“PILOT” and “Kalagora”

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 25th and Wednesday 26th Janurary 2010

Going to watch works in progress at the theatre is always a risky business. For a start, we know nothing about what we’re going to see, and are going in blind. It also means we can’t tell how close to the initial vision the current production is; is what we are watching supposed to look like this? Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of this post, it makes it hard to review with fairness what’s on show.

PILOT is a collection of short pieces created by a variety of theatre companies and presented by China Plate. It was created to showcase new work in an informal atmosphere, and all the performances are still in the process of being made. Unfortunately, the fact that they’re unfinished isn’t the problem; their content, however, is. We are presented with Who Knows Where by Ed Rapley, a take on death, and Millions and Pliers’ Karinthy: There Is No Art Without Science, a performance by two clowns about brain tumours which tries far too hard to be funny. Drunken Chorus’ And Hell Followed With Them is most embarrassing, which consists of bodies being dragged around the floor and ‘clever’ lighting used to create ‘haunting’ images. But perhaps I’m being too harsh.

For this very reason Caroline Horton’s Mess stands out as the diamond in the rough. Two friends tell us about the play they’re going to perform which will tackle the issue of anorexia. A beautifully funny metatheatrical piece, it observes perfectly how devised productions can often seem no more than pretentious drivel. They explain how a sheet will be used “to represent struggle. And when it comes apart in the middle it will look like an accident but it won’t be”. Caroline Horton and Hannah Boyde (who appeared together in the brilliant Heldenplatz last year) play the central pair and create an intensely believable relationship. Just watching these two characters talking for an hour would be a worthwhile way to spend time. Mess in fact parodies much of the work presented by the other companies in the evening, and in doing to stands out as comedy of the highest standard.

Kalagora, on the other hand, is a carefully constructed one-man show telling stories about one man’s journey’s through cities of the world. We are transported to Mumbai, New York and London through use of poetry, drama, music and film. Written and performed by Siddhartha Bose, the story is clear, telling tales of love and loss, happiness and sadness, and how all come together in the city. His choice of words is impressive, telling us of “supernatual skyscrapers” and a city “of stars, bleeding into the river”, even if at times he tries a little to hard: “London’s like Shakespeare; everything and nothing”.

Another problem is Bose’s own performance skills; he has clearly never been told that Hamlet advised us not to “saw the air too much with your hand”. He also places his characters on either side of the stage, meaning he face constantly faces towards the wings. We’ve half a mind to stand up and shout “WE’RE OVER HERE!” Still, his characterisation is spot-on and it’s nothing a few hours’ work couldn’t sort. He is also supported by some impressive film footage and visceral music created by Pakaj Awasthi. For all its faults, Kalagora is an engaging tale about how a person can become a city and vice versa.

 

“Love is My Sin”

a collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets adapted and directed by Peter Brook at the Swan Theatre, Saturday 8th Janurary 2011

Shakespeare’s Sonnets were never written to be performed. They are clearly spoken by one person to another, and although drama is easy to find within the collection, it is not a narrative we would normally associate as a dialogue between lovers. Peter Brook’s production of Love is My Sin, however, orders a selection of these fourteen-lined snippets of genius in a way which shows a story with a clear beginning, middle and end while tackling some of the elements of love which Shakespeare himself considers.

Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington play the lovers who seem to be having a frank conversation about their affection for one another. Secrets are revealed, insults are exchanged and compliments are paid, and the sonnets seem to answer one another, even though they normally appear at different points in the anthology. The programme tells us that the piece is structured into sonnets which discuss “Devouring Time”, “Separation”, “Jealousy” and “Time Defied”, and even this simple ordering shows a clear development, and the shift from sonnets which talk of time being lost to time being defied offers solace. Brook has organised the sonnets in such a way, however, which allows the themes to flow from one to the other with ease.

Parry and Pennington both deliver the lines with utter truth, forcing us at times to forget we are listening to a selection of poems. They bounce off one another as if they were in a genuine Shakespeare play, taking what the other says to reinforce their own argument and speaking the words afresh. The complement each other perfectly, so that each is given moments of attack and defense, and they hold a gravitas within them which allows us to believe these are words which a couple would use in discussion.

In true Brook style, the stage is all but bare, forcing our attention on the words and emotions expressed. The Swan stage  is used without bravado, utilising the space while taking advantage of the intimacy of the venue. Harpsichord and accordion music played by Franck Krawczyk adds an extra layer to Shakespeare’s words, telling us perhaps the way in which the sonnet is being interpreted, and also hinting perhaps at the original court setting for which these words were intended.

The cutting of some of the better known poems is welcome, for not being as well acquainted with those on offer means we have to listen out more to what is being said. Love is My Sin looks at the sonnets from a completely new angle, and the setting of the verse within a clear structure and narrative extracts some oft-overlooked elements. It isn’t often that we come across performances of poems which work as pieces of theatre in their own right, but here Peter Brook has managed to create a production which makes us believe for a few moments that Shakespeare’s sonnets were supposed to be performed like this all along.

“King Lear” by William Shakespeare

at the Donmar Warehouse, Thursday 30 December 2010

Some plays are cemented in our minds as being epic, sprawling stories which could not be done justice on small stages. We may imagine them in huge spaces with dozens of extras and fancy scenery. King Lear may be one such play. It’s many characters, big themes and brutal wars suggest a play suited to big stages. And it is. But, as Michael Grandage has proved, it’s just as sensible to put it in a small area with a small cast, thus teasing out the humanity, forcing us to look at the micro rather than the macro.

While many productions look at the political elements of the play, or consider violence and all manner of other themes, Grandage takes it back to basics. Simple costumes, simple set and unpretentious performances come together to highlight the emotions in the play. The actors are put centre stage, rather than showy visuals or an overly-ambitious ‘concept’.

Christopher’s Oram’s whitewashed wooden set creates a space which can be both claustrophobic and open, without the use of unnecessary props. The most brilliant aspect of this set is that whenever it is splashed with colour – Gloucester’s blood, for example – it stays there for the duration, serving as a reminder of what has gone before. Neil Austin’s lighting design and Adam Cork’s sound are again straightforward, epitomised in the beautifully sedate storm scene, in which white light blazes through the cracks in the roof and a gentle wind swirls throughout.

All this would be useless, however, if it wasn’t for the exquisite acting on display. Especially engaging are Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan who together portray headstrong women and at times demand empathy; they are just as misguided as their father. Gwilym Lee as Edgar is also impressive, slipping from princely nobility to feigned madness with ease, and Alec Newman’s Edmund packs a worthy punch.

Nevertheless, for all the superb decisions made by the cast and crew, it is Derek Jacobi in the title role who holds the show, and, for the most part, the audience’s attention. Entering quietly in Act One, there is already a feeling of sobriety about his posture, and vocal irregularities suggests his world is already crumbling. In the second half, Jacobi comes into his own, and his portrayal of Lear’s madness is simply heartbreaking. He has reverted to childhood, oblivious to his family and friends until the last. There have been few moments as touching on stage in the last year.

This is a Lear for all time, refusing to be boxed into a certain period and retaining within a humanity relevent to all. Grandage’s skillful direction is beautifully understated, and it is only at the end we realise the “weight of this sad time”. Jacobi’s performance is the one that will be remembered, however, and rightly so. You’ll be lucky to find a better Lear in the next decade.