THE FLICK**** The Reel Thing


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THREE LOSERS – A slacker projectionist (Louisa Kraus as Rose) and two depressed cinema attendants (Jaygann Ayeh as Avery and Matthew Maher as Sam) – slowly reveal themselves to each other in a series of vignettes set in the empty (and deliciously realized) auditorium of a cinema, The Flick. Their conversations are halting, often stilted, uncertain; and revelations of character, of their pasts and hopes for the future are teased out in this often hilarious, densely layered, absolutely absorbing play (It kept me awake for three hours…that’s saying something)

At its heart, The Flick, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed for the stage by Sam Gold, is about the desire for what seems almost unattainable: self-awareness…imagined as a route to connecting better and building relationships.

In the play’s microcosm, its people – all three – circle each other without knowing really how to connect. Because they’re so clumsy with the signals they send…with the way they project themselves, the only projection they can all be sure of is the one on the screen (In a nice touch, Avery’s father is a professor of semiotics – the study of signs and signals)

The immediate answer to the existential question Avery asks Sam near the beginning of the play, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is: projectionist. The flickering light of the projector; the discussion of how film – celluloid or digital – is best projected (which is the more honest projection Avery, a cineaste, wonders) is the symbolic center of the play. The reel is in a sense the real. How self-aware do you need to be to project how you want to be seen? Is life just a series of performances?

Because the characters haven’t worked these things out, they project impressions – flickerings – of themselves that are misread and that keep them isolated, disconnected from each other, from the rest of the world…their hopes and any potential for self fulfillment (In the play, the motif of the movie is treated both as an escape from reality and as a bizarre route to connectivity)
The beginnings of breakthrough start with the two men playing the Six Degrees of Separation game. Avery is a master if it: his knowledge of movies and their actors enables him to answer every increasingly obtuse connection put to him by Sam. He can find the connections in fiction…he just doesn’t know how to find them in life. And perhaps for this reason, he tried to kill himself a year ago.

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Rose, envied for her lofty status – as projectionist – and self protectively dismissed by Sam (who loves her) as a lesbian, is so self absorbed, her sexual fantasies feature only her. She offers up another game: see what horoscopes have to suggest in terms of who should be connecting with whom…and what insights into each other they offer.

They’re silly games, but they break the ice. As the play unfolds, the characters learn about themselves as they learn about each other (way beyond the cliches of a horoscope). They reveal, often unknowingly, in their desultory conversations, elements of themselves that begin to build bridges across the gulf that separates them. There’s a symbiotic relationship between awareness of self and of others.

The play charts the evolution of the interconnectedness of these three; the – false – beginning of trust and the –real- beginning of their own self-knowledge.

It’s a beginning. But only a beginning. When all three are caught out cheating (happily deceiving themselves, that stealing from the till is really only their –deserved- dinner money) character trumps connectivity.  Rose’s self centeredness, and Sam’s blind love for her justify them selling out Avery. Whatever trust had been created disappears.

But no matter, their enhanced self-awareness means that they can all, with greater surety begin to answer the question posed at the beginning, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And perhaps with this, the future for all of them holds some promise; that the potential of self-fulfillment might actually happen.

 

THE FLICK. By Annie Baker. With Jaygaan Ayeh, Sam Heron, Louisa Krause (movies: Martha, Mercy, May and Young Adult), Matthew Maher (movies: Gone Baby Gone. A Most Violent Year). Directed by Sam Gold. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. Sound Designer: Bray Poor. On at the National Theatre

 

SONGS OF WANDERERS**** Dance of Zen


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WHEN THE LIGHTS slowly go up, we become aware of a single beam. Its narrow ray, we come to realize, illuminates a glowing flute of falling rice, descending, as if from a narrow portal in the sky, upon the head of a standing, statue-like monk, praying, perhaps for this blessing of the stuff of life. There emerges from the shadows of the stage a dozen or so figures…wanderers. They move with agonizing slowness, as if underwater, or as if the air is clogged with the burden of living. They carry long tree-like staffs: a moving forest. It is another element (the rice, the rain, the light, the forest) to complete an entire world, a dreamscape, magically panoramaed on the Sadlers Welles stage.
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Songs of Wanderers, a dance performance from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan really offers very little ‘dance’. For one thing, the principal performer – the monk – imbuing, as he does, the zen-like calm of the piece, never moves. The others sometimes either writhe in stiff contortions of agony, like upended insects, or drift, like dreams across the rice carpeted stage. From time to time a lone figure with a long squeegee type broom tries to part or clear or make a pattern – an understanding – in the drifts of golden rice – a Sisyphean task as the rain of rice – that bounty of heaven, perhaps in response to the suffering needy – never stops. His futile sweep and the footsteps of the performers on the rice create odd, abstract patterns, as if they were bent on leaving memories…some visual trace of existence.

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There is no linear narrative in this piece of Zen meditation. The meditation – the unfolding of life – expresses itself over a few key ‘chapters’. First there is life, the rice descending upon the monk, the god. The emergence of the staffs that become forests morph into rods that encourage a sort of courtship and copulation…a union of bodies; that morph into protective enclosures. Perhaps the agonies that follow are the agonies of birth or of life itself. But they are balanced by the joyfulness of rice scattering abandon…of rice filled abundance. From the darkness emerges figures bearing bowls of fire – the final essential element from which the rice of the heavens is converted into food. And life.

At the end of the piece, after the performers have taken their bows, the sweeper continues his task. In ever widening swirls, he moulds from the rice (three tons of it) a meditative zen garden of widening circles…eradicating the past, obliterating the -futile- movements of the performers, leaving only a record of stillness and a sense, after all the wandering and agony, of harmony and of peace.

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BLAM: Wow!


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BLAM IS A blast! This energetic, frenetic, wildly inventive, often hysterically funny production from Icelandic director Kristján Ingimarsson’s Neander company is a compelling evening’s entertainment. On at Sadler’s Wells Peacock theatre, it’s billed as “Die Hard Meets the Office”. That sort of describes what the production is all about.

Sort of.

The setting is that of an average, boring, bland office – one of those offices with low partitions so well loved by office planners with no money and less imagination and positioned to staff as “open plan seating”. It is here that three bored young men, trudging through a sedentary day of mindlessly monitoring glowing monitors and monitored themselves by a grim overlord supervisor, drift into daydream. The boom of a gurgling water-cooler seems to set things in motion when, as we enter into their (very boyish) daydream, things turn to mayhem. It starts when one of the young men sticks his hands into an empty desk file organizer which turns him (according to the wonderful sound track to which the production is choreographed) into Iron Man.

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And thus begins the start of the mayhem and the story, which (and I may have gotten the sequence of events screwed up, not that that matters much) morphs from Iron Man to Grand Theft Auto, where a hat stand turns into a gatling gun and a paper tube into a bazooka. From this we enter the shoot-out of Reservoir Dogs via the center of a kung-fu, slow-mo, flying dragon battle scene that leads past a fist fight from The Matrix performed by Abbot and Costelloe to Wall-e, who, dying like ET needs an emergency operation to literally spark him to life just as the heroic surgeon turns into the Hulk who has to battle the Wolverine, where pencils have become those famous adamantine claws, before the dread droids and transformers wreck the place. By this time the rear half of the stage has lifted off and, initially shifts to an acute angle from which the performers slide, fall and miraculously walk about, like the sliding deck of the sinking Titanic only (for the stage) to then turn entirely vertical, like an image from the Poseidon Adventure.

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Got that?

Neander bills itself as physical theatre. And they ain’t kidding. These immensely fit, agile performers are a combination of Marcel Marceau, Jacky Chan, Buster Keaton, Cirque de Soleil, Matthew Bourne and the Wachowski Brothers. At the same time. They effortlessly combine mime, stunts, dance, acrobatics and slapstick to fling the audience – joyously – into the heavy metalled, cinematic, pop coloured escapist world of three bored young men.

There’s a deeper idea driving this merry madness, that considers the extent to which our fantasies and our imaginings are so shaped by the contemporary culture around us; perhaps it is something that both neutralizes individuality and is a kind of Higgs boson binding us together

That said, this is a not to be missed experience that finished on 16th November. Hurry hurry!

“Much Ado About Nothing”. More nothing than ado


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ZOUNDS.

THERE IS nothing worth noting in this witless production of “Much Ado About Nothing” from erstwhile notable actor Mark Rylance. Here ye’ll find nought more than a fustilarian troop of robustious, periwig-pated fellows, capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. Shakespeare’s glorious language falls not trippingly on their tongues, but so garble they his prose that we poor groundlings as as lief as hear the noise of town criers speaking his lines.

Herewith a play that sucketh mightily.

“Much Ado…” is but a minor play, little more than a walking shadow, a midsummer madness in his glorious ouvre. And yet, I have indeed in the past found great revelry in its wanton idiocies, when performed with the wit in which it was writ. Forsooth, the goodly Mr Rylance has sought to reimagine this tale of young, feisty sparring lovers as a mirthless septuagenarian romance with Vanessa Redgrave (Beatrice) and James Earle Jones (Benedick) as perchance not the virgin’s sweet blush, but love’s rekindled flame. T’is passing strange. And these two, in the sear and yellow leaves of their lives, enfeeble any honesty of dalliance. As they say, when the age is in, the wit is out.

Jones in particular, clad in an ill-fitting army green one-sie, appears but a swollen parcel of dropsies, a huge bombard of sack as fat as butter. Army indeed! For Mr. Rylance’s BIG idea is to set the action sometime at the end of the (second world) war. A troop of racially mixed Americans led on by Don Pedro, are returning, demobbing as it were, from glorious victories to frolic in the cavernous halls of Leonato, governor of Messina. Unlike the National’s brilliant recent “Othello” which was set in Afghanistan, which setting helped powerfully to intensify the drama, Rylance’s awkward, unlikely, fantastical interracial WW2 period drama feels, i’faith, forced and artificial. Here truth, reason and love keep not good company.

And as if the producers were bereft of purses well endowed with gold, their parsimoniously spare stage setting, that compriseth but a single vast wooden arch standing in for both bower and church, is all there is to prompt our dull’d imaginations and divert our drooping eyes. Tho’ in the paucity and tiredness of this design, there lies, perhaps more truth than was intended. For in this out of joint production, it joined together the efforts of the cast in like dullness.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. I bid thee, dear reader, stay away from this farraginious production, this evening calumny, this scullion of performers that hath so bereft me of words.

Othello: The Play’s The Thing


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What greater joy than to spend a couple of hours immersed in a brilliantly produced “Othello”! The National’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy features two masterful performances from Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago. Adrian Lester, OBE, is the lesser known of the two, appearing mainly in some sub-standard TV shows: the mildly interesting and forgettable heist series, “Hustle”, and more recently in the deservedly well-lauded play, “Red Velvet”, the story of a nineteenth century African-American actor, Ira Aldridge who took over the role of Othello after actor Edmund Kean collapsed on stage.

Rory Kinnear, exuding ferocity and power as Iago, is, on the other hand, probably the more familiar of the two. We know him as the mild-mannered bureaucrat, Tanner, in the new Daniel Craig, Bond movies.

These two electrify the stage in what is essentially Shakespeare’s mano a mano showdown. Othello is the noble, regal leader; a man who stands above the prejudice and passions of the society in which he lives. But he is also so trusting in the honor of his fellow-man, that he is blind to the villainy in others. And it is this blindness that Iago, himself blinded by hate and jealousy, takes advantage of.

In none of the other tragedies do we see such a transformation, as is transformed from a man of stately dignity Othello (“If virtue no delighted beauty lack…is far more fair than black”) to one tormented by doubt and consuming passions. He becomes the embodiment of the horned man – “a monster and a beast”

Lester’s Othello pulls at the audience’s sympathies, shifting them from admiration to horror and revulsion, as he staggers around knocking over tables and collapsing in an epileptic fit, and then to our sense of the deep sadness of the loss, “Speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate…Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.”

Kinnear’s Iago is seductively revulsive from the onset. Shakespeare cleverly pulls the rug from any of the closet racists in his audience when he ensures that the articulation of racism is centered in what is an unambiguously evil character. It’s as though he were saying, if you have any issues with the idea of a black man with a white women (“…the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor”; “…an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe”) then you are of Iago’s mind-set.

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As we see the slow (well, slow in Shakespeare’s theatrical time frame, where months pass in the course of a monologue) change in Othello, Kinnear gives us the almost moment by moment transformations of his Iago. One moment he is seemingly thoughtfully concerned as he hesitantly, reluctantly insinuates his faux suspicions into Othello’s trusting ears; and another he is aggressively dismissive of his foppish foil, Roderigo.

The overt narrative of racism is the engine that sets the tale in motion. But racism – judging someone by how they look rather than who they are – is only the outward shell of the play’s deeper exploration of the bigger fault-lines of how we judge each other. Roderigo sees or wants to see in Iago someone who will pursue his interests in Desdimona; Othello sees Iago as an honest man; Barbantio sees Othello as a deceiver; we – the audience – see Othello as a man above the fog of passion; Desdimona cannot see the changes taking place in her husband; even Iago, who of them all can best read character, can only judge Othello thru his own lens of hatred.

Director Nicholas Hynter, who is the director of the National (and who gave us “The History Boys and “One Man, Two Guvnors”) brings his movie making chops (he also directed “The History Boys” for the cinema) to the staging of the play. He keeps the action fast and uses a strong, dark musical score to enhance the drama onstage.

But it is his staging with designer Vicki Mortimer that delivers an exciting immediacy. The play is set in the modern times (accomplished by some clever editing: Othello’s initial words of peace, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” are omitted; various characters are shot rather than stabbed). The story begins outside a pub as Iago and Roderigo, escaping the din inside, share a cigarette and set the action in motion. The pub morphs into the apartment of Barbantio, which then, via a series of clever moving sets, morphs into an army base where the rest of the play takes place. The modern day staging – Othello and the others are in army fatigues – never seems gimmicky and delivers the rich relevance Hynter no doubt sought after.

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Some staging of Shakespeare, often centering on The Big Name can drag. Ian McKellan’s “Lear” was great as a showcase for his individual talent, but seemed to last for days.

This “Othello” though (not only as a result of the brilliance of Hynter’s directing – always such as joy to see the pauses, the shifts in mood, the movements on stage that, duh, you don’t get as a reader – but also from the richness of the acting where even some of the minor roles stand out) is not unlike a recent staging of “Twelfth Night” with Mark Rylance as Olivia, in that they whip past in no time.

“…Ay, that’s the way./Dull not device by coldness and delay”

THEATRE: The Audience


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IN “THE AUDIENCE”, at the Gielgud Theater in Piccadilly, Helen Mirren reprises the role she (and writer Peter Morgan) created in her majestic portrayal in “The Queen”.

This entertaining, hysterically funny play, offers a window into the twenty minute weekly meetings Her Majesty has with her Prime Ministers. These meetings are not recorded, and she ain’t talking. So this is Daltry’s (deftly staged) imaginative, fictional account of what might well have taken place in her meetings with a smattering of the twelve Prime Ministers who have – so far – served under her, from an imperious, lecturing Churchill to a doltish, pompous Cameron.

It’s a play about human character: Daltry brilliantly offers us the quickest of sketches into the prime ministers he introduces… all as foils for his creation of a beautifully rounded sense of his fictional Queen.

Mirren gives us a master class of acting, combining flawless comic timing with an evocation of the deeply human, lonely, dignified, empathetic person behind the crown. We see the two persons she needs to be – both the icon (and there’s a marvelous scene in which Cecil Beaton is shooting the Royal portrait that even now graces all her stamps and coin) and the person within.

The play makes it clear that as a constitutional monarch, she has no de jure role over British governance and must support whatever hair-brained schemes her first ministers have devised, whether she agrees to them or no. But, though she may be on the stamp, she’s no rubber stamp. We see a person who’s deeply well read, right-mindedly opinionated (Harold Wilson – her favourite minister according to the play – praises her for being a Labourite at heart) and unbowed by the forcefulness of personalities such as Churchill (Edward Fox as a hectoring, ageing lion) and Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne as a racist, heartless, driven Thatcher).

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These weekly sessions are seen as occasions for therapy (she hands a timid, overwhelmed, weeping John Major – Paul Ritter – her handkerchief to cry in), sparring (with Thatcher), and, with Cameron, for dozing (she nods off as he prattles on about high finance). There are also moments of relaxed sharing and camaraderie (Wilson appears on several occasions, initially as a defensive working class man, testy in the presence of the Royal Personage, and subsequently as a person with whom the Queen can actually have a real conversation and, almost, meeting of minds).

Blair never makes a –physical- appearance, but hovers in the wings somewhere, referred to several times – derisively – by Gordon Brown and – respectfully – by Cameron. And that’s Blair chameleon, mercurial personality for you – attacked by his party, admired by his opponents

What these meetings are not however, much to her frustration, are meetings of consultation. We see her try to nudge things in her direction. But there’s little more she can do than that.

And this is the – Shakespearean – core of the play: the divide between the call of duty (sit down, shut up and offer support) and the call of humanity (try to influence decisions that do the right thing). But whereas Price Hal, the boisterous human, morphs into Henry V, the dehumanized icon and protector of the realm, QEII, in a modern age, knows that she must balance them both.

She must balance her desire to be a good wife (she tries – in vain – to take Philip’s name) with the duty to be a good queen; balance –reluctantly – the acceptance of the racist demands of a Thatcher with her allegiance to the non-white world of the Commonwealth; balance her inhuman impartiality and discretion with her all too human partiality (expressed by a request to Wilson that he invite her for dinner); balance the artificiality of living in a palace with her identification with her subjects, from the loftiest to the lowest

It’s a balance that we see in every gesture of Mirren’s masterpiece performace.

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BALLET: SLEEPING BEAUTY


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“MATTHEW BOURNE’S “SLEEPING Beauty” at Sadler’s Wells: Fabulous.

Mr. Bourne is without doubt the pre-eminent choreographer of our day. I don’t think there’s anyone with a clearer narrative grasp, with a stronger ability to grip the audience with his story-telling skills. His “Sleeping Beauty” is – strange word to use in describing a ballet – gripping.

A brief reminder on the story-line Tchaikovsky composed to: the only daughter of the royal family, Aurora, is blessed by six fairies with the graces of wit, beauty, grace, song and probably sex appeal too. It’s the damned seventh fairy who lays a curse on her – that she’ll prick her hand on a spindle on her coming of age and die. One of the fairies softens this curse so that she won’t die – simply sleep for a hundred years. And of course a charming prince (who, by the way she’s never seen before) kisses her; she awakens and marries him and they live happily after.

Pretty dumb, huh?

Not for Bourne; he keeps the outline of the story and working – I can only say collaborating, since his choreography cleverly incorporates multiple stage tricks – closely with award winner Lez Brotherson, transforms it into his own – more credible – personal vision of sex, punishment and victory of good and love over evil.

Bourne moves away from the Disney version we all know to a version that changes fairies to sorceresses, that introduces elements of “Twilight” and that, as with all his ballets, reeks with passion.

The ballet is divided into two halves. The first half – cleverly beginning with an infant Aurora crawling about the stage, thanks to some brilliant puppeteering – is all off-whites, innocence and, as Aurora grows, budding love. It’s set in the height of the Victorian period when she falls for Leo, the royal gamekeeper. But all this virginal purity won’t last: the final dance of this first ‘movement’ is one of erotic seduction. You could say Leo put the moves on her. But as their passion is consummated, her deflowering is accompanied by the prick of a flower – a black rose – and she ‘dies’. Her petit mort accompanied by a mort of a hundred years. Oh the damage done by one little prick. Leo is distraught – how will he live as his beloved lies asleep for a hundred years? Not to worry, Count Lilac swoops in and plunges his vampiric fangs into Leo’s neck, thereby ensuring that he’ll be around a hundred year hence.

The second set begins in the modern day. The innocence of the whites now have changed to reds and blacks. What was a genteel romp on a Victorian tennis court is repeated but now it’s a red hued S&M themed night club. This is the world in which, the now no longer virginal Aurora awakes… to fight off the amorous advances of another more dashing suitor so that she can find fulfillment in the arms of her gamekeeper. Their movements become bolder, more threatening, but for Aurora who, semi-awake, resisting being fully awake sans her true love, seems to levitate languorously in the arms of her suitors.

All good dance must communicate emotion through movement. But I often find that  much traditional classical ballet feels like a series of brilliant vignettes that somehow manage to add up to the semblance of a story. Matthew Bourne’s choreography bridges classical ballet, modern dance including hip hop as well as the theatre, to provide us with richly textured drama where movement takes the place of words and which as adroitly expresses character as does dialogue.

More than this, the ever-changing set design suggests not simply a sense of place but a real reflection of the emotions being played out on the stage.

It all adds up to something that’s quite spectacular