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Posts Tagged ‘Pinter’

French playwright Florian Zeller has had the most meteoric rise. This is his seventh play to be produced in London in eight years, and that includes almost two years where virtually nothing new was produced. They’ve had many awards and transfers and the first we saw, The Father, became on Oscar winning film. I loved this, plus The Mother, The Son (soon to be a film too) and The Truth. I was less enamoured with The Lie, which along with The Mother didn’t get a West End transfer, and Height of the Storm, which went straight to the West End, but you can’t expect the standard of his best work to be sustained forever.

I occasionally felt he was in danger of being too clever and glib, in a Stoppardian way, notably in The Lie. I now feel he’s following more of a Pinter / Churchill trajectory, writing for himself more than his audience, perhaps becoming obtuse to cover up his lack of fresh ideas. Anyway, I really took against this latest one. A lot of talent wasted on an eighty minute jigsaw puzzle you have little chance of completing, with an old fashioned feel to it, very much to the detriment of the female characters. Gina McKee had such a meaty leading role in The Mother, here she’s wasted on a totally underwritten role as The Wife.

Toby Stevens is Man 1, a successful surgeon. His wife is there to welcome him home and look after him. Their daughter has split up with her partner at a time when they were trying for a baby. Man 2, played by Paul McCann, is having an affair with a singer who wants to be more than just the mistress. We also meet a male friend and female friend, a couple, who don’t really serve much purpose. There’s a young man, who may be the daughter’s estranged partner, or maybe not. Then there’s a mysterious man with white make-up, the ‘Man in Black’, another character whose point or purpose were lost on me. The singer appears to die, scenes are repeated with changes, Man 1 and 2 may be the same character (they are both called Pierre). Even the title is a puzzle.

After seeing it, I heard a radio interview with Zeller where he repeated something he says in the programme about wanting the audience to piece it together. He went on to give us a spoiler, that it’s about a man wracked with guilt and mental health issues because of his fidelity. So much for unravelling it for yourself. For me, it was a huge disappointment from a playwright I had hitherto admired. I hope it doesn’t herald the beginning of Zeller’s decline, but my intuition tells me it probably is. He’s given us four gems, which is more than many playwrights, but one might have expected more from a prolific 42-year-old. C’est la vie.

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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