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Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Norris’

American playwright Bruce Norris is no stranger to controversy. His Olivier, Tony & Pulitzer winning Clybourne Park was a brilliant and funny look at race and class in his home country. Here he puts sex offenders under the microscope and produces his best play since Clybourne, a remarkably objective 360 degree look at attitudes of and to sex offenders, and society’s reaction and response, something has has been a major preoccupation in this country for some time now.

Four men are effectively under house arrest, tagged and supervised in a group home in downstate Illinois. There are geographic limits for their movement, within which they can work, if they can get it, drive, bus, walk, shop. Their crimes and their address are published, so the fear of attack is never far away. They have no access to the internet or smart phones.

When we first meet them, wheelchair-bound Fred, now an old man, is visited and confronted by Andy, a man he assaulted as a boy, still seeking closure. Andy returns later without his wife for a more angry confrontation. In the second pivotal scene, the police officer in charge of their cases holds court. Her most important task is to present Felix with evidence of his rule breaches.

There are so many issues and angles, all deftly and sensitively handled. Remorse and forgiveness, and lack of, and revenge. The need for punishment but the value of it on its own. Though you’re an an emotional roller-coaster throughout, moving from anger to disgust to sympathy to hopelessness, it’s never played for these emotions and reactions, so objectivity is preserved.

It’s great to welcome Steppenwolf, America’s pre-eminent repertory company, to these shores again and the five fine actors who have made these characters so real – Glenn Davies, Francis Guinan, K Todd Freeman, Eddie Torres and Tim Hopper as Fred’s victim. Our own Cecilia Noble is on blistering form again as Ivy the cop.

If you like your theatre challenging, unsettling and illuminating, head to the NT’s Dorfman post haste.

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This is Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical satire about the Nazi regime. Every character, scene and incident has a parallel and the title character is of course Adolf Hitler. He wrote it in exile during the war, but it wasn’t staged until thirteen years after it ended, and not in the US, as he intended, but in Germany itself. This expletive-laden new adaptation by Bruce Norris feels very fresh.

Ui runs a protection racket in Chicago (Germany) with designs on Cicero (Austria). He ‘buys’ local politician and trusted businessman Dogsborough (German President Hindenburg) en route to implementing his master plan to control the cauliflower trade! He has to deal with some of his own as well as those in his way, as his gang become disunited along the way. It’s littered with Shakespearean references and this production is also in part a satire on the seemingly equally irresistible rise of Donald Trump, which I thought I would find gratuitous but it was clever, with a light touch, and worked to the play’s advantage. This seems to be a big gig for director Simon Evans and he’s risen to the challenge with an inventive production with lots of audience engagement, including some playing roles!

Designer Peter Mackintosh has turned the theatre into a 30’s speakeasy, with seating on all sides on both levels, including cabaret-style tables on the bottom level and a stairway for the cast to move between levels. His period costumes are superb. Some of the casting is gender-blind, with Lucy Ellison making a superb Giri (Goring), Lucy Eaton excellent in three roles and Gloria Obianyo brilliant in four. Tom Edden playing no less than six, steals the show more than once, most notably as the actor giving Ui lessons. Lenny Henry has great presence as Ui, commanding the stage whenever he’s on it. It’s a uniformly excellent cast.

If you don’t know the play, it would be wise to mug up in advance, to get all the parallels and to get the most out of the evening, which is playful and entertaining without losing it’s satirical bite.

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Imagine if you hoovered up the contents of playwright Bruce Norris’ brain just after a brain-storming session on how to present the financial crisis as theatre, pointed your vacuum pipe at the stage floor and switched from suck to blow. Well, that’s what The Low Road seemed to me. A download.

This is my fourth Norris play and up to now I’ve either liked or loved them all. This seemed to me the perfect subject for him. His ‘big idea’ of an allegory, setting the play in the late 1700’s in the US, is inspired. The trouble is it gets totally out of control, swamps what he’s trying to say and ends up as an overlong, occasionally funny, often clever but ultimately dull mess.

It’s narrated by Bill Patterson as Scottish philosopher-economist of the period, Adam Smith. We start with the illegitimate son of Washington left in a basket on the doorstep of Mrs Trumpett’s brothel and end with his illegitimate grandson, the product of a rape, orphaned and left with his mother’s retarded brother ‘poor Tim’. In between we see young Jim grow up to be brilliant but morally bankrupt. He uses his genius to make a fortune for his benefactor which he then steals. There’s a brief flash forward to a Q&A at a present day economic conference where his descendent, a banker (obviously), is a panel member and proceedings are interrupted by protesters, we debate slavery (at length) and there’s an epilogue involving aliens!

With some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand, this could have been another Enron – a biting, illuminating and entertaining satire on real events. Instead it’s a patchy, overlong jumble which leaves you frustrated and dissatisfied. There’s a big hard-working cast of 18 playing c.50 parts between them. Johnny Flynn as Jim has done nothing better. Elizabeth Berrington successfully morphs from brothel madam to contemporary conference host back to 18th century society hostess. Simon Paisley Day’s transformation from British army captain to ‘poor Tim’ to modern American banker is extraordinary. If only someone had taken control and turned the download into a play.

Dominic Cooke started at the Royal Court on a low with some absurdist revivals. It was uphill from there and it has been a truly great period for them. Sadly, with this and Narrative upstairs, he ends on a low – but with anarchy rather than absurdity.

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Whenever I walk into a theatre to be greeted by a retro set, I have to stop myself saying ‘we had one of those’ and try to concentrate on the play. Simon Kenny’s terrific early 70’s design is amongst the most nostalgic I’ve come across, even though it’s mid-West USA not west country UK. All brown and orange, triple ceiling lights and a stereogram – and lime green wallpaper! Fortunately, there was enough time to clock each item before the play started.

Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park was my Best New Play of 2010, a step change on his earlier The Pain & the Itch, also good and also at the Royal Court. Purple Heart was written eight years earlier and this is its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre, configured in the currently fashionable traverse setting ( is that to facilitate spectating the other half of the audience if the play lags?).

War widow Carla (Vietnam war) and her 12-year old son Thor live with well-meaning but smothering, irritating mother-in-law Grace. Carla has a drink problem and may still be grieving. Thor is precocious (in truth, he seems much more mature than a 12-year old has any right to be), loves practical jokes and shocking grandma.

An army corporal comes to visit, the latest in a long line of sympathisers (most, but not him, bearing a casserole as is customary in small town America) though he doesn’t appear to be a former colleague of deceased Lars. We learn that he met (and became obsessed with) Carla in a hospital where she was being treated for depression.

This is an extraordinarily realistic depiction of the trauma of grief and the personal impact of war on the relationships and lives of those affected. At the same time, it’s a bit of a mystery and played out (particularly in the second half) with great suspense. The silences are themselves extremely tense (and much more effective than Pinter) and there is an unpredictability and danger about it all.

The performances are all superb. Oliver Coopersmith, playing way lower than his true age, is naive and funny but hurtful in the way only children can be. Linda Broughton makes Grace seem like someone you know well, someone who irritates and charms you in equal measure; you can’t help loving her, but you wouldn’t want to live with her. Amelia Lowdell’s Carla is angry & sad, imprisoned by her loss and her mother-in-law. Trevor White is the somewhat mysterious visitor, part benevolent, part creepy; he’d win a Riding the Silence Award in any year.

Christopher Haydon’s staging is impeccable and the effect at close proximity in this small space is intense and voyeuristic. Great to see more Norris, and in such a finely staged and performed production too. More early Bruce Norris please!

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It took me a while to get into this intriguing and clever play, but by the end I felt deeply satisfied by a very funny yet unsettling drama. In many ways, my reaction was similar to the same venue’s Posh – the reviews led me to expect a more straightforward satirical comedy, but it had so much more depth than that.

There are many layers to this play, the first act of which is set in 1959 as a couple prepare to move home and the second act in the same house 50 years later as another couple are seeking to demolish it and rebuilt on the land. The attention to detail is extraordinary – from Robert Innes-Hopkins brilliant sets to the nuances of the acting. I was captivated throughout and there was a roundedness to the structure which I just loved.

It’s rare you get a set of seven impeccable performances, but here you get that and more as each actor has two very different roles. They’re all terrific – Steffan Rhodri morphs from bereaved dad to straightforward workman, Sophie Thompson from highly strung unfulfilled housewife to icy cold lawyer, Lorna Brown for servile to assertive, Sam Spreull from passive priest to gay lawyer, Lucien Msamati from quiet disbelief to assured confidence , Martin Freeman from 50’s racist neighbour to fashionably liberal and Sarah Goldberg goes from deaf & dependent  to politically correct & defiant. Under Dominic Cooke’s direction, these characters come alive and Bruce Norris’ dialogue sparkles.

The play’s devastating message is that in 50 years everything’s changed but nothing has changed. Clybourne Park is this year’s Jerusalem and I suspect we won’t see a better new play for some time. Go! Go! Go!

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