Tag Archives: Review

‘Art’ Old Vic Theatre

There is nothing more satisfying in theatre than a well-played pause, especially when it is painted in shades of grey and framed by calamitous comedy. In the Old Vic’s production of ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza and in translation by Christoper Hampton, this pause is caused by the controversial purchase of an entirely white – or is it? – painting by Serge (Rufus Sewell). The production is a series of erupting conversations between Serge and his two friends; Marc (Paul Ritter) and Yvan (Tim Key) who are less than thrilled by their friend’s impulse buy. What begins as a casual discussion over the nuances of “modern” art turns into a riotus row over the triptych’s friendship.

Yasmina Reza explores the complex truths hiding beneath the veneer of human friendship. Within the sparking monologues, duologues and final explosive dialogue between the three men, Reza traverses the changing tide of favour and the twitching betrayals through droll, unflinching humour. Her writing is brave and exploratory.

Warchus’s direction brutally propels the three men around the stage in constant, significant relation to each other. The white painting is invoked constantly throughout Mark Thompson’s design; a spartan “modernist” apartment, all white, with white square furniture reminding us of the infamous painting even when it is not onstage. The painting indeed feels like a character in itself and a times, rather ironically appears truly artistic as fractured silhouettes of the men are cast across it in Hugh Vanstone’s beautiful lighting plot. Notably, during these moments, all three are too absorbed in their own conversations to notice this. Often, the characters break from the scene and offer direct asides to the audience, the lights dimming and spotlighting them in a moody sunbeam from the stage right window. art-old-vic-73

Sewell shines as the berated buyer and strides the stage with the required swagger for Serge to function as Reza’s central protagonist. His performance boasts exquisite physicalisations and verbal dynamism. He presents Serge’s unconscious quest for Marc’s praise with delicate, masterful strokes. Meanwhile, Paul Ritter’s Marc maintains a disapproving determination in response to Serge’s praise of “modernism”. His herbal pill-popping is humorously handled. Between the two, their considering pauses speak loudest. Yvan brings a childlike and flustered incompetence to the group through Tim Key’s endearing performance. At one point, Key enters in hysterics and suffers a remarkable outburst, monologuing at a relentless pace for over three eye-watering minutes. I wept with a mixture of hilarity, disbelief and admiration. However, this outburst is the peak of Key’s performance. Yvan’s one-dimensionality does betray Key’s stand-up background.

The production is packed full of -high-quality comedy but also with sudden, surprising  moments of honesty. Warchus’s interpretation of male friendship gives us glimpses of the men in all their reluctant vulnerability to each other, as well as to their own expectations. It is an unflinching look at what lies behind the small untruths we tell in the name of friendship and how they can grow. It notes that friendship is not black and white, as there is no such thing as white; only shades of grey.

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Grate Britain

Thank god, I only paid a fiver, I thought, as I sat folding and unfolding my ticket with restless fingers. It was the interval of the Saturday matinee. I’d only been there an hour and a half but it felt like five, and the prospect of another seventy minutes of boorish writing and teapot acting made me want to grab my ice cream and get out of there as quickly as suede high heels would carry me. The posters had called it “laughter-making on an industrial scale”. “Raucously funny” they said in over-compensatingly HUGE, RED WRITING. Normally, when attending a National Theatre production, you can be reasonably well assured that even if its a bit dull, you’ll probably learn something useful along the way. Unfortunately not this time. This time I was proved wrong. 

Great Britain directed by Nicholas Hynter and starring Lucy Punch as That-Character-She-Always-Plays and a vast ensemble of other, undoubtedly talented actors  in vapid, cardboard roles was a bit of a car crash at the Haymarket last weekend. The play explores the tenacity and savageness of the media through the recent phone-hacking scandal. We follow Paige Britain, a career-driven journalist working at the imagined Free Press  and gunning for the position of sub-editor for the entirety of the performance, to no avail. An intentionally unlikeable character (I hope), played in an unpleasant comedy-sketch style, Punch sucks her teeth, twists her face, drops her hip and sashays in self-satsfsaction across the stage without a hint of remorse, development or humanising trait for the full two hours and forty-five minutes. If Hynter’s aim was to utterly alienate the audience from his protagonist, then he succeeded. This wouldn’t have been such a dangerous choice if there had been other redeemable characters in the play, but unfortunately everyone else on the stage was just as cartoon-drawn and boringly overdone, as well as over-acted. Even the typically useless Police Chief inspired no fondness or affection in me regardless of his constant, bumbling mistakes. In fact, they were more annoying than endearing as I assume they were meant. Indeed, the only memorable comedy came from a short video used during a scene change, intended as a YouTube remix of one of the chief’s unfortunate interviews into a song. Even this wore thin before it ended.

However, everyone else in that Satuday matinee seemed to find the play “raucously” funny as advertised. The original production at the National Theatre got rave reviews from everyone important. A strong part of my high-heeled and dissatisfied self wished that I could have seen Billie Piper in the role, to discover whether she was as obnoxiously off-putting as Punch in the role.

The set was fairly adaptable and appropriate, though nothing fantastic or exciting. The see-through flats used as glass-windows dividing offices became screens to show news bulletins and online videos during scene changes, but nothing really seemed innovative, exciting or ground-breaking about this performance. The aim was to show Britain’s problem with the press, and how lightly the phone-hacking crime was taken in the offices. I felt however, utterly vapid and ambivalent towards the entire narrative. I didn’t even hate them for doing it. Why? Possibly because I never saw the victims, never saw the lives that were destroyed, never saw the repercussions beyond a police raid of the Free Press offices to arrest a news team in disarray alongside an unconcerned Paige Britain. Yes, Great Britain is intended as a satirical play and meant to be a laugh, not something that’s in-depth and self-aggrandising. Even so, Hynter says “Great Britain has one big ambition; to make an audience laugh, to be uproariously funny” and leave with “something to think about”. Oh, dear.

Sorry Nicholas, but that’s actually two.

Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Teh Internet is Serious Business… don’t you know?

The Royal Court Theatre is world renowned for its showcasing of new writing and contemporary themes, and Tim Price’s Teh Internet is Serious Business is no exception. Running at the world-famous theatre until the 25th of this month, Hamish Pirie’s directorial debut with the Royal Court is a vivid and masterful retelling of the real-life hacking scandal of Anonymous and Lulzsec in 2011.

“On reading the script for the first time, it was clear than Tim had managed to concentrate the almost endless insanity of Anonymous into a real, tangible, thought-provoking piece of work” writes Jake Davis, one of the original members of Anonymous. Davis was integral to the writing of the play and was consulted throughout the process. With the production in its final week, he is a staunch supporter of Teh Internet as a “shocking, candid” portrayal of life online, and the inherent dangers and opportunities that the internet offers.

The play is “a fictional account which has been inspired by a true story”  telling the tale of the creation of Anonymous – a group of six hackers who managed to topple the online domains of the Church of Scientology, the Fox Corporation, MasterCard and Paypal to name a few. A potentially dry storyline, culminating in the trial and punishment of the members that were caught (five of six), and taking place almost exclusively online, the play is rescued from the realms of boredom by intrinsically clever production value and innovative portrayal of life online. Unlike Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, the actors do not simply sit at their computers, staring into the middle distance and conversing. Teh Internet achieves a much more dynamic and vibrant portrayal of the digital world. Instead of staying with the users, we are taken inside the internet with their avatars. Jake, whose name remains unchanged from his real-life counterpart Jake Davis, and Mustafa, are the two teenage boys that we follow into the internet. They converse with other anonymous users’ avatars, such as Kayla, a Japanese schoolgirl, who insists that she is indeed the rare and highly sought after female-online, and Tuxedo, a Star Fleet engineer. These characters interact directly in a set comprising of a grey box, split into squares, several of which turn out to be trap doors and hidden entrances. Likely representing the mechanics of the computer, the avatars move freely around the set like in a regular, naturalistic dialogue scene. Real life scenes are played on the periphery of the set, along scaffolding. Coding is expressed through interpretive dance, more and more performers joining as the code grows. Memes are personified by people in costumes, allowing Advice Dog and Socially Awkward Penguin to grace the stage on a regular basis, offering unhelpful interjections into conversation. The huge ballpit taking the place of the orchestra should also be mentioned I feel. Avatars such as the overly American Scientologist in a suit were rolled into the pit and quickly disappeared beneath the clamouring coloured balls, never to be seen again.

Physicalising a virtual world was never going to be easy, but director Hamish Pirie seems to have achieved it in a flurry of bright lights and animal costumes. The play is funny; it was always going to be with actors popping up from random, concealed trapdoors dressed as Rick Astley and singing Never Gonna Give You Up. However, beyond the comedic value of the utter absurdity and bizarreness of the production, there is humour as well in the dialogue. While there were a few stand-out performances, such as Lanre Malaolu as Mustafa’s gasping school friend in the Second Act, a lot of the acting performances were unfortunately obscured by the technical success. Neither of the main characters, Jake and Mustafa, were particularly relatable, making the larger-than-life avatars easier to gravitate towards. It’s possible that this was a directorial decision; making the fake internet more relatable than the real people, expressing one of the main problems with the digital world, however it does seem rather counter-intuitive to alienate your audience from the play’s protagonists.

TheaterAs3DMany could argue that these flamboyant production techniques are just fur coat for a play with no knickers, but Teh Internet offers a real message about the dangers as well as opportunities that the internet offers in this digital age. Shakespeare is wonderful and is a malleable study of human emotion, dynamic and interpretive, it offers a timeless insight into human emotion for any age. Price’s play offers the same insight into modern, digital and current issues with Teh Internet. For all the purists out there, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was radical in his day just as Price explores new methods of theatre in this one. There is an age-old hate of change in every generation since time began. The non-existent  “Golden Age” of theatre, as well as language, manners, finance and courting among many others has always been mourned. The expected and traditional is often considered superior to the new, even in art. While a ballpit may to some seem low-brow, perhaps if looked as a physical metaphor for the power the internet has to absorb people’s lives into an entirely virtual realm, it will begin to seem less gratuitous. Many would argue that Pirie’s production is using smoke and mirrors to make a dull play seem interesting to new audiences, but every creative decision has been carefully calculated and is intelligently representative of online life.

We are shown the internet in all its glory, all its memes and in-jokes, all its social networks and pop-ups. We are shown both a romanticised version of the internet, and a darker more sinister one. We see the impact that the internet has on the real world, and how the digital can seep into the physical with dire consequences. We are warned directly by Jake in an unexpected and riveting soliloquy near the end of the Second Act that the internet is a dangerous place that knows where you go, and when you there, what you eat and who you eat it with, because you tell it without thinking. It knows how much is in your bank account, and how awful you look in yellow. This warning is not hidden; its overt and undeniable, but the same tune sings subtextually throughout the play. When a member of Anonymous is revealed as who they really are, when an Online Security specialist rather ironically, musically and spectacularly loses everything because he uses the same password for everything. Price appears to be telling us that the internet is great; it empowers people, allows them to make friends internationally, makes the world a smaller place, but at the same time it encourages a casual, anonymous cruelty and knows everything about you and is impartial when it comes to selling your information.

A very modern problem is tackled in a very modern way with Teh Internet is Serious Business. If younger audiences find Shakespeare too long-winded, Beckett too slow and Osbourne too outdated, then this is the play they should go and see to challenge their perceptions of the theatre as a dying form. The true art of Teh Internet is to be found in the realisation that this multi-modal performance exists only on a physical level; there is not a single screen or projection used throughout the production. Everything on stage is as real and tangible as the story. If anything is to keep theatre alive, then its productions like this, tackling modern issues in a modern way. Innovation will out.