Angels in America. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Live relay from the National Theatre.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart Jarrett as Belize. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks.

“I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.”
Belize. Perestroika. Act 4 scene 3.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is an extraordinary piece of writing, “a gay fantasia on national themes” conceived on an epic scale. It consists of over eight hours of theatre, spread across two plays, telling the story of the early years of the AIDS crisis in America in a way which is both deeply personal and political. It starts traditionally enough before veering off into fantasy and becoming gloriously theatrical in a way that is too rare on stage. There is some blistering dialogue, giving opportunities for the actors that they might wait a lifetime for. It is a flawed masterpiece which overreaches itself, and is certainly in need of an edit, but given what is offered to us it is churlish to say so. We are lucky to see it on stage again as it needs considerable resources and actors of rare talent to do it justice. I missed the National Theatre’s original production back in the nineties and I have been waiting to see it ever since. Given the speed at which it sold out so has everybody else. Thankfully I had never read it and had only a general idea of what was going to happen which made it very exciting. The writing constantly surprised me. It is fearlessly emotional and theatrical, taking unexpected twists and turns, and I was able to relish each of them with a fresh eye. It is an experience so overwhelming to sit through that, with hindsight, it is frustrating that it is not perfect, which reminded me of the quote from Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, “ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks

As Prior Walter Andrew Garfield gives one of the greatest stage performances that I have ever seen. Prior’s AIDS diagnosis wrecks his relationship and his settled, controlled life. He is vulnerable, touching, stylish, funny, brave and sometimes desperately angry. It is a part that he will remember, and be grateful for, for the rest of his life. His boyfriend Louis simply can’t cope with what he knows will be ahead of him and bails out. This is a huge betrayal at a time when the gay community were forced to help each other in the face of society’s fear and indifference. I really felt for Louis. He always has something to say about politics, about caring from a distance, but when he is expected to show up and demonstrate some personal feeling in terrible circumstances he finds that he can’t, however much he wants to, and it tears him apart. James McArdle makes him just as funny, poignant and frustrating as he needs to be. We need to sympathise with him while not forgiving him for his betrayal and we do.

This speech, spoken by Roy Cohn a ruthless, amoral lawyer, who is also diagnosed with AIDS is one of the plays darkest moments. It is a terrifying performance by Nathan Lane. He is a Broadway legend but I think I would have known that without being told. It is impossible to watch him without feeling a sense of foreboding.

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: “gay”, “homosexual”, “lesbian.” You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?”

The hapless, closeted Mormon Joseph- who is way out of his depth when his ambition and frustration lead him to get involved in Roy’s shady dealing- is beautifully played by Russell Tovey. He is in the process of destroying his wife Harper’s life and sanity by being unable to give her the intimacy and attention that she craves and his religion is a source of guilt and confusion rather than comfort. The production gave us a sharper, gutsier Harper from Denise Gough than I would have liked but I can see why that decision was made- especially in the second play.

The character who gave me most pleasure was Belize, an openly gay, transvestite nurse who is brim full of intelligence and New York sass. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is a breath of fresh air amongst all the suffering and angst, a wise voice who we can rely on to survive. He can speak volumes with a slight turn of the head or a raised eyebrow and I just loved him, and his character, to bits.

The title mentions angels and my goodness there is a spectacular one. Some fine puppetry, designed by Finn Caldwell and Nickine puppetry, provides her wings and Amanda Lawrence provides her dark heart and flamboyant soul, bringing Prior Walter’s delusions to life.

Angels in America must be one of the most difficult directing jobs you could possibly have, even with all the resources of the National theatre at your fingertips but Marianne Elliot is used to big challenges and the long sequences of short scenes are quickly and economically staged allowing the performances to shine. The only part which I might hope to see working better one day was the heaven scene in Perestroika. I would have liked a bit more speed and spectacle at that point. Maybe I just loved that angel too much…………………

There is so much more that I could say. It was just extraordinary……. it really was.

The Boxing Days.

I remember the Boxing Days.
The angel cake, the sausage rolls,
the tinned salmon sandwiches.
The coats piled on the bed.
The jelly that I didn’t eat.
The Babycham.

I remember going down the club,
the awful singing, the bingo, the corny jokes.
Our Ann being told not to drink so fast.
The feel of my gran’s crimplene dress
as we danced the Valeta and the St Bernard’s waltz,
sticking out our arms and stamping our feet.

I remember two ball, against a wall,
keeping rhythm and playing jacks,
racing snails and buying penny sweets.
Sitting on a gate, all afternoon,
writing car numbers in a book.
Making patterns with clapping hands.

I remember getting stuck in the coal shed.
Sharing a bed with my cousin-
giggling together late at night.
Watching the women do their hair
with setting lotion and curlers.
Going home on the bus.

I remember sleeping on the back seat
of the old black Vauxhall with nets in the roof
and indicators that flipped out.
Sitting obediently on newspaper
and still being sick half way up Garrowby.
Every time.

I remember the whistle of the seven o’clock train,
rain on the caravan roof,
and flaring gas mantles,
a silly song about piggies
and running to the camp shop
to pick up a summer special.

Those days have gone now,
as days do………….
but I remember.

 

Chips in the Rain.

There is nothing quite so perfect
as hot chips in summer rain.
Eaten, hood up, shoulders hunched
speared on a wooden fork.
The scent of happiness lifted
from underneath the sheltering lid
of a polystyrene carton,
bringing warmth to a shivering day.

The best ones are on top.
Fat sticks of golden potato,
salved with ketchup,
anointed with vinegar,
cooled by a sea borne wind.
Their fading heat comforts my mouth
with a thin coating of molten grease
and the tang of weak acid.

I stroke the bare ones,
sharing out the ketchup,
coating the bare chips
with long thin smears of pale red.
Just right. Perfect.
A small black dog watches,
lips moving anxiously.
Eyes fixed.

We eat together, delicately,
taking each chip into an open mouth
with careful attention, one by one,
until only the scraps are left
and an eager, searching, desperate mouth
bolts them down from the pavement,
excitement shivering,
all control gone.

The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Giacometti. Tate Modern. 16-07-17

Man Pointing 1947 Bronze 178 x 95 x 52 cm Tate, Purchased 1949 © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

“We succeed only to the extent that we fail.”

Giacometti was born in 1901 and during a hard working and disciplined life he became one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. The major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern is the first for twenty years and we have waited far too long for it. It is a fine show. The sculptures that Giacometti has left us seem to live on for him, honouring his memory. Each one bears the marks his fingers made on their surface as he worked on them obsessionally, his presence still clings to the surface giving it life. He loved to mould clay or plaster with his hands, although his work was cast in bronze, and the austere, passionate personality of the man who worked in the same frugal studio for many years stares calmly out of everything that he made. They do not challenge us, they just are. They have dignity, grace, composure, movement and above all humanity. They are timeless.

Very Small Figurine c.1937- 1939 Plaster, traces of colour 4.5 x 3 x 3.8 cm Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Pari s © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Even the tiniest most unassuming little figure lives, although barely formed. The “very small figurine” made in 1937/39 is a tiny miracle. It is barely there at all……. yet it lives. I stood alongside a teenage boy and we both marvelled at it. The man walking across a square, a bronze figure from 1949, has determination and purpose- he is crossing that square to get somewhere- it is as though we can read his mind. The bronze dog from 1957 has great personality. He is going along at a medium lope, on his own, sniffing for stuff but he has not found anything yet. He is comfortable. He knows where he is and where he is going. It is also a saluki, one of the worlds oldest dog breeds so it can stand in for all dogs, everywhere, alive and dead, who have spent their lives doing just that. The falling man, a bronze made in 1950, has been caught in mid tumble, just before he loses balance. A moment has been freeze framed. In the final room three giant figures face us as we walk in, two women and a man. It is humbling to meet them- and yes it does feel like a meeting- and see Giacometti working on a grand scale. A grand scale which has lost none of the humanity and humility which runs through all his work.

Diego Seated 1948 Oil paint on canvas 80.5 x 65 cm Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The paintings which mostly come from his early years, are dark and shadowy, intensely worked and full of vibrating life. I didn’t like them so much as the sculpture although there is one of Jean Genet which appealed to me very much.

Pierre Matisse Giacometti working on Four Figurines on a Stand at the Tate Gallery, 1965 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Part way through the exhibition there is a wonderful film of Giacometti at work in his studio. He is concentrating hard, intensely tactile, fingers moulding the clay, passionate, dignified, strong and unchanging, but always humble. He used the same few subjects, a few people who were close to him, over and over again and he tells his interviewer that he could try to paint someone for a thousand years and he would end up saying “it’s still all wrong but I am getting a little nearer”. Rather than making a likeness of an individual he was paring life, and in particular humanity, down to its essence and that is a long job- not one for the faint hearted. Never have I seen work that so reflects the personality of the man who made it. I think I would have liked him very much.

The Creature of Time.

 

 

 

 

 

Clutching the darkness,
head stretched upwards towards the light,
the creature has been waiting.
Trapped.

He has known sunlight,
tasted many springs and sipped pure water.
Leaned into the wind and felt it move him.
He has been called beautiful.

Held fast by the subtle power
of the soft mud that clings
he has slept tight………….
Barely breathing.

Slowly the rain stroked his body,
loosened his ties, poured away his bonds
wiped the darkness from his empty eyes,
willing him to see.

In the midst of the storm
he roused himself,gazed around,
filled his lungs, felt the edge of the cliff calling………….
With a great howl of longing, he jumped.

Now he waits for the power of the tide,
legs braced, cold and haughty,
curious chin held high as he stares around him.
Ready for his new world.

It belongs to him.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 06-07-17

Serena Manteghi as LV. Photograph by Sarah Taylor.

The Lancashire playwright Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim, but it is a very Scarborough play ( the film was shot in the town) and a perfect choice for the showpiece of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season. The writing is fresh, sharp and solidly based on character and because of this it hasn’t dated, even though it looks back at a very different world. Little Voice (LV) is a touching, birdlike character with a great talent, marooned amongst louder, coarser people who do not see her personal worth, only a talent which can be used for their own ends. She is vulnerable, easy to manipulate and potentially damage, hidden in her room grieving over her dead father’s record collection. She has little connection with the outside world until her gift is discovered by chance and a local theatrical agent on the make and her out of control, needy mother, push her into performing. She deserves so much more from life and as we watch her story play out and become darker we long for her to get it.

LV is a great part, an unusual one which must be quite hard to cast. It is the kind of part which can make a career take off, as it did for Jane Horrocks in the original production, and it demands a lot of the actress playing it, in particular great truth which needs to shine out in a grotesque and unforgiving world. Serena Manteghi gives us a delicate and subtle performance which does this perfectly, lighting up the small space and also providing a welcome relief from the performances around her which are all very good indeed but sometimes a little overplayed for the space that they find themselves in. The Stephen Joseph has its own very particular and unusual dynamic and this is all too easy to do. Less is more.

I found LV’s mother Mari Hoff almost as hard to take as she does. Polly Lister takes the part by the scruff of the neck and shakes it mercilessly, until she is finally made to face her self deception and vulgarity. It is a brave performance and it needs to be. I liked Sean McKenzie’s performance as Ray Say more and more as the play went on. Ray begins as a cliche but the writing gives opportunities for the actor to go beyond this and he made the most of some great moments. Gurgeet Singh was quietly touching as LV’s admirer Billy, a young telephone engineer who is as shy and awkward as she is, and the ending between the two of them, where he encourages LV to find her own voice, was gentle, satisfying and perfectly played.

I have been seeing shows at the Stephen Joseph for over thirty years now and it was a great pleasure to see how Paul Robinson, the new artistic director, used the space, placing LV’s bedroom hideaway up above one of the voms and sending Billy up into the lighting rig and control box. This kind of invention is very much in the tradition of the “old” Stephen Joseph before the theatre moved to its current site in what was the Odeon cinema and we have not seen enough of it lately. It is the kind of creativity which has always been possible here- one which can float a cabin cruiser in a tiny space or make a house with two stories live in two dimensions- and it is what will keep the SJT alive in difficult times.