Lily Slater’s rendition of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, expounds upon the anxiety, fears, and grief permeating Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials. The sense of realism the actors manage to achieve often allows them to transcend their fictional roles and permits their indignation towards the cruelty and injustice endured during those trials to be experienced vicariously by their empathetic audience. Perhaps, what is most striking about the production is its ability to precisely capture the sentiments of the time. The performance’s remarkable acting invites the audience to suffer alongside the characters in moments of despair as well as transferring the ability to derive satisfaction from those pinnacle moments that capture human dignity and honor so well.
An uproarious comedy about a loutish bet gone horribly right, Lads is a tautly-written, beautifully-acted, enormously funny piece of theatre, providing an excellent showcase for newcomer playwright Mallika Sood.
There is a fantastically bleached and clinical shine to the stage of Freya Judd’s commendable adaptation of The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to the smash-hit Enron. The O’Reilly has been well and truly stripped down, creating a bleak and bare hospital miasma that you can almost smell when you take your seat. When the play begins, we already feel like patients in a ward – or prisoners.
It’s exactly what it says in the title. Josh Dolphin and Penny Cartwright have adapted (well, not so much “adapted” as transposed) David Foster Wallace’s postmodern collection of short stories for the stage, transforming the prose into a series of blistering monologues, and the result is rather electric.
We open on the cast huddled ominously around the stage, looming over the audience, sporting sinister animalistic masks. There is a thundering heartbeat smacking away, and behind the actors is a blazing red digital countdown – just like the one you’d find on a bomb. The play hasn’t even started yet (or has it?) and already we’re intrigued. Beneath the roaring incessant overture, we can hear the faint sobbing of one of the cast members. As the heartbeat softens, their desperate cries grow louder and louder.
And so the first monologue commences. The rest of the play follows suit: it is a collection of soliloquys (mostly by men, for obvious reasons) that delve us deep into the subconscious of this despicable array of human beings, each more revealing than the last. The speeches emerge more like diatribes – heated attacks on society, on humanity, but mostly – ironically – on themselves. These are men who boast about their sexual prowess, their proclivity for having a “good time”, and yet they stand grinning before us on the stage, completely alone.
The production was largely elevated by the efforts of its solid cast. Kieran Ahern’s pick-up artist running a self-help course for men is highly reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Magnolia (in fact it seems he’s even stolen Cruise’s hairdo from the film). Ahern renders this revoltingly misogynistic character an extremely watchable piece, filled with self-referential gags and sharp rapport with a fictional audience. Tom Pease barks like a disgruntled Gareth Keenan as a man who revels in the disgust he can cause with his “asset” – his mutilated arm that he covers beneath his jacket – and yet who is self-loathingly cynical of women who claim that they are not put off by it. And Tom Dowling is fantastically subtle as a calm and collected S&M enthusiast with a “gift” for coaxing women into collaborating in his bizarre fetishes, even if this speech felt a little stretched.
Each monologue is riddled with explicit and overtly sexual references and, in many ways, the men compete on a sexual level with one another (the female actors are shunned into near-obscurity). The man who suffers from Tourette’s-like outbursts right before the moment of climax is surely no worse off than the man who onanistically experiments with power tools. All of the men are disastrously pitiable, but none of them deserve our sympathy.
Some of the more abstract segments were difficult to decipher, but the production was laced with enough black humour to keep it afloat. All the while, of course, as these men tell us about their pathetic lives, the incessant heartbeat hammers above us, and the digital countdown plummets. What does this mean? Are the characters running out of time? Are they seconds away from exploding? Are their outdated beliefs, their misplaced sense of self-righteousness – the life and world they know – coming to a sudden, cataclysmic end? It’s not entirely clear.
The play offers all you’d expect: it’s an alarming array of tortured, wretched, hideous men. No, “hideous” is not the right term. These men transcend mere “hideousness”. These are, unequivocally, brief interviews with tragic men.
After Richard Parker and The Dumb Waiter last week, it is perhaps easy to make the case that the Burton-Taylor has had enough two-handers focused on male relationships in intimate settings for one term. The third such play on the trot, Potosi marks itself out from these efforts by focusing more on interesting characters and well-observed humour than grand statements on the nature of fiction. The result is a play that lacks the raw power of those previous efforts, but makes up for it with naturalistic sweetness and a deft hand for the details of teenage life.
The plot is fairly straightforward; after an evening at the club, Matthew (Tom Pease) brings lovely young lad James (Shrai Popat) home for a one-night stand. The play is set entirely in Matthew’s bedroom, and we open on the two of them engaging in foreplay before falling into bed together. The lights fade down, and then fade up again on Matthew enjoying a “post-fuck mango” with his partner. From there, the play takes the form of a series of intimate conversations, stretching over the course of the late night and early morning, building up to an impeccably-done twist which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say that it casts the play in an entirely new light, as well as adding an extra dimension to a pair of characters who are already very well-realised.
Helping with this, of course, are the actors. Despite the small stage, the play thrives on physicality- the two are constantly moving around and on top of and within the bed, giving the play a sense of motion which creates a physical representation of the constantly shifting nature of their conversation. Pease and Popat make for an appealing double act, both possessing splendid comic timing and an ability to pitch their performances at the precise level of comedy or tragedy required of each individual line.
It helps that they’re both given good material to work with, in this new writing debut by Jonathan Oakman. Matthew is a fascinating portrait of middle-class ennui, possessed of an intense articulacy and a self-deprecating sense of humour. He is also an English student, which means I’m predisposed towards liking him (there’s one fantastic gag that I’m sure fellow students will appreciate). His sexual experience and bravado make for an interesting contrast with the quieter and more understated James, who describes himself as “a walking cliché”. He’s a little naive, but also immensely sweet and affable, and as the play progresses we are shown that these two boys have more in common than it may at first appear.
It’s not a flawless production; the sound design is brash and blaring in a way that is at odds with the quiet intimacy of the rest of the play, and the second half feels in need of a trim. But on the whole, Potosi is a poignant story, full of laughter and warmth, and, while occasionally a little overwrought, brimming with humanity. A solidly-made bit of student theatre.
Over the last few years, our theatres have been flooded with literary adaptations. In London, Treasure Island and an RSC staging of Wolf Hall are proving popular, while Oxford student theatre last year brought us triumphant productions of Frankenstein and Lord of the Flies. The theatre has become an exciting place to visualise the written word, and one less predictable or traditional than the cinema.
While a novel might be a clear starting point for such a transformation, David Hare’s new play Behind the Beautiful Forevers instead bases its script on Katherine Boo’s vast work of non-fiction that documents a panorama of poverty and corruption in the slums neighbouring Mumbai airport. Hare’s play centres mainly on the rubbish-pickers, their free-swearing matriarch’s struggle with one particularly nasty neighbour, and the whole family’s battle with the justice system.
The production is visually breathtaking, starting suddenly with a huge commotion of vehicles, a sea of dirty plastic bottles and cardboard. What seems a horribly claustrophobic slum rapidly transforms into a grotty clinic, a juvenile detention centre and wide motorways. The attention to detail, colour, and lighting are exquisite, while director Rufus Norris makes the most of the Olivier’s fantastic revolving stage, especially in the closing scene.
The cast were also impressive, the vast majority of whom are either Asian or of Asian descent themselves, reflecting a real triumph for diversity on the London stage. Meera Syal is confident as Zehrunisa, perhaps the play’s focal point and just one of many strong and nuanced female parts in the production. Shane Zaza brings great depth and honesty to her hard-working son, Abdul, while the naïve energy of Hiran Abeysekera’s Sunil is a joy to watch.
However, Hare’s script balks at the task of conveying such a huge scale of slum life. Boo’s 260 pages are condensed into a few hours, and often the shifts in tone are clunky or unconvincing. The bloodcurdlingly gory and tragic moments of the play (be warned: there are many) are not given enough time to breathe, swiftly interrupted by an inappropriately upbeat Bhangra soundtrack. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt from Rufus Norris to show the chaos and confusion of life as a rubbish-picker, but it ultimately falls flat and undermines the gravity of the more tender moments of the play.
The first half of the production is very successful in its mesmerising illustration of slum filth, though does little to ground us in the human intrigue of the characters on the stage. The attention-grabbing effect of hundreds of plastic bottles cascading from the flies is far more memorable than any of the play’s dialogue or relationships. After the interval, the various new settings we encounter only really serve to confuse us and leave us struggling to hang on to an increasingly fragmented plot.
Rufus Norris does a fantastic job with a rather underwhelming and fragile script in this first production of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. While the staging is perfectly executed, the play itself is far from ready to become a part of the canon.