Theatre seen: A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller (Ivo Van Hove directing for Young Vic), The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard - NT Live, Anthony and Cleopatra – Shakespeare’s Globe. Man + Superman by George Bernard Shaw – NT Live.
Every week I go to the theatre with my dad. The theatre just happens to be the Lighthouse Cinema Cuba. Every week we experience the greatest theatre in the world - virtually as if we were standing with the actors on stage. I can’t tell you how excited this makes me: I imagine it’s similar to the way people who liked music felt when the LP was invented. I can’t tell you how concerned this makes me: what’s could possibly compel me to go and see professional theatre in New Zealand? Perhaps a premiere of a new NZ show on a professional main stage, or a revival of a kiwi classic. You'll be hard pushed to get me to a NZ production of an overseas show any more. With the best will in the world, a production staged after four weeks’ rehearsal by a company of freelance contractors isn’t going to result in anything worth my while. I don’t count BATS as a professional theatre – it’s a wonderful experimental laboratory where curious audiences can witness exciting prototypes. I’m only rarely in the mood for that at the moment. It feels too much like what I do all day for a job. When I go out to the theatre I want inspiration and escape. I want to be reminded why I persist with this slippery medium. I need polish and punch. That means I need the Lighthouse Cinema Cuba.
A View from A Bridge made me so very happy and so, so sad. Happy because Miller’s story, which I thought was endemic to 50s Broadway-Style Theatre, flourishes brightly and pungently after being transplanted into Van Hove’s creative garden. This must be its finest production of all time, right? Van Hove strips it to its core: Fallible humans and deadly stakes. A second generation dockworker harbours illegal Italian immigrants. He lives by one rule: never rat. But when his beloved stepdaughter falls in love with one of his guests, he descends into a moral sewer and obliges his own destruction. It ends in a shower of blood. The play made me sad because it’s exactly the kind of production that was within the vision and abilities of our departed friend Willem Wassenaar. Now he’s gone.
The Hard Problem. My hard problem with Stoppard is that the thinky thinky talky talky stuff he’s famous for never sounds like something I’m interested in sitting through. But it’s not what his plays are actually like. I think it’s because what he does is so brilliant it’s hard to describe. Critics are forced to talk about what a play is about – i.e. the ideas. This takes up so much space that there’s no time to describe the means of delivery. So it’s as if Charlize Theron blew your mind by talking you through Garden Brain Economics. You get so excited about relating the idea to anyone who’ll listen that you forget to tell people that you learned about it from the most beautiful woman you’ve ever set eyes on. Stoppard’s skill is his ability to anchor his ideas in the human experience of his characters to the point that what we experience isn’t ideas at all, it’s people. For the record, the hard problem is ‘what causes consciousness?’ Is it a bunch of chemicals? If so, then A.I. can be synthesised, right? If not, what the heck is going on? Is there a God? Argh!!! Stoppard handles this stuff so it couldn’t be further from a lecture – he embodies the idea in multiple characters, then make them each experience it simultaneously on three levels: brain, heart and belly. The characters brain the hard problem by talking about it directly – it’s their job after all, they’re neuroscientists or something. They simultaneously heart the hard problem – it directly affects their ability to fall in love and advance in their careers. Then they belly it by getting drunk together and demonstrating how easy it is for smart humans to reduce themselves to intolerable pigs. All in 90 minutes. Wow.
I’m still a little scarred from the opening scene of the RSC production of Anthony and Cleopatra I saw 15 years ago. The curtain rose to reveal Alan Bates performing cunnilingus on Francis De La Tour. I sincerely hope you have no visual reference for either of those actors. It’s also another Shakespeare that I’ve seen several times and couldn’t have told you the plot – until now. This is politics and sexual-politics 69-ing each other on top of an erupting volcano. Antony is a warrior with the ability to rule the world. Cleopatra is a sorcerer with the ability to conjure Anthony’s triumph or destruction. They’re both unsure how to best employ their powers. Her interpersonal manipulations are far more brilliant than his military strategies. Antony’s tragedy is all about bad luck and wrong timing. In Octavius, he just happens to come up against the ace that beats his king. His main fault, if he has one, is his pig-headed insistence on trying to do everything honourably in war, love and politics. It’s just not possible. His noble aspirations are constantly foiled. He should have learned his lesson long before he comically botches his own suicide. Cleopatra, on the other hand, pulls off the most regal death I have ever seen – sitting upright in her winged throne, eyes-closed in contemplation of eternity. Shakespeare hints that we die as we live – Antony in attempted honour and Cleopatra in godlike majesty.
Man + Superman is the first play I can remember seeing that I’ve wanted to act in. I’ve never seen a GBS play before, which is stupid, since I’ve been compared to him (some people are seriously way too kind.) I immediately feel drawn to the way Shaw seamlessly integrates the rollicking romp and the soapbox. Ralph Fiennes as the lead is the smartest man you’ll ever meet – utterly insightful about the way the world works and how it could and should be better. And determined to tell you at any opportunity. Despite his better instincts, however, his Superman is ultimately defeated by his Man, and he finds himself voluntarily, if warily, treading the traditional path to marriage – which he knows to be the death of art. Other things I want to steal include the way GBS boldly and brilliantly turns the whole play on its head by suddenly relocating it to hell. No reason given or required. And also I learned how you play this stuff as an actor – it’s like a cartoon. Make a strong character choice and bang on with it. Fiennes choses to play this guy as a man whose ideas are bursting out of his head. They’re a burden that he physically carries through life - with dignity and humour, for sure, but still. His truth and insight are as socially crippling as the most severe physical disability. All the characters are this sassy. This talkfest rocks fast and hard. I want Geoff Pinfield, who directs me in my Richard Meros B.A. escapades, to turn his attention to Shaw. Geoff knows how to make big ideas and lots of words fascinatingly theatrical. He’s a born Shavian.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
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