Translations – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Leonard Buckley in Translations

As Brian Friel’s pluralised title suggests, Translations is a play that holds multiple perspectives in constant tension, a play that examines the porousness of language and the way that it can hold entire cultures in miniature. Of course, all of the characters (who are mostly Irish) themselves speak in translated words of sorts. On stage, Irish is English, and English is also English, as we hear it. A hedge school in 1830s Donegal is translated onto the stage before us. The setting is not romanticised, but its characters are full of romance, richly drawn figures whose relationships are worn lightly while casting long shadows – performed in the Abbey Theatre’s fantastic new production by a wonderful cast.

The play is richly political, but political with a subtle small ‘p’. Caitríona McLaughlin’s production is engaged with the play’s contemporary significances, proving the play’s fundamental adaptability. First performed in Derry in 1980, the performance context is significantly different in present-day Dublin. Yet Friel’s words remain a potent comment on history and the present, forging an almost mythic tale out of the Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland and the chilling spectre of famine. Friel contends that this story, with all its particularity, could be as fundamental as the Greek myths so beloved of the plays older – though oddly child-like – characters Jimmy and Hugh. Time is only proving this contention to be all the truer.

Translations startlingly enduring timelessness is located not only in the ever-relevant political context of the United Kingdom’s relationship to Ireland, but perhaps in an essence even more fundamental. Famously, Friel claimed that it is ‘a play about language and only about language’, a statement that seems easy to counter until you see that everything else it is about (history, myth, culture, identity, love, and the relationships forged between people) is built from the blocks of language and communication. The underlying philosophy is almost Wittgensteinian; the world is shaped by, understood with, and even made from language. Thus, the act of translation can never be neutral, for it is in the language, Friel suggests, that cultures flourish. To lose the language is an ‘eviction’ of their culture and identity.

Andy Doherty and Ronan Leahy in Translations

At the heart of the play is Owen, the ambiguous prodigal son returning home at last, acting as a bridge between cultures. He is at once the successful and outgoing wunderkind, quietly resented by his brother Manus for having the life he could not, and deeply compromised by his affiliation with the British Army. He is slick and shiny, as played by Leonard Buckley, bubbling with energetic enthusiasm. Beneath this bravado, there is the powerful sense that his career has entailed a cost to his soul – one that also saps away at his British fellow mapmaker, Lieutenant Yolland. Their task is to Anglicise – or as the British see it, standardise – the sound and spelling of Irish place names, measuring the land partly to levy more accurate (presumably higher) taxation and to imprint British authority on yet another overseas country.

Some of Friel’s most brilliantly intelligent writing is located in the scenes where Owen translates between military leader Captain Lancey and the hedge school’s occupants. Lancey is a perfectly ridiculous symbol of British imperialism in his assumption that the Irish characters will understand him if he talks loudly and slowly enough. Eventually, Owen steps into translate, his fraught collaboration laid bare in his attempts to smooth diplomatic relations through creative translation. He obfuscates the military’s more dominating demands while trying to protect his people, censoring their harsher responses. Yet miscommunication, Friel suggests, is likely to lead to disaster. At the end of the play, Owen’s efforts are hopeless in preventing the levelling of Baile Beag and the surrounding area in a series of increasingly vicious reprisals. Owen seems to realise too late that, quite the opposite of protecting his family and community, he has inadvertently led the wolf to the door.

McLaughlin’s production is filled with perfectly chosen touches. In one exquisite moment, late in the play, Zara Devlin’s Maire tries to explain where Yolland lives and finds herself turning to an impromptu map. Typical of Friel, mapping can be a dangerous, militarised and politically oppressive, but also tender, embodying a quest for knowledge and understanding – to reach out beyond one’s own boundaries and borders. Unlike in the stage directions, in which Maire’s ‘finger traces out an outline map’ on the ground, McLaughlin has Maire build an improvised three-dimensional model from the detritus of the hedge school. Stools and buckets denote small Norfolk villages, and Maire even scrunches up the map Owen has been making to signify an English landmark – with a place name she has learned and remembered in its original language. This is a map that seeks to understand and learn, rather than alter, homogenise or impose external authority.

Zara Devlin and Ronan Leahy in Translations

Marty Rea is particularly compelling as a sometimes-ferocious, sometimes-gentle, heart-breaking Manus, a man whose life seems limited by others: the alcoholic father who fell across his cradle as an infant, leaving him with a lifelong limp; the brother who went on to brighter if not better things. He represents another way in which language can be weaponised as resistance; he refuses to speak English to Yolland, despite knowing it. Meanwhile, his beautifully ambiguous ache of a romance with Maire feels tenderly realistic. There is mutual affection, though both dream of a better life for each other and themselves. As the play develops, it is an inner flaw that comes to the fore however – his relative lack of ambition and unwillingness to stand up for himself against his father. It stymies the promise of happy, romantic resolution that the play’s first act offers. Manus does go on to find some of that ambition, but it is too late, when Maire has found someone else. All the while, Manus barely notices the affection Sarah, the woman who he is helping learn to speak, has for him – one of the play’s quiet tragedies, as Sarah stares at Manus, who stares at Maire, neither quite knowing how to express themselves.

In stark contrast, Yolland and Maire invent a breathtakingly beautiful love language of their own in the tender scene that opens the second half. Having been at a local dance together, elated by the atmosphere and each other’s company, they hazard a stumbling effort at a conversation, even though neither speaks the other’s language. Maire only has one sentence of English – the innuendo-laden ‘in Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypoll’ – and Yolland’s laughter at the words leads her to panic hilariously that she has been tricked, having been taught something dirty. Yolland tries to extend a linguistic hand out to Maire in return but finds he only knows the place names – names that he has been working to replace, to eradicate. Yet Yolland is entranced by their beauty, increasingly certain that he is ill-suited to a life working for the Army or British Empire. Instead, he wants to learn Irish and attempt to integrate, Aidan Moriarty capturing the intense earnestness of his conviction with a beautiful solemnity. As they talk, a miraculous synergy builds between the two of them. Their uncertain ‘What-what?’ and ‘Sorry-sorry’ dialogue transforms into a stunning concordance of purpose: ‘Don’t stop – I know what you’re saying.’ Another potential romantic ending seems possible as they kiss in the moonlight – if only it could last.

Brian Doherty in Translations

It is Yolland’s disappearance after the events of this scene that drives the final act of the play, a largely quiet, meditative conclusion, even as violence is meted out offstage. Jimmy’s rambling, romantic entreaties to Athene, the Greek goddess he considers to be the finest woman of all, have a desperate, somewhat apocalyptic feel, reminiscent almost of Beckett. The eerie sweet smell – a harbinger of famine that ‘dooms [them] all’ – hangs over the stage, inexorably wafting like the dry ice. What remains though, even as the sappers destroy their homes and the potatoes rot in the ground, is language. McLaughlin follows Friel’s suggestion to end on a slow fade to black, the concluding ellipsis fading into silence, as Hugh describes events from the Trojan War. The play ends with his stories still ongoing. The stories will endure. The rich poetry of Friel’s writing seems perfect evidence that the Irish voice has not and be silenced, albeit with one vast caveat; the play is written and performed in English.


Written by Brian Friel, Directed by Caitríona McLaughlin, Set Design by Joanna Parker, Costume Design by Catherine Fay, LX Design by Paul Keogan, Sound Design by Carl Kennedy, Movement Direction by Sue Mythen, Casting Direction by Sarah Jones, Voice Direction by Andrea Ainsworth, Assistant Direction by Laura Sheeran, Starring Leonard Buckley, Ruby Campbell, Zara Devlin, Andy Doherty, Brian Doherty, Ronan Leahy, Aidan Moriarty, Marty Rea, Suzie Seweify, Howard Teale
Reviewed 26th July 2022

Patriots – Almeida

Tom Hollander in Patriots

A gifted scientist, led by infinite ambition and limitless imagination, creates a monster which grows beyond his control. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of ambition, inquiry and overreach, has given us tropes that are now familiar. It provides a cautioning message to anyone who believes they can transcend human limitations – part-Prometheus, part-Icarus in its mythic warning. It also takes the fatal flaw which usually undoes a tragic protagonist and externalises it – an unwitting self-destruction.

This narrative shape is put to excellent use in Peter Morgan’s new historical drama, which dramatises the life of Boris Berezovsky (in this case, a gifted mathematician rather than experimental scientist) as the genius who is blind to the dangers of his own creation – until it is too late. Patriots largely operates as a biography of Berezovsky, from his early childhood (he was born in 1946) to death by suicide (in 2013). Yet by the second half, it becomes less the story of Berezovsky as the origin story of an even more significant figure: Vladimir Putin.

Tom Hollander, who seems subtly but significantly to improve everything he appears in, plays Berezovsky marvellously. He is frequently light and fun, leavening the play with delightful swings between razor-sharp focus and confidence, and bathetic notes of self-pity. His darkly vindictive side emerges on a hair trigger. Yet beneath this all, a pungent melancholy pervades his homesick Russian soul, when exiled from Russia by the very man he promoted. In flashback sequences, Hollander embodies the impishly arrogant child Boris, showing him gradually turning away from his childhood passion of mathematics and his determination to win a Nobel Prize: ‘They pay a million dollars’. (Asked what he would do with the money, he simply replies, ‘Gloat.’) Instead, Berezovsky becomes a titan of Russian commerce – one of the first big businessmen to operate there after the collapse of the Soviet Union, raring to go from the moment Gorbachev ‘permitted small-scale private enterprise.’ Berezovsky saw an opportunity and seized it, his luminous imagination envisioning the chain of events that would lead to Russia’s increasingly capitalistic economy and allowing him to prepare. He is obsessed by the infinite and limitless; ‘Ambition’, he says, as a child, ‘is the belief that the infinite is possible.’ Whether that works in practice, rather than just on paper, is another matter.

Jamael Westman and Yolanda Kettle in Patriots

Berezovsky repeatedly cites his degree in decision making mathematics – especially as leverage in business deals. He can tell them, with scientific confidence, that they are making a good or bad choice. Yet Morgan seeks to expose how complex calculations can go awry when mapped onto real, unknowable people. Morgan and director Rupert Goold withhold just enough from us that a chance encounter in Act One Scene Six crackles into life with sudden realisation and humorous surprise. Attentive viewers will already realise that the Deputy Mayor who Boris is unable to bribe is Vladimir Putin, but it is easy to miss his identity – particularly as Will Keen plays him with a powerful anti-charisma, at first, softly spoken, austere and seemingly banal. Held back as a sudden shock is the revelation that the ‘kid’ – in Boris’ words – who he is reluctantly meeting is Roman Abramovic, known for his regular press coverage as the former owner of Chelsea FC. Morgan stages their meeting as a deliberate jolt; ‘Roman Abramovich. Vladimir Putin,’ says Berezovsky in a mutual introduction which hammers home just how timely this drama will be. The bit players are soon to become protagonists in their own stories. Meanwhile, Berezovsky is unaware of the potent dramatic irony as we see his inevitable downfall in the mere presence of the apparent inferiors who will outgrow him.

Abramovic is played as magnificently bashful by the brilliant Luke Thallon, who shone recently in Camp Siegfried and After Life, as well as the Almeida’s original 2017 production of Albion (also directed by Goold). Like Putin, Abramovic is another Russian of immense geopolitical significance who Berezovsky appears to create. He acts as a ‘Krysha’ to Abramovic, an almost familial relationship, a form of business protection, support and sponsorship. The word literally means ‘roof’. In return, Berezovsky receives informal, undocumented payments – which amount to at least fifty percent of Abramovic’s profits. Morgan’s script states ‘thirty million dollars’ as the floor figure for his payment, but Goold cannily changes this to a percentage, demonstrating that this arrangement is ongoing and cannot easily be escaped.

At times, Boris carries his vast wealth and power lightly, yet he also dictates the rhythm of every conversation he is in with stunning authority. That is, until he doesn’t anymore. In a meeting with then-incipient oligarch Abramovic, Berezovsky insists on keeping jazz piano live in the background. ‘It soothes me’, he says, though it quietly irks his associate. Yet when Abramovic demands greater clarity in their financial relationship, Boris slams the piano lid shut – intimidatingly yelling at the pianist ‘SILENCE!! WHAT IS THIS IMBELIC TINKERING?! IT TORMENTS ME!!’ The message is clear: like the piano music itself, Boris can be a soothing presence, opening doors, providing a roof and making you rich, but he can also be a formidable tormentor. He will allow you to be rich, but your money is made only by his grace.

Yet this arrangement will be mirrored in Putin’s Russia, where oligarchs’ activities and interests are permitted at the leader’s behest. Will Keen completing the leading trio well, playing Russia’s future ruler as a bureaucratic presence, stiff and drained of life – albeit with an undeniably vigorous work ethic, whose power, once attained, cannot be contested. He stands in the shame-riddled shadow of his military service in East Germany (where, Boris claims, ‘they generally sent the desk jockeys, the altar boys, the softies’). Berezovsky’s claim that not being selected as a real ‘KGB man of action’ attests to him ‘as a human being’, but the remark is barbed; Morgan notes that, here, Putin looks ‘eviscerated’. Berezovsky becomes too accustomed to this power play, seeing Putin as intrinsically weak and relatively low-status – even has he elevates him higher and higher, forgetting the potential risks. When Berezovsky helps Putin to get installed as Prime Minister of Russia, he assumes that he has attained political office himself. Yet Putin is no puppet. When Boris Yeltsin – perhaps the only man in Russia Boris cannot control, but only influence – names Putin as his successor as President (on the final day of the 20th century), Putin’s power comes close to absolute.

Berezovsky watches on in horror as his power runs dry. Hollander perfectly captures Boris’ initial denial, falteringly trying to tell Putin what he must do, but there is now no need for Putin to listen. His terrorising shouts only worked when backed up with real financial and political power. The man who, in Morgan’s telling, Boris near-singlehandedly groomed for puppet governance inevitably turns on his creator – a modern Frankenstein’s monster, who forces Berezovsky into exile in London. Berezovsky’s obsession with the infinite, the mathematical concept that so fascinated him as a child and which now functions as his prevailing ideology, has led him to overlook his finite, dwindling authority. One miscalculation is all it takes to undo him and those around him – such as personal bodyguard Alexander Litvinenko, known to his friends as Sasha, who was notoriously assassinated in London in 2006.

Tom Hollander in Patriots

The play succeeds in exposing us to a story we might not otherwise know, or at least only know in part. The Almeida generally programmes shows late, allowing it to be more responsive than most theatres (both to world events and its high-calibre stars’ availability). Patriots was announced in May this year, and the play has inevitably existed long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet, while the Donmar Warehouse’s meditation of the ethics of war in Max Webster’s Henry V seemed grimly serendipitous in its coincidental programming, Patriots feels far more deliberately placed. Thus, it works as something of a documentary play, a form of almost-journalism that seeks to inform us on a subject we should know more about.

Yet, Morgan’s drama never feels too urgent in its focus, particularly compared to the last major play to tackle Putin on a London stage. Lucy Prebble’s 2019 play A Very Expensive Poison, based on Luke Harding’s book of the same name and staged at the Old Vic, examined a similar subject by focusing on the murder of Berezovsky’s bodyguard, Alexander Litvinenko, who tried to raise the issue of FSB corruption with its then-leader, Putin. Prebble tackles Russia as a sprawling and rich culture, rather than Morgan’s simpler dichotomy of eastern, Siberian wastes and the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, where political power is concentrated. While Morgan translates history to the stage with poise and wit, Patriots does not share Prebble’s ambition and flair. A Very Expensive Poison not only documents the story of Alexander Litvinenko, but it also searches for theatrical and real-world justice – honouring both his memory and the ongoing fight for the legal inquiry which his widow Marina Litvinenko lobbied for long after his death.

Marina appears in Patriots too as a character on the fringes. At first, she accorded a sense of power by Morgan – with Boris wooing her, rather than her husband, to leave the FSB and become his personal bodyguard. Yet she is treated more like a prop in the second half – telling Boris to settle down and find a wife, synthesising her (all too real) grief into a somewhat artificial call to action for the protagonist. In a fictional drama, we might not bat an eyelid, but it rings a little hollow considering the determined, passionate advocacy and activism of Marina, campaigning for the British government to take Sasha’s murder seriously. Here, she seems to have almost given up on life, telling Boris to save himself while he can, even if it is too late for her.

In A Very Expensive Poison, Prebble mounts a sustained assault on the fourth wall, its Vaudevillian stylings capturing the sheer theatre of Putin’s regime – with Reece Shearsmith’s Putin goading the audience, heckling from the private boxes, and even giving a talk about theatre itself. He casts himself as the master storyteller (and liar). Yet the play culminates in a powerfully emotional final puncture to the fourth wall, where MyAnna Buring’s Marina asked audience members ‘How do you do’ until all the artifice fell away. ‘I am obviously not Marina Litvinenko’, she says, before Sasha’s actual words are read out for us. Prebble indicts those who she considers culpable: not just the Kremlin and their Russian agents, but the British government response. Theresa May, Home Secretary before she was Prime Minister, is quoted – denying an inquiry into the murder due to ‘the cost to the public’ – a justification that three high court judges later found insufficient. Ignorance, Prebble argues, is too great a cost. Morgan is driven by a similar impulse, but it takes him a little less far, preferring character study to direct political statements.

Morgan’s drama mostly addresses the question of how we got here, rather than where we can go next, but it still stands as a strong and compelling take on an underexplored subject, powered by a tremendous central performance. Rupert Goold’s pacy production delivers political thrills and at times some visceral chills, playing out on a fabulous set from Miriam Buether, drenched in Jack Knowles’ moodily red-tinged lighting.

Whether Morgan successfully captures Russia could be debated. A repeated monologue bookends the drama, in which Boris tells us that westerners ‘have no idea’ what Russia is like, listing items of clothing and food as symbolic of Russian life and culture. Yet Morgan’s gestures toward authenticity seem a little hollow. The mocking of London for being too ‘metropolitan’, for example, speaks in a cynical language familiar to contemporary British politics. The word is pejorative in current British media rather than Noughties Russia, replete with connotations of wealthy liberal hypocrisy and functioning as sweeping shorthand in the same way ‘North London’ and (the Almeida’s own borough) ‘Islington’ have done. Boris tells us that we consider Russia to be ‘a cold, bleak place, full of hardship and cruelty’, yet Patriots hardly disproves this, leaning into it at times. It is only despite (or perhaps because of) these difficulties that Russia is so loved and treasured as a home by people like Boris Berezovsky.

In fact, the effect of the opening monologue’s repetition – fashioned into a sort of fourth-wall breaking suicide note – seems unintentionally to affirm the play’s limitations. After two and a half hours, we are charged with the same ignorance we had at the start; it has apparently taught us nothing. Perhaps the implication is that our incomprehension is a condition of western-ness, not a lack of knowledge per se. Yet on the page, Morgan’s intentions for the scene seem clearer. He asks that the sound of Vladimir Vysotsky’s ‘unmistakable’ singing voice be heard, while street vendors sell pelmenyi dumplings, a visible mirage of Boris’ nostalgia – nostalgia in its most literal, etymological sense: homesickness. This speech is summoning into being the Russia that he loves, so that – in his mind at least – he can die there, rather than in a perpetual exile. Goold, however, opts to play the scene straight, without manifesting Russia before us so literally. It is a very understandable impulse of restraint here; the mental image Morgan generates likely outshines the stage action that would be possible. It feels like not much has replaced these stage directions though, giving us the sense that little has changed over the course of the play.

Ultimately, as the title suggests, the major theme of Morgan’s drama is patriotism. It is a theme that quietly underpins most of his work, given his recurring interest in the British Royal Family, most notably. His last play, The Audience (staged in the West End in 2013), examines this through the contrastingly patriotic roles of monarch and Prime Minister. Here, Morgan names his focus explicitly. As a western play looking in, you might expect it to have a greater focus on how patriotism (and nationalism) operates in British politics, though this never quite manifests beyond the occasional winking satire. (Lines about the follies of elected government generate even more knowing laughter than they usually might.) The battle for Russia’s power and its soul is not fought between patriotic true Russians and western interlopers, hellbent on bringing deregulated free-market capitalism to Russia, Morgan contends. Instead, the play depicts two opposing forms of sincere patriotism. Putin and Berezovsky’s respective motives are partly self-aggrandising, power- and money-driven, yet both consider themselves to be acting for the good of Russia. They consider themselves to be the bridge between the present and an illustrious future. Yet, tellingly, it is always the nation itself that is identified as the beneficiary of patriotic altruism, rather than its citizens themselves.

Morgan takes them mostly at face value, as earnest – if conniving – lovers of Russia. Boris pines for his home from his life of luxurious exile, and Putin refuses his entreaties to return to life a quiet (and probably not even affluent) life as a mathematics professor – motivated, it seems, by a conviction that he must protect Russia from his westernised economic and political pressure.

Jamael Westman and Tom Hollander in Patriots

In the second half of the play, Putin instates Abramovic as the governor of (what The Guardian calls) ‘the frozen far-eastern province’ Chukotka, six thousand kilometres from Moscow. In a March 2022 feature for The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe called the province ‘comically inhospitable’ – noting that its ‘winds are fierce enough to blow a grown dog off its feet.’ Abramovic ‘pumped plenty of his own money into the region’, Keefe writes, and Morgan dramatises as fact something that is widely believed to be true: that Abramovic was very much steered into this apparently thankless role by Putin’s guiding hand. (Catherine Belton particularly advances this view in her 2020 book Putin’s People.) Though Boris may have been Abramovic’s Krysha once, in contemporary Russia, Putin acts as Krysha to all of the oligarchs. They keep their wealth only because Putin permits. Yet the scene where Putin visits Chukotka seems redolent of Morgan’s main theme; the billionaire is not only being groomed for his loyalty, but Putin appears to be testing Abramovic’s patriotism. The poverty of Chukotka is still far preferable to a life in exile elsewhere.

This is the vision of patriotism that crystallises in the drama: the pain of separation as greater than any hardships that life may contain. Berezovsky would surrender his wealth to keep his home, and Putin leverages that power against him, as Berezovsky leveraged power against others and him. Yet it is almost a moment where a vital fault line of the play is exposed; how much of what we are witnessing is true? It is another perennial concern in Morgan’s writing, and he treads a line between dramatizing facts of historical record and inventing within plausible parameters. The play bears no caveats about its level of fictionality, nor any acknowledged sources; its content does not signal (as Prebble’s gloriously absurd touches did) where gaps have been creatively filled.

In the bid to dramatise these lacunae, some moments strike false notes. The opening scene is one such example. We hear that the nine-year-old Boris has solved the Kaliningrad Bridge Problem – a traditional problem (previously called the Seven Bridges of Königsberg) in which a city’s seven bridges, connecting its various islands, must all be crossed on a single route, crossing no bridge more than once. The play as performed (but not the script) describes the fact that Euler solved the puzzle in the negative – meaning that he proved it has no solution. Euler effectively devised a new branch of mathematics in the process, and now – for mathematicians familiar with such methods – it is not too difficult a problem to solve. Unless Euler were catastrophically wrong (which he was not), solving it in the positive would be impossible.

This could just be stage shorthand for mathematical genius that contains a fairly fundamental flaw, or perhaps this is a deliberate tell, a sign that the drama is an imperfect, inherently unreal rendering of a life. The gist is true; Boris was an ambitious, intelligent man, and so too would his childhood have been. Either way, Patriots demands our attention in sifting hard fact from elegant fiction. Are we to take the characters’ claims of patriotism on trust, or should our suspicions be raised throughout? It would benefit from a little more direct admission of its inventions, but maybe fiction is what we are supposed to expect.  


Written by Peter Morgan, Directed by Rupert Goold, Set Design by Miriam Buether, Costume Design by Deborah Andrews and Miriam Buether, Lighting Design by Jack Knowles, Sound Design and Composition by Adam Cork, Movement Direction by Polly Bennett, Casting Direction by Robert Sterne CDG, Voice Coaching by Joel Trill, Assistant Direction by Sophie Drake, Russia Consultant Yuri Goligorsky, Starring Matt Concannon, Stephen Fewell, Ronald Guttman, Aoife Hinds, Tom Hollander, Will Keen, Yolanda Kettle, Sean Kingsley, Paul Kynman, Jessica Temple, Luke Thallon, Jamael Westman
Production Photographs by Marc Brenner
Reviewed 8th July 2022

Sun & Sea – The Albany

Having watched Sun and Sea a couple of weeks ago, I have found my mind returning to it more and more due to news coverage of this record-breaking heatwave. Despite being a major weather event – pointing to severe and rapid global heating – the media response, at least in the run up and early stages was, for the most part, shockingly glib. This was matched by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab encouraging everyone simply to ‘enjoy the sunshine’. Yet in other quarters, there have been pockets of utter doomerism – widespread suffering considered a taste of our medicine, just desserts, laced with the masochistic pleasure of having been proved right. Frequently, however, even following a ‘red warning’ for ‘exceptional heat’ – never before issued by the Met Office in the UK – and the risk of huge excess mortality, outlets have returned to the imagery of the beach – a stock film staple of the sunny weather VT. The climate crisis is no beach holiday.

Sun & Sea, a durational opera by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, aptly examines the beach – specifically the sandy beach favoured by many holidaymakers – as a nexus of our relationship to the planet, as well as a representation of contemporary life in microcosm. As part of the LIFT Festival, The Albany’s auditorium has been transformed into a two-tier arena to play host to the opera, which has previously played across Europe (most notably the Venice Biennale, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion). From above, the audience watch over the beach scene below, where deck chairs and towels are populated by various beach dwellers – most of whom are characters in the opera, taking solos, duets, and occasionally choral roles in the few group numbers. Billed as an opera, it seems more redolent of song cycles – with loosely juxtaposed pieces circling around central themes. You watch for an hour, and it repeats over and over (sometimes up to eight hours in total). Its looping format negates the possibility of any overarching linear plot. Yet any narrative would seem antithetical to its attempt to represent a beach scene. Instead, we hear sometimes-surreal snapshots of various lives.

The opera is implicitly about the ethical weight of our decisions. Flying to go on a beach holiday, as the ‘Wealthy Mommy’ character has (collecting the different seas her eight-year-old son has swum in on a bucket list) cannot be considered a neutral act. The beach is a space where people’s relationship to the planet and to each other meet in theoretical harmony – but are fraught with danger. The heat is an ambiguous climate of joyous relaxation and simultaneous alarm. Like the news in recent days, Sun & Sea places implicit pressure on the semantics of weather; we are so used to associating heat with ‘good weather’, yet it has clear dangers – far beyond mere sunburn. Meanwhile, the shore is under threat from rising sea levels and falling biodiversity.

The libretto conceives of this beach as an explicit escape from the demands of capitalism, though it remains impossible to escape its effects – psychological and ecological. The ‘Song of Exhaustion’, delivered by the ‘Workaholic’ (characters are anonymous, identified by vague types they fit into), is the most direct expression of a soul under threat from the grind of office labour. His ‘suppressed emotions’ have become ‘knotted up in [his] psyche’, and even on the beach, he is unable to switch off; he cannot ‘let [himself] slow down, because my colleagues will look down on me’. Everything he does is soaked in shame, his pent up anguish building to a moment that never arrives here but inevitably will – where he ‘lose[s his] cool in public’ and mortifyingly embarrasses himself – or worse. He worries that his ‘suppressed negativity’ will burst out of him ‘like lava’. His maleness is unspecified in the text, though the role implicitly seems to imagine some toxic masculine behaviour as an uncontrolled, volcanic outpouring stemming from exhaustion – like the earthquakes caused by tectonic plates under immense pressure. We are invited to sympathise but not necessarily excuse such an explosion.

One of the show’s great triumphs is its understanding and presentation of sheer pettiness. The recurring iterations of the ‘Chanson of Admiration’ – short stanzas of praise for beauty of the sky, seabirds and jellyfish – juxtapose the longer incarnations of the ‘Song of Complaint’. ‘What’s wrong with people’, the first bout of complaining begins. People with dogs are accused of ‘leav[ing] shit on the beach, fleas in the sand’, while beer drinkers mean ‘it smells like a slum-hole’. The song is woven with casual contempt for the poor and homeless – who the singer has seemingly holidayed to escape from contact with – and one description of finding the fishy remains of someone’s lunch under their blanket describes the object (with a seemingly deliberate loaded quality) as ‘a foreign body’. The closest thing to a narrative payoff in the opera comes in the second part of the song, in which the singer reminisces about the ‘unpleasant associations’ of fish that came from being force fed it by her (now-deceased) grandmother. The gesture deepens her character. Like the Workaholic, her attitudes are not legitimised but explained with a surprising tenderness, while opening up the fissures of entitlement and exclusivity that pervade some holidays.

Relatively simple moments can be hugely effective. The rhythms of visiting a beach are put under the microscope in catchy songs such as ‘Sunscreen Bossa Nova’, while a hugely moving conversation between a couple sees them repeatedly counting the hours they have left together before one goes away. They take solace in plans to make an omelette and refuel the car, unable to full express their anticipated emotions beyond simply the fact of them ‘getting sad’. Also brilliantly incorporated are the volunteer participants dotted around the edge of the beach, soaking up the simulated sun, reading, playing games, and seemingly befriending each other before our eyes. Though I am unable to see a dog on stage without being reminded of Ella Hickson’s The Writer (in which a character claims that ‘There should not be a dog’ on stage, ‘unless you’re going to cut its […] tongue out’), Sun & Sea is a rare piece of theatre where a dog’s unpredictability adds to the scene’s verisimilitude, rather than highlighting its fakery and breaking the theatrical illusion. The extent of the opera’s artifice is abundantly clear (given that we are literally inside), yet that does not preclude ostensibly real (certainly new, unrehearsed and unreproducible) events occurring in the space.

The music itself plays second fiddle to the superb design concept, with the vocal lines beautifully sung over relatively sparse backing. The lyrics are at their best when taking more surreal turns, such as in a song entitled ‘Dream’, in which one sunbather tell us about dreaming of meeting someone with an egg-sized tumour in his brain. Another thread describes vast flight disruption from an unexpected volcano eruption, leaving a couple stranded together in an uneasily idyllic extended holiday. The brilliant ‘3D Sisters’ Song’ is a downright bizarre highlight. It features duetting identical twins contemplating the mortality of the human body, before fantasising about 3D-printing coral reefs back into existence; ‘Yet with the press of a single button, I will remake this world again. 3D corals fade away! […] 3D me lives forever.’ Are we to implicitly wonder if the sisters have themselves been 3D-printed from the same design? Strange and wonderful possibilities abound, and Sun & Sea is uninterested in simple answers. This beach has room for dreams of transhumanist immortality alongside increasingly ambitious rallies of badminton.

The final song in the libretto – though the nature of the piece means that the audience constantly ebb and flow in and out, and we experience no defined end or beginning – describes the ‘sea as green as a forest’, imagining the human body ‘covered with a slippery green fleece’, their swimming costumes ‘filling up with algae’. The climate crisis hangs over events, largely unspoken. The ‘Philosopher’ considers our normalisation of vast-scale importing – ‘to give us a feeling of bliss’ for only ‘one bite’ – while the 3D Sisters envision an ‘empty planet without birds, animals and corals’. The final image of eutrophication is another gesture towards climate breakdown, though suffused with a greater ambiguity. This is an algal bloom that seems delightful in its life, but is destabilising to the ecosystem – leaving ‘empty snail homes, swollen seaweed, [and] fish remains’.

Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, 2018

Durational installations perhaps prime us for the gradual nature of life and ecosystems – transcending the present moment and placing as a part of something longer term. They provide a way of comprehending that which is far greater than us. Perhaps the most notable recent example is Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch. In December 2018, the Icelandic-Danish artist brought 30 blocks of Greenlandic ice to London, as he had done previously in Copenhagen and Paris. Most were placed on the Southbank, by the Thames, just outside the Tate Modern, where visitors and passers-by alike could observe and engage with the blocks – as they slowly melted away. The aim was part-pedagogical, part-chiding, giving people – in Eliasson’s words – ‘a very tangible encounter with the consequences of their actions’.

Yet works like this (as with Sun and Sea) can encounter accusations of hypocrisy that threaten to blunt their actions. After all, Eliasson has literally contributed to melting Arctic ice through removing 30 chunks of it. Attempting to head off such criticism, three times the carbon offset cost was donated to the Woodland Trust, and while some would spin this as making the project carbon-neutral or even net-positive, this overlooks the fact that such emissions were fundamentally avoidable. Yet just because emissions occurred does not delegitimise the project outright. Instead, it is a core part of the ethical tangle that artists face; almost all art is made from resources with some carbon cost.

The Venice production of Sun & Sea featured over 25 tonnes of imported sand – imported at an inevitable price. Yet this is also the logic used to undermine the efforts of climate change campaigners in many sectors. Climate crisis art can never really escape the bind that – even if carbon neutral, with reused or upcycled design – there is a debatable opportunity cost – even then. When time is running out and urgent practical, political intervention is required, then all art could be considered a self-indulgent (and even harmful) luxury. Writing on Sun & Sea (as well as other recent climate-themed exhibitions and shows), Eloise Hendy notes that ‘the performers’ dilemma is the same one we all face, namely how to spend our days at the end of the world; how to fiddle while the world burns’. Does anything that is not purely activist itself have value?

For all the claims made about the power of art, it is highly unlikely that art will ever save us in and of itself. Sun & Sea seems to know this. Art plays a role in protest, yet protest likely cannot be artistic alone. Perhaps the true value of art in a time of emergency is its provision of a space of ethical reflection. Art’s merits are not in activism as an end in itself, but instead in how it equips audiences with knowledge and tools that make activism more effective – as well as making life worth living. Theatre, particularly, is a shared space, in which the cold facts of the climate crisis meet the complex human reality of life. Art, then, is perhaps akin to a beach holiday; it can be something of a luxury, but also brings you together with strangers, offering relaxation and rejuvenation, before returning to action elsewhere revitalised. In Sun & Sea, we look down on the beachgoers, perhaps in judgement, but it is ourselves we are judging too. This judgement is no mere condemnation, but – hopefully – a resolution for action.

Sun & Sea

Composed by Lina Lapelytė, Libretto by Vaiva Grainytė, Translated from Lithuanian by Rimas Užgiris, Direction and Scenography by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Concept and Development by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė
Reviewed 7th July 2022

The 47th – Old Vic

Bertie Carvel in The 47th

‘Art needs time and space and reflection we can all agree on that.’

From Shipwreck, by Anne Washburn (2019)

It is a lexical quirk of the American political system that Presidents become known by their number. Trump was, and is, the 45th, Obama 44th. Joe Biden is the 46th, and – should he not run again in 2024 – we are only a couple of years away from the 47th. However, only one US President (so far) is known by two numerals. Grover Cleveland, by dint of winning Presidential office twice, separated by the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison, thus counts as the 22nd and 24th President of the USA. It is a pub quiz trivia staple and remains unique in US political history. Perhaps, that is, until 2024, should Donald Trump run successfully again.

This creeping liberal dread that Trump might emerge victorious again underpins Mike Bartlett’s The 47th. The title seems – at least before you see the play – as if it cannot bear to speak Trump’s name, referring to him by an undeserved moniker he has rendered mock-heroic. In the play itself though, it is a wry, satisfying touch from Bartlett that the title does not refer to Trump after all, but Kamala Harris. She is instated by Biden in his place as his health deteriorates, in an act that seems to reverse-mirror Trump’s own refusal to share power when ill with Coronavirus. It is a canny substitution, though in no meaningful way does the character of Donald Trump have second billing here – either on the page, or in Bertie Carvel’s scene-chewing and -stealing, magisterial turn. This is, to use language of many reviewers during his Presidency (as they did about Brexit), a ‘Trump play’.

Lydia Wilson and Tamara Tunie in The 47th

The 47th seems most obviously reminiscent of Bartlett’s 2014 play King Charles III, which shares a future-history premise and a director in Rupert Goold. While King Charles III opened at the Almeida, of which Goold is Artistic Director, The 47th arrives in the much vaster space of the Old Vic – aware that a play with as zeitgeisty a subject and Carvel in such a headline-grabbing lead would attract a larger potential audience. In King Charles III, Bartlett sought out the human weaknesses and follies beneath the grandeur, tradition, and clipped rhetoric of the monarchy – unearthing the seething political opinions and ambitions that lie beneath the long-cultivated veneer of neutrality. The problem with applying the same logic to Trump is that he appears to have no filter. The thrill of seeing a protagonist soliloquising in private – one of the great attractions of Shakespeare’s history plays – is far less edifying when his every thought has been blasted across rolling news coverage. There is relatively little at stake dramatically when he so sorely lacks self-doubt – little interiority to be found. He appears to be a man whose every thought is bluntly, digressively articulated, and, though riven with contradiction, there is little actual conflict within him.

Bartlett does not seem interested in subverting this popular view of Trump here – actively tailoring his Trump to goad us. He remains the cartoon villain we expect, entering on a golf buggy and bragging to us about his achievements from the off. The main difference from the real Trump is the infusion of a greater awareness of liberal sensibilities and things he is mocked for. Trump repeatedly both-sides-ed racial violence and propagated the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory about Obama’s citizenship, yet chiding liberals for discriminating against him for the (orange) ‘colour my skin’ speaks in a liberal vernacular that seems unlikely. He claims to be an entertainer and ‘Your devil’, swearing revenge on those who have ‘exile[d]’ him from the White House and taking us along for the ride. The spirit of pantomime is deliberately alive in his words; he is villain who loves to be a villain.

I was also reminded of Anne Washburn’s wordily brilliant Shipwreck, one of the first plays (perhaps even the first) to put Trump on the London stage. Directed by Goold again, at the Almeida, this mostly portrayed a group of liberals gathering in a remote farmhouse, during a worsening storm, before revealing Trump himself – during a terrifying recreation of his ‘loyalty dinner’ with James Comey. Shipwreck’s rich poetry seemed like a space of solace – of intellectual defiance against the Trump administration, and refusing to fight his brash, name-calling rhetoric on its own terms.

Bartlett’s play too seems to hope that an ostensibly anti-intellectual problem can have an intellectual solution too – that empathy, intelligence and culture will ultimately win out – though it is perhaps less convincing. Its formal gesture seems something of a comfort blanket – not least because it is a return to a specific form, for which Bartlett was previously garlanded. Trump’s angular rhythms are strangely transposed into iambic pentameter, and there seems to be an implicit aesthetic critique that comes from the uncanny juxtaposition. Yet the problem of Trump is not merely the way he talks. Though his manner of speech is an undeniable part of his troubling, dangerous speech acts, it is far from the whole. One of the arguments implicit in Shipwreck seems to be that a liberal critique of Trump that dwells only on formal matters, rather than content is doomed to failure. As Michael Billington wrote in his review in The Guardian, it ‘does something you rarely see in the theatre: it takes Donald Trump seriously rather than as a subject for easy satire.’ The 47th attempts to rationalise the way Trump seems to be an obvious baddie – yet remains a political danger. Yet the impulse it springs from does seem too cheaply comic. What if Trump was King Lear? Wouldn’t that be funny?

Bertie Carvel’s Trump is far more accurate – in mannerism, appearance and voice – than Shipwreck’s version, played by Elliot Cowan in the original Almeida production. Yet for all his realism, The 47th gives Trump only crude malignancy, rather than active malice. Carvel’s performance is a strong recreation, but Cowan’s unhinged tyrant, bare-chested and painted gold, is a more interesting interpretation of his self-aggrandised horror.

In much of the play, Bartlett seems intent to serve up a (somewhat hollow) form of narrative justice for Trump’s actions. Trump is arrested and placed in jail, the imagery of him orange boiler-suited seems like liberal wish fulfilment, after his real-life double impeachment was exposed as functionally meaningless without Senate backing and investigations into his tax affairs have yielded little legal consequence. Perhaps inevitably given its genre of Shakespearean (future) history meets tragedy, Trump dies at the end, in a sequence fashioned presumably as an oblique comeuppance for Trump’s gutting of Obamacare. Slightly implausibly, Trump’s financial folly has led to him not even being covered by health insurance. He is given a private room in the hospital, as in jail, only for security reasons.

The second half falls into a slightly repetitive pattern, hinging on two fairly similar tête-à-têtes between Harris and Trump that buttress the drama. With such fixed positions, based on life, there is little either can gain from each other, apart from the most begrudging form of mutual respect. Elsewhere, the characters simply do not have enough depth to sustain major scenes. Ivanka (an icily composed Lydia Wilson) runs rings around her siblings too easily to create the Succession-like thrills that seem to be intended, as the Trump children jockey for position. This is compounded by Ivanka clearly being her father’s favourite. In Succession, the only daughter Shiv’s relative competence is offset by her father’s lingering preference for his sons – this dynamic functioning as the central thread of the second series. The best scenes with Trump offstage follow siblings Charlie and Rosie Takahashi, one a (Democrat-supporting) journalist, the other a Republican working for Ivanka’s Presidential campaign. The personal stakes of politics emerge in their confrontations, sibling loyalty tussling with political allegiance.

Like Washburn, Bartlett approaches Trump with a curious formal abstraction. Shipwreck is dubbed a ‘history play about 2017’ (which was first staged in early 2019), while The 47th (like King Charles III) is a future history, documenting the hypothetical events of the 2024 election. Perhaps it is because Trump seems so literal and unsubtle; speaking truth to power by simply representing a simulation of the truth won’t cut it. Instead, stepping back (or forward) allows us to observe him within a broader cultural moment.

Yet Shakespeare too, even more than in King Charles III, operates as a genre in of itself – as well as being another form of abstraction. The plot is shaped partly by real-world conjecture about a coming electoral race, combined with recognisable pastiche of Shakespearean moments. Most clearly, the play begins with Trump as King Lear – and the overall shape of Trump’s arc in the play could be (very) loosely mapped onto that character. He begins by musing on his coming demise; instead of a kingdom, he has an inheritance to divide up. Bartlett commits to a conception of Trump which is virtually indistinguishable in public and private, exacting calculated cruelty on his family and stroppily demanding each child flatters him into making them his sole heir. Don Jr. and Eric make their fawning, self-abasing arguments, before Ivanka follows the Shakespearean pattern of Cordelia and refuses to partake in his spiteful game. Instead of banishing her though, Trump remarks ‘And just like that the mic is roundly dropped. […] She had no competition.’ Inevitably – and Bartlett’s script spells out this many times – Trump is presented a monstrously inverted Freudian embodiment of the Oedipus complex – the father who wants to have sex with his daughter. She was always going to be his heir.

Shakespeare plays are often performed in large theatres. (The National’s Olivier hosts one most years, as does their Lyttleton stage.) Yet this is as much to do with the reliability of Shakespeare selling tickets (and perhaps the decline in the fashion for doubling supporting roles, and thus the need of large casts) than the quality of the plays themselves. Though the Globe Theatre has become a cultural touchstone for Shakespearean performance, his plays were often presented in smaller venues – more akin to Shakespeare’s Globe’s winter venue, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There is an intimacy to Shakespearean drama that is often lost – though a great production can create this in a large space. The 47th does lack this intimacy. Partly, this could be the venue. (You wonder what the experience would have been like if Goold had programmed it in the 325 seat Almeida.) Yet there is also something remote about the characters themselves. They appear largely as they do on the news – self-possessed, even as they lose control of events. The rich, archaeological characterisation that you might expect from a Shakespearean drama is mostly missing.

Lydia Wilson in The 47th

Goold’s choice of plays to direct evinces a desire to grasp the nettle of many contemporary political issues. Albion, another Almeida collaboration with Bartlett (in 2017, and revived again in February 2020), was held up as ‘The play that Britain needs right now’ by Dominic Cavendish’s five-star review in The Daily Telegraph. Though Cavendish avoided saying ‘Brexit’ in his review, his subtext was fairly evident, and other reviewers made the connection explicit in other, largely glowing write-ups. Yet even this allegorical drama about restoring an English garden to its (apparent) former glory was designed with a structural abstraction – utilising an overtly Chekhovian structure, with four acts (one for each season), and an ending redolent of The Cherry Orchard.

Sometimes this impulse towards political (or at least politicised) drama has been misjudged. Ava Wong Davies’s brilliant review of The Hunt for Exeunt perfectly captures the tension between admiration for Goold’s typically compelling direction and deep unease at its implications, by scripting a conversation between a defending voice and a detracting one. Dramatizing the descent of a teacher, who is falsely accused of sexually abusing a child, I think that play (an adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 film) likely stemmed from an impulse of exploration, rather than apology or excuse for abusive male behaviour, keen to examine how public opinion is formed and how it shifts. Yet the underlying unlikeliness of the plotting and the political context of high-profile allegations as part of #MeToo made it seem a deeply reactionary piece of theatre, unfortunately placing sympathy squarely with the accused rather than the abused.

The 47th seems to emerge from a similar nettle-grasping political drive, yet the results seem fairly modest. Though most of my detractions are with the script, the production too lacks Goold’s usual fast-pace and flair. The costuming and prosthetics that produce Trump before us are hugely impressive, yet the rest of the design underwhelms a little. Miriam Buether, who designed such a gorgeous garden set which changed with each season in Albion, here channels the marble of the White House and the shape of the Oval Office, in a two-tier set. Unfortunately, it gets caught between naturalistic and stylised aesthetics though, and ends up feeling slightly visually bland. (Her latest collaboration with Goold, Patriots at the Almeida, is a triumph.) Enlivening the space, however, is Neil Austin’s use of light, which generates a palpable menace in scenes with QAnon – Buether evoking the horrifying aesthetic of the January 6th Capitol rioters.

Bartlett’s drama operates as both future prediction and post-mortem, willing into being the end of the Trump story. By contrast, Shipwreck is less about the political events of 2017 itself as liberal hypocrisy (‘There’s a little bit [of money] offshore’, one character admits) and handwringing as American culture adjusts to its new President. Washburn even refers to the trend of dressing up Shakespeare for different political occasions, as a way of coping with the uncertain moment. One character describes ‘that Shakespeare in the Park thing’ where ‘the man who plays Julius Caesar has a weird orange blond wig, […] and in the end he’s assassinated by a lot of brown people’. The production did happen – directed by Oskar Eustis – and was repeatedly interrupted by right-wing activists calling for an end to ‘political violence’ against the right. Yet despite their claims, reinterpreted Shakespeare can hardly be called violence, and there are clear limits to its effectiveness as resistance too. Shipwreck captures the ineffectualness of most art in its attempts to hold power to account. Instead, such productions are more a form of political therapy – giving the illusion of engagement as a substitute for meaningful (and potentially dangerous) political action. Another of Washburn’s characters responds ‘how are we finding a way to process all of this thoughtfully [and] is Shakespeare any kind of answer? Is Shakespeare really relevant to the current day?’

Washburn’s questions seem fascinatingly apt to The 47th. Shakespeare, her characters debate, is both a second choice and the only option; ‘I think they’d use a contemporary play only there isn’t one’. There is no drama ‘about this exact moment’, so old stories must be re-dressed for the occasion. Bartlett attempts to square the circle – drawing on Shakespearean heft with a drama about the coming moment, as the present one is arguably too ephemeral to bottle. Another voice chimes in: ‘Why don’t we just give up already, why don’t we give up and agree that plays are never going to be about the current moment and they shouldn’t be about the current moment. Plays are about the Eternal moment, yes?’ The claim that plays are expressions of universal truth is not entirely convincing, and I don’t believe Washburn expects us to agree with such a sweeping statement, but the eventual point at which this discussion comes to rest seems fair: ‘Art needs time and space and reflection we can all agree on that.’ Yet The 47th seems oddly airless, without this space. Bartlett has not (yet) described how the play came into being – whether it was part-designed to coincide with the 2020 election, before Covid cancellations hit, perhaps. Yet though the gesture of reflection – in this case looking into the future – is present, there is a sense that time and space are not.

Ultimately, while The 47th sees Bartlett returning to the writerly instinct that generated King Charles III, for Goold it seems more of a return to Shipwreck’s idea space. Washburn’s play is thornier – its problems less reducible to one man or one set of circumstances. Its problems are elemental – evoking her earlier play Mr Burns in its gesture of gathering characters around a campfire to tell stories in the dark. In its mythologising and Shakespeare-ising of Trump, The 47th attributes far more to one man than perhaps it should. Trump is a symptom of a political moment, perhaps an opportunist who rode its wave, rather than the sole author of many of the regressive steps America is taking. Even three months on, some aspects of the play feel outdated. As horrifying as the January 6th Capitol attack was, the decline of liberalism is happening in courtrooms rather than on the streets. The January 6th investigation is still ongoing.

Bartlett’s play entertains in spades, and Carvel is impressively accurate while not hamstrung by the demands of the impression, yet Bartlett does not quite succeed in having the last word on Trump. It might be an attempt at a literary exorcism, but the real Trump – rather than just a realistic-looking one – remains elusive.

The 47th

Written by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Rupert Goold, Set Design by Miriam Buether, Costume Design by Evie Gurney, Lighting Design by Neil Austin, Sound Design by Tony Gayle, Original Music and Sound Score by Adam Cork, Video Design by Ash J Woodward, Movement Direction by Lynne Page, Starring Berte Carvel, Tamara Tunie, Lydia Wilson, David Carr, Joss Carter, Kaja Chan, James Cooney, Charles Craddock, Flora Dawson, Eva Fontaine, James Garnon, Richard Hansell, Oscar Lloyd, Jenni Maitland, Freddie Meredith, Ben Onwukwe, Cherrelle Skeete, David Tarkenter, Ami Tredrea, Simon Williams
Production Photographs by Marc Brenner
Reviewed 9th April 2022

The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie

Amy Adams’ choice of West End debut role is a curious one. Playing the disappointed lower-middle class matriarch Amanda Wingfield, Adams gives a strong performance – if not an especially detailed or unusual take on The Glass Menagerie’s ostensible lead. Yet the question of who is at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play is somewhat fraught. Amanda may have the highest line count, but – for all Adams’ winning star-quality – she does not quite feel like the protagonist of the drama.

Perhaps the most pivotal role is Amanda’s son, the mercurial narrator, Tom – a man with ‘tricks in my pocket’ and ‘things up my sleeve’, conjuring the play into being before our very eyes like a magician (or a playwright). Yet Herrin saws Tom’s role in half, with Tom Glynn-Carney delivering the spiteful, evasive, discontented younger version while Paul Hilton floats around the stage as a wistful and deliciously impish older narrator, reflecting on a life of mistakes with humour and anguished regret. Though the two halves are unified in a tender moment – where the Toms look searchingly at each other – the overall effect is for Tom to be reduced in importance by his bifurcation, rather than accentuated. In Herrin’s interpretation, Amanda’s daughter Laura is actually the play’s emotional centre, and though the role is usually played by Lizzie Annis, I saw Brydie Service understudy the role in a spectacular performance which was the finest out of a strong cast. Service should be remembered as a serious talent to watch. Adams complements the others well, but you wonder why she did not choose a West End debut in which she was more definitely the lead.

Adams plays Amanda as an incurable optimist – or at least someone who cannot bear to dwell on her life’s pains and sufferings. She manifests distant memories – of receiving seventeen gentlemen callers in one evening – as if they are the present, irrepressibly nostalgic within scenes that are themselves memories (of Tom). The result is that Amanda’s crueller streak is mostly minimised – though her cloying attempts at niceness can be oppressive – and the sense of a toxic family bringing out the worst in each other is muted. She sharply upbraids Laura for dropping out of business school – and wasting fifty dollars in the process – yet this soon turns to a warmer maternal sympathy, leaving the play to languish in general malaise rather than creating richer character drama from Amanda’s sometimes-mean unreasonableness.

Amy Adams and Lizzie Annis in The Glass Menagerie

Paul Hilton’s narrator is one of the highlights of the production, prowling the stage and watching over proceedings with a yearning regret. Every now and again, he sketches out a melody on an upright piano which then loops over and over – like the melancholy memories circling through his mind. Hilton feels slightly underutilised, doing his best with the relatively scant material that comes from slicing his role in two. Yet Hilton superbly embodies retrospective regrets about his past. As Williams writes in his notes on the characters, Tom is ‘not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.’ At a remove of time, he is now all remorse and pity.

The set is a strange mixture of bareness and overcrowded detail. The titular ornament collection is strangely grand, perhaps one hundred pieces housed in a glass display case, almost like butterfly specimens. It seems implausibly grand and expensive. Most of the play takes place on a raised platform in the middle of the stage, which (from my position at the front of the stalls) renders the back half of the stage (including much of the fascinating, lurking performance of Paul Hilton) near-invisible. Meanwhile, the sides of the stage are comparatively cluttered with semi-realistic detritus, generating a strange dissonance with the almost-empty centre.

Ash J Woodward’s video projections loom over the stage, yet these rarely move beyond the illustrative. A minute photograph of the family’s absent father is vastly projected overhead, the patriarch bearing down on them in a way which invites fairly straightforward psychoanalysis. Despite this, the production rarely makes his absent presence felt; the emphasis here seems to lie with the financial pressures of 1930s America, the deleterious effects of age on a woman’s social status and opportunities, and culture being escapist rather than emancipatory. These are excellent points of focus, each with revealing comments to make on Williams’ frequently performed text, but not all of the production decisions line up with what we see on stage.

Victor Alli, Tom Glynn-Carney, Paul Hilton, Lizzie Annis, and Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie

Herrin’s production is relatively procedural at first, and a snap judgement at the interval might write this interpretation off as lacking in dramatic verve. However, the play bursts into splendid, scintillating life in the second half – ironically when the apartment is plunged into darkness. Tom has neglected to pay the electricity bill, leaving Amanda to cheerily (but with aching sadness) remark ‘We’ll just have to spend the remainder of the evening in the nineteenth century’. After this, everything attains a prickly intimacy, especially when Jim, the gentleman caller whose visit has been arranged by Tom and Amanda, speaks to Laura alone.

This scene stands out from all the others – as it would in many productions – but the emotional depth that Service and Victor Alli find in their tenderly encouraging conversation is beautiful to watch. Service communicates a powerful sense that such an encounter – even just a conversation – was previously unthinkable for Laura, and we share the delight Jim takes in coaxing her out of her shell. The moment seems genuinely transformative and hopeful, yet the soon-to-come crushing revelation that Jim is already engaged to be married may make Laura close herself off again permanently – unwilling to risk being burned again. Alli plays Jim with a commanding confidence, though he is frank about the fact that this has been learned and practised. When Laura tells him she watched him sing baritone lead in a school production of The Pirates of Penzance, he is touched by her attention and signs her programme with a considered realisation of how much it does mean to Laura. A gesture that could be cheaply self-aggrandising has little arrogance behind it here. Jim is fully conscious of the weight of his words and actions, and he seems well-intentioned – aware of the good he could do in leading Laura towards a more assured and happier life, as well as the harm of promising too much and dashing her hopes. He wills her to aspire to more than her current life, and he seems quietly heartbroken by Laura’s enthusiastic response to questions about her hobbies, interests and talents that she has her glass collection. In his eyes, she is capable of so much more.

Where Jim oversteps is kissing Laura, a moment played not as Jim fulfilling a sordid impulse but as a complex negotiation of desires for himself and for Laura. He truly believes that ‘Somebody – ought to – kiss you, Laura’. The moment is not set to ‘tumultuous’ music, as in Williams’ stage directions, but is quietly intimate. Laura’s expression seems happier than the scripted ‘bright, dazed look’, though it turns to confusion as Jim mutters ‘Stumblejohn! I shouldn’t have done that – that was way off the beam’ – before confessing his forthcoming nuptials.

The production is a rather frustrating almost-there – not quite bottling lightning for most of its runtime, but never that far off. A more unified design, a thornier take on Amanda, and generally less literal approach to video projections would take it closer to a production for the ages. Yet, for around twenty minutes in the second half, during the searchingly tender and sophisticated interpretation of Laura and Jim’s growing mutual affection, the production would be near-impossible to improve. It shines with a delicate fragility, a glassy quality absent elsewhere but magnificent when it appears. Herrin’s The Glass Menagerie is worth seeing, if just for this scene alone.

The Glass Menagerie

Written by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Set Design by Vicki Mortimer, Costume Design by Edward K. Gibbon, Lighting Design by Paule Constable, Composition and Sound Design by Nick Powell, Video Design by Ash J Woodward, Casting by Jessica Ronane CDG, Associate Director Anna Girvan, Starring Amy Adams, Victor Alli, Lizzie Annis, Tom Glynn-Carney, Paul Hilton, Understudies Mercedes Bahleda, Phillip Olagoke, Mark Rose, Brydie Service
Production Photographs by Johan Persson
Reviewed 1st July 2022

The Father and the Assassin – National Theatre Olivier

Nadeem Islam and Shubham Saraf in The Father and the Assassin

Generally speaking, for a theatre equipped with such a muscular infrastructure (physical, in the stage revolves and fly floors, and creative, as Britain’s national theatre), the Olivier has a lower hit rate than one might expect for new plays. The sheer size of the auditorium is a potential struggle; most stories, through little fault of their own, would simply not be big enough to fill the space. Yet here Anupama Chandrasekhar has found the alchemical mixture required, delivering a sharp script which is matched by Indhu Rubasingham’s brilliant production and Shubham Saraf’s bravura lead performance, to create the best new play I have seen in this space.

Chandrasekhar utilises the arena-like quality of the Olivier from the off, with Saraf’s opening monologue jokingly engaging the audience (to the point of exchanging brief, gig-like chat with some stalls-dwellers) and recruiting our complicity. He accosts us: ‘What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before?’ Saraf plays Nathuram Godse, a man about whom ‘not much is known’ (by Chandrasekhar’s account in her ‘Note on the Play’), his nervy demeanour offset by a sometimes swaggeringly narcissistic confidence. His claim to notoriety is that, in 1948, he killed Mahatma Gandhi. The Father and the Assassin follows these two characters – Gandhi, popularly known as the father of the nation, and Godse, his killer – weaving their lives together into a complex exploration of radicalisation, colonial occupation, and the ethics of violence.

Saraf carries these weighty themes with a compelling lightness, and the show is so delightful largely because it leans so heavily into comedy, as well as containing moments of sheer weirdness. From the start, Godse mocks ‘that fawning Attenborough film’ with Ben Kingsley – promising to show a stranger and dubiously more accurate version of Gandhi’s life and death, alongside his own. Godse appears to be narrating from some sort of afterlife, where – at the end – he bumps into Gandhi again. He will never be free of the man that once enthralled him, then disappointed him. Meanwhile, Gandhi was barely aware of Godse’s existence.

Ayesha Dharker in The Father and the Assassin

The play is very interested in the way in which history is inscribed. Godse’s implicit justification for holding our attention and being the subject of a play at all is that he is ‘etched in India’s history’. Yet Godse speaks to his discomfort with the moniker ‘assassin’ – ‘a word that gives the killer a high status because of the one he killed’. Godse prefers ‘murderer’, imagining himself to have gained such a status on merit. The obvious rejoinder is that, of course, his historical importance is bound up in this singular act of murder. The imprint left upon history is, for the most part, not quite so indelible though as the imagery of etching suggests. Indeed, the play stages an attempt – ostensibly by Godse himself – to rehabilitate his actions and reputation, rewriting a history that sees him only as the evil killer of Gandhi, rather than a coherent political thinker. Chandrasekhar cleverly leads us up this fraught garden path, before giving us a firm reminder of who has taken us by the hand.

Her theme is beautifully mapped out in Rajha Shakiry’s set design, the backdrop containing a vast loom in mid-weave which bears down on stage events. The right-hand part is tightly wound, the rest yet to take shape – ambiguously in the middle of being made or possibly being undone. It is a literal reference to Godse’s profession (a tailor), yet it balances the play’s presentation of the production of narrative and history as an ongoing process with the image of nation potentially about to unravel – as partition (in 1947) separates one into two. History is certainly more porous and malleable than Godse’s images of ‘etch[ing]’; the thread may be the same, but it can be stitched into many shapes and patterns by a skilled weaver.

The most interesting gesture of the play is the bait and switch that it pulls close to the interval. Chandrasekhar has written a captivating Godse, interpreted with such tremendous lightness and force by Saraf, and we follow the breadcrumbs of his inchoate political philosophy. The moral bind at the crux of the play is the danger that virtuous non-violence (or ahimsa, as Gandhi called it) will allow any authorities willing to use violence to crush you almost by default. In many ways, it is a debate between Kantian morality and consequentialism, the former sitting uncomfortably with the practicalities of revolutionary social change. Gandhi’s insistence on keeping his hands clean could lead only to more suffering; Godse argues he is giving up without the necessary fight. For most of the first half, this perspective is thoroughly and rigorously considered. The audience seems intended to share Godse’s aching frustration at Gandhi’s ineffectual moments, and though the murder we know is coming never really seems justified, we at least understand Godse’s viewpoint.

Yet his budding political zeal leads him to befriend Vinayak Savarkar, who visits the tailors where Godse works. Eventually, Savarkar begrudgingly agrees to take Godse and his friend Narayan Apte under his wing, preaching revolutionary ideas to them in a way that initially rings with a logic that, if not convinces, at least coheres – dovetailing neatly with Godse’s frustrations over Gandhi’s methods. Yet his ideas start to sound alarm bells with the suggestion that ‘we are too bloody welcoming of other cultures’. Soon after, there is a sudden jolt as we realise the true political ends of Savarkar’s thinking. ‘The Germans have it right. The key to nation building is homogeneity’, Savarkar claims. ‘One culture, one nation. The minority culture must embrace the practices of the majority culture.’ The invocation of Nazi fascism looms as a clear warning about the dangers of pursuing a Hindu nation, without pluralism. The aim is not peace or liberation, but authoritarian policing of identity.

Paul Bazely in The Father and the Assassin

The play is politically searing. It stages issues still discussed in contemporary Indian politics. In 2019, Narender Modi distanced himself from some of his party’s candidates who called Godse ‘a patriot’. Yet it also carries a more UK-specific message about how support for an imposed homogenised monoculture can lead to fascism far quicker than you might expect. The contemporariness is signalled in overt, comic references to the political presence, such as Brexit – with Godse narrating from a distinctly transtemporal and transcendental place – as well as being folded into themes which chime with undeniable relevance. This breadth of scope lends the play a real epic quality, utilising a complex history (underrepresented on the British stage) to tell a sharply contemporary story, while Saraf’s personable style ensures it remains intimate – even as Godse loses our sympathy somewhat in the second half, unable to recruit our support for his more radical, or radicalised ideas. Instead, Godse is sharply upbraided – by his family, friends and Gandhi himself, played with a commanding air of calm by Paul Bazely, on the verge of his murder – for lacking personal responsibility and failing to amount to anything. Fascistic ideas, Chandrasekhar implies, lash out at others in order to excuse the moral and personal weaknesses of the individuals who hide behind them.

A great play is rarely the last word in a conversation but a substantial step forward in a discussion with the baton passed to us by the end. Such is the case here. We are left with a challenge from Godse: ‘A Gandhi is no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse.’ Godse is never treated wholly as a recurring villain we must repeatedly endeavour to prevent or a necessary instrument of violence, but remains a complex mixture of zeal, anger and narcissism. Yet we should clearly be wary of believing too completely the narrative he weaves.

The Father and the Assassin

Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Set and Costume Design by Rajha Shakiry, Lighting Design by Oliver Fenwick, Movement Direction by Lucy Cullingford, Composition by Siddhartha Khosla, Musical Direction by David Shrubsole, Sound Design by Alexander Caplen, Fight Direction by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, Dialect Coaching by Shereen Ibrahim, Company Voice Work by Jeannette Nelson, Staff Direction by Gitika Buttoo, Dramaturg Emily McLaughlin, Starring Sagar Arya, Ankur Bahl, Paul Bazely, Ayesha Dharker, Marc Elliott, Ravin J Ganatra, Dinita Gohil, Irvine Iqbal, Nadeem Islam, Tony Jayawardena, Sid Sagar, Shubham Saraf, Peter Singh, Maanuv Thiara, Ralph Birtwell, Halema Hussain, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anish Roy, Akshay Shah
Reviewed 11th June 2022

Before I Was A Bear – Soho Theatre Upstairs

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear – images from the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre

The infamous bear in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has been interpreted as emblematic of the play’s tragicomedy – murdering one of the play’s most uncomplicatedly good characters (Antigonus) and imperilling the life of a baby, despite being a stage effect with inevitable bathos. Even with a real bear (though there is no evidence one was ever used on the Elizabethan stage, despite the popularity of bearbaiting elsewhere), the sheer unpredictability of placing real animals on stage would be as destabilising as the awkward comedy of person donning a bear costume and shambling after Antigonus in pursuit. Perhaps the stage is not best suited to such visceral, immediate horror.

Yet Eleanor Tindall’s brilliant contemporary monologue Before I Was A Bear does place a bear on stage, drawing on a similar tangle of tones in a hilarious, melancholy story delivered entirely by one woman in a bear costume. Jacoba Williams bursts onto the stage, clad head to toe in bear attire, dancing energetically. The performance’s physicality is suffused not only with dance influences but clowning too. Interludes show her interacting with the world as a bear, adjusting to its difference, challenging physicality. Yet the initial comedy – from Grace Venning’s pantomime-like – steadily turns to frustration and unhappiness as the limits of bear-hood are exposed. Williams marvellously powers the play’s rich physicality, offering a wonderfully dynamic performance which consistently grips and moves us.

Williams plays Cally – named as a deliberate echo of the mythical Callisto, whose story Before I Was A Bear freely adapts. In the myth, Zeus disguises himself as the goddess Artemis in order to seduce the nymph Callisto. The affair is discovery when Callisto falls pregnant, and Zeus’s wife Hera transforms her into a bear in revenge. Tindall utilises the overall shape, updating the myth into a contemporary story of desire and (in)justice.

Zeus here is replaced with Jonathan Bolt, an actor whose meteoric rise takes him from TV detective to film star during the sweep of the play’s narrative, who Cally meets in pub one evening – about a decade on from the height of an all-consuming crush on him. Their conversation soon transforms into a night of passion under a railway bridge, which progresses into an ongoing affair – Cally collecting the miniature toiletries from each hotel they stay in. The affair breaks Cally’s relationship with her best friend and former casual lover Carla, who asks how she could do it knowing that Bolt is married with children. Eventually the story breaks in the press: ‘Love Rat Actor JONATHAN BOLT Linked To At Least Ten WOMEN’. Bolt’s wife, Jasmine, then calmly arrives on Cally’s doorstep and – exactly as in the myth – transforms her into a literal bear. As Tindall writes in the play’s acknowledgments, ‘Thank you to Ovid for the story; sorry that I pulled it apart but that’s what stories are for.’

The play navigates the ethical challenges of a modern-day Callisto from her unique perspective, considering the implications of power. Yet unlike Callisto’s story, which can easily be read as a simple case of double-victimhood, Cally herself feels deeply compromised by her own choices, at least subconsciously. She spends much of the monologue seeking and soliciting our complicity. Cally is constantly appealing to us to share her perspective, winning us over with relatable comedy or direct entreaties to the inevitability of her actions. It’s what any of us would have done, or so we are told. Yet this is also an gesture towards normativity, a logic of rationalisation that is so fundamental to Cally that it even mirrors her understanding of her sexuality. On losing her virginity, Cally says that ‘It’s my first time unless you count a month earlier’. Sex with Carla does not quite count in her mind; the cultural and personal standard is that only heterosexual sex matters.

The show is peppered with bravura comic interludes whose comedy does not so much mask but actually expresses an underlying melancholy. Early in the show, Cally lists all of the London tube lines she has cried on (‘basically every line apart from the Waterloo and City line because who actually uses that’). Foremost among the confessional comedy is the excruciating tale of losing her (heterosexual) virginity to her first boyfriend, Lewis, on his Spiderman bedsheets, which Tindall then spins out into a broader survey of Cally’s sex-life. Aneesha Srinivasan brilliantly choreographs this sequence, using the small, red-trimmed blocks from Grace Venning’s set design to build three small steps. Sex with incompetent men becomes a Sisyphean ascent, in which Cally steps up onto a block and then back down again, over and over.

Cally’s subjectivity is what makes Before I Was A Bear so compelling, yet this conscious one-sidedness has deliberate moral limits. Cally admits to us that she has thought about Jonathan Bolt’s wife – despite lying about that fact to Carla – but she has never considered the potential effect of the affair on his children.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear

Before I Was a Bear is a rich and multifaceted drama – overtly a story of friendship, obsession, desire and moral uncertainty, while subtly and profoundly exploring sources of injustice in contemporary society. It presents a world (essentially our own, with the Rio Olympics, Channel 4 drama Sugar Rush, and James Bond as touchstones) in which the apparatus of punishment and law enforcement are strong, while justice itself is wanting. Jonathan Bolt’s stardom is redolent of our cop-drenched culture – the ‘maverick’ investigative anti-hero rendered iconic, and subsequently an ideal fantasy. He appears in a darkly addictive Channel 4 drama, which Tindall parodies to eviscerate derivative crime shows with sublime force. It was ‘the kind of show that starts with a dead woman being found in a skip, or bound and gagged in a car boot, or submerged in a lake, or buried under the floorboards by her husband […]’. It is a genre sustained by violence against women – and the fantasy of justice achieved through a male detective’s apparent brilliance in solving the case and catching the perpetrator. In Cally’s world, Bolt is heavily tipped as the next James Bond – another hero whose narratives are powered by litanies of disposable women.

Yet Tindall’s drama searches deeper than the common critique that culture lionises problematic characters and characteristics; these figures have not only been conferred status, but an erotic power too – an ambiguous mix of primal urge and socialised proclivities. To teenage Cally’s delight, the cop show contains vast amounts of sex – often not ‘relevant’ or ‘necessary’ to the plot. Where the gratuity stretches into troubling is when it takes advantage and misuses power, such as in ‘We-shouldn’t-do-this-because-you’re-the-victim’s-sister-but-we-will-anyway sex’. Tindall’s shards of wit draw blood with their perceptive commentary.

Cally ends up on trial in many different ways. She is branded ‘The Worst Kind of Woman’ – a home-wrecking seducer allegedly hell-bent on snuffing out Bolt’s illustrious profile. ‘Oh look’, one internet commenter writes, ‘another whore ruining a talented man’s career. Classic’.

Many shows have rightly identified the misogynistic bind that demands women are simultaneously sexually available and chaste (a modern variation on Freud’s Madonna-whore complex), but few have expressed it as deftly, succinctly, yet complexly as this. The sudden burst of disdain towards Cally is unsurprising – especially in 2022, as MeToo entreaties towards female sympathy (encapsulated in slogans such as ‘Believe Women’) lose traction. Though Tindall updates Callisto’s rape into consensual and enjoyable sex, the play’s implicit consideration of power (and abuse of) is partly built from this hinterland. However, Cally’s sheer humanity in the play creates a sharp sense of whiplash; as we pity her treatment by the sensational press, a feeding frenzy has begun online that feels unspeakably cruel and unwarranted.

The play presents trial by media and then trial by social media in quick succession. Tindall treats the online and ‘real’ worlds with a very porous relationship. The internet is not a space that can be simply switched off – especially not when Cally is named, shamed and doxed by old school acquaintances and hounded by strangers online and off. Spaces of discussion and debate seem more like torture devices, methods of punishment, blame and shame – with no room for justice.

Yet the show is structured around a final revelation of punishment and injustice which finally explains Cally’s bear-hood – which has gone unremarked upon in the monologue, manifesting in the costume and cleverly directed interludes in which Cally tries to eat a bag of crisps and stares longingly at a tupperware of pasta. There is more we do not know about Jasmine Bolt’s ambiguous decision to unleash a very literal and physical punishment of metamorphosis upon Cally than we actually do. Cally wonders if the other women received the same treatment – or just her. Jasmine’s powers are just accepted; they are simply inexplicable. Yet Cally’s transformation is clearly a misdirected and lopsided punishment; she loses her human form while Bolt himself goes pretty much unscathed, announced as the new James Bond with a sense of inevitability. The update exposes the glaring double standard of the myth but also comments on the present reality; male reputations remain unsullied while women suffer.

The implicit question then is about what Cally should have done differently. By her account, she only did what was natural. By Carla’s, she should never have texted him back. Yet the play charts a fascinatingly nuanced course through various ethical imperatives: that of the individualist pursuit female pleasure, a notional duty to society, a duty to protect children. Jonathan Bolt had long been her fantasy, and probably the best sex she has ever had. Some feminists argue that female desire and pleasure are good ends in themselves – that a woman having a personally satisfying sex life, however she chooses, is innately feminist. Before I Was A Bear seems to feel the pull of this point of view, without fully subscribing to it. Sex with Bolt is joyous. Cally even throws confetti in the air to announce: ‘That night I fucked Jonathan Bolt’. It garners a round of applause. Yet in Cally driving away Carla, the play contrasts the excitement with a reasoned meditation on the cost of her choices.

At the very end, Carla returns, bringing ‘industrial-sized bottles of soap and thick cuts of meat’ to tend to the flea-ridden, hungry bear that Cally has become. It offers the closest glimpse of tenderness and care in a play filled with cruelty, something restorative and humanising after Cally’s strange and extraordinary punishment.

Perhaps the play’s central theme is the reduction of female identity to the solely or primarily bodily. Cally has experienced a distorted, complicated relationship with her body; Tindall’s poetic gifts are in evidence as Cally recalls how puberty hits ‘like a big fucking cricket bat covered in spikes and doused in oestrogen’. Yet with it she is perceived differently by men, most alarmingly on a visit to Lewis’s house, during which her boyfriend’s father deliberately exposes himself to her as he leaves the bathroom. Cally feels as if the cause is located within herself, rather than the grossly entitled and exploitative action of a much older man. Yet the play’s ending evokes this bodily discomfort quite literally. Cally is now perceived as a physically threat, and the police are called in as she roams London – leaping in the Thames to escape.

However, the metamorphosis into a bear cannot be reduced into a simple metaphor. It variously evokes Cally’s depression, alienation from her body, cruel and disproportionate punishments visited upon women (though it is far from limited to these things). Before I Was A Bear is a story that cannot be pinned down; it invites us to keep pulling it apart. After all, that’s what stories are for.

Before I Was A Bear

Written by Eleanor Tindall, Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan, Set and Costume Design by Grace Venning, Lighting Design by Martha Godfrey, Starring Jacoba Williams
Production Photographs by Tara Rooney (of the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre)
Reviewed 7th June 2022

Daddy – Almeida

Sharlene Whyte, Terique Jarrett and Ioanna Kimbook in Daddy

A swimming pool dominates the set of Daddy. It acts as a glittering mirror, a cool space of relief and relaxation, yet it also it fills with bodies, sweat, spit, fluids, and mess. Immaculately designed by Matt Saunders, it is a grand, melodramatic metaphor which befits the play absolutely – representing the opulent, palatial open-plan home in which the action occurs, and the complicated warmth and malice of the play’s dangerous central relationship.

Daddy follows the rise of young artist Franklin, as he meets Andre, a wealthy art collector, potential patron, and (as the frequent and hilariously literal renditions of George Michael attest) substitute ‘Father Figure’. The play opens with Franklin – ‘high on molly’ – dripping wet from the pool, lost in his thoughts and surroundings. Having met Andre at a gallery opening, they have come back to Andre’s place – their simmering, sometimes-troubling, sometimes-affectionate sexual-romantic relationship taking uncertain shape before our eyes. Andre christens Franklin ‘Naomi’, due to having ‘legs like Naomi [Campbell]’, and Franklin will continue to be fetishized, as well as infantilised, as the play goes on.

Daddy is an earlier work than Jeremy O. Harris’s Broadway hit Slave Play (which is yet to appear on a London stage). The plays demonstrate impressive range, with substantially different formal and thematic interests, though there are some fascinating shared preoccupations: the relationship of sex to games, the complication of romantic and sexual relationships by power, history and society, as well as grand gestures in design. (Slave Play’s original setholds up a literal mirror to its audience.) Where Slave Play scrutinises historical trauma in the power dynamics of interracial couples, Daddy adds to this divisions of age and importantly wealth too. Harris seems to view drama as an ideal space to analyse and attempt to draw the line between power’s eroticism, and its tendency towards the problematic or abusive.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney (1972)

Harris has described David Hockney as an aesthetic influence on the play – particularly his 1972 work Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). It was one of many pictures on a mood board in the Almeida’s foyer (along with Hockney’s equally famous 1967 painting A Bigger Splash), and the script’s ‘Note on Style’ instructs the reader to ‘Google’ it. The image of the standing figure (the artist Peter Schlesinger) peering down at swimmer beneath the water seems apt to this play of gaze, longing and looking. There is a yearning in the standing figure, perhaps even a note of melancholy. Daddy dramatises (and inverts) a version of this scene. Now the artist, Franklin, is more often swimming, while being observed longingly by Andre. Yet the painting seems relevant to Daddy not just as art, but as an artefact, tying into a thesis the play repeatedly tests: that art (and possibly everything) loses its value if it can be owned. At Christie’s, in 2018, Hockney’s large canvas set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction by a living artist. An unknown buyer purchased the piece for $90.3 million. Thus, Portrait of an Artist is not only a mirror of the play’s dynamics, or an aesthetic touchstone for its design, but a model of the fraught ownership Daddy interrogates.

Hockney himself is perhaps something of a muse for the play – caught as he is in the eddies and ripples of commercial art. An air of effortlessness pervades his work, from the lightly stylised rendering of the figures and landscape in Portrait of an Artist to his recent work, such as his rather disappointing digital paintings collectively titled ‘The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020’. For some, money has clearly harmed his artistry; Tom Whyman has called this trend in Hockney’s work his ‘Art of Doing the Bare Minimum’, citing ‘rubbish late-period’ pieces including his particularly half-hearted commercial commissions like his low-effort redesign of the logo for Piccadilly Circus station. Whyman contemplates the gesture, suggesting and then rejecting the idea that it mounts a ‘rebellion of the idle’ in reminding commuters that they need not try too hard. Instead, he concludes, it is an ‘arrogant gesture of aristocratic contempt’.

Ioanna Kimbook and John McCrea in Daddy

At stake is the position of the artist in society, the play charting both a regression into childhood – in child-like sexual role play and thumb sucking – and a coming-of-age into an adult and artist. Artistic success is arguably compromising though. Late in the play, Franklin clarifies the claim he made early on, arguing that making art on commission, for a gallery or show, feels tainted – compared to making art for art’s sake. Daddy itself was not commissioned; Harris wrote it on spec, and it is the play that got him into the Yale School of Drama – after which it was rewritten and reworked to become today’s version. Thus, it is a play that questions his own idealism – at the start of a career that so far has been extremely illustrious. Patronage is presented as both elevation and destruction – a valid and important historical model (à la the Medicis), or a relic of a bygone age. Franklin is supported financially and given opportunity, yet he is at risk of selling his soul. Harris, however, considers the artist to be inherently powerful. Though Andre has clear material and social advantages, he comes to realise that Franklin’s comments about ownership were not so much social commentary, or even a prediction of his coming infantilisation by Andre, but a ‘warning’ – ‘that if you [Franklin] could get me [Andre], have me, if I would have you, that I would become worthless in your arms’. It was never simply the exercise of Andre’s dominance over Franklin, but a complex mutual interplay of power.

These rich, interpersonal dynamics are handled with aplomb by the play’s leads. Terique Jarrett stunningly captures Franklin’s fluctuations in confidence and uncertainty – self-assuredly opining about Cy Twombly but still clearly an artist in the making. The best scenes in the play are those between him and Claes Bang’s Andre, which crackle with chemistry, mutual infatuation and menace. Bang is probably most familiar to British audiences as Dracula in the 2020 BBC series of the same name (as well as the lead of Palme d’Or winner The Square, also set in the art world), and he conveys a similarly winning mixture of charm and threat here as the suave, ambiguously vampiric art collector. We begin to wonder if Andre collects not just artworks, but also artists. Despite his ostensible power, he feels somewhat incapable when it comes to expressing his deepest feelings. Yet he is also hilariously expressive, such as in Danya Taymor and choreographer Anjali Mehra’s fantastically staged dance sequence, which closes the first act.

Meanwhile, Harris’s supporting characters, especially young wannabe influencer Bellamy, undergo one of my favourite dramatic transformations: a shift from comically superficial and affected to subtly profound. Their affectations are retrospectively exposed as signs of the characters’ richly drawn neuroses. Delivering a speech for the wedding of Franklin and Andre, Bellamy struggles to find the words she needs, alighting on the phrase ‘When it’s summer every day, when even is it?’ Ioanna Kimbook gives the line a devastatingly discontented reading, puncturing the glossily filtered world that she has helped curate, through her posts and their embedded worldview. At the beginning of the text, Harris notes that ‘She has 9.3K Instagram followers’ and ‘She’s quite happy with her own directionlessness.’ By the end, she seems adrift, and we are left not quite so sure. Strong support also comes from John McCrea, as well as Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother – who becomes a commanding presence in the second half, engaged in an unacknowledged power struggle with Andre, as mother and father figures respectively.

Terique Jarrett in Daddy

Harris’s gleeful determination to deconstruct the theatrical form is in evidence here, though Slave Play’s extended examination of the ethics of play, plays and playing develops this further. Daddy’s disruptions are slightly less assured, yet they reveal a playwright thinking about – and outside of – his chosen medium. Harris has clearly noted the peculiar tension that arises in a theatre when a phone goes off. I recently witnessed the engrossing offstage drama of a man’s palpable relief when a ringtone turned out to be from the phone of his seat neighbour and not his own faux pas. Yet some dramatists are increasingly realising that this miniature ritual of anxiety, shame and judgement will occur both when the phone belongs to an audience member or is part of the play. The jolt of tension created is an arguably unavoidable distancing effect, alienating and reasserting the drama’s fictionality, as the viewer momentarily scrambles to check or remember if they had turned theirs off.

Here, Franklin’s phone repeatedly rings – which is distancing for Franklin himself, pulling him out of his world. Lee Kinney’s sound design melds the distinctive chimes (the iPhone ringtone ‘Opening’) into longer pads, slowing them down and creating alarming soundscapes. Coupled with Isabella Byrd’s lighting, the mood is one filled with potent horror. At the end of the play, we learn that the call Franklin has been silencing is from his father. The anxiety, fear and guilt caused by phones ringing in theatres aptly parallels the feelings evoked by Franklin’s father. It is a neat touch, bringing the play full circle and identifying the major source of trauma in the play. Perhaps Daddy slightly over-resolves itself, and the ending becomes slightly protracted, yet the play remains a hugely engrossing examination of the ethics of art and love.


Written by Jeremy O. Harris, Directed by Danya Taymor, Set Design by Matt Saunders, Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco and Peter Todd, Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd, Sound Design and Original Music by Lee Kinney, Music Supervision by Tim Sutton, Original Vocal Score by Darius Smith and Brett Macias, Hair and Makeup Design by Cynthia De La Rosa, Choreography and Movement Direction by Anjali Mehra, Intimacy and Fight Direction by Yarit Dor, Casting Direction by Amy Ball, Doll Design by Tschabalala Self, Dialect Coaching by Brett Tyne, Costume Supervision by Olivia Ward, Assistant Direction by Mumba Dodwell, Playwright’s Assistant Raffi Donatich, Assistant Sound Design by Ali Taie, Starring Rebecca Bernice Amissah, Keisha Atwell, Claes Bang, Terique Jarrett, Ioanna Kimbook, John McCrea, Jenny Rainsford, Sharlene Whyte, T’Shan Williams
Production Photographs by Marc Brenner
Reviewed 1st April 2022

Girl on an Altar – Kiln

Eileen Walsh and David Walmsley in Girl on an Altar

At a talk she gave, I once heard Marina Carr discuss how she avoids writing chorus parts when adapting Greek tragedy – as they are often quite ‘boring’. It is certainly true that their dislocation from dramatic action is less immediate and engaging for some audiences more used to naturalist realism. Yet what struck me so much about Carr’s superb Girl on an Altar is the way that this free adaptation and extension of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (the first part of The Oresteia trilogy) replaces the chorus with something other than straightforward dialogue. The painful recollection of Iphigenia’s sacrificial death a decade earlier, which is recalled at the beginning of The Oresteia, is no longer a vividly graphic summary (though it remains vivid and graphic) but an introspective deliberation from Clytemnestra, firing the starting gun for her eventual murder of her husband. The play follows in this pattern; each character becomes a filter through which subjective narratives pass, in long, poetic monologues, interspersed with occasional dialogues.

Annabelle Comyn’s direction – which coaxes passion and precision from a hugely impressive ensemble – relishes the effects of these delightfully unreliable narrators. Often the stage action contrasts the dialogue in subtly destabilising ways. Agamemnon’s infamous fatal bath is relocated to a bed on stage, but not in speech. It happens more subtly in narration of emotion; a character might remember a smile that the corresponding actor does not give, for instance. These moments sow subtle distrust as to whose version of events is accurate.

Carr’s dramatic gesture here is distension – opening up the time between Agamemnon’s return and his murder by days, even weeks. The timing is somewhat ambiguous, yet Aeschylus’s observation of the unity of time is purposefully discarded in favour of a passionate slow burn of love and hatred. As in many Greek tragedies, Aeschylus sets the action of Agamemnon just outside the family home, and the fateful cries of pain and anguish are typically heard from within – offstage. Carr instead takes us inside, the marital bed sitting prominently in the centre of the space. As Cilissa remarks, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon need time to ‘grieve and seethe’ in private – rather than the relatively more public scenes of the original Agamemnon. This (ultimately failed) attempt at healing and restitution is exactly what Girl on an Altar stages.

With its intergenerational struggle and murdered kings, The Oresteia certainly has affinities with Hamlet – with Clytemnestra as a far more active parallel to Gertrude, doing the deed herself and remarrying the cousin rather than the brother to maintain power. In this mould, Clytemnestras are often presented as either scheming and cruel, or madly emotional. What Carr does here is essentially to cast her as Hamlet himself – deliberating for two and a half hours over the right course of action as she battles with the complexities of love, anger and loathing she feels towards her husband and his actions. This grieving, seething mix is encapsulated in the blazing performance of Eileen Walsh, whose compelling stage presence communicates effortless authority and searching vulnerability at once. This is an all-time great Clytemnestra that refuses to mute her humanity in any way by dismissing her actions as mad, over-emotional, or self-interested and scheming. This Clytemnestra endures the agony of living with dignity and power, though letting go of her grief is impossible. Meanwhile, David Walmsley refines his take on Agamemnon as the play progresses, brilliantly conveying a mellowing from initial brutishness into a subtler, more sensitive figure choked up with pressure and regret, before he descends once more into irrepressible barbarity.

Kate Stanley Brennan and Eileen Walsh in Girl on an Altar

The title’s indefinite article hints at Girl on an Altar’sunderlying contention – that the horror of Iphigenia’s murder is not only the act of filicide, but the fact it presages a paradigm shift, after which sacrifices of daughters are normalised, even expected. The girl on an altar is in the process of becoming a savagely iconic image. Carr seems deeply concerned by the power of the image on the imagination. Clytemnestra learns that a similar sacrifice was made by Agamemnon in Troy, of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena – in order that the winds would blow them back home. Drawing on both The Trojan Women and Hecuba by Euripides, Carr has Clytemnestra remark that ‘They sacrificed another girl before they left. […] One of Hecuba’s daughters. They say Hecuba was there.’ The events rhyme but are not identical; Clytemnestra’s spare dialogue rings with her still raw anguish and guilt that she arrived too late to see her daughter’s murder. (In this version, when Clytemnestra arrived there was already sacrificial ‘[b]lood on the stones’.)

The image of the sacrificial girl is potent and contagious, Clytemnestra desperate to stop the spread. She recalls that in the past ‘if a sacrifice was wanted it was a calf or a deer. Now it’s girls. The blood of spotless girls these new gods want.’ Carr situates the play in a world not entirely bereft of women’s rights – albeit within rigid class hierarchies – but where the limited rights women already have are under significant threat. An overtone of contemporariness wafts through the drama, but Carr feels no need to make the parallels explicit. Rather than reproductive rights or healthcare, it is the sacrifice of female children that is the new frontier here, and these killings are emblematic of a regressive renegotiation of the place of women in society. Even the king’s daughter is not safe. Clytemnestra dryly remarks that (for Agamemnon, and Greece as a whole) these sacrifices are ‘becoming a habit’, following the parallel sacrifice of Polyxena. What has been read previously as a concluding tragic echo of the sacrifice that began the war is convincingly situated instead as a continuation of an alarming, misogynistic trend. The play never entirely punctures the divine authority of the gods – though there is perhaps a subtle agnosticism towards the sacrifice’s causation of the winds. Yet Carr absolutely connects the pernicious effects of religious and superstition to violence against women. The gods themselves seem pliable to received wisdom and social prejudices. After all, Clytemnestra emphasises that they are ‘new’.

The danger of images is also apparent in the construction of heroic masculinity. When Agamemnon slays his daughter and dances on the altar, he retrospectively admits that it was as if Hercules was in his blood. We are left to judge whether this gauche celebration stemmed most from peer pressure, the expectations created by idealised heroes such as Hercules, or simple self-aggrandisement and ego – that he, like Hercules, might himself ascend to Mount Olympus and become god-like, if not a god himself. The violent mythical hero Hercules sets an alarming precedent. Hercules too killed family members – murdering his wife and sons in a fit of madness. (This usually is said to have presaged his twelve labours, as atonement, yet in Euripides he kills them on his return.) Carr’s drama is laced with a suspicion of such archetypes – not least the titular doomed girl on the altar, but also the masculine hero, and the mad wife. There is always greater complexity beneath the surface, whether one is a hero or a villain.

A final striking image echoes The Oresteia’s language quite directly. Where Ivo van Hove recently interrogated the social effects of war, violence and anger in Age of Rage, Carr seems far more concerned about the effects of war in private – and most of all, the way gender structures the world. This manifests, upon Agamemnon’s return from Troy, in his narrated decision to reassert control over Clytemnestra through patience, rather than simply dominating her. ‘All flowers bend towards the sun’, he says, foreshadowing his later claim of god-like status. He goes on: ‘She needs the yoke again but I won’t force it yet.’ Agamemnon thinks he is being reasonable, when in fact her is merely advocating a slightly less oppressive form of misogyny than physical violence.

Yet the image of the ‘yoke’ – a crosspiece which was fixed around the necks of two oxen in order to draw a plough – is hugely important in The Oresteia. Agamemnon and Menelaus are called ‘Atreus’ sturdy yoke of sons’, between them driving Greece to military victory. Aeschylus, in Robert Fagles’s translation, makes this image an extended metaphor; Agamemnon ‘slipped his neck in the strap of fate’, in his determination to sacrifice his daughter for military advantage. Yet the image is also replete with submission and control. When placed on the altar – desperate to avoid her screaming – Iphigenia is gagged, bridled. Fagles renders Agamemnon’s instruction as a conscious echo from the chorus: ‘slip this strap in her gentle curving lips’. Here, the horrifying outrage of her death is not only the substitution of a young girl in the place of a ‘yearling’, but the fact that, until moments earlier, it had been Agamemnon in the metaphorical straps. Now, Iphigenia is literally restrained. (This Aeschylean substitution is alive in Carr’s script too, notably in Agamemnon’s metaphorical defence that ‘My hands were tied’ by the army’s pressure on him, met by Clytemnestra’s literal retort, ‘Iphigenia’s hands were tied.’) Carr has Agamemnon claim that Clytemnestra should belong in the yoke – that ambiguous place of both child murdering warrior and female victim. His repressive misogyny is made all the harsher by the echo of Iphigenia’s stifled scream; female voices are crushed into silence.

Daon Broni and David Walmsley in Girl on an Altar

The play’s structure is perhaps akin to a psychological thriller – a whydunit that simmers with not only hatred and vengeance, but the agony of love. Unlike the original Agamemnon’s dramaturgy of relatively straightforward retribution and descent, Carr’s drama thrums with life in the oscillations. Agamemnon’s decision is now the result of immense pressure, rather than simply the ‘frenzy’ of war-lust; he may have danced upon the altar, but his inner thoughts and feelings are ambiguous even to him. Furthermore, The Oresteia is usually grounded in clear patrilineal trauma (from Tantalus, to Pelops, to Atreus, to Agamemnon – and then to Orestes, in parts two and three, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides). Yet for Carr, it is not only the house of Atreus which is haunted by spectres of violence and madness. Clytemnestra mentions that ‘My mother went mad’ – another intergenerational trauma, amid the traditionally male terrain of inheritance. She even names her child, with Aegisthus, Leda – the same name as her mother.

Clytemnestra’s love for Agamemnon is startlingly complex too. It is sexually passionate, yet warmly loving beneath that – evincing far more than a simple dichotomy of enemies and lovers. Yet they cannot be together without opening old wounds. In a long scene, actually set in their bedchamber, Clytemnestra confronts Agamemnon, eventually coaxing an admission from him: ‘Okay. I killed her.’ This is greeted with a sudden passionate kiss – culpability as aphrodisiac, yet in that admission their relationship might still have a future. Carr’s text, like Aeschylus’s, is largely free from stage directions; the lustful passion between them is brilliantly interpreted by Comyn as intensely physical. Yet it is the fact that Agamemnon cannot bear to remain in this position as an apologetic supplicant that speeds the play towards its bloody climax. Instead, he reasserts his authority and orders Clytemnestra and Leda are sent out to the harem of captive women, where Leda will soon die.

Jim Findley, Kate Stanley Brennan, Eileen Walsh and Nina Bowers in Girl on an Altar

The play, rather surprisingly given the more domestic scope of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, transforms in the second half into a full-blown war play – at least for the male characters. In one particularly exquisite moment of gendered scenography, the women sit around the bed in a tableau of silent, peaceful contemplation, while the men stand tall and bellow military commands. With the captured Clytemnestra offstage, Carr elicits many spinetingling moments from the excavation of the minor female characters. The nurse, Cilissa, originally only from The Libation Bearers, is now a significant figure, as a ‘servingwoman’ to Clytemnestra whose agency and power is frequently examined. In a startling moment, when Cassandra desperately complains that Agamemnon has kept her from her children, Cilissa replies ‘Your children? What about my children? Don’t talk to me about children.’ Kate Stanley Brennan, so often on stage here, unleashes the line as a sudden, flooring grenade, tearing through the drama of the royal household with a reminder of how their violence harms more than just themselves.

Also impressive is Nina Bowers’s astonishing Cassandra. Robert Icke, who staged The Oresteia in a 2015 production at the Almeida, has argued that while the traditional reading that Cassandra is a ‘sex slave’ who Clytemnestra is jealous of is understandable, the play could also be read more sympathetically that Agamemnon is ‘try[ing] to rehabilitate a version of Iphigenia’ – ‘someone who could have been put to the knife and wasn’t’. (She is Hecuba’s daughter – who, unlike Polyxena, survives the fall of Troy.) Icke ensured that the relationship between them was still fraught with a power imbalance and potential abuse yet interposed an additional ambiguity. Carr also complicates the character, refusing often-typical mumbled prophecies and anguished screams, and giving Cassandra the role of narrator; her prophecies are now authoritative. Bowers delivers the play’s haunting final line: ‘And then, as foretold, she comes for me.’ The lights plunge into sudden darkness, with that breath-taking rush of emotion the best plays manage in their closing moments. In this conclusion, the original trilogy’s tragic cycle of murders is leant a new shape. Cassandra is no longer ancillary to the revenge killing of Agamemnon. She is the substitute Iphigenia who Clytemnestra has now killed, and Clytemnestra, in part, becomes what she despises.

Girl on an Altar

Written by Marina Carr, Directed by Annabelle Comyn, Design by Tom Piper, Lighting Design by Amy Mae, Composition and Sound Design by Philip Stewart, Projection Design by Will Duke, Casting Direction by Julia Horan CDG, Movement and Intimacy Direction by Ingrid Mackinnon, Voice and Dialect Coaching by Daniele Lydon, Costume Supervision by Isobel Pellow, Assistant Direction by Jessica Mensah, Starring Nina Bowers, Daon Broni, Jim Findley, Kate Stanley Brennan, David Walmsley, Eileen Walsh
Production Photographs by Peter Searle
Reviewed 31st May 2022

Tom Fool – Orange Tree Theatre

Jonah Rzeskiewicz and Anna Francolini in Tom Fool

Beneath the surface of the social realist genre churns an implicit discussion about whether radical art is (or should be) informative, confrontational or transcendent. Is the main aim that the audience walks away and urgently demands socio-political reform, and is that possible? Similarly, is representing poverty on stage going to foster vital empathy, or perversely lull predominantly middle-class audiences into thinking they have done their bit purely by thinking about social problems. These questions seem renewed in an era of social media, where raising awareness and recognising injustice is often mistaken for activism itself – rather than, at best, a first step.

Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, written in German in 1978 and translated sensitively by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, portrays the devastating force that money exerts upon a family, playing on the fault lines of intergenerational resentment and patriarchy. Its undeniable anti-capitalist message is never quite didactic, emerging instead through a pervasive tone of discontent – the aching sense that things do not have to be as they are. It uncompromisingly depicts life under capitalism for those it does little to benefit and implicitly spurs its audience into action – though the drama’s disconsolate, desolate air is partly down to the difficulty of resisting such an all-pervading system.

Previously revived at the Bush Theatre in 2007, Tom Fool seems perhaps more apt now as a tale of a squeezed cost of living, and a family it splinters apart. It focuses on the low-key tribulation of a family of three – with a working father, the mother at home, and the late-teen son Ludwig caught between childhood and adulthood, in a lacuna of jobless inertia. Michael Shaeffer’s patriarch, Otto, dominates the stage, his performance commanding and riven with buried shame. It is a turn which anchors the play too, allowing Anna Francolini to give a quieter, yet utterly compelling performance as his put-upon wife, Martha, victimised by him one time too many. She is the play’s devastating emotional heart. Jonah Rzeskiewicz meanwhile plays Ludwig with a youthful uncertainty about his place in the world, and the actions read by his father as idly disrespectful (lying in bed and skulking around the house) seem more like attempts at hiding from the withering paternal glare of disapproval.

Otto encapsulates Kroetz’s main thesis – that capitalism is ultimately dehumanising – while Martha and Ludwig advance supporting hypotheses about the maltreatment of women and the young respectively (both unable to access jobs in a system where work defines worth). Kroetz’s most searing critique is of the dehumanising effects of automation. While left-wing, anti-capitalist writing about automation has always been somewhat conflicted (between the positives of eliminating the need for dangerous, exploitative and inefficient labour, and the negatives of increasing profits for owners while eradicating working class jobs), Kroetz homes in on the human cost above the economics. Automation is not a debate about efficiency or wealth redistribution, but a battle for the soul of the worker. Here, it is not the car industry which has been automated. Instead, the human workers themselves have been reduced to machines, in an Adam Smith-like vision of streamlined ultra-efficiency. Otto, a semi-skilled worker, is in charge of the screws that go into a car door and window. Yet this is not a triumph of specialisation, but a psychologically destructive separation of worker from output.

Though Otto’s job here is specific to German industry – and particularly to the late-20th century too – for Kroetz, I doubt this matters too much. Otto’s work conditions function as a metaphor for capitalist employment as a whole, which he contends is inherently unfulfilling. Kroetz mirrors Otto’s profession in his hobby – building intricate model gliders. They are made according to his vision, and he is responsible for every part. Perhaps this is less efficient, but the connection between effort and output is enriching, even joyous. Interspersed in the play are scenes where Otto works on his glider or embarks on test flights. He narrates his actions, even pretending to be an interviewee on a German radio station – greeting his own aggrandising introduction with a gentle faux-modesty, conceding that everything he knows about glider-making is something he has taught himself. In some versions, especially given his cruel streak, these scenes could be directed to mock Otto – charging him with a narcissistic, delusional streak perhaps. Yet Zora locates in them a private spark of joy. These are the key to sympathising with the play’s difficult lead.

Anna Francolini and Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool

Otto is both a tragic protagonist and a comically absurd creation – penny-pinching to the max and regaling his wife with long-winded anecdotes about the price of a restaurant meal, or the whereabouts of a fountain pen, borrowed by a higher-up at work. On stage, his mania is strangely compelling. To live with, it would be exhausting. Kroetz heavily implies that his obsessions with money come as much from a desire to assert power and authority, as much as from a fear of poverty. Capitalism has infected life absolutely, every moment of generosity fiercely bounded with financial caveats. Out with the family at a pub, the father offers his son another drink. ‘A pint?’ he asks. He is allowed a half and reprimanded for being cheeky – even though a scene later the father is opining about a half’s relatively poor value for money.

Though Otto feels dehumanised by his job, the alternative – not working – carries a profound sense of shame, which manifests in his borderline abusive treatment of his son. Ludwig is caught in a depressive eddy of unemployment, lacking the qualifications and social opportunities to pursue a career which would satisfy his parents. His attempts to become a bricklayer are shouted down by his father, yet Otto is also quick to ridicule his son’s apparent indolence and tells him to ‘go out and earn some money first’, before doing anything enjoyable. Otto is motivated by a powerful resentment, that his son might not have to suffer the way he does, yet this attitude ascribes a moral value to labour itself and reinforces the capitalist system.

The first half, in brief staccato scenes, slowly escalates Otto’s resentment and powerlessness to breaking point. When 50 Marks go missing – stolen by Ludwig to buy a ticket for a rock festival – Otto explodes in rage, strip-searching his son and expelling him from the house when the money is not found. The rage continues to bubble up, now directed at Martha, and, in a heart-stopping scene just before the end of the first half, Otto loses control completely. He deliberately spills some of his beer on the floor, a move rendered shocking for its sheer wastefulness – that Otto would normally condemn. Then he quietly smashes the bottle on the floor. Then he unleashes a burst of pure rage; he upturns the dinner table and a dresser, puts his foot through the television and empties out the pot plants’ soil. Martha watches on, the actions a deliberate attempt to intimidate her, infringing on a space that is implicitly hers. When Otto first pours out his beer, she immediately goes to clear it up; the gendered division of their domestic labour has been clearly established long ago.

The most striking part of Kroetz’s text is the scene that follows. Together, in near-silence, Martha and Otto clean up the mess. It takes at least five minutes, and Diyan Zora brilliantly insists on verisimilitude. The fact that the scene leads into the interval would allow the cleaning to be approximated or cut short – left as a task for stagehands, while the audience pops to the loo. But Zora plays the scene with a powerful realism that wordlessly communicates guilt, blame, apology, fear and even acts as a form of catharsis. For Otto, perhaps it is even that – joining his wife in cleaning up – he is truly able to release the pent-up emotion that caused his violent outburst. Yet it is now too late to save their marriage.

Realism and naturalism are usually about simulation. By evoking what Lyn Gardner describes (in her review of the 2007 production) as the ‘tedious minutiae’ of daily life in a ‘hyper-realistic style’, we gain a different an insight and understanding that we would from the more contrived mechanics of standard plot-drama. Sometimes, ‘real’ plays cut to the heart of the matter by announcing the limits of their reality from the start. Alecky Blythe’s beautiful verbatim play Our Generation (which recently played on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage) begins with a projected acknowledgement of the play’s real dialogue, though character details and names have been changed. There is always a limit of some kind; theatre is not life. Actions happening onstage are not the same as those offstage.

However, there is something about the act of cleaning specifically that pushes against the limits of realist simulation in theatre. Annie Baker’s 2014 play The Flick centred on three cinema employees, whose jobs included the ‘walkthrough’ required after every screening. It is something that happens in theatre too; the auditorium is checked for rubbish (or lost property) and cleaned up. Baker places scenes of cleaning on stage, yet – making no concessions to theatrical brevity – she sets many of these scenes in near-total silence. Baker is faithful to the duration of actual cleaning work and has the actors sweep prop popcorn off the cinema carpet. Yet Baker honours the social awkwardness of her characters too; they may not know what to say to each other, but the work needs to be done. Thus, it plays in silence. At one point, one of the two cleaners does not show up for work, so the other has to do the walkthrough on their own. Realistic as ever, Baker plays the scene entirely without dialogue, while the cleaning ends up taking twice as long.

Cheating this onstage also becomes difficult. An audience might play along if a character pronounced a messy set as pristine, but the play would lose any implicit claims that it was presenting life exactly as things are. Therefore, writing mess into a play – especially mess that needs to be cleaned up – introduces a sudden loss of control. The Orange Tree seats its audience on the same level as the stage, fairly close and in the round. As a result, there are inevitable concessions to safety (and economy). The dresser is presumably fitted with shatterproof Perspex, so its ‘glass’ does not break when overturned. If you squint, you can also see that some of the bone china ornaments are surprisingly robust. While the beer bottle is (presumably) made from safety glass, it shatters into small pieces across the stage and will take far longer to clear up than it does to make the mess.

Ultimately, this compellingly understated scene seems pivotal in Kroetz’s contemplation of the mechanised industrial worker. Technically precise social realist acting is arguably fraught with potential for a similar mechanical reproduction – though embodying a character is obviously far more varied and holistic an act that than bolting the same set of sixteen screws into a Volkswagen’s door. Yet, hewing to an exact, hyper-realistic mode could threaten to reduce the actor to an instrument. Here though, they clean up an unpredictable mess, in a way that cannot be mechanically reproduced – requiring a heightened responsiveness and adaptability. The actor is not a mechanical part of an industrialised process, their physical actions not preordained or choreographed with quite the same exactness. There is a higher form of realism in its randomness.

Anna Francolini, Jonah Rzeskiewicz and Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool

It is also a scene which defiantly, though silently, asserts the value of Martha’s work – puncturing Otto’s self-constructed mythos of himself as the family’s sole provider. In his view, he is the worker of the family, but seeing the effort expended at such length in clearing up his mess powerfully demonstrates that housework is a form of labour. When the room is finally returned to a semblance of normal tidiness, Martha flatly remarks that ‘that needed doing.’ Kroetz lends her a subtle power and decency in this grimly comic punchline, yet it also speaks to an internalised set of domestic and marital obligations. It is a terrible indictment of this family, and society, that her default reaction is simply to start cleaning up her husband’s mess.

Otto’s character is a synthesis of many archetypal tragic flaws. He is proud and hubristic – even ceremoniously placing a paper crown atop his head – cruel and dominating to his family, and quick to anger. Yet, unlike traditional tragic tyrants, he lacks the social standing to make his outbursts more than implosive, harming his closest loved ones – but above all himself. This seems epitomised by his final act when he trashes the flat; he snaps the wing off his beloved glider. A lot of his anger is really aimed inwards. The mother and son bond, finding ways to support each other in the second half, yet Otto never really recovers.

At stake in Otto is the humanity that he seems to lack – which Kroetz squarely blames on oppressive social forces, though without neutralising the much-deserved scorn accorded him by Martha when she walks out. This humanity has been utterly crushed out of him by his work. Kroetz even ironically titles a short scene in which Otto tries and fails to masturbate ‘Being Human’. Even sex has been tainted by its association with money. Otto solicits a prostitute but finds he is physically unable to go through with it, so he asks for his money back. His request is refused. Kroetz’s main critique appears to be that something natural and human has been perverted, rather than engaging in any more detail about the social causes and labour of sex work. Instead, it registers as a sin committed – in weakness – against the family, for which capitalism is ultimately to blame.

The play ends – like many dramas of its genre – without any particular resolution for action, though with the slightest glimpse of hope. ‘He’s got to do the same as us. Learn’, Martha says, in the play’s final line. It lands both as a fitting inward reflection on the family’s situation and a profound diagnosis of a society in stagnation. It also defers the issue of solving social problems from the artificial world of the play to the real world outside of it; we too have to learn, fashioning a happier ending through improved conditions and social reform. Thus, Tom Fool inclines towards the grimmer, bleaker end of social realism, which attempts to weaponize audience discomfort as a tool of social change. Its effectiveness as a genre is up for debate, but this staging is undeniably a profoundly affecting drama, its characters aching with life.

Tom Fool

Written by Franz Xaver Kroetz, Translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, Directed by Diyan Zora, Design by Zoë Hurwitz, Dramaturg Jennifer Bakst, Lighting Design by Christopher Nairne, Sound Design by Joe Dines, Movement Direction by Chris Evans, Intimacy Coordination by David Thackeray, Casting Direction by Christopher Worrall, Voice Coaching by Emma Woodvine, Costume Supervision by Rebecca Carpenter, Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hunscott, Assistant Stage Manager Eavan Gribbin, Starring Anna Francolini, Jonah Rzeskiewicz, Michael Shaeffer
Production Photographs by Richard Davenport
Reviewed 6th April 2022