Monday, June 26, 2017

New Work from London

 Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly in The Ferryman at the Royal Court. (Photo: Johan Perrson)

This article contains reviews of The Ferryman, Don Juan in Soho and La Strada in the West End and Common at the National Theatre. The review of The Ferryman contains spoilers.

Audiences leap to their feet at the end of The Ferryman, the new play by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) that has recently transferred to the West End after a sold-out run at the Royal Court. And why wouldn’t they? Butterworth and the director, Sam Mendes, have stockpiled enough heart-tuggers in three and a quarter hours to make the manufacturers of the nineteenth-century potboilers that used to reduce audiences to mush look like amateurs. The setting is northern Ireland in 1982, during the prison hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and others. The hero, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), is a warm, hard-working, life-loving Irish farmer with a huge family whose brother’s body has just been discovered ten years after his disappearance. Quinn is sure that he was killed by the IRA for some unidentified offense of which he was innocent. (The play is certain of it, too, though Butterworth never even tells us what he might have been fingered for.) The ruthless IRA man, Muldoon (Stuart Graham), blackmails the Carneys’ parish priest (Gerald Horan) into revealing what he learned in confession from the dead man’s widow, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), whom Quinn and his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) took in along with her son Oisin (Rob Malone) when her husband vanished. Caithas been in love with her brother-in-law for years; Muldoon threatens to tell Mary unless Quinn agrees to keep his suspicions about who killed his brother to himself.

Considering that Quinn has no evidence of IRA involvement, and considering that he and Cait have never acted on their (mutual) feelings, Muldoon’s wild overreacting doesn’t make sense. But Butterworth can get away with dramaturgy that’s slack to the point of ridiculousness because he’s dealing in melodramatic tropes. There’s the love so pure it’s never been consummated (when Cait finds out that Quinn feels the same way about her, she exchanges one kiss with him before sending him back to his family). There’s the kindly village idiot, Tom Kettle (Tom Hodgkinson) – an Englishman who was found by the Carney family when he was an abandoned child of twelve. And there are the two old aunts who are meant to represent Ireland’s tragic past:one (Bríd Brennan) a half-ghost, half-seeress who wanders in her mind to her childhood, returning every now and then to make pronouncements, the other (Dearbhla Molloy) an embittered Irish Nationalist who never got over her brother’s violent death at the hands of English soldiers in the Easter battle of 1916. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s an endearing uncle (Des McAleer) who drunks Bushmills for breakfast, five Disney-cute little children who curse (there’s no surer-fire laugh-getter than a sweet little girl who says “fuck”), a goose, two rabbits, and an interlude with some Irish step-dancing.

The production is skillfully directed and acted, especially by Donnelly and Molloy. (Considine, a fine film actor in his stage debut, reads his lines beautifully but needs physical training: he plays almost every scene with one hand in his pocket and the other dangling awkwardly by his side.) But The Ferryman is shameless – and it isn’t convincing for a single moment. Butterworth is so determined to jack up the stakes that when Muldoon threatens to harm his sister the priest gives him exactly what he wants. Isn’t breaking the seal of confession a pretty big thing for a Catholic priest? Wouldn’t he at least hesitate before betraying his holy vocation? Toward the end of the play the Carney children’s visiting cousin Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney), who has been inflamed by anti-English sentiment, persuades Oisin to go out and shoot Tom Kettle. In the last scene Kettle brings in the boy’s body, having wrung his neck when Oisin waved his gun at him. (This offstage encounter, which, of course, comes to us via Of Mice and Men, contradicts the play’s presentation of Kettle from the outset as a sweet, discombobulated man without a harmful thought in his head or bone in his body.) Quinn’s response to the sight of his dead nephew is to slash Muldoon’s throat, instantly identifying him as the source of the hatred that has provoked all the violence. Presumably this revelation came to him in a dream, since he wasn’t on stage for the conversation between Shane and Oisin. Judging from the response of both critics and audiences, The Ferryman has both Olivier and Tony Awards in its future. It plays everyone for a sucker and proves that you don’t even have to be sophisticated to get away with it – all you have to do is haul out the right sentimental clichés and everyone will cheer.

Audrey Brisson (centre) and the cast of La Strada at the Other Palace, London. (Photo: Robert Day)

The playbill for the musical La Strada (at The Other Palace, at the end of a tour through the UK) reports that it was devised by the company under Sally Cookson’s direction and lists Mike Akers as “the writer in the room.” I take that bizarre credit to mean that Cookson got the actors to improvise scenes and then Akers wrote down dialogue for them to memorize. What the play needs is an actual writer, because though it’s based on Federico Fellini’s famous 1954 movie (which has a screenplay by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano), it doesn’t have a dramatic arc. You recognize the story. The itinerant circus performer Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin, in the Anthony Quinn part) buys the mentally challenged Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson, in the Giulietta Masina part) from her mother, who lives in poverty with four younger children, and takes her on the road as his assistant. He’s a brute, but Gelsomina, who’s lit by an inner spark, grows to enjoy the road (“la strada” means “the road”) and in some way comes into her own. But during a brief stint with a traveling circus another performer, known as The Fool (Bart Soroczynski, in the Richard Basehart part), whom she has befriended, runs afoul of Zampanò and ends up dead. Devastated by this act of violence, Gelsomina’s spirit fades and she runs away from Zampanò. Only some years later, when he learns that she has died, does he realize what he’s lost. The stage version is faithful to the movie, but there’s more to adapting a movie to the stage than merely replicating the narrative. The scenes haven’t been shaped in dramatic terms, so although the story goes somewhere the characters don’t; they’re two-dimensional and you don’t care what happens to them. It’s not a drama.

And it’s not really a musical, either, though there are some talented musicians on the stage and some of Benji Bower’s melodies, especially the plaintive ones in act two, are pretty. In musicals the numbers serve a variety of purposes – to express emotion, define character, or introduce a theme or setting (if it’s a romantic musical); to present performances by characters who are professional musicians (if it’s a backstage musical); to comment on theme and character (if it’s a Brechtian musical). With the single exception of the Fool’s song “Nobody’s Fool” at the top of the second act, the music doesn’t occur in the form of numbers at all; it’s incidental mood music, like the soundtrack of a non-musical movie. “Nobody’s Fool” is easily the highlight of the show, and not just because Soroczynski, a trained acrobat, sings it as he tools around the stage on a unicycle. (The first time we see him he’s scaling a ladder that isn’t anchored to the floor.)

Apparently a lot of people (including critics) have been charmed by La Strada, but there’s so little going on in it that I found it hard to get interested. The movement supervised by Cameron Carver or Cookson’s direction doesn’t offer much to look at. There are a couple of pillars on the stage for the actors to climb, which they do occasionally without dramatic motivation; the same physical actions are repeated over and over so that even the ones that pique your attention at first – like the way Goodwin and some of the other actors suggest the movement of Zampanò’s motorbike – lose their appeal quickly. I’m not a Cookson fan; I bailed on her production of Jane Eyre at the National Theatre when it showed up in the NT Live series. Worse than her lack of visual imagination, I think, is the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any talent for directing actors. Except for Soroczynski, the actors don’t play any objectives; they mostly convey communal energy or something. Years ago a friend of mine at a dreadful Peter Brook production of The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music commented that everyone on stage seemed to be engaged in “life force acting,” and I think that hilarious phrase applies to the actors in La Strada, too – except that Brook has talent.

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's Theatre. (Photo: Helen Maybanks

The twist in Patrick Marber’s version of the Don Juan story, Don Juan in Soho, set in contemporary London, is that “DJ” (David Tennant) is given a final chance to repent before the brothers of the wife he’s betrayed kill him, but he chooses not to, preferring to die true to his corrupt principles than live as a hypocrite. This moment comes not very long after his big speech about the state of the world (with an obligatory reference to Donald Trump). It’s about an hour after a scene in which he tries to get a homeless Muslim to insult Allah in order to win a prize, DJ’s expensive watch; when the man refuses his terms, DJ gives him the watch anyway, applauding his integrity. You might just accept these passes at depth, if DJ had been written as a real character instead of a funny late-night talk-show host thrown into a series of lengthy routines. Tennant is a witty performer, and I also enjoyed watching Adrian Scarborough as his servant and confidant and Gawn Grainger as his father. The production (which Marberalso directed), with sets and costumes by Anna Fleischle and lighting by Mark Henderson, is handsome. But the play itself is utterly hollow.

Anne-Marie Duff, Ian Lloyd Anderson and cast in Common. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The London critics savaged Common, a new play by DC Moore at the National, and the day I saw it the entire row behind mine ran away at intermission. It’s perfectly awful, though not exactly boring – I mean, it contains a bonfire and a talking crow and two eviscerations, and the main character, alternately called Mary and Catherine, crawls out of the grave at the beginning of act two. (This doesn’t really qualify as a spoiler, since she’s the narrator, she’s played by Anne-Marie Duff, one of the great actresses of the contemporary London theatre, and the character has apparently been resurrected once already. Anyway, I can pretty much guarantee that Common isn’t going to have a life after it closes at the National.) The play is set in rural England in the early nineteenth century, during the protests of farmers against enclosure; the title alludes to the land before it’s taken away from the people. This is such an unusual subject for drama that it’s a pity Moore has wrecked it, since no one is likely to write a second play about it. And I do mean he’s wrecked it. Mary/Catherine turns out to be the devil, inventing capitalism and turning the poor English bringing out the harvest and the poor Irish immigrants against each other. All the characters talk in gibberish that’s meant to sound poetic and make us believe they’re living in another century. It’s hard to believe that the National Theatre would agree to stage a play in which the characters say things like “This game seems fatal-tinged” and “He threw me river-in” and “Best go away. It’s early-late” and – my personal favorite – “Off you fuck.”

The fault for this indisputable fiasco doesn’t lie with the director, Jeremy Herrin, who creates some beautiful stage pictures, or with Richard Hudson’s set, which uses the massive stage of the Olivier Theatre to convey a dramatic sense of the open spaces that are about to parceled out by fences, or with the lighting by the enormously gifted Paule Constable. It’s true that most of the actors come off looking silly, but except for Cush Jumbo as Laura, the sister of the “harvest king” (and Mary’s one-time lover), who reads all her lines with the same degree of intensity, and Lois Chimimba as a character called Eggy Tom, I wouldn’t single out anyone as strikingly terrible. (Tom gets shot at the end of act one; when Chimimba shows up again after intermission as a maid, Young Hannah, she’s not quite as bad.) Duff has parsed her huge speeches intelligently, which is a considerable achievement, and she holds the stage, but it’s a sad waste of an actress who has given two of the best live performances I’ve ever seen – in Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic and Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, also at the National. And Tim McMullan, another actor I’m always happy to see, understates his lines as the Lord. Duff and McMullan almost succeed in making their dialogue sound natural. Almost. Some tasks are beyond even the most gifted actors.

 – Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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