Swans Commentary » swans.com March 26, 2007  



Stage Struck In London And Dublin


by Peter Byrne


Theatre Reviews



(Swans - March 26, 2007) 

Cinderella, The Hackney Empire, London. Writer and director Susie McKenna.

On the painted sea of London's holiday pantomimes, the Hackney Empire's Cinderella sailed with its flag high. Though unchallenged as the Empire was last year by a celebrity panto when Ian McKellen played the Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic, there was plenty of sparkling competition around town: The Snow Queen, Dick Whittington, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Babes in the Woods, among others. Writer and director Susie McKenna's Cinderella struck the right rollicking note but it did so by letting the musical comedy elements take precedence over the traditional panto capers. Not that the kids weren't given a chance to interact noisily -- to shout back at the actors, boo the nasties, and ooh the lovers. But their opportunities were tucked between some rousing song and dance numbers.

The Hackney Empire doesn't only talk the talk of multiculturalism; its creative casting also walks the walk in a dance step. Janet Kay made a luscious-voiced black Fairy Godmother in a series of whiter than white pearly gowns. Outlandish dress is of the panto essence. Tameka Empson, the Wicked Stepmother, shaped up like a Harlem Red Hot Mama of yore. Her daughters, the superb comedians Michael Kirk and David Ashley, competed in tonsorial outrageousness. Peter Straker, an old-school song and dance man who could pass for Duke Ellington, fathered this perfect dysfunctional family. Ben Fox, a scuttling mouse of a comic, kept the pace frantic.

Only Cinderella (Donna Steele) and Prince Charming (Steven Cree) brought a drop in the temperature. They were not merely voice and charisma challenged. The in-built flaw of pantomime is that you can send characters up to the roof, but you can't touch the principal boy and girl. They have to be played straight and sentimental. The kids expect it, and might otherwise assault them with their popcorn.


Spice Drum Beat: Ghoema, The Tricycle Theatre, London. Writer and director David Kramer. Musical director Taliep Petersen.

Like the Hackney Empire, The Tricycle survives through the support of private donors, corporate sponsors, and public money. Relatively young, the Tricycle's twenty-five years have seen some remarkable productions by playwrights and actors from minority groups. (Can there be another theatre that actually names its cleaners in the program?) In the 1990s it began to present what have become known as the Tricycle Tribunal Plays. These often dramatize official inquiries, almost always transfer to larger theatres and are sometimes televised on the BBC. Half the Picture concerned the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry; Nuremberg, the 1946 War Crimes Tribunal; Srebrenica, the UN Rule 61 Hearings; The Colour of Justice, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (He was murdered by racists in London); Justifying War presented scenes from the Hutton Inquiry; Bloody Sunday, those from the Saville Inquiry. Guantánamo, Honor Bound to Defend Freedom went from the humble London neighborhood of Kilburn to New York, and in 2005 to San Francisco, Tucson, Washington, Stockholm, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and Italy.

Spice Drum Beat: Ghoema is a musical presented by South African actors and musicians. A ghoema -- the word is Swahili -- means a small drum made from a barrel. The show is an alternative history of Cape Town told through its music. The Dutch went to the Cape in the 17th century, established an outpost of the spice trade, and immediately imported slaves to supply labor. For a century and a half human beings were trafficked from Mozambique, Madagascar, India, Ceylon and Indonesia. Add Portuguese and British influences and we can understand that the musical culture of Cape Town would be syncretic par excellence. In the 19th century the direction of Cape music was even altered by visiting black Americans. (The members of The Virginia Singers were shocked by the condition of South African blacks.)

Ghoema's two acts consist of a couple of dozen numbers of music and dance revealing a remarkably varied and rich tradition. Revelation was necessary since the National Party that took power in 1948 suppressed any idea of cultural syncretism. South Africa was a white man's country and Afrikaans the white man's language. Kramer's script, perhaps in a gesture of reconciliation, avoids recrimination. He touches on the evils of slavery, but only in the musically weak part of the show: Singers draped in chains address us in the perky tones of a Broadway musical. You can't help but think of Springtime for Hitler or Monty Python purged of corrective irony. Much better not to speak of slavery or racism than to do so in a toothless manner. You suspect that these congenial South Africans didn't want to offend their ex-imperialist hosts.

It's the music taken root in Cape Town that puts the show on track. The five-man band explodes with ghoema drums, piano accordion, guitars, and banjo. Zenobia Kloppers proves the kingpin -- or is it queen? -- holding the loose bundle together with a voice trained for opera but perfectly at home in humbler musical tasks; she also shines in dramatic sketches and dance. The comedians Jody Abrahams and Loukmaan Adams startle us with a view of Cape Town today, all rap and baseball caps. Carmen Maarman and Munthir Dullisear complete the well-integrated (in all senses) cast of five. As the drums die, we file out of the Tricycle our minds stirred by the stupefying variety of the human race and the need of its every diversified segment to sing its own song in its own way.


Frost/Nixon, Gielgud Theatre, London. Writer Peter Morgan. Director Michael Grandage.

Peter Morgan recently wrote scripts for the movies The Last King of Scotland and The Queen. Did he take inspiration for Frost/Nixon from the Tricycle's Tribunal Plays? If so, he's moved away from the text-of-an-inquiry genre to a variation that sets highlights of TV interviews in a dramatic frame. Morgan hedges his bets by admitting that he may have let his imagination tidy up history.

The story is straightforward enough. In 1977 David Frost (Michael Sheen), the British talk-show host, meets defeat in America. His New York show has been axed. In an attempt to get back on his feet, he arranges to interview Nixon (Frank Langella). The fallen president agrees for two reasons. First, the money. Second, his belief that he can easily outwit Frost and use the interview sessions to refurbish his reputation. For Frost, actually finding the money will turn out to be only one of the problems to be solved. He and the two American journalists he hires, Jim Reston (Tom McKay) and Bob Zelnick (Vincent Marzello), have trouble putting together a strategy that will beat the wily interviewee. Beat is the right word, for as Nixon says, TV interviews are like boxing, and can end with only one champ. The cross purposes of Frost's team form part of the dramatic action.

As the taping goes on, limited by the taboos written into the contract, Nixon, waffling and reminiscing, takes complete control. Frost can't break through the spongy wall of generalities and homespun sentimentality. He doesn't have a tigerish enough bite. Even on matters like Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia, the old carp slides smoothly through the muddy water. This isn't trial by evidence. It's trial by TV and Nixon, master of corn, looks like a sure winner.

But...but before the session to be taped on Watergate -- stipulated at 25% of the total time -- the crestfallen Frost receives a late night and presumably whiskey-fueled phone call from Nixon. (History or Morgan's sprightly imagination? Don't ask; don't tell.) The former president rambles on about having been looked down upon by the privileged all his life and needles Frost for having had the same fate while a scholarship student at Cambridge University. Nixon assumes that a similar background produced the same killer instinct in Frost as in himself. He should have kept his psychologizing to himself. His insomniac's jibes in fact bring out -- with Morgan's nudging -- the terminator in the smooth, thirty-nine-year-old Englishman.

Meanwhile Reston has conveniently come upon an archive document that shows Nixon knew of the Watergate incident long before he previously stated. Frost springs this on Nixon the next day and finally hooks his fish. The thirty-seventh president loses his cool and entangles himself in an explanation that turns into his first admission of breaking the law, something he had managed to avoid even when he resigned the presidency. More people would watch this broadcast than had ever seen a public affairs show before. Nixon's avowal and his devastated expression as he made it wiped out all the talk that had gone before. One punch had defeated him and was what the viewers took away from the television courtroom.

The play is built so that Morgan constantly interrupts the duel between the two men to feed us information through Reston, Zelnick, and others, who often address the audience directly. Perhaps there was no other way. But how much more powerful the action could have been if the two contestants, as in the title, were left to go after each other without interference and remarks by various busybodies. That would have meant leaving soapy realism behind and staging a completely imaginary debate. Morgan, however, wasn't going to risk some paying customer complaining about not being informed or accusing him of a gross deviation from history. The playwright stuck with the simplest of plot lines: Hero Frost seems to be losing, with his forces in disarray. How can the villain be stopped? By a phone call in the night and a document from that deus ex machina file. The hero, at first shattered by his own moment of truth, pulls himself together and strikes the lethal blow.

Frank Langella's Nixon is a masterful portrait. He plays the former president as much cooler than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's movie Nixon (1995). Hopkins gave us a twitching neurotic forever on the point of exploding. Langella prefers to show the man's strengths. After all Nixon was a brilliant politician and no mere neuropath could have manipulated the nation so adroitly. Langella is particularly impressive as he shows Nixon moving from private mode to his television personality and actor's persona. By playing a self-possessed Nixon, Langella makes his ultimate fall on camera all the more memorable.

It remains to be seen how the production, soon to transfer to New York, will be received by Americans. They may find the background information superfluous or might not deem David Frost quite so significant an historical figure as his countryman Peter Morgan seems to think.


Anna Karenina, Gate Theatre, Dublin. Adapted and directed by Helen Edmundson.

At the turn of the year, Dublin, just like London, offered a bunch of pantos. There was Jack and the Beanstalk at the Civic; Mother Goose at the Gaiety; Sleeping Beauty at the Helix; and Pinocchio at the Pavilion. These are bread and butter for theatre managers and the local community of actors. (Ask Michael Bertenshaw, sixty-one years old, who has played the Dame in panto at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, for the past fifteen years.) The young public adores the shows and the Irish Times insists they make "a perfect post Christmas outing for children." Two serious plays on offer also capitalize on the holiday mood. One is Helen Edmundson's backward glance at Anna Karenina, which proves as lumpy and full of unidentifiable morsels as the local Xmas pudding. With its chewy Dickensian characters, easy for a somnolent audience to get hold of, the hit-or-miss adaptation could be a perfect post-Christmas outing for hung-over adults.

The recipe reads like this: Take a nervous Russian patriarch of 1877, Leo Tolstoy, meditating on patrician hanky-panky. Add an Irish woman, Helen Edmundson's third millennium take on his story that she's re-cooked in her little country that's only recently started to tug on its Catholic leash. Try to forget that Gustave Flaubert said the last word on adultery back in 1857. (He was only a clear-eyed syphilitic bachelor, not really a player, with no reason to be jumpy like Count Tolstoy, who had to keep an eye on his spouse. Anyway, neither old St. Petersburg nor re-born Dublin was ever the Paris described by the Goncourt brothers.) Stage all this as gripping entertainment for middle-class burghers who often attend the Gate in family groups and you have a fine, much-applauded mess. The audience appreciates the emotion in the air without caring much how or why it's produced.

Edmundson's adaptation compounds the confusion. She insists on making the story a duel between two protagonists of equal importance, Levin (Peter Gowen) and Anna (Paris Jefferson). Now surely the author would in that case have called his novel Constantine Dimitrich Levin and Anna Karenina. But, never mind, an adaptor can play fast and loose with a classic if he or she wishes. The real problem is structural. Levin and Anna are on stage together from the start. They converse in intimate terms and reel off the occasional monologue that the other pretends not to hear. All this reaches an Alice-in-Wonderland climax well on in the play when the two meet, just as Tolstoy has them do in his novel, for the first time. That the adaptor-director found no way to distinguish for us their subjective chitchat from their "real" exchanges is a grave flaw.

Moreover, Edmundson's insistence on having most of the characters on stage most of the time has ludicrous results. There's a limit to how long an unnecessary actor can freeze in the shadows without seeming to contract lockjaw. The practice shouldn't be condemned because unrealistic, but because actors must always be given something to do or be removed from our sight. Equally wrong-headed is the device of having one character ask another where they are "now" and being given an answer such as "in the train," or "sitting at home reading." It's another of the adaptor-director's contrivances that comes across less like theatrical sleight of hand than as a great big sore thumb. Pass over in silence the production's affection for stretching characters horizontal on the stage floor. However, it does seem rather unbecoming in people who, though bereft of furniture, are dressed to the nines in elaborate Edwardian attire.

Paris Jefferson's Anna aggravates these shortcomings. She will fall like a sack of potatoes into Anna the morphine addict, madwoman, and suicide. But that's easy. She muffs the tough, earlier transition of the "good" wife slowly losing her bearings. Often she just sits glazed over like the aged Elizabeth Taylor in one of her later, drunken TV interviews. Jefferson repeats her lines like a parrot never hitting the right notes of feeling. Edmundson has introduced a figure of death (Karl Sullivan) that keeps popping in and out with a gunnysack draped over his head. When Anna has been laid low by puerperal fever (she will recover to die another day) this character sits on the floor cradling her head as the mortally ill woman goes on chirping like a canary. Her cuckold husband (Bryan Murray), momentarily softening toward her, gets down on the floor too. Count Vronsky (Jonathan Forbes), her lover, sits nearby in a chair. Perhaps the fact that he's found a seat and holds his hand over his face means he's in another room or city or play. Perhaps not. Why didn't someone ask him, "Where are you now?"

This production makes one blush for the Gate. After all it's the theatre that Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir set up in the historic Georgian Rotunda on Parnell Street at the end of the 1920's and where a runaway Orson Welles holed up in his teens.


The School for Scandal, Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Director Jimmy Fay.

The programming of Sheridan's The School for Scandal at the Abbey, the prestigious National Theatre, also aims at the jovial holiday crowd. The Anglo-Irishman's masterpiece of 1777 is certainly full of fun. One of the greatest comedies ever written in English, it even shows traces of pantomime: conniving intrigue, assumed identity, a hypocrite to be uncovered, a good man to have his name cleared. It also boasts scenes of classic farce and commedia dell'arte brio. But what lifts it above all these genres are the author's bitter satirical wit and the elegant language in which he couched it. If you admire the epigrams of Oscar Wilde written a century later, you can see their prototypes, better integrated in theatrical form, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

It's too easy to forget that the censors challenged the political thrust of Sheridan's satire. In a few years after 1777, twenty-three editions of the play appeared in Dublin. Significantly, some of them contained publicity for Tom Paine's Common Sense and the American Declaration of Independence. Biographer Fintan O'Toole says of Sheridan, "In an era before political parties and mass movements, he tried to shake the world with language."

So what does a director like Jimmy Fay do with this precious heirloom? The absolute essential: He attends to pace and clarity. As befits farcical comedy, once over the doorstep the play moves swiftly but with just enough ballast to involve us in the story. And the action is clear despite the little mysteries to be revealed in due course.

Paced and clear, too, is the delivery of the lines. Were it not, Sheridan's verbal pearls would drag the narrative down like so many poseur's beaux mots. All the words reach us, as they must, since Sheridan, in the 18th century way didn't write for mumblers. Every syllable has its function and completes a meaning. The Abbey makes light of accents. The young hero Charles Surface (Rory Keenan) speaks like an Irishman. His brother, Joseph Surface, the villain (an excellent Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) speaks the Queen's English. This recalls the relationship between Dublin and London at the time. Sheridan's father, Irish by birth, acted and directed in Dublin while his son, also born in Ireland, plied his writer's trade and had his political career in England.

Scandal isn't a play that can be served by freewheeling inventiveness on a director's part. His prime task is rigor. Jimmy Fay does surprise us by the choreographic style he imposes on the liveried servants whom he presses into service as scene changers. He also gives us in Sir Benjamin Backbite (an unforgettable David Pearse) a viperfish 18th century Truman Capote whose every movement on stage is a joy to behold. Léonore Mc Donagh, who designed the stunning costumes, has as big a part in making these grotesques into individuals as the director. It's as if the tight theatrical mechanism that is School for Scandal shifts the burden of invention to the visual. Ferdia (a male) Murphy has created a memorable set, evoking the 18th century with the lightest of touches. By a simple opening and closing of panels, it conjures up a drawing room, a library, or an entrance lobby, without ever calling for the rise or fall of a curtain. Holiday fare or not, the Abbey's new School for Scandal -- their last was in 1973 -- is worthy of the storied institution. Its deftness and speed mirrors the panache of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published March 26, 2007