Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: The Crucible



Then how did he die?

They press him John.

Press?

Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead ay or nay. They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.

I could actually quote that entire scene (I looked it up only to check I'd gotten the wording right) verbatim, without checking. I have, if memory serves played both Proctors at some point, and I have clearly had the play etched into my brain via GCSE drama and other delightful studies. Add to that a specialism in Cold War History (more on that shortly) and 20th Century drama, it's possible to get a little Crucible-ed out. However in all that I've never actually seen the damn thing performed live. So with the Old Vic doing a production, while I was in London, and with Richard Armitage in the role of Proctor, I decided to finally see it.

Despite knowing the play so well, I found this production to be engaging and almost thriller like in it's pacing. I had been concerned given reports of its length, but it felt well paced and never seemed to drag or as long as it actually was. Yes the lengthy scene changes which were carefully choreographed moving of the minimal set on an off stage, did add time to the already substantial length. However they added atmosphere and allowed for transitions between scenes that actually at times added to the story.

The staging itself worked really well. Staged in the Old Vic's new 'in the round' set up, it helped bring the action in closer to the audience and added a sense of claustrophobia that fits with the premise of the play. Much like 'Other Desert Cities' before it, the intimacy between actors, set and audience helps to draw into the play, making it more intimate than I'd ever imagined it as.

I have a difficult time with The Crucible as a play generally. Having studied it to death for a start, makes it difficult to disconnect and get lost in the performance. But the performances, the staging and the atmosphere created here was enough to draw me in and keep me locked in the story for much of the time. I do find it difficult to completely  lose myself in the story though, my historians brain gets in the way, and the metaphor gets a little lost on me. My brain always resets to the contemporary setting that Miller was writing about with The Crucible (the 'witch hunt' of his era, the Army-McCarthy hearings) and as any historian will tell you there's such a thing as knowing too much when it comes to fiction. In the case of this play I know too much about the fictionalised Salem version and the present day that Miller was writing to. So for me it's a true testament to this play that I did find myself lost in the story and at times even though I knew all to well what was next, waiting in anticipation for it. The other aspect is just how terrifying the group of young girls is. I don't mean in their witchy personas but actually the deeper point about mass hysteria or mob mentality that Miller was making. Anyone who has had any association with teenage girls knows en masse they are a scary lot, but I found myself making allusions to Mamet's Oleanna in which people in authority are brought down by in that case a young woman, but in the case of the Crucible, a group of women. I'm sure there's a more detailed analysis there, and I may be off track entirely but it's a thought that occurred. What also occurred to me which my 1990s education certainly didn't touch on was the inherent sexism of the play, all women are mad, the idea of women as a righteous man like John Proctor's downfall. However, Miller is not exactly known for being devoid of sexist content. And that is a lengthy essay for another day. As it is I can accept The Crucible more than his other plays in terms of sexism as he was drawing on the historical tales of Salem. And well, if I wasn't able to turn off my sexism radar and enjoy a play for what it is now and then I'd have major issues going to the theatre. And this production also doesn't overplay or make worse the inherent negative images of women, if anything they became more rounded, more real women. They are still a terrifying force, and a problematic one in some respects, but I also understood them more as individuals, even when acting a scary 'coven'.

For many of these reasons, overall 'The Crucible' doesn't make me emotional in the way 'Streetcar' did the night before. In some ways its the way I engage with the playwrights, for me Williams speaks poetically and to the heart, particularly in Streetcar. Miller on the other hand speaks to my head, which I can't turn off. That isn't to say I wasn't moved, when finally in the scene I quoted at the start, Protor and his Elizabeth are together. In fact the two scenes they share alone across the play were both incredibly moving. And both Armitage and Anna Madely give stand out performances.

And though it's being sold as Armitage's play (well if you can put him on a poster why wouldn't you?) and though Proctor is a character who binds the piece it's real strength is its ensemble piece. And the ensemble for this production is incredibly strong. From the group of girls who at time scarily move and seem to think as one, to the supporting group of male village elders-particularly Adrian Schiller and Michael Thomas as reverends Hale and Parris respectively, are all standout performances of their own. Armitage is excellent as Proctor, his booming voice and physical stature dominate the early scenes making it all the more affecting when, in the final scene he is broken down, his voice and stature reflecting this. There is no doubt in his abilities and he brings the ensemble together effectively but there is no doubt this production is a team effort.

Despite my doubts, and my inability to turn off my brain usually, I felt myself sucked in and taken on a thrilling engaging ride by The Crucible. Armitage is a stand out performer and it is impossible to take your eyes off him (well ok it is, but why would you want to?) within a strong, well directed piece of classic theatre. More than enough to blow off the cobwebs of GCSE drama.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

"I have always relied on the kindness of strangers"
"Well that's a stupid thing to do"

.....or so goes the famous line in my head. I blame Tony Kushner who appropriates Tennessee Williams' most famous play twice in his own most famous play. And that's the trouble with famous plays, we all think we know how it goes. We all have our own version of them in our minds. Whether it's the film version or Marge Simpson appearing as Blanche. However actually this production made me think about how well I really knew the play, which is always a good thing.

As a side note, for me it was particularly interesting, having spent far too many years looking at Kushner, to return to Williams. Kushner talks often of his love and influence by Williams and I would even say that I see Kushner as one of Williams' worthy successors in American drama. Seeing Williams performed after spending so long with Kushner then I could see the influences on his drama. Oddly in knowing the playwright he influenced so much so well, made me appreciate the smaller nuances of Williams' drama more. And has made me love Williams' work more also.

Overall this is an excellent production. The acting talent in the central trio alone would take even a dire production to new heights. Even though I have some issues with the production, it's anything but dire but the three central actors take it to another level.

Firstly the set. Yes this will go down in theatre lore I think as the spinning Streetcar. The set, an open rectangular kitchen/bathroom/living room of the Kowlaski house is on an almost permanent revolve. I'll be honest, I wasn't keen. Firstly the advantage of the Young Vic's in the round (or technically octagonal) space gives an intimate setting regardless of how you stage it. This strangely shaped rectangular room seemed to needlessly restrict space for the performance. The rotation, which I can see the motivation behind, it gives alternative views on each scene dependent on where you are situated and the revolve was put to great use in emphasizing Blanche's state of mind. It is a clever, interesting theatrical device and I appreciated what it was being used for, and to some extent what it achieved. The idea that some parts of the performance were hidden from, and in turn revealed to different sections of audience is an interesting way to play it. The idea that the revolving direction and speed are linked to Blanche likewise clever and interesting. However, these clever and interesting elements negate the fact that a constantly spinning set is a little irritating (not to mention as Les Mis proved to me, sea sickness inducing) I was glad to have a seat upstairs as my view was largely uninhibited up there. Overall though not a set or design choice that appealed.

However the modernised set, to reflect the contemporary setting of the piece did work for me. I've seen reviews and comments that as a result certain lines in the play, or certain aspects of it no longer work. To an extent yes, certain references may not stand up to scrutiny in the contemporary setting. However this is an issue with playwright copyright and what is permitted to change. I'm fairly ambivalent and lenient with such things anyway. In watching it what actually struck me is, in the second half when we realise how judged Blanche is for her behaviour with men, is just how shockingly contemporary that still feels. We still hold women up to such standards, and women still understandably unravel under that pressure. For me the contemporary setting worked then and the world of Blanche, Stella and Stanley doesn't seem that far removed from our own. Even the military references obviously more indicative of Williams' time, don't seem in a re-militarized America of today that much of a stretch (really, has America ever been anything other than militarized?) And though some might find Blanche's 'Southern Belle' routine 'dated' and not in fitting with today, I'd disagree, I could envisage someone of her circumstance falling back on such cultural models or moulds. In fact once she starts to truly unravel in the second half the slightly incongruous nature of that 'act' makes the disintegration all the more tragic.

Overall then I loved the direction, the staging though problematic for me, I could see motivations for, and the updating worked. I had some issues with pacing. The first act rockets by and this works quite well, feeling like these characters are sort of crashing into each other and the world being turned on its head a bit. In the second half I could have done with a bit of slowing down a lot earlier. Things grind to a devastating halt in the final scene where the moments are finally given space to breathe and to great affect. Before that there are scenes I wanted to slow down, to allow the characters and the audience to catch up a bit. Lord knows nobody wants to make this play any longer but there is something to be said about taking your time in some scenes- 'moments' as one of my favourite acting teachers was fond of. And though there are substantial moments that make you pause as an audience and catch your breath at times the careering pace felt a bit much to allow audience and characters to really be present. That said, when it does stop it's devastatingly effective.

As costume is one of my personal obsessions and bugbears simultaneously, I couldn't let this production go by without mentioning costumes. Costume is obviously a big part of Blanche's character and much is made of her outfits in the text. This production I felt got this pitch perfect. From her neat suit at the start echoed in the final scene, to her outlandish dresses. The moment she changes into a Southern Belle-esque ballgown is a brilliant piece of costuming that gets a laugh but is also heartbreaking. Even her 'exotic' coloured dressing gown is pitch perfect. My favourite clothing elements were however the shoes. Not just because, well they are a mighty fine collection of shoes. Constantly Blanche is in huge heels, like Dolly Parton is rumoured to, she steps from bed or bath directly into fabulous heels. Practically this of course helps the tiny Gillian Anderson gain a few inches, but in terms of character I thought this was a wonderful touch. Blanche is so obsessed with appearances, of being put together and right, that having her never take off those heels unless she was unseen behind the shower curtain-the only time she is un-heeled, was to me a marvelous touch to the character. If I'd taken notes I'm sure I could have read something into each shoe choice-certainly the sparkly shoes are saved for dramatic purpose. But the outfits for Blanche were so meticulously constructed, including and especially the shoes, they might just be my favourite part of this production.

Overall it's the performances that make this play. Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby make a strong Kowalski duo. Stella in this production is as strong and important a character as Blanche, Kirby not overshadowed by Gillian Anderson's Blanche. In fact Kirby's performance is that strong, that engaging I found myself wanting more of Stella than Williams' play gives us. Of course the evening belongs to Gillian Anderson. As much as I can be objective about the production, I find it difficult to be objective about her in most instances. However, I don't think I need to be in this particular instance. Her Blanche is nuanced and despite her exaggerated character feels very real. She's so very controlled in the role, bringing a slick, quite barbed but quick-witted Blanche to life in the first part of the play. When her cracks begin to show although the character unravels Anderson is an actress in complete control of the nuances of the character. I saw things in Blanche I'd never considered across the performance and there's an emotional centre to it from the moment she steps on stage. When she breaks down a little to Mitch there is a sense of what is further to come at the end of the play but she knows how to measure it out, to return a little to the earlier character before the final scenes. When the play finally reaches its climax it is truly devastating.  If you don't know the play, through the realisation of what has been happening in the final scene. When the famous line is delivered it has stopped being the line we all know, and becomes about this Blanche in this moment. And if nothing else that's when you know a revival has worked, when those famous lines take on their own life again. And if that fails to move, Anderson's slow final walk around the set, looking into the eyes of audience members as a broken lost Blanche is truly a devastating end to an emotional production.

On a personal note, seeing Gillian Anderson on stage again was a magical experience. I've said above that I find it hard to be objective, and I think I've been fair in my review here, my thoughts echoed by the press and other audience members. There are very few actors I love I'm quite so enamored with though, I suppose 20 years of fangirling will do that to someone. What I do realise is that I am still hopelessly in love with her as an actress (and a person) and I'm kind of ok with that. I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my Birthday.

All About Eve- Noel Coward Theatre

3 Stars  The idea of taking the film that is All About Eve, that was once the play The Wisdom of Eve and making it th...