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!

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!

Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard: Adapted by Gary Owen

Pembrokeshire, 1982. Things are going to change.

Written shortly before the Russian Revolution, The Cherry Orchard is one of the greatest of all plays. Chekhov’s comedy captures a world on the brink of social upheaval. It is a witty, compassionate study of humanity’s flaws and our refusal to face what is right in front of us. Experience this masterpiece radically reimagined by one of the most powerful partnerships working in theatre today – Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan. This new version places the action in another time on the cusp of huge social change – early 80s Britain at the outset of Margaret Thatcher’s regime.

‘Chekhov is one of the great playwrights. His ability to articulate human interaction, with all its flaws and misunderstandings, makes him a natural writer for Gary Owen to adapt.’ Rachel O’Riordan

 

DSC_0028 leaflet

I saw a performance of this adaption, at Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, on 25 November 2017 and will discuss a number of the changes made from the original and my rough analysis of how these changes affect the narrative.

Staging:

There is a white floor, a floral patterned sofa at the front, to the right a short ornate bookcase, to the rear a Welsh dresser, a pine table and chairs in the centre and to the left a doormat indicating the entrance to the house. There is also a rear exit which due to the otherwise minimalist staging is a ceiling high white catwalk like exit with the background otherwise being black so you focus on the staged events.

the cherry orchard stage layout.png

 

Here is a basic idea of the staging:

Grey: Outside parts of the stage

Brown: Welsh Dresser, bookcase, pine table and chairs.

Sofa and the toy train which hides under it

Access to the stage off stage left and to the rear.

Staff:

By Anton Chekhov

A re-imagining by Gary Owen

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

Designer: Kenny Miller

Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy

Composer and Sound Designer: Simon Slater

Assistant Director: Paul Jenkins (a JMK Trust position supported by The Carne Trust)

Casting Director: Kay Magson CDG

DSC_0258 leaflet clockwise rainey, anya, ceri, dottie, lewis, valerie and george aaaa
Clockwise: Rainey, Anya, Ceri, Dottie, Lewis, Valerie and George

Cast:

George: Simon Armstrong

Rainey: Denise Black

Lewis: Matthew Bulgo

Anya: Morfydd Clark

Valerie: Hedydd Dylan

Ceri: Richard Mylan

Dottie: Alexandria Riley

The following breakdown of events and character might be a little rough but hopefully makes sense as otherwise I would have to write an essay on it all. The adaption combines certain characters to reduce the number of characters involved in proceedings and makes sense when you consider this is a family which has lost a lot of money and likely would have let most if not all essential staff go except Dottie who has grown up with them and therefore is somewhat like family in a sense.

Dramatis Personae:

Rainey: Matriarch of the family. She has been living in London until her return at the start of the play. Has a husband who died in a car crash due to being drunk and a dead son who she didn’t save as she fell asleep drunk on the beach.

[In the original: Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya]

Gabriel: Brother to Rainey, uncle to Valerie and Anya. A well off ‘gentleman of leisure’ who seems to just exist on the estate doing nothing much with his time.

[In the original: Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev]

Lewis: Former worker from a line of family who’ve served Rainey’s family on the farm for generations but is now a man of means in a financially better position than them.

[In the original: He is an amalgamation of characters. Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin primarily but he also incorporates the business venture ideas of Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik in a more proactive manner. He is the one with money and offering business suggestions regarding the property and in the end buys it to make the land into a hotel resort. Rainey believes he is doing all this as vengeance for when they knocked down his grandfather’s cottage to plant the orchard but he denies it when confronted.]

Valerie: Elder (adopted) daughter of Rainey, running the farm and engaged to Lewis.

[In the original: Varya]

Anya: Young student and the younger daughter of Rainey who has just returned to the estate.

[In the original: Anya unsurprisingly. She implies that while at university she has had a female lover, to Ceri’s surprise and views him only as a summer fling at the end of the play though they go off together so it could be implied either she is being bluntly honest or that she is yet again teasing him though it leans more to the former. Ceri was her tutor not the dead son’s.]

Dottie: Housekeeper and maid. Her mother worked for the family before her and died of cancer.

[In the original: Dunyasha but no doubt with lines from the other servants included to the point it needs to be lampshaded she speaks with an inappropriate familiarity which in the original the older servants and their positions in the household might have allowed them. Lewis and Ceri mention she makes more than good money at the estate and faults it on nights out so that aspect of Dunyasha is retained but never shown on stage.]

Ceri: A politically minded, punk music loving, local 30 something who is a former tutor to Anya. His left-wing views are presented as empty counter-culture gesturing when challenged by Anya [in the original: Peter Trofimov with elements of Yasha.]

Rainey’s deceased son: He is spoken about at certain points in the play but only represented by a small wooden train moving unaided from beneath the sofa. He does appear on stage at the very end calling out ‘mummy’ a few times and it seemed pointless to be honest. He drowned when Rainey fell asleep drunk at the beach one day years ago and she often recalls how he was ‘drowning not waving’. In the original he is Grisha.

Charlotta Ivanovna, Yepikhodov, Firs, ‘A Stranger/Vagrant’, The Stationmaster, The Postmaster along with any other servants, guests and such are all absent or their lines integrated into the dialogue of the surviving reduced cast of characters.

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Differences I recall off the top of my head ( I studied the original years ago so might have a few inaccuracies when comparing them):

  • All acts and scenes take place inside the livingroom/dining area barring events at the doorway and when Ceri and Anya dance to some music sat in the orchard which Rainey interrupts drunkenly later on.

  • Instead of a cherry orchard it’s an apple orchard.

  • It is set in Pembrokeshire, South Wales beginning in later March 1982, as the 1st of April (All Fool’s Day) is mentioned in one of the later acts leading everyone to believe George is joking about getting a job though he’s always been ‘a gentleman of leisure’.

  • The play opens on Lewis lying asleep across the sofa with his muddy boots dirtying the floor, Dottie as a joke puts lipstick on his lips and part of the opening, after Valerie helps him take his boots off, is spent with people commenting on it as he worries Dottie kissed him and secretly has affection towards him.

  • Dottie seems far more cynical and bitter than the servants of the original. ‘Welsh humour’ they’ll claim but I could see another production using this script making her far less likeable as it’s such a fine line to tread.

  • Rainey doesn’t have a young lover but has remained living in a hotel in London since her son’s drowning (though I don’t think it’s stated explicitly).

  • Valerie is still adopted and in this version it is never really discussed fully save that Valerie was happy with the family she had been initially put with and resented being taken away by Rainey initially.

  • Rainey and Anya, who has been studying in London, return at the same time independent of each other.

  • Valerie and Lewis are engaged to be married and worry about telling Rainey about it (thus the assumptions of the original are made explicit). Therefore at no point does she say that if she had money she would move as far away from him as possible in the original as far as I recall but it’s said here for drama.

  • Instead of holiday cottages it is their household which will become a hotel with Valerie as the hotel manager, Lewis the owner and Dottie retained (though she refuses as she wants to do something else with her life).

  • Ceri was Anya’s tutor not the unnamed (Grisha) son’s tutor. He doesn’t insist on seeing Rainey and in fact it’s by coincidence of timing they meet when he was visiting. In fact their reunion is a someone pleasant one with her flirting with him and no mention of her son’s death.

  • Anya and Valerie don’t have a conversation about their mother’s debts as it is already apparent even before her arrival. What does perhaps change is Rainey says she had money but only realised after staying in a hotel how much the cost was over time.

  • Much of Act II’s beginning is excised as the servant character’s have been reduced to Dottie who seems quite satisfied with her working class manner.

  • Ceri’s decloration of his political beliefs is usually only to Anya and even then trivialized by her.

  • At no point does George allude to billiards.

  • There is no passing vagrant for Rainey to give all her money to so Valerie’s frustrations are regarding her excessive drinking and the bills she ran up in London with no concept of how hard it has been to keep the estate running in her absence. Rainey giving Dottie her wedding ring may replace this but is placed far later in the play.

  • Generally Lewis, though initially a figure of mockery, is presented as the only antagonistic figure in the play as he combines the aspects of contrasting characters.

  • Anya doesn’t vow to leave her old life behind and in fact seems determined to retain it. But she does inform Ceri she had a girlfriend at university and it’s left vague if they remain a couple at the end.

  • The most distinct difference is there is no party but rather Rainey getting more and more drunk before the contract signing deadline prior to the auction instead. Everyone takes this as her either having her fun while she still can torment them or that she is doing it so, should she sign, it won’t be legally binding.

  • As Rainey has no lover in Paris/London that aspect never comes up so she has no need to leave though she wishes to as there is nothing left for her here. Instead she tells of how her husband died in a car crash while drunk and she was drunk on the beach and didn’t save her son who drowned.

  • Ceri doesn’t fall down any stairs but he does discuss music with Anya as they dance around a record player outside in the orchard and she informs him she isn’t in love with him and what they have at the moment is just a summer fling which hurts him before she puts on a song to mock his feelings and try to break him out of his sorrow from being rejected.

  • Lewis and Valerie (or is it Ceri and Anya?) go out to chop down a tree.

  • Most of the second part involves trying to get Rainey (barefoot, scantily clad in a silk nighty and robe usually carrying a wine glass looking to replenish it, to sign the contract before, in frustration Lewis rips it up as it’s worthless if she is drunk and able to deny responsibility. However a second copy is acquired and she signs it so the auction occurs and Lewis comes and lauds it over everyone declaring his intentions to make the estate a hotel and everyone work there if they wish to with Valerie as the hotel manager. She doesn’t like the idea and instead intends to set up a flavoured yoghurt company for herself which surprises him.

  • Apart from George who had already declared happily he had got himself a job in stocks trading thus isn’t reticent like Gayev in the original. Everyone thought it was an April Fool’s joke but in fact he was telling the truth. He offers Dottie a job as his housekeeper it seems but in fact it’s more. He wants her to be his lover but she is repulsed and refuses having decided to do something other than housework.

  • Rainey, sad that Dottie is like a daughter to her having been with the family so long, gives her the wedding ring she had worn on a chain around her neck since her husband’s death. Dottie recounts how her mother, dying of cancer, went to work and took her along hence how Dottie began working for the family herself. Dottie refuses the ring but Rainey insists. Later George returns it to Rainey having been given it by Dottie who has now left the family’s service.

  • Thus Rainey and Anya are returning to London. Ceri is back where he was. Lewis has a hotel to build while his future wife, Valerie, establishes a yoghurt company. Dottie has gone off to another job. George is now on a stocks trader. Ceri… presumably is exactly where he was to begin with as his political views mean nothing and Anya considered him no more than a play thing.

  • In the adaption the play ends with the ghost of Rainey’s son [Grisha] having been left behind with the end of the family home to enter the consumerist lifestyles of the 1980s. This occurs instead of the old servant Firs being left behind and apparently dying on stage as a symbol of the end of the Imperial age.

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Analysis/Review:

The changes can at times seem subtle and appropriate updates but some seem needless. ‘Oh Anya had a lesbian relationship – how thoroughly modern!’ In fact that is the most notable one, in terms of its intrinsic message, really and seems a subtle dig at the perception of Russia’s official view of teaching homosexuality to children which ha been blown out of proportion. We actually had a similar law in the 80s so her relationship at that time would have been highly controversial (but not illegal as it was in preceding decades) especially due to the Aids epidemic at the time which makes her mention of it so casually highly unrealistic for the setting even for a libertine. Aids was called ‘the gay plague’ and homosexuality really was demonised in the conservative media at the time so the scriptwriter’s inclusion of it is either in order to be politically correct for a modern audience’s sensibilities or he has somehow forgotten that era of history he himself lived through here.

There are 1980s songs played at the end of scenes and when they cut in it’s incredibly loud! Imagine if a speaker is suddenly switched on right next to your head half way into a chorus. It was hard for anyone to not suddenly jump each time.

The costumes are of course variants of the 1980s style but have allusions to period collars or patterns people would associate with the Russia of Chekov’s era. It’s most obvious towards the end of the play when the floral embroidered patterns appear prominently on people’s clothing but felt a nice inclusion in order to distance the production yet still pay it’s dues to the original’s setting.

They changed the ending so instead of the old servant Firs lying down lamenting everyone has left him behind we get the ghost of Rainey’s dead son running on stage calling out to her at the end. The presence of everyone’s memory of him in the household is alluded to by a toy train rolling out from beneath the sofa and so they might as well have repeated that image rather than have a boy, unseen and unheard throughout the rest of the play, run out on stage. It seemed arbitrary and no doubt cost the production unnecessarily. If this production was revised I think the toy train moving again is more than enough. Who was the boy actor? He is mentioned nowhere and almost feels like a little cameo for someone to cast their own child in a nepotistic move. Then again you have that tradition of not naming the actors of ghost characters in other productions like The Lady In Black so it’s not a massive issue really but just feels extraneous.

Lewis and Valerie are explicitly connected almost immediately from the start rather than, in the original Chekov play, everyone assuming they will get together but it’s never confirmed. If they’re not then it may suggest that they too have moved on from each other into a new future as everyone else has. The adaption subverts Chekov’s version in that sense as their equivalent in the original were perhaps the most representative of the new age so now instead they’re the most traditional figures in the play. Albeit with Valerie’s desire to start her own business aside from the hotel it’s not a happy union even before their marriage. Intentional or not that seems the case as everyone else, barring maybe Ceri, subverts the traditional expectations or even those of people familiar with the original where Anya and Trofimov are still in a relationship by the end (if I recall correctly).

Instead of a cherry orchard it’s an apple orchard. Cherry trees are often seen as symbols of sadness or regret at the passing away of a certain situation or of the times in general especially in Japan where they’re often associated with the passing from youth to a more mature world or the loss of innocence. In a general sense you could say the apple carries the same imagery as it’s often depicted as the fruit of wisdom in the garden of Eden which Eve ate thus leading to a loss of innocence and fall from grace. However apples throughout Welsh mythology carry a different association. For example ‘the isle of apples’ better known as Avalon where King Arthur slumbers until Britain needs him again in its darkest hour. Therefore suddenly it’s not a loss but an anticipation for a return that is implied by the setting – except it is the end of an era so taking that symbolism it’s an extra layer of bitterness added on top of all the other alterations already made to create darker tones within the play.

Arguably the retention of the original title and yet change of the orchard’s produce makes no difference symbolically, if you somehow accept it’s set in Wales but ignore Welsh symbolism, but it is something that can be seen under analysis which adds to the further ‘grim dark’ alterations already made. Thus a predominantly comedic play turns into a more austere drama with moments of levity provided by dry humourous comments. The play comes across more emotionally detached than the original despite it being a modernised adaption.

It’s not the first adaption of a Chekov play to relocate events to Wales. Anthony Hopkins adapted ‘Autumn’ from ‘Uncle Vanya’. I did see Hopkins’ adaption at the New Theatre when it was performed but of course that was decades ago so and I don’t remember the film adaption that was also made. The Cherry Orchard I feel takes more risks with the themes but I can’t say it does much positive with them. For example with the exchange regarding Thatcher Ceri has far fewer lines than Lewis who seems to spend at least two acts recounting how his views are the correct perception with little challenge. The worst challenge he receives is Valerie wanting to establish her yoghurt company instead of working in the hotel and that only further drives the ‘capitalism is great’ narrative.

If anything Ceri’s challenges are portrayed as nonsense though of course in the original they were eventually deemed as a forerunner to Bolshevik/revolutionary views and censored during the later Tsarist years. Now in this version it’s almost as if the playwright is confirming the bias of the middle class, well off, student audience who have drifted towards conservative views in recent years while the left-wing is made more and more a caricature of screeching reactionaries in the mass media as often typified as SJWs or latterday Communists waving the communist flags without understanding real world poticial history associated with it. Of course that isn’t portrayed in the play. Instead we get Anya toying with his affections, him being the butt of many jokes as he follows her like a love sick puppy out of scenes and spouting off political rhetoric of little substance beyond his surface level, leather jacket wearing, aesthetic.

The play endorses the 1980s perception of the film Wall Street’s ‘greed is good’ mantra espoused by its villain protagonist Gordon Gecko, which people misinterpreted as a literal validation of capitalism and not a satirical condemnation of such views. Everyone wants something. Objects are the focus of many scenes, especially the ornate bookcase made by a craftsman and the lament it’s going to be replaced by flat pack furniture from now on, on top of conversations about finances and societal positions but where the working class characters seem far more cruel and judgemental than the elites. It almost makes them the victims if not for how things seem to turn out by the end.

The play is more concerned with aesthetics than earnest beliefs. The facade of love, the facade of respectability, the facade of intelligence and integrity. No one in this adaptation truly believes in anything which seems a warped interpretation of the original’s message swapping accepting societal change in the original for the adaption’s ineffectual use of facades where things have appeared to change but they don’t really. The character’s circumstances have changed but they themselves are still the same as they were at the start of the play.

If this was made in the 1980s that would be fine as that was the mass consumerist mindset of the era but having been made now, over quarter of a century later, we see no real reflection on the era and how it has now lead to any number of social issues as a result of what happened then. Anya’s flippant joking of her sexuality certainly would have been a much more serious matter at the time and not something you could just express in a passing line of dialogue to portray her as a free spirit. However it could also serve to show how disconnected from the reality of the rest of society that she treats the matter so lightly when it was a source of much social debate at the time in the media.

Where in the original it was a comedy with dramatic elements about societal change this production in the end is more a screed to how little things change. The well off, like George, will remain well off even if they don’t get everything they want, while those who are servants will always remain so. Lewis may be a hotel owner in future but he will still be serving the guests of the hotel and never truly a master in his own right as even Valerie will be doing her own thing starting a business of her own which will no doubt lead her to spend little time with him. The family home is gone but the family no longer exists anyway and everyone is better off going their own way. If that is the intended message it’s an incredibly cruel and bitter one…

No matter how much money and status Lewis had he will always be socially lower tier than the now poorer, yet still of the socially elite, family. Even if they don’t have the estate they still have their class which will ensure doors are open to them and hypergamy is always an option.

There are various modernisations but the core narrative and themes lose nothing in the translation at a surface level but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I can see purists and those who reflect on the adaption taking issue though it’s an adaption experimenting with the original and is not just in name only thankfully.

If I’m honest the ‘better spoken’ members of the cast, especially Anya, sounded like they had stepped off the set of the first three Harry Potter films as the received pronunciation English used was so sharp and therefore artificial sounding. To me that exact accent is as profoundly unrealistic as the artificially acquired trans/mid-Atlantic accent American actors had in 1930-50s Hollywood films. Meanwhile of course the Welsh accents too are played up leaving only Rainey and George sounding natural. I don’t know if that was intentional or not really. Of course as a comedy, or more so drama due to the alterations here, the caricaturisation is somewhat embellished anyway.

The sudden turns to drama, usually revolving around Rainey’s recalling the deaths of her husband and son but also Valerie’s resentment at being torn from an adopted family she loved to be Rainey’s daughter and Dottie talking about how she hates being in service and being introduced to it when her mother was dying as if being trained as her replacement all feel a little too forced if melodramatically dissonant. In a play that seems so focused on themes of societal change, moving on and accepting this adaption dwells on past suffering to a maudlin extent.

As it’s set in 1980s Wales of course Margaret Thatcher is mentioned. For Ceri she is an evil figure but for Lewis she is a saint as he repeatedly mentions the ‘Right to Buy’ law she passed allowing people to buy their council house homes at a discount of its actual value. Right to Buy is coming to an end as it’s led to people doing exactly what Lewis suggested by buying house after house and letting them out for insane profit.

He is challenged on this and how it will tarnish the family estate’s reputation though he tells them it won’t be their’s anymore. They compare it to making it like a council estate which of course Dottie takes an exception to suggesting she, from a council estate herself, is lesser than them though they’re the ones in debt selling their land off.

So our perspective as an audience is at once challenged without there being a clear right and wrong. It will return the orchard land to residential property land as it was in the time of Lewis’ grandfather but it is the end of an era and lifestyle for Rainey’s family. To Rainey it’s the loss of her father’s work to establish the orchard. To Anya the orchard, for her lifetime at least, has always been an orchard. For Valerie it’s the end of the estate she kept running and will ultimately give up on once Lewis turns it into a hotel.

Therefore the themes of change seem to be changed in fact to one of loss only the more reinforced by our final moments with it being the dead son’s return to try to find a mother who has left him behind. The tone therefore is in fact far darker ultimately than the original play. That shouldn’t come as a surprise as it’s a re-imagining by Gary Owen and anyone familiar with his previous work will be aware of his previous works’ tones.

I liked it when I saw it and it was an excellent production. However the script does seem needlessly dour the more you reflect on the changes. I know initially Chekov apparently wanted to write serious plays but people were finding humour in them and then sometimes people would view comedies as tragedies or vice versa… I think this adaption definitely wants to be on the more dark side of things but the natural humour of the original still found a way to seep into it. It’s good. I would see it again. I just find the scriptwriter Gary Owen tries a bit too hard at times to discuss the darker side of humanity in his works to the point it could easily become a farce in some people’s hands.

Should Gary Owen’s adaption of the play ever get another run in future it is essential viewing for both those familiar and unfamiliar with the original. Highly recommended!

Хованщина (Khovanshchina) by Mussorgsky

a.k.a. The Khovansky Affair

Performance seen at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on 30/09/2017.

Performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) company.

An opera, subtitled a ‘national music drama’, in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky. The work was written between 1872 and 1880 in St.Petersburg, Russia. The composer wrote the libretto based on historical sources however the opera was unfinished and unperformed when the composer died in 1881.

Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history concerning the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy (Russian guardsmen from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, armed with firearms) against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Czars Peter the Great (Peter I) and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernising reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Czars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia. Supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky, who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent, demanded the reversal of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Sofia and her court were forced to flee Moscow. Eventually, Sofia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina (Khovansky affair) with the help of the diplomat Fyodor Shaklovity, who succeeded Khovansky as leader of the Muscovite Streltsy. Finally with the rebellion crushed, the Old Believers committed mass suicide (in the opera, at least).

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and recomposition, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Although the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Czar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter’s westernising reforms. It received its first performance in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition in 1886.

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Shostakovich Orchestration:

Strings: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses

Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)

Brass: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba

Percussion: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, tam-tam, bells, glockenspiel

Other: piano, harp, celesta

On/Offstage: unspecified numbers of horns, trumpets, trombones

Principal arias and numbers

Scene 1 — Red Square

Introduction: “Dawn on the Moscow River”, Вступление: «Рассвет на Москве-реке» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “Make a wide path for the White Swan”, «Белому лебедю путь просторен» (Streltsï, People)
Chorus: “Glory to the White Swan”, «Слава лебедю» (People)

Scene 2 — Golitsïn’s Study

Aria: Marfa’s Divination “Mysterious powers”, Гадания Марфы «Силы потайные» (Marfa, Golitsïn)

Scene 3 — Streltsï Quarter

Song: “A maiden wandered”, «Исходила младёшенька» (Marfa)
Aria: “The Streltsy nest sleeps”, «Спит стрелецкое гнездо» (Shaklovitïy)

Scene 4 — Khovansky’s Palace

Ballet: “Dance of the Persian Slaves”, «Пляски персидок» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “A young swan swims”, «Плывет, плывет лебедушка» (Maidens, Shaklovitïy, Ivan Khovansky)

Scene 5 — Red Square

Introduction “The Departure of Golitsïn”, Вступление «Поезд Голицына» (Orchestra, Chorus)
Chorus: “Show them no mercy”, «Не дай пощады» (Streltsï Wives, Streltsï, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa)
March: “March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment”, «Марш преображенцев» (Orchestra)

Scene 6 — Hermitage

Aria: “Here, in this holy place”, «Здесь, на этом месте» (Dosifey)
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Historical basis of the plot

The death of the young Czar Fyodor III has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan, who is 16, and his half-brother Peter, who is only 10, have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sofia acting as regent. Sofia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsin, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her alleged lover. Peter, if you haven’t guessed, is the future Peter I a.k.a. Peter the Great who established the westernised city of St Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, instead of Moscow, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernised, and based on The Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign. So what is being explored in this opera are the last days of ‘old’ Russia and what might arguably be called the prelude to it’s golden era.

Due to regulations applicable at the time of the composition of the opera in Imperial Russia, it was forbidden to portray members of the Romanov dynasty on stage, so Mussorgsky had recourse to a series of symbols and indirect mention of main characters in the plot. Sofia, Ivan and Peter never actually appear on stage.

The principal theme of Khovanshchina is stated outright in the choral number “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus'” in Act I (“Woe to thee native, Mother Russia”), which laments that Russia is bleeding and dying not because of a foreign enemy, but because of fragmentation within.

Something like a three-way civil war is in progress, which basically compresses twelve years of Russian history into one telling. The Czarist court is modernizing, and two powerful forces are resisting these changes: the Streltsy and the Old Believers.

The Streltsy are decommissioned elite soldiers/guards (“Streltsy” literally means “shooters”, just like “musketeers”), past their prime and on indefinite furlough. They are fanatically loyal to Prince Ivan Khovansky.

The Old Believers are Russian Orthodox Christians who have left the state-sponsored church because they disagree with the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms; they also challenge the line of succession to the throne and have refused to recognize the Russian Patriarch. Their leader is Dosifey.

Fortunately for Czar Peter, these two factions despise each other, as the Streltsy are rowdy degenerates and the Old Believers are pious ascetics.

Each of the three principal basses in the opera believes himself to represent the “true” Russia against her internal enemies: Prince Ivan Khovansky claims legitimacy by noble birth and military prowess, Dosifey by religion, and Shaklovity by supporting Czar Peter.

Costume

As seems a trend with WNO productions, such as The Magic Flute, they colour code the different factions.

Red: Khovanshsky and his private army the Streltsy. Khovansky himself, to stand out, wears a great coat with a large red fur collar to distinguish him from others and denote his status.

White: Old Believers members

Grey: Citizens of Moscow, Emma, the Persian dancer (i.e. the victim’s of the other factions actions)

Gold: Liberal aristocracy i.e. Golitsin

Green military uniform with brown great coat: Shaklovity and the Czar’s soldiers

Black: denotes a servant role it seems thus are worn by people with influence existing somewhere between the common person and moral factions if not with divided loyalties.

What I find awkward about this colour coding choice in the production is that even a passing knowledge of Russian history tells you these colours carry significant relevance.

The red of the revolutionary force seems at first glance an obvious choice: Khovansky opposes the monarchy and the Bolshevik’s too did in the twentieth century. So far so good. Shaklovity in military colours again makes him distinct from others as someone morally ambiguous. Golitsin in gold as a liberal aristocrat is fitting.

Grey is used for the chorus in the first few acts, Emma (a maiden from the German quarter) and the Persian slaves of Prince Ivan Khovanky who are victims of the events around them and suffer for it. A neutral body neither white nor black morally they’re swept along in events with no ability to choose their destiny nor protect themselves from the consequence of the actions of the others. Of course the chorus changes throughout the performance to which ever scene requires them to represent Streltsy, Schismatics (Old Believers), Persian slaves or otherwise.

Black is used for functionaries and those who fall somewhere between the morality of the factions. Varsonofyev, Golitsin’s retainer, wears this colour but with gold piping to show his servitude, Marfa who torn between her love for Andrei Khovansky and as a schismatic (acting at times as a diviner to Golitsin) and the scrivener who seems swept up in events around him.

The issue then is the white used for Dosifey and the Old Believers. White is the colour of those who support the monarchy or at least are of nobility, for example the term white emigrefor those who left or were exiled during the revolution and the white army, and yet in this production it is used for the old believers who oppose the actions of their monarchs.

But what other choice is there? Well the robes of Russian Orthodox priests are black so they could have easily just used that colour (despite the Old Believers breaking away from the state endorsed church) and had the ‘servant’ roles be another colour. Certainly if anything Shaklovity, as a loyal follower of the monarchy, should have. out of everyone, be dressed in white if the production is determined to have the setting updated to the early twentieth century quasi-civil war setting. Perhaps it seems I am nitpicking. Certainly Marfa being one of the schismatics (old believers) isn’t clear until much later in the performance as the colour coding leads uninformed audience members astray.

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Cast:

Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward

Prince Andrey Khovansky: Adrian Dwyer

Prince Vasily Golitsyn: Mark Le Brocq

Shaklovity: Simon Bailey

Dosifei: Miklos Sebestyen

Marfa: Sara Fulgoni

Susanna: Monika Sawa

Scribe: Adrian Thompson

Emma: Claire Wild

Varsonofev: Alastair Moore

Kuz’ka: Simon Crosby Buttle

Streshnev: Gareth Dafydd Morris

1st Strelets: Julian Boyce

2nd Strelets: Laurence Cole

Servant: Dimo Georgiev

Persian Slave: Elena Thomas

Production staff:

Conductor: Tomas Hanus

Director: David Pountney

Designer: Johan Engels

Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca

Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour

Choreographer: Beate Vollack

Assistant Conductor: James Southall

Assistant Director: Benjamin Davis

Production manager: Robert Pagett

Musical Preparation: Segey Rybin

Staff Directors: Deborah Cohen, Polly Graham

Lighting Realised on Tour: Ian Jones

Language Coach: John Asquith

Stage Manager: Katie Heath-Jones

Deputy Stage Manager: Suzie Erith

Stage Design

Overall the permanent stage decoration is of a decimated city reflective of Stalingrad or the general western depiction of Soviet Russia where everything somehow looks like a post industrial wasteland from 1935 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apparently the country lay in ruin for over half a century. I found that a disappointing stereotype to adhere to.

Ironically, during the 1990s, a number of areas did end up in a very run down state when the economy took a massive downturn until the millennium when it was revitalised again. Indeed a few areas are still in that state but they are the exception not the rule usually being sites that exist somewhere in the countryside left derelict. The only time a city such as the setting of the opera Moscow would be in this state was during war time. ‘But they’ve taken artistic license’ people will say to justify it. Yes and in the musical Billy Elliot they trivialise a very emotionally turbulent period of within living memory history for working class people in Britain for the amusement of the middle classes which trivialises the brutal conflicts between striking picket lines and police with irreverent song and dance number. Sometimes art offends intentionally to begin a dialogue and other times it does it through ignorance. The setting is not the Soviet union, as most audience members will assume, nor is it ‘mystic Russia’ as the launch event described it. It’s a caricature underplaying the brutal historical reality like pirates, cowboys and soldiers in children’s productions.

The designers obviously wanted an iconic image of early revolutionary Bolshevik led Soviet Russia and watched a lot of western produced films set in Russia during the Soviet era but mostly filmed elsewhere (Gorky Park, Child 44, Gulag, Silk Stockings, Ninotchka, etc) which all share the same grim grey and brown colour pallet to depict it as a post industrial hell – which in areas around factories and closed cities would be true as it is anywhere, but the impression in all these films is the entire country was like that – which means even over a quarter of a century after it’s end we still live with the propagandist image of the Soviet Union which is perpetuated by visual designers who type in Soviet Russia to a search engine, see Stalin era depictions in Western propaganda films and say ‘good enough’ and copy it. Unlike North Korea Russia doesn’t have an eternal leader and if they did it would definitely not be Stalin and, it should come as no surprise, the country did actually develop after Stalin’s death and not stagnant in the aesthetic of the Stalin era (although of course the Soviet Union had plenty of periods of stagnation in later decades but that’s a story for another time).

I just find it very awkward they depicted the setting like this when they seem to have chosen a quasi-civil war setting which inevitably reminds the audience of the real life conflict which occurred between the revolutionary Red Army against the monarchist White Army yet assigns the colours inappropriately. During the civil war the white army supported the Czar while in this production white represents those who oppose the Czar. The production covers a time period of about 12 years and apparently Moscow lay in ruins throughout that time. ‘Artistic license’ no doubt applies.

Below is a rough layout of the stage design.

khovanshchina WNO stage

  • In the layout graphic you see the grey steps upon which performers sit or lay.
  • The green pieces are the scribe desks which each have a small desk lamp to illuminate them.
  • The green diamond is the pillar with a light on top of it which the scribe is forced to climb, by Streltsy soldiers, to read what is written on it. A pile of books/papers spill out of it when the illiterate Streltsy are informed of what is written there.
  • The purple barrier is on an overpass above one of the access points to the stage.
  • The yellow chair and painting are used when Khovansky confronts the Golitsin about Sofia.
  • The red hexagon is the bath where Khovansky is killed.
  • The red circle represents the ball on which the Persian dancer performs nude (actually she has body paint/skin toned clothing I think but I was sat in the gods so it was hard to tell when she discarded her silk dress).
  • The white ramp is lowered in later scenes when Dosifey comes to speak to the other Old Believers and when Khovansky, now an old man, tells the Streltsy to go home and await their fate instead of fight when the Czar’s forced descend upon Moscow to eliminate them.
  • On the left side is a wall with empty windows in a waffle like shape. At the start of the play light is shone through the gaps to show the dawning of the opera’s events and at the end, to bookend the opera, as the building in which the Old Believer’s commit mass suicide. At this point a smoke machine is lowered from above and the followers bring heavy stage lamps onto the steps which illuminate in the final moment depicting them tableau like in death.

khov_v1_1140x532

Things of particular note, both good and bad, during the Welsh National Opera (WNO) performance I saw.

The tower of leaflets in the first act which is opened and spills paper out across the floor is very effective in portraying the proliferation of knowledge the scribe causes by reading out the proclamation in Act I, scene iv.

The scribe, in act I, scene IV, and Emma in Act I, scene VI, are both bound with red chords to represent the social binding they both undergo through force by others. Sadly I don’t recall this being used again later so these come out as somewhat of an anomaly and I have to question why the idea wasn’t followed up with for later scenes.

When Golitsin is sent into exile he is carried lying on top of the painting used as the background of act ii. In his hand is a book he is reading while the actor, for dear life, hangs onto the side of the painting as he is angled towards the audience while pretending like he is relaxing. If you imagine some of the more naïve medieval depictions of saints which ignored realism you can image what this looked like. It was at one turn effective and yet oddly hilarious and I don’t think in this opera that was intentional.

In the mass suicide scene one person wouldn’t stop moving towards the back of the group. The smoke machine let out a little puff and that was it. It was on stage, hanging from the fly tower, for about 20 minutes only to do that. Or it may have meant to represent the thurible/censur used by Orthodox Christians but if so it still stands it produced only a slight puff of smoke and the staging of the scene makes you think they all just laid down rather than committed suicide via immolation.

I’m pretty sure the Russian pronunciation by some of the performers was off. The only one most would note is when someone, Shaklovity I believe, pronounces emphatically at the end of one line ‘Спасибо as ‘spa-see-boh’ when the naturalised way so say it is ‘spa-see-bah’. I don’t know if it was the performer or the director who went with that. Either way it really took me out of it a few times. At the launch event it was noted ‘for time’ that The House of the Dead would be performed in English while Eugene Onegin and Khovanshchina would be performed in Russia. Part of me wishes they had done this in English as I suspect they performers are not all experienced in performing in Russian if they’ve mostly been called to do works in French, German or Italian as there are inevitably differences in the languages. It’s a little sad but not completely unexpected. The actual performances themselves were of a high standard desptie all my criticisms.

In the WNO production, during the Dance of the Persian Slaves they have a single dancer in a silk dress perform over Khovansky while he lays in his bathtub. She performs a number of gymnastic postures and such then removes her dress. She has body paint across her chest and, I assume, flesh tone knickers on (I was sat in the upper circle so for intent and purposes she seemed naked but there’s no indication she would be otherwise WMC put warnings about it anywhere on the production’s literature) then climbs on top of a ball and rolls around the stage accompanied by bare chested men stabilising it. She takes Khovansky’s coat and drapes it over herself… then, after performing her piece, sits there on the ball for about ten minutes in shadow watching Khovansky be assassinated in his bath and all the other Persian slaves walk past and spit on his corpse. The dance was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov by agreement with Mussorgsky and I would be lying if I said it is noticeable that it stands out compared to many of the other pieces instrumentally. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov have very distinctly difference composition styles needless to say.

The assassination is well done as there is a shower head on the bath and thus when his throat is slit the tap is turned on and a shower of red blood rains down upon him before it’s turned off by the last passing slave and a sheet is drawn over the bath tub until Andrey is made to confront his father’s corpse.

There is a backlit walkway with folds down from right stage when Dosifey and later Khovansky address their followers. It really helps to emphasise the status they are held in by their followers when they appear from stage right on it. Dosifey strides out and is in as much, if more, strength as he was at the start of the play. His determination and disposition have only grown with time. This is contrasted when Khovanshy initially seems to emulate this when the Strelsty call for him. However instead of the barrel chested, physically imposing, leader of earlier acts we see a frail old man hobble out and beg his followers to lay down their arms and prepare for the Czar’s judgement to be passed on them.

It can’t go without mention that you have quite archaic depictions of women. Marfa is lovesick for Andrey and every action she takes is to be reunited with him despite his rejection of her, Emma despite being named is only someone for Andrey to lust after with no further contribution after her first scene, the Persian Slave(s) are there to be Ivan’s playthings, Sofia is never seen on stage but is represented by Shaklovity… the only woman of any note is Susanna (one of the older members of the Old Believers) who ultimately only serves to shrewishly condemn Marfa for her love of the younger Khovansky instead of dedicating herself to the cause absolute.

Khovanshchina WNO

Review conclusion

Clumsy. I think that’s the word I would want to use regretfully, if not lazy for cetain aspects, regarding this production. It’s a revival of the 2007 production and it seems like they haven’t built on what they learned back then. ‘A decade has passed, no one will remember what we did last time. We hardly do ourselves!’

At the launch event it was joked they dusted off one of the older works and apparently that’s all they did thinking. The photo used for the promotional material, even at a glance, is clearly the old costumes as you see a man dressed in traditional black robes and not this productions choice to have the Old Believers wear white. This isn’t a revival by a retread with a new coat of paint sadly. In Hollywood films we see remakes of older films that don’t add anything to the original, don’t find a successful new interpretation nor make their own version but just seem to retread the exact same steps as their predecessor and often makes the same, if not more, mistakes. Apparently that can happen in opera too from what I saw here. If anything it’s gotten sloppy trying to experiment on some aspects that they didn’t fully consider.

The performers do their best, proving their status in the world of opera and I find little fault with them beyond some pronunciation which can be expected if they’re not often called on to perform in Russian often (let alone the suggestion of there being little time to prepare which was suggested at the season lauch event) but I think it was a lot of the staging and other choices which really took away from, rather than supported, the production.

The Persian dancer certainly was out of tone with the rest of the production. You have to ask if it was mandated by someone with influence making what is meant to be evidence that Khovansky has abandoned any noble ambition and given into decadent hedonism watching ballet instead was turned into a burlesque show for the audience. It takes you out of it completely it’s such a contrast to every thing else even compared to other productions of the opera by other companies. A brave choice but one that should have been reflected earlier with the actions of Ivan’s son Andrey towards Emma to show that despite all Khovansky’s noble words we see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the end.

It seems like I am nitpicking at artistic choices or minor points but it all accumulates. WNO always put a lot of effort into their set designs and staging. You would be hard pressed to say they do anything less than excel in it otherwise but for this production the choices just don’t work. There are some great ideas but the way they get implemented seems half hearted or misinformed at times. Khovanshchina is one of the rarer operas to be performed so they really had a chance to establish themselves further as one of the great opera companies but instead seem to have ‘given it a go’ with a mindset that failure is highly likely. This season they were also simultaneously doing Eugene Onegin and The House of the Dead alongside this piece and I am not sure how those will have come across as they are in many ways much safer options compared to Khovanshchina which perhaps asks a lot of an audience in comparison.

On the whole you might think three and a half hours would be dreadfully long but I found it moved along quite quickly. The only times I noticed the time were are the start, which seemed to take an eternity to establish events, and at the end where it just seemed like, after the pardoning of the Streltsy, everyone left remaining now needed to each perform a piece individually before the finale. People joke about the ending of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy taking forever but really this opera was not well served by reinstating the parts edited out previously.

It is often asked if you need to read up about an opera before seeing it and it’s up to you. WNO on their own webpage introducing people to opera even say this. You might get more enjoyment knowing the story before hand so you can enjoy the performance or you might enjoy seeing the twists in the narratives played out before you without warning. Khovanshchina is definitely one opera you must read up about before or else you will get lost. The colour coding is a good effort to counter this but you will still get lost if you don’t follow it carefully or have prior knowledge of the proceedings.

Khovanshchina: The operatic example of what ‘too many chefs spoils the broth’ looks like.

Originally an opera (subtitled a ‘national music drama’) in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky.

After Mussorgsky died leaving it unfinished Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882.

Because of his extensive cuts and “recomposition”, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Of course then each staging might choose to make alterations themselves. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev’s request. When Feodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosifei in any other orchestration than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky’s finale, which is still sometimes used.

Even with only a passing knowledge of Russian classical music you can see that some of the biggest names of the twentieth century tackled the piece and with each alteration came tension on what was the best option. Rimsky-Korsakov streamlined the opera and made it accessible. Shostakovich, true to his own style, included the more experimental sections which perhaps to me make the piece feel excessive in length or, as can be expected of things added back in after a ‘finalised’ version has been created, the pacing is negatively affected so some parts move along at a pace and others seem to come to a screaming stop and drag. Rimsky-Korsakov, if you look up the alteration history, made a lot of shortened sections. It’s a topic far too long for a review as it deserves it’s own focused consideration.

I assume it’s the Shostakovich version performed as it’s not immediately obvious in the brochure which version they went with but no doubt made some adjustments to suit themselves.

It’s a good opera to go see once but I can’t say after this experience I will want to see it again and certainly having seen a few Welsh National Opera productions (Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc) this is by far one of, if not their, weakest productions by far. The staging which is one of the company’s strong points falls flat here and at a few points borders being comical or sensationalist for the sake of it.

This review is only about this one production and not the company as a whole. WNO are serious contenders in the world of opera but in this case they underserved Mussorgsky’s opera and, in hindsight, hid it between Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. They sold this seasons operas’ brochures all together in a single volume at the cost of £6 on the assumption if you are seeing one then you’ll obviously be seeing the others too all as part of the R17 event. I’m sure those are both far superior but sadly my experience with Khovanshchina has made me lose faith in them this season. For all I know it was one bad night but it just so happened to be the one bad night I went to see their production of the opera.

During the season Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are performed in Russian but The House of the Dead, for timing, is performed in English. Part of me wishes they did Khovanshchina in English too if only to have a bit more control over some of the finer details. The opera has some good arias, the chorus work at every point is astounding but there are certainly some parts which I think will test even moderately patient audiences. It’s definitely not a piece to introduce someone to the world of opera with.

The brochure is nice though and very informative about the different operas so that at least is a nice note I can end on. Buy that as an introduction to the different operas, discussion of their background and have some high quality matt prints of Russian paintings.

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