Archives for posts with tag: Theatre

I saw – experienced – Cleansed this week at The National Theatre. For a long time I have wanted to see Kane’s work performed. Yet, having read about audience responses to the current production – walk outs and faintings – I was apprehensive. It was difficult to approach the play objectively; every review that I have seen emphasises both audience reaction to the performance and Kane’s suicide at the age of 28, usually in the first paragraph (as of course have I).

I am glad that I experienced Cleansed. The relentless simulated violence did result in my shutting my eyes on occasion. I find physical violence, here as torture and rape, impossible to willingly witness. I imagine/speculate that Kane used violence metaphorically to reflect extreme psychological suffering, a means of externalising and communicating depths of internal distress that would otherwise remain unseen and unshareable. I can understand this approach, but I still find the use of violence to provoke a reaction problematic. Violence distresses me on a purely visceral level, and I also resent being emotionally manipulated by extreme provocation into ‘feeling’.

In terms of thematic content, I suspect that there are many possible interpretations. For me, Cleansed is about love, loss, and grief – in essence the suffering of humanness – and the impossibility of sharing emotions that threaten to destroy the sufferer. It seems to also question what in our lives, and emotions, is real or imagined, and whether this distinction even matters.

Cleansed was mesmerising and captivating for its entire 100 minutes. I was struck by the beauty of the choreography, which was enhanced by a perfectly chosen soundtrack.

It was a haunting performance, one that it will linger.




The current production of Beckett’s Happy Days at London’s Young Vic Theatre is an impressive one.

As one enters the performance space, the actress Juliet Stevenson – Winnie – is already in position: buried up to her waist in sand, boulders and rocks forming her backdrop in this isolated desert of sorts. As if this was the most natural place in the world to be, Winnie opens the performance brightly and cheerily, with an optimism that needs to persist, though with increasingly less plausibility and much more fragility as time passes, to the very end of the play:

‘Another heavenly day!’

Winnie then spends a few moments in silent prayer. For the next 90 minutes or so, there is little room for silence as Winnie conducts a monologue for almost the entirety, with very occasional interjections by Willie, who appears to be nearby, lying in a subterranean cave. Willie is a presence that feels necessary throughout, yet he seems of questionable significance in his own right.

Winnie chastises herself at times for her gabbling: ‘Stop talking and do something’. What ‘something’ is or might be is unclear, stuck as she is, waist high in sand. Yet she is continually ‘doing something’ – the act of talking itself, while at the same time also ‘getting ready’. She continually dips into the large black bag beside her, taking in and out the tools she uses to do her makeup and to fix her hair. The objects in the bag appear to serve an important function in terms of Winnie’s need to repeatedly take them out and put them back into the black bag, as well as her need to arrange them neatly before her, perhaps incongruously, on the hot sand. The objects, and how they are used by Winnie, also serve to frame her day, the ‘normality’ of mundane tasks affording a reality that may reassure, as well as serving as memory props from another time.

Day and time passes, a fact that Winnie draws our attention to, alluding frequently to change and the effects of ageing, moments of physical realisation interrupting the stream of consciousness that escapes her psychical entrapment.

Winnie initially appears isolated and alone, trapped as much in her mental meanderings as she is in her bed of sand, a self imprisonment in every sense of the word. But then Willie appears from his hole beneath the rocks. We learn little about Willie, but his role and function in Winnie’s life becomes clear. She needs him, repeatedly calling on him to confirm his presence, and when he, perhaps reluctantly, answers, she feels reassured:

‘You are there’

Winnie speaks to us, the audience, and we, like Willie, are essential witnesses to her spoken thoughts:

‘Someone is caring for me still’

In Part 2, Winnie has sunk further into the sand, which now reaches her neck. In Part 1, she had reassured us that she needed the sand, it anchored her; otherwise she would merely ‘float up’. This reassurance is now hard to believe as, while Winnie remains outwardly optimistic and positive – ‘Another Happy Day’ – it is acutely and painfully clear what a struggle it all is for her tortured physical and mental self.

I was surprised by the humour in Happy Days. Yet, a sense of bleakness and tragedy underpins the laughter. At the end, the title of the play, ‘Happy Days’, reverberates with a pathos that is almost palpable. Beckett’s ultimate irony shocks one into the surreal reality of witnessing the almost unbearable extent of human anguish. As Willie crawls towards the drowning Winnie, a pistol lying between them, it is hard to believe that happiness exists at all.



I love The Shed, a temporary (or at least that is what I assume…) theatre on the Southbank, which successfully manages to combine impressive creativity with the intimacy of a small(er) venue.

nut, by debbie tucker green (lower case deliberate), which currently plays at The Shed, exemplifies this achievement. Relatively short at just 75 minutes, nut is a moving, unsettling, and thought-provoking poetic piece. Twenty-four hours after I saw it, I am still considering what it was that I experienced last night.

On one level, the play might be read as a relatively straight-forward narrative, but then, it isn’t. The central character is Elayne, who we are introduced to at the outset as she plans her funeral. We gather that Elayne is on medication, and we presume that this is for a ‘mental illness’ as self-harm is revealed.

Elaine is never alone on stage. This is a polyphonic piece, and throughout the play we are introduced to 6 other voices and characters, all of whom are integral to Elayne’s life. What is less clear, is whether these others are external or internal to Elayne’s world and psyche. Whichever, it matters little as we watch a fragment of Elayne’s life (and suffering) unfold before us.

I loved how the dialogue overlapped, creating a seamlessness between all the characters. Elayne’s world, with all its ‘players’, felt tangibly real, and authentic. The acting was hugely and uniformly impressive throughout.

In Scene One, Elayne considers what might be said at her funeral:

‘It would start with something bout how I am…

…Not no shit about how people think I am but

how I (am) how I really / am.’

‘They’d know cos I’d tellem. What bits I did

and what bits I didn’t. I’d leave a taste, leave

an odour somethin that’ll linger longer than

the service – an emotional stain -‘

Amidst the pathos there is also much humour, and we laugh, when invited to do so.

nuts is a mysterious piece, mysterious in the sense that it is obtuse and delivers no easy answers. That is also its strength, as it thus reflects the lived complexity of life, which is never straightforward.

‘…If there ent no bell. People get confused.

It’s confusing…

No bell is like no interest. Not interested.

Don’t care – don’t wanna / know.’

‘If you had an outward view, a curiosity, a

natural curiosity like normal people – …

…by havin no bell that works – and it’s not

bullshit – is confusing. Says something

about you – …

…says confusion, says you don’t give a shit…’


Currently on at the Battersea Arts Centre, Caroline Horton’s 70 minute play is a real gem.

Based on the writer’s own background, the performance deals with the very difficult subject of eating disorders in a way that feels brave, authentic, and empathic. It is also at times very very funny, and wonderfully acted.

One had the sense at the end that everyone in the auditorium connected with the play, whether or not anorexia had touched their lives. For me, Mess represented one of those few moments where illness and the arts do truly connect, and thereby speak and listen to each other.


Rona Munro’s play is currently on at the Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs, and is a gem.

The piece is based on a true story – also depicted in the recent, and not widely acclaimed film The Vow – of a man who has post traumatic amnesia. The amnesia is selective, and affects recent memory, which means that he does not recognise his current wife of three years. His memory bank appears to have emptied from the moment he left his initial partner, and her daughter. Thus, all memory of the traumatic break-up and its aftermath have been erased, and he is stuck in a past moment that he perceived as happy. Yet, the debris of the break-up, its effect on his ex-partner and her daughter – become all too apparent to us, even if Donny has no recall. Plus, there is also the emotional trauma for his current wife, and her distress faced with a husband who does not recognise her, or even like her.

There is little in terms of plot, but there is a redemption of sorts in the end…

What the play provoked for me was some considerable musings on memory, identity, and how they interact, conflate, and define us humans.

When you think about it, pretty much everything we do is based on some sort of memory. We are memory-focused and memory-driven. Most, if not all, of how we behave and respond to life tends to be based on a past experience, which inevitably becomes a deposited remembering.

Even babies are born with memory, which stems from their in utero experience.

There is no such thing as a clean memory slate…

Thus, for Donny, the realisation that three years have been ‘erased’ is a hugely distressing and disturbing experience. He has to rely on others to fill in the gaps. And this brings us to the second consideration, that memories are subjective, not fact-based. Thus, others witness and remember shared experiences differently. There is rarely a right or wrong to remembering, but there is a wide continuum in how individuals perceive and remember events. Which adds to the definition of humanness, its diversity, and its greyness…

The play is great, and the cast, just 5 in an intimate theatre setting, do it justice.

Memory-making stuff.


I was lucky enough to catch this play recently during its second run.

At the centre of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s musical at the National Theatre are the real-life and tragic murders of six prostitutes in Ipswich a few years ago. However, to some extent the actual murders are peripheral, as the play focuses on the community of London Road, neighbours of the convicted murderer, and the effect of the notorious and gruesome events on their lives, both individually and collectively. The play is based on interviews with the real inhabitants of the street, and the 11 actors who represent the community feel spell-bindingly real and authentic.

It may seem strange to present such a topic as a musical, but it works, and even enhances the impact, the emotional content and pathos, and the humanness of it all.

There are no lessons to be learnt here, but perhaps a reminder that the knock-on effects of human tragedy reach far and wide, and may pass unnoticed unless we seek them out.



Friday, July 20, 2012

When I first typed in this title, I made an error and wrote ‘Long Day’s Suffering Into Night’…. Perhaps not so surprising. Eugene O Neill’s play, currently at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue, is an unrelenting depiction of a dysfunctional and suffering family.

Yet, this does not necessarily make for tortured or traumatic viewing. It is a portrayal of what it is to be human, and thereby vulnerable, impotent in the face of suffering, a portrayal that feels real and authentic, with a relevance and universality that has transcended time.

Written in the early 1940s, the play was not published until 1956. O’Neill requested that it was not published until 25 years after his death. However, just three years after he died, his third wife transferred the copyright to Yale University, who proceeded to publish the play. The playwright received a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1957 for what is generally believed to be his greatest work.

Set in Connecticut, the play, which is semi-autobiographical, follows one day in the life of the Tyrone family, parents James (David Suchet) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf), and their sons Jamie (Trevor White) and Edmund (Kyle Soller). From the opening moments, there is a sense of foreboding that emanates both from the highly anxious Mary and the anxiety her behaviour generates in the family. Only later do we realise that she is a morphine addict, and that she is on the verge of restarting the habit. The tension escalates, yet Mary’s is not the only tragedy. James Tyrone is an alcoholic, Edmund appears to be dying from consumption, and Jamie is eaten by hatred and jealousy.

Contradictions and inconsistencies abound in the family. The parents love each other, yet Mary also despises James. She blames her addiction on his meanness, which resulted in a ‘cheap quack doctor’ supplying her with her first taste of morphine after Edmund’s birth. Mary wants to both live and to die:

‘I hope, sometime, without meaning it, I will take an overdose.’

Jamie blames Edmund for his mother’s addiction, as its origin coincided with the younger son’s birth. Yet Jamie also states: ‘I love you more than I hate you.’

For Mary, the drugs, which she both denies taking and alludes to frequently, ‘kill the pain’, and allow her to ‘go back until you’re beyond reach’, to ‘only the past when you were happy is real.’ Her home is her prison, and her loneliness is palpable: ‘in a real home one is never lonely.’

James is a tragic figure. He refuses to accept that his meanness has been at the root of their suffering, yet, when challenged by Edmund, who accuses him of sacrificing his health and life for the sake of a cheaper state sanatorium, there is a fleeting sense that something has registered, and he crumbles. but fleetingly. He regains composure, reaches for alcohol, and blames his upbringing. Mary colludes with this, ‘life has made him like that’, but it is not a convincing story, or excuse.

The fog that envelopes the house, that ‘hides you from the world’ is also where Edmund wants to be: ‘to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.’

The acting is convincing and impressive. The play ends with all four facing the audience. Mary has the last word, speaking of the time when she first met her husband:

‘I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’

The happiness appears to have long dissipated. This is a family that speaks and shouts, yet cannot communicate or share their pain. They can only attempt to relieve it, alone, through a solitary path of self destruction.


Helen Edmundson’s play focuses on two years in the Shelley/Godwin lives, 1814-1816.

It is a turning point in Mary Shelley’s life. She meets and falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as a result becomes estranged from her father. It is also when she begins to write Frankenstein.

There are six characters, Mary, her step-sisters Fanny and Jane, her father and radical philosopher William Godwin, her step-mother, and Shelley.

The play opens with a re-enactment of the attempted suicide of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecroft. Her mother survived the attempt, and later died shortly after Mary’s birth. Her presence, or perhaps absence, overshadows much of the play, as Mary Shelley is increasingly drawn to her mother’s life and story:

‘Mother may not be here, but she still teaches us what it is to love.’

Love, falling in love, being loved, being rejected by the one you love, is a dominant theme throughout.

William Godwin clearly loved his first wife. His relationship with his second wife appears ambivalent at best, and unspoken comparisons to Wollstonecroft are almost audible. Mary finds love with Shelley, and her sister Jane is besotted with Byron, later becoming pregnant by him.

But love also brings much suffering. Fanny was Mary Wollstonecroft’s daughter from her relationship with a man she loved but ‘nothing would come of it except heartache and loss.’ His abandonment of Wollstonecroft prompted her attempted suicide. Fanny lost Shelley to her sister Mary, and later commits suicide, ‘putting an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.’

Mrs Godwin, William’s second wife, embittered by life and men, warns her daughter Jane:

‘None of them are worth it.’

It is a complex and tragic story, overshadowed by the death of a child (Mary and Shelley’s daughter), by suicide, by drownings, by the hangman’s rope (‘a fellow creature and now he’s dead’). It is also about the suffering of debt, imprisonment and impending bankruptcy.

But love prevails despite tragedy. For Jane, despite her treatment by Byron, ‘there is no life but loving’, and Mary who enacts her mother’s dream life through her existence with Shelley, believes utterly in the power of love, although also admitting that loving is beautiful, but complicated. Yet it is also this very complicatedness of things that compels Mary, which she sees as her ‘curse’, her ‘inability to leave the world unfathomed.’

Mary Shelley, The Tricycle, Kilburn, to July 7.

Helen Edmundson. Mary Shelley. London: NHB, 2012.