Sunday, 12 November 2017

Uncle Vanya – Home Theatre, Manchester

I’ve recently written a post about Chekhov and Uncle Vanya after I saw it performed “in the round” at Theatr Clwyd, so I’m not going to go into the history of the play again. Instead, this is just a quick review of the show.

I’ve not seen a “modern” interpretation of Chekhov before. I would argue that this was actually a timeless interpretation of Chekhov. It is hard to place this version in a specific decade because the themes that Chekhov wrote about 120 years ago are still relevant today, and will still be relevant in another 120 years. The costumes are also generic; simple casual clothing for the country workers, and an elegant red jumpsuit for the beautiful younger wife of the Professor, whose arrival torments all the men’s hearts. As  the generations before us have passed the buck, our latently idle species (however hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise) will continue to pass that buck to future generations to sort out. Chekhov was rather prophetic in his play writing, questioning the ways things were done and trying to focus on the possibilities of the future; the decline of the aristocracy, the anger and frustration of the destruction of the natural world, and the general mismanagement of the lands surrounding him.

In Andrew Upton’s version of Uncle Vanya, the action takes place within the oppressive crumbling walls of Serebrayakov’s estate. Damp, stained wallpaper peels from the walls, dead leaves litter the ground, and in the background a self-playing piano can be heard lamenting the destruction of both land and people as they are consumed by boredom and look to the bottom of a vodka bottle to solve their woes. Uncle Vanya is a play that we can all relate to, a play of wasted opportunities, unrequited love and economic injustices.     

At the heart of the tale is love. Sonya is secretly in love with the local doctor, Astrov. Vanya is obsessed with Yelena, the younger wife of the Professor, (who was previously married to Vanya’s dead sister). Astrov is also obsessed with Yelena, and blind to the feelings of Sonya; and whilst Yelena is aware of Sonya’s feelings, she too is attracted to Astrov but cannot betray her husband. It is a tangled web they weave, fuelled by love, boredom and vodka.

Katie West excels as the sweet, kind natured Sonya. Of all of the characters, she is the one you want to find happiness, the one who could have a bright future ahead of her, but as she delivers the final heart-rending lines of the play, you know her destiny is to continue being taken for granted until the day she dies. Nick Holder (Peaky Blinders, The Game) is equally as impressive as Uncle Vanya with an extraordinary depth of range for the character. At first he seems rather comical, a fool not to be taken seriously, but as his journey progresses you see the whimsy is a façade. His unwanted advances on the beautiful Yelena feel a little creepy, but later on there is a great feeling of sorrow towards him as he explodes with anger, releasing the hurt which has been tearing at his soul as he realises that he has wasted much of his life on people who don’t care about him. Jason Merrells (Waterloo Road) is charming as the visionary Astrov, although for all of his dreams about an ideal future, he can’t see what is staring him in the face! The supporting cast of Hara Yannas (The Musketeers, Broadchurch) as the pretty, bored, younger wife Yelena and David Fleeshman (Emmerdale) as the Professor Serebrayakov add another level of tension to the play as they arrive like a whirlwind bringing a trail of emotional and economic devastation with them.

Chekhov paints a clear picture of the destructive nature of depression, but Upton has captured the comedy that peppers Chekhov’s script with some highly entertaining moments and the strong cast has taken this on board. What’s the first thing that comes to a man’s mind when he has drunk too much vodka? Pulling his pants down and dancing around the stage with his trousers around his ankles of course! The moments leading up to the scene have the audience holding their breath, desperately stifling laughs as they watch Astov creep silently up on a sleeping Vanya. You can guess the rude awakening that is ahead of Vanya, and as music suddenly blares out of a stereo and he opens his eyes to Astrov’s bare bum the audience is left roaring with laughter.

Schoolboy pranks aside, this is certainly a different type of Vanya. It is a rollercoaster of emotions which show that even if life is not as you intended, life will and does go on, one way or another!

Uncle Vanya is currently playing at Home, Manchester until 25 November 2017. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Not About Heroes – Theatr Clwyd - Mold

At 11am on the 11th November, we will remember them. 

Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Germany had ignored Britain’s request to stop violating Belgium’s neutrality in its attack against France. The bloodiest battle in history was about to commence. The casualties of WWI far surpassed those of WWII. It wiped out generations of young men, men who had everything to live for, many of whom had such bright futures ahead of them. No-one could prepare themselves for what was about to become. No-one could envisage the horrors of “modern” warfare. Britain was living in the glorious Georgian age of poetry, a soft and meditative state of romanticism. Their perception of war was still one of cavalry charges and heroics for the greater good. How innocent they all were. The brutality of trench warfare was an unknown quantity, but the poets who were prepared to speak out about their experiences would soon change all of that. Even the likes of Edward Thomas who waxed lyrically about the beauty of the English countryside and the world around him would start to write poetry of a darker, bleaker nature, once he took to the trenches, no doubt spurred on by the thought of impending death.

“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain 
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me 
Remembering again that I shall die” (Edward Thomas – Rain)

Siegfried Sassoon (so named because his mother loved Wagner’s opera’s rather than German ancestry) was blessed to come from a wealthy family. It meant he had a private income so that he could divide his time between that of a country gentleman, and a London literary lover. His world was a far cry from the trenches that he would soon find himself ensconced him. Despite his privileged background, Sassoon was noted for being a courageous, if not almost “mad” fighter. His bravado earnt him the Military Cross, however his acts of bravado led to him being hit by a snipers bullet in 1917. He was moved from the trenches back to England to recover, but it was here that he started to have different thoughts about the war. He made a public statement to his commanding officer "…as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to stop it…” He wanted to be court martialled – instead he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to recuperate from neurasthenia. The Military Cross he had earnt had been thrown into the River Mersey, not as an act of some symbolic statement against the war, but as something to get him out of his black mood.

As a poet, Sassoon employed the use of direct speech so often used by Thomas Hardy in his novels. He held responsible the church, the army and the government for the murder of so many young men who had their whole lives yet ahead of them. Despite his hatred of war, Sassoon felt he needed to see action again, and so he returned back to the front, to the place he had last been posted. But upon his return he was dismayed to find that, despite the enormous amount of bloodshed, nothing had changed. Men were still losing their lives, but for what?

“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack. (Siegfried Sassoon – The General)

Wilfred Owen could be viewed as Sassoon’s young protégé! Brought up in Shropshire, the son of a railwayman, he finished school and took up employment as a lay assistant to a country vicar. Owen became critical of the church, he could see the difficulties that were faced by society and was dissatisfied with how matters were dealt with; he left his post and moved to France to teach English. Whilst Owen may not have believed in the practices of the church, he still believed in Christian teachings and so it was with great difficulty that he made up his mind to finally enlist, a year after the war had started. Within five months of active service, he was diagnosed with “shell-shock” and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital. This is where he would meet his idol, Siegfried Sassoon.

Not About Hereos by Stephen Macdonald tells the tale of their blossoming friendship. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is based on the letters and memoirs of Owen and Sassoon. Their close friendship led the aspiring poet, Owen, to be taught by the master, Sassoon, to hone his craft and create some of literature's most poignant poetry. Owen’s poetry haunts the soul, but although I’ve read it many times, it is often still just words on paper. Whilst I could empathise with the horrors he had seen, Owen himself was still a two dimensional character to me. Reading Not About Heroes started to bring both characters to life and their poetry started to become more defined. I could finally start to see the people, the flesh and blood behind those verses. Having read the script beforehand, I thought I would get a little emotional watching; but nothing prepared me for the superbly moving performances in this two-hander play between Daniel Llewellyn-Williams and Iestyn Arwel as they brought these two great men to life before my eyes.

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drowning-down of blinds. (Wilfred Owen – Anthem for Doomed Youth)

With Sassoon’s assistance, Owen became skilled in the use of alliteration, half-rhymes and the creator of pararhymes to reinforce his themes of dissonance. He wrote eloquent verses about the tragedy of young men being killed in battle, the irony being, in order for him to believe he could be a war poet he felt he had to endure the battlefield again, and so he returned to the front only to be killed by German machine gun fire one week before the war ended. He was only 25 years old. He had become the subject of his poems. The voice of a generation gunned down, another statistic of young men who would never be allowed to fulfil their destiny – their hopes cut short by the ravages of war.

No-one will ever know what private nightmares soldiers endured either at war or at Criaglockhart, but this play allows us a small window into what was happening a hundred years ago. It is an intimate portrayal of a close friendship that grew because of a shared experience of war and a love of poetry. Flying Bridge Theatre Company has produced a compelling and deeply moving production which recognises the sacrifices made during WWI. It might be about the horrors of war, but it also shows the beauty of poetry and the truth contained therein from the people with experience. It is a play for engaging the audience into the drama of two people’s viewpoints of a war in which they found themselves immersed; it serves as a reminder that WWI was especially harsh and should not be romanticised like a Georgian poem. It should be remembered that Sassoon himself went from writing about the patriotism and optimism of going into war, to the horror and reality of war, the shock and the anger of the trenches, and an aftermath which we cannot even begin to comprehend. It is a play which will engage you, but it is the spoken words of Owen that will leave the greatest impression.

I was blessed to see this play. Unfortunately the tour of the play ends on Saturday 11th November, the date when we remember all that have fought for us, not just those from WWI. I do hope that Flying Bridge Theatre Company will take Not About Heroes back on tour again next year, those who haven't seen have genuinely missed out.

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 
About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,— 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands, 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 
There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He's lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts. 
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, 
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts, 
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg; 
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits 
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul. 
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come 

And put him into bed? Why don't they come? (Wilfred Owen – Disabled)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Romantics Anonymous – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe

I keep telling people, myself included, that I’m not a fan of musicals, I prefer a good ole fashioned play…and then I list some notable exceptions; The King & I, Cats, Showboat, Phantom of the Opera, Carousel, The Rocky Horror Show! I then realise that I do like musicals, I just don’t like the modern trend of taking some famous songs and then bunging them on stage with a thinly veiled storyline tying them all together. So when I was asked if I wanted a ticket to see Romantics Anonymous, I was a bit, well, meh! I didn’t know much about it, but I still said yes to a ticket!

Press reports show the public has had a love hate relationship with Emma Rice since she was appointed Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe. I’ve seen a few plays at the Sam Wanamaker whilst she has been in situ, and I have enjoyed them all, but reports on how some of Shakespeare’s most loved plays have been toyed with at The Globe have left me relieved that I’ve not borne witness to them. I found it interesting that she had chosen a musical as her final production for Shakespeare’s Globe, but then I realised it would be the first musical to be presented in the Playhouse; and that it is rather in keeping with a lady who has shook up the establishment at The Globe. It’s a loud and proud goodbye with head held high; she is not shying away into the night.

As I took my seat, a lady dressed like a French mime artist was handing out chocolates. Do not eat in now, she said to me in French. Eat it when you’re told to in the play. “C'est magique!” I don’t know about magic, but my French is appalling, so it was amazing I could grasp what she was saying. I settled down for the start of the play…everyone on stage was speaking French. Oh dear Lord I thought, if I have to concentrate this hard for the entire play my head will explode. My prayers were answered, we were told to eat our chocolates (eating chocolate can be understood in any language) and by the power of chocolately magic I could suddenly understand everyone…it was as if they were suddenly speaking in my native tongue!!

Romantics Anonymous is an adaptation of the movie Les Émotifs Anonymes. It is the tale of Angélique, a woman overwhelmed by her emotions, who seeks respite by making chocolates with love, care and patience. The making of chocolate is her form of therapy, it is a comfort for her to make chocolate, as it is a comfort for most of us to eat it! Angélique is quite content secretly making chocolates until her boss dies and she has to face the real world. In order to seek help from her crippling shyness she joins a support group Les Émotifs Anonymes. Jean-René runs a chocolate factory, but it is falling apart at the seams. He spends his days burying his head in the sand listening to self-help tapes and speaking to the ghost of his dead father. But don’t be misled, as we dip in and out of the melancholy affairs of their hearts, and they battle with their feelings, Michael Kooman’s music combined with Christopher Dimond’s often cheeky lyrics will have you doubled up in laughter. “One rule we must enforce, don’t think about sexual intercourse!”

Limerence (also infatuated love) is a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person and typically includes obsessive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship with the object of love and have one's feelings reciprocated.

Shyness between would be lovers is a story as old as time, and shared by people across the globe. In the mid 1960’s a psychology professor, Dorothy Tennov, interviewed a number of people afflicted by overwhelming shyness when it came to affairs of the heart. She coined a new word, limerence, which she said produced “sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness.” Symptom’s included heart palpitations, stammering, sweating and fainting, and our shrinking violets show on stage how debilitating shyness can be. When our hero and heroine finally go on a dinner date we’re a mixture of emotions watching them; Angélique (Carly Bawden) has crib cards with varying topics of conversation, whilst Jean-René (Dominic Marsh) has come prepared with a number of garish shirts to change into as each one gets soaked with his nervous sweat! We cringe and laugh with them as they try to do their best in what for them is a stultifying experience.

Whilst the whole of the cast is brilliant, a stand out performance is given by the multitasking Joanna Riding (Stella, Holby City, Heartbeat) she starts off playing an officious overseer in the factory, (looking as though she belonged on the cobbled streets of Corrie) but then steals the show playing Angélique’s mother, complete with black bra and plenty of leopard print as she belts out words of advice to poor Angélique. But it’s when she takes to the wheel for the funniest car chase you’re ever likely to see staged that will leave you in stitches!

In an often depressing world, Romantics Anonymous lifts the lid on the encroaching gloom and transports the audience into a world of sweet, joyfulness. Emma Rice should be justifiably proud of her swansong; she is leaving the Globe on a theatrical high...rather like Jean-René and Angélique dancing on air in an impressive finale.

Romantics Anonymous is playing at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 6th January 2018. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Schillerfest – William Tell at The Bunker Theatre - London

Theatre is the gift that just keeps giving. It informs you, it educates you and it entertains you.

Friedrich Schiller – 10th November 1759 – 9th May 1805, was a famous German playwright, poet and philosopher. He was of great importance and influence in European theatres; however, he has never become mainstream, and still remains relatively unknown in the UK. He had a grammar school education until the age of 13, when he was commanded to go to the Military Academy, an institution founded by Duke Karl Eugen. Schiller learnt in his formative years what it was like to grow up under the rule of a petty tyrant who used and abused his power, and this theme echoes through many of Schiller’s plays.

Robert David MacDonald (David) 1929 – 2004 was fluent in eight languages (and it is noted could ‘get by’ in 22!) He was a Scottish musician, playwright, actor, director, and he translated five of Schiller’s plays, introducing this influential writer to a new wave of actors and audiences. It was because of David’s idiomatic translations that Schiller became more accessible to the masses. He became the co-artistic director of the Citizens Theatre (or Citz as it is affectionately known) in Glasgow in 1971, a theatre that helped with the careers of some of our best known actors: Celia Imrie, Mark Rylance, Sian Thomas, Alan Rickman, Glenda Jackson, Peter Guinness…the list goes on and on!

The Faction are currently hosting a festival celebrating the genius of Schiller between 31st October 2017 – 11th November 2017 at The Bunker Theatre, London. There will be a series of talks, performances and readings by The Faction’s ensemble in collaboration with guest DJs, singers, actors and academics, to showcase through theatre, poetry and opera, the revolutionary spirit of Schiller’s work.

I hang my head in shame. I had never heard of Schiller before, and if it wasn’t for Tom Burke, I still wouldn’t know about either of the extraordinary men that were celebrated during the evening’s events. I saw a tweet five days before the event, confirming that Tom was going to be hosting a Q&A about William Tell at The Bunker, a small theatre that was formerly an underground carpark! 

Fortunately the stars were aligned; I would already be in London but due to go back home the night of the performance, so it was just a case of sweet talking my boss into another day off work, persuading Virgin to change my train ticket without bankrupting me, and then finding a hotel for the night. I didn’t really need to say much to my boss, as soon as he answered the  ‘phone he realised a “Tom emergency” was approaching, and so everything fell into place for a night out in this dark and unique 110 seat studio style theatre. After Mark Leipacher (Artistic Director of The Faction) introduced the evening by saying he expected about 90% of the audience to have never heard of Schiller, my head lifted slightly…I wasn’t sure I’d heard right, but I was happy to accept that statistic!

The stage was set. 13 chairs were lined up on three sides of the square stage for the actors to sit and read through David’s translation of Schiller’s version of the classic folktale William Tell. In the short time available, I’d bought a copy of William Tell and read it on the train to London. I wanted a vague notion of what to expect on the night. It was a beautifully written tale, with a poetic, almost lyrical quality to it, but I’d not been able to buy David’s version in so short a time. I was looking forward to hearing how his version would sound as it was brought to life by the talented cast of actors, and finding out who would be playing each character.

When I read the play, I could visualise it being brought to life on stage. I mentioned this to Tom later, but I don’t think he took on board my subtle hint! As I perused the cast list I noticed Owen Teale would play the part of William Tell. I was thrilled. I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since I bunked off school one day and saw him sat in my local pub. (He was filming Robin Hood in Frodsham where I grew up and he was sat having a quiet drink with other cast members. He was the only person I recognised and who I asked for an autograph - which nearly 30 years later I still have!)

I was transfixed throughout the entire read through, paying attention to each actor as they played their parts with such depth of feeling. Tom only had a few minor roles, which being Tom he put great thought into, using different accents for his different roles, but this was not a night about Tom. Sure, it was his name that enticed me along to see what was going on, but as I sat and watched the story unfold, and felt the intensity of the play rising, there were moments I forgot he was sat just a few feet in front of me. Apparently the play overran. I didn’t notice. Even though I was only watching an extraordinarily talented group of people sit on chairs, or casually stand up, and read their parts, I was mesmerised. They deserved their applause by the end, they were truly enchanting.

There was a short comfort break before a Q&A session, led by Tom, started. I hadn’t kept track of time, but apparently the Q&A was supposed to finish at 10pm. I was told it actually started at 10:10!(One day I may buy myself a watch to check such matters - but it showed that time does fly when you're enjoying yourself!) During the break I sat chatting to one of my friends as a) It was nice to catch up with her as it had been far too long, and b) I’m bone idle and couldn’t be bothered getting up! As I cast my eyes around the theatre, I saw Tom and a few others had come back out and were settling down for the Q&A session. Tom glanced over, smiled, gave a “thumbs up” and mouthed “thank you for coming.” He then gestured that he’d pop over later to say hello. It was a lovely indicator that he'd both recognised and remembered who I was. It had been about 13 months since I last spoke to him and he’s a very busy man, so it was a delight to be remembered with what appeared to be genuine affection.

Tom introduced the Q&A. As well as the actors who had performed that evening, Philip Prowse, who had been co-Artistic Director of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre with MacDonald, and actor Roberta Taylor joined the line-up. Tom gave a brief background history about MacDonald to the audience, and advised he wouldn’t be saying much because he neither knew, nor had worked with David. He also confirmed that there were a couple of actors, including Owen Teale, in the night’s performance that were also ‘honorary’ members, not having worked with David either! The Q&A quickly dissolved into an evening of reminiscing about the past.  It was delight to be a part of. I suddenly felt as though I’d been whisked away to a thespians dinner party, and I was a fly on the wall listening to the gloriously funny anecdotes of the past. As the stories flowed thick and fast, it became an evening to be privileged to have been a part of. David was recognised as an amazing interpreter, who not only could speak various languages, but he understood the cadences of those languages. They weren’t just words, but words with emotional attachments, and that was why his plays worked so well. He was revered at home and abroad, he put Italian plays on in Italy…as Philip Prowse said, imagine, it would be like an Italian bringing Shakespeare to Stratford!

It was obvious that those who had the honour of working with him obviously held a great admiration and affection for him. Some of the actresses gushed about what a gorgeous man he was, and how they had been totally in love with him (at this point I did steal a surreptitious glance at Tom to see his reaction!) And that was the mood of the evening, not overtly sentimental, but fun, and a sharing of “secrets.” I couldn’t stop laughing as various actors told stories about different plays and Sian Thomas kept piping up “I was in that.” And then a little bit later… "I was in that too. I was very good." Cue for lots of raucous laughter!!!

The evening was a fabulous concept, when Tom came over for a chat later I asked him if the whole concept had been his idea. As understated as ever, he confirmed that he was a fan of Schiller and had been approached by The Faction, but that the hard work had really been done by the rest of the actors. Well, whoever was to blame, I told him it was a great idea and a fantastically enjoyable evening. None of the actors fled off straight away; most milled about and then drifted one by one off into the night, allowing those audience members who had stayed a brief opportunity to speak to them. Peter Guinness was particularly chatty, sharing a memory of David which opened up some of the mystery of the theatre. He was doing a play which had a particularly long telephone conversation in it, and Peter was finding it hard to remember his lines. David suggested a large telephone diary by the 'phone with the lines written on it as a prop, so that Peter could flick through the pages if necessary. It worked. Having that comfort blanket meant that he remembered his lines…a good thing too, because David was a bit of a practical joker and had added some choice lines to the book which were not to be read aloud!

It was the most magical evening. The Faction and Tom Burke should be proud that they got together to bring the idea alive. The actors involved need to be thanked for putting on a brilliant performance of William Tell…a play that was never performed in David’s lifetime, and for being so open afterwards when sharing their experiences of their time at Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre. And finally The Bunker needs to be thanked for staging it; a strange but wonderful little venue that I felt very much at home in. If the truth be told, you can give me an intimate gig in a dark and gloomy “carpark” instead of a classically staged west end production any day of the week! Both may hold a place in my heart…but I know where I’d really rather be!

Schillerfest continues at The Bunker until 11th November 2017. If you live near London, go and watch/support some of the events there. Sadly I don’t…so I’m just going to curl up with a cup of tea and my book of Schiller’s Short Stories (and then if the postman ever arrives, I can also catch up on the various Schiller plays that MacDonald translated. See, didn't I say theater educates you!)    (Mark Leipacher's tweet showing the cast photo of 1/11/2017)

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Sparkling Confessions of the Mind

Confessions of a Sociopath – M E Thomas

Am I a sociopath? I don’t think I am; but just like when you look up seemingly innocuous symptoms on Google and you come back thinking you have about 4 hours left to live, reading this book by M E Thomas did make me question my identity. Even if I were…is it something I should be worried about? As Thomas says “There is a similar double standard currently applied to sociopaths versus sociopathic behaviour. Sociopaths are prone to violence, but empaths also commit gruesome acts of violence. These acts are more excusable to juries as long as the empath shows “remorse.””

I found myself completely engrossed by Thomas’ life story as a diagnosed sociopath. When you think of sociopaths or psychopaths from the movies, they are people you would want to steer clear of, but Thomas is full of a strange confident charisma; she is an ambitious and successful career woman, so successful she has felt the need to hide her identity in this “warts and all” tale of her life. She is the type of person you want to meet, a woman with an interesting tale to tell, a baffling psychological study in motion.

It is her ability to “charm” people that leads her to get her way, whether that be investing in her cunning financial schemes, or even falling into bed with her. If you have ever read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, you would imagine that Thomas is a plausible Lisbeth Salander! Both speak their mind, both don’t care what people think, they have their own sense of what is right and what is wrong.

“psychopaths are antisocials who excel at seeming social…the psychopath excels in many ways that others do not…uncommonly charming and witty. He is unflappable and eloquent…Under this “mask of sanity” however is a liar, a manipulator, a person who disregards his obligations with little or no sense of responsibility.”

I am quite antisocial. People assume that because I can be lively and bubbly I am always the happy life and soul of a party. Often I’m not, I'd much rather be at home with a good book and a cup of tea. In reality I prefer animals over humans...they never let you down. I always find that at some level people will begin to disappoint me. I can be moralistic, and therefore have high expectations of those who surround me. If someone is serious and tells me they want to tell me something in confidence, I respect that. Despite the fact that outwardly I probably seem like a right gossip, I am trustworthy and I still hold many secrets that friends past and present have told me. So on the one hand I'm antisocial, but on the other I do remember my obligations and responsibilities. I will assess what I’ve been told; was it a cry for help, an unburdening, or just a secret that should be kept between the honoured few? I respect the fact that someone has deemed me responsible enough to share their secret with. I get incensed if that confidence is broken by another party, but only if I feel that I’m going to get incorrectly blamed for spreading the news if it ever "got out." 

Contract lawyers will be aware of the term “efficient breach.” In these breaches, it can be the immoral choice which leaves everyone in a better position. Most people are brought up to know that you have a choice in life, but for every choice you make there is a consequence. “If I wanted to break a rule and was willing to suffer the consequences, I should be allowed to make that choice unhindered.” This argument piqued my interest. A thoroughly reasonable argument, but what happens when you put it into action? And what about the effect on others? Is there a line that can be crossed where actually, even if you are prepared to suffer the consequences it’s not just immoral, it’s also illegal and just plain wrong.  In the book, Thomas says “When my good friend’s father was diagnosed with cancer, I cut off all contact with her. It sounds like a ruthless thing to do, and it was. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her…but I found I could no longer enjoy any of the benefits she had provided to me…I had overinvested and was running many months into the red with no improvement. I found that I could not wear the mask of compassion or selflessness indefinitely without acting out in ways that were hurtful to us both.”

I can't do this anymore...I need to face this situation

I could understand what she was saying to a point. We should be there for our friends; that is why they are our friends, but it is also true that there has to be give and take in a friendship. My friend, who doesn’t drive, accepted a job where I work. It’s about 40 mins drive when there’s no traffic and I agreed that I would pick her up and take her home on the four days I worked. The fifth day she would have to bus, train and walk it.

I did this for about a year, but it was only when she needed to take a few weeks leave that I realised just how much the 8 mile detour ate into my day. I could now get up later, set off later, and still arrive in work on time. I could get home, pop to the shop whilst it wasn’t busy, grab a few things and get home for just after 5pm. My stress levels and tiredness improved…and then when the old regime started again I was found myself  getting tired and irritable. It didn’t help that I had people digging up my front garden at the time and I had to be home quick smart or I had nowhere to park. This was becoming a tricky situation, a sociopath wouldn’t give a damn, but I did!

I didn’t want to cause hurt to my friend…but why should I be putting myself out so much? What did I get in return for the extra stress? After all I reasoned, I'd worked hard as a 17 year old to earn the money to learn to drive, to pass my test, to buy myself a car; to ultimately have a sense of freedom so I didn’t have to rely on anyone. It wasn’t as though we regularly went out either, occasionally I’d book us tickets to the theatre, but other than that, there was never a phone call from her saying “do you fancy meeting up in town for a coffee??” Was I a friend, or just a convenience? These thoughts spiralled round and round until I just had to bite the bullet and I texted my friend to forewarn her that I wanted a chat. “Can you give me a call when you get a min? I’ve been thinking long & hard about the morning commute…Just want to discuss options with you.” The reply came back in an instant. She had already decided she was going to text me about making her own way to work in the future.  

I was livid. I still am if I think about it. That was not the action of a friend. You’d think I’d have responded to her message wouldn’t you? But just like Thompson, I cut off all ties and walked away. It was my version of the “efficient breach.” And yes, I do feel better for it. I feel I have gained, not lost. Had this not happened, my behaviour would only have get worse. I would feel more and more resentful that my life was getting increasingly put upon and I am a terrible liar. I can’t pretend that things are OK when they clearly are not.

Confessions of a Sociopath has met with many conflicting reviews on the internet. It seems to be a “Marmite book.” Those who love it are enthralled by the writing of a diagnosed sociopath, to try to understand their take on the world in which they inhabit. Those who hate the book seem to have missed the point…they say they read it wanting to find out how a sociopath feels and what struggles they face, yet upon reading the book they are disappointed to find out about a self-absorbed character who doesn’t think her actions are wrong, who has a huge ego and takes the moral high ground with us “lesser beings.” I find this very interesting though. The fact that this person is so self-absorbed is telling, and what makes the book so interesting; especially for anyone who has an interest in the psychological workings of the mind. I think that is the point of the book – how do people who are not considered “normal” view themselves and the society they live in? 

By the end of the book I considered that overall I wasn't a sociopath. I might by grumpy, pessimistic, judgmental even, but overall, just a pretty practical and boring person really!

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham

I moved onto another book that looks at the human mind; Fingers in The Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham. This is a beautifully moving memoir of one of my favourite naturalists. As a young teenager, I loved watching The Really Wild Show. I loved Chris too, he was so enthusiastic about the wildlife on the programme and he had a plethora of knowledge at his fingertips…he also sported a punky hairstyle so he fitted right in with the music I was listening to at the time! Chris Packham was cool, so it came as an utter shock reading his memoir about how difficult his childhood was. He was picked on and bullied for being different. He wasn’t considered “normal.” It wasn’t until his 40’s that he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

“Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn't do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I'd climbed through a hole in heaven's fence.”

This isn’t an overly sentimental tale; it is the story of a young boy fixated by the details of the world around him, who felt more at home in the protective arms of the countryside than he ever did at school.  It is a keen observation of what life was like growing up in the 1970’s, when children found magic all around then and came home with jam jars filled with tadpoles (I’ll never forget my poor father’s face when spawning time came round each year. “I can’t move in the garden for all of your blummin frogs. I must have counted at least 40 of the buggers this morning.” I think I was in my late 20’s when he was really pulling his hair out following the aftermath of my childhood follies…my jam jar of tadpoles had allowed for an ever expanding population of frogs to keep returning year after year to further populate Holly Bank ponds with a crescendo of happy croaking each morn!  “I can’t mow the lawn for all these ruddy things hopping about” he moaned! I suppose if he was still around now he would be breathing a sigh of relief that his animal loving daughter hadn’t tried eating any tadpoles like Chris did…well I don’t think I ever went that far!

This book became a bit of a time travelling adventure for me, as Chris filled his house with tadpoles…doomed to die in a jam jar on a sunny windowsill; bird’s eggs that you had to spend time carefully blowing the contents out of and then making sure you didn’t crush them with you pudgy childish fingers, or fox skulls which had been boiled clean…I was transported back to my childhood where I’d visit “first pit” with my brothers. They’d come back with Roach for the garden ponds or a big fat Tench to keep the bottom clean (I called him Tommy the Tench...I was such a creative genius!) I couldn’t catch fish (no patience) so I’d bring back frogspawn. I remember one holiday being taught how to “blow” a hens egg before moving onto something more exotic…I still have the Oyster Catcher egg from that holiday somewhere I think. It sounds shocking now, especially with the decline of wildlife and bird populations, but back in the 70’s it was normal behaviour. As far as the fox skull goes, I never had one of them…although my brother did have sheep skulls which he turned into candle holders.

I found it alarmingly amusing about the number of mishaps and deaths that occurred as Chris built up his wildlife collections and merrily brought things home which would make most parents weep. It’s funny, I said to my brother, someone who is now a renowned naturalist accidentally killing all of these unsuspecting creatures when he was a child! I got “that look” from my brother who simply said, “bit like you when you were little and sat on the school gerbils I’d brought home to look after. They were flattened miniature Tiger style rugs you could have put in your Sindy house by the time you’d finished with them.” I was aghast! I refute those allegations (I really have no recollection of the incident at all- no matter how many times he tells me the sordid tale.)

If you were lucky enough to watch Chris’s BBC program “Asperger’s and Me” read this book as a follow on. It is a magical read, and one that shows we should be more tolerant of people. There is no such thing as “normal.” All of us have our idiosyncrasies, and the sooner we all learn to try and understand where people are coming from, and how they can help and influence society rather than simply being dismissed, the better.

With that said, I take a look at the bookcase and wonder if the time is right to re-read Ligotti's "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race."  No, it's far too depressing to think about... how about 1930's Russia and the stifling regime between Art and that sounds an altogether more joyful affair doesn't it?!

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov @ Theatr Clwyd

I found myself watching three Chekhov "plays in a day" last year at The National Theatre in London. When I went to speak to some of the actors afterwards, they proclaimed I was mad watching all three productions one after the other. An eight-hour Chekhov-athon it seems is supposed to be rather dark and heavy going, and only a madwoman would subject herself to it!

I found David Hare’s epic productions of Platanov, Ivanov and The Seagull whet my appetite for Chekhov. It was an enjoyable day charting the evolution of Chekhov’s writing, so when I found out that another one of his major works, Uncle Vanya, was being performed closer to home I was thrilled!

Anton Chekhov was the third of six children. He was born in January 1860 in Taganrog, southern Russia. His father was a grocer, very religious, who tried to instil his religious beliefs into his children with such fervour that Chekhov in later life complained of never having a childhood. As he grew up, his elder brothers became alcoholics and his father became bankrupt. It was left to Chekhov to continue his studies (medicine in Moscow) and look after his family by his short story writing in Moscow periodicals. He wrote about 600 short stories in all, but it is his success as a playwright that we now know him.  His first play, Platonov was written but unperformed; Ivanhov which followed gave him some success in both St Petersburg and Moscow, yet his next play The Wood Demon was a complete failure. This play however, laid the foundations to what would become the more successful Uncle Vanya.

In 1898, Chekhov allowed a production of The Seagull to be re-performed by the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre. It saw Chekhov become a master of the theatre in Russia. The company went on to perform his other three plays on which his reputation as a great dramatist rests, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and of course, Uncle Vanya.

Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts

Chekhov took great pains to ensure
that his audience could understand what emotional response he wanted from his works by categorising them. Ivanhov and Three Sisters were considered dramatic; The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were comedies (not the laugh a minute raucous comedies we’d expect, but more akin to Dante’s sense of "laughter being the best medicine to loss or pain and suffering", and perhaps this is why many of Chekhov’s plays have been directed as dark, heavy tragedies) Uncle Vanya however was catagorised as “scenes from country life.”   

You may therefore imagine that Uncle Vanya is played in a gloriously idyllic setting, where birds are singing, there is quiet contemplation as a stream gurgles past; that sorrows and cares are whisked away by a light breeze across a field, but you’d be wrong. Uncle Vanya is none of these things! Why Chekhov chose this subtext is possibly down to his playfulness with his audience. He wanted his audience to think about what they were seeing. His writing showed that real life isn’t melodramatic; it’s just a series of many inconsistencies. One day things are going ok, the next…you just don’t know. Commonplace activities around a dining table, or conversations over a drink reveal far more about a person than the grandest soliloquy can ever do.

“people have dinner, that’s all they do, they have dinner; yet during this time their happiness is established or their lives fall apart.” Chekhov

It is his subtleties to detail that make his works so captivating. Today theatre goers expect to witness absurdist theatre when watching a Harold Pinter production, but arguably, Chekhov was the father of the absurdist theatre. He grasped the ordinary and turned it into pure drama, but his dramas cannot be described as realistic. He doesn’t write a play that will solve your problems, he just hints at things through a clever use of dialogue. Even the most tragic situation can then have a sense of the “laugh out loud” in the farcicality of the circumstances that someone finds them self in; so never feel ashamed to laugh when that feeling takes over you in a Chekhovian drama!

In many of Chekhov’s plays the major characters are looking for salvation, either through love or work. Neither are usually the answer, and in Uncle Vanya the same is true. Peter Gill’s 2017 version for Theatr Clwyd takes on board the messages from Chekhov’s original play, and we are transported back to 1890’s Russia. For Peter, this was a play which couldn’t be updated to a modern setting. Vanya and his niece Sonya live in the middle of nowhere…miles from the nearest village, and a trip to the city would almost certainly be unthinkable! They are trapped in one life, yet yearning for another, freer life, untied from the shackles that bind them in the only life they know.

The production has been done “in the round” meaning there is less emphasis on scenery and a greater feeling of intimacy with the cast. You feel as though you are sitting in the garden or the parlour with the family, watching through a 360°window into their souls.

Jamie Ballard (Ripper Street, The Hollow Crown II) shines in the titular role. He is quick witted with a chirpy character that belies his despair and the injustice he feels he has been subjected to. He provides the majority of the humour throughout the piece. Almost self-deprecating at times, you can’t help but feel empathetic towards Vanya and the situation he finds himself him. In most Chekhov dramas, where there is a gun, there is a death. Here, you know full well that Vanya would be incapable of pulling a murder off!

Rosie Sheehy (DCI Banks) is also deserving of a mention. Her portrayal of Sonya as an intelligent, hard working woman who deserves so much more from life is utterly believable. There are times throughout the play where you are desperate for her to find her Disney happy ending, but this is Chekhov, and you know it can’t be. She manages to keep a tight rein on her emotions, her desires for Astrov kept hidden, until with almost childlike enthusiasm, she explodes and allows her secret to be told to her step-mother Elena. The scenes she shares with Oliver Dimsdale (Grantchester, Utopia) show a man who is genuinely fond of her, but has absolutely no realisation of her deeper feelings towards him.

“..when one has no real life, one lives by mirages. It's still better than nothing.”

This is an accomplished production, it has been well staged, and the costumes are of the period, but there are times when it lacks a punch, particularly in the first half. It is hard to be too critical though, the first two acts are written as dialogue for people sitting/standing around, so it is hard to create something overly dynamic. This comes in the second half of the play when Chekhov’s themes of a wasted life come to fruition. People’s aspirations come crashing down as they realise the futility of their lives, that sudden moment of disappointed reality.

Vanya and Sonia’s lives are turned upside down when Serebryakov, a retired professor suffering ill health (Martin Turner, Waking the Dead, Foyles War) arrives at the estate with his young, beautiful wife, Elena. The estate belonged to his dead wife, and her brother Vanya has run the estate for the past twenty years. These complicated relationships lack any real emotional bonds and this is shown particularly when an argument ensues of the legal status of the family estate…who is entitled to it…who can sell it and reap the rewards…and what about those who have sweat blood and tears to keep it going?

As an audience we can empathise with Vanya and Sonya, but it is harder to finds attachments to the other major characters. Astrov begins an impassioned speech about deforestation, but this is quickly cut short by the arrival of vodka, and his revelation that he is far better surgeon whilst “under the influence.” Whilst he tries to make us believe that he has such fine feelings, he is easily swayed to other subjects and completely sterile about human relationships, making a play for Elena, but ignoring the obvious passions of Sonya. And what about Elena and Serebryakov? She is blindly loyal to her husband who is nothing short of being an egocentric bully, but even with these faults, the dawning realisation that he has worked so hard as an academic, only for scorn to be poured on his life’s achievements, does elicit a modicum of pity.

This co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Sheffield Theatres allows the audience to “people watch” at the highest level. These strange characters from 1860 allow us to sit back, with a dawning realisition of how easy it is for life to go off course. We often find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do, for friends or family who don’t really seem to care about us. It begs the question, if we constantly put ourselves out for others, if we always put ourselves second, is it really worth it?  

The production has finished at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, but it starts a new run at the Crucible Lyceum Studio, Sheffield, Wednesday 18th October 2017 – Saturday 4th November

Click here for ticket information:


After I wrote this, I spoke to my friend and asked should I have put our pub story in? She said here goes!

We had gone walking up Moel Famau the day of the play, but by the time we had got to the top and back to the car, it was getting a bit late. We went to the pub near the theatre but it was full, so we nipped somewhere else to grab something quick to eat so that we didn't end up passing out in the theatre. (Good job when we realised we were sat on the stage!)

Anyway, I promised my mate we could have an early tea at the pub the next day before she went home, because the food there is really lovely. So I booked a table (see learnt from the night before!) and we went out to the RSPB in Conwy for the day. It was very blustery! We headed, looking rather bedraggled, to the pub, and as we sat there waiting for our meals a man passed by our table. "Nikki" I said, "wasn't that know Uncle Vanya from last night?" She hadn't seen, and we didn't like to stare so we carried on chatting.

A wee bit later, I saw him heading towards the bar again, but this time via our table. I caught his eye and smiled and he came over and said "weren't you two watching the play last night?" "Yes" we chorused, in a somewhat bemused fashion. We had a quick chat and passed on our thanks to Jamie and the rest of the cast and crew, and said to let it be known that we'd thoroughly enjoyed the play. We then sat there, slightly amused. "You know," I said, "I've heard of fans going up to an actor in a pub and asking for a pic or whatever, but I've never heard of an actor approaching someone to say they'd seen them in the audience before!" It was such a lovely thing to happen...but I can't help on earth had the pair of us been so memorable?!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Mr Darcy Loses the Plot @ The Lowry, Salford.

It isn’t often that I head into the dark unknown world of theatre. Usually I will have read a copy of the play beforehand, or at least seen or heard of the playwrights work. Not this time. This was unchartered territory, but I was assured it would be a thoroughly enjoyable evening with plenty of laughs.

From the very start of the play, it immediately becomes obvious that Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding have a great passion and knowledge of English Literature. They have been writing and performing together since 1985 putting their unique brand of humour on the UK and international stage. Looking through their past hits which include The Picture of Doreen Gray; Inspector Norse and Withering Looks, you know you are going to spend the evening being purely entertained; it isn’t going to be a night where you walk out of the theatre feeling drained or needing to dismantle a complex plot.

The Guardian has called LipService Theatre Company “the Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction” and it is easy to see why. We are immersed into the world of domestic women writers, who are trying to juggle life and writing, in between nursing the baby and entertaining visitors.

Jane Austin has started writing Pride and Prejudice, she has crafted the haughty character of Mr Darcy, but poor ole boring Bingham is just being sketched out…literally! Sue appears on stage with a biro drawing of a body pinned to her front…the character of Bingham needs padding out a bit! Jane gets called away to answer the door, leaving Darcy to contemplate why Austin won’t write him the lake scene, so infamous with those who watched the BBC production starring Colin Firth. Clearly unhappy with how his story is panning out, he starts to write a new tale about himself, taking on board other famous female writers. He wanders off and finds himself in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and being mistaken for Maxim De Winter – Darcy is proud of this mistaken identity, even though he doesn’t have a clue what is going on, and this leads to some rather silly shenanigans and some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

The stage is adorned with quilts (showing the domestic side of the female life, she was expected to sew and read, not write novels!) and these quilts create moving screens in which our duo can carry out swift scene changes; they also allow for live stage action to mix with filmed interactive scenes. In one particularly clever scene, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are at a ball dancing – a film is shown in which the actors are seen on screen, and then they disappear from view at either side only to re-emerge on the stage. It was timed to perfection and added an interesting element to the viewing experience.

Maggie had an unfortunately timed nosebleed within minutes of the show starting, however, her ability to adlib was second to none, and perhaps was one of the funniest parts of the evening. This was a signed performance, a screen at the top of the stage showed the text, whilst a lady did live signing at the side of the stage. The subtitles stopped whilst Maggie disappeared to stem the flow of blood, but she kept on with a running commentary. As she pointed out, some audience members who could keep up with the signing would know what was going on, the rest would just see the “stuck” subtitles.

After the interval, there was a funny sketch showing the problems of saving your literary endeavours to “The Cloud.” It was spot on, I think everyone is aware of that slow uploading speed and the adverts for buying more storage space to "make your life better." However, this is where the production began to falter slightly. Darcy soon gets mixed up in the writings of Beatrix Potter and Elizabeth Gaskill and it’s here where the jokes begin to feel a bit staged, not flowing as well as they did in the first half.    

It was a thoroughly entertaining evening and it is easy to see why Maggie and Sue have gained a cult following. They have warm and engaging personalities that show case their ability to take the great classic novel and turn it on its head.

Mr Darcy Loses the Plot is on tour throughout September, October and November. Check out their website to see if it’s coming to a theatre near you.

Monday, 11 September 2017

After The Dance – Terence Rattigan @ Theatre by the Lake

I’m a bit of a Terence Rattigan fan. I’ve enjoyed watched Flare Path, The Deep Blue Sea, (copious times but I imagine that may also have been for another reason!) When the Sun Shines, French Without Tears & Love in Idleness; so I was delighted to see that Theatre by the Lake were putting on a production of After the Dance, one of  Rattigan’s lesser known plays.   

Unlike many of his other works, whilst After the Dance was a critical success it was a major failure with audiences; it closed within two months of opening in 1939. Rattigan had dropped out of college to become a full time writer, a move which had led to him to making a deal with his father; he could live at home and write for two years, but if by the end of that time he had had no success he would take up a more respectable profession. As the months rolled on Rattigan became more and more desperate as each project he immersed himself into came to nothing. Rattigan had penned a play about his time at a French boarding school entitled Gone Away, but no-one wished to produce it. A stroke of luck appeared when one of Donald Albery’s productions was losing money and he needed to pull the show and replace it with something else. Rattigan’s Gone Away was cheap to produce as it required only one set and a limited cast, but Albery hated the title. It was renamed French Without Tears, and an unexpected success materialised. Audiences loved it, including The Times! It ran for three years, earning Rattigan £100 per week, and he set forth spending his money with gusto.

The problem with success is how to follow it up. With the outbreak of war, Rattigan’s next two plays failed dismally. After the Dance failed to engage audiences who were worried about the crisis in Europe and Follow My Leader, a farce based on the rise of Hitler was banned from production. Rattigan became insecure about writing and visited a psychiatrist for help. The answer was to join the RAF, which should ease his mental block! Bizarrely, from his experiences in the RAF Flare Path was born; it was the first Rattigan play I ever saw staged, and the one that created the desire to watch all things Rattigan!

After the Dance enters the life of David and Joan, a married couple who are now in their thirties. They lived through the heyday of the twenties, a time of decadent London parties which earnt youths the title “The Bright Young Things.” (I recommend reading Vile Bodies by Evelyn Vaugh upon which Stephen Fry’s film The Bright Young Things was based for an insight into the period.)

The play opens on John Reid (Matthew Mellalieu) lounging around in his silk pyjamas with a large G&T in hand for breakfast!  He lives in David and Joan’s flat, seemingly with no cares in the world. He has always held a candle for Joan, and they still try to live the flamboyant booze fuelled nights of their youth. The younger, less exuberant new generation of youths is found in David’s cousin Peter (Adam Buchanan) and his fiancée Helen. 

David’s excessive drinking has caused cirrhosis of his liver and the moralistic Helen (Charlotte Hamblin) is very clear about why he needs to stop drinking and trying to still live his youth. It soon becomes apparent though that Helen’s concern for David is turning into love. This love is reciprocated, and soon Joan learns of David’s desire to divorce her and marry Helen. Joan is secretly distraught. Izabella Urbanowicz is glorious as Joan, seemingly never one to let life get in the way of a glitzy party, but showing just a tiny hint of wistful regret to how her life has panned out. She puts a brave face on the demise of her marriage, organising another one of her parties with great gusto. Only John knows how much she really loves David and how his actions have caused her so much pain. 

With the party is in full swing Joan quietly and without fuss slips away. As time marches on, David’s attempts at sobriety are waning. In a startling twist, John finally stops his sloth-like behaviour and confronts David with a few home truths about how Helen may soon head down the path of oblivion as Joan before her. As the curtains close, David can be seen pouring himself a drink, foretelling a long slow death ahead of him. 

This play was a complete change for Rattigan. Not the light-hearted moments of French Without Tears, but a glimpse into the workings of the human heart and how people put that stiff upper lip on matters of great importance. As Rattigan’s career grew, he became a man with a great insight and understanding of the human condition. It is a great shame that French Without Tears was not a success with the public. It closed after only 60 performances and Rattigan became dismissive of his play, not allowing it to be published in his Collected Plays.  

The BBC revived After The Dance in the 1990s when they did a series of stage plays, again it received great critical acclaim. It showed that it was a play that had stood the test of time – its themes still as resonant now as it was then. It was a personal joy to see Theatre by the Lake resurrecting one of Rattigan’s lesser known pieces and it was a night filled with laughter, joy and despair.

All of the performances were excellent and I was particularly amazed to see Charlotte Hamblin, James Sheldon and Izabella Urbanowicz carry out such heartrending performances after having seen them the night before in another emotionally charged drama, Miss Julie. This is a play with many different, complex relationships and it shows how life’s dilemmas can take their toll on people of all classes. It was beautifully staged and a real gem of a Rattigan play.

After the Dance runs at Theatre by the Lake until Saturday 4th November.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Miss Julie – Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

The Writer

Written in 1888 by the Swedish writer August Strindberg, this “Naturalistic Tragedy” focuses on the tale of Miss Julie and two of her servants Jean and Kristin. To understand the play, it is perhaps wise to try to understand a little bit about the writer first.  

August Strindberg was born in Stockholm in 1849. His mother died when he was 13, his father remarried and he hated his stepmother. He attended the University of Uppsala and had various jobs, working in newspapers, teaching and libraries. He tried and failed as an actor, and his early attempts at writing were met with rejection.  He married the actress Siri von Essen in 1877 and he achieved his first critical success with his satirical novel The Red Room in 1879. In 1882 he wrote The Swedish People, attacking the nation’s values and earning himself many enemies. In 1883 he moved to France yet his writings still continued to cause outrage in his homeland. In 1887 he moved to Germany and a year later to Denmark where he wrote Creditors, Miss Julie and The Stronger.

Strindberg returned to his homeland in 1889, where he later divorced Siri. He moved back to Germany, marrying an Austrian journalist Frida Uhl in 1893, but they separated just a year later after the birth of their daughter. What lay ahead of Strindberg was many years of paranoia and mental anguish, most likely attributed to the overindulgence of absinthe. Towards the turn of the century he resumed his writing career, once again returning to Sweden to do so. He married his third wife, a young Norwegian actress whom he divorced three years later. In 1907 he fell in love with a 19 year old, Fanny Falkner, and died in 1912 of stomach cancer.

His attitude towards women and life in general was complicated. He was a man of many contradictions. He was a nihilist filled with romantic ideas, an atheist and socialist, he was interested in the aristocracy, yet empathised with the lower working classes, and he held a long-term love/hate relationship with his homeland. He loathed feminism, but he was so obsessed by women, you could say that he loved them as much as he hated them. It is little wonder he never held onto a marriage for long and was convinced that happiness was an impossibility of life. His ongoing pessimistic attitude to life is shown in his works, and Miss Julie, written when his relationship with his first wife was drawing to an end, shows his hatred towards the aristocratic classes.

The thing that most struck a chord when reading the text for Miss Julie, was the authors preface. It is unusual for a play to have such a long explanation levied on it, but it shows the thoughts flowing through Strindberg’s mind and his attitude to the theatrical audiences who were likely to see his work.

“the theatre has always served as a grammar-school to young people, women, and those who have acquired a little knowledge, all of whom retain the capacity for deceiving themselves and being deceived…” “…perhaps a time will arrive when we have become so developed, so enlightened, that we can remain indifferent before the spectacle of life, which now seems so brutal, so cynical, so heartless; when we have closed up those lower, unreliable instruments of thought which we call feelings, and which have been rendered not only superfluous but harmful by the final growth of our reflective organs.  The fact that the heroine arouses our pity depends only on our weakness in not being able to resist the sense of fear that the same fate could befall ourselves.” “That my tragedy makes a sad impression on many is their own fault…Everybody is clamouring arrogantly for the ‘joy of life’…as if the joy of life consisted in being silly…I find the joy of life in its violent and cruel struggles…”

The Play

Miss Julie takes place in the kitchen of a nobleman’s house one Midsummer’s Eve. The servants are having a party in the barn next door, and Miss Julie, the noblemans daughter, has been dancing with them all whilst her father is away visiting relatives (Miss Julie having refused to go with hum.) She has broken off her engagement having humiliated her fiancé, and has now turned her attention to Jean, the valet. He does not think it right she should show favour to one servant, however he agrees to go back to the barn with her. He returns to the kitchen to tell the cook, Kristin that Miss Julie’s behaviour is shocking. Miss Julie returns to the kitchen to demand that Jean changes from his livery into his plain coat, Kristin, ignored by both slips quietly off to sleep. Jean and Miss Julie tell each other of dreams they have had, but Jean warns Miss Julie of the dangers of playing with fire. When she asks if he has ever been in love, he admits to being in love with her. She begs him to take her away from this life and to a new one, but soon realises that she is just the first rung of the social ladder Jean intends to climb. He has taught himself French, and learnt the ways of the world from visiting the theatre, she realises that he thinks he is above her station, and that her attitude makes her below her own.

The next morning Kristen enters the kitchen, read for church. She is aware they have spent the night together and proclaims she cannot stay in such a house where people lower their standards. She tells Jean they must go somewhere else and be married, Miss Julie, distraught by this thought begs Kristen to leave the house and go with her and Jean to start a new life abroad. Kristen ignores her pleas and sets off for church, but not before saying she will tell the grooms not to give Miss Julie or Jean horses to escape by. Her plan thwarted, and her father back, there is now only one way out for Miss Julie…

Howard Brenton’s adaptation of Strindberg’s text keeps as close to the original Swedish text as possible, keeping alive and the dark and light of Strindberg’s twisted mind to keep the audience entertained and shocked by the brutality of the situation. Strindberg showed with great clarity the flawed nature of human beings, and those flawed characters are brought to life with highly engaging performances by Charlotte Hamblin, James Sheldon and Izabella Urbanowicz.

Whilst the set retains the period setting of Strinberg’s notes, the production still resonates with a modern audience as it did when first performed in 1889. There may have been a shift in class relations (no longer the upstairs downstairs of the aristocracy and servants) but there are still great social divides and inequality in society that destroy modern day relationships. Miss Julie allows us to question these dividends in a more romantic setting, where church bells ring in the distance, servants dance the midsummer night away in a hay strewn barn, and birdsong reminds you haven’t been to bed yet!

The Performance

The production starts with simple domestic task, Kristin is at the stove cooking, but by the end of the performance the pristine kitchen will show the remains of a booze fuelled night of passion and tragedy.

Initially, Miss Julie is the mistress of the house, in control and not afraid of outright flirtatious behaviour with her father’s valet. It’s all a different story after she has gone to bed with Jean however, no longer in control, Hamblin’s portrayal of Miss Julie becomes something akin to the wild child of the eighties, drink in hand pertaining to be the victim!

The intensity of Miss Julie is offset by the quiet, reserved dignity of Urbanowicz’s Kristin, as she bears witness to the infidelity of her fiancée Jean. No screaming or shouting, just a poised announcement that she is going to church and that she will tell the grooms as she passes, not to allow the horses out so that Jean and Miss Julie cannot make a bid for freedom.

Sheldon’s performance of the valet Jean has the light and shade of a man who resents his station; not only a servant, but servant to a woman. He dislikes being told what to do by her, but at the same time, his desire for her takes over. Kristin was an easy future, but it was Miss Julie who ignited his passion.
It’s the first time I have ever seen an audience member hand an ASM £20 after a performance saying “You should all have a drink on me. That was incredible.” I think that pretty much sums up the evening’s performance.

If you cannot get to the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (and you should try – really) Miss Julie transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre, London in November.

Chips by the lake before watching Miss Julie!

Links for tickets here:      Runs 30th June to 3rd November 2017  Runs 14th November to 2nd December 2017