Tag Archives: Laura Hopkins

Through A Lens Darkly

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th November, 2014

 

Oh, good: yet another First World War drama. I haven’t seen one of those for at least a week. In serious danger of combat fatigue, I approach Imitating The Dog’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, based on his own experiences. What sets this production apart is its innovative and inventive mode of presentation.

The cast arrives with flashlights. It is as though they have come to a disused hospital. As they prepare (which involves getting into costume, or setting up TV cameras) a discordant overture plays, not far removed from an orchestra tuning up. We get a sense that something is about to begin…

Laura Hopkins’s set serves as every location in the story, augmented by Simon Wainwright’s video projections on the walls and through the windows. But also the surfaces, including screens that usually provide temporary privacy for patients, become cinema screens – live feeds from the cameras are projected all over the set, giving multiple viewpoints, and providing some striking visual counterpoints. For example, with the main actors’ backs turned, their faces projected in profile on the hospital screens address each other. The effect is striking but somehow emphasises the disconnection between the characters, who are supposedly falling in love. And that sums up the production as a whole: the use of technology adds interest for the audience but also keeps us at a remove from the action.

Handsome Jude Monk McGowan is Frederic Henry, a dapper American soldier who speaks his narration directly to camera; his face his cast large on the back wall. It’s like reportage – a war correspondent delivering huge chunks of Hemingway. McGowan is good as the pent-up protagonist. Everything comes together for the sequence in which he is injured in an explosion and transported in horrific conditions on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Here we have actors and technology working together for a powerful theatrical moment. It’s a graphic novel come to life.

In other scenes, it’s like watching a film being shot and screened at the same time. The exposure of the production’s artificialities serves to keep us at a distance so we may reflect on characters’ discourses, such as what might happen if one side just stopped fighting? But that same artificiality also keeps us apart from the emotional aspects of the play. The love story is unconvincing – I think Laura Atherton’s Catherine might play better with the clipped delivery of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Here, voices are amplified not projected. Mouths on screen don’t quite match with the words we hear, like a poorly dubbed movie. It all helps to keep us out.

Having to stay on their marks, the actors are sometimes hampered, sometimes liberated. Small moments of intimacy are splashed up the walls, but these can feel intrusive rather than revealing – we have been trained to be dispassionate observers by this point, and so the emotional climax of the tale, which comes not from the War but from their domestic lives afterwards, is not the punch in the guts it ought to be.

There’s a lot to take in. It’s a wordy play, sometimes in Italian with surtitles, and sometimes it feels over-narrated. The visuals are ever-changing, there is music playing, and words and letters swimming on and off the walls. Initially, you can lose track, but when you get used to it, there are some wonderful set pieces when everything clicks into place, and co-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks have all the elements working in concert.

It’s an original approach but unfortunately in this case it is ultimately unsatisfying and yet Hemingway’s stark message comes across, when the cameras are switched off and Henry dismisses the other characters from the set. For what have they survived the War? Death is going to visit everyone anyway. It’s not only war that is futile but life itself.

Bleak.

Star of stage and screen: Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic (Photo: Ed Waring)

Star of stage and screen: Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic (Photo: Ed Waring)


Star Tern

THE SEAGULL

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 11th June, 2013

John Donnelly’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece (in my view) brings the Russian tragicomedy up-to-date and yet it feels thoroughly Chekhovian.  The play is riddled with lines and themes from Hamlet – indeed, the first act involves a play-within-a-play, and it is from this device that the production takes its cue.  The setting is somewhat abstract, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic, but it wears its theatricality overtly.  When characters, played naturalistically, deliver a soliloquy or an aside, they step over the edge of the bare black proscenium and address the audience directly.  Our positioning beyond the fourth wall represents the lake to which they often allude.  “There’s nobody out there,” mourns someone, plaintively.

But we are out there, hanging on every word of this punchy script.  These Chekhovians swear and sing Burt Bacharach (or try to) but apart from these interpolations, all the tedium and banality of their everyday lives is there, squeezing the existential angst out of them in sudden outbursts.

With precious little to do, they philosophise about Life (naturally) but also about Theatre and Writing – these are a few of my favourite things!  There are some very arch moments, playing on different levels.  I found myself shrinking in my seat when they decried theatre critics.

Blanche McIntyre directs a strong company with an assured hand, marrying the content to the form – the only happy union of the piece!  Beautifully lit by Guy Hoare, Laura Hopkins’s set reveals its versatility across the acts.

Abigail Cruttenden rules the roost as matriarch Irina, an actress who readily confesses she is never ‘off’.  She wears her passions on her sleeve and has a declamatory tone to even the most mundane of utterances.  She is the Gertrude figure whose affections have been drawn away from troubled (i.e. artistic) son Konstantin towards writer (i.e. tortured) Boris (Gyuri Sarossy).  Konstantin (the excellent Alexander Cobb) shoots a seagull, then himself (but misses) before finding some measure of success as a writer.  Konstantin loves Nina (Pearl Chanda – also excellent) who aspires to be an actor, inspired by Irina and in awe of Boris.  Meanwhile, Masha (Jenny Rainsford) loves Konstantin but settles for marrying the pleasantly dull Semyon (Rudi Dharmalingham) in that doom-laden way that these characters do.  I also particularly enjoyed Colin Haigh as the ailing Petr and David Beames as Yevgeny, but really the entire ensemble merits undiluted praise.

It’s a very entertaining version and also very rewarding.  For all its meditations, it’s what the subtext provokes in the observer that makes it a great play. It is, as its own thesis claims, a moment of the extraordinary that keeps us going through the mundanity and longings of our own mortality.  It’s a story of thwarted hopes and expectations, false alarms and anguish.  It is also very funny.

Image

Emotional seesaw. Pearl Chanda and Abigail Cruttenden