By MICHAEL CAINES
This novel of ideas question I've been fretting about – be honest, is it really something of a red herring?
In more general terms, that's a question D. J. Taylor both asks and answers in last week's Independent on Sunday, in response to The Hard Problem – or rather, in response to the responses to The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard's (sorry) problematic new play, which recently opened at the National Theatre. Some people, as Taylor observes, will work themselves up over the unseemly prominence of "ideas" in, say, prose fiction or stage plays. Why can't novelists and playwrights just stick to nice characters and pretty plots? How dare we give "ideas" more prominence than they deserve . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
It's the launch for the new Penguin Ibsen tonight, at the Barbican, where the "reimagined" Belvoir Sydney production of The Wild Duck has just opened. What does that tell us? Well, only that the stars were in an impish mood when they lined this one up . . .
Photo: Robert Piwko
By MICHAEL CAINES
The TLS recently moved from an office just north of the Thames to a newer one just south, near London Bridge. That made it easy for me, a couple of days ago, to stroll along the river to Shakespeare's Globe in the afternoon and its neighbour the Rose Playhouse in the evening – to see two plays that both happen to concern utopian dreams and (a more common coincidence) troubled relationships between men and women. As far as I can see, there’s only one more date when this accidental double bill is repeated.
I hope there'll be a word in the TLS soon about the first of those plays, Pitcairn at the Globe (it then goes on tour); because it's only running for another week, though, here's a word about The Woman in the Moon at the Rose. And the word is: goandseeitifyoucan.
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Truncated jeans, exposed ankles with no socks and oversized plastic-rimmed glasses: it’s a familiar sight in Hackney. It’s also the uniform of white, middle-class Tony, one of the central characters in Alecky Blythe’s new “verbatim” play, Little Revolution, which has just opened at the Almeida Theatre. The play’s text is generated from interviews with real people that Blythe recorded on her dictaphone during the London riots in 2011, after the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police in Tottenham. On stage, the actors are fed Blythe’s edited recordings through earpieces. Their performances, in effect, are impressions; they copy accents, intonations, stutters, speech patterns. (No surprise, perhaps, that the impressionist Ronni Ancona is on the cast list.)
Blythe puts a caricatured version of herself into the story. We hear her voice booming, “I make documentary plays. Can I talk to you?”, as the “community chorus” – thirty-one volunteers from Hackney and Islington, who play hooded looters clutching booze and packets of crisps, bemused and scared bystanders, and police – rush across a rough set made of plywood, scaffolding and strip-lighting. Some stop to tell Blythe (and us) what’s happening on Mare Street, for example, and their opinions on the crisis. “You can’t smooth over inequality.” “When you live in London you never thought these kind of riots will come to you.”
The director Joe Hill-Gibbins has reconfigured the auditorium so that it’s in the round, to feel like we’re also witnesses to the action. Even before the play begins, cast members are positioned within the audience, talking in groups, while R&B and hip-hop pumps in the background – no different from the theatre’s bar outside. (Eminem’s “Rap God” is particularly well chosen: “Something's wrong, I can feel it / Just a feeling I've got / Like something's about to happen / But I don't know what / If that means, what I think it means, we're in trouble / Big trouble”.)
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.
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