Pinter 1 and 2, Harold Pinter Theatre

I’m the last person on earth to utilise a football metaphor, but the recent Pinter at the Pinter press day (showcasing the first two of six productions of the prolific playwright’s one act plays) is very much a game of two halves. To the point it’s almost hard to accept they are the work of the same immense brain. It’s an extraordinary and unexpected undertaking, dedicating one of London’s major theatres to the mainly slightly more obscure work of just one playwright for so long. It’s encouraging to see something with less than obvious commercial appeal in the West End, but slightly depressing to see one of the best theatrical cities in the world still so wedded in this kind of dead white male fetishism. Yes, Pinter was a genius. Shakespeare deserves to have theatres to his name. Where are the retrospectives of the work of Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Sarah Kane, or hell Aphra Behn?
But enough with the feminist ranting for now or we’ll be here all day, and on with the review. So roughly: Pinter 1 torture; Pinter 2 sexual hi-jinks.
Antony Sher and Paapa Essiedu in One for the Road.
Pinter 1 opens with a series of short plays and monologues, not interlinked, but all giving a sense of some kind of dystopian dictatorial democracy (an intentional contradiction in terms). The always watchable Jonjo O’Neill opens the show in a shower of patriotic confetti with the monologue Press Conference, addressing the audience as the most charismatic of politicians, expounding on his hard work to keep us all safe. One the day an alleged sexual predator was confirmed for the United States Supreme Court the idea of a twinkly-eyed politician casually, calmly detailing the exact execution methods used on the children of dissidents suddenly doesn’t feel all that far removed from reality. Dystopian fiction used to be based on the fear our governments are lying to us. Now we’re afraid that they’re not.
The following pieces run from overt violence (two torturers debate language in front of a trembling naked man) to horrendous pathos (a prisoner begs his visiting mother not to speak in their banned native tongue) to the brutal sexual politics of war (a woman trying to find her vanished husband barters gropes and sexual favours with guards more concerned with whether the attack hounds followed correct procedure before maiming bureaucratic victims). It’s powerful but deeply unpleasant to watch. Although Paapa Essiedu pulls off an impressive feat by moving from violent thug to terrified prisoner so quickly between pieces, I struggled to focus on Antony Sher’s ponderous and mild interrogator-torturer in the final lenghtier One for the Road. I’m sorry, but I was simply all raped out by that point.
A few moments provide light(er) relief: Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn play across gender as Etonian toffs discussing what could be their golf scores or Ascot wins, but which turn out to be body counts. The Pres and an Officer is the most obvious, written explicitly as a dialogue between an extremely stupid, irrational, war-mongering US President and his chief of staff. Cursory googling tells me it was written about George Bush but it’s almost impossible to see “extremely stupid, irrational, war-mongering US President” and not imagine Donald Trump. But I can’t be the only one who suffers from theatrical Trump fatigue every time an actor appears on stage in a bad blond wig and a lot of fake tans. It works within the context of a broad Spitting Image-esque short satire, and God knows O’Neill twerking [edit: thank you, Mr O’Neill, for clarifying that he was in fact “slut dropping”] on Trump is worth the price of admission, but no one could call it subtle. Overall the shifts from comedy played so broadly for laughs to harrowing torture and sexual violence in the first half creates disconcerting tonal shifts, but that’s probably the point.
The longer Ashes to Ashes which takes up the second half showcases Lia Williams as a Holocaust obsessive to whom nothing bad has ever happened. A masterclass in subtlety, it felt rather disjointed and depressing sandwiched between the grotesque drama of the first half and the sparky comedy of the evening.
Pinter 2 combines two longer pieces, the Lover and the Collection.
The fantastically designed and staged the Lover sees a young married couple quickstepping around each other in their quotidian rituals. It’s like a dance; the pair changing shoes and re-filling cocktails in a precisely choreographed, pink-drenched, highly stylised examination of male and female life. But then the cracks start to show… The Lover, famously, asks more questions that it answers. Are the pair cheating? Are they to be taken literally? Are they simply engaged in an elaborate role play? Are they swingers, erotic adventurers, or repressed? Are they unhappy? London theatre has recently seen a bit of a trend in ‘deconstructive 50s femininity and feminism’ with both Laura Wade’s recent Darling, I’m Home, and Lilly Driscoll’s Only You exposing the stifling claustrophobia of wifedom in pearls and pretty frocks. Oh, but such beautiful frocks. And such a beautiful production, fragile as a glass animal, or the cocktail glasses shot back and forth across the tablecloth. But where’s the substance? Hayley Squires does doe-eyed Stepford Wife to perfection, her precise movements heightening the vicious matter of factness with which she shares the daily visits from her lover (who may be her husband) with her husband, who in exchange discusses the preferred fatness of his common or garden whore (who may be his wife). But politely. The piece, the only one in the entire day featuring women — well, one woman — as more than one-dimensional characters or abuse objects, is a beautiful and fascinating dance to watch, but the lack of emotional depth and clarity is ultimately frustrating.
By contrast, the final one-act play of the day, the Collection, is a sheer delight with a fat psychological payoff. A sinister homoerotic comedy draped in the plushiests of velvets (on a set that looks like Hammer Horror and the entire concept of the Seventies had a baby), complete with scene-stealing live fluffy cat. Russell Tovey plays a blinder here with a very smart acting choice: he doesn’t act like he’s in a Pinter play. Or rather, he acts like his character doesn’t know he’s in a Pinter play, casually tossing off baffled “U Wot M8s?” in the face of mysterious phone calls and enigmatic strangers. It’s a wonderful piece of contemporary naturalistic acting, a delicious counterpoint to Pinter’s forensically sharp and anatomised language, every exchange steeped in menacing subtext, and somehow the very funny, filthy moments don’t feel disjointed. Then the gloves and the wig come off and things get nasty and David Suchet discards his veneer of delicate fussiness and the whole array of sex, sexuality, gender, and class division is exposed underneath the secrets and the fantasies and the double-speak, and as one the audience realise just how good Pinter can be.
So roll on Pinters 3 through 6, and then, please, Caryl at the Caryl
The Pinter at Pinter season continues until Febuary 2019
 https://www.pinteratthepinter.com/

Chicago, Phoenix Theatre

Chicago opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 2018, having run in London since 1997. The charming Duncan James brings a new maturity to a role he first played more than a decade ago. Here he is joined by X Factor star Alexandra Burke (who brings a shining charisma to her rather too hard-edged interpretation of Roxie) Laura Tyrer (excellent but underused as Velma) and Mazz Murray (striking the perfect balance of warmth and steeliness as Mama Morton). The volubly appreciative audience appeared to be in consensus that Paul Rider stole the show as the delightfully pathetic Amos.
This stripped-back production places the orchestra fully on stage, creating a more intimate and cabaret-style experience, but severely reducing the playing space. As a consequence many of the dance numbers felt constrained, the Cell Block Tango taking place entirely on chairs, and one number performed with Burke not moving from a ladder. I am a bigger fan of dance than of musicals generally, and I found the relative lack of big dance numbers disappointing (my companion, who is a huge fan of musicals and of Chicago especially, found this even more disappointing). There are some excellent moments, and the cast are clearly talented dancers, but the original Fosse choreography in the final Hot Honey Rag number did rather put the rest of staging to shame.
I have to admit despite my stage school chorus brat beginnings, I am not a regular audience member at musicals. I have not seen Chicago before either on stage or screen and I was pleasantly surprised by the meat of the story and the depths of the subtext. The show touches on concepts like the easy commodification of the female body, female sexuality, and violence, the ways in which women are dominated yet not necessarily victimised by patriarchal society, and is amazingly prescient in predicting the rise of shock value flash-in-the-pan celebrity culture. It’s always enjoyable to see a show where the women characters so completely take centre stage. There’s a fascinating essay to be written on the gender politics of Chicago. This is not the place for that essay, but the production must be praised for not pulling punches in exploring these subtexts, and in integrating serious themes with a thoroughly entertaining show.
Chicago is on at the Phoenix Theatre until 5 January https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/chicago/phoenix-theatre/ 

RADA Festival 2018

Always Right There

The all-female “Always Right There” (written by Natalia Rossetti and directed by Samara Gannon) combines two styles of theatre on a split stage: on the left, a pair of flatmates hang out chatting, eating hobnobs and watching dance movies over and over again. This naturalistic narrative is continually interrupted by a series of direct address monologues performed (while cycling at top speed) by women attending a spin class. The 80s music blares, the spin-ees assumes the position, the lights go down, and each woman, in turn, mounts the lead exercise bike and tells her story of adolescent or pre-adolescent sexual … abuse? Harassment?

The stories shared in Always Right There are intentionally nebulous. A teenage girl puts away her beloved Harrods dress after a family member makes an inappropriate joke about her ‘rates.’ A girl grows up spending the rest of her life wondering if her uncle was responsible for the disappearance of her dirty underwear. Other stories feature more overt incidences of abuse, but still within the realm of the mundane quotidian objectification culture we all live or try to live in.

Which brings us back to our protagonists marooned in their tiny studio flat. Eating their biscuits. They diss women’s magazines and debate wedding outfit etiquette, and nothing much happens. It’s ordinary and relatable, but there’s an edge to it. Why is a young woman hermitting herself away like this? Why does her ultimate sexual fantasy not involve any actual sex? Something surely has happened, something more devastating than a simple breakup.

Some of the acting is a little stilted, not helped by overly-expositional and occasionally rather preachy dialogue (“Did you know only 2% of rape claims are false?”). Having the cast deliver their monologues while cycling at top speed feels like a slightly gimmicky way to stop the energy from drooping. The script shows huge potential and covers some incredibly potent and important subjects with shards of humour and devastating accuracy, but is still a couple of re-drafts away from really hitting the mark. At the moment there is a sense of a play that doesn’t quite know what it is. There is a potent metaphor in the revolving line of women, the endless parade of quietly horrifying stories; women clad in double vested sportswear like neon armour lining up to explain, excuse, minimise — all the while making sure those bums are tight and boobs perky. “Had he really anything really wrong at all?” “I was bratty, but I still had rules. I still had guilt.” If this metaphor can be pushed, if the characters’ journeys and motivations can be clarified, Rossetti may have created an important piece of feminist theatre.

Knock Knock

Hot Coals Theatre’s Knock Knock is an inclusive physical theatre piece telling an unconventional love story through movement and music.

In a rustic oak-hewn house deep in a magical forest, lives a lonely woodcutter. One day a strange woman arrives at his door…

An unlikely love story develops between the bashful pair, but their wedded bliss fades when physical joy gives way to pressure to conform to stereotypes of what it means to be a “wife” and a “husband.” The gender politics here are subtle: a wife’s ineffably inept baking (following in a grand tradition of cooking as an act of physical comedy, uncracked eggs and all) turns joyously radical when the pair discover cleaning each other up can be more fun. Within this sweet, sad, poignant love story is a world of subtext about how sexuality, stereotypes, beauty, love, objectification, and societal pressure. Big themes, done small. It’s good stuff.

Hot Coals Theatre describes the piece as “created to be completely inclusive to both d/Deaf and hearing audiences” but there is no sense of the earnestness that stereotypes “disability theatre.” Knock Knock represents the new school of disability theatre: raw, entertaining, integrated. It’s artistically more closely aligned with Ramps on the Moon’s audacious and radical integrated productions, or Graeae’s joyous celebrations of humanity than the misery porn of previous eras. Created by one hearing and one deaf performer, movement, lighting, clowning and mask work combine to create a production stripped entirely of language (whether spoken or signed), music cues linked with lighting cues to create a fully integrated, accessible performance that hearing and deaf audiences could enjoy equally as a shared experience. Out of all the plays I saw at RADA Festival this year, Knock Knock was one of the few to follow a linear narrative and to really tell audiences a story. Perhaps being radical in form frees young companies to explore traditional storytelling?

The production was a little repetitive in places, but so utterly charming and performed by two such likable, charismatic actors (Clare-Louise English perfectly combines a feminine shyness with equally feminine frustration and sexual desire, while Jo Sargeant displays more range of emotion with only her eyes on show than many actors do with their whole faces. Similarly, the Dogpatchian setting occasionally borders on hokeyness (despite the lush set), but is saved by the emotional authenticity of the piece, and by some sweet but risque moments (I’ve seen a lot of radical theatres, but not even Sarah Kane has characters re-purposing Dustbusters as sexual aids).

LUCID

New Public’s Lucid also uses physical theatre merged with sound design to create a sensory and emotional experience. Here, the encounter is disorienting, not sweet. It’s very funny in places, but it is certainly not sweet.

Lucid uses the concept of a dreamscape to explore the “hidden depths of the subconscious” and what are dreams but manifestations of our suppressed waking fears and anxieties? Alarm clocks interrupt the flow of the narrative as waking life merges into dreams merging into other dreams merging into nightmares. Reality and the subconscious collide and smash into a million little pieces. Mundane anxieties become monsters.

The extraordinary and relentless physicality of the performers (all excellent, and impeccably choreographed) takes the audience to some dark places. This is a frenetic, intensely physical production; the bodies of the cast members colliding and merging, sometimes violently, as they dance and fight. Bodies are transported beyond the realm of the physical, and then literally objectified.

The narrative can be confusing to follow in some places, as befits a dream. Better to abandon logic than try to impose order on the (controlled?) chaos of the mind unleashed. Ultimately this is more of a sensory experience than a narrative play, and RADA Festival is all the more enriched for it.

https://www.rada.ac.uk/rada-festival-2018/ was on until 27 June – 7 July

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre

I have always been a huge fan of Cicero, a humble lawyer whose extraordinary gift for rhetoric and oration saw him become one of Ancient Rome’s savviest political operator as Julius Caesar’s relentless march to power led to the death of the Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. The life of an extraordinary man living through an extraordinary age is too large for one play, and here the latter two novels of Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy are adapted into two separate plays (Conspirator and Dictator), each separated into three sections, essentially creating six one-act plays covering the life history of one of Ancient Rome’s most important but most overlooked character.
The finished product, IMPERIUM, is a seven-hour theatrical feast. The action takes place on a bare but evocatively stoney set, cowering under the inescapable glare of a giant globe, which by turn becomes the moon; Jupiter; is streaked with blood; and hosts a murmuration of starlings which turn into a net ready to snare Cicero as he approaches his end.
It’s the kind of thing the Royal Shakespeare Company does exceedingly well: epic, intellectual productions with stunning tableaux staging and impeccable acting. And what acting. The large cast is without flaw, with special mention going to Joseph Kloska’s Tiro (Cicero’s freed slave and right hand man, and the fourth-wall-breaking narrator) whose charismatic and warm performance helps guide audiences through the complicated politics and keep the huge cast of characters straight; and Peter de Jersey’s Caesar, “every woman’s husband and every man’s wife”, whose glitter barely hides an immense brute power and menace. The female characters do much with relatively little stage time. It’s hard to create any kind of gender parity in a play set in such a male-dominated society, but the women (wives, whores, mistresses, and virgins) use their very smallness to make subtle points about gendered power structures and the frustrations of having to rely on ‘great’ but fallible men.
But these plays belong to Cicero, and Richard McCabe’s portrayal of a brilliant but difficult man should go down in history as one of the theatrical greats. McCabe dominates the stage, his ebullience, and eloquence, the sheer joy he takes in his own superior intelligence making him both repellent and engaging. Watching him intellectually demolish his opponents in the forum sends chills up the spine. The intellectual brilliance of Cicero being brought to heel by the brute strength of Caesar and his cronies, the popularity campaigns masquerading as justice, the self-justifying moral ambivalence of loyalty to the state at any cost; all these things remain as urgent now as they were two thousand years ago.
It’s unfortunate then that the plays’ contemporary bite is their weak point. The heavy-handed references to Trump and Brexit fall flat and are played for laughs in a way that is tonally jarring with the rest of the production. The reflection and resonance of the events of the fall of the Republic to contemporary politics are so clear; having a character literally come on stage in a Trump wig diminishes rather than supports the power of the metaphor. Plus, it’s just such a cliche. The unfortunate Trump wig detracts from an interesting point: just how damn insular all these people are; unaware that their incestuous internecine power struggles affect half the world. When the great military general Pompey shows up, bragging that he has single-handedly doubled the size of the Empire and conquered a laundry list of countries, the attitude within Rome is a quick shake of the head and roll of the eyes, as if to say, “this guy.. what does he know of Rome?” Mike Poulton (who otherwise does a credible job in adapting the novels into something compelling and cohesive) chooses to exploit this to make a cheap joke about Syria (hey Ancient Rome is a metaphor for 21st century politics, geddit?) but loses the opportunity for a far more subtle and psychologically layered exploration of how the insularity of politics, the personal dick-swinging competitions between powerful men, can result in countries being vivisected and parcelled out like prizes in a birthday party game.
Cicero is a powerful and fascinating person but the strict insistence on staging a straight biography of his adult life means other, equally fascinating events are referenced but strangely not seen. An awesome military parade is promised and described in mouth-watering detail, then oddly passed over entirely. Mark Antony is established as a critical character, his story then cut off halfway through, his final years and death mentioned as a casual postscript.
These minor flaws do not detract from what is overall an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience. I loved every minute of it.
Tickets for both parts of Imperium; Part I: Conspirator and Part II: Dictator can be purchased together or separately . The production ends on 8 September

Richard III, Temple Church

When the programme notes reference “fake news” spread by “populist duplicitous politicians” you know you’re in for some contemporary political metaphor. Antic Disposition’s Richard III presents a modern dress version of Elizabethan play staged in a Medieval church, but the themes and bite are pure 21st Century. This mixture combines to create something timeless.

Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s production (which opened at Temple Church last night after a tour of UK cathedrals and France) puts the emphasis on clarity and humour, performed in an intimate yet imposing traverse space. Edward IV ascends the throne, his shiny smiley media-friendly family instantly calling to mind to that other glossy first family currently tearing their country apart. The overly-charismatic leaders and wannabe leaders battle and plot, only the faceless grey men revolving around them remaining constant. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Any production of Richard III inevitably succeeds or fails on the strength of its lead actor, and Toby Manley’s affable laughing villain provides a chillingly charismatic Richard. He’s not trying to channel or spoof Donald Trump (for one thing Manley is actually charming, and not orange), but the parallels are clear, and the play is all the better for the subtlety. He is so committed to his beliefs and actions, it’s hard not to be seduced by his boyish pretence at innocence. When the wheels start to come off and the mask slips, it’s terrifying.

Unfortunately, at one such moment, he is rather upstaged by Charles Neville’s Mayor of London, played very explicitly as Boris Johnson. We all love to take the piss out of Boris, but it’s unnecessary and too on the nose. The production already works so well as a metaphor for contemporary politics, you don’t need an actor in a blond wig and a Conservative rosette hamming it up in the background to make the point, “Look politicians were manipulative and deceitful back then too!”

Otherwise, humour is this production’s strong point. Richard’s clashing self-loathing and vanity cause him to use his sword as a mirror. The princes are perfectly played as stereotypical obnoxious hoodie-wearing, Xbox-playing teenagers (and the rather Generation Game-esque political jostling to gift the boys with computer games and giant cuddly toys brings a delightful levity to a scene already much haunted by murder and the promise of murder to come). As the bodies start to stack up (each corpse immediately joining the ghostly ranks at the back of the stage, a kind of macabre chorus) the notes of humour become sharper. The decision to have Lady Anne present for the plotting of her own murder is the most ghoulish moment of tragi-comedy, Anne’s expression turning from bewilderment to shock to horror as Richard tenderly explains she is not expected to survive her “sickness.”

Only a few small flaws marked an otherwise pristine performance. While the acting is solid all round, there is some fairly unconvincing (shoulder-heaving but dry-eyed) sobbing from several of the women. Bryony Tebbutt, in particular, gives a wonderfully fiery and fully fleshed out Lady Anne, so it’s disappointing to see her directed to fake weep like an X Factor contestant. I recently saw a play where the actor remained composed while delivering a crucial and highly emotional climactic monologue; when I saw the play second-time tears dripped freely down her face as she struggled to keep her composure. It was an extraordinary moment and proves a valuable point about theatre: tears really do have to be earned. The production is possibly trying to do something interesting with gender here, as the female characters (bar the masculinely dressed Queen Margaret, played with steely ballsiness by Louise Templeton) are overtly emotional and openly disregarded by the more controlled men. A few subtle moments spoke to the gender politics of the play, as when the men engage in a stereotypically macho handshake competition. Richard III is an almost bulletproof play and with a cast this strong little needs doing to it. In some cases, a little less is required.

Richard III runs at Temple Church until 9th September. Tickets can be purchased here http://www.anticdisposition.co.uk/richard-iii-2017.html 

Disco Pigs, Trafalgar Studios

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Enda Walsh’s ‘Disco Pigs’, a play that has spawned various stage and screen adaptations since its debut at Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre in 1996 (which technically makes it the 21st anniversary, but we’re apparently counting from its first major showing at the Edinburgh Festival the following year). To mark the anniversary, whichever it is, Trafalgar Studios are going back to basics with a stripped down bare studio production.

Pig and Runt were born within minutes of each other in the same Cork hospital ward. They grew up closer than siblings, closer that twins, an incestuous blood pact made amongst the sweat and tears of labour. Inhabiting their own private world, they create their own language: an irreverent hypnotic sexy-stupid mix of Cork dialect, teen slang, and something that is just them. Years later, in thrall to the hormonal roller-coaster and the sheer unadulterated thrill of being 17 (17! 17! 17!) they are lose on the town, their internal Narnia crashing into reality as a growing awareness of adulthood and its pressures (read: SEX) threatens their weirdly innocent lives of clubbing, petty crime, and above all else, music.

Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch(c) Alex Brenner, no usage without credit, Disco Pigs @ Trafalgar Studios dir John Haidar (_DSC0188).jpg

John Haidar’s revival is a straightforward take on a twenty-year-old text that has lost none of its power. Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch bring a delightfully child-like energy and enthusiasm to a play that merges physical theatre with baroque language. The production is at its best when the characters simply rejoice in being together and being that magical 17; stumbling into the Holy Land that is the local nightclub, or jumping up from the floor (has some scientist studied why it’s so insanely comfortable to watch TV sprawled belly down on the carpet until you hit about 19, when it immediately becomes excruciating?) to ape Baywatch as they watch “beautiful” Pamela Anderson on the stage’s only prop, a boxy telly. When the action takes the characters into the outside world, the production doesn’t doesn’t quite realise the full menace and disruption of the text. Perhaps it is that the production is too good at painting Pig and Runt’s private world. Whenever the real world intrudes, as when an outing to a local pub ends with them being rudely shoved aside by Sinn Fein members, the resultant violence (actual, or threatened) feels somehow dreamlike.

Music is the strong point and saving grace to a perfectly good but not especially original production. Mixing high art and low, music rules, whether it’s a classical accompaniment to a dinner grunted up off the floor, or Pig’s lovelorn karaoke (the Ronette’s ‘Be My Baby’; poignant) overlaying Runt’s brutal beating. For anyone born, like I was, in the 1980s, this production is a shot of pure weaponised musical nostalgia. Every song you remember and don’t remember from your teenage years blasts into your brain as the strobe lights and dry ice drive you mad, or at least to hallucinating that you’re in a music video. It’s an odd experience, watching plays from your coming of age period (ah, the 90s) in today’s era of ultra commodified nostalgia. Of course not everyone in the audience will have been a teen in the late 90s, but the experience of being a teenager is universal. Disco Pigs is a play that works on different levels. This production doesn’t succeed on all of them, but it manages to capture the lighting in a bottle intense sweetness and rage of adolescence.

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Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court

Three generations of women live out their lives simultaneously, in this devastating examination of inherited trauma, suicide, and motherhood.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for two hours.

Time crashes into each other. Linear time ceases to exist. Past present and future elide. A triptych of female pain. Generations of hurt reach across the decades but can’t quite cross those last few feet; the only boundary between them their own isolation. A trauma reverberates down the generations, only (medicalised) violence putting pay to (self-inflicted) violence.

And a woman who wears nothing but red.

Alice Birch’s new play Anatomy of a Suicide opened last Thursday at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by previous Birch collaborator Katie Mitchell. A vivid study of suicide, loss, and the way lasting effects of trauma, three stories are told simultaneously. The stage is dissected into three, each part existing within a different time zone (the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2030s), each inhabited by a young woman: grandmother, mother, daughter living out their lives in union. In the 1970s Carol (a devastatingly effective Hattie Morahan, forensic in her elusiveness) struggles to remain alive for the sake of her daughter Anna (a 1990s hippie, with harder drugs) whose own daughter Bonnie lives in a future more concerned with love and career advancement than depleting fishing stocks.

They fuck you up, your mum and, well just your mum in this case. And your grandma.

This is a play about depression: the opening scene shows a desperately worried husband distractedly wrangling over floors flood-wrecked by a tub running over with bathwater and blood. His wife is “fine”, and remains “fine” throughout medication, ECT, different doctors, threats of Sectioning, a new house, and a baby: a tyrant in a romper suit, a “ fish hook round my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.”

The girl who once jumped off buildings to the delight of her less adventurous classmates is now a study in controlled and decisive terror at her own aliveness. Her daughter (Kate O’Flynn, playing an infuriatingly sympathetic and instantly recognisable mess) ploughs through cults, over sharing, heroin, hippie chic, ladette, statutory rape (disturbingly brushed over) and finally love and motherhood as transient solutions to more than a lifetime of trauma. Her own daughter (the always watchable Adelle Leonce) mirrors her grandmother’s stoic, arctic numbness. A protective self-contained froideur that not even “the best sex ever” (lesbian, as it happens) can defrost. Sex without intimacy. Motherhood without love. Or maybe with love, when love just isn’t enough.

This is not a play about depression: it is a play about mothers and daughters. How we struggle to establish our own identities and escape the shadow of our genetic legacy. It could be a play about the nature or nurture debate, but Birch is far too careful a playwright to reduce this cathartic twisty tragedy into a mere Ted talk.

Or a feminist lecture, yet feminism run through the play. Reproductive rights, sexual orientation, gender double standards, the myth of the happy housewife, the myth of having it all, motherhood.

It wasn’t until seeing the play for the second time that the level of complexity around all these largely unanswered questions really became clear. The absence of direct focus on the issue of consent draws more attention to it than a more detailed exploration could have done. Carol steadfastly rejects the same ECT her daughter presumably gave some form of consent to, but the fact Carol is not even allowed to view her new home unaccompanied suggests her right to make decisions about her own body is temporary and on sufferance. Anna’s drug-addled (and questionably illegal) seduction of a teenage boy is humiliating and traumatic to her and her alone; even when taking the role of predator, women are always the victim. Finally Bonnie’s decisive choice to stop generations of inherited trauma could be a rally for female reproductive rights, but the hollowness of her perceived lack of options defangs it. Which is as it should be, because this is a play about women: real, individual women, not causes.

The male characters are strangely passive and two-dimensional, and while it’s hard not to ponder why this doesn’t feel lacking. Women have been reduced to wives, girlfriends and the odd supporting (and supportive) nurse or secretary for ever, let the men take their turn. Not all stories have to be about men. It is pleasing that one woman’s mixed-race relationship and another’s same-sex relationship are treated in such an utterly casual and unremarkable (and unremarked) way, but fundamentally this is a play about three woman. There are interesting interludes from visiting children (apparently children from the 1970s to the 2030s are equally given to gnomic wisdoms and startlingly moments of insight in their childlike straight-talking), but only the three leads feel really real. Perhaps that’s intentional. Perhaps they are the only real ones.

The staging is that deceptively clever kind that feels like the obvious or only choice. The overlapping stories and dialogue led to some confusing or challenging moments in previews but these had been smoothed out by press night. Moments big and small are mirrored, dialogue and gesture showing a genetic legacy trapped in half a century of oppression.

There is little attempt to explain or hand wave the origin of a (multiple-) life long desire for non-existence. “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.” (Anne Sexton, ‘Wanting to Die’) Does it matter where Carol’s original depression came from? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Did Carol’s suicide render the future (present? past?) inevitable? A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for fifty years.

 

Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Two minutes into Emma Rice and Knee High’s Tristan and Yseult at the Globe and two men are dancing together, miming falsetto. One of them is a sexy-camp bad boy. We know he’s a sexy-camp bad boy because he’s wearing a sharp suit with sockless trainers (and a lilac ruffled shirt, introducing a 70s vibe to an otherwise rather 50s styling).

What follows throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: disco, cross-dressing, random bursts of dry ice, balloons, audience interaction, audience interaction involving balloons, acrobatics, ballroom, topical political references, aerial silks, deelyboppers, poetry, and what looks vaguely like a Kalamatianós with invisible handkerchiefs..

When the Riverdancing starts it reaches the cusp of being too much but then (marked by the most accidentally perfectly timed helicopter overhead) then the real men, the powerful men, the military men arrive, and the party stops.

But not for long, because then the fighting starts and they’re dancing, it’s a party, it’s all a party, even stabbing is a kind of dance and death just another side to life’s party.

Perhaps I’m overthinking. It’s true though that the music, carnival atmosphere, and general frenetic pace leaves few opportunities to slow down and let the real drama and emotion just… be. The first meeting between Tristan (Dominic Marsh, the standout and no doubt aimed for super stardom) and Yseult’s (Hannah Vassallo, impishly charismatic) takes place with her straddling him, unconscious in a hammock. The girl is certainly bold, but their initial encounter goes from lust to misunderstanding to hate to love in the space of about three high-energy minutes.

The cast are uniformly excellent, but the emotional highlight of the production has to go to Niall Ashdown, whose maid Brangian deftly moves between comedy and genuinely touching pathos as she agrees to give her virginity in lieu of her more experienced newlywed Queen. Bed tricks are common in classical theatre, but it’s hard to think of many plays where the stand-in’s point of view is considered. Musing the morning after, the obedient servant and (former?) Unloved regrets not that she hated the fraudulent sex, but that she liked it too much, and ponders whether her royal mistress would take her place on her wedding night.

7e4f6ccf-d95f-2659-7681fe12cf45a256But don’t worry if such wistful contemplation of the commodification of the female body and the inherent inequalities of searching for love in a brutally classicist society is not your style, there’ll be a group sing-along of Get Lucky along in a minute.

This adaptation used two separate narrators as framing devices, the first an adorable if clichéd (but it works so who cares?) coterie of “love-spotters”. These anoraked and binocular-laden misfortunates are members of an exclusive but undesirable club: The Unloved. Yes, it allows for bits of japery using old comedy standbys like the love testing machine, but the Unloved have so much heart nothing else is needed. The introduction of a second narrator with her own tragic twist ending (taken from Thomas of Britain’s version of the legend) is rather odd. True love apparently means marrying someone else and being a dick to them till they act out in frustration.

 

The names Tristan and Yseult have been a byword for tragic love for centuries, but this joyous party ends with a sombre ambiguity. The betrayed King Mark (Mike Shepherd, bringing real humanity and depth) could have been a one-dimensional tyrant, but he’s not. His marriage to Yseult could so easily have been a happy one. Maybe the real tragedy is not in lovers torn apart, but in the pain they inflict upon others.

 

Tickets from £5 (Standing) can be purchased from the Shakespeare’s Globe http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on

 

Blush, Soho Theatre

Snuff Box Theatre’s Blush transfers to the Soho Theatre after a sell-out run in Edinburgh. This modern-day morality tale explores five interconnected stories of revenge porn, sex, cyberspace, and the search for connection.

Told as a series of monologues, one male actor and one female actor (Daniel Foxsmith and writer Charlotte Josephine, both excellent) take turns bringing multiple characters to life in a blood-red circle hemmed in by lights and camera clicks. A teenage girl enacts an Athenian revenge against the boy who made her naked flesh go viral, but worse. A Bright Young Mind’s wine-fuelled misunderstanding with an sleazy-sympathetic (?) app developer spins into rape threats when unleashed onto the cannibalistic echo chamber of social media. A compulsive masturbator and protective family man is confronted, by way of a conveniently coincidental Hello Kitty poster, of the cost of his pastime. And elsewhere, a bloke doesn’t text his girlfriend back.

Josephine’s claustrophobic script pulsates with anger, pulling no punches yet offering no answers. The Internet a lawless badlands where dog eats dog and the only thing that can beat leaked nudes are leaked pencil-dicked nudes. Victims become aggressors. Loneliness is weaponised, and every female body a loaded gun. At just 70 minutes it’s almost too intense, the actors running, panting and dancing themselves into a frenzy, trapped within the circle like pacing zoo animals. The complex multi-rolling of mostly unnamed characters requires constant attention to avoid confusion as the disparate stories crash and fold into each other, but it is the emotional truth and rawness of the performances that bring a glimmer of light to a show with a thoroughly nihilistic view of modern society.