There's nothing wrong with the direction or the acting in this play at the Old Vic, but it left me very cold. Even though it was all over in 90 minutes, I was looking at my watch and willing it to end as fast as possible. Looking at the photo of playwright John Guare in the expensive programme, I found one of my longstanding life principles confirmed -- never trust a man wearing a bow tie. The title is a piece of flimsy cod-sociology which has very little relationship to the story, based on a real 1980s incident, of a young black con-man who insinuates himself into the homes of wealthy liberal New Yorkers by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. The art dealer couple let him stay the night and give him fifty dollars, but quickly discover they're not the only ones who have fallen for his story. In a sense this is the preliminary to what should be the real action of the play, but the real action never comes. Instead, the story meanders off at a tangent with the introduction of other characters who fall victim to the young man's sob-stories. By the time we return to the art dealer and his wife, the interest has flagged. Although the dialogue is crisp and well written, the play is ruined (at least for me) by the shallow two-dimensional nature of the characters, and the way they are always coming to the front of the stage and explaining things to the audience. The soliloquy has a long and respectable tradition, but in the Shakespearean theatre it's a way of exploring a character's inner thoughts, not a piece of storytelling designed to plug gaps in the action. It's a common device in American plays, but whenever I come across it I feel like jumping out of my seat and shouting 'Show, don't tell!' Guare certainly over-uses it. The young black man Paul, however, who is potentially the most interesting character in the play, never gets to speak to the audience in the same way. What's his motivation? Is he just trying to hustle a living, or is he just trying to do what all Americans are allowed to do -- reinvent himself? Reinvention is a great American theme that goes back to Fizgerald's Gatsby and probably much further, but Guare's ideas on the subject seem muddled and superficial. David Grindley's cast including the excellent Lesley Manville do what they can to breathe life into these cardboard characters. The set is a womb-like red semicircle furnished with a single three-seater sofa, above which is suspended a Kandinsky canvas. The shallowness of this play and its theme reminded me of another ninety-minute popular success, Yazmina Reza's Art. Ninety minutes, it seems to me, almost always sells the theatre audience short, even though it allows more time to nip out to the pub afterwards. Writing a second act can force the playwright to develop ideas in more depth, to create something that goes beyond an intriguing setup and allow characters space to reveal something unexpected. The ninety-minute play is like a man wearing a bow-tie -- not to be trusted.
Cliches? I avoid 'em like the plague. But sometimes I can't. Which is a way of saying that seeing this production at the Southwark Playhouse of Sheridan's play is like drinking champagne non-stop for three hours. It is a delight from beginning to end. I had never heard of director Jessica Swale and her Redhanded Theatre Company before, nor had I ever been to the Southwark Playhouse, tucked under a railway arch near London Bridge Station with the trains to Kent rumbling overhead. And the last time I saw a play by Sheridan on stage was so long ago that I can't remember it. After excellent reviews the production is now a sellout, but I was lucky to have booked before it opened, attracted by the idea of Celia Imrie playing Mrs Malaprop.
The play starts with the front of house staff squeezing the audience into their seats -- it's a bit like the Tokyo metro. As this is going on the actors appear, mill around and start chatting up the audience and asking those in the front row to hold one or two props. I was offered a late-night assignation which I reluctantly turned down on the grounds that I was probably too young for that sort of thing. Some theatregoers loathe any attempt to dissolve the invisible barrier between stage and audience, but when it's done well -- as it often is at Shakespeare's Globe -- it can be very effective. The important thing is that the director and the actors aren't just doing it to set up a few cheap laughs, but to open up a channel of empathy with the audience that helps the play to succeed. Once that channel is open, every brief aside, every raised eyebrow, every half-disguised wink of Celia Imrie's eyebrow is more effective. Part of the reason this production works so well is that it's a small venue, with one bank of raked seating facing a shallow but wide acting area. Every whisper and every gesture carries easily to the audience in a way that would be impossible in a big proscenium arch theatre. So to some extent the success of this show is down to what I call the Donmar Effect -- the enhanced sensation delivered by a small theatre.
Having long ago read The Rivals but never having seen it, I was abruptly reminded of what a masterpiece it is. But even an 18th century masterpiece can be very dull if it's badly performed, and this is a triumphant success. Productions in London fringe theatres often feature casts of uneven ability, but that's not the case here. Everyone from Celia Imrie and Robin Soans to the lesser known cast members is uniformly excellent. Every ounce of meaning is extracted from every line, the timing is impeccable and the style is faultless. Maria Aitken's book on Acting in High Comedy describes the 'high comedy slalom' which Sheridan creates for his actors -- a terrifying zig-zag of emotions which change in double-quick time. Charity Wakefield (Lydia Languish), Tom McDonald (Faulkland), Harry Hadden-Paton (Jack Absolute) and Christopher Logan (Bob Acres) manage this perfectly. Ella Smith as Julia has a slightly different task, because her character is essentially the 'straight man' who acts as a calm voice of reason amid the quicksilver emotions of her friends. The result is extremely funny (the first, some would say the only, requirement of stage comedy). The complicity with the audience set up at the start pays off brilliantly as we begin to share their jokes and subterfuges. I don't know what Stanislavsky would have made of it, but it certainly worked for me. It seems a bit patronising to give a special mention to the servants, but Jenni Maitland delivered a wonderful cameo as maidservant Lucy, avoiding the usual comic cliches. So did Sam Swainsbury, Cian Barry and Oliver Hollis as the male servants, playing guitar, violin and recorder as well. Were they paid extra? I hope so.
Keep a sharp eye open for Jessica Swale if you happen to be Yunnan, China, in 2010, because she's going to be directing Macbeth for an NGO called Youth Bridge Global. And watch out for her name as director when she comes back. I loved her intelligent approach to this play and I suspect she has drawn performances from some of her cast that they may not have known they were capable of.
Congratulations to Dr Rosamund Bartlett and Michael Pennington who have raised £30,000 for the repair of the house in Yalta where Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard. I visited this excellent museum in 2005 and it's worth preserving as a living link to Chekhov's life which has remained unspoiled and untouched since his death in 1904. I went to two of the fundraising events at the Hampstead Theatre, all of which were sellouts. On Wednesday Richard Eyre led a fascinating talk on Chekhov's major plays, and I found myself nodding in agreement at everything he said -- quite annoying, really. Pennington and three other actors, including Harriet Walter, acted out some short scenes. Last night Simon Russell Beale read Chekhov's short story Verochka, and William Fiennes talked about it. Between them they highlighted the wonderful sense of ambiguity and the way Chekhov uses subtext. Dr Bartlett, who started the campaign to raise funds for the struggling museum and its dedicated staff in Yalta, gave a short presentation with slides and stressed the importance of Chekhov's humanist values at a time when Russia seems once again to be on an authoritarian path. It may seem quite daft that Russia and Ukraine between them can't find the money to keep the Yalta house, which should be one of the world's great literary museums, in good repair, but that's a reflection of the poor relations between Moscow and Kiev. Pennington announced last night that Yevgeny Lebedev and his father Alexander (owners of the Evening Standard) have agreed to match the £30,000 with a similar sum. So let's hope this is a story with a happy ending, unlike most of Chekhov's plays.
Footnote: one thing that increasingly irritates me about English-language actors in Chekhov is their inability to pronounce Russian names correctly, which basically means understanding where the stress falls. I'm going to be posting a Simple Actor's Guide To Pronouncing Chekhov's Names shortly. Once it's out there, I intend to be merciless with anyone who ignores it.
While other theatre bloggers are still hiding like crocuses under a deep blanket of snow, my first outing of 2010 was to the Soho Theatre to see this 'play with songs' by David Greig, which I tried and failed to see in August at the Traverse at the start of the Edinburgh Fringe. Was it worth the trudge through the snow? Yes and no. I liked the performances by Cora Bisset and Matthew Pidgeon very much, and I found the fluid semi-narrative style of the play very innovative and refreshing. The performers accompany themselves on guitar and the songs have a faintly Simon-and-Garfunkel flavour. As a story of an ill-matched couple enjoying themselves on a lost midsummer weekend in Edinburgh, the play probably worked better on a warm night at the Traverse than in deep midwinter in Soho. What ultimately got on my nerves was the tawdriness and self-absorption of the two main characters, neither of whom revealed any hidden depths. Helen is 35, a single lawyer with a weakness for drink who's having an affair with someone else's husband. Bob is the same age, a failed poet and drifter who handles stolen cars for a crime boss. Greig tries to imbue both of these self-centred wasters with a certain degree of mawkish charm, but I found the story of their hedonistic weekend, financed with £15,000 in used notes belonging to someone else, quite unappealing. Perhaps that's the moral voice of my god-fearing Scottish Presbyterian ancestors speaking. Sentimental and superficial but rather lightweight, this show ultimately left me colder than the streets outside.