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Posts Tagged ‘jez butterworth’

It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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The 18 year revival rule applies again as Jez Butterworth’s first play gets a high profile West End outing. I’d decided not to go, given it cost more than five times the inflation-adjusted 1995 price, but I’m dreadfully weak-willed and I finally succumbed to the temptation of seeing a new generation of actors tackle these roles. So my review is of a performance ten weeks into the run.

Set in 50’s Soho amongst small-time gangsters, Mojo features club manager Mickey, his staff Skinny, Potts & Sweets, the owner’s son Baby and rock & roll prodigy Silver Johnny. There’s murder offstage which impacts them all, but we’re viewing their reactions and relationships in the back-room and an empty club.

The strength of the piece is not in the story, but in the world Butterworth creates, his characterisations and the rich expletive-strewn dialogue which is like verbal gunfire. It’s got great energy, edginess and dark humour, though it owes a lot to early Pinter (the menacing late 50’s Birthday Party & Caretaker period). Somewhat appropriately, it’s playing in the Harold Pinter theatre.

The chief reason for seeing it is that it provides a showcase for five leading male actors and these five relish every moment. Potts & Sweets are really a double-act and Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint have great chemistry, with slick and speedy delivery of the lines. There’s a sense of Grint apprenticed to Mays in both the characters and the actors. The role is perfect for Mays’ style and Grint’s professional debut is hugely impressive. In 1995, these roles were played by Andy Serkis and Matt Bardock respectively.

Ben Wishaw continues to impress and here effectively extends his range as Baby (Tom Hollander in 1995). Colin Morgan does more acting as Skinny, maybe a touch too much, but I still liked his highly strung take on Skinny (Aiden Gillen in 1995). Given he’s now a bit too well known as Downton’s Bates, Brendan Coyle still manages to convince as Mickey (David Westhead in 1995). Tom Rhys Harries is cool and charismatic in the smaller role of Silver Johnny. It’s the same director / design team (Ian Rickson & Ultz) and it’s staged with great tension and period style.

It is good to see these fine (mostly) young actors take on the sort of meaty ‘contemporary’ roles that don’t come around that often, so I will reluctantly accept that it was good to relent – and my admiration for producer Sonia Friedman continues to increase; it can’t be that easy to put such a bankable cast together for five months.

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The Royal Court has taken a lot of risks with its decisions surrounding this play, including the risk that they generate so much hype they are setting the audience up for a disappointment (more risk evaluation later!). After giving us Jerusalem, in my view one of the greatest plays in decades, playwright Jez Butterworth is a hot property. Though at least four good plays preceded Jerusalem, this was inevitably going to be the theatrical equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’.

Whether he set out to produce the antidote or not I don’t know, but he has. Where Jerusalem was epic, this is intimate. Where Jerusalem was in your face, brash and loud; this is subtle, gentle and almost trance-like. The reason for staging it in a space so small that only just over 3000 people will see it was apparently ‘artistic reasons’. Though it does clearly benefit from the intimacy, I’m not convinced it benefits so much as to deprive another 10,000 from seeing it (the number it would have played to with the same length of run in the main house).

Designer Ultz has delivered one of his extraordinarily immersive sets which put you right there in the situation at the moment; this time a cabin by a river. Our nameless main character, obsessed with fishing, is there at his favourite time – the one night of the year with no moon. There is a woman with him and as the play unfolds we have more than one woman. He appears to be giving different women the same experience at different times. Or is he? If the script hadn’t specified ‘The Other Woman’ I might have thought it was the same woman at different times or different outcomes with the same woman or….. It’s a bit obtuse.

Director Ian Rickson has taken this material and created something highly atmospheric and mysterious. It’s hypnotic and compelling, I don’t really understand it, but I enjoyed the ride. Amongst many such moments, The Man preparing a fish for dinner was mesmerizing. Moments later, you could smell it as it came out of the oven and onto the dinner table. There are outstanding performances from Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly and Charles Balfour’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound contribute much to casting the spell.

The risk of over-hype may have paid off, but I don’t think the risk of day-seats-only has. The Royal Court is a publicly funded theatre and you can’t expect the taxpayers that fund it to block out a month in their diaries just in case they win the lottery that getting a ticket was. You either queued outside (if you’re nearby and don’t have work to do to pay the tax that funds the theatre) or participated in an online game of who-clicks-first at precisely 9am. This is no way to distribute tickets to a publicly funded show. It’s unfair on people who work and who don’t live nearby and it has brought the touts to Sloane Square. It has pissed off loyal ‘Friends’ like me and if it transfers to the West End with tickets at 2.5 times the price and fat royalty cheques to the writer and director, don’t go anywhere near the fan! Dominic Cooke has hardly put a foot wrong in his all-too-short tenure as AD of the Court, but this is one big mistake.

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Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

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FEBRUARY 2010

I now have to disagree with myself…..the review below from the Royal Court run six months ago suggests the play is great though not a classic – well, I’m wrong; it is!

It has so much depth that it needs a second view. It still has an epic sweep and it’s still very funny, but now the contradictions become more real. Your sympathies are with rebel Rooster Byron but you know you’d hate it if he was your neighbour. You laugh at the ‘war stories’ of drug-fuelled parties the morning after, but you can’t approve of him dealing to minors. Your heart is with his in an England of old but your brain knows things have to change. Even his young followers both celebrate and exploit him.

There is more poignancy and his loneliness really gets under your skin. It’s a real state-of-the-(rural)-nation play with lots to say about lots of things, but without rights and wrongs, taking sides or preaching. At times last night, I felt I was in the woods with this lord of misrule and his pilgrims.

The cast is virtually intact from the Royal Court run and seem to have grown into their roles, and Mark Rylance’s masterful performance still towers over most I’ve seen in a lifetime of theatre-going. There’s an Airstream caravan in the woods with a soundscape that helps take you there. It doesn’t look like it was directed, which is a great compliment to Ian Rickson’s direction!

It is a classic and it will be revived in the future, but go and see it now because it’s a play for now with a production and performances which are probably already definitive.

AUGUST 2009

Until this year, only two Jez Butterworth plays have been produced since his debut with Mojo 14 years ago. Then along come two in quick succession! This is without question his best – I’m not sure it’s a classic, but it is a theatrical feast.

There are many themes being explored here – changes in rural life, tolerance of diferent lifestyles, urban invasion –  in an intelligent but very funny way and you’re thinking about them for a long time after you’ve left the theatre……but it’s the pace, rhythm and energy that sweeps you away and sustains a runing time of over 3 hours without flagging for a moment. Both the design and direction are masterly.

There are a lot of young inexperienced actors in this superb ensemble who will no doubt never forget the experience of a nightly masterclass in acting from Mark Rylance, who positively inhabits this wonderfully meaty role of Shakespearean proportions. You don’t see many performances like this in a lifetime, yet he takes his bows in the least starry way alongside his colleagues.

Wonderful.

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