The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court Theatre, 29 April 2017

This visit to the Royal Court Theatre was the third of my “three courts in one day” – click here to read about the other two.

There’s been a lot of press chat about The Ferryman, now that Jez Butterworth is seen as such a hot property playwright and with Sam Mendes returning to the theatre to direct again, now that he is a hotshot movie director. Apparently this Royal Court run sold out before the previews even started, while the West End transfer is already taking bookings.

We saw one of the last of the previews.

Here is a link to the Royal Court on-line resource on this play/production.

I don’t recall Jez Butterworth’s plays being long previously, so we were a bit daunted when we learnt that this play runs to more than three hours. Especially daunted in my case, with all that court time in my mind, legs and backside, I feared for my ability to concentrate throughout the piece and wondered if I’d be able to move at the end of the show.

As it happens, the play/production is sufficiently pacy, stylish and interesting to hold the attention almost throughout. My body didn’t let me down either…just about. Janie and I both felt that the final act was perhaps a little too long, but twixt previews and press night there might be some tweaks to put that aspect right.

The cast was superb. The design and directing top notch. Sam Mendes knows what he is doing. The Royal Court almost certainly has a big hit on its hands.

Janie remarked that this was a quintessentially Irish play (or words to that effect), which she tends to prefer in theory more than in practice. She loved The Weir, for example, but often finds Irish plays a bit samey and she usually struggles to understand the accents at times.

This play reminded me of Brian Friel’s hit Dancing at Lughnasa, except that The Ferryman is set in rural Northern Ireland (County Armagh) in the early 1980’s rather than Friel’s play from County Donegal in the 1930’s.

Indeed, the thing that distinguishes The Ferryman from most traditional Irish rural plays is that The Troubles are right at the heart of the story, rather than on the periphery. The older generation talk of friends and family caught up in the 1916 Easter Rising and listen to Maggie Thatcher on the radio talking about the 1981 hunger strikes, while the younger ones talk of attending Bobby Sands funeral.

If this all sounds a bit “tell rather than show”, then I am doing the play/production an injustice. It is very show. There’s singing, dancing, several species of livestock and spirits, both of the supernatural kind and indeed a great deal of Bushmills drinking. Yes, everything you’d expect from a good rural Irish play.

Why The Ferryman? Well, towards the end of the play one of the oldsters, Uncle Pat, quotes Virgil (The Aeneid Book Six, since you asked), in which Aeneas learns that Charon The Ferryman is not permitted to carry the unburied, lost souls across the River Styx until they have roamed the shores for a thousand years.

What relevance does that tale from The Aeneid have to the play? Well I’d probably spoil the play by trying to link those tales and might not hit the spot with my attempt. Suffice it to say that the West End transfer has used the strap line:

“You can’t bury the past”.

A very Ogblog strap line, for a play/production that is very much worth seeing.

The image is another link to that Royal Court resource

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.

 

 

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, Cottesloe Theatre, 15 January 2011

Janie really isn’t into Shakespeare, but Twelfth Night is a play close to my heart, having “done it” at Alleyn’s for the Dramatic Society in 1978.

Twelfth Night, Alleyn’s School, 12, 14, 15 & 16 December 1978

Ever since, I had been keen to see productions of Twelfth Night when they came around. Further, this production with Rebecca Hall as Viola and possibly a last chance to see a by then 80 year old Peter Hall directing…Janie said yes.

In truth, I don’t think this was the best Twelfth Night I have ever seen. It was of course very well acted, directed and produced, but it was a little old-fashioned in style for my taste; it felt like the sort of Shakespeare production I might have seen at the National 20-25 years earlier. I guess I should have expected.

It certainly didn’t do anything to improve Janie’s view on Shakespeare. I explained how much better it was done in the hands of Alleyn’s schoolkids in 1978 and Janie said she could understand exactly what I must mean.

She wasn’t humouring me, was she?

“After all,” said Janie, you are practically a reincarnation of The Bard, are you not?”

 

Anyway, here is a link to a search term that finds reviews and other resources on this production. The reviews are a little mixed; mostly suggesting that it was a good, but not great production, which I think sums it up pretty well.

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.

Parlour Song by Jez Butterworth, Almeida Theatre, 11 April 2009

Coincidentally, at the time of writing this (early May 2017) we have just seen a new Jez Butterworth, The Ferryman, which was excellent.

While I remember Parlour Song pretty well, it hadn’t dawned on me that it was also a Jez Butterworth play.

There’s a good trailer and stuff on the Digital Theatre Plus site – click here.

It was a very good, very funny play. All three members of the cast: Amanda Drew, Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln were terrific.

I don’t think it sent us into quite the level of ecstasy that the critics describe, but we did enjoy this one a lot, without finding much depth; it is basically a slightly quirky, sinister comedy about suburban infidelity.

But it did for sure signal Jez Butterworth on that upward trajectory to playwriting stardom.

Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen, Almeida Theatre, 24 May 2008

Janie and I really like a bit of Ibsen. In some ways that is odd, in Janie’s case, as she tends to prefer modern plays and eschew classics. But she makes an exception for some classics; not least Ibsen, Strindberg and to some extent Chekhov.

Anyway, Rosmersholm is rarely performed and here was a production at one of our favourite theatres with a stellar cast and production team.

It’s hard to explain why this play is so rarely performed. In some ways Rosmersholm is über-Ibsen; it seems to throw in a lot of Ibsen’s favourite political, social and moral themes all at once. But then most of his great plays do that. Perhaps it is über-gloomy.

So although this was a superb night at the theatre, with wonderful performances and a truly top-notch production, we didn’t end up thinking that “everyone should see a great production of Rosmersholm” in the same way that we might say that about Hedda Gabler, Ghosts or A Dolls House, for example.

Still, a great theatrical event and right up our street.

There is an excellent stub resource on this play/production on the Almeida site – click here.

 

3 Sisters On Hope Street by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman after Anton Chekov, Hampstead Theatre, 22 February 2008

This one didn’t really work for us, despite the good reviews it mostly received.

It was one of those plays/productions that we thought we ought to have really liked, but didn’t much. We like Chekhov. We like Tracy-Ann Oberman (formerly of NewsRevue in our world, Eastenders in most other people’s). It was a superb-looking cast. Lindsay Posner is a terrific director.

The idea of transferring the Three Sisters to the large home of a relatively wealthy Jewish family in austere post-war Liverpool seemed to be up our street. But Hope Street is not our street; not three hours of it anyhow:

Hampstead Theatre stubs don’t go back this far…yet…but Liverpool Everyman one’s do – so there – click here for cast and crew details.

We no doubt ate at Harry Morgan’s before seeing this production, which would at least have got our bellies into the right mode for the three hour “Chekhov meets Wesker Fest” that followed.

Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, Almeida Theatre, 10 November 2007

This is a weird play. But then, it is Caryl Churchill. Indeed, by Caryl Churchill standards, it is not that weird a play.

But Janie and I had never seen the play and this, as it turned out, was a good production of this play. Thea Sharrock directed it; we’d been really impressed with her at The Gate and this production no doubt added to her rising stardom.

There’s a good Almeida stub for this production – here, although the reviews are just quotes.

Reviews to be found that can be read in full are as follows:

Enough evidence – this was good. We enjoyed ourselves and felt thoroughly sated with good theatre that weekend, having seen a super short play, Truck Stop, at the Hampstead the night before.