The Convert

The Convert by Danai Gurira

Young Vic / directed by Ola Ince

Seen on December 28, 2018

Score: 3.5 / 5

The Convert takes us to colonial Zimbabwe in 1896, where Jekesai-turned-Esther, a young and impressionable woman, gradually embraces Christianity at the behest of a devout Catholic priest, but only to discover tragically that the colour of her skin and her allegiance to her community will have to drive a wedge between her newfound faith and the religion imposed upon her. While the play touches on a wide range of problems inherent in Africa’s colonial history, including those about language, culture, religion, and race, the way it does so is not particularly well-organised. It is not until the final moments of Act Two that the play’s real tension, along with its central thematic interest, rears its head in earnest, and the exquisitely powerful Act Three far surpasses the preceding acts in allowing the real torments of the story to take centre stage.

Much of what makes this final act so shattering is its elegantly developing discourse on race, especially in relation to the questions it asks of institutionalised religion and personal faith. I could make the bold claim that this act, by itself, could have been the core pillar of a much tidier play. Of course, the first two acts do have several scenes that are both dramaturgically necessary and situationally engaging, but their contributions to the thematic arc of the play are not consistent. As such, the three-hour runtime of the play is not justified: with some necessary pruning, this could have been a more formidable, two-act piece.

Letitia Wright’s and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s performances are the throbbing heart of this production. It is almost impossible to imagine someone else in the role of Jekesai; Wright has more than the requisite emotional and physical range to do justice to the many nuances of her character. As for Lewis-Nyawo, not only is her character, Prudence, one of the most fascinating and provocative aspects of the entire work, but she embodies Prudence’s fierce “wokeness” with admirable force and refinement. The rest of the cast are satisfying in their performances, but it is worth noting that Paapa Essiedu could have been considerably more interrogative and multifaceted with a character like Chilford.

Ola Ince’s direction boasts handsome achievements in pacing and transitions, but her blocking is not always suitable for an in-the-round staging, and her dynamic use of the semi-transparent walls lacks an underlying logic. I loved the way the centre stage was used in conjunction with the four diagonal entrances, and how our attention was regularly directed to the spatial (as well as cultural and psychological) peripheries of the story, but the space within the central square could have been utilised more dynamically.

Nonetheless, Naomi Dawnson’s semi-realist set deserves acclaim for providing the production with such a versatile and neat playing field. Bruno Poet’s thoughtfully emphatic lighting and Max Perryment’s brilliant sound design are part and parcel of what carries this production forward, downplaying, or perhaps even forestalling, our sensitiveness to the play’s blemishes. The Convert might be an imperfect and overlong play, but thanks to such impressive design elements and a generally well-armed cast, it sure has some truly outstanding moments of deep tenderness and goosebump-inducing pathos.

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The Cane

The Cane by Mark Ravenhill

The Royal Court Theatre / directed by Vicky Featherstone

Seen on December 27, 2018

Score: 4.5/5

Ravenhill’s new play is the haunting exploration of a troubled family as it finds itself headed towards a belated confrontation and inevitable dissolution. It does this through the gradual disclosure of the personal and professional history of the father, an almost-retired teacher who, as the deputy head of his school, caned “several hundred” students for years. While much of the debate in the play might appear to revolve around the ethics of corporal punishment and institutionalised education, the real deal is the family itself—family in relation to (and as “caned” and disfigured by) patriarchal power and rage.

Consider the attic: it is important not only as a key component of the play’s setting, but also as an embodiment of all that has been stowed away—repressed, one might say—by the man who has had sole access to it (albeit only through the physical support of his wife). Chief among these is the titular cane itself, but the whole of Edward’s history is also there, be it sartorial or professional. No wonder that one of the final gestures of the play is to have Maureen, the mother, make her way into the attic, perhaps for the first time. Her departure is occasioned by despair, fear, and even denial, but at least she will be safe, like her daughter, by the time Edward’s world—and head?—is smashed into smithereens in an act of collective revenge.

The whole cast deliver terrific, carefully calculated performances: Alun Armstrong’s reason-clad but tyrannical Edward, Maggie Steed’s gradually unhinged Maureen, and Nicola Walker’s elegantly seething and forthright-but-PC Anna come together to create a formidable triangle of filial resentment and Pinteresque terror.

Chloe Lamford’s seemingly simple but masterfully claustrophobic set estranges the realism of this family drama with symbolically charged details: an overly high ceiling, a semi-demolished and off-scale staircase, and only a single chair in what is supposed to be a living room. The visual composition itself is replete with sombre suggestions as to what might have led to such careless disintegration, both in the house and among its inhabitants, past and present. And as the ceiling becomes complicit in intensifying the pressures that the play exerts on its characters, the world of Vicky Featherstone’s production makes official—and concrete—its alliance to the uncanny.

Featherstone’s direction injects a considerable amount of unnerving and congealing tension into a text that might have felt a bit shaky in a less skilful production. The only weakness—and it is a minor one—is that the action of the play is not continuous and skips past several minutes in a few moments of transition. These transitions chip away at the growing power of the story more than they add to its temporal logic. It would have been easy to turn this work into an uninterrupted whole that unfolds in real time, and the result would have been even more affecting. Yet despite this structural bump in the road, this is an altogether compact, smart, and disturbing piece.

The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart by Anthony Neilson, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe

National Theatre / directed by Anthony Neilson

Seen on December 26, 2018

Score: 3/5

Edgar Allan Poe’s famed short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” can send chills down one’s spine, but Anthony Neilson’s new play, based on and named after the selfsame work, would rather punctuate, or even defer, the dramatic equivalent of such experience with some giggles and laughter. Sure, Poe’s cast of loosely drawn but haunting characters—a murderous tenant, a slaughtered landlord, and police officers—find their onstage correspondences, but Neilson’s project is not really one of adaptation or deconstruction (à la, say, Robert Icke). Rather, Poe’s text provides the narrative inspiration for Neilson’s play and permeates it in its own right, as a work of literature that gets referred to by the characters. Poe’s unnamed characters and elusively crisp exposition give way to a more concretely realised and unabashedly humorous story, but what starts out as realistic soon morphs into the surreal. Even though the result is a hearty serving of theatrical reflexivity, including a Pirandellian overlay of multiple planes of reality, it fails to add up to a perfect whole.

The piece gains much from the fine performances of all three actors, but the rapid succession of gory surprises and scenic trickery—all very impressive technical achievements—can do only so much to sustain the play with the pace that it needs but never fully attains. Especially in the second act, which sets store more by mood than by plot, some moments drag on, not because they are not engaging, but because their relation to the overall architecture of the work remains unsatisfyingly unclear. Neilson likes his twists and turns (and there are quite a few of them here), but even the most ambitious one, which comes just when you think the play is over, does not soar to a height that can make us ignore the dramaturgical weaknesses of the work. Largely thanks to Andrzej Goulding’s meticulously designed projections and many an odd prop, the stage becomes a visual playground, where the grotesque reigns supreme, continually messing with us. But much of this is flashy (or bloody) window dressing for a play that does not take us to a particularly deep place.

Neilson deserves applause for blurring the line between the gruesome and the funny in a number of ways; the play’s relentless flirtation with comedy is perhaps one of its strongest aspects. One could go so far as to suggest that this is chiefly a parody masquerading as a horror story. Yet when all is said and done, and whatever can be admired is admired, the play’s “hideous heart” does not beat as evenly as it should.

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.

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—rational and affective—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 breath-taking 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