Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Pitcairn

A familiarity with playwright Richard Bean's transatlantic hit One Man, Two Guvnors will do more than you might expect to prepare you for his new play Pitcairn (now at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre via Chichester, and soon to be off to various other locations) a violent historical drama about the famous mutineers of the Bounty and the utopia they attempted to form on Pitcairn Island once the mutiny was done. At first it seemed like a fairly huge leap from a cheeky Goldoni rewrite to a slice of obscure colonial history (with some biting social satire in the middle with Great Britain, which transferred from the National Theatre to the West End and which I haven't yet seen). But what these plays share is a sense of the chaos that lies just beneath the surface in any society, no matter how idealistic or how polished. In One Man, Two Guvnors, this took the form of the barely controlled chaos of Francis's attempted deception and the fantastically melodramatic efforts of the various lovers to find each other. Pitcairn, on the other hand, turns on more troubling questions of what, exactly, apparently unjust laws and social hierarchies are designed to hold in check. 

This is a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. But no one comes out terribly well in 18th century history, do they. As if mutiny and murder weren't enough to contend with, there's the entrenched classism, racism, sexism, and slavery, too. And on Pitcairn, all of these are forced into the crucible of a one-mile by two-mile island populated by just a handful of British sailors and Tahitian men and women. As Richard Bean noted repeatedly in the pre-show talk that I attended, beyond that, no one really knows what happened on Pitcairn. Only one participant in the mutiny was alive by the time the inhabitants of Pitcairn were discovered, and his accounts of what took place were inconsistent. And as the conclusion of Bean's play emphasizes, it's more than likely that he would have had good reason to be dishonest about what he saw and did. 

Bean's Fletcher Christian (only in his mid-twenties at the time of the mutiny, played by a splendid Tom Morely) is an idealist, equally convinced of the doctrines of social equality gaining currency at the time, and that their former captain, Bligh, did not die when they left him out at sea, and will be returning to see him hanged. The parallel currents of passion and paranoia undermine Christian's visions of utopia from the start. 

In the pre-show talk, Bean said that once he learned that the play would be performed at the Globe, he made some rewrites, including the addition of two characters who function as narrators and interact directly with the audience. Director Max Stafford-Clark sends them out into the audience to speak to the groundlings, asking questions and demanding actual answers. Hiti (Eben Figuelredo) is a Tubayan teenager who longs to join the sexual utopia the British have promised. Mata (Cassie Layton) is the Tahitian wife of Christian's fellow officer Ned Young (Ash Hunter), stolen from Tahiti in the dead of night. Her early delight with what the English soldiers have to offer quickly fades as she and Hiti bring us through a series of episodic incidents that illustrate the downfall of society on Pitcairn. 

Hiti and Mata are never quite able to use their nuanced narrative voices in the actual scenes, which are unquestionably dominated by the Englishmen. The group of wives, led by the two women who had been upper-caste back on Tahiti, stage interesting debates about who they are and where they belong, but they become a chorus of dissenting and agreeing voices, and few distinct pictures of actual characters emerge from among them. The same is largely true of the English, however, with Fletcher Christian the most obvious exception, at least until his eleventh hour scheme forces us to wonder how well we have really known him at all. This is all perhaps a necessary sacrifice when working with such a large cast, and it does not make the unfolding of events any less compelling. 

There are many tonal similarities between this and the Globe's other current contemporary play, Doctor Scroggy's War. Pitcairn is also frequently very funny, though the cards are laid out on the table very early: Hiti explains in one of his early monologues that "good days are life, and bad days are history," and he is here to tell us history. 

But what is history, anyway? Pitcairn is framed by the discovery of the island and its inhabitants by some Royal Navy officers many years after the mutineers land, when only one man is left alive in the aftermath of the carnage we subsequently witness, and he immediately starts telling stories about what has happened. Hiti and Mata tell different stories, and Fletcher Christian more, including railing against the power of the Bible to force men into submission to unjust authority. The stories they tell-- and the languages they tell them in, as highlighted by the warring use of English, Tahitian (though spoken onstage in English, but identified as Tahitian by changed accents and the men's responses to hearing it) and even the medium of the women's ritualized dances-- carry the power to create and destroy marriages, shape the future of their community, and sanction murder. 

Watching what he believed to be objective truths about human nature and society's potential dissolve before him, Christian seems to go slowly mad. But is it really because of wrecked idealism, or is it due to love? Are betrayals between the men rooted in classism and racism, or as revenge for long-ago slights on the Bounty? The what and the why prove equally fluid, and the constant and never-resolved urge to seek answers to those questions is a large part of what makes the play so engaging. As one of the women asks early on, "Are we in England or Tahiti?" Or Eden? Or Hell? Whose narrative will dominate? 

Bean's narrative comes out in the end with a strange kind of hope, not necessarily for human goodness, but at least for human resilience. If nothing else, people do seem to survive. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Teh Internet is Serious Business

At one point in The Royal Court's production of Teh Internet is Serious Business [sic] by Tim Price, I had the thought "Man, I wish I could see the ball pit better." 

So there's a ball pit. Which should speak for itself. 

On the other hand, it's possible that you'd share the opinion of the woman behind me, who said loudly at the beginning of intermission, "This is just too weird for me," then spent the entire second act whispering to her husband, "When is this over?" Perhaps it's rude of me to single out this woman... but maybe I can also argue that that's in the spirit of the play itself, an anarchic, bizarre, and hilarious fictionalization of the exploits of LulzSec, an offshoot of the internet group Anonymous, who are famous for wearing Guy Fawkes masks and humiliating those who cross them. All of these titles project a false sense of centralization, one that Teh Internet in part perpetuates: there are no leaders or official membership in Anonymous. But the two central characters of Teh Internet are at least based on real people-- specifically, Jake Davis and Mustafa al-Bassam, who were arrested in 2011 for their participation in Anonymous's activities.

This arrest is where the play begins, at which point we go backwards to discover how Jake, an agoraphobic Shetlander, and Mustafa, a bored 15-year-old maybe-genius, found themselves falling in with the bizarre online world of 4Chan (the larger forum Anonymous grew out of) and Anonymous. What begins as escapes from their mundane lives and profound loneliness becomes something both deeper and more dangerous, though the tension between the ethos of 4Chan-- that nothing should be taken seriously, and that everything must be done "for the lulz," or for the amoral fun of it-- and the opportunity to use their abilities and influence achieve social change runs taut through the play, and creates its most interesting conflicts. 

Price depicts some of Anonymous and LulzSec's most famous early exploits, including takedowns of Scientology, Sony, Fox, and various government websites in Tunisia. The play feels particularly timely, as the group has been in the news once again in the wake of the events in Ferguson, MO. A member of Anonymous released the personal information (an act known as doxing) of the police officer believed to have shot Michael Brown, only for it to be quickly revealed that he'd identified the wrong person. 

The first half of Teh Internet, however, mostly revels in the utter weirdness of 4Chan's internet culture, which is often a fairly good reflection of internet culture more broadly. In the process, it offers an intriguing and perhaps unintentional suggestion: live theatre may be the perfect medium for depicting the internet. The elegant gestural vocabulary and athletic dance sequences that represent coding, the actors in cat costumes representing the many famous internet cats, links (including, naturally, several Rickrolls) popping up out of trap doors, chatroom members dressed like Spider-Man and Captain Picard to represent their online aliases, memes literally wandering by-- director Hamish Pirie captures better than a more literal medium could the short attention span and topic-hopping silliness of an internet forum or Facebook feed. 

This is likely what alienated my fellow audience member. Price resists any traditional structuring, and the play features many episodes and digressions and little in the way of overarching plot. But this is a perfect match for its subject matter. How could a play about the internet possibly follow traditional rules? The piece does become most interesting in the second half, however, when Luke and Mustafa's online and offline lives embark on a more direct collision course, and Price begins to investigate that contrast more deeply. 

The dehumanizing nature of the internet also hobbles the play somewhat. Anonymity is right there on the label, and the impossibility of truly knowing the people that have made up their makeshift family becomes a sticking point for the characters in the second half of the play. The consequence of this-- that only our viewpoint characters Luke and Mustafa can be truly rounded characters-- does emphasize the episodic feel of their adventures with LulzSec, and can make the secondary characters' debates about the safety and propriety of their actions feel unimportant, as we have little sense of who these people really are. 

But, on the other hand, this is partly the point. Both Luke and Mustafa are profoundly socially awkward. Luke is, as previously mentioned, agoraphobic, which contrasts painfully to his role as LulzSec's charismatic PR man. Mustafa seems like he could perhaps be on the autism spectrum, and if not, at least has no friends to speak of and turns to chatrooms initially to get practice talking to people. Anonymous is their only safe means of connecting to others. When a fellow Anonymous member is doxed, his identity published online, it's a toss-up whether Luke flees his company just out of fears about his own privacy, or because the revelation means that there is now a real person with a family and a job and needs to face instead of a username in a Guy Fawkes mask. 

In attempting to find a vocabulary to tell stories that exist online and in the real world simultaneously, Teh Internet is treading somewhat new and very important ground. I can't pretend that Teh Internet is Serious Business is the first play to deal with these formal questions, but it's the first I've seen. Given that, its successes far outweigh the places where it falters. It is a thoroughly delightful and unflaggingly entertaining evening of theatre, and it careens along to an unexpected and lovely ending. 

Most of all, thought, I came away from Teh Internet is Serious Business with hope for the medium of theatre itself the likes of which I haven't felt in a very long time. The cast is large and racially diverse, the subject matter contemporary and relevant without feeling tabloid-y or shallow, and most of all, the play makes full use of the power and potential of live theatre to tell a story that is inescapably modern and to depict the most important platform of the modern age. In the very near future, I think telling stories that take place at least partially on the internet will become inescapable. Theatre has an amazing opportunity to become the best medium for telling those stories. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Middle Temple Hall

Last weekend was Open House London, when historic and culturally important locations that are normally either closed to the public or charge admission are open for free. We went to several places, but my favorite was Middle Temple Hall. One of the four Inns of Court, members today can go for daily lunches in the Hall. It's tucked away just off the Strand, a warren of gardens and cobbled streets that is, like so much here, completely invisible from the street if you don't know to look for it.

Built between 1562 and 1573, it is (as one of the placards in the hall said) basically a miracle that the Middle Temple is still standing after the fire of 1666 and the Blitz (though it did suffer some damage during the latter, but it seems as if the affected areas were restored largely with the original materials).

Of course, the most interesting aspect of Middle Temple Hall for me, is this:

Though the website and some printed materials elide this to "first performance," but all we actually know is that it's the first performance on record, which may not be the same thing. At any rate, it's pretty amazing to stand on a floor where William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage almost certainly stood. The Globe put on a production of Twelfth Night in 2002 in the hall, and the arranged it in a very long alley, with audience members along the two long sides of the hall, and one of the shorter ends. 

This is much more similar to staging at the Globe and Blackfriars (though the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men weren't performing there yet in 1602) than facing the audience flat-on would be, but it's also sufficiently different to raise a lot of interesting questions about staging. And if this was the very first performance, if perhaps the play was written for the Candlemas celebrations that year, would these slightly altered staging demands (if the Globe was even 'correct' in choosing to orient the stage that way) be reflected in the requirements of the text itself? A play that could only be performed in the Inns of Court would be pretty useless to the company-- whatever its original intent, they'd know it would eventually have to be done at the Globe-- but perhaps alterations were undertaken in the interim? After all, Candlemas falls very shortly before Lent, when the theatres were required (at least technically... it doesn't seem to be a rule they often bothered to follow) to be closed and there would (again, in theory) be plenty of time for rewrites.

To conclude, I'd like to present this fact from the website's description of the "finely carved oak screen at the east end of the Hall": "The screen’s two double-leaved, spiked doors were installed in 1671 in an attempt by the Masters of the Bench to prevent high-spirited and rebellious students from occupying the Hall for illegal revelling over Christmas." Oops.

Review: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

There are two things to love, basically, about Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell series, a trilogy of which two books have been published, which is being made into a mini-series starring Mark Rylance, and which the Royal Shakespeare Company has adapted into a pair of stage plays, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. These two things are Mantel's prose, which can be dense and confusing but I find intoxicatingly rich and thoughtful; and the man himself, Thomas Cromwell. Her Cromwell becomes almost a proto-populist, a self-made man who ascended from the slums of Putney to King Henry VIII's right hand, thoughtful, impossibly brilliant, and brutal. Only one of these things can be translated to the stage with much grace. Luckily, playwright Mike Poulton and the RSC recognized this, and bring to the stage two exciting historical dramas that are unencumbered by attempts to weave in Mantel's narration and anchored by the fascinating and wonderfully portrayed figure of Cromwell himself.

It seems unlikely that these rather long and historically heavy adaptations would have made it to the West End (with a Broadway run to follow next spring) without a Cromwell as perfectly cast as Ben Miles. True, he doesn't quite match the Holbein portrait, nor the frequent description of Cromwell in the books as looking like a murderer. But bulked out by black sixteenth century garb, continually forced to doff his black skullcap, he is a man who can never manage to recede into the shadows like his social superiors think he ought to. 

"Why do you have to be such a person?" the Duke of Norfolk complains of Cromwell in the novel (the last cut line I'll quote, I promise). Miles's personhood is equally undeniable, and what we lose from the intimacy of Mantel's prose, we gain back with his expressive performance. Beneath his intimidating appearance and dry wit, it is easy to believe in the loyalty and love that lie at the heart of most of what he tries to do-- and also to see those generous impulses convincingly curdle into something more vicious by the second play's end. 

The subject matter is essentially the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I. This trajectory is shadowed and aided by Cromwell, who escapes the wreckage of the career and life of his former master Cardinal Wolsey with promises to both the King and Anne that he can do what the Cardinal could not: secure Henry a divorce. But as Anne falls out of favor, despite her threats to bring Cromwell with her, he becomes the instrument of her downfall, taking to heart to the lessons learned from Wolsey's fall. 

Jeremy Herrin's inventive staging hearkens back to the Shakespearean history play in which these pieces clearly have their roots with a largely bare stage and fluid scenic transitions. Cromwell rarely exits, more often facilitating scene changes by retreating to a downstage corner to bow to whatever member of the nobility is newly entering. Elaborate period dances convey the tense social geography of the court without any dialog at all, and a court play involving a caricature of Cardinal Wolsey and some devils is as attention-grabbing and chilling as its lasting resonance in the plot demands. 

The costumes are, as should be expected, quite stunning, and go far to helping differentiate the actors who are playing multiple characters. Paule Constable creates some truly beautiful lighting effects, particularly to highlight the ends of acts. There is live music, which is always exciting, and it features an interesting and effective mix of period and contemporary instruments. 

The plays are very much structured as a pair: the first is inconclusive, and the second offers refreshers but no detailed explanations about who these people are or what is going on. Poulton's streamlining of the storytelling is masterful, and he has a keen sense of how to replace and reshuffle minor characters in order to make the best use of his necessarily limited cast. The conflation of several Wolsey servants in early scenes into the lute player Mark Smeaton is a particularly well-crafted example of this. He is less forward-thinking about foreshadowing many of Anne's ladies-in-waiting (with Jane Seymour the obvious exception), resulting in the late introduction of figures such as Mary Shelton and Lady Worcester who offer crucial information but, especially due to the tight doubling of the female actors, somewhat blur together. Poulton also does not trouble himself with leaving room for a part three, which allows him to excise some characters who are featured in the first two novels, but seem destined to come into their own in the third; notably, Thomas "Call-Me-Risley" Wriothesley. 

Cromwell is faced with four major counterparts: his sometimes-ally Anne, who simultaneously sees his use as a fellow advocate of Protestantism and as a devilishly effective lawyer, but resents his rise to power and his low class. Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, does not seem to begrudge Cromwell his background, but cannot tolerate his schismatic religious views and his political utilitarianism. Though the men offer frequent protestations of friendship, they are difficult to believe. 

In the opposite corner, his more devoted allies: Wolsey (a delightful Paul Jesson) and eventually King Henry, though the latter's childlike mercuriality, wonderfully captured by Nathaniel Parker, is hardly solid ground for building on, and the increasingly large collection of ghosts that drift through both plays are a frequent reminder of what ending up on the wrong side of one of Henry's fancies can mean.

Onstage ghosts can be just plain tacky, but they are masterfully deployed here. Though they haunt the stage, Cromwell himself does not seem particularly troubled by them (or at least, all but one), and carries on fairly casual chats with his former mentor and former enemies. Especially in Bring up the Bodies, they offer the rare opportunities to see Cromwell basically alone. Poulton has, understandably, largely removed Cromwell's family life, though his wife Lizzie, son Gregory, and protege Rafe Sadler remain. By slimming down their roles and removing the arcs they experience in the books, Rafe (Joshua Silver, dry and charming) especially takes on a new and interesting role. Throughout, he is Cromwell's shadow, perennially armed with a ledger and quill and dressed in black or dark green. As the second play went on, I realized he was increasingly filling-- in a quite literal, physical way-- the role that Cromwell once did, standing at the shadows of scenes, so silent and attentive that sometimes it took me until midway through the action to realize that he was even there, watching, listening, taking notes. 

I was skeptical of the many upcoming adaptations of Mantel's books, largely because, as mentioned, her prose is so distinctive and powerful. A lesser adaptation would have featured pages of direct address, perhaps characters narrating their own thoughts and actions in an attempt to bring along some of her beautiful words and the fascinating webs of interiority that her third-person perspective allows. In some ways, removing this access turns the plays into a more traditional account of the marriage of Anne Boleyn. But Poulton, Herrin, and Miles have captured the heart of Mantel's Cromwell, and he in turn forms the heart of plays that seem to be made in his own image: fast-paced, forceful, funny, chilling in their depiction of tyranny and shadowed always by the will of an immature and changeable king, the promise that every spectacular rise will be followed by a fall.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Comedy of Errors

            Seeing The Comedy of Errors on voting day for Scotland’s independence referendum did lend itself to one great joke. As Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen wench who claims to be his wife, he realizes that she is so fat, she’s spherical, like a globe. His master Antipholus, delighted, encourages him to describe where various countries would be located on her body, and Dromio finds Spain in the heat of her breath and the Indies in the ruby-like warts on her nose, and so on. “Where was Scotland?” Antipholus asks. A long, long silence. Cue applause.

            Sure, it’s an easy joke, but I’m coming around at last to the belief that The Comedy of Errors is a celebration of the easy joke. And the Globe’s latest production embraces this idea wholeheartedly. Watching a man punch an octopus is funny. The set falling down is funny. Characters’ unending confusion at two pairs of identical twins is just funny. Sometimes you’re just in a mood for a silly comedy, and when you are, who needs anything more?

            But it’s Shakespeare, of course, so there is more, even if it’s ignored for most of the play in favor comic beatings and ridiculous misunderstandings. This production manages to excavate more angles than many others by clearly differentiating the sets of brothers (in terms of personality if not necessarily looks) and by allowing Adriana and Luciana, respectively the wife and potential love interest of the two Antipholuses, to be actual characters rather than shallow, shrieking shrews.

            To recap, The Comedy of Errors is the one about twin brothers who were separated at birth. Accompanied by their slaves (not their servants, a detail I think most productions try to gloss over), who were also identical twins, they have established separate lives in Ephesus and Syracuse. The brothers from Ephesus travel to Syracuse in search of their missing halves, and immediately embark on a day of mistaken identities as each brother is taken for the other by townspeople, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife Adriana, and each other.

            In The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of the show last summer, Hamish Linklater’s performance as both brothers made clear to me for the first time the unsettling side of the doubled Antipholuses: his Syracusan brother was poetic and a bit bumbling (though still prone to giving out beatings), while the Ephesean Antipholus was blunt and hot-tempered, seemingly as much feared as respected by his fellow townspeople. Antipholus of Syracuse’s confusion at being shied from and groveled to was therefore both amusing and alarming: why was he being taken not only for someone he wasn’t, but for that kind of person? In the Globe’s production, the two Antipholuses (Simon Harrison and Matthew Needham) highlight a similar divide, but the stark and, for me, really revelatory difference was between the two Dromios.
            Early in the play, Antipholus of Syracuse scolds his Dromio for being too cheeky: “Because that I familiarly sometimes/Do use you for my fool and chat with you,/Your sauciness will jest upon my love/And make a common of my serious hours.” Brodie Ross’s Dromio revels in the fool’s license that his master grants him, and his incredulity at his treatment at the hands of Antipholus of Ephesus’s family is funny and telling. In one particularly charming moment, he is thrilled when Adriana actually seems interested in hearing one of his long passages of punning, she both amused and confused by her slave’s sudden wit.

            Jamie Wilkes’s Dromio of Ephesus, on the other hand, is the more long-suffering of the two, more given to physical comedy and violent treatment at the hands of his master. His indignity bursts forth in a late passage that I found rather shocking, in which he complains at length and with apparent earnestness about the abuse he has suffered, and the patience with which he has suffered it. Not unexpectedly, the play bounces back into comic misunderstanding before this jarring intrusion of lower class frustration can be acknowledged. These vastly differing relationships contribute to the odd but fitting uneasiness of the ending, where it seems abundantly clear in a way that is difficult to laugh off that the arrival of the twins and their vastly different master/servant relationship will unsettle much more than it will resolve.

            I was tempted to see the two Dromios in this production of the embodiment of  two types of Elizabethan fooling: the witty fool and the natural fool. Dromio of Syracuse would be the former, the fool who relies on wordplay and puns; Dromio of Ephesus the latter, a fool whose amusement stems from natural stupidity. Though this would probably accurately characterize how the respective Antipholuses would view their slaves, it’s not really a fair division, particularly to Dromio of Ephesus, who is much smarter than he’s ever allowed to be. Though it is easy to see the differences between the twins as an opportunity for Shakespeare to highlight the differing comic talents of two company members.  
            Speaking of company members, one must of course raise the question of identical actors. The trend in the USA at the moment (including Shakespeare in the Park and twice at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) seems to be to cast one actor as both brothers, resulting in some very funny quick changes and sudden entrances, but sucking the energy out of the final moments, as the twins of course cannot actually see and react to one another. The Globe, on the other hands, goes the presumably more traditional route of casting two pairs of actors who look roughly the same and dressing them identically. The result is that the audience is never quite as confused as the characters are, which proves to be a good thing. Though perfectly identical actors would, of course, be a very neat visual, the relative ease in telling the sets apart helps further emphasize the idea that, in terms of personality, to confuse these pairs of men is somewhat ridiculous.

            Among those who suffer most from the confusion (besides the men themselves, of course) are their women: Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, and her sister Luciana, who finds herself the object of Antipholus of Syracuse’s affections. Adriana is generally characterized as shrieking and violent, scolded by her sweet sister and barely tolerated by her longsuffering husband. And of course she is. But Hattie Ladbury’s Adriana, particularly paired with Becci Gemmell’s pretty and primly disapproving Luciana, finds not just sympathy, but reason in Adriana’s tirades. Though the ladies live in the same heightened comic vein as everyone else, director Blanche McIntyre permits them to have traces of humanity at their core just as much as the leading men do. This rescues the scenes with the women from becoming just shouting contests, and rebalances the play, particularly the final scene, where characters’ long monologues of competing versions of events can become tiresome when Antipholus is the only character onstage who has been portrayed as at all sane.  

            Now, don’t get me wrong. This is still a play where a man punches an octopus, and a cheap joke at Scotland’s expense fits perfectly. But McIntyre seems to understand and carefully build out the scaffolding of humanity upon which all this ridiculousness rests, resulting in a riotously funny evening that still never feels shallow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Doctor Scroggy's War

There’s a moment in the second act of Doctor Scroggy’s War when Major Gillies, a military surgeon and one of the central characters, speculates about how best to describe suffering. What is the proper adjective? The hammer? The waltz? How can we talk about mass suffering? I’ve admired thus far the English responses to the one hundredth anniversary of World War One, kicking off this August. Notably, this includes the ceramic poppies filling the moat at the Tower of London, one for every soldier killed in the war. The production of Doctor Scroggy’s War, set in World War One and written by Howard Brenton, was also programmed with the anniversary in mind.

There’s probably no one today who would bother to argue that World War One was necessary. An utterly senseless loss of life, the tragic clash of old-fashioned tactics with cutting edge technology, slaughter and destruction on a scale no one had ever seen.   One unforeseen consequence was the extent of the violent facial injuries suffered by the soldiers in the trenches. After the war, it’s said, some European towns placed special benches in their parks, brightly painted, so that passersby would know that the men sitting on them were horrifically disfigured and could avert their eyes or alter their path as necessary.

The characters in Brenton’s play are kinder than this, which is perhaps surprising in light of some of his brutal earlier works. But perhaps he found that the facts of the war itself were vicious enough without also plunging into every possible depth of human cruelty; the eponymous Doctor Scroggy’s war, running in parallel to the big one, is in part a battle of human resilience in the face of unfathomable and pointless violence and suffering—and in that conflict, ultimately, lies Brenton’s tragedy. Because like World War One, it’s a battle where victory can be as devastating as defeat.

            The play begins in 1915, and deals with the intertwined lives of Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon), a pioneer in facial reconstructive surgery who is both appalled and fascinated by the opportunity presented by the war; and Captain Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a “temporary gentleman” who is another in dramatic literature’s long history of boys eager to prove themselves in battle.

“You know what’s going to happen to me,” Jack says suddenly to the audience in act one, and of course, we do. It often feels like war stories all follow the same playbook. You’re sure you know what will happen as soon as you meet the arrogant young lordling, the society miss who claims to disdain officers, as soon as a young soldier’s mother prays nothing will harm her son’s beautiful eyes. But Brenton finds unexpected cracks and angles, not the least of which is the premise of the play itself: the work performed by Major Gillies and the injuries suffered by his patients. While Gillies in part wages a war against fear, despair, and the other psychological wounds that we now so widely recognize as souvenirs of battle, the bandaged faces of the soldiers in act two are a striking visual reminder of the physical toll that, strangely, often feels forgotten. In old war stories, men either live or die. Maybe sometimes they’ll lose a leg or even an arm, which is of course traumatic, but always seems to be something you believe they’ll manage to move past.

            “He has no face,” is a frequent refrain. It’s something that I found disturbingly difficult to imagine. In a film of this story, I assume one would be treated to plenty of lurid shots of missing noses and shattered jaws, or perhaps euphemistic angles and lighting all building to a shocking reveal. But director John Dove does not try to replicate this with stage makeup or prosthetics. It results on the one hand, in the imaginative gap that I mentioned: the actors do have faces, of course, even swaddled beneath bandages. But as it was said again and again-- “he has no face,” “he has no face”-- and I found I still couldn’t imagine what that might look like, the pain and horror of the circumstances became much clearer than any fright makeup could make it.

In certain moments, Brenton and Dove do seem to long for modern stage conventions, particularly blackouts, which the Globe’s open air lighting scheme forbids. But on the whole they made good use of the theatre’s demands, notably well-used direct address and asides to the audience. Even though it’s a new play, the actors aren’t scared to engage the audience like Shakespeareans, and the cast without exception is engaging and skilled.

This all sounds very heavy, which it is, but that means it’s necessary to mention the fantastic lightheartedness that permeates most of the play, and not just the ironic levity of the bright young chaps who chat happily about what a lark battle will be. The play is largely very funny, which comes to be part of Major Gillies’ point. How do you talk about suffering? You can’t, at least not continually. And both Gillies and, fortunately, Mr. Brenton recognize that even beginning to understand suffering and carnage on the scale of World War One requires a break to laugh.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Globe on Broadway

Re-posts of what I wrote last year about Twelfth Night and Richard III, transferred to Broadway from London's Globe Theatre.

Twelfth Night. 
“Okay,” a friend of mine said the other day, presumably (rightfully) sick of my incessant excitement about Twelfth Night and Richard III, imported from the Globe to Broadway via the West End. “But really, what’s the point?

She was referring, of course, to the conceit behind the production: all-male, traditional costumes and staging, a pre-show dressing ritual and a post-show jig. In short, likely the first attempt at a period-accurate production in New York City a good long time. And one may ask why, of course– such a thing certainly makes less sense on a Broadway stage than at the Globe, where the authenticity of the production can be mirrored by the authenticity of the theatre itself. The answer in theory is first, because the production is supposed to be incredibly good, and producers surely wouldn’t have put up the expense for a Broadway production if they didn’t think it really was; and second, because I think there is value in staging a play the way it was written to be staged, if only for the sake of experiment.

In practice, the answer turns out to be, because Shakespeare done the way it was written to be staged, with a superlatively skilled cast, in fact achieves the exact opposite of what I assume my skeptical friend was imagining: not a stodgy museum piece, but one of the liveliest, funniest, and all-around best productions of Twelfth Night I’ve seen in a very long time, if not ever.

The two poles of the play are Mark Rylance as Olivia and Samuel Barnett as Viola. Barnett’s first entrance as Viola in a dress did get a laugh, though that was more likely because he was crawling out of a trap door. Barnett is more or less the ideal male Viola, with a naturally high-pitched voice and feminine mannerisms. He embodied Viola’s self-conscious discomfort in her borrowed body so well that the multiple refractions of man-playing-woman-playing-man more or less vanished. Particularly opposite Liam Brennan’s hilarious Orsino, the blurred space between man and woman that Viola inhabits was palpable, and often very funny.

Director Tim Carroll is judicious in the darker shading which so often consumes productions of this play. Barnett’s delivery, for example, of Viola’s line “I am all the daughters of my father’s house/And all the brothers, too, and yet I know not” ended in Viola crumbling almost into tears… an opportunity that Orsino immediately seizes to finally get his hands on Cesario, something he’s been itching to do all scene, transforming what is momentarily a tender moment into a deeply and comically awkward hug and almost-kiss.

Mark Rylance’s heavily stylized performance as Olivia likewise keeps the character from the pathos that the role is capable of. I was initially skeptical of this, and of the complete lack of dignity that Olivia possesses from the moment Rylance enters, swooping in wide circles to permit a large train and to show off a ridiculous gliding walk that Olivia and occasionally Maria both employ, which makes it look like their conical dresses are somehow being dragged along on wheels rather than feet. But as this mask of hyper-stylized femininity ranges from this pseudo-dignity into giddy and ridiculously desperate love, Rylance will occasionally erupt into shouts or (more frequently) laughter, which feel so spontaneous and natural in contrast to the artifice that they are genuinely shocking and very delightful. I came to realize that this stylization was as much a trait of Olivia herself as a performance technique. Olivia and Orsino became much more of a matched pair, a duo for whom everything– from loving to mourning to commanding– is a pose to presented rather than a role to be genuinely inhabited. It made me understand the subtitle of the play in a different way. I have always taken “What You Will” in a way that makes it roughly synonymous with “As You Like It.” But Olivia and Orsino in this production brought to mind “will” in the sense of “willpower,” and “What You Will” as a reflection of the fact that Illyria is a country ruled by two people who are convinced they can mold both themselves and the world to be whatever they desire.

Though Olivia and Orsino are the most obvious examples, overall this is not a Twelfth Night in which the characters are known to us. A profound opacity encases everyone. Barnett’s Viola delivers her brief soliloquies from such depths of confusion that they cannot be revelatory. Her mind is so unknown to herself, there is no way for her to reveal it to us. Though Stephen Fry’s Malvolio is much more confidently intelligent (a refreshing change from the usual depictions of the character), even he is too “sick of self-love” to know himself truly, much less make that self known to the audience. This same intelligence rescues the ending from becoming “The Tragedy of Malvolio,” as is so in vogue. This idea of opacity may sound like shallowness, and therefore like a criticism, but it actually isn’t. The characters blindly careening about without entirely understanding what they are doing or why becomes a core aspect of the comedy of the play, and from a textual perspective, is a fascinating contrast to the plays where characters do know themselves intimately, and which are almost exclusively tragedies.

For me, the production drove home one of my devout beliefs about Shakespeare– and obviously, as a dramaturg and person obsessed with Shakespeare scholarship, I’m biased. But I believe, and I think this production proves, that the more one understands about Shakespeare, about the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and performance practice, the better able one is to translate those things into the best possible version of Shakespeare today. Obviously, I’m not saying that I think every production needs to be in period dress with all-male casts. But understanding these things– for example, the stark class differences that period dress permits, or the altered expressions of sexuality in an all-male cast– is not dramaturgical masturbation or stuffy set dressing for people who lack creativity, but an essential aspect of the text itself.

I’m intrigued to see how all of this will translate to a historical tragedy like Richard III, particularly the very different role of the women. But if nothing else, the point is to see a very talented cast approach a play with complete dedication to understanding not only the written text, but all the unspoken assumptions about performance practice upon which the text rests– to try and reveal what audiences saw and fell in love with over 400 years ago, what first made these plays the cultural forces they are now. Inundated as we are at present with deeply mediocre and poorly understood Shakespeare productions, it seems like a laudable goal to me.

Oregon ArtsWatch

I wrote a series of reviews for Oregon ArtsWatch about shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Check them out!

Two Gentlemen of Verona.
"Perhaps the most stirring realization of the evening was the depth of talent evident in the cast. Even minor characters felt fully realized (Celeste Den’s ridiculous Thurio deserves mention), and not a line of verse was out of place. Both Gomez and Clark’s skill interpreting and delivering text places them with some of the best actors I’ve seen at the festival. It’s sobering to realize how little opportunity these women have to display their abilities within Shakespeare’s canon, and exciting that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was willing to become one of very few professional theatres interested in producing an all-female Shakespeare play. Far more than a gimmick or a superficial gesture towards equality, this production offers ample proof that all-female casts can transform and illuminate the familiar texts—and in this case, perhaps even improve them (at least to the modern eye)."

Richard III.
"Dan Donohue takes the [title] role, in his first appearance at OSF since he played Hamlet in 2010. His Richard is great. I will risk hyperbole and say that it approaches the perfect. He strikes all of the contrasts that make Richard so endlessly compelling and so unlike any version that had come before: the hilarious charm with which he courts the audience from his first moment and the blithe, remorseless recourse to murdering his own family; the fantastic confidence and profound self-loathing."

Into the Woods. 
"Like a good fairy tale, Into the Woods is deceptively simple. The morals of the story are easy to find, when the characters don’t state them outright. But much of their power is in this simplicity. As the show itself reminds us, fairy tales are used to teach lessons to children, so the point is not to bury the message too deeply. When it’s well done, Into the Woods, similarly, is less revelation than reminder of difficult truths. The actors and director here succeed beautifully not because they reinterpret, but because they inhabit what is written fully and truthfully."