Wednesday, 14 November 2007

118) Jenufa, Arcola

That's pronounced Ye-noo-fa by the way. I didn't know. This 19th-century tragedy (which was turned into a famous opera by Janacek) has been given its first British outing, via an English translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Beat that name if you can! From the beginning we are in familiar Arcola territory, i.e. some remote Slavic outpost under the nominal heel of the even more remote Ottoman emperor, but ruled really by local tradition and prejudice. It is a grim tale, a tragedy of Greek dimensions. However, I have to say that I found the first hour to be really quite dull - some interesting directorial choices regarding music/movement and pacing. The big hole in the middle was the girl in the title role - Jodie McNee as the hapless Jenufa turned in something of a colourless performance on the night (maybe she's better on other nights) but I had trouble believing that a girl as plain as that could be the prize catch of the village, even of a godforsaken Moravian village in the middle of nowhere. Her lack of panache or personality was manfully covered by Paola Dionisotti in the role of the devoted and worldly-wise stepmother Kostelnichka who'll go to some serious extremes to look out for her daughter - up to and including infanticide. Cue nemesis. Dionisotti was the key to the piece and she held it all together very well. The supporting cast was good too - Oscar Pearce in the role of the luckless lover Latsa did some heavy-duty glowering, while his rival Steva (Ben Mansfield) and the Mayor's wife (Patti Love) added colour to the proceedings.

The play gained considerable momentum after the first hour, and by the end Kostelnichka's gruesome comeuppance fair had me by the balls. Some of the most interesting bits came during the above-mentioned music and movement (designed cleverly by Christopher Sivertsen) - with very little in the way of piped sound, the cast used only vocal chords and physical movements to create the necessary atmosphere at key points of the story. Some excellent Slavic singing was the result. In the end, the audience was fulsome in its applause. A good production then, well worth checking out, but alas not enough meat in it really to lift it out of the crowded field that falls under the heading of 'competent play'. See it if you like.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

116) Five Tanks, Hackney Empire

Considering the number of struggling actors, musicians, artists etc who have done time in call-centres while they’re waiting for their next gig, you’d think that the call-centre play would develop into a mini-genre of its own. The inherent absurdity of call-centre work - nightmarish yet preposterous at the same time – ought to provide young writers with a rich source of comic potential and surreal drama. But that alas is not the case. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t that many call-centre plays out there, although Lab Ky Mo’s sophomore effort Five Tanks tries to go some of the way to fill that gap.

Let me say at the outset that there was quite a bit of promise in the play and plenty to like. For a start, not many contemporary plays based in London do full justice to its bewildering ethnic diversity. But Lab Ky Mo himself is of Chinese origin, and he’s taken into account the rich mix of peoples in this crazy capital. Call centres tend to draw people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that is faithfully reflected in the play. The setting is a call centre in Hackney: the callers are trying to conduct a government survey of minority business owners, their supervisors are trying to keep up the ‘strike rate’, and in the meantime it’s Ramadan and there’s been a bomb scare on the number 26 bus that cuts through the heart of Hackney.

Two of the characters are Muslim even. Not one, but two! One of them is Rehana, a typical East London girl, cute, hijabi and full of spunk. She’s assistant supervisor to Nick, a harried lad who hates his job – not an unreasonable feeling given that on the morning of his birthday, he is finding that getting his callers to actually make calls is harder than trying to herd cats. They are a fractious lot, to say the least. Bronwyn is the typical call-centre employee – ugly and badly dressed, she’s a failed actress with faded dreams. (In fact, how someone like Bronwyn could ever make it in the acting profession is a mystery. The character had zero style.) Saeed is the newbie, a black guy who used to be a trader in the City, but he got laid off and has now decided to keep his hand in by working in a call centre – he turns up dressed to work in a natty suit and tie! (I must say that that character didn’t convince either. Maybe Lab Ky Mo has met actual City folk in call centres, but they’re not very likely to deal with a spell of unemployment by doing this kind of work. Not in my experience anyway, but I could be wrong.) Like Rehana, Saeed is also Muslim and causes a bit of a kerfuffle on his very first day by demanding to pray during work hours.

Bronwyn and Saeed are the weakest links in the play. The cast is rounded up by Erno, a fast-talking Irishman who’s served in Iraq and who’s saving up to go to Australia to see his estranged wife and daughter; and Dougal, a man drifting through life, who I thought was the most interesting character of the lot. I used to know people like Dougal. Back in the Lost Years, I did two spells of call-centre work myself – first in Oxford and then in Glasgow – and Dougal reminded me of some of my colleagues. The ‘genuine strivers’. People who managed to immerse themselves in their meaningless work, who would come to work 10 minutes ahead of time and spend every minute in earnest effort and sincere calling. I mean it was (and still is) nothing more than minimum-wage slavery - and the most soul-deadening slavery at that - but working alongside people like Dougal and Richard, you’d never get that impression.


That’s what I liked about Lab Ky Mo’s writing – he’s faithfully captured some of the ‘types’ that work inside these hellholes, and he could only do it because he’s done time himself. He also captured some of the surreal pettiness that sours this kind of work. The insistence on ‘signing in’ at the correct times if you want to be paid for your work, and that unfailing injunction - ‘stick to the script’! Lord, they brought back memories! I always had trouble sticking to the script. At the Phone Room in Oxford, I had a couple of disciplinary meetings because of it, with that slick swine whose name I forget, a more oleaginous asshole in the workplace I haven’t met since. He’d call me up to the meeting room and play back my calls to me and then upbraid me. Sigh. It all feels like such a long time ago - and yet not long enough.

And then there were the breaks. Ahh the breaks. Rushing out to catch a fag or three in the 10 mins allotted to you, standing outside a bleak industrial shed in a nameless industrial park, hunched over next to the brick wall, trying to catch a ray of weak sunshine which in turn is trying to break through the grey cloud cover. All I remember from my call-centre breaks is the cloud cover. Does the sun ever come out over a call centre? Probably not. Only that one time I remember, summer of 2005, when for a few days the sun shone over Glasgow and we went out and sat in the lawn and burned ourselves up in the heat. But that was the only time. The rest of the time, it was cold, grey, hunch, fag. Scuffling your shoes in the industrial grit.

The odd thing is that like the characters, I too was in the call centre that morning of 7/7. It was called RHL. (Lab Ky Mo’s one is called ISS.) Surfing online, I was one of the first to learn about what had happened in London, and I called up my neighbours as soon as the news broke. More parallels…


But yes. Back to Five Tanks. Why Five Tanks by the way - a bit of a non sequitur, surely? It’s actually a reference to Erno’s time in Iraq, a battle that took place in a wadi. So, nothing to do with call centres really. Five Tanks – rather like Three Kings!

What about the play’s weaknesses? Alas, these were legion too. Although Lab Ky Mo has already met with some success on the arthouse/indie film circuit, the theatre game is new to him, and his inexperience showed through in the script as well as in the direction. Firstly, the humour - it fell rather flat. There were some good one-liners that raised a few chuckles, but these were few and far between. A funnier writer would have made hay with this kind of material, call centres being natural goldmines of comic surrealism. But not our Lab, so this was definitely a missed opportunity for him. (Don’t you just love saying that name though? I certainly do – Lab Ky Mo, Lab Ky Mo!)

>Some of the acting was weak as well – Bronwyn, Rehana and Saeed coming to mind here. This was partly due to the poor pacing and plotting – deliberate dialogue can also be deadly dull at times, and such longeuers almost took over the middle part of the play last night. Bad choices by the director there. The play was always at its most engaging when the fast talkers were on show – Erno the soldier and Nick the supervisor. When Bron and Saeed opened their mouths, it usually started to flag. The Braveheart speech was a serious bit of idiocy, though perhaps of a piece with Bronwyn’s utterly lurid character. But, in general, slow and stilted is not the way to go with this kind of stuff. D’ye hear me, Lab – you want fast and cracking!<

The level of detail about Muslim life was commendable – Lab Ky Mo is definitely an open-minded fella. But they should have gotten Saeed’s prayer movements right – this is something they always manage to get wrong, whether on stage or on screen. There was also a bit of attraction between Nick and Rehana, some heavy cross-cultural flirting going on - but that storyline was kept firmly under wraps.

Still, when all is said and done, Lab Ky Mo has learnt the most important lesson of all, which is that if you start well and finish well, your audience will forgive you a lot in the middle, and this was certainly the case last night. Lab Ky Mo finished strongly. The audience was well pleased at the end and congratulated Lab Ky Mo on the way out. He had been sitting right in front of me during the whole play. The only pity is that more people didn’t show up to see it - the galleries were barely half full. I think, with a bit of tightening up, a lot more Londoners could enjoy this entertaining piece.

So mo pawa to Lab Ky Mo. Lab Ky Mo! Lab Ky Mo!

P.S. Looks like the cute hijabi girl is actually a Bangladeshi rapper from Manchester. Give it up for Sarah Sayeed!

In Hackney

I’m having a bit of a creative conflict here, sitting in Hackney and trying to write about Alex the play! It’s not easy to put your thoughts together about super-rich investment bankers in the City of London when you are in the poorest, most deprived borough in the capital, waiting to see another play (Five Tanks) about life in a call centre. It’s going to be a day of extremes…

...So after seeing Five Tanks, I've decided to talk about that first.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

114) Glengarry Glen Ross, Apollo

In spite of David Mamet's standing as a playwright, I think most people are more familiar with his work on screen rather than on stage. Take for example Wag the Dog (released around the time of the Lewinsky scandal) or the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross which came out back in the mid-1990s. The latter boasted a stellar cast, an actor's Who's Who spanning several generations of Hollywood star power - Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, as well as Alan Arkin and Britain's own Jonathan Pryce. A quick check reveals six acting Oscars right there. The film made a fairly big splash back in the day, and it is this version of Glengarry that is probably the standard in most people's minds.

So imagine my surprise when I went to see the current revival of Glengarry at the Apollo over the weekend, and realized at one point in the proceedings that the Alec Baldwin character who delivered such a blistering speech in the movie to his demoralized band of real estate hucksters (a speech complete with swinging brass balls) - that character simply did not exist in the play! There were other, more subtle changes - Mamet's staccato rhythm had been moderated in the film version but it comes across much more effectively in the play. I was also somewhat surprised by the brevity of the script, its two halves adding up to no more than 80 minutes, and yet this is undoubtedly one of the great American plays of the postwar era, and as bitter an evisceration of the American dream in the age of Ronald Reagan as you could possibly hope for.

The question then being - did this version at the Apollo come up to scratch? If you are unfamiliar with the movie, then this revival does very well indeed. Jonathan Pryce is back, only this time instead of playing the hapless Lingk, he's playing 'The Machine' Levene, just as hapless but on the other side of the table. Pryce heads up the cast, continuing the recent trend of at least one household name to draw in the punters to see a straight play in the West End. However, I have to say that if you have seen Jack Lemmon's towering performance as Levene in the movie version, then Pryce suffers by comparison. Lemmon embodied perfectly the pathetic desperation of the aging salesman, he scrabbled for survival in his brutal world in a way that Pryce never quite manages to do.

Instead, the most fluent performance of the night comes from Aidan Gillen in the role of Ricky Roma, the golden boy of the firm, closing out deals with an ease that The Machine can only remember from his bygone prime. More good work comes from Peter McDonald in the role of the impassive lackey Williamson and Shane Attwooll playing the red-faced snarling cop Baylen. All in all, a very good show, but I'd be wary of paying too much for it. The deal that I got was priced just about right.

Monday, 5 November 2007

113) The Enchantment, Cottesloe

I went to see The Enchantment at the Cottesloe with very few preconceptions. I knew next to nothing about the writer (apart from her name and nationality) or indeed about the play. Having seen it, on its final night, I find it hard to believe that this powerful play had to wait more than a century for its British premiere.

What was it about? It was about the eternal verities – love, betrayal, death. It was the story of a cold, calculating man who breaks a vulnerable woman on a wheel. And it also reflected the life and death of its author, the 19th-century Swedish novelist and playwright Victoria Benedictsson.

It was only from reading the programme notes that I realized that Benedictsson, entirely unknown outside Scandinavia, is a famous figure in her native Sweden. Louise Strandberg’s doomed relationship with the sculptor Gustave Alland is based on Benedictsson’s own affair with the Danish critic Georg Brandes, an affair which ended with Benedictsson slitting her own throat in a Copenhagen hotel room in the summer of 1888.

The play started confusingly enough. With several characters jostling on stage, mostly of a similar age and background, I wasn’t entirely sure of who was who and what their connections were. Things only started to become clearer with the appearance of the cynical and manipulative Alland and his ruthless entrapment of the hapless Louise. Her friend, the strong-willed Erna (played by Niamh Cusack who seems custom-built to toil in these bleak Nordic plays) – Erna struggles to steer Louise away from the trap, but her message doesn’t get through.

Even though the first half of the play was set in Paris, in its soul it was Nordic through and through. Whatever the season outside, the emotional weather inside was relentlessly oppressive. And with the impassive Alland on stage, I spent large parts of the first half squirming in discomfort, half in self-recognition. Have I really been all that better in my own life?

In the second half, Louise returns briefly to her rural Swedish home. It is here that the bleak Nordic tone takes over completely – the rain falls endlessly as it did in Ghosts, the wooden halls are vast and bare as they were in John Gabriel Borkman, the men and women are stiff and tortured as they are in Ibsen. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was an Ibsen play.

And so Louise spurns the approaches of a bourgeois bank manager, spouting some very perceptive lines about the nature of work and what it means for some men whose lives would be an unremitting misery were it not for the daily dose of amnesia that employment provides. I wonder how many people in that theatre felt a pang of recognition upon hearing those lines.

In Louise, Benedictsson also captures the dilemma of migrant people who have come back to their original parochial settings, and their urge to return to the wider world. The artists’ life shown in this play was what the syphilitic Oswald had experienced in Paris before returning to his homeland in Ghosts. Once you have seen Paris or London or New York, can you ever really return to Skane or Dhaka and be content?

Pa-ris! What those two syllables must have signalled to Europeans of the late 19th century, how they must have sounded like an invitation to a glittering Babylon. Maybe it had the same resonance back then as the word ‘America’ used to have with people of my generation when we were coming into adulthood. Benedictsson beautifully captures that yearning for the big wide world.

So in the end, Louise must return to Paris to meet her fate. As her creator cut her own throat, Louise drowns in the Seine – but not before she has achieved ultimate consummation with her tormentor. As her body was dragged back on stage, I sat there, stunned by the story unfolding, by the extremes of the human condition that love can drive you to. Even after a hundred nights at the theatre, an experience that close to the bone can leave you shaken.

The play was superbly acted across the board. Nancy Carroll shone in the central role, capturing Louise’s initial hesitation and high principles, and her helpless resignation towards the end. Niamh Cusack was there at the Gate in Ghosts, and now I’ve seen her again doing Benedictsson – like I said, she’s tailor-made for this kind of stuff. Zubin Varla was an interesting piece of work – as Alland, he was impassive much of the time, his bearded face immobile, only his voice betraying any emotion. He also had this interesting tic where his face twitched and his eyes blinked every time his encounters with Louise were reaching an emotional peak. Looming over all was an illustration in the background, projected on a wall - the crouching figure of a naked blonde goddess, part Ayn Rand, part Leni Riefenstahl.

All in all, a satisfying night at the theatre. The National delivered again.