Microcosm by Matt Hartley (Soho Theatre Upstairs 8/5/14) + resources for new writing

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I made a decision a few months ago that I would aim to spend the majority of my theatregoing time seeing new plays. Over the last year I found myself becoming less and less interested in going to the theatre and realised it was due to the lack of interesting options. Most of what I saw out there were revivals and safe (ish) bets. I have found that if you are not actively looking for new work, perusing websites, signing up to every theatre email list imaginable, it’s not easy to know when something new is on. Recently a comedy act called Red Bastard started following me on Twitter, which was surprising as I’m not really drawn to the comedy world. I tried to figure out why he was following me and remembered the word Soho on his profile description. I thought he must be performing at Soho Theatre and went to the Soho website to try and figure out who this person was. Once on the site I saw Microcosm. What initially drew me to it was Philip McGinley, an acquaintance, then I read the description and thought it sounded interesting, so I booked.

Out of curiosity, I looked  into who was producing it and tried to keep up with what was being said about it online. There’s always something exciting about seeing something brand new, from a writer you are not familiar with. When going to the theatre I always hope to see a story that will either entertain, provide insight or perspective, challenge or move me. Any of these will do, any combination is even better. I always go in with no preconceived notions, how could there be any? You know nothing but what is stated on the marketing copy and the image they choose to represent the production. I have alot of respect for the producers outside of the main new work centres who take a chance. I like to believe it’s a passion they have for the play or the writer and I’ve known this to be the rule rather than the exception. I know they always hope to make a little money out of it but most are lucky if they just break even. It’s financially risky to produce new works for the stage.

Resource, or lack of,  is a huge contributor to why there aren’t more new works being presented. In London, there are two main players in the new writing game that automatically spring to mind – The Royal Court and Bush Theatre and to an extent I think we can add the National and Hampstead Theatres. Of course, there are numerous small theatres out there who present new work on a regular basis but I wonder if they are held in as high regard as those I mentioned (I think Theatre503 comes out as highest of these). When a theatre devoted to new writing is held in high regard this is usually due to trust and track record. But it’s not only their choices that make them what they are but also their resources. When attending performances at these theatres one can assume that by the time the play has made it in front of a paying audience that a great deal of time and money has gone into it’s development. One can be assured that the end product is of the highest quality possible.

Microcosm, at Soho Theatre Upstairs, doesn’t fall into any of these categories. It is, by all accounts, what happens quite often, a play with the greatest intention that requires more resources. Here’s how the whole resource thing works. One, two, possibly three independent producers, on their own, champion a new piece of writing. It is their sole responsibility to ensure they raise enough funds to cover all costs associated with putting it on stage, and those costs get stretched beyond belief. There are the actors fees, the lighting designer fee, set designer fee, director fee, writer fee, costumes, rehearsal space (which will mean additional payouts to actors), stage management fee, publicity and marketing cost for implementation and the fees to those who do it, you get the picture. Finally there’s the cost for the space on which to perform it.

Soho Theatre’s remit was new writing once. That was many years ago. The focus now seems to be mainly cabaret and comedy. From Microcosm’s flyer, I noticed Soho Theatre wasn’t listed as a producer so I am assuming that the space has been rented by the producers. There are numerous ways a producers work with venues such as Soho Theatre. It could be as a co-production where the theatre has a financial investment in the work be it through purely financial means or a like-for-like exchange such as the use of a room at no additional cost, or a discount on rental fees etc. Another option is that the producers just use the space as an independent entity in which also means the producers would be responsible for all costs. As this production is presented under the Soho Theatre banner, I assume the theatre has found the piece worthy of association, which also gives the production access to Soho’s audience (a great help when you have no audiences of your own to access).

Why do I bring all this up? To hopefully allow those reading this a little insight into what it costs to put on new work. I started going through all this in my head after seeing Microcosm on the evening before their press night. It was only their second performance with the press night being their third and for me it showed. There was something about the performance that felt as if it hadn’t been given the time needed in rehearsal or in previews to really come together, for the actors to gel and any issue with the storytelling or dialogue to be worked on.

The story of Microcosm is a simple one, Alex, who has just moved into a new flat with his partner Claire , begrudgely forms a relationship with an eccentric neighbour Philip and as a result of an incident involving a local youth, becomes increasingly paranoid about retaliation and his obsession starts to alienate him from everyone including himself.  Here is the marketing copy: “Alex has a flat. His home. He’s building a life with Clare. Nothing can derail his happiness, not even their Tom Cruise obsessed neighbour, who is always coming round. He just wishes those kids would stop hanging round outside his house. But they’re kids, with nothing to do. They’re not dangerous, right?“. This is familiar territory we’ve seen in films, plays and probably more often on the news which makes either a new insight into the situation or a keen observation of paranoia and retribution all the more important, but unfortunately, this time no new ground is explored. I will even go as far as saying it doesn’t go as far as others have gone.

Over the plays ninety or so minutes, various topics pop up but never go any further never explored as if there was a fear of committing to a point of view. The big question is what is in danger of being lost? If it’s property (i.e. the new flat or the car) then there hasn’t been enough invested in the meaning or the preciousness of the flat. If it’s physical harm, then there isn’t a sense of anyone other than Alex being in danger. What about his wife? How much does he want to protect her? If it’s Alex’s own mental state then why is this particular situation, at this particular time, enough to drive him to paranoia? Nothing other than the incidentals are revealed. It could be the author was interested in purely looking at how obsession and paranoia affects people, however if this was the case it didn’t go far enough.

Everyone was fine – Philip McGinley as Alex keeps everything on track as each threat ups the ante, John Lightbody as Philip captures the neighbour’s eccentric behaviour well and Jenny Rainsford  as Clare does her best with a very limited amount to work with. What I did struggle with was the Derek Bond’s direction. One of the challenges of this piece is that it all takes place within one flat and much of Alex’s increasing paranoia is a result of what happens outside the window. There is a clever use of plexiglass walls (set by James Perkins) behind which hooded figures menacingly appear to enhance the threat. However, having characters often looking out of a window could mean they are often performing with their backs to the audience as is the case here.

All in all I felt the production needed more time to explore what it was about and more time for the actors and director to utilise the text to bring the audience into their world. But don’t let that put you off. If it sounds even remotely interesting for whatever reason, give it a go and make up your own mind.I discussed the play directly after seeing it for about twenty minutes with a friend. It was interesting that although we were both in agreement that it didn’t work as well as we hoped, one of us got more out of it than the other.

As with all art, success or failure is purely subjective. I do feel however that with more resource, more time and more support from theatregoers, more producers would be willing to take more financial risks. Like Microcosm, we’re not there yet. How do we get there? I’ve been thinking about that.

 

Microcosm

7 – 25 May 2014

Soho Theatre 

Strange Interlude (National Theatre 24/06/13)

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Strange indeed…and the strangeness started before I even took my seat.

I really don’t know what happened here. I am usually really careful about the seats I choose as well as ensuring I arrive , in my seat, with plenty of time to spare before curtain. With visits to the National Theatre, I occasionally overcompensate by leaving earlier that necessary, thinking it will take longer to arrive from work than it usually does. This time was no different. I arrived, at Waterloo Station at about twenty to seven so I went to the market to buy some cigarettes (yes, bad habit, oh well) then sauntered over to the theatre hoping to take up as much time as possible. While collecting my programme at the kiosk, I was told that I should hurry as the show was about to start. Quick look at the ticket and what do you know, curtain was 7pm, not the customary 7:30pm. Not sure how I missed this one.

I quickly walked to the Lyttleton Theatre door and was informed I had to wait for the latecomers point, about 12 minutes in, basically the first scene. Myself and a few others stood watching a TV screen (with sound) which was showing the performance so we could catch up. It’s a good thing as there is a major stage device that would have thrown me if I had not been gently lowered in, also,  the first scene is all about exposition, so necessary to understand what was to follow but more on that in a moment. At the appropriate time we were ushered into the back of the Lyttleton which was a new experience as I always get the Travelex £12 seats in the front rows. In fact, for this performance I was in Row A so as you can imagine the thought of passing in front of the stage to take my seat, even during a scene change, filled me with dread.

As we huddled at the back, I struggled to adjust my eyes to the darkness but managed to notice the usher was pointing two of my late cohorts to the empty back rows. I thought I might just have to sit there until interval to avoid embarrassment so I asked  permission to sit there as well. The real problem was my eyes had yet to adjust and in my haste to get to a seat I failed to notice a folded wheelchair leaning against the back wall, which, I ran into causing it to tumble and crash to the floor, during the scene change. Needless to say there were quite a few head snapping glances of disgust in my direction. Why do I bring this up? Well, as I was pretty much the only person in the back row I had loads of space which was great (especially for a 3 hour 10 minute show) and also, I didn’t move to the front after the interval as I found the back row absolutely perfect. Who would have thought? Plus, they never checked my ticket so in reality, if I had known the performance wasn’t sold out, and I had a ticket from another National production, I could have just rocked up late  and plopped myself in the back rows of the Lyttleton, for free! (Don’t try this at home kids)

Back to the show. In a way I was glad to get introduced to the performance by watching the first scene on camera as it allowed me to get used to the main device Eugene O’Neill uses for Strange Interlude – direct asides to the audience. Not just a few times, but multiple times, in every scene. These asides are sometimes comments on something that just happened or ponderings of their immediate situation or the larger picture which were often in conflict to what they said in the scene. They are sometimes funny and sometimes biting. It took me a while to get used to it and I can’t say it was wholly successful as it distanced me from the characters – just when you settle into a scene and begin to think you are discovering it’s hidden truths through the acting, someone says something which basically leaves nothing left to discover.

The story is relatively straightforward – a young woman Lena (the always good Anne-Marie Duff) has been somewhat tormented by the death of her lover Gordon, a man her father was not overly pleased to have as a suitor to his daughter. What’s interesting about Lena is she is not what you immediately expect. She has had a few laps around the track so to speak, and has had what seems to be a nervous breakdown of sorts. Some of this initial information is a bit fuzzy as I had to catch what I could from the TV monitor. Other players are Charles Marsden, a friend of the family who is secretly in love with Lena who only views him as a close friend. Patrick Drury’s Charles provides most of the evenings big laughs with his biting, comic asides and sarcastically fuelled observations. Another potential suitor and the most unlikely is Sam Evans (Jason Watkins, suitably nerdish) and rounding out the male trio is Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie) the most dashing and also the one who claims he has no interest in Lena.

So far it sounds as if it’s being set up to be a comedy of manners, but it never quite goes in that direction. Don’t get me wrong, there are elements swirling around but it never actually becomes a comedy and the manners it addresses are more along the lines of who is doing what for whom because it’s the right thing to do. These situations, for me, are most associated with the likes of – “I will sacrifice buying a bicycle to get to work although I live 50 miles away and will have to walk so you can get that life saving operation” – as opposed to what happens in this play where the sacrifices cut much deeper as they concern love, affection and companionship. That’s all I will say about the plot because these people end up doing things that for some reason you accept while you are watching the play but after you have to scratch your head and say – “Really???  You did what??? How bizarre.” For me the discovery of what they are prepared to do and how they carry it out is most of the fun.

It all get’s a little heavy handed in the second act as the choices made earlier on are played out over the next 20 years. One thing I read was the original version of Strange Interlude was much longer and this version was edited. I think it shows. The first act takes the time to go into detail about the characters choices and desires, whereas the second act, to me, seemed hurried and much more superficial. There were many moments where I felt something was missing, that there were lines or scenes which would have illuminated the situations a bit more. Another “strange” element for me was the style of acting – everything seemed a bit, arch, veering into Brief Encounter Territory – there was something that didn’t seem American. I have to wonder if  this was a stylistic choice. It could have been due to the nature of the writing –  slightly surreal, literary. The first act had more meat for me, the second act’s triumph was the set by Soutra Gilmour. Act one’s set is on a turntable with each scene taking place in a different room, with the platform rotating to reveal the next. Act two, blows that convention apart – possibly much like what Eugene O’Neill was attempting to do with this play. I just wonder if it is genuinely as unconventional as it thinks it is.

The Amen Corner (National Theatre 13/06/13)

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Some people are legendary for a body of work they create, some for things they’ve done or said and others are legends for a combination of the two. WIth James Baldwin, I wasn’t exactly sure where he fit. I have known of him, primarily for being an out black homosexual American male  in an era where just being just one of those could severely hamper your chances of personal, economical or social progression. I knew he had written two legendary novels Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, the former being about an evangelist preacher and the latter about a homosexual relationship, but as I hadn’t read either I wasn’t familiar his writing style.  So, when I discovered the National were presenting a James Baldwin play I immediately thought that it was something  I would need to see, thinking it a legendary play from a prominent playwright. It wasn’t until looked further into Mr Baldwins history after I attended The Amen Corner, that I discovered the legend that is James Baldwin the person seems to be bigger James Baldwin the writer. What was also of interest is The Amen Corner was his first of only two plays he ever wrote, the other being Blues for Mr Charlie, and I think it shows.

Set in a storefront church in Harlem, New York in the 1950’s, The Amen Corner centres on Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) the  church’s passionate, conservative pastor . Her interpretation of scripture has a very clear line between good and bad. Thinking, living, God’s words with every breath, day in and day out is good; straying from that, in any which way or form, no matter how tangential, bad. An example of her philosophy  concerns the consumption of liquor – to her, bad. It goes further; if one drives a truck that delivers liquor then that is also bad because, although you are not consuming it you are aiding others to do so. This central argument sets in motion a questioning of Margaret Alexander’s interpretations of scripture as some in the congregation find themselves in between a rock and a hard place. The questioning of morals finds it’s way to Margaret’s personal life in her small apartment one floor down from the church where she lives as a single mother to nineteen year old son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) who is not playing by his Mother’s rule book, preferring to play music in a jazz club (like his father) instead of  helping his Mother with the Ministry. Keeping it all together is Margaret’s sister Odessa (Sharon D. Clarke). Further complications arise when her ex, David’s father Luke (Lucian Msamati), returns unexpectedly.

There’s much to admire. The two standouts being the performances and the music. Marianne Jean-Baptiste proves that she deserves more stage roles. She’s in complete command of her character at all times, unveiling Margaret’s many layers. Sharon D. Clark as her sister was also wonderful, lovely to see her  show her skills as an actress in a role that demands in equal measure level headedness, passion and fury (I mainly know her work in musical theatre). The two main links between Margaret and the church are two church ladies – Sister Boxer (Jacqueline Boatswain) and Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble). In lesser hands these two women would have been the typical Church Ladies, pious, conservative, hypocritical, but Miss Boatswain and Miss Noble infuse these ladies with that something extra, ensuring their individual points of view bear the same weight as Margaret’s. (In particular, Cecilia Noble gives a hysterically funny, nuanced performance.)

Lucian Msamati and  Erick Abrefa also rise to the occasion, allowing us inside their heads to see their individual conflicts. There is a long scene where Luke and David (father and son) talk about the past and  present which starts off interesting but precedes to go on for a little too long. Too much telling and not enough showing. That is  one thing that let this production down for me, there wasn’t enough of the characters intentions unfolding through their actions and interactions, it was all pretty much spelled out.

The Music was as glorious as one would expect. Members of the London Community Gospel Choir flesh out the congregation and give some very rousing performances. Not to bring anyone down, but I would have preferred less songs. The music that punctuated scenes were most effective yet there were  many numbers that I found distracting, working against some of the dialogue heavy scenes. This could have been intentional as I found the story and the themes very engaging as well as some of the dialogue but on a whole I found the play somewhat lacking.

As with many plays, I sometimes find it difficult to know where the flatness lies. I will generally enjoy a production but not know what is responsible for the my lack of total involvement.With this production I can pick out a few things that I did not engage with.

It wasn’t until I read the programme that I discovered  the play’s setting was a storefront church. What we are presented with is a sprawling two story playing area with massive New York style brownstone windows facing onto it. The church, on the top level, seems quite spacious and wide, not the feeling of a storefront church. Occasionally, there are people hanging out in the windows which made no sense to me as it was distracting and made the church seem even more open. It didn’t represent the closed world of a storefront church. My feeling is this was the best they could  do on a stage as open and sprawling as the Olivier. From my experience, intimacy on the Olivier comes from  performance and not from sets as presenting enclosed, intimate spaces would probably result in bad sightlines.

As I mentioned,  the storyline is engaging but the theme / message is its most unique quality. The story itself isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It sort of felt like the director was aware of this and through in some other elements to lift it (or distract from it).

Coming away with food for though, along with some of the most consistently strong and truthful performances is what makes this an enjoyable evening. The music is wonderful and the time slips by. However, I wouldn’t hold this up as a masterpiece or even great play. Just a good one from a legendary writer.