Friday, September 27, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Michael Grandage Company) runs at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End from September 7 – November 16 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Grandage.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s fluffiest play. It’s insubstantial, like fairy floss – glimmering gossamer strung together by a thin plot and some good jokes. The Michael Grandage Company’s production of this at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End beautifully realises the play’s dreamlike qualities. The scenes with the fairies are gorgeous. But I can’t help wondering whether the way they’ve treated the human characters exposes some darknesses that maybe should be left uncovered.

We all know the plot. The bit I’m especially interested in here is the quartet of four human lovers, Hermia (Susannah Fielding), Helena (Katherine Kingsley), Lysander (Sam Swainsbury), and Demetrius (Stefano Braschi). Lysander loves Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander. But Demetrius also loves Hermia (and has her father’s blessing to marry her), despite the fact that he’s basically being stalked by another woman, Helena. There’s some wacky shenanigans in the woods on a midsummer’s night where Demetrius and Lysander find them both magically compelled to love Helena, leaving Hermia totally bereft, but then eventually Lysander is cured and everyone pairs up and lives happily ever after blissful monogamy. Right? Right.

The bit that worries me isn’t so much that Demetrius is forced to love Helena, his personality essentially changed, and no one really seems to care. (I mean, obviously this is problematic, but treating this text too seriously will leave you in a world of pain.) The problem I have is the way that this particular production seems to equate love and sex. It starts off with Helena. In her pursuit of Demetrius, she tears a lot of her clothes off, as well as many of his, totally against his will. Similarly, when Lysander falls in love with Helena, he starts stripping, and spends nearly half the show with an undone belt buckle. And then, depending on who is in love with whom at that present moment, everyone chases each other round the stage like Pan chasing nymphs. With scary Pan-level aggression.

Basically, it’s really, really rapey, and the fact that it’s played for laughs makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Love and sex are not, I would contend, the same thing in this play. Sure, this is a “sexy” play, an aspect often emphasised in performance, but the portrayal of love in this play is, I would argue, more about idealisation than sexualisation. The one overt sexual overture we have is when Lysander wants to sleep beside Hermia in the wood. She turns him down pretty firmly and he takes it without much sulking. This is a couple in love. Why, then, would the love-juice turn them into sex maniacs? I’d argue that it’s not only disquieting, but not a particularly sophisticated reading of the text either, even if it does lead to some moments of slapstick humour.

What this production does do well, however, are the fairies. The fact that they’re continually smoking spliffs and getting high made me laugh – in many ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a drug trip of a play, as well as being preoccupied with the use of “magical” potions itself. Sheridan Smith is lovely as Titania, and her scenes with David Walliams’ Bottom are fabulous. Gavin Fowler as Puck is wonderfully impish, and the whole chorus of fairies are gossamer as could be desired. And the show belongs, undoubtedly, to Pádraic Delaney as Oberon, who prowls around the stage with a wonderfully sexy mixture of menace, magic, and mischief. He’s like Richard Armitage playing a David Bowie-esque Goblin King, and it totally works.

And of course, I should mention the show’s celebrity factor. David Walliams is very funny as Bottom. The way he plays his utter self-righteousness and narcissism is pinpoint accurate, and the scene at the end where the Mechanicals do their play? Screamingly funny.

This is a really, really watchable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The aesthetic – that playful, sexy magic it possesses – is certainly realised. I just really wish a little more consideration had been put into the way “love” and “sex” were figured, particularly when it came to the humans. Maybe it would mean a few moments of physical comedy were lost, but when the alternative is a river of disquiet pulsing below the surface? I’d suggest that’s a worthy trade.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Pride

The Pride plays at Trafalgar Studios in London from August 8 – November 9. By Alexi Kaye Campbell, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

So if you’re thinking to yourself, “wow, Jodi really hasn’t reviewed very much stuff this month, especially considering last year during the Sydney Fringe she was routinely reviewing three shows a night – I wonder what’s going on there?” let me explain: I’m overseas! I’m in the UK doing academic things, and so sadly have missed the entire Sydney Fringe (as well as the Sydney mainstage shows for the month of September). But I have been seeing some things in the UK, and when I see things, I write about them, so here goes.

A good friend of mine brought me along to see The Pride, and helpfully explained to me the background of the company. Young wunderkind director Jamie Lloyd has engaged the (relatively small, by West End standards) space at the Trafalgar Studios for a whole season – the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season – in an effort to enliven an area in danger of being drowned by musicals. The Pride follows his revival of Macbeth (starring James McAvoy) and The Hothouse (starring Simon Russell Beale), and has its own star drawcard in Hayley Atwell. It is a revival – if you can call a play that first went on in 2008 a “revival” – of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, which first played at the Royal Court.

To describe the problem I had with this play, I must first briefly describe the plot. There are two separate stories woven together here: one, of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Sylvia (Atwell), a married couple in the 1950s, and Sylvia’s colleague and collaborator Oliver (Al Weaver). Weaver is quietly gay in an era where this could lead to prosecution under “gross indecency” laws, and Philip is horrified at the attraction he has towards him. The second story includes the same triangle, but it is set in the present day. Weaver’s Oliver has an addiction to anonymous sex and being dominated (in one especially memorable scene, he hires a rent boy whom he asks to dress as a Nazi), which has ruined his relationship with his ex Philip. His only emotional support is his friend Sylvia, to whom he clings far too tightly for it to be healthy.

On their own, there is nothing wrong with either of these stories. Both are engaging – enthralling, even, in some moments – and independently, would make awesome plays. However, when you read them together, read them against each other, some really problematic things begin to bubble to the surface. The parallels have implications that I really don’t think are intended. The most obvious of these is locating the 1950s social imperative for gay men to be closeted against the modern Oliver’s promiscuity. The blurb for the show says that “societal repression gives way to self-deception”, but... why? Why must the gay man who was trapped by his society in the 1950s be trapped by his own mind in the modern period? The modern Oliver is clearly meant to be portrayed as mentally ill, and that seems to suggest that the 50s Oliver would also be that way if he wasn’t socially compelled to be repressed. Which leads to a very troubling place. So...

The other consequence of the parallel stories is Atwell’s character, Sylvia: specifically, that she doesn’t get to have much of a character. Despite the fact she has star billing, she seems to exist only to provide the role of emotional support. This seems to be especially true of the 1950s Sylvia, who behaves very strangely at times – just once, I wanted her to get angry, but she is entirely selfless. You’d think that if your husband slept with someone else, you’d be pretty angry no matter who it was, but she is disarmingly Zen about the whole thing: a little sad, but not much beyond that. Similarly, modern day Sylvia is defined almost entirely by her friendship with Oliver. Her strongest moments are when she is torn between being his friend and her new relationship with Italian boyfriend Mario, but the fact that said boyfriend is never seen onstage is, I think, telling. This character is underwritten and in many ways, sacrificed to the narrative.

I actually quite enjoyed The Pride, although it might not sound like it from this review. Lloyd is obviously a great director. Playwright Campbell excels in writing vignettes, something which he has turned to his advantage in this picaresque play. But I feel like some of the implications have really not been thought through all the way. In the curtain call, the actors come out with signs that say, “To Russia, with love”. This is an awesome sentiment, but this play isn’t exactly an anti-homophobic call to arms. Obviously, this is not to say that the play is homophobic. I don’t think it is, at all. Nor should any non-homophobic depiction of gay characters have to be some great activist call: theatre should and needs to be more complex and nuanced than a for/against binary. But considering the problematic implications of some of the story parallels, the “To Russia, with love” signs seemed a little bit... I’m not even sure how to phrase it. Incongruous?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Empire: Terror on the High Seas (Tamarama Rock Surfers) runs from September 4-28 2013 at the Bondi Pavilion. By Toby Schmitz, directed by Leland Kean.

There is a lot that is very interesting about Empire: Terror on the High Seas. It is a play with a lot of layers, a lot of nuances, a lot of complexities. Story and history are stacked together here, narratives of colonialism and aestheticism running parallel to the gory murder mystery that drives the plot. It has the potential to be fascinating. Sadly, it isn’t. It’s bloated and bombastic, the interesting moments and scenes buried underneath the weight of so much stuff, leaving the play to collapse under its own weight.

This really bummed me out, because I enjoyed I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard from the same creative team very much last year, and I had high hopes for this one. Anyone who’s read my blog on even a semi-regular basis will also know how much I love mystery and horror on the stage, so I was doubly pumped. The premise is full of fun: a murder mystery on board a ship? in the 1920s? Yes please. That sounds awesome. But the premise is misleading. Empire is obviously intended to be much more than an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on steroids. This is also more than fine, but what results is a colossus of a show, trying to do way way too much, and yet strangely at the same time, not that much at all.

The best way I can think of is to describe this as a kind of 1920s episode of The Mole. You’re in a situation with set limitations (here, the confined space of a ship), and you know someone on board with you is the eponymous mole – in this case, a serial killer. People keep getting eliminated (killed), narrowing the number of suspects while ratcheting up the tension. Actually, let me revise this comparison. The first act of Empire is like a 1920s super-murder-y episode of The Mole. But imagine if you were watching The Mole and it was revealed who the mole was halfway through the season? The dramatic tension would deflate immediately, right? In Empire, the murderer is revealed to the audience not in the traditional Agatha Christie-style denouement, where all the suspects are gathered while the detective cracks the case wiiiiiiiiide open in an epic soliloquy, but at the end of the first act (and to be honest, it’s not that hard to work it out before then). This leaves the second act floundering with nowhere really to go. There’s a secondary plotline about a mysterious illness affecting several of the passengers on board, but to be honest, it’s pretty weaksauce. It becomes incredibly frustrating, as you wonder why these people are so dumb they can’t work out who the killer is.

I appreciate that playwright Toby Schmitz is trying to subvert the tropes of the genre here, and in some respects, it’s quite cool. I would talk more about this, but it would be a bit of a dead giveaway (pun obviously intended) as to who the killer is. Suffice it to say that there is an aesthetic reason to do with an artistic movement, and the way the show interacts with it is pretty clever. But while it might work thematically, generically...? not so much. At interval, I really wasn’t sure where the show would go after unmasking the murderer so soon. Could it be a false reveal? Were there two murderers? Was there going to be some big twist? Turns out... no. Dramatic irony and gore was just not enough to carry the second act.

This tension between theme and genre is one that underpins the whole show. I feel like Empire sacrificed form for style, but you can’t really have the latter without the former. There are a lot of ideas contained within the framework of the murder mystery here – for example, the image of the human zoo, which some of the passengers discuss, is neatly mirrored by the plight of the characters, caged in their staterooms in the larger, inescapable cage of the ship. The chaos and anarchy that spreads as the killer begins to claim more and more victims mimics the crumbling of empire. The spectre of World War I lurks beneath the conversations of the 1920s bright young things, who are largely unaware not only of the effect it had, but the effect it is still having on their society. But all this cleverness is wasted when the story isn’t engaging. It’s hard to care about these nuances when you don’t really care about the characters. It’s hard to appreciate the wide-ranging impact of history on the events of the show when said events are not that interesting. What might have seemed like interesting detail becomes pontificating. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the single tree, because the whole forest is drowning it out.

I would like to commend the cast, who do a good job with some very tough material. And if you like gore on stage (I do, a lot), then there are some moments which you will really enjoy. But for me, Empire: Terror on the High Seas just did not work. Sailing in at just under three hours, it is much too long, especially considering that the tension bleeds out of it in the second half as surely as if the show itself were one of the killer’s victims. Thematically, it’s an interesting play, but this alone cannot make a good show. I wanted to like this so much, and I just couldn’t.

Dead Man Brake

I reviewed Dead Man Brake at Merrigong over at Australian Stage. Have a look at what I thought here.