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Life of Galileo

There was a time when I thought Brecht was rather earnest and somewhat dated, but Arturo Ui scrubbed up well at the Donmar Warehouse last month and now Life of Galileo comes out even fresher at the Young Vic. I’ve been critical of some theatre’s exaggerated claims of resonance with contemporary issues like Brexit and Trump of late, but at times I felt this could have been a current debate between evolutionists and Darwin denying creationists or climate change scientists and that other religion, big businesses, and their puppet president.

It follows Galileo’s story reasonably faithfully, from his application of the Dutch telescope invention to validate Copernicus’ theory of the solar system to his own original theories and inventions. Along the way, he has to pussyfoot around the control freakery of the catholic church and even the inquisition. He appears to recant, much to the disappointment of his followers, but in reality he’s buying time and continuing his work clandestinely. His promotion of truth through science even impacts his family, scuppering his daughter’s marriage to a nobleman.

Designer Lizzie Clachan has configured the theatre in-the-round, with audience members in a central pit, surrounded by a circular walkway with four bigger playing areas around it. There’s a giant dome overhead, upon which there are stunning projections by 59 Productions, from the planets to the ceilings of buildings and the sky, and excellent lighting by Jon Clark. Tom Rowlands soundtrack adds much. Joe Wright’s production is hugely inventive, but it’s not at all gimmicky. Everything seemed to be in keeping with the material and the satirical, even anarchic spirit of Brecht.

Brendan Cowell, who we last saw here in Yerma, is terrific as Galileo, a very physical and very emotional performance; his engagement with the audience is such that at times you feel you’re at his lecture, or in a personal conversation with him. He has an excellent supporting cast, from which I would single out Billy Howle, who plays five roles, most notably Galileo’s pupil Andrea from aged 10 to his adulthood journey to more science-friendly The Netherlands.

Another captivating evening at the Young Vic.

Late Company

This is the European premiere of a play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. He’s written eight others, but I don’t think we’ve seen any of them here, plus five films and a book, and he isn’t even thirty! On this evidence, he’s one to watch. The most striking things about it are how much ground it covers in 75 minutes, how mature the writing is and how it doesn’t take sides in what is an emotive subject, cyber bullying.

Michael & Deborah’s only son Joel committed suicide a year ago aged 16, and fellow student Curtis is considered to be at least partly responsible. Deborah befriends Curtis’ mother Tamara and they agree to meet at Deborah & Michael’s home with their husbands and Curtis over dinner. Deborah has put together a collection of Joel’s achievements and both her and Curtis have written letters to be read at the dinner. It’s an uncomfortable encounter, as you would expect. Divisions between the couples on the objectives of the meeting and their views on accountability for the death are laid bare, including the argument that Joel may have provoked it, but divisions within the couples emerge too. In addition to the issue of bullying, the play covers issues of parenting and parental responsibility, forgiveness and grief.

Zahra Mansouri has created a very realistic dining room in this tiny theatre with seating on two sides and you really do feel you’re in the room with them. The performances are uniformly excellent. Lucy Robinson as Deborah navigates brilliantly from ice cool emotional suppression to anger and finally to a display of grief. David Leopold is superb as Curtis, initially defensive and withdrawn, a reluctant participant, before his true feelings emerge.

Another Canadian find for the Finborough. I can’t wait to see more of Tannahill’s work.

110 in the Shade

This is the 50th anniversary of the British premiere of this Broadway show by the team more famous for the longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks (42 years, 17,000 performances, I’ve never seen it!), Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no relation!), with N Richard Nash adapting his own play. I don’t think it’s been seen here since, so another gold star to the Walthamstow team for the opportunity.

Set in the 30’s in South West USA, they’re desperate for rain. The Curry family is at the heart of the piece and they’re desperate for a man for plain Lizzie, in danger of remaining on the shelf. A chancer arrives claiming to be a rainmaker and Pa Curry gives him $100 to make it rain. Lizzie has returned from a trip where she failed to bag a man and her Pa and brothers Noah and Jimmy now set about matchmaking with their eyes on Sheriff File. The rainmaker needs no encouragement and woos Lizzie, which boosts her confidence and makes Fine realise what he’s missing, leaving Lizzie with a choice to make.

In the first half it’s a bit too light and a bit too sweet, but it gets more substantial after the interval, when Lizzie’s predicament is handled more seriously and sensitively, and ends well. Whatever you think of the show, though, it’s another fine production from the Walthamstow team. Joana Dias’ simple but evocative design comprises painted screens and a backdrop, with very good costumes. Randy Smartnick’s staging and Kate McPhee’s choreography use the space very well.

I liked all of the six leads. Christopher Lyne is the father who wants the best for his kids, David West the elder brother who’s a bit of a bully and Julian Quijano is simple Jimmy, who has no problem getting his girl Snookie, a lovely cameo from Rebecca Withers. Daniel Urch as rainmaker Starbuck (!) and Nick Wyschna are excellent as Lizzie’s love interest, but it’s Laurel Dougall’s show, with a pitch perfect Lizzie.

It isn’t a classic, and I can see why it isn’t revived, but there are some nice songs and this production does it proud, with limited resources on a small scale, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it.

You can always rely on an arts festival for a quirky off-the-wall experience or three, and Brighton has a good track record in recent years. Last year I was communing with Shakespeare in an allotment, then going undercover for the police. 

This year was meant to start aboard a boat in Shoreham, but unpredictable tides meant it was relocated to Brighton Marina, an architectural eyesore if ever I saw one, which didn’t really feel like the right home for such a festival event. From here we cruised / bobbed around the English channel close to the harbour, with a trombone fanfare as we left and returned. It was meant to be in silence but my six fellow passengers knew better of course. Five Short Blasts Shoreham was effectively a soundtrack of the sea which included the people of Shoreham talking about their relationship with it, but we weren’t in Shoreham any more. As well as chatty, it was choppy, and I couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be without the relocation and without my fellow passengers.

I took in two multi-screen video installations en route to the next event, one called Virgin Territory, dance pieces by Vincent Dance Theatre exploring the downside of children’s obsession with their phones and social media, and the other talking heads telling their stories as outsiders in Turkish society, They/Onlar by Ipek Duben – both very good. Then it was Collisions by Lynette Wallworth, my first Virtual Reality experience – a twenty-minute film of an indigenous community in the Australian outback and their history and experience of nuclear tests. Without specs it was a bit blurry, with them it was steamed-up, but an interesting though somewhat disorientating experience nonetheless.

The final show was an illuminated walk in the woods with sounds, called For the Birds. By the time I got there it was raining fairly heavily. The thought of shuttle buses there & back, 80 mins walking in the rain, and then facing the closure if the M23 on the way home, with the consequential diversions, overwhelmed me and I abandoned it, though I’m hoping to catch it when I’m there again in 10 days time.

I’ve had better festival days…..

I’m fond of a bit of Marivaux, though there’s been a bit of a famine of late. This early 18th century French playwright wasn’t as highly regarded as the more earnest Racine or the more grandly comedic Moliere in his day, but contemporary British audiences have rather taken to his perfectly formed minimalist romantic comedies, and there were some 37 of them over 50 years (I’ve only seen four!). This one was last seen (I think) at the NT 24 years ago, titled The Game of Love & Chance, a translation by Neil Bartlett, who was partly responsible for rekindling interest in Marivaux. This is a translation by the late John Fowles, set in Jane Austen’s Regency England, workshopped by the NT nine years before that, but not staged until now.

It’s a simple but intricate plot. The father’s of Sylvia and Richard have arranged for them to meet in the hope they will become a match, but it’s not an arranged marriage. With her father’s agreement, Sylvia decides to swap roles with her maid Louisa so that she can observe Richard’s character, but unbeknown to her, Richard has decided to do the same with his manservant Brass. Sylvia’s father knows of Richard’s plan as his dad wrote and informed him, and her brother Martin is now in the know too. It unfolds like a dance of love over ninety minutes until we have not one, but two, happy couples. It’s got bags of charm and there isn’t a wasted moment.

Paul Miller’s in the round production has great pace, with no props to slow down scene changes. Simon Daw’s simple but elegant design comprises a lamp and flower ceiling feature, an illuminated floor and sky painted canvases on each side. All six performances are excellent, with Ashley Zhangazha & Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Richard and Sylvia and Claire Lams & Keir Charles as Louisa and Brass. It never outstays its welcome and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

Lovely to see Marivaux again. Lets hope it starts another reawakening of interest.

I didn’t join in the debate about the early departure of Emma Rice from the Globe. It seemed to me the issues should have been thoroughly discussed and resolved (or not) before her appointment. I’m not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare productions and have enjoyed, even raved about, recent radical interpretations like Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War, the Almeida’s Hamlet and the NT’s Twelfth Night. I’ve liked Daniel Kramer’s work before, notably his excellent revival of Angels in America for Headlong.

First and foremost, a production has to serve the play, and that’s why this falls at the first hurdle. It doesn’t, hence the first half of this blog’s title. The other half of the title is because for the first time in maybe 100 visits since the very first production, it didn’t feel like Shakespeare’s Globe. Even though it was programmed before the departure was announced, it felt like they were putting two fingers up to an institution many of us have grown to love over the last twenty years, where there have been many other radical productions that have served their plays.

It’s one of the tackiest stagings I’ve ever seen. From the inexplicable missiles hanging above the stage to the white face make-up & black outfits and incongruous contemporary songs (YMCA during the Capulet’s masque, now fancy dress, party) to the Hindu Friar, it leaps from one gimmick to the next without pausing for breath. There is no sense of feuding families or love at first sight; indeed there isn’t an ounce of romance – in one of the greatest love stories ever told!

Daniel Kramer is the new Artistic Director of the beleaguered ENO. They once billed a Berlioz opera as ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’. The director is never king.

 

Room

This is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, which she adapted for the screen and now for the stage. Director Cora Bissett has added music by Kathryn Joseph and herself for this world premiere in Stratford East. I haven’t read the book, but I much admired the film and I think this is another very successful adaptation, more moving than the film, as you might expect from a live experience..

A girl is abducted and imprisoned for seven years by ‘Big Nick’. He keeps her in a very basic shed in his garden that she later calls Room. He visits to bring supplies, remove waste and rape her. She gives birth to Jack in Room, where she brings him up for five years. They establish a routine involving reading, exercise and imagination and Jack is happy in the only place he knows. He thinks World is something that only exists in the TV set. His mother wants them to escape and hatches a plot where Jack feigns death, is wrapped in a carpet and taken away by Big Nick in the back of his pick-up, from which he escapes when its stationary. It works and his mother is subsequently rescued.

In the second half we have a whirlwind of police questioning and medical examination until they go home to her adopted parents, now separated, where they are confronted with difficulties adjusting and settling in World, from Jack’s inability to climb stairs to her dad’s rejection of him. What was hopeless in Room becomes hopeful. There have of course been many cases like this, which itself may be based on a true story, but this manages to successfully convey both captivity and post-captivity trauma. The idea to have an older Jack speaking his more complex thoughts whilst shadowing young Jack really works well.

Lily Arnold’s design, with great use of projections, is excellent and Cora Bissett’s staging both assured and sensitive. The music didn’t always work for me, but in the second half there were several excellent songs that fitted the story. A lot of its success is down to casting and the emotional weight of the play is beautifully handled by Whitney White as Ma. Fela Lufadeju is a brilliantly omnipresence, echoing and illustrating but never overwhelming or stealing Jack’s story. Harrison Wilding as Young Jack is simply extraordinary, in Room clinging to Ma and everything familiar, then in fear, awe and wonder in World.

 Time to hot-foot it east to Stratford.