On Bear Ridge

“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 towards them…

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.

Ed Thomas speaks about writing the play

Writer Ed Thomas

Co-directors Vicky Featherstone & Ed Thomas

Designer Cai Dyfan

Composer John Hardy

Sound Designer Mike Beer

Cast

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.

The cast and staff speak of the play.

Synopsis

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 for yourself.

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.

John Daniel and Noni dancing to the radio

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 holds his service revolver to his head as Ifan William watches

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.

The End.

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.

Costumes

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.

Staging

A rough sketch of the stage layout. I forgot to include the debris at the sides of the stage.

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.

An interview, featuring clips, about the play in Welsh. Turn on the auto-translation of the Closed Captions if you want to follow the comments made.

Review

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 generation.

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 them.

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 service).

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 called Gwent).

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!

The Un-born by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the child in the womb,
neither asking to be born
or not to be born, biding its time
without the knowledge of time,
model for the sulptor who would depict
the tranquility that inheres
before thought, or the purity of thought
without language. Its smile forgave
the anachronism of the nomenclature
that would keep it foetal. Its hand
opened delicately as flowers
in innocency's grave.
Was its part written? I have seen
it waiting breathlessly in the wings
to come forth on to a stage
of soil or concrete, where wings
are a memory only or an aspiration.

by R. S. Thomas
from Mass for Hard Times (1992)

Diary of a Mad Man

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

Tickets: £12/£10

Age 12+

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.

20171104_192745 the diary of a madman stage and actor before the start

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?

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.

Stage Layout

whose afraid of virginia woolf staging

 

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.

Plot summary

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.”

Review

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…

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter

The performance I attended was held on Saturday 3 September 2016 at The New Theatre, Cardiff.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 – January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April– – May 1976, and New York October – –December, returning to the Lyttelton, January – –February 1977.

Setting

“A large room in a house in North West London” on a summer night and the following morning.”
Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class literature who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampstead, with Foster and Briggs, respectively his purported amanuensis and man servant (or apparent bodyguard), who may be lovers. Spooner, a “failed, down-at-heel poet” whom Hirst has “picked up in a Hampstead pub” and invited home for a drink, becomes Hirst’s house guest for the night; claiming to be a fellow poet, through a contest of at least-partly fantastic reminiscences, he appears to have known Hirst at university and to have shared mutual male and female acquaintances and relationships. The four characters are named after cricket players.

Cast

Patrick Stewart as Hirst, a man in his sixties
Ian McKellen as Spooner, a man in his sixties
Damien Molony as Foster, a man in his thirties
Owen Teale as Briggs, a man in his forties
Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the UK stage in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed production of No Man’s Land, one of the most brilliantly entertaining plays by Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter.

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Plot
“One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister younger men.”

Act 1

A man in his sixties named Hirst begins a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch) in his drawing room with an anonymous peer who he only just met at a pub. Hirst’s overly talkative guest, calling himself a poet, long-windedly explains how he is penetratingly perceptive, until he finally introduces himself as “Spooner”. As the men are becoming more intoxicated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass, while Spooner abruptly taunts Hirst about his masculinity and wife. Hirst merely comments “No man’s land…does Not move…or Change…or Grow old…remains…forever…icy…silent”, Before collapsing twice and finally crawling out of the room.

A young man enters and suspiciously questions Spooner, who now becomes relatively silent, about his identity. The younger man introduces himself as John “Jack” Foster before the entrance of a fourth man, Briggs, who is in his forties and who also unsuccessfully questions Spooner and then bickers with Foster.

At last, Hirst re-enters, having slept, and struggles to remember a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking, and they refill the older men’s glasses. Hirst mentions an album of photographs he keeps, commenting on the appearances of the people in the album. He does not appear to fully remember Spooner’s identity, insisting that his true friends are kept safely in the album. He begins drinking straight from the bottle, mutters incoherent statements, and continues to ponder his dream—involving someone drowning—when Spooner abruptly says that he was the one drowning in Hirst’s dream. Hirst drunkenly collapses and Spooner now rushes in to Hirst’s aid, brushing away the two younger men and claiming to be Hirst’s true friend. The younger pair becomes defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against “men of evil”. Foster openly criticises his own past, as well as Hirst’s impulsiveness and alcoholism. It gradually becomes apparent that Foster is Hirst’s apprentice and housekeeper, and Briggs is Hirst’s personal servant. All exit except for Spooner and Foster, the latter of who says, “Listen. You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this”. He flicks off the lights, causing a blackout.

Act 2

The next morning, Spooner, alone, stands from his chair and attempts to leave, but the door is locked. Briggs soon enters to deliver Spooner food and champagne, rambling on about how he met Foster and ignoring Spooner’s desire to know why the door was locked. Spooner thinks of a quick excuse to leave; however, when Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets, Spooner show vague recognition of this fact.

Hirst himself bursts in and is delighted to see Spooner, whom he oddly mistakes for (or pretends) is an old friend. He speaks as though the two were Oxbridge classmates in the 1930s, which Spooner finally plays along with. Hirst and Spooner then bizarrely discuss scandalous romantic encounters they both had with the same women, leading to a series of increasingly questionable reminiscences, until finally Hirst is accused of having had an affair with Spooner’s own wife. All the while, Hirst refers to Briggs by a variety of inconsistent names and then launches into a rant about once-known faces in his photo album.

Spooner says that Foster, who now reappears, should have pursued his dream of being a poet, instead of working for Hirst. Spooner shows great interest in seeing Hirst’s photo album, but both Briggs and Foster discourage this. All four are now drinking champagne, and Foster, for his own pride and dignity’s sake, abruptly asserts that he desired to work in this house of his own choice, where he feels privileged to serve as famous a writer as Hirst. Suddenly, Spooner asks desperately that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising his own work ethic and other virtues. After all this, Hirst merely replies “Let’s change the subject for the last time”. And after a pause worriedly asks “What have I said?” Foster explains definitively that Hirst’s statement means that he (Hirst) will never be able to change the subject ever again. Hirst thinks back to his youth, when he mistakenly thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner now comments, “No. You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” Hirst responds “I’ll drink to that!” and the lights fade slowly to black.

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Production Design and Costume:

The safety curtain (well not the safety one but the scene setting one I’ve forgotten the name of) had imagery reminiscent of a dark, foreboding, forest and tattered edging so it didn’t meet the stage floor uniformally. Somehow due to the 2 or maybe three thin layers of gauze it had a 3D like effect.

no mans land stage layout.png

The single room setting of the performance has a semi-circular design, as if we were in the keep of a castle except the walls have a square glass brick effect (which seemed to be popular a few years ago or at least my local cinema and bingo hall use a similar effect) due tinged a dark turquoise. The floor has pale pine wooden slats following the semi circular design and a mat/rug with fleur de leis on it coloured deep turquoise and paler turquoise respectively. This carpeting is slightly off centre from the circular pattern of the floorboards as if to non-verbally indicate to the audience that things are not quite as simple and straight forward as they initially appear. To the rear, of centre to the left, is a window hidden behind heavy, dusty it seems, curtains obscuring any natural light entering the room despite the possibility of Hirst going out for his daily walk (which he refuses as it isn’t very light outside when he looks).

On the right is the single door on and off stage. A plain, varnished, wooden door. To the rear a well stocked bar with a cupboard in the bench hiding even more bottles. A few glasses are used during the performance as Hirst always needs another drink and often so do the others.

The room is sparsely furnitured. To either side are free standing lamps, the right of which has a small table with it. Three chairs populate the room. Two are simple wooden ones but the third, off centre to the left, is the most important. It is Hirst’s green Chesterfield chair which only he ever sits in as the master of the house. Next to it is a small side table which he places his whiskey glass upon. A trolley, with fold out wings and covered in a white sheet to make it a table, is used for Spooner’s breakfast at the start of the second half. It is wheeled in and abruptly out by Briggs.

Costume wise Hirst wears a navy three piece suit but for most of the first half this is replaced by a striped night gown. Spooner wears a dull great suit and in the second half for a brief time has on his Mac in readiness to leave. Foster and Briggs wear clothes in the style of the 1970s i.e. brown boots, leather jackets and bellbottom trousers. In the second half, with their roles as house staff revealed, Briggs wears a blue three piece suit, later discarding the jacket with his sleeves rolled up, and Foster reappears in the last few scenes in a pastel suit. In contrast to the Americanised version I have to immediately note Stewart didn’t have a wig during the performance I saw and I don’t think McKellen had a ponytail (and obviously the roles of Foster and Briggs were different actors).

Review:
The venue was sold out and it was the final night. As is often the case here when its sold out there was barely any room to move at the entrance as they put the programme selling stall at the bottom of the stairs which start right by the left side of the entrance doors. Across the small entrance way is the box office with one, maybe two, people able to serve through the small windows. Of course people queue here too and I haven’t accounted for the people standing around chatting idly having gotten themselves drinks from the bar. Saying that once you got up stairs there was more room, not much seating but that is to be expected due to the limited space.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the boxes were used for their original purpose of ‘being seen to be seen at the theatre’ thought they are renowned for their poor view of the stage. As it is they probably worked out cheaper than some of the stall seats for tonight’s performance.

The New Theatre used to be the premier location for stage plays in Cardiff but after the establishment of the Wales Millennium Centre it was quickly usurped and although still respectable it never regained this position. It’s heyday, during my life time, was probably around 1996 when Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, directed his stage adaptation of Uncle Vanya transposing Chekov’s Uncle Vanya to a turn-of-the-century Welsh setting, emphasising the hardships of Welsh industrial life in the slate quarries and Welsh-English turmoil. Aside from the New Theatre and WMC Chapter Arts Centre, the Sherman Theatre and recently the Gates Art Centre have grown in prominence as venues for the arts in Cardiff.

The play itself I enjoyed but I think there is an important caveat to this: I knew what the meta-narrative of the play was regarding Pinter’s mindset when he wrote it and what it represented to him. What we see portrayed on the stage is not literal. Metaphor is heavily used in this play and the audience are hinted towards this reading when Spooner proclaims his joy at its use by Hirst in the first act.

Hirst is an old man at the end of his life consumed by memories which he cannot recollect with any accuracy. He often talks of a photo album he has and the faces in it yet he himself doesn’t recognise Spooner at the start and indeed we as an audience must ask if, when he does acknowledge him as a friend from his youth, if the conversation they are having is actually between old acquaintances or if Spooner is playing along and making up stuff which Hirst, being a braggard, pretends to remember but doesn’t. In fact we could ask if any of the characters, apart from Hirst, even do exist at all or perhaps speculate that they represent different aspects of himself – Foster as his young brash self who sees opportunities in the future and is very cocky; Briggs as his masculine side aggressive, objective and arrogant; Spooner as his poetic aspect and view of old age reflecting how, now at the end of his days, he thinks back to his youth but cannot recall it with accuracy and wants to ignore, if not outright dismiss, his old age from himself and instead ‘remembers’ someone drowning but can’t recall their face. Perhaps we take this as it is him seeing himself drowning metaphorically in life unable to escape from himself.

Of course there are many ways to read this play and that is, for the most part, intentional. It is however also its weakness as you must have some knowledge of Pinter, or at least writers of his generation, and how the use of language is multilayered with more than a single understanding. Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett, (premiered on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris) is perhaps the greatest example of this use of dialogue. Symbolism and metaphor are replete throughout the work and for an audience not prepared for this they may declare it pretentious as they are unprepared. If you have not watched a work like this before I think it wise to watch the film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first staged in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) to see if this sort of play is to your liking. In fact it would be hard to deny the influence Beckett and Stoppard must have had on Pinter when you make comparisons.

It would be easy to see this play as a response to Waiting For Godot. There are parallels between Vladimir and Hirst contrasting that of Estragon and Spooner but in both pairs certain aspects are exchanged. Beckett, in a correspondence reflects that “Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless.” In a twist we see Hirst, who of the pair is the slightly better off as Vladimir is, is mostly sitting for much of the first act despite how spry he is in the second, and in contrast Spooner, a poet (just as Estragon should have been Vladimir comments) is very spry unlike Estragon who is mostly seen to be sitting or reclining. In Waitng For Godot it is Vladimir who is constantly reminding Estragon but here Spooner reminds Hirst. In the first stage production of Waiting For Godot, which Beckett oversaw, both are “more shabby-genteel than ragged…Vladimir At least is capable of being scandalised…on A matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money.” In No Man’s Land Hirst is scandalised by Spooner’s accusations of youthful infidelity and, while eating his breakfast, Spooner uses the serviette as a bib instead of placing it on his lap (and indeed when putting his coat on forgets to remove it). There are many facets which could be explored in analysing the intertextuality of the pieces but that should be left for another time and place.

This is not a play of events but of moods. It is a dialogue about themes which often haunted Pinter throughout his career – most obviously those of memory and death. I highly recommend it but this is one of those occasions where you are better off knowing what happens so you can focus on the nuances of the actor’s performances. If I had a criticism of the one I attended it was the audience not knowing the tone. Some laughed at any point that might be potentially comedic, for example when Hirst collapses and then crawls out of the room, but these scenes could also be played very seriously (which I believe was the intent this night) so it seemed there was a dissonance between performance and audience on the night. Of course we must reflect that the line between a tragedy and comedy is a fine line. In tragedy we identify with them and their inability to prevent the course of events but in comedy we anticipate it and take joy in their suffering. I feel the play could easily be played to either extreme. Certainly McKellen was playing to the comedic angle while Stewart played a very serious figure and somehow, as hard as it might be to believe, they did not gel on stage although this may have been intentional due to the characters’ contrasting natures. As for Molony as Foster he played his role with much energy and easily interacted with McKellen who he has directed in other plays a number of times now. Teale as Briggs was suitably intimidating and stern. He did however remind me of Danny Dyer and, unsurprisingly, I discovered that Dyer had performed this role a few years ago in another production which lead me to question if Teale was imitating Dyer or if Dyer, by some fluke of nature, had discovered a role all but made for him he fit it so perfectly.

It was an excellent performance in every respect but the audience seemed to be at odds with the intended tone at times.

Outside the stage doors I didn’t see the autograph hunters who are always present at these things. There was an A4 printed sign in the stage door saying the cast would only be signing things to do with the production (i.e. Don’t you dare come here with things relating to Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Stella, etc). After the show the theatre manager, who for some reason was wearing a full white tie dinner suit, said no one could take selfies and you probably wouldn’t even get an autograph. Ian McKellen to his credit tried to sign as many autographs as possible as did Damien Molony and Owen Teale. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart had to rush off as he was about to miss his train though he did try to sign some brochures before leaving.

In summary: Go and see it as it is a classic of modern theatre but know what you are getting into regarding Pinter’s intent. Don’t just go because there are recognisable names otherwise you will be lost when you realise it isn’t going to be as straight forward as something you watch on television or in the cinema.



The Audience: Theatre Review

The Audience – A new play by Peter Morgan

Winner of three Tony Awards and two Olivier Awards, National Theatre Live’s smash-hit broadcast of the original West End production of The Audience – featuring Helen Mirren’s multi-award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II – returns to cinemas in celebration of the monarch’s 90th birthday.

Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and directed by two-time Tony Award winner and Academy Award – nominated director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours), these special encore screenings include an exclusive Q&A with Helen Mirren and director Stephen Daldry.

For sixty years, Queen Elizabeth II has met with each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a private weekly meeting. This meeting is known as The Audience. No one knows what they discuss, not even their spouses.

From the old warrior Winston Churchill, to the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair right up to today’s meetings with the current incumbent David Cameron, the Queen advises her Prime Ministers on all matters both public and personal. Through these private audiences, we see glimpses of the woman behind the crown and witness the moments that shaped a monarch.

The Audience was presented in the West End by Matthew Byam Shaw for Playful Productions, Robert Fox and Andy Harries.


(This teaser is from the later Broadway run but gives you an idea of the costumes and staging)


Cast: West End performers

Queen Elizabeth II: Helen Mirren
John Major: Paul Ritter
Gordon Brown: Nathaniel Parker
Harold Wilson: Richard McCabe
Winston Churchill: Edward Fox
Anthony Eden: Michael Elwyn
Margaret Thatcher: Haydn Gwynne
David Cameron: Rufus Wright
James Callaghan: David Peart
Equerry: Geoffrey Beevers
Young Elizabeth: Nell Williams



Review: The play operates as a series of interconnected, non-chronological, vignettes regarding meetings between the Queen and her Prime Ministers. Tony Blair, although mentioned, is omitted in this early version of the play. A few scenes are of their first meetings, with most set during mid-term meetings and one, James Callaghan, breaking the routine towards the end by appearing as a cut away reminiscence as the prime minister the Queen forgets to recall when she counts all the prime ministers she had. Admittedly he acts as a one scene wonder joking that she called him ‘Sunny ‘Jim’. In fact the same could be said of most of the actors playing various Prime Ministers although John Major returns a second time but, most notably, Harold Wilson has quite a few scenes with the Queen showing his first meeting with her, a holiday at Balmoral and one of their last audiences where he is shown to be paranoid of the room being bugged and admits to the Queen he is in the early stages of dementia before the Queen, in the indirect manner in which she makes her view clear. It is all but explicitly stated he was her favourite Prime Minister as he was given the honour of hosting a dinner for her and Philip at 10 Downing Street which was an honour last given to Winston Churchill.

The stage layout could be as minimal as having just two chairs on the stage but we also get some other pieces of furniture such as a bureau desk, a table for drinks and during the Balmoral scene a 3 bar heater. The provenance of each item of furniture is recounted by the Equerry (a sort of aide-de camp but nowadays more like a personal servant similar to a valet but for monarchs) and usually raises a few laughs. Usually I would make a basic stage layout diagram but it seems redundant here. The only thing I need add is that when set in Buckingham palace we have a background looking down a corridor to give a full impression of the immense size of the building along with its marble columns and while at Balmoral the background is of a highlands scene with chandeliers composed of stags’ antlers.

The costumes are historically based and during the intermission we were shown a documentary of the behind the scenes process of research with photos of the various era of the queens clothing and her hair styles. At one point, when transitioning from John major in the 1990s all the way back to Winston Churchill in the 1950s just before the Queen’s inauguration, there is a costume change live on stage. This is done by three attendants, who are actually the wig and costume staff of the production, crowding her and changing her outfit so that the queen goes from an old woman back to a young woman. Also, between Prime Ministers, we have scenes where the Queen addresses her younger childhood self who rebels and cannot conceive of being a monarch. They give us the audience and insight into how the Queen has a duality as she always wanted to just live a country life but having taken the role of monarch must act the part. Also later in the play we have actual corgi dogs, which the Queen adores, run across the stage. Of course they upstage everyone and would have been a distraction if on the stage for any significant period of time.

This is a light-hearted play with quite a bit of wordplay or what nowadays would be called ‘banter’ between the Queen and her various Prime Ministers. At the 2013 Olivier Awards, Helen Mirren received the best actress Olivier for her portrayal of the Queen, while Richard McCabe received the best supporting actor nod for his role as Harold Wilson. In this play anyone can be the standout performance it feels but with the most stage time these two roles, of the Queen which the performance hinges upon and Wilson who has multiple scenes with her, are inevitably the ones people will leave remembering.

The key question people no doubt have is whether knowledge of British political history is necessary. I would say you don’t to enjoy it. In fact having a little prior knowledge is a doubled edge sword as you will see the caricatures for what they are but at the same time, for the disinterested, its just people interacting with the Queen to no real end. The various roles are caricatures of the real life people and any suggestion regarding the authenticity of the Queen’s portrayal I think is best summed up by Helen Mirren herself: we have many photos and portraits of the Queen but each is as much influenced by the artist as it is by its subject matter. This play itself is just another portrait depicting a particular perception of the Queen just as we only have contemporary depictions of monarchs of past centuries to base our portrayals on. It’s a fun play which you will enjoy seeing once but I personally would wonder if it has any legs.

It is a time capsule of sorts in that it gives the current view of these political figures and, as mentioned in the interview shown after the show, they had to (and no doubt still do) update the portrayal of David Cameron week on week so that it feels as up to date as possible. It’s evitably at some point there will be another Prime Minister after Cameron and one day the Queen herself will sadly die so how much they add to the play and if they alter it is some way is questionable. For example interjections into other scenes as Callaghan’s scene can feel forced and as I mentioned earlier in this early version Tony Blair (and others) were omitted. It feels that for the time being this is going to be a constantly evolving play but whether it will still be held in prominence decades from now or assigned to the same place as many historical plays is to be seen. Go see it, enjoy it, just be mindful you are watching caricatures of these people not fair reflections of who they were and often it looks at their positives and ignores the bad political moves of some of them.

the audience leaflet2

Boris Godunov – Opera

The Royal Opera House

Music Director – Sir Antonio Pappano

Director of Opera – Kasper Holten

Boris Godunov – Opera In Seven Scenes (Original Version) ( Борис Годунов)

Music – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (Модест Петрович Мусоргский)

Libretto – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)

The edition of Boris Godunov used in the performances is published by Verlagsgruppe Hermann, edited by Michael Rot.

Performed by arrangement with Alkor-Edition Kassel and Faber Music Ltd, London.


Conductor – Antonio Pappano

Director – Richard Jones

Set Designer – Miriam Buether

Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand

Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin

Movement Director – Ben Wright

Associate Director – Elaine Kidd


Royal Opera Chorus

Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Concert master – Peter Manning

Directed for the Screen by Jonathan Haswell


Live from the Royal Opera House:

Monday 21 March 2016, 7.15PM

(Lottery Funded)

(Supported using the public funding by Arts Council England)


Synopsis

After the death of Ivan the Terrible the boyar Boris Godunov was appointed regent – Ivan’s older son, Tsar Fyodor, was physically and mentally frail, and his younger son Dmitry was an infant. Dmitry died mysteriously at the age of eight; many believed Boris had arranged his murder. Now Fyodor is dead, and with no direct heir to the throne, Boris is the most likely candidate to be the next Tsar.

Scene 1

Boris has retreated to a monastry. A crowd gather outside and entreat him to accept the throne. Shchelkalov, clerk of the Boyar’s Council, tells the crowd that Boris is reluctant to rule.

Scene 2

Boris is crowned Tsar in the Kremlin and his coronation is hailed by the people.

Years pass. Boris proves to be a good and wise ruler, and a devoted father. Under his rule Russia prospers. Then, unexpectedly, the country is visited by dreadful famines. The superstitious believe this is a divine punishment, visited on Boris for the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry.

Scene 3

In the monastery within the Kremlin, the monk Pimen is interrupted by the young novice Grigory, who has had a nightmare. Grigory asks Pimen to talk about Russia’s past. Pimen talks of Ivan the Terrible, of the saintliness of Ivan’s son Fyodor, and of the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry. On hearing that Dmitry resembles him and was about the same age, Grigory formulates a plan to impersonate the Tsarevich, and stir up rebellion.

Scene 4

Grigory (now in secular clothes) comes to an inn near the Lithuanian border, with the monks Varlaam and Missail. The Frontier Guard arrives, searching for Grigory, and carrying an edict for his arrest. Grigory realizes that the Guard cannot read and doesn’t know what he looks like, and so reads out the edict, describing the monk as resembling Varlaam, rather than himself. Varlaam protests his innocence and reads the edict correctly. Grigory escapes.

Scene 5

In the Tsar’s apartments, Xenia laments the early death of her fiance, while her brother Fyodor studies a map of Russia. Boris meditates on what he has achieved since he came to power. Prince Shuisky arrives with news that a pretender, calling himself the Tsarevich Dmitry, has appeared in Lithuania. Boris orders Shuisky to seal the border, and demands reassurance that Dmitry really did die. Shuisky describes Dmitry’s murder, but hints that the Tsarevich’s dead body may have miraculous powers. Boris, frightened, orders Shuisky to leave and, giving way to guilt and remorse, hallucinates that he can see the dead Dmitry.

Scene 6

Outside St Basil’s Cathedral, the crowd are talking about the pretender Grishka (Grigory) Otrepiev. A holy Fool sings a nonsensical song, and some urchins steal a penny [kopeck] from him. Boris and his retinue leave the Cathedral, and the hungry crowd beg for bread. The Holy Fool suggests that Boris should order the murder of the thieving urchins, just as he ordered the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitiry. Shuisky demands that the Holy Fool be arrested, but Boris instead asks the Holy Fool to pray for him. The Holy Fool refuses to pray for ‘Tsar Herod’ and laments the fate of Russia.

Scene 7

At the Kremlin, the Boyar’s Council agree that Grigory and his followers should be executed. Shuisky reports that Boris claims to have seen the dead Tsarevich Dmitry and is deeply troubled. Boris appears, still in the grip of his hallucination. Pimen enters and tells Boris that the Tsarevich Dmitry has become a saint from beyond the grave and cured an old man’s blindness. Boris collapses in a seizure. He calls for his son Fyodor, bids the boy farewell and calls for God’s blessing on his children. He names Fyodor the heir to the throne, begs forgiveness and dies.


 

Cast

Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfyl

Andrey Shchelkov (Clerk of the Boyar’s Council) – Kostas Smoriginas

Nikitich (A Police Officer) – Jeremy White

Mityukha (A Peasant) – Adrian Clarke

Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – John Graham-Hall

Pimen (A Monk and Chronicler) – Ain Anger

Grigory Otrepiev (Later ‘The False Dmitry) – David Butt Philip

Hostess of the Inn – Rebecca De Pont Davies

Varlaam (Monk) – John Tomlinson

Missail (Monk) – Harry Nicoll

Frontier Guard – James Platt

Xenia’s Nurse – Sarah Pring

Fyodor (Boris Godunov’s Son) – Ben Knight

Boyar – Nicholas Sales

Yorodivy (Holy Fool) – Andrew Tortise

Russian populace, Boyars, Soldiers, Pilgrims – Ensemble


The opera lasts approximately two hours, ten minutes.

There is no interval.

The production ‘realistically’ depicts and revisits the murder of the young crown prince (Tsarevich) Dmitry. They advise that it is not suitable for children under the age of 12 years old.


Above is the information, with a few alterations, you are provided at a cinema screening.


Review:

Staging: The stage is divided into two halves. on the upper level is the golden prayer/coronation chamber. This is also where the murder occurs. The lower, darker grey, level is where most events occur and has some large mobile scenery which can be moved in and out to change scenes.

boris godunov stage loayout

There are to the rear three moving raised platforms used by the chorus when they are dressed in traditional robes during the coronation scene and on one or two other parts. The smaller props include a yellow painted chair to represent the Imperial Throne, a bar set used during the inn scene and two manuscript scenery pieces which were very impressive. The first is during scene 3 where we see the manuscript Pimen has been writing with large illustrations of the previous Tsars. Watching this in cinema you get a close up view of the areas where they wipe the paint/ink clean after each performance where Pimen writes in Cyrillic during this scene.

The backgrounds for the upper section consist of 3 windows with are back lit. They display, depending on the scene, three bells for the monastery scenes or are unlit for those in the Imperial palace. This was minimal, but very effective, to allow an economy of staging. My only crticism would be that this upper part, unlike the lower level, seemed to have no depth and so the Boyars who walk back and forth seem very cramped and almost like characters from a 2D computer game marching back and forth during some scenes. Perhaps this area is meant to represent Boris’ inner mindscape as the murder of Dmitry is repeated her a number of times but I can only imagine the issues this alcove causes for any audiences who do not have a clear line of sight to it in the theatre.

On the lower section, after Boris’ coronation any interior scenes have the background host a line of icons of the Tsar otherwise the background is unlit and in the case of Scene 3 light is projected through the right doorway to indicate the low lighting of the monastery’s interior. On the provided simple illustration I indicate the door ways with green lines to either side of the staging. There is also a rail on the upper level and at one point one of the performers holds it with such force it rattles which was amusing but also a safety concern.

Costume: This to me was the weakest point by far. There is an odd mix of traditional clothing and more modern clothing but is set in the sixteenth and first few years of the seventeenth century. I wish they had gone in one direction or the other. Of course you have the detailed golden robes of the coronation but throughout the rest of the production you have modern clothing hinting at tradition which feels ill at ease e.g. ‘grandfather collared shirts and women in headscarves, patterns on material which is distinctly Slavic contrasting with Boyars dressed in burgundy trousers with grey blazers which distinctly are no earlier than the mid twentieth century in design.

Accessibility: This is a very good opera but also very dense to the point the fourth scene feels almost completely out of place in its efforts to offer some small effort towards a respite from the intensity. As you might have noted this is Mussorgsky’s original version and although I have not seen the adjustments by Rimsky-Korsakov, to amend perceived weaknesses, might have served to make it more palatable to a general audience those the variations have fallen out of favour so Mussorgsky’s individual harmonic style and orchestration can be valued for their originality. The music is very heavy so I would suggest anyone who like the works of composers like Puccini and have not experienced ‘heavier’ orchestrations best listen to some pieces on YouTube to see if it would be to their taste. Anyone familiar with Wagner will probably be fine. For those familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s alterations I would be interested to hear how you view this original draft of the opera – especially in comparison to his own works. Mussorgsky has other, unfinished works, and I would like to hear them but I am of a mind that perhaps he found the form of opera something very troublesome and despite his best efforts never truly felt at ease with it.

Subject matter: If you are not familiar with Russian history you best read the brief synopsis of the scenes so you can keep up with what is happening as there are some big jumps in time at the start.

It is best to bear in mind that this opera is based upon Pushkin’s tragedy.

Pushkin wrote of his play:

“The study of Shakespeare, Karamzin, and our old chronicles gave me the idea of clothing in dramatic forms one of the most dramatic epochs of our history. Not disturbed by any other influence, I imitated Shakespeare in his broad and free depictions of characters, in the simple and careless combination of plots; I followed Karamzin in the clear development of events; I tried to guess the way of thinking and the language of the time from the chronicles. Rich sources! Whether I was able to make the best use of them, I don’t know — but at least my labors were zealous and conscientious.”

So in context what we are watching is heavily influenced by the writers of each period assimilating and adapting the works of others. Therefore with each stage comes a divergence from reality and an embrace of the romaticised notion of a historical figure. With the mention of Shakespeare there is too obvious a comparison to made here. This opera is the equivalent of an operatic version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. The central character does not realistically represent the historical figure but a caricature. No more obvious is the parable like nature of this work than when the Holy Fool, Yorodivy, tells Boris he cannot pray for him as that would make the Virgin Mary sad. In Russia there is the fairy tale figure of Ivan the Fool (Иван-дурак or diminutive Иванушка-дурачок). The moral of these stories is that Ivan The Fool is rarely the fool, he is merely perceived as such by others owing to his simple nature and joviality. It is by being a fool, in this tradition, Yorodivy alone is allowed to state what others may not and is ultimately the final nail confirming to Boris his guilt is not only his own but one endorsed by society’s perception of him.

Despite Russia prospering under his rule he is only judged by one act: the sin of murder. He was a good ruler for the country as a whole but for its people he is a figure or fear – a man who would go so far to have power he would murder an innocent child. He is a tragic figure for whom repentance has been denied.

The murder of Dmitry is reprised a few times during the play. This consists of a short actor in an oversized papermache head having a knife drawn across his throat by three assassins and he smears a blood packet across his chest to denote the murder. If you watch this in cinema you will see it up close and it begins to look more comical the more they reprise it. That is not intentional. Part of me wishes they had just had Boris’ son play this role also as it seems this productions intention to mirror the two roles to indicate how, now with a son on his own, Boris feels greater guilt than ever for the murder. The murder is in and of itself not visceral but i understand why they have been cautious enough, in these days where even a ‘U’ rated film has to carry warning of ‘mild peril’ why they have included the warning about the graphic nature of the murder.

Conclusion: This is not an ‘introductory level’ opera. If you want something easy to follow then go check out Puccini or Bizet. If you have dealt with composers like Mahler or Wagner then try it but realise it has its awkward moments. The entire cast does well. There are a number of very impressive performances here but Ain Anger as Pimen steals every scene he is in, Rebecca De Pont Davies is a one act wonder with her bug eyed performance as the Hostess of the Inn and the solos provided by members of the ensemble each stand on their own. If I had one criticism, apart from the costume designs, it is that the preamble VT featured Bryn Terfyl talking about, as a Welsh speaker from North Wales, he finds it hard to do a Russian ‘L’ sound and for the rest of the performance that is all I could focus on with him. It reminded me of a time when  I read an Oxford Press foreword for Turgenev’s ‘Father and Sons’ where Richard Freeborn in his introductory essay gave away major plot points including which characters died and so I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It was just to big a distraction. This is a heavy opera but if you are willing to stay with it you might find it to be a tour de force and something very different from the yearly repeated performances of lighter works.


Comment, like or follow – All are welcome 🙂

http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/boris-godunov-by-richard-jones