During the current period three YouTube Channels are broadcasting entire theatrical shows for free. They generally start at 7PM BST on certain weeknights but the videos will remain on the channels for 7 days afterwards before being taken down as something else is uploaded.
So far: Twelfth Night, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Frankenstein (both versions with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature), Anthony and Cleopatra.
The lists I’ve provided, of what have been shown so far, are by no means conclusive. They are only the ones I know have been shown recently. There are many clips on the channels if you wan to check out other productions by the organisations and, at least for the National Theatre, interesting ‘behind the scenes’ videos about the production process.
The organisations offer these broadcasts, for free, in hope of donations to support the theatre community.
“One minute we had customers, the next minute
there was no-one.”
In a lost village, blurred by redrawn borders,
hidden under a crumb on the map, Bear Ridge Stores still stands.
After a hundred years, the family butchers and grocers – a place for
odds and ends, contraband goods, and the last petrol pump for 30
miles – is now silent. But owners John Daniel and Noni are going
nowhere. They are defiantly drinking the remaining whiskey and
remembering good times, when everyone was on the same side and the
old language shone. Outside in the dark, a figure is making their way
One of Wales’ most celebrated writers, Ed Thomas (co-creator of Hinterland) makes a momentous return to the stage with this semi-autobiographical story about the places we leave behind, the indelible marks they make on us, and the unreliable memories we hold onto.
Writer Ed Thomas
Co-directors Vicky Featherstone & Ed
Designer Cai Dyfan
Composer John Hardy
Sound Designer Mike Beer
Noni: Rakie Ayola
The Captain: Jason Hughes
John Daniel: Rhys Ifans
Ifan William: Sion Daniel Young
World Premiere in Sherman Theatre‘s Main House
National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre
Performed in English (though there are a few Welsh words present e.g. bara brith).
Contains strong language, scenes of an adult
nature, loud noises & gun shots
Running time: Approx. 95 minutes (no interval)
I saw it on 25 September 2019 at 7.30pm.
I usually give quite
detailed, near exhaustive, accounts of a narrative but I feel due to
how new this play is it would be a disservice to do so. I will just
give a general outline for those who want it. A lot of the impact is
in the dialogue and performance of this play, so much so it could
easily be adapted for radio, so it may seem relatively uneventful.
It’s an allegorical narrative regarding the playwright’s memories of
his community and concerns about the challenges the Welsh language
and culture face both from the past and going forward when there are
so many foreign influences, most notably that of England. I probably
have forgotten certain elements or omit them intentionally in the
following paragraphs so there are some things for you to experience
A man, John Daniel, awakens in the remnants of his burnt out butcher’s shop after an aerial carpet bombing raid. He laments he is all alone now in the dark as snow falls about him. He begins to recount the birth of his son with his wife Noni and how proud he was. (I’ve forgotten the son’s name ironically but he does have one).
We then see him and his wife waving their butcher’s cleavers as planes fly overhead. They condemn that they don’t know if they’re on their side or against them during an ongoing war. A war that apparently ended decades ago yet still seems to affect them currently. They then spend a while discussing how their community at Bear Ridge has dwindled as they relive the memories of their past both in terms of recalling their customers, food and events. Their young slaughterman Ifan William comes from out of the trapdoor and goes into the fridge and returns to the underground slaughterhouse after some brief chatter. The couple continue their discussion once he has left reciting their mantra of foodstuffs happily to each other relishing the memories.
As the couple are
dancing to a repeating song on the radio a captain, who was involved
in the ongoing war, walks into their shop and holds them at gunpoint
not sure if they are friend or foe. Once reassured he chats with them
and says the song reminded him of his mother and youth. He recounts a
number of things, including how his commanding officer gave him the
order to clear the mountain before then shooting herself to his
shock. Eventually he gains the couple’s confidence. They discuss
memories and ‘the old language’ which only John Daniel now knows how
to speak but laments he is forgetting. He only remembers it because
he remembers speaking it to others but they’re all in the past so all
he has are his memories with which to keep the language alive. His
son spoke it fluently, Noni learned some but he is ultimately alone
now in knowing it which throws him into despair.
Suddenly the captain is on edge when Ifan William comes from out of the trap door again. He demands to know why they didn’t tell him of this third person. ‘You never asked’ John Daniel replies drily. Ifan William recounts his childhood growing up and going to university with the now dead son of the couple. The son went to university and was very progressive, philosophical and wanted to keep the ‘old language’ alive. However the son and Ifan William (who the son taught Welsh) were beaten by others one day in the street accusing them of being Germans and other nationalities though they were not as these aggressors didn’t recognise the old language of their own country and assumed the worst (the identity of the characters in the play as native Welsh people is never explicitly stated but some words and phrases dotted throughout the dialogue suggest this along with the distinctly Welsh naming styles of the characters). The son died in the war and had so much potential the characters who knew him lament. Ifan William admits he truly loved their son and their son loved him (to the degree it’s implied to have been romantic in nature but this too is never made explicit). John Daniel silently embraces Ifan William for their mutual loss.
The captain, after offering Ifan William a swig from his canteen, again recounts his memories. How he was ordered to clear the mountain by a commanding officer who then killed herself immediately afterwards in front of him having fulfilled her duty. The couple refuse to leave, despite being the only people left, as this is where they belong as does Ifan William. The captain tells them he is on the same side as them. Noni, agitated by such a broad declaration, asks if he really is or not and compares it to a river where there are two sides – the side they are on and the other side. People who want to swim over can try but the current is strong and deep many drown in the effort (as if referring to the Severn river which acts as both the physical and metaphysical division between the Welsh and English identities). She asks the captain again if he really is on their side or not. He insists he is. Now they’re all assured Noni offers to make tea and the captain excuses himself asking to go to the bathroom. John Daniel says it’s around the corner, behind the rocks, outside the building (actually it may have been in the building but the actor exits the stage via the rear). The captain leaves silently.
Ifan William enters
carrying a tray piled high with a china tea service. The couple and
Ifan William sit down to drink. A single gun shot rings out
(presumably the captain coming to the same conclusion his commander
did and committing suicide). Nothing is said. No one reacts. They sit
in silence drinking their tea and then, once everyone is content, a
plane flies overhead and it suddenly cuts to black and it seems a
bomb was finally dropped on Bear Ridge to clear it.
Arguably this loops back to the start of the play though you could also read the beginning as John Daniel lamenting his isolation as the only person who knows the old language… which he truly is if the play loops back to that opening scene as his wife (who was a learner), his son (who was fluent) and Ifan William (who was, I think, semi-fluent) are all now gone leaving him truly alone both in his memories, knowledge and physically.
I won’t go into great
detail. They’re all dressed in the manner one would expect of people
left with little to sustain themselves during an ongoing conflict
with few if any supplies available over a long time.
John Daniel is dressed
in a worn jumper and the white, but now grubby and worn, coat of a
butcher with an orange gilet over it. Around his ankles are scraps of
cloth over his worn boots. A shaggy beard and overall dishevelled
state indicate he has little time to pretend like he is at all at
peace with life to attend to such things. Not just due to the
situation they find themselves in but it seems like he’s always been
a bit like this and the gilet is, as explained during a piece of
dialogue, a birthday resent from his wife and the only clean thing on
him. Life weighs heavy on his shoulders.
Noni wears an apron and
cardigan with a tattered skirt and hobnail boots. Even in these bad
times it’s evident she tries her best to maintain normality by taking
care of herself appearance wise unlike her husband.
Ifan William is young and his clothes are relatively clean with little sign of wear. They are also of a much more modern, casual sportswear, design compared to those of John Daniel and Noni who, in comparison, could be from a hundred years ago or yesterday in their style of dress (except for the gilet which seems to act like a life vest keeping John Daniel afloat in modern times). The only dirt on the young man’s clothing is the dried, caked, blood from the job he does on his butcher’s apron. His beard and hair are relatively well trimmed in comparison to his wild, mountain man, looking employer John Daniel.
The captain has outerwear of a military design. I would say it reflects the clothing of a First World War office in the trenches but I believe it is meant to evoke a timeless militaristic style really. He wears heavy boots, a serviceman’s belt of pouches and a holster with his service revolver. A large, thick, scarf is wrapped around his neck obscuring any signs of a uniform and he wears a full length woollen, olive drab coloured, trench coat so little else is visible on his person beneath it.
Throughout the play the floor is covered in a light layer of fake snow as though the interior and exterior of the butcher’s shop is gutted.
There are three walls
to represent the interior of the shop. On the left wall is a cupboard
where Noni keeps the trinkets she has collected and which spill out
at the start of the play. On the right is a fridge door which when
opened lets the actor walk through as if entering a room sized
fridge. Again this too is featured at the start of the play but
neither plays any purpose besides establishing the characters of Noni
and Ifan William.
The rear wall is in
fact technically two pieces which sit either side of a green door
frame and door. These are the shop front, gutted by a previous bomb
explosion it can be assumed, and a broken window. The door itself is
intact with a ‘sorry we are closed’ sign on it and a set of lace
curtain netting across it. These are all removed about half way
through the run time once everyone is, presumably, stood outside.
A pile of broken school
desks and furniture sits left of centre representing all the
furniture they’ve had to break up for firewood during the ongoing
harsh weather conditions on the mountain without any outside aid
arriving. Hidden within this pile are two milk crates used for seats
at certain points of the play. Ifan William later uses a tin box as a
stool too which I think he brings up from the trapdoor.
Beyond the ‘shop’ are
black, dead, trees and high piles of rock to represent the mountain
range. A path leads behind the rocks which is where the captain goes,
off stage, at the end of the play.
The backdrop is a
curved white sheet lit in a manner to give the illusion of a heavy
misty skyline beyond which nothing can be seen. It becomes brightly
lit when planes fly over to silhouette the characters against it.
Overall I feel it’s very effective though I question if you could actually reduce the staging to be even more minimalist to be honest as so much of the play is in fact grounded in it’s dialogue rather than actions. Throughout the only ‘actions’ that occur are the couple wave their tools at the planes flying overhead once or twice cursing at them, an overfilled cupboard spilling, the couple dance, the captain firing his gun in frustration, Ifan William going in and out of the trapdoor, in and out of the fridge and later kicking up some dust, John Daniel when lamenting the loss of the old language scrabbling about creating a dust storm in frustration and the tea service being brought on at the end of the play. In fact you could even embellish it if you wanted to be honest without detracting from the core dynamics of the play.
The allegorical play begins with an incredibly strong echo of Dylan Thomas’ lyrical dialogue style most notably heard in Under Milk Wood when John Daniel and Noni begin reciting a list of customers and the foodstuffs they sold and enjoyed in the past as if relishing and being nourished by the language and memories they share.
Throughout John Daniels
has a phrase he often uses ‘no, you’re alright’ when he wants to
assure others or dismiss something troubling. You could reflect he
says this because he himself is not alright though I’ve often heard
fellow Welshmen, admittedly of an older generation, use the phrase in
the same tone Rhys Ifans uses where it is more akin to ‘I don’t
approve but I accept the situation at hand’. There is a lot of the
dour Welsh humour present in the play and I wonder if non-Welsh
people will ‘get it’. Only when it’s performed in England will we
know. I’m sure they will but sometimes it does seem people unfamiliar
with that Welsh style of humour feel it can be harsh hence the
stereotype some hang onto of us being isolationist when in reality we
are very warm towards visitors.
Noni is a difficult
character to categorise. She collects trinkets, she laments her sons
death and she loves her husband who it seems is notably older than
her. The only real information we get about her past, her memories,
tends to be through John Daniels recounting the birth of his son and
his first encounter with Noni where they both knew they were meant to
be together. She fits the Welsh archetype of a valleys girl, that is
to say bubbly, chatty, but not afraid of confronting people she
doesn’t agree with, however it feels she has the least substance
presented to the audience. She seems secondary to the male characters
and even her dead son whose ghost echoes throughout the memories of
the others. While it can be said that there’s an element of this
enforcing traditional stereotypes of women place being in the shadow
of the men in their lives it’s not as simple as that in Wales. We
have been a soft matriarchy throughout history so a woman being quiet
and ‘knowing her place’ is quite alien to us and only crept into our
culture through the influences of the English. So there’s an
underlying question regarding her character where arguably she is the
most conformist of the ‘native’ characters but we don’t have a chance
to explore that aspect of her characterisation during the plays run
time and it has to be portrayed via the actress’ mannerisms more so
than the dialogue.
Ifan William has two
scenes, one at the start is somewhat light hearted and merely acts as
a set up for the sudden shift in tone towards the end. The actor has
some great material to work with as he confesses his feeling to John
Daniel and Noni about their son. It could feel a bit laboured by a
less skilled actor so to see the shift of the character from somewhat
lackadaisical to heart-rendingly broken by his memories really
delivers a contrast to John Daniel and Noni. The older characters
recount happy times in the past and bemoan their current
circumstances while here the younger man finds trauma in the past
but, having survived an assault by bigots, seems to thrive in the
current circumstances having found his place in the world. So through
him we have elements of discussion regarding the ‘truth’ of cultural
heritage and the effects of rose tinted memories on passing it to the
next generation. While John Daniel speaks of a united community under
one language Ifan William presents the harsh reality of conflicting
cultures and of prejudice which isn’t acknowledged by the older
The captain, in
contrast to the other characters, is notably different sounding not
just in accent but diction and phrasing. He is an outsider but I feel
the role is being played far too safely so as not to feel jarring
when contrasted with the other characters tonally. If anything I
would actually like the play to be a bit more bold in this to truly
challenge the audience in the later part when he is asked if he is
‘on our side’ or not so they question if he is sincere or playing
along for survival. The actor performs the role well but I feel maybe
there needs to be some work on the role. Whether it’s to make him
more of an outsider conflicting with the other characters or truly
get across his desire to be on their side by gradually emulating
As it is I assume the
intention is for the audience to decide for themselves his motives
and values by the end of the play’s events. Does he shoot himself
just to repeat history as his commanding officer did; did he do it
because, despite his words, he truly couldn’t be on their side
despite his intentions as he lacked the language and other cultural
aspects to do so; was it because he didn’t seek to become like them.
Could it even be the case we should interpret his behaviour as PTSD
where he keeps reliving the moment he saw his commanding officer
shoot herself, after giving him his orders, thus leaving him to
wander in a liminal state somewhere between constantly reliving that
memory as a soldier and incapable of reacclimatising to civil society
(as is the case for many servicemen who suffer trauma during their
I think my overall
question about him is, PTSD possibility aside, whether he was a
soldier carrying out his duty, but faltered when the opposition was
given a face, or a refugee like figure trying to escape the war and
‘join’ the others in their world view of not being defined by the
conflict. He feels vaguely defined and I’m not completely certain
that was intentional to the degree it appears. Although, in fairness,
we never learn his name and it is certain he was meant to be
culturally ‘othered’ to the shared culture and history of the other
three characters as an outsider.
The staging is good but
perhaps needs some refining as I noted when discussing it earlier. At
times when a sense of claustrophobia is required it feels there is a
bit too much space inside the shop’s interior and yet when they’re
meant to be stood outside it feels far too claustrophobic ironically.
I’m not sure if that’s because the Sherman’s stage wasn’t quite right
for their planned layout but maybe on smaller stages the rubble on
the sides (which I omitted from the stage plan though it remains
throughout the performance) could be removed to give them more space
in the later parts of the play. I only say this as there is a moment
later in the play when John Daniels is meant to walk away from the
others to ‘speak the old language to the moon’ but unfortunately he
is barely 3 metres away on the stage. In fact Rhys gave a cheeky look
to the audience at this point as if acknowledging it. Perhaps for
that moment he can go onto the ‘mountain path’ the captain later uses
leading backstage instead as that would be more effective? It’s an
minor issue to be honest.
The performances are excellent but certainly I feel there might be a need to work on the pacing of dialogue or where to emphasis certain lines as sometimes there were moments of speaking over each other with little narrative purpose for it. Also while the characters are distinct I feel there needs to be more confidence in the delivery by the captain as he doesn’t seem as affected nor distinct from the others as he needs to be. As much as none of us wants to see overacting I do feel for John Daniel and Noni to fit the Welsh archetypes they are referencing they may need to be slightly more embellished with John Daniel having a slightly more intense manner with some pregnant pauses possibly.
I understand why the
performance choices were made however part of me feels, when the play
moves onto the Royal Court Theatre, it’s been done early to ‘tone
down’ the Welshness to be more accessible and that feels
counter-intuitive considering what the message of this play seems to
be. I’ve seen that done in translation of various works to localise
things but it never feels like a good idea in the long run. In effect
it seems to have caused a Welsh playwright, writing about Welsh
cultural matters obliquely, to ‘other’ his message in his own work as
if self censoring which speaks volumes about how entrenched the
cultural persecution of the Welsh culture and language is in our
mindset as a nation.
Part of me feels the
refusal to actually name Wales or Welsh in any form is possibly part
of the narrative in the sense it is self censorship as the ‘Welsh
Not’ was in the classroom for a time in the early twentieth century.
However it also in effect makes the play more universal while still
retaining the irrefutable inclusion of Welsh things such as the
characters’ naming (except the captain who is only known by his
military rank title and never his personal name), a reference to bara
brith and other elements which seem all too obvious in context to a
Welsh audience but might not to a different culture if there was a
foreign production of the play. (e.g. how Welsh seems part of the
‘Elder Speech language’ in the Polish fantasy literature series The
Witcher and it’s adaptions going as far as the card card in it being
Wales has a number of Welsh playwrights who, when doing work for television, are lauded and award winning yet to set a play in Wales seems to ghettoise it unlike if you set it in England. Perhaps that’s just me recalling my issues with Niall Griffith’s novel ‘Sheepshagger’ which felt like it could have been set in England’s west country or elsewhere rurally without losing anything as it’s so devoid of inherent ‘Welshness’ unlike this play.
I fear, in later productions, this play might have the Welsh elements edited out of it to localise it and thus lose its inherent message. As I said with my review of Gary Owen’s adaption of The Cherry Orchard, which localised Chekov’s play to 1980s Wales, there is a risk of losing part of a message or altering it in adaption which I dearly hope doesn’t occur here as discussion of the trials Wales has faced in maintaining its culture seem to be muted whenever presented to a wider audience. Certainly in my experience few people from other countries know much about us without it being tinged by English imperialism to the point they assume we are part of England and not a separate entity.
There is great
potential here but as I’ve seen it so early in it’s run I feel
everyone is still finding their stride in their performances and no
doubt, should you go see it, they’ll have worked out those nuances so
what is already a thoroughly enjoyable, evocative, play about
identity will become a modern classic. Already it is getting high
praise and, despite the critical tone of this review at times, I
thoroughly recommend seeing it!
A new adaptation based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Performed by award-winning actor, Robert Bowman and directed by Olivier Award nominee Sinéad Rushe.
Poprishchin is a low ranking civil servant for the Government, struggling to make his mark on life, but one day he makes an amazing discovery. Could he really be the next King of Spain?
Driven insane by government bureaucracy and hierarchy, Gogol’s dark comedy exposes one man’s reality spiralling deeper into a surreal fantasy world.
…Bowman perfectly encapsulates the madness as we watch him unravel before our eyes and head deeper into a fantasy world – Western Mail
Running time: 1 hour
I saw performed at the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 4 November 2017. There are no allocated seats which is incredibly rare in established venues but the audience seems so small there is no reason to do so. It also meant we probably got the best experience possible.
The performer, Robert Bowman, starts the play lying still on top of some pallets with a pile of books in one corner and a bare bulb hanging from above. When you enter the door he remains there until everyone is seated slowly turning the piece of paper in his hand.
He starts off speaking so suddenly at the beginning you don’t catch what he says but he is clearer a few minutes later. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not as the room was silent when he began. It did however add to the character’s dissonance and lasts at most the first line or two before he is far clearer as if to instinctively put you at edge as you delve into the mindset of Poprishchin via his increasingly frantic diary entries.
It’s an hour-long monologue where he usually remains on the crate pallets, as if they were the limits of the stage, but will, surpring you the first time it occurs, leavve this space and explore the space including often entering the audience. At certain sections sit in the audience (when performing the section where Poprishchin is going to the theatre one evening), rush at the front row of chairs (during the character’s breakdown) while carrying scissors and go sit in the back row of seats and during the final section after which Poprishchin is taken to the asylum (which he thinks is Spain) so Bowman alters the staging by upturning the pallets to create the walls of the asylum cell where Poprishchin is being kept.
I was sat in the second row with the seats in front of me left empty though people had sat at the far side of the front row. Bowman took advantage of this by sitting in the vacant seats for the ‘at the theatre’ part. He did a gradually more and more forced, over the top, laugh as if the character Poprishchin has to force himself to pretend to be similar to the ordinary theatre goers by overreacting to the unseen performance. Then pointing at myself and others, as we were in second row, telling us to stop overreacting and, during the later ‘I’m the new King of Spain’ section, crashing into the front row seating and invading the back rows while carrying scissors menacingly later prior to the final asylum scenes.
There was a mix of ages attending on the evening but ultimately about only about 12 people came to see the performance. I found that surprising. You would expect more especially with the high praise Bowman has had for this piece year after year having received rave reviews in Edinbrugh, but I guess not… The R17 events did try to promote it but I guess this style of theatre is hard to market in this day where people want spectacle or quantity over quality…
You are meant to start off laughing with Poprishchin only for it to gradually become clear how badly he’s affected with an increasingly warped perception of the world around him. I can’t say anyone laughed out loud but that wasn’t the point… this is the downfall of a man alienated from the society around him and has that dark sort of tragi-comic style of humour that Russia is renowned for and finds itself in many ways reflected in the Welsh sense of humour also.
Costume wise he wears a shabby striped dress shirt with a dirty t-shirt beneath, waistcoat and flat cap. During the later sections he removes his shirt and draws tally marks on himself with charcoal. Then a large number 8 on his chest when he thinks he is the new King of Spain. Towards the end he eventually composes, on stage, a cape from sheets of newspaper he straps together with masking tape when he dresses as the king of Spain. He does this all while ranting on stage. Quite impressive though I could see the tears in the paper. I wonder if it’s ever fallen apart of he has torn it too severely when putting it on. Well it’s all part of the spectacle leaving a great impact to see how far the character has fallen.
The stage is four pallets with alterations to hide certain items like the paper chain of dog’s correspondence letters or the paper he scrunched up as a hand puppet to represent the petty councillor confronting him at one point leading to a comedic scene of him conversing with a hand puppet as he mockingly recounts the event. In the final part he upturns the pallets to make the walls of the asylum cell. At one point, to represent the theatre, he opens up a book with a little pop-up theatre building, similar to a child’s pop-up book, then sat in the front row and began to laugh more and more hysterically which in-character showed how desperately out of step the character, yet desiring acceptance, even at this early stage when interacting with those around him (both as part of the play and when interacting with the audience).
A bare bulb hangs down and flares into a orangey pink light at times though there is also the lamp to one side and the stage lighting which intensifies starkly in later scenes creating long shadows across the space. He uses a bulldog clip to hang papers and such on the bare bulb wire in earlier scenes and tears them down later on. The sound and lighting play an important part in establishing the scenes especially in the hellscape like experience of the asylum. In the production’s minimalist staging it helps to enforce the sense of isolation and terror he fears during the story’s progress.
Review: Very intense. I really enjoyed it. I dislike ‘audience interaction’ stuff but this wasn’t reliant on it as Bowman would carry on and adapt as needed so it was more about him making clear how disconnected the character was from society so in fact it really worked incredibly well. We probably had the best experience of it possible as he could crash into the seats and be sat in front of us so there was always that slight barrier but interaction nonetheless. The usher was sat on the chair at the end of the front row, nearest the door, so maybe, if the show sold out, that’s the chair he would take?
Bowman has mastered this piece and you will find other actors failing to match the intensity and pitiable nature of the character in other versions after seeing this. He maintains the intensity of Poprishchin’s alienation throughout with turns between humour and tragedy effortlessly. We see the division between Poprishchin’s public and private identity begin to erode exposed through his developing obsession with numbers, amongst other signs, as his duality of nature declines. The insanity grows in degrees gradually over time replacing the somewhat idiosyncratic normality of earlier scenes with the desperate distress of the comi-tragic ending.
It’s the sort of thing you expect to play at Chapter as it is the experimental arts venue of Cardiff while the Sherman is for more established performers and artistic pieces, The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is music orientated, Wales Millennium Centre is for the ‘big ticket’ shows and the other venues in the city exist somewhere in between these extremes.
It’s the sort of thing you expect to be followed by a short after talk once it finishes really. But that’s it and off you go off into the bleak cold of night outside having seen an excellent performance that you’ll remember for years to come and compare other actors against.
It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see at least once in your life time, whether you love theatre or not, as it is a brilliant experience. I would happily go see it again given the chance. Highly recommended.
It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see!
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1962 play by Edward Albee. It examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship.
The play is in three acts, normally taking a little less than three hours to perform, with two 10-minute intermissions. The title is a pun on the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), substituting the name of the celebrated English author Virginia Woolf. Martha and George repeatedly sing this version of the song throughout the play.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It is frequently revived on the modern stage.
Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill star in a new production of the play, directed by James MacDonald, at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London currently (early 2017). This is the production I shall be discussing in this post from this point on though I do discuss the play in a broader aspect too while doing this.
Beige: stage floor
Light grey: Raised areas
Dark Grey: The entrance and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms.
Green: Access off stage. The lefthand door goes to the kitchen, the middle is the entrance to the house and living room and the one on the right leads to the toilet.
Purple: Offstage. I guess those sat on the right would have had some limited view but most events occur towards the front of stage.
Orange: The drinks trolley and the record player.
Red: the seating.
Brown: On the left the fireplace, centrally the table and the cabinet on which the piece of art sits.
Yellow: The triangle is the art piece they comment onn in the first act, the circles the bells that get hit at one point and the diamond a free standing light.
Thick black: Walls.
This image is an estimation of how everything was placed on stage. Kirsty Walk, during the brief break between acts 2 and 3 told us about the staging. The couch and lower level is set out like a boxing ring into which the characters enter to confront each other with the fireplace, doorway and reading areas act as the ringside where they take respite from the frisson of events as observers.
Act One: “Fun and Games”
George and Martha engage in dangerous emotional games. George is an associate professor of history and Martha is the daughter of the president of the college. After they return home, Martha reveals she has invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. The guests arrive – Nick, a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths), and his wife, Honey. As the four drink, Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse of each other in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple is first embarrassed and later enmeshed. They stay.
Martha taunts George aggressively, and he retaliates with his usual passive aggression. Martha tells an embarrassing story about how she humiliated him with a sucker-punch in front of her father. During the telling, George appears with a gun and fires at Martha, but an umbrella pops out. After this scare, Martha’s taunts continue, and George reacts violently by breaking a bottle. Nick and Honey become increasingly unsettled and, at the end of the act, Honey runs to the bathroom to vomit, because she had too much to drink.
Act Two: “Walpurgisnacht”
Traditionally, “Walpurgisnacht” is the name of an annual witches’ meeting (satiric in the context of the play). Nick and George are sitting outside. As they talk about their wives, Nick says that his wife had a “hysterical pregnancy”. George tells Nick about a time that he went to a gin-mill with some boarding school classmates, one of whom had accidentally killed his mother by shooting her. This friend was laughed at for ordering “bergin”. The following summer, the friend accidentally killed his father while driving, was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again. George and Nick discuss the possibility of having children and eventually argue and insult each other. After they rejoin the women in the house, Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Martha also reveals the truth about George’s creative writing escapades: he had tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed both of his parents (with the implication that the deaths were actually murder), but Martha’s father would not let it be published. George responds by attacking Martha, but Nick separates them.
George suggests a new game called “Get the Guests”. George insults and mocks Honey with an extemporaneous tale of “the Mousie” who “tooted brandy immodestly and spent half her time in the up-chuck”. Honey realizes that the story is about her and her “hysterical pregnancy”. The implication is that she trapped Nick into marrying her because of a false pregnancy. She feels sick and runs to the bathroom again.
At the end of this scene, Martha starts to act seductively towards Nick in George’s presence. George pretends to react calmly, reading a book. As Martha and Nick walk upstairs, George throws his book against the door. In all productions until 2005, Honey returns, wondering who rang the doorbell (Martha and Nick had knocked into some bells). George comes up with a plan to tell Martha that their son has died, and the act ends with George eagerly preparing to tell her. In what is labelled the “Definitive Edition” of the script, however, the second act ends before Honey arrives.
Act Three: “The Exorcism”
Martha appears alone in the living room, shouting at the others to come out from hiding. Nick joins her. The doorbell rings: it is George, with a bunch of snapdragons in his hand, calling out, “Flores para los muertos” (flowers for the dead), a reference to the play and movie A Streetcar Named Desire, also about a marriage and outside influences. Martha and George argue about whether the moon is up or down: George insists it is up, while Martha says she saw no moon from the bedroom. This leads to a discussion in which Martha and George insult Nick in tandem, an argument revealing that Nick was too drunk to have sex with Martha upstairs.
George asks Nick to bring Honey back for the final game – “Bringing Up Baby”. George and Martha have a son, about whom George has repeatedly told Martha to keep quiet. George talks about Martha’s overbearing attitude toward their son. He then prompts her for her “recitation”, in which they describe, in a bizarre duet, their son’s upbringing. Martha describes their son’s beauty and talents and then accuses George of ruining his life. As this segment progresses, George recites sections of the Libera me (part of the Requiem Mass, the Latin mass for the dead).
At the end of the play, George informs Martha that a messenger from Western Union arrived at the door earlier with a telegram saying their son was “killed late in the afternoon…on a country road, with his learner’s permit in his pocket” and that he “swerved, to avoid a porcupine”. The description matches that of the boy in the gin-mill story told earlier. Martha screams, “You can’t do that!” and collapses.
It becomes clear to the guests that George and Martha’s son is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. The fictional son is a final “game” the two have been playing since discovering early in their marriage that they are infertile. George has decided to “kill” him because Martha broke the game’s single rule: never mention their son to others. Overcome with horror and pity, Nick and Honey leave. Martha suggests they could invent a new imaginary child, but George forbids the idea, saying it was time for the game to end. The play ends with George singing, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to Martha, whereupon she replies, “I am, George…I am.”
When people debate the greatest plays ever written this one is regularly in top 10s and rightly so, when acted well it is one of the most devastating evenings of theatre you can encounter.
However the live broadcast of the current production I saw of it was not…
In a sentence I found that subtlety was thrown out for overt caricature which led the dark dry humour of the play to be performed as if it was an American sitcom.
There are only four roles in the play.
Martha – (Imelda Staunton) A screeching loud New Englander
the daughter of the president of the college
George – (Conleth Hill) an associate professor of history
A put upon ‘family man’ with a whiny nasal tonality
Nick – (Luke Treadaway) A stereotypical all American corn fed jock
a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths)
Honey – (Imogen Poots) A squeaky voiced, ditzy, North West all American girl
Nick’s childhood sweetheart and wife
I think what set it off on the wrong foot was the preceding short documentary we were presented with about the play’s history with talking head after talking head telling us of how Albee has humorous dialogue. This led to certain members of the audience laughing at every few lines as if a laugh track was playing in their head telling them when, where and to what degree to laugh.
Do you ever feel like you’re the young child in the children’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? That is how I feel about this particular production. It has received glowing reviews but the bitterness of the characters and their predicament is lost in people doing the broadest impressions of Americans they can manage. For the time period and location the play is set it’s not inaccurate but I kept getting the feeling more effort was put into that side of the production than working on the nuances of each exchange between the characters. Maybe I just feel Imelda Staunton is too old to play the role. Yes controversial. How dare I say such a thing of a living legend. But it reminds me of when, in opera, you have people with visible grey hair performing the role of teenagers because they’re the ones with the ability to do so. The performance is good but when you have a very short woman in her 60s. Playing a woman in her 50s, pawing at a tall 32 year old (playing a 28 year old) it comes across as false he would have, at least in this production, an all but implied sexual liaison while his wife lies drunk in the toilet.
The whole production is oddly paced and plays out in the style of a 1960s sitcom in tone. I think what suits it better is to play it far more straight, to allow the black humour of the passive aggression play out without flourishes. Perhaps what I instinctively felt was there was no energy between the performers. Of course it’s about dysfunctional relationships but even that has an energy to it which I found lacking here and instead replaced with energy you expect of a comedy which doesn’t fit the tone I was expecting.
Imelda Staunton all but yells her lines. Each. And. Every. Time. This is a great acting by a living theatre legend? Her performance is praised but there is no nuance. Either she’s shouting, thrusting herself at Nick or rattling off stories intending to shame her husband… until the final scene which is performed well but is too little too late. Nuance be damned. It’s far too over the top. I saw her, in person, performing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Rose in the 2015 production of Gypsy and can’t help but feel she has brought over some of that behaviour when reprising the American accent which was a mistake. She is a good actor but something in the direction has led her and the others astray. Less shouting and I probably would have enjoyed it more. There’s a way to be loud without coming across as if every line should be shouted and she is more than skilled enough to do so.
Conleth Hill… I don’t know what to say. He plays the role of a put upon family man from a 1950s American sitcom. Burton played the role as a mild mannered yet passively aggressive man of letters while Hill plays the role as… Varys from Game of Thrones (who he plays) so I am a bit concerned he lacks range as I’ve not had the chance to see him in other productions. If you know Nathan Lane and how he performs comedy roles just imagine him in the role and you’re more or less where I was watching this. What are meant to be bitter barbs of a frustrated man come across like catty comments more fitting of a stereotyped gay character. Maybe that’s something they were implying in this production though I feel I’m giving them more credit that they deserve.
Luke Treadaway plays his role overly safe if not quite bland. Imagine a jock from a comedy film or all American young hero from a war film. There you go you know how he came across both aurally and physically. Admittedly the character lends himself to being played that way but it’s too blunt. The liaison between Nick and Martha comes across as so sudden and forced due to how things have been staged that it’s as if you put two cats on heat in a box and watched them writhing into each other. Partially intentional of course but a bit too forced here when the others are in the room still.
Imogen Poots also plays her role somewhat safe if not overly straight with little if any nuance. Someone apparently watched Grease and decided to replicate a Pink Ladies. The role is a foil for the others and is meant to offer some levity to the deeply embittered proceedings but here, where everything is on the verge of spilling into slapstick, it’s hard to make the role have any weight sadly. She is a good actress and makes the most of what she can thus stealing a few scenes but usually gets left in the sidelines. Often quite literally by being offstage for most of acts two and three.
There is, as the preceding documentary insisted, humour in the dialogue but by drawing attention to it with slapstick like delivery undermines the underlying tragedy of the narrative involving a marital breakdown and how the characters feel trapped by social conventions.
Each person is ignoring reality and perpetuating a socially acceptable facade. They do so to appear as successful members of society when in reality each of them is, in their own way, severely damaged. In their overwrought efforts to fit social norms they only exacerbates their problems until confronted with their reality which ultimately breaks them. Be it Martha marrying George because she wanted to remain a part of her feckless father’s world in which she herself could never impress him. George never becoming head of the History department. Nick who married his childhood sweetheart because that’s what everyone expected of him (especially after the phantom pregnancy) or Honey who you could argue remains a cypher to us beyond her existence as Nick’s wife.
The costumes were what you would expect so there is no fault there and the stage design gives an over burdened, claustrophobic, atmosphere helping emphasis the intensity of the character’s interactions with it’s excessive furniture tightly packed into a small area. Some liberties were taken in order to make it more of a chamber drama than other productions might but on the whole you don’t miss anything substantial.
The play is good. This production is not.
If you have never seen a production of this play before then go watch the film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I never suggest watching the film as, of course, it’s a completely different experience – however in this case I think the real life relationship of Burton and Taylor lent the dialogue exchanges a depth that is hard to replicate though, by their own admission, it took a toll on their relationship and Taylor felt she was playing Martha too much in real life afterwards. I feel the play is better played understated and straight while this version has overplayed the humorous aspects.
Personally I feel the delicate balance required for this play is lost and makes me wonder if, in trying to play up to the humour inherent in Albee’s dialogue, James MacDonald unintentionally played up the humour to differentiate this production from others and in doing so completely undermined the drama of the piece. It discredits the themes of reality versus illusion, as all comedy requires some level by trivialising or satirising of reality in order for us to cope with it’s harshness, and the social expectations both we and society expect of each other which few, if any can live up to.
Playing it for laughs too much means the impact of the reality is muted and because Martha is played over the top we see her more as a caricature not as a tragic figure who feels the need to exaggerate her actions in order to garner a reaction – first from a father who all but ignores her when she doesn’t serve his purpose and then a husband she feels is inattentive to her needs.
Nick is the overachiever being both an athlete and a prodigy who got his masters at 19 years old. He has to get things right at all times because that is what is expected of him. Even in the bed room he is expected to be a stud but ultimately, like all the men in Martha’s life, failing her as a ‘flop’. Honey gets pregnant (albeit it’s proven to be a phantom pregnancy soon after) so of course he will marry her as any good guy would. Failure is not an option.
Contrasting to him is George to whom failure is the only option and like any underachiever he plays the role of satirist playing out fictional narratives over and over to trivialise the dramas of reality. He fails Martha by not having children and by not being able to stand up to nor replace her father as a potent, in both senses, male figure in her life.
Honey… is a cypher. Is Honey even her real name or just a moniker everyone calls her by just like Lady Bird Johnson in real life because that’s the only name anyone around her uses? Do we hear of anything she does exclusive of Nick? Thus she is in the role of the trophy wife, as George was the trophy husband expected to have achieved but ultimately failing too for Martha.
Honey and George mirror each other as ‘failures’ – he as an academic and husband and she as a traditional housewife meant to serve her husband and cause him no trouble. Both fail to bear children in comparison to their alpha partners who, over the nights proceedings, are drawn to each other and have a tryst which ultimately leads them to realise that it’s not an equal they need but a partner who compliments and supports them. Honey, despite drinking, plays the doting wife to her husband obeying him when leaving while George, as Martha mocks at one point, makes her laugh and as the play ends he tries, but fails, to comfort her as she admits she is deeply scared now her bravado has been stripped away and she accepts reality now George has stopped humouring her about their son and no doubt any number of unspoken illusions they have maintained with one another until this point.
This review might be a bit patchy but I keep writing things and not posting them so expect, in the following few weeks, reviews of things that are a bit out of date…
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