Monthly Archives: September 2018

PINTER AT THE PINTER: TWO Harold Pinter Theatre

GUEST CRITIC BEN BLACKMORE MUSES ON CHEESE-KNIVES AND TELETUBBY HOUSES

 

PINTER 2 announces itself in bold, Sex And The City-type projections, in the Sex And The City font as though it were the sequel.  The late summer blockbuster you never knew you wanted.   

A comedy from Pinter usually gets treated one of two ways: irony-steeped laughfest or anxiety-inducing fake-comedy, and tonight’s plays go both ways – in more ways than one.The curtain opens first onto The Lover, and one of the gaudiest sets I can remember,  in pupil-dilating Technicolor.  Adorned in kitschy 50s cribbing, everything is either baby pink or radioactive green: a Mr Blobby interior. If it wasn’t for the unsettling restraint shown in the Stepford kitchenette, the whole thing would look as though it were staged on a Teletubby’s tummy. 

 

Richard and Sarah are a married couple, who each speak candidly of having a lover. The not-so-shocking reveal, which comes early on, is the identity of the lovers. Yes, they’re…Richard and Sarah, navigating a delicate, double-dealing game of role play. John Macmillan and Hayley Squires cope well with the relative paucity of material they’ve got to work with.  As if they were melting waxwork figures at Madame Tussauds, their pathos plays out almost entirely in facial expressions: smiles pained and ripping at the seams, alternatively vindictive and humiliated. Yet atop these grimaces is smeared a kind of lurid conviviality. 

 

The whole thing is very disquieting , and all will rejoice to hear that the Pinter-Pauses are out in full force, deployed for the most part as the catchment into which errant and uneasy titters from the First Night audience fell. It does does manage to capture the millennial crisis of feeling simultaneously on the verge of bursting into tears and bursting into flames.  The sexual fantasy  is enacted with compulsive dexterity, as though  expunging  some clinical neurosis. Only lust disrupts the set’s considered symmetry, before the fever bleeds out into a bruised purple vignette. 

 

The second play, The Collection is thematically and stylistically loosened and dimmed down; the stage draped with dusky curtains, evoking the louche atmosphere of a late-night talk show.  Gone is the manic pixie house, dissolved into a dreamlike promontory which two couples occupy, together yet separately, while trying to comprehend their lovers’ infidelities.  The calm doesn’t last long, as The Collection swivel-tilts rapidly towards camped-up ribaldry. Macmillan and Squires are joined by Russell Tovey and David Suchet, whose arrival fleshes it out into a haughty, far more gestural affair.
Tovey is an awkward yet endearing mixture of campy and cockney, inviting calumny at every turn.  Suchet, the arbiter of The Collection’s real comic potential, occasionally pushes it too far in the direction of panto – there’s a moment where he sidles across stage to intercept his lover’s phone call and I was reminded of the Grinch on Christmas morn.

 
The Collection (and The Lover) still feel incredibly modern in their case-study observations on  infidelity and subterfuge, even though none of the indiscretions seem particularly radical by today’s standards. They’re double-edged daggers – or maybe cheese knives – at once  genuinely tickling and instruments of torture.

box office  www.atgtickets.com

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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PINTER AT THE PINTER –    ONE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

STEEL CELLS AND SADISM

 

     Settling in, you’d think you were at the Cenotaph or the Tattoo.   A military soundtrack booms out Imperial Echoes and Jupiter (I Vow To Thee My Country).  The forecurtain has a single word in brutalist stone-grey letters  and as it goes up there’s a deafening Rule Britannia.  Oh,  and a shower of tickertape.

 

 The stony word is PINTER,  and this launches a short season marking his death ten years ago by assembling, in seven sets,  all his short playlets, sketches and poems, with starry casts including (in this first set)  Paapa Essiedu, Maggie Steed and Antony Sher.     This opener is themed on atrocity, repression, dictatorship and state torture.  

 

          It is no secret that Harold Pinter’s gift was for evoking threat, emotional cruelty and downright bullying, whether official or familial. The first half, directed by Jamie Lloyd, starts with the brief “Press Conference”  in which a suave“Minister of Culture” speaks of annihilating subversive children. Next a bufferish caricature of two politicians dismissing millions of deaths, and an audio clip of the author himself about  “putting my finger on the body politic of the world”.  Next a naked figure sits on a chair while two torturers in shades gleefully discuss without detail how much they will do to him: there’s a playfulness which the author is enjoying worryingly much.  The glee continues in the next one, as two thuggish soldiers ask impossible questions of cowering women trying to visit a bloodstained prisoner in a steel cell and the voice of Michael Gambon forbids them to use their language.   In between these imagined atrocities the music blasts out Zadok The Priest, presumably  to suggest that monarchy causes such things.

 

         And on we go to Kate O’Flynn as an American Football cheerleader shrieking one of PInter’s favourite tropes about how “we blew the shit outa them, they’re suffocating in their shit, praise the Lord”.   Oh, and a jejune joke  “undiscovered” sketch in which a bad-wig Trump (a different guest star each time) orders “Nuke London”. 

      

        There is brief relief as Maggie Steed beautifully speaks his gentle poem about death,  and then a longer, quite remarkable performance by Antony Sher interrogating,  in a nightmare of suggestive bullying,  a silent dissident. Then, really nastily,   the man’s raped wife and small child. Sher is of course brilliant.   And of course drama should reflect the existence of torture, fascist dictatorships, bleak cells,  sadism and the banning of free speech (something which the ever-lionized Pinter never suffered).   But the danger of  anthologising like this is the lack of any specificity.   Without relating it  to the realities of Nazi Germany, Guantanamo, Syria ,Russia, China, wherever,  or even and without even declaring it a dystopia –   it can decline into mere sadistic fantasy.  Wallowing. 

Pinter does wallow, no question about it, and the director Jamie Lloyd’s belief that it is amusingly satirical to suggest with his Cenotaph-music that we’re in a fascist state here,   is not only silly but an insult to those who really are in one.   So the lack of context in that sequence bothered me. 

 As for the second half, where Lia Williams directs  Ashes to Ashes with Kate O”Flynn and Essiedu, it is again well-executed. But  dripping with sexual sado-masochism of the kiss-my-fist variety and,   in the woman’s final words, rather disgustingly hijacking  images of the Holocaust trains.   Still, we were spared another blast of Zadok the Priest.    Look, if you love this aspect of Pinter – the wallowing threat –  you’ll not find it better evoked than in Pinter One.   For the other six in the series, watch this space. 

 

www.atgtickets.com   to February

rating  two   2 meece rating

   

 

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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Olivier, SE1

A GLORIOUS SERPENT OF OLD NILE

  

  This can be a beast of a play:  epic, three and a half hours,  scenes spread across the Mediterranean from Rome to Cairo by land and sea.  It is also prone to disconcert audiences who came for an archetypal story of doomed passion,  by socking them with a binful of ancient international politics and offstage battles.  It can be a bit of an ordeal.   The last RSC one was.   So I am happy to say that this time, and in the trickily vast Olivier,   director Simon Godwin has absolutely pulled it off .  

 

      And not only by casting Ralph Fiennes and Sophie  Okonedo as the leads, either.   Though yes, Fiennes is a giant:   his Antony solidly credible and pulsing with disastrous energy.    He is first seen lounging around Cleopatra’s tiled and elegant pool in a holiday shirt and wraparound palazzo pants  like any eminent man having a midlife crisis with an exotic mistress.   Then struck by “a Roman thought”  as his scornful Cleo puts it,   he gets into  a linen suit and  a political conclave with the other two rulers of the Roman triumvirate:    Tunji Kasim’s  more youthful and rather prim Caesar  and the ageing Lepidus (Nicholas le Prevost) who is clearly almost a cipher already, even before he gets incapably drunk on the treacherous Pompey’s ship.   That Antony is torn between the ease and love of Egypt and the brutalist war-room world of Rome is beautifully evoked by Hildegarde Bechtler’s contrasting, revolving settings.

 

 

     But it is Antony’s decline we are riveted by:  persuaded into his public duty and accepting Caesar’s pious sister as his wife,  he thinks for a while that  he is his old self again;   but in the battles, the Olivier shaking and echoing with  the racket and flash of modern warfare,   he reverts and shames himself by fleeing after Cleopatra. Fiennes becomes a Lear,  bestial and brutal in his self-hate and resentment of her “You were my conqueror!”.    Even his final and famously problematical death  is made to work.  The muffed self- stabbing which always gets an embarrassed laugh,  and the  equally risky process of being hauled up the monument in a sheet ,  contrive to make more sense than usual.  He abdicated responsibility, has been politically disastrous and morally neglectful, thus he earned his un-Roman death, honour and reputation ruined.  Until, of course, Cleopatra’s  extraordinary final encomium shines his name up into the stars again. 

            And what a Cleopatra!  Sophie Okonedo defined herself tonight as her generation’s “lass unparalleled”.  . Slinkily  serpentine and laughingly seductive at first, petulant in jealousy,  a mistress of comic timing and at one point downright drunk in orange flamenco frills,  she manages in increasing flashes to remind us that “Kings have trembled” kissing her hand.   And in her last scenes, stubborn and resigned and queenly proud,  she is mesmerizing.  

 

           But the whole cast is full of treats;  not least Fisayo Akinade as Eros, forever delivering unwelcome messages (he gets thrown in the pool by Okonedo and drips forlornly in his wet suit repeating the bad news).  Yet he too grows to his tragic  moment of truth.  Tim McMullan as the cynical sarky Enobarbus is tremendous too;  as  is Sargon Yelda  as a cocky, amoral Pompey.  

 

    The staging brilliantly respects the pivotal emotional changes of the play.  Once,  Cleopatra’s pool sinks into the great revolve, revealing a moment’s bleak emptiness as the sacrificial Octavia walks alone crumpling her bridal veil,  then in the same movement the side of a great grey warship rises and we are in Pompey’s navy, politics and war always the other side of the romantic coin.    Indeed Hannah Morrish’s  Octavia, a character often shuffled into insignificance in more hurried productions,    has two other tremendous moments: when she learns that her husband has been flaunting himself on twin thrones with Cleopatra and Agrippa says “each heart in Rome does love and pity you”,  she crouches in humiliation as we all do under such pity.  Her short moment addressing Cleopatra on the monument is striking too. so that you come to feel that for all the war and political machismo and the fall of Antony,   this is a play about women.  

 

    By the way, it’s a real snake. They warn you about that.  But so far Okonedo has kept a firm grip on the writhing, colourful beast even when dying,  so it hasn’t made a break for freedom in the front stalls.  But if you’re touchy on the subject, sit a bit further back…

box office  020 7452 3000       nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 19 Jan     

In cinemas live 6 December

rating five    5 Meece Rating

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TARTUFFE                 Swan, Stratford upon Avon

MOLIERE IN THE MODERN MIDLANDS 

 

       It says something good about our arts establishment  that this sharp caper comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, not some daring pub-room ensemble.   It was Gregory Doran, the RSC’s leader,  who surprised  Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (veterans of The Kumars, Citizen Khan etc) with the suggestion they adapt Moliere’s 17c comedy of hypocrisy,  and set it in a Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham, directed by Iqbal Khan.   

 

      Stroke of genius, that:   the play is about a pious fraud,  a religious con-man who dazzles a rich merchant into promising him his wealth and daughter even as he sets about seducing the wife.  It was an attack on corrupt “spiritual directors”  of a more pious era:  logical to head for the most pious community in our midst.   Tartuffe is Tahir Taufiq Arsue,  a showy worshipper from the mosque,  his victim Imran a second-generation immigrant with a  glamorous second wife, flashy house and  “Norwegian spruce decking  on the patio, seven thousand pounds”.  

 

 

       Simon Nagra, round-faced and earnest,  is an absolute delight as Imran:   the  Brummie accent with its plaintive upswing works extraordinarily well in evoking his dangerous innocence as he  feels guilt at his wealth and yearns for the wonders of Tartuffe’s “true Islam”.   The laughs come early with the glorious Amina Zia as the essential bossy old Mama-ji Dadimaa:  the woman has a unique ability to turn her mouth down in a perfect crescent of disapproval, I’ve been practising in the mirror ever since and  really resented her exit.   Raj Bajaj is the teenage son, Zainab Hasan the endangered daughter.    Tartuffe himself only appears after forty minutes:    Asif Khan with flowing robes and beard ,  a faux-Arab accent and rolling r’s grafted on to his Small Heath vowels (the appeal of exoticism is handy for false prophets) .  

 

 

        Cleverly, the framing narrative comes from a very Moliere character, the scornful maid who defies Tartuffe and Imran’s absurd worship :  she too is Muslim, a Bosnian cleaner.  Michelle Bonnard is the sane comedy core, magnificently streetwise in raggedy denim and leggings, and stands up for the appalled, obedient daughter in one of the few almost properly  troubling scenes when the father orders her to marry.  “This is not medieval times”  she snarls, but the girl,  though a university student and supposed feminist,  is cowed. That’s clever too: her subservience is culturally as hard to kick off  as if she was a 17c chattel-daughter in the original.  

 

           Mostly the comedy is good; if at times one tires of Khan’s fearful Tartuffe  artificiality  the glint in his eyes wins you back.  The scene in the second act when the spirited wife (Sasha Behar)   hides her husband in a sofa to trap the holy man into open predation is weepingly hilarious even before the leopardprint underpants.  

 

But it’s the sharp commentary on extreme religiosity which hits home:  there’s Tartuffe’s insistence that the maid cover her hair and her quoting the Qu’ran that she needn’t, while he snarls about “wrong translations “.   There’s  his dismissal of the convert Khalil because the only “real” Muslims are “brown ones”, and when  challenged about Syria  his eye-rollingly pious    “I will never condemn a man for acting as his faith tells him to”.  

 

    Above all there’s Khalil’s  plaintive  “How did we get to a point where the most tolerant and academically inquisitive religion in the world ended up being hijacked by people like you?”   Bravo.    So it’s a fun, sitcom  evening, and though I could have done with fewer rapping, hip-hop rhyming outbreaks  they too are fun in their way and might bring in the kids. Who should, absolutely, see it.   As for the ending, Moliere’s was due to force-majeure and Louis XIV,   so  Gupta and Pinto have freely adjusted it.  Who needs the Sun King when you can have a twist more credible than  Jed Mercurio’s ,  some comedy West Midlands Police, and the  reappearance of  old Dadimaa with the downturned mouth.  ,Who I had been really starting to miss.. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 23 Feb

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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HOLY SH!T Kiln, NW4

PARENTHOOD, PRAYER , PROSECCO

 

The renamed Tricycle (no, I am not taking sides)   Is open:  its leader Indhu Rubasingham launches her sprauncy new theatre with Alexis Zegerman’s dark, sharp new comedy about one of the great corruptions of British society:    the battle of ambitious ,anxious  but atheist parents to get their children places at “faith”schools.  

 

 

    It’s a scam.  Churches are shamefully complicit,  taking a register of attendance knowing quite well that some  people will spend a year of Sundays pretending to worship  rather than risk a scruffier school or pay privately.   “On your knees to save the fees” is common enough  to deserve all it gets from satirists.  But also,  as here, it deserves  a thoughtful as well as comic  treatment of its psychological risks. Might it  sow real spirituality?  Or kill it off?  Frankly, how safe is it to intrude uncomfortable dimensions of eternity and ultimate morality into the brittle self-satisfactions of middle class life?   Is prayer and prosecco too volatile a mix? .

 

 

.   Zegerman shows courage in weaving together many strands of resentment , hidden unease and  “othering” – not only about religion and  education  but race, antisemitism, class, money, and, divergent styles of marriage and motherhood    Two couples are rapidly and neatly drawn,  but then deepen. Dorothea Myer-Bennett is Simone:   noisy, cynically gung-ho and  Jewish (“its a race not a religion” ).  She is married to the fairly prosperous web designer man Sam ,  a heavy pot-smoker and looseish cannon who as the year goes on hates the hypocrisies which Simone is distinctly enjoying :   her very loud and high entr’acte hymns are a treat, especially in contrast to her friend Juliet  (Claire Goose) who is more heartfelt about religion.    She is married to Nick , a black teacher (a really excellent rending by Daon Broni)  who is the most appealing of the four  . But it isn’t long before the irritation of Simone’s gung-ho assault on choir, congregational socializing and even Confirmation gets Juliet down.  

  

  In a wonderful downstage moment both are singing a hymn and Juliet, the quieter voice, gives up in disgust.   We never see the priest or the bells-and-smells HIgh Anglican church, but it comes alive all right.   A telling scene of a Jewish shiva raises something unexpected in the scornful Sam, and echoes of Ibo heritage and beliefs in Nick:  that sense of spiritual priorities edging in on them all is oddly powerful.   And then of course, both parents learn which four-year-old won the place at St Mary’s, and hell breaks out.

   

  There are echoes of the inter-parent rows in Yasmina Reza’s classic God of Carnage, and In a well-syncopated sequence of symmetrical offence there are parallels with Clybourne Park:  both are damn  good company to be in.  But there is real pain:   Juliet expressing, to her husband’s dismay, the agonised worry of a white mother of a brown child, fearing for the future and humiliated that with her French-braid blondeness she can’t manage a little girl’s hair as well as Nick – who used to do his sister’s .    Pain too in Simone’s bereaved loneliness for her parents, and in a sense for her whole heritage, and in the way Sam’s confused, guilty, self-indulsgent pothead paranoia latches  onto his Jewishness and working class pride, whichever is the handies,   In final moments Nick has a weary, desperate statement of the self-evident but often invisible truth about parenthood.   It’s a fine play, and should have sold out and hasn’t yet, so go..

  

     Oh, and the new theatre renovations? Very comfy, and seemingly good for designers too, lots of height and room for classy, understated  sliding scenesets.   I was sentimentally fond of the old Meccano galleries and comradely tip-up  seats, but time moves on.

Box office 0207328 1000.  kilntheatre.com

To 6 Oct

rating  five  5 Meece Rating

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WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION                   County Hall SE1

DOING JUSTICE TO AGATHA   (She’d have loved it!)

    

      The courtroom is the marbled council chamber of the old County Hall:the story by Agatha Christie even hoarier.  I missed this ultimately site-specific lark when it opened , possibly  due to an edge of snoot.  Because for Gods sake , all but infants must know the twist by now, from the Bergman film? . Or the Christmas TV with Kim Cattrall?  But the news of its extension, until March they say but quite possibly unto the edge of doom ,    and the fact that Lucy Bailey directed it resolved me to go Peak Tourist matinee.

 

 

. It’s probably almost worth it for the majestic brass stair-rods alone on the grand climb up  . Even  more so when you’ve bought the cheapest seat in the cramped public gallery,  peering round a pillar for under 15 quid, and then got  upgraded (I think a coach party cancelled) to the ‘stalls’ , which would have cost in the high 40s.  I was pleased to find myself in the thick of it,  peering closely at the suspiciously clean wig of the prosecuting barrister .    But I wouldn’t have paid 95 quid for the jury box, though they looked immensely happy to be formally “sworn in”.

 

Bailey (of Titus Andronicus fame) is never one to dodge the gruesome, and in the thunderous musical chords of the opening she gives us the judge with a black cap and  a gallows rising from the very floor (scene-shifting throughout is neat indeed, blokes in brown warehouse coats very well in period conjuring up just enough furniture for the barrister’s chambers).  So facing the noose,  the accused Mr Vole cowers and shrieks and faints at the very outset, thus making the uninitiated think they know how it ends.

 

       They don’t. Agatha makes sure of that.  Soon we are in chambers, with the chiselled patrician Defence Sir Wilfred (Richard Clothier, grandly vowelly about circumstaaa-aaarntial evidence).  He decides to take on Rex v Vole, believing the humbly prole’didn’t kill the rich old Mrs French.

And so to open court, which is where the marmoreal and mahogany  Council Chamber stars.  Adorned even more gloriously by Julian Curry as  the judge, giving it the full traditional repertoire:  tortoise-peering over specs, meaningful throat- clearing,  and  that air of soothing judicial fairness we all long to believe in. Though let it be said, in this particular tale Agatha is not un-mocking of British justice.

 

It rocks on nicely, perhaps with a few longueurs when in both halves the evidence gets recapped, but the audience seemed grateful for that.  Certainly we were all taking to Lucy Phelps’ moody German refugee-wife Romaine, and purring a bit over the silver fox Clooneyesque integrity of Sir Wilf. And just as your mind starts to wander over yet another recap of the evidential recaps there’s  a shout, a cry of anger, a fierce chord, or a nightmare lighting effect to get it going again.

And after the interval, just as summing-up threatens and you start worrying about  a vast inconsistency which Agatha herself didn’t quite (a motivational nonsense) up in the gallery pops a foxy dea ex machina. Then another.  And so to the terrific denouement,   which the film slightly scamped but Ms Bailey certainly doesn’t.   Vole gets his best moment too, with a fag in hand.     All made me feel rather wistful for my childhood dream of barristering.   I always thought a horsehair wig ‘n pigtails would be very me, and dreamed of capturing a silver-fox like Clothier.    So oyez et terminez, all rise, happily.  

box office   www.witnesscountyhall.com/tickets      tel. 0844 815 7141.

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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SONGLINES Hightide Festival, now Walthamstow

LOOKING OUT TO SEA,  AT PAST AND FUTURE

 

    With the feral teenage violence of HEATHERS (scroll to it below)  all snarling and murdering in the West End, and the manic cheerleader energy of BRING IT ON just finished at Southwark, what more soothing than an hour in a gentler vision of teenage confusion and calf-love?    Especially with an onstage duo of two of the author Tallulah Brown’s band, the  Trills (formerly Vagabond Trills) ,  punctuating and easing on the mood of the story.   Brown and Serafina D’Arby sing beautifully,  and so at one point does Fanta Barrie  ,  playing a stroppy displaced girl with a problem mother who finds herself expelled from her cool Camden-girl London school life.  Her look by the way is perfect, shorts-over-fishnets-and-scowl, with occasional school shirt defiantly hanging out .  

 

    She is dumped with her stern grandmother on the Suffolk coast, which inspired Brown’s last play Sea Fret,  and falls in with a geeky but far more grounded schoolfriend (Joe Hurst) who works on his family farm.     She’s restlessly defiant, he unimpressed but benign.  Her irritable failed seduction – “I thought you were up for it” is bravado, from a generation confused into thinking the only valid contact is sex.  His “I am just here to cut the grass” is one of the lines of the year.   

  

  But the relationship grows better; he introduces her to the bleak quiet beach where he feels history under his feet, Viking ships never far off. She starts to see what he sees.  Events flicker by (it’s a one-hour show) and the music tells the emotional tale as well as anyone could. Nice.   

 

box office hightide.org.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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