Strife is a play that made me feel angry inside, riled me up and made me feel I want to change the world.  (Not that I will affect so much as a pin of course, which rightfully makes me feel depressed about my pathetic self, but anyway.)  I also found it almost unbearably poignant at times and I was surprised to find that my heart kept breaking such that I couldn’t stop leaking tears.  This isn’t a review because all I can do is spew thoughts.  I’m no orator ;).  Understatement of the century!  That said, here goes…

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We’re comfortably sat in the lovely Minerva Theatre which holds not a seat which doesn’t have a wonderful view of the stage.  I am just thinking how unwise it was of me to reply to the comment of the lady next-but-one, who mentioned how the seat between us was one of the only empty in the auditorium with “Oh, that one’s for my imaginary friend!”  Don’t say things like that to strangers, self.  Did she find it weird?  Then I’m thinking, did she want to move into that seat, and now I replied like that, can she not do it?  I am all of a bewilder, when…

We’re plunged into sudden darkness and a glowing slab of seemingly molten metal rises on chains from a pit of smoke which billows across the steel-lined floor of the stage.  Light and smoke combine to make the metal floor seem momentarily liquidized too.  The huge slab rises and hovers, ominous and imposing, before settling to become the tabletop in the boardroom around which much of Strife will take place: that forged by the steel-workers made a literal foundation which the board members preside over.  Throughout the play this metal is used in other situations too, from which similar metaphors could be drawn – as a plinth from which steelworkers each make impassioned speeches and it sometimes remains on stage: boardroom in the background when the action moves.  A second sheet of steel, on one side like a mirror, on the other, tarnished is also used, for one example, the tarnished side as a monolith behind the women, the backdrop to their lives.

Alongside orange-glowy-steel’s venture, steel-talk through the years* gradually takes us back in time until the table is formed and here we are, in 1909.  (That rhymed. Hmm.)  There hasn’t been an actor on the stage yet, nor a word of plot spoken, but I am already far away from the world I was in, imagining my imaginary friend.  It’s a shock to be thrown into sudden dark and your senses then assaulted.  This expressionist** opening to the play is very effective in drawing you away from your world, into its, making you feel in a way other non-verbal art might.

As the programme informs, Strife “takes place on 7th February 1909 between the hours of noon and six in the afternoon, close to the Trenartha Tinplate Works, on the border of England and Wales, where a strike has been in progress throughout the winter.”  The battle is Board versus Workers, whose Union has even withdrawn their support, requesting compromise from both parties.  More specifically, the battle of wills is between John Anthony: The Big Boss and David Roberts (they both have such ordinary names!) an Engineer and the leader of the men who seeks true reform.  Both men are hewn from the same steel (eh!  Iron-cored!  What other analogies can I make?!) in the sense that they are both stubborn and steadfastly adhere to their own principles.  Anthony articulates his understanding of this and though I feel Roberts would be loath to admit it, he surely feels it too, by the end of the day at least.  Nothing will sway them from the belief in the rightness of their cause, nor is any cost too great.

Anthony has total command.  He is old and weakening, wheelchair bound, yet barely needs to murmur for his will to be obeyed.  Board members speak their minds quite freely, but Anthony follows only his own will, propelled by his unwavering belief that he should do what he always has.  At his most still, you’re still drawn to William Gaunt’s presence.  In fact, subsequently to writing these thoughts I watched Strife again and on second watch I often found it difficult to drag my eyes from Anthony even when he was only in the background, listening (or not listening!) to the others.  With the quietest utterance or smallest look, Anthony exudes power and when he draws himself from his chair near the end of his reign, he makes his final speech a last roar.

Ian Hughes as Roberts is impassioned and full of the fire of his conviction and to effect change.  Roberts has given up more than anyone and will have his way and he has the words and determination to get it.  Unfortunately, though his words lead his men, it is not enough when the steel of Roberts meets the steel of Anthony.  There is a particular speech Roberts gives towards the end of the first half of the play that truly encapsulates what kind of a man this is, and I suppose I felt also what he has the potential to be.  A man with such thoughts, such conviction and such a way of expressing himself is (or should I say, should be) a leader in a larger sense than he is able to be here, within the confines of his life.  This is not good versus evil though.  If anything, I felt from this play that principles are entirely separate to whether a person is good or not.  Roberts is willing to not only make personal sacrifice to achieve his aims: he will sacrifice anything and anyone else as well (as will Anthony.)  To be right, or even just unwavering is not to be kind or nice.

One thing I love about the play is that there is a vast array of viewpoints.  No two characters feel quite the same, and there are too many characters’ feelings and opinions we get to hear to discuss them all here.  While I cannot imagine there is anyone in the audience who doesn’t side with Roberts in the main battle, every character speaks with logic according to their own perspective.  There is no irrationality here.  There’s prejudice, ignorance, lack of empathy, lack of foresight, but not lack of logic.

One of my favourite aspects of Strife was the women.  I love how John Galsworthy writes women and how they are presented here.  Thank you, Mr Galsworthy, Mr Carvel and every wonderful actress in Strife.  The female characters in the play are all nuanced and powerful in their very different ways.  Although we also have a full range of characterisation in the men, the women are each essentially alone so must fight as individuals and they tend to show more understanding of the concept of and need for compromise (not that I think this play really says that compromise is good might I add): from Enid Underwood (Lizzy Watts) the daughter of privilege who wants to help and fight against injustice, but sees not how and is swayed both by feeling personally affronted by those she wanted to help, and by care and concern for her Father; through the angry, strong, potential reformer herself in terms of how she sticks to and articulates her ideals – Madge Thomas (Rosie Sheehy.)  For me, barring the extremely evocative opening sequence, the play really comes alive emotionally when we first encounter the majority of the women – the wives and family of steelworkers.  As with the men, there are a wide variety of natures on display, but now I would like to take some time to talk about Annie.

I don’t know if Annie Roberts is supposed to be the beating heart of the play, but she surely was for me.  Upon knowing the general theme of Strife, I did not anticipate it to be an overly moving play.  How wrong could I be?  I was streaming tears and even when Annie was not on the stage, events and things other characters said kept making me think of her.  And, though it could have been her story that moved me, for it is moving, it was not this that kept choking me up, but her very essence.  I completely adored how Strife conveyed who Annie is – both in terms of the beautiful work of actress Lucy Black, and in terms of the way her scenes are designed to convey everything about her very soul and who this lady is.  Just thinking about her now is making me feel upset.

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We are introduced to Annie Roberts (David’s wife) dwarfed beneath a steel monolith, her shadow blazed against it as we feel her frailty and struggle before the play tackles it.  Annie’s nature is kind and gentle.  She understands her husband’s cause and, tragically, she also understands her personal sacrifice.  The sacrifices Roberts has imposed upon Annie did not begin merely with this strike.  Roberts’ principles dictated that it would be wrong to bring a child into this world.  A thing we, and indeed Annie can understand.  We can’t deem him wrong, for a child’s sake – it is not the world for such.  Roberts certainly does not come across as desiring a child at all anyway and in fact when he encounters a boy he seems very uncomfortable.  Yet Annie holds this gaping void of the lack of a child within herself.  Her yearning is utterly heartbreaking.  And the agonizing way the play expresses what this absence means to Annie, juxtaposed with her own pure kindness is utterly unbearable.   You know Annie is not the kind of person who would ever have voiced her sorrow.  And through staging, lighting, acting and other elements than the mere text of the play, as an audience we feel this from her.  But nobody actually there sees (or wants to see) it.  There’s some beautiful use of a young boy (Cameron Sutherland) who plays Jan Thomas, but also (I hope it was the same boy now – sorry if not!) at another point seems to play an imagined child of Annie’s.   My heart broke so much for her that so often after this point in the play, Annie kept popping back into my head, sometimes for obvious, and sometimes for the tiniest of reasons and my heart would break all over again.

Annie is ill and other characters express concern for her, yet Annie herself is the one who is always genuinely worried for others.  Will this person sit?  How Annie understands the anger of the lady who opposes her husband and in so doing opposes all Annie has sacrificed.  Will Enid sit and have tea?  Has her husband eaten?…  Other people try to help Annie, which she can’t accept as she stands with her husband entirely.  But where others try to help Annie, in a way to help ease their own guilt, little things give away that they don’t care enough.  Annie will accept nothing for herself, but is giving in every aspect of who she is.  She holds no resentment or ill will towards her husband or anyone for what she has to endure and is with Roberts entirely in his cause.  That Annie is the character who suffers most is both inevitable and a true tragedy.  That Roberts’ principles let his wife suffer so terribly is something which it is impossible to not be bothered by.  It is as though his principles are really his child, the thing he hopes is his legacy to future generations.  Roberts speaks to this effect: that what he is doing now is for those that will come after and he cannot connect with his own wife on the deep level he does with the heart of who he is.  I wonder how he thinks about this beyond what the play shows…  Roberts made me think about what principles really are and how they are not necessarily related to morals.

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Another beautiful moment in design of the play comes during the aforementioned speeches by the steelworkers.  As spoken of, the workers take to the steel plinth to speak, whilst it snows upon them and the wall of the theatre behind, which had just looked vaguely steely too until now, suddenly (although it is still the same wall!  How is it possible!?  Applause for the incredible lighting in this play!) becomes a beautiful snow-laden-sunset of a sky.  I guess it really is a sunset in a figurative sense too at this point.  😦

I can’t find a more appropriate place to say it, but I also wanted to mention Frost, the butler (played by Nicola Sloane, who also plays Mrs Rous) who brings both delightful knowingness and such balance between etiquette and expressing opinion I found it a wry little joy to watch amidst the seriousness of the play.

In the end, compromise (in a way that feels rather futile) wins the day, at the expense of both pinions of principle.  I couldn’t help feeling if the men had just stuck with Roberts a few hours longer that all of their demands might have been granted.  I suppose, given that Roberts’ position of power is at this stage also gone, some might imagine the opposite scenario, on the side on Anthony?  Or at least, perhaps they may have done in Galsworthy’s day?  And despite siding with Roberts, as both men are left alone, I felt for them both.  They finally make a fleeting but poignant acknowledgement of each other here.  Both, I felt, in terms of respect and due to the fact that both men needed the other for their cause and their aims failed in the main because the other man was brought down.

But there’s a bigger picture here: yes, these kind of workforce battles are certainly relevant and still taking place today of course [and maybe we should stop and empathise as we do in this play more often than we may bother to even think about them in life?] but in a general sense, there is not justice and equality now and we are over a hundred years on from when this play is set.  The play, as I say, made me want to change the world.  It felt hard for me to reconcile the fact that it was written so long ago, yet we don’t feel far away from this world now still at all.  In any case, those at the top in the most part seem to only care about those below if there is some gain for them to me.  And whatever our own position, we’re all guilty at times I think of looking away rather than fighting any fight.  From the specifics of this play, I saw the sacrifice it took to even attempt to affect change.  I’m not sure in our current times there are many who would be prepared to sacrifice in this way.  Nor do I see why such sacrifice ought to be required for mere justice and equality.

How is it that we can live in a society that is still so unbalanced now?  Roberts says this in his speech against Capitalism:

“They’re welcome to the worst that can happen to me, to the worst that can happen to us all, aren’t they?  If we can shake that white-faced monster with the bloody lips, that has sucked the life out of ourselves, our wives and our children, since the world began.

If we have not the hearts of men to stand against it breast to breast, and eye to eye, and force it backward till it cry for mercy, it will go on sucking life; and we shall stay for ever what we are, less than the very dogs.”

But in reality, will we ever escape Capitalism’s jaws?  Well, a lovely, jolly ending for you there!  But as I stated at the start I shall make my true end: Strife is a play that got under my skin enough that it shook me into wishing I could change the very fabric of society.  I don’t think you can say such of too many plays.

Strife runs at Minvera Theatre, Chichester until 10th September 2016.  If you haven’t been put off by my rambling pretty much the entire play at you, nab your tickets here https://www.cft.org.uk/whats-on/event/strife!

PS At the end, when both Anthony and Roberts are left bereft, is there a really high pitched wail in the soundscape?…. Or was it the noise inside my head!?!  Panic!  I hope it was a real noise and not my mind and soul exploding, but…?
PPS I hope you don’t all think I am a sentimental fool that Annie got to me so much.  Of course Roberts’ plight is very moving.  And many steelworkers and boardroom members have much of interest to say (as a very tiny note here, one actor in the play (Tomos Eames) was in another play I saw up in Liverpool – Land of Our Fathers.  I didn’t write about it here, but if that play ever comes your way I urge you to go watch and I feel it an apt play to mention here too…) Actually, I don’t care what you think of me to be honest!  Life is both too little and too big to be concerned with such!
* Apologies for my ignorance.  I’d be googling steel information were I to try to discover where all of these clips were from precisely and I don’t think their specific content is the point anyway.  Or if it is then, like the steel itself, it flew over my head!
** I totally only know to use the term expressionist due to watching Director Bertie Carvel’s 2015 play, The Hairy Ape.  It feels disingenuous not to mention it, and the opening is redolent in style to this play in the way it works upon the audience.

PPPS… If you made it this far it is an actual miracle.  A provocation to end… At one point in the play, Enid utters this gem, teehee:

“People talk about sympathy with the working classes, they don’t know what it means to try and put it into practice.  It seems hopeless.”

The audience titters, amused and shocked at Enid’s awful words and easy dismissal of her cause and these people she says she wants to help.  But is this so far from how things actually are?  How easily does everyone turn away from all that is hard to look at?  Not funny.  More terrifying….

Sleep tight?

Finally, sorry for all my silly words.

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It’s way down at the bottom. You can’t grab it & you can’t stop it. It moves & everything moves. It stops and the whole world stops.

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I went to see The Hairy Ape last weekend and really wanted to write about it, but I don’t know if I can! I felt this play was about identity and it feels worrying how hard I’m finding it to articulate any thoughts or feelings at all. I feel confused and stupid. Please send help?

The play follows a stoker on a transatlantic liner.  There’s a part where all the stokers are… stoking the engine.  Gradually they gather so they move in unison, in rhythm, and in that moment they become a perfect machine: you feel what these men are to the vessel they drive.  At this point, I half wished it a silent play, scratching it’s rage on those finding it most uncomfortable…  There are many moments in the play where I felt and understood things via other senses rather than just dialogue: Loud sounds shock and confuse and the evocative soundscape throws you into a disorienting, unnatural world.  Brash colour encroaches and choreography and movement seem to me to follow emotional expression.

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Overall I found The Hairy Ape sad while watching, but I think even more troubling some time later.  It lingered with me.  While watching I felt sorrow for the protagonist Yank: through being shocked into questioning what had seemed to be his strongly defined sense of self, he is shattered into nothingness.  Later, I think I felt more how his rage and sorrow reflected that within surely so many people.

Yank works at the heart of a liner. He thinks he knows his worth: he is the engine driving the ship, the steel, building the world.  His ego is strong and he is able to feel he belongs and is above others (‘They above couldn’t do what I do.’) In the bellows of the ship, Yank has clear status: he commands respect, effortlessly leads and is listened to, he literally celebrates working in Hell (‘It’s a man’s work.’)

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Yank is power, physicality and his sense of himself is this physically driven force. He can’t understand how any means other than his brute force could garner respect. He doesn’t really have a complete sense of himself at all I don’t think (later in the play, he struggles to even remember his real name.) The play does present us with other views – there’s a politically minded stoker and another who harks back to ‘the good old days’ but Yank doesn’t understand either man, nor does have have time or desire to.  And he speaks at one point of how he doesn’t have a past or a future so can only exist now – maybe another reason he can’t empathise with such viewpoints?  But then, at the time, he seems not to really even listen.  Everyone knows what they think and are so convinced in their own rightness they need not listen to anyone else’s views. The men uphold Yank most as he has highest status more than because of what he says.

Though neither man’s ideas shake Yank’s foundations, a silly girl (I call her silly, but though she is utterly irritating, I felt very sorry for her too and found her also to be lost..?) unknowingly insult’s Yanks pride with her throwaway horror on encountering him.  This breaks his large yet fragile ego and he is thrown, bewildered, spiralling into confronting who he really is.  Where can he fit in?  How can he exist?  Can he fit in?  Can he exist?

I found the play additionally tragic as Yank has been trapped by matter of birth, but was able to carve so strong a position for himself in the life imposed upon him. Yet despite his extreme bravura and power when we first see him, he still is broken completely and reduced to nothing. It made me think of the sorrow in the world if every person had complete self-awareness of who they are and perhaps their insignificance.  Seems so futile and horrid.  I don’t mean to call everyone insignificant… err…!  A few people aren’t!  haha!  Sorry, I jest!  Sort of…  When this play was written, back in 1922, nearly 100 years ago, was one of the things it presented to it’s audience as it as I felt it now: asking people to question at the deepest level who they are?! Or am I talking drivel? And not only who they are, but how they judge others and assume things about who other people are.  (I hope the play made people feel a little uncomfortable…)

Anyway, Yank sets out, raging against this girl who has insulted him. But of course, he has misunderstood already that it is not she but something far greater he ought to battle against. He continues to try to fight the only way he understands – trying to physically exact revenge, time and again only being pushed further down physically and existentially himself. (I just used the word “existentially” then did an actual laugh out loud at myself! I permit you to do the same! Haha!)

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Bertie Carvel is both powerful and subtle as Yank.  I saw Bakkhai less than two months before and I don’t think he could be much more different.  It is a transformative performance. Yank is intimidating. He seems twice as tall as anyone else and is utter Ape in physicality: proud and brutal.  But later there is also childlike innocence and bewilderment which fits entirely with a man who probably became who he would remain when still a child (Yank himself speaks of just when the stokehole became home for him) and so of course this is still how he sees and understands the world. It is quite amazing I think that you come to feel the inner world of this character to the degree you do.  In real life Yank is not a man you’d be likely to get to understand.  Here, he is given a voice.  I am finding his confusion is confusing me just trying to think about it – I cannot imagine how you would go about conveying it and these completely opposing sides of power and loss of self at the same time.  Also, though he begins the play proud and strong, there is already an element of him that is pitiable. As he loses his sense of identity, Yank also begins to truly learn who he is, so on his way to inevitable doom, he becomes more eloquent in thought and understanding.

In a poignant way, there truly is a sense in which Yank really is that ape.  Yes, physically (from the outset Bertie Carvel holds himself ape-like), but where it matters most is in the way Yank tries to define himself, and in fact already sees himself.  It is almost funny and simultaneously very sad the way he thinks in some scenarios he is confronted with.  He desperately strives to find his place but goes at everything wrongly.  I found the play like ape versus steel, as though this industrialised world were become steel itself and no matter how Yank were to throw himself at it, he is mere animal, bashing against uncompromising metal. The world has birthed Yank into an existence in which he cannot mean anything, no matter how or if he may try to.

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A looming moon to give you nightmares. (Looming Moon could be the name of a band, no? LOOMING MOON!)

Thus, Yank no longer fits anywhere.  It is truly tragic.  It reflects on the way society pushes and holds down those at the bottom, driving the figurative these days if less often the literal engines… but I experienced it most as an individual story.  The world consumes Yank.  It is true of many people of all classes – I mentioned I felt sorry for Mildred too, but maybe everyone in the play is boxed and trapped somehow?

I don’t know whether to write this, but a few insecurities Yank displayed once he’s made it outside, I recognised.  They made me realise oddities about people I know or have known even are/were insecurities.  This and maybe other things I’ve already spoken of made me think about people from my life & past.  It is too personal & daft, but I wrote a bit more here. (Nothing about the play though. Depressing overshared rambling about my Dad and an ancestor from far earlier. I’d advise against clicking!)

Back to The Hairy Ape: Yank thought he was part of the steel, but the metal crushes rather than moulding to him. He is trapped, unable to escape what he is.  The delicate shattering of his steely sense of self is heartbreaking, because he is the steel that grinds the ship, but by the end of the play, he becomes nothing at all.  Worse even: though he didn’t know until he awoke to it, he was always really nothing at all.

Beyond Yank’s individual story, I felt the play gave a voice to countless men from any time who’d likely never express their rage & sorrow or how they felt about their place in the world.  Though it may be felt acutely they may either be unwilling or unable to articulate it, or they may feel it but perhaps not even know where such feelings stemmed from?

I can imagine people having very different thoughts on The Hairy Ape. I think it is quite a strange play in that it works on some weird level, like that liner, down deep in the sea. But something about it bothered me and lingers.   It made me sad.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  And I think it digs down deep to the soul of a man… which can extend as a kind of eulogy to the soul of anyone?  And of course, speaking directly I suppose it is simple.  Man comes from the ape and when the world and his own feelings about himself takes too much from him, there he descends again.

Before I end, I saw this play again and each time saw something new or a new link. The way both Mildred & Yank pick at the column on the stage; the way she is reprieved from the notion of Hell, yet Yank is told to go there. The way Yank articulates his inner world entirely by the end…

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And so much more, but ultimately, while each new discovery leads to deepening, it is feelings that matter I think.

Here I am, trying to express what I thought and felt about a play because no matter how stupid any of us feel, at the same time, we all feel as though our own feelings and experiences matter.  This play bothered me: the cages we put ourselves and others in; the idea that there are surely so many people in the world who are so lost or who could be more than they are but who never ever will be & no-one will ever hear their sorrow, their rage, or will even care.  And many people won’t even understand their own rage.  We can think and feel so much, but the majority of us are so limited in what we can be, or even experience.  And perhaps all, or at least most of us are ultimately alone.

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Alone and insignificant.  What a cheery way to end.  The play also, made me think of this ^, Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Which I imagine a lot of people would laugh at me for saying.  But oh well, they’d laugh no more at this than my words.  Perhaps I should have just posted that image and said here: here is what The Hairy Ape made me feel.  Because I think the only achievement of all this writing has been a small shattering of my own already limited self worth as I see the twaddle spill from my fingers. haha!

I know my thoughts as I tried to write them are not the most articulate or coherent, let alone put across in an interesting way.  I am not a writer.  But I love how plays make you think.  I wonder whether both the fact that they’re so direct as you experience them live and that you have to imagine more than say film or telly can make you think more than you might be likely to with other mediums?  As in you are left to complete it all yourself more?  I don’t know. Anyway, thank you to The Old Vic and everyone involved in this play’s existence.

  • Images are Production Images, thanks to The Old Vic
  • The Hairy Ape is on at The Old Vic until 21st November.
  • The Hairy Ape is by Eugene O’Neill.  Thank you to him for expressing who folks are, deep down within at the root of themselves and within the world around them.  I saw Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic this year too and found that play sweet, passionate & lovely… and pretty much the complete opposite of this play!

This piece of writing is really for me.  I can’t think who else it’d interest.  But I may want to read it again, so… what it certainly is not is a review of Bakkhai.  It is merely random thoughts!  I am sure, mostly daft as hoover-shoes (though they’re not really daft.  I want some.  Daft as hoover-ears then.)

Though I loved it on first watch, those things that I didn’t find quite perfect were no longer an issue for me now. I think first off I should say I barely mentioned Kevin Harvey the first time I saw the play and it wasn’t that he wasn’t good, just that Ben & Bertie were so electric. This time, Kadmos felt a more important role, with Kevin Harvey playing an old man really convincingly and bringing a gravitas to the old King, bringing his personal tragedy to my mind more in the play.  Last time I mentioned how none of the characters are really good, but Kadmos really is good.  The God’s wrath is devastating no matter who it is meted out to & you don’t only have empathy for the nice folks, but I still feel it is worth saying that Kadmos seems like a good ‘un.

The play is shorter now. I don’t know what they did, but it is shorter and though I am usually an advocate of a good thing never being too long, I think it works better for it. The biggest thing that worked better for me was those monologues: all the times when often a random character has to come on and narrate swathes of plot, I didn’t feel it was ideal the first time I saw the play (though neither did I know this was a thing in Greek tragedy in general.) But this time, I found Ben Whishaw in particular a great deal more moving narrating Pentheus’ demise. He was wonderful as Dionysus first time I saw Bakkhai, but as this messenger, affected me much more this time.  I would say, though great last time, his performances as those other than his main Dionysos felt deeper to me now.

Overall, somehow the play at certain points felt really different to me! To the extent I thought “Are they definitely saying the same words they did last time?!” I don’t know whether it was just that it had been a month and I’d forgotten, or if it was the changes since previews or the audience’s atmosphere… or was something actually different?!  Well, something must have been different as it is shorter, but something more??

Talking of atmosphere, this is properly a dark play… however while there was some humour in it the first time I saw it, it sort of felt incidental and maybe even a tad out of place at times. This time, there was a lot of humour and it really worked and there were a lot of laughs from the audience who were really responsive to the wit. Bertie Carvel even played with the audience response (At one point in the play, Dionysos is convincing Pentheus to don a dress to spy on the maenads and Pentheus says something along the lines of “The most important thing is that no-one laughs at me.” (I’m so lazy – I have the play text and can’t even be bothered to check the actual line…) It got a titter from the audience but one lady did an extra big laugh after everyone else, and Pentheus looked right at her – of course – this is just what Pentheus is fearing! With his glare, the whole audience then laughed mightily. I think when an actor can work with what the audience at that performance gives it can make for something electric… especially as an audience member if you’ve seen the play more than once. If you see a play more than once it is always as you loved it… but at the same time, I find it (for those few plays I’ve seen more than once) rather disappointing if the play is just exactly the same as it was when you saw it before…)  That was an odd digression.  At the same time, I suppose this is indicative of the fact that the audience can have a huge influence on how a play is on the night: their response can effect the mood of at least some of the play…  Curious.  I think that works well for any audience though – those watching for the first time too.  If the audience’s energy is positive and those on the stage can use that in the play it is surely only going to make what there already is even better?!

I think it is quite impressive that a play so dark manages to contain a large amount of humour while at the same time always being serious… and though there have been so many laughs throughout the play, when Bertie Carvel’s Agave in wild abandon enters the stage, no one is laughing. I have no idea how it is achieved – this time I saw it, it really was very funny for much of the time (clearly not by the end) but at the same time, no character was ever comic – all the characters were always deadly serious. You laugh at double meanings and implications and Pentheus’ laughable pomposity and arrogance and the way you see how Dionysus is playing with Pentheus…  But it always remains simultaneously serious.

I felt sorrow for Agave the first time I saw the play and found her sorrow very hard to watch. This time, on top of that sorrow which feels bitingly real and true and even… I don’t know: awkward, you know – as grief is.  On top of this, Agave’s resignation troubled me. After her initial sorrow, she again becomes still, calm and contained. She does not continue to sob forever more. What’s done is done. She has killed her own child. What worse could a Mother do. How can she continue?  I was left thinking about this for a long time afterwards.  It carries on the awful events into an awful future too.  Pleasant pondering.

I noticed it first time but I did again this time. I can only speak for Ben Whishaw here. There is a part of the play where from the position I was sat (both times – I was in a similar location but further back second time) I couldn’t see the faces of the actors who were talking at the time and Dionysus is on stage but not speaking. As he is the only actor/character whose face I could see, it was him I watched. He is sat on the stage and he just watches Pentheus. In fact there is an image of it:

Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai.-Almeida-Theatre.-Credit-Marc-Brenner_2

A messenger is telling Pentheus about the maenads. And on Dionysus’ face you can see completely how he feels about what is going on here. He watches Pentheus’ response to the messenger’s words and a slight smile plays at his lips as Pentheus (presumably – I could only see Bertie Carvel’s back… which itself was fairly expressive….) responds as Dionysus has planned and hoped for. It is amazing to watch. Great actors, they don’t even need words.

Afterwards I was thinking I felt that Bakkhai was terrifying not only as its God is so cruel but as Dionysos first offers then takes away what is most important from every human. I mean essentially it is maybe all one & the same too: Dionysos first offers freedom, then takes it away entirely & irrevocably. Someone pointed out to me that from the outset Dionysus doesn’t offer freedom but demands complete submission and that is true. Yet he sets himself up as a God where if you follow him, you will be liberated – you’ll dance, have wine, have sex, you won’t be oppressed. So I think he does seem to offer freedom, chaos, liberation, wild abandon. And the ladies Dionysus first casts his spell upon, they were surely oppressed. Though he does “drive them mad’ you can imagine they’d willingly follow him (who wouldn’t – the God at the outset of he play?!) and then Dionysus takes away all self agency from the women. They have no individual thought: they no longer have even their own minds. Their actions are Dionysus’ thoughts made real. They are his puppets. At the same time it is confusing because Dionysos does say right at the start what he is going to do.  He is the God of opposites after all so I suppose no wonder that I should feel confused that he seems to at the same time preach abandon and demand utter control to the extent that his followers speak with his voice…

Dionysos opens Pentheus up, liberating a deeper part of him to himself. And maybe he offers control in the sense of spying on the Bakkhai. It is not that Pentheus is nicer by the end of Bakkhai, but that he’s vulnerable, human, pitiable, exposed & already brought to Dionysos. There’s no need for the God to kill him, but the most inhuman cruelty. Pentheus is in Dionysus’ thrall already. He’ll do whatever Dioysus wishes.  (Though again, only this time did I not Dionysos addled Pentheus’ mind a tad too in order to get him into that dress…) Dionysus also allows Pentheus to realise his death before it comes – At the hands of his Mother no less. A Mother who neither recognises or hears her own son & literally tears him to pieces. Pentheus’ end is not only physically but emotionally brutal. Dionysos draws Pentheus to him then both he & his Mother kill him.

As I said above, what could be worse for a Mother than to kill her own son in the most brutal way imaginable. Agave thinks her actions will make her family proud.  She thinks she has killed a mountain lion cub. How can she live once returned to herself with what she has done? It isn’t just sorrow Agave is left with, Dionysos takes away who she is. She can’t recover her son or herself & must resign to that. I wonder how it feels to play? Do the Bakkhai ladies feel disempowered as well as empowered (clearly what they do is powerful, but inside, they aren’t even individuals. They are completely Dionysos’ puppets.  What does it feel like to play someone so truly callous as Dionysos? Though he’s playful, clever & much more with it too.  Does it feel as vulnerable to play a person baring, revealing & discovering themselves as it does to watch with Pentheus & Agave?  So, I wonder.

I noticed the light more this time too.  Other people have compared it to the sun, moving across the stage as the production goes on and a surgical light, examining the goings on on the stage. I suppose it could be both.  To me it also feels connected to the Gods: the Bakkhai look to it and it heralds Dionysos.  I also noticed that it shines towards the stage at the start of the play, directly down on the stage during the climax and it ends the play at the back of the stage, pointing to some degree… towards us.  Perhaps we ought to reflect upon ourselves too?

And the end.  Well initially, I found it chilling, terrifying.  Dionysos is terrifying.  It is a play that asks rather than answers questions.  But this play is a play wherein those who displease the God are shown no mercy.  So, should they have followed the God all along?  Or is it that the God is wrong.  Because it feels like it is saying the God is wrong (since clearly his actions are!  No matter how terrible any human was his actions would be!  And he hasn’t only damaged those who wronged him.)  Yet at the same time there’s another side there too.  It is disturbing, troubling…

I wonder how Bakkhai was supposed to feel to an audience so long ago? To me it feels a warning about Gods who can strip you of your self, but I see it from my perspective, living nowadays with a totally different idea of religion, Gods, society & even myself than then.

My initial thoughts on Bakkhai are here: https://wherewordsend.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/bakkhai-almeida-theatre-friday-24th-july-2015/

It should probably be noted that that was a preview performance and things have changed since then.  Bakkhai runs ’til 19th September 2015.

Bakkhai Question(s?)

August 2, 2015

So, it was over a week ago that I saw it, and wrote my rambling thoughts here, but I also had a question about Bakkhai, or at least a theme I thought would be interesting to discuss. And since I saw the play on my own, I have no-one to discuss it with.

Thus, have you seen the current Almeida production of Bakkhai? Or, do you know the play in any form? Either way… would anyone like to talk about… control?

Bakkhai is in one way a tale of opposites and contradictions. The God Dionysos himself is many simultaneously existing contradictory things. But the most basic premise of the story has Dionysos and Pentheus as two opposing sides. Yet in one crucial way they are utterly the same: both crave utter control.

Dionysos arrives and offers freedom, wine, love, sex, chaos… which Pentheus opposes, desiring order, rules. Yet, look deeper and Dionysos has tighter control on the experiences, thoughts and indeed selves of every one of his followers. He has a tighter control than any human could even imagine (though not a tighter control than they might perhaps desire.)

In the process of the play, Dionysos punishes (seems too light a word for it!) Pentheus for refusing to acknowledge and follow his divinity. But first, he toys with Pentheus and in pulling his strings, Dionysos accesses the deeper nature Pentheus has repressed. We understand Pentheus’ unconscious desires.  We see his chaos.  We see a desire in him for utter freedom.

By the end of the play, Dionysos has had his way, with really, utter ease. Every human has been under his control precisely as Dionysos would have it.

What are we supposed to take from this aspect of the play? A play in which great wildness ensues, but which, at the highest level, is completely under this God’s precise control.

I’m not even totally sure what I’m asking.  I guess I am saying that as I see it, Bakkhai ends up not being remotely to do with order versus chaos.  Because Dionysos has, and desires greater control than any human could ever hope for.  And at the same time, while Pentheus tries to impose his control upon his subjects, even to the degree of imprisoning his own Mother… we eventually discover that perhaps what he really desires is chaos…  I think.  Maybe?

So, in fact, what we first thought of both Dionysos and Pentheus in terms of how they operate at root-level seems in the end almost reversed..

I’m trying to get my head around what to make of it as I don’t know.  Can you help me?

Were you left with any questions about the play?  If so, what were they?  I’m curious to hear other people’s ponderings…

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The grief of a character Bertie Carvel plays at one point in this play was painful to the point that it felt obscene, wrong of me not to look away – it was intrusive to witness. By the end of the play I could feel myself shaking, such was the level of intensity, though I couldn’t explain why. Given that this was just the second preview, I have a feeling, a bit more time and it is going to get even better.

Bakkhai is high in atmosphere and addresses timeless themes of power and control.+ It is sensual, hypnotic and ultimately dark, sinister, cruel, chilling and terrifying. It has electric chemistry between its two leads and a powerful atmosphere from its chorus. At the same time, the two lead characters are both horrible really and the women in the play all speak as one and have no individual minds. Am I selling it yet?

I found the play most alive when Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel as the God Dionysos and the King Pentheus do battle on stage together and spark off each other. And if you want to recount some sort of moral about war not being too far from love, this play definitely goes there… by the end of their stage time together, Dionysos and Pentheus’ dynamic is so sexually charged that you’re tantalized (I really thought for a moment they were going to kiss. Tad disappointed. Oh well. Sigh.) Of course, this is just as Dionysos wants it to be.

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Ben Whishaw plays the God Dionysos. He is initially so charming and alluring that who wouldn’t believe this sensual being mesmerises all? Who is not in agreement with his (supposed!) notion of utter freedom? With him there is wine, love, wilderness… You not only understand why everyone loves and willingly follows Dionysos, you agree with him and feel he is right and should be followed! Who wouldn’t follow him up a mountain and submit to his any request?

Because that is what Dionysos demands. Complete submission. And it is not apparent at first quite how sinister this will be. Really, in the hypnotic, en-masse, cult-like behaviour of the Bakkhai, you should completely realise this long before you actually do as it is apparent (or perhaps I’m slow!) But then Dionysos is very convincing. Was anyone not under his spell? Dionysos is a God and he enforces a God’s control on all. Although he is evil, callous, cruel, and very concerned by control, Whishaw never acts anything other than charming and free as a sensual spirit… it is through his actions you understand his brutality.

Whishaw is alluring, capricious, manipulative, playful, free, clever, observant and otherworldly. Ben has I think a skill for being able to convince as characters who are not entirely human which works wonderfully here. He also always delivers every line so naturally it is effortless. And here he has a character who is many dichotomous things at once. Is that a real word or did I just make it up? I’m leaving it anyway because I like it. It sounds like hippopotamus (and also, rather appropriately, like Dionysos!) Now I want a hippopotamus friend who I could name Dichotomous! Hello! I’m Dichotomous the hippopotamus. I like mud. And also a lovely clean bed with white linen and one of those glade air freshener things to scent the room so all is just so… and MUD… ahem..

Err, what was I saying?…   Dionysos observes and understands his prey.  There was a wonderful moment where Dionysos watches Pentheus’ response to a situation and without having to say anything you see his glee that Pentheus does precisely as Dionysos wishes. He plays with Pentheus and utterly delights in his own effect. He is a God and humans are puppets to him. When Pentheus goes against him, Dionysos doesn’t want revenge, he wants first to bring Pentheus to worship him and then to punish him. He turns out to be utterly inhuman: terrifying & callous. Or perhaps, as is alluded to at the end, his cruelty is too human for a God?! Anyway, you eventually discover you definitely do not wish to follow Dionysos up a mountain, no no no. Whishaw also plays two other roles effectively and very differently (well three if you include Dionysos appearing in pure form as well.)

As wonderful as Whishaw is, for me Bertie Carvel is the most impressive here and it is from him I really felt the play. The nature of Dionysos is that he is a God and as such he is unchanging and will bend to no-one’s will. Dionysos does not alter. It is the point.

Bertie-Carvel-in-Bakkhai.-Almeida-Theatre.-Credit-Marc-Brenner_2

On the other hand, Bertie Carvel plays:

  • A man in terms of who he is in an intellectual sense and how he presents himself to the world
  • This same man, but now who he is deep inside – his true vulnerabilities and desires
  • This same man’s Mother, but completely crazed and under control of a God
  • The Mother, still not in her own mind, yet now not crazed, more hypnotized
  • The Mother, returned to herself

Before you even get into emotional shifts, to witness the subtle alterations along these journeys which lead us to understand something of the complex natures of these two characters is really quite something.   I found Bertie revelatory in the way (and extent) to which he changed during the course of the play and he achieves this with really not that long a time spent in any one state. I don’t even know what to say about it. It is just impressive and powerful acting.

Pentheus and Dionysos have in common their desire for power and, ultimately, control, but initially Pentheus is fusty and irritating as a politician. All he wants is to stop all the fun by putting everyone (even his own Mother) in jail and indeed have them all submit to his own will. There is of course a sense in which Pentheus is correct, as it turns out people are not worshipping Dionysos as much as they are his puppets, yet Pentheus opposes not to help anyone, but for his own selfish reasons. But he becomes Dionysos’ plaything and Pentheus’ deeper self is drawn from him. Suddenly, this controlled man in his buttoned up suit begins to unravel at the will of Dionysos. We (and he) begin to witness his desires, his abandon, his chaos. He is even physically exposed as he’s dressed in women’s attire at the same time as he accesses this deeper self. The sheer vulnerability of this revelation of Pentheus’ self, coupled with the fact that Pentheus is clearly now totally on board the worship-Dionysos bus and dinging the bus-bell makes Pentheus if not sympathetic then at least you empathise with and pity him. And thus you have a character you now feel sorry for, as you would any human. Bertie makes Pentheus, who remains a pathetic character, tragic. You are sorry for his fate and you pity his flaws and feel for his self-discovery. He reveals the core of the man. This all also serves to make Dionysos’ actions feel all the more brutal.

All this and it is really as Agave that I think Bertie is most impressive. From crazed, through hypnotised to painful grief: a character so brief in terms of time in the play and not even herself for much of her play-time is perhaps biggest in terms of direct emotional impact? Agave, when not crazed is very calm. Bertie creates a character who expresses sorrow quietly and, for the most part in a contained way. It is left to the chorus (who I’ll talk more of in a bit) to sonically express the deeper wail of the entire play’s tragedy. Agave is the character who brings resolution really to what the play is about.  Without her, Bakkhai is chilling, but through her I felt the pain and sadness in the play.

With these two characters I feel that Mr Carvel really let’s you in to deep, sometimes hard to watch aspects of who these beings are and it just really is something to experience.  As a side note, Bertie hit me right on the big toe when Pentheus threw away his shades. I don’t think you could’ve made that good an aim if you’d tried. Unless it was an aim. What did I do wrong? Haha. Anyway, beside the point.

CHORUS-Credit-Marc-Brenner_2

On to the chorus! You’ve probably gathered from my surprise at the plot that I know nothing of the Greeks. I know a bit about music though and as such wish to say that musically I love the chorus. Artistically it is beautiful and evocative and I feel would make a lovely concert on its own.  The score is complex (more complex than I have ever heard in a play by miles) and I feel (from the little I know) its mix of influences suits.  It is also very demanding of the actresses/singers who perform it – much solo, dissonant counterpoint, singing versus speaking and at times it even wails and yelps and cries.  As music in its own right I think it is quite remarkable: impressive and powerful… but the relevance of it to and how well it works in the play is sort of beside the point to this I think?

So, in terms of the play, the music is dark, atmospheric and since Dionysos never directly acts (until the end when he appears as his true self) as though he is cruel, the Bakkhai are also how we get to feel how truly horrific Dionysos is. Their singular voice, thought and purpose is unnerving. Their abandon is clearly not free or fun & they are not supporters of this God, but tools, eventually painting their faces as warriors or beasts. Initially, the Bakkhai are utterly mesmerising. They look the audience in the eye and you feel and fear their conviction. They are powerful. If you can drag your eyes from the actors, sometimes when a character is talking about something Dionysos has achieved, you can also see the emotion in their faces and they react with the exact same feeling Dionysos himself would have to news. The only thing I did find was that as the play goes on, it takes a great deal of effort to concentrate and listen/hear every word they say. I think it was me having so much to think about in terms of the drama. But they remain chilling, powerful, atmospheric and expressive.

This bit might be silliness. But I even found Bakkhai pertinent to now with a God who in his demands for complete supplication creates the worst potential religion has: the ability to remove people from their self and to manipulate or coerce them into, well, into pretty much anything in the name of something they believe in. Is it just me living in nowadays makes that connection?

I don’t think the play is flawless. The worst aspect to me is that there are quite a few moments when some character or other has to do a large amount of explaining/narrative telling. I think generally in a play it is better to see and feel. When you end up with a character narrating a long passage, which has nothing to do with their personal feeling-based experience but is in order to get plot out, I feel like I could have just read this. It seems a bit of a waste of actors’ abilities. And again you have to really concentrate when it is just one person narrating a large story. A lot of this thankless narration falls to the third actor, Kevin Harvey who I haven’t mentioned, but who is very good as Kadmos in particular. Ben Whishaw also has to do a fair bit of narration. He narrates, as a character we only see in this one scene the great tragedy of the piece. I understand why it couldn’t be shown, but I sort of feel like there could have been some way to show us something of it rather than just have one character who we have no connection to as we don’t see him other than this scene tell us it all..?

On this note, can I just point out that the Almeida Theatre do the best programmes. The programme for this play is more like a mini encyclopedia. I haven’t had chance to even read it all yet but if you go see the play, whereas in most instances you’ll pay £4 for essentially a book of adverts and a cast list, here there is so much and so interesting information. So much information in fact that though it is necessary for the play to have Dionysos narrate his own history for the audience for those of us (like me!) who don’t know their Greeks at all, in fact, I didn’t need him to as I’d already read it in the programme thus knew it. If they just forced every audience member to sit down and read the programme for 15 minutes before the play they could have fitted in more drama and would’ve required less exposition!  Do your homework and now you may watch the play! I’m sure that’ll catch on. I probably should have finished reading said programme before writing this, eh. Oh well.

So, to sum up, this play is made-me-shaky-intense and I found it powerful, I think particularly so given that with the chorus who are as important as the actors, the fact that all 3 main men play multiple roles and the play is only two hours, no character gets a massive role.

* I feel I should give a disclaimer that I go into some plays knowing nothing or little of the actors, but I have been a fan of Ben Whishaw’s work for years and I loved Bertie Carvel in the recent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I found so totally wonderful I am now reading the novel. And subsequently I realised other things I’d seen him in, all of which had been so different I’d have had no thought of it being the same actor even.  But you know, I would like to think Dionysos has not brainwashed me and I am still able to form my own, comparatively objective opinions!….?

+ Dionysos proffers a world which is supposedly free, wild and chaotic, full of all anyone desires. In truth though, he has tight control on the experiences, thoughts and indeed selves of every one of his followers. Have you seen the play? Or do you know the story anyway? I’m not sure if this is supposed to have some kind of a message and if so what? Talk to me! What did you think of the play? Tell me how you felt. Disagree with some daft things I said! Answer this… what was supposed to be a statement but turned into just words… whatever! I’m curious.

And if you haven’t seen the play yet but are going to, I hope you also get silly-words-amounts of thought out of it!

If you made it this far it is a veritable miracle!  Your reward is the knowledge that Bakkhai runs ’til 19th September and more tickets are released tomorrow I think.  You can buy them here.  Though I probably wrote so much you feel like you don’t even need to watch it now, oops.

Images added 02/08/15.  All photos by Marc Brenner: http://www.marcbrenner.co.uk/