Wild by Mike Bartlett, Hampstead Theatre, 17 June 2016

Wow, this was great.

Funnily enough, the day before our visit, I had run into Vince Leigh (most recently of Orange Tree/The Brink fame) at the health club. I congratulated him on The Brink and we discussed theatre generally. When I mentioned our impending visit to see Wild, he said he was going to see it that very day. He also told me that the production had experienced some technical problems with the set, so although the press night was supposed to be that very day (the Thursday), press night had actually been put back to Monday.

When Janie and I got to the Hampstead on the Friday, I asked the front of house staff whether the technical problems had been resolved for this evening. Two of them exchanged glances and one said, “we’ll find out”!

Well, the coup de théâtre that had (very understandably) had some teething problems came off with aplomb. But it would be a shame if this play and production is remembered only for that.

The play is basically about a character, based on Edward Snowden, disoriented in a “hotel room” in Russia. The dialogue is fast paced and whizzes around a myriad of big, important issues like a maelstrom.

In short, we loved it.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead’s area on this production, which provides plenty of detail, including (we subsequently learn) headlines and extracts from the excellent reviews this play/production deservedly received.

Coincidentally, I ran into Vince Leigh again the morning after the referendum result, this time on the street in Notting Hill Gate. He asked me how we found Wild. I told him and we agreed how good it was. Vince and I then also agreed what a strange day it was, everyone we had spoken to wandering around in a zombie-like state, trying not to cry about the result. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but our disorientation had something in common with that of the Snowden-like character. It felt like several of our walls had come down.

 

 

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, Royal Court Theatre, 12 March 2016

A conversation with Janie back in January.

Janie: I’ve just heard Front Row. They were talking about an amazing new play by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court.

Me: (inquisitively) Yessss…

Janie: …so why haven’t you got us tickets for it?

Me: (nervously) Cripes – I’ll look into it. Leave it to me.

But of course, I had already bought tickets for Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. I’d bought tickets for the play so long ago, Janie and I had both forgotten about it. So long ago, that we hadn’t then quite worked out when we were going to take our winter break. I had, for that reason, booked for right at the end of the run, 12 March, to ensure that our holiday window was as wide as possible.

By the time we returned from our winter trip to Nicaragua, we were aware that Escaped Alone had received rave reviews from almost all the critics, that several of our friends had already seen it and that no-one seemed very able to explain what the play is about.

Thus we went to Sloane Square with a great sense of expectation; perhaps that in part explains why both of us found the play rather disappointing. Yet I didn’t find the piece quite as obscure and mysterious as critics (and friends) inferred. So, for those readers who wonder what this play is about, (even those of you who have seen and/or read it) here is my take on the work.

Caryl Churchill gives us, at the front of the play text, the quote “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” from the Book of Job (Job’s servant with bad news) and also from the epitaph to Moby Dick (Ishmael’s words). But I don’t think this clue leads naturally to the idea that Mrs Jarrett’s (Linda Bassett’s) dystopian speeches are supposed to be her describing actual experiences prior to visiting the garden and/or that the garden scenes take place while other aspects of the world are turning hellish.

The start of the play reveals that Mrs Jarrett knows the other three women only slightly when she joins them in the garden. The other three clearly know each other well; that familiar trio are given and use only first names. It is only Mrs Jarrett, the surnamed partial outsider, who steps outside the comfort of the garden to make dystopian speeches in partial, flashing light of the outer stage.

In the garden scenes, as the play unfolds, each of the three familiar friends makes a relatively lengthy speech in which they reveal their inner demons. In Sally’s case, it is the fear of cats. In Lena’s case, it is workplace-induced depression/agoraphobia. In Vi’s case, it is obsessive thoughts about her killing of her husband and the effect it has had on her life since. Mrs Jarrett doesn’t make such a speech within the garden – we have heard plenty about her demons in her dystopian speeches from the outside. So Mrs Jarrett merely says the phrase “terrible rage” many times over, when it is her turn to open up to the others with a longer speech in the garden.

The point is, I think, that all four women are describing inner demons; Mrs Jarrett only articulates hers outside the garden. We all have inner demons, which we can only really “escape alone”, or sometimes reveal to friends as personal dystopiae, because those worries are unique to us.  There is an interesting counterpoint here with Hitchcock’s take on inner fears (which in his case manifest as plot devices and ways of making the audience anxious) – fresh in my mind after seeing Hitchcock/Truffaut the previous day. Perhaps Churchill’s subtle focus on the notion that everyone has inner fears explains why Escaped Alone seems to have resonated so well with the critics (and perhaps also audiences).

Janie and I have seen a fair smattering of Caryl Churchill in our time. They are often short works, with an absurd, obscure and/or dystopian feel to some or all of the piece. This piece didn’t seem, to us, to add much to that Churchill oeuvre. Among the critics, only Billington (whose review was also very good) at least alluded to dystopia overkill and the use of similar ideas in earlier Churchill works. Blue Heart, A Number and especially Far Away all came to my mind while watching the play, prior to reading that Billington review.

Yes, Escaped Alone had a super set. Yes, the production had a superb posse of senior actresses, but the play/production simply didn’t resonate well with either of us, unlike many of Churchill’s earlier works.

The audience was ecstatic at the end of the show, but then it was a last night audience and the critics had universally told readers that the play/production was top ranking. Thus the audience went into critic-induced raptures at the “Da Doo Ron Ron” rendition by the four ladies in the garden, sandwiched between two of Mrs Jarrett’s dystopian speeches, soon after Sally’s cat phobia speech, just before Lena’s depression/agoraphobia one. An excessive response, in my view, to something that was a nice touch but not a coup de théâtre.

Similarly, the universal acclaim for this play/production seems excessive to both of us, although perhaps this piece does far more for people who have been less steeped in Caryl Churchill.

Bakkhai by Euripides, Almeida Theatre, 22 August 2015

Janie’s not normally one for classics, but this was promised as a new version of Bakkhai, so we went for it.

In truth, Bakkhai cannot modernise in the way that, say, Medea (which, as part of this Almeida Greeks season, really was modernised) can.

Still, this was a superb production so we both really enjoyed it. Ben Whishaw is exceptional, but the whole cast was good, as was the design, choreography, the lot.

Excellent Almeida stub with all the details, including links to most of the major reviews, saving me the trouble – click here. Those reviews were almost universally very good.

Nuff said.

 

 

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, Almeida Theatre, 7 May 2011

A stellar cast for this Edward Albee revival.

Here is a link to the Almeida resource for this production.

Of course it was wonderfully well acted and the production was excellent, but I recall not being too enamoured of the play. It was quite long and wordy. I think you are supposed to feel trapped by the play, much as the characters are trapped in their circumstances.

On the whole the critics loved it – here is a search term that finds reviews and stuff.

I have also found an interesting vid that shows how the Almeida team transformed the place from The Knot Of The Heart into A Delicate Balance:

Cock by Mike Bartlett, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 14 November 2009

So we saw a young Ben Whishaw as far back as 2009 in this thing – who knew?

Mike Bartlett has also gone on to bigger and bolder pieces than this since.

I seem to recall that it was a fairly slight piece about someone who is confused about his sexuality; I think the modern term is “fluid”.

The Royal Court link is very slight for an archive of this age – click here.

As usual, high quality production and performances upstairs at the Royal; Court – we love that place.

Judgment Day by Ödön Von Horváth, in a new version by Christopher Hampton, Almeida Theatre, 10 October 2009

We love the Almeida Theatre, despite the extra shlep involved in getting there from West London. At the time of writing (29 May 2017) we have just been again.

One really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of on-line resource they put up for the productions, with lots of information about the play, the creatives involved in the production, plenty of pictures and links to many reviews (the favourable ones of course).

Here is the Almeida’s on-line resource for Judgment Day.

The other really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of stuff it puts on. This play/production was no exception.

Ödön Von Horváth (imagine answering the “how do you spell it?” question with that name) has long fascinated Christopher Hampton. This seemingly small canvas German play, about the moral consequences of covering up the true reason for a deadly train crash, is in reality a pre-war allegory with the wilful blindness that led to Nazi power.

It was an especially good evening in the theatre; Janie and I both remember it fondly well. I also recently (when we saw The Ferryman) remembered that we had seen the excellent Laura Donnelly before, but didn’t at the time connect it with this play/production.

Most of the reviews – eight to ten of them included in the Almeida resource link above and here – are very good, but:

We thought it was top notch.