Heart of Very Very Very Darkness

Martin McDonagh, A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Br/dge Theatre, directed byMatthew Dunster)

If you’ve seen the same author’s In Bruges, you know what to expect: humour of the blackest hue, a claustrophobic central relationship and lots of swearing. And Belgium.

Continue reading →

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

Alan Bennett, Allelujah (Br/dge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner)

Bennett has long since passed from tilter at the establishment to national treasure and still produces landmark plays with a political edge. Inevitably this is a late play — like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger — and like many of his works this has a public institution at its heart. It has a large almost ensemble cast and a closing series of monologues but, unlike The Lady in the Van and The Habit of Art it doesn’t really play metadramatic games. Those closing monologues remind me of Death of a Salesman — perhaps it is inevitable that a late play reminds me of lots of things.

At the heart of the play is the geriatric ward at the Bethlehem Hopsital in Yorkshire, which faces closure in favour of a larger hospital a number of miles away. As Colin (Samuel Barnett), a political adviser found with reasons to close the ward, comes to visit his dying father Joe (Jeff Rawle from Drop the Dead Donkey), some of the nurses and doctors have called in a documentary crew to film the geriatric choir that may yet save the place. Unfortunately, as the first act falls, a member of the hospital may well torpedo this plan.

One can’t help but feel that Bennett’s heart is — mostly — in the right place and the last forty years of government policies have jeopardised the success of a great national institution. Further, our paranoia about immigrants — and this play was written before the Windrush scandal broke — means that many of the workers in hospitals may not work for us much longer. But with singing and dancing oldsters we are in a fantasy land — how much is real and how much is what we want to see?

Suddenly I’m reminded of the social realist nostalgia of Terence Davies and the surreal memoir plays of Dennis Potter. The country may be going down the crapper, life may be shit, but at least you can have a sing song. When the geriatrics aren’t singing, their snappy dialogue seems like a dinnerladies reunion thirty years on, although perhaps Victoria Wood had been tuned by Bennett’s dialogue. The positioning of a song right at the end risks undercutting the play’s ending during the applause, as we are transported back to Victory Day and there is singing and dancing in the streets. We leave with a song in our hearts.

Three of the male characters may show where the play almost misfires, despite being an enjoyable and energetic evening. Firstly, the immigrant doctor, Ramesh (Manish Gandhi), whose immigrant status puts his career at state. You can’t help but be angry and this can’t help be political. Is he too angelic for the play’s own good? Meanwhile Colin, Joe’s gay son, is positioned as one of the play’s villains. At the same time, he’s lacking an arc. He arrives wanting the hospital closed and I didn’t get the sense of him learning anything, despite the trauma he goes through. He’s the son of a small town, born in the wrong culture, who managed to escape and he has been alienated and embittered by his experiences. But something is missing. Finally there is Andy (David Moorst), on the contemporary equivalent of the YTS, possibly a younger Colin, possibly a straight man in a small town that is more openminded than Colin gives it credit for. Too often he gets the cheap laugh. He is presented as the dim caretaker, risks performing clichés, unwittingly precipitates the crisis — and then vanishes largely from the narrative. he is not punished, he is not rewarded, he is not resolved, as closing monologues veer rather too much on the preaching, even if you disagree with the sermon.

The drama is dissipated.

There is laughter and there is sadness, but perhaps the game is too rigged.

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.
Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.)
Continue reading →