Monday 30 September 2019

Theatre Review: Unicorns, Almost at Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Having so movingly captured the physical and psychological traumas of three Bristolian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan with Pink Mist, Owen Sheers now brings his lyricism to the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. Unicorns, Almost commemorates the life of poet Keith Douglas, who survived the hell of tank warfare in the Western Desert, only to be killed by a mortar shell three days after the D-Day landings in Normandy, aged just 24.

As a child, Douglas dreamt of fighting on horseback, joining the cavalry only to find horses had been replaced by tanks. Such romanticism also led him to hijack a truck in Egypt and escape his safe army headquarters desk job, heading for the heart of the action; fearing death, it seems he also raced towards it.

In this one-man play, Dan Krikler embodies Douglas’s contradictions and pent up, relentless energy, pacing the stage as he relives childhood memories or tells of the women he has loved so ardently; urgent, whirlwind affairs of dancing and stolen nights leading to four broken engagements—no time to waste when the next day could be your last.

With a change of scarf or the donning of a beret or coat, Krikler’s performance is beautifully judged, the words seeming to pour out of him. He frequently addresses the audience directly, inviting us into the sombre theatre of war and its overture of bombardment. Director John Retallack and sound and lighting designers Jon Nicholls and Ben Pickersgill support rather than overshadow this narrative with a simple army encampment staging, a typewriter to the side and banner of handwriting melding with voiceovers, projections and a soundscape of gunfire and shelling.

Interspersed between Douglas’s reminiscences are his poems—unsentimental but compassionate in their spare and honest tone. He describes the brutalities of warfare, depicting mangled and decomposing corpses and his own increasing facility for killing: “how easy it is to make a ghost”. Yet here too is the comradeship a soldier begins to feel for his enemy in their suffering on war’s common stage. Douglas looks directly where many of us would look away; not for him the British officers’ tendency to contain horrors within sporting metaphors of cricket and horses.

While recognising the works of Great War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, Douglas seeks to carve his own path. Predicting his demise—perhaps obsessed with it—and knowing time to be short, many of his final battles are internal. He struggles to put his thoughts into words that will satisfy rather than frustrate him, to leave a legacy for those who will view him through “time’s wrong-way telescope” ten years hence.

In the context of the play’s final moments, “Simplify Me When I’m Dead” emerges as a paean to a life of compressed intensity. Though it took time for Douglas to be recognised in the aftermath of war, with the slender volumes of his poetry languishing untouched on bookshop shelves, Unicorns, Almost is a sobering but poignantly illuminating memorial to a voice silenced far too early.

Reviewed on 4 September 2019 | Images: Contributed

Thursday 19 September 2019

Theatre Review: The Argument at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

William Boyd is a master storyteller, with a host of novels, short stories and screenplays to his name. Just think of how The New Confessions or Any Human Heart mine the intricacies of lives lived long against a stirring backdrop of 20th-century upheaval.

Yet, as a playwright he is still a relative novice: though he has previously interpreted the short stories of Chekhov (a dominant figure in Theatre Royal Bath’s 2019 summer season), The Argument is only his third play and the first with a wholly contemporary setting. Having premièred in the intimate space of Hampstead’s Downstairs Theatre in 2016, it now comes to Bath’s main stage.

Meredith and Pip have been to see a film. Meredith is full of criticism, while Pip is much happier to accept it for what it is. But their ensuing differences plunge depths that threaten to undermine their three-year-old marriage, delving into previously unspoken fissures of intellect and earning capacity.

The couple resorts to airing their relationship’s shortcomings with Meredith’s parents and their respective best friends in a succession of two-handed scenes. Each is sprinkled with Boyd’s exemplary wit and verbal dexterity - Pip, for example, describing his friend Tony’s long-standing dislike of Meredith as a "tinnitus of resentment" - and quickly escalates into an argument of its own.

Christopher Luscombe directs an impeccable cast. Felicity Kendal and Rupert Vansittart are compelling as Meredith’s battling parents Chloe and Frank: she irascible and testy, full of twitchy repressed anger, he pompous and complacent in his entitled world view. Alice Orr-Ewing is self-confident and incisive as museum curator Meredith, intellectually condescending to Simon Harrison’s less highbrow PR executive Pip. Esh Alladi and Sarah Earnshaw add strong support as their friends Tony and Jane.

There are some captivating scenes: when Tony meets up with Jane to discuss what can be done to reconcile the warring couple, confused by the rising inflections at the end of her every sentence, they lose the basic ability to communicate with each other. But while each argument reveals brutal truths and dwells on the nature of marriage and the accommodations required to maintain it over the long term, they are not as cathartic as they might seem. Old ground is covered as well as new and the descent of every scene into hostility becomes predictable and repetitive, even in a play that runs for only 75 minutes.

The ongoing fractiousness also tends to emphasise each character’s cold-hearted cynicism; though Meredith hankers after a successful marriage that is "a small civilisation of two", she and Pip are far from achieving this dream. Very little human connection in the form of empathy or tenderness is on show, and so the characters at times feel inconsistent and two-dimensional, as though their sole purpose is to manoeuvre towards the point where a full-blown quarrel can ensue.

The production has all the polish that the Theatre Royal Bath applies so well. Simon Higlett’s set slides seamlessly back and forth to reveal a succession of (mostly) neutral-toned chic and desirable spaces enhancing a central living-room sofa and chair, reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing or The Truth by Florian Zeller. Yet, The Argument’s limited physical activity suggests it might be better suited to the Ustinov Studio space next door and in its short running time the narrative jousting - though amusing enough and neatly circular - fails to deliver full psychological complexity, feeling ultimately unresolved.

Reviewed on 14 August 2019 | Images: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Theatre Review: Uncle Vanya at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The misery Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya traditionally wrings from the boredom and isolation of rural life is undermined in this new adaptation by David Hare. From looking into the claustrophobic living area, at the end of the first act, perspective shifts outwards towards the horizon, affording a view of such tranquillity that any flagging human heart would surely be stirred. Yet, although some of his decisions as a director may be questionable, Rupert Everett’s impassioned performance in the title role is fascinating to watch.

His Vanya seems set apart from his peers, vital and imposing with a generous moustache and dark belted tunic. By all appearances a man of great appetites, it’s unlikely he would be a stickler for sensible routine, even if he has been worn down by years of conformity. Still, the play’s beginning finds him drunkenly collapsing on a makeshift bed, exhausted by the demands of entertaining his brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov, who is visiting with his beautiful new young wife Yelena.

Everett’s interpretation mines a self-deprecating humour in the misery of his situation, railing against Serebryakov’s professional mediocrity as an ‘artistic bed-blocker’ for more talented candidates, wondering at his appeal to the women who flock to him despite his age and self-obsessed ill-health. This is a Vanya heart-achingly in love with Yelena and despairing in his soliloquy at the futility of his life of hard work and many squandered opportunities.

The trouble is that Everett takes up so much of the oxygen that the other characters in this two-hour adaptation often have little room to breathe. At times they appear stilted and conventional where Vanya is all whirlwind fluidity - they could almost be acting in a different play.

Still, there are strong performances from fine actors here, that deserve more of a chance to develop: Katherine Parkinson is an interesting and dutiful Sonya, fiercely intelligent, witty but wistful in her unrequited love - how you wish that, like Jane Eyre, she could loosen herself from the ensnaring net. John Light, whose injury during previews means he is performing with a crutch, inhabits Doctor Astrov’s conflicts and obsessions, bringing out a remarkably far-sighted preoccupation with environmental ruin, yet the torture of his soul seems underplayed when compared to Vanya.

Clémence Poésy’s portrayal of Yelena is more self-confident than languid, though as her most prominent attribute is her beauty and her role to be a catalyst for change, Hare’s adaptation allows her little agency. The shattering moment when her husband refuses her dearest wish to play the piano is almost thrown away.

Charles Quiggin’s beautiful set of gauze curtains, leafy walls and hanging foliage swaying in the breeze, combined with ferocious storms and delicate snow, artfully suggests the inevitable passage of time. But the inward-looking tedium of routine central to Chekhov’s portrayal of Russian country life falls away; even the ever-present samovar, though a pointer to daily ennui, feels familiarly comforting and the ethereal landscape does little to reinforce the mournfulness. There is no hint of peasant-filled hovels or the unrest discussed in the text to spoil the view.

Don’t expect a cohesive directorial vision or fresh insight into Chekhovian themes in this production of Uncle Vanya, go instead for a mesmerising, mercurial central performance and a glimpse of ideas that strive but never quite achieve their potential.

Reviewed on Tuesday 30 July 2019 | Images: Nobby Clark

Monday 9 September 2019

Theatre Review: Vienna 1934 - Munich 1938 at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Vanessa Redgrave combines the personal and political with resounding polemic in this intimate portrait of her family and their friendships during the years leading up to the Second World War. A production that she has written and directed herself, Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938, subtitled A Family Album, is based on a legacy of notebooks, journals and memoirs and defies easy categorisation.

It is Vanessa who introduces us to her eclectic cast of real-life characters, all connected to her family in some way and with a common bond of strong socialist principles. She begins with a low-key slideshow projected onto the white back wall of Lee Newby’s minimalist set, peppering it with twinkling wit and warmth. Though her style can meander into asides and interjections, as one of the nation’s most distinguished actors, she is never less than engaging.

In the late 1930s, renowned poet Stephen Spender formed a close friendship with Vanessa’s father, Michael. Prior to this, he had fallen for the vivacious young American psychology student, Muriel Gardiner, whom he and his secretary and lover Tony Hyndman met in the increasingly febrile environment of Vienna during the rise of fascism that crushed a strong socialist movement.

Part One tells Muriel’s story as she becomes involved with the Austrian Social Democrat party, driven to become an underground faction. Aided by Spender and Hyndman, she helps many Jews escape the fascist threat through the provision of false documents.

Vanessa hands over to dramatised narration by Robert Boulter as the glamorous young “rock poet” Spender, with Lucy Doyle—remarkably in her professional debut—playing his foil as Muriel and Paul Hilton taking on the roles of two prominent Austrian socialists. Their characterisations are undoubtedly skilful and immersive and the facts extraordinary, though this section’s increasingly sombre tone is at times over-detailed with references that can make it difficult to follow.

Part Two is more humorous and accessible, with Hilton now playing Vanessa’s brother Corin, telling of their father Michael’s love and friendship with Spender and Hyndman. Doyle portrays Vanessa’s mother Rachel Kempson, who meets and falls in love with Boulter's Michael during rehearsals for a play. But Michael’s affections soon range elsewhere, though, with homosexuality still criminalised, his diary entries are coded; "he feels these moments intensely because he knows they will not last," comments Corin of his father’s latest infatuation.

The final part covers Rachel’s brother Nicholas’s naval journals concerning Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia as the tentacles of fascism extend to Africa. It concludes with a lengthy but astonishingly fluent monologue by Hilton as the German writer in exile Thomas Mann, denouncing Neville Chamberlain’s appeasing Munich Agreement of 1938 for its betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

This is part dramatized political lecture, part very personal remembrance of a family struggle against a tide of overwhelming political upheaval. There’s a message within this engaging, consummately acted but sometimes disjointed and exposition-heavy production that equates events of the 1930s to the rise of modern-day populism, urging unity rather than an isolated retreat. Vanessa Redgrave herself admits she is not a writer and she could still hone a more cohesive, edited form for her disparate narrative threads, yet at its best this is an intriguing and unusual insight into the personal and political commitments of one of our most prominent acting families.

Reviewed on 17 July 2019 | Images: Nobby Clark

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Book Review: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

How refreshing to find a woman writing spy fiction, a genre in which both authors and their protagonists are predominantly male. Texan-based Lara Prescott's debut novel The Secrets We Kept may revolve around the extraordinary story of Boris Pasternak and his banned novel Doctor Zhivago, but it is told through an almost exclusively female lens.

Appropriately for a cold war setting, the story divides its narrative between East and West. In the Eastern strand, Pasternak's mistress and muse Olga Ivinskaya is taken forcibly from her family home to the notorious interrogation cells of Lubyanka - reputed to be the tallest building in Moscow, because 'you can see all the way to Siberia from the basement'.

In the West, the CIA's Washington typing pool is populated by experienced female operatives from World War Two, all demoted to administrative roles once the men returned from fighting. Wry, knowing and used to spotting a detail, these girls don't miss a trick - whether it's the latest office gossip or a campaign of subterfuge to undermine the Soviet establishment. In an era when Sputnik is circling the earth and striking fear of communist domination into many an American heart, such missions are considered of existential importance.

From their midst, new recruit Irina - Russian born but American bred - and seasoned operative Sally are singled out for extra-curricular duties. Sally trains Irina in the art of espionage - carrying classified documents and disappearing into a crowd. At a time when even the scent of illegal homosexuality can end a career, the pair become dangerously close.

Back in the East, Pasternak - already famed throughout Russia as a poet - is writing his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, its courageous heroine inspired by Olga. But, as well as revolving around the sweeping love story between Lara and Yuri, the book captures the turmoil of the Russian revolution and emphasizes the individual freedoms that Soviet authorities deem unacceptable. Failing to find a publisher in its native land, the quest begins to smuggle the manuscript to the West for printing and then back again in book form, to reach a receptive underground audience for its subversive themes.

The Secrets We Kept is based on extensive research, with Prescott combining real and imaginary characters and events to vividly evoke the misogyny and ideological conflict of the 1950s. It is pervaded by captivating details of the era's clothing and food and the contrasts of glitzy parties and gruelling prison camps; there's an atmospheric sense of place, both in the swamp of Washington and Pasternak's beloved dacha in Peredelkino.

As the personal and political become intertwined, East and West mirror each other in the struggle to define a love that lies outside society's norms. Equally fascinating is the currency of words - whereas today's messages traverse society through Facebook posts and Instagram influencers, in the 1950s books were the cultural weapons of choice.

You don't need to have read Doctor Zhivago to appreciate this novel - though if you haven't it will most likely send you scuttling out in search of a copy. Words matter in The Secrets We Kept and, though Pasternak is their originator, Olga, Sally, Irina, and the secret-keeping typing pool are their unsung champions.

The story is told through multiple narrators and, if I have a niggle, it is that there are eventually too many perspectives to absorb, at times diluting both characters and prose to brushstrokes. Yet, perilously close to contradicting myself, I would also like to have heard the omitted voice of Pasternak's wife Zinaida. Nevertheless, this is a gripping and illuminating debut, bound for the bestseller lists and already optioned for film, that reopens a portal in time and makes me want to grab Doctor Zhivago from my bookshelves and enjoy it all over again.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott was published in the UK by Hutchinson on 3 September 2019. Many thanks to Anne Cater and the publishers for my review copy.