Sunday, January 24, 2010

Theatre Review : Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett - Theatre Royal Haymarket (dir Sean Matthias 21/1/10)

All these years of theatregoing yet this was my first experience of Godot, indeed of any Beckett, and unlike Godot himself it was worth the wait.

Vivian Mercier's description "a play in which nothing happens, twice" cannot be bettered. Two cantankerous old gentlemen of the road (Ian McKellen as Estragon and Roger Rees as Vladimir) waiting and bickering and contemplating the point of their existence. Their equilibium, such as it is, is disturbed by the arrival of Pozzo (Matthew Kelly) dragging Lucky (Ronald Pickup) on the end of a rope. Then they leave. The next day, Lucky is dragging a blind Pozzo. Godot never arrives.

Reality is fractured, shifting. Vladimir and Estragon don't know what Godot looks like, or why they are waiting for him. Pozzo can't remember meeting them the day before. Estragon can't remember their meeting either, although he bears the marks where Lucky had kicked him. Vladimir thinks that the tree has sprouted leaves overnight, but Estragon cannot remember.

It may be nihilistic, but it's never bleak. "That passed the time" says Vladimir. "It would have passed in any case" retorts Estragon, wanly. The absurdity is well-judged - amusing yet alienating, never overplayed.

The cast is excellent. Roger Rees and Ian McKellen handle the dialogue well with sure timing in this preview production, Rees' Vladimir has energy and traces of optimism but lacked force of delivery. He is upstaged by McKellen who manages to elicit an indefinable sadness from Estragon whose memory is starting to cloud. Ronald Pickup delivers Lucky's speech with speed and aplomb, but Matthew Kelly is once again a scene-stealer, perfect as the big, bombastic, demented Pozzo in Act One. Beckett doesn't leave much scope for stage design, but this was done well, an industrial wasteland, stark and threatening.

Two downsides to mention. £5 for a program which contained a two-page article by Simon Callow, a chronology and a cast-list which is simply not good enough, and a choreographed encore with a dance routine which was cringeworthy. What would have happened if we hadn't applauded? Fortunately for all, not much chance of that in this excellent production.

Theatre Review : The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (dir Nicholas Hyter 11/1/10)

If genius may be defined as someone who somehow manages to both have his cake and eat it, then Alan Bennett certainly comes close in his latest collaboration with Nicholas Hytner at the National.

It's all in the structure. A theatre troup rehearses a play about a fictional meeting between W S Auden and Benjamin Brittain in Auden's rooms in Oxford shortly before their deaths. A simple play about two of Britain's leading artists of the 20th Century had many possibilities: the difference between composing music and poetry; the changing attitude to homosexuality in the 20th Century; the contrast between the buttoned-up Brittain and the uninhibited Auden to name but a few.

But Bennett probably realised that this would provide arid fare. So by not just framing but immersing the inner play ("Caliban's Day") within the rehearsal studio he liberates his material, giving scope for the actors to bicker with the playwright, the Assistant Director and each other and thus provide a wry but very funny commentary on the nature of the theatrical process. In doing so he overcomes some of the portentiousness which is still residual within Caliban's Day, and gives himself scope for a multitude of scatalogical observations which one couldn't realistically envisage when Benjamin Brittain was on stage.

Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings have no need to break sweat playing Fitz/Auden and Henry/Brittain respectively. Griffiths plays up to the fact that the avuncular Fitz is dissimilar to Auden both in face and form, although Jennings' camped up Henry looks very similar to Brittain. Adrian Scarborough plays their mutual biographer Humphrey Carpenter, sent by BBC Oxford to interview Auden and mistaken by Auden for a rent boy, and Frances de la Tour is excellent as the Assistant Director, ensuring that egos remain massaged, self-esteem boosted and the malign presence of the playwright (Elliot Levey - not a bit like Alan Bennett!) restrained from insisting on the inclusion of some of the worst verse ever to have graced the boards of the Lyttleton.

The structure softens the fact that both the protagonists in Caliban's Day were both pretty unattractive characters. When Brittain cut a friend for slights real or imagined it was for life. Auden's personal hygene (dwelt upon in lurid detail) left everything to be desired. Whilst they had collaborated - notably on Night Mail - in the 1930's, the possibilty of Brittain travelling to meet Auden towards the end of their lives could not realistically be entered into. But in this transparently artificial setting, the rendezvous can take place - although as the focus moves from the production of the play to the inner play itself, the pace drops, the laughs dry up and conversations about the nature of Art, and the relationship between the artists, come to the fore.

It makes a well-balanced whole: funny - both filthy and ludicrous in places - but also addressing some big ideas. It is Bennett's peculiar genius to make the Big Questions about the nature of art, history, sexuality so entertaining and accessible.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Theatre Review : Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams - Novello Theatre (dir Debbie Allen 4/1/10)

There's something going on here I don't understand. Why was the theatre half-full for this production? OK, so it was just after New Year and it was cold - but it was before January's snows descended, and further reductions in prices have just been announced. This looked as if it had all the boxes ticked for a sell-out - a transfer of a top Broadway production, a well-loved film star in James Earl Jones, a TV star from a popular series in Adrian Lester, consistently good reviews, good marketing with James Earl Jones doing the TV sofas and the Underground covered in posters.

So why is this not packing them? Is it that Tennessee Williams' reputation is for intense, shouty plays with a lot of angst and not many jokes? If so, that is very unfair, as Cat On a Hot Tin Roof may be intense, but it is also consistently funny as well. Is there some British distaste at the transposition from a Southern white family in the 50s to a black family in the 80s? Once again, that would be very unreasonable, as the transposition is virtually seemless to anyone who is not familiar with the original text. It's certainly not as dramatic as the Moliere being updated to contemporary London, as is happening across the city with The Misanthrope.

It certainly can't be anything to do with the cast or the production - they are all consistently good, while James Earl Jones excels as the odious Big Daddy. He has the presence, the charisma of the patriach, swearing testily at the family sycophants celebrating his birthday. Yet he tries to connect to his ex-sports star son Brick, intent on drinking himself to oblivion. Adrian Lester hits the emotional high notes well, but didn't convince as a seasoned drinker - he always seemed too clean cut and in control. That being said, his relationship with the sinuous, sexy Cat, Sanaa Lathan, was finely drawn.

This didn't draw you into the vortex in the same way that Streetcar at the Donmar did earlier this year - this is as much the theatrical dynamics of the Donmar's claustophobia as it is about Rachel Weisz's multilayered Blanche Dubois - but it certainly packed a hefty punch.

So why the poor turnout? Two reasons, possibly. A first is that there seems to be a lot of quality drama in the West End at the moment, and the regular theatregoers who go to such productions have difficulties stretching to many evenings out at West End prices. The second reason may be more complex. We are now so familiar with black faces on the British stage that it has long since ceased to be a matter worth commenting upon - I've see Adrian Lester himself play both Henry V and Hamlet, excellent in both roles, and the fact that he was black was never an issue. Could there be some sort of a subconcious reaction on this side of the Atlantic to the fact that this is an all-black production, not through any prejudice on the part of your typically white middle-class London theatre audience, but because this is felt to be a bit unnecessary, a bit old-fashioned, and that we have moved beyond the place where we need all-black productions? I don't know. I do know that the transposition is worthwhile because it works and that those who have chosen to give it a miss will be missing out on an excellent evening.