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Posts Tagged ‘Maxine Peake’

After contemporary works about China – US relations, a nuclear incident and a sibling relationship as experimental physics, playwright Lucy Kirkwood has turned her hand to something set 260 years ago, women’s place in society at that time, in particular the legal and political worlds. I thought it was a fascinating play, with a superb ensemble of fine actors and a stunning design by Bunny Christie.

We start by briefly watching these women carrying out their daily chores, underlining their limited roles in the world. After a crime is committed and a young girl, Sally Poppy, arrested and tried, a ‘jury of matrons’ is formed to establish if she is pregnant, as she says she is. If she is, her execution will be postponed or she may be transported instead. The jury of matrons for this specific purpose provides the only role women can have in legal affairs at the time; they cannot be jurors who convict.

The final person to join this group of twelve women is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is sympathetic to Sally. She proves Sally is pregnant, but not all of the others will accept this. As their deliberations progress, conflicts of interest and prejudices emerge. They are offered a (male) doctor to examine Sally and they accept this, but even this doesn’t break the impasse. It twists and turns in ways that surprise you and when they do reach a conclusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Bunny Christie has created a brilliant design whose jury room fills the Lyttleton stage, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, with Carolyn Downing’s sound design letting us know there’s an angry lynch mob just outside. The costumes establish the period and the accents the location as East Anglia. The ensemble, led by Maxine Peake in the best role I’ve seen her in, contains fine actors like Cecilia Noble, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as feisty Poppy. James Macdonald’s staging is masterly.

Good to see another Lucy Kirkwood play, a bit of a departure, of a fascinating subject I’m not sure anyone has tackled before.

 

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It wasn’t until I saw the Young Vic’s Yerma that I appreciated the psychological trauma experienced by women yearning for a child. That’s the power of theatre for you. This covers similar ground, but as a one-women monologue, in a very different way.

It’s based on Julia Leigh’s memoir. Woman – we aren’t given a name – tries to conceive naturally with her on-off partner, but fails, and age is against her so she turns to IVF and associated techniques that include freezing sperm and harvesting and freezing eggs. You name it, she tries it, and the failure of all of these treatments result in her desperation and depression escalating. Sadly she does not become one of the eight million successful cases, but one of the millions who aren’t, emotional scars staying with them long after the last attempt.

She stands alone virtually the whole time on the vast Barbican stage surrounded by white walls. Maxine Peake’s performance is a tour de force. She invests so much emotional energy into the role she lives it. I’ve longed to see her in something good like this and she proves she is as good on stage as she is on screen. Designer Marg Howell pulls a few surprises out of her hat and there’s an atmospheric soundscape / music from Stefan Gregory. It might be one woman on a big stage, but director Anne-Louise Sarks uses it all so that she doesn’t seem lost in the space.

A powerful reminder of how nature can be cruel and how science is trying to compensate for it, without hopefully trying to replace it.

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If you judged this play on the first and last 20 mins, you might think it was rather good. Sadly, the 80 minutes in-between are dire. The Royal Court’s Literary Manager must be away or asleep. This should never have got onto the main stage, at least not in its present form. Not even an actress as good as Maxine Peake can redeem it.

The play opens with Dana and Jarron waking from a night of passion. She thinks this relationship might have legs, he thinks it was a business transaction. He works for the UN, appears to be a demon and certainly leaves his mark, if not his money. Dana is late for her pitch for project funding, preparing in a rush with the help of her sister Jasmin, but it all goes horribly wrong. What follows, it seems, is Dana’s journey, with her pregnant sister, to Alexandria for another pitch. A librarian turns up regularly with appropriate reading suggestions and Jarron is rarely far away. It ends with a bit of a coup d’theatre (thanks to Chloe Lamford’s design) as we seem to be drowning, like illegal immigrants at sea.

The trouble is the whole middle section – a nightmare in both content and experience, an obtuse and deeply frustrating ramble, makes two hours (without an interval – very wise!) feel like a lifetime. I’m sure playwright Zinnie Harris has valid points to make, but they are buried in this incoherent mess. Maxine Peake does her very best with the material, with excellent support from Michael Shaeffer as Jarron, Christine Bottomley as Jasmin and Peter Forbes as the librarian, but it’s not enough. What used to be the home of new writing is yet again the home of shoddy writing that needs to be reigned in and whipped into better shape by a literary manager and / or director Vicky Featherstone.

I’ve spent many years trusting The Court and taking risks, most of which have been rewarded, but on recent form The Twits (surely they can’t mess that up?) may be my last blind punt. It’s very sad to watch a once great institution go down the pan.

 

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