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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Stephens’

A sound installation that’s so theatrical it deserves a blog!

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre has reopened its doors to sixty people at a time, socially distanced (and on Wednesday, sweltering!), sitting with headphones listening to this monologue adapted by Simon Stephens from Jose Saramago’s book about another sort of epidemic, where people go blind.

We hear that the first victim becomes blind whilst driving and the story rapidly unfolds as others succumb to blindness, fear spreads, people are institutionalised and the world is soon in the grip of this phenomenon. Juliet Stevenson tells the story as the only person who seems to be spared, but who has to feign blindness for her own safety, with great urgency, and the extraordinary sound design by Ben & Max Ringham means you hear her moving around the space, sometimes distant, sometimes whispering into your ear, dropping something, dragging something else. You find yourself looking over your shoulder to the place her voice appears to originate.

Even though it is a sound installation, Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting contribute a lot to the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. Neon lights above you drop to eye level and lights illuminate different parts of the space at different times, but much of it is in complete darkness. All of these contributions come together under Water Meierjohann’s direction to bring this story alive with great theatricality.

It won’t cheer you up but it will probably quench your thirst for drama, albeit without a live actor in sight. Huge congratulations to the Donmar for this inventive response to out predicament in the arts.

 

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You never know what you’re going to get at a Simon Stephens play, in this case a collaboration with two others. A play about fathers, sons and fatherhood seems like a good idea. Using interviews as your source material seems like a good idea too. Having yourselves as characters and including members of your family and your friends as interviewees is probably a bad idea which, as one interviewee / character suggests, might be somewhat self-indulgent – and including that character’s comments doesn’t prove its sincerity.

Playwright Simon Stephens, director / choreographer Scott Graham and musician Karl Hyde are the three creators, played by actors. The interviews take place in their three home towns and the characters they meet and the quotes they use weave in and out of the story of its creation. The performances are fine. There’s sometimes great stylised ‘movement’ and excellent music. There’s a striking design by Jon Bausor and a chorus of extras adds impact.

The trouble is it doesn’t really tell you enough about fathers, sons and fatherhood. It’s a great production in search of something to say, a coherent narrative. Whatever the quality of the staging, there’s a vacuum at its heart. More a festival commission looking for an idea than a good idea getting a festival commission?

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Yes, it’s a play not a scientific theory. You can always rely on Simon Stephens for something different – he must have the most diverse body of work of any playwright. Here, he uses the concepts of uncertainty and unpredictability to tell the story of the most unlikely relationship between a 42-year-old woman and a 75-year-old man. It’s a very intuitive piece that I wasn’t sure about at first, but it drew me in and I left the theatre with a warm glow!

It’s beautifully set and lit by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable within a box of light, like a James Turrell installation, that changes size, shape and colour from scene to scene. There’s a lovely soundscape too, with music by Nils Fram. In the first scene, London Butcher Alex Priest meets American school receptionist Georgie Burns at a train station. From here, their extraordinary relationship unfolds from a chance encounter, unravelling of the truth, a mutual fascination with some brittleness to a romantic liaison and a full-blown relationship. At first it seems implausible, but somehow becomes believable. I put this down to superb chemistry between two fine actors.

In Marianne Elliott’s delicate, sensitive staging, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff give the sort of uninhibited performances that deliver the believability of the relationship. Every time it turns a corner, implausibility returns but is then dispelled. Even though it runs less than ninety minutes, it does leave you satisfied.

I would have preferred to see it in a space more suitable, like the Dorfman, Royal Court, Donmar or Almeida, and more accessibly priced for a one-act two-hander, but in other ways it’s good that the West End can support work like this.

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Simon Stephens must be the most prolific playwright in the UK, or anywhere come to that. He’s had thirty-two plays produced, including five adaptations / translations, in just twenty years and I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. I haven’t always liked them, but I admire the ambition, diversity and creativity of his work, so I always come back for more. Given the stand-off in the North China Sea, the title suggests timeliness, though what the content has to do with the title is less clear.

It’s a collaboration with director Imogen Knight, better known as a choreographer / movement director. We sit on an assortment of chairs in two rows surrounding the actors, who themselves sit on a beige carpet (recycled from Cyprus Avenue, I suspect!). There are a few props – cupboards etc. – which get moved into and out of the space. The five actors have no character names. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of ‘movement’, but there’s also a lot of recorded dialogue and an atmospheric soundscape by Peter Rice. It appears to be a nightmare day for one woman, excellently played by Maureen Beattie, at home, on public transport, in a coffee shop etc., but beyond that I don’t really have a clue what’s it about or it’s connection to the title!

It has apparently been ‘created with a highly visual and physical language’ ‘with the intention that the words be interpreted and re-imagined through a highly theatrical and choreographic lens’. Well, I guess it does, and it kept my attention for it’s rather short 45-min running time It was intriguing and well executed, but it was only a fragment, I’m afraid, and an obtuse one at that.

 

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I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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Another day, another monologue? Well not really, as this one-person play by Simon Stephens is much more than a monologue. In the hands of director Ivo van Hove and actor Eelco Smits, it’s a deeply personal story of love and loss where you seem to enter into someone’s thoughts and feelings rather than merely hearing or observing them.

Our protagonist returns from New York to his Amsterdam home for the funeral of his brother, though not initially to his home as he stays in a hotel. Over eighty minutes, he tells us his story as a series of letters to his dead brother. His relationship with his dad is clearly strained, his relationship with his brother was complicated, his mother dotes on him and his sister is preoccupied with her simple life and her children. He tries but fails to hook up with his former lover, but instead has a one-night stand with someone he picks up in a bar. It has surprising narrative and character depth for such a short play. He’s bearing his soul and opening his heart and the effect of this is heightened by the fact he does so completely naked for much of the play.

It’s a very simple unadorned box set, but Jan Versweyveld’s lighting is extraordinary and Mark Eitzel’s music haunting and beautiful – and beautifully sung by Eelco Smits, who’s naturalistic acting is compelling throughout. For me it never lagged; I was enthralled by the story and captivated by the visual imagery. I think the key is its simplicity and beauty. It’s hard to describe what it is, and even more so how if engages with you emotionally, so I’ll just say that it surprised me and left me thoughtful but content.

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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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There are lots of parallels between contemporary playwrights Simon Stephens, who wrote this, and Mike Bartlett. Both are prolific, both have given us adaptations as well as original work and both are eclectic. Stephens has been more hit-or-miss for me, but this one is a hit.

Rock star Paul is filling stadiums worldwide and the play starts in Moscow and moves to Berlin, Paris and finally London. We see him become a premiere league monster, exploiting people close to him as well as new ones he meets on tour. He thinks he can buy anything and tries to do so. In Moscow, he makes a play for a married journalist and adds a member of the hotel staff to his entourage. His treatment of band-mate Johnny is particularly heinous, something which results in sweet revenge. He reaches an all time low when he visits Johnny’s deceased girlfriend’s parents. It’s a portrait of a rock star’s descent and the impressionistic staging represents this by black water rising as the decline progresses.

Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Paul. He does mad and manic ever so well, he turns emotion on and off at lightning speed and he really can move. He has fantastic support from Alex Price as Johnny and, in multiple roles, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Charlotte Randle, Yolanda Kettle and a brilliant Daniel Cerqueira who is totally believable as Paul’s dad and his exploitative manager. Designer Ian MacNeil gives us another of his inventive spaces – a platform with a moving arch structure on top, surrounded by what slowly becomes a pool of water. Carrie Cracknell’s expert staging squeezes every ounce of tension, surprise and shock out of the material.

In truth, I think the staging and performances are better than the writing, but it’s a must-see if only for Andrew Scott on blistering form.

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Well it wasn’t a vintage year, but there was enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The highlight of the Fringe was Mark Thomas’ solo show (and a departure in form) Bravo Figaro at the Traverse Theatre. He’s one of my favourite comedians and completely unique, but this is no stand-up show. He tells the story of his relationship with his dad and his dad’s love of opera. It is often very funny, with his trademark swipes at all things unfair and unjust, but on this occasion the tears of laughter were accompanied by the other sort of tears at the end of what was a deeply moving and satisfying hour. The second highlight was also a solo show (well, apart from the pianist) and also autobiographical, but very different indeed. I’m not a real Madness fan, though I do quite like their music. I’m not sure how Suggs got to be a national treasure, but he is and on this form you can see why. It was an illuminating and funny whizz through an interesting life. He’s a sort of everyman / normal bloke and I think that’s where his charm lies; you’d just love to meet him in a pub for a few beers and a good old chinwag! 

I saw four other shows at my favourite venue the Traverse Theatre, but none came near to Bravo Figaro. And No More Shall We Part, a play about assisted suicide, was well staged and beautifully acted, but with a clumsy structure and an unsatisfying ambiguity – and it was deeply depressing! The hugely prolific Simon Stephens play Morning was an hour of teenage angst that made me want to shout ‘grow up’ at the stage. Again well acted, but not enough to banish my regret of booking for it. Others enjoyed Monkey Bars more than I did. It’s one of those verbatim pieces – this time with the words of children spoken by adult actors. I didn’t dislike it, but found it a bit slight. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve overdone verbatim…..The final Traverse offering coupled The Letter of Last Resort, a play about the letter a prime minister has to write on their first day in office giving instructions to the commanders of our nuclear submarines, with another play called Good With People set where they are based. The link between them was nebulous. I enjoyed the former less out of the context of the ten-play cycle The Bomb at the Tricycle Theatre back in March and found the latter a bit dull and pointless. Is the Traverse going off the boil or is it just a fluke year?

You couldn’t find two comics further apart than Stewart Lee and Tim Vine, but I have to say I enjoyed both. The normally edgy Lee has a more subtle edge this time around with a show based on the premise that now he’s a hands-on dad he doesn’t have any material for a show, and continually referencing the reasons for its structure and our reactions. Clever stuff, but not everyone in a Saturday evening big venue audience agreed. Tim Vine is an old-fashioned charming corny gag merchant, but you can’t help loving him. It’s refreshing to see someone whose humour is clean and who has absolutely no edge and no agenda other than to make you laugh; someone you can take the kids or grannie to – the audience contained some of both. I’m not sure using members of the audience as chat show guests really worked, but it was a fun hour nonetheless. I’m not sure how to categorise Sandi Toksvig‘s show – part stand-up, part autobiography, part anecdotes, part book plugging! She does have a natural engaging charm and it was an enjoyable hour in her company. Mark Watson’s Eurolympics was a bonkers late night slot where three guest comedians compete in events including wearing as many of the audience’s clothes as you can, balancing books on your head, writing a limerick etc. Silly but fun.

Elsewhere in fringe theatre, Allotment wasn’t just a quirky site specific show (actually sitting on stools surrounding an allotment!) but a funny and moving story of the lives of two sisters for whom the allotment is their escape from the real world. Starting with tea and scones was an inspired bonus! Communicado‘s staging of Rabbie Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was very good, with excellent music, but the dialect was often impenetrable for non Scots like me which marred an otherwise enjoyable affair. Planet Lem, an open air Sci Fi show in the University courtyard by the Polish company that brought us Carmen Funebre on stilts in a school playground and Macbeth also here in the courtyard, was a bit flat. The small amount of dialogue it contained was recorded and in English, yet it was still hard to comprehend. Technically well executed in b-movie fashion, it didn’t live up to their previous offerings. The other theatrical highlight was The Two Most Perfect Things, a biographical review of the lives of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. After five minutes, I was wondering why I’d added this just that morning as it seemed a bit like being in a moving talking singing museum. It soon won me over though, with the stories of these fascinating theatrical icons interspersed with their songs beautifully sung. Lovely.

For an unusual diversion, I went to see Scotland’s national poet Liz Lockhead read some of her lovely poems. It wasn’t as good without Michael Marra’s songs in between as on a previous occasion, but something to further the eclecticism of this year’s selection. More poetry from Phil Jupitus on the free fringe, recreating his first incarnation as Porky the Poet, with a guest appearance from another comedian-turned-poet-turned-comedian Owen O’Neil (with a book to plug!). A nice hour and the closest to the spirit of the fringe I came this year.

The fringe musical highlight was The Francis Bacon Opera, based on his interview with Melvyn Bragg where they both got famously drunk on camera and ended up dancing. A hugely original piece with superbly funny characterisations and clever musical touches including the musical representation of painters – Jackson Pollock was a hoot! Scotland in Song was an impulsive thoroughly enjoyable hour of traditional song interspersed with a bit of history; I particularly liked its objectivity and balance. Our final show, as guest of the BBC, was a live broadcast of Radio 3’s Late Junction with an eclectic mix of Scottish folkie Dick Gaughan, Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, modern classical specialists The Hebrides Ensemble and an extraordinary group of singers and musicians from Azerbaijan. I do love it when you put together something as diverse as this and create a delicious cocktail.

After no main festival shows last year, we had five this year, starting with a Polish Macbeth (my 4th!) in a giant hanger like space where they had created a two-story house in a middle eastern war zone. The relocation worked well and the play got to the heart of the Macbeth’s madness. The staging was spectacular, with fighting, absailing and gruesome murders; the creation of the ‘other’ ghostly world was particularly effective. What is it with the Poles and Macbeth?! French company Theatre du Soleil haven’t been here since they did four Greek tragedies over a weekend in a carpet factory in Bradford some 20 years ago (I was there!). This time they have created Les Nufrages du Fol Espoir, a show which takes place in the giant attic of a restaurant just as World War I is about to start. A bunch of left-wing idealists are making a silent movie that travels from Sarajevo to Patagonia via Cardiff and Windsor! The stagecraft is extraordinarily inventive (in a low tech sense) and the music was brilliant. It was overlong at 4 hours, but I will forgive them for the stage images that will remain for a long long time. This outstanding company and their director Ariane Mnouchkine are up there with Robert Lepage as creators of theatrical magic. The third theatrical offering was more disappointing – Gulliver’s Travels from Roumania. Again, the staging was low tech inventive, but this time the structure and narrative made for a bit of a confusing muddle and it didn’t really hang together, despite some stunning scenes.

I’m not sure Charpentier ever meant David et Jonathas to be staged as an opera and I do wish it had been a concert. Musically beautiful, the staging was simply distracting, with endless short scenes played out in a wooden box which got bigger and smaller depending on the scene. Better with eyes close, I suspect. My heart sank when I discovered favourite soprano Rebecca Evans had been replaced by unknown Christiane Karg for her Queens Hall recital, but it was one of those occasions when you see an emerging star and forget completely that she’s standing in. A very diverse programme showed off both her versatility and her vocal talent to great effect and the smile on accompanist Martin Martineau‘s face told you he too though she was something special. 

Not a lot of art this year, but what there was was special. Van Gogh to Kandinsky has only a pair from each, but fortunately a lot more wonderful work from many other artists (most of whom I’d never heard of!) under its subtitle Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 which made for a very beautiful collection; very cohesive and satisfying. Downstairs at the National Gallery, they featured an unknown Italian called Giovanni Battista Lusardi whose Italian landscapes and cityscapes rival Canaletto in their detail and technical mastery; a real find. Celebrity art was represented by Harry Hill whose pictures probably wouldn’t be seen if he wasnt Harry Hill, but they were funny and provided a diverting 20 minutes (once you’ve got your breath back from the climb to the top floor of the store where they were shown!). The annual International Photography exhibition was its usual stunning self which brought on the now equally usual feeling of total photographic inadequacy!

Now I’ve written this, it seems a lot more action packed and a lot better than it seemed at the time;  Mmmm……

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I wasn’t at all convinced that staging Mark Haddon’s iconic book was wise, but I was wrong. For once, it was just like it was in my head when I read it. Playwright / adapter Simon Stephens appears to have been successful by not messing with it!

In case you didn’t know, it’s the story of teenage Christopher, brilliant but challenged by being in a world of his own because of asperger’s syndrome. He decides to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog, which leads him to some revelations closer to home and a solo adventure from Swindon to London to find his mother. It’s the strain on his parents, struggling to cope with their son, that is at the heart of the play, but Christopher is its focal point.

Luke Treadaway gives an extraordinary performance as Christopher, on stage for the whole 2hrs 45mins with the audience unable to take their eyes off him. He inhabits Christopher and you do all the things he can’t – laugh, smile and cry. At times, you just want to give him a hug, but if you could, it would be the worst thing you could do. It’s hard to play against this, but Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker as his parents do so so well, you want to get up out of your seat and help and console them.

Marianne Elliott’s production is staged in a rectangular ‘bear pit’ with three entrances that illuminates, with projections (Finn Ross) onto it, including the mathematic formulae which Christopher is so brilliant at (designer Bunny Christie). Those Frantic Assembly boys Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett have provided brilliant choreography / movement which proves so crucial to the flow of the story. Naimh Cusack is lovely as Christopher’s teacher, also part narrator. Five other actors play the remaining 36 roles! There’s lots of quirkiness, including direct references to the fact this is a play, which is completely in  tune with the story.

I loved the book and I loved the play. Maybe it was good that many years have passed between reading and watching, but nothing can take away the fact that this is a compelling and funny, yet ultimately deeply moving show. Unmissable, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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