Talking Movies

April 5, 2012

Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die

It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.

Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…

(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.

(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.

(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.

(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.

(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.

(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…

(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.

(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.

(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.

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September 28, 2011

Hay Fever

Director Patrick Mason expertly mines a classic comedy for laughs for the third summer in a row, with the help of regular collaborators including Marty Rea.

Designer Michael Pavelka furnishes a fabulously opulent 1920s country house set for Noel Coward’s comedy of deplorable manners, complete with absurdist touches like the classical bust above the door that bafflingly manages to hold a cigarette in its lips. Rea, a Mason regular after Arcadia and The Rivals, plays the spoilt toff Simon Bliss who invites femme fatale Myra to his country house for the weekend only to discover that his sister, father and mother have all invited a guest for the weekend too, and not told each other, never mind their put upon servant Clara. And that’s about as much plot as Coward bothers with, everything else is the interactions of the guests and their hosts. Highlights of these comically brusque encounters include a peeved Rea entreating his guest to have a seat by launching her in the direction of the sofa.

Ingrid Craigie Fassbenders as the retired actress matriarch Judith for whom all the world’s a stage, but who is continually wounded by references to her advanced years in connection to her inviting a star-struck gentleman caller. Beth Cooke essays a Cowardian rather than a Stoppardian teenager for a change as Sorel, the most self-aware of the Bliss family, who tries to rein in their bad manners but unconsciously seems to realise that such atrocious behaviour is just too much fun. Stephen Brennan is nicely scatterbrained as the novelist patriarch whose furious indignation, when his just finished book’s geographical accuracy is questioned, powers the final and funniest scene of the whole play. Coward’s play becomes progressively funnier as it proceeds, beginning with the guests arriving and being ignored by their hosts, before partner-swapping all round leads to romantic play-acting which terrifies the guests.

Stephen Swift, a blustering buffoon in Arcadia, here milks laughs as a simpering ninny (invited by Judith) whose over-enthusiastic delivery of the word ‘Rather’ repeatedly brought the house down. I’ve twice ripped screenwriter Mark O’Halloran for his devotion to misery so let me praise to the heights his turn as the diplomatist invited by Sorel. O’Halloran’s is by far the most stylised performance. His pencil ronnie, nervous smile, and exaggerated sitting movement and motions are almost commedia dell’arte, and his performance is comedic artistry. While Kathy Rose O’Brien’s flapper makes occasional hilarious outbursts against her treatment it is only Myra, the most acerbic guest, vampishly played by Jade Yourell, who forlornly rebukes the Bliss family. Behaving badly is so much fun that the Bliss family engage in deliriously enjoyable bickering oblivious to their guests nervously fleeing this madhouse.

Coward’s drawing-room comedy may not quite reach the heights of Wilde but such a feast of absurdist action and witty lines is to be relished.

4/5

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

September 3, 2010

Arcadia

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 masterpiece, received a towering treatment by the Gate theatre a couple of months ago.

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Director Patrick Mason, as well as re-uniting with two of his stars from last summer’s Abbey production of The Rivals, Marty Rea and Aoibheann O’Hara, found roles for Gate regular Barry McGovern and the go-to girl for Stoppardian teenagers (after last year’s The Real Thing) Beth Cooke in his elegant production. At nearly three hours long the play unfurls a romantic comedy in two acts (set in two different centuries) that is really about chaos theory, bad academic scholarship, and the conflict between imagination and rationality. Stoppardian theatre is always just such a theatre of ideas, and duller critics dislike it for that reason because he makes them feel rightly stupid, but Stoppard has an unrivalled capacity to integrate abstract concepts into highly personal conflicts and to present complex ideas accurately but as high comedy.

Stoppard introduces us to two sets of characters inhabiting the same English stately home in 1809-1812 and 1993. In the 19th century sequences arrogant tutor Septimus Hodge (the superb Rea) tries to deflect his mathematically gifted student Thomasina Coverly (Cooke) from seeking a definition of ‘a carnal embrace’ by introducing her to Fermat’s Last Theorem. He is less successful in distracting Donna Dent’s imperious Lady Croom and visiting poet Ezra Chater (a wonderfully blustering Stephen Swift) from the said carnal embrace between Septimus and Mrs Chater. In 1993 Bernard Nightingale (patron saint of dodgy academics) arrives to investigate a possible visit by Lord Byron to the house just before he abruptly left England. He spars with Valentine Coverly (a delightful Hugh O’Connor), who is using statistics to map animal populations on the estate, and Hannah Jarvis (a spirited Ingrid Craigie), who is researching the history of the house in the Regency period for a book on the decline of the Enlightenment into mere feeling. Over their strenuous objections Nightingale speculates his way to absolute certainty that Byron killed Chater in a duel and fled the country, contrary to what we actually see transpire between Chater, Septimus and his unseen visiting friend Byron…

Stoppard’s celebrated wit is given full rein in numerous sparkling lines such as Lady Coverly’s put down of her brother; “As her tutor it is your duty to keep her in ignorance”, “Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit”; and Septimus’ “I will not kill one of the few poets England has produced for the sake of a woman whose honour could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota”. Septimus’ ingenious praise eventually leads Chater to emotionally convince himself that in fact his wife loved him so much that she slept with Septimus for the sake of a good review by Septimus in the ‘Piccadily Review’. She didn’t .

Joe Vanek’s unfussy set was dominated by a large table on which characters from both eras deposited props so that past and present blurred as the play proceeded towards a surprisingly emotional ending as a careless line by Hannah revealed the tragic fate of characters joyously alive in the earlier period as both times collapsed into the same physical space. The ensemble was impeccable but special mention must go to Andrew Whipp as Bernard Nightingale who, especially in his repeated rejoinder of “I don’t know, I wasn’t bloody there” to all requests for more detail on his conclusions and his exit line of “Oh just publish!” on being told by Hannah that she knows something but can’t prove it, mined pure comedic gold.

5/5

July 11, 2010

Ride the Lo-Fi Country

My beloved 1993 CD player died yesterday, forcing me to turn to its sister tape player for the first time in years, and muse over living lo-fi in a hi-tech world…

Not only is my beloved 2004 Auf der Maur album stuck in the CD player with no means of escape, I can’t listen to her new CD (which I just bought) on the thunderous speakers which echo around the room, instead I have to settle for throwing it into the laptop and listening to the tiny volume that it delivers in comparison. Small wonder that I’ve instantly turned to my long-neglected tape collection to still use the speakers and their great potential for noise. As a result I’ve spent the last two days listening to the Stone Roses, Bryan Ferry, The Beatles, and the Chemical Brothers. And that was just picking the tapes that were at the top of the pile. I know that somewhere in the dusty stash is The Goon Show not to mention the Pixies, Lightning Seeds, Bowie, Ash and The Doors.  And then there’s all the tapes I’ve forgotten I even made, which is going to be a treasure-trove of 1992-2004 time capsules for me to dig through.

But this has happened when I’ve just seen Tom Stoppard’s dazzlingly clever and utterly hilarious Arcadia which is nonetheless a simple enough play to stage, and as I’m ploughing my way through Jonathan Franzen’s epic family drama as state of nation saga The Corrections which is modern in style and content but very old in its ambitions, and as thoughts, possibly blog-worthy, possibly not, about each mull around in my mind. These pieces of work are very old-fashioned, lo-fi, if you will, but still impressive, just as the music I’m blaring from my tapes is fantastic, regardless of the ancient method of its delivery. It’s brought home to me just how at ease I still am at living a lo-fi life in a hi-tech world, how what’s dismissed as ‘obsolete’ is really often just ‘different’, and how the obsession with instant gratification can blind us to the qualities of older forms and the greater rewards provided by work that demands more active engagement. After all, filling out an 8-track led to Parklife

I write a weekly blog but posting it can be the only time I venture on-line each week, as I write on a lap-top with no internet connection, about films which, for the most part, I have seen once in the cinema and then analyse from memory. This to me is normal, but I can imagine other people being crippled without access to IMDb or YouTube, just as I can imagine few people would be able to understand that I improvised dictation of nearly a year’s worth of articles down the phone to my co-writer for the University Observer, and wrote nearly half of my PhD thesis long-hand and had it supervised in that way.

I still am lo-fi, it’s just the world that upgraded.

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