“Bonnie & Clyde” by Adam Peck

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 26th October 2010

Although the actions of the infamous crime duo Bonnie and Clyde are well documented and have been retold numerous times, we know very little about their personal lives. Snippets of information about who Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were as individuals survive, but not enough to create a full image. Fairground’s production of Bonnie & Clyde tries to delve deeper into these two anti-heroes, and at the same time manages to create an evocative and beautifully imagistic piece of theatre.

We are introduced to the couple as they work their way through some argument, and at once realise they are real people. Granted, they drive around the Wild West thieving from banks and slaughtering innocent people, but we are forced to remember their intimate and passionate private life. Monologues are interspersed throughout the play, and we slowly realise that what we are witnessing are the events leading up to their death. If it weren’t for the prescient monologues, we wouldn’t know this, but this through line keeps the writing engaging as the couple struggle to understand one another.

Here is an example of how best dance and movement can be best incorporated into theatre. Under the direction of Tid, we watch Bonnie and Clyde fall and glide across the set during moments of calm. Unlike in many similar productions, however, this doesn’t detract from the narrative; these additions feel wholly warranted.

Images are used to great effect throughout. Instantly the scene on stage of a decrepit barn and thickets of off-white wheat evokes simplicity and an almost ideal world. A neckerchief is repeatedly thrown, and watching it slowly descend is both mesmerising and beautiful. Simply visual scenes such as these allow us to see the peace which the pair find in their relationship, away from their unspeakable crimes. Matthew Graham’s warm lighting design is used subtly in the small space, and the piece would be at a loss without Peter Swaffer-Reynolds’ extraordinary music.

Catherine McKinnon and Eoin Slattery as Bonnie and Clyde bring intensity and clarity to their respective roles. McKinnon is almost child-like, not completely understanding the situation in which she and her partner find themselves, and living constantly in a romanticised version of the world. Slattery broods, and is clearly a disturbed soul, but at times manages to bring some normality to the part. It is at these times, when they seem like an everyday couple, that are the most heart-wrenching.

Peck’s script, with the help of Tid’s skilful direction, asks us to question received knowledge about public figures. While it does not forgive or excuse the actions of Parker and Burrows, Bonnie & Clyde makes sure we see the human, private side to this story. The result is a beautifully poignant and inventive piece of storytelling.

“The Author” by Tim Crouch

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 19th October 2010

Very often hype can be bad for a play. A certain production is given so much press attention and has so many words written about it that on eventual viewing it may seem to lack the certain flair which has been discussed so frequently. In Tim Crouch’s The Author, however, the hype has seemed to add something extra to the production, although whether this reflects well on Crouch’s play seems to be a matter for contention.

Notoriously, the play considers the role of audience interaction, making each half of the audience face the other. There is no stage, and the actors sit among us, describing how they became involved with Crouch’s fictitious play ‘The Abuser’ and meditating on their experience. The content becomes more and more intense, tackling more controversial subjects and asking us to question the relationship between audience and actor.

Throughout we are invited to get involved with the debate, constantly being asked the questions “Can you see alright?” and “Shall I go on?” Spectators rarely answer, and even when they do it is only one word grunts. The few responses which are elicited from the crowd draw little or no response from the actors. Here is where the problem lies; what would happen if we were to answer back? Has this happened at all during the run? Where does this lead the play? The very fact that the play poses this many questions seems to suggest, however, that it is some respects successful.

The subject matter is of course shocking. The Author follows a tradition of shocking plays which includes Saved and Blasted. However, it doesn’t seem to be this which propels the intensity in the play. Rather, it is the hype surrounding this production which keeps us guessing as to what will happen and manages to convince us that what is happening could be real. The constant allusions to the Royal Court, however, are incredibly frustrating. In a conventional theatre, we can imagine being transported elsewhere, but when the actors keep referring to “this space” as the Royal Court when we are 85 miles away we do feel on occasion a strong desire to punch them.

Although the positioning of the audience and actors means that we are initially led to believe that we should not know who the actors are, once the text is initially spoken by Chris Goode as the mildly annoying audience member our suspense of disbelief is shattered. You see the script does not hold the nuances of everyday speech, nor do the actors speak it with truth. Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith as the supporting actors are both compelling, and Tim Crouch’s eyes alone draw us in, but ultimately we never forgot they are simply actors. But then perhaps this is the point.

The Author is not as controversial or as groundbreaking as many have suggested. Nevertheless, it is to an extent hypnotic and in the last thirty minutes highly intense. The very fact that over the past week it has been the subject around which many conversations have centred and from which most thoughts have originated suggests that it has been successful. Like it or not, this will be talked about for years to come.

“The Thrill of It All” by Forced Entertainment

at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 20th October 2010

It seems rare that a company’s name actually has much in common with their projects. It is doubtful, for example, that the employees at Virgin Media have never had sexual liaisons, nor that Steve Jobs uses many apples in the production of his products. Never has entertainment been so forced as in The Thrill of It All, searching blindly for gags and trying without apology to make a ridiculous concept seem meaningful. Indeed the only thrill here is leaving after two long hours.

The stage is fairly bare, with only a collection of homemade palm trees, a couple of rolled up rugs and a sofa to divert our attention away from the bewigged performers as they enter. They are out of time, tripping over their feet and others around them. Apparently this is hilarious. Even if it is funny it wears thin after the first song. What seems to be a joke carries on for what feels like days. A performer picks up a microphone. It makes her voice squeaky. Again, we are supposedly meant to find this funny. She exclaims that the performers are all wonderful and hopes that we will enjoy the show. We won’t.

Interspersed amongst the ‘dancing’ are monologues and interchanges between the characters. In their high-pitched tones the women contemplate philosophical matters while the men, whose microphones deepen their voices, discuss emotional and fragile thoughts. Maybe this is all enlightening, but their recurring and incessant metaphors allow for no engagement.

Towards the beginning it is announced that we will see a “smorgasbord of theatricality”, and in many ways this can’t be denied. Dance, music, comedy, direct address and clever use of lighting and sound very often add up to a highly involving theatrical experience, but in The Thrill of It All they leave us feeling even more deflated that we already were by the whole sordid affair.

Forced Entertainment are renowned for creating exciting and challenging work, but in directing The Thrill of It All Tim Etchells has subverted this view. What is supposed to be funny is humourless. What is supposed to be meaningful is vacuous. And what is supposed to be a good night out turns out to be one of the dullest productions of the year. Put that on the poster.

“Little Gem” by Elaine Murphy

at Warwick Arts Centre, 6th October 2010

Monologuing can be a very effective mode of storytelling, allowing us deep perspectives into characters’ lives and feeding information through a subjective mouthpiece. In Paul Meade’s production of Little Gem, however, the constant stream of monologues seems generally tiring and the play lacks overall focus and the narrative is tedious.

Much like Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should, the play is concerned with the differences and similarities between generations. Nineteen-year-old Amber has to cope with the consequences of pregnant, her mother Lorraine learns again how to act in a relationship and her mother Kay mothers her offspring while worrying about various sexual problems she’s having. The interplay between characters is cleverly unravelled, as we are slowly fed information and hear the story played out.

Murphy’s text shows that essentially each generation is faced with the same problems, and as all three women have experience of young mothers their apparent distance suddenly seems a lot less defined. The humour injected allows for some exploration of how we view those in different generations. One particularly funny storyline sees Kay questioning her recently purchased green sex toy, aptly named “Kermit”.

Although there are some wonderfully funny moments and poignant moments which follow on from them, the pace of the play is frustrating. At times, it feels like we are being talked at for twenty minutes about a five-minute event, but at others we speed through time without stopping for air. The monologues sprawl somewhat, without any clear direction, and often have no narrative drive.

The cast manages to bring resonance to the script and allow the stories to be somewhat engaging. Genevieve Hulme Beaman as Amber shows a naive and confused teenager, and Anita Reeves is brusque and honest as Kay. Neili Conroy, unfortunately, is slightly weaker as Lorraine, and seems to make some odd choices in her performance, which don’t quite ring true.

Alice Butler’s set seems slightly too small for the Warwick Arts Centre stage, and perhaps this is why the intimacy of the play’s text doesn’t come across here. This seems to be a play suitable for a studio space. Although funny, Murphy never really allows her play to stand on its own two feet. Where there is drama, it is swamped by background information, meaning we never truly engage. A clever concept perhaps, but one which leads us never to truly empathise.

Words, Words, Words

You may not know this, but I arrived at the University of Warwick yesterday. Did I mention that? Thought not. I’ve been asked by a few people to share with you the contents of my reading list, so thought that here and now I would do a quick low-down of what I’ll be reading over the next year. Supply and demand right? It also gives me a chance to get down my first thoughts on the texts I’ve read so far.

First the basics. Taking English and Theatre Studies, in the first year I take two modules taught by the English department and two by Theatre. The English modules are “Medieval to Renaissance Literature” and “Literature in the Modern World”, and for Theatre it’s “Introduction to Theatre” and “British Theatre Since 1939″. Simples.

Medieval to Renaissance Literature

This one is fairly self-explanatory. Only four texts here; The Canturbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and one which contains a selection of 16th and 17th Century verse (bit of Marlowe, bit of Shakespeare, can’t go wrong).

Fortunately, we start off with the earlier texts and work up to the Renaissance over time, meaning that the more indecipherable work is finished first. We’re thrown it at the deep-end with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried Chaucer with his wonderful rhythm and lilting sounds. Sir Gawain is basically the same but in a northern accent. At least Chaucer writes in a dialect I can understand. Nevertheless it’s a great story and thoroughly readable. On first reading it’s probably easy to miss a lot of allusions, but the humour and pace of the tale come through loud and clear.

Next we move on to Chaucer, specifically The Knight’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale. Not much in four weeks. I haven’t read any of these tales intimately yet but have an idea of the basic plot lines, and know that they all represent Chaucer at his best – witty, ironic and fantastically poetic.

The first four weeks of the spring term are spent poring over Wyatt, Sidney and the Sonnets of Shakespeare, followed by an in depth look at Spenser’s Faerie Queene. This could be interesting – The Faerie Queene is a pretty heavy read. Getting through that in a month is going to be a challenge. This party of the course finishes with a look at Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis.

In summary this module starts off with work which is pretty much a foreign language and finished with texts which, although not in a different language, are just as hard to understand.

Literature in the Modern World

It was either this or “The Epic Tradition”. Perhaps I chickened out by going for Joyce and Kafka over Homer and Milton, but the variety of the former was far more enticing. This module considers the changing role of literature in the first sixty years of the twentieth century.

The first few weeks are based around poetry in the modern world, taking in Thomas, Eliot and Carlos Williams among others. The works of T.S. Eliot are of course nothing short of genius and are a genuine joy to read, which is perhaps why I approached Edward Thomas with some trepidation. He was a late starter in the poetry world, not setting pen to paper until the age of thirty-six in 1914. His earlier poems are somewhat akin to Wordsworth, expressing the beauty of the countryside, but as he progresses the tone becomes far darker and the subjects more challenging. A change of style is clear, meaning that through Thomas’ poems we see a journey.

Moving on we look at W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories. His Collected Short Stories are incredibly easy to dip in and out of, and many of his tales read as fables for the modern world. My only qualm is that a framing device is employed in a large proportion of the episodes. Often this adds to the ideas presented, but on occasion it does seem contrived and unnecessary. No doubt I’ll be eating my words in a month’s time, however.

The next two weeks are bliss, as we take in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one of my favourite books, and some of Kafka’s short stories. Portrait really spoke to me when I read it for the first time last year, being the same age at the time as Stephen, the protagonist. Kafka offers a contrast to Somerset Maugham, being written in his distinct style. Now I know why I visited the Kafka Museum in Prague last year.

The latter books haven’t really yet entered into my field of conscience, except Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Orwell’s Essays. Later topics include writing about war and post-colonial texts.

Introduction to Theatre

This module does pretty much what it says on the tin. We look at the origins of modern theatre, performance styles, audiences and approaches to theatre. We also take an in-depth look at the work of the most prominent practitioners of the last 150 years.

British Theatre Since 1939

For me, this is perhaps the most interesting module of them all, as we look at the changing face of theatre over the past seventy years. The plays studied are fairly predictable, but that’s because they are so important, even today. The first text is Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (although the module is entitled British Theatre since 1939, the only taste of wartime and post-war plays is during the first week, through a lecture on historical context), followed Wesker’s Roots and Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. Most of you can probably guess the rest, but for the sake of others we then move onto Beckett, Pinter, Bond, Orton, Stoppard, Churchill, Ravenhill and Kane. The beauty of this module is that we study no more than one play a week, allowing us to really understand the text and have plenty of time to read up on the respective playwright.

So that’s my reading list. Pretty good, huh? Any thoughts on the texts? Are there any which you couldn’t bear to study? I’d love to hear what you think. The more interpretations the better.

Right I’m off to grab some onions and meet some more lovely people, so that’s it for now. Oh, and I’m having a fantastic time. Thanks for asking.

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

at the Olivier Theatre, Friday 1st October 2010

I’d like to start this review by stating that unlike many reviewers, I will not be comparing Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of the Danish Prince at the National Theatre in their bleak version of Hamlet with that of John Simm, Jude Law or David Tennant. Although there seem to be allusions to earlier prolific productions, this production stands happily on its own two feet. Nicholas Hytner’s direction shows a seemingly private family quarrel turn into a public conflict with extreme consequences.

Hytner’s approach shows how life viewed by family and life viewed by outsiders can so easily mix and cause breakdowns. Although it is a theme that has been highlighted before, the Olivier stage accommodates a scaling up of some events to epic proportions. The programme notes seem to suggest that this is a political interpretation, but in reality this seems far from true. It is the intimate scenes which hold more weight, and Claudius’ reign is not tyrannical enough to allow this idea to come through. Alright, we’ll meet half-way; it’s a representation of familial politics.

Although the central female performances are impressive, with Clare Higgins as a Gertrude verging on alcoholic and Ruth Negga as a strong but confused modern Ophelia, both seem to fall behind in the second act. Higgins’ reaction to her son’s rage isn’t entirely comprehensible, and neither is Negga’s madness. Patrick Malahide and Giles Terera as Claudius and Horatio respectively offer good, albeit slightly underplayed, support.

Kinnear, however, excels. His verse is clear and beautifully spoken; Kinnear relishes the words whilst making them utterly believable. He is in turns a child, adolescent, prince and wise old man. The ease with which he switches between personas is extraordinary and he carries the production. On reflection, perhaps this is why the rest of the cast performs with subtlety. With this approach, the central role stands out all the more.

Technically, the production is a triumph. Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious semi-Neo-Classical set has the feeling of ministerial-mansion-cum-mental-institute, and Alex Baranowski’s music plays beautifully underneath the more emotive scenes. Jon Clark’s lighting, however, is something to behold, allowing figures to appear out of nowhere and add to the actors’ expressions. It is perhaps the most accomplished lighting design you will see this year.

Hamlet is in previews at the moment, and will naturally pick up pace as press night approaches. It doesn’t necessarily do anything new or break any boundaries, and isn’t the Hamlet of recent years which will be remembered. All the same, under the accomplished direction of Hytner, Kinnear is worth the ticket price alone.