PROMPT CORNER 01-02/2006
Nights At The Circus / Beautiful Thing / Amato Saltone / O Go My Man /
Monsieur Ibrahim And The Flowers Of The Qur'an / The Andersen Project / Sejanus
Various venues
January, 2006

Ah, another January, another New Year resolution lying in tatters by month’s end.  Nothing to do with living more healthily… well, not in any of those ways.  I resolved that I would not go to the theatre at weekends.  And, it has to be said, this determination that weekends should be my own (except when they’re devoted to getting this magazine ready for press) did last almost the entire month.  Right until my schedule meant that I could only get to see Nights At The Circus if I went on the Saturday.

Scalpel job

More fool me… is what you might expect me to say at this point if you’ve already read certain of that show’s reviews.  But I don’t join with the most fervent complainants.  A brief sanctimonious smirk at my FT boss Alastair Macaulay: on the isolated occasions when he does leave a show before the end, he is always entirely candid in print about having done so, and also suggests to the editorial staff that they print the review only if it’s considered necessary for reasons of importance or space, but I still feel that sticking it out until the end is one of the basic rules: you don’t stay, you don’t write.  (Falling asleep during the proceedings, now, that’s a lesser misdemeanour – there’s always the chance that something might happen to rouse you… and of course leaving during the “encores” of musicals doesn’t count… etc… etc ad self-justifying nauseam.)  To an extent it is a matter of how one negotiates one’s relationship with the job.  I can still remember a forensic dissection of a comedy show that I read some 20 years ago in a student magazine: “I have two confessions to make,” the reviewer began.  “Firstly, I’ve never really been fond of this kind of sketch comedy…”  He went on to detail precisely how purgatorial the show was, finally noting, “At the end of one sketch the performer, letting his truculence show through, said to the audience, ‘All right, then, don’t laugh.’  I didn’t.  I left.  That’s the second confession.”  End of review.  (For the record, I was neither the reviewer nor the performer in question, though I may have been the commissioning editor.)

That’s the kind of gleeful, detailed scalpel job that Charles Spencer performed in his Telegraph piece, literally enumerating the various modish clichés that the production indulges in.  I rather think that Charlie’s and Alastair’s ire was more than the production was worth.  I noted one or two conventions for myself (e.g. if you’re doing a play which involves aerialism, you have to cast Gísli Örn Garđarsson so he can train the rest of the company), but for the most part I simply felt underwhelmed by it.  It felt as if one flavour of individuality – Angela Carter’s fantastical vision – had been replaced by another – Kneehigh’s characteristic, quirky staging – without the two meshing properly to any extent.  Eliciting a response of “ho hum” is one of the gravest disservices one can do to Carter, but I couldn’t get vehement about it.  (The Oberver carried a useful overview, no doubt available online, by Susannah Clapp, who is Carter’s literary executrix; not a review as such, though, so not reprinted in this issue.)


I seem to be doing more than my share of ho-humming these days, though.  In the course of these four weeks, I notched up so-so verdicts on four or five other shows as well.  For instance, I was much less keen than any of our republished reviewers on Beautiful Thing.  It’s amazing that Jonathan Harvey's breakthrough play hadn’t been staged professionally in London in over a decade.  I feel as if I’ve seen a regional or student production every couple of years in the interim; it’s such an appealing box-office prospect – a feelgood play about teenage gay awakening, with a perkiness and sentiment that prevent it from alienating any but the most censorious of straights – that its neglect even on the fringe is a mystery.  But time has lessened its impact. The comedic lippiness that is the play's primary mode of operation is now a clear pre-echo of Harvey's TV sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme (the kind of television work that gives ammunition to theatre snobs); the pop-culture references to the likes of East 17 and Bob's Full House, which then drew laughter of familiarity, now elicit chuckles of nostalgia-camp.

The play's fulcrum is at the end of the first act: 15-year-old Jamie shares his bed with classmate and neighbour Ste who is taking refuge from a drunken, violent father, and the two fumblingly acknowledge their feelings for each other.  Done properly, the combination of awkwardness and emotional suspense is exquisite. In Toby Frow's production, Andrew Garfield and Gavin Brocker as Jamie and Ste made all the right moves, but there was a tentative element to their physicality which prevented me from giving my own heart to them as intended.  Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt in me – certainly, the audience response was more than warm – but I never felt that anything was really at stake here.  Without a sense of danger or risk, the contrasting joy was also diminished, and what remained was a cosy pat on the back rather than an exultant punch in the air.


As regards Amato Saltone, too, I simply can’t untangle my ambivalent responses to the work of Shunt.  They work like Trojans to interrogate and dismantle the conventional demarcation of performers presenting work to a seated, immobile, passive audience.  This piece begins with the audience milling awkwardly around a supposed swingers' party; after some scenes in blackout, we are split into separate groups and taken to see quite independent scenes, before being reunited in a traverse arrangement where we watch not just what is happening onstage, but also the opposite bank of spectators.  And yet the company does still rely on their audience being essentially docile, participating (individually or as a whole) only to the extent and in the places necessary.  It seems a bit bogus.  (Perhaps my response in this respect is informed by the fact that my body doesn’t fold very well, so that when the lights went out and we were told to sit on the floor where we were, I couldn’t, nor could I navigate in near-darkness to a spot where I wasn’t blocking people’s dim view; nor do I take kindly to having my trousers all but pulled to my ankles by an understandably snippy punter behind me in the vain hope that the rest of me would follow them southwards.)

Shunt are clearly brimful of ideas, but seldom seem when putting a show together to settle in advance on what it is they want to say.  A piece's meaning need not be neatly trimmed and tied up with pink ribbons, but conversely I’ve seen enough student and post-student wackiness to hold firmly that any inclination towards the cop-out of "It means whatever you want it to mean" should be subject to swingeing on-the-spot fines.  And while I’m impressed by Michael Billington’s interpretation of the piece, I think it consists far more of Michael than of Shunt.  It also sounds exciting that a show can evolve to the point where what is performed now is all but unrecognisable from the version which began previewing in mid-October, but there’s also a commercial aspect to consider.  Having postponed the official press night since November (14 weeks of previews – to the best of my and the other Ian’s knowledge, this is a London record), they have nevertheless been performing work in the interim which they knew they were not satisfied with, and charging spectators the full price of £20 a head for the privilege of seeing them weed out flawed notions.  A number of voices have proclaimed Shunt's approach to be one of the futures of theatre.  I hope not.  Something very close, yes, but not quite this.

Halfway there

When I reviewed Duck on the Edinburgh Fringe two or three years ago, I said something to the effect that Stella Feehily had a great facility for writing people and dialogue, and that she would be a really exciting playwright when she found something she wanted to say.  I think that O Go My Man confirms that view by getting halfway there.  Feehily wanted, I believe, to write about personal relationships and their limitations, and how the personal, social, political and even global-moral can reflect on each other on often quite tawdry ways, with one dimension being used as a surrogate for another.  But she couldn’t find her way to any conclusions, and retreated into whimsy: the finale of the entire cast singing Neil Young’s "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is scabrously sarcastic, but to no real identifiable end – it’s there not to make a point, but precisely to be a finale. Ho, stop me if you’ve heard this before, hum.

I’m afraid Monsieur Ibrahim And The Flowers Of The Qur’an struck me as an example of a particular Gallic kind of sentimentality that’s evident in work from Amélie to, in its way, Art.  As such, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s play didn’t even engage me deeply enough for me to become exercised about its glibness.  (Like Momo in the play, however, from my little exposure to it I do commend Sufic dervish whirling as a meditation technique.)  And it embarrasses me to say so, but even The Andersen Project left me less than transported.  Robert Lepage is, to be sure, a magician, an alchemist, a mighty conjuror of the theatre, and – with an uninterrupted 125-minute piece – also someone who has no truck with the maxim “Always leave them wanting more.”  To my chagrin, I never got to see The Far Side Of The Moon, and so this was my first visit to solo Lepage in a decade, since his Elsinore, which was very much skewed in favour of presentation over content.  I didn’t feel much of a deeper undertow to The Andersen Project either, although on reflection I think this is far more likely my fault than that of the piece.  I think perhaps that at the core of this as of much of his work, Lepage nurtures an empathic sense of our universally common humanity rather akin to that in Peter Brook’s work.  And I’m aware that my response to a number of Brook presentations has been that I have been briefly touched but not truly moved – that I’ve appreciated its spiritual core intellectually rather than emotionally.  That’s the kind of paradoxical reaction that prevents a work from… well, from working.  And that’s the kind of almost-but-not-quite-feeling I had after The Andersen Project.

Grim glories

At long last in this column, some praise, for the RSC’s staging of Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, which I have longed to see in performance ever since reading it as a student; surely as despairing as any of the grim glories of King Lear is the tolling black bell of Arruntius’s monosyllabic declaration that “all hope is crime”.  And Gregory Doran made its plot followable even through the labyrinth of Latin nobles’ names.  During the interval, a colleague asked me, “Who was that Germanicus whose funeral we saw at the beginning?”  I proceeded to explain, as far as I could remember from the television dramatisation of I, Claudius (in which Sejanus had been played by Patrick Stewart with hair!).  A few minutes later, I had to seek out my comrade and tell him, firstly that I’d mixed up Germanicus with another prematurely dead member of the Caesar clan, but secondly that everything I’d said about the other fellow still applied to Germanicus anyway.  It’s that kind of cyclical history.  I also owe an apology to William Houston.  When I reviewed one of the other plays in the Gunpowder season, Believe What You Will, in Stratford last year, I criticised Houston for “seem[ing] pointedly to introduce Americanisms into his pronunciation”; I now realise that I had in fact been misjudging what were simple lapses in this Irish actor’s English accent.  Such a mistake by a compatriot like myself is doubly embarrassing, and I hang my head in shame.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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