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  The TheatreguideLondon Reviews


For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several productions with brief runs in 2001 together. While this makes for a fairly long page, we invite you to scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Antarctica - The Beau - Dangerous Corner - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg - God Only Knows - The Hobbit - Japes - A Lie of the Mind - The Little Foxes - Mahler's Conversion - Medea - Mill on the Floss - Nixon's Nixon - Port Authority - Semi-Monde - Vagina Monologues

 

Antarctica Savoy Theatre February 2001

Antarctica is a salute to the legendary indomitable British spirit. It is a Boy's Own adventure story. It is the occasion for speculations on God, man's place in the universe, fame, life-the-universe-and-everything.

What it isn't, is a play.

Author David Young was inspired by historical events - at the time of legendary British explorer Scott's doomed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912, another British party survived a dreadful Antarctic winter in an ice-cave. Young watches the six men as courage, inventiveness and a stiff upper lip get them through the ordeal.

Their leader imposes strict discipline just to keep some order in their lives, even when the assigned chores are insanely dangerous. Even in their cramped quarters, the officers' and enlisted men's spaces are kept separate. They ration out their stores with almost comic precision. They fill the time with games, debates, classroom sessions and philosophising. Each of the six men has a turn at being very brave, at going briefly mad, and at doing someone a special kindness. And then, as a couple of flash-forwards tell us, they survive to get on with their otherwise totally unremarkable lives.

The problem is that nothing actually happens. Once the situation is established, the only dramatic question is whether anyone will die; and since the men are more-or-less indistinguishable in their parkas and beards, we don't really care all that much.

Mark Bazeley is the best-of-British-pluck leader, Ronan Vibert the kindly doctor, Stephan Boxer the civilian scientist who thought it would all be a lark, Darrell D'Silva the bolshie rebel. But, as I said, they all go through exactly the same range of experiences - bravery, endurance, madness, generosity - so that they (along with the other two, played by Jason Flemyng and Eddie Marsan) - eventually blend into minor variants on the same archetype.

At the end, the woman sitting next to me muttered: "Pretentious twaddle." But actually, what most characterises this production is its lack of pretentiousness. While a lot of money has clearly been spent, and it is all fully professional, it screams Earnest Amateur Sincerity throughout. Imagine the class report of a particularly talented student, or the church festival of an especially earnest vicar, and you'll have some sense of Antarctica's modest and naive quality, a quality one might even call charm.

What isn't here, though, is a play.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Beau Haymarket Theatre Spring 2001

Ron Hutchinson's new play is a witty and fascinating character study, and a vehicle for two actors of great personal charm. While it's a bit old fashioned in its modesty and occasionally seems lost in the cavernous Haymarket (it had been touring successfully in smaller theatres around the country), it delivers all that it promises in a pleasantly satisfying evening.

It's a portrait of George "Beau" Brummell, the early nineteenth-century fashion plate who single-handedly revolutionized British men's clothing just by his own example, dragging style from the pantaloons and periwigs of the eighteenth century to something resembling the modern suit. Social climber, idler, friend and then enemy of the Prince of Wales, he was (as the play points out) the first true celebrity, famous primarily for being famous.

Hutchinson comes upon the Beau late in life, when debts and a break with the Prince have brought him to France. Exiled, disgraced and possibly mad, he lives in poverty, attended only by his grumbling but loyal valet, dreaming of the past and fantasizing a return to glory that will never come. (The playwright takes some liberties with history, as Brummell's last years were nowhere near as bleak as presented in the play.)

We watch as Brummell (Peter Bowles) drags himself out of the bath and forces himself through the rituals of dressing that had once been the centre of his existence. The occasion is a visit to Calais of his old friend/foe the Prince, and a dream of reconciliation that we know is doomed. Along the way, his conversations with his valet (Richard McCabe) are a mix of self-pity, self-dramatization and witty aphorisms, as he turns every possible criticism of his life into a basis for pride.

Yes, he admits, "I have no talent other than dress!", but a life devoted to looking good and acting stylishly is as much a work of art as any symphony - "I was the Beethoven of snuff." Those whose lives claim greater significance than his are dismissed with moral repugnance - Napoleon, for killing thousands - or just aesthetic disdain - Byron and Shelley, "not a decent crease between them."

Meanwhile the valet, torn between a proto-socialist outrage at the extravagance of the idle classes and a social-climbing ambition that shows itself in comic get-rich-quick schemes, can't disguise his grudging admiration for Brummell's self-confidence and wit, even as he grumbles about not being paid for a year.

So the play gives us a sympathetic insight into the original social butterfly, along with a satisfying collection of one-liners and aphorisms. But the real job of a play like this is to give the actors an enjoyable opportunity to display their talents, and Hutchinson's script is totally successful as a vehicle.

Peter Bowles clearly has great fun portraying the vain, self-dramatizing and slightly mad Brummell, adding constantly surprising nuances to the character through his playing. He subtly makes it clear, for example, that it is the character and not the actor who occasionally overacts, getting carried away by his own rhetorical flourishes. And unexpected pauses, looking almost like missed cues, are actually very touching indications of a mind on the edge of losing its grip.

Richard McCabe, long a featured actor at the RSC, often in cynical roles, could play this valet in his sleep, but to his credit he brings all his subtlety and skill to it. Like Bowles, he takes full advantage of all the script's invitations to find unexpected sides to the character, as when he suddenly recites (and appreciates) Virgil in Latin. And like Bowles he repeatedly adds nuances, as in the scene in which an unplanned witticism leads him to a moment of pure self-delight followed by a more sober dismissal of the line as inadequate.

There are no falling chandeliers or wild histrionics in this very modest play. But there is the undeniable pleasure of watching two very skilled actors finding all the entertaining subtleties in a fertile script, and to the discerning theatregoer that can be far more satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Dangerous Corner Garrick Theatre Winter 2001-02

This new revival of J. B. Priestley's 1932 psychological whodunit is uneven and old-fashioned, but those who stick with it through the weak patches should find it a satisfying emotional and intellectual ride.

The play resembles An Inspector Calls in being about a complacent group who are forced to face very unpleasant truths about themselves. It's a structure Priestley used in several plays, along with a time-travel alternative-futures device that he tacks on to this plot a bit awkwardly.

The play is built around six characters - two married couples and two single friends - who are all involved in a family publishing business. (A seventh character exists only to ask an indelicate question that sets the plot going, and is shooed offstage as soon as possible.) The group have two sleeping dogs in their past: the brother of one of the men killed himself a year ago, and someone, presumably the dead man, stole from the firm around the same time.

That indelicate question, along with a couple of slips of the tongue, awakens the sleeping dogs, suggesting to the dead man's brother that there's more to the story, and, against everyone else's advice, he insists on ferreting out the truth. What he finds, along with unpleasant discoveries about both the theft and the suicide, is that everyone onstage has secrets that are forced into the open and can never be glossed over again. The most striking, though not necessarily the most horrible, are that everyone has been harboring or acting on a secret and unrequited love for one of the others.

Priestley spells out his point in an innocent-seeming bit of dialogue in the first scene that is echoed toward the end: we must be very careful in any search for that elusive thing called truth, because we may get more of it than we can handle.

His play is more than a bit old-fashioned in its careful structure, and sometimes plays like (and I don't mean this disparagingly) a really well-written soap opera with its parade of emotional revelations. Some of the detective story is rather elementary - anyone who doesn't figure out at least a couple of the secrets the minute a particular cigarette case is introduced is asleep - though there are enough surprises to keep you engrossed and to make the central character's emotional shock sympathy-inspiring.

Director Laurie Sansom has updated the play, allowing the actors to put a more contemporary spin on their characters - for example, the single career woman need no longer appear a slightly pathetic spinster as she would in 1932. A programme note admits to some minor rewriting to eliminate dated language and references, but there are still a number of verbal and structural awkwardnesses, like having the men stay at the table for after-dinner port while the women await them in another room. Jessica Curtis's design changes Priestly's country manor into a pine and glass affair that looks like it was furnished by Habitat in the 1970s.

The acting varies considerably in quality. There is one truly bizarre performance that plays like a drag queen doing a bad Elaine Stritch impersonation, and a couple of the others operate on the higher level of community theatre acting. But the three central performances are strong. Rupert Penry-Jones generates real sympathy for the shock and pain of the man blind to the emotional minefield his questioning is walking him into. Anna Wilson-Jones as his wife keeps her character from becoming a villain by letting us see that she is not as brittle and cold as she first appears, and Dervia Kirwan gives real warmth and reality to what could be just a plot device as the single woman whose secret is the purest of them all.

Gerald Berkowitz

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A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg New Ambassador's Theatre 2001

Peter Nichols' 1967 play offers the somewhat autobiographical picture of a couple with a severely brain-damaged young daughter, who cope with the pain through consciously bad-taste and black humour. Nichols' point -- that deeply horrible situations justify and bless any coping mechanisms -- is a powerful one; and the play at its best can be a whirlwind of conflicting emotions.

Laurence Boswell's new revival has far too little of this power, as the play seems oddly sanitised out of all its emotional dangers, leaving it at the unthreatening comic level of a TV sitcom. There are hints of this from the start, as Es Devlin's set is too luxurious, too stylish, too unlived-in, and more when the young actress playing the unfortunate Jo is too pretty and healthy-looking to be believable. The character's spastic movements and moans have too much obvious intelligence behind them to be frightening; and one of the play's big shock scenes, a fantasy moment in which the child acts normally, is not the heartbreak it should be, but just a reassurance that it's all been play-acting.

But much of the failure of the play to resonate comes in Clive Owen's performance as the father. Owen is amiable and attractive, so that his compulsive black humour is always entertaining. But what is missing is any sense of the desperation behind the joking, of the panicky sense that if he ever looked at the situation seriously he would die from the pain. Owen lives in the same sitcom world as the set, where jokes are just jokes, and there are no emotional dangers, so even his character's more serious moments don't ring true.

The script gives Victoria Hamilton more seriously emotional moments to work with as the mother, so that she does provide the evening's only emotional depths and hints of real personal tragedy. But as a result, her scenes of joking don't ring true, and she and Owen never seem to be inhabiting the same play.

As an officious interfering friend, John Warnaby manages to give some reality to a caricature, but Robin Weaver as his wife does little more than a Prunella Scales impersonation, which leaves Prunella Scales with no place to go than total self-parody as a monstrously comic mother-in-law.

Many of these errors of judgment, from set to casting to performances, must be laid at the feet of director Laurence Boswell, who seems to have been even more afraid of the play's emotional power than producers of the 1960s were. And that's a shame. While this watered-down, unthreatening revival may attract audiences with its promise of harmless entertainment, it robs them of what could have been a memorable and moving experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

God Only Knows Vaudeville Theatre Spring 2001

Hugh Whitemore's new play is a vehicle for Derek Jacobi and, as such, provides a welcome opportunity to watch this most charming of actors. As a play, however, it has very little else to recommend it.

Two English couples on holiday in Italy (Richard O'Callaghan and Margot Leicester, David Yelland and Francesca Hunt) encounter a distraught man (Jacobi) clearly on the run from someone or something. Act One consists of his first grudging then unstoppable telling of his tale - he's a scholar in ancient documents who came upon an old Roman letter that says Jesus's resurrection was faked, and now a conspiracy involving the Vatican, the Mafia, the Italian police and God only knows who else is trying to silence him.

His listeners' incredulity leads to a lecture on the fragility of the Christian mythos, quickly descending from the scholarly (the Gospels were written 100 years later, Mary's virginity is a mistranslation, Christianity is really a Pauline invention, etc) to the scurrilous (Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier). Then we get a catalogue of the Roman Catholic Church's darker moments, from the Inquisition through the Holocaust. By Act Two, Jacobi's character is attacking religious faith in general, spewing contempt at anyone who needs such an emotional crutch.

You don't have to be a Catholic, or even a believer, to find a lot of this offensive, but the real sin is that this puerile anti-religious rant very quickly becomes tedious. Midway through Act Two I suddenly realised where I had heard this all before - late at night in my first year at university, when we were all drunk on the combination of new learning and freedom from our parents.

Of course Hugh Whitemore is a skilled craftsman, as is director Anthony Page. Though the four listeners are cardboard straight men and nobody onstage ever talks or acts like a real human being, things keep moving. There's a very clever bit of exposition, efficiently introducing everyone, near the beginning, and a deeply moving brief story of an old woman near the end. And, of course, there is the undeniable pleasure of watching Derek Jacobi chew up the scenery almost uninterrupted for two hours.

I'd believe it if you told me this was the first play of a very bright adolescent who might well grow up to be a real playwright and be embarrassed by it. But Hugh Whitemore is no kid, and one can only be embarrassed for him as he exposes some inexplicable personal demons here.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Hobbit Queen's Theatre Winter 2001-02

Just in time for the holidays, and for the Tolkien hype for the film of Lord of the Rings, comes this attractive staging of J.R.R. Tolkien's first venture into Middle Earth. Glyn Robbins' stage adaptation is inventive and entertaining, with a satisfying air of fable about it, and with appropriate touches of both wit and sentiment.

It's been so very long since I read the book that I'm not absolutely sure what a hobbit is (please don't write to tell me), but Daniel Copeland plays him as a rather amiable country lad, perhaps a bit slow, who is startled to find not only a wizard but a troupe of dwarves at his door. As in the novel, wizard Gandalf drafts Bilbo Baggins to accompany the dwarves in their quest to rescue their homeland and ancestral treasure from the great dragon Smaug.

Along the way they encounter (among others) monstrous trolls, simian goblins, wolves, giant spiders, the riddling ghoul Gollum, city-dwellers, and elves both friendly and unfriendly. A structural weakness of the play, just as a play, is that for the first half they are rescued from every danger they encounter by the timely intercession of Gandalf. It isn't until close to the end of Act One that Bilbo begins to show some ingenuity and becomes more than just a hanger-on.

But then one of the nicest touches of the whole show is the quiet way in which Bilbo is allowed to evolve. Daniel Copeland plays him at the start as a cheerful fool who only goes along on the dangerous mission because he doesn't have the sense not to. But Gandalf's wisdom in choosing him gradually becomes clear as he shows unexpected cleverness in getting them out of traps, unexpected bravery in fighting off a giant spider, and unexpected wisdom in counselling his companions and eventually preventing a war.

Meanwhile director Roy Marsden and actor William Byrne surprise us as the nominal leader of the dwarves shrinks into a would-be tyrant whom Bilbo must keep from endangering everyone. Jonathan Kemp is appropriately stalwart as the honourable bowman who slays the dragon, while Phillip Joseph imbues the enigmatic Gandalf with an air of wisdom that reassures us all will turn out well.

Inventive and appropriately eerie costumes by Abigail Hammond allow a cast of thirteen to populate all of Middle Earth, while David Shields' versatile revolving set is convincingly everywhere from Bilbo's comfy home, through the dark forest, to the dragon's cave and beyond. There's an impressive dragon, a scary spider, several sword fights, and one energetic dance number choreographed by Stephanie Carter that nods wittily toward both Texas line dancing and Riverdance.

Though by its very nature the play is somewhat linear and episodic, and its ending never in doubt, fans of the book should be pleased with the adaptation, while newcomers to Middle Earth, child or adult, can just enjoy the sword-and-sorcery adventure.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Japes Haymarket Theatre Spring 2001

Japes is a play of such mind-numbing dreariness and mind-boggling ineptitude that it is hard to believe that Simon Gray, hitherto a playwright of demonstrated competence if no special inspiration, really wrote it.

The tale of a bizarre sexual triangle lasting over twenty-five years, it wants to be a demonstration and celebration of the depth, complexity and infinite capacity for forgiveness inherent in real love. It isn't. It's a meandering, shapeless and lifeless soap opera, complete with unlikely plot twists, going-nowhere digressions, sudden personality shifts, and just plain clumsy story-telling.

Mikey, an aspiring and eventually successful novelist, loves and then marries Anita, even though she is having it off with his brother Japes at every opportunity, and continues to do so for a quarter of a century. They're not at it constantly, because Japes is prone to wander off to places like South America for several years at a clip, but they make up for lost time whenever he returns, except for the occasion when he has become a nearly-dead alcoholic. (He recovers in time for their next reunion, although she is hitting the wine bottles rather heavily by then.) Mikey is very well aware of all this, as he is of the fact that he can't be sure who is the father of his daughter, but he puts up with it all because he loves them both so much.

Eventually, two of the characters die, offstage between scenes, (the filling-in of this not-inconsequential plot twist is a particularly awkward piece of exposition), and a fourth character attempts to blackmail the survivor, for a different scandal entirely, but not before sitting through a rambling lecture on how much more the generation of the 60s and 70s knew about love than the children of the 90s.

Japes is a plot device more than a character, but Toby Stephens gets to play one big drunk scene, badly. Clare Swinburne plays two different self-pitying women capable of sudden bursts of cold malice, badly. As Mikey, Jasper Britton plays wimpish resignation, wimpish despair and wimpish outrage, badly. The only times the play shows any signs of life are scattered moments when each of the characters is suddenly and gratuitously cruel to one of the others.

The shapeless, rhythmless direction is credited to someone named Sir Peter Hall, who is evidently no relation to the very talented British director of the same name.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

A Lie Of The Mind Donmar Warehouse Summer 2001

Like most of his other plays, Sam Shepard's 1985 drama is a study in dysfunctional families, offering fascination, insight, poetry and bizarreness in almost equal portions. Almost everyone will find something moving and enlightening in the play, just as almost everyone will find something over-the-top or boring; and the play's success with you depends on how the opposites balance out.

The play deals with the aftermath of a savage beating Jake gave his wife Beth, leaving her brain-damaged and him driven mad by guilt and passion. Both retire to the bosoms of their families to recover, but both find limited and uneven support there. The protective instincts of Beth's brother mutate into violent vengeance, while her totally self-absorbed father and totally self-effacing mother barely acknowledge her. Meanwhile, Jake's mother, a hard-bitten trailer-park matron, can imagine nothing beyond soup and bed rest to help him. The tiny steps that everyone manages to take towards health sometimes seem to be moving backwards as much as forwards.

Wilson Milam's direction anchors the play in solid psychological realism, sometimes to the detriment of Shepard's poetic and metaphoric impulses, as when some violent plot twists toward the end are a little too gory to work as symbols. What does come across effectively is that Beth's attempts to regain the ability to string thoughts and words together are symbolic of everyone else's struggle to overcome their fragmented senses of self and of connection to each other.

Catherine McCormack offers a movingly believable portrait of Beth, though the impulse to accurate in her depiction of brain damage leads to occasional swallowing of lines that should be allowed to resonate. Sinead Cusack and Anna Calder-Marshall are strong presences in the semi-comic roles of the two mothers; and Keith Bartlett, Peter McDonald, Emma Rydal, Andy Serkis and Andrew Tiernan round out the excellent cast.

As I suggested, it can be pretty heavy going for much of its almost three-hour length, but the odds are good that you'll find the pay-offs of A Lie Of The Mind worth the investment.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Little Foxes Donmar Warehouse Autumn 2001

The Little Foxes, written in 1939, is in some ways Lillian Hellman's spiritual sequel to The Cherry Orchard. The entrepreneurial middle class has displaced the aristocracy, this time in the American South in 1900, and Hellman regards these new animals with some of the same mix of horror and admiration as Chekhov had.

The Hubbard family, rich southern traders, are about to make the leap into real millions with a business deal. But partner-brothers Ben (David Calder) and Oscar (Matthew Marsh) need their sister Regina (Penelope Wilton) to put up her third of the money, and Regina's husband Horace (Peter Guinness), somewhat mellowed by a terminal illness, won't play. How far any of the Hubbards are willing to go to make this deal happen is what drives the play.

The role of Regina has long been seen by actresses as an opportunity for some juicy scenery-chewing, but Penelope Wilton redefines it by subtle underplaying. Knowing that the part has previously been played by Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, audiences may come expecting fireworks, but what they get is performance of fiercely quiet intensity.

Picking up on lines that show that, while her brothers are thrilled by the big deal before them, she is already mentally spending the millions, Wilton makes Regina a consummate chess player, always thinking two or three moves ahead of anyone in the most casual of conversations. Wilton lets us watch Regina think (always a difficult thing for an actor, and one of the glories of this performance). Using her graciousness and femininity as weapons, she skilfully employs acting tricks like stepping on someone's lines (because her mind is racing) or luxuriating in holding a pause (because she know's they're racing to keep up with her) to let us know who's in control.

Under Marianne Elliott's direction, the entire play has an intelligence that is more satisfyingly theatrical than any flashiness would be. David Calder plays Ben as a sincere evangelist of entrepreneurism, loving his work but not above the dirtiest of tricks, able to lose graciously while reminding the victor that he still has his claws. Even the subsidiary roles that too often lapse into stereotypes, like the foolish Oscar or Regina's naive daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) are fully fleshed out. Nowhere is this more impressive than in Brid Brennan's performance as sister-in-law Birdie, usually reduced to a pathetic airhead, but here a warm, self-aware woman who has survived more than her share of secret pains.

Lillian Hellman's place in American drama has always been an ambiguous one, somewhere on the second or third level, below contemporaries O'Neill, Williams and Miller. It is intelligent and sensitive revivals like this that remind us how powerful her work is at its best.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Mahler's Conversion Aldwych Theatre Autumn 2001

In 1897 Gustav Mahler wanted the top job in European music, as director of the Vienna Royal Opera, but only a Catholic would be considered, so the Jewish Mahler went through the motions of converting, got the job, and lived more-or-less happily ever after.

That rather uneventful tale is told in the 40 minutes of Act One of Ronald Harwood's new play, starring Antony Sher as Mahler. Having run out of plot so quickly, Harwood begins what is essentially a new play in Act Two, depicting Mahler's marriage to the vulgar celebrity-hunter Alma Schindler, and how it leads to a break with all his old friends, who pine away in various degrees of despair. For no special reason, Mahler meets Sigmund Freud and explains psychoanalysis to him, and then the play ends again. There are a number of mentions of the theme that Mahler was untrue to himself by rejecting his Jewishness and would somehow be haunted by this, but we never see him having any problem with what was for him purely a business decision.

In short, there's no play here - no story, no conflict, no development, no point. One might even forgive that if this were a good acting vehicle. But, given no one to play, Antony Sher can find nothing to do with the role of Mahler. He makes a few pretty speeches, and does a lot of what looks like acting, but it is clear that he is just marking time until the next real role comes along.

There is a supporting cast, all of whom are merely either plot devices or mouthpieces for the untrue-to-himself theme, and none can be particularly proud of their work. Direction by Gregory Doran does nothing to disguise the thinness of the material or the shallowness of the characterizations.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Medea Queen's Theatre Spring 2001

Said the man behind me as we left the theatre, at the top of his voice: "I have two words for that - bloody awful!" Meanwhile, I was enthralled. And that's theatre reviewing for you, folks.

Let me be clear: I thought this production of Euripides' tragedy of the deserted wife driven to murderous revenge, and particularly the central performance in it, was brilliant. And yet I can understand why he didn't.

Fiona Shaw is one of the most exciting stage actresses in Britain today. Her specialisation is passion intensified to the point of madness - just look at her list of recent roles: Electra, Jean Brodie, Hedda Gabler. Especially when directed by her partner Deborah Warner, she invests these women with a solid psychological reality while also making visible every twinge of their tortured souls.

But this involves a playing style that is paradoxically both remarkably subtle and very broad. She can be more full of twitches and tics than Sandy Dennis in her prime, and reviewers frequently complain about her going (in the British parlance) over the top.

But to see only the tics and twitches is to miss the psychological insights and passionate fire underneath, and what excites me about this, and almost every other Shaw performance is the incredible intensity, conviction and concentration - the solid realness that the theatricality expresses.

This production, a transfer from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, starts unpromisingly. Tom Pye's set makes Medea's home look like a plastic Japanese house stuck in the middle of a construction site, and the opening expository speech by a servant is so very badly delivered that I will be charitable and not name the actress. It doesn't help that the second person we see, the children's tutor, is played as a gay chorus boy, or that the Chorus is a group of modern Irish housewives paying a social call on their new neighbour, complete with cake in a Tupperware dish.

But when Shaw enters, she builds brilliantly on this mundane foundation. Every line, every gesture, every thought has an anchor in the solid reality of a wife who sacrificed all for her husband and has now been betrayed by him. In her most distracted moments she still tries to remain civil to her neighbours, laughs at some private dark joke, or instinctively picks up her children's toys. When Jason (played by Jonathan Cake as a blokeish sexist pig) explains with a straight face that he's doing her a favour by leaving her for another woman, their squabbling is, on one level, as real as anything you might hear through the walls of your flat.

At the same time, however, Shaw makes it absolutely clear that this woman is insane, and that all the external tics and twitches are the work of the demons within her. She establishes and maintains a kind of double vision, banal soap opera and high tragedy coexisting without cancelling each other out. Plenty of actresses can do kitchen-sink-level emotions, and a treasured few can carry you into the realm of heroic, unbearably intense passions. I have to think back to Judi Dench's Cleopatra for the last time I saw any actress other than Fiona Shaw convey both at the same time.

It is the most concentrated and consistently high-energy performance you will see in a year of theatregoing, the work of an actress who is not afraid to push herself and her performance right to the edge of too-muchness. For your taste, she may go over that edge. For me, it was - as Shaw almost always is - illuminating, fascinating, exhausting and thrilling.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Mill On The Floss New Ambassadors Theatre Spring 2001

At over three hours, and with some weak patches, Shared Experience's adaptation of the George Eliot novel can at times be a heavy slog. But strong central performances and powerfully passionate moments make it worth the effort.

Eliot's 1859 novel is about Maggie Tulliver, a miller's daughter who has too much intelligence and high spirits for her small village world to absorb. As a child, her ambitions are frustrated by the assumption that girls don't need education; as an adult, her two opportunities for romance are foiled, first by her family obligations, and then by her own morality.

Adaptor Helen Edmunson and directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale give the dramatisation a backbone by keeping the focus on Maggie's emotional and spiritual journey, and to assist this, take the imaginative leap of dividing the role among three actresses. Pauline Turner plays the inquisitive, love-filled child, and then stays on to represent the never-fully-repressed spirit of energy and adventure in the woman. Jessica Lloyd plays the young woman trying to find peace through Christian submission, and continues to argue for repression after Caroline Faber takes over as the mature woman trying to make her own moral decisions based on these internal debates.

The scenes among these accumulating versions of Maggie, often a matter of silent looks and gestures, are among the most moving in the play; and each of the three actresses, able to focus her energy on one aspect of the character, plays her scenes with other characters with passionate force.

Also particularly strong are the performances of Maggie's two love interests. Though both the crippled aesthete played by Michael Matus and the self-confident stud played by Joseph Millson could easily become comic caricatures, both actors imbue them with a human reality that is touching and convincing.

Those are the play's strengths. The weaknesses lie in Shared Experience's house style being used to less effect than it might have hoped to achieve. The company is committed to translating fiction into theatre through a fluid, unadorned style that incorporates multiple doubling (every performer except Pauline Turner plays at least two roles), minimal "poor theatre" props, and a mix of stylised or symbolic sequences and solidly naturalistic acting.

If you've never seen this kind of production style before (and you will have - similar elements appear in even the most conventional of West End musicals these days), it can be very exciting and imagination-liberating. But in this particular case, too much of it seems gratuitous. Except for the very evocative central conceit of dividing Maggie in three, most of what's best in this production would be there in the most conventional of stagings, and thus the nonconventional stuff is frequently gratuitous and distracting.

It is axiomatic that any time a technique calls attention to itself and doesn't serve the play, it is hurting rather than helping. So, when the Shared Experience style rubs our noses in the symbolism of witches and water, or when the doubling turns most secondary characters into comic caricatures, or when the attraction between the third Maggie and Millson's character is signalled too obviously by having them trade zingers like Benedick and Beatrice, or when sexual tension is symbolised by a bit of business involving a ball of wool that is a little too proud of its own cleverness - all these things break the story's spell rather than sustaining it, and contribute to the recurring sense of heavy-going length.

But maybe that's the price of a house style and commitment like Shared Experience's. You have to put up with their lapses and excesses in order to get what they do so very well. If you're willing to pay that price in your own commitment and patience, Mill on the Floss will reward you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Nixon's Nixon Comedy Theatre Summer 2001

Russell Lees' play is a sensitive and evocative character study, a fascinating what-might-have-been, and a vehicle for two outstanding performances. There isn't much more that you could ask for, except perhaps a few laughs, and it has those as well.

Since it deals with a bit of ancient history, a quick reminder: After losing to John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon was elected US President in 1968. In 1972, people connected to his re-election campaign were caught breaking into the opposition party's headquarters. In itself, that was a minor crime, but Nixon (who was re-elected) used his power to block FBI investigation of the event, and that obstruction of justice was a major crime. (Similarly, it wasn't President Clinton's amorous dalliances that got him in trouble, but his lying under oath about them.) With the disgrace of removal from office almost certain, Nixon resigned in August 1974. The evening before his resignation, he met with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and we have only Kissinger's veiled account of what happened. This play is a fictional imagining of that meeting.

Lees presents a Nixon alternating between despair and the instinct to fight, seeking comfort in memories of his accomplishments, and above all totally baffled by what has happened to him. Alternatingly comical and frightening in his instability, he actually achieves a kind of tragic stature (and boy, is it hard for an American who lived through those days to say that), as we come to understand a man whose undoubted strengths are ultimately brought low by the inescapable limitations of his character.

Lees' Kissinger is also a complex - and, interestingly, considerably less sympathetic - character. At first he seems like the voice of reason trying to guide Nixon toward the inevitable, but it soon becomes apparent that he has his own agenda, protecting his own reputation and power, and that he will stoop to the most manipulative emotional blackmail to ensure that.

How true any of this is, is totally irrelevant. Lees has created two fictional characters called Nixon and Kissinger, and built a fascinating and ultimately deeply moving drama around them. And, since there are only the two of them onstage, he has created two remarkable acting roles.

Keith Jochim wisely does not attempt any more than the slightest hint of a Nixon impersonation - actually, he occasionally looks like Dan Ayckroyd doing his Nixon impersonation - but concentrates on the characterization of an instinctive street fighter resisting surrender and trying to wrap his mind around the horrifying truth that all his life's ambitions are crumbling.

Tim Donoghue is stuck with the funny accent and funny hair that bring his Kissinger closer to imitation. But he, too, has the opportunity to create a complex performance, especially when Nixon cajoles him into playing the roles of other world leaders in ego-boosting re-enactments of some of Nixon's past triumphs.

The play is being marketed as a comedy, but it really isn't, despite its share of laughs. If you remember the real life figures, be prepared to be moved in ways you don't expect by their imagined counterparts. If you weren't there the first time around, accept the play as an evocative fiction.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Port Authority New Ambassadors Theatre Winter 2000-01

As a playwright, Conor McPherson writes monologues. His best work, The Weir, was essentially a string of solo pieces given shape and meaning by a realistic setting (a group of men trying to impress a woman with their tall tales, and then being topped by her moving personal story). Even Dublin Carol was practically a one-man show, though it, too, had a plot framework to give the central character's self-revealing monologues an emotional context and reality.

Port Authority is unabashedly a trio of monologues by three characters who never interact and who seem to exist in some otherworldly limbo in which an offstage bell cues whose turn it is to tell part of his story (a blatant Beckett rip-off, that, with no real point).

A young man (Eanna MacLiam) describes how, in spite of having a girlfriend and social life of his own, he pined for a female housemate with whom he was never able to connect. A middle-aged man (Stephen Brennan) tells how a case of mistaken identity gave him a brief experience of the high life, only to have the bubble burst with the reminder that he was one of life's losers. And an old man (Jim Norton) is reminded of an old infatuation with a neighbour's wife, one he hardly acknowledged, much less acted upon.

So we have three stories of emotional cowardice and missed opportunities, each adequate if not particularly insightful. There are pleasures along the way, but they come mainly in the discursive, shaggy-dog quality of the tales, as the boy describes a comically beer-sodden party, or the middle man's ironic self-awareness gives his account of some social gaffes a Rabelaisian humour. or the old man lets a few drinks and some flirting with a nurse in his rest home get him through the sad memories.

The problem with Port Authority is that it doesn't add up to much. The monologues don't really bounce off each other, except in the obvious pathetic parallels; and beyond saying "This guy's a sad case, and so is this one, and so is this one," we're not given too much to take away. The few subtleties - it is noticeable, for example, that the young man has more of a sense of a pattern of cowardice that will cloud his whole life than the rather cheery old man does - aren't really enough, and nor is the small twist that the middle story isn't about lost love, but another sort of failure.

As his own director, the author has guided his three actors to sensitive readings of the self-contained speeches, but has not found a way to fill the gap the text leaves - a context or sense of reality for these isolated stories to exist within.

There are legitimate laughs along the way, and perhaps the occasional bit of easy sentimentality. But there's no play here.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Semi-Monde Lyric Theatre Spring 2001

Noel Coward wrote this play in 1926, knowing full well that its depiction of casual liaisons, both hetero- and homosexual, would never get past the censor. Philip Prowse of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre gave it its world premiere in 1976 (after the end of censorship), and has now directed this new production for the play's delayed English debut.

Anyone who has seen past Prowse productions could make some predictions: he would make it stylishly beautiful (Prowse also designs), he would move a large cast (28 roles) around fluidly while always keeping our focus where he wanted, his pace would be stately to the point of seeming sluggish until you fell into its rhythms, and he would impose his own historical-social vision on the material. And each of those would be right.

Set in the bar of an elegant Paris hotel, the play watches two dozen of the idle rich wander in and out over a period of years, always in transit to or from Cannes or St Moritz or some other point on the permanent grand tour. All are self-indulgent, all are amoral, all are promiscuous. It is a given that every woman is being kept by a rich older man, but is available to any richer older man who happens along, and each time a married couple swear undying fidelity you can hear the death rattle of their relationship.

A young man (Benedick Bates) passes almost seamlessly from the patronage of an older homosexual (Ian Price) to the domination of a young woman (Beth Cordingly), to the patronage of an older lesbian (Frances Tomelty), ending in a committed relationship to one of them, though we can have little faith in its permanence. Meanwhile, each of the other three is involved in at least one other short-lived and badly-ending romance, as is everyone else.

There are flashes of real emotion buried under all this sophistication. The most practised debauchee among the women (Nichola McAuliffe) falls tragically in love with a poor Russian even though she knows he's using her for her sugar daddy's money. And the most laid-back of the men (John Carlisle) finally gets too tired to keep up the social code of pretense, and shocks a few people by simply naming things as they are.

Others in the large cast who stand out include Sophie Ward and Simon Dutton as newlyweds who each waste no time in taking a lover, Georgina Hale as a veteran observer of the scene, Andrea Hart as a predatory lesbian, and Derwent Watson as the bar's resident pianist-host.

Philip Prowse keeps all the comings and goings fluid by imbuing the characters with a nervous restlessness that makes them unable to stand or sit still for too long; typically a couple will change tables on the sparse art-deco set two or three times in the course of a conversation. His attempt to impose a moral on the play by updating it to the 1930s and introducing signs of the coming war is a little less successful, a little too blatantly borrowed from Isherwood and Kander & Ebb.

Be alerted that you have to reset your internal clock to the measured pacing of this production, and your receptivity to the jigsaw puzzle blending of a dozen or more episodic plot lines. If you do, you will be fascinated and held by Coward's brilliant dissection of a lost society.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Vagina Monologues New Ambassadors Theatre 2001, with frequent tours and revivals, usually with trios of acresses.

Eve Ensler sits in front of a microphone and talks for 90 minutes about, um, you know, down there. The poet-playwright-activist has interviewed hundreds of women about their feelings and thoughts about their sexual parts, and has constructed a series of composite monologues - comic, sad, angry and celebratory - in their voices. (Incidentally, the title is a bit misleading, the discussion extending indiscriminately to vulvae, clitori, labiae, the whole genital machinery.)

Some of the bits are admittedly a little silly, like the list of responses to her questions: "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" (everything from a silk kimono to combat boots) and "If it could talk, what would it say?" ("Slow down!"). Some go for easy laughs, like the list of euphemisms categorized by city ("split knish" in Philadelphia, "Gladys Siegelmann" in New York?), or easy sentiment, like the 72-year-old woman reflecting on a life of pretending it wasn't there.

The words of a Bosnian rape victim are, inevitably, deeply moving, but the most effective pieces are the celebratory ones. A woman-power ridicule of feminine hygiene products and gynecological examinations ("Warm that duck-lipped thing first!") gets cheers from the women in the audience, as does the group recitation of a paean to the clitoris. The high points come at the end, when a hilarious catalogue of types of orgasmic moan is followed up by a poetic celebration of the wonder of childbirth.

Inevitably, some of the audience laughter comes simply from hearing the word spoken aloud so many times. But there is also unquestionably something empowering, especially to women, in the breaking of verbal and emotional taboos.

Surprisingly, since she has been doing this show for almost five years, Eve Ensler is not a particularly polished performer. She reads much of her material from a pile of cue cards held in her lap, and she begins with rather lifeless and mechanical recitations. She clearly needs the affirmation of audience response to relax her, and one of the reasons the last half of the show is the stronger is her looser, more confident delivery.

As in other cities where it has played, the plan is to transfer and extend the run after Ensler's four-week stay, with a string of well-known actresses taking their turns in it. There's no doubt that they will each have performance skills stronger than the author's. But the authenticity and personal quality she brings to it make a strong case for seeing it during her brief run.

Gerald Berkowitz

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