Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Green-Eyed Monster

I have just completed a 3000 word essay on 'Othello', so I was hoping that the National Theatre's five-star production might lift me up out of the academic quagmire and once more into that higher realm that Shakespeare seems to occupy. They delivered, my friends.
Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear as Othello and Iago are breathtaking. In their scenes together (all too few) the stage is electric; people are on the edge of their seats, holding their breath. Lester captures Othello's mounting confusion - we see the seed of doubt growing in his mind, and his unstable ricocheting from anger to weeping increases the further we speed towards the tragic ending. Othello's apparently nonsensical curses - 'Goats and monkeys!' - have new tones in Lester's mouth. Othello is not mad - he is so, so angry. So confused. There was no second on stage, not even Shakespeare's addition of a melodramatic fainting fit, when you did not believe in every word, every look.
Kinnear turned Iago into a South London gangster type - setting up a nice disparity between the rather 'rah', chino-wearing officer class (see Cassio and, to a lesser extent, Othello) and the squaddies. During the generals' meeting at the very beginning of the play, Iago stands obediently in the corner, silent and still, only really present when called. He was not your typical villain... but then, Iago never is. There is that bizarrely comfortable camaraderie with and confidence in the audience; a relationship which here provoked a knowing laugh every time someone called him 'Honest Iago' or he swore 'as honest as I am'. But there were no looks out to the audience from Kinnear, once he was immersed in the play; this Iago was entirely separate from his monologues, with no hint of his ulterior motive showing, not even for a second. The monologues themselves were, as you might expect, beautifully crafted. Kinnear's Iago gave a little more credibility than normal to Iago's assertion that he believes his wife to have cheated on him with Othello. Kinnear showed Iago's deep insecurity there, which highlighted (helped by the mainly-male, male-oriented army base setting) his malicious and hateful attitude towards women; Emilia, Bianca, Desdemona... they are all reviled by him, and he wreaks havoc for them all.

Property of the National Theatre
The women in the play shine brightly - they have to, there are only three - and all of them, I have to say, were TINY! Not that this made any difference at all to pretty strong performances; Olivia Vinall as the unlucky Desdemona has been hailed as a star... I wasn't entirely convinced, but then I have real problems with Desdemona... I just want her to get angry. Just one line. Just shout! But, alas, that's not the stuff she's made of; she's in awe of Othello, and is beyond confused and unhappy when things start to go wrong, and with this Vinall was very good. Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia was splendid up until the end when things got a bit too shouty; there was a beautiful moment between the two when Emilia joins in with Desdemona's 'Willow' song.
There is a splendid supporting cast to carry them all along, with understudy Sandy Batchelor a pleasingly ebullient Cassio and Tom Robertson a nicely wimpy Roderigo. They are all working within a fantastic set; Vicki Mortimer's design allowed for rooms to come and go, all bare lighting and barrack-style minimalism, Ikea furniture and make-do storage. There was an utterly inspired moment that took place in the splendidly run-down Gents, with Othello overhearing Cassio's apparent boast of Desdemona's infidelity from within a cubicle, with the dodgy lighting flickering and sputtering during Othello's subsequent rage.
This production is filled with brilliant moments, but my favourite was so subtle it could easily be missed. During his initial two monologues, Kinnear's Iago twists and fiddles with his wedding ring, hinting at his insecurity... later, in Othello's own impassioned monologue about Desdemona's disloyalty he does exactly the same, picking at the scab that was so lately a jewel. And so we know -
Iago's work is as good as done.

Tickets are selling fast so if you can't make it, at least give the trailer a look. This is another classic from the National, I walked out exhausted!

Monday, 27 May 2013

What did I just watch?

Very occasionally, you can look up and down your row at the end of a play, and everyone will have exactly the same expression. Exactly the same reaction. And so it was on Friday after ‘Pastoral’ at the Soho Theatre. The lights came up and I swear that every single one of my companions had a great big ‘WTF’ written all over their faces.
The single problem with this extraordinary new piece of theatre is that it doesn’t know what it’s trying to be; is it funny? Is it bleak? Is it a dark reflection of the consumerist society we live in, or a message to tell us to embrace the natural world? I genuinely have no idea, because it had elements of all these things. Moll (by far and away the star of the show, Anna Calder-Marshall) had a wonderful 5 minute monologue to the audience, (lamenting the rise of ‘the fat’, seen on her long days people-watching) but as soon as other characters come into play, this lovely relationship with the audience is squashed, as is Moll’s own brilliantly quirky character.
Other characters, periphery next to Moll and Arthur (played very well by a woman, Polly Frame, but an odd choice of casting) were somewhat two-dimensional, and the script became soft in places, leaving you dreaming of another Moll-ologue (would two Northern city boys really know an array of obscure plant names? And can they really see them all through a pretty pathetic pair of binoculars?)
Aside from the character of Moll, the point of true genius in this production was Michael Vale’s set. All controlled by magnets, a forest blossomed out of the flat before our eyes – flowers, pointed like darts, dropped down from the ceiling to stick in the ground.
The idea of having the Ocado man (beset by wild beasts and jungle on his trip) deliver an epic tale of danger and bravery, backed up by a full string ensemble through the speakers, was a good one, but writer Thomas Eccleshare egged it out just that little bit too long – and so it was with the whole thing. Where are you going to go with this plot? How does an essentially apocalyptic storyline keep up the humour seen in the first section? You can't have man (once again) reclaim the world from the plants, because surely that isn’t the point... so where's the end point?

This evening was immeasurably improved by bumping into Anna Calder-Marshall herself on the stairs. Totally unprovoked, she had this to say:
'It is odd, isn't it?'

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Our Country's Bloody Fantastic

Quick post to say hi again! Slightly back-dated but they are now on tour... follow them. It's worth it:

The St James’s Theatre is a shiny new performance space in London, so it is suitable that its opening night was the first performance of ‘Our Country’s Good’, a play that is still vibrant and relevant even though it’s original run was in 1991. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, the play, an unconventional love-letter to the unbeatable ability of theatre to bring people together, takes place in 1780s Australia; a handful of unfortunate conflicts find escape and a new lease of life in Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s determined rehearsal of ‘The Recruiting Officer’. The set used by the Out of Joint theatre company was beautifully evocative. Stark, simple, but nevertheless filled with the warm colours of hot, earthy Australia, and with foldable cloths falling   from the ceiling to act in turn as a ship’s sails, stage curtains and tents, the small stage did exactly what it was there for; framing the action. And what action it was; with a minimal cast, most taking on both a role of a convict (the oppressed) and of a military figure (the oppressors), this tightly compact drama never stopped going, and never stopped surprising. Fuelled by an incredible cast, alive to every nuance of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s text – notably Lisa Kerr as Duckling, Kathryn O’Reilly as Liz Morden, and Ciaran Owens in the two completely polarised roles of harmless hangman and brutish Captain (although it hardly seems fair to pick names from such a pile) – the play pulled the audience from moment to moment, one minute presenting us with devastating tragedy and cruelty, the next with the beauty of simple human connection and strength. With not a heart unmoved in the entire house, this wonderful revival got a highly deserved standing ovation. They didn’t put a foot wrong.

Tristram Kenton for the Guardian