Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford


performed by Two Gents
at the Tara Arts Theatre,
Earlsfield viewed on 9 March 2019

by Penelope J. Corfield
after viewing by PJC and Tony Belton

Every new production of a classic play offers the chance of discovering something more about the drama – and about its message. This iteration was no exception to that rule. Wilde’s brilliant comedy was performed by two unknown young actors, who shared all the parts between them, with a bit of help from the audience. It could have been an embarrassing disaster. In fact, we were treated to an acting tour de force. The show was both magnetic and funny – and, judging from the prior comments of various members of the audience, it wowed a number of youngsters who were not traditional theatre-goers.

One reason for this scintillating success was the actors’ reliance on the power of Wilde’s dialogue. Quite a few lines were cut. (I was sorry to miss the butler’s announcement that cucumbers were not available in the market ‘even for ready money’). But in general the two actors gave us plenty of authentic Wildean witticisms, clearly enunciated throughout and projected via an array of regional accents and varied intonations to differentiate one character from another. That effect was also achieved by actorly effective body language. The commanding Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen did not fail to command. The simpering Cecily Cardew simpered. Canon Chasuble was unctuous. Miss Prism was outwardly prim yet not-so-secretly aflame with desire for the Canon. And so forth.

As the two actors raced around the small stage, with its minimal props, they cleverly conjured up the different scenes. At times, they verbalised some of Wilde’s stage commands. ‘[Enter Lane]’. It was all done very lightly, without halting the onwards flow of the play’s four Acts, which were run together into one ninety-minute show. The result really concentrated attention upon Wilde’s sustained satire of social artifice.

Throughout, too, the actors interacted genially with the audience. We were invited to make rural sounds to signify that the stage action was shifting to Jack Worthing’s country house in Hertfordshire: cue an assortment of baas, moos, clucks and birdsong. (It sounds naff but was very funny). And, at times, individual members of the audience were led onto the stage as stand-ins. So an unknown young woman became the recipient of Lady Bracknell’s fashion advice (Act IV). She pronounced loftily that: ‘Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present’. The unknown young woman laughed and duly raised her chin – and we could all see the instant difference in her self-presentation. A moment of magic.

The two women actors who acted and coordinated this collective evening of mirth were modestly unnamed on the short flyer. They were identified merely as taking part in a Two Gents Production, which a web-search reveals to be a cross-cultural touring company, based in London.1 It may be assumed from their relative youth that these young women actors are relative beginners on stage. Certainly, the minimalist programme did not parade a back-list of their past performances in other shows. Somehow, however, these two have already become consummate stage professionals. At various points, their performances made easy and charming references to their British-African heritages. But they also showed us the universality of theatre and human passions. The diverse audience responded with laughter and enthusiasm. Since the performers went unnamed, here is a large picture of them instead – and (Two Gents/Tara Arts) they should have their names on the flyer next time. [STOP PRESS: Later identified from L to R as Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford]
Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-HayfordLastly, then, what of Wilde’s message to his audiences? He is clearly satirising the outward affectations of smart society, with its cult of money, status, conformity, hypocrisy, and insincerity. He also wants us to understand that, beneath the glittering social surface, deep feelings continue to bubble away. One of those subterranean passions, unsurprisingly, is sexual desire. This production underlines that point with vigour. At one point, each actor manages with great agility to hug herself as though wrapped in her lover’s arms, smacking her lips noisily, while the other, side by side, does the same. And, at another moment, the two of them, in the guise of Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, disappear beneath a coverlet to have noisy and energetic sex, with much growling, yapping and lascivious sighing.

To escape those stultifying norms of high society, both the two leading male characters – the ‘solid’ Jack Worthing and the dandy Algernon Moncrieff (who turn out to be brothers) – have recourse to secret lives. They have created elaborate fictions which enable them to live one life in the countryside and another in town. Algernon has to make constant visits to a chronic invalid friend, named Bunbury, while Jack has to rush to the rescue of his ‘wicked’ brother Earnest, who is always getting into scrapes.

It is not hard to believe that their stratagems constituted a dramatisation of Wilde’s own awareness of living with a divided self and divided sexuality. The play, performed in triumph in 1895, was the last he ever wrote, immediately before he became embroiled in legal entanglements, which ended with his prosecution and imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’. Within the effervescent drama, there is no hint of tragedy to come. Nor does the plot conclude with anything as heavy as a call for social change, except by implication. There is, however, a covert appeal for friendship, sincerity, tolerance, the avoidance of subterfuge, and the capacity for individuals to live truthfully, in the light of their true natures.

Yes, Oscar Wilde: yes indeed. But, as he knew as a dramatist and then reaffirmed in prison, it’s not an easy task to reconcile all interests, all passions, all individual roles and identities. Toleration is a high social art, relying upon both law and custom; and it has to be relearned and lived positively in every generation.

1 For Two Gents’ productions and workshops, see http://www.twogentsproductions.co.uk. This production was supported by Tara Arts. Compliments are also due to the co-directors, identified subsequently as Arne Pohlmeier and Tonderai Munyevu.

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Review of play seen on 30 December 2015

If in the early twentieth century Sarah Bernhardt in her 70s could move audiences to tears, whilst wearing a wooden prosthetic leg, why could not Samuel Foote in his 50s stir eighteenth-century audiences to laughter, wearing a similar appendage? The answer was that he could – and did. But it takes an actor of fine ability to make today’s audiences both sympathise with his painful disability and laugh at his wit and antic comportment. Simon Russell Beale manages the task with a truly bravura display. If upon other occasions his performances can seem too fidgety (in my view), this time he is in his element. His repeated grin alone would win him acting prizes – as he sets his mouth in a laughing grimace that is at once innocent but knowing, cheerful but melancholic, loveable but menacing, spontaneous but somehow pre-ordained.

Simon Russell Beale as Mr Foote
in Mr Foote’s Other Leg
at the Haymarket Theatre London (2015)
Photo © www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/sep/22/mr-footes-other-leg-review

The play itself is not without problems. It has been developed into a stage version by Ian Kelly, who also acts the part of George III, from his earlier book on Samuel Foote (published in 2013).2   That textured study looked closely at the acting history and social context of the Georgian theatre. It did not demand a tremendously dramatic plot, other than the unfolding of Samuel Foote’s career as an actor-director-dramatist. The big crisis of his life was indeed the amputation of his gangrenous left leg, which is enacted with suitably squirming relish at the end of Act 1. But as Mr Foote rhetorically demands, while the curtain falls, what an earth is left to happen in Act 2?

What follows is episodic, in the style of Act 1, but in a much more melancholic vein. In real life, Samuel Foote became increasingly unpredictable in his later years, quite possibly as a result of head injuries sustained in the accident which cost him his leg. A series of vignettes show him as demanding, fretful, and isolated, as well as thwarted in his passion for his Jamaican theatre-dresser, whilst continuing to present Foote’s comic persona on stage – witty, scabrous, dressed in drag, and twice as large as life. It’s a well-known trope about comic actors and entertainers, who make audiences laugh while their own hearts are, if not quite breaking, then bruised and sombre. On with motley!

However, the point of this play is not to uncover fresh secrets about the art of comic acting but to celebrate its sheer ludic power. That opportunity drew eighteenth-century audiences to see Mr Foote; and twenty-first-century audiences should hasten to see Simon Russell Beale for the same reason. It should be noted too that the direction by Richard Eyre is splendid; the stage-sets are inventive and generate a dynamic framework for the succession of short scenes; the script is witty (complete with lots of jokes about feet); and the ensemble acting is outstanding.

For eighteenth-century experts, there is the additional fun of seeing real-life historical personalities – such as David Garrick [Joseph Millson], Peg Woffington [Dervla Kirwan], Francis Barber [Micah Balfour] – portrayed on stage with invented dialogue which allows the actors to bring them to life, complete with individual idiosyncrasies. It is not ‘real’ history but it does encourage historical empathy. The moment when the dark-skinned Jamaican Francis Barber comes face-to-face with two actors, both blacked-up and bewigged in the part of Othello, is funny but simultaneously challenging to fresh thought about historic acting conventions. (By the way, Foote’s employment of Francis Barber, the trusted factotum of Dr Johnson, is a flight of fancy from Ian Kelly). Nonetheless, while this play is structurally somewhat meandering and thematically incongruous, it offers a feast of theatricality and musings on the art of theatre. The wooden leg of Simon Russell Beale’s Mr Foote can walk tall alongside the legendary limb of Sarah Bernhardt.

Reports differ as to whether she actually wore such a limb after her amputation.

I. Kelly, Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London (2013).

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Review of play seen on 26 December 2015

William Congreve’s witty, frisky comedy Love for Love (1695) demands a witty, frisky production – and that’s very much what it gets in the intimate space of the Swan Theatre, which is part of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. The admirable cast work hard from the start at engaging the audience. There is preliminary banter before the play itself begins, to get us all into laughing mode. There are nods and winks to the audience at key moments, to make sure that we get the point. And – a nice touch – when certain key names are mentioned, the entire cast on stage at the time collectively repeat the name, in knowing tones, looking archly at us. There is a clear artifice in this manner of procedure; but that style fits well enough with the play. It is a witty comedy of manners, not an exercise in gut-wrenching realism.

Insofar as there is a downside, this style of acting (and directing) makes it hard for the audience to identify with any of the characters on stage. They all appear as archetypes. Funny, yes, but rather cardboard in their nature – like a pack of playing cards. The fact that some characters have names that highlight their essential nature, like Mr Scandal and Mr Tattle, makes these parts impossible to play except for laughs – which duly follow, but perhaps a trifle mechanically. In particular, the skittish acting makes it hard to believe that the ‘romantic’ leads, Valentine [Tom Turner] and Angelica [Justine Mitchell], are seriously in love with one another. They could have managed a few more lingering glances and heaving sighs to convince us of their mutual ardour, for the benefit of the plot which, after all, turns upon their contrivances to render Love for Love.

The one-dimensional nature of most of the characters makes the scenes towards the end, when Valentine’s elderly father is duped into making matrimonial advances to Angelica, particularly hard to assimilate into the rest of the play. Sir Sampson Legend [Nicholas Le Prevost] begins as the domineering parent, in pleasing counterpoint to Angelica’s doddering uncle Mr Foresight [Michael Thomas], who is continually consulting the stars to read the future, while being chronically unsure of what they mean.

At a certain point, however, Sir Sampson sheds his cardboard character and becomes a tremulously fond old man, as he is ensnared by the heroine. Love makes the crusty gentleman feel youthful again. It’s tremendously well acted by Nicholas Le Prevost. So much so, that, even knowing that Sir Sampson is ridiculous and self-deceived, we begin to sympathise with him – and therefore to find the manipulative heroine rather odious for arousing his genuine feelings for her own ends (as she manages not only to win her lover but helps him to keep his fortune too). The difficulty comes from contrasting one character’s apparently real emotions with the play-emotions of the rest of the cast.
2015-12 Review of Love-for-Love

Sir Sampson Legend [Nicholas Le Prevost],
self-deceived and flattered into falling in love with Angelica [Justine Mitchell],
in Congreve’s Love for Love by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford (2015).
Photo © http://stratford-upon-avon-theatre.blogspot.co.uk/2015/.

Still, it’s all great fun. Love for Love? There are lots of different forms of love; and the predominance of self-love comes top of the list for this witty, frisky satire by Congreve.

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Review of play seen on 29 April 2014

No, sorry to say, I was not happy with Simon Russell Beale’s Lear at the National. I was not helped by the fact that my partner, who’d never seen Lear on stage, discovered that he hated both the play and the production. It’s hard not to be influenced by someone sitting close and obviously unconvinced. On the other hand, the other people in the audience near us seemed pretty happy. The upshot was that I was glad to have seen the show but found myself slowly alienated from it.

Is it the play itself that’s impossible? There are moments, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell, when it’s hard not to laugh. The finale when Lear arrives, howling and staggering onto the stage with the dead Cordelia in his arms, is never very convincing. No wonder that actors playing the part of the youngest daughter have to be feather-light. At other moments, the deaths of Regan and Goneril are also hard to take, as they writhe and go ‘Aaaargh!’ like cartoon characters. Let alone the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes.

But Shakespeare’s melodrama of regal and family meltdown is known for its difficulty of staging. What of Sam Mendes’s production? Did he surmount, or at least, corral the difficulties? My answer is in the negative. The switches from quiet scenes to super-storm were well done. And the lightning and thunder effects were almost too brilliant. Yet the production seemed to veer uneasily between presenting the characters with dour realism or as surreal archetypes. The extra chorus of figures in army fatigues were introduced to supply an air of menace behind the political power brokers but I found their parades distracting as they had little to do. At one point a line of characters, holding umbrellas, marched across the stage, to indicate that it’s raining. But then most disappear, as they are superfluous to the scene in hand. It’s just itchy movement for no gain. Indeed, the whole production, including Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Lear, was all too fidgety.

So, yes, the actors? I detected from the body-languages of Regan (Kate Fleetwood) and Goneril (Anna Maxwell Martin) that they were offering contrasting types of scheming and outwardly charming womanhood, who came to bad ends. But it is difficult to understand their words – that is, they were audible but not easily comprehensible. Their intimate style of discourse did not project across the huge auditorium at the National. Meanwhile Edmund (Sam Troughton) was convincing early on as a clammed-up character, fretting over his illegitimacy; but unbelievable in later scenes as the ardent, if self-interested, lover of the ugly sisters. Edgar (Tom Brooke) did his best between fooling and delivering the final message of wisdom (‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’), as did the Fool (Adrian Scarborough). The other goodies were dignified in adversity and the baddies malignant. But, overall, this play depends upon its Lear. I have seen Simon Russell Beale in many roles, always admiringly. I thought that his flat, unbelieving, delivery of ‘Never!’ five times in a row (just before he expires) was wonderful. Overall, however, on yesterday’s evidence, his Lear was far too stagey, fidgety and predictable to be tragic. I didn’t quite laugh but I didn’t weep either.

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Viewed at Trafalgar Studio/1, Whitehall, on 31 January 2014

Reviewed by: Penelope J. Corfield,

after viewing with Tony Belton, 31 January 2014

Ghosts at Trafalgar Studio/1 is a superb production. It’s directed by Richard Eyre and wonderfully acted by a strong cast led by Lesley Manville, making the most of a rare leading role for the ‘older woman’. It’s also magnificently presented on a stage with walls that are in turn enclosing and transparent – in conscious homage to the spare yet light-filled domestic interiors depicted by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916).

Yet in this play Henrik Ibsen’s ultimate message is so bleak that it leaves the audience stunned. It’s all about the dead weight of the past and the terrible effect of having chosen respectability over joy and love. Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) and Pastor Manders (Adam Kotz) have lived in denial. She tried to leave her wealthy but debauched husband, but the man she truly loved sent her back. Parson Manders may be assumed to have had a sincere religious faith which overrode his passion for Helene Alving, but he comes over as something of a wimp who is afraid of social censure – a difficult part to act attractively. Either way, their decision leaves them to suffer bleak and joyless lives.

But it gets worse. The sins of the father are visited upon the following generation. It’s blatantly unfair. But so the play unfolds. The tender young love dawning between Helene’s son Oswald (played with great naturalness by Jack Lowden) and the family maid Regina Engstrand (a spritely Charlene McKenna) is blighted not only by his inherited syphilis but also by the revelation that they are half-brother and -sister. Their lives have been spoiled by the ‘dead hand’ of history, through the casual debauchery of the late and unlamented Captain Alving. The self-seeking manoeuvres of the mischief-making carpenter Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie), who had hitherto been assumed to be Regina’s father, are relatively minor sins in comparison. At the denouement, Oswald collapses in a painful seizure, immediately after having appealed to his mother to kill him. Mutely, she holds out a handful of fatal pills, as a radiant sun rises outside the house … and the curtain falls.

Unlike at the conclusion to A Doll’s House (1879), which Ibsen wrote immediately before Ghosts, in this play there is no trace of redemption for the main characters. Perhaps Regina, who has finally walked out slamming the door, will make something of her future life, without her embryonic lover Oswald. But the Alvings, mother and son, are both doomed. He will either live incapacitated or die young. And she will have wasted her life in a sterile bourgeois conformity. Even her maternal love, which has hitherto shielded Oswald from the truths about his father, cannot save him.

Indeed, Helene Alving speculates, late in the play, that she herself may have contributed to the disasters of her life. Perhaps her own rigidity pushed her husband into philandering. And perhaps through fear of social censure, she then connived at things that she should have revealed much earlier. Perhaps the social hypocrisy that blighted her life has infected her own behaviour. Life with total disclosure would be impossible. People need some privacy, even in the closest of relationships. But living permanently with dire secrets leads to people becoming ‘ghosts’, consumed by the past and unable to enjoy the present.

In Ibsen’s original script, the mother is left hesitating at the end: ‘No no no … Yes! … No no’. It is left unclear as to which option she will choose. Ibsen, when asked later, said he did not know. The director Richard Eyre, however, removes any doubt in this production, for which he has adapted the text. Helene Alvings words of hesitation are omitted. Not that saving her son would be much better as an option in the long term. But, in this version, there’s not even a sliver of hope or even options.

What does the audience make of that? On the night, we were caught between admiration and stunned silence. It was difficult to applaud jovially. Of course, plenty of plays end sadly or badly. The finale of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1928), when all the soldiers have left the dugout for a certain death on the battlefield under German bombardment (signified by an ear-blasting soundtrack) is also massively sombre. Umpteen tragedies end with dead bodies on stage as well as off. Many of Chekhov’s plays conclude with a dying fall. Yet somehow, in these other examples, there is some catharsis. Audiences can react with enthusiasm and delight. In this case, perhaps because the play is so intimate, it seems too unrelievedly sombre to generate a positive response. I suppose it is ultimately the unfairness of Oswald’s fate that jars. He had not denied love. And he appreciated the joys not only of life but also of work – as he explained to his mother.

It’s paradoxical that as a historian I often complain that people underestimate the power of deep continuities from the past. Yet here’s a play which is all about that theme. Helene Alving declares:

It’s not only the things that we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs. … They’re not actually alive in us, but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them.

This sombre speech is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s diatribe in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. In this case, however, I was reminded that history always offers some other options. There are changes, both gradual and revolutionary, as well as continuity.

Ultimately, I left the theatre, applauding the cast and director, but appalled by Ibsen’s bleak moral judgment on the love-deniers. It happened to be raining very heavily as we left the theatre. But the sun will also rise … and syphilis would become, well after Ibsen’s time, a disease which is treatable or, better still, avoidable.

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Review by: Penelope J. Corfield after viewing with Tony Belton

On Wednesday 10 April 2013

At: Theatre 503 at the Latchmere, 503 Latchmere Road SW11 3BW

Directed by: Paul Robinson

Cast: Ben Adams; Claire Dargo; Pamela Dwyer; Gregory Finnegan; Cameron Jack; Paula Masterton; Rhys Owen; Owen Whitelaw

Pretty amazing stuff – with a live snake. Brilliantly acted by eight unknown actors. If you want to see impressive impersonations of drunken, drug-driven, crazed, baffled, lascivious, Glaswegian underworld figures, changing from swagger to menace to terror, then view this production. The snake also does its part very well. Launching the opening scene, it writhes and flickers its tongue – without killing anyone in cast or audience. (It seemed to be a handsome but harmless grass-snake). No doubt it represents the wicked but attractive power of Temptation and Forbidden Knowledge, as in the Garden of Eden.
review003In this case, the scenes are all set in one Glasgow tenement. And the cast speak throughout in a no-holds-barred plebeian Glaswegian accent, which adds verisimilitude but which completely baffled an American sitting close to us in the audience. All well and good. Much of the action was symbolic and it was possible to trace the fast-shifting patterns of power and submission from the actors’ magnificently visceral body-language.

So what was the message from this portentous, weird, alarming, depressing, macabre, and intermittently very funny drama? Here it’s much more difficult to respond. All the characters are either loathsomely weak or incoherently dopey or manipulative or manic or violently unpleasant or combining elements of all these traits. The drama offers no false hopes. It ends with universal destruction. The message is unrelentingly downbeat, negative, even nihilistic. So we can conclude: don’t get high on drink and drugs, especially in the company of Glaswegian criminals; don’t double-cross your pals; and remember that the ultimate recourse to violence means that ultimately the most violent will win – before losing in the general holocaust.

These negative messages, however, seem a bit trite and obvious, at the end of an intensive, absorbing two-hour performance. Is there more to it? Does the element of comedy alleviate the gloom? Some does. One put-upon character, who has been deprived of most of his clothes, remarks that it’s difficult to act the hard guy when only scantily dressed: ‘You can’t batter somebody in your underpants’. The audience laughs but also understands the truth of this axiom. People deprived of their socially acceptable carapace are rendered powerless through their own awareness of their self-erosion.

Another funny moment comes when a bottle of scotch is adulterated with human piss. We get a flash of the actor’s willy to understand that this manoeuvre is ‘for real’. A detained innocent, wearing only his underpants, has few options. But he can at least cock a snook, rather literally, at his tormentor. Some comedy then follows, as different characters pick up the bottle and almost drink the piss, before finally the baddie does so. The joke then becomes slightly lost as the violence escalates. But another moral would be: don’t drink from a proffered bottle of scotch unless you are sure of its provenance.

Is that it then? So what? The message still seems a bit too elusive and negative for such impassioned acting. There is also more than a touch of cliché in setting this drama in the badlands of Glasgow. Is the distinctive Glaswegian accent in itself supposed to signal a menacing sub-culture, with its own rules?

Perhaps there is a further clue in the play’s title? It’s called The Life of Stuff. That phrase obviously plays on the reversal of ‘The Stuff of Life’. By looking at the downside of ‘normality’, the playwright Simon Donald promises to probe more deeply. We are to be offered a glimpse of ‘real life’, with a truth-telling message. People who are high on drinks or drugs or violence are deluding themselves. Life’s ‘stuff’ without a valid meaning constitutes betrayal. It leads to delusion, derangement, futility, serious crime and the incrimination of others, culminating only in destruction and death.

Consequently, worthwhile ‘stuff’ needs a serious purpose. There’s a sort of innocent puritanism (albeit without any trace of religious theology) emerging from this play. The Biblical connotations of the snake may suggest some sort of moral message. Nonetheless – aspiring playwrights please note – plays that are unremittingly bleak, no matter how brilliantly acted, can be so negative that the audience are left with blank depression rather than enlightenment.

Ok, so how about, among sad playwrights, Samuel Beckett? Harold Pinter? Even, amidst the scintillating laughter, Chekhov? They all demonstrate that it’s a hard art to present despair as a form of enlightenment. This play doesn’t surmount the difficulty. The audience admired but boggled. At the end, the Glasgow tenement is blown up and the audience is too. But go and see the play for yourself. It’s not often that you get to view a live snake, a trouser snake (in Private Eye parlance) and a dazzling set of performances conveying the apparent exuberance but, in reality, the utter stupidity of getting high on drinks, drugs, sexual opportunism, gangland drug-dealing, and violence. ‘Stuff’, to make a life worthwhile, needs clear minds, independent moral judgement, and fair dealing between fellow humans. Amen to that.

Illustration: Grass snake closeup, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 2010, from M.D. Parr’s photostream, www.flickr.com, downloaded 29/4/2013.

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Viewed by Penelope J. Corfield and Tony Belton 14 December 2012

‘Basically, life in Russia sucks’, summarised the young man in the row behind us, for the benefit of his somewhat bemused companions, who had obviously expected something jollier. We had all shared the experience of seeing a beautifully staged and thrillingly enacted production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (first published 1897 and premiered 1899). By the end, its bleak tragi-comedy left the audience appreciative but stunned. The story was so much more one of tragedy than comedy. To be sure, no-one actually dies. But all the main characters are revealed as thwarted and diminished by life deep in the Russian provinces. They are failures who live daily with their wounds raw. When the audiences laugh, the mirth is hardly differentiated from a painful sorrow.

Dramatically, it’s a great achievement by Chekhov. He forces laughter from the audience, even while telling a sad story. For example, we are amused when, at one point, the two leading ladies are sobbing convulsively, one at one side of the stage crying noisily ‘I’m so unhappy’ and the other at the other side crying hysterically ‘I’m so happy’. But we laugh with a sad, wry laughter. We are already becoming aware that the unhappy leading lady is a heartless sham and that the (briefly) happy young lady is deceiving herself.

Indeed, Chekhov’s six leading characters are all in their different ways sad failures. The eminent professor Serebryakov (Paul Freeman), visiting the provinces from Moscow, is revealed as a sententious and selfish windbag, who is unworthy of his (over-inflated) reputation. His charming young second wife, Yelena (played lustrously by Anna Friel), is revealed as a vacuous beauty, who disrupts people’s lives heedlessly and cannot respond to the passions which she arouses – passions which perhaps she even begins to feel but cannot accept. Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya (Laura Carmichael), who is the professor’s plain but worthy daughter by his first wife, are revealed as deadened by their selfless toil in running the family estate. They scrimp and save to fund the professor, who is both unworthy and ungrateful. At the end, Vanya, impressively played by Ken Stott, is unable even to commit suicide successfully. The uncle and niece are disillusioned. Their personal hopes of love are thwarted. Yet they remain noble in their tedium. They continue to run the estate and to support the family. They have no hope but endurance. ‘We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings’, as Sonya foresees. Only at some unspecified future date, in the next world, will they find solace. So Sonya reassures Uncle Vanya in the famous incantation that ends the play: ‘We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall rest’.

Little alleviates the gloom. Another character Telegin (Mark Hadfield), who is nicknamed ‘Waffles’ for his pockmarked skin, appears essentially as a butt for familiar banter and humour. He is an impoverished landowner, who lives on the estate as a dependent of the professor’s family. So Waffles exemplifies prior failure, now domesticated within the provincial scene as a reminder that careers are liable to go downwards as well as upwards.

Even the relative newcomer to the area, the youthful Doctor Astrov (played with unself-conscious charm by Samuel West,) who is the most dynamic of the assembled party, is revealed as ultimately thwarted. He is able, active, and impressive. Yet Astrov cannot stir the superficial Yelena to reciprocate his passion. And he entirely fails to notice the devoted love that he has aroused in the heart of the luckless Sonya, who would seem a much more suitable partner for life in the provinces. At the end, Astrov too is facing a future of duty without companionship. His hobby is healing and planting trees, which he does in the service of ‘future generations who will be happier than us’.
review001Is there any hint of an escape-route for these educated but melancholy people, deep in nineteenth-century Russia’s remote provinces? They had no electronic media to link them to friends around the world. They could not sign up to courses of distance learning. And they could not all manage to move to Moscow, where, even so, they might end up as self-deceiving mediocrities like the professor. Chekhov does not suggest anything positive. He himself was a chronically busy and active person. So his life’s message might be to discover one’s chosen metier and to work at it. But how to find and then to cultivate it?

In this play, pre-revolutionary Russia’s political and educational system, which wasted human talent, is implicitly rebuked. But the problems were not readily solved by the post-revolutionary settlement either. The Tsars were replaced in 1917 by the communist dictatorship, and after 1991 by a new muddle of democracy and kleptocracy. Educational levels have undoubtedly risen; and the material conditions have changed, often massively but not always for the better. How do individual life-opportunities fare throughout all this? In particular, what should the countless Uncle Vanyas, adrift in Russia’s vast provinces, choose as a career, when they are not chess prodigies or gifted musicians or sporting heroes or ballet stars or nuclear scientists or even frontier trappers? How can ordinary people find joy? What would Dr Astrov alias Anton Chekhov say? Basically, that life in Russia is always work in progress. Seek for love but settle for duty – and, in the meantime, plant some more saplings.
review002Illustrations: (1) Birch woods in Sosnovka Park, St Petersburg, Russia from www.asergeev.com: Photo 758-22, dated 11/6/2009; (2) Birch saplings: from www.trees2mydoor.com with cashback, downloaded 29/4/2013.

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Viewed by PJC, with Tony Belton.

It’s a witty script and the audience was engaged throughout by this production of the Doctor’s Dilemma. Penelope laughed a great deal; and, having read Shaw’s play many times (as a historian of the professions), she was particularly delighted to see it performed at last on stage. Tony laughed moderately. The National Theatre’s production, directed by Nadia Fall, is handsomely staged and amusingly acted. Yet there’s no denying that there are problems with the play as a theatrical experience.

For a start, it’s very static. The characters come on stage and make debating points, each doctor espousing his favourite remedies. (Yes, the medical profession at this time is very male. The doctors are indubitably father figures). On the other hand, some plays are static but still work dramatically. Or do they? Many of Samuel Beckett’s famous plays are very static; but, in fact, his plays are not staged much these days. In a world full of ‘movies’, the ‘standies’ need an absolutely coruscating script to keep the audience’s attention.

If there is not much action, what about character development? Dramas on stage or film often feature challenges to individuals who then undergo moral growth or, at very least, wise up to the ways of the world. Here again, Shaw is limited. His characters embody ideas. As a result, they offer the actors some splendid opportunities for satirical use of speech and body language. The surgeon Mr Cutler Walpole is a zealous advocate of his cutting craft and Robert Portal gives this character a splendidly crisp diction and purposive walk. These mannerisms set him apart from the sleekly languid, plumply prosperous, and discreetly well-bred physicians at the very summit of the profession – who are all distinguished from the seedy and ailing general practitioner Dr Blenkinsop, played with shuffling pathos by Derek Hutchinson. There’s a good deal of comedy and sharp observation in the by-play between these medical men. But the point is that they are all recognisable types, whose conversational gambits don’t ask the actors to scale any emotional heights.
september005On the other hand, again, how essential is character development to make good theatre? There are playwrights – Samuel Beckett again comes to mind – who focus upon the keen interplay of ideas and words, not the unfolding of individual or community transformation. After all, there is no general rule that must apply to theatre – other than the willing suspension of disbelief.

So without much action or character development, what does Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma provide instead? The answer is a fairly exiguous plot and a crackling wit, chiefly at the expense of the medical profession. Shaw considers medicine to be a human – and hence fallible – art rather than a would-be infallible science. The doctors chaff each other, while the audience is invited to laugh at them all. Each eminent doctor has his own pet diagnosis-and-remedy, which he repeats in and out of season. For the surgeon Cutler Walpole, the problem is blood poisoning and the required cure is his own specialist operation. For the newly knighted Sir Colonso Ridgeon, who is genially played by Aden Gillett, the key treatment for tuberculosis is his own special serum to stimulate the body’s ‘phagocytes’. For the patrician Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Malcolm Sinclair), the solution is much simpler: ‘find the germ and kill it’, with whatever anti-toxin that comes to hand. And the chorus is rounded out by a veteran physician, Sir Patrick Cullen (Jonathan Coote), who genially remarks of each new invention that he has ‘seen it all before’.

Underpinning the humour is Shaw’s conviction that all learned professions are, at heart, a conspiracy against the laity. There is an element of truth in the charge, since much expertise remains far too specialised for the general public to check at all easily. And certainly doctors, like everyone, can benefit from a bit of humility. Indeed, a number of professionals collect jokes at their own expense, as an antidote to the high seriousness of their everyday calling. Yet medicine as a discipline does, in fact, progress. Both its science and its art (in terms of improved bedside consultation) have generally improved over time. Doctors do not just spot their own specialism every time. They are endlessly checked and assessed – and so forth – in a collective project.

So Shaw’s sallies at the expense of the individual doctor’s medical knowledge don’t hit home today with major force. The related issue – the dilemma at the core of the play – is, however, a very real one. It focuses upon the allocation of scarce medical resources. With the best will in the world, not everyone can have exactly the same level of care. But again, decisions about resource allocation are not made these days either solely or even chiefly by individual doctors. Instead, it is the entire system of the National Health Service, complete with the input from NICE – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – and from the ever-meddling politicians, which remains a valid subject for satire as well as for celebration, à la Danny Boyle.

Finally, Shaw launches two subsidiary shafts of humour. One targets the bohemian artist, who is gifted, charming, and careless of conventional morality. Louis Dubedat (played Tom Burke, looking suitably Byronic) insouciantly borrows money that he can’t repay and cheerfully deceives women. He was obviously a type known to Shaw, who portrayed another variant in the form of Albert Doolittle in Pygmalion (1912). The satire is affectionate, teasing also the conventional doctors who don’t know how to deal with Dubedat. He dies of tuberculosis on stage, while checking eagerly that the intruding journalist is present to record his last words in praise of Art and Beauty.

And lastly, Shaw explores the character of the outwardly meek and innocent Victorian wife, who tries to manipulate men while pretending unawareness of her sexual appeal. Jennifer Dubedat, played by Genevieve O’Reilly with voluptuous appeal, looks in public like a terrestrial impersonation of the ‘Angel in the House’ of poetic fame. Her gaze falls down, her dress is gleamingly white, her voice is caressing, her pose supplicant. She appeals, as if artlessly, to men’s chivalry. Shaw again essays a number of variants of this character. One is named only as ‘The Lady’ in The Man of Destiny (1896). When she murmurs, wide-eyed: ‘I show my confidence in you’, the male of the species should beware. The clever woman, disguised as an ingénue, challenges without appearing to challenge the powerful, acerbic man of the world, who half sees through her but can’t resist. It’s a female pose that’s not so common today, post-women’s lib. But it’s still done, sometimes naturally, sometimes not.
september004Given that the contest between the beguiling female and the suspicious male is intrinsically theatrical, it works well on the stage. And there is a moment of real frisson, which must have been particularly shocking in 1906 when the play premiered. Newly widowed, Jennifer Dubedat exits immediately, only to return wearing not black but a sumptuous crimson evening dress, which displays to the full her bosomy charms. The assembled medical men gasp.

She wants to bear witness to her past happiness, in tribute to the high ideals of Art. Pollyanna-style, she burbles: ‘Life will always be beautiful to us; death will always be beautiful to us. May we shake hands on that?’ Her deliberately maintained self-delusions about her late husband are absurd yet also real. In the play, she is left unenlightened and still happy.

Where does that leave Shaw? His dreams of replacing Shakespeare as the national bard won’t come true. Yet Shaw was a great script-writer. His plays are not naturals for the big stage today; but, with sharp editing and fast-paced high-quality productions, they would make great TV dramas. Come on, programme-commissioners, give us a big Shaw season on the box. As one celebrated actor recently confirmed to us: ‘Shaw’s texts read wordy but act well’. He dramatises life’s ever-recurring dilemmas and the constant need for human judgements. Let’s have lots more Shavian prompts to laughter and thought.

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Just recently, my partner Tony Belton and I have begun to formulate our own reviews of live performances that we have attended. This one was written by me (as indicated by my prose style) but represents our joint response.

Call Mr Robeson: A Life – with Songs (2012)
Written and performed by: Tayo Aluko
at the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon: 18 May 2012
2012-6 Tayo Aluko2012-6 Paul Robeson (2)  Pictures showing (T) Paul Robeson and (B) Tayo Aluko

The magnificent power of words – and, especially, of words set to music in song – laid the basis for this mesmerising performance by Tayo Aluko. He deployed his deep baritone and his acting charisma to take the audience through a summary of the life of the great American singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976). True, the audience was predisposed to be appreciative. Yet it would take a veritable heart of stone not to be moved by ‘Ole Man River’, ‘Steal Away’, and ‘Going Home’, sonorously performed close at hand, in the intimate surroundings of Croydon’s threatened Warehouse Theatre.

Tayo Aluko as a young man in Nigeria had never heard of Robeson. Once having got the message, however, he determined that others should share his excitement. Hence his dedication in writing and performing the script as a one-man show. Incidentally, some people in the Croydon audience ventured that Robeson was less likely to have been forgotten in Britain than in his native America. Here he was feted for his music and his internationalism. But, either way, there is scope for all to learn more about this remarkable singer and activist.

Sensitive piano accompaniment came from Michael Conliffe, who wrote the incidental music which linked the scenes together. And the staging was simple but ingenious. Boxes and props were scattered around, allowing Aluko to move from point to point, picking up books, objects and photos to illustrate specific themes at specific times. In sympathy, his acting turned in an instant from happiness to grief, from enthusiasm to brooding, as the different episodes unfolded.

Amusing by-play was generated by the ever-changing names of Robeson’s female companions. In parallel, reference was made to the growing strains within his marriage to Eslanda ‘Essie’ Goode Robeson (1896-1965). She resented his many passionate affairs but, as Robeson’s ambitious business manager, contributed strongly to the advancement of his career. The play’s episodic format was not, however, geared to a close exploration of the sexual and psychological tensions within their marriage. Her disparaging comments in her biography of her husband Paul Robeson, Negro (1930) go unmentioned, as does his angry response. On such personal matters, it is notoriously hard for outsiders to judge. The play does, however, include a late song, in rather uncomfortable tribute from Robeson to his wife’s rock-like character. They split and reconciled several times, but never divorced.

Robeson was a polymath. As a young man, he graduated from Columbia University law-school, whilst playing as a professional in the National Football League. He became a celebrated concert-singer, film star, and stage actor, being the first African American to play Othello, with a white supporting cast, on Broadway. He was a staunch campaigner for human rights within America and an internationalist, aroused to active anti-fascism by the Spanish Civil War. As his career took him around the world, Robeson felt that he was better appreciated outside the USA than he was by his compatriots. For a time he had a house in Hampstead; and, at another time, he lived in Moscow, with his son Pauli. He sought to study his African origins but also to identify the bedrocks of a universal musical language. Above all, Robeson wanted to be accepted as a human being and musician in his own right, not just to be labelled by his ethnicity.

His later years were difficult. During the Cold War years, many Americans viewed Robeson as little more than a ‘godless communist’, although he proclaimed himself not as a communist but a socialist. He was notoriously grilled by the McCarthyite House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – whence the title of this play: ‘Calling Mr Robeson’. From 1950-57, the State Department blacklisted him, refusing him a passport and the opportunity to travel overseas. Exhausting legal and political challenges followed.

Robeson, who accepted the International Stalin Prize in 1953, also became controversial on the political left and within the American civil rights movement. He feared that he was becoming air-brushed out of history. Despite getting his passport back and launching upon successful comeback tours, he now had a controversial past. Younger activists increasingly ignored his achievements. After a failed suicide bid in Moscow in 1961, Robeson became chronically ill and depressed, on heavy medication. He lived in seclusion with his wife and, after her death, with his son. Throughout, he kept his dignity; and he never rescinded his commitment to socialism and to human rights world-wide.

As indicated in the question-and-answer session at the end, Robeson remains both admired and contentious. The receding tides of history have marooned his uncritical belief in Soviet-style communism. Was he indeed just another of the ‘useful idiots’ (in Stalin’s phrase) who helped to deceive the international community and especially the political Left about the true nature of Stalinism? Should or could Robeson have protested publicly against Soviet communism’s own injustices, about which he was, however reluctantly, becoming aware? The answer is surely yes. Yet this play makes his political journey innerly comprehensible, without necessarily endorsing every step on the way.

Together, Paul Robeson’s life and songs bore witness to his multiple commitments, about which this play invites its audiences to reflect. Those who live quiet lives, their heads below the parapet, may wonder how they would have fared with such a career, in such testing times. And his songs live on: listen to Robeson’s recordings of ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’, ‘Joe Hill’, or ‘Going Home’. Magnificent – a voice from history for all times.

Call Mr Robeson was directed by Olusola Oyeleye; and designed by Phil Newman. For future performances in the USA, Canada, and the UK, consult www.callmrrobeson.com; ; and Twitter: @CallMrRobeson.

To support the Appeal to save Croydon’s threatened Warehouse Theatre, now in administration, see www.warehousetheatre.co.uk.

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