“Government Inspector” by Nikolai Gogol

in a new version by David Harrower

at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 25th May 2011

No play is utterly cohesive. There should always be discrepancies and arguments in theatre, asking questions and provoking thought. Sometimes, however, a lack of cohesiveness can come across as lack of thought. Richard Jones’ new production of Government Inspector tries to comment on the confusing structure of the text, but bizarre surrealism and cheap performances make it seem simply incongruous.

Gogol’s famous text is shown here to be no more than a country farce. An ambitious mayor does everything he can to appease a lodger in town who is supposed to be a government inspector. Vast quantities of roubles are exchanged and many lies told about the local amenities. Eventually, however, the townspeople discover he’s not an inspector at all, and that their time and energy has been wasted. It’s funny enough, but so many of the jokes in this production are found in base humour and jokes played without any truth.

David Harrower’s new version isn’t up to much, either. It isn’t a creative reworking, at times sounding like a word-for-word translation with a few updated idioms. A few good lines are lost among the rabble on stage and it plods along at either a snail’s pace or at the speed of light.

We are treated to a few good performances. Doon Mackichan as the Mayor’s Wife, Anna, is disarmingly naive, and Bruce MacKinnon as the town judge represents a provincial quality recognisable to us in Britain. As the ‘inspector’ Khlestakov, Kyle Soller gives a star turn with wild energy and disconcerting eyes. The name selling all the tickets, however, is far less impressive. In the role of Mayor, Julian Barratt is out of his depth. We get no sense of this official’s corruption, and he bumbles through his lines at such speed that the jokes plod without being allowed sufficient build-up; you expect more from an acclaimed comic performer. The other performances aren’t really worth mentioning; the rest of the bodies filling the stage are not much more than filler, without characterisation and with the apparent belief that they are acting in a pantomime.

The main fault of this production, however, lies in Richard Jones’ sloppy direction. Miriam Buether’s set suggests a Soviet-era setting, but there is absolutely no references to this at all in either costume or text. Surreal projections of the word “Incognito” appear in every scene change to the sound of UFO noises, black rats appear in the Mayor’s mind and sound effects by David Sawer drift from unknown places. Due to the differences in tone, performance and set, it is never clear what Jones is doing; if he’s trying to make a point about the messed up world of Gogol’s play, it doesn’t come through clearly enough. Mimi Jordan Smith’s green-wash lighting adds to the confusion, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes look like they’ve been sourced from an am-dram dressing-up cupboard.

There are a few genuinely hilarious moments in this production, but among the mess on stage it’s hard to pick them out. One recurring motif, the repetition of lines at the end of a scene, represents how many of the gags work; funny at first, but pushed to the extreme where they fall flat on their face. Perhaps this production will improve when it transfers to the Young Vic in early June, but as it stands at the moment it’s a wildly confused and rather flacid production which is in dire need of some cohesiveness.

“It’s Like He’s Knocking”

created and performed by Leo Kay

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th May 2011

Immersive theatre is on the up all over the theatre world, no less than at Warwick Arts Centre, where the current season is breaking the boundaries between audience and performer. We are being asked to interact with performers like never before, bringing us closer to the story and delving deep into the human psyche. In It’s Like He’s Knocking, Leo Kay proves there are two ways of engaging an audience: look them in the eye, and get them sozzled.

We are led through the bowels of the Arts Centre, winding up in a smokey dressing room, adorned to resemble a bedsit. Kay sits in a chair, playing an accordion, before proceeding to tell us the story of his past, present and future. Particular emphasis is placed on his father and grandfather, both of whom had extraordinary lives with tragic endings, and Kay uses this to hang on his own reservations, dreams and ambitions. It’s transfixing.

But this is more than just a monologue. It’s Like He’s Knocking is theatre, in every sense of the word. Interspersed among Kay’s speech are moments of sheer spectacle, which is remarkable considering the size of the space. One moment sees a pitch black room being lit by a tiny window to the outside world, illuminating Kay’s face to the tune of man-made sea sounds. In another we watch Kay and his musician, Mestre Carlao, stare each other in the face intently while playing the most extraordinary ritualistic music on accordion and tambourine respectively. In the finale, Kay downs multiple vodka shots while stumbling around the room, as lights flash and music blasts. It’s the sort of spectacle which wouldn’t seem out of place in the Olivier.

Towards the beginning of the piece, we are asked to drink a toast of vodka, immediately drawing us in. Later, we write down memories of our own childhood and partake in a small wager. As the piece continues, it slowly becomes clear why these are relevent. It’s a beautifully structured piece of writing; sometimes, we are listening to facts about Kay’s ancestors, and the next about how the performance gestated. Both are interlinked, each utterly dependent on the other.

Kay is mesmerising. It’s a touchingly honest performance, if indeed you can call it a performance at all. It’s so clearly from the heart that it feels wrong to call it something normally associated with pretence and externalisation. He takes us on a journey, keeping us hooked from the moment we walk in. When he looks you in the eye, he’s talking to no one but you. It’s supported beautifully by Carlao’s ethereal soundscaping, created using random objects and a looping machine.

The small-scale spectacle of this performance is not hindered by the intimacy of the venue, nor vice versa. At its heart, It’s Like He’s Knocking is a story about how a man arrived where we are sitting. Kay’s script (can you call it that?) is brutally honest and charmingly poetic, and he pulls at strings in our own hearts which we were perhaps not aware of. Without wanting to sound like I’m hyperbolising, I haven’t left a performance feeling so emotionally drained since Jerusalem. But maybe that’s the vodka talking.

http://vimeo.com/8860605

“Potato” by Tim Hodgson

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 19th May 2011

What we ‘know’ about the past has always been a pertinent debate. Just because we’ve dug something up and have evidence about a subject, can we say we truly know that it’s correct? There will always be the naysayers and always those who contrive evidence in order to prove their particular theories. This seems to be the main idea in Tim Hodgson’s new play Potato, but amongst all the talk about religion, death, sexuality, commercialism, love and the future, it becomes difficult to discern what Hodgson is trying to say. Ben Borowiecki’s ambitious production manages to succeed where the script fails.

We find ourselves right in the middle of an archaeological dig, taking place between the two incarnations of the Bull Ring Shopping Centre in Birmingham. As the old building is demolished and work begins on a new, these historians are between two worlds. The foreman Mamet presides over Washwood and Tim, who dig furiously to try to make discoveries before the bulldozers plough in. A major plotline includes Molly, Mamet’s assistant, finding a soul mate in the learning-disabled Spot, who has been hired on work experience. The play takes some absurd turns, and ends on a simply bizarre note.

There is some clear narrative intrigue here, namely in the drama of losing the site, and the idea of historicism is deftly handled. Hodgson clearly has some fascinating ideas, but he can find no way of exploring them other them spouting them through his characters, meaning they become no more than mouthpieces. The beauty of the words is lost due to minimal character development; anyone could be saying these lines. The vehicle is irrelevant.

There are some wonderful moments. When the Clerk enters, she is confronted with Rea’s dismissal of her as just a narrative device, asking “Which script gave you this attitude?” There’s an incendiary scene involving a discussion of The Merchant of Venice, including some of the best dialogue in the text, but again the lack of plot makes it impossible to compute. The concluding moments, although extraordinarily bizarre, are somehow haunting, leaving us with a sense of dread.

An ensemble cast deal well with a difficult text, managing to craft characters which have some sort of cohesion. David Levesley’s Mamet is a megalomaniac, deeply troubled by his past lies, and haunted by Kate Pearse’s childish Molly. Scott Menzies takes the innocence of Spot into his stride, finding his feet about halfway through during some genuinely touching moments. Most successful are Ali Pidsley and Tim Kaufman as Washwood and Rea, who provide much of the humour and allow us a way into this strange landscape. They are the two most human individuals, which is probably a reason for their success.

Technically, this production is a triumph. Two tonnes of soil have been shovelled into the space, supported by a raised stage placed in traverse. On one end sits Mamet’s shack, complete with typewriter and dusty bookshelves. Josh Cockcroft’s set gives some grounding to the text, allowing for some bold directorial decisions and a clever use of space. Olly Levett’s impressive lighting design supports this ethereal world, and Kenji Foster’s rumbling sound increases tension throughout, although both feel underused. Nevertheless, this is the best use of the studio space I’ve seen all year.

Potato is a case of the production being better than the text. Some impressive performances and an innovative design cover the fact that we are listening to a script which is difficult to follow. Perhaps I’m simply not clever enough to understand what’s going on, but with no journey there’s nothing to latch on to. Kudos to a production team for putting this together within the space of a less than a month, but one can’t help feeling that an extra few weeks with the writer in rehearsal could have been hugely beneficial to this promising new play.

“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 18th May

You can say what you like about the RSC – that they represent the establishment, don’t push boundaries and have too much funding – but, like Michael Boyd’s recent Macbeth, Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice proves that the company is once again trying to take risks, reinterpreting classics and showing them to be more than the stale stage versions we often see. Although Goold’s production isn’t without its faults, it presents a spectacle and a highly charged concept which brings out elements of Shakespeare’s text which weren’t previously evident.

Opening in true Gooldian style, with a casino pre-show followed by a song-and-dance routine, this Vegas production is brought headlong (gettit?) into the twenty-first century, and, for the most part, the text survives relatively intact. The world of excess in which the characters find themselves fits the themes of risk and greed perfectly and, like Goold’s ENRON and Earthquakes in London previously, we get a vision of a world obsessed by the material. Shifting the world of Belmont to a Deep South game show – “Destiny” – is nothing short of genius, offering a performative mirror to the showiness of Vegas.

The play, so often associated with racism, here becomes something different; this testosterone-fuelled world is exclusive of any sort of difference, showing our society to be a despicably intolerant one. The religious zealotism of America is the focal point – like gambling, believing in any form of god or otherwise is a risk. Some extraordinary moments in this production come through the sometimes heavy-handed concept. The ‘Destiny’ game show scenes are truly tense, and the final trial scene is stunningly performed by all.

In fact, the weakest link in this production is also its star name. Patrick Stewart, once again, plays Patrick Stewart, although this time with a dubious American accent. His two registers are more pronounced than usual, and he never portrays enough gravitas for us ever to take notice. The “If you prick us” speech comes out of nowhere and his voice simply limps through the space. Far more engaging are Jamie Beamish’s fantastical Launcelot ‘Elvis’ Gobbo and Howard Charles’ vicious Gratiano. Scott Handy provides a contemplative Antonio, and Richard Riddell’s Bassanio is the confident leader of a group of ‘Lads on Tour’. The performance of the evening, however, comes from Susannah Fielding’s aspirational Portia, whose pretence of putting on a classy public persona eventually forces her to break-down.

Tom Scutt’s garish blue and gold set-design evokes the trashy showiness of Vegas casinos, and Rick Fisher’s lighting makes the reflective surfaces both glamorous and grungy. Adam Cork’s music utilises Elvis, Duck Sauce and Glee, providing a perfect backdrop to Goold’s excessive world.

Although Goold’s concept sometimes comes through at the expense of the text in the first half, there are plenty of moments in which Shakespeare’s words are heard loud and clear. Some great performances and hilarious gags make this a highly watchable production which doesn’t see any issues with this ‘problem’ play. Goold and his team have once again created a spectacle, emphasising a material world, ploughing through and never looking back.

“The Lion King”

music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice

book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi

directed by Julie Taymor

at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday 15th May 2011

It’s not often you get to go back to see a show ten years after you first saw it. Like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King is slowly becoming a London institution. It has seen thousands of performances since its opening in 1999 and countless casts have passed through the Lyceum’s stage door. The first time I saw this production I was nine years old, so naturally my views have become more discerning, but Julie Taymor’s production of the much-loved movie certainly seems to have deteriorated rather than improved over time.

Anyone born in the 80s and 90s knows this story, as does any parent of children from that period. Disney’s The Lion King has moments of pure, heartbreaking emotion (you all know the scene I’m talking about), but in the West End version the performances are devoid of any motive. The actors are simply going through the motions; it is clear they’re copying their predecessors rather than finding their own feet in a character. Movement and intonation are so rehearsed that it’s like watching robots.

Some actors cope well with their limited direction; Shaun Escoffery as Mufasa works this well, as does Stephen Matthews as a zany Zazu. Funny turns are given from Nick Mercer and Keith Brookman as Timon and Pumbaa, and George Asprey as the evil Scar is suitably melodramatic and droll. But where it matters, the acting is shoddy. Although only young, Ralf Herborg as Young Simba never finds his feet and as his older incarnation, Dashaun Young understudies without much confidence. Narran McLean’s Nala is the weakest link, failing to capture any emotion and singing flat throughout the entire opening of ‘Shadowland’.

Even the good performances aren’t able to shine, however, due to the poor quality of Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book. Compared to the carefully understated screenplay, this text is over-written and contains too many lines which try to explain things to an audience, underestimating the intelligence of its spectators.

But for all its faults, Julie Taymor’s production succeeds in creating spectacle. Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics are stunning, as is Richard Hudson’s set design. A tribal, African world is created, revelling in native language and symbols whilst recreating scenes from the film beautifully. The most impressive aspect of this design is Taymor’s costume and Michael Curry’s masks and puppets, which put extraordinary life-like animals on stage in the way War Horse does. The only criticism is that they feel underused; we only see the impressive elephant in the opening Circle of Life’.

It’s such a shame that such a visually and aurally spectacular production has lost its way over the years, cutting out ‘The Morning Report’ and descending into skin-deep emotion. It’s clear that when entering a role performers aren’t given any leeway, meaning the script is only meaningful to children under eleven. The levels of emotion in the extraordinary reprise of ‘He Lives in You’ need to be sustained throughout for the story to have any impact beyond the colourful world Taymor has created. It seems all this needs is a bit of a shake-up and some acting coaching, which would once again cement its position as one of the ‘must-see’ shows on the West End.

“A Game of You” by Ontroerend Goed

at Warwick Arts Centre, 11th May 2011

There’s very little one can say in a review of a performance such as Ontroerend Goed’s A Game of You without divulging the details to future audiences. This is one of those things which will be ruined by any spoilers; something you have to experience yourself to truly understand. A Game of You asks us to reevaluate not only the way we view theatre, but also the way we view the self and our identity.

The audience member, alone, is taken through a series of booths and corridors as our mentor shows us more and more about ourselves, drip-feeding us snippets of information and asking us to do the same to others. We are watcher and watched, but never know which role we are in at any given time. It’s clear that how we want to be seen is never the same as the reality of our public persona.

It’s also fascinating to see how much of our own life story we place upon others, suggesting perhaps a need to find connections with others. Obviously, my experience will differ vastly from others’, but it wouldn’t surprise me if common themes are found across the board.

A Game of You, let me clarify, is completely safe, and you only ever reveal how much you want to. Yet honesty is the best policy here; only by saying the first thing that comes to mind at each point can you delve deeper into your personality. Being given a CD allows the performance to continue long after the ‘performance’ has ended, allowing our epiphany to remain ongoing. If you want to truly see yourself, you’ve got to see this.