Archive for the 'theatre' Category

Armstrong, Pantani, and ‘Ventoux’

5 May 2017

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As a cycling fan I went to some lengths to see the stage production of Ventoux, currently touring in the UK, after I missed it in London. But it is an interesting piece of theatre as well: it’s not all about the bike.

So what is it? A double hander, with one actor playing Armstrong, the other Pantani, restaging a famous Tour de France contest between the men on Ventoux in 2000, helped along with a couple of turbo bikes and some big coolboxes, of the kind you might use to store, say, doped blood. There’s some back projection as well, and also from time to time the audio of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. As far as I can tell, the script is “found,” edited from actual words spoken or written by the cyclists, which is the modus operandi of the production company, 2 Magpies Theatre.

In terms of the racing, that stage was epic. In 2000, both men had won the Tour once, Pantani in 1998, Armstrong the following year. They had contrasting styles: Pantani a maverick who would race when he felt good, Armstrong the calculator who stacked the odds with a strong and dedicated team, going head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s the footage, with an appropriate music track:

With hindsight, we know that both men stacked the odds in other ways as well. Pantani died in Rimini in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, but we also know that he had used EPO, which boosts performance, especially when climbing, and that Armstong’s entire team was doped up. Liggett’s commentary on the day, used in the play, notes the pace that his team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingstone were setting on the early part of the climb, and we know from Hamilton’s later testimony that both he and Armstrong had had blood transfusions to top up their red blood cells on the rest day, the day before the Ventoux stage.

What the play does well is explore why, when we know all this, we still admire Pantani and regard Armstrong as a cheat. (Sure, Armstrong was a cheat, a systematic cheat, as the USADA’s Reasoned Decision outlines in jaw-dropping detail, portrayed on stage as flurries of yellow legal paper. But we know that Pantani cheated too). And, by rearranging the chronology of the stage, so we hear parts of twice, knowing the result long before we hear the drama of it, it also reminds us that even when corroded by doping, cycle racing is still thrilling when two well-matched riders duke it out at the edge of their physical limits.

And some of that explanation in the play comes from Armstrong himself, in a speech taken from an article he wrote long after Pantani’s death, and after his own disgrace and lifetime ban from the sport.

Pantani wasn’t a star, he was more like a rock star. He had the aura, he had the following and he was huge. As an American coming over and playing a European sport, I was in a different position… If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist. He had all the panache in the world, all the panache you could fit into a small climber, and I, if I’m honest, didn’t have that.

Here are the actors talking about the production.

Even if you’re not interested in cycling, it’s an interesting piece of theatre. If you are, it’s compelling.

 

City of Glass

1 May 2017


There’s a scene half way through the new theatre adaptation of City of Glass where you realise that you’re watching (spoiler alert) a man disintegrating psychologically rather than trying to prevent a potential crime being committed. But I’d better rewind a bit first. City of Glass is an version for stage of Paul Auster’s novel adapted by the writer Duncan MacMillan and directed by Leo Warner; it is staged by 59 Productions, which specialises in combining technology and art to tell stories in a range of disciplines. The play opened at HOME in Manchester and is playing at the Lyric in Hammersith until 20th May.

It tells the story of a 35-year old writer, once known as Daniel Quinn, who is living on his own after the death of his wife and young son, unexplained in the play, who has given up a literary career to write detective novels under the name of William Wilson, which happens to be the name of a New York Mets player. At least, this may be true. One day he takes a call at home from someone looking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency, who fears that her husband’s life may be in danger. He takes the case. Well, you can see where this might be heading. (And I should add that I haven’t read the book; I’m reviewing the play here.)

In fact Auster appears in the play, as he does in the novel, and has a conversation with Quinn/Wilson explaining an elaborate theory as to why Don Quixote goes to such lengths to pretend that he’s not the author of the book within a book in Don Quixote:

AUSTER: The theory I present in the essay is that Sancho Panza Dictated the story to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s friends

AUSTER, talking across the NARRATOR (the script says he’s momentarily drowned out by the narrator): … They had the manuscript translated into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation and and had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.

NARRATOR, talking simultaneously with AUSTER: Auster was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn. It seemd to be a kind of soundless laughter, a joke that stopped short of its punchline.

QUINN: But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?

AUSTER: To cure Don Quixote of his madness. The want to save their friend. [Emphasis in the script.]

The moment you realise that we ae watching a breakdown is when Wilson starts tracing the routes around New York that the routes followed each day by Stillman, the man he’s been tailing–and we see all of this back projected on the stage, for the video design,  isby Lysander Ashton, is a star of the show–spell out the words “The Tower of Babel,” the very same thing that Stillman had written a controversial book about. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sequence in A Beautiful Mind where we start to suspect that John Nash is delusional about working on a top secret national security project.

It’s not always an easy play to watch as much of it is told in voiceover, which I realise now, writing this, may well have been voice in Quinn/Wilson’s head. But it is a compelling piece of theatre, precisely because it disturbs our expectations about theatre and partly because the outstanding lighting and video design give it the feel of a film, or of a hallucination.

The image at the top of the post is courtesy of the Lyic, Hammersmith, and is used with thanks.

The Deep Blue Sea

6 September 2016
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National Theatre set designed by Tom Scott. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.

Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.

(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)

The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.

This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.

One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.

But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.

The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).

As Terence Davies, who directed a film version of the play, observes of the scene near the end of the play between Hester and her husband Sir William Collyer,

When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”

The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.

And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.

Check? Check

27 February 2012

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This post is in praise of actors, about a moment in Measure for Measure which I saw at the RSC in Stratford at the weekend.

Pompey, the ‘bawd’ or brothel-keeper, is a classic Shakespearian comic, and about two-thirds of the way through, locked up in the city jail, he has a speech which looks like Jacobean babble on the page:

I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.

Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizy, and young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthlight the tilter, and brave Master Shooty the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots, and, I think, forty more; all great doers in our trade, and are now ‘for the Lord’s sake.’

On stage, in the Shakespearian-style Swan Theatre, it comes alive, as Pompey, played by Joseph Kloska, uses the audience as the characters, picking them out as he goes through the names and improvising, but just a little, as he goes.

My son happened to be wearing a check shirt, sitting in the front row, and Kloska adapted the line about Master Caper and his “suits of peach-coloured satin” to fit, riding the laughter to add, “You have to work with what you’ve got”. A few lines later he got more laughter by picking out a balding man a few seats along as “Drop-heir”, adding a line to say, “It’s all in the Folios, First Folio, Second Folio”.

It felt as close to the way in which the Shakespearian audience would have experienced a comic actor as is possible for a 21st audience to get.

One other note on the play: one of things you learn when you learn about screen writing is “to love your minor characters”. Shakespeare was there first. The murderer Barnardine is hardly on stage – he only has a couple of scenes – but he steals them both. And it’s all in the writing.

The picture at the top of the post is a production still from the RSC, and is used with thanks.

Revisiting “The Comedians”

22 November 2009

(c) Helen Maybanks

I had feared that Trevor Griffiths’ play The Comedians, premiered in 1975 and revived by the Hammersmith Lyric – the run has just closed – might seem as dated as Galsworthy or Priestley, with its exploration of racist and sexist humour and an argot of venues that seems as remote as the Romans. I needn’t have worried.
The underlying tension in the play, between the old pro, Eddie Waters, who’s teaching the aspirant comedians of the play’s title, and the agent Bert Challenor, come to look for new talent, is as live as ever.
Eddie Waters sets out his stall as he warms up his protégés ahead of their performances at a local club in front of Challenor:

WATERS: A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.

Some of the writing, and the performance, as the play explores this in its first act, amid the pre-set tension, is right at the edge, particularly the apparent improv around the tongue twister, “The traitor distrusts truth”.

Challenor, of course, is having none of it, as he arrives towards the end of the act, to give the comedians a few tips before they go on stage.

CHALLENOR: I’m not looking for philosophers, I’m looking for comics. I’m looking for someone who sees what the people want and knows how to give it to them … Any good comedian can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they’re going. And that direction is, quite simply … escape.

Of course, (mild spoiler alert) the students who pander to Challenor get the contracts. Price has changed his act at the last minute, and is tough, challenging, and perhaps not funny, mystifying agent and the other students alike (but not Eddie Waters). The third act, effectively, plays out between Waters and Price. They’re on the same side of the argument that comedy should ‘change the situation’, but about what comedy is for, but disagree about whether this needs to be done with love and compassion or not.

This makes it sound like a play of ideas, and it is, of course. But it’s also a technical tour de force, an ensemble piece in which all the ensemble are deftly drawn (as my friend Rick pointed out), some clever stagecraft, outstanding writing, and perhaps most satisfying of all, it plays out in real time – the director of the Lyric production, Sean Holmes, emphasised this with a clock in full view of the audience, which could have been risky for a less accomplished play or production.

‘What will you do?’, asks Waters of Price, as he leaves. ‘I’ll wait’, he says.

And with hindsight, he’d probably have done alright, along with the other comedians dismissed by Challenor. 1975 was probably – pre-punk, pre-Jubilee, pre-Thatcher – the highwater mark of the ‘joke telling’ comedian in the Northern clubs. As alternative comedy took off in the early 80s, the political, the angry, and the character comedians all prospered. Perhaps Griffiths had an instinct that the moment was about to turn.

The production photo above is by Helen Maybanks.You can see more of her photographs – many of them utterly charming – at her blog.

Gangster Macbeth

11 July 2009

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Love&Madness‘ setting of Macbeth, currently at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, moves it from mediaeval Scotland to a pub in ’60s London gangland, and like all such translations something is lost – and something is gained. On balance, I think the gains outweighed the cost.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and drives relentlessly through its short scenes. It takes a couple of scenes to get used to the combination of ’60s decor and Shakespearian language, but as you do, the intimacy of the studio theatre becomes claustrophobic. The gangster framing also emphasises the ties of blood and loyalty, and the closeness of violence to the surface (and as much personal as business), which can easily get lost in a more traditional presentation.

Power is an aphrodisiac, and the Love&Madness production captures this well in the sexual relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which becomes more physical as the moment of Duncan’s murder approaches.

Obviously the witches present a problem in a modern setting; they are the most primitive – or primeval – element of the story and don’t sit well in a post-enlightenment world, even one where the paint is peeling from the walls. The production dealt with this by turning them into folk musicians, almost straight out of the Troubadour, and having their curses sung. This has the strength of making the witches more like a chorus, with bursts of video for the scenes from the cauldron, but at the same time makes them less evil, and more detached. Arran Glass’ singing wasn’t the best, but was compensated for by Kate Robson-Stuart’s sinuous violin.

I liked the way the audience were drawn in to the story, being offered snacks from the buffet at the supper after Banquo’s death (and at some productions, though not this one, a glass of wine from the bar as they arrive). We could have had a seat at one of the pub tables, but weren’t that brave. Shame the audience wasn’t  larger, but we did go to a Saturday matinee. It’s on at the Riverside, in repertory, until 28 July.