All posts by Paul McLachlan

Jack-of-all-trades, former actor and lawyer. I have a strong interest in music (pop/acoustic) and theatre (in particular classical). Currently undertaking the postgraduate certificate in journalism.

An Inventive and Moving Reimagining of Aeschylus’ Oresteia

There’s much to be admired in this modern adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy, which kicks off the Almeida’s season of ancient Greek plays. In spite of a considerable running time (around 3 hours 40 minutes with two short intervals) and a set furnished with little more than a table and two benches that could’ve come straight from Ikea, director Robert Icke has produced a piece of theatre that moves briskly and defies boundaries of time and place.

Oddly enough, it is when Icke strays furthest from the original text that his adaptation is most successful. Diverging from Aeschylus’ play, here the first act deals with the decision of Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to help secure victory against the city’s foes. As a study of the destruction of a family through blind faith and bad decision-making, the drama is potent and real and beautifully judged, with Angus Wright particularly convincing as the tortured Agamemnon.

Credit: Manuel Harlan
Angus Wright as Agamemnon. Credit: Manuel Harlan

The revenge cycle of parts two and three – Clytemnestra’s slaying of her husband, her death at the hands of her son, and his subsequent trial – follows the original plays more closely, and falls short of the promising beginning. The writing becomes increasingly fragmented and un-dramatic, which hinders the actors in achieving a believable narrative.

Jessica Brown Findlay, best known for her role as Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, makes her stage debut as Electra, easily handling the transition from the small screen. However, without the same degree of care in building up a dramatic structure to explain the behaviour of her character, both she and Luke Thompson, playing her brother Orestes, struggle.

The casting of Lia Williams as Clytemnestra is also a little problematic. In the original Greek plays, she is a proud, defiant woman who feels entirely justified in destroying her husband. While Williams is believable as a loving wife and mother, she doesn’t really convince as a woman capable of murder. A variety of clever staging techniques coupled with a skilful use of sound keep the play moving, but the drama never quite recovers the heights of the opening.

Lia Williams as Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lia Williams as Clytemnestra. Credit: Manuel Harlan

When it comes to the themes of Aeschylus’ writing – the distinction between justice and revenge; the need for the State to help maintain civilisation – Icke’s adaptation doesn’t overstate the parallels to the present day, nor does it attempt to translate them into new ideas that have intellectual coherence. The trial scene, which briefly examines justice in a society where women are considered less important than men, doesn’t strike any modern chords.

Ultimately this adaptation scores most heavily for its clever and skilful dramatic staging, and its superb first act. It is an ambitious and at times very moving piece of theatre.

 

Oresteia will be playing at The Almeida Theatre until 18 July.

 

 

Las Maravillas: The Lost Souls of Mictlan

Those fancying something more original than the London Dungeon this Halloween might have tried the Rose Lipman community centre, which played host to an interactive horror experience based on the Aztec Underworld from 28th October to 1st November. For £10, which is a bit cheaper than the Dungeon, visitors got their shares-worth of fog, flashing lights and actors prone to make sudden moves.

It’s low budget, but Alicia Graf’s creation was not short on ambition and the space had been creatively styled for what was clearly the least cost: think balloons and primary school climbing nets. The premise was clever – we are all lost souls looking for the light – and as you trek through the darkened rooms, with haunting music playing from barely disguised stereo equipment, that lost soul in you definitely becomes more present. That is, until the perplexing dénouement.

For those looking for horror, the experience is probably not your bag. Three attractive young women threatening the punters with mischief is about as dangerous as it got. In some ways it was more of a spiritual journey, which is interesting. With a few exceptions, most notably the creepy queen, the actors needed a lot more bite to really bring the show to life. It should be said that they were not particularly well served by an absence of script – a more thought-provoking dramatic narrative would definitely help. Moreover, there was a clanking absence of Latin America in the styling of the experience. A bit of puppetry connected with a story about a lion on a mountain, is as close as we got to Aztec culture. Yes, there were a few skulls hanging around – but skulls are pretty much the same the world over.

By the end, the performance didn’t really get over the community centre hurdle of its location. But if you’ve got a couple of pints in you and are minded for a bit of cheap fun, joining the lost souls the next time they gather may lead you to Mictlan. 10632727_733800743358325_2994310466976529298_n

Shakespeare in Love at The Noel Coward Theatre @DMTWestEnd

That most impressive of West End venues, the Noel Coward theatre, here plays host to Shakespeare in Love, with Lee Hall adapting Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay for the stage.

Big boots to fill some may think.  Indeed such adaptations are always going to be problematic to those familiar with the original – with performances indelibly engraved on the mind in a way that is not comparable with repeated viewings of the same stage play. What is more, in the case of Shakespeare in Love, we are talking Oscar winning performances from the cream of international screen actors.

A not inconsiderable challenge then. But it should be noted that the creative team at the Noel Coward theatre is also blessed with an Oscar winning script; telling the story of how Shakespeare is helped in overcoming his writer’s block by falling in love with Viola De Lesseps, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, who aspires to join his acting company having in turn fallen in love with his verse. The ruse – knowingly recycled from an As You Like It or a Twelfth Night – is that to do so she must become a boy, because, of course, girls were not allowed to perform on stage during the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. In the backdrop is the draconian pairing of a father, who wants to marry Viola off to the repellent but socially superior Wessex, and a bureaucrat who wants to close the theatres.

Plenty of mileage there for a good yarn and a good yarn it is. Unfortunately, in the translation from film to stage, the result is a somewhat leaden and surprisingly joyless piece that lingers far longer than its welcome.  Hall’s adaptation has some interesting additions – there’s a comedy dog and the character of Marlowe is developed – however, in shifting the focus of the drama from a romantic love story to a story about the love of great writing, he effectively removes the beating heart from the dramatic body.

If there was more chemistry between Tom Bateman’s blokeish Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s quirky Viola such a choice may not have mattered so much. However, Bateman seems more enamoured with David Oakes’ poised Marlowe, whilst despite oozing sex appeal in her opening scene, Briggs-Owen’s similarly fails to conjure any emotional sincerity. The rest of the cast fare little better, with the rather one dimensional performances on offer lacking any creative originality or vital spark.

Declan Donnellan, directing, lays on the gags – Will’s bumbling attempt to complete his sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day” must last at least five minutes.  He also lays on the Elizabethan music, particularly when the characters have some Shakespeare to recite.  However, such laboured efforts can’t undo the void at the centre of this disappointing production.

The answer to the question posed by Queen Elizabeth I – “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” – is in this case a very definite no.

The play runs from now until July 2015 at:

Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane
London
WC2N 4AU

Bookings can be made via the theatre website

National Youth Theatre Rep Company: SELFIE

Defined as a ‘radical retelling of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray’, writer Brad Birch and the NYT Rep Company here try to modernise Wilde’s Faustian tale of a man obsessed by beauty and sensualism.

The action has been uprooted to modern day Shoreditch, with Dorian – a female character in this version – transported from normality to the excesses of celebrity culture by way of a photograph taken by an aspiring artist. The photograph is used as the face of business empire Mason Brago, and thereby makes her the face of the nation.

No decaying picture in the attic this time; rather we are presented with a photo on an i-pad, which finds dramatic form in the large centre-stage mirror onto which the picture is projected. Remaining young and beautiful whilst others age, Dorian’s picture gradually changes as her humanity worsens.

Birch’s version is essentially about the corrupting power of modern celebrity – with its unhealthy focus on style over content – with some short detours covering issues such as whether the ‘posh’ types who inhabit the Shoreditch scene can be fulfilled by a success that is handed to them on a plate. But somehow Wilde’s arrow – in its time dangerously directed at the cherished Victorian belief that art must be morally informative – here fails to hit the target.

Questions are raised about society today, but perhaps inadvertently rather than because of the piece. For example, the Shoreditch dress sense. With their beards and early twentieth century hand-me-downs the actors at times seemed to evoke something conjured by George Bernard Shaw. What does this choice of style represent? That culture is regressing in the face of a creative hiatus? Or, running counter to Wilde’s original notion, that an attempt is being made to return to a time when style ran subordinate to substance.

Further, this notion of today’s obsession with self doesn’t start and end with celebrity: the selfie pervades everybody’s facebook accounts; while perhaps a more telling example of corrupted souls are the trolls who defile the internet.

In the face of a story-line that tends to meander and characters that draw too much on cliché, Paul Roseby’s competent direction never really manages to present people or relationships that convince. The statuesque Kate Kennedy plays Dorian with some flair and is supported by a confident company, which includes an interesting turn by Dominic Grove – as Harry the orchestrator of her downfall; and a committed effort by Ellie Bryans – as Sybil Vane the aspiring musician who falls prey to Dorian’s beauty. Ayten Manyera as Jade perhaps encapsulates the problems best. He’s an actor capable of showing us something real, but the motives of his character seem so tenuous and vague that credibility is always in issue.

The creaking Ambassadors theatre doesn’t help matters much either. One can almost feel the cobwebs brushing the curtain. And its high stage gives a distance to the action that stops this young company connecting with the audience in a way that theatre must do if it is to survive.

Notwithstanding, the National Youth Theatre show enough quality to make their Macbeth, which runs in rep with Selfie, worth noting.

SELFIE runs at Ambassadors Theatre from 17 September – 12 November 2015

To book tickets click here

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Royal Court Theatre – Adler & Gibb: an experimental journey

It’s worth hanging on until the end of this experimental new play, by Tim Crouch, which examines the idea that “an artist or artefact represents the culture in which it was produced.” A number of different stages of performance operate in tandem: with an obsessed student (Rachel Redford) presenting a thesis on two Warhol-esque artists (the said Adler and Gibb of the title); an actress (the student’s later self) preparing for a movie about the same artists; and some children in headphones – on stage throughout – being intermittently directed by “a live voice they hear through their headphones” to hand out props and the like.  Sound complicated? It is, and the decision to have the actress, played by Denise Gough, and her coach, Brian Ferguson, rooted to the spot delivering most of the play out to the audience doesn’t help to engage understanding or sympathy. Moreover, the physical dissimilarity between Gough and Redford and the range of accents delivered baffles rather than enlightens. As the story creeps forward, the decision to focus on the forensic side of creating art rather than the dramatic side of presenting it seems to be an erroneous one.

But the temptation to dismiss the piece as workshop self-indulgence dissipates as a clever build in the narrative and some sharp stagecraft help to shape an impressive conclusion.  By the end, some kind of trick has happened and a successful piece of theatre has been achieved. Whether you care for the trick probably depends on your feelings for modernist art – i.e. does art that challenges the conventions of art float your boat?

The well balanced cast stick to their task with some commitment – which, taking into account the performance impediments placed upon them – does them credit. Gough certainly captures the unhealthy psychology of an individual seeking fulfilment in the life of another, while Amelda Brown’s Gibb has the right measure of maturity and courage. The inherent difficulties of performance style make it hard to convey much depth and continuity of characterisation, but somehow the innate charisma possessed by the actors helps to achieve a sense of reality. The only caveat is that when it comes to the long monologues, the fragmented, un-dramatic structure hasn’t served to build the customary link between audience and character.  And as a result, interest in what is being said is more tenuous.

And what is being said? Certain themes appear to be evident: the innocence of the artist, the inherent incompatibility between artist and society, the mercenary nature of those seeking to cash in on artistic success. Ultimately there is a sense that the artist’s work is not actually about form or content or creation, but rather the vision to see things differently from the norm. And it is this ability, this singularity that partly accounts for the obsessive interest in artist rather than art – an obsession the artist can only escape through death. But as this interesting piece draws to its close and the theatrical canvass is suddenly displaced with a potent cinematic one, even death doesn’t always mark the end of the affair.

Running until 5th July at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square,  London    SW1W 8AS

Box Office +44 (0)20 7565 5000

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Dead Party Animals – Hope Theatre

Committed exclusively to new writing, Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s Hope theatre here puts on the winning show from its first Adrian Pagan new writing award. The award is designed for theatre professionals who do not consider themselves playwrights and allows entry from a variety of theatre practitioners including actors, directors, ushers and stage managers (like the late Pagan himself).

Dead Party Animals, written and performed by Thomas Pickles, is a 55-minute monologue about a young lad and his mates out on the town. Staged on a thrust stage, in a small black-box space, costume, set and frills are dispensed with in favour of a simple storytelling approach which has Pickles sometimes stood motionless, sometimes eye-balling his way round the audience.

The intrusive hum from traffic outside the theatre initially undermines confidence in the ability of the performer to engage. To his credit, like the best storytellers, Pickles manages to weave his magic until you hear nothing but his East Lancashire vowels.

But the subject matter isn’t pretty. Being out on the pull as a young adolescent, like the vomit that spews from the characters in the narrative, is thrown down for us to see, carrots and all. And there’s something definitively nihilistic about it: a prophetic undertone that compares copulation with the almost sacrificial taking of a girl’s virginity. Romance, sensuousness, love – these are not words you associate with modern youth here, as our protagonist clumsily untangles the fake plastic belt of his sexual conquest. “I’ll let her wear my pyjamas when I’ve shagged her.”

Elsewhere there is only the drunken triviality of young girls and the comedic pantaloon of a father who confuses Facebook status with search engine when he posts “chicks with dicks”. When Pickles returns periodically to check his phone “to make sure the rest of the world is still there”, it’s almost as if he wants confirmation that this meaningless reality hasn’t slipped through his fingers.

Escape from the coarse realism comes from the protagonist’s love for his sweetheart, Emma. It also comes from the poetic rap-like element, vaguely reminiscent of the “punk poet” John Cooper Clarke which punctuates the narrative: “Your kiss is a noose/Falling around my neck/Stitched with words we said/And attached to a world we haven’t fled/Your kiss is a gunshot/As we’re both looking down the barrel/We thought we’d given it our last shot.” Part modern theatrical invention, part Greek chorus, it’s a device that works unexpectedly well.

The fact that the story slightly confuses as it draws to a close, as violent encounter and sexual encounter run side by side, doesn’t seem to matter. A truth has been told and sadly it’s a truth that is all too reminiscent of personal experience twenty years ago. Maybe twenty years before that. One wonders how the modern world has managed to contrive such an unedifying rites of passage. However, this is a promising piece – deftly directed by Spreadbury-Maher – and it brings us the gift of a brave and honest performer and writer.