Video art installations, especially ones created that run as a long loop in a darkened room, either take a leap of faith, a knowledge and love of the artist’s work, or a creative concept that captures the imagination and entrances the public.
The Clock falls into the last category and the concept, whilst deceptively simple, must have been a curating and editing headache. Find film clips from throughout the history of film which visually or aurally reference a specific time – often shots of analogue or digital clocks literally showing the seconds and minutes ticking away – and edit over 12,000 clips together such that you have a 24 hour film where the time shown on screen is the real time as you watch.
The result is a bewitching work which lured you into the dark, seated on a three seater sofa, in a room in Tate Modern’s new-ish extension.
It then becomes one of the hardest games of spot-the-film-clip and or actor. And a lot of fun. And even if you’re not a film buff, you get comfortable and settle in for as long as you want.
It is totally worth any length of queue you find when you arrive. It is a free exhibit after all. So be patient and you will be rewarded. No food or drink allowed (apparently) although the temptation to smuggling in popcorn now feels quite overwhelming.
And as this piece rolls on 24 hours you can come in and relax and watch for a period, leave and return and get a completely different sequence of film clips.
And for superfans the Tate are running a few 24 hour screenings over two remaining weekends on 3 November and 1 December.
I went on a wet Sunday afternoon and absolutely loved it and heartily recommend it.
The stage is bare, the brickwork at the back of the stage showing, and props such as a record player, photographic developing equipment and a massive set of metal stairs, all pushed to the edges. Electric strip lights drown the stage in glaring brightness. On walks an actor with a hand held microphone, and what appears to be a reminder to the audience to turn off their mobile phones, cleverly becomes a monologue about truth, lies and storytelling. And we’re off. Into Ibsen’s twentieth play written, as we are told numerous times during the play, in 1884. But this isn’t a exactly a straight performance of play, as the unconventional opening suggests. Throughout it hand held microphones are passed baton-like between the actors, as like some kind of talking stick, once received they reveal a truth to the lies spoken by their characters: “he lied”, “it was more than three” “he didn’t come back that night”.
This might seem a bit too self-knowing or like a comic wink direct to camera breaking the fourth wall. But here, in the hands of Robert Icke, it is a device that allows the characters almost to confess or come clean about what has been said. Nor is this some sort of academic textual analysis of the play, although it certainly does allow for some meta analysis of Ibsen, and his own illegitimate child born to a servant girl and who he paid maintenance to until she was thirteen. Instead it makes the play richer, the pacing faster, the narrative more meaningful, which combined with the updating of the language and references, creates an even more powerful production.
After the opening speech to the audience by Gregory Wood (Kevin Harvey) you move into the opening act outside the Wood’s family home (microphone – “end scene”), then quickly into the apartment of his friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Here you remain to become immersed in the Ekdal family, their struggles, their love, their happiness. And whilst we learn that this is built upon the shakiest of foundations (this is Ibsen after all!) you really felt, despite all the trials they had been through as a family, that there was genuine warmth and love here.
Wild Duck is not a play I knew before, so the story and emotional journey of the characters were all fresh to me. It doesn’t always follow that a classic play is gripping, but here I was on the edge of my seat. I thought the acting from the whole cast was simply outstanding. I believed in every character. I felt the emotion and turmoil and pain of them all. Nicholas Farrell who plays the grandfather was wonderful in his playful tender scenes with his granddaughter (Grace Doherty on the night I saw this). Edward Hogg and Lyndsey Marshall as Gina Ekdaly felt entirely believable as husband and wife, from their most tender moments to their pain as the world comes crashing down around them. But even minor characters like Andrea Hall as Anna or Rich Warden as the drunk doctor neighbour, felt like real fully rounded characters. In part this was due to the writing in this adaptation, but it was also due to great performances given by the whole cast. There was a palpable chemistry on stage.
Bunny Christie’s set design should also get a mention. Despite the apparent sparseness at the start, the set builds incrementally through props and subtle lighting changes, reaching what can only be described as the set designers equivalent of a crescendo, which I feel should not be revealed at the risk of spoiling the impact on the audience.
In short this play and this production was for me pure theatre magic. I was entranced from the moment it started to the very end. Robert Icke is a true master. I left happy and elated, despite the bleakness and dark themes the play explores. This is what great theatre looks like.
On paper or in person the pitch would have been irresistible: the prolific playwright (and writer of screenplays In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) Martin McDonagh has a gothic story involving Hans Christian Andersen, pygamies, Dickens, avenging ghosts and a haunted accordion. Add some nineteenth century empire building critique of King Leopold II’s murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo for political bite, and you’ve got a hit. No? No!
We open to a darkened house filled with creepy dolls and mannequins and other objects and instruments hanging from, shelved or scatted in a gabled room. Actually as there is no curtain at the Bridge Theatre, as we enter to take our seats, we see the dark set, trying to make it out as we chat and finish our drinks before lights up. Suspended to the right of the set is a large box which is swinging ominously and slowly from side to side. A voice from out of the darkness begins to narrate, and we learn we are in Denmark around the late 1830s in the home of the famous and hugely popular writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen (played by Jim Broadbent). As the swinging box turns, it reveals a glass side, a small round hole, and someone, a woman, writing frantically as if her life depends upon it. And we learn it possibly does. Each sheaf of paper filled with prose, gets posted through a gap at the bottom of the glass and flutters down onto the wooden floor. This is Hans Christian Andersen’s muse. No not muse. His enslaved writer of his fairytales.
This does all sound like a wonderful conceit for a story and a play. This is not a play suitable for children by the way. Not because it would give them nightmares (it might, although I don’t think even they could suspend their disbelief enough to be frightened), nor because of the frankly unnecessary profanity (I don’t mind a good unhealthy amount of swearing), but once you get the point that our fraudulent author is a potty-mouth unsuitable to be in the company of children, the joke is done. No, it’s not suitable for children, nor for adults, because it is a meandering self-indulgent mess.
There are some very funny lines. There are some standout scenes – scratch that – there is one standout scene with Dickens, played by Phil Daniels, and his family in London, which was hilarious. And there are some good performances, including a theatrical debut from Johnette Eula’Mae Ackles as the writer of the tales in the box. I do think Jim Broadbent struggles though to be both comic and sinister at the same time.
But overall the story becomes preposterous and the jokes puerile and lame. I don’t mind flights of fancy, or being lead down dark and twisting paths. In fact I love them. And I have enjoyed works by Martin McDonagh before, not least The Hangman. Ultimately though it is the writing here which is flawed. And no amount of good acting can save the play.
Saturday 13 October (Gallery 1, T59) – note this was during previews
The first two collections of Pinter’s one act plays will be coming to an end next Saturday 20 October, but there are five more to come, taking the season through into mid February 2019.
Overall it is the scale and ingenuity of putting on a whole season of Pinter’s short one act plays which is most exciting and impressive. The cast list reads like something of a who’s who of acting. Some names will undoubtedly create buzz and sell tickets, although given the nature of Pinter’s characters it feels like there are going to be many opportunities to see some meaty performances from the whole cast. So whether you want to see Martin Freeman, Celia Imrie, Danny Dyer or Tamsin Greig, or a chance to see some rarely performed (or in the case of The Pres and an Officer, never performed) works by Pinter, there is probably something for everyone.
That said Pinter can be dark. Very dark. Pinter One opens with a barnstorming speech from a politician standing at a podium, complete with patriotic music and red, white and blue confetti cascading down into the stalls. (Amusingly this play opened during conference season). The speech quickly becomes menacing, and you fall very fast into a succession of plays that create a nightmare totalitarian state of violence, suppression and intimidation. What is ingenious about the structure of Pinter One is that whilst there is a feeling of a narrative arc, they were in fact written at completely different times, from the 1980s into the 2000s. To start this Pinter season with such dark and menacing stories clearly chimes with our age, and is a bold statement of intent for the whole season.
Pinter Two comprises of two plays looking at relationships and infidelity: The Lover and The Collection – themes Pinter returns to in perhaps my favourite play of his, Betrayal. Both the plays here were written in the early 1960s, and yet seem fresh and modern, with sharp observations on how couples do or don’t succeed in living and loving. And whilst Pinter Two is decidedly lighter and a less depressing look at our society than Pinter One, we have now new lenses with which to view these works: #metoo and #timesup make us reflect and question these works afresh.
Perhaps then it is only natural that when we find the laughs, we laugh harder and more raucously. Jon Culshaw plays an idiot president, dressed of course in a blonde wig, orange makeup and red tie, who accidentally nukes London. David Suchet hilariously camps it up in a silk dressing gown and withering looks worthy of Kenneth Williams at a beefy underwear clad Russell Tovey. Pinter gives us comedy – usually black comedy or satire – through an insightful observation of the follies of human nature and how we interact with one another.
Whether all of these shorts will stand up to our current time or not is almost not the point. Like the recent successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has demonstrated, we need writers, artists and directors to constantly be questioning and challenging the world around us, showing us how fragile our freedoms are, or making us see how ridiculous we can be to one another. It isn’t always comfortable for us sitting in the audience in the dark, but I for one will there for as many of them as I can.
Pinter One Tuesday 25th September (Stalls Q15); Pinter Two – Saturday 13th October (Stalls P13)
This short two scene play by Tennessee Williams, was written between 1957 and 1962. This was a few years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and when he was writing other classics such as Suddenly Last Summer. Set in New Orleans in the home of “Candy” Delaney, who attempts to seduce and keep a straight sailor she has picked up in a bar.
With a transvestite as the central character and a gay young couple of tenants living upstairs, it is unsurprising that this wasn’t performed in Tennessee Williams lifetime. That fact that it was only published as a play in 2005 accounts for why it’s not often performed even now. We have though in Candy and her brutish sailor Karl recognisable figures from other Williams’ play, most notably Blanche DuBois and Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire. And themes of desire, loss, and deception that often run through Williams plays like the hot sticky nights of the Deep South.
This production at the King’s Head Theatre was sadly only on for a short run as part of the current Queer Season. The central role of Candy, played beautifully by Luke Mullins, was both tender and powerful. Tennessee Williams has written a great part: the fast talking, street-smart and well-off Candy has lost her husband to “another woman” and thinks she has found love in her handsome sailor Karl (George Fletcher). We not only see a seamless transition as Candy turns herself from a man into a woman, but Candy narrates how her manners and voice become more feminine. Whilst her sailor is in equal measure appalled and aroused, we the audience are captivated. She appears strong, and in control and able to get what she wants, but like all Williams’ women, she is also tragic. It is a fabulous performance.
George Fletcher as Karl has a difficult part in so short a play, even separated in time over the two scenes. We need to be convinced that he is all man, and yet lured back by a man to his home. He then needs to be moved by Candy’s story and then won-over by her, whilst holding back, keeping a revulsion in him that Candy is really a man. All these conflicting emotions are subtly portrayed, so we do believe the consequences when they come. Ryan Kopel deserves a mention too as one of the young gay neighbours, whose angelic voice opens the play with a song that sets the emotional tenor of the play.
The staging of this production was hampered by the layout of the stage and seating (presumably set up for this Queer Season as I’ve seen other configurations), as depending where you were seated you either couldn’t see the faces of the actors, or you were blinded by the lighting. Neither are great for the audience, but you accept the former in a theatre-in-the-round production, but not the latter.
Overall though it is a touching story, with sharp language and terrific central performances that cut through. This is a play, short though it is, that touches on universal themes, and queer hopes and fears too. And for that I was delighted I got to see it performed, and I only hope it gets more outings.
By way of an end of summer report I thought perhaps I’d comment on the productions I’ve seen so far this year that have reached the high water mark of 20. Going forward it isn’t my intention to retrospectively discuss plays and musicals I’ve seen that have now closed, unless they are likely to transfer. Here though I want to give some indication of what I’m prepared to give these marks to, and why.
So before I start praising, I will add just that there is no mathematical formula being applied to my scores. I am not for example dividing up a production into scores for acting, staging, creative interpretations or story.It is instead more of a gut feeling (which I appreciate is subject to many and various pressures). As I leave a show, was I enraptured? On the edge of my seat? Wanting to leap into the aisles and dance? Was I challenged or stimulated (intellectually)? Or did I not feel it? Did I come away feeling like something was missing or off or out of kilter? Was I bored or distracted? Was I inwardly rolling my eyes and tutting?
Now given that writing reviews is not something I’m trained or particularly experienced in doing, other than verbal enthusiastic recommendations to friends, I beg some leniency. I will though try and be as balanced and even handed as I can.I will state the night I saw the show and where I was siting (as I’m of the belief that sitting in the front of the stalls vs back of the upper circle can influence your experience of a show). Although forgive me for this post I wont add these details. And I’m more than happy to have alternative views shared.
One final caveat is simply this: I never read or studied English or plays beyond GCSE, so any understanding or interpretation is coming from my background of enjoying the theatre, and possibly having seen different productions of a play.
So in the order I saw them this year:
Hamilton – So it probably goes without saying that receives top marks. An all round impressive production from music to performances and staging, of which much has been written already. I’ll only add simply that this is one show that lives up to the hype. And if you’re worrying you can’t get a ticket until 2019, then you can always try their ticket lottery: https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/
Network – A tour de force that cleverly brought the 1976 film to life. Brian Cranston was incredible in his performance of news anchorman Howard Beale, with an equally talented supporting cast. For me it was staging and live camera feeds projected up onto screens behind that was particularly clever (too often such efforts seem out of place) given the story being told. That, combined with this being a story about truth and how the news (and the public) is manipulated, made it a perfect play.
The Brothers Size – Almost at the other end of the production budget scale came at the Young Vic. A beautiful moving story simply told, in a chalk circle drawn by one of the actors at the start of the play. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of the film Moonlight) this play demonstrated how talented he is.
Summer and Smoke – Another big hitter by Tennessee Williams at The Almeida. Happily and deservedly it is getting a transfer to the Duke of York’s in November, and well worth going. Whilst a fan of Tennessee Williams, I did not know this play. For me this was an incredible and magical production. The simple staging powerfully creating the atmospheric setting, with a wonderful performance from Patsy Ferran as a minister’s daughter.
The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 – Hard on the heels of the revival of Angels in America at the National last year, this was inevitably going to draw comparisons with its themes of gay men and the impact of AIDS on their lives. Whilst I think it had some flaws in the story, that perhaps could benefit from looking at afresh, it was an overwhelmingly powerful and moving theatrical experience that once I started crying there was little to stop me until we reached the end. As a gay man it resonated.
The Encounter – Complicité – Probably the most inventive storytelling seen so far. This one man show (Simon McBurney) using sound / foley tricks to recreate a fascinating true story of a encounter of a remote Amazonian tribe by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969
My Name is Lucy Barton – Laura Linney gave an outstanding performance in the play of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling short novel. The design team – including lighting and sound, should also win praise, in this minimalist staging. Perfection.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Coming out of this production at the Donmar I was just bouncing up and down by how great I thought it was, from the adaptation to the performances to the staging. Sublime!
A 24-Decade History of Pop 1776-1806 – This wonderfully outrageous show by Taylor Mac defies categorisation with its use of a 22-piece orchestra, drag, audience participation (at the Barbican no less), historical storytelling and musical history and deconstruction. I have never seen anything quite like it and cannot wait for the next instalment (1806-1836)!
XENOS – I’m sneaking in this dance piece by Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells (out of order of my timeline) because I do think this man is a choreographic genius, but also as it was also a tour de force of storytelling and staging, shining a light on Indian soldiers fighting for the British during WW1. His last solo show will not be forgotten (and I cannot wait to see what his company does next).
So there we have it 10 of my 20/20 productions taking us up to 6 months into 2018. I am genuinely excited and intrigued to see whether the remainder of the year can reach such zeniths of perfection.
* Photo credits: Matthew Murphy (Hamilton); Jan Versweyveld (Network); Tristram Kenton (Brothers Size); Marc Brenner (Summer and Smoke); Simon Annand (The Inheritance); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images (The Encounter); Manuel Harlan (Lucy Barton & Miss Jean Brodie); Sarah Walker (Taylor Mac)