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.

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