. I’m wary about new stagings of it, but I’m even more wary about transposing it to a new medium. I was also wary about the team behind it. On one hand HBO were producing it. The team that did the seemingly impossible in bringing Angels in America to screen so successfully. Alongside this Larry Kramer was writing the screenplay adaptation of his play. To my mind nobody else could do it. Larry knows his work, Larry also knows film. On the other hand, the director was Ryan Murphy. Known for ‘Glee’ Murphy is not the first name that crops up on an ideal directors list for anything, not least The Normal Heart. In Murphy’s defense the list of directors I’d have been happy with right away is very short. Also in Murphy’s defense I quite enjoyed the first season of Glee. However I feel he also owes me £8.50 and two hours of my life for the Glee film. 

So I was wary. Casting was announced and I was wary. Could Mark Ruffalo carry it? I knew nothing about him really. Supporting cast had some good people. Jim Parsons could do it, he did it on stage. The trouble with knowing what stage performances have done with the role, means nobody is ever going to quite fit. With the exception of Joe Mantello. Because he’s an exception to every rule. 

But the trouble with something tranposing from stage to screen is that feeling of a stage version, of a stage performance. You can’t perform it the same on stage, therefore it will be altered. And how to react to that?

On the whole I thought the film was good. I’d rather have this version than no version. That sounds like a back handed compliment. It isn’t, I genuinely think this is a good version of The Normal Heart. If it gets Larry Krammer’s story to more people, if it preserves it on film, I’m happy with that. And actually it translates to screen well in Murphy’s hands. Most of the changes he made, I was happy with for the sake of the different medium. 

And film does add elements, it gives visuals and fleshes out a story in a way that’s impossible on stage. It also makes the performances more visceral, more real. On stage it’s impossible to realistically take an actor from healthy to dying in two hours, we suspend our disbelief and use tricks to make it so, but we know they will bounce on stage healthy again at the curtain call. The exception ironically being Stephen Spinella’s performance in Angels in America that set the rumour mill into overdrive about his health. But on film, you can feel like a character is dying, intimately see the affects of their illness that are only alluded to or representative on stage. There is something to be said for that head on collision with the affects of AIDS that film provides. On stage I don’t feel it less, but the physical realities on film are hard to get away from. That AIDS is being depicted in graphic detail on film is still important, as is the explicit, overt depiction of gay sexuality on film is also an important aspect. It’s different on film, no doubt, but not worse. There is only one scene, which I won’t spoil, that I felt was lessened for seeing it realised. On stage it’s a story that’s told, and one that hits not so much the heart as the gut. It’s visceral in it’s telling, and actually what my imagination always conjured is far worse than seeing it realised. Some things are more powerful unseen. 

The performances overall were strong. Again, what I want from a portrayal of Ned Weeks and what the average audience needs are two different things. But Mark Ruffalo hit the mark on almost every important beat. And his dialect coach is a genius-to the point I had to pause the film to comment on how accurate his voice work was, and for that if nothing else I give him high marks. If I closed my eyes I could hear Larry Kramer. 

One or two cast members I had issue with, Julia Roberts in a difficult role admittedly just didn’t gel for me. Neither did Taylor Kitsch, again in a difficult role. I don’t think either actor was bad, just not quite there, and probably simply miscast. Ruffalo aside, the stand out performance for me was Jim Parsons. He was no surprise having seen him as Tommy in the stage version, I knew he could do it. But faced with the version on film, and some slightly altered scenes, Parson’s brought more depth the to role, and was for me an emotional anchor to the piece. Parson’s casting, and performance in the role of Tommy hopefully helped audiences who were finding it hard to connect with Ruffalo’s Ned Weeks (not Ruffalo’s fault, at times Ned/Kramer is hard to connect with at times). The rest of the supporting cast on the whole were also good. Points particuarlly to Joe Mantello, who is always brilliant but pulled at my heart strings because of his long connection with this play, and others like it. Similarly a cameo from Stephen Spinella was enough to break my heart in the opening minutes. 

And did The Normal Heart break mine? Not as much as the stage version is the honest answer. But, I say this with the caveat that maybe it will more on repeat viewings. I was on edge, waiting for the answer to the question ‘will it be good’ that I didn’t engage as fully as I might have. So I reserve judgement fully. I do know that there were moments where I felt something breaking. When I saw Stephen Spinella yes, but also when Tommy spoke at the funeral,  when Ned takes care of Feliz, and many other moments. The moment that really got me however was the ‘I belong to a culture speech’ Ned Weeks says the following; 

‘I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold These are not invisible men.’

As the speech goes on, I truly felt the emotion of the piece. What I felt were Larry Kramer’s words. Because through all this, it’s Kramer’s writing that still rings true, that still hits where it hurts and is still so utterly desperate after all these years.

Much was made, when the film came out, of why? why do we need this film? why now? To answer the last question first, is perhaps to answer all three. Because it took this long to get here. Because it’s taken years of fighting to get a film made. Because still there is reluctance to address these issues, to commit them to film and air them in public. Because while it is fiction, Kramer’s play is also historical record. Why do we need the film then? because despite this historical track record things still remain a certain way. Things have changed yes, for people with AIDS, for gay people. But not nearly enough. And the fight that Kramer depicts still goes on, for recognition, for support. AIDS is still an issue, in America in Britain, all around the world. Finally why make this film? well to remember those involved. To remember what Larry Kramer and his friends did, and why they had to do it. Why do we make art about any historical event? because in remembering someday someone will hopefully learn. In this case history is not quite over anyway. We still need people like Larry Kramer to shout.

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The Drowned Man (round 2)

Last Friday I went for round two (and sadly final round) of Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’ write up here, for my own memory and anyone who is interested in that sort of thing!

The account of my first encounter is here:http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/punchdrunk-drowned-man.html

I went to round two, after much deliberation with no plan. I decided that letting my nose and instincts guide me the first time served me well. And as I wouldn’t have the luxury of multiple visits to see everything I wanted to see, I felt I’d have a more enjoyable time just letting it happen. I had a few vague ‘wants’ some of which happened some didn’t, and as is the Punchdrunk way, some things I didn’t think I’d bother with, I did and they turned out to be the best parts!

I was in the first lift (I think? someone who was with me could probably correct…) for those keeping score, and wanting to know which cast member I’m talking about it was Friday 27th 5pm show.

One of my vague thoughts was to spend more time in the studio, but as I got out in town, I wandered through and came across William and Mary. With nobody else around having the scene all to myself seemed too good a chance to miss. I had them to myself, and almost to myself for a good fifteen minutes. In my first show, I’d chopped and changed between Mary, Miguel and William for my first loop so I made the decision to follow William for the whole first loop. I really enjoyed seeing the story I’d pieced together in my first show, entirely from one character’s point of view. And this version of William was also very different to the last, again the beauty of TDM repeat viewings. One thing began to amuse me, a fellow audience member clearly decided I knew what I was doing and started following me. Not only sticking to me like glue whenever I took off after William, as if I knew where he was going (I mostly had no idea) but also following me to wherever I stood in a scene, as if I had magical information about the best position. I hate to break it to you girl in the camouflage print shirt, I just like to be out of the crowd when I can…or there was just a tall person in front of me.

At the end of that loop I decided to take myself on a wander and see what happened. Making my way down the stairs from the desert, I decided to go all the way down to the basement. I’d set foot in the basement for all of two minutes last time, so I wanted to see some of it. I wandered a little around the big space (and I forget what order I stumbled across these scenes so forgive me) I cam across the Doctor and a woman who I think was the PA? (leopard print outfit, sexy and sassy?) watched their scene and wandered some more. I also came across Mr Stanford, on the phone, and then shredding a head shot, the scene where he says the line ‘I made the horse run, I can make it bolt; he scared the life out of me so I left him to it and wandered some more, poking about rooms like the Foley room and generally exploring.

I continued my wander a little longer, spending some time with the Gatekeeper as it was quiet in there! poked around his room a bit until Ramola arrived. I watched her scene in the office, where she types and followed her via the Doctor down to Mr Stamford in the basement. At which point I left them both-the combined crowds were a bit much and I wasn’t overly invested in either of them at that point, and feeling the heat I took myself off to Studio 3 for a break.

A personal observation at this point-which was about the mid-point of my show. Firstly, a similar thing happened last time I went. At about the same point in time I felt both tired, overwhelmed and a bit ‘done’. Last time I accidentally found studio 3, took the chance to re hydrate, sit, and have a bit of a time out before diving back in, at which point I was fine. Both times in fact the second half of my show has been better. I think maybe my mind needs time to adjust before enjoying it, something I’m sure would change had I been multiple times. This time something else came to my attention, there was no midway for me with TDM, either the expereince allowed me to toally lose myself in the world of Temple Studios, forgetting everything, or the silence, the isolation actually left me disconnected with my own (very loud) thoughts. I also learned a lesson in your own mental space being really important. Not that it could be helped but my poor head wasn’t in the greatest place on Friday, I’d had an epic meltdown at the station earlier, for long and boring reasons. And sadly my brain just wasn’t letting go. In a way I’m sad, almost heartbroken that my only second chance at TDM was ruined a little by outside things, and by my poor head being a mess. Anyway, I took myself off to the loos, had another little meltdown, put my mask back on and went back in. And, actually the second half of my visit I really enjoyed.

Due to everything above, I think I was feeling not lazy, but less inclined to rush about, see and do everything. I wandered into the town. One of my favourite things to do is to simply wander in the quiet space and have a poke around (I’m nosy what can I say?) so I was quietly doing that, minding my own business when the Dust Witch stormed past. Well, if old Dusty storms past you have to follow right? So I followed and watched her bathe Migeul. As it turns out, 1960s Hollywood Dust Witches have the same vile coloured burgundy bath that I used to have…but I digress. Leaving Miguel to dresss (and squelching my way out) I wandered a bit more and decided to take my lovely friend’s advice for having a bit of a breather and hang out in the drugstore for a while.

I wandered into the Drugstore just as the Drug Store girl was taking someone in for a 1:1 so I hung around and waited for her to come out. I spent the rest of the loop either with her or with Tuttle. My first introduction to Tuttle was when he used his hips to ‘bump’ me out of the way at the Drugstore counter (I genuinely hadn’t heard the door and he somehow sneaked up behind me) I had no idea he was Tuttle at that point,but a little while later I wandered over to his shop. As I arrived he was giving out jellybeans and had to lean over and around several toys to give me one commenting ‘Gee there’s a lot of you in here, I should start charging’ I confess I fell a little bit in love with this Tuttle (and I really wanted to hug him when the Gatekeeper chased him!)  I shared the rest of the loop between him and Drug Store girl (who gave me a lemonade, and later a little wide-eyed nod as I helped her pick up her postcards.) I actually felt I got the most out of this loop, by staying in the town/fountain area I got to see a lot of the comings and goings and felt a bit more a part of the ‘world’ by observing this one spot of it. That would be my advice to a person who hasn’t seen it, as much as picking one person gives you a story, picking one spot (as long as it’s a fairly busy one!) will give you another story.

I followed Drug Store Girl down to the murder, slowly, as I knew that’s where we were going and for my first show I’d been following Wendy for the final loop so had gotten a good look. I stayed back out of the crowds for the murder which ended up giving me an excellent front row view for the finale-before which I got a wink from the PA. After which I looked up and saw two arms held out to me-the Grocer took my hands and led me out, kissing my hands softly as he went. When we got to studio three he pulled me into a little dance, then pulled back and started into my eyes before kissing my mask and saying ‘thank you’ over and over. I muttered a ‘thank you ‘ or two to which he replied ‘no thank you’. And disappeared.

With a little fluttering or eyelashes and showing of my lipstick stained mask I was also allowed to keep it, which was an added bonus (but did look a bit odd on the train home to Cardiff)

So that was round two, and sadly the final adventure in Temple Studios. I wish I’d discovered the show sooner (or realistically had chance to go sooner) I’d never had made it as many times as some people but I feel for me 3-4 times would have been great. I feel like I got enough from my experience, but I know I’d have loved more. Sadly, this time it wasn’t to be. But it was still magical. I know that the experience isn’t for everyone, I know some of my theatre friends have their issues with the show. And with my critical hat on I could find them too. But for me, the experience, and the enjoyment of the time in the performance far outweighs that. And it’s so rare to find something like that. Although every theatrical experience is individual, there is something lovely about something so very individual, and so very unique to every audience member that enters those lifts.

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Punchdrunk ‘Drowned Man’

The Drowned Man
This week I finally got to see Punchdrunk’s latest offering “The Drowned Man” even typing that I wonder is ‘see’ the right word? Probably not. Experienced perhaps? Lived? Survived even? It’s not anything you do as passively as ‘see’ there is nothing passive about it, as three hours of running up and down stairs will attest.
I have wanted to see a Punchdrunk show for some time. But it’s difficult, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and i rarely get to London alone. Plus, I’ll tell you my deep dark secret now it’s done: I was scared. Genuinely scared.
I’m what I think is commonly known as a wuss. A wuss with a hated bordering on fear of audience interaction. Scratch that I’m terrified of audience interaction directed at me, I just hate it with everyone else.
When I say scared I mean really scared. I don’t do haunted houses, I don’t even do Disneyland because people in costumes scare me (yes I do know it’s weird) I’m not good in confined spaces, I’ll admit I’m easily spooked in the dark. I’m just easily spooked. Like I say, wuss.
So why did I want to go so badly? Curiosity sure, the idea this was a major player in contemporary theatre I was currently missing out on. I also have a twitter friend who is utterly passionate about the show. They have excellent taste so I figured I had to find out for myself.
All this silly wussiness did manifest as genuine anxiety as the week drew in. I was helped by reading accounts of the show online, and by said twitter friend above who gave me some guidance (and valuable toilet info). I wasn’t helped by the overly enthusiastic fan in the queue who regaled me and my new found queue friend with tales of experiences so intense she had to come out and sit down alone for a while and other such delights. Queue man (who was handsome, and had a very nice beard by the way) and I exchanged tentative glances, what had we let ourselves in for?
As the moment approached I’ll admit genuine fear took over. Only telling myself I had paid for this, and people would see if I ran away kept me in the queue for the lift. I calmed a bit as I encountered my first actor in the lift. She was a person, she wasn’t that scary (actually her make up was a bit scary) then I panicked, I failed to ‘escape’ the lift at the first point. Was that a good thing! Bad thing? Stepping out into the darkness I stuck close to my group until we came across some actors.
The first scene I happened to see was familiar, I’d seen it in promotional material for the show. Quickly I was sucked in by the powerful dance performance in front of me. The scene ended, I followed one of the actors a short distance, another scene began. Another breathtaking dance scene. A lover of physical theatre, and of dance to be up close to the actors for this kind of performance was mesmerising. I was quickly sucked in. Again I followed a character. I watched scenes unfold in close quarters- I’m keeping specifics vague for those wishing to avoid spoilers. I followed 3 interconnected stories for a while actors the ‘loops’ as they are known. As I was flitting a bit between three characters whose stories were closely entwined (because of course they are all entwined) I got an overall picture.
Following the characters began to build my confidence. I followed one to the eerie sand filled floor above, I grew braver in getting closer to the action. Having completed a loop with one set, in the town half of the story, I began to seek out another, in the studio part. Following a few characters I ventured into new spaces, but nerves and wariness, and perhaps weariness got the better of me. For a time I wandered I near empty spaces I’d already been in, taking in the detail, enjoying the chance to wander in the set.
This chance to wander without the actors or action close by was a real highlight for me. Many I know like to seek out the obscure characters in these quieter moments or parts away from the main action. For me the chance to wander in the world alone was actually better. The quiet solitude of wandering dream like through this world was so magical.
Eventually I found my way to the Studio 3 space which is an’ in character bar’. Here audience members are permitted to take off their masks and talk to one another. A band and singers entertain while some characters drop in and out. For me, and many others I think it provides a chance to regroup, rest a moment before diving back in.
For the second half of my visit I immersed myself in the other part of The Drowned Man World, the studio. For a time I didn’t bother following a particular character just explored the spaces I came across, observed what was going on, followed someone for a short time. Eventually I did settle on a character who saw me through to the end and the grand finale. For the finale they manage (and lord only knows how!) to get the audience in one space. It is a spectacularly executed finale that also brings the audience together as an ‘audience’ for really the first and only time.
So that’s what I did (spoiler free) but what did I think? More importantly what did I feel? Part of me still doesn’t know. But I also can’t stop thinking about it. Not the plot, which I got in minimal form, but wasn’t that bothered about anyway because that doesn’t strike me as the point. The point really is the experience of it. What did I experience? I can’t help feeling not enough.
Partly this is my a fore mentioned wussiness I was never going to be crawling into dark spaces or opening doors alone, and in a Punchdrunk show this is my failing not theirs. Maybe on a return visit, now I feel I know it a bit more, maybe, just maybe this coward would open a few doors. But I think even with the bravest intentions it takes more than one visit to really experience it. It’s so overwhelming and sensory and experience that in one visit you can’t wrap your head around it. On a return visit I’d have, not so much a plan, but an awareness. I’d also have taken in the bigger picture so be inclined to look at the smaller stuff.
At first I was a bit perturbed by this, the idea of a show so big you can’t possibly take it in all at once. How dare a company presume people would want or even could do that. I realise though, you don’t have to. It’s actually me. Many people will go, have the experience take it for what it was, whatever it was for them, and go away. Maybe tell their friends, maybe bring someone else to see it. The reason I feel, not unfulfilled, per se, more that there’s so much more to get, to see and experience that I didn’t get to see, is because that is my disposition. And it’s a disposition that Punchdrunk feeds. There are countless plays I’ve seen well countless times. I’ve never felt the need to justify seeing them again because to me it’s self evident, every time you get something different. The difference begin in the case of The  Drowned Man is that they tell you, they show you that there’s so much more to see. They feed the addiction before you even begin. 
And the other key difference is it’s visceral, or perhaps somewhat primal. I’ve had what I’ve described as visceral theatrical experiences before  sitting on my arse in a darkened room. It stands to reason that physically following, touching the story will only enhance that for the kind of person who connects to performance. I do think that’s a caveat of these experiences, you need that kind of disposition to totally connect. The kind that is won over or indeed freely given over to the experience. Is it a little bit pretentious as some critics have claimed? Yes, but nowhere near as much as some far far lesser works but far lesser companies. I feel Punchdrunk have earned a little prevention by now! and anyway nobody died from a little pretentious art. And it’s not really as bad as people make out. I found it actually so honest in its emotions, in the actors connection with the audience that actually the overarching idea, might be pretentious, the delivery isn’t. Or is that all I their master plan? Is it part of the illusion, the game we are all playing in visiting Temple Studios?

As I type that last sentence I realise it’s game over for me, I’ve given in. I’ve started thinking about it like a fans unpicking it,trying to identify the messages, the meanings. I want to dive into that world. It still scares me, but I think I’m ready for it this time. 
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The National at 50

I’ve written this because I can’t articulate my feelings about the NT50 celebration in any kind of social media format, and because even after sleeping on it I can’t stop thinking about it.

I love the National Theatre, it’s been a focus of my research for over three years now, and it’s very much at the centre of my theatre going life. I admire the work done by those who work there and I think it is very much at the centre of British theatrical life. That said I am not blinkered, sometimes they get things wrong But isn’t that the essence of being an arts organisation, you take risks, you get it wrong sometimes. If they weren’t getting things wrong they wouldn’t be innovating, so I forgive, embrace those things. And anyway one person’s wrong in art is another person’s just right.

Of course with all celebratory performances/programmes this could have hit the wrong tone. And that worried me. That it would be filled with sycophantic pomp and not enough content. Or that the play selections would be all wrong, that the casting from such an array of British talent would somehow get muddled and wrong. But it wasn’t, it was glorious. Yes there were one or two choices I wouldn’t have made either for play, extract or casting (the Helen Mirren scene springs to mind for casting) but then I’m not Nick Hytner, I trust his reasoning. I mainly trust it because there were plenty of scenes I wouldn’t have expected, but that were glorious.

I held it together through Joan Plowright’s interview and performance (just) a little later Judi Dench made me well up with her Cleopatra. And then Richard Eyre came on screen and said the words ‘I was given a play to read, an American play that had never been performed in America’ Angels in America.

Angels in America. “My Angels” as my PhD addled brain has taken to calling them, were to be back at the National. I’d known this for a while. I’d even managed to find out the casting the day before to put me out of my misery. It had been killing me, what if after all this time they got it wrong. I could forgive any other mess that this performance made, but not this. Luckily fears were unfounded. The casting was Dominic Cooper and Andrew Scott. I breathed a sigh of relief. I then managed to guess the scene from a still photograph and my breath caught. It seemed an obvious choice now, but again I was worried. One of my favourite scenes, it always has been, and of course actually one of the most important, when Prior tells his lover Louis he has AIDS.

I actually got my friend (who is perhaps the only person who shares the same love of this play I do in quite the same way) to watch it first, to assure me it would be ok. When she came back with ‘I got chills’ I knew it was good. I still wasn’t prepared for how good. In all the analysis I’ve done, in all the performance recordings I’ve never seen it performed like that. Andrew Scott’s performance showed an anger to Prior at this point I’ve never seen pulled out and Dominic Cooper made Louis more vulnerable against that than I’ve ever seen Louis. Although I have versions of these characters cemented in my brain, these were new takes new parts of them I’ve never seen all from just one scene. This is why theatre needs to be performed, needs to be given life, and new life.I cannot describe how important it was to me to see that performance, that tiny performance in the midst of this big celebration. For a start it validated how important Angels is to the National, out of all the plays over 50 years, Angels is still important enough. It also confirmed in my mind that it is still relevant. So many people have commented how moved they were by that one scene, how important they found it. More than ever I really hope this leads to a substantial British revival, most of all I hope the National stages that revival (and well while I’m wishing I hope that revival includes Andrew Scott) Because there is still as Prior in the play would say ‘more life’ to be had in that play. And last night, even for only a few short minutes it came back to life for me.

There were so many highlights both on the stage and in the film clips dug from the archives. As someone who has spent so much time with the National’s archives over the past few years I have so much respect and admiration for the teams putting that together. The NT archive is vast and detailed (something for which I am very grateful) and the material used showed it to it’s very best. The variety of material in film clips and performed on stage also showed the National to its best too, from the classics, to the cutting edge to the pure fun of things like Guys and Dolls or One Man Two Guvnors (not my favourite NT work but an example of the variety of work they do)  all of which showed what the National has become in the last 50 years.

Other highlights included Roger Allam doing a monologue from ‘Copenhagen’ I adore this play, it hits all the right notes for this history nerd and theatre lover.  Roger Allam was the first actor I ever saw live on stage (him and Gillian Anderson to be precise in a two hander called ‘What the Night is For’) and for me Allam was theatrical love at first sight. His work has peppered my theatre life ever since accidentally at first (he is a busy actor!) and now deliberately I never miss him on stage if I can help it. To see this actor, who few outside of theatre know, but those who know theatre really respect and love, taking centre stage delivering that monologue with expert but understated precision made me say ‘this is why I love the theatre’ it also made me so pleased and proud that this actor I’ve loved was recognised as being a strong enough performer to deliver alone that brilliant speech at this event. Another actor I was really pleased to see taking centre stage was Jamie Parker alongside Ralph Fiennes in Pravada, I’ve followed Parker since his History Boys days and for me his is the definitive Henry IV/V of a generation.

I also cannot let this waffle of a blog post pass without commenting on ‘The History Boys’ of all the performances that was one of the most pitch perfect. The chemistry of the ‘boys’ (now suddenly older and making me feel my age) I shouted aloud at the sight of Alan Bennett on stage. And who else really could have replaced Richard Griffiths? Again I welled up at that, not helped I might add by my Mum who thought it useful to comment “He nearly made it didn’t he?” he did, but I think he’d have been pleased with his boys too. As he said in the play ‘Pass it on boys, pass it on.’

And talking of Bennett, the ending of the evening a self-reflective humorous but moving extract from ‘The Habit of Art’ about the National itself delivered expertly by Frances de la Tour, whose voice caught on a few notes conveying the gravity of the words under the humour. ‘Plays plays plays’ she said, and the plays really do speak for themselves there. It’s the plays and the actors, who taking their bows according to the years they performed at the NT showed just what a variety of leading talent the National has helped to produce, many of them performing on those stages long before they were household names. The National really does know plays, and actors. And in firstly making a celebration accessible not only to Britain but around the world shows it knows its audience, it knows theatre really is or should be for everyone. Finally in  giving the technical teams the final bow of those 50 years the National also showed that theatre is made by a team, that it’s more than those front of stage, and if that final mark of respect didn’t finish you off watching it you’re a stronger person than I am.

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The National Theatre…50 years young?

So the National Theatre is 50 years old today.

The National is an important theatre to me. All theatres are important so this one is maybe ‘special’. I’ve spent the last three years researching a production that took place there, I’ve written conference papers on performances there and all but absorbed the entire history in the process. And it’s also given me some great theatrical memories.

I first set foot in the National for, fittingly Caroline or Change Tony Kushner’s musical in 2006. As a latecomer to theatre in general (that’s for another blog) this was still fairly formative in my theatre going life. My time living in London was spent at several productions, platforms and other events. I even got to sit in on a rehearsal or two with my MA course. (seven years later and a crush on Rory Kinnear later, I curse my 22 year old self for not taking more mental notes in one of those…) And several years down the line, the National has woven itself into my theatre going life, rarely does a theatre trip to London not include a trip to the National, even if just to visit the bookshop.

A few years later I began to think about my PhD. I already knew the play (or one of them) would be Tony Kushner’s epic piece Angels in America. What began as a study of Kushner’s work slowly became a miniature history of the National Theatre, the more I researched, the more involved and the more in love with the history of the National I became. There is something about the interwoven repertory of three theatres, the variety and scope of all that is staged there. Added to that the physical spaces from the open vast Olivier to the traditional Lyttleton and the intimacy of the Cottesloe (now gone in its previous form and temporarily replaced by the Shed another brilliant use of space to stage a different kind of production) The thing about the National is you can see one thing, one particular kind of theatre in one space and see another entirely in the evening. Both producing classics (often with a twist) to completely new and innovative works there is always a balance, always something new and exciting.

There is a particular energy about the building too. It’s a rare building that feels so open and welcoming. I feel at ease wandering in, spending time. It feels like more than a theatre. And that’s good, for any arts institution but particualry one with National in the title.

My research and my experience there has given me such a passion for the work the National does. I’ve felt supported in my research by their archives and I feel like in my own little way I’m adding to the NT’s history, with my little brick, my little plot of time and productions I’ve written about. I can’t wait to see what the next 50 years brings, and hopefully brick by brick I might be building my way into that history too.

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Reviews: A Magistrate, A horse and some Privates on Parade

A conference and working weekend in London meant I got to see some theatre (of course)

The Magistrate (National Theatre) 

I was mulling over whether to see the latest NT Live broadcast which was this play and realised I was in London for it. So as tickets were about the same price to see it actually in the theatre I decided to give it a go. My motivation was largely an interest in seeing how the live broadcasts were put together and affected the theatrical experience. And a mild interest to see John Lithgow on stage after loving him in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrals’ on Broadway years ago (the man has done over 20 Broadway plays you know!)

The play itself is a classic farce. Not I confess my favourite of genres (I prefer my comedy dark and subtle rather than big and bold and have an allergy to slapstick) luckily this play creates a true classic farce that relies on the ludicrous situations of the play for comedy rather than injecting it with slapstick as many farces tend to do. The play itself is amusing and unchallenging but the staging and the performances from Lithgow and Nancy Carroll make up for it. After seeing the latter in a similar play, the Donmar’s ‘Recruiting Officer’ last year, I must confess I’m a little in love with this woman! Lithgow also shines, particularly in his extensive monologue depicting the events of the night before. He has a quiet comedic presence on stage that brings a nice subtly to the largely unsubtle play.

The staging and design of the play really stood out. The scenes were linked with an addition of musical numbers, newly composed but in the style of the era (sounding much like Gilbert and Sullivan numbers in fact) and performed by a troupe of four Dandy-like figures. These facilitated the grand set changes which in some ways were the star of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the National’s Olivier stage used to its full potential and these grand sets that rose in and out of the drum really got me excited, not least the main house which opened and closed like a book.

All in all an enjoyable evening, and quite nice to feel my applause has been broadcast around the world as part of the NT live broadcast.

War Horse

My third viewing of this play (and Mum’s Christmas present) I was worried that on the third viewing some of the magic would have been lost, but it really wasn’t. Every time I’ve seen this the moment you see Joey the horse in full for the first time the hairs on my arms stand up and a well up.

I was worried Mum wouldn’t be won over as to say she hates puppets is an understatement but within minutes she was also swept away.

It’s hard to encapsulate what is so magical about War Horse. Without seeing it imagining that the bamboo and material puppets, through which you clearly see the puppeteers could be so powerful. But the attention to detail is such that the horses come to life before your eyes. The story also is compelling and doesn’t patrionise its audience-don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a simplistic children’s story, the narrative is multi faceted and adults whether well versed in history of the War or not will get much from it.

That in fact is the joy of War Horse, its a piece of theatre so theatrical and yet keeps at its core a story that is moving without being sentimental, that is real and graphic without seeking to shock. Its a balance so difficult to strike that I’d go as far to say that War Horse is a near perfect theatrical experience.

Privates on Parade

My last minute choice, more to want to see some more of the Michael Grandage season (I’ve booked for one more and intend to see another at least). The experience was somewhat affected by the announcement that on of the actors Sophiya Haque sadly died earlier in the week. Although I’d never seen her perform previously (though was aware of her work) and obviously didn’t know her, it was difficult at times watching a play knowing the understudy is on under such tragic circumstances.

The play itself was excellent. The text on its own is quite a dated on  but has been handled wryly into an update of sorts without actually changing any of the text. It’s an interesting challenge for a company to take something that is inherently of its time and in this case by default inherently racist and decidedly un-‘PC’ and update it enough to play well today without doing a disservice to the original material.

The play also achieves a strong balance between some serious issues and being a highly entertaining evening. The use of music song and dance are used expertly by the production, and to tread the line of in character bad singing and acting and being just plain bad successfully is quite a trick!

This play could just be viewed for its surface content only-a fun song and dance romp with Simon Russell Beale in drag (a sight to behold it is true!) but I think the production achieved a nice balance of entertainment with the slightly darker elements of the play. That said, Simon Russell Beale camping it up in a sailor outfit was worth the ticket price alone….

Oh and for anyone wondering….there were indeed some ‘privates’ on parade. More naked men than I’ve seen in a long while….

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Reviews: 55 Days

A weekend in London (I can’t help but sing that to the tune of ‘A weekend in the country’ but that’s just me….)

55 Days, Hampstead Theatre

This is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, I wish I could get to see it again because there’s a lot to take in. Of course it does combine a couple of my favourite things historical geekery and Mark Gatiss, but even without the latter it would have been wonderful (although his performance as Charles I is simply wonderful).

A new play by Howard Breton and directed by Howard Davies the play follows the 55 Days of the title that led to Charles I’s trial and execution. If you have a working knowledge of the period it does help as you can sit back and appreciate Breton’s innovative re-telling, however total novices to the period will find the play easy to follow and come out suitably enlightened.What actually comes over most strongly is Breton’s use of the past to illustrate the present. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the period in history, Breton’s approach shows the chaos surrounding Cromwell and the trying decisions involved. Although you get the sense he is firmly on Cromwell’s side you also see he is aware of the flaws. While the audience is shown the drive for the building of a new society and side with Cromwell in his need to build a new country, they are also shown the flaws in the execution of this plan (pardon the pun). Cromwell and his supporters take time to be galvanized  their plans messy and ad hoc and of course that they can only achieve their aims by a Military Coup. The characters involved are many, and without prior knowledge it may be difficult to follow who is who, but again this doesn’t matter because in Breton’s re-telling they are potentially any man found in such a position from the hapless lawyer John Cooke who gets the job by virtue of being the only one not to flee London to the soldiers who out of loyalty to Cromwell become a part of the execution of a King, all these characters are people we recognise from our own society.

The approach Davies takes to realising Breton’s text also assists the effect of being both historical and present today. The company aside from Charles wear contemporary clothing-a uniform of grey suits and greatcoats. The direction is incredibly slick and makes use of the entire ensemble who make up Parliament and the army as well as moving the minimal props from scene to scene to create the multiple settings of the play seamlessly. The solid ensemble of actors work with Cromwell (Douglas Henshall) and Charles (Gatiss) to give an impression of these two central figures who have dragged so many others into events.

Henshall gives an astounding performance capturing Cromwell’s torment between his faith, his sense of duty to his country and it seems a desire to do right by the King as a man despite what he’s had done. There is an incredible control to Henshall’s performance, that stops his Cromwell from veering towards religious fanatic or unbelievably sentimental about his actions towards the King. He holds the audience much like the ensemble around him, who much like Cromwell’s men may have done seem to gravitate around him.

Gatiss performs Charles I with a quiet dignity that captures the sadness of his downfall, although we know the outcome there is a sense the audience is willing him to make a deal with Cromwell right to the last moment. Gatiss balanced this quiet dignity with the pomp and arrogance of a King. His self assured belief that God has decreed his place on the throne veers into pomp and pageantry in his public moments but is sincere and almost sad in private ones. The final (fictional) conversation between Charles and Cromwell gives both actors a chance to show what is truly a masterclass in performance.

There is much to take in during  55 Days and my only regret is I didn’t snap up a second ticket when it went on sale as the run is now sold out! Even if history geekery isn’t your thing, even if you think ‘I don’t much like that Gatiss fellow’ 55 Days will change your mind. Or in my case reinforce your affection for both!

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Review: Our Boys,

I did resolve to use this blog for more reviews, so here goes…

Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis

I went to see this as a Birthday outing for a friend who is rather fond of Lawrence Fox, as it happened this play also had Arthur Darvill of Dr Who fame and Matthew Lewis of Harry Potter fame. I was expecting death by fangirls at the theatre but luckily they behaved themselves.

It’s also a worry with a group of young-ish actors, known for tv/film and with less theatre experience that carrying a West End play could fall flat. Not one of the cast dropped the ball at all, there was a real sense of an ensemble cast but with each getting their moment to stand out. Of the three ‘known’ actors Matthew Lewis gets least to work with, as the solider in for an adult circumcision he is very much posited as a comic relief character (not that the others don’t have riotously funny roles) with simply less ‘meaty’ scenes it could seem he isn’t as strong but actually he brings a roundness to the role where it could be easy simply to rely solely on the humour.

Arthur Darvill’s character is a great role for any actor and it gives him chance to show off comedic skills his television work have hidden as well as illustrating his abilities as an actor. Lawrence Fox was funny and charismatic as the ‘Battersea Boner’ (work it out…) while also treating those inclined to several scenes in his pants…

What is interesting about this play, as plays about Soldiers are very much ‘in’ at the moment is to see an example of one from another conflict. In 1984 the men depicted have served in Northern Ireland and have colleagues in the Falklands (though none of those depicted have served there). That’s not to say that we don’t need plays about the current conflicts and difficulties of our soldiers, we do, we also need the dramas about the First and Second World Wars-like Journey’s End or Private Peaceful to name two fairly recent revivals  But it feels like the period these men are from-the space in between almost-isn’t as much a part of our cultural and particularly theatrical dialogue. And it really should be.

As Joe, played by Lawrence Fox, finally reveals the real reasons he has been in the hospital so long and depicts in detail the events of the Hyde Park bombing that caused him the injuries the audience unravels all that went before in the play and comes to understand a great deal more about Joe.

Perhaps the reason we don’t hear as much from the era of Northern Ireland and the Falklands is the inherent and unresolved politics of it all. What this play does, and what any effective play about the human cost of conflict does, is strip away the politics. The men don’t tell us if they agree or disagree with the conflicts, in the hospital they are just a group of lads trying to recover-some with wounds worse than others.

An interesting play from my perspective as someone who is writing about plays from the 1980s/early 1990s being revived, this play ages well. The only refernece that has is more to do with unfortunate timing-the script has two Jimmy Savillie references (one use of ‘Jim’ll fix it’ and one ‘impersonation’) which understandably fell a little flat this weekend. Do I think they should be taken out? no. They are relevant and real references that fit the characters at the time, to take them out does a disservice to the playwright’s intent, what will happen naturally through audience response and actor savvy is that the nature of those references will change to reflect new circumstances. Just as the circumstances of the solider’s in the play take on new significance and meaning to today’s audience in contrast to those who first saw it.

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Without You (Review of sorts)

I plan on using this blog to do more reviews as I reason I see a lot of theatre and blogging about it rather than  just my general moans occasionally makes for more interesting reading.

I also quite pride myself on my critical eye when it comes to theatre-seeing through the hype and also giving credit where credit’s due. Or just being my usual blunt honest self, whichever way you look at it.

The review I’m starting with however I hold my hands up and say it’s hard to be impartial for. Without You is the one man-autobiographical show from Anthony Rapp, for those who don’t know the original ‘Mark’ in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (one of my PhD texts for those not keeping up) and the show covers the period in his life around Rent and specifically the impact of the deaths of first Jonathan Larson and then Rapp’s mother. Based his book of the same name the show combines music from Rent with original music with the characters brought to life alongside Rapp’s monologues.

Theatrically this piece works well, it’s balanced and paced well so that the 80 minute show feels far shorter, the pace from one moment to the next gives a sense of urgency and frantic nature of the period-both historically and in his life that Rapp is trying to convey. Fans will be able to fill in the gaps and what happened next, while the uninitiated will find the story as it stands dramatically satisfying.

Musically the songs re-arranged from Rent  (and a rendition of R.E.M’s ‘Losing my Religion’) fit seamlessly alongside original material. As a fan of Rent (and one who has academically spent far too long analyzing these songs) loved the arrangements and  hearing parts not sung by Rapp in the musical. His voice is stronger  than ever a refined performance that still incorporates a raw edge aided by the emotion of the piece.

And there is a lot of emotion in this piece-the subject matter even the title leaves no illusions about this. However it’s never overly sentimental or indulgent, there is a real honesty about the way grief manifests itself in our lives and our behaviour- there is anger even selfish behaviour when we lose someone or are losing someone we love and all of this is tapped into. The show isn’t trying to tell people this is how to react to loss it’s simply telling the story of how one person did, and unsurprisingly I think a lot of the audience could relate to that. Yes it is also terribly sad at the end, depicting the memorial for Rapp’s Mother accompanied by Larson’s song from which the show draws it’s title Without You but it’s a kind of respectful fitting sadness that seems to draw the show’s themes and the emotions of the audience together. Much like Larson’s work Rapp’s piece also leaves on a positive note with a rendition of Seasons of Love from Rent a song that emphasises life and love.

I found Without You an incredibly emotional experience, but then it is drawn from material I’m incredibly close to, both personally and professionally. Everyone who loves Rent has their story for why it touched them, why it changed them. For me I was 19 years old a little lost in life-figuratively and literally having just moved from Britain to Canada-and my Father had just died. Rent had an impact on me personally, discovering the music and later that year seeing the show for the first time greatly impacted my life. Later Rent has come to professionally shape it too.

That said I’d begun to worry that through my analysis, the sheer amount I was forced to think about deconstruct and yes distance myself from it that I’d become too distant. Seeing Without You  reconnected me with what I felt was important about Rent and I really see Anthony Rapp’s piece as a continuation of Jonathan Larson’s legacy, while also showing his strength as a talented performer and writer in his own right.

As a final note I must add how grateful I am to Anthony Rapp for giving up his time to talk to me about my research and being so supportive and generous in doing so-the show and the chance to have those conversations renewed my confidence in the work I’ve done and my enthusiasm to continue.

I did say this review wouldn’t’ be entirely objective. Normal service resumed next time!

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New York-Theatre Reviews

I’m back from New York, and will get to blogging about that, but priorities and all that-first I’m posting reviews of what I saw. It’s a lot-I saw ten shows along with the six recordings of shows I saw as research. However this was quite a disappointing trip theatre wise-not with what I actually saw which on the whole was brilliant, but in choice. Usually on a trip to New York, as with London I’d be seeing a show every night and still wishing I had time for more. This year however a combination of prohibitive ticket prices ($130 dollars being a ‘standard’ Broadway seat now) and an overwhelming ‘British invasion’ of shows (that I’d either seen in London or didn’t want to see in the first place!) made it a disappointing selection.

Anyway onto what I did see:

Clybourne Park

I saw this at the RWCMD in the Spring and loved the play. While the students gave brilliant performances seeing this with age-appropriate actors certainly helped! It’s a brilliantly written play, well deserving of the ‘Best Play’ Tony it won this year. Interestingly this an American play very much ‘about’ America was premiered in the West End, and actually I can see how the humour and approach of the play worked well with British audiences-there’s a dry humour to it and an almost self-deprecating tone that’s a more ‘British’ trait. However it was really interesting to see it with an American audience and gauge reactions-it deals with issues of race and prejudice and there are often moments of ‘should I be laughing at this’. A superbly acted piece overall.

Memphis

This is set to come to London this Autumn so normally I might have given it a miss, certainly not gotten to the theatre at 8.30am for student rush tickets. However, as Adam Pascal was in the lead role I had to see it and getting up that early wasn’t a hardship! It was worth it too. The musical is well written and interesting-actually follows on from the racial themes of Clybourne Park, interestingly as I saw them back to back. Some wonderful music also and brilliant performances across the cast. Standout was (and although I’m a bit biased) was Adam Pascal, the role of Huey is a challenge vocally and performance wise and he was simply wonderful. A personal interesting aspect was the day before I’d watched the recording of  the original cast of ‘Rent’ at the archives, seeing his first Broadway performance followed by the most recent was like seeing a career and performance evolution in a fast-forward! This is the fourth time I’ve seen Adam perform and every time he gets stronger vocally and his performance grows. Ok enough gushing now about him! I enourgage anyone to see Memphis in London when it arrives however it’s a night out you wont regret!

War Horse

I saw and loved this in London (despite thinking I might not) The New York production is almost a direct transplant of the National Theatre production in London-aside from fitting it into the space at the Lincoln centre which is a little smaller, the physical performances of the puppeteers (which lets face it is what the audience is there for) remain thankfully unchanged. The moment you see Joey the horse come to life fully is still pure theatrical magic, and the production is still one of the most stunning pieces of theatre I’ve seen in years. Can you hear the ‘but’? yes, well there were changes to the American production which I can only describe as ‘dumbing down’ (I wont be specific in case of ‘spoilering’ anyone) this makes me so angry-either you want to import a production or you don’t, secondly I think the Lincoln Centre should actually credit it’s audiences with more intelligence. There was also a minor directorial alteration to the ending-it didn’t change the story but I just liked the way it was played in London so much better-again spoilers! I also witnessed the worst Welsh accent ever performed on a stage.  But for those who have seen the London production-don’t worry the goose is still there!

Dogfight

Based on a film that I haven’t seen-basic premise Marines compete to find the ugliest girl on their last day before shipping out, predictably one falls in love with the ‘ugly’ girl. It was staged beautifully by Joe Mantello (who I admit I’ve become a bit obsessed with during this trip as he was in two other productions I watched recordings of) sadly for this show the songs were forgettable and I feel it might have worked better as a play. It still had impact-oddly uncomfortable at times and still moving.

Warrior Class

Second play at Second Stage! an engaging play about politics in America-a political candidate deals with a ‘secret’ from his past but with an interesting twist at the end the play reveals more about American politics than it does about the candidates secret. The points it raises aside it was simply one of the most engaging plays I’ve seen in a while, I think it would work equally as well in Britain and I’d love to see it play places like the Sherman!

All the above I saw on my own, the rest I was joined by my Mum for.

Harvey

Booked for the entirely shallow reason that Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, my Mum’s current favourite TV character and one she has unfavourably compared her daughter to). Also based on a film I haven’t seen Harvey is the story of a man and his best friend-a six foot rabbit that only he can see (or maybe not…). There is no way to describe Harvey other than ‘a really nice play’ it’s the kind of play you leave the theatre and just say ‘ahh’. Will it change your life? probably not (though there are a few good lessons to learn there) but it will perhaps reaffirm your faith in humanity a bit and in entertainment. Jim Parsons was brilliant, equally funny as in ‘Big Bang’ the character of Harvey reminded me of what Sheldon would be like if you took away his intelligence and arrogance-blissfully naive about the world but infinatly curious. To quote Harvey in ‘My Grandmother told me in this life you have to be either very smart or very pleasant. I tried smart for many years, I recommend pleasant.’

Cock-Mike Bartlett

Despite providing me with the opportunity to email my mother and ask her ‘do you want to see Mike Bartlett’s Cock’? (yes I’m that mature) It did mean I got to see a play I wish I’d seen in London. Cock is one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time-clever without being pretentious and moving without being sentimental. It contains one of the best monologues-or best explanations full stop, explaining sexuality for anyone who doesn’t fit into a ‘tick box’ category that I’ve heard. It was also amusing to be one of only a couple of people laughing at the intrinsically ‘British’ jokes or references that thankfully weren’t edited out.

Bring it on the musical

A musical about cheer leading. I know, I know it sounds awful. But I would pay good money just for the stunts these dancers performed. I love dance, my Mum more so-I booked this with her mind-I’ve seen a lot of tricks performed by dancers but these cheer leading moves were something else. Flipping a girl backwards from shoulder height, then someone else catching her at shoulder height-and that wasn’t even one of the ‘hard’ moves! Anyway stunning choreography, a strong score and an amusing if plot-light book, Bring it On is a solid musical. Loses points for being based on a film,  but gains them back for the stunts. I’m sorry did I mention the stunts?

Rent-off-Broadway revival

I was wary about this, I love the Original production of Rent, and in recent years have spent far too much of my life thinking about and analysing it. However I felt compelled to go and see the revivial for research purposes, and I was so glad I did. Michael Grief the original director of Rent has directed this revivial sensibly-apart from scaling down the production, the best description for the changes seems to be ‘tidying up’. It’s fair to say the original production became quite ‘enshrined’ after composer Jonathan Larson’s death, now with hindsight and enough years of distance Grief simply tweaks a few things I imagine he’d have changed in the normal evolution of the production from off-Broadway to Broadway but didn’t feel able to under the circumstances. Having an all new cast, with due to the reduced cast size, some tweaked roles also helps bring a new energy to the piece. It’s interesting to think, the cast now are the actors who grew up with Rent and probably dreamed of being Adam Pascal/Anthony Rapp or India Menzel, and somehow for me that was a lovely thought watching them bring it to life in their own way. For me too, it was a fitting end to my trip seeing this almost like a going forward after all the digging in the past I’d done for Rent. It was still an emotional experience seeing it on stage, and for me that’s when I know a production of Rent works. Ok so I’ve gotten sentimental about it here, forgive me I’m writing a PhD chapter on it and keeping my feelings firmly filed away.

Right so that was the theatre, as concise as I could make it! Trip blog coming in the next few days.