Tag Archives: Merle Hensel

“Under Milk Wood” at the National Theatre

Poetry on stage is never easy. And when Dylan Thomas’s text comes with the legacy of a famous reading (Richard Burton, no less) a new production becomes even trickier. Lyndsey Turner’s brave attempt benefits from a star draw and strong performances from a large cast, but struggles to deliver anything new or to please old fans.

The big idea is to start the play within a care home. Additional material is provided by Siân Owen. Our narrator (Michael Sheen) jogs the memory of his dementia-suffering father (Karl Johnson). Thomas’s themes of memory and mortality are clear. But this preface (how could it be considered anything else?) makes the show longer than needed. And an hour and three quarters without an interval and wearing a mask feels very long indeed.

Maybe you have the patience. But while the show feels lengthy, the delivery – undoubtedly impressive – is too often rushed. And this is not an easy text to follow. Turner, with the help of movement director Imogen Knight, has taken the challenge of bringing a ‘play for voices’ to the stage vigorously. The lives of those living in Milk Wood come and go with alarming speed.

It’s easy to enjoy the cast, who take on the roles of villagers as “one spring day” goes by. I’d single out Alan David as making me laugh the most, while Siân Phillips manages to convey different ages of characters quite magically. There are nice touches with minimal props and excellent costume changes (bravo, set and costume designer Merle Hensel). Emotional moments between father and son are highlighted by the issue of alcoholism, and the “always open” Sailors Arms pub is a vivid presence within the play.

Thomas was not nostalgic. You can imagine the temptation… all those simple lives in an easier past. There is charm and humour here but, admirably, Turner avoids rose tints. A call to observe the balance between seeing the best and worst sides of people has weight as a result.

Sheen can command a stage. And he sounds fantastic. But with a show this dark – literally – and often pin-drop-quiet, it’s all too easy to slip from the level of concentration he brings to the role. The “noise of the hush” is an exquisite phrase to describe the life of this community… the trouble is that I heard a snore above it more than once. This production is an achievement on the part of its cast. Unfortunately, it requires a feat of endurance for an audience.

Until 24 July 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“ear for eye” at the Royal Court

What debbie tucker green’s new piece about racism lacks in conventional dramatic terms, it makes up for with intricate, challenging argument. The didacticism here may deter some, although nobody could mistake its passion. It’s a useful skill – and an achievement to write with such heartfelt conviction and remain so satisfyingly articulate.

It helps to be prepared for ear for eye. The event is in three parts, followed by a brief and haunting epilogue. The opening design has art gallery written all over it, with Merle Hensel’s set reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s Blind Light. But don’t worry, as things become clearer. The direction, also by tucker green, is disingenuously sparse, with a rehearsal room vibe – there’s work to be done and this is a team up to the job.

First up is a collection of short scenes: tales of violence and protest that provide some brilliant monologues for Angela Wynter, Michelle Greenidge and Kayla Meikle. It’s pure poetry as we cover generations and criss-cross the Atlantic. The detail is rich, but the stories are without specifics – a quite magical move that is occasionally frustrating. While it increases empathy for the characters, when it comes to some stories and when considering potential differences between the USA and UK, instinct cries out for more facts. But tucker green is insistent.

Cue part two, which has two academics debating a high-school massacre, with a twist (which the audience has to fill in many a blank for) of startling originality. There are superb performances here from Lashana Lynch, who becomes a picture of frustration before our eyes, and Demetri Goritsas as a patronising expert cagily ignoring the question of race. It’s a bit of a shame that tucker green sets up such a straw man with this character, even if he is brilliantly awful – I can’t curl my toes and concentrate at the same time (maybe tucker green has had more practice at this?).

Lashana Lynch

The third part of ear for eye is a film, with tucker green showing yet another set of skills. A cast of Caucasian men, women and children read out historic laws from America and Jamaica that relate to segregation and the treatment of slaves. There’s the novelty of mixing theatre with film in this way, and the triptych display of the film itself, a piece of cinema with a strangely static quality, is chilling even before considering its subject matter. Carefully using another’s words to complete her argument is a bold move for a writer, but it masterfully closes her case.

ear for eye needs patience, as complicated arguments require time. We are taken from body language to legal discourse, from the personal to the political and, while this is dizzyingly expansive, tucker green’s point is surely to show the connection between then and now: how the words on film affect the lives of the characters on stage. Her glorious text is all about tenses, as past, present and future are mixed from one sentence to the next, but it can be disorientating. History is collapsed as our contemporaries recite those awful laws and claim a living legacy for racism that is such an important part of contemporary debate.

Until 24 November 2018

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Stephen Cummiskey

“a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)”

AT THE ROYAL COURT


The subject matter for debbie tucker green’s new play may be romantic love, but there’s very little in it. Five brilliant actors play three couples, and the audience becomes privy to (mostly) their arguments. It could be dull, but is transformed by an ability with language that’s phenomenal. More like a poem than a play, its remarkably recognisable everyday voices are combined with startling musicality.


Language isn’t the first thing that strikes us, though. Working with designer Merle Hensel, the seating consists of swivel stools in the centre of the space, with a raised stage on three sides. Performers draw on green floor-to-ceiling chalkboards. Any connection between their scrawls and communication isn’t elaborated. A more immediate connotation is a tennis match, as words start to fly and feelings that should be left unsaid are spoken out loud.


The majority of the play is spent with a young couple, called A and B, with back and forth scenes of tension in their disintegrating relationship, blissfully interspaced with glimpses of joy and sensuality. With such variety in emotions, actors Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Lashana Lynch deserve the highest acclaim. Fights, trivial and important, as the post-mortem of their marriage is picked over, have a disturbing rawness. The inventive structure moves perspectives, continually searching the past and examining lost potential.


There are two further scenes, showing an older couple, Woman and Man, played by Meera Syal and Gary Beadle, then Man’s new relationship with Younger Woman, played by Shvorne Marks. The acting is again superb, but these stories feel truncated, the characters less fleshed out and parallels forced. Giving them so little time is one of the smaller puzzles here – so many questions are raised that the play will not satisfy all audience tastes.


The annoying lower-case title alludes to defining something. One way of doing that is to remove specifics, making the dialogues a questioning of Form (no escaping a capital letter here). tucker green certainly provides few particulars. But a warning – trying to work out ‘what’s going on’ is ingrained, and having so little to work with can be frustrating in a play. The trick instead might be to focus on the theme of communication. The characters are said to either talk too much or too little. And their ‘look’ – a fruitfully theatrical element brought to the fore with the author working as director, aided by such a strong cast – shows there is more to a conversation than words. Aiming for a definition on love inevitably falls short. But the attempt at elucidation here still has many pleasures.


Until 1 April 2017


www.royalcourttheatre.com


Photo by Stephen Cummiskey