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…

A View From The Bridge

A Young Vic Production broadcast to Odeon Cinema, Bridgend by National Theatre Live
A View From The Bridge by Arthur Miller

The running time was about 1 hour and 55 minutes with no interval.

Before entering we were given an A4 sheet with information and advertising upcoming plays that will be broadcast.

Cast
Marco – Emun Elliott
Catherine – Phoebe Fox
Alfieri – Micheal Gould
Louis – Richard Hansell
Officer – Padraig Lynch
Rodolpho – Luke Norris
Eddie – Mark Strong
Beatrice – Nicola Walker
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Design & Light by Jan Versweyveld

Before the performance started we have an introduction by someone with a microphone in the theatre stood in a box and a short video of Van and Jan talking about how British theatre doesn’t have certain things and they dislike it. Great. It really got me into the mood to support their production. I remember Tsui Hark stating at the Beijing Olympics how no other country could ever do something like their opening ceremony. I remember a German lecturer at university mocking his students, in about 2004, about how Britain doesn’t have chip and pin unlike his home country (We did eventually). I dislike arrogance and the declaration that the country they have worked in is inferior to their home country. It creates unnecessary animosity.

Mark Strong I have seen in a few things but it’s safe to say he is an excellent actor and can easily hold his own even with the ‘heavyweights’ as the play relies on his central performance as the tragic protagonist of the piece. Phoebe Fox puts on a very good Brooklyn accent.

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The set design is minimalist boarding avant-garde by its starkness. You have a door leading from the rear of the stage with a small step-come-stoop. In front of this is a knee high enclosed area with benching above a glass wall. There are benches on the side of the stage where people are sat. I think they are audience but due to the tight camera angles I get flash backs to when I saw a Welsh National Opera production of the Barber of Seville where they had a fake audience, dressed in period costume, sat to the sides of the stage watching events unfold. At one point a chair is brought out of Marco to lift by the leg one handed with some overly dramatic music and a static pose for a minute (which usually marks the end of the first act before the interval hence its intended poignancy is lost due to there being no interval) but apart from that there are no props used.

A View From The Bridge Stage

Apart from this another unique aspect of the production visually is that everyone walks in this enclosed area barefoot. It was as if Van and Jan secretly have a Tarrantino level foot fetish and want to be sure their fellow fetishists can get a visual of the peoples feet at all times.

At the start of the play two of the characters are showering and drying themselves off. At the end of the play, instead of Eddie producing a knife during the dénouement, the ensemble huddle together, as if in a rugby scrum, and a torrent of blood showers down upon them from above. At the end of the play Beatrice holds the dying Eddie as everyone is bathed in his blood. Of course this is symbolic that the running theme of honour and vendettas that runs through the Italian-American community taints them all.

The major running theme of Italian immigrants bringing the ‘old’ traditions of what family and honour are, in contrast to the emerging new more liberal ‘Americanised’ generation, runs throughout the play. Eddie wants Catherine to get an education, and someone deserving of her, but can’t bring himself to accept her personal choices and union with the effeminate, in his eyes, Rodolpho. At the end of the play Marco, who embodies the ‘old’ traditions, ultimately proves how Eddie is a tragic figure as he exists in a hinterland between being modern, like Rodolpho, and maintaining the tradition of the community to not betray others. Alfieri acts as a quasi-narrator of the events serving as a foil to Eddie as Eddie believes himself to maintain the traditions while Alfieri has adapted to the new country and reiterates how tragic it is that people cannot compromise which ultimately leads to Eddie betraying his ideals and Marco becoming a murderer based on nothing more that pride and honour when the events were unnecessary. Themes of the differences between generations, the differences in cultures of immigrants and those around them who have naturalised successfully and those who retain the mind-set of ‘the old country’, the hubris of pride and many other issues are addressed during the play.

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It was an impressive staging and all the actors were excellent. I came into this play completely unaware of what it was about which is rare or me. It is a very serious play dealing with the concept of honour so still rings very true to our current generation albeit the background of the community may have changed. As it was broadcast no doubt there will be a repeat of the performance I saw but if you have a chance to see the play be aware it is a very serious, what ‘luvvies’ might consider ‘worthy’ play. As someone said after it ended “I liked it but I can’t say I enjoyed it” – it is a social commentary play not an entertainment play and it’s important that at least once in a while we challenge our own sense of comfort and address these questions even if we cannot immediately say that the experience was pleasant.


As all the seating was priced equally I got to try the premium seats you usually walk past in the cinema. Very nice and plenty of leg room to the point you dont have to get up to let people past but not worth paying more.

I’ve been told to try and write shorter pieces so i feel this entry is incomplete.

Comments, etc, are welcome.

Next a sort of overview of the two times I have been to Acapela Studio in Pentyrch, Cardiff.

The Harri-Parris: The Big Day

A Welsh farmer’s daughter brings her English fiancé back to meet her rural West Wales community and family leading to a number of misunderstandings and hilarity ensuing the day before their wedding.

The Harri-Parris are a West Walian farming family. Hilarious and dysfunctional, they love nothing more than having visitors round. And that’s you! Anni, the farm’s only daughter, is getting married and so the Harri-Parris want to celebrate the big day with you. Well, not the actual big day, they’re not made of money. How about the night before? The night they’re going to meet Anni’s new English, vegetarian, indie musician fiancé for the first time. What could possibly for [sic] wrong? Dust off your posh hats and join the Harri-Parris for a thoroughly entertaining evening of songs, stories and cake. Lots of cake.

Mai oh Mai productions and Little Wander in partnership with Chapter and the Torch Theatre presents: The Harri-Parris: The Big Day

Script and songs by Llinos Mai
Directed by Owen Lewis

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Cast:

Llinos Mai – Anni: The only daughter of the Harri-Parri family. Actor, writer, director and farmer’s daughter. Wrote this play and the first outing of the Harri-Parris entitled The Harri-Parris: The Leaving Do.

Rhian Morgan – Mrs Harri-Parri: Widowed, overbearing, matriarch of the family and proud member of the ‘Not the Welsh W.I.’ (Played Anne Jenkins in Tir, Susan in Stella and Sian Blathwaite in August, Anthony Hopkin’s adaption of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya back in 1996 which I saw when I was very little in the New Theatre, Cardiff).

Dan Rochford – Ifan: Anni’s terse brother who runs the farm day to day. (He played the role of Dean in Hinterland / Y Gwyll for two episodes). [My personal favourite character of the show but each one has their qualities contributing the the ensemble piece].

Rhys Ap Trefor – Deiniol: The camp cousin to the Harri-Parri siblings acting as the wedding planner (Huw in the Torchwood episode ‘Countrycide’) [The role was played by Rhydian Jones in The Leaving Do and he features in the promotional video for The Big Day though for whatever reason has been replaced and it may only have been temporarily as far as I am aware though Ap Trefor does an excellent job so you would never think he was replacing someone else in the role].

Oliver Wood – Ben: Anni’s English fiancé (Who you may recognise as Charlie Jenkins from Boyd Clack’s comedy series High Hopes).

For those expecting to see Gareth Wyn Griffiths who played Branek, a Slovakian seasonal farm worker in ‘The Leaving Do’, he does not return to reprise his role but that is understandable as the character was a seasonal worker who would have moved on and perhaps, as a foil to the previous play’s events, would not have added anything to the proceedings of this play and was replaced in the four person ensemble with the character of Mrs Harri-Parri.

The light hearted narrative is a simple to follow one of a farm daughter bringing her finance to her home for the first time and the dissonance which arises from the perceptions everyone has based on the lies Anni has told and the realities when they finally meet. The Harri-Parris meet him in traditional national dress with a song, playing an accordion, before laying out a lavish buffet, “Go on have a bit… have a bit more… bit more? Go on!”, but Anni and Ben have already eaten at the service station before arriving (and everyone in the community knows they have as Mrs Harri-Parri relates who spotted them where and when… There and no secrets in the close knit community of Llanlai). Anni has told her family that her fiancé, Ben, is a sky diving, charity working, man-amongst-men when in reality he is a vegetarian indie musician. This of course riles the farming, animal slaughtering, family who soon drive him to fainting during a musical number where they place him on the table and ritualistically gut him as if he were a chicken. Other issues include Ifan slaughters a pig in the downstairs toilet ruining Anni’s wedding dress, Ben’s mother had made a wedding cake that, safe to say, is not to Mrs Harri-Parri’s expectations and inevitably there is a fall out.

The Harri Parris The Big Day

The stage layout is very tight perhaps due to Chapter’s small stage area but there is no sense it is overly compacted but rather lends itself to a realistic dimension for the kitchen area of a farmhouse. To the rear on either side are doors: on the left it leads out into the farm’s courtyard and on the right further into the house. On the rear wall are the rosettes the family have won at farming contests, probably the Royal Welsh Show, while a drum kit, electric guitar and bass sit beneath them.

On the left is the cooking stove filled with a turkey and all the food. In front of this is the telephone say on a small podium which Mrs Harii-Parri goes to throughout the play to gossip, in Welsh (although its Pobl-Y-Cwm Welsh so there is nothing lost as you will easily pick up what she is saying even if you’ve no knowledge of the Welsh language as its about what has just occurred on stage). Just off centre of the stage is the kitchen table and a few chairs.

On the right is the Welsh dresser sideboard (display cabinet for anyone not familiar with this piece of furniture) in which the ruined wedding dress is hidden unsuccessfully, a piano used during most musical pieces and the chair in which Ifan often sits reading a tractor magazine when not involved in immediate events.

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There is a little bit of audience interaction once or twice during the performance early on in terms of the cast pretending people are members of the local community. The pretence is that we, the audience, have been invited en masse to come celebrate the event and are all members of the local Llanlai community. As long as you are not in the front two or so rows there is nothing to be concerned about if you do not like this sort of thing. Most of the humour here is of the ‘no you didn’t invite that person did you!’ variety with some being the gossipy women of the community who Mrs Harri-Parri doesn’t like, Anni’s past boyfriends (some whom Ifan invited as they are his friends though he clearly gets some mocking pleasure from inviting them) and one lady who gets the pleasure of being Ifan’s girl that he is seeing (and will proceed to gesture at during one or two moments later). During this point the house lights will be up but they are few and far between and a natural continuation of the previous Leaving Do play where they actually handed chocolate cake out apparently (they do not hand out cake during The Big Day) but it helps the ‘world building’ of the setting. Of course it may be that the people selected were ones the production knew I cannot hazard a guess. Personally I don’t like audience interaction but as it was restrained to the front few rows it was fine and something to be expected if you chose to sit there.

Before going in you are handed a Llanlai newsletter which aids in the world building and serves as a one page list of the people involved in the production in one column. It’s free so that was a nice, unexpected, bonus of Welsh humour to get you in the mood.

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The approximately 90 minute performance, with no interval, has a few bits of dialogue in Welsh but these are for the most part supplemental and all the key dialogue is done in English with a few Wenglish-isms. As mentioned Mrs Harri-Parri speaks on the phone in Welsh but these are easily followed and concern the immediately preceding events of the play.

There are musical sequences involving agriculturally lyrical R&B, indie guitar anthems, wistful balladry, rap and even one song involving Bollywood styled bhangra choreography.

The seating in Chapter was ‘first come first served’ with no seating allocation so if you go to anything there best make sure your are on the door early ready to go in and get your choice of seat. The stage is less than a metre in front of the front row so preferably gets seats about 3 rows back if you want to have seats similar to the front rows of other, more traditional, theatre venues. I didn’t notice any issue with leg room unlike other venues and only now, when writing this, realise it wasn’t an issue unlike other locations I have been. I have to assume the misspelling in the promotional blurb (highlighted in blod above) was intentional…

The play is quite straightforward in its humour and music but it is one of the first ones Llinos Mai has written and I think given time she will develop a more distinct voice and can be considered to be testing the waters as this play is more theatrical compared to the more musical based The Leaving Do. Certainly the BBC is willing to invest in her as soon there will be 3 episodes of The Harri-Parris Radio Show on BBC Radio Wales soon. In a comparison Boyd Clack started in a very similar vein with Satellite City which began as a radio show on BBC Radio Wales so if all goes well this may be the start of some big things and Llinos Mai becoming a big name in Welsh comedy!

It was a very enjoyable evening and Chapter is a good venue for new, inventive, shows. The big question is would I go see this again? Yes without question but more importantly it makes me want to see more from not just Llinos Mai but also everyone else involved in the production and I can think of no greater compliment to pay them than that. I am really looking forward to hearing more from the Harri-Parris on BBC Radio Wales and will be keeping an eye out for the nativity based third entry in the series when it comes around.

http://www.theharriparris.co.uk/

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A delay to the promised A View From The Bridge as the last performance of The Big Day is tonight and from the sounds of it has been sold out every night which is good to hear!

I wonder if there is a recording of The Leaving Do somewhere online. I tend to see things being recorded but never know where these recordings go afterwards. To some archives somewhere but it seems a shame to do that in this day and age even if you had to charge a small fee to view the recording.

The Woman In Black

Grand Theatre, Swansea: 28th February 2015
It is a very different take on the story if you saw the film or read the original novel by Susan Hill, due to the framing device, but the core narrative, once in village, shares the same basic narrative structure with fewer characters. In this version Arthur Kipps is, many years after the events, trying to get an actor to perform scenes based on the events to explain what happened to his family. The actor, never named, takes on the role of Arthur and Arthur himself performs all the other roles doing caricatures of the people he met. The action takes place in the theatre, the actual one you are sat in watching the play in, during the early 1950s.

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The stage layout is seperated into 3 sections as if to create a sense that the further back the scenery is from the front of stage, and each seperated by a thin veil of cloth backlit when in use, the more influenced by the woman in black’s haunting it is:

The Woman In Black Stage

The foreground where all of the ‘inside this theatre’ events take place and many of the scenes outside the house along with steps off the stage where a few ‘off in the distance’ moments occur though you will not miss anything should you be in the upper circle as I was. At the front section during the start, on the right side of the stage, is a grey curtain obscuring the ‘locked door’ which comes into use later and presumably is an unmoveable piece of scenery. The wicker basket is central and a single light chair is next to it. Later a heavier leather upholstered chair is used for the office scene and other parts. On the left of the stage is a clothes rail on which the coats, scarves, etc are hung in preparation for Arthur to grab them to use to visually represent each of the figures he caricatures during the events of the story. Again on the left is the ‘stage door’ through which they enter and exit the stage usually.

The second layer, hidden behind a thin semi-opaque curtain, represents the interior of the house and the bedroom. Strong lights are shone forward from off stage so you are able to see though it though, as far as I remember, this veil is never removed. The rocking chair, bed and cupboard are covered by dust clothes during most scenes to represent different rooms of the house which have been stored away after the abandonment of the house. Of course for anyone familiar with the story the empty rocking chair moving by itself is one of the pivotal moments in the narrative and it doesn’t fail to impress though it is a simple traditional stage effect. The cupboard is filled with old fashioned children’s toys, as it is the nursery, although for those familiar with the film the toys do not play a significant role unlike the automatons of the film (although I think one does go off suddenly at one point). The bed is a bed so there is nothing to add except it is dishevelled at one point but properly made in another scene.

At the third layer are stairs, behind archways, for some of the pivotal scenes and a large brightly lit cross which is used when Arthur and his companion enter a church and we first meet the woman in black who is shrouded almost completely in the dark. These are visually very impressive props in what is otherwise quite a minimalist staging design.

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They use a lot of improvised items, especially a large wicker basket as a table, desk, bed and [horse and] trap. If you don’t have a bit of an imagination and need things to be literally presented to you it’s probably not going to be satisfying. This play is in the nein of M. R. James’ ghost stories and you should go to it with that in mind: you are being told a ghost story not shown it.

The role of Arthur Kipps was performed by Malcolm James and the role of ‘the actor’ is performed by Matt Connor. The person who plays the woman in black is not named and during the curtain call shows up in the far background once the other two actors have taken a few bows. If anything the woman in black running around seems a bit comical due to the period dress she is wearing. Also an imaginary dog plays a significant role during the play and in many ways it is a light hearted fun performance and should be enjoyed as such.

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It was really enjoyable but unfortunately Swansea Grand had the ‘day out’ crowd who were there having a chat even after being told repeatedly it’s a quiet play and they need to avoid making noise as much as possible. When it started, and even though the ushers brought popcorn buckets and asked people to unwrap their sweets before the show as it was very quiet, there were still a lot who ignored this thus making many of the opening lines illegible. The play starts with Arthur Kipps doing a very quiet, intentionally bad, reading of his account before the actor tells him to be more theatrical. Also later when there were any ‘jump scares’ people felt the need to have a chat about it each and every time “Ohh that made me jump!” … no really? You would think that was the entire point…

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It’s a great show. If you go to the theatre or have an appreciation of it there are a lot of fun moments. If you want a traditional ghost story its good and in the vein of M. R. James’ works. It has some really nice visuals like the church scene when the woman in black first appears and a very good, economical, use of staging to maximise its effects.
It would probably scare children and give them a bit to worry about as the woman in black is ‘real’ but for a mature audience it is a fun experience with a few moments of jumping if you are unfamiliar with the narrative.

I don’t think you will miss too much sitting in the upper circle but it would be preferable to be in the stalls if you can do so. Really, it’s sad to say, a lot depends on the audience you have with you at any given performance. If they find the ‘you have to imagine the dog’ part funny then the show can be a fun light hearted affair. If they are collectively in the mood to be absorbed into the telling it can be a fun, mild, traditional, ghost story. However if they are the sort to react to the requirement for imagination with “what? …I have to use my imagination!? what did I pay a ticket for? I could just as well have listened to the radio” sort of crowd you are doomed. They will get ‘bored’ like little school children and resort to laughing as they rustle their sweet wrappers and taking any opportunity to speak during the performance then it will be diminished. I hope to go see this again in the New Theatre, Cardiff one day as I think the play is a fun experience for anyone to go to and for those who perhaps enjoyed pantomimes as a child but don’t want to commit to ‘serious’ theatre like Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ it is an easy going, simple, introduction to theatregoing which won’t alienate any children who they may bring along.

http://thewomaninblack.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_in_Black_%28play%29


I wish there were more shows like this. It was a lot of fun.

Next time hopefully I will be able to type up about ‘A View From The Bridge’.

It may be a few days or even on the weekend. These things take a bit longer than the usually-made-up-on-the-spot vignette pieces.

Twelve Angry Men

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Angry_Men

Following its record breaking West End run, this powerful new production of Reginald Rose’s gripping courtroom thriller Twelve Angry Men has been hailed as the “classiest, most intelligent drama in the West End”. It brings to the stage the taut brilliance of the 1957 three-time Academy Award nominated film which starred Henry Fonda and is considered to be one of the great ‘must-see’ movies of all time.

A jury has murder on their minds and a life in their hands as they decide the fate of a young delinquent accused of killing his father. But what appears to be an open and shut case soon becomes a huge dilemma as prejudices and preconceived ideas about the accused, the trial and each other turn the tables every which way, until the nail-biting climax…

Tom Conti is one of the most respected and celebrated actors of his generation. Unforgettable as the leading man in hit films such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Shirley Valentine, he has also appeared as a myriad of different characters on both the big and small screens as well as on stage. Recent movies include The Dark Knight Rises and Street Dance. Awards include the Olivier Award and Tony Award for his stage performance in Whose Life is it Anyway? and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in Reuben Reuben. He and Dame Judi Dench were recently jointly voted the Most Popular Actors in the West End in the last 25 years.

Now it’s your turn to witness a ‘BRILLIANT’, ‘RIVETING’, ‘TRIUMPH’of a show.

The play concerns the deliberations of the jury of a homicide trial. At the beginning, they have a nearly unanimous decision of guilty, with a single dissenter in Juror 8 questioning the validity of the evidence they were presented with in the court room, who throughout the play sows a seed of reasonable doubt. It was first made as a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose for the Studio One anthology television series, and was aired as a CBS live production on 20 September 1954. The drama was later rewritten for the stage in 1955 under the same title.

Here is a simple diagram of the stage layout as best I could remember it.

12 angry men stage layout

The blue bars at the top are windows with in the second half have water drizzling down them to represent the ongoing storm outside. The red bars are the tables. The central one revolved during the performance (and the direction is gradually turned in doing a full revolution by the end).The yellow circles with the lines are chairs. The yellow bars are the benches. The green bar is the coat rail. The brown bars are the doors (the left most was a toilet cubicle leading off stage). The triangles are where the lighting pillars were. The hexagon, with a blue circle, was the water cooler. The rounded corner squares with blue inner squares were the wash hand basins where a few conversations occurred as asides between some jurors.

The set design is effective and there is no scenery which blocks you view of events on stage. Similar to a recent production of ‘Dial M for Murder’ I saw there seems to be a trend to rotate scenes on stage to, at best, provide a visually different perspective on events, or worst, keep modern attention deficit audiences visually stimulated. During the intermission there was more than one conversation I heard from other groups discussing how they noticed the central table being rotated and debating whether it was the cast doing this of the turning circle of the stage floor (it was the stage floor which has a rotating circle where the table and chairs surrounding it were placed).

The Cast are: – Juror 1: Andrew Frame, Juror 2: David Calvitto, Juror 3: Andrew Lancel, Juror 4: Robert Duncan, Juror 5: Alexander Forsyth, Juror 6: Mark Carter, Juror 7: Sean Power, Juror 8: Tom Conti, Juror 9: Paul Beech, Juror 10: Denis Lill, Juror 11: Edward Halsted, Juror 12: Gareth David-Lloyd and Guard: Jon Carver.

The performance lasts approximately 2 hours 10 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
This production of Twelve Angry Men was first performed on 4 October 2013 in The HOUSE at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. First performance at the Garrick Theatre: 7 November 2013

Each member of the jury represents a different aspect of society:

Juror 1: The Foreman: (Andrew Frame) The jury foreman, somewhat preoccupied with his duties; proves to be accommodating to others. An assistant high school football coach. Tends to attempt to prevent heated arguments. Ninth to enter a vote of not guilty. He represents the balance of debate within the American legal system where the Socratic Method is employed. Each side gets to voice its side but, unlike the impassioned speeches we are used to seeing in American court room dramas, to be done so in a measured manner of comment and rebuttal. His voting later indicates that not only possible, but reasonable, doubt has been cast on the reliability of the case. Though he represents a balanced view by being told he is an assistant highschool football coach we are also being informed of his character as an individual i.e. he is a team player, an authoritarian who respects the authority of his superiors. This is why he holds out as long as he does until voting not guilty – not because he cannot see Juror 8’s logic but that in a sense he believes as there has been a murderer so there must be a culprit and the song is the only one ever presented during the play. Only when all the evidence is easily challenged and the verdict of guilty will lead a highly likely, if not innocent then at least justified murder done in self-defence, boy to being executed.

Juror 2: (David Calvitto) A meek and unpretentious bank clerk who is at first domineered by others but finds his voice as the discussion goes on. Fifth to enter a vote of not guilty. He represents those in society who fear to make their voices heard and more often than not go with the general consensus which can lead to bad consequences as seen with the people of Germany who did not challenge the Nazi party though many knew what was happening in their name was wrong. To be honest I don’t really remember much of this character ironically.

Juror 3: (Andrew Lancell) A businessman and distraught father, opinionated and stubborn with a temper; the antagonist. Twelfth to enter a vote of not guilty. A person ruled by his emotions and unable to be logically objective as a jury member. He sees the defendant as a potential version of his son and in seeing this wishes to excise the thought of it by punishing him. He therefore is the worst sort of person for jury duty as he cannot view the case by its own merits but rather brings to it all his inherent prejudices which influence his actions. As a businessman he is a respectable member of society so he is worse than some of the more negatively portrayed jurors as there is a façade of respectability when we are often presented with his being the least rational. The end of the first act concludes with him becoming violently angry with juror 8, who has constantly tested him, leading him to shouting ‘I’ll kill him’ while being restrained by other jurors. This declaration proves Juror 8’s point that someone will passionately declare this though it is rhetoric and does not mean the person has any intent in actually doing this.

Juror 4: (Robert Duncan) A rational stockbroker, unflappable, self-assured, and analytical. Eleventh to enter a vote of not guilty. Perhaps the most logical of the jurors but one who needs to have all the evidence be refutable before he will change his vote. In doing this we are shown that although rational he still favours the status quo of believing that as no evidence has been provided in the defendants defence then what does exist must be the only matters considered. This shows the fallacy then of being a completely rational person as, unlike Juror 8 who challenges based on the weakness of the evidence, we find with this character that omission is not taken into consideration. To him only what is presented to him exists and in doing this he is easily misguided for example when the female defendant shows signs of being a glasses wearer but doesn’t do so in court and the matter that she may not have seen what she believes she saw is brought into contention.

Juror 5: (Alexander Forsyth) A soft-spoken young man from a violent slum, in the book a Milwaukee Brewers fan, in the movies and on Broadway, a Baltimore Orioles fan. Third to enter a vote of not guilty. This juror represents empathy towards others in decision making as he can identify with the defendants situation having come from a similar background. He is the one who is first accused of changing his vote due to this and although he is not it is one of the earliest reassessments that occur in the play. Why then did he vote guilty initially? Because of social pressure perhaps? There was a crime there must be a culprit though of course at the end of the play we are only told of and concerned by the decision to acquit the defendant not with who did or did not commit the murder.

Juror 6: (Mark Carter) A house painter, tough but principled and respectful. Sixth to enter a vote of not guilty. He often stands up to others when they become outspoken and aggressive. He is the common man of the play representing that people understand the difference between right and wrong but are ruled over by the majority. He therefore is the middle ground of all the jurors and so it is no coincidence he therefore is the ‘middle’ most vote during the entire process.

Juror 7: (Sean Power) A salesman, sports fan, superficial and indifferent to the deliberations. Seventh to enter a vote of not guilty. A person who does not care for the verdict as long as he gets to do what he wants. He is the most distraught at the start of the play as having to discuss the verdict means he won’t be able to go see the sports game he has tickets for. When during the second part a storm means the game is a wash out he becomes more amicable and quiet. However it should be noted his reason for voting not guilty is not so much out of a belief that the defendant is innocent as much as to ‘tip the scales’ so that he is with the majority and thus ‘hedging his bets’. He therefore represents the sort of person who nowadays can often be heard saying ‘what is the point of voting? It doesn’t affect my life’. A short sighted individual only concerned with their own matters and apathetic to others.

Juror 8: (Tom Conti) An architect, the first dissenter and protagonist. Identified as “Davis” at the end. The first to enter a vote of not guilty thus setting off the events of the play. He sees the flaw in the logic of the evidence provided and does not go with the majority and vote with them for an easy life as others may have. We are told he is an architect, a professional, and in doing so we are presented with the bias of the play unfortunately in that many of the professional people are logical while the working classes are ruled by their prejudices and emotions (with two key exceptions in Jurors 3 (too emotionally guided), 4 (too rational and unable to imagine the alternatives not presented). Of course this is not an ironclad rule and we see during the course of events various facets to each character but it does seem to be an overarching aspect to the play where the working class characters will shout while the professionals will speak far more calmly. It is possible it was just the production I saw which gave this impression however. Juror 8 is the idealised protagonist, a person who will stand for what is right no matter how much opposition there is, who never is really challenged successfully in his views though on at least one occasion he actively antagonises a juror into anger to get the reaction of being told ‘I’ll kill him!’ so he is not without a dark side.

Juror 9: (Paul Beech) A wise and observant elderly man. Identified as “McCardle” at the end. Second to enter a vote of not guilty. Someone who has much life experience and perhaps is suggested to have become more liberal with age. He sides with Juror 8 not completely out of agreement but because there is the possibility of there being something to what he has said in challenging the status quo. He however waits until the secret ballot before agreeing showing us that although the older generation may still have a standpoint to provide the are easily put to one side and require others to be the ‘hot blooded’ individual to cast the first stone. He is a figure of respect throughout the play though it is only in offering support and perspective via his life experience in contrast to the younger members of the jury.

Juror 10: (Denis Lill) A garage owner; a pushy and loud mouthed bigot. Tenth to enter a vote of not guilty. The stereotypical working class figure as written by the middle classes. His saving grace in the play is that unlike the businessman Juror 3 he is not expected to know better and thus although he also allows his prejudice to rule his logic he is more excused for it that the ‘antagonist’ Juror 3.

Juror 11: (Edward Halstead) A thoughtful German watchmaker and naturalized American citizen. Fourth to enter a vote of not guilty. He provides a perspective from outside American society. In practise this shows that when he is presented with a fair challenge to the majority view. The play was originally written in 1957 so it is hard to not assume the character was not in Germany during the Nazi regime. Is this then the playwright’s commentary on how the people of Germany, by now fully aware of the atrocities performed in their name, are not ambivalent to other’s suffering and should not be held personally responsible for what the regime did? He provides wordy contributions as if to enact the freedom of speech he has gained in America which was denied to him in Germany. Though it is not addressed as aggressively as it may have been in a real life version of this situation you can imagine he has faced persecution and prejudice and in doing so can identify with being unfairly judged. He therefore represents sympathy where Juror 5 represented empathy.

Juror 12: (Gareth David-Lloyd) A wisecracking, indecisive advertising executive. Eighth to enter a vote of not guilty. He talks big but his vote is easily changed from one to the next. As an advertising executive we see how easily swayed he is in his opinion in order to appease the majority. He switches it back and forth in a matter of minutes based on only small changes in opinion in the others. The playwright no doubt is commenting on the façade of respectable society which so easily can be swayed by external forces.

The Guard: (Jon Carver). I am not sure if he is the voice at the start of the play, when the ensemble are sat on the benches at the front of the stage ‘in court’ being informed, along with the audience, what their deliberation requires. That it must be a unanimous vote in this case, due to it being a homicide, so they must have unanimous agreement amongst themselves whether the 16 year old defendant is guilty of murdering his father or not. His only real role in the play is to bring on required items like the knife and the floor plan of the apartments.

Review: As it is an ensemble play it feels unfair to cite one person over another as standing out in the play. Indeed, if anything, standing out would be detrimental to the piece. Tom Conti’s voice doesn’t tonally lend itself to doing a satisfying American accent unfortunately although a few of the others also adopt broad American accents that we would associate with the 1950s so it is in keeping with the others. Gareth David-Lloyd, of the more prominent characters, has one of the better accents and I have to admit I would not have realised he was the same person who played Torchwood’s Ianto unless I had seen his name in the brochure.

If I had one criticism it would be the revolving central table. Similar to a recent production of ‘Dial M for Murder’ I saw there seems to be a trend to rotate scenes on stage to, at best, provide a visually different perspective on events, or worst, keep modern attention deficit audiences visually stimulated. During the intermission there was more than one conversation I heard from other groups discussing how they noticed the central table being rotated and debating whether it was the cast doing this of the turning circle of the stage floor (it was the stage floor). It seemed very distracting and, to me, a poor choice as there are multiple other pieces of scenery which remain static throughout the play thus giving the impression the table turning is happening in the reality of the play and not being commented on by anyone as ridiculous as that is to read. Very much in the style of chamber dramas, plays occurring in a single room, there felt no need to include the revolving table.

Regarding the marketing its clear they have superimposed replacement actors heads onto the cast of the original run. some of it is okay but on the whole it all seems slapdash and really makes the posters look ugly thoguh i appreciate it is not as if people will look as closely as I did or actually be bothered about it. I am just one of those people who notices these things and lament the loss of the time when marketing involved more than just using basic photshop skills to edit a photograph while abusing filters and basic typography settings. Film posters are far more guilty of this than stage productions however i will admit.

I enjoyed it as a morality play and felt the cast is quite strong. If you get a chance to see it by all means do though I think it is heavily reliant not only in casting good actors but in them working well as an ensemble so there can be no guarantee that big names will result in satisfying performances. I thought this production did well and certainly has received a wide number of accolades. If you can catch it during its tour it is definitely worth going to see.


Next time on the misadventures of blogging… a food or drink review.