To give Tony Kushner’s play its full title – The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures – is to sell it short. This is a history of left-wing politics and activism in the US that sweeps across the whole of the 20th century. And it’s also a family drama of parodic contemporary complexity that turns into a meditation on death. Thanks for the abbreviation, but it’s “iHo, iHo and off to work we go” with such a dauntingly demanding piece.
It can be hard to connect with characters taking abstract ideals so seriously, but Kushner makes Communist Party member Gus convincing, and asks us to question why the values he has lived by might feel alien. A kind of leftist Willy Loman, Gus is a superb role in which David Calder excels. The declaration that he is soon to take his own life sends his family into a spin and adds mounting emotion to the text. Dividing the house among his children, each of whom make King Lear’s kids look positively benign, brings secrets out of the woodwork, adding further tension.
Gus’s sons Pill (Richard Clothier) and Vito (Lex Shrapnel) are joined by Tamsin Greig, who plays his daughter. She’s the favoured child, heir to all that theory, and, as the play grows, her increasing concern with mortality sees her performance gain in strength. Along the way the sibling dynamics provide a lot of humour. I-Ho is very funny. The younger generation’s complex personal lives (let’s just mention Pill’s affair with a prostitute, confirming Kushner’s obsession with commodification) and their academic partners provide a lot of laughs, with outrageous narcissism and jargon-laden chat. I’ve a theory they’re all imprisoned by identity politics: a trend that’s ripe for exploration.
The part of Aunt Clio provides such a blast for Sara Kestelman that it’s a real highlight. Once a nun, then a Maoist and now moving on to Christian Science, she’s described as addicted to the “metaphysical crack pipe”. With characters like her it’s hard not to love the play. But a warning is needed: nothing about i-Ho is easy. More than one scene has the large cast talking over one another. It’s masterfully handled by director Michael Boyd but proved too much for some audience members. It feels as if Kushner is cramming more than one play into the night. Each of the three acts here would have been satisfying. Cumulatively, by the end of three hours, if you managed to keep up you definitely deserve a certificate.
Until 26 November 2016
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Nowadays, productions of As You Like It are often sensitive to the political content of the play. Duke Frederick is a tyrant, after all, and the Forest of Arden a liminal space where all kinds of conventions are negotiated. Michael Boyd’s production at The Roundhouse takes on board and enforces these ideas. The strength of his vision results in an As You Like It that is as startling as it is entertaining.
It’s snowing in this Forest of Arden. This arcadia is populated by the dispossessed. Heading up a fugitive court with an edge of desperation about it, the exiled Duke Ferdinand (Clarence Smith) has a harrowed look and Jaques’ melancholy makes a lot of sense. Boyd directs his cast towards a deadpan delivery that modern comic sensibilities will appreciate. With Forbes Masson’s Tim Minchin-inspired Jaques this really pays off. Masson’s is a terrific performance – direct, deep and very funny.
Boyd’s treatment is both realistic and high pitched. The court seems an almost gothic place. The best wrestling scene I have ever witnessed is a bloody match between Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Charles (David Carr), who look more like cage fighters than gentlemen at sport. And vegetarians might wish to linger at the bar after the interval in order to miss a rabbit being skinned on stage.
Spring comes to Tom Piper’s minimal design, as his wall of squares opens up to allow shoots of greenery. Not just the auditorium, but also the whole of the Roundhouse is bedecked with Orlando’s verses. It’s an idea the RSC is expanding on with its Adelaide Road project: commissioning the poet Aoife Mannix to conduct writing workshops around the stories of Camden residents, and a promenade on the 14 May along the street that connects The Roundhouse with the RSC’s other London home, The Hampstead Theatre.
Back in Boyd’s forest, things become increasingly enchanting. There is always an edge to this Arden: the dreams and fantastic beasts are frightening, Sophie Russell’s Audrey is hilarious but a little cruel and Richard King’s Touchstone plays too close to the edge for comfort. Yet what romance the play contains bursts out and the real joy of the evening is Katy Stephens’ Rosalind. Hers is a star turn that makes the whole play revolve around her character. Rosalind’s intelligence is combined with a giddy energy in an enormously physical performance that is not to be missed.
As You Like It plays in rep until 5 February 2011
Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Written 18 January 2011 for The London Magazine