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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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.

wish-list-cropped

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

Balderdash or Beckett?

One of the hazards the script reader or assessor is bound to come up against from time to time when confronted by a script that is, shall we say, ‘off the wall’, is: is this balderdash, or could this writer be the new Beckett?

Samuel Beckett (telegraph.co.uk)

Samuel Beckett (telegraph.co.uk)

It’s not just playwrights. All creators – writers, painters, composers and others – who genuinely break new ground are likely to find it an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiasically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he was had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.

 

 

Angry young man … Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure

Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes & Kenneth Haigh in Look Back in Anger (theguardian.com)

These thoughts were going through my mind while I was watching the latest play by the young playwright Alistair McDowall, called ‘X’, at the Royal Court. Not I hasten to add that I thought it either balderdash or Beckett, but whenever I find myself baffled by something it’s hard not to think: is it me being stupid, or does this piece make no sense at all?

McDowall, like many writers, does not write simple, chronological, easy-to-grasp stuff. His plays – or should I say this play – is not intended to make obvious sense. It plays with time, and reality and nightmare, featuring as it does a group of people stuck in a spaceship on Pluto waiting to be rescued by an Earth with whom they’ve lost all contact. Baffled as I was when I was watching it I read the script afterwards, which helped a bit, but there was still something in me that wondered whether there might not be an element of the Emperor’s New Clothes: if you didn’t get it or you didn’t like it, you’re stupid.

X (ft.com)

Darrell D’Silva & Jessica Raine in ‘X’ (ft.com)

I don’t mind admitting to being stupid. I do mind missing out on something that I am too dense to appreciate, or see the point of. I read the reviews, which were mixed, to see if they could throw light on it. One said all was revealed in the final scene, but I didn’t understand the final scene. A friend said he found it moving. I said I didn’t, not really, because I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the characters.

And that, I think after all, is the crux of the matter. As I tell my students, there’s only one thing you need to know when you’re watching a play, and that’s your own mind. It’s not always easy, but it is important. You like a play not because you feel you should, or because the critics liked it, or your friends liked it, or because it stars a clever actor, but because you found it engaging.

For the full review I wrote of the play on londontheatre1.com please click here.

 

Hangmen

Hangmen poster (delfontmackintosh.co.uk)Martin McDonagh is the sort of writer who has you laughing at things you know you shouldn’t be laughing at.

In  The Beauty Queen of Leenane you laugh at a mother and a daughter destroying one another. In the film In Bruges you find yourself laughing at – and even empathising with – a psychopathic killer, played endearingly by Colin Farrell.

In Hangmen you’re invited to laugh at cruelty, put-downs and casual, politically incorrect racism. There are no likeable characters in this play, with the possible exception of Harry the (ex) hangman’s plump daughter Shirley – nicely played by Bronwyn James – who hides behind a wall of shyness and sudden aggression towards parents who accuse her of ‘moping’. Now there’s a character I can identify with.

Set in the 1960s, the first act trundles along quite merrily in its Orton- and Pinteresque way, set in a fuggy pub presided over by the bow-tied ex hangman Harry and his wife, and peopled by men – no women – who seem to have nothing else to do but hang around drinking pints (Harry won’t allow them to drink anything else) and hanging on Harry’s every word. For someone who was probably not old enough to remember the sixties (unlike me) McDonagh captures the atmosphere perfectly, with just a couple of blips: I would take a bet that no one in those days referred to ‘train stations’, that being a relatively modern Americanisation of what used to be called railway stations. And not enough of the pub customers smoke to be able to create the fug produced by the theatre’s smoke machines, not to mention the distracting smell of herbal cigarettes. Otherwise, it’s pretty spot-on.

Hangmen (telegraph.co.uk)

Andy Nyman and David Morrissey (telegraph.co.uk)

The second act is full of plot twists to do with disappearing daughters and possible past murderers who escaped Harry’s noose, and the sudden appearance of Harry’s number one rival and nemesis, Albert Pierrepoint, (ex) Chief Hangman. But the play isn’t really a thriller. It’s not even really about hangmen. It is ultimately, and disappointingly in my view, about nothing more than the rivalry of the Alpha Male. Every character has to feel superior to someone else, so while Harry bullies everyone beneath him, from his (ex) assistant to his daughter and his customers, he in turn is cowed and humiliated by his superior, Pierrepoint.

The play has won five and four stars from every major newspaper reviewer other than the Daily Mail, and I wonder whether that might have something to do with the fact that it started its life in the much smaller space of the Royal Court theatre. From the Upper Circle of Wyndham’s it promises more than it delivers. Beneath the clever menace and banter and the uncertainty of who was who and why, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal going on. In the end it’s about nothing more than oneupmanship, with emphasis on the ‘man’.

But it’s impressive to see the first set, a prison cell, rise up all the way into the flies to reveal the pub beneath it. Who’d have thought there was that much room up there in the roof of the Wyndham’s Theatre?