How to update a classic play

Written for IdeasTap

How to update a classic play

In the year Chekhov met Cobain, radical interpretations of classics have been all the rage. Honour Bayes looks at what it takes to successfully revamp a golden oldie…

Stay true to the original…

2012 has seen Anton Chekhov get modern makeovers, with Benedict Andrews’ modern-day Three Sisters (including a rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Anya Reiss’ The Seagull, set on the Isle of Man. While each text is decades away from 19th-century Russia, both playwrights remained faithful to Chekhov’s play. “I value the opportunity to meet the play and get to know its characters better,” says Benedict. He adds that the most extreme transformations come from a rigorous re-examining of the text: “The only advice I can give is to not settle for quick answers or second-hand readings – seek out the play’s DNA, its raw fibres, and try to expose them.” Anya looked for the pieces of the original that were eternal: “Once I found them, they became the supports… and it’s just a matter of bridging between these supports, using the original as a blueprint of how you get from these points.” Or as One Man, Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean puts it, “The plot’s [Carlo] Goldoni’s and all the dialogue is mine.”

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Review: The Irish Giant

Written for The Stage

Do you own a donor card? Even in our secular society the question of donating one’s organs after death, of carving up the body, causes some people moral angst. Imagine then how the idea would have struck the God-fearing folk of the 18th century.

‘Is there a material basis for the soul?’ is the question behind theatre company Cartoon de Salvo’s new show The Irish Giant. With a ragtag charm, Alex Murdoch, Brian Logan and Neil Haigh tell the story of Scottish anatomist John Hunter’s quest to obtain the body of Charles Byrne, an eight-foot tall Irish ‘giant’ (played with affecting tenderness by Haigh).

Murdoch, Logan and Haigh are immediately likeable performers and from the moment they dive into the dissected body of Hunter himself they have us in the palms of their hands. Byrne’s sad story is told with imaginative flare, involving witty musical interludes, Rebecca Hurst’s gorgeous animations and even a couple of bits of stage magic thrown in.

For all this The Irish Giant feels incomplete. Perhaps it’s a script that isn’t tight enough, or that the questioning isn’t sharp enough, but like the illusive soul for which they search, something is missing from this otherwise sweet show.

Runs until 9 June. For more information go here.

Review: The Hairy Ape

Written for Time Out

Emma King (as Mildred) and Bill Ward (as Yank) in The Hairy Ape, 2012

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist monument to the oppressed industrial class is once more unleashed on London after 25 years. In Kate Budgen’s muscular revival the beast is given full rein, with a virile cast running full-tilt through O’Neill’s text. But though the walls of Southwark Playhouse shake, Budgen is never in danger of losing control in a production that is as stylish as it is visceral.

Yank works as a stoker on an ocean liner. Proud of his physical prowess and control over the engines, he is the king of his floating world. But when the daughter of a wealthy industrialist sees him and recoils in horror, her reaction pushes Yank up on to the streets of Manhattan to find out where he really belongs.

O’Neill’s play is an existentialist rollercoaster powered by a poetry which belies Yank’s brutish persona. This incongruity only adds to the nightmarish quality of the text; a subconscious world is vividly evoked by Tom Gibbons’s and Richard Howell’s superb sound and lighting design. Jean Chan’s set creates each personal circle of hell with economical imaginative flare.

O’Neill’s bullet-fire dialogue is sometimes muffled here, but his lyricism is given full flight by an impassioned and textured ensemble. As Yank, the human engine who powers this story, Bill Ward gives a tormented and towering performance.

Running until 9 June 2012. For more information go here.


Review: Black Battles with Dogs

Written for The Stage

With a cast made up of RSC ensemble members and RADA graduates, the pedigree of this production of Black Battles with Dogs cannot be denied. Frustrating, then, that for a large proportion of Bernard-Marie Koltes’ stilted play these quality performers just tread water.

Rebecca Smith-Williams and Paul Hamilton in Black Battles With Dogs at Southwark Playhouse, London (previous pictures shows Osi Okerafor) Photo: Oliver Zeldin

Black Battles with Dogs places a foreman, his Parisian wife-to-be and his second in command within the high walls of a French construction site in Africa. Relationships begin to break down, not only between the Westerners and increasingly antsy natives, but inside the walls too, because apparently it’s not about race.

This makes all the racial slurring and patronising attempts at communication seem grotesquely gratuitous. Indeed, what Koltes’ play is about remains unclear, as characters do little but pour their hearts out and the narrative goes nowhere.

Into this quagmire Alexander Zeldin has pulled out a crafted production that athletically traverses the Southwark vault space. Joseph Arkley is electric and scary as live-wire Cal, making the character’s racist and misogynistic outbursts comprehensible through his compelling delivery. With her pearly white skin and red Pre-Raphaelite locks, Rebecca Smith-Williams seduces our attention while her intense performance transcends Leonie’s silliness to draw genuine compassion from us.

Runs until 5th May 2012