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Posts Tagged ‘Annie Baker’

So the Queen of ‘slow theatre’ has speeded up a bit, but for me she’s still going nowhere. My fifth Annie Baker play is a story about storytelling itself. It may be my last.

We’re sitting around a boardroom table where eight people are beginning a writing project, presumably for film or TV, probably a fantasy. Brian takes the notes. secretary Sarah pops in to check if they need anything and take lunch orders from fancy takeaways. They all look up to the boss, Sandy. There’s a vast quantity of Perrier water stacked up in boxes (product placement?), rather at odds with the likely environmental credentials of such folk. The ice-breakers include candid stories from their personal lives.

Danny M2 departs, unexplained but presumed fired. Sandy leaves to deal with family issues. They stay overnight, Sandy using a pending storm as an excuse to get them to stay. They brainstorm, but struggle to come up with ideas, until Adam downloads a big idea that Brian forgets to record, though it may be too late by now, as we learn when Sandy returns. They are all extremely pretentious and irritating and though it is intermittently funny, it’s often dull.

I think the point is that we may have run out of stories, but I didn’t really care. A fine set by co-director Chloe Lamford (with the playwright, interesting) and some good performances can’t really paint over the cracks in the material, and I’m afraid it all seemed rather pointless to me.

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American playwright Annie Baker seems to have invented her own genre – ‘slow theatre’, as it’s being called. This isn’t as successful as The Flick (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/the-flick), in the same theatre two years ago, as it doesn’t sustain its length as well, but I think its still worth catching – though not everyone does slow, it seems.

It’s set in a B&B run by a lady called Mertis in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Her husband apparently also lives there, but we don’t meet him. Visitors Elias and Jenny have broken a journey there to explore the area’s historical significance. Their relationship is troubled. The only other character is Mertis’ friend Genevieve who pays a couple of visits. She is blind and obsessed by her dead husband’s ongoing presence. The fifth character is the design – Chloe Lamford, with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Christopher Shutt – which sometimes performs.

It plays out, slowly, over 3 hours 20 mins, with a forensic attention to detail. It’s intriguing, sometimes funny, but mostly just mysterious. You feel as if you’re peering into the sitting / dining area and hall, which we’re invited into when Mertis pulls back the curtains at the beginning of each act. When characters go upstairs, to the bedrooms named after historical figures, you still hear them talking and moving. Mertis has a lot of stuff, particularly dolls, which are absolutely everywhere. There’s a Christmas tree, so we assume its seasonally appropriate. Elias & Jenny’s relationship, Genevieve’s ‘possession’ and Mertis’ home interweave as the three strands unfold.

There’s a lot to like in the design and performances, but not enough happens at too slow a pace in James Macdonald’s staging. Annie Baker is an original writer, but I do hope she doesn’t trap herself in this slow theatre mode.

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For Annie Baker’s last UK premiere, Circle Mirror Transformation, the Royal Court sent us to a sports centre in Haggerston. For this, the National have built a 110-seat cinema on the Dorfman stage!

If you read the programme in advance, as I did, you’ll be expecting a play about the transition from 35mm film to digital and the negative consequences of it. Well, that is the backdrop to the piece, but it’s much more about the relationships between the three principal characters and the back stories of two of them. Every scene – and there are many in its 3-hour playing time – takes place in the cinema auditorium between screenings and at the end of the day, as the three cinema staff  clean between the rows and talk. We glimpse into the projection room through small windows high up the back wall. There is a lot of silence.

The strength of the play is the characterisations. These are fascinating, very real people. At first I wasn’t sure I would stay the length, but it somehow draws you in and captivates you – but for me, the people rather than the technological change. You learn a lot about them as you peer into their lives, somewhat voyeuristically. I became enthralled and it didn’t feel its length.

Matthew Maher and Louise Krause, as Sam and Rose, both of whom have come with the play from New York, are outstanding, and they are joined by Jaygann Ayeh, who is terrific as the third principal character Avery, and Sam Heron in two supporting roles. There is an uber-realistic design from David Zinn and impeccable direction by Sam Gold.

I predict this is going to divide people; the number of empty seats after the interval testifies to that. I surprised myself by not being one of them!

 

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If you want to know where the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs benches have gone, the answer is to a community centre in Haggerston (‘where?’ I hear you ask). If you want to know why, the answer is that this play is set in a community centre in Shirley, Vermont (where?).

We’re observing an acting class over six weeks in lots of short scenes. There’s the teacher and four participants, including the teacher’s husband. Their exercises include telling each other’s stories, walking around the room, chain sentences, role playing and so on. There are also a lot of pauses and a lot of silence; playwright Annie Baker makes Harold Pinter look like an amateur at pauses and silences.

Somehow over the next 120 unbroken minutes, you learn a lot about these people. Their relationships evolve, sometimes surprisingly. They each have different reasons for being there, but they’re mostly therapeutic. It’s amazing how deep characterisation can go with few words. I found them fascinating and very real. As the title says, a transformation.

It’s an extraordinary cast. It’s not long before you’ve forgotten it’s Imelda Staunton playing Marty the teacher as she becomes Marty (with a spot on American accent). Toby Jones could do Schultz with even fewer words, such is his ability to speak volumes by facial expressions and body language. Fenella Woolgar adds to an already impressive track record with a beautiful interpretation of fragile Theresa, the very underrated Danny Webb is at home as ageing hippy James and relative newcomer Sharon Tarbet makes Lauren grow up before your very eyes. James Macdonald’s delicately nuanced staging respects the playwright’s precise Beckettian instructions with the exception of a wall of mirrors (which would have been interesting but probably distracting in this space).

So is it worth the schlep out to Haggerston? Well, despite the relentlessly hard benches and the progressively stuffy room over two hours, yes it is. The venue added to the realism and the play makes you think; indeed, I’m still thinking about it – always a good sign.

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It doesn’t take much to fill the Bush Theatre – c.2500 in a month-long run like this; about as many as three nights in a West End playhouse, two at the Olivier or one at the Palladium. Add in a couple of people ‘off the telly’ and it’s tickets become hot indeed. If only the play were as hot. The Bush has an extraordinary track record in spotting good new plays, but it’s certainly failed here I’m afraid.

The Aliens by Annie Baker is an insubstantial and slight piece about a pair of losers who hang out in the back yard of a cafe and their relationship with each other and the teenage waiter who engages with them when he pops out to empty the rubbish. That’s about it really. It’s the opposite to Wednesday’s The Big Fellah – nothing really happens. Of course, some reviewers are talking ‘Chekovian’. Well I’m talking ‘bollocks’.

So much talent wasted – another great redesign of this tiny theatre, by Lucy Osborne; Peter Gill,the master of small-scale himself, directing; and fine acting from Mackenzie Crook and Ralf Little as the losers, though ironically it’s young Olly Alexander who takes the real acting honours.

A rare disappointment at the Bush.

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