Tag Archives: Jon Bausor

Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter.  This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point.  There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…

Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee.  Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house.  His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert.  Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role.  But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.

Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene.  She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos.  There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!

Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia.  Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers.  They are koi carp trapped in the same tank.  It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay.  Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.

That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent.  They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie.  But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.

The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging.  And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained.  Meaning is not always apparent.  Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.

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The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 

 

 

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School’s Out

LORD OF THE FLIES

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd November, 2015

 

Nigel Williams’s adaptation of the William Golding classic novel is bang up-to-date with references to Miley Cyrus and selfie-sticks but adheres to the book’s themes and tensions because they are eternal in their relevance. A group of young boys find themselves on a remote tropical island, having survived a plane crash. They have to work out what to do in order to survive and to be rescued. The thin veneer of civilisation is soon stripped away and things fall apart, descending into primitivism and savagery.

Director Timothy Sheader keeps the action tightly focussed, making sharp and efficient us of freeze-frames and cross-cutting so that the space can represent more than one location at the same time and the flow is not bogged down with characters trooping on and off. It’s fast-moving despite the confines of the stage. Throughout the carcass of the airplane features in a striking set by Jon Bausor, providing different levels and interiors as the story requires.

Luke Ward-Wilkinson is Ralph, the decent one, trying to keep democratic order. Smart and athletic, Ward-Wilkinson skilfully portrays a boy on the brink of adulthood, who knows enough to have a moral code but lacks the emotional immaturity to deal with the extreme situation he is in. His oppo is Jack (a strident Freddie Watkins) who only likes democracy when it works in his favour, shouting down any dissenting view, like Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions – and I haven’t even got to the pig’s head. Jack promotes fear and division through superstition, keeping his followers together with mindless chanting and violence. Watkins makes him a thoroughly nasty piece of work, pompous and self-important, and, at the end, reminds us that Jack is still a child.

In contrast to all the plummy, private school voices, there is Anthony Roberts as Piggy, whose Northern tones appeal for order and fair play. He has victim written all over him. Imagine John Prescott stumbling into a nest of Bullingdon Club bullies. Piggy is the conscience of the group and is therefore ridiculed, tormented and ultimately silenced.

Dylan Llewellyn’s Henry brings a touch of schoolboy humour, lowering the tone with toilet references in an energetic performance – in fact, the whole company expends a great deal of energy and emotional intensity as they run around in their underpants. Keenan Munn-Francis makes a strong impression as doomed oddball Simon, and Thiago and Fellipe Pigatto give sensitive and strong performances as identical twins Sam and Eric. But it is little Perceval who almost steals every scene he’s in, played with clarity and vulnerability by David Evans.

Even if you know the story, the second act is especially gripping, thanks in no small part to Kate Waters’s fight direction and Nick Powell’s sound score. Scenes in which the boys whip themselves up into Bacchic ecstasy are especially terrifying. Beneath every school uniform beats the heart of a savage!

An exciting and thought-provoking production of Golding’s assessment of human behaviour, very well staged and realised. Top marks, boys; gold stars all around.

Freddie Watkins as Jack (Photo: Johan Persson)

Freddie Watkins as Jack (Photo: Johan Persson)


The Madness of War

CATCH 22

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th May, 2014

 

Joseph Heller’s story has appeared as a novel and as a film. This stage adaptation encapsulates the feel of both of those while at the same time being an effective piece of theatre in its own right. We follow the experiences of Yossarian, an everyman caught up both in a war and the bonkers bureaucracy of the men in charge. Philip Arditti plays it sardonically for the most part, until the absurdity of the situation pushes Yossarian to the limit. Arditti is the lone sane voice in this mad world and when he tries, literally, to divest himself of the craziness around him, as a human being laid bare, the rules and regulations of this crazy society won’t let him be.

Jon Bausor’s corrugated iron set is dominated by a bisected aeroplane in and around which the action takes place. Scott Twynholm’s sound design helps to keep us on edge. We flit from office to brothel to war zone and the actors elide from character to character by swapping hats or spectacles. The transitions are slick; scenes blend and jar, as though we are in Yossarian’s consciousness. Director Rachel Chavkin lays the craziness bare, keeping the action focussed and not overburdened with gimmicks and ‘cleverness’. An example of what works really well is when soldiers start dancing in place, symbolising their adherence to rules of behaviour, their subjugation to someone else’s tune.

Supporting the excellent Arditti is a strong ensemble, each member of which doubles up on roles. Very funny is David Webber’s Major Major who would rather defenestrate himself than receive visitors in his office; Michael Hodgson’s Colonel Cathcart is a jobsworth on a monstrous scale; Christopher Price’s Milo Minderbinder is the capitalist on the make, exploiting the war for personal profit. Heller’s work is remarkably relevant outside of the context of war!

The absurdity of bureaucracy and the horrors of war intermingle to create a very funny, sometimes shocking, always engaging night at the theatre. It perhaps makes all its points well before the running time elapses but you don’t really mind numbness in the bum when your mind is both tickled and dismayed by Northern Stage’s high quality production.

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Philip Arditti (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 

 


They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Uncle

HAMLET

RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th March, 2013

 David Farr sets his Elsinore in an old-school school hall.  Wood panelling covers the walls.  Low benches from P.E. lessons and metal-framed stacking chairs.  Upstage, steps lead to a proscenium arch and a platform with some heavy duty chairs and table.  The wooden floor is marked with tramlines and fencing foils hang from the walls.  Fire doors lead off to the exit.  Above the proscenium, rather subtly, is the legend, Mens sans in corpore sano.  There is also a handbell knocking around but it’s the accoutrements of fencing that dominate – the sport rather than the gardening variety.  The masks especially are put to good use (Hamlet’s dad’s ghost wears the full rig-out) and the foils are put to almost constant use.

Hamlet (Jonathan Slinger) appears right at the start, in a black suit, still sobbing over his father’s death and what has followed.  With that suit and his specs, he looks like Philip Larkin.  But rather than a provincial librarian turned poet, Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University – a mature student, it would appear.  We are in the early 1960s, judging from Jon Bausor’s designs – Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in skirt, tights and sensible shoes is either a student or teacher, or perhaps a student teacher, shedding an armful of exercise books to throw herself into a passionate embrace with Philip Larkin, sorry, Prince Hamlet.  Horatio sports a jacket with leather patches at his elbows.  Laertes wears a polo neck.  This is the era before hair got really long and clothes became really colourful.

It’s a dingy Denmark, traditional and staid. But as we know, there is something rotten in the state.  The problem with Hamlet, I find, is it’s too familiar.  Almost every line is a famous quote.  It’s like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits or even the English Language’s Greatest Hits.  So much of the play has entered common usage, it takes an excellent production to make the lines sound fresh and new and current within the context of the production.  This one does that, but patchily.  I suppose if this is your first Hamlet it’s a strong one but a long one to begin with.

Slinger doesn’t look like a Hamlet but he sounds like one and can drive a good soliloquy.  He has an impressive range of sarcastic gestures and mockery, and his energy never flags in a performance of contrasts and colours, mood swings and madness.  At one point he enters singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness but sadly without the tickling stick.  In scenes with his mother (Charlotte Cornwell) his petulant, rather teenage protestations are perhaps the greatest stretch of credibility, but on the whole this melancholy prince gives an impressive turn.  If you disregard the fact that he’s breaking most of the instructions he gives to the Players when they arrive.  Like his half-on and half-off fencing armour, the part doesn’t quite fit him, try as he might.

Nixon is a striking Ophelia, abused by Hamlet: he strips her down to vest and tights as if she’s forgotten her PE kit – and by the director: she has to lie dead in the dirt downstage centre for the final scenes while all around her is action and murder.  Horatio (Alex Waldmann – now there’s a Hamlet I would like to see) is a beatnik intellectual but no less genuine in his affection for his royal friend.  Greg Wise doubles as Claudius and the brother he murdered; his Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad is eerie and moving, while his murderous Claudius keeps a tight rein on himself until he’s alone and at prayer.  It was a special treat for this Rock Follies fan to see Charlotte Cornwell as an elegant Gertrude, looking fabulous in couture but also powerful as the woman who has unwittingly participated in her own and everyone else’s downfall.

I adored Robin Soans’s prissy and self-important Polonius and was sorry to see him stabbed behind the arras (ouch!) and as his son, Laertes, Luke Norris cuts a dashing figure.  His final confrontation with Hamlet doesn’t look like a fair fight, and indeed, it isn’t.

It’s well worth seeing but it’s more of a “Let’s see how they do this bit” kind of show rather than an engaging presentation of tragedy.  I didn’t get beyond regarding the actors as actors, or appreciating the technical aspects of the production, rather than being moved by the characters.

Larkin about

Larkin about (Photo by Keith Pattison)