By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Men and women in black and beige trench coats stand in the aisles of the audience singing “we are faceless, perfect faces . . . we are faceless, we are so clean”. Shrieking synths and drum-machine beats: a pastiche of 1980s pop music seamlessly turns into Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as Patrick Bateman, played by Matt Smith, ascends through a trapdoor wearing tight white Ralph Lauren underpants and a face-pack, all metrosexual and intoxicatingly kitsch.
“This is what Patrick Bateman means to me”, he repeats, along with a list of his toiletries and clothes. He then whips his blazer jacket from its hook on the wall to reveal “last but not least . . . my Walkman. It’s Sony”. We all laugh.
It came as no surprise, last night at the Almeida Theatre, that this new musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho worked so well. The story of Patrick Bateman – Wall Street trader, insatiable consumerist, debatable serial killer – couldn’t be more suited to a musical, with its episodes of excess and knowing self-reference. (cf. Martin Scorsese's most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street.)
The outrage began, of course, before the book was even published, in 1991: the initial publishers, Simon and Schuster, dropped American Psycho (despite paying a $300,000 advance) on the grounds of taste after leaked information about its content – murder, rape, mutilation, torture, misogyny – caused public outcry. James Bowman, in his TLS review, did a hatchet job of his own:
“This is a book about noticing and not noticing things which has managed to get itself noticed . . . . [Ellis] has succeeded, it is true, in the seemingly impossible task of making his book as boring as it is repulsive. But in the end it boils down to the story of a spoiled and vicious child whose complaint that he isn’t noticed enough cannot plausibly be laid to the responsibility of capitalism, Ronald Reagan, the destruction of the environment or even our contemporary ‘moral universe’ . . . but only to that of his sly creator – who now, at least, should be able to get a table at Dorsia”.
Some of the musical’s lyrics are banal (“too much of the things that cost too much”) – but isn’t that the point? It’s the deliberately monotonous libretto of a depraved, unemotional, superficial society. Smith’s deadpan delivery of lines, both spoken and sung, characterize Bateman as blank and hollow: the rhythm and tone of his voice don’t change when he says to a video-shop girl “have a nice day. Have an awesome day”, rendering the words meaningless.
Business cards are the appropriately trivial subject of one of the best songs and scenes in the musical. Bateman and his rival Paul Owen (played by Ben Aldridge) battle in a bar over aesthetics – the thickness of paper, font choice – each trying to prove that his business card is better than the other’s. (It's also iconic in Ellis's novel and in the film by Mary Harron.) Owen naffly dances on a table with exaggerated arms in the air, while Bateman circles him, stalking his prey: "Oh baby, baby, you’re such a card, / making it look so easy, / when you know it’s fucking hard”. "Yours is Times New Roman", Owen scoffs. "I’m no Willy Loman", Bateman replies.
The score mixes new arrangements with 80s "classics", such as Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight”, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Huey Lewis and News’ “Hip to Be Square”, while the slick choreography, visuals and set design recall the era's music videos: hallucinogenic, neon, brash, cubic. One projection looks like Tetris rectangles; in another scene, Bateman has sex with the married Courtney and an almost life-sized pastel pink teddy bear while the rest of the cast act out an aerobics class (with sweatbands, leg-warmers, leotard); in a restaurant, Bateman and his equally odious friends take turns to broadcast their orders to the waitress using a hand-held microphone; and throughout, black plastic strip curtains, like butchers', hang ominously at the side exits of the stage. Such touches are typical of the director Rupert Goold's approach.
The second half brings more of the same, and perhaps the music is less effective because of that. Emphasizing the dark comedy of the novel means that Bateman’s violence and murders are hardly considered as anything other than fantasies, which doesn’t completely do justice to the ambiguity in the book – the terrifying idea that it could all be real. And that we don't know it.
All the same, a transfer to the West End is a safe bet; it really is brilliantly entertaining, and should make – sorry – a killing . . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
Architects and theatrical designers must have this uncanny experience a lot: walking into a space that’s somehow both new and familiar, because it’s both freshly constructed and an echo of floorplans and elevations. Soon, however, all those scholars and admirers of seventeenth-century drama who have found themselves entranced by certain enigmatic drawings discovered several decades ago in the archives of Worcester College, Oxford – drawings once thought to be Inigo Jones’s designs for an early seventeenth-century theatre in London, the Cockpit or Phoenix near the modern Drury Lane – can enjoy something like that experience, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens to the public in January with a production of The Duchess of Malfi, with The Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Malcontent, to be played by a company of young actors. It’s the kind of programme that the adjacent open-air space could hardly accommodate nowadays, with its duty to fill the house at the height of every tourist-thronged summer. Exciting though this might be for lovers of pure Jacobean drama, however, it ought to be even more of a thrill for them to see these plays in this intimate, hybrid replica of a seventeenth-century theatre, lit by beeswax candles. It seats just shy of 350 people (including, I guess, that modern paradox of “standing seats”).
It was certainly a pleasure to see, as I saw last week, in the company of other members of the press, how near to completion London’s latest playhouse is. The shell has been there for a long time, but a year ago, after the Globe had returned to its original plans to create an indoor theatre to complement the outdoor one, the auditorium looked something like this:
Now, I can say, it’s in a state much closer to the computer vision of a “wooden U”, complete with musicians’ gallery, ornately limned ceiling and serried candlelabra:
The Jones attribution for the Worcester College drawings might no longer matter as much as it once seemed to (and here’s the persuasive work done by Gordon Higgott dating it to much later in the century and identifying the hand as that of John Webb), but pains have been taken, we visitors were assured by the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, to ensure that there is a period precedent for every detail here, carved into oak by Peter McCurdy and his team, who built the Globe itself (and over on YouTube you can get a taste of how that process has worked). The effect is apparently quite distinct from that of walking into the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, though at first glance they might appear to be similar.
The intimacy of the space, too, with the curving rows of seats in the pit seeming to divide their attention between the stage and their counterparts on the other side of a central aisle, and a stage that projects something like halfway into the whole auditorium space, holds out its own promise of the entertainment to come – and something very different from the open-air Globe’s fun with groundlings and sonic battles with the noise of passing air traffic. In fact, somebody told me, the company had already enjoyed experimenting with scenes, lighting and musical instruments; if anything, actors would have to learn how to resist, as well as give in to, the intimacy of the space. In the 1600s, Malfi was first performed indoors, at the Blackfriars, before moving outdoors to the Globe. Being able to walk around the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as well as the Globe gives you a sense, if you hadn’t already imagined it clearly enough, of just how drastic a transformation that must have been. Does the play exist that could comfortably transfer from one stage to the other without being radically upset along the way?
Personally, I'd be curious to see much more of the old repertoire on this stage, including (although it’s probably not high on the Globe’s list of priorities) some pieces out of the Restoration stock (the Phoenix was still just about in business after 1660). Let's hope the opening season is a sign of things to come.
By MICHAEL CAINES
Not fifty but forty-eight years ago, an anonymous theatre critic (Irving Wardle) could write in the TLS: ". . . we have begun to take for granted the existence of such unprecedented developments as the Aldwych [where the RSC was then based] and the National Theatre as if they had been there for generations"; he could also refer to the "inestimable importance" of these subsidized cultural institutions, even if, at the time, he felt that new writers were better served by their commercial counterparts.
Such statements might not seem controversial now, but the debate over whether or not a national, subsidized theatre was needed had been going on for a century when Wardle, a former TLS staff member, wrote those words. "The enormous number of Englishmen who do not care for the play, and never go to it, would hardly like to be taxed for theatrical purposes", Herbert Paul wrote in his 1902 book on Matthew Arnold. "As though there were the remotest likelihood of English theatrical history repeating French theatrical history two centuries and a quarter behind time!", A. B. Walkley wrote in the TLS in the same year, with the example of the Comédie Française in mind (although his main point, to be fair, was not that he didn't want a national theatre, only that its proponents hadn't proved that the public wanted a national theatre).
Comments like this are not difficult to find in the years before the National Theatre, under the directorship of Laurence Olivier, gave its first performance, on October 22, 1963, with Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole. I wrote in the TLS, back in 2004, about Samuel Phelps, the nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor and manager of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, who hoped the government would see from his example that it might be possible to establish a national theatre "upon a moderate scale of expense".
His was not a lone voice, but the government wasn't interested, despite some persistent problems: "the sordid speculations of monopolist lessees and the injurious restrictions of foolish Lord Chamberlains", as the London and Westminster Review had put it in 1837. The Lord Chamberlain's Office still had the power to censor stage plays in Britain when the National opened for business, as it had done since 1737, and as it would do for another five years.
Yet here we are – 800 productions later, apparently – with the National about to enter a new era under the leadership of Rufus Norris (who, it is rumoured, once gave extremely good drama lessons to a current member of the TLS staff), the doubts, it would seem, long put to rest. The model of producing, say, War Horse in the West End and a series of smaller shows in the Shed or the Cottesloe (currently closed and due to reopen next year under the new name, unfortunately, of the Dorfman Theatre; what was wrong with the old one?) vindicates the idea of a national theatre as conceived by Harley Granville-Barker many years ago.
Granville-Barker's vision was of one large and one small theatre on the south bank of the Thames, with workshops, rehearsal rooms, restaurants – a "great factory", as the TLS saw it, "where drama is made before it is sold". Substantial public funding would go into producting about fifty plays a year (OK, so that's not quite what's happened, generally speaking) and paying for a company of about 100 actors. For him, "there is no othe way in which the National Theatre can be made to proclaim that the drama is worthy of, so to speak, its cathedral". And now, of course, there is National Theatre Live to extend the cathedral into "a cinema near you".
Evidently, despite the philistinism for which the English are well renowned, better things are just about possible. Even if they do have to be debated for a hundred years beforehand.
© Simon Annand
by TOBY LICHTIG
A crowd of protestors marches through the streets, united in their stand against capitalism. Six floors above, a banker waves a £50 note outside an office window. Having attracted the attention of the demonstrators, he lets go of the money and watches it waft down to the pavement.
The man has made a bet with his colleagues. The agitators, he says, will be unable to resist it. Their idealism is flimsy: once the chance for easy cash is put before them, they'll fight tooth and claw.
But the man is wrong. Instead, a protestor sets fire to the note. Falsely sensing trouble, the police intervene, violently, and the protestor is smashed on the head, leaving him unconscious and in hospital.
This incident – inspired by a true story – is the basis for Patrick McFadden's agile and intelligent play about corporate greed, careerism and personal responsibility. The narrative follows the fall-out of the episode as it develops into a scandal, and the bankers are threatened with exposure.
The question of complicity is complex. It was Reece (Jonny McPherson) who dropped the note, but the others egged him on. Amanda (Katharine Davenport) wasn't even at the window – should she be implicated too? The debacle is further complicated by Amanda's sister and flatmate Collette (Rose O'Loughlin), a journalist on the look-out for a story. Motivated more by the greasy pole than the moral maze, she presses her sibling for information. This could be her break; it could also be Amanda's downfall.
Hypocrisy abounds. Reece may be odious, but at least he is honest. His colleagues roll their eyes at him but are they any better? Any sweetness in Tom (Ed Brody) seems predicated on his juniority. Amanda's ideals are subservient to the business of rising through the ranks. As for senior management, they are horrified: not by the event but the negative publicity.
With a running time of just over an hour, Economy of Thought is aptly named: McFadden packs a great deal of cerebral material into a surprisingly short time. It is witty, punchy and unfolds at a pleasing pace. Many productions are twice as long and half as good.
Friday's performance at The Yard in Hackney Wick was a preview for the Edinburgh Festival, where it is set to run for most of August. If you're in town and have some spare time, I'd highly recommend it.
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Have you ever wondered what The Importance of Being Earnest reads like in French? No, neither have I. But to anyone who would like to find out, I can recommend Charles Dantzig’s new translation, in a nicely presented bilingual edition published by Grasset. The title itself is a telling choice for a French version:L’Importance d’être constant plays on the not very common name Constant. Jean Anouilh, by contrast, called his version, in 1954, Il est important d’être aimé.
Charles Dantzig is indefatigable: by my calculation that is his third publication in a matter of months. (His À propos des chefs-d’oeuvre will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.) Maybe he’s in too much of a hurry: in his preface he refers to The Portrait of Dorian Gray – a common enough error, perhaps.
According to his biographer Richard Ellmann, Wilde considered applying for French citizenship: “If the Censor refuses Salome, I shall leave England to settle in France where I shall take out letters of naturalization”. Elsewhere Wilde proclaims, “There is a great deal of hypocrisy in England which you in France very justly find fault with”. But in spite of these sentiments, Wilde's work seems to have been a little neglected in France, its author held up, in Dantzig’s phrase as an “amuseur de petites bourgeoises sentimentales”. Un Mari idéal was only first staged, successfully, in Paris in 1994. And I see there’s a production of The Importance of Being Earnest – again, in a different translation – scheduled for this year’s Avignon Festival.
Dantzig’s introduction has some good nuggets: a musical comedy entitled Oscar Wilde opened in the West End in 2004 and closed after one night. It was described by one newspaper as “the worst musical in the world, ever”. He has rather camply titled his introduction “La Première Gay Pride"; in it, he breezily runs through the well-known story of Wilde’s triumph and downfall.
But Dantzig claims to have unearthed some new information, "not told in any account of Wilde’s life up till now, not even the excellent Richard Ellmann”, whose account of the funeral in Bagneux, some 7 km south of Paris (his remains were transferred to the Jacob Epstein tomb in the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1909) includes this: “At the graveside there was an unpleasant scene, which none of the principals ever described – perhaps some jockeying for the role of principal mourner. When the coffin was lowered, [Lord Alfred] Douglas almost fell into the grave” (Oscar Wilde, 1987).
We learn from Dantzig that the poet Paul Fort (1872–1960), the author of Ballades françaises, gave a description of the funeral on French radio in 1950. But, as relayed by Dantzig, Fort’s account doesn’t appear to add much. Ellmann mentions a “Marcel Bataillant” as having attended. Fort refers to Marcel Batilliat, “petit romancier charmant venu spécialement de Versailles” (not that far away). Batilliat was apparently a friend of Émile Zola (although he doesn’t feature in the index of Frederick Brown’s mammoth biography).
The TLS had a paragraph on one of Batilliat’s novels, La Liberté (1913), that goes: “There are three heroines in this story, and all three wish to lead their own lives. One seeks liberty through a loveless marriage; another in a brief liaison; and the third in a series of lovers. One can imagine such a book being humorous, but, like so many French novels of the kind, the author has written it with a purpose – this being, it is hardly necessary to say, to show that true liberty is found in normal, sane surroundings”. You had to be there.
Oh, and the line everyone knows from the play: "Un sac de voyage?"
By MICHAEL CAINES
It’s a notorious moment: in the fourth act of his flawed yet fascinating play An Enemy of the People, Ibsen has the protagonist, Dr Thomas Stockmann, denounce the rule of the majority. It’s the elite who should rule.
You can guess where this kind of talk will lead. At the Young Vic, where the play is currently running in a new version by David Harrower, under the pithier, more Cagney-esque title Public Enemy, Stockmann ends up giving a Nazi salute, and telling the audience: “You should be exterminated like vermin, all of you, before you poison the whole country . . .”.
As Arthur Miller put it, however, prefacing his own alteration of the play for the age of McCarthyism, the speech has to be understood in a structural context: “in some important respects”, it contradicts “the actual dramatic working-out of the play”.
The town where Stockmann lives depends on the summer visitors to its famed public baths for its living, but the doctor has discovered that the water supply is contaminated and, far from making people better, is more likely to kill them off. The town, sure enough, won’t have it, driving him, out of sheer frustration, to condemn them for thinking that they know better than him. The majority of people may have might on their side, he declares, but they are never right. Only a (smarter) minority may be right. The politicians and the press, meanwhile, call the tune for the ignorant masses to follow. The truth doesn’t stand a chance against this alliance of ignorance and megalomania.
Since Stockmann is addressing a public meeting at this point, the atmosphere turns distinctly nasty; his wife Katrina suggests that they leave by the back door.
All too easily lost in the mêlée is Ibsen’s real point: that there is not an “aristocracy of birth, or of the purse, or even . . . of the intellect” but an “aristocracy of character, of will, of mind – that alone can free us”. But this is to quote Miller quoting Ibsen speaking at a real public meeting, a workers’ club, and it offers the later playwright a congenial justification for excising “those examples which no longer prove the theme – examples I believe Ibsen would have removed were he alive today”. “The man who wrote A Doll’s House, the clarion call for the equality of women, cannot be equated with a fascist.”
Stockmann’s intellectual elitism has always disconcerted theatre audiences and critics: not everybody has shared Miller’s convictions that Ibsen is in the right. And the reviewers often take the big speech to be the most significant part of the play.
As staged by Jones, Stockmann (charismatically, likeably played by Nick Fletcher) delivers his rant to the Young Vic audience itself, hogging the microphone (we’re in a mid-twentieth-century Norway here, not the 1880s), rather than haranguing a crowd on stage. “If this is what you get by voting for them”, he says of the politicians, “don’t vote! Keep your dignity. . . I never vote.” Fletcher retains a certain flexible liveliness here, as though he really were making an impromptu speech – rephrasing when he jumbles his words, saying “bless you” to an unscripted interruption from the audience.
The press night crowd know how to behave; they don’t respond to the rhetorical questions which he presses on us. But imagine the critics sitting there, confronted with this supposedly transformed man (in fact, the spirit of individualism and its attendant dangers are plain from the start) condemning them as the "enemies of truth"; it seems to have been rather difficult after that to apply the kind of clear thinking about context that allowed Miller to see through the ranting.
No wonder they have to identify Stockmann's big speech as a “Brechtian coup de théâtre”, the speech of a “disillusioned prophet in his own country, turned crazed proto-fascist”. Or as a “breathtaking assault on democracy” through which the director, Richard Jones, rejects “maverick individualism” along with “endemic complacency” – a speech that “hovers between absolute candidness and repellent megalomania”. “At best he is arguing for greater personal responsibility; clearly what he’s really advocating is closer to fascism.”
There’s nothing new in this uneasiness about the play (once a problem play, always a problem play?), nor in the idea that it’s entertaining despite its apparent faults. Ibsen intended An Enemy of the People as an immediate riposte to the majority view of its predecessor, Ghosts (1882), and its supposed indecency (viz, daring to raise the moral problem of marriage again, after A Doll’s House, and the related medical problem of hereditary syphilis). If Ghosts was, as one newspaper had it, an “open drain”, An Enemy of the People embraces the same metaphor of pollution. Controversy is its natural element.
Ibsen himself didn’t know exactly what he’d written. Was it a comedy or a serious drama? And once the play came over to England, the critics couldn’t work it out, either. One anonymous reviewer of a public reading of the play at the Haymarket Theatre in 1890 thought that the dialogue was “pithy and epigrammatic” but that the play would not succeed in England as an “acting drama”. Another thought it “rather commonplace” for anyone but the Ibsen devotee. A third, incredibly, called it “absolutely wholesome and breezy from end to end”; it’s the Ibsen play that “may fearlessly be produced before an English audience verbatim et literatim”.
That leap into madness in Act Four made a disturbing impression on twentieth-century critics, too. Charles Morgan (whose selected reviews will be reviewed in turn in a future issue of the TLS), in 1928, thought it dubious in its refusal to distinguish between democracy in politics and, say, medicine (Stockmann's is clearly a one-doctor town). James Agate, in 1939, could hardly help seeing in the outgunned protagonist’s attack on the rule of the majority a foretaste of “Democracy’s quarrel with Dictatorship”. At least it had been “an intensely exciting evening” at the Old Vic. More recently, at the National Theatre in 1997, in Trevor Nunn’s staging of a version by Christopher Hampton, the TLS’s reviewer Peter Kemp observed that Ian McKellen avoided turning Stockmann into a “caricature” – “an incipient Fuehrer of the fjords” – “by making it clear that Stockmann is goaded into overstatement by the storm of execration he has provoked”. And only a few years ago, there was a production at the Arcola that got it wrong, according to John Peter, by representing Stockmann as a kind of freedom fighter, instead of a monster created by the majority and their “cosy supremacy”.
One of the few new points to emerge since the 1970s is that the play lies behind Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws. But there the equivalent Stockmann character at least gets to say “I told you so; there’s something in the water . . . .”
By MICHAEL CAINES
"To be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS." That's what I promised on this blog back in November, at the end of a piece about Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and the theatre. Now Tracy C. Davis's fascinating piece on the book I was talking about, Bram Stoker and the Stage, is not only in the paper but on the TLS website, as Bram Stoker before Dracula. It's quite a story.
By MICHAEL CAINES
As has been mentioned in the TLS from time to time, Bram Stoker, the man now known as the author of Dracula, would have been known in the nineteenth century as the business manager of Henry Irving's theatre, the Lyceum, in London. That makes them partners in the production of melodrama: while Irving stalked the stage, dying, guilt-stricken, in The Bells or some similar piece, night after night, Stoker handled the correspondence. Phil Baker, reviewing a biography of Stoker a while ago, mentions that he wrote around half a million letters on Irving's behalf.
Usually, once noticed, that Irving-Stoker-Dracula connection starts to take on some historical-critical-biographical significance. Was the great actor a source of inspiration for his confidant's infamous creation? Was it merely a private joke that Jonathan Harker was to attend a performance of Vanderdecken – a stage version of the Flying Dutchman legend in which Irving played the lead and which Stoker himself partly rewrote in 1878?
By MICHAEL CAINES
The RSC's "Indian" Much Ado About Nothing officially begins its London run tonight; and this is what Act 2 Scene 3 will look like from the stalls, courtesy of what is apparently something of a novelty at the moment: a theatre company holding a social media call.
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