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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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: Faust

Written for Whats On StageFaust (Young Vic)

Vesturport’s Faust is a continuous display of theatrical bangs and whistles. With Andy Warhol as the devil, a synchronised wheelchair number and acrobats that explode onto the stage from all sides (including the ceiling), this explosive production is certainly in keeping with this dynamic company’s bombastic visual flair.

Johann is a famous actor glumly disillusioned with both his past achievements and his pretty nurses’ confidence in a heaven and hell. Into this stagnant old peoples home climbs Mefisto, a jerky re-animated corpse of a demon, who uses pretty Greta to tempt Johann into signing on the dotted line and becoming Faust. It is a blood pact entailing the promise of one lasting moment of happiness for Faust’s soul and is perhaps one of the most famous deals in literary history.

But for a story that is so well known, this production is as slippery as the promises of its devils. Vesturport’s grip on theatrical spectacle is undoubtable but more questionable is their ability to tell a story clearly. Thus in the middle of all the glamour and grotesque winking and nudging it is hard to follow the journey of our anti-hero. Although Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ sophisticated and emotive soundtrack succeeds in some ways in filling these narrative cracks.

Director Gisli Orn Gardarsson has thrown all he can at Goethe’s original text in a production which revels in the visceral theatricality of this morality tale. It’s impressive, and boasts some compelling performances, but ultimately it’s also muddled and confusingly busy. The moment of stillness at the end hits just the right note as the stakes of what have been lost are finally felt, but as with Faust’s own self realisation, it feels as though this moment of unfettered communication has come just a little too late.

Runs from 25 September 2010 to 30 October 2010