Theatre Review: ‘B’ at the Royal Court, London.

Prior to seeing Guillermo Calderón’s B, I wondered, as he will have intended, what the B could have stood for. It turns out the B was for bomb, but you don’t say bomb, you say cheese…or cow (though the characters aren’t sure which).

Confusion is what drives this piece, Aimee-Ffion Edwards’ Marcela and Danusia Samal’s Alejandra are young idealist terrorists who want to set off a noise bomb. The two are pretending to host a birthday party in their apartment as they meet their supplier, Paul Kaye’s José Miguel, who we discover has other intentions; Miguel gives them a real explosive and wants to start a war. Add in a nosy neighbour named Carmen, played by Sarah Niles, as well as the fact the other three characters cover their faces with jumpers for the majority of the piece, and you have more than enough elements to drive this satirical farce.

All this sounds incredibly confusing, so it is a huge credit to Calderón, and translator William Gregory, that the audience is kept at the appropriate level of confusion throughout the piece, never feeling truly lost.  The play tackled ideas that I’ve read some reviewers felt didn’t resonate with an English audience. Although the ideas are inarguably more familiar for a Chilean audience, with the recent bombing atrocities happening in the UK I felt it easy enough to tap into the idealism and questions which drove the piece.

The play did seem to lack energy as lines were delivered flatly, which may have been due to the 14:30 start as this wasn’t a problem for the rest of the piece. It also took me about five minutes to accept that the dialogue was constantly punctuated by ‘Oh’, ‘Right’, ‘Shit’ and ‘Yeah’ and with lengthy pauses between most lines. The feeling of awkwardness was hammered home, but it soon became the accepted rapport by the audience.

The main body of the piece was fantastic, Kaye’s performance especially so since he wore large sunglasses as well as the face coverings, yet still managed to engage the audience with his every move and delivery of each line. This was satire at its best, effortlessly taking the audience from humorous wordplay to one of the characters having to defecate into the bomb to ensure it would infect its victims upon detonation. Samal’s monologue explaining how she does not fear going to prison because all her friends are there is a particularly poignant moment.

B had its faults, Niles never seemed to recover from her energy lacking start and the piece perhaps tried to be too moralistic at times, but the visually awesome, manic ending tied up a fantastically enjoyable piece of theatre and I look forward to seeing more of Calderón’s work on British stages.

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Theatre Review: ‘Victory Condition’ at the Royal Court, London.

During my brief time visiting the Edinburgh Fringe this summer I heard lots of buzz around Chris Thorpe’s The Shape of the Pain, which I, unfortunately, didn’t manage to catch. The excitement around Thorpe’s writing meant I greatly looked forward to seeing what he had up his sleeve with his Royal Court debut: Victory Condition.

As the play begins, the set of blinds downstage slowly open and we see Jonjo O’Neill’s Man and Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Woman unlock the door to Chloe Lamford’s set, revealing a familiar, modern apartment and inviting the audience to join these characters in their domesticity. The two performers show their physical comfort with one another, moving around one another with the ease and comfortable intimacy of a couple in their own home. However, they do not talk to one another for the vast majority of the piece, their closing lines being the only exception. Both performers monotonously reel off monologues, O Neill recalls a story about being a sniper and Duncan-Brewster of being in an office wherein everything has computer-like crashed. The performers play Skyrim, eat pizza and drink wine whilst doing so, turning their heads to the audience and delivering their lines out when speaking.

The tone both performers deliver these in must have been dictated to them by Vicky Featherstone, as it’s hard to believe that any actor would deliver each line in the same way for an hour – which these both do. Thorpe’s writing certainly has a lyricism to it, but this doesn’t do enough to engage on its own, this felt less theatrical and more akin to a poetry recital. Thorpe’s work is often experimental and fits into the category of performance art, the problem therein is that this was sold as a ‘play’ and yet the piece wasn’t theatrical in the slightest. The fault must surely lie with Featherstone, as Artistic Director of the Royal Court it’s strange to believe that this script made it to the stage. Two characters not talking to each other may have made for an interesting experimental piece in the Upstairs space, but Downstairs it felt totally misplaced. The performance felt spectacularly un-theatrical and being only an hour long felt far, far too long. I’m still waiting for The Shape of the Pain.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Woyzeck’ at The Old Vic, London.

When half a year ago I read that John Boyega would be playing the titular role in one of my favourite plays, Woyzeck, I was filled with excitement. Not only would I be treated to a modern revision of Büchner ‘s classic but, as the eager American man sat next to me said: ‘I want to see Finn!’.

Boyega’s performance was certainly commendable, his physical prowess and ability to suddenly switch from moments of affection to explosive aggression had the audience fearing Woyzeck’s every move, a particular highlight was when he suddenly bangs his head against the wall as he is unable to bottle up his aggression. Although Boyega played the adoring lover and fierce maniac very well, he did sometimes slip into a one-toned delivery when addressing characters other than Marie early in the piece and his displays of insanity sometimes appeared caricatured as he slapped his thighs and rolled back his eyes, but these were few and far between.

So, I saw ‘Finn’. But as for Woyzeck…I’m not quite sure.

Thorne’s adaptation of Büchner’s classic is a liberal one. Characters are removed and new characters inserted, the most effective use of which is amalgamating the Drum Major’s role into Andres’ (or Andrews, in this version), as Woyzeck’s best-friend also becomes his sexual rival. Thorne also transposes the play to 1980s Berlin, with Woyzeck and Andrews as British soldiers guarding the Berlin Wall. This is a testament to the whole of Thorne’s translation: rather than utilising the unknown, he embeds the play in specifics. This setting is no hindrance to the play, it works with the play and allows for a more historical case-study of modern soldiers affected with PTSD, but does raise the questions as to why it could not allow an audience to see a soldier in an unspecified location and draw those conclusions themselves.

As the play explores Woyzeck’s background, however, we see the specifics being dwelled on far too much. The play begins with a young Woyzeck singing, a flashback to his past life as an orphan which is mentioned throughout the play, we hear about his orphan upbringing nearly as often as we hear his name. There are also many allusions to how Woyzeck went AWOL in Belfast and the specifics meet the absurd when Woyzeck tells how his prostitute mother made him watch as she slept with a client. What is so magnificent about previous adaptations of Woyzeck is that the audience can draw different conclusions about the protagonist’s descent into madness, whether it be his background and the abuse from higher-class characters, the experimentation of the doctor or his sexual jealousy and feelings of inferior masculinity. These ideas are all still prevalent throughout the play; Steffan Rhodri’s Captain employs Woyzeck as his masseuse whilst poking fun at his intelligence and his financial anxieties; Darrel D’Silva’s Doctor speaks fluent German while presenting an insanity-driven Woyzeck to the audience and Ben Batt’s Andrews tells Woyzeck why he slept with Marie during a rather sloppy and unconvincing fight sequence. But these moments lose all impact as Nancy Caroll appears onstage again and again as the spectre of Woyzeck’s mother, haunting his every moment and looming over the entirety of the piece so that all other moments seem like straws on the camel’s back rather than knives into Woyzeck’s. A glance into the programme and one sees how there is much emphasis on Woyzeck as the first working-class tragedy, but unfortunately, this has been lost in translation. Instead, the audience is presented with a Freudian case study of a Woyzeck with an Oedipal complex.

What this new adaptation does do, however, is lift Marie to a more central role in the piece as she is given much more stage-time than in the usual texts. Sarah Greene portrays Marie exceptionally well, inviting the audience to see how she juggles her love for Woyzeck and her child with her frustration at living in such squalid quarters, as well as attempting to deal with her Catholic beliefs as she becomes aware of her own lust and ambition. In fact all characters are largely well played by a very talented cast, Nancy Carroll’s Maggie shows an insatiable sexual appetite and couples well in absurdity of the higher class citizens with Rhodri’s oblivious and sexually ambiguous Captain, D’Silva’s Doctor’s comical teasing of Woyzeck is latent with apathy and Batt’s Andrews serves as both a glance at what life Woyzeck could lead and as a comic relief throughout the piece, if perhaps too much so at times.

The central star of this production though is Tom Scutt’s set along with Neil Austin’s Lighting and the coupling of Gareth Fry’s sound design and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music. These all contribute to a set which is a marvel to behold, as large chunks of wall move both around the stage and are dropped onto it, its surface being ripped off to reveal intestines under Austin’s bold lights and smoky haze, accompanied by loud drones and haunting music. Every transition, which there are unsurprisingly plenty of in this piece, fills the audience with both dread and anticipation.

As the play reached its climax and Woyzeck and Marie met their respective fates, I did feel empathy for these tragic characters and their death but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the play Büchner intended to write may have died along with them.