Theatre Catch-Up: Macbeth; Vanya; The Glass Menagerie; Truth's a Dog Which Must To Kennel, Hamilton

 I hereby declare myself "bankrupt" in the sense of having seen too many shows and not written reviews of them and therefore being unlikely to catch up. 

For the record:

Ralph Fiennes' Macbeth (streaming at Everyman) reminded me what a very good play Macbeth is. I think too many producers get high on the fact that they are doing M*a*c*b*e*t*h and focus excessively on the imagery, particularly around the Scottishness and Witchines, during which some necessary question of the play is apt to be considered. (Denzil Washington's version was full of ideas and almost impossible to stay awake through.) I felt the focus here was where it ought to be, on Macbeth himself. Fiennes was almost whimsically mad at times; like an Act 2 Hamlet or one of the many Fools; as if Macbeth was a proto-Lear, losing his kingdom and his family and his sanity as he unravels in the long penultimate scene (Act 5 scene v.) Neither me nor Sofa-buddy felt that the production solved any of the plays central problems; but it treated it as historical and political drama, not as a repository of iconic moments. 

Andrew Scott's one-man Vanya (also at Everyman) was very much a tour-de-force: the idea that one actor, however could, could take on all eight roles in an already confusing Russian psychological drama is clearly barking mad. Dr Johnson would have probably said that even if it was not done well, it was amazing that it was done at all. (I understand that Eddie Izzard is currently giving Hamlet the same treatment.) But Vanya is done very well indeed. The action, or at any rate the accents, have shifted to Ireland, which makes perfect sense. Scott uses some slightly contrived mannerisms to keep the characters separate (Dr Michael has a habit of bouncing a tennis ball while he talks) and people keep saying each others names. He doesn't feel the need to leap around the stage: he is happy to change voices in the middle of the most intense dialogue. I think that if you didn't know the play you might lose track of who was related to who and how it all fitted together; but would still feel the emotional power of the individual scenes and grasp the over all sense of the piece. The tragi-comic denouement -- in which Chekov's Gun turns out not to be loaded -- takes on an additional level of irony when there is only one person on the stage. We can't instantly see what has happened, so we're likely to assume that Vanya has really killed Alexander -- until Scott flips back into Vanya's persona and says "I've missed!" I'd like to rewatch the full cast Toby Jones version that came out in lockdown and then watch this again. The script is condensed, of course -- it runs to about 90 minutes where the full play doesn't come in much under three hours, but it doesn't feel over-rushed: this is definitely Chekov, not the Reduced Chekov company. 

The Glass Menagerie (Bath Theatre Royal) is weird and brilliant. One knows what to expect from Tennessee Williams: naturalistic deep South rooms, thick accents, smothering heat. This production embraced Williams meta-textuality. There is no actual scenery, although the stage is dominated by the PARADISE neon sign briefly mentioned in Act 2. It's the sort of production where actors are allowed to deliver lines directly to the audience rather than to each other. It's an empty stage, with Laura's collection of glass ornaments placed in a circle on the edge. (In the second half, artificial flowers and tea-lights are added.) The text draws attention to its artifice: it begins, you recall, with Tom introducing himself, explaining that he is both a character and the narrator, and pointing out that Jim is more realistic than the rest of the cast but also serves a symbolic purpose. The stage directions indicate that the cast should mime eating without plates or knives and forks; so largely eliminating the furniture and going for a sort of abstraction works well. You can't exactly change the setting: it's too specifically about Southern Belles, gentlemen callers, the depression, the receding memory of the Civil War; but Laura keeps retreating into headphones and a walkman, rather than the old fashioned gramophone in the script. Williams' own sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia; but here Laura is clearly coded as neurodiverse. Her chat about her glass animals as if they were alive is witty and creative, rather than crazy. The scene in which Jim tries to bring her out of herself by teaching her some dance moves is played twice: once as a romantic musical-comedy number, and again as a realistic, awkward fumble. In the final moments of the play, Natalie Kimmerling (Laura) and (Kasper Hilton-Hille ) both seem to be in tears, which, a fortnight into the run, is quite impressive and alarming. The older I get the more I think Legitimate Theatre and this was an exciting take on one of the best examples of it. 

Truths a Dog and Must to Kennel (Tobacco Factory) is a one man show by Tim Crouch. This is one to place alongside the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem: it was all right, but I don't think I really understood it. Crouch gave a fascinating post-show talk, and I slightly wish I could have heard it. before the show. You will recall that King Lear's fool disappears from the play after the scene in cottage on the heath; and his death is reported in the final seconds. The conceit of Crouch's piece is that the character is able to observe, through a set of VR goggles, what happens in the story after he leaves it. He describes the blinding of Gloucester, the Dover Cliff scene, and the final denouement as if they are real events. He also looks out into the auditorium -- of a huge, traditional theatre, not the tiny Tobacco factory studio -- observing members of the audience: the corporate boxes; the private school party; the man who had too large a pre-show dinner. He periodically takes off the helmet and performs stand-up. ("They say you play the Tobacco Factory twice: once on the way up, once on the way down. It's good to be back.") The voice is contemporary -- not that of Shakespeare's "marry-nuncle" jester -- but is suggestive of the Fool's knowing wisdom. One sees a lot of the points that are being made. The VR metaphor creates multiple worlds: a real audience watching a real actor create a fictional audience watching a fictional play. I agree with him that Dover Cliff is the whole crux of Lear: a madman leading a blind man into an abyss which isn't there. I grok that Edgar creates a "virtual" cliff for his blind father with his words; and the VR motif adds an additional Chinese box to the metaphor. During the blinding scene, a member of the imaginary audience -- the man who had too much dinner -- has a heart attack, and has to be carried out. He is pronounced dead by the paramedics just as Lear is trying to detect Cordelia's breath. All this in the actor's description of what the Fool is seeing through the headset. Ironically, two members of the real audience walked out half way through. (Years ago, I saw Anthony and Cleopatra on that very stage, and the show had to be briefly halted while a member of the audience was taken seriously ill. The actors went back to the beginning of the scene and continued as if nothing had happened. It increased my respect for the skills of the acting profession; and if anything, reinforced the theatrical illusion.) Crouch talks about the nature of theatre; about the lock-down era when actors were trying to use YouTube and Zoom to do shows; and how that can't substitute for the intimacy of a small number of people in a small room. He thinks that actors should not over-interpret texts but allow the audience to become complicit in the creation of meaning. (Even as the stand-up, he doesn't over-sell the jokes.) He uses Peter Hall-ish language about plays occurring in the space between the stage and the auditorium. 

All of which is very true and very interesting, but I couldn't quite feel it. I would like to see the play again and would certainly watch any other work he brings to Bristol. 

At one point the stand-up persona performs what is legendarily the filthiest joke in the repertoire, without actually saying any bad words. "And he puts his, you know, in her, you know, all the while the dog is sucking her, you know, and then he shows the audience his, you know." "And what do you call this act?" "The Royal Family."

Hamilton is very good indeed, but you knew that already. 

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