Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Winslow Boy, Rose of Kingston

The Winslow Boy and I have history. Going back to school, the key scene of this Rattigan play was vaguely familiar to me from the pages of Rhodri Jones’ timeless textbooks. The Winslow Boy accused of theft, expelled from naval cadet school, returned home in disgrace, interrogated mercilessly by the ferocious Sir Robert Morton. All this was familiar to me from school days.

Then I moved to the US and I looked up the play, read it as I also did Rattigan’s French Without Tears. Sitting on that warm balcony in Denton, Texas. When I first learnt that The Winslow Boy was about to be staged at the Rose in Kingston, starring Tim West no less, I knew right away that I was going to have to put this on my priority list. Even if the Rose is a long trek from the city.

The only question that remained was the reviews. Did the critics like it? When Billington gave it 4 stars, my mind was made up. I was going to Kingston, even though my last trip there resulted in an encounter with that epic asshole Richard Bean.


What a triumph it was. What a performance. It started off in cracking fashion, Ronnie come home, hiding out in the garden, getting wet in the rain while his grouchy old father let fly acerbic one-liners in the most casual fashion. Tim West was in great touch, although at times I thought that he might be playing a bit too throwaway, too low-key. But it all added up to a performance of great power. They were all fantastic, the callow Dickie who is taken out of Oxford and finds fulfilment in Reading!, the hapless Curry, once glorious with bat and ball, now a middle-aged solicitor, a total nobody, the mother who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with grim dignity. Even the child Ronnie, oblivious to the national furore that he has caused.

The two central roles then. Claire Cox played the suffragette daughter Catherine with immense conviction and weary pathos. She gives up on her love for the sake of her principle. And Adrian Lukis plays the eminent barrister Morton. It was a very strange take that he had on his character I thought – a nasal deadpan is the best description, a blank expression combined with dispassionate delivery. And yet, in the triumphant grilling scene that plays out just before the interval, his voice rises along with his outrage and fills the hall. The midpoint curtain fell to rapturous applause. It is the same after the interval – Rattigan’s technique is so finely honed, even without leaving the Winslows’ living room for one second in the four acts, he keeps the pace going at a gallop, the audience breathless and keen in his wake. It’s written as tightly as a thriller.

But then in the final act comes heartbreak and pathos. Cate loses her fiancé, and every line of her face is carved with pain, but she knows, she knows what she must do. Let Right Be Done. On the other hand, there is Sir Robert, who has given up nothing less than the role of Lord Chief Justice in order to pursue the Winslow case to its end. As the scales fell from Cate’s eyes, the hairs rose on my arms, my eyes unbidden moistened and my throat constricted, and I knew then, in the final act of the play, I knew that this night had passed that fine barrier from ‘good’ to ‘great’, it was then that that fifth reluctant star was wrung out of me.

I rarely give out five stars to the London stage, but last night was nothing but highly deserved. It will stay very long in my memory. I’m glad too that my childhood classic was elevated to such a soaring production. So let right be done, let this show be shown up and down the land, but most of all in London on a very long run!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

More Light, Arcola

A perfect little gem of a piece at the Arcola yesterday, in their Studio 3 no less, which is right off Studio 2. I’d never been inside 3 before. The first thing that hit me when I entered was the set – the ethereal beauty and grandeur of the Middle Kingdom had been somehow brought to life. The golden gates to Shih Huang Ti’s tomb shimmered, set off by ruby-red Chinese lanterns in the dark cavernous space. Together they provided a fine setting for the grotesque tale that unfolded.

The great emperor Shih Huang-Ti has died. All those who accompanied him in life must die too, inside his vast funereal complex consisting of outer rings and inner rings. In the innermost chamber, with the emperor himself, are entombed alive seven mistresses who bore him no sons. All robed in in black gowns, they are led nominally by the quick-witted More Light, played with terrific zest by the director herself, Catrina Lear.

As they are locked inside and the dark engulfs them, they unleash a blood-curdling scream of horror that chilled the very bones of this viewer. Soon though, they recover some of their composure. How to solve the problem of food? Simple. Eat the emperor himself. What price lines like these – “his love member that tasted of cheese, though we were already familiar with that, having tasted it often in the past”! Bryony Lavery’s script was a constant delight. What was just as fine was the ensemble work by the actresses, playing the roles of mistresses with names like More Light, Pure Joy, Playful Kitten and other such harem monikers. Even though their use of language is always ornate, proper and formal, it still manages to reflect the doom that has fallen in on them.

The girls unbinding their long-bound feet is one of the more joyful scenes in the story. Shedding their heavy robes, they skimp about in identical red undershirts. More Light goes off in search of help, is waylaid by a eunuch with whom she forms an affection of sorts. Two other girls go semi-lesbian. One girl creates naïve art that she hopes will live long after they are dead, to be discovered by generations who will arrive centuries later. Another girl, a fierce blonde, finds herself taking charge as others falter. The music enhances the horror, as do the darkness, the lighting, the looming silhouettes of the vast bronze soldiers. It’s all over in 55 minutes but for that period, you are given a penetrating insight into a different world, a different people, a different time. The insight may or may not be exact, but you get the feeling that it might not have been so far from the truth after all.

This is the best kind of theatre. Savvy and transforming – theatrical in the true sense of the word. Kudos to the cast and crew, many of the girls were making their professional debuts. Afterwards, I even had a brief chat with Judith Musil (not related to the writer) who played the role of Pure Joy. Light grey skies and a cool wind over Hackney, and I walked off into the evening.

P.S. Big rumpus in the blogs - see Guardian, Whingers and Madam Miaow. But most particularly, see Catrina Lear's own comments in Lyn Gardner's post. Powerful stuff.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Burnt by the Sun, NT Lyttelton

Went to see Burnt by the Sun at the Lyttelton last night. Renowned Russian movie turned into a stage adaptation by Howard Davies. The story is one of lost love and treachery at the height of Stalin’s purge, and a grim tale it is too. General Kotov is a bigwig in the party apparatus, complete with dacha in the country. His wife is entirely too lovely and too young for him, but they have a precocious little daughter and seem content enough. A whole posse of mothers, grandmothers and other extended family spend their summer holidays at the dacha, thanks to the General’s generosity. In the middle of this soporific idyll (and the first half of the play IS dead slow) enters Mitia, a blast from the past and not in a good way. Mitia was Maroussia’s beloved before he disappeared inexplicably; now he has come back after 12 years to stir the pot. After the interval, the plot slowly uncoils with gut-wrenching horror – Mitia is here at the dacha at the behest of Stalin himself. Kotov is to be extinguished in the purge. The final scenes are almost unbearable in their evocation of terror and wanton, random violence.

What did I make of it all? Evidently the second half of the play was far more gripping than the first. That however could be attributed to the nature of the source material. But I have some other gripes. Firstly, Howard Davies’ literal approach to theatre-making is wearing a bit thin on me. The cheap attempts at realism – realistic sets, realistic props, etc – there’s no artifice in his approach. Unadventurous I think is one way to describe this brand of theatre. Secondly, the cast. I think Ciaran Hinds and Michelle Dockery were excellent choices in the role of the earthy Kotov and his porcelain wife. However, as far as I am concerned Rory Kinnear, fine actor though he is, was fatally miscast. He is entirely too youthful, too callow to pull off the role of Mitia convincingly. Who should have been played with more scars, more pathos, the weight of a dark history. I don’t think Rory was the actor for that.

Other cutesy touches – the beach scene, the gas masks, the Pioneers paraphernalia – you could either praise as earnest, or dismiss as earnest. What is undeniable is the power of the last half hour of the piece. The tension rises, the horror multiplies until one can hardly bear it. When Mitia says to his henchmen “Clear up this mess”, the gunshot that kills Mokhova’s old beau is so sudden, so casual in its finality, that the whole audience jumped.

All in all, it was a competent but not transforming night at the theatre. There was a young blonde girl dressed all in white in the row ahead and a more annoying bitch you never did see. People like this should have their names put down on the banned list of every theatre. Her phone went off twice and she insisted on talking, whispering, crumpling packets, and generally raising all hell and pissing the fuck out of everyone around her. Thank God they exited before long. I had to throw in my dig – ‘don’t come back’. The girl who played Kotov’s daughter was crying at the curtain call, which was really rather sweet – this was the final performance and it must have got to her, poor thing. Lastly, I saw old Trevor McDonald in the bar during the interval, hair all white, sitting on his own.

P.S. The other recent purge play at the national – Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is about to be revived next year. I think I’ll go see it again, seeing as I slept through much of it first time round.

P.P.S. Thanks to Sanjana for helping me rediscover this blog. This is my first post here in a year and a half!