“Kafka’s Monkey” by Colin Teevan

based on “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 30th May 2012

It’s no secret that the works of Franz Kafka are concerned with alienation and entrapment. His entire body of work is built around this central theme, and Kafka’s Monkey, based on “A Report to an Academy”, is no different. But styled as a lecture given by Red Peter, a man who used to be an ape (not a monkey, tut tut Kafka), there is also something liberating about Colin Teevan’s script, ending as it does with a creature’s discovery of humanity.

Before gushing about Kathryn Hunter’s captivating performance as Red Peter, something has to be said for Teevan’s carefully crafted text. Like the original, the story is presented to us as a lecture punctuated with flashbacks. The way in which this man turns into a monkey is irrelevant; what matters here is that the human we see before us was once an ape, trapped by other men and used for their entertainment. Once learning to act human, however, Peter is able to recount this story, freeing himself from the confines once imposed upon him but implicitly buying into the way of life which once imprisoned him.

This tension between freedom and entrapment is explored by Teevan’s use of a form which lies somewhere between prose and poetry. The structures and formalities required for giving an academic talk are shattered by a more liberal approach to storytelling, as the context and content play in direct opposition to one another. Though the transformation is in the opposite direction to Gregor’s in “The Metamorphoses”, the links are clear; like Kafka’s beetle, Kafka’s monkey is not wholly at home within human skin; perhaps we’d all be better off, is the suggestion, if we deconstructed social norms to discover a more autonomous lifestyle.

Embodying in her physicality all these textual contrasts is Kathryn Hunter. Astonishingly, she captures the gait of both an ageing man and an adolescent ape, entangling gestures of both and shifting from one to the other in a second. She darts around the stage, right hand aloft, climbing ladders and pounding the floor. Her skill is masterful.

Hunter’s movement alone would be startling enough, but coupled with her wit and verve as a speaker it becomes a performance of intellect too. Every word is somehow joined to a physical trait, and each feeds into the other. At times, the monkey-business is switched off so we engage with Peter the human, who impresses us with his humour, before he bounds up to the stage again and reverts to simian physicality. The most impressive moment occurs when Red Peter discusses his relationship with alcohol, as he sits in a spotlight and looks at the audience as an ape. For a minute, Hunter is not human.

This success is partly due to Walter Meierjohann’s no-frills direction, but I imagine most of the responsibility lies with the performer’s utter power over herself and her character. And though Kafka’s story relates heavily to confinement and the ways in which we entrap ourselves and others, the sheer passion Hunter lends to this role means that we leave the theatre feeling a little more free than when we went in.

 

My Pinterest board of the production: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/kafka-s-monkey-by-colin-teevan/

“Posh” by Laura Wade

at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Tuesday 29th April 2012

When Laura Wade’s scathing attack of the upper classes was premiered at the Royal Court two years ago, things weren’t looking too bad for the Tories; they were up in the polls and after nineteen years of obscurity it looked like they were going to get their well-preened mits back in control of the country. Well, we all know what happened next. They got a pretty bum-deal  having to sleep with the Lib Dems and have spent the last couple of years doing their best to ruin the country whilst their ratings drop every month. This is the climate in which the boys of Posh now find themselves, and though most of the play remains the same, a few changes have kept the production alive and capitalised on the current state of things.

On the whole, my thoughts on the play and Lyndsey Turner’s production haven’t changed much since my last viewing, though I must admit after a couple of years at university the characters have become all the more real. Though Warwick has a relatively low intake of public school students, I’ve been unfortunate enough to come into contact with people made in the same mould, who – no word of a lie – use words like “savage” and “lad” as adjectives and genuinely believe ordinary working people are “plebs”. This, coupled with the fact the upper classes are now in power and directing public policy, makes Posh arguably more resonant in 2012 than 2010. Two years ago, it was a play demonstrating how the toffs felt sidelined and demonized by New Labour. Now that we’ve seen the way they work, however, it becomes a critique of their anger with general society and the pure selfishness and bigotry of some wealthy individuals.

The anachronistic a capella renditions of popular songs have been updated, and now include ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and ‘Pass Out’, whilst Joshua McGuire as Guy Bellingfield looks more like a smaller, scrappier Tom Hollander than ever. The cast is still superb, with Steffan Rhodri stepping in to play the part of the Landlord, offering more of a proud tone than his predecessor. Both the Henry V speech and the monologue which ends Act One with “I’m sick to fucking death of poor people” remain as stand-out moments of writing and the play is still just as funny.

Now that the Tories are in charge, there’s even more of an air of entitlement amongst these students as previously. They feel now that they have a right to take back what was theirs all along, and the chilling final line “People like us don’t make mistakes, do we?” resonates when placed in the context of our current u-turn prone government.

But perhaps due to the recent history of the masses rising up in both the UK and abroad, Posh now feels just as much a representation of ordinary people rising up as it is a savage attack on the rich. The Landlord, his daughter Rachel and the visiting prostitute all take a stand against the “ultimate extravagance” of the Riot Club and refuse to put up with their boisterous goings-on. The thrown fire-extinguisher and sprayed graffiti during the trashing scene reminds us that this class is just as prone to vandalism as the others. The only difference is they can pay for it.

Much has been discussed on the lack of sympathy felt in Wade’s play, though when the aim is to lampoon the upper classes this hardly matters. When they talk of poor people not doing any work and getting money for it, a clear hypocrisy is highlighted. Why should we feel sympathy for these people when they feel no sympathy for others? Whilst there are millions suffering and we worry about those with less than us, we can hardly be expected to consider those better off. They don’t need our love, so let’s not complain when playwrights pen plays which don’t attempt to make us feel sorry for them.

 

My first attempt at a Pinterest ‘review’ here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/posh-by-laura-wade/

“Three Kingdoms” by Simon Stephens

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Thursday 17th May 2012

I am well aware that I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. By now, it feels like most of the young theatre-going population has seen Three Kingdoms, and the debate which has ensued online has proved that the production is nothing if not provocative. In my opinion, the very fact that Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling have created such a ruckus is proof enough that this is a brilliant piece of theatre; after all, isn’t that one of the main purposes of theatre – to inspire discussion? And if you don’t agree that this is a game-changer for the shape of British theatre, I’m afraid you’ve been proved wrong already; by putting it in these terms, bloggers and theatremakers alike have now set a benchmark. Even if not all British theatre ends up like this (and that, naturally, is extremely unlikely), a whole generation of practitioners have just had their brains pushed into action.

Now let’s be clear about this. This is by no means the best production you’ll see this year nor even the best new play of 2012. Quite aside from the much-discussed – though arguable – misogyny, Stephens’ script isn’t overly exciting in narrative structure and Nübling’s production fails to really affect an audience. But where Three Kingdoms excels (and the reason why it will be influencing British theatre in the next decade) is in its ideas and refusal to patronise its audience. Unlike many shows currently performing in the West End, the production team here wants us to actively question and consider what is happening on stage rather than simply guzzle it up; we aren’t treated as consumers but as adult, thinking human beings.

I’m ignorant about Estonian theatre, so it’s difficult for me to understand exactly where Ene-Liis Semper’s home culture permeates Three Kingdoms, but it’s clear that the visual tradition of German theatre and the linguistic basis of British theatre are placed together so they may interrogate and shed light on one another. Stephens’ poetic and – for want of a better word – deep text often sheds light on the carnivalesque imagery in Nübling’s direction and vice versa, whilst Semper’s design accommodates the shifts in the dialogue from stark realism to utter surrealism.

The play focusses around the character of Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) who, with his associate Detective Sargeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts), travels to Germany and Estonia to understand the death of a prostitute working in London. Stephens raises questions about the work and trustworthiness of the authorities in Europe and manages to highlight some of the issues surrounding sex trafficking, such as freedom of choice and quality of life, but in themselves the themes of the play are not that ambitious or challenging.

What is subversive, however, is Nübling’s unashamedly theatrical representation of the script, which uses excess to comment on excess and gratuitous violence to examine our violent world. Some have argued that these aspects simply indulge in the very ideas they rail against, but they forget that we are viewing a stylised representation of these acts so that we may be alienated from the subject and attempt to comprehend the immoralities. To me, this argument feels like a more adult version of the “video games create murderers” debate; the audience is intelligent enough to understand that what is occurring on stage is not okay. Before we can begin to tackle problems in the world we should at least be mature enough to face and discuss them.

There is an elegant simplicity to Semper’s box design, which draws attention to the blemishes on its surface like the pencilled height lines and blood in the corner, left in plain view from previous performances and reminding the audience that what we’re watching is a fictional performance. The various entrances and exits create a liberating claustrophobia, entrapping the cast even though there is a way out. Through the bar-window at the back of the box, cleaners creep along as if on a conveyor belt, and heads pop up unannounced. Though it’s utilitarian, is also houses the spectacle of Nübling’s vision.

Lars Wittershagen’s music adds yet another layer to proceedings, containing within it a quality which seems to halt the show when it’s used. The diversity of songs used is both comedic and exciting, as the heady words of, for example, the Beatles is juxtaposed brilliantly with the bleak world on stage. Risto Kübar’s performance as the singing ‘Trickster’ gives the notes an ethereal air.

The different styles of acting utilised for this production heighten the collaborative nature of the work, emphasising the differences in cultures and language. There isn’t one weak performance, but Tennant, Roberts and Steven Scharf as Steffen Dresner stand out; they are the emotional and comedic heart of the piece, and if it wasn’t for them the narrative thrust may fall apart. Tennant is the everyman and, try as he might to be liberal, thoughtful and kind, he is constantly let down by the world around him. His questionable morals and dubious background serve to make him all the more engaging, and though he doesn’t bare as much as other actors physically, his emotional depth is nothing short of remarkable.

I am in no way an expert on European theatre, but what’s fantastic about Three Kingdoms is that, compared to the few productions I’ve seen on the continent, it fits in visually. Particularly brilliant is the party scene towards the end of the play, complete with dancing transvestites and trippy music, revelling in its own amateur nature while chaos occurs downstage. The simplicity in the motifs repeated in the first and last scenes is equally memorable, as are the sequences representing travel between locations. Nothing is simply ‘shown’, and Nübling always takes care to use the most inventive way of staging any given moment; this is theatre, after all, so why should things be done exactly as they are in real life?

The only thing groundbreaking about this is that it’s being performed on British soil; otherwise this is very similar to the kind of theatre our cousins across the channel are accustomed to. This is collaboration in its truest form, where different parties work together and use one another’s ideas to shape a creation; in Three Kingdoms, text, design and direction go hand in hand in hand, and it’s not difficult to see similar projects coming along in the future, perhaps with different permutations of which nationality fills which role. And, as the world gets ever smaller and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to travel, more young theatre makers will experience work abroad, until there comes a time when the British theatre establishment isn’t idiotic enough to call itself “the best in the world” but instead attempts to become part of a more open, invigorating and global discourse.

“King Lear” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Thursday 17th May 2012

I have never experienced a deeper silence at the Globe. As Lear wheels on his executed daughter and mourns her passing, everyone stops moving, stops breathing even, and seem to synchronise their heartbeats in order that we can comprehend more fully the enormity of the situation played out in front of us. For a minute at least, London seems to stop for this experience to take place unencumbered by external factors.

What lies at the heart of the Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear is a defiant sense of passion, and the freedom to express feelings no matter what. Naturally, this is helped by our knowledge of the company’s background, but what comes through loud and clear is the importance of speaking out; only once the characters in this production have made an attempt to put their thoughts into spoken words to they achieve some kind of happiness.

Vladimir Shcherban’s production presents us with an utterly broken state, which punishes those who fight against corruption and causes its population to turn mad. The company is careful not to show us black-and-white portraits, as our sympathy constantly shifts; no one is completely good just like no one is completely evil.

Nicolai Khalezin’s adaptation plays freely with Shakespeare’s original, intercutting additional scenes (such as Cordelia singing about her father) and changing the emphasis in the last few scenes so we watch the demise of the leads. Once again proof that Shakespeare is not sacred and his that his texts can and should be adapted in order to present specific ideas.

There is an urgency in the ensemble’s performance which heightens the sense of passion (though sometimes it’s difficult to hear them). The cast has been pared down to its bare essentials in order to tell the story more clearly, and although some may complain of the inaudibility of the actors, I found that the juxtaposing of loud choruses with quiet speeches underlined the message of the people having power. Pavel Garadnitski’s Gloucester, though young, does a fine job of portraying the anguish and loneliness of this man, aided by the fact the stories of Edgar and Edmund have taken a back-seat to make way for the three sisters. Victoryia Biran’s Cordelia is not the quiet, waif-like creature she is often portrayed as, instead preferring a more sinister approach in order to be on par with Goneril and Regan. They are played by Yana Rusakevich and Maryna Yurevich respectively, and preside in an utterly self-interested sphere, so much so that their relationship verges on incestuous. At the centre of it all is Aleh Sidorchik’s  arrogant Lear, whose decent into madness comes extremely early and who is less concerned with the love of his daughters than cold, hard power, which only serves to make his final realisation all the more painful.

This production shows a superlative understanding of the importance of imagery in theatre. Nice ideas like using real earth to demonstrate the delineation of land and playing with the concept of mental and physical ability reach their climax during the stunning storm scene, using only a large tarpaulin, some water and a couple of long coat tails. It’s as good a storm scene at you’ll see at our subsidised powerhouses at a fraction of the cost. In an intelligent twist, Shcherban brings back the idea during the battle scene but substitutes the blue tarp for a red one. This, coupled with the high-pitched moans of a saxophone and Belarusian poems by Andrei Khadanovich, makes for a chilling finale.

It’s difficult to do this production justice in one review; the sheer dearth of ideas and intensity of the final scenes is difficult to put into words. It’s a remarkably brave and determined production, and though it is deeply tragic there is also a pure optimism discovered in the reappearance of the bodies in the final image. This feeling of hope is exacerbated by the tension released by a company who has to perform in secret in their home country having free reign in the most public of theatres. We know, like Kent, that awful pasts can be confined to the shelves of history if the masses come together to share their passion.

“Henry VI Part 3″ by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sunday 13th May 2012

As someone who is of a generation whose collective memory kicks in just as peace was being restored to the Balkans, it’s easy to forget the region’s turbulent past. Henry VI Part 3, presented by the National Theatre Bitola in Macedonian, manages to remind us of these terrible wars whilst maintaining a light-hearted tone, commenting on and joking about the nature of conflict.

John Blondell’s production is smart, stylish and slick. In a pared back and intelligent aesthetic, everyone wears a deep blue, with accessories to determine whether their allegiance is to York or Lancaster. Heightened violence mixed with a brutal honesty keeps the battle scenes sharp, but when necessary we are left alone with the characters and the words to allow Shakespeare and the actors to work their magic.

The divisions here are clearly along family lines, and care has been taken to make relationships between the characters truthful. Edward (Ogne Drangovski), Richard (a vicious terrier-like Martin Mirchevski) and George (Filip Mirchevski – the brother of Martin, I assume) are a brilliant trio, and their roles are balanced perfectly. In contrast to Drangovski’s laddish Edward is Peter Gorko’s gentle, wise Henry VI, tired of the fighting but egged on by those around him.

Most impressive in this production are the women. When Gabriela Petrushevska’s marvellously persuasive and headstrong Margaret meets with Sonja Mihajlova’s manipulative Warwick and Kristina Hristova Nikolova’s flamboyant Lewis of France, we are treated to one of the best scenes in the production. Their initial hostility quickly becomes a realisation of their shared power, acting as metaphor for the role of women in conflict.

What makes this production so successful, then, is the way it handles contrast: men with women; peace with war; funny with serious; real with surreal; solitude with madness. This hinges on the soliloquies of Henry and Richard towards the end of the first act, delivered with wit and eloquence, underscored neatly by Miodgrag Nećak. And though the thought that what we are witnessing is a putting to rest of the Balkan’s difficult past is probably aided by the presence of the Albanian and Serbian companies earlier in the day, it can’t be helped considering these complex and wide-ranging plays as allegories for the not-so-distant past.

“Henry VI Part 2″ by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sunday 13th May 2012

The time has come. After a handful of sub-par productions presented as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, the Globe to Globe season has struck shit with the National Theatre of Albania’s take on Henry VI Part 2. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a shoddy, lazy production of a Shakespeare play.

If there was an interpretation, it was nigh-on impossible to spot. The extent of Adonis Filipi’s direction was a decision to put the opposing sides in red and blue and shove in a number of under-rehearsed movement pieces, which involved out-of-time actors performing steps either up and down or round and round (the séance is particularly laughable). Oh, and Filipi also throws in some scooters at the beginning for good measure. Don’t ask me why.

If audience members come out of this production thinking it was a play about people standing and shouting at one another, they’d be forgiven; I don’t know whether or not the National Theatre of Albania has an amateur-quota to fill, but it certainly feels that way. The actors look bored when not speaking, gazing into space or looking at the audience. Indrit Cobani’s Henry is weak and lifeless with no clout, and Yllka Mujo’s performance as Eleanor is completely overdone. There is some redemption in the form of Ermira Hysaj’s stoic Margaret, though her relationship with Suffolk (a passable Dritan Boriçi) is barely explored.

Lay this on top of Anila Zajmi Katanolli’s showy costumes, Armand Broshka’s quietly filmic but ill-fitting music and scene changes which wouldn’t look out of place in a school play, and you can imagine the results. I didn’t know it was possible, but Filipi has managed to create a production one of Shakespeare’s most political plays which says almost nothing.