Sweat

Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Donmar Warehouse / directed by Lynette Linton

Seen on January 12, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

One theatrical firework after another: this is how Lynette Linton’s superb production of Sweat lures you into its world of struggle, pain, and redemption. These fireworks—to stretch the metaphor—are all the more impressive for not deafening or blinding one in an over-the-top, self-aware display of virtuosity. All is impeccably balanced here: even the most riotous burst of anger, or the loudest laughter, is strictly sincere. Virtually every single moment, then, has its distinct charm and charge, and what makes this production such a success is its ever-present spirit of moderate dynamism.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play hardly needs further praise. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat depicts the interconnected lives of a group of factory workers as their bonds of friendship and family are increasingly threatened and ultimately torn apart by economic and social pressures of the early 2000’s. Throughout, it takes a long, hard look at how realities of gender, race, and ethnicity further bedevil an already messy system of industrial oppression and alienation. Deftly locating—and letting us feel—the beating human hearts in a national tragedy, Nottage unleashes the dramatic power of such real-life torments and ends up holding a mirror up to an America haunted by its own hypocrisy.

Lynette Linton’s direction has its own enviable virtues, but her greatest asset is an altogether terrific cast, who are fully at home in the world of the play and under her strategic and lively direction. Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins, and Leanne Best are absolutely stunning as the three women at the centre of the story, and they all breathe near-tangible life into their characters. Plimpton continually sustains the inextinguishable, roaring fire in Tracey; Perkins masterfully vacillates between Cynthia’s self-preserving humour and levelheaded resilience; and Best renders Jessie with nimble but well-defined touches. Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, as the two young men whose appalling crime is the focal point of the play’s dramaturgy, deliver richly textured performances. With everyone at the top of their games, the emerging work feels like a naturalistic, slice-of-life display of a shattering and shattered reality.

Frankie Bradshaw’s humble but efficient design is full of thoughtful and evocative details. George Dennis’s sounds are partially responsible for never allowing the pace of the play to drop. Polly Bennett’s movement direction and Kate Waters’s fight choreography also deserve a hearty applause, in that much of the production’s success stems from the pitch-perfect physicality of the actors, including their flawless blocking.

After the curtain call, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” starts playing in the house. “This is America,” we are warned, “Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Don’t catch you slippin’ up.” America, as a gigantic aggregate of shocking slip-ups, comes fiercely, beautifully alive in this production that never slips up.

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Pinter Five: The Room, Victoria Station, & Family Voices

Pinter Five: The Room, Victoria Station, & Family Voices, by Harold Pinter

The Jamie Lloyd Company / directed by Patrick Marber

Seen on January 10, 2019

Score: 3.5 / 5

At first glance, not much unites the plays brought together in this triple bill: the harrowing obfuscations of The Room, the weighted humour of Victoria Station, and the poetic disintegrations of Family Voices are not necessarily perfect bedfellows. But what they do, when put into such close proximity with one another, is to testify to the rich variety of Pinter’s work. That, and they sleekly draw our attention to how estrangements of language and speech are part and parcel of his dramatic imagination. What gets spoken, what remains unsaid, what resists verbalisation: these are the narrative and philosophical corners that constitute the architecture of each of these three one-acts.

Of the three, The Room is by far the most satisfactorily imagined on stage, as well as the one whose atmospheric impact is the boldest. Jane Horrocks is fascinating as the on-edge Rose Hudd, and Colin McFarlane gives a finely cryptic performance as Riley. Victoria Station takes unexpected turns and redeems its bland opening, though its static blocking could have been adjusted in certain ways. Similarly, the abstracted realism of Family Voices could have accommodated riskier choices in both staging and design. Much of the play’s verbal beauty gets sidetracked by its somewhat boring blocking and uninspired set. Yet both Jane Horrocks and Luke Thallon fuel this hard piece with meticulously calibrated performances, handsomely straddling the line between past and present, memory and desire. On the whole, this fifth instalment of the Pinter season has its ups and downs, but it’s certainly worth seeing.

 

Pinter Six: Party Time & Celebration

Pinter Six: Party Time & Celebration, by Harold Pinter

The Jamie Lloyd Company / directed by Jamie Lloyd

Seen on January 10, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

First a cocktail party, then a celebratory dinner. In this double bill of social masks and irrepressible malice, Pinter’s delectably shady characters enjoy themselves, or pretend to do so, against slowly emerging backdrops of social and political exclusion. Beneath the veneer of their self-indulgent civility lie many shades of darkness, ranging from psychological to societal, and the inevitable return of the repressed takes a surprisingly different form in each play.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is strikingly precise without suffocating or flattening the many ambiguities at work in both pieces, and his tonally diverse cast are a shoo-in for these two ensembles of social climbers and tramplers. The most arresting performances belong to John Simm, Eleanor Matsuura, Celia Imrie, Katherine Kingsley, and Tracy-Ann Oberman. No actor carries even a trace of their character from Party Time to that in Celebration; their dexterity in differentiating between the two sets of characters is commendable. The tightly constructed ambiance of Party Time, hauntingly designed by Richard Howell (lights) and Soutra Gilmour (sets and costumes), is one respect in which that play outdoes Celebration in its ultimate effect on the audience. Celebration also feels a bit looser, perhaps more diffuse, in terms of both text and direction. Still, the production as a whole has a distinct flavour of theatrical bravura.

Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

Almeida Theatre; Duke of York’s Theatre / directed by Rebecca Frecknall

Seen on January 8, 2018

Score: 5 / 5

In this exquisitely atmospheric production of Tennessee Williams’s 1948 play, vivacious but thoughtful simplicity reigns supreme. Rebecca Frecknall’s poetic staging hits all the right notes by laying bare before us the restless heart of every single scene. The play’s lyricism is made beautifully tangible by Tom Scutt’s piano-lined set and Lee Curran’s tenderly virtuosic lighting. There is nothing superfluous in any aspect of the production, and whatever scant detail might appear on stage is sure to have lasting resonance within the world of the play.

In Summer and Smoke, we track the Bildung of two central characters over the course of several years: Alma, a sensitive and nervous young woman dextrously bearing the cross of her dysfunctional family, and John, a somewhat reckless but slowly maturing doctor-in-training. As they find themselves romantically drawn to each other time and again, their encounters become lyrically animated debates about the meaning and import of love—debates between soul and body, religion and science, communion and desire. At the end, when “the tables have turned with a vengeance,” each has come a long way from their youthful convictions, and it is especially Alma’s ultimate discovery, and use, of her own voice that tells us most about her growth and resilience. Williams’s play treads a fine line between his trademark poetic realism and a Shavian interest in argumentation, and in the hands of a mediocre team, much of this might have fallen miserably flat. But that is never the case in this visually stripped-down but tonally amped-up production.

The cast is simply phenomenal: In a career-defining performance, Patsy Ferran creates a spellbindingly real and nuanced Alma. Her masterful depiction allows Alma to stop being a mere character and enter our minds and hearts with the force of a living, breathing human being. Matthew Needham is similarly commanding in his performance as John, and even though he doesn’t steal the show from Ferran, his work is consistently top-notch. Anjana Vasan does wonders with each of her four characters (a formidable task!); Forbes Masson tackles both of the father figures with emphatic grace; and Nancy Crane recalibrates the moods of her scenes to great effect. The blocking is slyly efficient and organic throughout, and even the more stylised transitions are not ill-fitting in this work of arresting humility. From first to last, every moment of this elegantly orchestrated work is aglow with all-too-human passions, anxieties, and hesitations—and the result is no other than a remarkable achievement in storytelling that is at once clear and ambiguous, realistic and dreamlike.

“The pieces don’t fit!” is a complaint twice exclaimed in the play, with reference to a jigsaw puzzle. Rest assured that the pieces of Frecknall’s production fit together in the most dazzling way.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare

Almeida Theatre / directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins

Seen on January 7, 2019

Score: 3/5

Simon Russell Beale’s towering performance as Richard II is one of the few redeeming qualities of this production that pretends to be smart but ends up being unimaginative and dull. Joe Hill-Gibbins has taken one of Shakespeare’s most lyrically shattering histories and attempted to turn it into a bare-bones, decontextualized parable of political power grabbing. The set is an empty, industrial-looking interior with grey walls and no exits, and the cast are trapped in it throughout the intermissionless run. All are dressed in overly casual, contemporary clothes, and the whole thing looks (and feels) as though it were a hasty rehearsal happening in a small room. There are, of course, no props—besides a number of buckets containing blood, water, and dirt, which get thrown over the dying characters, as well as the degraded and deposed Richard. In a production that lacks spirit and thoughtful blocking, these moments of heightened physicality and force are particularly impactful, and their visual imprint on the set, which accumulates slowly but surely, makes for a positively disturbing spectacle. It is, however, highly questionable whether Peter Rice’s digitally rhythmic sounds, which rise up every now and then, and James Farncombe’s imperceptibly changing lights add anything of substance to this dry land of a stage.

Richard II has a fascinatingly gripping story and many scenes of poetic grandeur, but this production somehow manages to deaden what is alive even on the page: it not only forfeits narrative clarity by making us blind to the scenic structure of the play, but also disserves the play’s characters with doublings that lack corresponding changes in costumes or delivery (or, well, characterization). Further, even actors with single characters (most notably Leo Bill as Bolingbroke) display inconsistencies in their registers of acting, gradually turning their backs to the very idea of a unified dramatic character. Much of this feels somewhat “alienated” à la Brecht, but in a way that is neither satisfactory nor, I think, intentional. With its awkwardly uneven pace, substantially pared-down text, and kinetically constricted staging, this Richard II crawls to its tragic conclusion only with some pushing.

And for that pushing most of the credit should go to the remarkable Beale, who brings an effervescent clarity to Richard. His performance is intense, but in a way that is often intelligently subdued, and his physicality is always full of surprises. He is, in other words, the dose of life-saving medicine that runs through the veins of this frail and perplexed production. Uttered by him, the play’s most extraordinary passages of poetry soar to great heights, and his is the power that brings into line the rest of the cast from time to time. One cannot help but think how unendurable all of this would have been without Beale, and how wondrous it would be to have a masterful production of this play with him in it.

Company

Company / music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth

Gielgud Theatre, Elliott & Harper Productions / directed by Marianne Elliott

Seen on January 3, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

Few things on the stages of London at the moment can rival Marianne Elliott’s endlessly sleek, nimble, and original Company. From awe-inspiring performances to a constantly shape-shifting set, from its intelligent and thought-provoking gender swaps to a virtuosic choreography, everything about this spellbinding show smells of heartfelt finesse. It’s fun, funny, and festive. Not to mention all the hard questions it asks of its characters—and of us.

This is a work driven not by a linearly unfolding and coherent story, but rather by a series of episodic encounters between Bobbie, who has just turned 35 but still does not feel ready—or lucky enough—for marriage, and her wedded friends, each of whom has a different advice to give her and a different marital experience to sing of (in celebration or in despair, or sometimes in both). It’s immensely pleasant to wander from one scene to another and often to witness them superimposed on one another, thematically as well as visually. Even as Sondheim and Furth bring to the fore many a familiar fact and argument about marital life, they defamiliarize what it means to commit to someone else in such a capacity, to be so in need of another’s (or, in Bobbie’s case, of others’) perpetual company. There is not a dint of overt philosophizing or aggressive social critique in any of this, but there’s more than enough soul in every minute to take you down that road if you so wish.

The whole cast is nothing but stellar: Rosalie Craig is both introspective and carefree as a marriage-averse Bobbie. Patti Lupone, as Joane, is elegance and sass writ large. Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie and Richard Fleeshman’s Andy are a delight to watch. And all the others deliver similarly spectacular performances. Bunny Christie’s set design is responsible for much of the magical thrust of the entire show: ceaselessly surprising, flexible, and chic, her movable—and attachable—containers are immaculate aids to the structural twists and turns of the story. In his neon-heavy and vibrant lighting design, Neil Austin knows well how to sustain, amplify, and then relocate our attention. Liam Steel’s choreography, neither too over-the-top nor too meek, hits the right spot with its rich palette of self-assured (and sometimes acrobatic) moves and motions. And finally, the great orchestrator of it all: Marianne Eliot’s direction is at once intelligent and sensitive, infusing both the musical numbers and the dialogue with wit and gravity in equal parts. This is the kind of production that works hard and plays hard, leaving one enchanted.

 

Antony & Cleopatra

Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

National Theatre / directed by Simon Godwin

Seen on January 2, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

Simon Godwin’s tasteful staging of Shakespeare’s tale of romantic infatuation and political abandon is a feast for the eyes and ears. Godwin’s direction is richly imaginative but not overly iconoclastic, which proves to be a good balance for this production. He starts the play at its concluding tableau, with Caesar moralizing over Cleopatra’s self-slain body and Agrippa imploring us to “behold and see” how it all has led to this moment. The whole play, then, silently assumes the posture of an extended, self-conscious flashback, and Godwin masterfully creates an ethereal world of all-consuming passion.

Ralph Fiennes luxuriates in all the extremes of Antony, from his reckless clinging to Cleopatra to his convulsive embrace of an acutely felt death drive. (One cannot help but be alert to the possibility that these two might be the same thing after all.) Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is a true delight in her utterly captivating swings between clear-eyed steadfastness and joyous impulsiveness. In a performance that thoroughly embodies her character’s “infinite variety,” she exudes both refinement and grit regardless of whether Cleopatra is on cloud nine or in the throes of grief. The titular couple is accompanied by a perfectly chosen cast of impressive talent. Tunji Kasim’s Caesar is sharp and balanced; Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus strikes a particularly human chord in his down-to-earth aura; Fisayo Okinade’s Eros is an enticingly ideal servant; and Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers (as Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra’s courtiers) are crucial ingredients of the production’s finely wrought texture.

Hildegard Bechtler’s surprisingly versatile and humbly stylish set works in perfect harmony with Tim Lutkin’s stunning lighting design. Evie Gurney’s costumes boast not only a strong sense of fashion, but also a great power of suggestiveness regarding the characters and the “imagined present” that they inhabit. Cleopatra’s wardrobe is especially charming and can easily make its way to the nearest department store. Throughout, the production’s dynamic but unified colour palette is wondrous. Michael Bruce’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design inject just the right amount of sonic titillation—and provocation—into a theatrical world that is always already brimming with intensity. My only hesitation is about the projections, as well as the occasional use of pre-recorded video, both of which are unnecessary and do not belong to this production. But in a work of this scope and richness, I am more than willing to turn a blind eye to them.