Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Hay Fever

Hay Fever, Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

The central joke of Hay Fever is that throughout the whole of the play the characters are to varying degrees, acting. For the real life actors that play those characters, the danger is that acting squared becomes overacting which is annoying rather amusing. There was certainly a smattering of overemphasis in the first act where hyperbole is not called for. However in the riotous second and third acts, this is exactly what the script dmenads, and this stellar cast hit every note of excruciating, madding hilarity. I actually cried with laughter on at least two occasions, and got an uncontrollable case of the giggles on another.

Lindsay Duncan plays Judith Bliss, a recently retired star of the London stage, whose bohemian family continue to live together in country pile where they ape the aristocratic lives of those who presumably once owned their house. Judith may have ceased treading the boards, but she is far from finished with acting. Her, and her husband and two children are engaged in acting out a real life melodrama that echoes the theatre that made her name. Duncan overdoes it in the first act, which is primarily about the inter-family dynamic. In her breeches and wellies, the result is that the performance takes on something of a drag-queen-like quality, which misses the comedic mark somewhat.

However, this all changes after the interval. The Bliss family are not content to play alone, each member of the household having invited a different guest (read victim) to stay for the weekend. The guests are totally ignored, until they are pounced upon, and used as pawns in what amounts to nothing more than after-dinner sport for Judith and her co-stars. Here Duncan gets it exactly right, weaving her twisted web and squeezing every bit of comedy out of Coward’s delightful text.

Freddie Fox brilliantly inhabits the role of Simon Bliss, the foppish son, who constantly bickers with his boyish sister Sorel, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. An exquisitely costumed Olivia Coleman is perfect as Myra, who arrives with her own game in mind, before realising she is hopelessly outmatched by the Bliss family. Every individual performance is strong, but the best moments are the ensemble sections, with some of the most rewarding acting coming in the awkward silences that pepper the action.

Bunny Christie’s extensive and attractive set reflects the bohemian nature of the family, with half finished paintings leaning against the wall, and in a possible hint at the sexual liberality of the family, a set of Kudu horns is mounted above the stairs. Slightly confusingly the building itself appears to be some sort of warehouse, which would place the family in a more modern context than the costume and action would seem to suggest. This slight distraction notwithstanding, this production is utterly charming, totally engrossing and downright hilarious. As the guests sneak out the next morning, one is left with a tender feeling as the Bliss family settle down back into their normal routine. They may need others for occasional blood sport, but when all is said and done they clearly rely on and only truly need only each other.

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Detained Without Casue, Irum Sheik (2011), Palgrave MacMillan, 244 pages

Detained Without Cause is a collection of the narrative histories of six New York based Muslim immigrants that were incarcerated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. None of these men had any connection to terrorism, and yet as their stories reveal, they were presumed guilty by the arresting officers, the FBI, the court system, the media and their communities. The consequences of this were that they were held without trial for periods up to three years, often in conditions of solitary confinement, in maximum security facilities where their human rights were systematically violated before being deported on trumped up immigration charges. Based on extensive personal interviews conducted by the author Irum Shiek, the book aims to dismantle the fabricated link between these detainees and terrorism in order to show that government was using detentions to placate a fearful public. In doing so she not only outlines the wide ranging consequences for the victims of the abuse of state power, but also demonstrates how futile such abuses are in advancing national security. This then is what might be termed “activist history” as Shiek gives voice to those who had none. The powerful and tragic accounts that emerge should serve as valuable counterfoils to calls for greater state powers in fighting the war on terror.

The six narratives are diverse in their details and contexts, but they are remarkable also in their similarity. Each man tells of their time in the USA prior to detention as one of opportunity and freedom, and how they fully subscribed to the system of rights they had not been able to enjoy in their home countries. That system of rights was totally suspended for them after 9/11. Having been detained, Mohammed Azmath was not permitted to see a lawyer until he had already been in prison for 92 days. He was left in solitary confinement for over a year when the average human being becomes suicidal after only 30 days in such conditions. All men report that a spectacle was made of their arrest; presumably to assuage, or play up to, fears in the local communities. There was consistent abuse of procedure: searches without warrants, a failure to advise of rights, fabrication of evidence. In one particularly disturbing case US officials explicitly contravened the law in disclosing details of Mohammed E’s asylum application to Egyptian authorities upon his return, in full knowledge that the application contained false information about a non-existent link between him and a terror network called Al-Jihad. This lead to Mohammed being subjected to extreme physical torture at the hands of the Egyptian secret police.

The picture that emerges is one of an out of control state. 1,182 “Special Interest Cases” were rounded up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The vast majority of them were Muslims from the New York area. Given that the 9/11 hijackers had planned the attack from the West Coast, and were from Saudi Arabia, the fact that the majority of men arrested were Pakistanis based in New York points to the inevitable conclusion that these arrests were made pursuant to racial profiling rather than genuine threat. The narratives show that every level of state from police, FBI, judges, guards and even the media, were complicit in assuming guilt based on nothing more than the origin of these men. None of the cases in question resulted in prosecution under terrorism charges.

The book is not without its faults. The introductory chapter in which Shiek attempts to place the detentions within a broader historical pattern of US scapegoating of immigrants is rather light in detail. Further examination of the history of Muslim immigration to the US would have both strengthened her case, and also provided the reader with a more nuanced background to the issue at hand. Additionally some may take issue with the way the narratives are presented: rather than edited transcriptions, the interviews and diverse other sources are amalgamated into a single first person narrative.  Thus there is no attempt at impartiality, this decision having been taken directly in order to allow the reader to “empathize with the detainees”. Stylistically this makes the book an extremely compelling read, but this is so at the expense of a sense that this is orthodox historical research. On the other hand this method is used explicitly to place the work within the discipline of oral history. Perhaps the most important justification for the approach is that when presenting the stories of these defenseless detainees, any reference to “national security”, no matter how patently ill-conceived, would prejudice the power of the narratives simply through the vast power imbalance that exists between the detainees and the state.

This is an important book that shows the human cost of the detention policies that occurred post-9/11. The important implications it makes for policy are relevant far beyond the borders of the US. In a post-catastrophe environment, it is perhaps natural that those left behind seek people to blame. In order to prevent that tendency from translating into widespread abuse of the individual, a strong and inviolable system of rights is needed to prevent the different levels of state from colluding to restrict liberties. In the UK context we should be asking what exactly David Cameron means when he tells the European Court of Human Rights that it should only be prosecuting the most important cases? Would the men in this book have constituted such cases? Whilst this book may not persuade everyone that state power needs to be reined in, or subjected to the canon of individual rights, it will at least confront national security hawks with the full consequences of the policies pursued.

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The Bee

The Bee – Soho Theatre

The Bee, which opened in the Soho theatre in 2006, makes its return to London as part of a world tour that includes stop offs in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. Its blend of physical theatre that verges on clowning and blank verse will no doubt delight audiences craving a departure from the normal language of spoken theatre just as it will leave others bemusedly scratching their heads. Some quirky and innovative stage artifices from co-writer/director/actor and Japanese legend Hideki Noda keep the production interesting. Yet the highly stylized action sequences (set in the main to music) are not quite elegant enough in their execution to truly convince that this is artful dance rather than pantomime. One is left with impression that the play is merely a vehicle for experimental direction and as such the story fails to stir the emotions.

Set in Tokyo in 1974 Mr. Ido, a salaryman, returns home to find that an escaped convict, Ogoro, has taken his family hostage. Rather than wait for the inept police force to bring a messy resolution he takes matters into his own hands and retaliates by taking the convict’s own family hostage. So begins a brutal game of tit-for-tat whereby each captor rapes and maims their opposite’s wife and son. In dream like semi-balletic sequences set to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly Ido is trapped in a cycle of posting severed fingers to his enemy and in turn receiving Ogoro’s gruesome offerings. He fucks Ogoro’s wife, eats, washes and sleeps. He is at once horrified by the violence he is committing yet also empowered by the fact that he is no longer a victim.

The significance of the bee that torments Ido throughout the play is not especially clear. Perhaps it is a symbol of domestic annoyance reflecting the monotony of the life of a salaryman; perhaps Ido’s nagging conscience; perhaps nothing more than a dramatic conceit to show that Ido, like a bee that has stung, must die for his violence. The dream-like quality of the play reinforced the narration by Ido of the physical actions he is simultaneously taking, hints at themes beyond the simple hostage narrative. Yet if this is a comment on the role of women in Japanese society, or some more existential imperative to own one’s own actions, this is lost in the calamity of the production.

Each member of the cast plays a variety of characters. Kathryn Hunter, notable for being the first woman to have played King Lear, cuts a strange figure as Ido. Her raspy voice and RSC training lend a deranged yet lyrical quality to the text which is written in blank verse (with a slight overreliance on rhyming couplets). Hideki Noda appears as Ogoro’s wife and lends some credibility to the kabuki style set-pieces. Particularly impressive in terms of characterization is Glyn Pritchard who plays Ogoro’s much mutilated son as well as a raft of other parts.

Playful at times, funny and occasionally taut, the production is never slow. There are moments of directorial brilliance and I felt that the creative team achieved what they set out to achieve in blending various theatrical traditions of both the West and the Orient. However, this constant mish-mash of styles was overwhelming and a great deal of meaning and poignancy was lost in the on-stage cacophony.

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Huis Clos

Huis Clos (John-Paul Sartre), Trafalgar Studios

It is impossible to talk about Huis Clos without understanding that it is the product of the godfather of Existentialist thought, John-Paul Sartre, and is as much an example of that philosophy as it is a work of art. Yet whilst it is certainly a masterpiece of thought, it is a somewhat tortuous experience as a piece of theatre.  Little wonder considering that the crumbling hotel room the three protagonists find themselves locked in is in fact hell. Left to their own devices, this is an inferno free of fire, brimstone, and red hot pokers; the torture comes rather from the characters’ own struggle to come to terms with and accept responsibility for their lives on earth, and the power struggle, games of sexual dominance and judgements that they make on each other.

Paul Hart’s production is gritty, taut, frustrating at times, and hugely claustrophobic with the first row of audience seats actually within the bounds of the tiny stage. Whilst this makes for uncomfortable viewing it reflects beautifully the themes of the play, and the audience being physically part of the action reminds us that whilst this is a play about the afterlife, what is important is what it teaches us about this life.

Will Keen plays Garcin, the wife beating pacifist with minute attention to detail, his twitching fingers speaking to his inner turmoil as well as his insistent line delivery. Michelle Fairley fairly gives probably the most nuanced performance of the evening as Ines, but then the lesbian, somewhat sadistic character painted by Sartre is definitely the most interesting. Nevertheless she gave a layered performance that showed the audience some sort of tenderness fluttering beneath her icy exterior. Fiona Glascott as socialite Estelle was convincing in being unable to come to terms with her earthy indiscretions and violence, but slipped slightly toward caricature at times, although one suspects that Sartre himself was prone to stereotype when writing her part.

The production is powerful, but ultimately many people may find it inaccessible. The most famous line from the play is “L’enfer, c’est les autres” which is translated as “Hell is other people”. The concept of “the other” has a specific meaning in Sartre’s thinking and personally I feel it would be better translated as “Hell is the others” to reflect the fact that Sartre was not advocating a life lived in isolation of other people, but rather that it is our challenge as human beings to own our actions in the face of the judgements of others. Whichever way you look at it however, a play with this as the central theme is never going to be easy viewing, and as such the challenging nature of this production should not put anyone off going to see this seminal piece of 20th century art.

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In Defence of Politicians (In Spite of Themselves)

Peter Riddell, Biteback 2011 (paperback) £9.99

 In Defence of Politicians is a punchy and spirited argument in favour not just of politicians, but of British representative politics from the pen of a man who has been observing our governments and parliaments for decades. Journalist turned public intellectual, Peter Ridell served as political commentator for The Times for nearly 20 years and as such has a unique vantage point from which to make his case. Part polemic, part memoir the volume is peppered with anecdotes such as his dealings with Rupert Murdoch (“the Sun King”) and the often “gruesome” press dinners given at party conferences. Additionally there are lengthy yet pertinent asides on, amongst other topics, the role of the media, the judiciary and a look at US style politics which should make this volume appeal to a broad audience. Well thought out, the tone of the text can tend toward argumentative rather than reasoned, yet this adds to the brisk pace of the book.

 Ridell claims that the widespread denigration of and lack of trust in politicians is at best “unhealthy” and at worst, symptomatic of a “democratic crisis”. The fiddling of expenses, sleaze, cash for questions and the controversies surrounding the Iraq war have degraded levels of respect and trust for those elected to represent the public’s interest both in government and in the Commons. The message of the book is that whilst there have been serious personal failings on the part of certain rogue politicians, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater for two key reasons: Firstly the accusations leveled against our politicians are often inaccurate and generally exaggerated. British politics is in fact in a much better state of health than it has been for many years. Secondly, representative government is the best type of government, and politicians are inherent to such a system.

 Ridell argues that MPs, far from being the “supine” self-serving careerists they are made out to be, are in fact more rebellious than ever, and willing to stand up to their party for what they believe to be right for those they represent. Evidence abounds, from the backbench protests over Iraq, and the Royal Mail, to the constant and unreported modifying of Bills to receive broad party consent. Additionally, the system of Select Committees, greatly revised under Blair, now means that government is subject to independent scrutiny on a scale never before seen, and hence the power of the party Whips has been diminished. There does seem to be a compelling force in the argument that recent reform of the Lords and the processes of scrutiny of government have made politicians more accountable to their constituents. There is more to be done, but Ridell argues that not enough credit is given to how well our political system is functioning.

 More importantly however, politicians are central to the system of representative democracy, a system that Ridell argues passionately for maintaining. Whilst he is not of the view that efforts to give the electorate more “voice” in the periods between elections, he worries that attempts to further “de-politicise” decision making through the involvement of independent experts, or to devolve more decision making to community level groups will only lead to issue capture by unrepresentative non-governmental orgainisations, businesses, and the more politically active citizens. Elected representatives remain the best way for all interests to be taken into account in order to reach consensus by compromise. Yet, he argues, it is this mechanism of compromise that is the primary source of distrust in politicians as people have “inflated expectations” as to what can be achieved in the political arena. The electorate expects a social utopia and yet the job of MPs is “to mediate and reconcile our differing interests” meaning that not everyone will be happy all of the time. It is the failure of politicians to communicate their role sufficiently clearly in this regard that leads to distrust and malaise.

 This is a powerful argument, but two things should be borne in mind. Firstly there is a large although strongly contested literature in political science (“a narcissistic world of academics writing for each other”) that moving decisions closer to the people they affect is a good means of ensuring efficiency and accountability. Thus Ridell’s assertions as to issue capture are not supported by conclusive evidence. Secondly, whilst it may be true that politicians are an inherent part of a representative democracy, it is not the case that the UK political style is part of such a system, and it may be that it is this style that breeds discontent in the electorate.

 For example, rather than being ill informed about the nature of democracy, voters may be disillusioned with parties that promise one thing in their manifestos only to do quite another once in power. Blair brought in tuition fees, the Con-Dems raised VAT contrary to noises made in the Tory campaign, and raised tuition fees further contrary to the Democratic manifesto. Cuts have been much deeper than promised. Ridell does recognise this problem but one suspects it is more crucial than he allows for. How can voters have trust politicians that consistently say one thing yet do another? Moreover when government is challenged on such policy it is de rigueur to pass blame to the previous government rather than argue coherently in defence of the policy.  

 Ridell concludes the book with a set of recommendations that although sensible, are aimed at tweaking the processes of government which one suspects will not inspire a huge shift in confidence in the population at large. More difficult would be to propose solutions to the prisoner type dilemma politicians and parties find themselves in whereby they are incentivized to say one thing to get into power, and to do quite another thing once it has been attained. It could be this, rather than inflated expectations, that is the most pertinent basis for the mistrust that exists between the British people and their politicians.

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The Lion in Winter

The Lion in Winter –  Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Every family has its ups and downs” quips Joanna Lumley’s character in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, and this fact is more or less the main theme of the play. Throw in a family trapped in doors at Christmas, three covetous sons, a mistress, a sexy French gay toyboy and healthy dose of intrigue, and you have pretty much got the gist of this Albee-Ayckbourn type hybrid. The added spice is that the year is 1183, the family is that of the Royal House of England, and the three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John are coveting no less than Kingdom of their father Henry II, and the Aquataine lands of their mother Eleanor.

The script is one big anachronism, the setting “a Christmas Court” a fabrication, and given the lack of records, naturally the action is imputed from the little that we do know. This then is fiction. As such, it was a nice touch that director Trevor Nunn opened with a roll-up title sequence reminiscent of golden age cinema historical epics. This simple device, which allows us to accept the prolepsis of an on stage christmas tree, prompted the audience to be mindful that this is not a pure history play but rather a play which uses history. Since then it is unlikely to offer us deep historical insight, such a drama surely lives or dies by what the characters of an imagined yesterday can teach us about our lives today. It is here that the play, rather than the production became unstuck. The play, first performed in 1966 seems to be struggling for relevance.

What was left then is a rather hollow vehicle for some excellent performances, and Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley as Henry and Eleanor, do not disappoint. She a fading beauty had lost none of her vivaciousness or taste for scandal and treason; he an ageing king in full and disillusioned belief that he is in the prime of life and so struts and pontificates accordingly. The timing of course was impeccable between these two veterans, and this brought out many of the very funny moments in the text. A strong supporting cast, slick staging and great design help things along nicely, but sadly the positive elements are not sufficient to carry an engaged interest through to the final curtain.

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La Soiree

La Soiree
Roundhouse Theatre
Modern day circus, contemporary variety, and gender bending acrobats combine with a gargantuan opera singing drag queen, an improvisatory comedienne and even a Freddy Mercury tribute master of ceremonies. The drinks flow freely, the audience are sniffed, slapped, cajoled on stage and even encouraged to ride atop a unicycle. That’s right, the La Soiree “family” have once again taken over Camden’s Roundhouse for a night of death defying feats, clowning for the 21st century, humour and music. Circus, often associated (although considerably less so with each passing year) with fatigued animals and screaming children, has been dragged kicking and screaming back to relevance by these world class performers. Whilst Cirque de Soleil has obviously refined the art form and brought circus to a much wider audience, the La Soriee experience is more visceral, darkly comic and adult in the blurred line some of the performers tread between mainstream and queer culture. 

I went on a rainy Thursday, deadline blues hurting bad, a slight hangover, and very much needing this term to be over. I left full of the joy of life. Yes La Soiree is one of those transformative pieces of performance. By the end the crowd are on their feet cheering along to “We are the Champion” whilst a unicyling, juggling, over-sexed Italian Freddy Mercury  fanatic MC crowd surfs around the arena. A word of warning though; seating is not reserved, and whilst like us you will be tempted to go straight to the front row, bear in mind that you will be prime territory for some heavy audience participation. The hilarious clown Mooky, dragged one man on stage, and by virtue of the fact that she had taped lines for him to read to various of her body parts, they performed a whole scene together. Another victim rode on Mario’s shoulders on a unicycle, and the vintage roller-skating act span another front row girl at high speeds around the stage. However, if you are front row you will see every sinew of the gravity defying, taut pole dancing English Gents. You will be genuinely afraid that the inept clown Nate Cooper will sever your nose as he juggles with knives in drag with 10 inch heels on a pogo stick.  You will see every pound of the massive glitter lycra clad La Gateau Chocolat who has a baritone to match his stature.  Even if you don’t make it to the front of the house, be assured that no matter where you are at in the theatre, La Soiree will not fail to entertain. A must!

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