WEST END BOY: Theatre Scenes goes to London, Part Two

Best friends: Iago and Othello

The Play’s the thing [by James Wenley]

During my recent excursion to London Theatre (last week I gave my Musical fanboy report), the city experienced an unprecedented heatwave. Ed Miliband in typical British fashion suggested that if temperatures got too high workers should be sent home for a cup of tea and lie down. As I had just returned from Greece at this point, I can’t say I understood what they were fussing over. Suddenly, London audience members all came to the theatre with fans in hand, and flapped attentively as they watched the drama. I had a rather good view of all of this, as I found myself sitting on the stage, behind the actors, gazing up at the rows of fanning audience members in Trafalgar Studios. This was a special “audience experience” ticket that only a select few of us could purchase. Apparently that meant we were part of the action, but I mostly just saw the actor’s backs. Still, I loved being able to peer out an entire audience’s reactions, just as they were likely scrutinising us stage victims.

One more thing, the play’s name? The Hothouse by Howard Pinter. Perfect.

Star Power

The Hothouse
Simon Russell “mad-eyes” Beale

I’d come to see The Hothouse because of Simon Russell Beale, a hot property on London’s stage (one of the best of his generation its often said), who was an outstanding Leontes in the Ethan Hawke starring Winter’s Tale at the Aotea a few years back.  To my surprise, Harry Melling, who played Dudley in the Harry Potter films, also made an appearance. He gets himself tortured, and you rather pity the character’s simplicity. He was not the only Potter alumni I would see during my time.

Pinter’s message with The Hothouse (written in 1958, not performed till 1980) is that if you permit small abuses, anything is permissible – a pertinent reminder for our times. In its depiction of the politics in a dubious mental asylum/treatment centre, there’s an allegory for the actions of the state: power plays, scape-goating and ruthless regime change.

To see Simon Russell Beale up close was worth it all; he with his mad bulging eyes, bursting comic energy, bent back, and erratic paranoia. His character, Roote, has a casual nastiness, but in Beale also becomes affecting when he is touched by the receipt of a christmas present from the staff.

Pinter shows a contrarian spirit in his writing. There is never accuracy, always a murky ambiguity. I even began to question what Melling’s Lamb looked like as the characters debate the question, even though I had seen him scene before.

The “on stage experience” ticket is a gimmick only and not really utilised, not even to connect the obvious association that we are the patients. We sit on small, uncomfortably wooden seats (maybe that’s the joke). The biggest effect is that it makes plain the conceit of “playing to the front” – exactly why are you looking out at some vague direction, rather than telling your story to your colleague? We do get to really see actor’s spit-firing – and I mean spit-firing – Pinter’s dialogue. A certain highlight is how fast Beale devours Pinter’s text, with great fountains of spray unleashed with bombast.

The Cripple of Inishmaan
You’re a cripple Harry.

The Hot House has Beale’s famous face prominently displayed, in character, on their poster. The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh doesn’t bother with that. They just used a black standard headshot of their famous headlining star. The actor? Daniel Radcliffe.

I previously saw Radcliffe onstage on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business without really Trying, and was impressed by his gusto. Despite his natural vocal ability, he committed completely, and you just knew he was having the time of his life as he danced away. Inishmaan serves the dual purpose of diversifying his credentials, and continuing to work on his craft. The poster shows they are very happy to have him.

There’s much more to the play than just Daniel; although he plays the titular cripple, it is much more of an ensemble piece. The community of Inishmaan are star struck by a Hollywood production looking for local Irish actors. McDonagh, who moved into film (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), remains one of my favourite playwrights (thanks to The Pillowman). Here he spends a lot of time giving us the flavour of the community – busybody Johnnypateenmike always turns up at the local store with “news”. McDonagh’s plays often have a dark cavern, and Inishmaan is a study of everyday human cruelty, with twists along the way and questions about the value of truth.

Daniel, playing cripple Billy, is settled, unshowy, and maintains his damaged physicality. Job done. His casting means the character, by no means a saint, is afforded more sympathy by the audience, who gloss over his lies.

Casting matters, but one of the best plays I saw in my run was lead by the lead character’s understudy, Johnny Gibbon. This was in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, adapted by the National Theatre from Mark Haddon’s popular book of the same name, which concerns 15-year-old Christopher, who has Aspergers Syndrome, trying to make sense of the world, and his world.

Curious incident of the dog in the night-time
Curious incident of the play in the night-time

The set is contained in a black box, which looks odd against the ornate beauty of the Apollo theatre. With moving lights and imagery, the high-tech box is suggestive of the protagonist’s interior mind as a sort of mathematical computer.

Against the state-of-art design technology which the actors interact with, the story is actually mostly told through satisfying and inventive ensemble physical theatre. It reminded me of the type of work we could create in New Zealand with a mega-budget.

The story is told through an unfixed narrative point of view, and acknowledges its work as both a book and now play. Readers will know of the epilogue where Christopher explains how he solves a puzzle. The live equivalent sees Christopher return after curtain call, as suggested by his teacher, to explain to those interested how he solved his maths problem. For those that stayed in their seats (and not everyone did), it was a special and joyous moment.

I could not have imagined a better Christopher than what Gibbon gave us. An incredible story, and a cerebral and moving theatrical adaptation.

Doing the Shakespeare Jig

We tend to be a bit starved of good Shakespeare in Auckland, so I was really excited to see productions of three of all my time favourite Shakespearean plays (thanks to High School English!):  Othello at the National Theatre, Macbeth at the Globe, and the RSC’s Hamlet at the home of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. All tragedies. What does that say about me? Clearly I’m a big fan of blood, witches, introspection, and handkerchiefs.

The Globe is breath-taking – smaller than I conceived – but it’s really apparent what makes it an ideal theatre model. We are incredibly close to the actors. The great thing about Globe shows is that you pay just 5 pounds for a standing ticket to become one of the groundlings. Experienced people line up early so they can jostle to be up the front and lean on the stage. For the rest of us, your legs do weary during the 3 hours. My friend couldn’t hack it, and left before interval (the Elizabethans must have been made of sterner stuff). You do forget about it during fight scenes, and it make senses why Shakespeare’s plays are so full of variation – great tragic figures mixing with the clowns – so there’s always something new for the audience.

You couldn’t have asked for a much better Macbeth and Lady Macbeth for this show (Joseph Milson and Samantha Spiro), which is the main thing you want really. They kept it traditional too. Banquo was played by Lord of the Ring’s Billy Boyd, who made an exciting ghost – Macbeth chases him across the top of the dinner table.

Macbeth’s famous lines – “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more…” – suddenly took on an incredibly powerful force when uttered in this theatre. The Globe makes the moment. This actor shall leave, and we will walk along the Thames and go on with our lives. Signifying nothing. For the first time, properly, I saw Shakespeare’s Player.

One more exciting thing; after the tragic climax and bloody combat, the cast finished with an ensemble jig. A jig! They actually did the jig! That’s an Elizabethan element very few “worthy” Shakespeare productions want to touch today. The comic porter returns dressed in a sort of Queen Elizabeth I drag, and the actor playing Macbeth gets rather silly. It is puzzling tonally, and does seem to be a bit of a “show-off” moment, but maybe it dances the tragic vibes away?

There was no jigging after the purge at the end of Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, but they certainly had fun during it.

Jonathan Slinger with a friend

The acting choices of the lead inevitably dominate the tone of the entire production. Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet seems to be genuinely cracking with a Joker-lite laugh, however when that wind is southerly, he’s awfully sharp. The assumption of madness seems to be an excuse for the character to get away with anything, and for the man of delayed-action, he turns surprising violent (and uneasily for us). He’s scary with his mother, and strips Ophelia to her underwear in retribution.

The stage action takes place in a royal fencing hall, and the imagery of fencing with its swords, helmets, and costume becomes a frequent motif. The ghost of the King wears a fencing Helmet, and this image continually haunts Hamlet as he imagines his father everywhere. Hamlet himself wears a fencing costume when mad, which is awfully close to a strait-jacket. It means that everything points towards and anticipates the brilliant set-piece of the final dual and deaths at the end. On the outskirts and underneath of the stage we mud and skulls, and an unpleasant stench of death hidden beneath.

Like the “poor player” of Macbeth, this contained another revelatory moment for me: the mousetrap. After some silly business of the prologue involving some phallic bread (don’t ask), the curtain rises on the stage. And there’s the mirror. The players are in the same dress style and period as Claudius and Gertrude, and act in a naturalistic style. Finally, you can catch how this scene can be so confronting for Claudius. He startles, asks for a light. Horatio, on cue, takes a photograph and Claudius feels the glare of the flash. Clever.

Hamlet was excellent. Othello, from the National Theatre, was INSANE. I rank it as the best Shakespeare tragedy I have yet seen (a production of Twelfth Night, performed in Russian in the Sydney Festival 2006 remains my favourite comedy). You know when you see a show where it is told with such stark clarity that you feel like you are experiencing the full meaning of the text for the first time? This was Othello for me.

Best friends: Iago and Othello

The production, starring Alistair Lester (Othello) and Rory Kinnear (Iago) uses modern dress, with everyone wearing army fatigues when the play gets to Cyprus, including Iago’s wife Emelia. Desdemona clearly doesn’t belong in this military world, a visual clue to the gulf between husband and wife. This holiday-warfare is suggestive of British quick strikes in Libya, foreign policy of Cameron in Syria, and France in Mali.

Othello’s blackness in this world is more of an after-thought – it’s part of the wedge used by Iago, but it’s not the whole wedge. Iago uses it to stir an old man prejudices, then discards it. A Venetian leader is embarrassed to even mention it. Othello is well-spoken, well-handled, a true leader, and an insider-outsider firmly part of the establishment. We like him. Iago is a working class hero, wanting to rise higher – there’s an element of self-victimhood and life-is-tough mentality. He’s the sort of bloke you’d happily have a yarn to at the pub (which is how he snares Roderigo). He disarms you, and Kinnear succeeds in winning us over (preparing us for the Act 5 reversal). Iago surprises even himself with his own genius, celebrating with private fist-pumps and dancing.

As soon as Othello’s jealousy hits, Lester gives us a superb acting switch. His powerless and uncertainly manifests in striking out at walls and turning over a table in his rage.

The modern elements are integrated superbly. It is really shocking how quickly the guns snuff out life when Iago shoots Roderigo and Emelia. Act 4’s Othello/Iago/Cassio business takes place in the men’s toilets of the military camp.

Then there’s the death of Desdemona, when the Tragedy – and this production – reaches another level. By the hands of Lester’s Othello, it is sexually charged and shocking. He takes great care with the pillow, and doesn’t immediately realise she is out. And then – it’s real. And tears. Lester makes so many choices in this scene – it’s especially terrifying because of the love apparent in the act.

The final moment of the play sees Iago break free of his captors to look on the bodies of Othello, Desdemeno, and Emilia one more time. He seems humbled, genuinely shocked. No schemes anymore. He does not understand the terrible result.

There was no jigging for Othello. But I did a bit of a jig myself as I walked over the Waterloo bridge charged by the positive power of something we’ll call catharsis.

NEXT TIME: In the third and final part I’ll tell you about an immersive theatre experience that was like a dream.

Back to PART ONE: Musical Theatre

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