WAITING FOR GODOT – REVIEW – A VERY WORTHY HOMECOMING

This is a beautiful little production of one of the seminal plays of the Twentieth Century, the programme probably rightly claims changed the face of theatre forever, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  Not least because it opened last night at that great playhouse In Soho, The Arts, where the very first British performance was staged back in 1955, directed by a young and yet to be ‘Sir’ Peter Hall, who said at the time he didn’t understand it,  to a near cultural riot. One audience member was heard to remark “No wonder we lost the colonies”. “The Definitive Homecoming” declares the theatre billboard today, returning Beckett’s name to West End lights by throwing in an exhibition about the play and playright too, and they may have it right, as right as you can be, of course.

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Director Peter Reid’s excellent notes point out the difference between those two gigantic Enfant Terribles of literature, and famous collaborators in Paris, perhaps a little like those aburdist wayfares Vladimir and Estragon themselves, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.  Namely that while Joyce was a synthesiser, trying to encompass all and everything, Becket was an analyzier, trying to reduce things to their very core.  Indeed, one of his own comments about his little masterpiece Catastrophe, delineating the fate of an actress in the hands of a brutal and omnipotent director, the fate of us all these days, is that drama should be like a sculpture that stands the test of time and cultural change. Of course, time has moved on since 1955, nearly everyone has died, as you do, while Beckettian pauses and ponderings have become givens and literary tropes. But without placing Beckett himself in a reverential fish bowl, it’s Reid’s clear love of Beckett, and he has directed all his plays, and of theatre, that makes this such a lucid and sensitive production.

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In near painted-on, Theatre-Jaques-Lecoque rags, with a famous pair of boots and that theatrical stone and coat-hanger-like tree, and backed by a projected sky and strip of sand that might be the path to Golgotha, or nowhere, which when a blue moon rises turns this piece to something of a Haiku, Nick Devlin’s and Patrick O’Donnell’s marvelous Everyman tramps weave and unweave Beckett’s linguistic and philisophical magic.  We are at once in a theatre, and not, at once inside human consciousness and failing to ever escape, at once with the absurd and the utterly tragic.  Of course Beckett would always smile when critics, agggggh, pondered the ponderous question of whether Godot was supposed to be God, with a long white beard or not, a God that never arrives, and the original, in French, was simply called Waiting.  But I had forgotten that Godot is actually a character that potentially exists inside the structure of the drama, and so begins Beckett’s extraordinary intellectual, philisophical and emotional games, ones that involve a lot of that Comedy too, Beckett so loved watching at University.  Though some of the physicality, in a very physical production, should be worked on.

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Why the adjective beautiful was used with precision though, So Help Me God, is that for me this production so touches Beckett’s profound compassion and humanity, knowing full well the horror and brutality too, his electric wit, but also the core of his own poetry, the shere beauty of his language, that sings out in some of the monologues.  Part of it is the skill of the actors, and all are exellent, Paul Kealyn’s buffo Pozzo horrorfyingly appealing, Paul Elliot’s grotesque Lucky rising to a shattering crescendo when ordered to ‘think’.  Part of it is the tender chemistry between Devlin’s and O’Donnell’s co-dependent tramps, though the little boy should be given a credit, and at times there could be more swordplay, variation, indeed cruelty between Vladimir and Estragon. But another reason is one Beckett himself might not have approved of, in fact proscribed against, namely that Estragon and Vladimir talk in Irish accents, in a show that has transferred from Ireland.  “We are Irish”, says Reid though, and since Beckett too came from somewhere perhaps very Irish indeed, and that is a compliment, maybe that allows the actors to sit so comfortably, so humanly, so beautifully within the text, as players acting their hearts out, and characters that have become old friends. But also because that search for God or meaning in Beckett does seem to rise out of a perculiarly Catholic, Irish tradition, in a society haunted by Religion, while that profound undercurrent of radicalism in the play, also echoes the political realities and tensions that have so plagued England, Ireland and the English Language.  Beckett of course tried to go beyond, to sculpt a masterpiece beyond time, yet this production indeed gives the Master a worthy Homecoming.

David Clement-Davies went to see Waiting For Godot courtesy of ABI Touring and AC Productions.  For tickets Click Here

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REVIEWING THE REVIEWS!! THE STATE

Well, perhaps it should be a new trend in journalism, ‘reviewing the reviews’, but Christopher Stevens’ outrageous, scandalous and completely cynical review of Peter  Kosminsky’s brilliant drama The State on All Four should get the man sacked.  Then if the Daily Mail wasn’t a paper that deals in the poison he headlines his ‘review’ with, which he suggests so wrongly Kosminsky is dealing in, its managing Editor would turn a ferocious eye on grossly irresponsible ‘journalists’ like Stevens, who so clearly looks for the big, tabloid shock, the fake outrage and the peddled ignorance, to further a career that should immediately go down in flames!  Which really should crash and burn, not because Stevens is the kind of fake journalist that the Trump camp pretends to attack, but because the review is so utterly wrong and so completely stupid too.

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Then of course the Daily Mail is the ‘newspaper’ that can make such a farce of its own poison and hate that it fights a little-England campaign for Brexit, then dares to talk so indignantly on the front page about some supposed scandal in Europe, as border issues inevitably arise in France for British Citizens. No wonder not only Trump but all of us are disillusioned with whatever the Media is these days.

The State, which should have been run mainstream on Channel Four, is astonishing, and there is not one moment when it glorifies anything about Isis, fundamentalist Islam, or the extremist community in Syria either, with the focus on British Jihadists who have crossed the line and mostly try to cross back again. It’s take on Isis is frightening, brutal and above all so powerful because it is utterly convincing, deeply humane and above all gets to the very core of a problem with Islam, even deeper than Isis, the separation and subjugation of women, that political division of men and women that potentially divides us all,. With a profound understanding of extreme sexual politics too and the problem with any society that can operate under a supposedly absolute authority, namely Sharia Law.

What is so disgusting about Stevens ‘review’ though, when it bogusly tries to claim that The State is glorifying Jihad, is racist, or whatever he negatively means by ‘liberal’ either in any way, like the garbage Trump deals in, in his populist, bumbling rabble rousing, is that he has thought about nothing, doesn’t understand the purpose of drama and wants to cause outrage in his search to be a voice and get ahead. Stevens does not care, as Kosminsky so clearly does.

But then of course a paper like the Mail would rather this drama had never been aired because its lack of thinking is that if you dare to make ‘them’ human, like all those bloody immigrants, then you’re somehow in their camp. Wrong. If you want to understand and to fight ‘the enemy’, or just understand more and know your own values too, then this is precisely the kind of drama you need, with a deep understanding of Religious longing, the craving for absolute rules, just like the Daily Mail, or a sense of community too, which is such a profound and unaddressed issue in how people are radicalised. But, even inside that radicalisation, for Kosminsky people remain human beings, foul and fair, as they always do in real life, and it is that love of the human, and living drama too, in the face of the Religious and essentially Patriarchal brutality of Isis, that makes Kosminsky such a brilliant writer and which gives this drama such profound values too. He knows and tells us, for instance, that women have never just been simple victims and are as capable of vicious ideology as men, and of course it is women who have enforced traditions around the world like Genital Mutilation. But he constantly seeks for the reality, depth and humanity  of the individual.

The writing, directing and acting in The State are marvellous, the overall identification with the core characters totally harrowing, which just shows how thick the Daily Mail or Christopher Stevens are, and if it is a message that the Mail wants, then The State is completely right as well, which makes Stevens’ review so cynical and facile. Because The State shies away from nothing in really confronting fundamentalized, medieval, extremist Islam – sexual slavery and exploitation, the male desire to be a fighter and glory in manhood and power, of course rewarded by 72 virgins in Paradise, which is indeed glamorous to longing young men and also that intractable problem with any Faith, and the game of horror played in online executions that only sometimes happen. Recruiting on Social Media too, that becomes as much a lie about the reality for the people who have been recruited as anyone else. But perhaps its cleverest moment in dealing, as Kosminsky has talked about, with this ‘Death Cult’, is just a snapshot of the brilliantly acted black female doctor’s return on the beaches of Europe, that so needs a sense of its united values now, with her almost radicalised ten year old son, that makes you care about those real individuals trying to get to, or to return to, a better and freer world, above any statistics or compassion fatigue.  But only to be confronted with the more nebulous values, in one good sense, of our own frightened State, especially if the Daily Mail is anything to go by,  trying to send her back to fight the good fight against ‘them’. But also what a paper like the Daily Mail could make us too ignorant to talk about, or defeat, as it certainly should be defeated.

You can see, especially if you want to name and shame, Christopher Stevens’ ugly, wrong and fatuous review in the Daily Mail by Clicking here    More importantly you can watch Peter Kosminsky’s marvellously intelligent four part drama The State on All Four by Clicking here

David Clement-Davies’ grandfather was Liberal Leader in Britain in 1945 but now we’ve forgotten what dynamic liberalism really means and it’s no wonder when you bother to read ‘reviews’ in the Daily Mail. His grandfather met the German Ambassador on the eve of the war and commented that Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Nice thought.

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AGAINST – REVIEW

It’s hard to know what to write about Christopher Shinn’s much awaited new play Against at the Almeida.  Set partly in a Rocket Factory in Silicone valley, which is really us of course, with a barely veiled reference to the Mars-wards-looking US tycoon Elon Musk, and with a cast worthy of the paparazzi waiting at the door afterwards, the presence in the audience of Mark Rylance too, it oddly failed to blast off. It is good, and the cast at times great, but….

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Starring  the excellent and highly sensitive Ben Wishaw as the searching billionaire Luke, given a message from God to ‘Go where there’s violence’, it then has him descending like the Secret Millionaire to explore themes of suicide, isolation, addiction, love, sex and above all American violence, in settings from prisons to the home, as his own inability to build relationships is reflected in his fragile love affair with the excellent Amanda Hale. Considering the play begins with a police crime-scene cordon, removed to reveal a TV set broadcasting the increasing horrors of the World and  a Colombine-style school shooting, you might guess where this is all leading.

Nowhere really. It almost takes off in the second half, and we should have come in with the conversation between Luke and a brilliant black junky whose solution is indeed Mars, and the play’s strength is its attack on stereotypes.  But since it is actually rather an intellectual play, it tries to do too much and gets a bit lost.  Or perhaps it’s telos is we really are all lost, but, if human nature is anything to go by, would be no different on Mars anyhow.

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In that it has great points to make about turning back to look inside at our own natures, our most basic humanity , or lack of it, the empty cults of celebrity and billionaires like Musk too, and is surprising in its attack on supposedly progressive Liberal thinking, especially at the Almeida.  As Emma D’Arcy’s sensitive literature student trying to write a story about her lack of love and connection in her polyamorous relationship is persuaded, or half intimidated, by her supposedly Liberal, gay ex-sex worker professor, played superbly by Kevin Harvey , that she must change the story to really open her mind.  She should have given him Atomised to read.  In a play so much about a search for human intimacy, it highlights how impossible it becomes when even the violent denouement is live-streamed.

In defiance of that is the reappearing bed that urges the central characters both toward loving sex and commitment, a meaning and intimacy everyone is looking for, paralleled by the pair at the bottom of the pile, faced with sexual exploitation, sort of, and working in the food processing department of the much reviled Equator enterprises, in the play’s desire to circle the Globe and all human experience.  It doesn’t make it, obviously, but it has moments of high tenderness, some lovely acting, wit and style. The problem with the Capitalist machine is sounded, and perhaps Silicone Valley and Ayn Rand are to blame for a great deal, but is that really what Against is against, or should we all be getting up against one another even more?  Not with tales of child rapes relayed in one of Luke’s encounters, or perhaps our increasing awareness as a species that helps to paralyse Luke in the first place.  The doubling of characters played by the same actors, like the angry, exploited, exploiting ex sex-worker professor and Equator’s CEO, to place us all in the same system, is a good touch.

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This philosophical ramble has some good and convincing scenes, but in throwing in stuff about the repetitive patterns of news, the violence thrown at us all the time, the dislocations of the internet and, in a world where money is King, the search for hope from the captains of industry, who have no more idea than the rest of us, you want to come up against some sturdier and more focused social and political arguments.    Just as the new religious injunction to Luke to ‘Come’ is no pun to hinge a play around, not least because it only works in the English language. But then again, perhaps a playwright’s job is simply to reflect the zeitgeist of his times, and in being lost, it does that.   On the whole, although I commend the cast, Ian Rickson’s directing, and several scenes of high drama, as a play I’m neither for nor against.

David Clement-Davies saw against courtesy of the Almeida. Against runs until September 30th. For tickets Click Here

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KING LEAR – REVIEW

Nancy Meckler’s quirky production of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy at The Globe somehow fails to reach the heights of Kevin Mcnally’s deeply moving and highly original portrayal of King Lear. In a lovely, lucid and rich performance, that at times pierces to the deep heart of such a mighty spirit, wrestling with both the self-imposed overthrow of his kingdom and his own mind, in an apparent search for true love. Reflecting, beyond the savagery and ambition of his bad daughters and the world out there, the ultimate inevitability of impotent old age and death.

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Nowadays though perhaps you have to reach for the program to get to the twin pillars of whatever the supporting architecture is, and here it’s essays on ‘comedy’ and ‘homelessness’. Without droning on about the problems of messages swamping real drama, like that awful production of a Tale of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air, here the same concerns are sounded, but to far better effect. With a troupe of vagrants, who might be actors capable of being Kings or Desperate Men, repossessing a derelict property, swathed in canvas cladding and Keep-Out signs and littered with warehouse parcel cages, where a lot of the most gruesome bits are enacted, though in fact not gruesomely enough. Because Lear is a play about being made to see the horror, inside and out.

I take slight issue with the fact that they then put on a kind of gypsy play, so justifying Loren O’Dair’s mumming, violin-playing Fool and the final masque-dance, though not at all on the grounds that you shouldn’t make Shakespeare contemporary, or even change the text. But because the writer who writers trust above all knew his stuff and when he wanted something to be a ‘play within a play’, like that vital Mouse Trap in Hamlet, he put it in for a reason. Otherwise it’s a given that we’re in a theatre and, above all at the wonderful Globe, in that ‘Wooden O’.

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Setting that aside, the reason it works better is because it reminds us, unlike Two Cities, that ‘migrants’ or the homeless are real human beings, not just yobbish victims, or some easy label either, and capable of squatting, repossessing, threatening or having a good party too. That gives some energy to what ensues, in a play that so wrestled with the terrible social realities of its time and can be astonishingly revolutionary. Phoenix Ark Press has long been writing that the divides of today might be reaching back to the Sixteenth century.

In fact, with the triumph of Much Ado About Mariachi (see review below), the Globe should be reinforced – as it is being – as the stage for actors working in a vital Shakespearean ensemble tradition and interacting with the groundlings. Just as the cast bustle on stage before the audience have barely sat down, or stood up, and exit in similar fashion. The problem is, if you’re going with that, this production does not make nearly enough use of such a space. Which is why I rather woke up when Joshua James’ at times excellent semi-academic Edgar comes into the cage in the pit and smears himself with excrement. It is true at the proscenium level too, where Much Ado became a dance of brilliant invention. But this seems rather flat and oddly stuck behind the fourth wall, I think actually raised, Trump-like, by making something too politically messagy.

Meanwhile to that essay on comedy. Any Stand-Up will tell you biting comedy is the other side of tragedy, that the blackest humour takes you to the Dover cliff edge, and Lear is ripe with it. Perhaps so going for comedy is what frees the cast and Mcnally initially, and in being allowed to be actors too, and makes his Lear so very striking and human. Accessible is the word, in such contrast to Anthony Sher’s at the RSC. In fact you are allowed to like Lear from the start, though perhaps a little too much. But his re-emergence with flowers in his Citizen Smith beret and reencounter with Anjana Vasan’s very good Cordelia are superb.

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The problem is that sometimes the search for the gag becomes irritating. Just as you get why the L’Ecole Jaques Lecoq trained O’Dair is a suitably haunted Pierrot figure, you wonder why a character that is such an essential part of Lear’s and the play’s entire psyche, seems so absent. The biggest case in point though is Edgar with Burt Caesar’s blind Gloucester at the Dover cliff of transformation, throwing away some of the lines for the gag, as if he’s just making it up in improv.

In fact that authoritative flow of language and poetic vision is so much what the entire play is about, held in the longer soliloquies, especially if you’re wanting to justify the theatre itself as almost Sacred Space, revealed by stripping off the cladding. It is a vital rebalancing of both Lear’s and Gloucester un-anchored minds and imaginations, their moral compasses too, and so ours, to rediscover a common humanity and purpose, if it can in. So creating a kind of miracle of hope and balance, in the face of that running metaphor of seeing and blinding, of those inner and outer worlds. There is very much the sense of secular pilgrimage in that act, as there is in the semi-Christian role of Kent, that can’t be got at just by kissing a crucifix, although Saskia Reeves as Kent is generally excellent.

So then the difficulties with this Lear must really rest with the director Nancy Meckler not grasping harder for the intrinsic wholism of the great play, inside its own poetry and consciousness, and how all the characters so ‘talk’ to each other. Lear’s reference to faux-mad Edgar as his Athenian and Philosopher, for instance, are not just quips, but because in the context of a world so turned-upside-down, Poor Tom’s veiled wisdom and pretend madness really does serve that purpose. If you interrupt that internal dialogue of ideas you also interrupt the actor’s ability to connect with each other, as they do in later scenes, like the magnificent confrontation between Goneril and Thomas Padden’s fine Albany.

In that, perhaps the director forgets you can be over democratic too, especially if you need Shakespeare as ultimate authority, in neglecting Hamlet’s injunction to scruffy, focus pulling actors in general to ‘speak the words as I set them down’. Namely as Shakespeare sets them down. The point about that Wooden O, at the very inception of modern theatre, and a new defining of the English language too, is that to Shakespeare the vowels of text and place were almost synonymous and in his case you should always trust the writer’s pillars of wisdom, first through the page then onto the stage.

Just as, while the ‘Stomp’ style use of drums to generate both the storm and war has some effect, it could be done with even more commitment, to get a real street beat and thrill the audience. But more importantly it somehow pushes out that other vital element of Lear – Nature – healing regenerator, or red in tooth and claw. “Thou Nature art my Goddess”. Odd then that for a play they so underline is about being dispossessed, I could not really feel the cold, the wet and really the storm either, even partially in the open air. Which physically and metaphorically echoes the blasted heath Lear’s mind threatens to become, one that is exactly that for so many of the homeless. It is feeling those things, inside and out, for imagination is also how we see the world, yet with such a philosophical maelstrom at work too, that surely makes you reconnect with the plight of migrants and the homeless, after all out in the real weather, and the whole of tricky humanity too. Shakespeare above all was wary of being didactic then and concerned with the magic he wrought on his audience inside the theatre.

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Again, on the nature theme, Cordelia is also a semi mystical and redemptive Nature figure and that is not directed enough. Although, since I think Shakespeare must have nearly touched madness himself, because King Lear so brilliantly explores the agonizing rupture that can occur in the human psyche when the powerful masculine is separated from the truly honest feminine, both potentially inside all of us, some of the supporting relationships are very well played. Emily Bruni is particularly good as Goneril, especially discovering a seething sexuality in Edmund’s vital manhood, and Ralph David’s Edmund is suitably vigorous and in charge of his destiny, for a while. So though, perhaps a laurel must be given back to Nancy Meckler’s making Kent female and having Pierrot take off the Fool’s cap to reveal a vanishing woman too. Perhaps the performances will coalesce more to reach for what must support those two central men though, the King and Gloucester, and which, with Mcnally in the hot seat, might have made this a great Lear.

David Clement-Davies went to see King Lear courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 14.   For tickets  Click Here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ROAD – REVIEW

Well, the cast are superb,  John Tiffany’s directing clever and polished, the set designs interesting, and it was an Olivier award winner 30 years ago.  Yet watching Road at The Royal Court yesterday left me strangely empty and certainly depressed.  I think it was a combination of the fact that it isn’t an especially good play, but a series of clever vignettes about life on a namless dead-end Northern Road, with no hope at the end of it, everyone’s road, along with wondering why the self-proclaimed writer’s theatre have chosen to revive it.  When, if ground is really to be broken on Northern divides, inequality, food trolleys or the state of the Nation, we need bold new work on anything from Brexit, to Terrorism or Grenfell Tower.

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Bits of Road are really excellent, both in acting and staging, notably June Watson as  Molly trying to keep up morale in the face of death, and everything else, or Michelle Fairley as the blousey broad trying to woe an astoundingly pissed squaddie.  One she poignantly realises is just a boy, used and abandoned by his country. Throughout the emptiness of British culture, or the eternal power of cheap tunes, is highlighted by a great use of sound, giving us anything from Country and Western to snippets of the darts favourite with the crap prizes, Bullseye.  Something that goes on far too long. The excellent narrator’s dance with a shopping trolley to the sound of the dying bird in Swan Lake strikes a very powerful metaphor about the divides at every level today, and the longing of all too, to be somehow ennobled or transported.

But considering Road was written at the height of Thatcher’s Britain, yet fails to find any narrative direction that really makes it a play, or actually to have an especially powerful political voice either, I was left feeling not only that this was the end of the road, but it was no wonder everyone sold out back then.  Indeed, I started wishing that the ingeneous set design of a reappearing Perspex box to highlight the isolation, but which actually muffles the actors and cuts you off from some really tremendous performances, would morph into the Game show The Cube, not only for the entertainment value, but the potential prizes too.

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But when you give no one any real hope, at least in the struggle, there can be no plot trajectory, no jeopardy and no real resolution.  Perhaps that is half the point, which is why Mike Noble’s excellent frustrated skinhead turns to Buddhism, and, whether it’s in the original play or not, the director ends the show with the cast suddenly breaking into orchestrated Tai Chi. Their only escape, into some healing dance of life along the way.

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I’m all for Tai Chi, it really helps, and the author Jim Cartwright has the voice of a poet, that often takes flight in his monologues. Yet they are only that really, and with the bristling one liners, become a kind of literary and stagified showing off.  But if Road is an investigation into some transforming power of Art, it doesn’t quite convince, or if a philosophical journey into the ultimate hopelessness of the human condition, bring back Becket.  In fact it’s trying to be too many things. The full audience liked it, and it does have its great moments, with some impressive stand-up bed acting.  But frankly, if we’re going to get metaphysical too, I’d rather a bit of Jack Kerouac, and a blast of On the Road, then get on my bike.

David Clement-Davies saw Road courtesy of the Royal Court Theatre.  Road runs until September 9th.  For tickets Click Here

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MICHELLE TERRY COMES TO THE GLOBE, AMID THE SILENT TEMPEST!

Well, when Press people suddenly disappear, and there has been long standing controversy about the resignation of the Globe’s Artistic Director Emma Rice too, who goes to The Old Vic, even coming fresh to the subject you instantly start to pick up little intimations of controversy and discontent, perhaps even a tempest. That and some kind of regime change may settle with yesterday’s announcement of the new artistic director at The Globe, Michelle Terry.

I only hope that Emma Rice’s fight with a very silent Board, supposedly over issues of poor lighting and sound, though Rice has spoken out over how the Board did not respect her, and a transitional relationship between the two directors lasting into 2018, will be made less painful by the new triumph of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster.  It was Rice who jumped at the chance to commission this ‘Mexican’ version of the play, and in it all her and Dunster’s best instincts have been vindicated.

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It perhaps throws light on what has been going on behind the scenes at the Globe too, in that unusually Terry has mighty little experience of directing, although is both an actress and a writer.  Something Dunster, by the way, is clearly not, in his current version of Dickens, although we have forgiven him because of Much Ado. Perhaps then, now the Globe has become a worthy academic institution and study source, and a popular destination for tourists too, and you wonder how much a silent Board cleave to such things, since worthies so often know so little about living theatre, there is a clearer line in reaching back to the writer-player traditions of Shakespeare’s day, in an avowed desire to catch the spirit of the place. As Mark Rylance so famously and successfully did at the Globe’s inception.

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However, for now things are on hold because neither directors are as yet giving interviews on the subject. Clearly a sensitive moment, so watch this space. With Terry wanting to find her head the transition may have its stormy moments too, but in this Summer of Love Season, perhaps not. But while being warmly welcomed to the Globe, Michelle Terry should certainly  soak up the glorious vibe of Rice’s Much Ado About Nothing, because that’s the kind of theatre The Globe should revel in.

David Clement Davies reviews Much Ado below.  The images are public domain photos of Michelle Terry, new Globe Artistic Director and her predecessor Emma Rice

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A LITTLE CHAT WITH MATTHEW DUNSTER AND ONE UP FOR THE GLOBE

Well, Matthew Dunster redeemed himself for me last night, after his brutalization of Dickens at Regent’s Park Open Air, with his triumphant direction of Much Ado About Nothing at The Globe.  So, after a little Press party that should put the scruffs at lazy Jo Allan PR, representing the Open Air Theatre, to shame, I was lucky to collar him over his glass of red, after the show.

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Remarkably un-phased by the negative reviews of a Tale of Two Cities, which he claims he never reads anyhow, he talked about the peculiar and rather unnatural pressure point of any Press night and how he had just taken himself out to dinner to avoid the whole grizzly business.  How much too he enjoys the real stuff of theatre, namely rehearsals with both casts. At which point I pompously reminded him that it’s surely about the audiences too, though heaven forbid the critics, certainly a link broken for me in his adaptation of Dickens.

Well, he did say how many shows he was doing back to back, and I didn’t want to be the downer, as he grinned talking about how he and the composer James Maloney had swanned off to Mexico to find inspiration for Much Ado and even made it to Durango.  Not a bad life, but if they had a fun time, and remember Shakespeare’s intimate link with musicians, it breathes throughout his marvellous production. As it says in the programme, and Dunster relayed again, it was an image of Mexican women in Edwardian dresses, but wearing cartridge belts, that gave him a sudden vision of his very off the wall Much Ado, with a subtle attack on Trump’s wall too.

He’s fond of class war as well, so a fitting sally into to the world of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. But his remark in the programme is also right, namely that this is no bolt-on message, but a very carefully thought out frame, done with superb designs as well, that serves Shakespeare’s play, rather than the other way around.  So cheers, Mr Dunster, and can I have a job?!

David Clement-Davies and companion were hosted wonderfully by the Globe, and must simply get over Jo Allan PR!

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A MARVELLOUS ‘MARIACHI’ MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

“Let wonder seem familiar” says Charlie De Melo’s magisterial Friar Francis, and Matthew Dunster’s superbly original production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre should be made familiar to as many people as possible. It’s wonderful.  The steamy snort of a Mexican transport train starts it all, depositing the players before the Groundlings, straight out of the bloody peasant battles of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. His female rebels too though, those ‘Soldaderas’ of real history, sporting cartridge belts across their fiery breasts and giving a new voice to the women in the play.

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So Mariachi music, big hats and the threat of maracas, sets your nerves slightly on edge too, wondering if everyone is about to break into a sonnet form of Mejicano. Caramba! No need for nerves, or indeed an over worthy respect for the classical either, in an evening that turns into a visual and sensual feast. This utterly joyous, superbly colourful production is so inventive, so alive and so mercurial too, yet so true to Shakespeare’s themes and the possibilities of what after all is a very peculiar and rather problematic play – in those macho and murderous soldier’s attacks on Hero and the rest – you want to pull down the wall, impeach Donald Trump and get back to loving one another, or at least going to the theatre.

Dunster takes big liberties, sure, because now the malevolent, near Deus-ex-machine figure of Don John is a girl, Don Pedro’s nasty sister, wait for it, Juanita. Gender issues then, whatever they are, (having read my Shakespeare), are on the slab again, to remind us of Dunster’s much praised and hugely popular version of Cymbeline, which he re-styled Inogen.

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In fact, not having read the programme, thankfully, the Trump-Mexico-Wall frame, and Shakespeare uses the stitch-up term, with Dogs Berry the ‘watch’ in the form of Ewan Wardrop’s  swaggering, idiotic film director for the American Mutual Film Corporation, which made a real deal with Villa to film the lot, did not become really apparent until the second half.  When the hand cranked box-film cameras draped in US flags roll out and those poor beleaguered Mexicans all spit on stage at the filthy Americanos.

This production then, which never takes itself too seriously, is exactly the opposite of Dunster’s recent writing follies, with his adaptation of Dickens and A Tale Of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (see review below). Perhaps a battle there with the director Timothy Sheader. Namely the modern reinvention is not bolt on, as it certainly is there, or tub-thumping either. Instead it’s a wonderfully cheeky and liberated comic conceit, born  of pure instinct, but with thematic integrity behind it too, beautifully realised in Anna Fleischle’s sparkling designs, that frames and serves Shakespeare’s play perfectly and somehow frees up everyone, to both wonder and the familiar.

The actors are really allowed to get down to it then, or to double step floridly up to it, waving their Flamenco skirts at us and each other, or firing their six guns. The entire cast is superb, in a show that is all singing and dancing throughout. Well, an enchanting mix of clever new music by James Maloney, that serenades our swaying journey through that desperate kingdom of love, with nothing as clichéd as Mariachi, and some very beautifully sung ‘Shakespeare’ too.

As Dunster turns Aragon and Messina to Monterray and Durango and Dog Berry’s malapropisms become arrogant American mistranslations, mis-hearings or misunderstandings. Which are also the mistranslations of romantic movies themselves, or the desire to play it heroic.  Much Ado About Noting, the title may have been, noting being false rumour and gossip, which sets the stage beautifully for the black and white film footage, in an age before the talkies, that reveals the truth and reminds you the camera never lies, except in Hollywood.

Of course the play belongs to Beatrice and Benedick, smutty pun intended, performed with such feeling and fiery wit by Beatriz Romilly and Matthew Needham, who Dunster has directed before, to engage us in that ‘Merry War’ of the sexes.  Steve John Shephard is gorgeously arch and wickedly moustachioed as the potentially ambivalent Don Pedro, that patriarchal master of ceremonies and masks, supported valiantly by Marcelo Cruz’s excellent Claudio and Martin Marquez as a Leonato straight out of the Mendoza family in The High Chaparral. But at last the women come centre stage and with Doreen Blackstock’s whip-cracking attack on the men seated on their mimed horses as Antonia, never again so easily dismissed either.

©Tristram Kenton

In this version too, with a dramatic shift towards female power, or nascent revolution, in Villas’ case thwarted and betrayed, yet set against the perpetually comic, almost Fist-Full-of-Dollars backdrop, Much Ado takes on a new pathos and a strange new symmetry too. Suddenly all the ironies, knots and limitations of this threateningly misogenistic soldiers’ play find a united thread, because a woman is liberated into malevolence too, in Juanita, the war out there joining with the war within, in a true dance of lovers. So clarifying just why the magician Shakespeare, working within the mores and male structure of his time, forces Anya Chalotra’s lovely Hero, a name of course ripe with heroic male connotations and hypocracies, to die for love and be reborn, or Claudio to publically mourn her, in the search for his magic and often revolutionary resolutions.

In that the religious context of the play, and Shakespeare’s own peculiar sanctity too, that ‘poet of marriage’ as Germaine Grier called him, is served beautifully by the hyper Catholic-Mexican period framing, the clever and beautiful tying-of-the-knot already undone, and the cult of the Virgin too, though Shakespeare’s is the cult of love.

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©Tristram Kenton

I found myself wondering too why men on stilts, with wire horse heads out of War Horse, or pistols fired at tin cans leaping like cucarachas, should so bring a sixteenth century play to life. One reason is that it’s just such fun, those train doors and windows used to lovely comic effect. But the other is that in the setting of the Globe, all the space used too, it’s almost as if you’ve stepped back five hundred years to that age of players and musicians, and that extraordinarily odd but also liberated time, linguistically and even socially, that breathes out of Shakespeare’s utterly instinctive genius.  It is pure directorial instinct too, serving the writer, and the actors, that has made this such a triumphant success.

David Clement-Davies went to Much Ado About Nothing courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 15h .  For tickets Click Here

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The Durrells on Corfu, The White House and The Black Book

With the hit TV drama on the Durrells going to another series, it was interesting to see the Bristol TV unit vans camped below the Achilleon palace on Corfu and meet some of the locals who have been used as extras.  Except the Government seems to have  tightened up the rules, so no one who has recently retired is allowed to work as an extra.

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It was for a different reason though we made a little pilgrimage to that beautiful bay at Kalami and the White House. We went not in search of a popular and rather innocent British TV series, but one of the Durrells themselves, Lawrence Durrell.  Gerald Durrell’s elder brother of course led the Durrell family out to Corfu in 1935 and made it a base for his own extraordinary and highly controversial writing career, that almost won him a Nobel Prize.

Camped in that White House, which is now a pleasant restaurant billed for ‘fine dining’, a doubtful concept in Greece, with a little plaque on the wall and various old photos and books by reception, it was here that he penned his scandalous novel, The Black Book. Although, talking of his ‘white ark’ in the novel, Durrell signs it ‘the house of Anastasios Athenaeios, Kouloura’.  In fact Kouloura is the bay right around the corner, but it seems perhaps that Kouloura then was a district name and this was where The Black Book was indeed written, a Black Book for a White House, though elsewhere it says they rented the house in April 1937.

I met the son of Anastasios Athenaeois, now 82, his father having died several years ago and tried to glean some reminiscences, just as I have heard various bits of gossip, good and bad, about Lawrence on Corfu, from leaving various children, to not being especially nice. But sadly the grand old man has been ill recently and especially last year, like his wife, and seemed weary of the subject, or unable to remember. He said he wanted to sleep, and so I left him gazing out at the beautiful blue Ionian, now dotted with too many smart yachts, and noisy water-skiers in the bay.  Not an unpleasant sight, but just as Gerald Durrell complained of over development when he returned in the eighties, so hardly the isolated and utterly authentic paradise the Durrells must have experienced first hand.

Lawrence Durrell’s famous and very charming travel book on Corfu is of course Prospero’s Cell, where the claim is made that perhaps this was the isle of Prospero and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and that witch’s name Sycorax is an adaptation of Kerkeira, the island’s Greek name. Charming, though not especially convincing, but I wonder how many have read The Black Book. Banned, or unpublished for forty years in Britain, it has variously been billed as obscene, pretentious or unreadable.  Although TS Eliot, who was managing editor at Faber and Faber at the time and one of Durrell’s great supporters, billed it as the salvation of the English novel.

Like Durrell’s journey to Corfu itself it is certainly the young author’s manifesto of intent and liberation. Highly experimental, it attacks what Durrell called ‘The English Death’ and so all the mores, forms and conventions of the time, with sexuality and sometimes obscenity as its first weapon. For that it is a fascinating, if an often opaque read.  It, like his other novels, or indeed his personal biography, is of course far darker than the likes of enchanting TV series. But Durrell certainly found freedom in it, as he did on Corfu itself, where he lived and loved with his first wife Nancy, and without it would probably never have been able to reach to the heights of the far more narratively accomplished Alexandria Quartet, his true masterpiece.

It was of course the celebrated American writer Henry Miller, author of the likes of The Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer and lover of Anais Nins, who so inspired Lawrence Durrell, after the young writer found the celebrated and also scandalous Tropic of Cancer in a public toilet.  He sent The Black Book to Miller, suggesting he might throw it in the Seine, but instead Miller published it privately in Paris and they became life long friends. Indeed, on the eve of the second war, Miller came out to Corfu and the White House himself, staying for a year, and together, bathing naked, though by then the now balding 52-year-old Miller was billed by locals as ‘the Old Man’, eating, drinking, talking, working and enjoying the glories of the island.  They are still always there on Corfu, as is much of that liberated spirit, but it would be wonderful to find out more of their time there, before the true stories are really lost forever.

David Clement-Davies is an author and planning a book on Lawrence Durrell on Corfu. He would be grateful if anyone on the Grapevine has any stories of the Durrells, especially Lawrence, relayed or first hand.  You can write here or to dclementdavies@aol.com Thank you.

 

 

 

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JO AllAN PR, REGENT’S PARK OPEN AIR AND WHY THEATRES START TO HANG THEMSELVES!

If the terrible production of a Tale of Two Cities is anything to go by (review below), something is wrong at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.   My own personal experience of it was not just having to sit through that busy evening though, unpaid, but my handling by the company’s so-called Public Relations people, Jo Allan PR.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (2). Photo Johan Persson

At first I called the Box Office to try and get Press Tickets, to be given an email by a very helpful member of staff that simply didn’t work.  Then I was quickly fobbed off by Jo Allen PR over breazy reasons that successful productions don’t merit wide ranging Press Tickets, or that allocations were already full.  Except, after pressing, I heard a second Press Evening had suddenly been arranged for A Tale of Two Cities. I now realise it was probably because of a mounting sense of nerves about the show itself, that has been generally slated and in The Telegraph was recently called a clash of two egos, that of the writer Matthew Dunster and the Director Timothy Sheader. I wonder how many egos are at war.

I’m now furious though at further sloppy treatment, as sloppy as that production, first being put on the waiting list for Oliver Twist, but so rudely to hear nothing at all, then having to ask twice for Production photos. I seriously wonder if the reasons for it are deeply related in the culture of the place. Is it the great successes that the theatre has had in recent years, for the magical venue itself, and for Musical productions that have proved great commercial triumphs, that is making them generally so blasé? Or that violent commercialism everywhere is letting them ignore the spirit and work of serious writers and bloggers? To the point where only the voices of the major papers, and those Stars they give, merits proper PR handling, because everything is about platforms. Having worked in box offices too I know how oddly tickets and comps can be allocated.

Both the Globe and the RSC, and I have had little arguments with the RSC, say consistently how that kind of coverage and interest are important to them.  They usually prove it too, although of course they make necessary equations about the depth of the coverage, its commercial value and so on.  Jo Allan PR seems not remotely interested though in the quality of the reviews here, their seriousness, or their wider cultural value either, let alone showing any modicum of general courtesy.  Actually in PR.

I am not only indignant as a highly published and prize winning author, a journalist and also a blogger at the financially very foolish Phoenix Ark Press, which seeks and makes no profits at all. But because I must admit to a vaguely proprietorial interest in the Open Air theatre too, having aeons ago been House Manager there for two years, after training as an actor myself.  So what makes my blood boil, in being so casually dismissed by the Jo Allan PR girl, who I doubt has ever had the commitment to the Arts I’ve shown, in everything I have done, let alone swept the tiers and screwed in the bloody chairs where ‘her’ audience now put their bums on seats, is that they simply no longer care and so make only commercial equations.

Of course they must make money, of course the Arts are difficult and always underfunded too. But when theatres throw it all up for profit alone, or obvious coverage, then a company starts to lose its soul.  Because actually, and precisely what is wrong with the assumptions and easy politics in A Tale of Two Cities, it is not all just about money, or must not be, but the quality of thought, art, acting, interest and above all writing surrounding it all.  That’s what gives the Arts connection with an audience or indeed critics who can be as passionately hungry, engaged, or disappointed as they are.  Regent’s Park might well pause this season then to evaluate precisely what it is doing, what its wider values are too, or whether such PR people also deserve a little taste of the guillotine, or the rope. Perhaps I should go back and tell them!

David Clement-Davies is not invited to any other productions at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, so frankly won’t be going. The photo shows the cast on stage hanging themselves.

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