Love and information: international theatre in 2014

TWO pieces of 2015 theatre programming in Melbourne would have interested me anyway, but having seen the shows in New York early this year makes them irresistible. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Melbourne’s Malthouse, from June 12, Sydney Theatre Company from July 9) and Jonathan Tollins’s Buyer and Cellar (Melbourne Theatre Company, from October 30) are tours de force requiring actors of great agility, but in very different ways.

Buyer and Cellar is a love-in between an irrepressible, highly indiscreet man and an audience avid for what the Americans call dish. The actor – at MTC it will be the delectable Ash Flanders – plays an under-used actor, Alex, who finds unusual employment with Barbra Streisand. Babs! Could anything be more heavenly?!! Buyer and Cellar amusingly satisfies our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity culture but there are some darker threads too, woven through with the lightest of touches. Everything depends, of course, on the charm of the performer playing Alex, given that we’re in his company for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Michael Urie originated the part and became quite the celebrity himself in New York. Rather delicious really.

I am surprised to see on the Malthouse website that Love and Information will feature eight actors. The production I saw used 15 and they were all pretty busy, given that Churchill’s play has more than 100 characters. In an interval-less two hours it presents more than 50 short scenes, some lasting only seconds. You can imagine what it’s like backstage. Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things. The production I saw at the Minetta Lane Theatre was first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was dazzlingly set in a stark white tiled cube that was completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow nifty changes. I will be fascinated to see what solution Malthouse and STC’s designer, David Fleischer, comes up with.

Three New York highlights:

Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night and Richard III, both starring the protean Mark Rylance: In the first he was an Olivia in great emotional disarray but able to snap into razor-sharp acuity when needed. He operated at the highest level of artifice but the glittering surface was like a protective shield for the most delicate of emotions. Breathtaking. In Richard III, he was a ratty-looking, manipulative, weasely murderer protected, for the moment, by his powerful position and a psychopathic belief in himself. I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – was standing beside Richard, who sat on his throne and jovially put his arm around his wife and squeezed her waist. The gesture would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Anne allowed herself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield: This was a production you could see repeatedly and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. [I wrote this for my blog long before seeing Belvoir’s recent production. I’ll stick by my view.] The director was John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back and Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, was movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play was illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful and heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floated in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminished in size as they disappeared upwards, the one glass animal that represented Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura made her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that drew Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, were exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspended time and place.

Two London highlights:

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear: Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre wasn’t entirely transcendent but Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest of all classical actors and he didn’t disappoint. The moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were devastating. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision revealed so piercingly was an experience I won’t forget. And one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbered 51 in all.

King Charles III, a “future history” written by Mike Bartlett, at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold: Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it. Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence. As you can imagine, seeing this play with a British audience was a bracing experience.

King Charles III transferred to the West End where it runs until the end of January.

Tomorrow: Opera and musical theatre

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.