Tag Archives: Tamara Lawrance

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.


A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.


Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.


As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.


Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.


Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Twelfth Night” from NTLive

As another example of its diversity, this week’s offering from the National Theatre is Shakespeare. The interesting idea driving Simon Godwin’s production, which dates from 2017, could also be said to be diversity – challenging this most famous of gender-swapping comedies by openly acknowledging LGBTQ identities and gay marriage. The results of such a contemporary spin are mixed, but a strong cast makes the show solid.

To illustrate Godwin’s conceit, take Oliver Chris’s excellent Duke, who falls for Viola when he thinks she is a he. You expect jokes from the confusion, often pretty childish ones, but such laughs are held back. It’s a credit to Chris’s comic skills that the role is still funny. Likewise, Antonio’s feelings for Viola’s twin, Sebastian, are openly romantic… I remember that at school this was only coyly suggested.

A more eye-catching example of Godwin’s transformations comes with his star casting of Tamsin Greig and the turning of Malvolio into Malvolia. The female steward’s open adoration for her mistress Olivia (a role Phoebe Fox does very well with) doesn’t bat any eyelids. Nor is it a source of schoolboy fun. Of course, it shouldn’t be either. The joke for Shakespeare was one of status anyway, but note – this is a gag that Godwin ignores.

As with Chris, it’s down to Greig to still be funny and that she is – very. She gives a brilliant performance it is hard to praise enough, getting laughs with every line, working the audience to perfection. A nod to Mrs Danvers from Rebecca is genius. And there’s more. Grieg and Godwin don’t let us forget the religion in the play. Also, they tackle the character becoming “common recreation” exceptionally well. Let’s face it, the practical joke played on Malvolio/a ain’t funny. Greig makes sure the character retains some dignity and there’s a hard edge to her promise of revenge that is welcome.

Greig makes this Twelfth Night worth watching and it is clearly a work with intelligence behind it. Unfortunately, lots of ideas seem motivated by trying to make the show modern – and none of these are things we haven’t seen before. There’s a car on stage, a hospital monitor, a nightclub and a hot tub, while the Duke has a personal trainer and a birthday party. To all of this you can say, why not? But you can also say, why? Along with an ugly set from Soutra Gilmour, which highlights that both she and Godwin have used the auditorium poorly, and some inane music from Dan Jackson, the production does not equal its cast.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre credit Marc Brenner
Tim Mcmullan, Doon Mackichan and Daniel Rigby

What of the play’s supposed heroes, the shipwreck-separated siblings, Viola and Sebastian? Amongst a good number of comics – Tim McMullan, Daniel Rigby and Doon Mackichan all need to be added here – the twins are, ahem, reduced to straight men. Both characters are only acted upon, robbed of agency, which you could argue is fair enough. But it’s only strong performances from Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra that stop the characters from being boring and introduce any emotion into this interesting but inert production.

Available until Wednesday 29 April 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Tell-Tale Heart” at the National Theatre

As one of the original so-called ‘in-yer-face’ dramatists, a loose group known for their aggressive writing, horror seems an appropriate genre for Anthony Neilson to explore. Here, comedy, crime and suspense are all added to a Gothic tale that is also about the theatre; making a crazy mix that plays with plays and travels from shock to schlock. One part is genuinely sickening, which is an achievement… of sorts.

Inspiration comes from the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, helpfully reprinted in the programme, about a senseless murder followed by a guilt-ridden confession. The update is to have a playwright rather than a madman, and a landlady with a large prosthetic eye that’s genuinely freaky.

Since we know the plot, Neilson’s direction deserves full credit for adding tension: maybe he’s an ‘edge-of-yer-seat’ writer now? The story’s claustrophobic setting is conveyed by Francis O’Connor’s design and the narrator’s acute, indeed hallucinatory, sense of hearing has led to strong work from composer and sound designer Nick Powell: in this story of the eye, the ears have it.

For many, success will come with the show’s comedy, even if it is the quantity rather than quality of jokes that impresses. The Tell-Tale Heart is tasteless, there’s a lot of – literally – toilet humour. And crudity, of course, although a joke about oral sex with a hipster is inspired. The comedy is always well delivered. Tamara Lawrance and Imogen Doel are excellent as, respectively, the contemporary playwright Celeste and her oddball landlady Nora. Meanwhile, David Carlyle is brilliant as two incarnations of a police man; one in the version of events that’s been turned into a play.

David Carlyle and Tamara Lawrance

So, clearly, the play is self-consciously clever, such as getting us to laugh at physical deformity, then reminding us that’s not very nice. And depicting Celeste, harshly, as an easily recognisable virtue warrior who turns out to be a psychopath. Back to that programme, and an excellent essay by Greg Buzwell, who proposes that the gothic genre “mutates” to show us contemporary fears. What might Neilson be revealing? Some people are worried that artists should be exemplary people. It’s a current debate, but a little dull. Making jokes about how “writers writing” is boring doesn’t make the play’s focus on just that any more interesting. On a broader level, are we all worried about not being quite so civilised as we would wish – or is demanded of us?

Raising these questions seems a small payoff for the elaborate games played here. All in all, there’s a little too much genre being juggled. And final twists in the tale (there’s more than one) prove a tad lame. It’s a shame, since The Tell-Tale Heart, beneath trying too hard, is pumping good fun.

Until 8 January 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan