Sunday, August 31, 2014

Inside the London Theatre - Week Two


Playwright Beth Steel was our guest Monday morning. Like Tim Schutt, she is 30. Her background should have put her in the most unlikely to be a playwright category—she wasn’t exposed to any of the arts in the coal mining town where she was raised, dropped out of school at 16, and never set foot in a theatre until she was 21. After a couple of years of going to see every play she could, when they returned to London, she went to see David Harrower’s Blackbird and left wanting to be a writer. Wonderland took four years from conception to stage.  Her father was her touchstone for this script. He accompanied her on a trip down into the mines. She spoke with refreshing candor about theatre dramaturges who questioned her play’s lack of a protagonist when she was, “creating a bloody world,” and the challenges of finding a home for her second play that required a huge cast and the re-creation of a pit.

That night, we saw another play that examined the Thatcher years. During the 11 years of Thatcher’s tenure, Handbagged lightheartedly imagines the private weekly conversations between the two most powerful women in England, the Queen and Prime Minister. There are two Queens, and two Thatchers. The older Queen (Marion Bailey), looks back on, and does not always agree, with the younger (Lucy, Robinson); just as the older PM (Stella Gonet) looks back, sometimes disapprovingly, on her younger self (Fenella Woolgar). Two male actors complete the ensemble, playing a variety of roles ranging from Dennis Thatcher to Nancy Regan. One of the members of our group summed up this production perfectly, comedy with serious relief. The standouts in the cast were the younger PM, Fenella Woolgar, and the older Queen, Marion Bailey who was this production’s guest.

Ms. Bailey talked with us about process—the challenges of communicating the emotions of someone who has to exhibit ultimate control in public situations. Her choice, to exhibit the Queen’s dissatisfaction through facial twitches and small hand movements, was inspired—they were little oops that slip past her self-control. Our critic in residence, Matt Wolf, expects Marion’s role as Sophia Booth in the upcoming film Mr. Turner will generate Oscar buzz.

That night we saw Ben Power’s new version of Euripides’ Medea at the National, one of the UK’s publicly funded theatres. This updated version, set in modern times, features Helen McCrory, wife of Damian Lewis of Homeland fame, in the title role. McCrory opens the door to Medea’s subconscious. She does not create a monster but a woman, both formidable and vulnerable, trapped in a situation where her only means of asserting herself is to commit an unconscionable act. Like the chorus of Corinthian women, we don’t condone what she does but we understand. The chorus, under Carrie Crackwell’s direction, is sometimes the townswomen, sometimes—through staccato dance movements and monotone, mechanical voices—the reflection of Medea’s inner turmoil. I thought both of the men were weak, especially Danny Sapani’s Jason. He lacked magnetism. I didn’t believe a woman would murder her brother for a man like this. There were moments when I didn’t believe him. His assertion that he married the king’s daughter, Kreusa, to protect Medea and his sons felt like a lie. Danny was our guest the next morning. He was much more commanding in person than I found him to be on stage the previous night.

The National performs in repertory. The following night we returned to see a different production, a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business. Ayckbourn’s farce is a morality play, illustrating how minor compromises can lead to moral disaster. The small family business is a furniture store. The play begins with hero Jack McCracken’s appointment as its managing director. Jack an umbra-moral man, who doesn’t know that the entire family is robbing the business, promises a regime of honesty. After the party to celebrate his appointment, he makes his first moral compromise—he hires a slimy detective to prevent him from reporting his daughter to the police for shoplifting. One compromise leads to another, each to protect someone in his family, and by the end of the play he has covered up a murder that obligates him to use the family firm for drug distribution. It’s masterfully plotted but I didn’t buy it, that a man who was railing against the theft of something as small as a paperclip could degenerate to covering up murder and distributing drugs. But the performances were superb, notably Alice Sykes the taciturn Goth daughter, Matthew Cottle the furtively lecherous private eye, and Nigel Lindsay the hero who slides into moral ruin. Nigel was our guest the next day.

Nigel was as charismatic in person as he was on stage. After graduating from university, he worked for three years as a financial analyst and hated it. Then he performed in a friend's charity production, quit his job and enrolled at the Webber Douglas Academy. Immediately after completing this two year course, he began getting stage work. He talked about balancing his career between commercial pieces like Shrek the Musical, he played the title role in London, and less lucrative ventures like plays at the National. Jokingly he tells us his wife and agent let him know when it’s time to take another money-making job. Like the other two British actors we’ve met (Marion Bailey and Danny Sapani), Nigel moves seamlessly between film, television and stage/commercial and non-commercial projects. After Beth Steel, he was my favorite guest.

Our final play was The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall, a stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized, multi-award winning biography. Wolf Hall documents the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. I’d read this book, couldn’t imagine that this 600-page novel with scads of characters and locations could be tailored for the stage. Mike Poulton, who wrote the play, and director Jeremy Herrin do a masterful job. Poulton compresses Mantel’s mass of subplots and secondary characters into mini-scenes and vignettes extracted from the novel’s most important bits, cutting or consolidating everything else. There’s too much story for scene changes, the action unfolds on a stark rectilinear grey set. Minimal set pieces appear and are removed as needed to move us from palace to prison to country garden. Stunning costumes and lighting provide the atmosphere. Director Herrin moves the narrative forward with amazing economy—the widowing of Cromwell is staged in seconds, so rapidly that an inattentive audience member could miss it. The standouts in the cast were Paul Jesson, who added comic overtones to Cardinal Wolsey, Nathaniel Parker as a romantically na├»ve King Henry, Lucy Briers as the zealous and dignified Queen Katherine and Ben Miles as Cromwell. Not the villainous Cromwell we’ve seen in earlier movies and plays but a principled man and loyal friend. Wolf Hall was the perfect finale to our eight-play theatre blitz. I was sorry that I didn’t see the Bring Down the Bodies, the play based on Mantel’s second Cromwell novel.

Ben Miles, our final guest the next day, was late. I was leaving early to meet Teia and missed part of our conversation him. Miles talked about the collaboration with Hilary Mantel to develop the script that is still evolving. Hilary, who was ecstatic that The Royal Shakespeare Company wanted to stage her books, was an integral part of the play’s development and major contributor to the its success. Ms. Mantel is completing her third book in this trilogy and the BBC is producing a six-part television series of the first two books that will air next year.

That afternoon I met Teia at the Tate Modern, in South Bank, to see the Matisse cut-outs, an extensive exhibit of the final chapter in his career. Teia and I walked along the Thames, had a leisurely late lunch, browsed through her favorite bookstore and had a final drink before I returned to College Hall to pack and she headed back to Bromley.

In between the morning lectures, the plays and the nightly discussion, I got a see a little bit of London—the British Museum and the Portrait Galley, a marvelous exhibition on contemporary UK male style, Return of the Rude Boy, an afternoon at Chelsea Market. London didn’t captivate me during my first visit but I loved it this time. I’ll be back.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Inside the London Theatre, Week One

I’m back in San Miguel. Thought I’d write this blog sooner but it took forever for me to get my body clock to spring forward six hours, reestablish my routine. Now I have the space to reflect on this nine-day class that was a theatre lovers dream.
I could have gone to London, researched what plays were running, and selected eight. But it wouldn’t have been the eight I saw, only some of these would have hit my radar. There was an edge, an element of risk to the most of them. It was a eclectic mix where politics, power and women dominated—two imports from the U.S., Bakersfield Mist and Mr. Burns, two new British plays that take place during the Thatcher administration, Wonderland and Handbagged, two classics, Richard III and Medea, an adaptation of a novel, Wolf Hall, and a revival of A Small Family Business.
If I’d come on my own, I wouldn’t have had Matt Wolf, our resident critic. Matt, a native New Yorker who transplanted to London, has written about theatre for virtually every major newspaper and magazine on both sides of the Atlantic. Each morning he discussed the play we would see that evening, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge—he discussed production history of the revivals, chronicled the careers of the each plays’ cast and production team. According to my friend Karen, Matt is one of the reasons people come back to this program year, after year. The second reason is the guests, our morning conversations with someone from the cast or creative team of the play we saw the night before. The night sessions, getting to talk about the plays right after we’d seen them with seasoned theatre-goers, were the icing on the cake for me.
The first two days we moved from the most traditional play in terms of form and staging, Bakersfield Mist, to the most experimental, Mr. Burns.
Bakersfield Mist, examined the question, what ‘s authentic? This two-hander, starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid, was inspired by actual events. Maude has found a painting at a second hand store she thinks is a Jackson Pollack and Lionel, a Pollack expert, comes to her trailer to authenticate it. They clash on multiple levels, regional (west coast east coast), class, and culture. Power shifts during their dialogue. Each time Lionel dismisses the painting’s authenticity, Maude spurts out new information that rattles his assessment. The script was contrived, used alcohol as the means to get Lionel to loosen up and reveal himself, but the performances were superb, especially Turner as west coast trailer-trash.
The earthy Kathleen Turner was our guest for the next day. I was impressed with how thoughtful she’d been about her career. Knowing that women of a certain age find it hard to get work in film, she’d never gone more than two and a half years without doing a play. Now she works primarily on stage in regional theatres in the U.S. and in London. When in New York, she teaches an acting class at NYU, Shut Up and Do It. 
The next night we saw the completely out-the-box Mr. Burns, a play that breaks all the well-made play rules. Set after some apocalyptic event in the future, when there is no electricity and everything has been destroyed, we watch as pop culture, exemplified through the television show The Simpsons, evolves to high art. In the first act, immediately following the apocalypse, a group of survivors entertain themselves recalling favorite episodes of The Simpsons. Act II skips forward seven years. This group is now one of several traveling troupes performing the adventures of the Simpsons and commercials. They’ve exhausted their memory banks and are now buying other peoples’ memories of Simpson episodes. The third act, 75 years later, is a performance of a one-act opera, Mister Burns, a Chinese-whispered version of the Simpsons episode Cape Fear that incorporates snatches Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and a Britney Spears tune. Critics and audiences either loved or hated Mr. Burns. In our group, only of three or four of us, including Karen and myself, enjoyed it.
The designer, Tom Scutt, who also designed Medea, another play on our list, was this production’s guest. I was shocked at how young he was, barely 30. Tom who graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2006 with a degree in Theatre Design, has designed (both sets and costumes) an impressive number of shows. He talked about his major challenge designing Mister Burns, creating a different set for each act that could fit in the confined backstage area of the theatre.
Director Jamie Oliver’s Richard III takes place during London’s winter of discontent (strikes, shortages of milk, butter and salt, buses cancelled because of fuel shortages) in 1979 and imagines a military coup. The set, the command headquarters of the military operation, was greyed-out to indicate different locations. There was an artificiality to it that didn’t work for me. Other elements seemed contrived, drowning Clarence in the office fish tank, making the office a character in the play that responds to the action. The final scene was much to bloody for my taste. But I did like Martin Freeman’s understated Richard. Instead of an over-the-top villain who seduces the audience he is intelligent, calculating and mocking.
Oliver was our Richard III guest. In his quest to attract young audiences to Shakespeare, he has reduced ticket price to 15 pound on Mondays and is re-imagining Shakespeare in ways that will attract this demographic. He chose someone who had television and movie fame to play Richard—Freeman played Tim The Office, Dr. Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock and is probably best known for his work as Bilbo Babbit in The Hobbit trilogy. In addition, he wanted an actor who hadn’t done Shakespeare because he didn’t want the language “to be everything” like it is in most productions. One reviewer said,
“Freeman chops up the verse into neat little segments rather than giving us the architecture of a speech … simple, plain Clarence, for instance, becomes a withering put-down of his gullible brother.”
I applauded his decision not to make Richard the ultimate charmer. No matter how seductively Richard was played in earlier productions I’ve seen, I never believed that Lady Anne would marry him after he killed her husband and her father. In Oliver’s production, Anne’s marriage to Richard is pragmatic; it provides protection. The primarily young audience applauded the production, several members from our group left after the first act.
Our final play the first week, and my personal favorite, was self-taught playwright Beth Steel’s Wonderland. Wonderland, which was a finalist for The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Best New Play, begins in 1983 just before the start of the coal miners' strike that, with Thatcher’s assistance, broke the back of their union. Ashley Martin-Davis’s superb multi-tiered set, with its mesh wire floor and a cage lift, separates the world above, dominated by those intent on undermining the strike, from the dangerous and dirty world of the miners. Steel creates a world, one infused with camaraderie and solidarity, which is vividly recreated by the ensemble cast. The storyline traces two newbies who have barely started working when the strike is called—one supports the strike the other becomes a scab. As the strike drags on, and the miners are able to support their families, we watch the destruction of a once proud community.
We’re free for the weekend. Most of the group has bought tickets for additional plays; I head to Bromley to spend time with Teia, my oldest friend, and her son Zack. When her friend Pam drives me back to the residence Sunday night, I’m doing my please baby, please baby, please routine trying to convince Teia to meet me Friday afternoon in central London so we can hang out for a few more hours before I return to Mexico.