Sketches From the Past

Sketches and thoughts scribbled down from past shows... 

Water, Filter Theatre Company 
Tricycle Theatre, 3rd February 2011

Filter is one of the critics' darlings at the moment and with good reason. This is a company that knows theatre's diverse and unique strengths and has, through careful and continued experimentation, figured out how best to harness these powers. They combine music, sound-effects, lighting, visuals and even smell to create an utterly immersive experience.  In this production's best moments, there is no distinction between the atmosphere on stage and in the audience. What the characters on stage feel, so too do we. 

Below is a particularly clever, if not slightly self-indulgent, moment from this absorbing show about global warming - but, more importantly, about man's screwed up relationship with his environment: 

Two actors play squash whilst another actor, solely in charge of sound effects, booms out the balls' bounces into a microphone. Trapped behind a glass cage, the actors play out an uncannily realistic game, which also has a beautifully surreal sheen to it. This is Filter's forte - summoning up moments with such sensual clarity that, although they have a deeply theatrical gloss to them, they also feel undeniably real. It's a brilliant, double prod at our senses. 

There were further, more prescient scenes, executed with equal skill. For my review of 'Water', which washed over me like a strangely comforting tidal wave, see p.3 in The Ham and High.

Greenland, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne
National Theatre, 1st February 2011

Oh Greenland! This collective play about global warming received a vicious mauling from the press. I suspect this is because critics are predisposed to disliking plays penned by more than one playwright. It is hard enough for one person to write a cohesive play but it is near-impossible, the suspicion nags, for four writers with distinct voices to write a clear and powerful piece about a controversial and complex topic.

This swirling and sometimes pleasingly disjunctive piece on climate change certainly had its problems (See my review for Culture Wars) but it had guts and energy too. Ultimately though, it was too earnest and too dogmatic. When a writer (or writers) approaches the themes head-on like this, there has to be a lightness of touch, otherwise one risks preaching to the audience. And, god knows, we've all had enough preaching when it comes to global warming, which is - didn't you know - ALL OUR FAULT!

'Return To The Silence', Curious Directive
Pleasance Theatre, 21st January 2011

I like this young theatre company. Sure, a lot of the time it feels like they're working every am dram trick in the book (no more somersaults, please!) but they are also brave. And inventive. And hugely preoccupied with explaining complicated stuff through visuals. This is rare. So many emerging companies chicken out and just use WORDS.

To the right, is a sketch of this inventive company's stab at visualising Parkinson's Disease and its effects. Theatre seems to be a bit obsessed with Parkinson's, at the moment. Perhaps it is because it takes over the body, the actor's tool, so completely. Anyway, 'Curious Directive' represented this disease's clawing effect by whacking a man in front of a flickering screen and letting a woman crawl all over him. Beneath, actors holding red lights, flickered nervously about the space. A really nice representation of encroaching chaos.

'Twelfth Night', National Theatre, 18th January 2011
By the time Peter Hall's production was over, it felt like night thirteen. I know there is lots to admire in the production - the actors delivered their lines with rare clarity and some of the scenes had an extraordinary, emotional elegance to them - but does it have to be such hard work? Isn't this play meant to be funny?

A severe version of Malvolio's entrapment
Hall's was a particularly compassionate production and what shone through was a genuine empathy for the spurned lovers. It all felt uncomfortably close in the Cottesloe - and one began to feel awkwardly complicit in the cruel gags. But, for a lot of the time, I felt a little bored. A lot bored, to be honest. Where was the abandoned humour, the giddy exuberance of the drunken scenes, the laughs? And, most crucially, where was the fast wit? There is some blistering banter in this play but, with a jester seriously past the age of retirement and a relatively restrained Sir Toby Belch and Antony Aguecheek, the merriment felt pretty darn morose. 

'As You Like It', The RSC
The Roundhouse, January 2011

The RSC hit their stride, with an exhilarating production of 'As You Like It' at The Roundhouse. Finally, the spirit of Shakespeare's play and the RSC matched up. Perfectly.

'As You Like It' is such a swirling, cheeky  piece and requires the type of skilful, comic playfulness the RSC does best. This is a company that is most comfortable, I think, when kept on its toes.

Richard Katz (left) was an excellent Touchstone: jaded (as all the best jesters are), arrogant, knowing and reluctantly entertaining. Forbes Masson was equally good as Jacques and, with his streaky eye liner and acerbic guitar solos, bore an uncanny resemblance to Tim Minchin. He felt like a modern-day stand-up, guest-starring in a classic Shakespearean comedy. I find it hugely cheering that this contemporary comic interpretation made such perfect sense of Shakespeare's role.

Some critics baulked at Tom Piper's set, but I think it complemented the show's sparky and imaginative energy. The backstage of the Roundhouse was blocked out by a series of white boxes (an RSC version of celebrity squares), which were gradually opened to reveal endless trees, guitar strumming lovers and 'country copulators', marking the transition from the crystal clean court to the more chaotic Forest of Arden.

'King Lear', Donmar Warehouse, December 2010

Derek Jacobi has every conceivable emotion hidden underneath that cloak (below);  from naive exuberance to jaded weariness, booming arrogance to simmering fear, towering strength to cowering fragility. This was a blinding performance, which reminded me  of the seven ages of man that Shakespeare describes in 'As You Like It':
     At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
    And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
    Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
    Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
    Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
    Seeking the bubble reputation
    Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lined,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
    Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
    With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
    His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
    For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
    Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
    And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
   That ends this strange eventful history,
   Is second childishness and mere oblivion, 
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

'The Winter's Tale', The RSC
   The Roundhouse, December 2010

The Winter's Tale, RSC, Roundhouse                  

One of the floating figures found in director David Farr's Bohemia (a magical and bonkers world, in which trees  and life-size bears were constructed from books) in the RSC production of The Winter's Tale (p.8 Ham & High)

The best show so far in the RSC's Roundhouse run, showcasing an  ensemble cast  with exceptional versatility and panache.

Roses of Whitechapel, Lion and Unicorn, Nov 2010

'The Roses of Whitechapel'
The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Nov 2010

A(nother) remake of Jack the Ripper's rampage through East London  and its resident prostitutes.

A disappointingly dull affair, in which the narrator,  Jack the Ripper, reminded me of Matthew Kelly in Stars in Their Eyes. Only the singers he introduced were actually prostitutes. And rather than singing, they spoke. And, rather than applauding them, he stabbed them. Uncanny.

Romeo and Juliet, Rose Theatre, July 2010

'Romeo and Juliet'
Rose Theatre, July 2010

A Romeo and Juliet to forget at the Rose Theatre. The Mokwha Repertory Company has some good dancers and interesting ideas, but this show dragged. Romeo and Juliet barely made eye contact throughout, which made it tough  for them to converse meaningfully. Or to kiss. An extended scene, in which Romeo rolled around in a massive, condom shaped sheet, did not help matters.

Beyond The Horizon, National Theatre, April 2010

Eugene O'Neill's first full length play, Beyond The Horizon. And full on it is, too. A heavy affair: or, as I said in my review (p.7, Ham & High), 'It’s a bit like watching soot descend slowly (oh so slowly) on stage and suffocate everything in sight.'

Still, it was really interesting to see O'Neill's characters in early development. All the usual suspects are here - overbearing mother, wilfully naiive daughter - only they've been magnified tenfold. Blazing, pretty overblown in places, but always powerful.

'London Assurance', National Theatre, March 2010 

There's nothing like Fiona Shaw when she lets her hair down. Or indeed, has it tucked away underneath an array of ridiculous  hats.

I dare anyone to say they didn't laugh during this production. Sure, Shaw and Russell-Beale are an acquired taste, but they combined beautifully here. Rollicking good fun. (p. 5, The Ham & High)

Macbeth, Barbican, March 2010 
'Macbeth', Barbican, March 2010
A fascinating production of 'Macbeth', from Cheek by Jowl. The absolute antithesis to Lucy Bailey's broad and rowdy production.

Minimalist. A few crates were used as the main set feature, creating block shadows and odd, angular spaces on the Barbican stage. A complete rethinking of the dagger scene, which worked brilliantly and rewrote this overworked moment.

Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre, February 2010

'Midsummer Night's Dream'
Rose Theatre, February 2010

Judi Dench doing her thing at The Rose Theatre. You know - the Queen thing. Only with wings this time. And aided by a man with a huge ass for a head. Played by the very funny and stupidly likeable Chris Jones.

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