What's in a name?

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London, United Kingdom
I speak, I listen, I read, I write, I act, I play, I debate, I discuss, I fool, I smile and I sulk.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Parting is such sweet sorrow

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax.
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings."

This is the end of An Actor's Journal as we know it. In fact, this is the end of my blogging project as I know it. I never say never, but for now I've decided to draw a definite line under everything. Considering I haven't written anything for nearly three months, this probably comes as no surprise, but I thought it fair to at least say a proper goodbye.

There aren't many reasons for this. I simply haven't the time, energy, authority or inclination to maintain a blog about acting or being an actor. Many experienced and successful directors and practitioners from Konstantin Stanislavsky and Bertolt Brecht to Declan Donnellan and Mike Alfreds have stressed that acting by its very nature is a process of doing first and foremost. Anything else - be that writing, discussing, eulogising etc - is just circumambulation or, as one of my teachers at drama school may endearingly put it, "bollocks". Over the past ten months I have been inspired, exhausted, terrified, relaxed, confirmed and sensitised to the fact that I have a very long way to go before I have enough experience or insight to even consider acting, let alone writing about it for a readership. Who do I think I am! My primary concern right now should be the process of acting and not any results, reception or reflection which may spring from it. I see that so clearly, now, that it's a wonder I had the gall to assume a blog on it in the first place.

Another fairly obvious reason is that, because of my training, I can't fully focus on both the day-to-day experience of training and the activity of recording it for posterity. As the saying goes, one cannot be a slave for two masters, and I know where my true allegiance lies. I enjoy the training so much I often feel too overwhelemed at the end of the week to even keep a comprehensive record of my own notes, let alone condense, edit and reshape them for a wider audience. There is a reason why training can often seem so elusive and private. That is because it is. Beyond the basic craft of vocal and physical ability to sustain a performance, the essence of acting exists outside of both objectivity and the capabilities of language. The experience is so much more profound, that I envy those who can even remotely describe it as recognisable to others. I'm not describing some form of magic, either. Try and accurately describe love, fear, grief, rage, or any other stong and deep emotion and you face the same problem. Drama, the theatre, acting, whatever you want to call it, is borne out of those emotions and includes an uncanny bond between the actors and audience. The effort of writing about this phenomenon is simply too great for my pretty little head.

Finally - and this is a question I ought to have asked myself long ago - who gives a damn? The majority of readers of this blog were kind enough to continue after an earlier blog I wrote. How many of these people actually want to read this stuff? It's a bit of a niche market, and though we all watch plays, films or television, few of us care enough to talk about it in detail. Those who have the spirit and the knowledge do a better job than I do, so why step on their toes? I'm not trying to be humble, I just know that I cannot devote as much time to this kind of work as many others do. My heart isn't really in the blog, though my enthusiasm for the work at school and future career has only increased.

So there you have it. I'm too lazy to maintain a blog, and not enough people I know necessarily need to read my opinions or even care about such matters. The only respectable option was to make a dignified exit. It has been fun, though, and I'm very grateful to all and any who stumbled across these pages and found something useful to take with them. As I've already said, I can't claim to never return; but for the forseeable future this is, as they say, it.

Thank you and goodbye!

Saturday, 30 April 2011

An Actor's Journal

Sweet are the uses of adversity

Something very strange has happened over the past four months. Although I shudder at the mere mention of the word, the only way to describe how I’ve been feeling is by saying that I’m incredibly happy. That’s right; I have almost nothing to complain about in my life right now.

Not that everything is perfect: I’m still crushingly poor, my home situation is far from ideal, and I have an administrative backlog as large and as difficult to overcome as the national deficit. However, this all pales into insignificance when I consider the positives.

First, as clichéd as it may seem, I’m alive and in good health. Nothing really matters above that. It’s all very well making a million pounds, but if you’re too tired, ill, or stressed to enjoy it, what’s the point? Second, I had a fantastic second term at Drama School, and have recently begun what promises to be an even better third term. Third, I have been slowly carrying out my New Year’s sort-of-Resolution. Finally, I have been making better connections with old and new friends and colleagues; all culminating in creating a happier, more self-assured and less worrisome me. The results have been clear to those around me, too: I’ve been told on various occasions how much happier, better-looking and more grounded I seem. Who am I to complain?

It’s all connected, of course. I think the fact that I made a very conscious decision to take more responsibility for my life has seeped into my way of dealing with the expected and extraordinary issues I face. The returns have been generous. After completing two rehearsal projects at school, I have been given very positive feedback. This is not to say that there isn’t plenty to work on, and goodness knows I’m more aware than ever of how much further I need to go, but the challenge is to work on what I need to work on, and go as far as I can go. One hopes this will be a lifelong career, and recent figures suggest I have an average of fifty years to continue improving and learning. Why waste the time I have now by not focusing exclusively on myself and the areas in which I could push myself?

The most important ingredient to my contentment cake is that I have finally remembered just how much fun I’m having. Acting is a strange job: we deal with raw human emotion and face the issues which dog our species on a daily basis. Despite this, one needn’t feel eternally anguished or despairing. With tears must come laughter, and the only way to treat the job is with a commitment to joy, pleasure and fun. The line between comedy and tragedy is so thin it’s almost indistinguishable. Shakespeare, Chekhov and many others knew this, and I would wager that it’s probably hardwired into our DNA to find and extract the positive from the negative. Drama School is such an intense little bubble which takes up so much energy that one could be forgiven for becoming ever so slightly engrossed in one’s own life. Nonetheless, the bubble is transparent and of one’s own making. You get what you put in, and you must always focus on the bigger picture. No-one is forced to go (indeed, every student auditioned to be offered a place) and it is a training for a career, so if you really do hate it the door is not locked. If ever I slip into a negative stream of thought I remind myself of this and that I have the power to make my experience a happy one. I always honour my natural emotions – I would never force myself to feign “happiness” – but there is a difference between feeling something and wallowing unnecessarily in it. I know I have a tendency to wallow, so I’d like to know if I can wallow in a bit of excitement, joy and pleasure for a while.

All a bit boring and self-help, this time around, I’m afraid; but if you came looking for bitterness and resentment, you arrived too early. I have 60 years to bitch and moan. Come back then.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

As You Like It, II.1

Sunday, 24 April 2011

In Their Own Words

I don't really like productions in which the audience is told what to think and what to feel. It's very difficult not to be tempted to direct their feelings - but all you've got to do is direct their attention - to say "look at this". I think that's what audience participation is. They are the editors, they are the judges. It's not like a movie where everything is decided. The audience can look where they want. That is why it's important that wherever they look, there should be extremely detailed life.

All I have to do as an actor is believe in what I'm saying at the moment I say it. I have to make decisions. Am I pretending? Am I lying? Do I really believe it? Do I feel it? How important is it that I get the other person to understand what I'm saying? Are they likely to? All those things. It's not up to me whether the character would have been better off if he had or hadn't said that. It's not up to me to say: is he foolish to say that? He just does say it.

Sir Ian McKellen, British Actor, born 1939

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Magic Space

Making Something out of Nothing: Actors and the Audience

Theatre is an ancient art; it has existed in various forms in every culture across the globe. It is part of what makes us human, and as with many other elements of human existence it is very difficult to define. One simple yet by no means complete way could be to describe it as the experience of one group of people watching another group inhabiting a space out of which Something is created from Nothing. Often very recognisable stories are played out and – as many have noted through the ages – a mirror is held up to nature. Theatre shows us as we are and what we think we know, albeit in a heightened and often abstracted manner. To have the desire to stand in a space and discover what constitutes the core of humanity certainly requires a huge amount of confidence and bravery, but the space is still empty; rarely will an actor truly know what will happen when he steps across that silver thread and into a world created solely through the imaginative process.

During the first year of my training, classes go back to basics, as it were, by simply looking at what one of my teachers calls the strands which make up the carpet; the elements which make up our understanding of Theatre. Each week we explore first what an empty space is or can be. Then how it can be defined by an actor through technical application, such as the use of the actor’s voice and body, and how space between more than one actor can “read” to a viewer. This enables us to create a variety of worlds. One can travel from deserts and plains to mountaintops and cliff faces. One can be awaiting a boat at a harbour or scouring a forest for signs of life; lost at sea to being cramped in a small prison cell; all through simply being in the space. One can be prince or thief; god or mortal; human or animal. We can tell fairy tales and invent dreams. There is no need of costume other than our neutral items of clothing; nor any use of props or miming objects. It isn’t even necessary to use recognisable language. Communication works primarily through sharing space, and the Theatre is all about this.

Eventually, we were permitted to experiment with a prop, but the prop could only be used in a way other than that which it appeared to be made for. For instance, a boot would become a games console; a scarf could become iron chains; a wicker basket could become an oversized phallus.

“Why bother with this?” one may ask. “What has it really to do with the theatre or acting?” It is true that one can feel lost at first, but once you clear away all previous associations with your own perceptions of theatre and get used to the power of experimentation will the answers come. What is acting if not make-believe? Watching someone use a shoe as a toothbrush and recognising it as a toothbrush is infinitely more interesting than watching someone just brush their teeth. Seeing someone lost on a raft when sat on a bare stage can be more compelling than footage of the same thing happening. Watching people transform into monstrous creatures behind someone’s back is more frightening than any CGI animation. Why: because the audience are invited to imagine all of this along with the actors. They need to recognise the toothbrush, the sea and the monsters through their imagination. They can’t and won’t do it if the actor decides not to share, and who can blame an audience for not responding to an actor who refuses to play with them? No-one will pay to watch a bunch of people enjoying themselves for their own sake.

We are all imaginative creatures, but most of us have chosen lives which insist we use our imagination practically. This is honourable and the actor should have total respect for such a life. It is an actor’s job, however, to use his or her imagination to share with those who are sat watching. Just as a mechanic will be excited to explain the workings of an engine to you if you are really interested, an actor ought to relish the prospect of sharing his mind, his body, and his soul with those who have taken the time and energy – as well as spent the money – to be interested in what you have to offer. They expect something from nothing, and they are absolutely right to do so. The Theatre is a Magic Space.

Further Reading: The Empty Space, Peter Brook (Penguin)

Monday, 14 March 2011

I'll Be Back

Plenty of updates are coming soon...
Just give me some time.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Film Review: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech, (Dir. Tom Hooper; Screenplay David Seidler; Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter)

This film will win Oscars. It is a British film about a British man who happens to be the second in line to the British throne. When unexpectedly cast into that throne, he must fulfil his role as symbolic figurehead of the nation, and when war is announced his must be the voice that reassures his peoples that this is the right course of action. There’s only one snag: he has a speech impediment so detrimental that it has the potential to destroy his confidence and self-worth. He sees an unconventional speech therapist, a retired Australian actor, who works hard to break through the stuffy and awkward exterior to get to the warm, family-loving, dutiful man beneath.

It is a British film with an almost entirely British cast holding a large amount of transatlantic respect and several awards and nominations among them. There is an Oscar-winning actor in the cast: the only non-Brit who plays his own nationality subtly and confidently in a film which touches on the end-of-empire attitude to its colonies. It is a British film telling a true story set in a period within living memory, yet long enough ago to have developed its own clichés. It is a British film which has clearly been given a budget equal to its scope and has invested every penny of that budget on ensuring high production values. It is a British film which British people, Americans and members of other nationalities will adore. It is a British film which has already received a large amount of critical praise. It is a British film which has taken millions of pounds at the Box Office in its first weekend. This film will win Oscars.

And yet...I left the cinema feeling unchanged. I enjoyed what I saw; I thought the acting was superb, the script excellently written, the shots beautiful and the soundtrack effective. And yet...I left the cinema feeling empty.

I’ve been wondering why I cared so little for the film despite having enjoyed watching it so much, and the answer came to me a few hours before writing this. I don’t like romanticism or sentimentality, and The King’s Speech slotted right into that bracket. I’m also not much of a fan of the Royal Family, and while not an anarchist yearning for the Republic, neither am I keen to see an institution which has symbolised a strict class, social, political and economic elitism for centuries be presented as a comfortable establishment with no consequence beyond being nice to look at. Perhaps I’m being unfair. There were moments of unexpected fun, danger, irony and even hints towards the deeper issues relating to the very specific case of the British Royalty of the last few generations. However, those moments were too few and far between for my liking, and I think that’s what it all came down to in the end. On the other hand, that wasn’t what the film was about, and so for me it was simply comfortable viewing.

Having said that, I ought to highlight what I did like. As I said, the acting was superb. Colin Firth skilfully towed the line between magisterial gravitas and inner desperation as George VI. You’d have to ask one of my voice teachers if the stuttering was technically accurate, but as an audience member I found it neither distracting nor pitiful and Firth clearly achieved the mark of making the characteristic an adjunct to the character. For me, though, Geoffrey Rush was the best thing about it. I could watch him do anything and find him compelling. Here, he gave Lionel Logue a mischievous quality which served to equalise both the actor and the character’s status in the film. Really, the relationship portrayed develops through Logue correcting not only George’s speech but also his soul. The link between the latter’s impediments and his fear of the situation in which he finds himself is a tried and tested “better yourself” device made all the more poignant and encouraging by it being the struggle of an unlikely monarch. What Rush does so well is to convince us that the philosophy of speech equals soul is not only that of his character but belongs to all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. When Logue deliberately enrages the King while rehearsing for his coronation, he asks: “Why should I listen to you?” to which George responds furiously “Because I have a voice!” Not a head was in disagreement with Logue as he smiled and calmly agreed: “Yes, you do.” Of course, that is also a mark of a good screenplay, but for me, watching Firth and Rush develop the two men’s relationship was the most interesting aspect of the entire film.

Likewise, the rest of the supporting cast are fun to watch. Bonham-Carter provides a likeable and approachable Queen Elizabeth (a far cry from the “nation’s grandmother” image with which she became associated for so long), while Timothy Spall (a suitably jowelly Churchill), Michael Gambon (stifling and stoic George V), Guy Pearce (the profligate Edward VIII), and Jennifer Ehle (lovable Mrs Logue) are all effortlessly good. I cannot think of any particular reason for casting Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury beyond being a blatant nod to his legendary portrayal of that other famous stammering emperor, Claudius, but perhaps I’m being cruel again, since his performance is every bit as enjoyable as I’d expected it to be.

In reality, the film was great; it’s the subject matter which really wasn’t my cup of tea. My personal taste counts for very little in the long run. What does it matter? This film will win Oscars.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Turning Point

In the first week of Drama School we were asked to think about a particular experience of watching a film or play which made us realise that we wanted to act, or which made us more aware of our desire. The piece could be about any point in our lives, but the only stipulation was that we were watching the work and not acting in it ourselves. It didn’t take me long to think of my Turning Point, and I thought I’d share it with you in a slightly edited version.

While I was studying for my GCSEs, I would bunk off from PE class on Thursday morning to go to the National Theatre at 7am and queue for day seats. It was the only opportunity for me to go to the theatre and see a play. I could never afford the advertised prices and no one in my family was remotely interested in culture or the arts to encourage me. At school, I had already built up a reputation of being someone with “talent” insofar as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy could be, and although this was a useful tool to prevent being bullied, I was still lonely and had few close friends. I hated PE because I was never any good at sports, and was just generally a lazy person. So I would bunk off the classes and found that going to the theatre had a double reward of getting out of school and having something to look forward to in the evening.

On one of these occasions, I queued for Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, with the intention of taking a friend. I had never heard of McDonagh before, or of any of his plays. All I knew about this one was that it was new writing and the short description written in the season brochure: “a fiction writer living in a police state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories, and their similarities to a number of bizarre child murders occurring in his town.” I was also intrigued by the cast: Jim Broadbent, David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. I knew of the former two actors, but I was most interested in seeing something which had had very little prior exposure. For me at that time new writing was an adventure, an experiment with less certainty and far more risk; like a safer and more exciting form of gambling. On this occasion, the bet paid off.

The play was an incredible experience. For two hours, I completely forgot about myself and was sucked into the world of the play. The production was stunning both visually and conceptually, the text seemed flawless, and the performances from each member of the cast were superb. In later years, I would be proud to boast of having seen and known of David Tennant’s talent long before the majority of the country knew him in Doctor Who. At times the play was a mystery thriller; at times a comedy; at times it was meta-theatrical; and at times it was intensely tragic. I recently described the experience as feeling as though a large hand had burst from the stage and grabbed me by the neck, dragging me from one emotional experience to another. The play dealt with some extremely dark themes and ideas, but it was done in such a way as to make me feel both safe and sickened at the same time. I had never before had a viewing experience like it.

Ever since my first visit to the theatre, I knew I wanted to be a stage actor. There was never any question of doing anything else. At times, however, I found it difficult to see the theatre as anything other than a place to escape the mundanity of normal life, an extra-curricular pursuit which some people were lucky or enterprising enough to make money from. I never saw it as a real, living, organic and dangerous place which had the ability to really capture people. I had never been made conscious of its impact before seeing The Pillowman. It was a turning point not simply for intensifying my desire to act, but it also made me aware of how dark the human experience could be and to recognise that every aspect of our existence could be used for theatrical exploration. I began to see the world very differently. It may sound odd in words, but after watching the play I felt more conscious of being alive. Over the years I’ve come to believe that life is theatre and that theatre is the expression of human experience. In hindsight, I think that going to watch this play was the seeding of this belief.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

An Actor's Journal

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action"

This is a bit of a milestone post, folks. Not only have I finally returned to the blogosphere, but it’s a New Year, there is a New Look for the blog itself, and its writer is undergoing some serious changes.

Of course, the most monumental difference between now and the last time I wrote one of these posts is that I’ve finally begun my professional acting training. To say that it is a challenge would be more than an understatement. Nor would it be an overstatement to say that my life has begun a process of serious change, and I have learnt more about myself in a few months than I have in twenty-three years of existence. As well as this, my understanding of the theatre has been knocked sideways, and although I never had the audacity to believe I knew a great deal, I am now certain that there is a long way to go with how theatre and acting works, and that my body and imagination can stretch so much further than I had previously thought possible. Because of this, I’ve decided one major goal for myself. I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions anymore, but I have always believed in having something to aim for, and I know now that my main aim for 2011 can be condensed into three words: remove the clutter.

When I say “clutter” I mean habits and learnt modes of behaviour which have led to emotional, psychological and therefore artistic block. It’s a terminology borrowed from one of the acting teachers at my school and I believe it to be the cause of my particular blocks. The way I’ve led my life so far, with its ups, downs and sideways jerks, has been both a result of and a contribution to the complications in my life. I’ve always gone from one extreme to another, and although the nature of my upbringing and history has been a major influence, I’ve merely substituted one nonsense with another. Materially I’ve been surrounded by junk, and I’ve begun to pick up the habit by collecting possessions without learning the virtue of a tidy and simple non-materialistic lifestyle. Emotionally, I’ve had to hide, pretend, suppress and subdue; not just in terms of my sexuality but also in my relationships with other people. Or I’ve overcompensated by being short-tempered, intensely and possibly overbearingly passionate, moody and highly excitable. I recently did one of those online personality surveys which of course are on the whole a load of rubbish, but amongst the rubbish was a phrase which really struck a chord. It said that I gave the outward impression of a “mercurial personality”. How appropriate a word to describe me! I’m emotionally mercurial, ever fluid and changeable to the point of being completely uncontainable. In terms of an approach to the art of acting, this is quite attractive, but Drama School has already taught me that I’m nowhere near that stage yet. Although I don’t lead a double life, I’m still being somewhat duplicitous with people. I like to give the impression that I’m a strong person, impenetrable, and not susceptible to emotional damage despite (and maybe even because of) what I’ve been through. Well, that’s simply bollocks. I’m a human being, and of course I’ll feel vulnerable or weak at times. I need to achieve a sense of technical, emotional and imaginative stability and security within myself before attempting to go wild with the characters I play. Indeed, I’ll never really be able to act freely with a sense of safety without learning how to touch base with myself. Once I release all of my own tensions, the fun will follow.

Constantin Stanislavski,
Influential Theatre Practitioner
On our first day, we were asked to give very brief answers to four questions: 1) Who am I? 2) Where am I from? 3) What has brought me here? 4) What do I want to achieve? After everyone had spoken a little bit, we were reminded that these were four questions we always needed to ask when approaching a character as a living being within the world he/she/it inhabits. Well, I am a living being in a world inhabited by 6.5 billion other humans and billions of other specimens of other life! Where is the difference between myself and a character beyond the fact of the latter being fictional? A lot of drama from throughout the world and history is about people/characters who stumble through life with physical and emotional tensions, picking up baggage along the way, until they are forced to confront themselves and others, and in some cases the entire structure of the world in which they live. If that isn’t life as we know it, then I don’t know what is. Having had the Christmas and New Year break to reflect back on the first term has made me realise this and that my job as an actor is come to a better understanding of myself in order to understand the character. How on earth could I possibly fully inhabit another character when I do not really fully inhabit my own? I think this might be the key to improving as an actor, and as a person; but I can’t really achieve this until I remove the clutter which leads to block!

I can’t blame it all on external influences since all I’ve done is run away, first to Brighton and then Madrid, creating my own spaces to life a fabricated “free life”. That was all very well and good when I didn’t need to face the reality of my life in London, but now that I’ve had to return and I can’t live independently I find I’m confronted with my own attitudes to myself and my work. I don’t respect myself or how fortunate I have been. A girl in my class recently said something which hasn’t stopped resonating with me: everything which has happened to you in the past, good or bad, pleasant or otherwise, has led you to the here and now. I’ve extended that to understand that if you are in a good place, recognise that not only good or pleasant things have led you here, and that hard lessons will have been learnt. Similarly, if you are not currently happy, then it’s only temporary; but you have to be the one to realise that and use what you can learn from this time to lead you to a better future.

Well, now I’ve said it, it’s time I begin doing it. It’s time to take genuine responsibility for myself and my relationships with others. It’s time to actively learn to manage my time, energy and my money. It’s time to prove to myself and those around me that I can be a strong, independent and capable person. This all sounds a little bit self-help, but why not? One of the harsh realities of life is that you can’t always rely on everyone else to help you, although you shouldn’t be too proud to refuse any assistance offered. It’s a delicate balance between self-motivation and willpower, and willingness to be vulnerable at times and accept guidance. It’s probably the hardest lesson which I’ve only just begun, but at least I’m beginning the journey.

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so."
[Hamlet II.ii]

Monday, 3 January 2011

In Their Own Words

It was at the [Liverpool Everyman Theatre] in the late Sixties and early Seventies that I realised there was a logic to being an actor. That it wasn't just farting about. The policy at that time was to do things that were only to do with the community in which it was based. So if you were doing King Lear, or whatever, you'd do it in such a way that it was relative to a building site in Liverpool. I followed the miners' strike; I followed the Guildford Four. After reading Gerry Conlon's book I wanted to do the film [In the Name of the Father, with Daniel Day-Lewis] so much that I went to the interview completely in character as Giuseppe and stayed in character all the way through the interview - Belfast accent, old suit from a thrift shop...

I like playing characters that are complex, that are intriguing, that come from leftfield, that do things that are unexpected. I don't like people who just follow one line and that's it – that's why I could never be in a sitcom, I don't think. They're not intriguing enough for me.

Pete Postlethwaite, British Actor, 1946-2011
Read his obituary in The Guardian here

Sunday, 2 January 2011

I Have Been Watching...

If you thought the mammoth post below was long, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the past few months I’ve barely had any time to read, yet I managed to squeeze that lot in. Most of the time, when not actually rehearsing my own projects, I was at the theatre . So, in the spirit of declaration there now follows a list of art which I have ingested since June of this year.

Welcome to Thebes, Olivier (National Theatre, London), 18/06/10
I was so excited about seeing a play on the Olivier stage after having spent two years away from the National. I was even more excited to learn that this play was to have a predominantly black cast and deal with current political issues in Africa through the not-so-oblique allegory of the Theban tragedies. Unfortunately, the play turned out to be little more than a confused rehash of familiar themes and ideas while seemingly being a vehicle for the National Theatre to cash in on the large amount of pays on in the summer with black and ethnic minority actors in the cast. There were some wonderfully watchable performances by Nikki Amuka-Bird, Chuk Iwuji and David Harewood, but I spent most of the time picking up references only someone with a large amount of knowledge about Greek mythology would get; a cruel irony, considering that most of the audience, comprised of young black people who may or may not frequently visit the theatre, did not get it.

Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s Globe, London 21/06/10
I’d never been to watch a play at the Globe before an opportunity arose to see this production. This is not one of the oft-performed plays, either, so the experience was doubly enriching. Mark Rosenblatt’s production was clever and funny, mixing the pageantry of the play with the darkly political atmospheres surrounding both the events within the play and those surrounding its writing. We are reminded that this is a play written soon after Elizabeth I’s death, and is therefore tailored towards being nostalgic propaganda for the Tudors. However, the machinations of Cardinal Wolsey, played to wobbly-jowled perfection by Ian McNeice are not forgotten, and the characters’ duplicity is cleverly delineated by the inclusion of corridors running along the periphery of the thrust stage as a means of highlighting the differences between the public and private spaces. The cast were brilliant, and the whole production was very enjoyable.

The White Guard, Lyttleton (National Theatre, London), 07/07/10
After the disappointment of Women Beware Women and Welcome to Thebes, this adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel was a very welcome relief. The only word I can think of to describe the production is “superb”: superb acting, superb direction, superb lighting and superb technical changes. Special mention has to go to Justine Mitchell, Pip carter, Kevin Doyle, Conleth Hill, and Paul Higgins. For me, this will go down with The Pillowman, The House of Bernarda Alba, and Adrian Lester’s Henry V as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at the National Theatre.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 08/07/10 – 05/09/10
Of the four Shakespeare productions I saw on stage this year, Dominic Dromgoole’s production was without doubt the finest and my favourite. I’ve long been a fan of Allam’s since seeing him in David Harrower’s Blackbird, a few years ago, and my adoration of him has been cemented by taking on Falstaff (a role he was seemingly born to play) and performing it with aplomb. Allam has such presence, the entire audience lights up whenever he is on stage. Of course, he wasn’t the only good thing in it, but he certainly is owed the most amount of praise for this one.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Young Vic, 19/07/10
This play is yet another Martin McDonagh work for which I have nothing but adoration. His gift for the lyricism and rhythm of the rural Irish dialect is unparalleled. In this, the first London revival of the play since its original run in 1996, we are presented with Maureen and her over possessive mother, played finely by Susan Lynch and Rosaleen Linehan, respectively. The main space at The Young Vic is a joy for staging, too, as the use of acetate lining the walls of the auditorium and streaming what was taken to be rainwater down the outside made the audience a part of the physical world of the play. The attention to detail was so gratifying that it was a little disappointing to spot a few moments when the believability was stretched and even broken. One actor in particular seemed to be working on a different beat to the rest of the cast, but the performances were on the whole very enjoyable.

Blood and Gifts, Lyttleton (National Theatre, London), 27/09/10
Political theatre isn’t all Brechtian alienation and verbatim council-flat moaning, y’know. It is possible to set a bog-standard drama in the middle of a particularly relevant political conflict, as J.T Rogers has done with this new piece. Diplomats, politicians, military and religious leaders all juggle their public and private responsibilities in an arena as enchanting and dangerous as Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. What is most refreshing to watch is the lack of prejudice: there are no good or bad guys, only people reacting according to their personal and political principles. The play presents us with a fresh look at the contemporary history of a fragile state, while examining international relations in a manner which includes rather than alienates the audience. Fast-paced, witty and engaging, this play proved that with a great script, political theatre can successfuly marry education and entertainment.

Hamlet, Olivier (National Theatre, London), 06/10/10
As Derek Jacobi once said, there are as many Hamlets as there are actors to play him: the role - and by extension, the entire play - is as universal and as versatile as they come. Rory Kinnear really had nothing to worry about. Nicholas Hytner’s production has been a commercial and critical success, and the production can pat itself on the back for making the text so clear and accessible, as well as highlighting the political tensions bubbling throughout the play. Though not yet the best version I’ve ever seen at my ridiculously young age, and despite a few weak links in the cast, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show.

Blue/Orange, Arcola Theatre, London, 02/11/10
The question we must always ask ourselves is “Why?” Why revive Joe Penhall’s play about race, mental health and the NHS which left one review in a state of “white hot excitement”? Why convert the cast from an all-male one to an all-female one? Not that the idea wasn’t novel. Having only read the play and taken one monologue as part of my audition portfolio I was certainly keen to see a production of the play, and even more so when reading the twist. However, while watching I couldn’t help noticing just how masculine the language is. Most of the time it wasn’t that prominent, but the scenes of conflict left me feeling more estranged. By the end of the performance, I doubt I was any wiser as to the motives behind the decision to provide an all-female production, but it was gratifying to watch, in any case.

Tribes, Royal Court, London, 06/11/10
After about five minutes, I was prepared to hate this play. Lights up on an average white middle-class privileged family having an argument around the dinner table. So far so Polly Stenham. Yawn: pass the balsamic vinegar and f*@k off. The possibility for cliché and contrivance is so high with these scenarios that the mere suggestion of characters’ guilt, angst or frustration immediately sends me to Sardonic Central Station. However, I was about to be confronted with my own prejudices about what makes for good theatre, as the play was by no means a rehash of same old, same old. The eldest son, Billy, is deaf, and the play became more about him and his experiences as he embarks on a relationship with a woman who was born hearing to a deaf family, and is rapidly losing her own hearing. The play dealt with sense of self, attitudes toward disability and the implications of that all-too-vague term “community”. Though the ending was somewhat easily-resolved, the play raised some interesting questions and left me keen not to judge a play by its poster too much in future.

King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, London, 02/12/10
Snow; Donmar Warehouse; Shakespeare; and Derek Jacobi: and all for free! Christmas certainly came early when I had the opportunity to watch this production’s dress rehearsal the night before previews opened. Unsurprisingly, the only sense of it being a dress rehearsal was the fact that only the circle seating was available for watching it, and the occasional sound of the press photographer snapping away drawing the attention away from the action on stage. Naturally, the majority of the cast was excellent, and composed of well-known performers giving measured and vivid turns. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell were brilliant as Goneril and Regan, Ron Cook gave a captivating Fool, and Jacobi was superb as Lear. Grandage has done a brilliant job of one of the “great tragedies”, and I would urge anyone to see his production, running until February at the Donmar, then on touring the UK and finishing in Broadway in July. See it if you can!

The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic, London, 20/12/10
I really do love the main space of the Young Vic. It has an amazing ability to seem very intimate despite its fairly large size. Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play, set in and around the cramped Chicago apartment inhabited by the Wingfield family, looks fantastically intricate in this space, and the two levels of the stage are used very inventively. Deborah Findlay and Sinead Matthews were particularly noteworthy as Amanda, the faded former-Southern Belle-turned abandoned housewife, and Laura, her mildly disabled and extremely shy daughter, the owner of the eponymous collection. Joe Hill-Gibbons follows this year’s earlier success, The Beauty-Queen of Leenane, with a less biting, more bittersweet production which doesn’t fail to draw the parallels between Williams and his protagonist, Tom, played with suitably expressive irritation by Leo Bill. Although not perhaps the most interesting of Williams’ plays, it still stands up as a classic exemplar of his writing, as well as being a part-insight into the writer’s own personal anxieties.

So, that was my theatregoing in the second half of 2010. Mostly highs, a few disappointing lows, and a whole lot of learning and observation along the way. Here's to 2011's theatrical output!
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