Apologia

Apologia was heavily advertised on the back of Stockard Channing, its most famous cast member, known for playing Rizzo in Grease. Personally I’m no fan of Grease and freely admit it was the presence of Joseph Millson (playing Channing’s two sons) that drew me in. Another factor in its favour was that it was written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, whose plays I have enjoyed in the past.

Channing plays Kristin, an art historian with a commitment to politics and a complicated relationship with her two sons Peter and Simon who, we learn, were brought up by their father for a large part of their childhood. Kristin has recently published a book, Apologia, from which the title of the play is taken. An apologia, we learn, is not an apology but a defence of one’s opinions or conduct. It turns out that Kristin did not mention her sons at all in this, her supposed autobiography, an omission which neither is particularly happy about. Over the course of the play, both sons visit her and old resentments come to the surface.

Apologia explores what I think is a hugely relevant theme for today: the relationship between an individual’s political beliefs and their personal choices, or how the political and the personal feed into each other. It’s feminist in tone, showing how Kristin as a female academic was a trailblazer, helping to change the world for a generation of women. Kristin’s situation explores the age-old conflict between career and children. She is not perfect, and her sons’ resentment is to an extent understandable, but she is also hugely sympathetic and admirable.

Channing gives a very good performance, while Joseph Millson is superb as both Peter and Simon, the one a successful banker, the other a would-be writer suffering a mental breakdown. I also really liked Laura Carmichael as Peter’s girlfriend whose Christian sweetness and naivety is comic yet also admirable.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this play, but it made a strong impression on me and I definitely recommend it.

Advertisements

Guards at the Taj

When I visited the newly-reopened Bush Theatre for a tour recently, I made a note of the first full-run play that would be on there, as I thought it sounded interesting. That play was Guards at the Taj, written by Rajiv Joseph and directed here by Jamie Lloyd. It’s about the construction of the Taj Mahal, but it’s also about friendship and moral responsibility.

Set in Agra, India, in 1648, the play starts off as something of a comedy, with two very different guards, Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) passing the time in (forbidden) conversation. Humayun is responsible and follows the rules, Babur is more carefree. Both know one thing – they mustn’t turn and look at the beautiful building being raised up behind them. They also repeat the legend that the emperor has ordered that the 20,000 men who built the Taj should have their hands cut off lest they ever create something as beautiful again. In this play, the myth becomes reality.

The pair’s conscientiousness backfires when their good behaviour earns them the ‘privilege’ of carrying out a particularly brutal deed. This proves to be too much for one of the men in particular, and sets forth a train of events that test loyalty and friendship and commitment to the prevailing orthodoxy. It’s a violent, bloody play, short but heartbreakingly sad. Definitely worth seeing.

Doctor Faustus

Actor Kit Harington is best known for his role as Jon ‘You know nothing’ Snow in Game of Thrones – but in his role as the title character in Doctor Faustus it’s Faustus’ quest for mastery of all human knowledge that gets him into trouble. This irreverent production of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play is directed by Jamie Lloyd, but has been taken out of the usual Trafalgar Studios setting and is being performed in the much more traditional space of the Duke of York’s Theatre. This production, however, is anything but traditional.

Doctor Faustus is the well-known tale in which a scholar, in search of knowledge and power, summons the demon Mephistopheles and makes a bargain with the Devil: Faustus will enjoy unlimited knowledge and power for twenty-four years, after which his soul will belong to Lucifer. The play has one obvious problem, in that it’s pretty clear from the beginning how it’s going to end, and directors and adaptors have resorted to different devices throughout the years to keep the audience interested. What Lloyd does is to use a modern adaptation, with a contemporary middle section written by Colin Teevan. This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds, as it has been suggested that Marlowe did not himself write the middle section of his play.

The production as a whole is in modern dress, so the middle section fits in pretty well, even if I found it hard to believe that someone with the power that Faustus has would choose to spend his life performing conjuring tricks on stage. Perhaps Lloyd was trying to make the point that in the twenty-first century, fame is as much of a draw for an individual as scholarly knowledge was in Marlowe’s time. Kit Harington is obviously the main draw for many audience members, and I thought he acquitted himself rather well with Marlowe’s language, convincing as the student searching for knowledge and the older, more experienced man who knows hell is coming for him. Jenna Russell makes a great Mephistopheles, and the supporting cast are strong.

I can’t say that I loved this production, but it did make me think, and in some ways this is more important. The ending sequence I found particularly memorable for suggesting that the whole thing was happening inside Faustus’ head, which made the rest of the production make sense in a way that it hadn’t previously. In a way, I’d rather see a flawed production like this that leaves me with lots to think about, than a smoother production that asks fewer questions.

The Maids

Apparently David Bowie was a fan of Jean Genet. I found this out from my dad, who bought a copy of The Maids back in the seventies after Bowie mentioned it in an interview. The famous song ‘Jean Genie’ may well have been named after the French writer, so I thought it seemed rather apt that it was playing in the bar before the show. I had high expectations, then, but my eventual verdict was mixed.

On a set resembling a giant petal-strewn bed (designed by Soutra Gilmour), maids Claire and Solange act out fantasies. Solange dresses as Claire, Claire dresses as their employer, wearing a wig, strong makeup and a dress. The pair act out their fantasy of killing their mistress, which they have decided must take place for real very soon (the play was based on the real-life case of the Papin sisters, who murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933). Jamie Lloyd’s production adds another dimension to Genet’s 1947 play by casting black actors as the servants, adding a racial dynamic to the piece. Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton are both superb, giving compelling performances, as does Laura Carmichael as the Mistress when she enters about halfway through.

Frankly, at some points I got bored: there were so many long speeches. I thought for a large proportion of it that I might enjoy the text if I was reading it; as delivered on stage, however, I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if this is because of the play itself, or the new version by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.

In summary, I was a bit disappointed with The Maids. There were some fantastic performances and some interesting ideas but for me they didn’t add up to something that was actually engaging on the stage. Admittedly,the running time of almost two hours without an interval probably didn’t help, as the seats at the Trafalgar Studios aren’t particularly comfortable at the best of times, and when you can’t move for a couple of hours they become positively painful. Still, I don’t regret giving the play a try.

The Homecoming

Previously unfamiliar with The Homecoming, although I have seen one or two Pinter plays before, I took my seat at the Trafalgar Studios with some trepidation. This Jamie Lloyd production, marking fifty years after the play’s premiere in London, was a bizarre experience for me.

The play is set in a north London household, where a long-lost son, Teddy (Gary Kemp), returns with his wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan), disrupting the patterns of family life. The Spartan set by Soutra Gilmour suggests a sense of menace, and indeed I had this sense all through the production: it was not short on atmosphere. However, reading other reviews and theories about the play afterwards, I feel that I missed quite a lot of what the play was about. Whether this was my fault, or a flaw in the production itself, I’m not quite sure.

There were some excellent performances: I was particularly impressed by Gemma Chan, but John Simm as Lenny, Ron Cook as Max and Keith Allen as Sam were all good. I got the sense that there was an undercurrent of violence beneath the surface, but I was puzzled by much of the play, and the ending made little to no sense at all.

This isn’t a bad production by any means, but I feel that I would have to see the play again – either this production or a different one – to truly understand it.

Richard III

Ever since it was announced that Martin Freeman was to take on the title role in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, I was eager to see how he would handle the role. The infamous king is a world away from Dr Watson and Bilbo Baggins, and I was curious to see whether Freeman would convince.

In short, yes, he does. He is a quieter, more outwardly affable king than other Richards I have seen; his performance is the more striking because it is so subtle. He represents a very modern kind of evil, the kind that comes with a smiling face and a pleasant demeanour.

A strong supporting cast, including Jo Stone-Fewings, Gina McKee and Maggie Steed, help to make the production a success. Less successful perhaps is the staging. The office setting is cluttered with desks, leaving little room for the actors to move about, although I did like the slightly offstage desk area to one side. The idea that the events in the play take place after a coup following Britain’s “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 is a clever one, but perhaps could have been made more explicit for those of us who don’t like spending money on programmes.

This isn’t the best version of Richard III I have ever seen, but it is knowing, starkly modern, and packs a punch.

Urinetown

I admit I was put off going to see Urinetown , the US musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, because of the name. However, one of my friends wanted to go so off we went to the St James Theatre.

I am so glad I ended up going, as this musical, directed by Jamie Lloyd (of ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ fame), is just brilliant. The basic plot involves a town in which water is so scarce you have to pay to use the toilet, and if you fail to comply you are sent to ‘Urinetown’. Bobby Strong, an assistant at a public loo, leads a rebellion against the corporate magnate Caldwell B Cladwell, while at the same time becoming involved with his daughter Hope.

The acting and singing is top-notch: Jenna Russell is brilliant as toilet manager Penelope Pennywise, whose song ‘Privilege to Pee’ is one of the best of the night, and Jonathan Slinger is superbly menacing as Officer Lockstock, one of the officials trying to keep order in the town. Richard Fleeshman is a perfect leading man, extremely attractive and charming with a fine singing voice, and Rosanna Hyland hits exactly the right note of sweetness as his love interest. The songs are hugely catchy, though being in the front row was an unsettling experience as the cast were on occasion only a few centimetres away from us.

On the surface the show’s plot seems conventional, however there are plenty of twists and turns, and a completely unexpected ending – much darker than you get in most musicals. It’s clever, ironic and knowing: musical theatre for the thinking person.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is huge and impressive, menacing and perfect for the show with an impressive revolve. I wonder if it was designed with a transfer in mind, as it seems almost too big for the auditorium. I certainly hope it does transfer – it’s an amazing show that deserves to be seen more widely.