In which I try to speak about The National Theatre’s astounding Amadeus and instead reveal only why I love theatre: it lets me feel things without the need for all these stupid words.

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No matter if you’re the most arrogant human or the most self-effacing, full of talent or lacking it entirely, within all of us lies some conflict in which we are simultaneously the centre of our own little Universes, yet understand our total insignificance to the real Universe.  Amadeus, a play about genius and envy taps into our human desires.  We are mortal, so crave immortality.  Most of us not in a literal sense, but most of us hope our life has some meaning or impact.  When in truth, most of our lives don’t.  There are countless ways people may hope they have impact or leave some legacy and Antonio Salieri hopes he can leave behind music of such divinity that it and so he will be immortal.

Salieri initially strives only to celebrate and worship his God by creating exquisite music.  Maybe not the most noble wish, but admirable enough, understandable and relatable.  He asks his God to be able to be a composer and to be granted sufficient fame to enjoy it in return for being a good man.  Both of these things Salieri is granted.  His long years of toil and efforts at being a good man result in a successful, respected career, but they do nothing to make his adequate yet popular art transcend to the sublime – a fact he’s not really aware of until along comes young Mozart, spilling out music of the Heavens in the middle of toilet jokes with the ease of breathing, making it abundantly apparent, even if just to himself how mediocre Salieri is.  Salieri initially tries to deny Mozart’s genius as a preposterous, impossible notion.  Talent is a gift from God surely?  Who would God bestow gifts upon?  Surely the most reverent, noble, good and deserving people.  This creature who Salieri part-snobbishly, part with cause deems disgusting and distasteful surely could never have been so favoured?  But once Salieri acknowledges that Mozart’s talent is not some fluke, that he is extraordinary, he becomes first bitter, then cruel.  His quest for sublimity twists so he wants to destroy the thing he simultaneously loves: Mozart’s music and eventually, Mozart himself.  Until instead of desiring to be a sublime creator, Salieri craves only fame, then, even infamy will do.  In the end Salieri’s bitterness turns on himself, eating and destroying him as it drives him to become banal, petty, turns him callous and cruel and by the very end, leaves him finally pitiable.

Amadeus reaches up to the best and the worst of what we humans are: from the pure sublimity of Mozart’s music, to the basest pettiness and cruelty that can lie within our hearts.  It is a play in love with music and it is a play for anyone who loves art (surely everyone sitting in a theatre?!) and who is not-Mozart.  So, for all of us.  We all (I think?!) have a yearning within us to reach “the unreachable” and very occasionally art actually reaches it.  Mozart most definitely did and for me, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus does too, especially in Michael Longhust’s stunning, music-filled production.

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And music truly is a huge character in this play.  The musicians are almost always there, whether being Mozart’s actual orchestra, or more like ghosts of Mozart’s music.  They are serious, then playful, woven in completely amongst everything else going on on stage.  The music is everything from pure Mozart, to sound effects, to opera-cats, to sultry jazz and augmentations of Mozart via amped up drum accompaniments.  It’s reverent, modern, entertaining and moving.  As in the production still above, the music physically bears down upon Salieri, the stage sometimes moving as a literal representation of the psychological and emotional weight of Mozart’s music upon him.  The story of Amadeus is entertaining, witty and by the end heartbreakingly sad, but often moments in the play where it really pierces your heart, the music is at the fore.  Before saying anything else about this production, I wanted to get across how amazing it has been to just feel the power of these musicians and the way the music has been used in this production of Amadeus.  Thank you so much to all of the musicians, Simon Slater, Paul Arditti and all others involved.

“Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.” may be an apt quote from the play to reflect upon.  But while it surely is true that talent is unrelated to “goodness”, neither Amadeus nor this production of it are so simple in what they truly express.  Is Mozart a bad person and Salieri good?  Most definitely not!  In fact it is Salieri who is driven to be despicable in utterly inexcusable ways.  But even had Salieri not been driven to be so: are you good person because you simply do not allow yourself to act on “sinful” thoughts or desires, though you continue to feel them?  In any case, while it is easy to understand why Salieri would find Mozart irritating, Salieri is clearly the more deeply flawed human here.  And there is, I think, a definite pureness not only to Mozart’s music, but to his spirit.  But neither can you say that Mozart is without sin or flaws.  He is far from it.  And ultimately, what human is without flaws? No-one.  This is a play about two deeply flawed humans and all the more poignant for this.  Surely Peter Shaffer himself must have reflected upon the sublime in relation to his own work.  And perhaps every artist may think on this and find themselves lacking, from their perspective?

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There are other plays I’ve loved and I hope there’ll be many I’ll love in the future, but I know I’ll never see anything quite like Amadeus again. It was so special to me.  I want to shout it from the treetops and thank it and I adored it so much that I want to write something to remember it forever.  I feel so privileged and grateful that I got to experience and love this wonderful production, filled with glorious, moving music and impeccable performances by and stunningly also between Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen – both actors whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to this play (so thank you too Amadeus for introducting me to their work.)  It was a theatrical form of Mozart’s music for me.

And you should STOP HERE if you read this, because this truly is for me and about the things this has meant to me and will be a boring pointless chore to read any more.  I’d definitely skip all the blue and purple BRUISE-of-shame at least, for it has little to do with the production and is just me recounting my history with Amadeus.

I share now a memory of the tiniest moment during the final performance as I experienced it.  I first saw Amadeus on 27/10/16 (SO LONG AGO, WOW!  I just looked it up and discovered it only opened on 19th October, so I literally did spend almost the entire run of Amadeus with it.  Was that the night after press night?  I see reviews of the first run are dated 27/10…?!?  I obviously only had my one ticket initially, but I just could not get over the play.  I guess I was lucky to have seen it early in the run as the National Theatre released more tickets for the latter part of this first run later on.)  I should have written something about the play then, as I went on to see it a few more times in the first run and at a NT Live screening and *cough* slightly more than a few times in the second run…!  That is between me, the NT box office and anyone who noticed me!  I last saw it on its closing night, 24/04/18.  I say this because I want to convey how it’s impossible to write about something you’ve seen a lot, because…

For the final performance of Amadeus, I was sat far to the right of the stage.  In order for this to make sense: a little context.  Mozart has just discovered his Father has died and Salieri has offered solace and support in an almost Fatherly way, seeming to Mozart as if he were his friend, whilst still in truth desiring Mozart’s downfall.  Now, while we hear Mozart’s music, Salieri discusses and craves his extraordinary gift.  

In the scene I speak of, Mozart conducts a fragment of Cosi Fan Tutte and Salieri speaks of Mozart immortalizing sisters Constanze and Aloysia, transforming two average girls into divinities through his music, which we hear and feel for ourselves as we hear the singers and musicians.  Salieri rails at God, asking and praying for God to provide him with Mozart’s gift and for the soaring spirit of Mozart’s music to be present in even one piece he might compose.  Salieri ends the music, stopping the singers himself, pushing them to the floor, desperately shouting to God to “Grant this to me!” “I do not need you Salieri! I have Mozart! Better for you to be silent!” is God’s response.  Mozart laughs & Salieri says this is God’s laughter.  

Mozart has his back to the audience at this point, but because Salieri was delivering his performance to the centre of the auditorium and as I was so far to the side, as Salieri is roaring at the world in anguish, I glanced Mozart’s way and could see his expression as he stood atop the piano, arms still aloft post conducting.  Upon Mozart’s face as he looked skyward was, as I saw it, equal anguish: desperation and a terrible kind of horror and sorrow.  It stuck with me, that look.  I don’t know if it was Mozart’s sorrow or the actor’s as Mozart’s face could be seen by very few in the audience here, even if glancing that way.  Here in the play, once his Father has died I’ve felt a change in how Mozart conducts music – gradually the music controlling him, where before he controlled it.  And this anguish does fit the torment and fear which begins to consume Mozart from here on in the play.  I’d just never seen this here until this final performance.

This desolate look, as desolate as Salieri then speaks of feeling as he plans his final aim to destroy Mozart entirely is followed by Mozart lying down on the piano and hanging himself upside down over the edge.  If you’ve seen the play, you’ll know it gets a laugh.  But something about the sad point-of-no-return of that desperate expression of Mozart’s when atop that piano in the final show stayed with me.  I don’t know how to explain.  I suppose it was something about a fear in Mozart when juxtaposed with that glorious music I’d just heard… and which was silenced by Salieri like a physical attack. I suppose Salieri saw Mozart as not only being the creator of sublime music, but as being granted this gift by God’s grace and so possessing the only thing Salieri had ever wanted and asked God for himself.  He remains blind wilfully or otherwise to the reality of Mozart’s suffering, but there it was, plain to see (so it seemed) to me.  And somehow so much was there in this look that I felt for the first time in this last performance.

Part of why I wanted to share that moment was to remember it, because already more than a week has gone and memories fade.  Even now, how clearly is this what I remember and how much is what I think I remember?  Also I wanted to convey why I can’t properly write about The National Theatre’s Amadeus: When you see a play lots, you become too close to it.  You notice tiny details which you read into because of your own experiences as well as seeing intent on stage.  A great play always has more to give, but I think there is a truth to the response you have the first time you experience a play and it is impossible now to recount my first experience.  I watched too many times.  Yet, now it is over, I cannot let Amadeus go.  It feels like a phantom limb.  I am yearning, aching, lovesick for it.  I want to leave something in words to remember forever what it has been to me.

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Amadeus itself meant a lot to me as I used to adore and watch the film over and over from when I was a young child to when I was doing my GCSE’s when I’d watch it instead of revising, telling myself “Well, it’s related!” well aware and without a care for my self-deception.  Then, Mozart’s Requiem was in my actual music exam and I felt like Mozart himself had helped me out in some ghost-like magical manner.  I don’t believe in God, but I’m perfectly happy to believe in the spirit of Mozart helping little old me out in my school exams.  I always remember the feeling when Mozart played in the exam.  Now, I’ve experienced it, the stage version far surpasses the film for me, but while I was really excited when I heard the National would be staging Amadeus, when I arrived to see it for the first time, I had some trepidation too.  I’d not watched the film recently, but I’d seen it so many times, film and performances in it were seared upon my consciousness which I think if anything would make it harder for this version to impress me?  Therefore, what a joy it has been to experience a story which has been so dear to me since I was little, brought to life in such a new, immediate and perfect way.  And this is what Amadeus has over any other play I can imagine ever being written and put on.  What other play could not only get to me so much due to what it is, but could the story have meant a great deal to me as long as I remember?  Yet as well as this, Amadeus on stage has provided and revealed things to me anew and beyond all that meant so much to me already, since I was a child.

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Alright, here goes the (even more) awkward bit where I try to praise everyone without sounding like an idiot (too late!)  Amadeus had absolute powerhouse performances.  Lucian Msamati’s Salieri grinds at your soul with a performance of passion, pain, cruelty, beauty and hubris.  Lucian is fearless and holds the play, barely leaving the stage in three hours.  As the audience listen to Mozart’s music, performed live and feel it utterly, so Salieri listens.  You see Lucian’s Salieri feel the music, just as you do.  You hear and experience him articulate precisely your own experience:  his desire, his agony, his yearning, his pain are also ours.  You could also watch Lucian at any time when Salieri is not the focus of the drama.  His reactions and disgust at the infantile Mozart as he voyeuristically listens from hiding places is just one example.  I have loved the shifts in his nature – how one moment he lets slip the true adoration he has for Mozart and his music and the sensitivity of Salieri’s soul, the next he is stake-your-own-heart cruelty.  Love and hatred are definitely closely entwined in Lucian’s Salieri.  The Olivier stage is vast, yet close to the audience and it holds wondrous possibility for connection. This is Salieri’s story, and if you happen to be near the front, he sometimes tells a fragment of it directly to you.  It is such a special thing to experience yourself and to see happen to others: as though you have been gifted a tiny bit of the play, especially for you.

Salieri is intent on destroying sublime art and there is no excusing it.  That he recognises the extent of Mozart’s genius only makes it worse.  It’s made even more awful as Mozart is in many respects innocent, and Salieri not only destroys Mozart, but does so while making Mozart believe he is his final friend, even a kind of Father figure when Mozart loses his own Father.  So, you while you can certainly empathise for Salieri and his plight, you feel no pity him at all – what he does is inexcusably cruel and unforgivable… until the very end of the play, when it is too late to pity him.  Just as Salieri cannot pity Mozart until too late.  Thank you Lucian.

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For me, Adam Gillen’s Mozart was the utter astonishment of Amadeus though.  He’s punk rock anarchy. A whirligig of physical energy.  A revolutionary and a rebel, both utterly assured of the truth of his own talent, yet needy as a child for the reassurance and acceptance of his Father.  He’s a toddler or teen: spinning and whirring, naughty and innocent, knowing then trusting.  He’s all instinct and he understands the workings of the important things in life, with nothing to reign it in.  He’s frustrated to exist in a world where he is ahead of his time so others cannot yet recognise what he himself knows to be true about his work.  And much as Mozart gets what life is without needing all those words, he’s out of depth in social and practical contexts: always a bit (a LOT) too much for anyone.  Saying too much, doing too much, being too much and resultantly offending those he needs on his side from every angle from The Emperor to his own wife.  It’s a big performance: physical and out there, yet also clearly considered and specific.  Mozart has the conflicting and unrestrained qualities of a child and the instincts and sensitivity of an adult.  It’s no surprise that this Mozart’s music should be sublime, when it comes from someone so spiritually free.  Yet in the first half of the play, while I have to admit, I did not find Mozart annoying personally (for me, from the start there’s too much sweetness there for Mozart to not be touching right from the beginning), I know others did and you do see precisely why Salieri would be irritated and I can see why some audience members might concur.

The first half of Amadeus is mainly entertaining and comedic.  Of course there’s seriousness in there and the music breaks your heart, but it’s spectacular and fun overall.  Then, after the interval Adam’s Mozart gradually more fully lets you in to somewhere deeper.  I’m not sure how the performance opens up to become so completely heartbreaking such that you come to really detest Salieri for what he’s doing, but alongside the large scale, the performance allows a more intimate connection too with the audience.  And I think this shifts gear rather suddenly: when Mozart’s Father dies.  In a breath, Mozart turns from irreverent joker to heartbroken orphan.  His security is ripped away and he becomes fragile and in need of support.  He’s still the same Mozart: it isn’t like a suddenly different man, but now we see more obviously the vulnerability in Mozart which was always there and it begins to seem as though the music within him is almost too much to contain.  Where in the first half of the play, Mozart was full of childish, puerile energy, bouncing off the walls and off all of the people in Court, now it beings to feel as though this is almost this vast music inside of him which can’t be contained within the shell of a mere man.  I spoke before of how I began to feel as though the music were controlling Mozart rather than he it from this point.  And in a few, yet poignant moments throughout the whole play you also begin to understand fragments of the sensitivity and kind of mind that can create this art.  Mozart does not possess Salieri’s verbal eloquence, but he does speak the occasional deep and heartfelt truths about music and life, even if no-one really listens.  Adam is brilliant both at the largest and smallest scales and for me his performance deepens the play.  Mozart possesses a childlike innocence and fragility, at odds with Salieri’s cunning so it is therefore not only the destruction of a man who creates such sublime music which rips through your heart, but the destruction of a soul essentially pure and tender, as his music is.

I loved so many touches in Adam’s performance.  Mozart’s wit and humour, his unawareness, Mozart’s punk bravura at the piano; the fact that he makes it work that Mozart is simultaneously grown up, in true love with his wife, yet also childlike not only in comedy and crudeness, but in an innocence and sweetness.  I love how Mozart conducts music and just as you could spend a whole night watching Salieri listening to Mozart’s music and reacting to those moments he is observing, you could spend forever watching Mozart conduct.  Adam doesn’t so much conduct how Mozart might have, but instead gives his conducting the utter spirit of Mozart.  His performance is both lightness and intensity, comedy and pathos and I cannot imagine it is an easy role to get right mainly because it’s painted so out there by Peter Shaffer, but also because despite that this is a fictional story, you are still playing actual Mozart!

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I say I love theatre, but there aren’t a vast swathes of performances that blow me away entirely and this performance certainly did it.   It’s even more rare that I’d try to enter the cheese churn (is it called a cheese churn that makes cheese?!) of writing like this about it.  But thank you so much Adam.  Through Lucian Msamati’s commanding Salieri we connect to our own experiences, through Mozart’s music we feel his genius and through Adam’s performance we feel Mozart’s complex humanity and Mozart becomes way more than the genius of his music.  And when Lucian and Adam are acting together on stage it really is glorious.  Just spellbinding and joyous to be able to sit there and watch this craft.

The rest of the cast are brilliant too.  I particularly enjoyed that the few roles who were played by new people when Amadeus returned to the stage were all performed (I thought) in somewhat of a different way to how they had been in the first run.  Yet they all worked wonderfully in both versions.  Can I say that I once dreamed of Hugh Sachs’ pompous Count Orsini-Rosenberg judging me.  Or maybe it was just Mr Sachs himself?!  His character was so judgy that I can’t help feel it directed at me too!  I loved both Emperor Joseph II’s and Constanzes.  And that live music.  How has Amadeus ever been staged without live music?!  I simply cannot envision it.  There was not a single performance of Amadeus I saw where I was not deeply moved at some point by the music itself on stage, and the brilliant singer-actors: often hilarious, always excellent!  Thank you all, and a special thank you from me to the lead oboist – Anna Belei from the programme I think: you got me good every time, to the funny and fabulous Matthew Hargreaves (I think I have the right person there?!) and the magnificent Fleur de Bray.

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I shed many a tear over Amadeus.  After the final day I discovered I’d bitten the inside of my cheeks to shreds, trying to stop myself crying, which I’d not even realised I’d been doing.  But I know the first time I saw the play on stage I spent the majority of the second half sobbing snotty tears so hard I felt I ought to apologise to my seat-neighbours and I found the final scenes between Mozart and Salieri so difficult to watch I could barely bear it and could hardly see the stage through my tears.  It could and did still make me sob at the end of the run.  And this is bearing in mind, I obviously wasn’t surprised by the actual story even on first watch as I did already know it well. Still the play had this power.  Even a year and a half after I first watched it could make me sob.

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What would be the point of plays if you could feel what they were from anything I might say?  I give you fragments here because it is all I have.  One of my favourite moments in Amadeus is The Magic Flute section.  What encapsulate’s Mozart’s spirit and the spirit of this production more than The Magic Flute?  It’s utterly beautiful and entirely magical, just like this production.  It’s reverent, yet modern.  Everyone is on stage and I’m pretty sure never has a fluorescent pink zebra with a recorder been so oddly moving.  Then, when Mozart transforms his dead Father through his music from an accusing, judging ghost to be feared into a forgiving, loving benefactor – The High Priest, and as such does the epitome of turning life into beautiful art, the music and actors themselves bestow the absolute beauty of what art can express, be and convey upon us.  Every time, during this section of the production I found myself smiling with joy and crying simultaneously.  The best feeling.

After loving Amadeus so much during the first run of the play I read the play text with a friend and was surprised to discover that it doesn’t break your heart to just read it.  Amadeus is a work that comes to life on stage in a way the words on a page alone cannot.  I don’t know what witchery it is, but it seemed that way to me when I read it.  Is all of this magic there, hidden on the page, just waiting for the stage?  How much comes from Director Michael Longhurst, the actors, the musicians, everyone else involved in design and creation of the play?  Who knows.  Not me.  I don’t know how it works, but I do know it is magical.  I wish Peter Shaffer could have seen the play.  I’m sorry for writing about it.  There’s something distasteful and sad about writing about art.  Art is to feel and you don’t need words for that, but I just want to remember.

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If I were Empress, I’d have Amadeus gracing the stage eternally.  It is the best and worst of humanity.  And for a little girl who had loved and felt music her whole life (I begged my Mum to take me to the dancing school at the end of my road before I was 3 and still remember the images the music the pianist played would conjure up for me in my mind at that age) Amadeus conveys true love of music.  Maybe I loved it so much as a child because it was the first thing to put into actual words what music had always meant to me?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Amadeus is a play about genius, yet is for every person who is not-Mozart, so for everyone.  And what better example of genius is there?  What music has purer beauty and emotion than Mozart’s?  And what play has spoken to me more purely than this?

Thank you SO, Amadeus.  I am missing you so much.  A beauty of theatre is in its transient nature, but I’d have loved to be able to experience this one forever.  But it’ll stay with me forever.  I even keep thinking about times walking away after a show, looking back at the National Theatre lit up, or standing by the river for a bit watching the water, just keeping the feeling of the show there before the evening had to end.  I couldn’t really have conceived it would end then.  I sing in a daft little choir and we sang Mozart’s Requiem during the run of this play.  This whole Spring has really taken me to some weird Mozartian place.  I love all kinds of music, but had it not been for this play, quite likely I wouldn’t be playing a Mozart piano sonatas CD in the car right now, so it hasn’t just been the experience of the play itself: it’s sort of seeped into all of my life in some way: music like water, filling the cracks in me.  I hope many people involved in the making of theatre saw this production of Amadeus and that perhaps it may inspire more shows involving music (and all art forms) in so integrated and wonderful a way.  I hope Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen have the most spectacularly fulfilling careers ahead of them, as they deserve.

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Amadeus has been absolutely exquisite and there’s no way I can really describe how it’s felt for me to simply be able to sit and watch this magnificent show.  I feel really sad that I’ll never get to feel the way it made me feel again.  Thank you to everyone involved.  And Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen, you are both utter wonder.  I’m going to have to stop talking about Amadeus as I haven’t been able to shut up about it since the play ended and this is so many words, whoops!  But my heart is so full or love and sadness that I’ll never get to experience this on stage again.  I love Amadeus so much that I’m sorry for how much it was to me, because I think I loved it too much.  I want to hold on to it.  I really do hate endings.  However, I am thankful to you Amadeus and to everyone who made you happen.  I am thankful like the big sun of the set and every time I am in the Olivier auditorium in the future, I’ll think upon this production.  No pressure, productions of the future… if any of you are mediocrities, Salieri will absolve you. xxxxx

Photos by Marc Brenner: www.marcbrenner.co.uk

I can’t imagine anyone read, but though it is too late now to catch Amadeus on stage, you can still view it at the National Theatre Archive should you wish. xxx

PS I was totally not going to post this yet.  I was going to try to shorten all these daft thoughts down, but it seems to me if I don’t just post it all I’ll do is add another pointless thousand words, when so many folk have more poignantly got to the heart of Amadeus in 1/10th of this drivel!  Oh well, sorry! And I have feared a hundred thousand things, none of which I shall actually say here, but anyway – there it is! xxx

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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.

Let’s talk about Unreachable: the most hilarious play I think I have ever seen… and a play which also left me deeply unsettled about what it means (or what it doesn’t mean!) to love, create and feel from art in a way that I can’t shake.

Unreachable is so alive.  I think that is why it was so utterly hilarious.   I know it was devised in the rehearsal room and a short time before opening it quite simply did not exist!  Is that why it had such life to it?  I couldn’t pretend to know.  Is any of it improvised on stage?  If so, how much?  I’d be really curious to hear from anyone who did see it more than once – did it change at all from night to night?  All I do know is that this had a spark to it in a different way to that which I have experienced in a play before, which really worked as far as humour goes.  The entire audience were doing the kind of uncontrollable laughter you just can’t prevent erupting, loudly.  I’m not proud of admitting I fear I can be a bit of a repressed person perhaps, but I couldn’t keep my guffaws inside me.  Even the cast seemed amused at numerous moments (were they actually amused or acting this? Who knows?!)  But also, the next morning, this play was still niggling away at me in an unsettling manner. And it still is a niggle inside me, bothering me.  Worth a little write about, I thought.

To get boring and literal for a moment, the play follows a film Director (Maxim, Matt Smith) & accompanying important folk working on said film as he attempts to follow up a Palme d’Or win he doesn’t feel he deserves, yet which he is equally certain is 100% his prize, not anyone else’s involved in the film!  I paraphrase as it has been a week and I don’t recall precisely, but at one point, Maxim laments “I know I must have made these films as my name is in the credits, but I don’t remember doing so. And I feel like if I did make films, these wouldn’t be at all the kind I’d create.”

So the play is about all of these… pretty repulsive in most aspects, albeit rather fascinating, self-centred, utterly hilarious people.  However, while all of these people work in a creative industry, I’d say they are all also in their ways, complete pragmatists.  And that is how the creative process is portrayed.  Practical.  Crazed, crazy, but practical.  Special mention to Jonjo O’Neill’s “The Brute”(/”The Moth” 😉 hee) – a terrifying caricature of a character who is actually the person in the play who ultimately shows more softness than anyone else too.

But Maxim, well, he’s searching for the (unreachable) light: you know the thing: magic hour perfection.  “The light” represents the epitome of artistic expression whatever the medium: it is that moment in a piece of music when you just feel everything & nothing & like that moment of music is the heart of what it is to be alive.  Anyone who knows me would know I feel that!  (As a teenager I once tried to play my best friend this bit of a Mahler Symphony at 4am.  It is just so perfect and heartbreaking it is almost unbearable.  I wanted to share the feeling of it as though I could transmit how it made me feel into others.  She fell asleep.)  So, “the light” is any transcendent moment in art.  A moment that you just feel deep within.  Those times when really get to you and it is beyond complete explanation – you just feel it.  I know my life is completely the strive for such unreachable moments, be they in art, in nature – wherever you can find them!

Unreachable was such comedy, I wondered if the play would even address “the light.”  But it did, just in the final scene.  And that is what unsettled me: because given what had just happened in the play, to go here right now was utterly horrific.  Maxim marvels in this beauty.  And so did I.  Yet at the same time it accentuated how “the light” is external to actual experience and importance.  And yet, this moment truly was beautiful… And transcendent!  And I did feel it just for what it was: unconnected yet deep rooted beauty.

I felt truly horrific and like a bad human for feeling this transcendence of the beauty of the stage (there is even a fox!) and awful that I don’t have that many real people in my life I see very often and I genuinely do reach out for those unreachable (but possible to feel fleetingly) moments of light, in art, in nature as though they are what matters in life.  Completely honestly, they are what matters to me.  I actually cannot remember ever feeling anything remotely close to that “light” feeling in mundane, day to day real life… or, more worryingly… from another person…

And… I don’t know…. Does it make me an awful human?!   It made me feel like maybe I don’t care enough about other people.  I hope it isn’t true, but that awful, unsettling fear: what is my life?!

The next day I still found confetti in my pockets.  Accentuating how it was all just a creation.  Yet, we all also know that “the light” truly is transcendent.  I do not know what to think about it.

In the end, does art matter at all?  Is it all really mere artifice?  This sheer romp of jollity for me said something more disturbing than some plays meant to plumb the depths of darkness delve into…

I saw the performance of Unreachable on Friday 29th July.  It finishes this Saturday, 6th August.  I recommend nabbing a ticket for the last few shows if you’re in London and if there are any left.  It is rather a curious play, but certainly one I won’t ever forget.  And if nothing else, if you don’t laugh I shall eat my toes!

I am editing this review to add youtube videos from The Royal Court.  Though they’re very different to the play, they certainly get at “THE LIGHT!!!”  Check out the Unreachable website here: http://unreachabletheplay.com/

PS A prop fell on my shoulder (or, was thrown.) Now it is mine!


 

 

 

 

What a beautiful, sorrowful play The Dazzle is.  The beauty and heartbreak of fraternal love.  I saw the penultimate performance so sadly the run at the evocative Found111 is now over, but if you notice this play being shown I’d urge you to go along as fabulous as were both acting and venue, what a beautiful creation I found the play itself.  It made me truly sob.  And not many plays have done that.

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The glorious thing about small venues is you can see every nuance of the actors and those intimate connections between characters really made this play for me.  The space made me feel as though I were in the Collyer brother’s living room.  I could smell the old books, close by on shelves and propping up the chaise longue (I was very lucky with the seat I managed to nab, admittedly!  The actors were on occasion so close I felt like I shouldn’t look at them!)  You can see the tears in characters’ eyes: not only in those most emotional scenes, but when they speak of or feel something smaller, yet which moves them deeply (or even when they’re moved by their own arguable over-philosophising..)  The glorious thing about great acting in a tiny space such as this is that there is nothing that the characters feel that isn’t transported directly into you.  A very special thing indeed.

I guess I can’t talk about the play without describing some of it.  There are but three characters: the Collyer brothers: Langley, an eccentric concert pianist (Andrew Scott), his brother Homer (David Dawson) who does Langley’s accounts… and pretty much everything else for him, and a rich yet damaged heiress who enters their lives as she falls in love with the artist, Langley (and/or as she is seeking a means of escape from her own troubled life), Milly Ashmore (Joanna Vanderham).  The play takes these three characters who are all simultaneously completely ordinary (not that they would like to think it!) and utterly extraordinary then shows us how they are connected and entwined with each other and slowly reveals the tragedy of their lives.

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Although this is really the brothers’ story it would not be the same without Milly’s presence, due to what she sees in the brothers, what she brings out in them and how they are with her.  Joanna Vanderham is poised, eloquent and articulate.  Milly seems to understand the brothers more than they are able to understand each other or even moreso, themselves.  By the second half of the play she is that tantalizing possibility we want to hold on to – that this won’t end how we know it must.  The tragic Milly becomes old and broken in spirit and physicality, yet she is still the same person in her nature.  She is still the one who sees what the men do not.

But the true story here is between the Collyer brothers.  Langley is a concert pianist and he is eccentric to the extent that he is incapable of functioning without the help of others, Langley is obsessive about the perfection of his (and all) music at the start of the play.  By the end he can lose a day to the contemplation of a pine needle and ultimately his fixation on the minutiae in life is the downfall of his career as a pianist.  Langley poeticises for aeons upon the dazzling complexities of a broken lacrosse stick like it is a long-lost friend, but he doesn’t notice let alone think of other people.  Am I alone in finding something unknowable about Andrew Scott often as an actor?  As though he can create some chasm within himself you can’t see into..?  I can imagine in other hands Langley being a fragile figure, but he is stranger, stronger and more complex than this here.  Andrew’s voice keens and Langley is one moment petulant, even callous and cruel, the next an innocent in a world that is too much for him.

Homer’s destiny was always to be to care for the brother who was special, gifted, but never would have been able to cope alone.  Homer always knew this is what his life would be and he is caught between the natural desperate desire to be his own person and his complete love for his brother.  Homer is on the surface a practical man, but he can barely conceal a gaping need inside stemming from the fact that he has never really had his own life.  His need to prove he has at least had meaningful experiences, that he has meaning of his own is like an ache he can’t contain.  Yet even without his Mother having informed Homer of his place in life, you feel his deep love for Langley would have meant he’d be in just this same place.  Homer is fractious and frustrated one moment, railing at his brother, then witty and optimistic the next.  Homer’s true tragedy is this knowledge of what his life will never be.  He wants to escape this inevitability, but the deep love he has for his brother holds him where he is and at the same time it is truly all he has.

David Dawson is utterly heartbreaking because underneath everything else that is going on for Homer, David conveys these two opposing desires of Homer’s – to protect the brother he loves more than anything and this resigned sorrow and indeed fear which he tries to bury, deny or let nobody see – that this is all his life is, all he is.  I would say these two desires were equal, but no matter the outburst he may have, Homer would only ever act on the desire that is to care for his brother.  And in fact we hear Homer did once try to begin his own life, but quickly he was drawn back to Langley.  Was it only that Langley needed him?  Or did Homer need Langley too?  Whatever the case, by the end of the play it is clear that not even his self really matters to Homer anymore.  And at just the same time we truly discover that Homer is all that matters to Langley too… and there we have the broken heart of the play.

Fraternal love.  Even though they argue and bicker incessantly, Homer’s love for Langley is clear beneath his every action.  His love is unconditional although simultaneously he resents Langley and his situation.  But the only thing Homer needs to live with this life is to know his brother appreciates him and returns this love.  But Langley is unable to say or express this.  The only concession from Langley truly (until the end of the play at least, and even then only the audience, not Homer get to witness this from Langley) is via gesture.  Near the start of the play, Langley, in a throw away manner ruffles Homer’s hair or touches his face or something (I forget precisely!  I only saw it once) and Homer leans into it or closes his eyes as though this is everything.  Later (again, I forget why!) the brothers are holding hands and Langley caresses Homer’s fingers.  The brothers are both brutal and tender with one another.  A climax of the play hinges on Langley’s unobservancy (I invented a word!  Woohoo!) of his brother, and Langley’s whole nature is that he doesn’t and can’t connect and express in this way.  But as I say, by the end of the play, at last we feel that Homer is everything to Langley too.

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This isn’t a play about characters who had infinite potential for whom everything goes wrong.  And I would say that despite extraordinary characteristics you could cite that all of these people are essentially pretty ordinary.  Their lives were always cast to be this way and their ultimate tragedy was inevitable from the beginning.  As the junk builds in their little room and it becomes a prison for Homer; as Langley’s music slows down to a tempo whereupon it leaves him entirely; as Milly’s poise is stripped away via one brutality after another to reveal the deep harm she’s always suffered.. as the junk builds it takes away the space in their room and correspondingly their lives become smaller and their demise becomes ever more inevitable and oh so terribly terribly sad that I was shaking with snotty sobs and trying desperately to not do loud crying by the end.

All this makes the play seem very sad indeed, but in fact there is a great deal of humour in The Dazzle.  It is witty, playful, inventive and clever.  It is often funny… but it is just very sad by the time you make it to the end.  There are enough facets to all of the characters that I can imagine everyone in a room full of people finding different things that they recognise in themselves and in others they know from each character.  And while Homer’s is the tragedy that starts gradually pulling at a thread in your heart from the outset and tears you apart by the end, all of the characters suffer utter tragedy.

“Look at the fire.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it took the whole room?  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it spread and spread and took us all?” Homer says at one point.  But for these souls life simply makes their already limited worlds smaller and smaller.  You get a tantalizing glimpse that a future could be possible for these three near the end.  Then, like a change in the wind, all possibility is over.  Each other was all these brothers ever really had.

I felt this play like fire though; the underlying emotion growing slowly from a tiny flame into something incandescent, filling the imagined lives of these people with almost unbearable poignancy and heartache.

Dazzling.

Photographs: Marc Brenner

[I saw the matinee performance on 30th January 2016.  I did only see this once so I could probably have written hippo, hippo, hippo and it would mean as much as this.  But it is 24 hours later and I can’t stop thinking about it, so…]

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!

I wish it were more recently that I’d read 1984 or watched the film in order to write what I feel about the play in comparison, but ho hum, it isn’t.

Anyway, I thought this production was really effective and the best thing about it was the way it managed to really make me feel a part of it in the scariest kind of a way. It is hard to explain, but it sort of makes you, as an audience member feel as though you kind of are Winston. It is unsettling, disorientating, confusing, disturbing… and, as Winston comes to understand, so do you. Then, it is chilling.

I found the play slightly less bleak than novel and film (as I recall them) which I say as a positive really and at the same time, it could hardly be more bleak, could it!?!

The play uses effects such as throwing the audience into complete darkness, then flashing bright lights and woomphy sounds at you, which sort of makes you wonder whether it is you who is in room 101! It also uses video screens as well as the actors on stage to great effect, which again adds to the unsettling experience… And adds a voyeuristic aspect, with you watching as do all the meanies (wow, I’ve tried to write too many things about plays and now I am talking about the baddies like I’m 5 when I’d watch a film and my Dad would point out the baddies and the goodies. RAH!) As does the groundhog-day repetition, with it’s alterations almost serving like doublethink in action (hard for me to describe!) always also accentuating things that are going to become very relevant by the end.

There’s quite a lot of torture, which is really wah-inducingly hard to watch! Poor actor-playing-Winston, having to get tortured for a significant time every performance!! By the time rats were mentioned, I noticed quite a bit of squirming in the audience and I felt like the play had gotten the audience into a sufficient state that people wondered whether they might just release live rats upon us!! 😉

So, overall, the play takes its time to get to the ultimate point, but when it gets there it does so powerfully, and on the way it messes a little bit with your mind. Powerful, chilling, wibbly stuff.

Everyman certainly couldn’t be deemed dull. It is a visual spectacle, with video screens the height of the massive Olivier stage, some entry from Everyman himself and highly choreographed ensemble pieces. It also has a cast full of personality and Chiwetel Ejiofor giving so much that he’s bathed in sweat after a few minutes.

For me though, while there is a lot to enjoy about the play, overall it didn’t work for me. Basically it is a play about how we shouldn’t be so materialistic and self-centered, and yet I found it itself to be focussed on the material and, ultimately, kind of shallow.  Dare I say it, a tad style over substance…

I don’t know whether it is just that this is an old play which I am not sure totally translates to this day and age on the most important level – the level of what it is actually about. We live in an age where many of us are not religious, so to have a play which suggests there is benefit in following God’s ideals… does it really work? I just didn’t feel it.  Yes, it is true, we are all too self centred, but what did this play really say about that?  I mean, if it said something to you if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear as I’d like to like it more.

Surely every man (y’see what I did there!) will relate to qualities the self-centered, materialistic Everyman possesses. I know I did. After all, I just spent several days watching plays. How out-for-myself is that. But on the same note, maybe even the creation of a play, acting in it and putting on an expensive production like this is the opposite of altruism…  As I see it though, death comes to us all whether we were awful or wondrous in life… and also, while I am sure everyone watching will relate to and share negative aspects of Everyman, I would hope most people are not all one thing and that most people are actually a combination of good and bad.  I don’t know.  Real life is not so simple.

There are a lot of quirky characters in the play and they are a great deal of fun. In particular God and Death are just fabulously entertaining. I could have watched the guy playing Death for two hours alone: he seems like he’s having so much fun. And some of the set pieces with the whole ensemble look fabulous. But when you dig beneath all the show and the external, what is the play really saying? It didn’t make me feel much. It didn’t alter how I thought… I just found it a little bit hollow…  It didn’t give me enough to think about.

Oh yeah, at one point one of the ensemble donned a wig and then reminded me so much of Richard Ayoade.  Then a big turbine-fan thing created a tsunami and I didn’t see what happened but suddenly there was Richard-Ayoade-alike in his underpants.  And I was thinking “What is going on?!”  Ahem… anyway…  Surely I was not the only person who thought this watching?  Was I the only person???

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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.

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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.

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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/

If I were to tell you I saw a play all about football and then I said I saw a play full of tenderness, delicate emotion, passion and life you may think I was talking about two different plays. But no, The Red Lion is simultaneously completely about football and at the same time not about it at all.

It is set in a dilapidated old changing room and contains just three men of differing ages, points in their life and personalities. But, for all of these men, football and indeed this shabby old room is their world.

I was moved by this play. In a world where much art is about Romantic love and suggests that this is the axis upon which the world turns and the thing that matters above all else, The Red Lion is a quieter affair, about small yet deeply held passions. You could say it is a work about what it is to be a man, but I think it is a play about what it is to be human: what our passions mean to us and what they are to our life. This is a play about love in a non-Romantic sense. And I assume, most people going to the theatre have at least one passion, thus can relate?

The three leads in the play are all great. There is comedy, warmth and the actors are all playing flawed characters who contain both light and dark.  Daniel Mays gets the meanest character to play: energetic, jumpy, self-serving, yet still in moments bringing something beyond selfish drives to this man. Calvin Demba who I haven’t seen before does some lovely work, every action and reaction nuanced. But if it belongs to anyone, The Red Lion belongs to Peter Wight, for his character is the heart and soul of the play and because you’re feeling this so much it makes the end all the more powerful.

The play has one of those satisfying endings as well – you know the kind where you are allowed to understand a little before it happens what is going to happen, so you feel the tension and are willing it to not end the way you’ve already seen it is going to.

The Red Lion is funny at times, but most of all, beneath its masculine surface lies a big beating heart that celebrates the deep-felt passion of these ordinary, flawed men in their small, ordinary lives and as such elevates something beautiful we all possess and makes it art.

As a postscript really because it is my own personal experience, I know nothing about football, but my Dad who is no longer with us was a massive Liverpool supporter and so several times during the play I thought of him. Sometimes in relation to the characters or their words, sometimes just wondering what he might have thought of this play. I don’t think he ever saw a play in his life. And so I did feel quite a lot of emotion while watching and some of it was due to my own experiences, not only the play itself. Yet I think it was a lovely and poignant in and of itself even without any similar personal feelings..?

The Red Lion run ’til 30th September on selected dates if you’d like to see for yourself.  Did you see it?  What did you think?  I realise I didn’t write a thing about the plot or football aspect in this, but.. oh well!?!

“Here is this miraculous world you live in and this is what you’ve done to it.” (said The Ruling Class… in my imagination… er…)

If I write about something in the first place, you know I’ve adored it enough that I couldn’t help myself spewing – as though I believe my inarticulate words could somehow transmit directly how I felt into you. Of course, they can’t. So this is doomed to failure before it has even begun, and worse: is boring too as I ramble on as I think one thing then another and then we’re in quicksand (if words were quicksand I’m definitely in it right now! Help!) But know that only love would make me write about this at all! And, ultimately, I suppose I write this for me, to remember this feeling.

A lot has been said about Mr McAvoy in this play and he is oh my goodness amazing in a way I was utterly unprepared for and which is just impossible to get over. Is he made for the stage? That’s how I felt, watching him! Nor are there words to really describe what he manages to create. I feel like he’s ripping out a part of himself and giving it to the audience/leaving it on the stage. Yet he’s doing that over and over again each night, or even twice a day! I’ve no idea how he finds either the emotional or physical energy. It feels to me somehow something different/more than a performance, though I’ve no idea what I mean!? I wanted to talk about the play itself though, because I feel part of the reason McAvoy is able to give this performance which is the most astounding little ‘ole me has seen on a stage is that this is a role dreams are made of in a great play which has far more to it than mere wit and a dash through genres.

So, all it took were Peter Barnes’ words and ideas in this play to make me fall a little bit in love with this man, who is no longer with us and about whom I know absolutely nothing else about. Why do I love The Ruling Class so? Well, it is riotous, laugh out loud funny, deliciously surreal, dark, pertinent and terrifying… and by the end it is ultimately disturbing and terribly, heartbreakingly sad… But that just describes it, explaining nothing… so… get to the point!

I love The Ruling Class because it does what great art has the capacity to: it says something true. I guess what I feel the play says over all is sort of: “Here is the world you were given: a world full of an infinity of miracles, a world full of love, joy – a place that could be your idea of Heaven made literal… and… by the end… this is what you have done with it. You, humans – you there in the audience – those there in society… you have made this world corrupted, polluted, damaged, merciless and cruel.” (If the play could talk like I just made it I think it would be more eloquent in explaining this though!) Yes The Ruling Class is a riot, yes it gets sinister, but I love most that by the end the play itself is merciless. It isn’t just an attack on The Ruling Class… it is an attack on YOU! In the best kind of a way: the kind of way that says – this is not how things should be! Humans made it so, so what are you going to do about it now? It is angry and I feel its anger and believe it and, well, who could argue? Just look around… And this is why I love Peter Barnes.

How does the play achieve this? I don’t know really (fail!) but I think that more than being about things like politics (Oh dear “things like politics!!?!” Now you know my level here, for shame!), mental health, class, it is about people and uses these themes to reflect what is wrong about the world in its entirety…. Did that make any sense? Rrrrr… I think the play challenges our perceptions or perhaps preconceptions of people in a general sense too, by showing how all its characters are more than mere products of their birth: they are shaped by what life has done unto them and how people and society have treated them. Then they’re judged by beliefs of others which too were formed by this cycle of oddity!

I want to say that the entire cast of the play are great and they all have touching moments. It seems daft to list and comment on everyone (though I would have loveliness to say about them all!) but just a few stand-out thoughts… That Kathryn Drysdale’s Grace has our full empathy and sympathy by the end of the play makes that ending resonate so; something tragic about Serena Evans’ character really stuck with me and I couldn’t shake the feeling; Forbes Masson is fabulous as his 543 wildly different characters, but as the electric Messiah, he really does full-on battle with James McAvoy and it is exhilarating to watch; Ron Cook who plays the most irredeemable character has so touching a moment near the end of the play you could cry for him… And to be a tad more specific about Mr McAvoy, in act 1 he is so charming that by the time he is called upon by the family to perform an actual miracle in order to prove his divinity you are willing J.C. with all your might to be able to make that miracle actually happen! In act one he is the most delightful, articulate, entertaining being you ever did see. Yet in act two I think McAvoy is far more impressive as he dredges the depths of Jack’s soul. Now Jack is calculating, dark, terrifying, knowingly despicable and no longer lovable at all, yet also very tragic and sad (but now not at all in a sympathetic way… more as a lament to what once was..? I’ll stop as I’m starting to tie myself in knots!)

I mentioned him in the title, but in fact I haven’t even mentioned him here and it’s probably partly my ignorance as I can’t say I can totally understand everything he has done for the play just from watching the finished wonder. But clearly Jamie Lloyd made the whole thing happen, thus huge credit his way. I’ve skim-read the play text and in so doing saw a number of subtle yet very important changes to the play itself: altering tiny bits that wouldn’t be right now in this time and shifting it to, well really to something better (I’m sure there was more than I noticed too)… but also, the play I read is just as wonderfully crazy and anarchic, but I feel like the play I saw has a little more warmth to it. Maybe it’s the difference between reading words and experiencing it, but I think it’s lovely that Jamie and the actors have brought warmth from the characters. And can I just say: there is a baby’s cry that heralds the interval and the way it is slowed down (signalling what will come in act two) is skin-crawly-shivery terrifying!! At least I found it so. Also, I love the flowers. That will mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t seen the play, but anyway! Did I say I might ramble?

I won’t forget this play. It’s the kind of play so wonderful it makes you want to see all of the plays! But all of the plays are not like this. To sum up: maybe we won’t all have the power to change the world and how society is (not that we shouldn’t try!) but even if the more personal message filers out for people, I think the play has something worthwhile to say as well as entertaining..? The message: treat people cruelly & there is a good chance they will grow to become cruel; care and love each other and just maybe people might grow not only to feel cared for and loved but to be able to care and love themselves..   Well, I think that’s a nice message this hilarious, crazy, scary and angry play expressed to me. And I think it is a message everyone could follow?

The Ruling Class runs until 11th April at http://trafalgartransformed.com/  If you’re seeing it in its last week-and-a-bit, I hope it gets you like it did me.