The sound of the naked voice

Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear a naked voice when I go to the theatre.

We lost them some years ago in musicals. And I guess if you don’t mind watching performers with appendages attached to their hairlines that’s just about acceptable. But more recently the straight theatre, so-called, seems to be adopting the head mike with equal enthusiasm.

The National Theatre’s Network uses them throughout. It’s a busy show, to put it mildly, with a large cast, some of them live in the studio in front of you, some tucked away in a control room on one side of the stage, some on a giant screen and some even sitting among the on-stage audience. And since head mikes are not directional, call me slow-witted, but by the time I’d managed to figure out which character the amplified voice was coming from I’d missed half of what they were saying.

Network: Bryan Cranston and Douglas Henshall (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

On top of which the central character, played with great aplomb and sensitivity by Bryan Cranston, is filmed live on stage, so we get two of him: one live and one on the giant screen, and slightly out of sync. To say this is disorientating is to put it mildly. I was a tad surprised the NT found this acceptable.

It happens too in the Royal Court’s puzzling Goats, where a Syrian spokesperson is shown delivering his speech live and simultaneously on a screen; and since the actor likes to gesture with his hands this means when the live hands are going up the screen hands are going down, which is close to being funny; in the circumstances inappropriate to say the least.

Live goats in Goats (royalcourttheatre.com)

And don’t get me started on background music in the theatre.

Enough ranting. Enjoy your day!

© Patsy Trench, November 2017

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Peter Nichols at 90

Peter Nichols always was my favourite living playwright, and still is, even though his plays are rarely produced nowadays.  He writes about difficult topics – much of it from his own life  – yet manages to be both seeringly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

Peter Nichols (standard.co.uk)

(standard.co.uk)

His best-known play is probably A Day in the Death of Joe Eggabout a severely disabled child, based on his own experience as a young dad. My favourite – and, I was interested to hear, his also – is Forget-me-not Lane, about his childhood growing up in Bristol with his travelling salesman father, nickname ‘Hitler’, and his long-suffering mother. What you might call the British Death of a Salesman. Here again he manages to write about dislikeable people (his father) with compassion and understanding and even a kind of empathy. However harsh the subject, however much he takes the micky out of his characters, his plays are overlaid with great humanity, and a strange affection for human vulnerability and weakness.

Bearing all that in mind it’s surprising to hear he was known as a bit of a curmudgeon, with a reputation for complaining about things in public – such as, for instance, a time when he was commissioned by the National Theatre to write a play and subsequently ignored, even snubbed. So it was an especial pleasure to attend what was described as a ‘panel discussion’  at the British Library celebrating ‘Peter Nichols at 90‘; to see he is still alive, well, lively, with an amazingly retentive memory and not in the least curmudgeonly. The ‘discussion’ – more like a celebration of him and his plays – was chaired by the director Michael Grandage and featured readings from Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Sarah Woodward and Sam Swainsbury in front of a packed audience of stars from stage and screen, and Michael Blakemore.

What a privilege. I am only sorry he has given up writing plays. There were a lot of young people in the audience, some of them directors apparently. As Michael Grandage suggested, some of them may be moved to give his plays a new and much-deserved airing.

© Patsy Trench
London

 

 

A hijacked plane is heading for a football stadium filled with 70,000 people. A fighter pilot goes against orders and shoots the plane down, sacrificing the lives of 164 people in order to save 70,000. He is put on trial for mass murder. Guilty or not guilty? The audience is jury.

Terror

On the face of it it looks like a no-brainer – 164 to save 70,000? – and I’m sure I am not the only one who had already made up her mind in advance how she was going to vote. The clever thing about this play however, which takes place entirely in a courtroom, is the issues it throws up that makes one question one’s foregone conclusions. Without giving away any spoilers this case is not quite as cut-and-dried as it first looks.

It is also unusual in that whereas in most murder trials the defendant is innocent until proved guilty and the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, the onus here is on the defendant and his counsel to prove that what he did was ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ wholly justified. In other words that it was the only thing he, or someone in his position, could or should possibly have done.

There is the law, and there is philosophy, and there is human gut reaction. A few dodgy premises emit from both sides. A lot of questions remained unanswered – or rather, unasked. How did the pilot know his shot plane would not fall on buildings, or people, on the ground? How could he be sure the plane would kill all 70,000 people in the stadium? And so on and so on.

The verdict last night was not guilty, as it seems to have been throughout the run. Me, I voted guilty, partly for the reasons above. I believe the prosecuting counsel could have put a better case.

Does it make for compelling theatre? Well yes and no. A court case is static, I did feel fidgety at times. And it might have been interesting to have given the prosecution a little more weight so the final verdict wasn’t so predictable. But it is intriguing to have one’s preconceptions challenged in such a way.  Thought-provoking, absolutely. And excellently performed all round.

Terror runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 15 July.

 

Queen Anne – Sisters doing it for themselves

The second thing that occurred to me while watching this play was: why has no one written about Queen Anne before? Of all our monarchs she must be one of the least known. The only time her name crops up in conversation it’s to do with furniture.

Queen Anne

Romola Garai & Emma Cunniffe (RSC programme)

Anne was the Protestant – and estranged – daughter of the Catholic King James II and she reigned for 12 years at the beginning of the 18th century, between William III of Orange (her brother in law) and George I of Hanover. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark and out of 17 pregnancies only three of her children survived, and none of them beyond childhood. She was more or less crippled throughout her life with arthritis and gout and, as a result, obesity, and she could barely walk. But despite all that she ruled – according to Helen Edmondson’s marvellous play – fairly and conscientiously. And she was responsible for the unification of England and Scotland.

Queen Anne the play focuses on the Queen’s relationship with her confidante and close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a friendship that begins to sour as Anne becomes Queen and the Duchess tries more and more to influence her politically.

The first thing that occurred to me while watching the play was that this is an almost all-female production. Written, directed (by Natalie Abrahami), designed (Hannah Clark) by women, with two stonking central performances for women. Of course most of the rest of the cast are men, excluding the Queen’s maid Abigail (Beth Park), whose influence grows as the duchess’s fades. Bearing in mind this was a time when parliament and political influence was entirely male. Behind the scenes of the royal bedchamber – into which people such as the Lord Chancellor Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope) seem to wander at will – Anne is mercilessly lampooned by satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Arthur Maynwaring, a trick which the duchess exploits as the relationship deteriorates.

First class all round. Superb performances from Emma Cunniffe as the Queen and Romola Garai as the Duchess.

Queen Anne runs at the Haymarket Theatre until 30 September 2017

Patsy Trench, July 2017

The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

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Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

Secret River

Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

Wish List

It is one of the sadder and more shameful aspects of modern life, that super-innovative and successful megolithic online companies apparently do not feel it within their capabilities to share their success by extending some humanity to the workers on the shop – or, in this case warehouse – floor.

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Joseph Quinn and Erin Doherty (royalcourttheatre.org)

The company Tamsin works for as a packer in Katherine Soper’s new play at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is for obvious reasons unnamed. But a working world which is driven entirely by targets, where workers are on zero hours and toilet stops are timed and points (or strokes) are handed out for the slightest thing such as a missed target, is made all the tougher for Tamsin who at the age of 19 is the sole breadwinner for herself and her younger brother, who suffers from an extreme form of OCD.

Wish List, like the National Theatre’s Love, is from the slice-of-life brand of theatre, featuring in both cases people on the edge of society struggling to survive against the unseen and inhumane hand of the benefits system. In both plays the sufferer is called Dean (a coincidence I presume), who is unjustifiably turned down for, respectively, housing and unemployment benefit, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. (It’s time we heard it from the other side I think.)

The two plays have other things in common, not least a set that includes a kitchen and a bathroom. The difference being that on the traverse stage of the Royal Court Upstairs every member of the audience can see everything.

Whatever reservations I might have had about the play were more than compensated for by the performances, and in particular by Erin Doherty as Tamsin: uncertain, eager to please, funny and occasionally and surprisingly passionate, and always completely believable. A talent to watch.

And now it’s over to you, Department of Work and Pensions. Seriously.

Patsy Trench
January 2017

So what is theatre exactly?

Theatre should be real, says Alexander Zeldin.

All theatre is artifice, says Paul Hunter.

I paraphrase both, but this is the essence of the thinking of two talented theatre practitioners I’ve come into contact with recently.

Alexander Zeldin is the writer/director of Love, currently selling out in the Dorfman at the National Theatre. He was talking to Samira Ahmed at a platform talk before the show a couple of days ago. Love has received five star reviews from virtually everywhere, so he’s a man to be taken seriously.

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Alexalander Zeldin, photo by Marie Eisendick (offwestend.com)

Paul Hunter is the artistic director of theatre company Told by an Idiot, which has been in existence for over twenty years performing around the country and the world. He was talking to students from the SUNY New Paltz at a workshop held at RADA yesterday.

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Both comments are true of course if not the whole picture. It’s what makes theatre what it is. Paul Hunter likes to create the unexpected and spontaneous through the use of impossible games. Watching a group of people clapping in rhythm only gets really interesting when the rhythm starts to go out of control. You can see what Hunter is getting at when he explains that the best comedy springs from things going wrong.

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The clapping game that goes wrong

But I can’t agree when he says reality belongs to television not theatre. Watching LOVE at the Dorfman is a painful and often boring experience because we are living with the characters on stage in real time. We watch them eating in silence. We watch them washing up (those who could see it). We experience their tedium, their boredom. If this was television we’d probably switch it off and look for something more comforting or entertaining.

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Janet Etuk, Anna Calder-Marshall and Nick Holder (nationaltheatre.org)

Love has been rapturously received by the press, and I would not want to disagree except to point out, with some emphasis, that anyone sitting in the side seats in the upper level, which comprises about a quarter of the total audience, only gets to see two-thirds of the play. Anything happening on the sides of the stage, which includes the sink and the toilet and a couple of upstage rooms, is completely invisible if you are sitting on that same side. Why this should be considered acceptable in a newly-renovated and reconfigurable theatre like the Dorfman is a puzzle, to say the least.

That said, the performances are astonishing across the board. And the most touching moment, which produced audible sobs throughout the audience and happens right at the end, is totally theatrical.

Patsy Trench
London 2017

patsytrench@gmail.com