Sunday, April 05, 2015

Two plays in two days

Last night I went with a friend to see The War Play, by Philip Braithwaite. It's a somewhat fictionalised story of what happened to Braithwaite's great-uncle Jack, who died in the First World War. I won't reveal exactly what happens in the play because there's a certain shock element to some parts of the story, but it's superbly put-together, and if you have a chance to see it, go. It's on at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin until the 18th April.

There are only four actors in the cast: Jonathan Martin plays Jack, back in the WWI period, and Ben Van Lier plays his great-nephew, Philip, in the present. Not only does Philip talk directly to the audience most of the time, but he talks about writing the play, which is still 'being written' as he speaks. This brings a kind of intentional dislocation to the piece.

He also has several scenes with his father, played by Simon O'Connor. O'Connor is just wonderful as the not particularly likeable old man. But he also plays several other roles, and in one extraordinary moment, moves from one side of the stage, where he's been playing Philip's father, to the other. In that brief moment in the dark he changes costume, on stage, and becomes Jack's father. And the character is quite different.

The remaining actor, Alexander Walker, plays everything from a religious minister to a political minister, from an obnoxious Australian to Jack's slightly crazy brother, Eric. He probably played other roles too that I've forgotten for the moment...he was ubiquitous in the very best sense.

All of the actors bring huge energy to their roles, especially Martin. The direction is excellent and detailed and keeps the audience well abreast of what time in history we're in as two stories run in parallel. This is a play about fathers and sons, and also about truth and lies. Even some of the stories in the play may be lies or half-truths. We're not always sure. What is certain that the shame that the Braithwaite family suffered in regard to their son, Jack, was unwarranted, and the truth about this is finally revealed in this drama.

Lighting, music and everything else is top notch.

I went to a play of a different kind today. This one was a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love's Labour's Lost, a play that's sometimes regarded as one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts, or one that's difficult to stage. There was no hint of that in this production. The cast sailed effortlessly through the play, one which focuses greatly on language, its complications, its humour, its verbosity. It's also a delightful play about young love and the need for love to mature before it's of real value. The ending can seem odd: after some two hours of light-heartedness and playful flirting, suddenly everything darkens. But it darkens to a purpose, and the four young men who've been courting the four young ladies suddenly discover that love needs to be taken seriously. Constant flirting and jesting won't keep it alive.

The RSC has followed up this production with one of Much Ado About Nothing, which it's (temporarily) renaming Love's Labour's Won. The same cast is in both productions. The first, the one I saw today, takes place in an Edwardian setting, just before the First World War; the second takes place after the war, in the twenties.

LLL is set in a facsimile of a genuine English country house (even though the story ostensibly takes place in France): the three-storey facade is reproduced, and during the course of the production shifts away to reveal the library, or another room with French windows (and a grand piano). But there is also a bowling green, and a scene on the roof, and various other settings. This piece is rich in actual scenery and furniture. In spite of that it moves at cracking pace. The stage is also extended right out into the audience, so that many people are seated just at the edge of the stage on either side. (Cricked necks would result, I'd have thought). The cast move on and off this from the back as you'd expect, but also walk in from the sides on catwalks. There is an enormous amount of stage area.

The cast are wonderfully dressed in beautiful Edwardian pastel colours, or whites, and the women have a ball in their various long gowns.

It's hard to single any cast member out, but one of the delights is the young fellow playing Moth,
Peter McGovern. He sings and dances (in a mock Ivor Novello moment - there is a small orchestra that plays regularly throughout the show) and has a perpetual grin on his face. His main foil is the tall and solid John Hodgkinson as the crazy Spaniard, Don Armado, who mangles English as the drop of a hat.

Edward Bennett as Berowne and Michelle Terry as Rosaline make a wonderful sparring couple, and Bennett in particular, with his great long wordy speeches, never puts a syllable out of place. Leah Whitaker and Sam Alexander make a great royal couple, and are ably supported by the two respective couples on each side.

This is a play with an abundance of clowns: Costard (Nick Haverson) is the first to appear; he's the coarsest, but also the most energetic. Chris McCalphy makes an excellent Dull, the policeman who is short on words, but pertinent to the scenes he's in. David Horovitch and Thomas Wheatley play the blathering wordsmiths, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, and manage to make the circumlocutions sound interesting.

I loved every minute of the play, and would be happy to get a copy of the DVD when it's available, in order to catch up on it again.

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