Wise Children

Wise Children by Angela Carter

An Old Vic and Wise Children production @ Cambridge Arts Theatre / adapted and directed by Emma Rice

Seen on November 21, 2018

Score: 4/5

In Emma Rice’s joyfully imagined adaptation, Angela Carter’s 1991 novel comes to life with all its splendour and theatricality. The ceaselessly shape-shifting and buzzing cast imbue an already rambunctious tale with energy and sparkle. Combining live music, puppetry, dance, and cross-dressing, Rice’s production becomes a celebration of both life and theatre, even as they often blend into each other in this dazzlingly (and self-consciously) Shakespearean tale. Of particular note are Vicki Mortimer’s toned-down but striking costumes and Etta Murfitt’s vibrant choreography.

Even though the many moving parts of the production seem to comment on a lot, there appears to be, especially in the second act, somewhat of a vacuity of substance to much of this singing and dancing and rejoicing. Put differently, there are moments when one cannot help but wonder: to what end is all this glitter? This is a question that may come up throughout the piece, but it does get answered at the end, when the Chance sisters undergo an essential epiphany that leads to the staging of a feminist coup. It’s an immensely satisfying, empowering, and political ending that leaves you wanting more. I wish that political edge had diffused to the work as a whole.

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The Inheritance

The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez

Noël Coward Theatre / directed by Stephen Daldry

Seen on November 17, 2018

Score: 5/5

A theatrical triumph that is incandescently overwhelming, heart-wrenching, and life-affirming: Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour marathon through the intersecting stories of a dozen gay men trying to make sense of who they are, and where they are going, in contemporary New York is an absolute tour de force in its dramatic ambition, formal inventiveness, and tender humanity. Despite, or rather because of, its demanding length and overwrought plotting, the play fiercely captures one’s attention and doesn’t let go of it even after it’s over. “A haunting, if you will. A necessary haunting.” These words, spoken by Margaret with reference to the farmhouse at the centre of the play, are perhaps the best encapsulation of what this production does to its audiences. Stephen Daldry’s utterly ingenious direction, with its unceasing attention to both the totality of this colossal work and its infinite minutiae, is indispensable to this visceral effect. His phenomenal cast, with not even a slightly weak link, is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Though every single actor is dazzling and awe-inspiring in his own way, those that shine blindingly bright are Andrew Burlap, Paul Hilton, Samuel Levine, and Kyle Soller. Vanessa Redgrave, with her late, brief appearance in one of the most touching scenes of the play, injects her grace and virtuosity to the world of these tormented men. Bob Crowley’s spare but breathtaking design, Jon Clark’s sublime lighting, and Paul Englishby’s moving music are the other pillars upon which this work breathes, ever throbbing with life.

The Inheritance meditates on, and calmly celebrates, the healing glories of intergenerational kinship, of historical consciousness, of brotherly love, and (perhaps most fully) of storytelling and writing. Central to all this is the idea of reaching out—across time, across space, and across kinds and degrees of personal difference. Naturally enough, that comes with questions of how, why, how much, and when—questions that never stop thrusting themselves upon the characters and the audience, and that don’t like easy answers. With the exception of a handful of scenes that self-consciously launch into a Shavian register of debate and lecture, this multi-layered pondering is primarily done at the level of plot, which is one of the greatest achievements of Lopez. It is no easy feat to craft a narrative of this scope that is at once intriguing, funny, and thought-provoking. Even at the expense of overwriting the plot (along with the character of Toby) towards the end, and gradually diffusing in Part Two the remarkable narrative tightness of Part One, Lopez holds nothing back in the way he immerses us into the lives of his characters, creating a narrative vortex in which the great degree of their unexpected entanglements itself becomes the point.

Yes, there are some minor weaknesses—a few redundant moments and digressions, and somewhat jarring transitions/jumps in the story—but none of that really matters when one takes stock of the work as a whole, with its intricately woven and relentlessly accretive architecture reigning supreme over some flickering lights in some random corner.

“Epic” and “novelistic” are two words that one cannot do without in thinking about this work: the former in its literal, Homeric sense, and the latter in the way in which it governs both the structure and the thematics of the play. This generic “reaching out” is not at all the sign of an uneasiness with the dramatic form, but rather an homage to its inherent openness to multiple modalities of narration—something about which the characters, too, are obsessed. The play concludes with Leo having written a novel titled “The Inheritance,” whose first sentence is no other than that of the story told by the Young Men in this very play. No wonder, also, that one of the key plot points is Toby’s adaptation of his faux-autobiographical novel for the stage. And, of course, the spectral centrality of E. M. Forster and his novels to the entire play is beyond discussion. Reflexivity clearly plays a part in all this, but there also emerges, quite beautifully, a sort of circularity, evocative of the historical cycles that the characters first come to enact and then break through.

The Inheritance is, more than anything, an ode to the revelatory and recuperative power of stories, of the act of telling of one’s own story, especially as one finds himself in situations of—or in a life of—intense precarity, loneliness, and yearning. In the play’s blazing world, the various inheritances—both literal and figurative—that come to upend and define the characters’ lives are what paves the way for their increasing awareness of this power (like that of the pigs’ teeth that reside deep in the trunk of that cherry tree). Much of this discourse is predicated upon the question of what it means to be a gay man in America today, but what ultimately makes Lopez’s play a masterpiece, and an instant modern classic, is the uplifting universality that it gracefully weaves into a plot of myriad specificities. The result is all-consuming, unforgettable, and unmissable.

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love / adapted by Lee Hall

Cambridge Arts Theatre (Eleanor Lloyd Productions and Theatre Royal Bath Productions) / directed by Phillip Breen

Seen on November 6, 2018

Score: 3.5/5

Thumbs-up: At times gloriously funny and uplifting, this adaptation of the 1998 film promises an enjoyable couple of hours (but no real theatrical virtuosity). With consistently over-the-top acting and high energy, the cast do what they can with a self-consciously farcical script. Rowan Polonski as Ned Alleyn/Catling gives the most commanding performance (though it’s also one of the most caricatured). The ending of the play, with the final tableau of whispered lines and a shored-up Viola, is surprisingly impressive in its tonal richness and impact .

Thumbs-down: Much of the non-narrative, choreographed stage action—often with actors holding candles and chanting awkward songs, as a sort of backdrop to some of the scenes—does not belong to this production. Which is emblematic, in a sense, of the messy nature of the whole thing. In almost all respects, the production cannot make up its mind as to what kind of a theatrical experience it wants to deliver: the ratio of kitsch to the “literary” keeps changing from scene to scene, as does that of slapstick to drama. Some of this is due to the play itself, but some of it has to do with the directing. All in all, it’s fun, but it’s just that.

The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

Cambridge Arts Theatre (The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions) / directed by Philip Franks

Seen on November 3, 2018

Thumbs-up: In this surprisingly multi-layered exploration of how we choose to remember and share the lives of “great” artists, Bennett offers us an engaging (and well-sustained) blend of high-pitched humour and high-brow reflection. The play is set in a rehearsal room, where a company of actors (with strong opinions and important questions) are rehearsing Caliban’s Day, a play based on a series of same-day encounters involving W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Humphrey Carpenter, and a rent boy. Under Philip Franks’ sleek direction, the cast feel truly at home in the world of the play; Matthew Kelly’s carefully contoured Fitz/Auden and Benjamin Chandler’s energetic Tim/rent boy were my favourite performances. Adrian Linford’s crammed but evocative set design manages to hold together, as well as distinguish, the different planes of action.

Thumbs-down: For all its interesting meditations on art and artistry, the play has a hard time justifying why it needs such a markedly metatheatrical structure, primarily because the discourse of Caliban’s Day on poetry and music barely correlates with that of the frame story on drama and performance. Granted, the increasing interest of the play-within-the-play in the figure of the rent boy nicely maps onto the stage manager’s increasing importance in the rehearsal room, but one expects more from a work that places almost all its bets on this well-known but ever-tricky dramatic structure. If the crux of the matter lies in Donald’s angsty rants about the ethics of historical representation, then that, too, proves insufficient as an organising principle, as both his character and his lines fit uneasily into the work as a whole, as though they were added later on. Related to this is the strikingly weak characterization of the playwright Neil, left unmitigated by Robert Mountford’s flat performance.

Score: 4/5

The Wild Duck

The Wild Duck / after Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Robert Icke

Almeida Theatre / directed by Robert Icke

Seen on October 27, 2018

Thumbs-up: In his obsession with radical reimaginings of classics, Robert Icke seems to have soared to a new, masterful height: this humbly incandescent and moving production strikes the perfect balance between preserving the narrative integrity of Ibsen’s 1884 masterpiece and fiercely critiquing its formal and thematic aspirations. Icke’s well-chosen cast boasts some serious talent and infuses this risky piece with an unobtrusive yet carefully calculated energy. Though everyone is brilliant, of particular note are Kevin Harvey’s finely balanced Gregory Woods and Lyndsey Marshall’s elegantly pulsating Gina Ekdal.

By the close of this ingenious work, what we have is nothing less than a vindication of the theatre as a medium, which ends up answering, ever so slyly and satisfyingly, the challenge that Icke poses for it at the beginning—that all, including the stage itself, is mere lies. Icke’s adaptation, at its core a thoughtful deconstruction—and ultimately, reassembly—of Ibsen’s text and dramaturgy, is powerful especially in the way it turns us, the audience, into an accomplice in its interrogation of the perils and pleasures of illusion. Demolishing Ibsen’s fourth wall from the very start and assuming a calmly metatheatrical frame, this version tackles the original play’s vexed relationship to the idea(l) of the real, both in drama and in life, on multiple levels and through multiple layers. What begins as a starkly bare-bones, transparent, and (supposedly) “authentic” rendering of the Ekdals’ haunting story (and of Ibsen’s own dramatization of it) gradually surrenders itself to a blazingly theatrical register that also stands for our inadvertent, human propensity for representation and artifice (which might, after all, be the only way to access what’s more authentic and real). This self-conscious theatricality owes much of its appeal to Bunny Christie’s slowly revealed scenic design and Eliot Griggs’ versatile lighting. Truth, if it exists, can hardly be told or reported simply, but is always necessarily performed and thus comes with its own trappings: this is what Icke’s production both states explicitly and dramatizes with tremendous affect.

Thumbs-down: The rules of engagement governing Icke’s daring (re)vision are not always clear or consistent, which makes the dramaturgy of the work somewhat challenging to follow, especially in the first half-hour. (All the same, this is such an exciting production precisely because some of the rules get rejected and do change.) Also it isn’t clear to me why Icke must have felt the need to invent brief after-stories for some of the characters, as those additions don’t bring anything new or interesting to the table.

Notes: This is adaptive work at its best. Clear but challenging, critical but not aggressive, Icke’s production arguably fulfills Ibsen’s original vision better than a purist staging of the play would today.

Score: 5/5