My unfinished doctoral thesis is on “James Joyce and his characters in non-Joycean fictions”: occurrences of Joyce, Leopold Bloom or whoever in works by subsequent writers. My argument was that this in itself constituted a kind of critical statement about the original author and his work. I was told that I was barking up the wrong critical tree – Stoppard’s Travesties perhaps, but Rejoyce, the Jefferson Airplane’s alleged four-minute distillation of the entirety of Ulysses? Hmmm.
Nevertheless, I’ve kept half an eye on the field, and when Michael Hastings
described Calico, his play about the Joyce family and Samuel Beckett,
as “critical fiction”, I thought that if ever a piece of work had my name
on it, this would be that piece.
After seeing the play, I appreciate the flaw in my thesis. There’s a critical component in the selection of material, to be sure, but it may not always bring much that’s fresh to the table. Hastings knows his stuff, but he also knows that Joyce studies are constrained by the overly protective policy of literary guardian Stephen Joyce. He knows what he can and can’t say, what he does and doesn’t want to offer, in his portrait of the mental disturbance of Joyce’s daughter Lucia. He knows that he wants to be critical as well as dramatic. And he can’t help but fall amid all these numerous stools. Twenty years on, he fails to duplicate the feat he pulled off with Tom And Viv, and apart from a fine stage début from Romola Garai as Lucia, Ed Hall’s production doesn’t counteract the absence of spark in the play. As for the character of Beckett, let’s just say that Sam’s tendency to self-effacement was accurately portrayed.
Beckett’s own Endgame is notable, I think, for the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Unlike Ian Herbert at the back of this issue, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee Evans gets an award nomination or two for his performance as Clov, which plays to Evans’ own physical strengths while also revealing his too often neglected darker side, and Liz Smith has clearly spent the last thirty or so years ageing into the role of Nell. But Michael Gambon has been given rather an easy ride in reviews. Yes, great theatrical knight, let us luxuriate in his presence, yadda yadda… but that’s really all we’re being asked to do. If there is majesty onstage, it’s not the threadbare imperium of Hamm. Evans does a better northside Dublin accent than Gambon, which given the latter’s Dublin heritage suggests that not all the stops are being pulled out. I don’t want to say his performance is lazy, but it’s on the complacent side. Perhaps, too, this is due to the direction of Matthew Warchus, who’s excellent on exteriors but doesn’t always get under characters’ skins.
That depth of involvement is often crucial to docu-dramas, and is something that Alecky Blythe and her cast achieve compellingly in Come Out Eli. You might assume that having your cast wear earphones and MiniDisc players would distance their performances – think of all those Walkmans and iPods of people blocking out their actual aural environments, all that mobile-phone chatter by folk unwilling to talk to people who are here now. In the event, though, it has the opposite effect. Since the cast recite their lines not from a memorised script but from the recordings played in their ears, they reproduce normal speech patterns and cadences with an accuracy seldom heard onstage. Of course, here too the process of editing interviews down has a critical element to it. Peter Preston, in a Guardian think-piece (consequently not reprinted here) about a number of docu-dramas, reckons that Blythe’s edited portrait of the Hackney community disrupted by the Graham Road siege of Christmas 2002 is overly shapely, too tailored to a pleasing dramatic form, and consequently squanders the sense of reality gained in the manner of delivery. I don’t agree: any stage representation is going to be mediated in this way, and Blythe and her Recorded Delivery company do so no more than any other.
To see how gritty realism can be equally unsatisfying, Preston might go to Ladybird at the Royal Court. As I’ve said before, I’d prefer to avoid wherever possible talking in Prompt Corner about shows where my reviews appear elsewhere in the magazine, but I seem to be in the minority on Ladybird, so I wanted briefly to say that I still think I’m right in believing it isn’t that much cop at all.
Seeing the strings
Lennie James, a little earlier in the Court’s other space, struck an agreeably less extreme register in The Sons Of Charlie Paora. In a way, though, he ultimately fell prey to the same pitfalls as Hastings. This British actor, writing his first play, had clearly taken on board all sorts of knowledge about New Zealand culture, white, Maori and islander; he had created complex characters and back-stories, not least for the significant absence onstage, the deceased teacher Charlie, whose family and protégés are mourning him; and James’s acting experience gives him a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s just that the mix isn’t quite smooth yet. There’s a difference between feeling a playwright’s craft, as it seeps through the writing and performance, and seeing it, which is akin to seeing the strings in an episode of Thunderbirds: it doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does obtrude. But it’s a small step, and I think James can make it easily.
Nadim Sawalha doesn’t really try in All I Want Is A British Passport! His solo portrait of Mohammed Fayed is relentlessly engaging, with the various accusations against him being represented only in straw-man form so that Fayed can dispose of them. His malapropisms are deployed to charm us; his exaggerations, likewise, are endearing rather than suggestive of downright mendacity. It’s hard to shake the sense of whitewash; I don’t know to what extent Fayed himself was involved in the production (Sawalha notes that he took tea with the Pharaoh at Harrods), but it certainly won’t do his public image any harm, which in itself I tend to find suspicious.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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