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Introduction This purpose of this article is to help you understand what a theatrical review is and how to go about writing one. Writing a review will help deepen your appreciation of a piece of work, unravel complex structure, narrative … Continue reading
What the media is slowly turning to, after front page outrage decrying thuggery, criminality and insanity, is the root cause of the recent riots in London. How is it, they ask, that a single incident can ignite such enormous social unrest? It’s perplexing, there’s no single answer, the debate is unending they say.
Difficult questions are abundant in theatre and one of the reasons I continue to return there because the answers are often provocative. There are times however, when the questions are not so compelling and the answers not so fruitful but from these too, there is something to learn.
Two shows I saw last week brought this to mind. But first, let me tell you about a time when I attended a court case in West Virginia. After everyone was ushered in and took their place, the murderer walked in. He walked past my friend’s family without a glance. They stood, as the rest of the court did, in total silence, as he went to take his place in the dock. I could only imagine what was going through their minds as the person who took the life of their child and brother, walked calmly past them…in physical reach.
As I watched Stephanie Jacob’s The Quick at Tristan Bates (until 8/13), a moral play on the forgiving possibilities of both criminal and victim, I was struck by the lack of theatrical truth in her premise; that it is possible to forgive. It is not that we can’t do that or that we do not have the capacity but that the kind of truth this play seeks is a banal, middle-class kind of infinite justice mechanism that is not theatrical truth. Simply, it is not interesting to present such a simple question and answer in theatre. So while the dramatic question may be somewhat compelling (will he forgive, will she change?) there are no lingering provocations once that question is answered. I mean, when I left the theatre the play did not carry on in my mind with new thoughts and questions springing forth.
A totally different play but worth discussing in the same vein is Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8/20. While this is a comedy about two boyos who discover that they are part of a plot to have Hamlet killed in England, it contrasts with The Quick in that the premise (who were R & G, really) is answered in the first act. After that, if you don’t find sitcom style ooo-errr kind of comedy a bucket of laughs, you are waiting for the Dead part to come as swiftly as possible. It takes two hours. However, this R&G is a treatise, because the two minor characters in Hamlet are essentially you and I, in a funny way, as we too are minor and thus it is a note on our own mortality and purpose. So here we have a case of an interesting idea but very weak dramatic question.
In sum: The Quick had a strong dramatic question but weak theme while R&G had a weak dramatic question but interesting theme. Neither worked very well as a result. Both plays, though very favourably reviewed far and wide, are interesting lessons in theatrical integrity: that our questions should be both difficult to pose and the answers perplexing and provocative. High standards, yes, but the reason why I go. I don’t have the answers but I sure look to theatre for the questions.
Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett
Before I saw Moving Still’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape I made some notes on my 250 hour phone voice recorder. I wondered what Krapp would make of such technology that would allow him to record every moment of his life. Would he be a blogger? Would Krapp tweet?
Though first produced in 1958 the play has much to do with our modern preoccupation with the meaningless. Krapp (Fergus Cronin) is an aging loner who listens to and records his daily journal using a reel to reel tape up in his attic. (Sound familiar?) The play opens on the night of his birthday with the patter of Krapp moving in tight steps across the stage to an overflowing table of tapes lit by a single fixture above. He fumbles about with keys eventually finding a banana in a locked drawer, eating it with strange delight eliciting laughter from the audience. After finding his tape, the main conflict begins; the random, dispersing, hopeful thoughts of his earlier 39 year old self versus the eventuality – that current self, an old decrepit man of 69. The man alive in front of us disparages the long gone thirty nine year old who in turn disparages the young man of twenty something before him like a lampooning mirror. “Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! And the resolutions!”.
Mr. Cronin, intelligently directed by Art O’Briain returns to Galway capturing the essence of Krapp gracefully in this flawless, sold-out production with a character that is at once woefully sad and yet quite alive and funny. This is the skill which Mr. Cronin brings to the forty-five minute piece lighting the character of Krapp from the inside with warmth and humour. He plays Krapp somewhat out to the audience while creating a cell-like atmosphere which draws us in to his world and holds us there. His every movement is captivating. His grey, wiry hair, long lines of age across his face like slashes, his messy waistcoat and a certain rotundness slowing his movements across the stage belies the unexpected lyrical anthem of hope Mr. Cronin exudes despite the futility of all that has preceded the current moment; “Unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light, the understanding, the fire, my face in her breasts and my hand on her.” Krapp relives this moment over and over, recalling the time he lay in ecstasy and regret with a woman all those years ago. It’s the reliving that Krapp likes most, the desire to “Be again”. But he discovers he has nothing more to say and it is at that moment he decides that this is his last tape he will make. He listens again to the recall of ecstasy and the haunting image of Krapp freezes in front of us as the tape reels out to silence and the single light on his face recedes to darkness. It is that darkness that we all fear, as Beckett once commented “Death is standing behind him and unconsciously he’s looking for it.” Krapp’s futile journaling of his life mocks the modern obsession with blogging, twittering and self-documentary. For this alone it should be seen. It is profound, eloquent and is emotionally pungent. It does not suffer from the verbal Olympics required in some of Beckett’s other works – so bring the kids!
What would Krapp do with our technology, the miniaturized devices that would allow him to record every moment? I don’t think he would care much, not for my phone or any of the rest of the gadgets out there. He would arrive at the same conclusion about recording the awful minutiae, the happy moments, the nothing; “Leave it at that” he would say and toss my Nokia into the Corrib.
Bank of Ireland Theatre
Ticket Price: E20-E22
Ticket Information: Galway Theatre Festival http://www.galwayartsfestival.com
Monday July 13th to Saturday 25th July 2009 6PM
Krapp’s Last Tape
Produced by Moving Still
Directed by Art O’Briain
Cast Fergus Cronin
Meeting an old ‘ex’ can be discomforting but in David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’ at Nun’s Island Theatre, it can be downright heart-stopping.
Una (Judith Rolly) turns up at the grimy workplace of Ray (Stuart Graham), the shell of a man she once kissed, slept with and ran away with years before and begins to taunt him.
This all sounds normal, even a little pathetic. But the complication begins when it is revealed that when they last met, he was 30 and she was 12. The action proceeds with Una, now twenty seven, pursuing and confronting her abuser alone except for the occasional tempering knock on the frosted glass door by Ray’s co-worker. But all is not what it appears. Set in the canteen of a grey, bland, aging office (by Owen MacCarthaigh) with flickering fluorescent lights and rubbish scattered around the room, the feeling, in this steeply raked theatre is one of frigid claustrophobia. Ray (who has changed his name to Peter and started a new life) wants her to leave “I don’t have to be here, you know” he says, but he doesn’t move, his eyes blotchy and red from sudden nervousness, her courage increasing on seeing the failure in front of her, she circles and hounds hims. But from this point of departure the action slowly twists into a different tale, not of victim and abuser, but of two very damaged people trying to fill gaping holes in their hearts, created by forced separation in a relationship that just could not be.
And it this is what makes this psychodrama controversial – can it be that a man and a twelve year old be mutually in love? Mr. Harrower explores the question with daring and provocation specifically by setting the action years after the event. At the end of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, for example, Humbert tracks down the once nymphet to discover a grown woman and loses interest in her. In ‘Blackbird’, Una, also a grown woman, has tracked down Ray but for a different reason and it becomes disturbingly obvious why. Moral cracks in our universe makes great theatre and this explains why Mr. Harrower has garnered numerous awards (Olivier 2007) and equal disdain for this compelling, brittle play with a superb premise since it debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005. Clearly, he has abused her “I didn’t mean to hurt you”; “You did”, but subtly sliced into the vicious attacks on stage is a remembrance of a gentle touch, a kind word, even love.
Andrew Flynn cleanly directs the strong cast with the young Judith Rolly unflinchingly pursuing her game about the stage with persuasive specificity yet modulating her various levels of anger by an unraveling vulnerability triggered by a glance or a word. Stuart Graham, recently seen as a strutting, confident rebel in Brian Friel’s ‘Home Place’ has brilliantly crafted a frayed, diminutive maneen who lives life in short, panicky breaths. Yet, Mr. Graham allows us a peek into the man he once was when he opens his heart to her with a confidence that only comes from love. Mr. Graham sidesteps any stereotypes and delivers a strong performance of a conflicted man hunted by his past embodied by the woman in front of him. Both actors are excellent listeners; they hang on to each other’s words with rapt attention even through long winding monologues and emotional tirades.
Mr. Harrower uses effective techniques for bringing the audience into the world of abused and abuser by having the attractive 27 year old, dressed in tall leather boots, black stockings erotically describe their past trysts. On the one hand you are looking at a mature attractive woman being sexually provocative and on the other hand she is describing an experience she had at the age of twelve. This schism is discomforting and simultaneously pulls and draws the audience away from the action creating an intensity that lasts from beginning to end. But it is the revelation of Una’s true feelings and his both at that time and now combined with the fact that he took advantage of her grounds the characters in a deadlocked but credible relationship that is ready to ignite and binds us to our seats.
A powerful premise may cause one to overlook a play’s flaws but unfortunately these are introduced early and often in this work. At the outset, one would think that the author had an attack of the ellipses by the numerous unfinished sentences which neither director nor actor had any idea of the thought behind, perhaps due to their sheer volume or perhaps because there were no thoughts at all and the writer was simply dragging out the initial scene so that the reveals would be all the stronger when they occurred. Why they kick rubbish around the place at one point seemed unclear, though I was happy they did because I felt trapped with the back and forth argumentation and marathon monologues that seemed to repeat previous sentiments. The ending, which I will not give away, is an unearned surprise ending (has changed from the original production) and seems tacked on. Despite these drawbacks, this production is worth seeing because it is a compelling piece of theatre with strong acting and a subject that challenges our assumptions at their heart.
Nun’s Island Theatre
Nun’s Island, Galway
Ticket Price: E20-E22
Ticket Information: Galway Theatre Festival http://www.galwayartsfestival.com
Monday July 13th to Saturday 25th July 2009 8PM
Sat 13 & Sat 25th 3pm
Blackbird by David Harrower
Produced by Decadent Theatre Company
Directed by Andrew Flynn
Cast Judith Roddy and Stuart Graham
Set Design by Owen MacCarthaigh(2008 Irish Times winner)
Costume Design by Petra Breathnach(2007 Irish Times Nominee)
Lighting Design by Adam Fitzsimons and
Sound Design by Jack Cawley
There is great power in surprise. When used to reverse the meaning of a scene AND raise the dramatic question, the audience can be gripped from beginning to end in a vice-grip of tension. Importantly the technique is used to raise the dramatic question through a surprise revelation that changes the meaning of what we have just seen. The meaning is reversed because in the scene is a secret - all the information necessary to give it a second meaning. The changed meaning then raises the dramatic question.
I often use the example of the play ‘Proof’ by David Auburn as it is structurally quite technical and easy to dissect. So let’s look at how he uses this technique.
The play opens with a scene between father and daughter. It’s her birthday. She is drinking alone on the porch, he enters. It is a gentle, heart warming opening and we feel the strong bond between the two. He encourages her to study maths in college, she demurs and they discuss his mental illness. Then she announces quite casually about 15 minutes in, …’but you’re dead’. She’s been talking to a ghost, her recently departed father who is about to be buried.
We have our surprise. The dramatic question has stirred but has not yet fully formed in the audience. Perhaps they’re thinking. ‘What a lovely sight, father and daughter, reminds me of…wait a second did she just say he’s dead? ‘ They run through the scene again in their minds because now the scene has a SECOND meaning (Reversal of Meaning), it was not what they thought it was . Now, they think "Did she see a ghost? No, no, this is not a ghost story. If not then….Hey, didn’t she say he was cuckoo… ". The reversal of meaning created the dramatic question through a surprise revelation that was completely probable. It is no longer a cute display of affection , we just witnessed something very distressing; grief, loss and possible madness. It has a second meaning.
The Audience Universe has been disturbed. Auburn has been quite clever here as we shall see in a moment.
The next scene brings on the nerdy grad student who has been poring over the father’s notebooks. He clarifies the father’s genius and she his madness. The student is also condescending over her mathematical talents (initiating the Tension of Opposites). Somewhere through this scene the penny will drop a little further ‘Hey, she was talking to a ghost just a minute ago, maybe she inherited her father’s madness. Let’s see some more’. The dramatic question unformed is ‘Did she inherit her father’s madness?’ . The student is arguing that there is some great work to be discovered here, she insists that he was too far gone to able to produce anything, both citing evidence. He is clearly dismissive of what he says is her basic understanding of maths. At this stage the audience is completely primed for what is about to happen. She gives him the key to a drawer that contains a notebook detailing a new, previously unworkable proof. He finds it, announces its genius, she announces that she wrote it.
We now have our complete dramatic question delivered again through surprise.
Auburn had to put that argument about how useless the father’s faculties were towards the end to go to the other side of the Tension of Opposites.
The audience is now thinking ‘Did she write the proof because I’m not sure. If she inherited her father’s genius perhaps but hey, she was talking to a ‘ghost’ so maybe she inherited his madness’ The audience is caught in the Tension of Opposites and cannot predict yea or nay because arguments have been set in motion on both sides – a bit more to the side that she was incapable and maybe a little dotty herself. This is necessary to provide the conflict between protag and antag and give her a big problem to overcome. So the dramatic question through the play is something like ‘Did she write the proof and as a consequence of that did she inherit her father’s genius or madness’ . As a side note see how we are guiled into thinking that the genius or madness is something you definitely inherit – not a real world fact but a fact within the story.
So Auburn builds the dramatic question over the course of actions by the protag. He does not give it immediately but primes us slowly for it so that when delivered as a surprise it has immense power. Mind you, some thought his second surprise rather soap-ish as in ‘I killed JR’. I thought it simply dramatic . It worked fine and was necessary for the story.
Here’s how it lays out:
1. Preparation scene establishing key relationships and issues.
2. Surprise Revelation that
a) Changes the meaning of the scene or a key issue AND
b) that change in meaning raises the dramatic question for the play AND
c) the change has caused a Tension of Opposites.
So the whole purpose of that opening scene is now clear, it is something glinting and shiny in the sunlight as it raises up and above – then as it comes back down, that glint is the glint of metal and the shape is an incredibly sharp sword slicing through the air swishing just over your very raised neck hairs. It is a finely tuned structural technique executed with the discipline and finesse of a Samurai warrior.
Dissecting this technique is one thing, doing it is another. However it is in our realm of experience. We all have some event in our past where a very clear and strong idea of something was changed completely on the discovery of some pertinent and (overlooked ) information. I was on a bus from UCLA to Venice one late night in December with a splitting headache when this young woman came on with her 3 kids in tow. They were completely out of control, shouting, rowdy, one even snapped a newspaper from an elderly man and threw it on the ground. All the while the mother sat motionless in her seat. I was sitting behind, judging her through my throbbing headache. How could she let her kids do that on the bus? Disturbing everyone and not giving a damn. What kind of upbringing is that, to let her kids terrorize people on public transport? etc etc. After ten minutes of this, my stop came up and I was glad to get off. I made sure to look at the woman as I walked past to confirm my judgements by the look of her. In her hands she clasped a small bouquet of flowers and some cards – mass cards. Someone had died, someone close. She looked up to me with reddened eyes and in that enormous river of meaning we communicated in a glance, my heart filled with compassion for her and I exited the bus with a feeling of sorrow for her and shame at myself. The surprise revelation was seeing the bouquet of flowers and mass cards which changed the meaning of the scene I was just in.