Thursday, 11 February 2010

A New Jerusalem containing Welshmen, Pacific Islanders and National Treasures

A bit of a gap since my last post, and I seem to be missing it much more than I thought I would. Self indulgent rambling seems to be quite addictive – who knew?

So, I have decided to pull up my socks, gird my loins, get into gear, pull myself together and get a grip, along with any other metaphorical whip cracking I can think of. More suggestions for clichéd motivational phrases very welcome.

Theatre trips over the last month or so have been a bit sparse, but with some brilliant moments so I thought I would use this post to bring us all up to speed.

This National Theatre production, adapted from the Terry Pratchett novel, was quite light, and a bit clichéd, but very enjoyable as a holiday treat. We had arranged an informal tour of the theatres beforehand, an experience which was strangely disorientating, although we absolutely loved standing on the middle of the stage and working out where we were sitting that night. Eating in the staff restaurant was also a bit weird – I’m not sure I can cope with my disbelief being suspended so far as to see the ‘islanders’ knocking back a burger and chips with double tomato sauce beforehand. It was also a bit strange seeing bits of the set, props and costumes being repaired before going on to stage later that evening, but I was both amazed and impressed to see the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep the magic in place at the front of the stage.

The Habit of Art
This latest Alan Bennett play, also at the National, was multi-layered, and excellent in all respects. Frances De La Tour was just perfect, as were Richard Griffith and the rest of the cast, teetering confidently on the edge between comedy and the bleak tragedy underneath. Although I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with The History Boys, I have found it lingering, in that I keep going back over bits of it, seeing it from new angles. It seemed to be an underlining of past work as far as Bennett is concerned, and suggests that perhaps he might be a bit tired of his previous incarnations. The references to The Tempest and Death in Venice certainly make me feel that he is consciously in ‘late works’ mode, and as a result (and perhaps a bit paradoxically) it has made me really interested to see what comes next for our slightly unwilling ‘national treasure’.

Rhod Gilbert and the cat that looked like Nicholas Lyndhurst
This has been touring since Edinburgh last year, so I am a bit late to the party on this one, but the new face of Wales finally arrived at The Anvil in Basingstoke last week. Rhod Gilbert is a master in apparently incoherent rage and this was the best comedy I have seen for some time. Seemingly unstructured angry ramblings, interspersed with confessional discussions with the audience, leading to a masterful dénouement which linked everything together so beautifully I laughed for joy at the neatness of it all.


Saving the best to last, I finally caught Jez Butterworth’s much praised play this week. With Mark Rylance in the lead role, I was upset to have missed it at the Royal Court last summer, so this West End transfer felt long overdue. This was all I could have wished for. A clever and angry but stormingly funny play, which puts all sorts of Englishness together in a jar, gives them all a good shake and then pulls them all out for minute inspection. We saw bits of Shakespeare and Shakespearian characters, green men and giants, morris dancing, unruly youths, colonels, publicans, prejudice, small mindedness, violence, heroism and bolshy bloodymindedness, all brought together to show the English ambivalence to their own history and sense of national identity.

The play is focused on Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, a charismatic, self-mythologising, drug dealing outsider, living in a scruffy caravan in countryside beside a new estate in a Wiltshire village. I wonder how much Jez Butterworth had this particular actor in mind when writing this play though, and whether it will survive new leading men.

Regular readers will probably already know how much I adore Mark Rylance, and this is perhaps his best performance ever, in a role which allowed him to bring aspects of his own back catalogue to add further depth to the character which toys with a range of stories about Englishness. Mark Rylance is regularly referred to as our greatest living theatrical actor and, although that is a huge claim, on this performance I think it is well deserved. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.