Life in the Pressure Cooker: The Kitchen

12 Oct

It might have been better if John Dexter, then a nascent directorial star with The Royal Court Theatre, hadn’t loved Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen so much.

Tom Brooke and Rory Keenan fight over the hob

Written for a 1954 Sunday Observer competition which it didn’t win, The Kitchen still seems not quite ready for public consumption.  The wit is slow, the repartee unnatural and the rehashed structure clumsy in its transparency.  But Dexter, having wowed The Royal Court’s artistic director with his productions of Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, seemed to want to show he could direct even a text previously turned down by the theatre he was working in.

The original version of the script was without interlude or interval; a single relentless scene of life in a restaurant kitchen.  Dexter told Wesker to break it up with a quiet section.  “He didn’t care what it as about as long as it broke the intensity of the two ‘work’ parts,” writes Wesker.  The resulting “dream sequence” at the beginning of the second act does just this: it breaks the frenetic energy of the working kitchen, but that’s all it does.  It has no cohesion with the first act and is painfully signposted in the second act.  Because of this it remains quite obviously a dramatic device, a necessary addition, rather than an organic – or useful – development in the plot.

The cast move naturally between dialogue and dance

But if the script fails in its attempts at loftiness, it succeeds at its simplest level: to show life in the pressure cooker environment of a commercial kitchen.  And some of the acting is superb.  Tom Brooke weaves his way fluidly around the onstage labyrinth of kitchen units, all the while twitching with the nervous energy of his character Peter.  Physically the play is mesmerising: twice the actors slide into quasi-dance routines to show the repetitive and intricate nature of their work.  Movement Director Aline David can be proud of the way this blends into the rest of the play.

Rory Keenan and Katie Lyons deserve mentions for their honest depictions of Kevin and Monique.  Luke Norris brings a spark to Michael and Bruce Myers gets the ponderous, surly Marango just right.

Watch this play for its fabulous set.  Watch it for its actors, its choreography, for its insight into the backstage of a restaurant.  Just don’t watch it for its script.

The Kitchen is at the Olivier, National Theatre until Wednesday 9th November 2011.

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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.

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.

Comedy In Climate Change: The Heretic

15 Mar

Johnny Flynn's Ben ponders carbon levels

My motive for going to see this play was less than pure: an unhealthy fascination for Johnny Flynn, a tousled haired youth adeptly riding the current wave of folk revival on YouTube. I didn’t really know what the play was about when I took my seat, and certainly didn’t have any expectations.

Which is perhaps why I was so entertained by The Heretic. Ostensibly about global warming, the first half of the play doesn’t move from Dr Diane Cassell’s (Juliet Stevenson) university room, from which she continues her research into rising – or rather not rising – sea levels. Stevenson perfectly plays the put-upon teacher, colleague and mother; a beacon of commonsense in a sea of radical, ego-maniacal conflict.

Orbiting around her, the small cast (five in total) work brilliantly together, jumping on the end of each others’ lines with wonderful timing. Particularly funny in his matter-of-factness was the towering caretaker (played by Adrian Hood). Slapstick is often belittled for being too easy, but Hood’s physical accuracy is just as hard to pull off as any witty line and the reward, certainly in this performance, can be jaw-achingly universal.

Writer Richard Bean plays with human belief structures. Climate change becomes a religion (hence the ‘heretic’) and then a political ideology – something you can choose to believe in, or not. Dr Cassell struggles to teach her students (and indeed her colleagues) the difference between fact and belief; science and religion. But it becomes clear that even her scientific rationality cannot be totally divorced from personal motivations.

The caretaker studies Dr Cassell's death threat

It’s described as a ‘black comedy’ in the programme, but I found the comedy more a deep shade of blue. The few opportunities for genuine emotion were always sabotaged by the insincerity of the characters. And all the pseudo-intellectual banter rendered them quite distant at times in their pretentiousness; not the kind of characters to easily engender empathy in the audience.

All in all, the greatest triumph, I thought, was the interplay between high-brow subjects and low-brow delivery. The meeting of witty intellectualism and physical slapstick. It showed you don’t have to be clever to be funny, but neither are you unfunny if you’re clever.

I’d like to think that even if I’d read the press about this play and built up some expectation, I’d still have enjoyed The Heretic.

The Heretic is playing at The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square until 19th March 2011.

Beauty In Contemplation: Des Hommes Et Des Dieux

17 Dec

Religion may have become a dirty word, but Of God’s And Men, which follows a group of Cistercian monks living in fear of Islamic fundamentalists in North Africa, transcends religious differences to take on universal themes of belief and brotherhood.

Details of the real kidnap of the ageing French group from their rudimentary monastery in Algeria in 1996 remain shrouded in mystery. Quite sensibly Director Xavier Beauvois doesn’t pretend to shed light on the whole story. Instead he and his Director of Photography, Caroline Champetier, concentrate on the decisions and the inner turmoil of the members of this religious community in the weeks leading up to their being taken hostage.

The camera shows the unsettling events of a small North African village through the observant and inclusive eyes of the monks. From Islamic village celebrations to the tilling of the land, the Christian brothers are involved in every ritual of their wider community. The images we are shown are presented to us as though directly from the monks : without judgement. As an audience we are not invited to assess the decisions and actions taken by individuals, but rather to realise the futility of such judgement.

Neither is this a story of two sides. The band of mujahideen may be introduced as the Christian monks’ enemies, but it becomes apparent that there is a third, morally dubious, party in the form of a militarised government presence. Different codes of ethics intertwine and clash as each group tries to accommodate the other without losing its own identity.

Religious imagery infuses the whole film. A particularly moving scene with obvious overtones of the Last Supper sees the camera cutting between extreme close-ups of the monks’ faces as they turn from laughter to tears, all set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Agnostic myself, Of Gods And Men didn’t endear me to either religion. But it did make me appreciate the aesthetics of asceticism.

Des Hommes Et Des Dieux is in the running for the Grand Prix at Cannes this year.

What Does Marriage Mean?

25 Sep

Who's next?

A friend replied to a text of mine this week that her boyfriend of a year and a half had just proposed to her. And that she’d accepted.

She’s one half of the fifth couple among my friends to announce their engagement in the last year. Most of us are between 23 and 26 years old, barely out of full-time education and still in the embryonic stages of our careers: surely not old enough for marriage?

Once the initial shock, excitement and terror wore off I began thinking: what does marriage actually mean to the modern 20-something-year-old?

Back when all brides were virgins and a white dress wasn’t worn to complement a tan, marriage was a social mechanism to promote monogamy over the evolutionary urge to reproduce with as many genetic variants as possible. It encouraged us into tidy family units which limited the social unrest caused by human jealousy. Now that we recognise this, marriage must be little more than a deviation from the “norm” of our natural human urges, right?

Not according to my boyfriend, who came up with one of the most credible arguments for monogamy I’ve heard recently: while it may be natural for unsophisticated animals to shag everything they can, for humans there is more to consider than mere procreation. We don’t just look for someone to help us make offspring; we want someone we find intellectually engaging, with whom we can share hobbies, have fun, and whom we find physically attractive. Because we are thinking creatures, we need more from a mate than strong progeny; we need stimulation and enjoyment.  And given most of us find that few partners provide all these things consistently over a considerable period of time, it seems only natural that we should want to commit when we find one who doesn’t fall short.  Because the ongoing fulfillment of being with someone compatible trumps the momentary excitement of sleeping with someone new.

So much for monogamy, but what about marriage?  I’d much rather make an active decision every morning to be with my boyfriend because I love him, than to remember as I wake up that we’re eternally bound to one another in marriage.  For me monogamy is romantic; marriage is just a contract that stops us choosing monogamy and makes it obligatory.

I should clarify at this point that I’m not against marriage.  I just don’t see it as a romantic gesture.  Romance to me is choosing to love one another when nothing holds you to it; binding yourselves together legally and religiously has nothing to do with that.

If I get married it won’t be to push my relationship into a new phase; it will be to make mine, my partner’s and any potential children’s lives easier.  It is cheaper and simpler to live as a married couple.  Moreover I’d like my children to grow up with the strong sense of family that I did.  Part of it may be a public declaration of mine and my partner’s commitment to each other, but it won’t be a private one: we won’t need to make such declarations to each other.

So my marriage will be a social gesture rather than a romantic one.  The romance will be in my relationship; the wedding will be nothing more than a public celebration of that.

And it had better be a damned good party.

Seeing Red

19 May

The laser is applied once the flap has been created and pulled back

Signs of life from the floor below and I slowly start to wake up, emerging from a deep, sedative-induced slumber.  A strap around my head tightens against the pillow and I remember that I’m wearing goggles to protect my eyes, which were lasered yesterday.  The excitement of opening my eyes for the first time since surgery makes my next movements ceremoniously slow.  I lift the goggles, turn to the bedroom and prepare to open my eyes.

I’ve had myopia and astigmatism for as long as I can remember.  At fourteen my life was vastly improved by contact lenses, which stopped me feeling like a four-eyed geek and gave me some of the confidence I was desperately lacking.  But wearing contact lenses every waking hour was not good for my eyes, which became dry and veined.  Opticians scared me into returning part-time to the glasses I hated and I resigned myself to a blurry life of optical aids.

But five months ago I heard about Intra LASIK.  It is a new form of laser eye surgery that requires no blades.  A laser creates a flap in the outer corneal layer, which is peeled back to expose the eye to another laser, which reshapes the lens to achieve perfect vision.  The procedure is advertised as painless, swift and with immediate effect.  It costs between £2500 and £4000 but, given that I spend £30 a month on contact lenses and at least £150 every 2 years on glasses, it pays for itself within 10 years.

After a two-hour consultation I was cleared for surgery and booked in for the week after.  I arrived at the surgery ten minutes late yet was greeted with smiles by the receptionist.  A nurse soon ushered me through to the preparation hall, where I was dosed up with sedative and anaesthetic eye drops.  Before long I was led through to the operating theatre (if that’s what it’s called), shod in plastic slippers and hair in paper shower cap.

Lying back on the operating bed I began to feel apprehensive for the first time, but decided to surrender to the encouraging voices around me and the warm dark atmosphere of the chamber.  The surgeon placed a circular clip between my eyelids to stop me from blinking – that was probably the most uncomfortable part of the whole operation.  Then I was told to look straight ahead at a blurred series of blue-white lights.  Unbeknown to me this was the flap being created, though I couldn’t feel it.  The same thing was done to my left eye.  I can’t be sure when the flaps were lifted off, but everything became very blurred.  I was asked to keep staring straight ahead into a pool of red light.  Suddenly it was like being inside the music video for a psychedelic sixties’ tune.  Red, orange and green lights intertwined, grew and shrunk before me.  Little worms of black wriggled across my vision.  And all the while the zapping sound of the laser continued and a faintly disconcerting smell of singeing filled my nostrils.  At the end of each zap the singeing smell gave way to an almost fishy smell, caused, I assume, by the saline solution being generously sprayed into my eye.

Half an hour and only mild discomfort later I sat up on the operating bed, read the time on the clock on the wall and walked out of the theatre with everything in soft focus, like a 1950s’ film.  I was taken to a reclined chair to close my eyes behind the set of goggles handed to me, and to drink a cup of tea.

Post-op

For 24 hours I was told not to open my eyes, though I couldn’t resist sneaking a peek through half-closed eyes.  This morning was the first time I was able to open my eyes, and what revelation!  To be able to see across the room without reaching for specs – that is an exhilaration only someone who has lived with imperfect sight for several decades can understand.  I just hope it lasts…

I had my surgery at the Centre for Sight in East Grinstead and my consultation at their London office off Harley Street.

www.centreforsight.com

The Road to A Prophet

7 May

The Road movie poster

Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men was such a success on screen that director John Hillcoat decided to adapt another of McCarthy’s books, giving us The Road, which came out this week.  Bleak, apocalyptic and relentless, The Road merits its tag as “feelbad film of the year” from David Edwards writing in the Mirror.  But on the whole it’s been very well-received by critics.  The performances, especially from thirteen-year-old Kodi McPhee, are compelling; Nick Cave’s score blends masterfully with the dialogue, which is convincingly sparse at times; and the grey-on-grey end-of-the-world vision is sufficiently disturbing.  But the themes are not developed enough.  Isolation, parenthood, earth’s destruction, unconditional love, anarchy, unguided morality – all these notions are introduced but none are followed through.  The result, for me at least, was a feeling of dissatisfaction.  This film may have thrown up some ideas, but it certainly wasn’t, as Philip French writes in The Observer “affirmative and life-enhancing”.  Quite the opposite in fact, notions of good and bad, of life and death are set up only to be knocked down.  And in the surprising turn of events at the end of the film there is no resolution, only more questions left unanswered.  For such a long road, it’s a shame it doesn’t lead anywhere.

Un Prophet movie poster

Where The Road fails A Prophet, Jacques Audiard’s prison drama, succeeds.  Revelling in the confined prison landscape, Audiard’s camera evokes barrenness without the weariness of The Road’s scenery.  With an energetic performance from Tahar Rahim, A Prophet takes us swiftly through prison politics, the storyline ducking and weaving with the same agility as the main character El Djebena.  Questions may not all be answered in this film, but there is the feeling that they could be.

A Pyjama Party

7 May

Get me to the polls on time

Election day.  The longest day of the year for those waiting to get in (or out) of power, and surely one of the most anti-climactic for those voting.

Who has ever come out of their local polling station punching the air in a triumphant gesture of recognition at having exercised their democratic right?  Certainly no one at my three last local stations.  That kind of fervour doesn’t happen in Britain.  Or does it?

In my (admittedly short) adult lifetime there hasn’t been much to get excited about in Britain politically.  Like so many young voters, I rocked up at the last general election more out of curiosity than any sense of political responsibility.  I was confronted with a list of names I didn’t recognise and the bland expression of an attendant who clearly didn’t care where he was let alone how to fill out the ballot papers.  I’d been expecting balloon-clad representatives, recyclable polystyrene cups of tea, perhaps even the odd custard cream.  And certainly only one ballot sheet with the three (or let’s face it, two) main parties clearly listed for me to put my one cross beside.

Ignorant of my local councillors I just stuck three crosses on the yellow paper by the names that most appealed to me aesthetically (a great time to have an alliterative name), on the white paper beside the party I vaguely felt I ought to support.  I may have exercised my democratic right, but any pride I should have felt doing so was eclipsed by an uneasy sense of shame.

Things are different this time.  In 2010 more young people have registered to vote than ever before.  And we’re not just wielding our pens: young people have researched parties and local councillors and are making decisions based on manifestos, TV debates and meetings with local candidates.  Pubs and bars around the country have been full of heated discussions about the economy, taxation, electoral reform and spending cuts.  Everyone has an opinion, an opinion they are expressing on paper in their local polling stations.

We’re not just voting with our social conscience now.  Electioneering has become more sophisticated.  Now we’re looking towards our own personal fortune and wellbeing.  And that’s the trouble with being young:  the pull between liberal ideals and holding onto personal wealth are tough tides to reconcile, especially for graduates with the prospect of a well-paid job.

But whatever decisions young people are facing as they drag themselves out of bed to get to the polling stations, at least they are getting there.  Three mop-haired girls sporting varying shades of pink pyjamas were in front of me in the queue yesterday morning when I went to vote.  I may have wished they’d brushed their teeth before wafting into the polling station, but I couldn’t criticise their dedication to democracy.