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Archive for November, 2011

The Veil

The programme printed for The Veil, a new play written and directed by Conor McPherson that opened at The National Theatre last week, contains two heavy-weight essays about German Idealism and the colonial history of Ireland in the 1820s. One suspects that either of these themes would be a sufficient basis for a work of drama, so to have them both running alongside a ghost story, a love story and family drama meant that no theme was ever explored to satisfaction, and one was left wondering exactly what sort of a play this was supposed to be. It felt like gothic horror-cum-melodrama-cum-farce-cum-comedy-cum historical drama. The mish-mash of ideas and genres certainly made for an entertaining and at times very funny night, but it was not always clear that what the audience found mirthful was in fact intended to be so, and ultimately one was left wanting more.

 The setting, the grand but dilapidated Irish home of an aristocratic English family, was gloriously recreated on the Lyttelton stage. At the centre of the story is Hannah (Emily Taaffe), the daughter of the Lady of the house, a troubled young girl who believes she sees and hears the spirit of her father who she witnessed hang himself in the drawing room. The ebullient and slightly manic defrocked priest and family friend Reverend Berkley (Jim Norton), has travelled to the house with his companion, a drug addicted waif and mystic philosopher Audelle (Adrian Schiller) for the purpose of escorting the girl to England. However, before embarking on their journey they encourage her to release the echoes of the past and to explore their own uncertain futures by holding séances which have catastrophic effects for the household and farther afield. This is all set against a background of stand offs between the landowner and her tenants, and a tale of unrequited love between the lady of the house and her violent and drunk estate manager Mr. Fingle (Peter McDonald).

 Performances are strong throughout, although Fenella Woolgar who plays Lady Lambocke is rather too wet for the stern mother and landowner who marries off her daughter for money and does not pay her staff yet balks at her tenants being unable to pay their rent due to crop failure. Jim Norton, who perfectly embodies the near mad yet frightfully jovial Berkley tends at times to overacting which keeps the pace very fresh but adds an unwelcome touch of the ridiculous to the supernatural centerpieces of the play. Caoilfhionn Dunne plays Clare Wallace a housemaid with great sensitivity, and she stole perhaps the most moving moment when asked to perform a sad Irish melody for the assembled household.

 Ultimately this is a play about emancipation; freedom from overbearing family, freedom from an oppressive class system, and freedom from the demons that haunt the characters. Whilst certainly captivating, unfortunately the text suffers from overextension, and that is reflected in the direction which leads to an uneven patchwork dramatic styles that cries out for some simplification and unification.

 The Veil runs at The National Theatre until Sunday 11. Student standby tickets are available on the day for £10.

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13

The new play by Mike Bartlett, 13, is not clear-cut protest theatre. Although the central theme is certainly public protest, there is an ambivalence in the message that gives only  wavering support for the youth-driven, social network fuelled, revolutionary movement that is pitted against the politically entrenched and dominant neo-liberal Conservative government. Yet, it is this ambivalence that makes the play work as more than a foolhardy attack on capitalism, and also makes it pertinently real. For while one may sympathise with those currently occupying Wall Street or Finsbury Square, and share in a sense of ill-defined disquiet directed toward bankers, banks, government, business or any other maligned public bodies, it is difficult to identify any one thing to particularly support.

 Set in a dark dreamlike landscape of London, we meet a host of characters seemingly related only in their anger or dispossession: Sarah and Amir are protesting the student fees, Holly is a lonely student seeking answers at an Alpha course, and perhaps most endearingly, Edith (Helen Ryan) is a Rihanna-singing old lady furious enough with the bank charges levied on her account that she pushes a shopping trolley through her branch’s window. Like the Britain we know today, the voices of these people and their anger is lost in the cacophony of people shouting in different directions and for different causes. Unlike our present reality, a mysterious political entrepreneur called John Trystan (Gravelle) returns from an unexplained period of absence to unite those voices setting the stage for a large and focused debate between him and the Prime Minister, Ruth (Geraldine James) that runs along fairly well trodden left-right rivalries.

 There is a huge amount of drama here; each of the opening scenes is at most a couple of minutes long, perhaps echoing the short-termism of the YouTube generation’s attention span. As a dramatic style it takes some getting used to, but the energy builds through the first act to a fever pitch, recreating the adrenaline rush that comes from subversion or protest. This is complemented by the sparse yet meaningful production of director Thea Sharrock, which makes powerful use of a dark and menacing black mainframe-like cube around which the action is based.

 The grassroots movement with John as its leader gets sufficient traction through social media and public performances to gain him access to a prime minister on the brink of declaring war on Iran. However, in a series of twists and turns the social media and technological spread of information that John believes to be the lynchpin behind modern social change turn on him and upset things. Much was made in the media of the role of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring, but what Bartlett is saying here is that such media cannot but reinforce old fashioned anger and organisation. While it is so simple to “like” a social cause, or repost it as your status, it is much harder to get people out on the streets to scream for change. As John learns, governments have a finger in the online world, and as such over-reliance on protest through the internet also provides governments with an opportunity to control and manipulate the act of social coming together.

 While the debate in the second act felt a little forced, and Geraldine James a little too icy even for a Tory woman, 13 is a riveting play. Bartlett has captured many of the subtleties and contradictions of modern Britain and public protest in a time when the debate is far too often framed in over-simplistic terms.

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