Monday 15 August 2011

Ambition at the double

Double Feature, National Theatre, London

On account of London Road’s blistering success, which led to a summer extension in the Cottesloe, this double, double bill of new writing has been shunted from the Cottesloe into a ‘found’ space elsewhere in the National Theatre. Actually ‘found’ is rather misleading. Better to say ‘repurposed,’ since the Paintframe is an intergral space in the National: its set construction workshop. Double Feature is not site-specific or site-responsive, but ‘pop-up’ theatre in the truest sense.

And it doesn’t half look brilliant: a disused industrial hanger lined with steel and construction lamps. With its high ceilings and long, open floorplan, it would make an ideal replacement for the old Shunt Vaults. Were it not for the strength and scope of design on the National’s usual stages, you’d have good reason to call for the space’s transition to be made permanent.

Soutra Gilmour carries on exactly that same spirit of intelligent, bold design, dividing the space into two auditoria with a central arch. Not only has she dressed the overall space with a punchy sense of fun, her individual designs are remarkably varied in terms of both tone and functionality. From the end-on, punctured naturalism of Edgar and Annabel’s kitchenette to an atmospheric (almost immersive) impression of an East End pub in DC Moore’s The Swan. Her traverse stage for Nightwatchman enables both its content (cricket) and form (direct address), while she just about meets the significant challenges of Tom Basden’s ambitious oddity There Is a War.

That the four plays should be such different beasts is testimony to the uninhibited spirit of Double Feature, which marks a welcome move to integrate potential alongside tested excellence. Four young writers, two young directors (Lindsay Turner and Polly Findlay) and a predominantly youthful cast make Double Feature something of a rarity for a theatre dominated by absolutely established talent. These are the artists that usually go unseen in the National’s ecology, tucked away in the safety of the National Theatre Studio, so it’s rather great to see them pushed into the public arena with all its challenges.

My one grumble is with NT Associate Ben Power’s recent Guardian blog, which, while being both eloquent, elegant and a touch sycophantic, made the whole ‘pop-up’ concept seem planned from the off, when it was, in fact, a happy accident. Because it’s fine to admit it as such; the National deserves credit for the solution, for extending London Road without any programming casualties and doing so with flair. To disguise the fact – though Power never goes so far as to bend the truth – is to belie the process and, in fact, theatrical processes in general. Power’s article gives the sense of everything playing out as originally planned, entirely without hitch. In his series of essays On Directing Film, David Mamet describes film-making as entirely dependent on pre-production. To shoot the thing is just a matter of sticking to the plan. Theatre doesn’t work like that: it thrives on happy accidents and grows out of contingent occurrences. The internet offers, we are repeatedly told, the possibility to open out processes that have always occurred in secret. If that’s important, the least we can do is be honest about it.

Edgar and Annabel
A man walks into a kitchen, announcing himself to a woman preparing food: ‘Honey, I’m home’. She turns to greet him and freezes, almost collapsing into the sideboard. Her knees half give way, they cock inwards. It takes her a moment to recover before she takes the blue papers he holds out and they continue this mundane conversation, reading lines about work and dinner from a script. They remain physically awkward, but speak like life-partners. What they say doesn’t correspond to reality: he talks about their salmon supper as she produces a chicken from the oven. He doesn’t seem to know his way around what seems to be his own kitchen. She doesn’t seem to like or trust him at all, though her words are tender and comfortable. Everything they do is stilted and forced; they clunk.

So begins Edgar & Annabel. It makes next to no sense, yet it’s oddly captivating. It feels like a puzzle with answers. The scripts and the awkwardness, the consciousness with which the actors perform means that you’re not even entirely sure how to watch. What’s fiction, what’s staging? It is a hugely courageous start from Sam Holcroft, refusing us a foothold to from which to start. Even more bravely, she doesn’t give us any answers whatsoever until the second scene.

It turns out that Edgar and Annabel are, currently, Nick and Marianne (Trystan Gravelle and Kirsty Bushell), two members of a resistance movement against an Orwellian regime. With each house bugged by a computer capable of analysing sounds and speech-patterns, they must play Edgar and Annabel, sticking to the script to ensure continuity and imperceptibility. They do so while plotting revolution, leading to a brilliant sequence in which they prepare a bomb, drowning out the noise with a raucous Singstar competition. Insurgency to an off-key power ballad soundtrack.

Edgar and Annabel is the most original piece of new writing I’ve seen in ages. Though one has to buy into the world – Why aren’t the government using CCTV? Wouldn’t Nick’s voice register differently to his Edgar predecessor? – Holcroft delivers a gripping and volatile plot that keeps you guessing. Moreover, she does so with real panache, exploring every nook and cranny of the situation for comic potential and dramatic tension.

Much of this is down to the layers of performance that rub against each other. Edgar and Annabel is, at one level, about acting. Nick and Marianne fall off script and trip one another up. They fall in love as their characters grow apart and argue. Props go missing and solutions are improvised – none better than Gravelle’s brilliant vocal impression of uncorking a wine bottle. Holcroft’s masterstroke is to embed high stakes into the most banal conversations: sticking to the script, to everyday inanity, is a matter of life and death. The dislocation of text and action is both hilarious and pointed. This is subtext to the nth degree. Meaning is not hidden within language, it must be covertly – often clumsily and confusingly – inserted.

At base, Holcroft is interested in commitment to a cause. Subsumed by the characters they have to play, Nick and Marianne give up their entire lives. The constant question is, ‘What price ideology?’ The individual’s sacrifice here is exploited by the larger political force and those on the front line, living their lives tiptoeing on the precipice, are shown to be mere pawns, expendable and unvalued.

Much like the rest of us, in fact, manipulated by the system imposed on us by the establishment. The genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – of Holcroft’s script is that it works both ways. Not only are Edgar and Annabel constructed roles, they also stand for each of us. The banality of their script is the very same as that of our lives: work and dinner and idle, empty conversations. In this, Holcroft implies that the system, the unchallenged order of things, even the state as a whole, is performed into existence. Our conformity is coerced, since to act as we would like would be to stick our heads above the parapet; to interrupt the mechanism that, while not ideal, nonetheless functions smoothly. Pretend for long enough, however, and the pretence becomes real. But step out of that act, even for a second, and you puncture it irrevocably.

Lyndsey Turner’s production is admirably clear, performed with both lightness and vim by Gravelle and Bushell, who distinguish between different modes without reverting to signposting. While it is constrained by its length – with so much to set up, it has a tendency to skim and could use, and pull off, the thoroughness of a two-act structure – Edgar and Annabel is an ambitious, dexterous and fiercely intelligent piece of political theatre, all the better for keeping its radicalism tucked up its sleeve.

Nightwatchman

Prasanna Puwanarajah’s ambitious monologue probably overreaches itself, trying to tackle sport, family, national identity and Sri Lanka’s civil war all at once. To be fair, it comes pretty close and, thanks to a charismatic performance from Stephanie Street, is both clear and engaging. Were it more compact, certainly less prone to repetition, it would be a really robust, heartfelt and, what’s more, digestible piece of political theatre.

Street plays Abirami, a British-Tamil cricketer called up to the England Women’s Squad for the first time to face Sri Lanka in an international test. The night before, she’s in the nets, facing up to a bowling machine and turning over the political and personal repercussions of her time at the crease.

Puwanarajah’s text is brilliant at melding its subjects together, in particular the familiar metaphor of sport and war. As the invisible balls hammer down the wicket – sometimes knocking a stump or a hanging light above her, despite being present only through Carolyn Downing’s considered sound design– Abirami grows aggressive. In both her politics and her natural batting style, she is a slogger, tonking balls and smashing rhetoric around. The frustrations of Tamil stereotypes and her father’s placidity get the better of her.

Her eventual decision – and it becomes a rather moving display of determined strength – is to remain at the crease at all costs. To temper her natural style, her desire to hit a six over the Lord’s pavilion, in order to stand against the Sri Lankan force used against the Tamils. So, channelling Michael Atherton’s two day stand against South Africa and Alan Donald in 1998, Street plays rigid backwards defensive after backwards defensive. Stepping out for England becomes an act of passive resistance. Yet the text can be equally stiff, sticking so firmly to the three subjects that it has a tendency to drone.

There comes a point where Nightwatchman takes its eye off the ball, so to speak, and drives its argument home too directly. Instead, it’s best when the real subject matter is chopped so fine that its hidden within the overall, like vegetables smuggled into a Bolognese sauce. That Abirami is constantly apologising for the subject matter (‘I can’t believe we’re talking about this’) suggests unease on the writer’s part. Credit then must go to Street herself, whose performance – if not necessarily always her cricketing technique - is spot-on. She’s muscular and rousing without letting go of a chink of vulnerability. You get swept up in her passion. Cricket matters. This matters.

The Swan
As in Edgar and Annabel, no-one’s saying what they really mean in DC Moore’s The Swan, a raucous elegy to an ingrained British decorum. Initially, it’s a product of inarticulacy. The same swear words serve a multitude of purposes and sentences peeter out half-way, the speaker unable to find the right word. (‘You look a bit…’) Yet as preparations for a wake roll on, the lack of words, the secrets kept, the feelings bottled up, start to take on a surprising dignity. As the middle-class Mr Downing, perched at the bar with his crossword, commands: ‘Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man’.

The Swan is a worn-out, run-down, unmanned pub in London’s East End. On its tables are the debris of the night before, crumbled crisp packets and sticky glasses, and the provisions for a forthcoming wake: tupperware, finger food and fizzy drinks. Jim (Trevor Cooper) has avoided his son Michael’s funeral. What seems at first a cowardly act is gradually mitigated by Moore’s perfectly managed drip, drip of information.He’s soon joined by his granddaughter Denise, who has herself left halfway through, much to the fury of her mother Christine, turning up afterwards and vilifying Jim. Yet, as Michael’s true character becomes clear – he was a serial womaniser, whose death came en route to his long-term mistress – Jim’s willingness to accept her anger seems self-sacrificial and protective.

Moore has a wicked way with snappy lines, which will catch the immediate attention. Clare-Louise Cordwell’s Amy, brassy, brash and high on ‘one too many skittles’, is a scattergun of snap retorts. But there is an underlying delicacy to Moore’s writing; he layers up ideas of quiet dignity to suggest that class is in dignity not economic standing. He does so with real subtlety. Mr Downing, known to locals as Downton Abbey, twice warns Denise of fluff on her jumper: ‘It should be on the inside, love, where it functions best’. It’s left to a Biblical quotation to eventually hammer home the point, with Denise reciting Corinthians 4:16: ‘Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day…Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen’.

While Moore’s skilful construction of this central theme is impressive and intelligent, the pleasure of The Swan is its story and its characters. At this level, he displays real empathy and real humour, never patronising his characters despite their cartoonish quality. Trevor Cooper holds the stage magnificently, coupling no-nonsense joking with an inner-strength and there’s real delicacy from Pippa Bennett-Warner as Denise, who moves from soft fledgling to solid adult. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is sharply forthright in her remonstrations and there’s brilliant comic support from Nitin Kundra as the dopey, vomit-stained Bradwell and Cordwell as his demanding wag, whose looseness of tongue (and elsewhere) sparks the revelations about Michael.

There Is A War
Tom Basden, once of the celebrated sketch troupe Cowards, is growing in confidence as a playwright. His first play, Party, was more of less a sitcom seeking a television slot: squiffy character-driven comedy with very little in the way of actual plot. After that came Joseph K, a screwball adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial for the Gate.

For his part of Double Feature, Basden attempts the rather extraordinary feat of writing a play in the spirit of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Like Joseph K, the format plays into his sketch-based past, by placing a single protagonist on a conveyor belt of characters, situations and events. Though some of these have real comic zing, it does remove the possibility of dramatic momentum. The story simply continues, going where it goes, more arbitrary than necessarily. It feels like a string of events.

That said, this accumulation results in a hefty dossier detailing the headless absurdity of war. Even if the overall grows wearisome, there are several scenes of real panache. Phoebe Fox plays Anne, the Yossarian-figure caught in a war between two almost indistinguishable armies, the Blues and the Greys. Like a fly in a spider’s web, the more she struggles to make sense of it all, the more entangled she becomes. Earnest, browbeaten and moralistic, Anne is a doctor desperately trying to reach a front-line hospital that seems to move with the horizon.

Basden’s trick is to inject the inhuman with absurdity and banality. Clowns stalk the front line as a weapon against child soldiers. Torturers have repetitive strain injuries. Those melting down body parts natter about old school friends with a familiar pub humour: one holds up a disembodied hand and calls for a high 15. A pop star releases the same war song to both sides, simply swapping Blues for Greys in the lyrics.

Best of all is the hapless Martin Reece (Basden), renamed Neil Hill on account of there being another Martin Reece already on the books. Having been advised towards boastfulness on his application form, Reece describes himself as ‘the best soldier in the country’ and is promptly made a general. He toddles through the war he’s supposed to be leading like a clueless child.This is a war run by buffoonish bureaucracy. Decisions come down to accountancy, such that the tactician’s maps use matchboxes and sellotape for landmarks. But then, what war isn’t about minimizing costs and casualties, rather than preventing them absolutely? Spin and coins rule supreme.

Despite the structural mayhem, just about managed by Lyndsey Turner’s boisterous direction, Basden pulls off two remarkable coups to relate There Is a War to our everyday lives. With all walks of life – from nannies to dance teachers – on the front line, he extends war into a metaphor for society as a whole. The suggestion being that we are all pawns, moved this way and that by a clueless leadership. Or should I say, knowing elite. Soutra Gilmour’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style design makes toy soldiers of us all, dwarfed by the scale of the world.

Second, his final scene, which takes place after the war’s end has been announced, brilliantly implicates institutions. Having reached the hospital, Anne becomes embroiled in the war of the wards, as the newly formed Reds battle the Oranges for control, invading radiology units and canteens. There are never enough resources to go round – a point that registers particularly strongly in today’s economic and political climate – and each of us is fighting over scraps to ensure our own sustainability or carve out comfort.

Undeniably intelligent, often acutely funny, There Is a War best demonstrates the characteristic quality of Double Feature: ambition. For that alone, it deserves a forgiving audience willing to overlook its potholes and celebrate its successes.


Till 10 September 2011


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