Just four days after being at The Royal Court for the shocking but brilliant “Violence And Son“, I found myself returning back again to see “hang”, the other play currently showing in this split venue. “Violence and Son” had left such an effect on me that it was strange to go back to the same building so soon and try to watch another play, especially another play that was clearly going to need a lot of thought.
I was very much hoping for something slightly less shocking and disturbing, and thankfully I got it, sort of anyway. I mean, what on earth could be a better piece of light relief than what was basically a discussion on capital punishment and what it might be like if we were allowed to select the way it was to be administered? Oh yes, light relief indeed!
I’d decided to go to see “hang” purely and simply on the basis of the lead actor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, known to me for her role in “Without A Trace”, a standard American TV series, but one of those shows that just got my interest, and in no small part because of her, as she seemed to give the show some character. So it was a little surprising to find she was born and bred in London, and had cut her teeth in places like the Royal Court originally. Of course from the moment she opened her mouth tonight, suddenly it was very obvious she was a London girl, the accent clearly not faked.
“hang” (yes I know I keep putting a small “h”, it’s apparently how it’s meant to be, take it up with the writer if you have a problem) reminded me in so many ways of “The Nether“. Both plays worked around a central concept that for a long time isn’t made obvious. Like “The Nether” it takes time to start to piece it together, to work out what is really going on. It’s not giving anything away to explain that our central nameless character is a victim of crime, we don’t know what the crime was except that it is clearly serious. She expresses her anger at being a victim, and in very clear and blunt words explains how it has destroyed her family, and how the two officials she is in the room with just do not understand how she is feeling.
It’s 70 minutes of superb acting, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is worth the effort, her anger is real, and as I watched, I swear she shrunk physically on the stage as she moved through the emotions, going from anger to misery as it seemed the person who did whatever it was to her seems to have one final moment to take away more of her dignity.
Like “The Nether”, the play doesn’t have a real beginning or an end, it’s all about a middle, It’s up to the audience to decide those parts; the beginning is the question of what brought us here, although I would argue we don’t really need to know, and the end, what of the person who committed the crime, and what of the victim and her family afterwards.
It’s one of those plays that is open to so much debate, something that you could discuss for hours afterwards in the bar; both on the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, as well as the more personal question of how would we deal with being able to make the decision of how someone should be put to death.
While “Violence And Son” left me stunned and disturbed about its context, “hang” was very different; it entertained and it left questions, both about what it didn’t tell you as well as what we would do in a similar position. Enjoyable in the debate that it leaves and enjoyable to see an actor dominate a stage and show what separates the good actors from the great ones. And Marianne Jean-Baptiste is clearly great.
Thankfully though, while the subject matter was heavy, the fact we couldn’t relate to these characters in the same way we could with “Violence And Son” meant that even as we watched our leading lady shake with anger, for me I could watch and admire without feeling the same way I had those few days earlier. I’m not sure I want to feel that way again for a while!
So, after a week where I saw two great but heavy plays in one great venue, I’m now thinking it’s time for something more light and fluffy and easy-going; anyone fancy coming to see “1984” with me soon then?
I so want to be very flippant, casual and easy going when I write here, but at the same time, as anyone who knows me will testify, I can get just a little serious and way too deep in my thoughts. So “Violence and Son” left me in a real quandary. Because I am not sure I can be so causal about something that left such an impact on my thoughts, both good and bad, and left the girl sitting next to me crying as we stood to applaud the fantastic performance of the four actors.
But at the same time, I want to talk about the things that made this a great piece of theatre; the humour, the theatre’s layout, the endless Doctor Who references, as well as explain the pain of Sloane Square tube station being closed for the day meaning I had to walk through the high street on a Saturday afternoon trying not to imagine burning the whole place down.
So, maybe a review in two halves is needed. Let’s start with the serious…
I’ve been told recently that I have a pre-disposition to put myself into situations that I find uncomfortable. Apparently by generating my own discomfort I can fulfil my need to feel something. Yes I know, deep shit hey!
That theory though might explain why, after a week of work that involved the usual wide range of social problems for which it’s never easy to find a solution, I thought it would be a good idea to go and watch a play called “Violence And Son”; I think the title alone should make it fairly obvious where this was going to lead.
I’ve seen some “weird shit” (I’m loving that phrase, courtesy of Tracey, see my review of The Angry Brigade for the reason) but as the first half of this drew to a close, I was feeling more uncomfortable than normal in the small confines of the upstairs of the Royal Court theatre.
Firstly there was the context of the play, the alpha male who is happy with the fact he is nicknamed “Vile” short for violence, “you know, how when you are young you get a nickname based on what you do, like Pat the Butcher” explains the girlfriend, apparently equally relaxed that he is more handy with his fists than his mind.
Then there is the way the first scene of the play is so sweet, innocent and funny; Liam, the 17 year old son in the title, and his friend Jen, returning to his home after a Doctor Who convention, Liam dressed as the Matt Smith era doctor, Jen as Amy Pond as she first appeared in Doctor Who, a kissagram police woman. It is all very geeky with references to the series flying from their mouths. At the same time, there is a tension between them as the audience know full well Liam fancies her, but there is some innocence as to whether the feeling is mutual.
Even when the father and his girlfriend Suze are introduced, the humour and innocence remain, as the pair tease Liam about Jen; “a girl don’t wear a skirt that is nothing more than a belt just for a friend” the father explains to his son with a knowing wink. It’s all looking rather cute and sweet and nothing like the title suggests. Except well, we all know it’s not going to last.
As we hit the interval, “hit” being the word you need to place some emphasise on there, the violence of the title freshly played out right in front of us, there is a momentarily stunned silence in the room as the lights go out. As they come back, there is the normal chatter as the audience discuss it and get up to relieve the tension, in both body and mind.
While this is happening, I’m thinking “why do I do this to myself?” The absolute discomfort of the subject matter, the familiarity of scenes I have seen played out in real life, “He doesn’t mean to do it, it’s not his fault” being a phrase that seems so apt. And however unfair it may be, I feel a disgust at both myself and my fellow audience members for taken such a serious subject and treating it as just a piece of entertainment to pass a few hours of our middle class lives. This feeling really isn’t helped as I watch around me, a trio return from the bar with a bottle of wine to share, something so middle class and casual in this, something for a moment I want to scream out “how can you just drink that, surely you need to take in what you have just watched first?”
The second half is even more harrowing; suddenly a sledge hammer is causally laid against the wall. Where did that come from, I’m sure it wasn’t there earlier, and worse still, I’m now fixated by it, it clearly has a purpose. And again it’s reminding me of something else I have seen for real recently, not a sledge hammer but a garden fork, but the same thoughts were in my mind then.
The play drives on, the humour still there to break up the tension, but less so now as we wait for what we all know is going to happen at some point. Except it doesn’t, the title doesn’t play out that obviously.
Because this play suddenly turns in a way no one watching could possibly have been expecting, and it is that turn that I found so harrowing, driving home a concept that is at the heart of so much I feel strongly about; how our actions affect children, how children learn from their parents, their guardians, their protectors; that what we do later in life is so strongly influenced by what happens to us and around us when we are children. And I’m thinking that most of us in the audience had very good childhoods, so this is just a play, just two and a half hours of entertainment before we wander home for maybe another glass of wine, thankful we don’t have to deal with dreadful people like “Vile” for real, we just won’t come across them in our safe little lives.
As the play ends, you do feel the tension in the theatre, that final twist so unexpected. I think we could have handled the violence we were waiting for, we may have been upset but not as upset as we were with what we were given instead. This was worse, much much worse.
As we start to walk out I am talking to the girl beside me, the one crying, and I ask “has this really affected you that much?” She nods with a smile, and I do have some hope that she will be thinking about that when she is home, that maybe for some in the audience it isn’t just about a few hours entertainment to please our middle class needs, but also it will make us think a little more, understand a little more about the lives of others outside our happy norms, and maybe, just maybe, will change an attitude or two.
Too hopeful? I don’t know, but as I said, sometimes I think too much, maybe I should just think of this as two and a half hours of stunning theatre and leave it at that, it would probably be so much more healthy for me. Whichever, I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to be stunned, shocked, moved;
Told you it was heavy shit didn’t I. I do apologise, and promise I will be more light-hearted when I write the second half of this later.
At The Royal Court, 27 February 2015
So it’s now two days since I saw How To Hold Your Breath, and to be honest, I’m still trying to decide what it was all about. It is certainly an ambitious piece of work; so ambitious that after sitting through it for nearly two hours, I then spent my tube journey home thinking about it, followed by a 90 minute drive down to Kent still discussing it, waking up the following morning trying to work it out further, and since then going online to read how others have interrupted it all.
Is this a problem or a criticism though? Of course not, because the one thing I was sure about was that on Friday evening at about 9.30pm as the play finished, I knew I had spent two hours enjoying what was in front of me. The questions I had were simply “why did I enjoy it?” and “what the hell did that all just mean?”
“Why” is the simple question. Great performances, witty dialogue and thought provoking. Maxine Peake as Dana dominates the stage, but is well supported from all sides, especially with the Liberian who has the best lines of them all. All the ingredients are there to pass two hours in confused enjoyment. The meaning though, well, that is much more complicated.
A few minutes into the play, and the idea behind the play seemed so obvious. Girl chats up man and invites him back for the night. The next morning he tries to pay her, assuming she was a prostitute because “girls don’t just come on to me like that normally”. When she takes offence and refuses payment, he turns nasty, declares himself as a demon, that he will not be in her debt and she will regret this so much that she will be begging to take the money within two weeks.
It’s a brilliant opening scene, seemingly setting the story up perfectly as Dana soon discovers a mark on her body that is questionable, and has a disastrous interview, all adding to her belief that maybe she has been cursed by a demon. She even visits the local library to try to research this with the aid of a very amicable librarian who offers advice along the way by suggesting suitable books, the titles of which get more and more direct as things progress.
So at this point, it seems the play is about this, her struggles against a curse, perceived or not, and how she deals with this, first defiance but slowly turning to desperation. Great, except it really isn’t this simple. As Dana finds herself travelling through Europe trying to get to Alexandria, things quickly deteriorate. Her bank card is refused, which at first seems part of the curse on her, but then suddenly it’s the whole economy of Europe that has failed and everything becomes turmoil, and there is much more urgency in reaching Alexandria as it is a place of sanctuary.
The escalation from minor inconvenience to all-out disaster is maybe too big and fast a step. It feels as if a whole scene was removed to link these two, and this I feel didn’t help in understanding the play, as for a short period it felt disjointed. But hey, I can live with that. It’s around this point that you start to question what is going on, what the message is. Suddenly the demon curse seems a red herring, now it’s about capitalism and the economic crisis that hit us all.
And maybe it is. Except there is still more. Because this doesn’t take into account the interview that was mentioned earlier, where Dana is trying to get a grant to study the “Consumer Experience”, how every transaction should be an experience more than just the exchange of monies for goods and services. Which brings us back to the opening scene where the man thinks she must be selling sex, and doesn’t feel it is a proper experience if he doesn’t pay for it.
Confused yet? Good, because so am I.
Then we jump again, as Dana and her sister are on a boat finally heading to Alexandria. It’s clear this isn’t a legal passenger ferry, too many people crammed in tight, and concerns over safety. So they are basically refugees fleeing for a better life now? Except it’s going from Europe to Africa, a direct reversal of what normally happens. So is the play about the refugee crisis as well?
This does produce the best scene of the whole play. the stage is tilted to represent sitting on the boat, the sound of waves providing the atmosphere, the creaking noises making for slight discomfort as you waited for something to happen. And when something does happen, the visual is stunning and extremely disturbing. It is amazing what can be done without the need for expensive staging or lighting, rather just throwing in the human body and the feel of disaster and panic.
The ending is just as confusing, the demon and the librarian meeting for the first time, at least to our knowledge, but clearly they are aware of one another from their conversation. I assume this was meant to tie things together, to give meaning, but it just confused me more to be honest.
So back to the original question, what did it all mean? I still don’t think I can truly answer this even now. I would love to go along to one of the many events the Royal Court put on around their plays, often with the playwright or people involved in putting it all together, maybe that would answer some questions. But for now I have to decide for myself what I feel it means.
So, we have demons, we have capitalism, we have consumerism and we have refugees. Maybe it is about them all, everything just thrown in one big pot and stirred until something came out that felt right. And if so, that’s fine. It’s a challenge, an enjoyment to discuss and read about it later, to see if opinion of others match my own as to what it was all about, or if they have insights that would add to my understanding. It just means that on top of nearly two hours of the joy of watching, it also gives more hours of thought after the event, helps to keep the brain active if nothing else.
For me the play worked even without fully understanding it. If you like to be challenged, it’s perfect, if you don’t want to use your mind, there is plenty out there for that too, just avoid this and most other things at the Royal Court. Yes it could have been a little neater, clearer, but at the end of the day, for me it works and that is what it should all be about.
So this week I’ve been out to see a comedian, and then a few days later, a play. And in an effort to keep this blog fresh, I sat down the evening after the comedian to try to write something about it.
And I’ve realised just how damn hard it is to write about comedians. I mean, what do you say; he came out, told a few jokes, the audience laughed, he said goodnight and buggered off. Because that is basically what comedians are all about. Obviously there are differences, some are funnier than others, some tell one liners, others tell stories with punch lines. But when you break it all down, it is one person on stage with a mic talking to you.
Or to write that last bit again, but shorter; I haven’t been able to finish writing about the comedian yet, but here is something about the play I saw this afternoon, ‘cos plays are easier to write about than comedians.
But first, big thanks to the Royal Court for the upgraded seat. I’d like to think they realise my amazing reviews are so important to their existence, clearly sending hundreds, even thousands, more to their door. Or it could just be that it was a Saturday afternoon matinee performance, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it just wasn’t fully sold out. No no no, I’m pretty sure it was the first reason.
Hope is, at its most basic level, about a local council having to make massive savings in its budget due to the government austerity measures. Yes I know, it sounds riveting doesn’t it, who can resist a play about budget cuts and local councils. I know I couldn’t. Thankfully it does have plenty of laughs in it as well.
It centres around four local councillors as they deal with the difficulties of how to balance the budget following massive cuts to their funding. So far, so dull. At their heart is Mark, the deputy council leader, a man whose own son thinks he is weak and pathetic, and whose ex-wife runs a day care for people with disability and campaigns against these cuts.
Written by Jack Thorne, who I have now realised wrote the script for Let The Right One In, possibly the best play I have seen in my life, he does have a way with words and manages to squeeze plenty of laughs in-between the political point scoring. The interplay between deputy council leader Mark and his sixteen year old, know-it-all son produce some great moments; early on it appears that they about to have “the sex talk”, at which point the son asks “did you bring props, you know, condoms, a cucumber, maybe you have gone all the way and some lube?”. Crude but played out extremely well and full of humour.
It is clear where Thorne comes from, he has worked with Royal Court before, and right now this venue, like many others, is going through sweeping cuts and having to find new ways to fund themselves. And this play makes no attempt to hold back from criticism of such things. But it does give some balance, showing how to fund one thing will mean a need to cut elsewhere, and the difficulties faced in doing so. I could happily right now go on about the rights and wrongs of government cuts and my thoughts on all this, but maybe I should avoid that if I want people to read anything else I ever write.
While the politics is generally kept reasonably subtle, Thorne does allows himself one moment of preaching to the audience. The father of one councillor, a die-hard labourite, gives a speech to Mark about how things use to be, the solidarity, looking out for others, protesting against the wrongs of the government, doing things because they are right and not because they are popular, all things he feels have been destroyed. It’s an interesting scene and is the only time you really feel the politics is being forced onto you, but as it’s just the one scene, not enough to alienate those in the audience who came for the laughs rather than the politics.
The play runs through the year, showing how the budget is argued out, how decisions are made, and then unmade, how difficult this can be when there really is no choice, whatever they may try to do to protect everything.
It’s not until the very end that the meaning of the title reveals itself. And again, maybe this is Thorne revealing his true colours, his belief in people shining through.
Firstly we see what lies in store for the future, with Mark’s son showing he isn’t as cocky as he previously seemed, rather he is looking ahead, is realising that the world can be a good place, that it’s all about trying to do the right thing, that his father probably isn’t as pathetic as he first thought. And then at the very end, you see the councillors, the ones who have spent so long fighting about the budget, suddenly showing what they are there for really, to help others, to support; to give hope when before there was none.
For a change, I didn’t walk away from the Royal Court with hundreds of thoughts running through my head as I try to analysis what I have just seen. The themes of Hope aren’t earth-shattering, they aren’t going to change any political views of members of the audience. But what you do get is a feeling that even with the state of things today, there is Hope, and that there are people who care, who do things not for personal gain, but for the support of others. And it was this thought that I walked away with, a small glow that perhaps it isn’t as doom and gloom as we sometimes feel.
I saw this play back in the summer at the wonderful Royal Court in Sloane Square, but as it’s about to get a fresh run in the West End, thought a good chance to comment on it.
I remember getting an email advertising this play that just grabbed my attention. First there was the amazing interactive website to explain what the Nether is;
And then there was the explanation of the play, a detective story set in a futuristic world where the internet was all consuming. Beyond that I had no idea what to expect but it grabbed me enough to quickly get tickets. With no real expectation, I went along to see what it was all about, and I can safely say, the one thing I wasn’t expecting was a play that at its very basic level was a world of pedophilia!
It starts out in what appears to be an interview room in a police station. This could be any town in any country, there is nothing to give it location or time frame. There is no explanation of what the crime being investigated is at this early stage, you join the interview not at the beginning but some way through, so there are many questions already hanging in the air. It’s a perfect start to a play, drawing you instantly in as you try to work out the context of the interview.
The interviews are of the two main suspects, and these are interspersed with flashbacks. The flashbacks take you into the Nether, the virtual reality world which is the internet of the future, no more sitting and typing, but rather one where you feel and touch and are part of it all. They slowly show you what the crime is supposed to be, but then the question starts to be, is there actually a crime at all, after all, this is the internet and virtual reality, how can you commit a crime there?
You soon learn that one of those being interviewed is the man who invented this particular realm, maybe consider it a chat room of the future, a room that is you see and feel as an idealistic old fashioned home, with the participants all dressed as if it’s the 18th century, not the near future. It’s an innocent feel, but an innocence that is shattered as you realise the purpose of the sweet young girl in the old fashioned dress smiling at the middle aged man she sees as her father. And she isn’t just there for the father, but the paying guests too. Yes, it is that sinister.
The play moves along at a fast pace, at only one hour and twenty minutes, it doesn’t have time to meander along too much. And maybe it’s this fast pace that adds to the tension that is generated as the story unfolds. The interviewer and interviewee even drag their own chairs away as the set changes from interview room to virtual reality world, the sound of scrapping chairs could almost be deliberate. There is some great lighting as well to add to the changing scenes that no doubt will be even more impressive when the play moves to the West End.
As the truth of what is happening in the virtual world unfolds it becomes very uncomfortable viewing. And slowly you realise the connections between the people in the real world and the virtual world, again, it becomes even more uncomfortable, but equally it’s compelling viewing.
It’s certainly not a play for the light-hearted. But for those who are willing to try it, it is worth eighty minutes of your life. And if like me, you enjoy something that leaves you questioning your perceptions and thoughts, this is clearly one for you. It doesn’t leave you asking whether pedophilia is right or wrong, that hopefully is a question we all know the answer too. Rather the questions are the rights and wrongs of what we think, how we play out our fantasies, and where the real world and the virtual world collide, and maybe how we will be using the internet in the future.
If you want to know more, check out the play’s own website at http://www.thenetherplay.com/
Been quite a contrast in what I’ve seen this week, on Wednesday evening I went to Urinetown, a musical as stupid as the name suggests, and then today I saw God Bless The Child, a play that questions what happens when we teach a “One size fits all” style; yes it was slightly more serious than Urinetown. Both brilliant in their own ways, both leaving me wanting more.
So for now, God Bless The Child, at the fantastic Royal Court in Sloane Square. This place is fast becoming my favourite venue. Three shows there this year and on each of those three occasions I’ve walked away in absolutely wonder at what I have just seen, and been left thinking about it for a long time afterwards. Also helps that it’s damn easy for me to get there from where I live.
So, back to the play then…
In short, it is a play about what happens when a school tests out a new teaching method called “Badger Do Best”. And what happens is that slowly the children rebel against the teaching, with one young child (a boy when I saw it, but I understand it’s a girl at other times) becoming the centre of everything, corrupting those around him and doing his best to bring down the system.
The casting is genius, seven young children form the classroom, and these are the real stars of the play, so young and yet so faultless in their parts. And add to this just four adults, including both Julie Hesmondhalgh, clearly enjoying life after Corrie as she plays a teaching assistant and the voice of reason amongst all the madness, and Amanda Abbington, the guru who designed “Badger Do Best” and is determined to see it succeed at all costs.
The play moves at a good pace, one hour and forty five without a break, but it flies by, each scene leading seamlessly into the next. As it develops it becomes more disturbing in how the central child manipulates those around him, all leading to a stunning end scene where members of the audience suddenly become supporting actors, and the children give their final verdict on what it all means.
And that final scene is probably what leaves you most disturbed, hearing such condemnation from the mouths of a group of young children who shouldn’t be giving such powerful speeches.
The writer clearly has a strong view on education, and some people will agree, others won’t. And at times there was a little uncertainty in my own mind on what it was getting at. But I still left with my mind full of thoughts, about how free thought can be suppressed, how a teaching method so rigid can destroy individuality.
What disturbed me most as I watched the play was not just the idea that we are destroying a child’s mind by the way we teach, but that the “one size fits all” method and the suppression of individual thought isn’t just one that could be creeping into our schools, but into other aspects of our lives too. I kept thinking of “The Emperors New Clothes”, everyone too scared to stand up against it. We have corporate work places who want everyone to be a drone, following their leaders blindly without questioning what they are being asked to do, and then we have the mass media force feeding us the same ideas of what we should like or dislike. And I’m sure there are many more examples that could be given. In every case it seems that dissenters aren’t welcomed.
Is this what the writer was aiming at? I don’t know, it’s just my interpretation of what was a thought provoking piece of work. It got my mind working overtime, and at the end of the day, that is what good theatre should all be about anyway.