Sunday, February 28, 2016

Husbands and Sons

National Theatre, in a co-production with Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester presents, HUSBANDS AND SONS, by D.H. Lawrence, adapted by Ben Power, in the Dorfman Theatre, at the National Theatre, London. U.K.

D.H. Lawrence was born in 1885 in Eastwood, near Nottingham, the fourth child of five children of coalminer Arthur and his wife Lydia. He died at the age of 44, in 1930. He is most celebrated for his novel writing which include famously: SONS AND LOVERS (1913), THE RAINBOW (1915), WOMEN IN LOVE (1920), KANGAROO (1923), LADY CHATTERERLEY'S LOVER (1928). But besides ten collections of poetry and seven collections of short stories, he wrote a number of plays: eight. None of them were ever produced in his life time.

HUSBANDS AND SONS is a National Theatre project, Directed by Marianne Elliott (the co-director of the highly honoured WAR HORSE and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT)) and adapted by Ben Power. Three one act plays by Lawrence: A COLLIER'S FRIDAY NIGHT (1909), THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD (1910-13) and THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW (1913) have been interwoven into a complete play so that they become one large 'symphony' instead of three small works. Says Mr Power in the program notes:
The idea we landed on evolved through discussion ... of how we could cut into each of them and be quite brave about reshaping: scenes from each of the constituent plays could be clicked together like jigsaw pieces to make a new whole.
So presented in-the-round in the newly renovated Dorfman Theatre (formerly known as The Cottesloe) the three families and their neighbours play simultaneously, living out their lives in the kitchen setting of each house. Again, tells Mr Power:
THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD is a very tight play with a single line of action in three scenes - its very condensed, very economic; A COLLIER'S FRIDAY NIGHT, centred on  the Lambert family, is a big stew of atmosphere and experience but there's no plot at all: as the title suggests, it's a snapshot of this family on this day. But when you take the sum of the minor chords of that play and put it next to the train of action of THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD, you begin to get something really rich and multi-faceted. And THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW, centred on Minnie and Luther Gascoigne, has both things going at once. When you put all of that together, you get a lot of action and a lot of atmosphere.
Lawrence grew up in this world of a mining community ("That's the country of my heart.") and there is an authenticity to all that happens in these plays, the minutae of emotional pre-occupation (fear of accident, not being the least of these), the ritual of living through the melodrama of family relationships, those trivial and monumental events in the lives of miners and their families, the comic, the ironies and the tragedy. The plays have the wives at the centre of the action and they focus on their relationships with their husbands and sons: the masculinity and virility of the miners who behave instinctually and tribally, who seem to improvise their ways through the mine and its daily burden, the pubs and its camaraderie's, and the kitchens with their expected refuge-respite, becomes contrast to the women who appear intelligent, aspirational and fastidious with 'agendas' for the future of their families, especially of their sons, always impelling their actions with relative clarity and sense of positive direction. Of hope for a better life for their children.

In previous productions of these plays in the 1960's when they were discovered and presented by Peter Gill, it was, beside the dramatics of the writing for character and story, the hyper natural realities of the production that caused a sensation, but here Ms Elliott has determined to do away with the details of 'real' properties and simply employ accurate gestural actions for eating, washing ,sweeping, etc (Movement by Scott Graham), so as to help the audience to 'read' and focus on what is happening for each of the characters, to 'read' the wonderful complications of the intense but not necessarily expressed feelings - the subtextual narrative of FEELINGS of the inhabitants in these three miners' houses. It works beguilingly.

The production is some three hours long with one interval, and we are moved to two positions as an audience in our seating to help us immerse equally between the families. The perspective of viewing is  learnt and then re-learnt as each half unravels, and an intimacy of adaptive creative collusion develops subtly amongst us. On stage there is a large cast of some nineteen players and yet we come to identify who is who and how each is related with ease and commitment, opening our empathies to each of them with shifting degrees of loyalty as the narrative unfolds. We follow with our hearts the ups-and-downs of them all - shifting ground as we learn more of each of them as life sweeps them on. It was a very absorbing session in the theatre and not one of theatrical dramatics, but one that became a recognition of ordinariness, actualities and truths - the characters became 'our family' and we duly cared. And what has become most interesting, for me, is that of all the work I saw in this past month in the theatre in London and New York, it is this play, production, and these characters that continue to amplify and resonate more deeply as time brings reflection, and come to be of primary importance and pleasure in my memory recall. The power of ensemble storytelling told by a master of the lived experience of the world it purports to reveal: the world of D.H. Lawrence's own mother, father, siblings and neighbours grows more vividly, such that one wants to read those novels of his again.

The Direction of Ms Elliott in the simple but complex Design of Bunny Christie, alongside the atmospheric and detailed Lighting by Lucy Carter, with Music by Adrian Sutton and an absorbing surround Sound Design by Ian Dickinson creates a subtle mesmerising and internal shaping of emotional response from the audience without melodramatic offers. The piercing whistle of the mine shocks one into attention and apprehension for the developments of the families stories.

One is asked to 'read' the work not 'watch' or 'audit', and as it is in reading a good novel, it is the collecting of the honed details, personally, perpetrated by each of the performers, at the behest of the writer, and conducted by the Director, that creates a rich tapestry of a life identity of a time past. This is partly what Lawrence was seeking for and delivering: a sense of particular identity (what it is to be a human) and a yearning to be part of that community (again), no matter its shortcomings.

The acting is uniformly good, the ensemble playing for the heightening of a sense of that 'remarkable' community with, albeit, the complex co-dependent needs and patterns of individuals too, as their characters make their way and survive in physically dangerous and underprivileged spaces with severely repressed emotional permissions in a non-demonstrative 'culture' of hard work, excessive alcohol, religious superstitions and social conventions. This acting may have been 'great', it being executed with a consistent modesty that was breathtaking for its purity of goal.

This production was subtle in the experiencing but powerfully indelible in the recall. Much to be prized.

N.B.  I am aware that I have not named a single actor but to do so would require me to acknowledge all nineteen, for they were all equals of note. This production moves to the Royal Exchange Manchester as part of the National Theatre outreach to its nation to tell its nation's story. The vocals of the actors are steeped in the idiomatic dialect of the East Midlands, true and magical and 'musical', moving between 'fine' and 'broad' speech (Dialect Coach, Penny Dyer).

The Master Builder

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Old Vic presents THE MASTER BUILDER, by Henrik Ibsen. A new adaptation by David Hare, at The Old Vic, London, U.K. 23 Jan - 19 March, 2016.

According to the Old Vic program notes, by Nick Curtis, on this production of Henrik Ibsen's THE MASTER BUILDER:
Today, (Ibsen) is the second most performed playwright in the world, after Shakespeare, and seen as the inheritor to Shakespeare's mantle as a poetic explorer of the human condition. 
THE MASTER BUILDER is a play not often seen in Australia.

Henrik Ibsen has, for me, three distinct phases in his writing output. The early plays are mostly verse texts influenced by historical subjects and native folk tales, culminating with BRAND (1865), a discourse on God and free will (unhappily, I have never seen a production), and PEER GYNT (1867), a blending of social satire and philosophical musings with fairytale figures and trolls!  The middle plays are concerned with the critiquing of the social/political 'habits' of the world he lived in, the so-called Realist plays, begun with  PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1877), followed by A DOLL'S HOUSE (1879), GHOSTS (1882), THE WILD DUCK (1885), ROSMERSHOLM (1887), THE LADY FROM THE SEA (1889) and HEDDA GABLER, premiering in 1891. All were sensations of controversy and contemporary confrontations in their time, and are, still, today. Amazing. In 1893, Ibsen wrote THE MASTER BUILDER, and in hindsight, one can say it was the first play of his third phase of writing where he began to investigate a more spiritual and metaphysical world, just as an older man/artist of great searching of the world might begin to do.

THE MASTER BUILDER, for me, sits at the beginning of his return to a more poetical/prose style and verges on a surreal vision that comes to theatrical climax, after LITTLE EYOLF (1895) and JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN (1897), with his last play, WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN (1900) - when, (can you believe it?), a tumultuous snow avalanche, at the play's ending, sweeps his characters, away, to obliteration (unhappily, I have never seen a production of this mighty play, either). THE MASTER BUILDER can have some difficulties of comprehension for an audience used only to the famous seven Realist dramas finishing with HEDDA GABLER, unless placed within the evolving context of Ibsen's writing trajectory - for this play has the urges of the metaphysical in the environment of a real architecture of authentic time and place, and it can  be a puzzlement, because of that artistic leap of ambition, development, perhaps.

A Master Builder (not architect) of domestic homes, Halvard Solness, fears that his career is in threat from the up-and-coming young and is visited by a young woman, Hilde Wangel, who has come to claim the 'kingdom' he had promised her, after a kiss, when she was a child of 13, and becomes inspired and tempted to do just such a thing. Encouraged with her urgings, he climbs the tower of his latest project to place the symbolic wreath at the top of his building as a gesture to her spirit, despite his fear of heights.

Ibsen, now in his sixties, was fascinated by an emerging new generation of writers and by a succession of young female companions, most notably the student Emilie Bardach and the pianist Hildur Andersen - both of whom have been cited as models for Hilde. In what some have observed is an auto-biographical reveal of Ibsen's state-of-mind, after the knock at the door, Hilde Wangel, enters the office of Halvard Solness, an energetic force of ripening freshness that could threaten the hard held beliefs and stability of the self-consciously fearful Master Builder (Writer).

The writing in the play has the complex construction of symbol and metaphor, step-by-step, that has become a familiar and much admired craft-mark of Ibsen. David Hare talks of his adapting:
There can never be any such thing as a word-by-word translation ... No one tongue perfectly parallels another. Nuances abundant in a word in one language are entirely absent in a second. My job therefore is to pitch a play so that the resonances intended by the play of words in one language seem still to be sparking in an entirely different time and culture. 
Ibsen himself believed and requested that his plays be presented in what he called 'the everyday speech of the time' and that no one translation could ever become standard. The great difficulty of this play is the movement in the play from the everyday to the metaphysical, for the play works at many levels of comprehension - the mythic, the psychological and the sub-conscious. This text in the mouths of the actors at The Old Vic seems alive and of now - the speakability and sound to our ears modern and vital. The strong shape of the arguments in this text are held together by the musical 'scoring' that Mr Hare has made in his intelligent, 'contemporary' language choices and moment-by-moment structure. Above all, Ibsen was a musical writer. Mr Hare observes:
He loved music and aimed for a theatre which in its formal movement would closely resemble music. He wanted abstraction, emotional power and human detail but, above all, shape.
In this production, by Matthew Warchus, the musical tempos of the adaptation, are thrilling to hear. Ralph Fiennes, as Solness, and Sarah Snook, as Hilde, hold the stage together, in long scenes of duologue, of intellectual and emotional give-and-take, giving a thrilling duel of empathetic vocal skill and textual nuance, with all the appearance of the spontaneous instant of acute listening concentration for both content and musical renderings, from each to the other. The text, the play, lives vitally. There is no shadow of a text of another century present. Neither actor gives quarter to the other and both earn their stage time together and seem to encourage each other to a kind of Bravura energy and power that generates down into their respective physical gestures - the whole of their body instrument supporting the vocal and emotional state of the character's arguments - suiting the action to the word, the word to the action, indeed. The acting of the respective journeys of these two characters, by Mr Fiennes and Ms Snook, is indelibly drawn: Hilde's siren call of enthusiastic and ripening youth leading the aged, vain and frightened Solness to derring-do of outrageous challenge. Magical, mysterious and full of the 'life force' (sexual tensions) that Shaw wrote of in his battle between Anne Whitefield and Jack Tanner in MAN AND SUPERMAN (1903) - and why not, for Shaw was a great admirer of Ibsen.

The other conspicuously wonderful performance in this production comes from Linda Emond, as Aline Solness, the distraught and anguished wife of Solness, a role that on paper may seem to be bogged and weighted with textual imagery that in these post-Freudian times may seem to be overwritten, overwrought - strained - but becomes in the simmering delicacy of the artistry of this actor, a grief of tangible poetic depth, moving, in its power of a lived experience.

The other performers: Charlie Cameron (Kaja Fosli), James Dreyfus (Dr Herdal), Martin Hutson (Ragnor Brovik), James Laurenson (Knut Brevik) give embodied supporting clarity to the literary structure of the writing in their character and poetic function.

The Design of a stripped back set of realities: the working office, the library and the garden of the house, is enshrouded within the abstracted 'skeleton' of a black-burnt frame of a house - the lost family home of Aline, haunted by the ghosts of children and 'dolls' and all the intimate memories of the growing-up, the past - by Rob Howell, the real and the mythic, which is sustained visually to support the balancing emotions of the narrative with Lighting by Hugh Vanstone, and a carefully placed Music (Gary Yershon) and Sound Design (Simon Baker).

This production of THE MASTER BUILDER, which I saw twice, had the contemporary thrill of its relevance thrust at us with acting of a highly invested kind, resonant with a bristling intelligence and sure-handedness of intent and vision from all of the artists involved. A classic production of a Classic play that allowed its audience to enter and endow the experience without directorial auteurism. It demonstrated a confidence in the intrinsic value and integrity of a play written 119 years ago. If Sydney Directors had such confidence, insight and trust, in playwrights, one could feel more assured about spending one's money and time in going to the theatre, here.

Sarah Snook was making her London debut at the historic The Old Vic Theatre. This production is travelling to Broadway, later this year.

Some of you may have recognised the name of one of the supporting actors, James Laurenson, as the star of the 1971-72, Australian television series called BONEY, in which he played a part Aboriginal detective called Napoleon Bonaparte. The casting, I remember, controversial  - even then.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Jasper Jones

Belvoir presents JASPER JONES. Based on the novel by Craig Silvey. Adapted by Kate Mulvaney. In the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 6 Jan - 7 Feb., 2016.

JASPER JONES, was written by Craig Silvey, with a young adult readership in mind in 2009, and has garnered many prizes and become a popular book - even a studied school text. I was never a fan of the book, finding it a fairly ordinarily researched novel - it is set in a country town, Corrigan, in Western Australia during the period of the Vietnam war, the summer of 1965. And, although I grew up in Sydney, not in a country town in Western Australia, but in the same time frame - I was three years older than Charlie in 1965 - I found the background research of the story poorly representing the social concerns of what I, generally,  experienced in any conscious way as part of my upbringing, in an uptight conservative Australia. And yet, annoyingly, on the other hand, the content issues of the novel, underlined by Mr Silvey, pressed many overt contemporary 'pop' buttons of 2009: racial, indigenous discrimination-tensions, child sexual abuse, adolescent bullying, small town violence, police criminality, suicide, unhappy marriages, alcoholism, adultery, sexual promiscuity and cricket!

I was particularly irked, as I read the novel, with Mr Silvey's references within the context of the life of the 'hero' of his book, 14 year-old Charlie Bucktin's (it seemed to be more Mr Silvey's) aspiration of becoming a novelist as good as his literary heroes -  Mark Twain (TOM SAWYER -1878, HUCKLEBERRY FINN - 1885 ); Harper Lee (TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD -1961), and even to Truman Capote (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S - 1958, IN COLD BLOOD - 1960). For, of the last two writers, Charlie of country Corrigan in 1965 would probably not have had much knowledge of the books or even aware of them, unless the local country library was amazingly 'in' on the international literary zeitgeist of the period, or that there was a local 'picture show' to screen the films made of them in the early sixties. As no local cinema, or habit of cinema going by our hero is mentioned in the novel it all seemed a remote proposition to me. I felt it stranger that the similarly smash literary hit of that decade, and extremely paralleled in thematics in JASPER JONES, PEYTON PLACE, by Grace Metalious - 1956, was not mentioned, too. (I knew of PEYTON PLACE because of its scandalous reputation in the evening newspapers - The Daily Mirror, being my favourite sensation sheet - and that my mum had a copy, which when she was out of the house, I skimmed through!) Goodness knows what literary qualities Charlie Bucktin might have written, but I thought that Mr Silvey's book did not have any of the depth of the literary qualities of the above referenced novels, that have made them 'classics', other than as a gesture of a self-conscious homage, particularly  to the Harper Lee novel. I disliked Mr Silvey's book because I could not believe it was an Australian 'truth' of the contextualised period or place, it supposedly represented.

Most of all, however, the opening behaviour of Charlie and Jasper in 'spoiling' a crime scene by cutting down a hanging body of a friend, weighting it, and throwing it into the local dam (for all of time, it turns out) was, for me, unbelievable behaviour of any early teenager I knew of in that time (besides, it being a strange example for young adults, even in 2009, to be invited to approve of as a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of the horrendous discovery). That the psychological consequences of such an action had no seeming ramifications on our two 'heroes' - Charlie and Jasper - for the rest of the story seemed extremely peculiar and unlikely.

And worse, is the shallow psychological depiction of Eliza, the sister of Laura (the dead body), who knows that her sister is dead, that the body is missing, that the hanging was a desperate act of suicide as a consequence of paternal sexual abuse, revealed in a letter that she has come to possess at the self-discovered scene of the suicide. All three of these culprits of a crime after the fact, instead, pursue, non-plussed, a kind of rom-com teenage scenario, with each other, instead of experiencing any apparent emotional complications from their acts. It seemed very, very odd to me, and incredible.

If I, or my friends, had known or done such a thing - finding and then hiding a dead body - I can't believe that life could have gone on to be so normal as to be able to pursue a teenage love crush, or attend the local cricket team matches without some obvious distress. Religion and conscience - guilt of law breaking, even of stealing threepence (even a penny) from my mum's purse, and lying about it - were hallmarks of growing up in my 1960's. Finding a dead body, let alone hiding it, would have been an impossible responsibility and worrisome load to carry around, I can assure you. Watching  PERRY MASON, on television with my grandma every week had taught me that you will be found out and that crime does not pay, except in a jail term. Mr Silvey's teenage reality of 1960 Australia seems, to me, far fetched and a catastrophic research flaw.

Kate Mulvany first adapted this novel for the Barking Gecko Theatre Company, in Perth, in 2014, and has revised it for the Belvoir production. The novel  with its events and all its personas has been reduced to nine characters for six actors to play. It is, in this instance, a very true, 'Reader's Digest' adaptation of the novel and serves the source material with respect and little embellishment. That the writing of the characters of the play are broad caricatures and shallow psychological observations and, mostly, just easy vehicles of broad identification for the audience to attach too as familiar storytelling archetypes, is no fault of hers. For, Mr Silvey's writing is shallow as the primary source for this play.

The shallowness of character in the writing - the original source and the adaptation - is then further compounded when the Director of this production, Anne-Louise Sarks, when taking it from the page to the stage, makes no demands of her actors to develop 'psychological truthfulness' to backstory the bald events of the figures in the landscape of the narrative. That the actors themselves felt no need to do more than act out the narrative with other than a two dimensional 'drawing' of character, sometimes thickly overplayed, was another surprise, indeed, knowing their work as performers in other tasks.

Tom Conroy, as Charlie Bucktin, carried the bulk of the work with a clear-sighted energy that propelled the performance, and he did convince us that he was a 14 year-old boy, with appropriate physical gestures. Charles Wu relied on the cliche of the writing and his personal charm to capture the easy laughs in his impersonation of the Vietnamese boy, Jeffrey Lu, who dreams of being a great cricketer in 1965 Australia - what could be funnier and more ridiculous, eh?! - forget his and his family's 'trauma' of getting to and then living in remote, white Australia as part of Jeffrey's dilemma or motivation. Kate Mulvany had written two roles for herself, the bully boy, Warwick and in a stark and theatrical contrast, Charlie's unhappy mum, flourishing, on stage, the obvious outlines of her characters with a thick-felt penmanship with not much, especially for Mrs Bucktin, complication of insight or psychological revelation - the bare, 'brassy' outlining, enough, it seemed. Steve Rodgers in his dual demand of the thinly written (and mysterious) Mr Bucktin, and then the mysterious Mad Jack Lionel, revealed his usual efficient self in the provided narrative context - ever reliable (thank goodness). Matilda Ridgeway plays the two tragic sisters, especially, Eliza without much inner insight to help us understand what was going on - and what is going on IS enormous, we discover in the late scenes of the play - and it was definitely a surprise when we are told what Eliza had known for all of the play - you would never have guessed that anything much was going on in the life force of Eliza as given by Ms Ridgeway. Each of these actors, basically, depending on their own charm to deliver the material - 'learning the lines and nor bumping into the furniture', it seemed.

The only moment of any dealing with exposing emotional depth was the truly effective playing by Guy Simon, as Jasper Jones, himself. In the shock of the truth of the revelation of Laura's motivation for her suicide, in the latter moments of scene ten, it was a heart stopping moment of real grief, mined by Mr Simon, that threw the other performances and the whole of the production into an even more vivid contrast of bland and shallow caricaturing. Impressive, indeed. The others, simply, impersonating the characters and telling the narrative, as if it were animated radio, was not enough, for me. They gave me very little subtlety of choice to 'read' as an audience and to be able to imaginatively endow, in their performances.

The best of the production was the Design of Michael Hankin with its tree, and the wheeled-on 'trucks' for the different houses of the town. Simple and light-weight efficiency in the white painted surround, inspired some, perhaps, by his recent IVANOV*** design solution. The Lighting by Matt Scott, magnified the vision of Mr Hankin.

I bought a standing-room ticket for a Saturday matinee, so popular was this show. It was the only way I could see the production before I headed away overseas on a holiday. It was clear that the book fans - school students - in the theatre were pleased with this two and a half hour production. I was not.

The major problem was the source material of Mr Silvey's novel, I reckon, and how I wished that instead of JASPER JONES, that we were, rather, watching an adaption of any of Sonya Hartnett's peerless novels - perhaps, BUTTERFLY, and her heroine, Plum Coyle - a novel, coincidently, written in 2009, as well. The psychological truths of the experience of being an adolescent growing up in Australia has in Ms Hartnett's books, a depth of observation and painful truth that could bear dramatisation and a theatrical triumph. Check her out.

It was pleasing, despite all else, to be in the the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, with a 'popular' success.