Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache & The Dumb Waiter

Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache & The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter

The Jamie Lloyd Company / directed by Jamie Lloyd

Seen on February 16, 2019

Score: 4.5 / 5

The seventh instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter season brings together two one-acts that are each unnerving in its own way. Both are two-handers, but both depend greatly upon the presence of a third figure, who is completely silent (and unseen) in A Slight Ache and offstage in The Dumb Waiter. As these relational triangles lead marital and collegial tensions to mount to a shattering climax, Pinter offers us profound instances of the clash between the social and the personal. Lloyd executes both plays excellently, reaching and shedding light on even their deepest, most elusive caverns.

In A Slight Ache, a married couple invite into their a home an old, enigmatic match-seller, who does not (or cannot) speak and thus becomes an empty slate upon which his hosts project various kinds of psychological and spiritual venom. As Edward and Flora dominate the man by the sheer force of their speech, their cross examination sets the stage for an ultimate unearthing of the repressed and an unexpected reversal of roles. John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan are astounding in their parts, to which they bring a spellbinding clarity that does not flatten but rather intensifies and enriches the play’s poetic ambiguity. Their physicality, pacing, and registers are relentlessly pitch-perfect. Lloyd’s staging pays homage to the original status of A Slight Ache as a radio play: he sets the scene in a radio station, where the actors speak to microphones, move minimally, and, at times, create ambient sounds. But soon enough, the logic of this initial set-up starts to crumble in riveting ways, with microphones getting dropped off in bouts of panic and moments of striking visuality increasing in number and intensity. As the line between actor and character blurs, Jon Clark’s lighting and George Dennis’ sound design, too, convey these unsettling swerves with great subtlety. The result is not only an immensely well-calculated and captivating depiction of linguistic terror and unassuming catharsis, but also a tempting invitation to experience the play’s quirky relationship to sound and vision through multiple layers.

The Dumb Waiter comes very close to being as perfect as A Slight Ache, but Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman’s occasional tendency to play for laughs slightly blemishes an otherwise masterful production. With multiple echoes of Waiting for Godot, the play presents two hitmen, Ben and Gus, trapped in a basement and waiting for instructions about their next “assignment” from a man implied to be their boss. Hints of gallows humour and an undercurrent of existential despair make the dynamic between the two men both symbiotic and antagonistic. The play’s hauntingly staged ending hits the right note, leaving a memorable aftertaste. Dyer and Freeman are often quite careful and inventive about the dramatic contours of their respective characters, even though there are moments when the impulse for slapstick takes over. Still, their treatment of this challenging piece is remarkable in its precision and attention to detail.

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Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio / conceived for the stage by Joel Horwood and Tom Scutt; written by Joel Horwood

Donmar Warehouse / directed by Tom Scutt

Seen on February 15, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

Based on Peter Strickland’s 2012 film of the same title, Berberian Sound Studio is a work of sonic ingenuity that both celebrates and interrogates sound as a medium. At its centre is Gilderoy, an English sound designer recruited to work at a studio in Italy, where a small group of foley artists and voice actors are dubbing over an allegedly avant-garde horror film by an auteur named Santini. With his expertise in nature documentaries, Gilderoy is especially needed, it seems, for the film’s hyper-violent and technically demanding climax—an “indelible kiss” of tortures—which necessitates, among other things, an all-consuming, guttural scream.

Amidst the complaints of the lead voice actor about the absurdities of the script, and Gilderoy’s communicative discords with his bizarre colleagues, this pursuit of the ideal cocktail of sounds takes on a dubious character. As the thin line between representation and documentation gets increasingly perilous and permeable in the studio, ethical questions start to rear their heads: How far will the ambitious sound designer will, or can, go to capture the “perfect” scream of unspeakable pain? What is the extent to which he is responsible for—and complicit in—the patriarchal, offensive aesthetics of Santini, whose penchant for gratuitous violence might have even darker instincts behind it? And what is one to do with the gap between where a sound comes from and what it can ultimately represent?

Much of Berberian Sound Studio deservedly glories in a long succession of sonic exposés. A leek is broken in half to suggest the breaking of bones; watermelons are stabbed to pieces to simulate the sounds of a murder; a gaff tape is stretched rhythmically to sound like a heartbeat. But then an actual nail gets cut off, and before long, this striving after veracity knows no bounds. Things get messy.

It is tempting to watch the play with the presumption that the story will culminate in a certain sort of bodily harm for the sake of Gilderoy’s art, but very little prepares one for what actually transpires at the end. The narrative takes strange and clever turns that ask us to look back on the entirety of the play and revisit its many details, though some clarity is sacrificed for a particularly lyrical ending. All the sounds in this production are breathtakingly crisp, but the same cannot be said for the quality of storytelling. The fact that nearly half the play is in Italian makes it all the more important for the production to convey clearly the main joints of the plot. Which it does most of the time, but certain transitions—and a few scenes—prioritise style over substance, slightly clouding a play that is already opaque in otherwise commendable respects. Perhaps relatedly, the intriguing questions that the work opens up do not mature into a robust thematic of their own, but rather hang in the air as striking but incomplete thoughts.

Both the cast and the creative team deftly create and nourish a trademark balance between dark humour and slowly mounting terror: As Gilderoy, Tom Brooke is humbly (and somewhat self-effacingly) penetrating in his descent into madness. Lara Rossi’s Sylvia is elegantly but earnestly outspoken, and Enzo Cilenti’s Francesco is at once disquieting and amiable. Of course, Ben and Max Ringham’s composition and sound design are simply immaculate and indispensable—in both diegetic and non-diegetic registers. While Lee Curran’s lighting provides the ideal visual complement to this intense soundscape, Anna Yates and Tom Scutt’s set compartmentalises the action in interesting ways. Overall, as a directorial debut, Scutt’s work is subtly impressive.

Berberian Sound Studio might be a piece whose sonic acrobatics ultimately trump all else, but that does not mean that the surrounding elements are not remarkable. Quite the contrary: without its uncanny story, full of strange characters and mystifying details (at times evocative of a David Lynch film), the production’s sonic texture would have no real punch. Rest assured that the punch is there—but beware where it comes from.

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other by Martin Crimp

National Theatre / directed by Katie Mitchell

Seen on January 26, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

‘I’d rather be raped than bored.’ So remarks one of the characters in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. And such is the spirit in which the play wants to awaken its audience from what it takes to be a certain torpor (or timidity) characteristic of some contemporary discourse on sex and sexual politics. Provocative it surely is, but to what exact end—that is harder to unpack.

In his new play, aptly subtitled ‘Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela’, Martin Crimp deploys an infamous 18th-century novel’s plot as an incubator to generate a series of sexually charged scenes that depict an unnamed couple, Man and Woman, engaged in twisted pursuits of power, pleasure, and autonomy. In Katie Mitchell’s disquietingly stark and tonally monochromatic production, all twelve scenes take place, with nearly indiscernible transitions, in a bleak but bizarrely well-equipped garage, where Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane frequently exchange the characters (and costumes) of Pamela and Mr B—the servant and the master at the heart of Richardson’s novel. Not for nothing is all this cross-dressing and role-switching: it insistently brings to the fore the performative constructedness and indeterminacy of such categorical binaries as masculine/feminine and dominant/submissive that run through the play (not to mention our lives). This is, through and through, a battle of sexes on steroids, where the frontlines are always changing and nothing is fixed or fixable. At stake is not only the ethics of sex, but its economics—the ways in which sex implies and feeds on differentials of ownership, reach, and need. Indeed, the play’s discourse on sexual agency and ascendancy is entangled with its abiding interests in social class and age, particularly as they pertain to—and shape—the body.

Running through every vein of Crimp’s script is the notion that power in any sort of sexual relationship is inherently performative. Man and Woman insist on, and amply demonstrate, the crucial and excruciating role of language—either as speech or as writing—in carrying out that performative work. The levers of power in these twelve scenes are pulled by what does or doesn’t come out of the characters’ mouths, what they put into words (and how, and when), what those words reveal or obscure. The question of who gets to speak or write looms over the play’s elusive nexus between domination and submission, pointing to the apparent victor of each scene, while exposing how transient, and merely theatrical, such victory may be. The disturbing scene where Man holds Woman in a grip and tyrannically dictates the (seemingly) happy ending of Pamela for her to type (as though she were recording her own thoughts) is a perfect example of the perilous slipperiness of the terrain that the characters tread, and of the discursive deceptions that it may easily beget.

The play’s trenchantly critical spirit is at times countervailed by its fast-paced, shape-shifting dramaturgy. There is hardly any space to breathe, either for the main characters or for us. We are asked to digest a lot, and continuously, which leads to interpretive plateaus at certain moments. There is, in other words, much provocation going on, but the margins for reflection are minimized. Still, it’s a cause for wonder that a play this relentlessly cryptic is also intensely watchable. Its manifold challenges, including the uncertainties it creates as to what we can, or should, expect from such a strange work, arrest one’s attention to a considerable degree. It’s a slow burn, but it does end up burning its imprint on one’s mind.

So far, so good, but what the production really needs is a stronger frame to convey, or imply, its rules of engagement. It doesn’t have to be clear or explicit, but it needs to be there. Granted, Mitchell’s production opens with five characters joining the Woman in the garage, entering the space silently and hurriedly, with mouths taped shut, getting ready to (en)act whatever they have been contracted (or convinced, or forced) to do. It’s a frustratingly unrevealing, rather than temptingly ambiguous, prelude to an already opaque work. From there we swiftly plunge into the first scene, between Man and Woman, and it’s not until halfway through the play that the rest of the cast join the action, though slightly and often silently. It really takes no less than half an hour to glean the mechanics of the play, at least partially. Given that Crimp’s script does not provide any details or instructions about the material context in which his scenes dwell, it is entirely up to the director to imagine and construct the theatrical word within which these fragments cohere. Crucially, the amount of details that Mitchell provides of her world is at once too great to allow the play to operate as a full-fledged allegory and too small to explain its logic through a concrete meta-narrative.

So, we are led to ask, what is this that we are seeing unfold? Is this a (married) couple putting themselves through a particularly exacting form of sexual therapy? Or a group of professional performers investigating the sexual boundary between the self and the other by extreme means? Or a self-aware, hyper-theatricalized response, on the part of these six characters, to Richardson’s novel? That the production makes it possible for all these options (alongside many others) to coexist without annulling each other might be deemed an achievement, but the result would have been much more satisfying if such hermeneutic openness was buttressed by more particular and self-assured details regarding the architecture of the play.

Despite these dramaturgical blurs, both Blanchett and Dillane deliver razor-sharp performances of harrowing tension: Blanchett is simultaneously commanding and vulnerable in all the different shades of her part, whether she is enacting the narcissistic Mr B or the deceptively naive Pamela. Those few moments when she fleetingly slips out of her given character, reminding us of the production’s other layers, are especially phenomenal. Dillane, too, is thoroughly impressive in his finely calibrated renderings of a number of personas, ranging from a distressed, out-of-character Man to a loquaciously oppressive Mr B. Though four other actors join them, they are sadly sidelined to near-negligible parts, except for Jessica Gunning, who delivers towards the end a tantalising performance as the sexually erupting Mrs Jewkes. (One can’t help but wonder if the play could have benefitted from the elimination of the two Girls, and if more use could have been made of Ross and Mrs Jewkes.) But let’s face it: this is Blanchett and Dillane’s show, so much so that it feels like a two-hander at times.

Melanie Wilson’s perfectly ambient sound design contributes to the steely tonality of the production, as does James Farncombe’s slyly modulating but consistently wintry lighting. Vicki Mortimer’s set is often unfriendly to those audiences seated on the sides, but its crammed, claustrophobic, and realist simplicity is part and parcel of Mitchell’s rendition of this play. It’s not the most cunning combination of design elements, more restrictive than facilitating, especially in and around the car. But it does work: for a play so preoccupied with the penumbral dynamics of intimacy, such uncomfortable closures and kinetic limitations are both practical and evocative.

At the end of the day, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a work as demanding as it is engaging. Crimp and Mitchell give us a lot to process (probably more than is feasible at a single sitting), and they rightly request, in return, a high level of critical attention and a spirit of openness. The ride is neither smooth nor safe, but it is certainly—and sufficiently—riveting.

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.

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.