Saturday, 14 March 2009

All the world's a stage

We moved into the theatre this week, two weeks ahead of the opening of Necessary Targets.

There is something so special about a theatre space. It can be an area in the round, a stage thrusting beyond a proscenium arch or simply a black box. And with each performance it can be transformed. That's the magic of theatre to me.

Just move the seats, construct a set, add some lights and you are in another world. I say 'just' but it is far from a simple achievement. The crew who build, paint and dress the set, and who design, plot and focus the lights are the craftsmen and artisans of old. Their work is incomparable.

In the short space of time that I have performed in the Gryphon it has been a 17th century New England courtroom and jail, a middle-class Suffolk drawing room, a French convent in the early 1600s, and a Bosnian refugee camp in the mid 1990s.

Each time it has been wholly believable and the actors and audience alike suspend their belief and are transported to whole new worlds. I am of course reminded of the chorus' words in Shakepeare's Henry V when he begs the audience's indulgent imaginations.

"Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:"

By this time, people are tired and a little grumpy - there are conflicting needs and priorities as the crew beaver away to get the production looking and sounding right while the cast are desperately trying to give them something good to work with.

But the shift into the theatre dissolves some of this tension as the lights come up and you know you're not far away now. It's exciting waiting in the darkness of the wings for your cue which will allow you to take flight to another place. And that's why we do it.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Transporting theatre

The Thirty-Nine Steps, Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, February 12 – March 7

From the moment that Mike Edward steps on stage as Richard Hannay looking dashing in a suit, this is a top-notch performance. Like an action thriller crashed into a farce, it is fast-paced, constantly amusing and excellently timed, as one episode follows swiftly on the well-shod heels of another.

I could tell you about the far-fetched plot, which involves a conspiracy to murder the Greek premier Karolides, ‘the one barrier between Europe and Armageddon’ and plunge Europe into war, but it’s really incidental to the play. It is 1914 in Britain; there are spies and espionage a-plenty alongside references to the Balkan powder keg we all learned about at school. It’s not really giving anything away to confirm that actually Karolides is assassinated and war does break out, so as saving-the-day-heroes go, Hannay isn’t essentially all that effective.

Author, John Buchan claimed that this novel was his first ‘shocker’, by which he meant an adventure combining personal and political dramas, where the events in the story are unlikely. Director, Ross Gumbley has taken this to extremes and smashed the illusion of theatre with a sledgehammer.

The ‘special’ effects are fabulous – the anti-CGI back-lash has the potential to be as forceful as the anti-political-correctness espoused by the likes of Life on Mars. Whether hanging from a bridge, undertaking a high-speed car chase, running alongside a train or being pursued by a bi-plane, the staging and setting of these scenes is fantastically ludicrous. There is an element of Spike Milligan in the use of stage doors and ‘swimming’ across the stage, which the audience appreciates with laughter and applause.

These gestures work so well, because the cast play them straight. It would have been tempting for Edwards to play Hannay as Hugh-Laurie-as-Prince-Regent-esque (and the play itself is a little bit The Fast Show meets Blackadder), but he remains steadfast. His asides to the audience are delightful, as he fills them in on his thoughts and plot developments; ‘verification arrived with my boiled egg’. Even when the characters come into the audience, they are never a part of it, and when one of the audience members is kidnapped as a hostage, he is later heckled by the cast when he is released and returns to his seat.

There is also a dream-like quality to some of the sequences, begun with the ‘turbaned wonder’ Marmaduke Mesmer (Cameron Rhodes) who hypnotises Hannay into a suggestible trance. Cameron Rhodes also plays Franklin P Scudder, who sets off the chain events by revealing his suspicions to Hannay, with an ‘accent West of Swindon’ (it’s American) in terms that ‘could out-metaphor a Kipling’, and then being mysteriously murdered in a dramatic death scene.

When the actors take their final bow, it is hard to believe that there were only four of them – Lisa Chappell and Stephen Papps making up the fantastic foursome. This is testament to the way they people the stage with myriad incidental characters from the leering milkman to the psychotic brattish schoolgirl or the passengers on a train. Whether butlers, policemen or navvies, each one is entirely persuasive.

In his programme notes, Gumbley writes that the set – a steel box with hidden doors – was designed to capture Hannay’s paranoia, ‘sense of being trapped and constantly pursued’. It certainly succeeds, and for all the laughter and mockery, this is a darker undercurrent running through the play. It is farcical to see people popping out of doors and the physical theatre of drugged-up wobbly legs is hysterical, but the dreams can turn to nightmares as ‘we never question what we expect to see.’

The Thirty-Nine Steps confronts a number of expectations, not least what and where are the titular steps themselves? Hannay, who cuts his bread into soldiers, mocks the Scottish accent and is bored back in England after living in the ‘strange dark continent’ that is Africa, is described as being ‘very clever – or very stupid’. In this play the line between the two is blurred.

When he has to make a speech from the hustings under a mistaken guise, he stumbles through his oratory but nevertheless delivers moments of passion, although he is told he ‘started poorly, flagged in the middle and tailed off at the end’. He plays the stuffed shirt Brit admirably and appealingly. To the strains of Holst’s Planet Suite a German attempts to seduce him into his dastardly plan (involving, I think, lighthouses, submarines and airships) cajoling him to ‘be on the winning side for once’. ‘Never!’ he answers, without a trace of irony.

I arrived at the theatre after spending an hour in traffic and road-works, searching for a place to park. Why is there nowhere to park at the Maidment? I heard other late-comers complain about this too, and the production started 15 minutes late to accommodate all those other hot, bothered and harassed audience members. The front-of-house staff were frantic and disorganised, leaving me stressed, with a headache, and in a bad mood.

This was all totally dissolved by the spoof-like entertainment before me, which is what good theatre should do – it took me out of myself and transported me to another place, or rather, places.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

G&T - Perfect combination

Four - nil against Real Madrid! That's five-nil on aggregate. We thrashed them! It doesn't get much better than that - unless we were to do the same thing to Man Utd. at the weekend, ('I would love it' etc.). I can't see that happening and it's pretty much all over bar the shouting in the Premiership, but let's not allow that cloud to darken our sky, for today in my football-land all is sunny and bright.

Did you see that first goal? Fantastico! 'Fernando Torres, Liverpool number nine' indeed. Pass and move - it's the Liverpool groove, and the cut backs worked excellently throughout. It was like shooting fish in a barrel and it could have been more, were it not for their keeper, who pulled out some of those what I believe are known in the business as top drawer saves.

Admittedly if I were a Real Madrid supporter (and thank God I'm not) I would have felt aggrieved at that penalty decision. I don't think that was hand ball and it was a bit unfair for their player to get booked for it. Nothing dodgy about the execution though. That was a sweetly taken spot kick (will ESPN please stop calling them PKs? I thought that was a type of chewing gum).

And then the third goal was just Liverpool gold. That's why we love them. I've always though G&T to be a great combination - and now we have a new contender - Gerrard and Torres - simply sublime. When they had both been substituted to rest up for the next big game, even Babel and Mascherano played nicely together - but B&M doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

And what about Jay Spearing who came on in the 74th minute and made a few incisive runs up the pitch. Brought through the youth academy, having captained the Under-18s to the second of their successive FA Youth Cup victories in 2007, this lad had the Kop chanting his name - 'There's only one Jay Spearing'. How great would it feel? Pretty damn good. We love you, Liverpool, we do...