Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
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The Real Laura Barton

Rona Munro, My Name is Laura Barton (Directed by Richard Eyre, Br/dge Theatre)

There was some anxiety from several reviewers that Nightfall didn’t sufficiently fill the thrust stage of The Bridge Theatre. So they follow it up with a one-person monologue, performed by Laura Linney, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Laura Barton. To make that feat more impressive, it is performed without interval, with a set that is little more than a hospital bed, a cabinet and a chair, plus a projection screen.

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What Does Red Mean to You?

John Logan, Red (Directed by Michael Grandage, Wyndham’s Theatre)

01FE5BEC-F32C-4B7F-8FED-92B5EFB5FB42There’s a room in Tate Modern that has to me the sanctity of a church. It is devoted to a group of multiforms by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I feel them embracing me, a sublime experience I can never quite express. They were intended for a restaurant, the Four Seasons, in the Seagram Building, designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe and postmodernist Philip Johnson. I have noticed red paintings in Pizza Expresses … but these? Amazing.

They never went on display.

He withdrew the paintings, returned the cheque and, eventually, sent some of them to the Tate, where they arrived on the day of his suicide.

Red, originated with Alfred Molina at the Donmar Warehouse and now revived with him reprising his role of Rothko, is contemporaneous with that commission. He has employed Ken (Alfred Enoch) as an assistant, to prepare canvases, mix paint and buy cigarettes, coffee and Chinese takeout. Ken is an aspiring artist, but Rothko is clear he doesn’t want to mentor him and he doesn’t want to teach him. At the same time, he opines upon the generation of Cubists he feels his generation rendered obsolete and condemns the upcoming Pop Artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns for being insufficiently serious. And he attacks his peers, especially the late Jackson Pollock, dealers, critics, buyers and gallery visitors.

He talks at great length about the ideas in The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche, and the relationship between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Ken keeps trying to fit Rothko into this scheme, but Rothko resists his model, forever demanding his opinion whilst claiming he has no authority to speak to the master. Inevitably they discuss the significance of red and the many differing shades, and how it is surrounded by the tragedy of black.
What does black mean to you?

The one thing they don’t discuss is that Ken is black.

Is this a hole in the play or a work of genius?

Originally, the part was played by Eddie Redmayne, but presumably the script remains the same. There were African American artists, including Norman Lewis in the abstract expressionists, but in the late 1950s would it be unmentioned? Rothko is Jewish, and this is presumably something that subjects him to some discrimination, originally from Russia, where he saw (or remembers seeing) much violence.

At one point, Ken notes that Rothko has no idea where Ken lives, if he’s married or queer, anything beyond his origin in Iowa. I’m not even sure that the name Ken is used in the play. Is the silence over his ethnicity another aspect of Rothko’s focus on the purity of art? At the same time, we don’t know that Rothko is married — he was and had had a previous wife, but both go unmentioned. Art is all. We don’t, of course, know that he will kill himself, although he seems to have a drink problem. As the play proceeds, the works in progress become progressively darker, more black. Tragedy is coming.

The play lasts ninety minutes, without interval, as long as a single act of Angels in America and The Inheritance trapping us with the characters. The switch between canvases is choreographed, as Rothko and Ken raise, lower, remove, replace and raise them. We see the two prepare a canvas — stretching, stapling and then priming with a red the colour of dried blood. As the two paint, they reach a synchronised rhythm, Ken becoming like Rothko, despite the latter’s insistence he is not there to teach him. The music is mostly classical, aside from moments of jazz and a segue into minimalism, symptoms of the dominants of music to come.

Molina is fascinating as Rothko, a heavy presence, with no interest in demanding our sympathy for his ogreness and yet making us care the moment he falls apart. Enoch is alternately vulnerable and cocky and growing in stature. I haven’t seen his work in the Harry Potter films, and I didn’t realise he is William Russell’s son — yes, Ian Chesterton from Doctor Who, another protege paired with an ogre out of time. Remarkably he can hold his own with an actor of much greater experience and a lengthy script.

The two hugged at the end, in a performance that was interrupted by a fire alarm about ten minutes in. They took the decision, rightly, to start again, and I have to admire that they were able to regain their equilibrium, even if the safety curtain could only be inched up.

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years

Barney Norris, Nightfall (Director: Laurie Sansom, Br/dge Theatre)

So the incredible success of the in-the-round production of Julius Caesar was evidentially not enough to tempt people into trying a new play in a thrust layout; I was upgraded from Gallery 3 to Gallery 2. Barney Norris is a name I know but I’ve not read his two novels nor seen his earlier plays, which are clearly carving out chamber dramas in the Hampshire/Wiltshire region. There is a rural beauty, if you try hard enough to see it, but aspiration points to Southampton or the Basingstoke of Despond. (The bright lights of London, the Carole King musical and the last train home are also in reach, but you suspect that’s a rip off.)
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Only Hook-Up

Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance (directed by Stephen Daldry, Young Vic)

Inevitably, when faced with a two part, seven-hour play about young gay men in New York, the memory returns to Angels in America. But this is twenty years later, new rather than revived, and focuses on a generation of gay men for whom AIDS is more treatable and preventable, given the right connections to health care. Coming out is less of an issue now, the anxiety is over whether to marry and how to adopt — a transgressive gay culture has been replaced with a nice apartment, kids and a weekend home somewhere upstate. For better or worse. In fact, some of the characters express nostalgia for the community in the era of HIV and ACT UP, as the heterotopia of the gay bar, the bath house, the sauna and the heath are replaced by Grindr (other apps are available).
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Et Tu, Bridge?

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

Memory is a curious thing.

I’d wanted to see Ben Wishaw in Julius Caesar, even though I regarded it as a dull play, but I assumed that by the time I got round to booking the tickets, sat in my parents’ living room with Dad shortly before Christmas, I’d be too late.

And I thought it dull having seen – I thought – a production of it at Leicester Haymarket, directed by John Dexter and starring John Duttine and Tim Pigott-Smith. Digging around online, the Leicester Haymarket production seems to have been in Autumn 1988, after I’d left for college, and had a different cast. There was a touring production with Duttine and Pigott-Smith – might I have seen that at Nottingham – or Hull New Theatre or even (I really think not) at Manchester?

So here we have Wishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Julius Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a regendered Cassius. I do remember seeing Calder in the audience for King John in the much-missed t’Other Place at Stratford – the year after Star Cops.

For the second production at The Bridge, Nicholas Hytner has decided not only to go for an in-the-round format (which I find I prefer) but also a promenade performance (which is a little bit eek). The audiences are chivvied and herded around, as portions of the floor rise and fall to offer platforms and stages. Of course, on one level this is showing off about what this space can do – after the traditional rotating set behind proscenium arch at Young Marx — but it also means that the audience is aware of the rest of the audience even more than the typical in-the-round style. As you enter the auditorium, there are concession stands selling beer, nuts, baseball caps and tshirts, and a band strike up a number of rock anthems until they are joined by a track suited Mark Antony. I’m assuming the theatre staff were in character, so it wasn’t a Brechtian move. This was all clearly too much for some – perhaps after an afternoon at the football, I saw a couple of casualties. And of course, this is a play about the crowd.

It doesn’t really like crowds.
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Caesar is declared to be a tyrant, eating into rights and freedoms of the people of Rome, who must be deposed – but he is much liked by the people and seems to speak their language. Donald Trump seems to be the analogue Hytner has in mind, even down to the red baseball cap tossed into the crowd and the drinking of colas. It’s a while since I read the play, but his tyranny seems to be mostly expressed by our contradictory aversion to popular (or populist?) leaders, rather than what we see him do, although when he finally gets to the senate, he is rejecting various requests for clemency. Cassius is the Iago, whispering in the ear of previously loyal Brutus, but her motives seem to be as much envy that Caesar got all the kudos from the recent battles. Brutus, meanwhile, seems to be acting on the idea that autocracy is bad compared to democracy and assumes a rational transition. Morrisey’s northern Mark Antony is able to assume a plain-speaking, I’m not part of the swamp of Rome, orator at Caesar’s funeral, and swiftly sways the crowd against the conspirators.

The people get what they want and it serves them right.

Civil war descends, and we could as well be in Serbia as Italy, with the wreckage of concrete and barbed wire barricades wheeled onto the stage in yet another pure moments of theatre. I’d forgotten how it ends for Brutus (spoilers!) but I did Antony and Cleopatra for A Level and I knew that Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Lepidus get to be triumvirates, with Octavius rather ambitious for more. Indeed, by the end of Julius Caesar he is clearly on the make.

As Caesar is absent for much of the first half of the play and only a silent presence for the second, and Mark Antony seems a minor role until the conspiracy is about to be hatched, Wishaw’s Brutus walks away with the play. Is it deference that names the play after Caesar rather than Brutus? Of course, the Henry IV plays are rather more about Hal than the king. Wishaw is the softly spoken intellectual, a Faustus without ambition, neglecting his self-harming wife for his books and seemingly caring more for Cassius. (How do those lines play when both characters are male, I wonder?) I think we see him reading Karl Popper and there’s a biography of Saddam Hussein on his desk, so he knows all about the theory of dictators. He just seems less clear as to what to do after you’ve deposed one.

Historically that may also be the point. In 1599 – which seems to be the currently accepted date – there was an elderly Elizabeth I not quite naming a successor yet (and I’ve just been watching the series on Queen Jane/Lady Jane Grey). The kilometerage of Puritans and Catholics might have varied from the average peasant in the field, but a deposed Elizabeth I would not have ended well. And it seems unlikely Shakespeare could have gotten away with a play about assassination being justifiable. Two years later, the Earl of Essex had organised a performance Richard II at the Globe and by some accounts had seen the parallels herself. And if we look to today’s politics, and rulers that we might not approve of – would the alternatives be any better?

The Bridge, of course, is opposite the Tower of London, palace, armoury and prison, and next to that bastion of democracy, London City Hall, where Red Ken and BoJo once held sway.

In the meantime, this production sweeps you along – it is only two hours long, played without interview, and it does (without ever being dull) feel longer. My prejudice against the play seems misplaced.