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theatre

Hymn – Almeida

Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani in Hymn

In February, in the wake of a third national lockdown, London’s Almeida Theatre chose to present their previously announced ‘socially distanced season’ digitally. Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani performed – two metres apart – to an empty house, in an immaculately-shot world premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn. The production moved and engaged me then, but this hardly compares to the force with which the play gripped me in its triumphant in-person staging this summer.

In front of an enthusiastic, often-interactive young audience (I saw it during one of the theatre’s ‘Almeida for Free’ nights for under-25s), a quiet, tender two-hander is transformed into a lively and hilarious delight. Blanche McIntyre’s deceptively simple staging allows the outstanding performances of Lester and Sapani to drive the drama to terrific, near-ecstatic heights. Yet Hymn’s sheer joyousness makes its ultimate tragedy all the more devastating.

The play sees Benny (Sapani) and Gil (Lester) attending a funeral: Gil’s father’s funeral – and so it transpires, Benny’s too. Neither have met before, and in a terse café meeting Gil discovers that the dad he has just eulogised fathered another son, only six weeks after him. He is no longer the youngest sibling, and an uneasy friendship is struck between the newfound brothers – a friendship that blossoms into a strong bond, forming the core of the play.

Chakrabarti has said her main aim was to write a play about platonic male love, and Hymn is certainly a love story of sorts. She probes masculinity, and its intersections with race, though she keeps most of this subtextual. When Benny and Gil start training at the gym together (Gil couldn’t stand the ‘sandalwood and sage’ calm of yoga.), Gil recounts his frustration with a woman who blocked the road ahead of him. With cars lining up behind him, he is unable to reverse, but she refuses to move. He tries to break the impasse by getting out of the car to talk to her, but when he asks her to move, she rolls up the window, saying ‘I’m worried you’re going to hit me’. Chakrabarti leaves us to untangle the woman’s racial prejudices from the complications of Gil’s gender and class context. The woman’s response is clearly racially coded, yet we have also seen Gil’s amiable demeanour slip earlier in the play. Gil’s initial hostility to Benny seems driven by their disparity in class and wealth and on receipt of their belated cappuccinos he snaps at the service staff that ‘you’re not too good for this job’. Gil’s entitlement re-emerges in his retelling of the automotive stalemate. He feels that he and his BMW – his ‘BM’, as he calls it to laughed scorn from the audience – have right of way. All the more troubling is the way that Gil and Benny’s friendship blossoms in boxing practice when Benny suggests Gil imagines that the punchbag he is pummelling is ‘that woman in that car’.

Chakrabarti chronicles such encounters throughout the play with a compelling nuance. Male camaraderie grows from both mutual hate figures and shared passions. The two men become truly at ease with each other through singing and dancing – in a scene that truly comes to life in front of an audience, egging Adrian Lester on as his bashful, non-committal moves transform into athletic breakdance. The play is made far richer by these moments, that are far from mere interludes. Early in the play, a sombre rendition of ‘Lean on Me’ – Lester playing the piano in a soulful duet with Sapani – eulogises a complicated father and presages the reliance (for good and ill) that Gil and Benny will have on each other. Later, when they dance with abandon, it is as if they are reliving an adolescence they never shared. The bedrock of their relationship is a supportive masculinity of mutual affirmation. Chakrabarti’s script is rife with occasional moments which beautifully express the subtle yet sweeping ways men can support each other. When Benny’s son Louis is getting in trouble with the police, Gil tells Benny: ‘You’re his parachute – you’ve just got to wait for him to pull the cord’.

There are potential dangers too though. Hymn’s conception of masculinity is all about facades. Gil’s new business idea is to sell high-end designer stationery with matching clothes. You never really get a sense of how Gil has moved into this industry from running a chain of dry-cleaners and the idea itself works better as a stage metaphor than it would do as a practical business venture, but maybe that is the point. The idea seems tailor-made to Gil’s character. His sharp-suited professionalism belies a deep insecurity that he has never lived up to the successes of his older sisters (as well as his father). It masks an inner self-loathing that hurts those around him. His charm evaporates when reprimanding serving staff for tardiness, and when things go wrong for him, he loses all his enthusiasm and resolve, lapsing into self-pity rather than attempting to fix what he has broken. The inexorability of the play’s climax struck me as a structural weakness in February, yet seeing it again (knowing the ending for certain) I found Gil’s arc all the more tragic for its inevitability.

At the play’s end, both characters declare their love for each other in various forms, though neither has managed to tell the other to their face. Hymn ends where it begins, in church – a place earlier described as the only place where people’s expressions of feeling can be ‘complete’. For Chakrabarti, masculinity is, in part, characterised by difficulties of self-expression. As Benny suggests, in the closing monologue: it isn’t so much a problem of concealment, as of how to express yourself. Benny quotes Miles Davis, saying ‘sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself’. Here, it even takes someone else’s words for Benny to sound like himself.

Yet the staging suggestively proffers another place where ‘complete’ expression is possible: the theatre. The gorgeous lighting design coupled with the distinctive brickwork at the back of the Almeida’s stage evokes the space of a recently built church. As Hymn gently suggests, perhaps the possibility of expressing the tender, complicated feelings that underlie (particularly male) platonic friendships is what makes theatre near-unique – and all the better for being in the room where it happens.

Hymn

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, Directed by Blanche McIntyre, Starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani
Reviewed 6th August 2021
Categories
theatre

Dream – RSC

Over a year has now gone by since theatres first closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a vast array of hybrid-theatre alternatives, from greatly-reduced capacity audiences to online streaming of theatre-films. Yet out of all the pandemic innovations, this brief, astonishing piece of live motion capture theatre has been the best I have seen. Devised by a team from the Royal Shakespeare Company – who have staged the production as part of an ongoing research project that it is not yet in its final form – Dream interpolates live, physical performances with pre-made material – voices, music, and the computer-generated forest world inhabited by the play.

Heavily featured in the promotional material for Dream has been the cameo of Australian musician Nick Cave, and the combination of star appeal and the general zaniness of Cave playing the voice of a forest will have been a major draw for many audience members. His appearance is brief, early in the play, though it helps set an ethereal tone which I found central to the play’s appeal. Cave’s musical murmurings are whispered in vocal register somewhere between speech and song, akin to the narrated moments of his 2019 album Ghosteen. He lends a sense of grandeur and personality to the vividly rendered forest environment, though the play soon moves on, transcending his delightful cameo.

Dream magnificently constructs its world; its excellent sound design (a mix of pre-recorded orchestral pieces and sound effects triggered adaptively during the performance) are matched by consistently inventive visuals. In one sequence, a miniaturised Puck – played with delightful energy by EM Williams – finds themselves entangled not in a spider’s web, but in a spider’s web-like eyelashes. A tree suddenly comes to life; as it moves, dead leaves drop from the twisted branches of his body. Near the play’s end, Puck – who is depicted with a body made from rocks – is trapped by a fallen tree. All of these moments are a testament not only to the team’s creativity, but their precision in making the motion captured interaction with the environment near-seamless.

The story is relatively slight, even within the forty-minute runtime. It initially focuses on exploration of the world, before a storm arrives, where it turns into an exhilarating fight for survival. Puck is the only character still standing, not blown away by the fierce winds. The dialogue is composed of lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, extracted and stitched together, the result being more of a tone poem than a consistent narrative; instead the slight story is contained in the movement through the world.

This slightly ‘greatest hits’ approach to Shakespearean language could be questioned, with the lines sometimes being chosen for the effects, or for their superficial similarity to part of the story. However, the more significant Shakespearean import is the sense of place. The Shakespearean forest – especially in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It – is a place of escape, often from the strictures of courtly life. In the former the forest sees characters fleeing the rather tyrannical marital demands Theseus makes of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and his own bride-to-be Hippolyta. Yet it is also a space which contains its own dangers – not just the mischievous magic, but an untamed wildness. In Dream, this wildness comes not from any malevolent forces, but from nature itself, in the form of the storm. Similar too between Dream and Shakespeare’s work is the gesture of bringing the human and supernatural worlds together. Here, this interaction is staged between the human actors and the transformative potential of technology (rather than magic).

I was enchanted throughout the play, though wondered what the intentions of the company were during most of the duration. As stunning as Dream’s animation can be, the effect becomes even more impressive – and the company’s ideas much clearer – when the cameras pull back. The masked human performers are revealed, wearing motion capture attire and standing in front of a projected view of the forest world. We are confronted with both the results of their actions and the intricacy required in interacting with the digital space.

This is not the RSC’s first foray into motion capture Shakespeare. Their excellent 2016 production of The Tempest featured scenes in which Ariel transformed into a vast CGI projection above the stage. Though initially dazzling, the grandeur of the effects serves instead to highlight the quietness of the interstices. The sudden absence of sheer spectacle made Simon Russell-Beale’s closing soliloquy as Prospero all the more spectacular – standing alone in the centre of a wide, now-bare stage, renouncing his magic.

The ending of Dream has a similar effect as the story is humanised before us. Early sequences in which Puck flies around the forest are charming, yet seeing the team effort required to lift the actor into the air is heart-warming, a testament to the close collaboration inherent to theatre, after a year of distance.

Though the play could be read as an ecological account of a forest under threat, watched in the current circumstances, the story seems instead to be a metaphor for endurance. The play rather beautifully tells a simple story of weathering a storm and surviving against the odds. Dream shows that theatre is not just surviving the pandemic, but in some cases it can thrive.

Dream

Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Reviewed 21st March 2021
Categories
theatre

Shook – Southwark Playhouse

Josh Finan and Ivan Oyik in Shook

Presented in a pre-recorded production currently streaming online, Samuel Bailey’s excellent debut play Shook stages the weekly parenting classes attended by three expectant fathers, who are inmates of a young offenders’ institution. It opens with a dedication to ‘all the productions that never were’ and though it was recorded without an audience, the experience remains a thrillingly theatrical coruscation, not so much of the prisons themselves as the logic that traps people inside them.

As might be expected in a play about young offenders, at its heart is the perennial theme of whether society is wrong to write off its most anti-social members. Yet it is determinism itself that Bailey aims at, a mode of thought that causes the writing off. Imprisonment extends far beyond the prison walls, not only in the inequalities of wealth and education, but most sharply within the self-deprecating minds of its characters.

Bailey begins by stating his theme in a somewhat innocuous way, when Riyad asks his fellow inmates Jonjo and Cain whether they know anything about star signs. It transpires that his potential girlfriend is reconsidering him on this basis, ‘talking about how she’s a water sign and how our alignment is off or some bullshit.’ It remains unspoken how much this is her real motivation, or just a convenient excuse – though in both cases Riyad ends up written off, either for his star sign or his criminal record. Star signs are very much the thin end of a deterministic wedge, though Bailey shows there is a similarly baseless logic to the assumption that some people will reoffend.

We are made to consider our own expectations. Cain, the most immediately threatening of the three, shares a name with the first Biblical murderer. Does the name embody an inevitable escalation of the violence he has already perpetrated, or does it play upon our deterministic mindsets to lead us to an unfounded conclusion? Bailey makes little excuse for their violence. Instead, he holds the destructive potential of them being written off in constant tension with the characters’ own destructive potential.

The play’s title refers to Riyad’s observation – aimed primarily at Cain, though really is as much a reflection on himself – that ‘When it gets hard, they get shook and come back to what they know’. Riyad has internalised the view that they have no other option. When Cain is offered the chance to reduce his sentence through a restorative justice programme, he becomes defensive – ashamed even. The idea of apologising publicly makes him seem weak. Here Bailey targets what he sees as a corrosive force in young men especially, a toxic masculinity that centres an over-determined idea of male-ness.

Bailey is particularly effective in his creation of the prison environment, aided by Jasmine Swan’s set and costume design. Small details really bring the setting to life. The aesthetic juxtaposition created is remarkable: near-grown men made to look like children. In the streamed production, the characters are played by actors far older than their 16- and 17-year-old ages, though this rarely disturbs the play’s realism.

Bailey suggests that there is a fundamental uncertainty at the heart of the institution over its purpose. Though it is not an adult prison, aesthetically it appears like one oddly mixed with a primary school. Everything inside the institution is a pretend version of life on the outside, one a child would play. The dolls meet in the middle between childhood toys and the real babies on the way. In the cupboard there is even a boardgame called ‘Life’.

The play’s saddest irony is that Jonjo – the most enthusiastic father-to-be – is the one who will not be allowed out of prison until the child grows up. All he gets is the imitation, a childish game-like approximation of life.

Yet although the prison environment freezes them in a state between child and adulthood, the space lacks the nurturing care required for a real child. As seems true of all streamed theatre at present, the pandemic makes occasional moments resonate with extra emotion. In this case, it is an inmate’s desperate request for a hug – that regulations insist must be refused – that acquires surprisingly relatability. The characters in Shook must live in a constant lockdown, simply as a fact of their imprisonment.

The play ends with a poignant image that exemplifies its sense of futility. Jonjo is left alone, cradling a doll they have just been learning to change nappies with. There’s something aspirational in it for him, given he will never tend to the child he has fathered. It reminded me of the end of Edward Bond’s 1965 play Saved. It concludes – after some of the most shocking violence in British theatre – with a near-silent scene. The audience is left with the quietly beautiful image of a man mending a chair, a symbol of the belief in a future and the potential for healing. In Shook, the perhaps similarly therapeutic action of changing a nappy on a doll signals the future promise that has been denied. It is a statement of intent from Jonjo, that he will not be like the stepfather, an attack on whom landed him in prison in the first place. Yet the intent must be the substitute for the real thing. A future of loving parenthood is not unthinkable for him, but is rendered impossible by a deterministic system that no one believes can change.

Shook

Written by Samuel Bailey, Directed by George Turvey and James Bobin
Reviewed 19th February 2021
Categories
theatre

Lungs – Old Vic: In Camera

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs

Ten thousand tonnes of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.

This comic observation is typical of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, a dazzling and affecting, if somewhat frustrating play, in which an unnamed man and woman negotiate starting a family in a changing world. The play begins with an ambush in an IKEA, when he asks her if they should consider have a baby together. This magnifies existing fractures in their relationship and they quickly turn to discussing the moral and social responsibilities of raising a child amid the climate crisis.

The play’s dialogue has a brittle quality that takes a few minutes to get used to, its rhythm that of a heightened theatrical naturalism, where sentences rarely find endings apart from in regular witty punchlines. The cast do well with material’s slight falseness. Matt Smith is particularly comic when delivering his lines rapidly, but even more intriguing as a performer when his character holds back, unsure of quite what to say. Claire Foy is excellent also, especially in the play’s most tragic moments where her character turns bitter and spiteful.

The play appears to be setting up an environmental debate as its central quandary, exemplified in the measuring of a human life against the future emissions they’ll cause. Yet Macmillan doesn’t actually seem interested in debating this subject. After all, the true environmental aim would be reducing carbon emissions per person until a human life is carbon neutral – zero Eiffel Towers. Even more importantly, any workable solution for sustaining human life inherently requires the birth of more humans. Lungs avoids working through the manifold complexities of such a debate. Instead, it implicitly asks whether it is fair to make a child live in a potentially unliveable world. Yet even this masks a deeper anxiety over their capacity to be good parents to their prospective offspring, and whether they are good enough in general.

Macmillan places environmentalism at heart of his characters’ identities – part of their liberal credentials, though in a way that is entirely passive. ‘We recycle’ becomes an empty refrain, desperately substantiating the claim that they are ‘good people’ – as does their insistence that ‘We give to charity.’ Long pause. ‘Don’t we?’ Worrying about the environment is really just cover for their anxiety over whether they are good people. That they worry itself is a sort of substitute activism; their passive care is proof of their goodness and negates the need to actually act.

For most of the play, Lungs is frustratingly uncertain in whether it wants to satirise its characters for this or make us sympathise. It succeeds to some extent in doing both, becoming genuinely affecting at times. I’ve seen this staging twice now, both times in lockdown, first livestreamed last June, and then again, in a recorded version, at the end of January. Curiously, although the Zoom stream was identical for both performances, I did feel a sense of ‘liveness’ in the play last year that was missing on a second viewing. Perhaps it was the sense of connection achieved by audience and performers convening at the same time, but the play struck me as far more emotionally charged last year.

The Zoom format suits the play surprisingly well. The text requires no props or scene markers, and under Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ direction the scenes flow freely into each other. The transitions are sometimes denoted by the actors changing position, others are a just a slight mid-line change of tone.

The split-screen, socially distanced format becomes devastating at times. Subtle additions to the script (‘Why are you standing so far away from me’) only add to the tender presentation of the trauma of miscarriage, and subsequent relationship breakdown. The distance only highlights the ways the couple cannot quite connect, and the performances are at their best when reflecting the difficulties caused not by climate change but the occasionally bleak turns of everyday life.

Especially moving on my first watch was the play’s ending, a dizzying acceleration in pace compressing the rest of the characters’ lives into a bravura two-minute sequence. They wave their child off at the school gates. His memory starts to go. They think about finding a home. His half of the split screen fades to black.

Yet as satisfying as Macmillan’s gently realistic happy-ever-after ending is, it confirms the tentative optimism that underscores the piece: everything will be fine if we just focus on the positives. Their child grows up and they grow old, and although climate change is understood and debated by the characters in great detail, it isn’t something they ever seem to feel acutely. In the end, the solution is just to stop watching the news. In her final monologue, Foy bleakly tells us that ‘Everything’s covered in ash’, but despite this there’s still ‘fresh air’ to be found in central London.

Lungs is one of relatively few ‘climate crisis’ plays to have met a large audience, though to categorise it as such misses its true concerns. Thinking about climate change is only one way the characters think about their own anxieties over their relative goodness as people, mortality, and fitness for parenthood. As a play about the climate crisis, it feels incomplete. Yet as an emotional character drama (especially one watched during another global crisis), Macmillan gives us a valuable sense of comfort, that it will all be all right in the end.

Lungs

Written by Duncan Macmillan, Directed by Matthew Warchus, Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith
Reviewed 28th January 2021