Review: Doctor Faustus @ The Globe

Written for Exeunt

There’s a lovely irony to the Globe making  Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus part of their The Word Is God season.  Faustus is a demonic tale and one in which words, books, can be tools of evil, can lead you terribly astray.

Marlowe’s best known play is packaged here in a marvellously batty production by director Matthew Dunster; though it sometimes plays more like a cautionary children’s tale than chilling psychological tragedy, it is as enticing and entertaining as the devious spirits that Faustus follows blindly into hell.

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Review: Belongings @ Trafalgar Studios 2

Written for Whats On Stage

‘One of the lads’ Debs is home from a tour in Afghanistan, for good this time, despite her almost religious belief in the righteousness of the armed forces. Father and ‘porn entrepreneur’ Jim welcomes her back with a barked ‘Mate!’ and head tackle, but it’s girly ‘new mum’ Jo she’s most excited to see.

In her first full length play Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s flare for balls out comedy comes through loud and clear but so do the strong signs that she’s also a damn good playwright. Witty bullet fire delivery is as natural as breathing to characters such as Debs as she playfully fights with barracks buddy Sarko, banters softly with Jo or rages at her father. But inBelongings Lloyd Malcolm’s skill for sophisticated subtlety also flickers.

A predatory Sarko watches from the shadows as Debs smokes at her kitchen table, an almost symbiotic word association game transforms into a sensual conversation about a deeper longing; these are simple moments communicating a thousand things. Sad then that these beautiful theatrical slights of hand are eventually sunk under a mound of overly long emotional exposition, frustrating that in her unruly ending Lloyd Malcolm seems to have lost the courage of her convictions.

Courage is in no short supply in this four hander cast who are all excellent and presided over with confidence by an assured Maria Aberg. In Jo and Debs Lloyd Malcolm has created two complex and fascinating female roles played here with extraordinary empathy by Kirsty Bushell and Joanna Horton. At all times fully present, Bushell and Horton give moment to moment performances of such emotional depth that at points they are truly breathtaking.

Runs until 9th July 2011

The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd; a compendium of theatrical curiosity.

Note: This is not a review, I didn’t see enough of it to be a review – if you did see enough to disagree with me please let me know.

I was reminded of the wonderfully weird world I work in last week when I went to see The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd.  With clown urchins, the battle of a tramp and a gentleman crook and some kind of dream fairy, 1960s musical giants Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley went existential. We watch with increasingly shuffling confusion as a strange game of life is played between master (Sir) and servant (Cocky), with arbitrary rules weighted against the poorer of the two men.

Some of my colleagues have inferred that this tortured process is a comment on class (and Wikipedia certainly seems to think so). But this whirligig production of cackling choral clowns, apocalyptic circus environments, Victorian blonde visions and ‘Negro’ saviours is so bizarre any such comment surely gets lost in an out of control music hall analogy.  As we see one man constantly testing and beating another, the question does not seem to be one of social power but ‘if Samuel Beckett were to knock off a musical version of Waiting For Godot what would it be like?’ And what a frankly incomprehensible answer Bricusse and Newley have come up with. Because whilst this hallucinogenic whirlwind may have worked in the psychedelic 1960s today I can’t get away from the fact that in its outlandish absurdity this musical has become a true theatrical oddity. Just what led the estimable Ian Judge to produce it?

But why has The Roar Of The Grease Paint – The Smell Of The Crowd slipped into the sphere of the puzzingly freakish for me and not just been relegated to the slowly growing ‘so bad it’s, well just really bad’ pile? What goes into making a theatrical curiosity?

Here at least it seems to be that whilst all the ingredients in the pot are right, with Bricusse and Newley, Judge and designer Tim Goodchild all being names that are synonymous with quality musical theatre, the result was just wrong. It’s not bad because the songs aren’t bad, and the performances aren’t bad and yet the story doesn’t make sense, the choices are too outlandish: the arrow has well and truly missed.

But I don’t hold this show or it’s makers in contempt, instead I’ve felt energised by its strangeness, oddly inspired by its inherent failure. Have any shows ever done that to you? What would you call a theatrical oddity and why? A compendium of these experiences seems to call out to be documented, something with metaphorical jars that is suitably Hunterian, and yes I realise there’s something fittingly odd about that whole idea in itself…

Thoughts on a party piece: Kafka’s Monkey & Kathryn Hunter

 

Written for Exeunt Magazinze

Above all else the thing that you take away with you from Kafka’s Monkey is that Kathryn Hunter is a truly exceptional performer.  As Red Peter, the sophisticated ape, her arms appear double-jointed and her gait is shuffling and simian, but what makes her performance so compelling is her eyes. Whether gambolling about the auditorium while engaging in some vaudevillian audience participation or huddling in the corner as she recalls her first swig of the rum bottle, Hunter’s eyes hold every single human in the audience to account: “Look what humanity has done to me.”

Based on Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, Colin Teevan’s adaptation takes the form of a lecture in which Red Peter explains just how it is that he is able to speak, walk, and even drink like a man. He speaks fondly of his original captors and teachers; they may have beaten him but they only did so because they knew no other way to be, he tells us, rage melting into lip-curling contempt.

Steffi Wurster’s clinical set acts as a bar-less cage in which Hunter can perform before her audience – and perform she does. A consummate clown she plays the role of ring master effortlessly, beautifully combining both a need for our approval and disdain at our baseness. Hunter seems to draw energy from the audience, thriving on each specific reaction. But for all this interplay between spectator and performer, for all the hand-shaking and banter, she is resolutely alone on the stage and her loneliness at being the only one of her kind is palpable; it permeates everything she says and does.

Nikola Kodjabashia’s simple soundscape is suitably evocative but perhaps more powerfully it feels as if Kodjabashia is stalking Red Peter, puncturing key moments with an industrial noise that infuses the space with a sense of dread. For all its sophisticated touches, Walter Meierjohann’s production rests entirely on the shoulders of one woman – and in this respect Hunter is peerless. Here is a performer who has taken the material and made it her own; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, anyone else throwing themselves so totally into the part of Red Peter. Hers is a hypnotic performance but at the end it is hard not to feel that this is just a showcase for a virtuoso performer.

Teevan’s adaptation is taut and potent, elegantly conveying Kafka’s original judgement-filled piece, but what is it really saying? Step by torturous step, Red Peter drags himself closer to human form, his distaste for man’s barbarism undisguised; human beings are the beasts that should be chained up. Both play and performance are making powerful statements, but the piece, taken as a whole, frustrates and dazzles in equal measure.

Review: Total Football @ The Barbican

Written for Exeunt Magazine

I’ve been kicking this show around in my head for a while now; though, a bit like the game itself, it’s taken a while for anything conclusive to occur, I’ve come to realise that this doesn’t matter a jot because (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this) it’s not results that most matter here, it’s the taking part that counts.

As a defiant mingling of silliness and existential performance art, Total Football is Ridiculusmus to a tee. But even such a statement is uncertain because, unusually for them, here they’ve given us a surprisingly conventional linear narrative. David Woods plays Brian, a sweetly ineffectual middle management chap prone to embarrassingly public revelations about his infertility – a witty dig at England’s own limp sporting prowess. Under aggressive direction from his shark-like boss (played by Jon Haynes, who with familiar ease also plays blokey colleague Nigel and a well-meaning immigrant cleaner), Brian bumbles around organising focus groups; his objective? To manufacture some passion for the idea of Team GB at the London Olympics in 2012.

There’s something very desperate about Brian’s quest, especially given that he himself has no feeling at all (let alone any sense of fist-pumping passion) about watching “22 millionaires run around a lawn”. Does he find what he’s looking for? Quite definitely not, in fact he’s about as successful as the England football team post-1966.

Total Football is a something of a quest for both the character of Brian and for Ridiculusmus themselves. Woods and Haynes spend the 50 minutes scrabbling around for a sense of national identity like little boys in a playground kicking around a ball; sometimes they stumble upon something vital and true, but just as often they miss their mark. From their opening sequence, a breathy, almost religious chant of Wayne Rooney’s name over and over again that builds up to a near sexual groan, they nailed down the public’s relationship with their sporting ‘heroes’.  Though often flippant in tone and full of knowing comedy winks, the piece asks some piercing questions.

How do you feel seeing a dead solider carried aloft by his squadron, his casket covered in a Union Jack? Is there something quintessentially British about men who are unable to speak with emotion about anything other than football, for that to be one of the only subjects they can cry about together? In some ways Total Football is a mess; never providing answers to its questions, slippery in its approach and frustratingly masculine in its focus.  But these things didn’t prove alienating to me, as a woman and a complete stranger to football, because the piece also manages to touch upon things deeper and more universal, to speak of human fragility and the tenuousness of British identity.

Runs until 18th June.