Archive | August, 2011

Can I Have a Definition Please? Donmar Does Musical.

19 Aug

I don’t like watching musicals, I love performing in them. All the finger-clicking, key-changing, eyebrow-raising absurdity of a Reno Sweeney makes her a treat to perform. But musicals are too often like school productions: self-indulgent to perform and painful to watch.

This is why the Donmar’s latest offering, out of character as it is, doesn’t rely on the cast to charm the audience. It knows that the only way to endear itself to spectators is to let them become actors.

The cast of Putnam County Annual Spelling Bee

So my sister spent the first half of the play onstage with three other audience members, all of them desperately trying to spell words like dyslexia (she got it right) and lachrymose (he got it wrong). And so too I found myself being serenaded by one of the geeky teenage characters, who picked out my fluffy pink jumper, renamed me Marigold and was disqualified from the Bee for misspelling titillate.

The confined space of the Donmar is perfectly utilisedto create a school gymnasium in which you feel you’re an actual audience member of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The humour is gloriously bawdy and occasionally genuinely witty. And, crucially, the music is fantastic. I am still humming the ridiculous theme tune and trying to figure out why the harmonies worked so perfectly.

I was lucky enough to have an audience with Michael Grandage, the cast and director Jamie Lloyd after the show, and asked them why they thought this all-American musical could work on the English stage that has just seen Derek Jacobi play Lear?

“I saw this performed in Sydney”, replied Lloyd, “and, without disrespect to the Sydney playhouse, it was done in such an over-the-top way that everything became a caricature. So I wanted to see what would happen if I took this back to the UK and stripped it back to balance it with some truth.”

That might be what makes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee a success: at the centre of all the cheerleading pom poms and cheesy songs is a kernel of truth. Parents can be over-achieving, children can be neurotic, and both can blow the spelling of the word deesis totally out of proportion.

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Hard To Beat? Butley.

19 Aug

Harold Pinter loved Butley, he “found its savage, lacerating wit hard to beat.”*  And I trust Pinter so I’m pretty sure I’ll love Butley too.  What’s more, this production has Dominic West (swoon) in it.  What’s not to love?

Come the interval and I’m perplexed.  I deliberately haven’t read anything about Simon Gray or the play because – in a fit of New Critical fervour – I’m trying not to let my preconceptions neatly box it all up into its appropriate pigeonholes.  Come on, try and appreciate it on its own terms.  Well, the script is sharp, pithy, funny and pathetic at times.  But I can’t help feeling it is being let down by over-theatrical performances.  West has lost his understated television personality and is taking an almost Wildean turn, oscillating between his own deep-voiced machoism and someone else’s funny but ridiculous prancing camp.  I’m not sure Butley’s lines call for such an overt depiction of his bisexuality.

Dominic West as Butley

That’s the problem with much of the characterisation in this production.  The actors do most of the reading between the lines for you, leaving their audience with little to do and, therefore, little reason to stay.
The point of the play (and this is where my New Critical fervour fizzles out) is to poke fun at the English intellectual middle class male’s self-denial.  In the 1970s, when Butley was first performed, the eponymous character’s inability to talk straight about his homosexual feelings would have been put down to his internal struggle to accept them.  In 2011 West makes it about power.  While he (Butley) refuses to be open about his feelings for Joey, Joey (who does not conceal his homosexuality) is in the weaker position.  The minute Butley feels himself losing ground in their verbal duelling, he reminds Joey – and himself – that he can’t be hurt by Joey because he’s not gay anyway.  It’s a childish move and eventually hurts Butley more than Joey.

If I’ve been hard on the actors in this production it’s probably because I haven’t read the script.  It may be that this cast, halfway through a long run at The Duchess, were losing energy – the momentum certainly felt lacking throughout the play.  But it might also be that Gray’s script, with its reliance on words over theatricality, is better in the reading than in the watching.

The “rapier wit” feted by the billboards felt more like a machete to me, often too deliberate and dropping into the pauses with a smug expectation of laughter.  What Gray attempts, in the poignant yet humorous portrayal of his lead character, has been done better by Alan Bennett.  So on this occasion I think I’ll disagree with Pinter – Butley is not so hard to beat.

Butley continues at The Duchess, London until 27th August 2011.

*Harold Pinter, from his introduction published in Simon Gray: Plays 1  (Faber, 2010)

Lost In Translation: Schiller’s Love And Intrigue

7 Aug

Friedrich Schiller isn’t a name you see very often in the West End.  So it was adventurous of Michael Grandage to choose the 18th Century German playwright’s third play to put on at The Donmar last month.

Love, lust, court intrigue, betrayal, despotic power, plotting: Intrigue And Love (the play’s original title) has all the elements of an Elizabethan or Jacobean tragedy.  The trouble is, almost two centuries later, Schiller seems unable in this play to offer his audience any development on the themes rehearsed by his British predecessors Shakespeare  and Middleton.  Schiller’s main achievement is transferring the genre to a German setting.  By definition this means that any English performance of Intrigue And Love will, in translation, lose its only merit.

Max Bennet and Felicity Jones as Ferdinand and Luise

Mike Poulton does a great job translating the German and Grandage renames the play Luise Miller to signify emphasis on the tragic heroine rather than the ridiculous Sheridan-style courtly antics.  Yet I still couldn’t help feeling that I was watching a second-rate tragedy.  You couldn’t compare the language with Shakespeare’s (it would have helped to hear the original German for this).  And the plot, after Othello and Romeo and Juliet, was predictable.

But the staging, direction and acting were as impeccable as ever at the Donmar.  In particular John Light, as the Chancellor’s ingratiating and Machiavellian apprentice Wurm, stood out with his silkily rough-edged deep voice and impenetrable manner.  David Dawson provided a modern touch of comedy with his uber-camp Horfmarshcall Von Kalb and Ben Daniels was a perfectly chilling court-climbing Chancellor.  It is always hardest to play the innocent protagonists in tragedy, but Max Bennett and Felicity Jones managed to tread the line between pure-hearted innocence and flawed realism without falling into self-righteous tedium.  Jones especially shone with her childlike yet thoughtful delivery.
An adventurous, if odd, choice of play.  Perhaps the reason one doesn’t see more of Schiller in the West End is because his plays simply don’t work that well in English.