Yesterday was a feast of drama- first off the West End with a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s highly politicised history play, Richard II. This production was initially performed at The Houses of Parliament, the first time in hundreds of years a play had been performed there. I’d applied for a ticket through the ballot, but, no doubt, like many others, failed. Such a hurdle was hardly going to stop me though- the reviews made it sound so tempting. As a bit of a political animal- politics is after all a form of drama- I really wanted to see what the fuss was about as so many reviewers had said that David Cameron should see it!
The Arcola is in Dalston, Hackney, round the back of the main drag, half the road being dug up, and probably going to be left like that a while…. There is an incredible buzz in the area- a completely mixed community, with hipsters jostling with beggars, and everyone having the right to the street. and the architecture is equally exciting- Victorian crumbling town houses, contemporary architecture of the public library, the tower block above it, smart apartments. And everywhere there is a heady mix of smells- curry spices and beer, skunk and designer eau de cologne, stale cigarettes and pungent drains.
And that’s just outside, in the street. The Arcola is inside an old warehouse- the bricks ooze a history of immigrant working class labour, but has the slickness of the trendy corner coffeehouse (and the coffee was mighty fine too, as was the polenta orange cake- massive slice- I had to try it)
The play had been transported to 21st century Britain, although the king still is obsessed with his crown, but well cut suit rather than robes are the order of the day. Bolingbroke becomes “Harri” a female spin doctor/political adviser who causes the unseating of the king. Like a modern day coup, the politicos hover, waiting for their time, hyenas longing for the blood of fresh meat. Part Westminster, part tinpot despotic state (or is that the same thing?) the words are Shakespeare, but the emotions are of now.
It was a remarkable success- it could have been so embarrassing but instead watching Shakespeare with contemporary eyes taking in contemporary issues- difficult questions, unethical behaviour, the role of power and how it seduces us all, was edge of the seat in its ability to reel in the audience.
We all knew the outcome- that cosy communal knowledge- but it was still traumatic watching a man being killed by his gaolers a metre in front of your feet.
Stirring performances by a strong ensemble but I have to pick out Hermione Gulliford as Harri and Time Delap as a very convincing Richard.
And then I moved to the upmarket West End, to Sloane Square and The Royal Court Theatre, for X.
I was hoping for great things and in many ways my expectations were met. A strong cast- in particular Jessica Raine as Gilda and James Harkness as Clark, – the tension between them was palpable from the moment they were both on stage -took us to Pluto, the outer reaches of our solar system. where “they send the new, the underqualified, the old,. And most of all, the British. Mars is full of blonde Americans, It’s like they’re building the master race out there” (Yes we all laughed and yes, we thought, of course it would be like that.)
The crew is stranded, cut off from Earth, and they don’t know why. The music, somewhat clichéd to my ears, tells us this is a sci-fi play, the riveted set (Red Dwarf like in its construction) but I was pretty sure it was about isolation, loneliness, about how our memories fracture and fail, how history is not truth, (in fact do we really know what the difference between myth and history is?) and perhaps how hell is being alone as well as other people (Sartre’s Huis Clos sprang to mind)
The off kilter floor of the set was a visual cue for confusion and lack of connection; the sliding into the fragmentation of language, the Reichian subtly changing broken dementia- like memories, shifting from one person to another, Chinese whisper manipulations with time were brilliantly portrayed both in the writing and performance.
The first half was incredibly powerful- it was hard to know whether one wanted to laugh or cry at some points. I felt the second half was somewhat disappointing- both in terms of the narrative and imagery, although the giant nightingale was a high point both for me and my neighbour (we had decided in the interval there should be a Tote at the back of the theatre, so we could lay bets on who would be bumped off and when…. Cluedo style. Yes, we were being silly but in the way that children are instinctively silly at a funeral- you have to do something to break the tension…)
The use of lighting was effective- although perhaps over relied on later in the play- I became bored of it at points when nothing was being said that hadn’t been communicated already, and the repetition on its own did not seem necessary. The whole production was in some ways quite extraordinary- so often in a conventional theatre I am frustrated by the layout of the building, the set- even through I was on the end of a row and couldn’t quite see everything, the set, the lighting, the sound, managed to transport me from the West End to a place far far away that I now know I really don’t want to go to.
I revelled in the fact that Alistair MacDowall is prepared to experiment, take risks and do something different in a play ,and it’s refreshing to see contemporary theatre in London that is both most definitely brilliant and deeply flawed. I look forward to more.