Review: Angels in America, National Theatre

“It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet”

In the many aspects of Angels in America that there are to enjoy and appreciate, the richness of Tony Kushner’s writing was not one that I was particularly expecting. But at several points throughout the many, many hours of the two-show press day, it felt like Kushner was almost writing in pull-quotes, such was the vividness of the language that was resonating from the stage of the Lyttelton. So to reflect that, I’m structuring this post a little differently to a traditional review, using some of those quotes to trigger and collect some of my thoughts. 

“The great work begins”

Such was the ‘noise’ around this 25th anniversary production of these shows that it was impossible to ignore the fevered level of expectation and that’s something I find a little hard to deal with. I’d never seen them onstage before, nor succumbed to the temptation of watching the HBO miniseries, wanting to be able to make up my own mind about them. But it is so difficult in this day and age, to dissociate from the chatter around the theatre I love. Plus the fact that so many exciting names were attached to the cast and creative listings – Marianne Elliott directing the likes of Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield, Olivier winner Denise Gough, bona fide cultural institution Nathan Lane…I mean who couldn’t get just a bit excited. Continue reading “Review: Angels in America, National Theatre”

Angels in America – a fantasia on how to get tickets for a sold-out show.

Tickets for Angels in America sold out very quickly- a mark of the excitement for this 25th anniversary production of Tony Kushner’s epic, but the folks at the National have come up with three ways that you can still catch the show and this bunch of jobbing actors (pictured by Helen Maybanks) have kindly re-enacted the experience of trying to get tickets for the show… Continue reading “Angels in America – a fantasia on how to get tickets for a sold-out show.”

Review: Scenes from 68* Years, Arcola

“We live in a climate of fear – they’ve made that”

The asterisk in the title is important. It denotes the number of years since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and so if the play were to be put on again next year, it would be entitled Scenes from 69* Years. It all adds to the sense of living history that permeates Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years, a series of snapshots from life in Palestine throughout that time in all its complexity as to build one nation, another must be broken.

It’s a deeply emotive subject but one which is approached with clear-eyed balance by Khalil. Her stories, collated from the experiences of friends and family, are presented as non-linear vignettes – a picnic interrupted by soldiers in 1992, a charity worker making an aid run in 2010, a boy playing a prank on his grandfather in 1978 and so on – but the perspectives they offer come from Palestinians and Israelis alike, giving details of how day-to-day life co-exists with headline-grabbing drama. Continue reading “Review: Scenes from 68* Years, Arcola”

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas