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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Knowles’

American playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this expressionistic play in 1928, not long after Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic masterpiece Emperor Jones. It was based on a real murder case, and its premiere provided Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. I first saw it in its last London outing twenty-five years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Lyttleton Theatre. I thought then, as I do now, that it must have been way ahead of its time 90 years ago. It’s feminist aesthetic and focus on mental health means it still resonates today.

In ten scenes over ninety minutes we follow our protagonist – ‘young woman’ – doing what society expects of her, from the office job she doesn’t like, or do well, to marriage to the boss who repels her and the birth of the child she struggles to bond with, before she turns and is propelled to an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Each scene in Natalie Abrahami’s production starts by the parting of screens to reveal locations which are mirrored diagonally above. Miriam Buether’s clever design is accompanied by a brooding mechanical soundscape from Ben & Max Ringham and striking lighting by Jack Knowles. The scene changes are a bit slow, but its an immersive experience nonetheless, though I did find myself admiring the stagecraft and performances at the expense of emotional engagement with the story.

Elizabeth Berrington is hugely impressive in the lead role, at first in fear of just about everything, growing enough confidence to betray her husband Jones, played well, with period behaviour, by Jonathan Livingstone. In a supporting cast of ten, there is an excellent cameo from Denise Black as Helen’s mother.

Treadwelll wrote many more plays, with a diverse range of themes and styles, but this is just about the only one that’s ever been revived. She found it increasingly difficult to get her work produced, and many remained unpublished. Neglected in a man’s world it seems, which makes it even more timely today. It would be good to see more of them.

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The inside of playwright Simon Stephens brain must be one hell of a place. I blow hot and cold with his work, but it’s always interesting and  challenging. This one’s more luke warm, largely because I don’t really get it.

Carmen is a rent boy, Don Jose a female taxi driver, Escamillo a hot-shot trader and Micaela a girl from the sticks. Then there’s the character of an opera singer, and an actual opera singer as ‘chorus’. Two of the characters aren’t particularly well drawn (Micaela & the taxi driver) and their stories not well developed. It’s mostly a series of monologues (if you know me, you can see where I’m going here…..) with seemingly little interconnectedness.

You enter the stalls through the dressing room / wings and over the stage, where a dead bull dominates. We seem to be in a disused theatre, complete with chandelier and red balcony fascia with lamps. Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jack Knowles lighting create striking, compelling images. Simon Slater’s original music, played on two cellos, adds to and references actual Bizet and is very atmospheric. The performances are all terrific. It’s all very ‘European’.

But what exactly is the point of taking characters from an opera and giving them different lives and stories and then telling them individually on the same stage without really linking them together into a cohesive narrative? Answers on a postcard, please.

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