TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

LECHERY AND TREACHERY,  MACHISMO AND METAL…

 

  ‘I had forgotten” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming,  “how syphilitic that play is”.  Not a bad word for it:  or try bitter, angry, violent, messy:  more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason.  Which makes it curiously modern:  Jarry or Beckett would nod approval.   The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, ..cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.   

 

      Set in an endless, pointless war,   the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced.  That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments,  not to mention an  appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.   Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute.  Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator  to  inform us that we are seven years in to a war between the Greeks and Troy,  after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.

 

  The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length  on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).   But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title:  Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster.  Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction,  but so is Pandarus in his way:   his shock at realizing that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.   

  

      It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s  Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all,  funny in her irrepressibility  then suddenly creepy in  gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love.  There’s joy too in  Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight.   The theme of reputation recurs,  Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal  by-words for infidelity,  and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough. 

 

 

        But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss.  For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies,  objects of derisive desire.  It feels horribly current.  The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness,  shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare .  When Achilles is driven to fight,  his  “myrmidons” are  half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who.    It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage :  it builds to a climax you don’t forget.    

          

    box office  http://www.rsc.org    uk  to 17 November

rating four      4 Meece Rating

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WISE CHILDREN                  Old Vic SE1

ROMPING FABLE OF A GREASEPAINT CENTURY

     

       Twins, three sets of them,  in a dynasty of performers from the 1880s onward: a theatrical boarding-house with a heart-of-gold harridan landlady,  lies and confusions about paternity (“it’s a wise child that knows its own father”), and  a touch of incest and  child abuse.   Dauntless old age  and memory, song and dance acts, betrayals.  Angela Carter’s last novel – a strange, fantastical, vigorous but delicate feminist imagining of a century of high and low performers –  beguiled  Emma Rice for a long time.   So  her new residency with the Old Vic opens with her adaptation of the book,  and shares its name with the new company she has founded after the wounding debacle downriver at the Globe.  A nice name for a Rice ensemble: makers of theatre do indeed need to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves…

 

         Old Carter fans (and fresh ones fizzed up this year by radio 4s versions) will recognise the writer’s world, though not quite her tone.    Rice is broader, less delicate in imagination, more deliberately rorty.   So we  meet,  on their 75th birthday,  our narrators  Dora and Nora :  erstwhile chorines, startled to be summoned to the 100th birthday of Melchior tge legendary actor-manager and Edwardian ham.  He is their father, but disowned them and left them to think they belonged to his lepidopterist businessman brother Peregrine.  Who has actually fathered Melchior’s supposed younger twins by his now- discarded paralysed wife, now cared for by Dora and Nora  who call her “Wheelchair”. Got it so far?  Keep up at the back! 

 

      Actually, it isn’t hard , because for all the intricacies the narration – mainly by old Dora, who is played by Gareth Snook  and ends up looking disconcertingly like the Rev Richard Coles if he had been wearing a butterfly kimono on Strictly – is fairly ploddingly linear.  It is enlivened by flashbacks of the younger twin sisters,  at one point intriguingly played by Melissa James and a genderswitched Omari Douglas , only their clothes being identical.  Though that doesn’t get noticed by the blue-eyed lover who Nora gives to Dora for a her first night’s sex.  Song and dance numbers of various periods are threaded through,  but though amusing they never exactly move us on.   It’s a circussy, seedily bright-lights world of louche showbiz nostalgia in a world that never quite was: panto, puppetry, comedy sex,  very old pier-end jokes , keep on coming. 

 

      There are actually interesting themes in the book: about the gap between the showgirls’ illegitimacy in both senses, their world of jugglers and speciality acts and red-nose comics despised by those in Melchior’s selfishly triumphant “legit” theatre  (a lot of very very hammy, parodic, almost despised Shakespeare lines are thrown in) .  There’s the sense of the oldest taking most responsibility for the youngest,  of paternal neglect , exploitation of young women and the paltriness of the cardboard crown of Shakespearian grandees.  But none of those things ever seem as if they actually mattered in life.    By the end of the first half I appreciated the laughs and energy and audience whoops – Katy Owen’s Grandma is also great fun – yet felt a curious disconnection,  feeling a fragment of credible emotion or sense of jeopardy.

 

       The second half is better, with one moment at least that jolts you a little.  But while Emma Rice in the Kneehigh years showed she can unpeel emotion –  remember Brief Encounter, Tristan, Rebecca –   somehow it doesn’t take.  Overwhelmed by stage whimsy,  Carter’s strange thread of magical seriousness doesn’t show through.   I wanted to like it more. 

box office 0844 871 7628  to 10 Nov

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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COMPANY. Gielgud, WC2

FOR BETTER FOR WORSE?  FOR FIVE MICE ANYWAY

 

     If you’re going to mess about with a classic but slightly dated Sondheim musical,  be sure to do it brilliantly. Do it like Marianne Elliott.  Get the great Stephen himself on-side,  ask for a few new lyrics, then find a throbbing nerve in the western zeitgeist and give it a good twang. Oh, and be sure to choreograph the funniest seduction , wildest party, and most showstopping display of wedding nerves on any stage anywhere.  And while you’re at it, give Patti LuPone a showstopping chance to snarl out “Ladies Who Lunch”.

  

      Got it? That’s Company, with an enchanting lead, a peerlessly sharp company, bangin’ band , and any number of weird sliding neon-framed rooms by Bunny Christie. Company is the comeback kid, another demonstration that Britain is natural Sondheim country: all  dry wit and laughing resignation

 

       Elliott’s idea was to take the master’s 1970 tale of 35 year old Bobby, whose married friends all think he ought to commit and settl down, but who all in their way are either messed up, patronising or endearingly deluded. But make him Bobbie, because it’s 2018 and we have had the age of the female clock-ticking Singleton,  from Jessica Parker to B.Jones. Then neatly reverse a few other genders in the process.  Brilliant: because while a bachelor midlifer is actually a bit ho-hum-so-what,  a woman with those fading ovaries and atavistic cultural fear of the shelf is already a walking dramatic  crisis. Or may seem so to the dear well-meaning friends. And in the age of gay marriage and heterosexual civil-partnering, it’s coolly up to date.

 

    And goodness, it’s funny and sharp.  Rosalie Craig is perfect as Bobbie, aware of the big 35 – eventually spelt out by the gang in 10ft balloons – but gentle, sane, reasonable, well liked  and not lonely. Until the pressure makes her so and she must wonder if “someone is waiting….”.  She sings like a lark, is immensely moving in “Marry me a little”,and  joins in the gloriously witty choreography (the party scene ensemble contains at least six of the most excruciating adult ‘fun’ games you have ever dodged). Yet she is almost better in her reaction moments, while the peerlessly funny cast members display the joy and horror of the married state. 

 

    There is a Jil-jitsu match (shared hobbies, o the horror) with Gavin Spokes and Mel Giedroyc risking their spines nightly, and a series of vignettes of the sheer oddity of couples, marvellous evocation of their appalling patronising nosiness about poor poor Bobbie: hilarious as the whole cast wander through her bedroom pitying her just as she gets it on with dim-date Andy. And the deathless anthem of bridal nerves , originally female, is given to gay Jamie: Jonathan Bailey hoping to get away from smiley Paul with a despairing “Perhaps – I’ll collapse – in the apse” while a terrifying celebrant bursts for every cupboard in sight.  Bailey steals the show. 

     Patter songs,  scat jazz, ballads, glittering lyrics and elegant musical jokes…aaahh, Sondheim!  It must run forever. And  curiously, it is as comforting a what-the-hell message to us 38-year-wed fogies as to any singleton.  Glorious.

 

Box off. delfontmackintosh.co.uk. 0344 4825138. To 30 March

Rating 5.   5 Meece Rating

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STORIES Dorfman SE1

CONCEPTION AND THE CREATIVES

 

   It’s a sign of the sparky credibility of Nina Raine’s play about a woman desperate for a sperm donor  – having broken with her younger, unwilling boyfriend – that half an hour in I started thinking “aren’t women hell!” .  But by the interval this had changed to “aren’t men ridiculous!”. Only to be modified later into “actually, it’s theatricals and intellectual creatives who are hell”. It is all very NW3.

 

       For self-flagellating Anna (a likeable Claudie Blakley) is some kind of director, and among the men ,straight or gay, who fail to be her longed-for donors are the following:  two novelists (one a gay fantasy writer), an actor who is miffed because he thought her call was about a part, a hipster rock star and  a film director who feels he is simply too famous.  That she eventually strikes lucky with an art dealer we learn in a flash-forward opening scene. Which is a nice comedy-of-modern-embarrassment as he takes his little jar off to the lav with some phone porn, and she retreats to the bedroom to read the newspaper and worry which syringe to use.

  All these chaps are played, ina a dazzling variety of accent and manner, by Sam Troughton, always a treat.  Her parents are a treat too, being Stephen Boxer with  some glorious dry grumpy lines, and Margot Leicester. They and her brother are supportive as she trawls her laptop for sperm sellers, which means that all the doubt and worry come  from within Anna.  The most extreme and serious  doubt comes near the end, when she talks to an anonymously donor-conceived young man who expresses the misery of never knowing his origin and looking at every man in the street with hope. 

   Mostly we just share her politely middle class desperation (this is most unlike the Billie Piper raw yearning in YERMA). She confronts these diverse gits who, as she bitterly says, typically say yes, then “get anxious, stop sleeping, fall into a depression and say they can’t do it”.  Amusingly, the hysterical panic of her 26 year old ex- boyfriend (she is 38,then 39) is almost identical with the later hysteria of her gay potential donor. 

   So while the deliberate single-mother route by turkeybaster is not all that uncommon, Anna’s anxieties are definitely niche. But Blakley makes her believable, and quite likeable when not being hell; touching are her attempts to tell stories – sometimes about her quest – to a friend’s 9year old daughter, who sometimes becomes her own  inner child wanting to make  the story come out right.  And there are some seriously good laughs, not last in a crucifyingly embarrassing encounter with Thusitha Jayasundera as someone she really shouldn’t have tried to involve..enough said, let’s not spoil it. It is an undemanding two hours fifteen, and not bad fun.  

    A real quibble though is technical: we learn that for two years Anna and the very young boyfriend tried for a baby and froze  embryos for IVF. It makes no sense that a woman who has had to resort to that route would, two years later, put much faith in simple turkeybaster tactics.  And even less credible that when the nice art dealer says “a week’s time then?” she  doesn’t start calculating ovulation dates. Just saying: it’s a girl thing…

nationaltheatre.org.uk to 28 Nov

 

Rating three3 Meece Rating

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TOUCHING THE VOID Royal, Northampton & Scotland later

THE HEIGHTS OF LIFE 

 

 

      Theatre sometimes gives films – and books – a remarkable translation, making stories deeper ,stranger ,  more tense.   Maybe  it is the very act of pretending:  the shared collusion it takes to turn planks and cloth into a new world (a knack which marks everything director Tom Morris  does). 

       Anyway, this is remarkable.  We know the story of Joe Simpson’s book: climbing in the remotest Andes with his friend Simon Yates,  he had a disastrous fall into a icy crevasse, smashing his leg and hip.  Yates held him on the rope for 90 minutes,  but could not pull him up and had not enough rope to let him down; he did the climbers’ unthinkable, terrifying forbidden thing  and cut it before they both died of exposure and starvation.       Which, as Simpson later acknowledged, ironically gave him a chance and a choice.  Deep in the crevasse, even more injured, in pain and delusion he dragged himself towards a patch of light and found, astonishingly, a way out through the bitter moraine towards the base camp.   

         I missed it at the Bristol Old Vic for logistical reasons,  but as colleagues in the travel-expenses cadre raved,  hastily bought a ticket for its co-producing house in Northampton (It’s off to Scotland in Jan., Fuel’s third collaborators being the Lyceum).   The poet-playwright David Greig has adapted it with his usual imaginative, oddball brilliance,  cleverly framing it by starting at an imagined wake for Simpson (Josh Williams) at the Clachaig  Inn in Scotland. This enables  the character of Simpson’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) , a furious, sorrowful goth , to express doubt and fury at the absurdity of the climbers’ Gore-Tex-and-crampon world,  and to be persuaded by Simon (Edward Hayter) to understand the thrill and challenge of climbing,  -tipping tables and upturned chairs  Agile, scornful and intrigued,  the girl outsider draws us into their world  which is either “reaching for the heights of life”, or else “just another addiction”. 

            So does Patrick McNamee’s backpacking hippie Richard, who looked after their base-camp tents and was equally bemused by their dangerous pastime.    He narrates, often,  excitable and young, oddly suitable.   The wake, of course, is part of the delirium through which the struggling Joe passes;  later,  Sarah reappears by his side, urging and mocking her beloved brother towards life.

   

         The start draws us in, with no props beyond odd pub furniture, to a world, a brotherhood.  Violent jarring shirrrrrrs take us in and out of imagined moments; there is a song, strangely effective.  Then we are there, on Siula Grande:  just a suspended structure of struts , rags and cloth,  but curiously convincing as they clamber around it, dig a snowhole, hit the moment of disaster.

     Sometimes Joe’s struggle is almost too painful to watch.  Yet moments of universality and philosophy –   ice-axes of startling script –   keep us pinned to it, forgetting that we know the end already.   There is a kind of dance; an interaction between sister and brother that moved my heart more deeply even than the imminence of death.   Joe’s near-death brings strangeness, reflection on the animal resistance to dying and the danger of its “surprisingly nice” warmth.  But from that, to live, a struggler must be dragged back in pain.   Adventure, life, death, youth and hope lie all before us on the simplest of stage.      

royalandderngate.co.uk  to  20 Oct, hurry.

In Edinburgh  and Inverness early 2019

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE WIDER EARTH Natural History Museum

THE YOUNG DARWIN RISES AGAIN

  

 

    The Jerwood Gallery is for the first time a theatre: in the small excitement of a new space dark shapes loom ahead of us,  angular, wooden.  Spotlights throw moving blobs of light on the floor, shining amoebae.  A voice speaks words from Genesis.  

   

      Thus artfully we are put into a settled,  clerical 18th century mood: a Biblical earth only 4000 years old,  unchanging, each creature designed and signed off in its permanent form by the hand of God.   Then, against an English sky,  young Charles Darwin returns to his future wife Emma after five years at sea, hoping she has not changed.  He has changed, though,  in deeper ways.  The voyage of the Beagle, and the natural marvels the young naturalist saw and reflected on,   would lead all the way years later to the  magisterial Origin of Species:   the evolutionary theory that shook conventional Christian bigotry and, God help us, in some quarters still does.  

 

     David Morton’s play has had success in Australia ,  and now is refined – with careful input from the Natural History Museum’s paleobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of Darwin’s Fossils.   It shows us a young man,  urged towards the clergy by his father but keener to wonder about things like why marine fossils turn up on mountainsides.   He is encouraged by the Rev. Henslow at Cambridge to apply for the naturalist’s post on a naval expedition and look at everything  afresh “It’s the small things that change the world…if you send a trained naturalist into the field, everything he finds with reassure him of what he already knows”.  

 

      Bradley Foster is perfect as Darwin,  youthful and keen, at first striking the wrong note with the dourly RN Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) . They argue about slavery, Darwin being passionately abolitionist and Fitzroy both approving its economic advantage and thinking “civilization”  good for the slaves.  He  had actually got on board a captive Fuegan he named Jemmy Button:  he had been tended with care and “Christianized”, to be delivered back to Tierra del Fuego as a missionary.   

  

    The  marvellous, revolving, tricksy angular wooden set (with projections by Justin Harrison of 18c drawings or roaring seas and volcanoes) becomes the Beagle’s cramped quarters, and English hillside,  or the ridges and tracks where from Patagonia to the Galapagos the young man clambers and slithers, finding new creatures.  These are lovely wooden puppets;  scuttling iguanas, a majestic giant tortoise, strange birds,  shoals of fish, a whale, fireflies,  a pricelessly dignified armadillo. 

 

 

      There is jeopardy in Patagonia,  a volcano,  Fitzroy feeling he has failed in his own mission and Darwin intent, always wondering, but understanding Jemmy’s tribal idea of “the heat of the gods” running through every living thing.  The Biblical Christian  impediment to the growing knowledge  of evolution and natural selection,  the realization that it is about millennia not years – is strongly evoked.  The cruelty of nature shakes Darwin too – “such suffering and such majesty”  but  the Duck-billed platypus recalls him to admiring belief in a Creator, so brilliantly adapted is it.    Something can be a natural wonder but still a miracle…

      A show like this, in a museum and with a simplicity of script perfectly adapted to school groups, might well be nodded by as an educational kids’ show for the Christmas season.  Actually, it is dramatically more than that.  Unassumingly spectacular,  unwhimsically playful,  it is an affecting, respectful,  important story of a green young man who kept his eyes open and endured seasickness and doubt  and discomfort and danger.  And made great discoveries.     

 

http://www.thewiderearth.com/  to 30 Dec

rating four highly evolved mice     4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Donmar WC2

LUKE JONES TAKES THE MEASURE..

 

This is a made for measure Measure-For-Measure. Its greatest achievement is hacking the flabby old Jacobian down to the right side of 90 minutes. It rollicks through, giving a booster jab to the drama but keeping quiet pauses and poetry. 

However. Director Josie Rourke is having so much fun she runs it twice. The first, set in 1604, is a flat-out 5-mouse rendition. Then, as the interval looms, in flashes of light and a booming soundtrack we wind forward in moments to 2018. Old dress is whipped off for modern,  and we’re back at the beginning.   Ed Miliband (sitting in front) turned to his wife the QC with gasps of delight. She nodded back like a mother responding to a young boy who has just pointed out a JCB.

 

 

In this transition Isabella (the abused sister of imprisoned Claudio) switches roles with Angelo (the pious Deputy ruling over Vienna’s vices who begins to indulge his own lusts with Isabella as the target).

 

 

The problem is that the first rendition was brilliant. Jack Lowden’s Angelo a charismatic menace. His incredibly natural, humanely sinister delivery is brilliant “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, my vouch against you, and my place i’ the state” could come straight out of a modern tale of power, sexual assault and the justice system.  Likewise Hayley Atwell is a perfect Isabella, the rage bubbling in her incredible to watch. The lines dance out of her mouth as if written yesterday. Rather than silently accepting her fate at the end of the play she lets out an almighty roar which blew tears out of my eyes. When Lowden’s creepy hands run up her skirt, her trembles are petrifying.

 

 

The twist turns this on its head, and the result is fascinating. There’s Atwell’s vicious, leery smile when she takes the role of the tyrannous Deputy, Jack Lowden’s twitchy, emasculated desperation; even the way characters like Claudio accept their death sentence when it’s delivered by a woman rather than a man.

But fascinating doesn’t quite get me over the line. You are still being forced to watch the same play again, having just seen it a Gin and Tonic ago.

 

Although the 2018 revamp tries to be achingly relevant ,  what it reaches is just more laughs. Neither Lowden nor Atwell play the opposite role as well as their original. I never buy into his horror, and her abuse seems half-hearted. Everything is slightly watered down, a bit more glib. Jokes which landed well in the first half are skipped past in the second in favour of something shoehorned in. It’s the lean 1604 telling that is a punch in the gut:  a pertinent MeToo story with heart and bite.

 

Box Office 020 3282 3808   Until 24th November

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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