Preview: Fat Git Theatre’s “Uninvited”

at the Capital Studio, Saturday 9th June 2012

Fat Git Theatre’s last production, The Nose, was created in a short space of time, and its haphazard and pop-up feel reflected that. Their new show Uninvited, however, has been a year in the making and comes across as a far more accomplished piece of theatre, marrying the absurdity of the company’s style with a more complete narrative whilst taking some hilariously funny turns in the process.

In the piece, based on Peter Mortimer’s novella of the same name, a man comes home from work one day to find a stranger in his house. His daily routine is utterly shattered by the intruder, who initially simply sits silently in order to upset his host. Soon, however, a latent violence manifests itself into something far darker as the protagonist’s world is utterly shattered.

I worry somewhat about the nihilism of the story – there’s very little optimism in its conclusion – but thankfully Josh Roche has directed it in such a way that the overriding tone is one of comedy. In his portrayal of the central character (named ‘Me’), Josh Goulding is hilarious, showing a man so set in his ways that it makes sense that this break-in causes a break-down. This man is excruciatingly dull, and it initially seems like this event will pull him out of his reverie to engage better with the world around him.

In Roche’s production, the man’s only friends are the Bouffons (Edward Davis, Kate Pearse and Emma Jane Denly), who are part of his beige and nondescript furniture. His house is his castle, and these his guards at the gates. In a world where the private sphere is being constantly encroached upon and violated, it makes sense that the only comfort here is found behind closed doors and in the purity of one’s own thoughts. We hate this figure for his small-mindedness, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the stranger, Joe Boylan is quietly terrifying, saying very little until the climax of the play and stage managing the house to scare the man and play with his paranoia. Fittingly, he is the only normal person in this absurd world. It feels like a little more anticipation of his final horrid act could be useful in order to make us feel more guilty about laughing. These final few moments are a little like a Martin McDonagh play that Ionesco has structured; this isn’t as mad as it sounds, for both writers feed off and send up the absurdity of life, meaning they are happily married here.

Fat Git were a hot ticket at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and there’s no doubt they’re on a course for the same trajectory this year. In less than a year, the company’s style has matured in a way which has begun to best use the grotesque to inform a narrative. It’s also thrilling to find yourself thinking about the play for a long time afterwards, for though I found myself in a state of perpetual laughter, Uninvited also does an impressive job of challenging and redefining our expectations.

“Boys” by Ella Hickson

at the Soho Theatre, Monday 4th June 2012

Since the British public were treated to a Conservative government, there seems to me to have been a drive towards plays which contemplate big issues surrounding modern life; Mike Bartlett is at the forefront of this wave of Big Issue plays (I’ll come up with a better name in time), with the likes of Laura Wade and Headlong following suit with Posh and Decade respectively. For my money, I’d be willing to bet that, like it or not, this style of theatre will become more and more popular in the coming years. Ella Hickson’s Boys is a step in this direction, cementing a style of theatre which embraces theatricality as a way of tackling sprawling topics.

Hickson’s play is set in an Edinburgh flat, in which Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam live (the first two are students, the latter living there as the rent is cheaper). It is the end of exams and the quartet party regularly, boozing and snorting the nights away. The bin bags have been piling up for weeks as the council refuses to remove them; Benny thinks this an outrage whilst Mack argues they are not “entitled” to free rubbish collection and fails to see why he should do anything about it. Hickson here shows a disenfranchised and hopeless youth, for while many are out protesting, the vast majority are sat at home wasting time. References to Disney throughout signify a desire to hold on to innocence and a time when fairy-tale endings were possible. It’s a clever trick; you’d be surprised by the number of times Disney is discussed and played by students in 2012.

The slowly accumulating bin bags are symptomatic of an underlying strain, for they bring out both protesters and police who proceed to face-off whilst the boys and their girlfriends party in the flat (Benny recounts the story to us from the window). After the big bags are heaved into the flat at the demands of the police, they cannot stay dormant for long, and in a rather beautiful moment the bags and their contents are thrown around the stage in a sort of binman’s ballet. This is where Hickson’s awareness of theatricality truly shows itself, and the detritus is left strewn around the flat for a long time afterwards.

The storyline surrounding Benny and his recent past (*highlight for spoiler* his brother recently hung himself) feels somewhat unnecessary to the narrative, though it’s clear he represents the death of one final hope for this generation, who have now been made devoid of ambition and power since their collective voice is listened to less and less. Those who want to fight are laughed at and ridiculed.

Robert Icke’s production, though a little slow, captures these images of loss and protest with some simple theatrical flair on an otherwise naturalistic set (Chloe Lamford). Samuel Edward Cook, Lorn Macdonald and Tom Mothersdale as Mack, Cam and Timp are frustratingly carefree and fail to notice the shift happening right outside their window. Equally, Laura and Sophie, played by Alison O’Donnell and Eve Ponsonby are not aware that the lives they are living have become pointless. It is only Benny who seems to care about the world around him, and Danny Kirrane’s endearing and open performance commands our sympathy.

Boys is not without its faults; the second act could do with some cuts and there are at times too many questions raised (interestingly, these are the same accusations which have been levelled at Bartlett in the past). But it manages to capture a mood among young people which straddles the line between wanting to do something but feeling powerless. Hickson, I suspect, will write better plays on similar subjects, but here we are witnessing the germination of a new era of playwriting in theatre. I don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming.

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“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Friday 1st June 2012

*The performance reviewed was a preview*

Doran’s ‘all black’ production (an odd description, in my opinion: you wouldn’t necessarily describe a cast as ‘all white’) of Julius Caesar, cut down to two hours and fifteen minutes, feels like a modern political thriller, though it lacks any real drama and could do with having more pace. Seeing as Caesar is murdered halfway through the text, this cannot be blamed much on Doran, though the second half of the production feels slow by comparison and fails to really say much about the nature of dictatorships.

We enter the theatre to jovial music and a lively, crowded stage, and as the lights go down it’s clear that Caesar is loved by all. He had led his people to a victory and created a happier lifestyle. What’s odd, though, is that this feels like the jubilation which follows a revolution, and though images of tyranny (a large statue, pictures of Caesar) are present, this is far too happy a state and doesn’t bear the marks of repression at all. This means the plot of Brutus and Cassius to overthrow the ‘tyrant’ comes out of nowhere and is difficult to understand.

And while this production manages to ask questions about the nature of military coups and the shifting nature of politics internationally, the attempt to mix it with images of the Arab Spring falls short. This play is about the politician, not the ordinary man, which is utterly incongruous with the clips of popular uprisings we have seen over the past eighteen months.

That said, the central cast play the manipulative and charismatic politicians of the play with impressive honesty. Jeffery Kissoon’s ageing Caesar bears resemblance to many past-it dictators, and puts on a kind face for the masses. The problem is, we never really see him lose his rag and his wrongdoings aren’t evident, meaning Cyril Nri’s bewildered Cassius has a harder job to convince us that he deserves to die. Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony is powerful though gentle, and is the closest we get to hearing the people speak; his speech to the populace is fantastic, though by the end of the play it’s easy to see that he could just as easily follow in the conspirators’ footsteps by creating another dictatorial regime. Paterson Joseph is here on top form as Brutus, overly ambitious and willing to die for what he believes, even though that opinion is tough to endorse. They are supported by a fine cast who inject energy into the play (though the accents are sometimes a little, shall we say, scattered).

There are clear military references in Michael Vale’s set, which looks like the steps of the Pergamon built out of Soviet breeze blocks, though it feels a little static for a play which sees such broad shifts in location, tone and government. A bizarre moment sees a section of the copper back wall rise up for no apparent reason, and scene changes could be smoother. It’s also lit to excess by Vince Herbert, though Akintayo Ekinbode’s African music is interwoven well and changes with the state, as it moves from happy union to a land of turmoil.

Doran’s production is solid and strong, and I welcome the cutting of an interval in order to create a more thrilling atmosphere, but it’s difficult to shy away from the fact that, no matter how hard we try to philosophise in the UK, it’s tough to really know the effect and questions surrounding the Arab Spring. There are also holes in the plot and drama which means this Caesar doesn’t feel that tragic, plodding along with an unclear trajectory.

I also wonder about the verisimilitude of the term “World Shakespeare Festival”, particularly the Royal Shakespeare Company’s take on the idea. Though Boyd et al have invited companies from Iraq and Brazil to perform in their theatres, the majority of productions have been created by British directors – Roxana Silbert and David Farr co-ordinate the ‘Nations at War’ and ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’ respectively. This production of Julius Caesar now adds to that list, and though British directors setting plays abroad is by no means a Bad Thing (after all, Shakespeare did it), it feels remarkably like the RSC is giving us a peculiarly British version of the world. Naturally, collaboration between nations should be encouraged, but it feels slightly disingenuous to use the adjective “World” to mean “British-directors-setting-plays-somewhere-that-isn’t-Britain-with-a-few-actors-from-around-the-world”. It would be far better to have foreign directors tackling these plays with the RSC’s resources to give an entirely different perspective in order that we may learn from one another.

Overall, this once again feels like a missed opportunity to have a genuinely global discussion; perhaps in a different context Julius Caesar would be more impressive, but under the banner of the ‘World Shakespeare Festival’ it falls at the first hurdle.

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