The Father – Daddy’s Gone Crazy.

Daddy's got problems.

Daddy’s got problems.

You can imagine August Strindberg playing Happy Families and thinking, what if we replace Mr & Mrs Bun the Baker with Adolphe and Laura the bipolar soldier and his abusive narcissistic wife.

This new translation of Strindberg’s 1887 masterpiece appeared at the Belgrade in 2012 and has already played on Radio 3. The intimacy of the Trafalgar Studios space makes it an intense ride. This is the very worst of marriages, where even the powerful sexual attraction between Adolphe and Laura has become a torture to them both. Adolphe is a soldier by profession but a free-thinker and a scientist by calling. He oversees a provincial military command in order to support not just Laura and their daughter but an extended family that includes her mother and his old nurse (a great performance from June Watson). The bitter but hyper-intelligent Laura has decided her only route to happiness lies in breaking her husband. She contrives situations that make him doubt his sanity, but she is pushing at an open door: Adolphe is on the edge before the play begins.

This is an acutely well-observed play. Strindberg’s text leaves it open as to whether Adolphe’s condition is purely psychological, fatally exacerbated by Laura’s schemes, or if there is an underlying physical cause. But the journey of Laura and Adolphe, superbly played by Emily Dobbs and Alex Ferns, is presented with ruthless precision.

Rating: Four Stars

Rules For Living – Rules Maketh a Madman

stephen-mangan-as-adam-95086

Go on – give us a Geordie accent.

In an episode of The Green Wing, Stephen Mangan’s character is forced to play a game: conduct an operation in a regional accent. He turns out to be beyond bad at doing voices and Mangan brings the same spectacular anti-talent to Sam Holcroft’s new play, Rules for Living, at the Dorfman in the National. The thing is, mimicry is his character’s calling card: when Adam wants to mock anything, he does it in a voice. When he gets particularly stressed and the stakes are raised, he does the voice and tosses in an insult. This is his rule for living, and everyone in Adam’s family has their own: his brother (played by Miles Jupp) is a liar who must eat to fuel his fib; mother (Deborah Findlay) must glug pills and compulsively clean when she feels under attack; while Adam’s wife (Claudia Blakley) must drink to assert herself, and continue to assert herself until she gets the last word.

Now they’re all back for Christmas. It’s not going to end well. In fact, it’s heading off to be a spectacular, trifle-throwing disaster.

The family get-together is is one of the most recognised and sturdy styles of drama. Martin Crimp’s play, In the Republic of Happiness, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court also began with a traditional holiday meal before spiralling off into wildly unexpected, earth-shattering directions. Holcroft also recognises the form needs something spectacular to give it lift off, and so we have the rules – flashed up on scoreboards above the basketball-like arena where the play is staged.

Adam’s voices might be bad, but that only underlines the venom. He and his family rely on these defensive-attacking strategies to avoid pain or deflect criticism. I bumped into a friend in the theatre, who said she defied anyone not to identify with at least one of the characters. There is a lot of fun to be had, knowing the key to the characters, and anticipating the problems they might face (will Jupp get to the food in time to lie? will Blakley get to the wine?). This is a very funny play. Yet to see the tics as strategies implies a privileged perspective from which everything can be decoded, everything seen and resolved. If we believe there isn’t, then the play may feel smaller, because the rules are there only to amp up the fun and mayhem.

Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) – A Tower Block in Gaza

Saleh Bakri and Sirine Saba sparking fireworks together.

Saleh Bakri and Sirine Saba sparking fireworks together.

Fireworks, a new play by Ramallah’s Dalia Taha, is a war story – set in Gaza during the 2014 Israeli attack that saw schools, hospitals and as the play mordantly recalls, even cemeteries bombarded for six weeks.

Almost everyone is living in shelters in UN schools. Just two families remain in a rudimentary Gaza City tower block. The children, Khalil and Lubna, play indoors or dare each other to venture out. Khalil’s parents worry that the unpredictably violent boy has been damaged by constant war. The shadow of a moustache has grown on his lip, but he is interested only in Ninja Turtles, and playing tunnels and checkpoints.

Meanwhile, Lubna’s parents are so deep in mourning for a son, shot at random by an Israeli sniper, they cannot see their girl is growing up. When Lubna has her first period and applies TCP to the bloody patch her mother can only demand, don’t you talk about this with your friends? Don’t they tell you this at school? Of course, Lubna is no longer going to school, nor has any friends but the unstable Khalil.

I caught Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) at the Royal Court in its last week. I would have gone earlier, but the title is a little too resonant: I have spent a lot of time in Palestine over the past twenty years and was caught in the invasion of Bethlehem in 2002 (Leila Sansour, my wife, made a film about it with comedian Jeremy Hardy). We spent six weeks under curfew, as the Israelis shelled the local refugee camp, and shot at anyone who appeared in the street – which I did foolishly did several times.

When I think about fireworks, I remember that for four years after the invasion, I couldn’t stand bonfire night. I would sit inside with the family pets when the explosions started.

Taha, a talented poet as well as playwright, is perhaps remembering the 2002 invasion as she writes about Gaza. The seeds of Gaza were sown in 2002, when the Palestinian Authority was all but destroyed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived a plan to finally draw Israel’s international borders without consulting the Palestinians (or, indeed, the Israelis) by getting out of Gaza and building a wall around the land he planned to annexe inside the West Bank.

However, Sharon fell into a coma almost immediately he put the plan into action. With no guiding hand, a plan that was never anything but the fantasy of a dangerous autocrat no longer even had its guiding demon.

Sharon seemed to have intended Gaza to remain under permanent siege: he redeployed his troops to the outskirts of the strip, never removed them. Today, Israelis tell the story of this time as though Sharon had presented a gift to the Gazans – and complain it was thrown back into their faces.

With Gaza under permanent siege and no effective Palestinian government, police or welfare services, the strip was swiftly taken over by armed Hamas militias. Sharon’s refusal to give time or space to negotiate Gaza’s future – he left precipitously to confuse his friends and enemies alike – meant there was no possible way to influence, interact or negotiate with Gaza ever again. Now, to satisfy the Israeli public’s demand that something must be done about the strip, all subsequent Israeli governments have mounted aerial bombing campaigns … and for no reason except to buy a percentage point in Israeli opinion polls.

It is an endless war crime, and even in a world filled with evil, one of the most impossible and infinitely dark situations imaginable.

The hopeless certainty that the one million inhabitants of the densely packed Gaza City will be bombed again, and again, ever more savagely, until the end of time, makes Fireworks a play with little possibility of hope or happiness: never the most attractive offer to a ticket-buying audience. Yet this is play filled with love and passion and warmth, and the dryly whimsical Palestinian humour. The excellent cast includes Saleh Bakri, one of the most well-loved and, frankly, most widely-fancied Palestinian actors. This is Bakri’s UK stage debut and though his English is less than fluent, each of his scenes grows in power. At the end, he is unbearably moving in a scene with Khalil’s father (Nabil Elouahabi), contemplating the city from the roof of their tower block.

It is a thrilling and intense evening. I should have gone earlier, so I could go again.

Rating: Four Stars

Antigone – The Outlaw

CommunePostcardMarch-May18712

Before we even start: a brilliant actress in one of the greatest plays of all time – this is going to be one hell of a night at the theatre. Juliette Binoche gives a powerfully emotional performance as Antigone and there are great performances from Kathryn Pogson and Kirsty Bushell. Maybe the male actors rely on their mikes a little too much, so they end up speaking in the tough guy whisper-growls of Hollywood thrillers, yet everyone is good. But there’s always going to be that question: how much sense can we make of a play two-and-a-half thousand years old?

Two and a half-fucking-thousand years is an unbelievably long time ago. The programme has an essay trying to explain how the Greeks would have taken the play, echoed in some reviews, but how could we ever know? All the big touchstones of our culture did not yet exist. There was no Britain, no Europe. No English language, no French. Not only was there no Christianity, there was not even a Jewish Bible – almost all of it had yet to be written. In Sophocles’ day, the great world powers had always come from the south – from the Euphrates and Persia – a thousand miles from the emerging city state of Athens. Greek-speaking people lived all around the Mediterranean basin and the islands, trading with the Hebrew-esque speaking Phoenicians who dominated the sea, and the Aramaic-speaking subjects of the Persian King who ruled the land. When we hear Antigone, today, we hear echoes of the Bible, of Shakespeare, Milton, picked up by the authors or introduced by translators, but we have no idea how the original would have sounded, or what echoes it would have carried of these older, greater cultures that overshadowed little Athens.

The great strength of Ivo van Hove”s direction and Anne Carson’s translation is that they are ready to be abstract, to disorientate the audience, and even to admit that much is impenetrable. Why are street scenes projected onto the huge backdrop with the burning sun at its centre? Why has the chorus gone, and what logic is there to the way the chorus’ lines are dished out between the characters? It destabilises, which must be the right approach. Not all the abstractions work – why play the song Heroine by the Velvet Underground, when it must be so heavily edited to kind-of-fit? Others abstractions do not go far enough: Anne Carson’s translation of the famous Ode to Man, with its meditation on the savage, thoughtful strangeness of humans, was truly out-there in her earlier graphic novel Antigonick. It is rather more like a shopping list of similes for ‘uncanny’ in this production. But all of the instincts are right.

The play is a face-off between two characters who never change: there is no modern-day messing around with character arcs. Princess Antigone is implacable, King Kreon is unyielding. Antigone wants to bury a traitor, her brother. Kreon insists the body be left in the wasteland to be eaten as carrion as a warning to other usurpers. This clash between the man and the woman ends by destroying the kingdom.

A key idea of many contemporary productions is that Kreon, the law-maker, is the evil dictator, while Antigone, faithful to the unwritten law, is virtuous. And it is pure bollocks. There is no such thing as the unwritten law: law is always man-made. If we can say anything about Sophocles intentions, we can say this: laws are the things that ensure the smooth running of states, higher laws are deadly fantasies. Antigone appeals to the precedence of the natural law or the law of the gods (as though these are the same thing), but as Juliette Binoche makes clear, her insistence is arbitrary: the truth is she feels she cannot abandon a dead brother. She offers a specious argument for her loyalty to the dead man (husbands and children can be replaced, brothers cannot), but at heart her decision is wilful – nutty, proud, even sexualised. Yet, though all of this is obvious, Antigone’s rebellion ultimately chimes with everyone else in Kreon’s kingdom, the citizens and aristocrats alike. And it is Kreon’s fault: the more he keeps battering away at Antigone, the more he undermines his own status.

The closest modern-day version of Antigone is Nora in A Doll’s House. Nora insists there are higher laws which can justify forgery and fraud. She knows the men around her have been bending laws whenever it suits, and the more they insist upon their moral rectitude, the more they look like hypocrites. In Sophocles play, the more Kreon insists on trampling down natural law, the more flaky his state’s laws look. The great paradox, as Sophocles knows, is that while laws are man-made, the idea of the Law, big ‘L’, seems to need something else, something greater, more transcendent, more mystical. This strange paradox stills bedevils us today, as states and politicians continue to appeal to religious laws to underpin their authority, or worse to racial traits, local knowledge and custom, even myths and legends.

If women are locked out of government, they get a voice when rebellion looms. It may be anarchic, uncontrolled, implacable. It is often wailing, shrill. It is certainly not the voice of equality. But it is powerful, as the myth of the petroleuses show (see the picture above). Female terrorists and freedom fighters have an unearthly power: figures like Leila Khaled, Ulrike Meinhof, Emma Goldman, Louise Michel. And behind them all: Antigone.

Rating: Four Stars

Lionboy & Treasure Island – this ones for the kids

Lionboy by Complicite

Complicite and the National Theatre turned their big guns on children’s theatre this year, blew up big, but missed the target. What happened?

It is not as though they forgot their ‘A’ game. Both companies did what they do best. Complicite’s Lionboy, at the Tricycle, was a little more minimalist than some of their recent big stage spectaculars, yet this was still physical theatre of great verve and skill. A scene where steel ladders are transformed into the maze-like heating ducts of the evil mastermind’s lair has everything: high-wire tension, heart-stopping excitement. And I’m the last person to praise anything that involves actors waving furniture.

The National’s version of Treasure Island has an astonishing set: a monster-size Chinese puzzle of rotating blocks that turn to create inns, ships and the island itself, with a breathing rib cage of old ship-wrecked galleons.

5_Treasure_Island_National-Theatre

The shows are spectacular, yet rely so heavily on narration, they end up all show-and-tell and no drama.

This is Complicite’s first children’s show, based on the wildly popular Lionboy novels of Zizou Corder, otherwise known as ace novelist Louise Young and her daughter Isobel Adomakoh Young (then only eight years old: now in her twenties). Treasure Island is also based on a book, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful adventure story. Sometimes the quality of the source material presents it own problems; perhaps Complicite and the National were unable to escape the voice of their novels. But I don’t think this is the problem.

Children dominate so much our cultural landscape; museums have become playgrounds, cinemas are turned over to child-friendly fantasy franchises, Young Adult novels are the big best-sellers. It often seems half the world is just one great big creche. The baby-boomers have done their best to remain teenagers their entire lives. Generation Y have taken it a stage, sticking to the kindergarten and infantalising everything they touch. If Complcite and the National don’t know how to do a children’s show, maybe that is okay. In a perverse way, maybe  they should take pride in not quite knowing how to speak to infants.