Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Theatre Round-Up Rises

Doctor Faustus - Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

One doesn’t usually imagine a tale about a man who makes a deal with the devil and is condemned to hell to veer towards a Carry On. And indeed it shouldn’t. While comic scenes are part of the play, they ought to be what they are, interludes, breaks from the main action. They should not leave a more lasting impression than the dramatic scenes, but alas, they do.

And this is in a story of damnation – there are few ideas which ought to be more powerful, and dramatic. Paul Hilton and Arthur Darvill (who proves that he has a wider range than dopey time and space travelling boyfriends) strut their stuff, reciting verse and looking cool with the clipped beards and fine robes, but handsome though they look, neither manages to make you really care about the other.

Despite some dramatics with good and bad angels fighting for Faust’s soul, they seem rather to breeze through it. In the second-half Darvill seems to have little to do other than stand sneering and leering about.

The hijinks unfortunately leave a stronger impact. You don’t expect fart jokes to pop up in a 16th century text, nor do you expect one of the characters to have an extraordinarily large package. I’m not that familiar with Marlowe’s play, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s likely from the text, nor in the spirit of it. With these added cheap laughs, it’s hard to know when to take other matters seriously. When a man has his tongue wrenched out by a scheming Pope, it’s giggles we get from the crowd, not tense unease.

The designs are impressive, the costumes and presentation striking – the demons on stilts, the black-spectacled spirits, Lucifer, not an evil seducer, but a wretched creature too weak to stand without support from his minions. But it’s too lightweight to really make an impact – when Faustus finally goes down, it’s seriously underwhelming.

At the end of the play, the cast do a merry dance, which ends with Darvill and Hilton pretending to play their lutes like they’re rock guitars. They’re clearly not taking it all very seriously – and it shows.

War Horse – New London Theatre

War Horse is very much in the tradition of Watership Down and When the Wind Blows – a nominally family-friendly story that really doesn’t hold back any punches. War Horse is set in the brutal trenches and devastated fields of WW1. And people die; in fact, most of the young characters die. And some of the horses too.

War Horse is about Albert Narracott, a simple earnest farmer’s son whose best friend is his horse Joey. His father is poor, however, but is absolutely determined to succeed on his own, and to prove to his arrogant brother he can survive without him. His obsession causes him to become callous and he sells Joey to the army as a cavalry horse after the war starts. Albert is heartbroken, and keenly joins the army himself. What follows is their journey across war torn Europe, the people they meet, and the horror they must endure before finally becoming reunited.

Horses on stage seems like a recipe for disaster, but far from it. The expertly realised horses are by far the most endearing aspect of the show. At first the horse Joey is operated by three fairly visible men, with great grace and care – but a little distracting if you’re on the wrong side of the auditorium. However, once adult, a toweringly large life-size creature appears, with two puppeteers inside, stomping and thudding across the stage in movements barely indistinguishable in sound and motion from the real thing. And the puppet is now strong enough for a cast member to ride. Joey is awe-inspiring in size, but later they bring on a rival, Topthorne – an even larger beast, dark and intimidating at first, but a friend to Joey soon. The fact that both horses show distinct persona is a testament to just how skilled the puppeteers are.

Warhorse is about the horrors of war, of which no one escapes. There are no villains: (with the exception on one minor character) British, German, French, they all suffer the price of war. Even the feud between Albert’s father and uncle subsides when Albert’s cousin disappears in action. Next to the simple, but endearing Albert, the most instantly likeable character is a young German officer, who cares for the horses when separated from their riders, and who tries to disguise himself as their handler to escape the front line.

The grim landscape is realised in the most minimal of fashion, the stage is black but for a rip-shaped screen, which realises gloomy clouds, jagged rubble or the passing of the landscape. The cavalry officers ride out into no man’s land and are helplessly wiped out by shells, and at one point, by a giant cardboard tank the size of household bedroom. The technology of warfare has changed – men on horseback with swords are absurdly pitted against the might of brutal metal killing machines.

It’s an epic story, one that does not hold back in its depiction of warfare. But its story is, of course, hopeful, as ultimately the simple affection between Albert and his horse bring them both back together. Both changed, but lucky to still be alive. It’s an incredibly moving experience, brought together with stark, vivid and brutal simple imagery. But of course, no one will be talking about any of these aspects once they leave the show. They’ll just be talking about how much they liked the horses.

Spielberg is finishing his version of the play (so catch it now in case he spoils it), and even he’s had to admit that the real horses he’s used have just not been as good as the ones on stage.

Elixir of Love – The London Coliseum

A comedy opera? Well, I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t have such a thing. It’s not all death, revenge and large women with pigtails. As a story, it’s pretty light and fluffy: Nemorino loves Adina, but never says anything about it until Belcore, a sergeant, marches up to her a practically asks her to marry him on the spots. She says she’ll think about it; prompting Nemorino to confess his dying love, but she doesn’t take him seriously.

Adina is obsessed with the Tristan and Isolde story. Nemorino meets a phony medicine seller who sells him a love potion (fake), just like in the story. It will take a day to work - enough time for the seller to leave town. Nemorino becomes over-confident and appears nonchalant in front of Adina. She decides to make him jealous by accepting the Sergeant’s proposal – but he must leave for a new battle. They must marry that night – before the potion will work!

Jonathan Miller’s production is set in an American diner, with Adina as a roadside café owner, Nemorino as a mechanic, Belcore a yankie soldier, and the medicine man a Barnham-style seller of miracle cures, whose elixir can even help women of a certain age to “tighten-up”. Andrew Shore’s perfectly timed comic performance as the medicine seller would pretty much steal the show if Sarah Tynan as Adina wasn’t so absolutely bloody stunning.

This 19th century work fits surprisingly will into desert Americana. The lyrics are not too incongruous, though there are some updated for time and place – at one point the sergeant really does sing about giving Nemorino “a knuckle-sandwich”. It is funny, with a touch of carry on humour, and a few knowing nudges and winks. It’s padded, if it were not for the operatic vocalising of each emotion, it would be over in an hour. But it is bright, sunny fun, with a touch of old Hollywood glamour and a few moments to melt the heart. A pleasant operatic surprise.

Bette & Joan: The Final Curtain – Jackson’s Lane Theatre

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hated each other – their feud was gloriously venomous: Davis ; “She slept with every male star at MGM except for Lassie”; Crawford: “I don't see how she built a career out of a set of mannerisms, instead of real acting ability”. They appeared in one film together, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which Davis got to push Joan down the stairs in a wheelchair and got to kick her in head – Crawford had to get stitches!
This play by Foresight Theatre (the second of two based on the feud in London this year) finds Bette on her deathbed (“Old age ain't no place for sissies”). From beyond, gossip queens Hedda Hoppa and Louella Parsons, still somehow pulling the Hollywood strings from beyond, decide that it’s time for Davis to pass over, and that her nemesis Crawford is the one to do it.

What follows is the two former Hollywood starlets reliving moments from their lives, brought to life as fantasies within Bette’s bedroom. A number of clever devices are used, such as Joan having Bette perform the same scene over and over until she tells the truth, or having them read extracts from cruel tell-all biographies at each other with spiteful glee.

The point is that Bette and Joan really weren’t that different. Two damaged women from broken homes, fighting tooth and nail to be successful, ruthlessly pursuing and hanging on to fame, only for it to burn them both, time and time again. They both had five failed marriages (Bette may even have killed one of her husbands), and both had estranged children who later profited from dishing the dirt on their indomitable mothers.

It’s a good story, with razor-sharp lines and more than a little bitter irony. But much of the humour falls flat. The videotaped sections, projected onto Bette’s wardrobe doors, are off-kilter, and hard to hear. The appearances of Hedda and Louella are irritating rather than grotesquely funny, as intended (they ought to have just been left out). And when they show short snippets of supposed archive footage, classic lines from Joan and Bette, they barely register – tragically wasted.

Bette’s voice is too abrasive – yes the performances are OTT, deliberately so, but the accident is too forced. Comedy and tragedy are of course natural bedfellows, but I can’t help but feel that this one would’ve worked better played straighter, with the comedy flowing more organically from the material – there is an abundance of it.