Regular readers will have heard me not exactly complaining but gently whimpering about the amount of openings that are scheduled at this time of year, with multiple clashes happening all over the place that require us (or at least me) to chase my tail constantly as I try to catch up with (some of) them. But I don’t like to complain: it’s a nice problem to have.
Especially when you work is frequently as good as some of the stuff I’ve been seeing lately. Coming to some of it later than others amongst my colleagues means I have had their endorsements (or not) ringing in my ears: it was certainly interesting, for example, to see Benedict Andrews’s conceptually bold Three Sisters at the Young Vic after reviews that ranged from a five-star declaration that it is “one of the most thrilling and refreshing productions of a Chekhov play I have ever seen” (Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage) to a one-star review that appeared below a subheading that called it “a shouty sacrilege” (Tim Auld in the Sunday Telegraph).
It’s certainly a production that divides people: a friend who was at the same performance as me left at the interval, wrote to say,
I thought it was unspeakable. I couldn’t bear to watch any more of my favourite play (and IMHO the greatest play of the 20th century) being trashed and traduced in such a ghastly display of director’s exhibitionism. And none of it was mitigated by good performances. I thought they were ALL, in varying degrees, terrible.
I, however, found it tremendous; one of the shows of the year, in fact, that brought haunting, piercing insights to a play whose air of overpowering, unfulfilled yearning can become a cliche, but, as I wrote in my Sunday Express review, “thrills and slowly chills as the enveloping sense of desperation takes hold.”
I also caught The Judas Kiss at Hampstead, and found myself similarly both absorbed and overcome by David Hare’s equally eloquent portrait of a fatally destructive, unreciprocated love that brought Oscar Wilde down. It’s a play that I saw the original 1998 production of, but it suffered then from the fatal miscasting of Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander; now Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox, however, heartbreakingly harness its shifting loyalties.
Both Three Sisters and The Judas Kiss are coincidentally directed by Australians: the young(ish) hotshot Benedict Andrews (he’s actually 40), and the more veteran Neil Armfield, co-founder of Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and its first artistic director. It’s also intriguing to think that both Chekhov and Wilde lived across the same period – the second half of the 19th century. But as I also said in my Sunday Express notice,
They were poles apart not just in their origins (Ireland and Russia, respectively) but in their art. Wilde’s original work was full of heightened wit; Chekhov brought an utterly naturalistic grit to the yearning of unlived lives.
And reading a Guardian interview with Rupert Everett on Saturday, I now absolve him totally for his apparently silly comments, ripped out of context but widely publicised, in the last few weeks from other interviews rejecting both gay marriage and gay parenting.
Of gay marriage, he now clarifies:
Why do queens want to go and get married in churches? Obviously this crusty old pathetic, Anglican church – the most joke-ish church of all jokey churches – of course they don’t want to have queens getting married. It’s kind of understandable that they don’t; they’re crusty old calcified freaks. But why do we want to get married in churches? I don’t understand that, myself, personally. I loathe heterosexual weddings; I would never go to a wedding in my life. I loathe the flowers, I loathe the fucking wedding dress, the little bridal tiara. It’s grotesque. It’s just hideous. The wedding cake, the party, the champagne, the inevitable divorce two years later. It’s just a waste of time in the heterosexual world, and in the homosexual world I find it personally beyond tragic that we want to ape this institution that is so clearly a disaster.
And of gay parenting, he hilariously says:
For me, personally, the last thing I would like in the entire world would be to go through cocktailing my sperm with my boyfriend and finding some grim couple in Ohio who are gluten-free and who you pay $75,000 to have your baby. To me it feels absolutely hideous. But that’s me, just me. I’m not having a go at gay couples who do. I think if Elton and David want to have babies, that’s wonderful. I think we should all do what we want. Isn’t there a middle way, where you can just say, ‘Not for me, but it doesn’t matter’? But no, everything’s sort of turned into al-Qaida. I’m sure I’m going to be nail-bombed. David Furnish is probably going to send Patrick Cox with a bomb and blow up the theatre.”
I’ve also spent the last two Saturday afternoons catching up with two unmissable Royal Court shows: in the Theatre Upstairs, Dominic Cooke’s wonderful staging of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and in the main house, James Macdonald’s genius production of Caryl Churchill’s latest impressionistic collage of a play, Love and Information. These are also both works that will divide audiences as well as critics.
Lyn Gardner gave Choir Boy a five-star rave in The Guardian, dubbing it an “exhilarating, multi-layered new play”, while Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph went both ways: “This is in some ways the best and in many ways the worst play I’ve seen at the Royal Court Upstairs for a long while.” I was in the exhilarating corner with Lyn myself; maybe Dominic Cooke’s production papered over some of the cracks in the writing that Dominic Cavendish identified, but I was swept away by its full-blooded portrait of the social and sexual dynamics of young black American high school students, their incredible gospel singing, and one of the best sets (by Ultz) that I’ve ever seen at the Theatre Upstairs.
The fringe doesn’t just have to be a training ground, but a wonderful place where older actors can return to distill the craft of a lifetime
And if design played a key role upstairs, it played an even bigger role downstairs in Love and Information, which compresses over 50 scenes into less than two continuous hours, and re-sets the stage between each of them, sometimes for only the briefest of transactions. I’m in awe of the totally invisible stage management, who seamlessly and silently create these instant dissolves, so incredibly; and massive plaudits are due, too, to the amazing director/designer team of James Macdonald and Miriam Buether who between them have conjured specific contexts and settings for scenes whose script doesn’t specify them.
But if all of these shows have been well worth catching, the last fortnight also brought me twice to the Finborough for two shows that continue to find this fantastic fringe theatre at the very top of its considerable game for unearthing rare gems. I only caught Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes on its very last night last Saturday, but it was better late than never: this phenomenal play, first produced in 1912, is a fiercely engaging and enraging portrait of sexual hypocrisy and family pressure when a young man, already engaged to be married, has a brief affair with a local mill worker, and both families pressurise him to break off his engagement and marry the young girl. In a wonderful reversal, however, it is the independent young girl who doesn’t want to get married to him. It was particularly exciting to see, in such a tiny fringe space, such veteran actors as Susan Penhaligon, Richard Durden, Anna Carteret, Peter Ellis and Sidney Livingstone giving such beautifully judged performances. The fringe doesn’t just have to be a training ground, but a wonderful place where older actors can return to distill the craft of a lifetime.
It was also at the Finborough that I saw the concurrent run of Martin Sherman’s Passing By, a 1971 play that I’ve previously written a blog about. And another subject I keep returning to in this blog (and in my life) is the music and musicals of Howard Goodall, most recently in a blog that celebrated him and American writer Adam Guettel as the best of their generations of the last 30 years.
Last Friday I returned to the Bernie Grant Arts Centre for the second time in a fortnight to see the students of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts presenting a Goodall musical — this time it was for Girlfriends, his rarely seen musical about World War II WAAFS that was first produced in Oldham in 1986, and then in an ill-fated West End run a year later. I saw both at the time, and it was one of those shows that was re-worked, not for the best, to make it more ‘commercial’, on its journey to London. But seeing a bunch of fantastic young students giving their all to the show and Goodall’s absolutely gorgeous wash of haunting melody was to hear it afresh.
While it is invidious to pick out individuals amongst such a fine ensemble company (and Mountview make it doubly complicated as it fields two separate companies; last week’s cast is different to the one performing the show this week!), I was particularly struck to see one of the “Dorothy” finalists, Bronte Barbe, for TV’s Over the Rainbow contest, amongst their number. How wonderful that, having got to the final ten (but getting eliminated the second week), she’s now sought professional training. She will go far.