Having no previous knowledge of Sean O’Casey’s work I saw Juno with no set expectations. Many people in the audience were aware of the play from studying it at school or college, where it sits firmly on the Irish curriculum and is heralded as one of the most significant plays in the Irish theatre canon. This acclaim seems altogether justified considering the themes which it explores and the context surrounding the work. Written in 1924 where it was originally performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the drama centres on a family struggling to survive in a Dublin tenement. Whilst the matriarchal Juno works to support the household, her daughter Mary is on strike and her son Johnny is unable to work after loosing his arm in the War of Independence. Her husband ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle resists work, looming as a Falstaff-ian figure causing nuisance with his lay-about friend Joxer Daly. As the family come into an inheritance they feel their lives have been changed and begin to live above their means. Their joy is short lived in the third act as Juno takes charge watching her family in ruins.
This current production at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre is a joint creation with the Abbey Theatre Dublin who have brought this classic play to a modern audience. Howard Davies directs the play, drawing out the Miller-esque qualities that the play invokes. Despite being written some years before ‘All My Sons’ or ‘A View from the Bridge’, O’Casey’s play works in much the same way as a Miller tragedy, featuring a family on the brink of disaster embedded in a rich context that appears only offstage yet is the driving force of the drama. To those with little knowledge of Irish history, some of the significant events may be lost, but Davies’ clear production keeps the events outside the boundaries of the family home, albeit present through a large translucent window. Events enter the domestic setting when necessary – most significantly as the IRA burst in to punish Johnny Boyle for his actions in the war. Davies creates and maintains an open domestic space with a central door that keeps slamming as a motif throughout, continually stripped after a brief period of affluence, leaving the physical space empty by Juno’s departure.
Bob Crowley’s design suits the production perfectly with enough detail to give a sense of place, whilst remaining sparse enough to capture the disparate sense of family that presides over each act. The piece is lit by James Farncombe as to enhance the outside space, acting as the window onto the outside world, subtlety bringing the context upon the family at key moments. Impressive performances feature throughout, in particular Sinéad Cusack in the title role, barley leaving the stage and delivering a commanding performance as head of the family. She works effortlessly with various props to create a compelling performance, but is never over the top or histrionic. Like her character, she takes the events in her stride, giving courage to the dialogue and knowing exactly when to find comedy in the words. The play itself takes some time to warm up, but this investment is recouped by the final act, as the world that has been so well set up comes crashing around the character’s heads. Ciarán Hinds’s performance as Jack Boyle reminds a modern audience of Mark Rylance’s Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem, as he becomes the tragic hero left alone to finally fend for himself, left raw and exposed against an empty stage.
Whilst the play itself suffers from a stunted beginning, this production draws out all that is good with O’Casey’s work, showing an English audience the importance of this text within the overall context of Modern Drama over the past century. Contemporary tones are resonant bringing life to the piece that is as fresh and relevant today as almost 100 years ago.
Puppetry, up until a couple of years ago, was considered to be a fairly archaic theatrical convention. So when Nick Stafford acquired the services of the Handspring Puppet Company for his stage production of War Horse, back in 2007, the public and critics alike were slightly hesitant as to how the novel was to be adapted. Three years on, and War Horse is still the most successful play on the West End and the Handspring Puppet Company are back in vogue.
The success of Neil Bartlett’s new play ‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ hinges on the stage dynamics of their puppetry, as a small cast endeavour to condense the lives of two aging lovers into an intense 1 hr 40 minute production. Mr A and Mr B (based on real life characters) must reconcile their love after a life of suppressed homosexuality: Mr B is terminally ill and hesitant to sign a mutual will, despite 70 years of co-habitation with Mr A.
The pace is at times gruelling and as such, props, other than the puppetry, are minimal, as you may expect of plays performed in the round. However, when the narrative begins to lose its way, the expert puppetry provides some respite.
The two central protagonists appear in three overlapping time frames and are played by three distinct human couples and two different sets of puppets. It is this non-linear narrative which prompts confusion in the play, as the audience must witness the “emotional memories” of youth in flashback. The puppetry is used to draw a parallel between the fluidity and exuberance of youth and the slow and staggered movements of the decrepit lovers. Every minute shudder depends upon the technical expertise of the puppeteers and from the outset you can see why Bartlett felt this convention would work so well for his elderly characters. However, there are times when it does seem slightly gratuitous: one scene involves the sexual consummation the two youthful puppets, who hang Pinocchio-like, encircled by grunting puppeteers. It becomes slightly laughable and perverse and it is difficult to see why Bartlett chose to use puppets in this scene when human characters are used elsewhere in the play.
The main drawback of the play is the strain of the narrative on the audience and the small cast. Even a seasoned veteran like Adjoa Andoh will not before have found herself playing a doctor, scientist, housemaid, lawyer and narrator all at once . The central theme of the play is the failure of expression but many may not accredit the sense of confusion the play evokes as an enhancement of this theme. However, one thing is for certain, Bartlett has certainly found a way to express his script through the use of some masterful puppetry. Whilst ‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ may not leave a legacy as War Horse did, it is a testament to the continued success of puppetry as a theatrical convention.
The National Theatre’s production of ‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ will run until November 18th 2010. It is performed in the Cottesloe Theatre and tickets are available from the Box Office starting at £10.
With the proliferation of actors jostling for the role of Hamlet, it would not have seemed surprising if another a-list celebrity had donned the stage for Nicholas Hytner’s new production at the National Theatre. As it were, the National’s Artistic Director had some years previous, already elected the relatively unknown Rory Kinnear for that role, leaving the autograph hunters fairly bemused but the critics optimistic.
In the last two years alone, David Tennant, Jude Law and now John Simm have all impersonated the Prince of Denmark, and in the case of Tennant and Law’s productions, to popular acclaim. However, what Rory Kinnear may lack in glamour he makes up for with an impressive stage history, teaming up with Hytner in the National’s 2007 production of The Man of Mode, which won him an Olivier Award.
In Kinnear’s Hamlet, Hytner’s greatest success has been to offer a refreshing take on what has become a grossly overused play. Modern adaptation and appropriation has endeavoured to examine new themes but many plays based on the original text fall flat on the failure of the lead actors to deliver an authentic performance.
What is different about Kinnear’s performance is the lack of royal (or celebrity) pretension. Kinnear brings a sense of normality to the role, partly because of his age and appearance, but also through convincing character development; the dialogue gains added weight and clarity, when it is not delivered by a screen idol as a kind of right of passage.
Kinnear’s Hamlet is not an aggrieved student rebelling against injustice, but rather a grown man cheated of his inheritance, whose performance strengthens as he becomes resolved to act. His manic turns, far less a result of his grief, appear aggravated by the surveillance society around him: Hytner positions bodyguards and government agents onstage at all times, preventing intimate conversations between characters.
His production is far from the futuristic surveillance state of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film adaptation, starring another household name Ethan Hawke. However, the dim lighting allows Dave Calder’s Polonius and his agents to skulk undetected in the shadowy corners of the set. What Hytner’s stage production lacks in impressive props it more than makes up for with its mischievous ambience.
Although the production revolves around the compelling Kinnear, the entire cast deliver strong performances. Patrick Malahide is excellent as the remorseless tyrant Claudius and Clare Higgins reinvents the role of Gertrude as an equally self-assured and ruthless Queen. Overall, Hytner has managed to re-energise the Bard’s masterpiece with some fantastic stage direction and an eye for authenticity…and without the lure of the celebrity.
Under Rupert Goold’s directorship, Earthquakes in London gains a level of intensity which bolsters the intimacy of Mike Bartlett’s script. The central theme of the play is global warming and its social, moral and political implications, examined through the chaotic lives of the protagonists. Initially, the audience is given character snap shots: Freya who is suffering from pre-natal depression, Sarah, the ideological politician, Jasmine, the angry teenager and Robert, the entrepreneurial scientist. However, as the play progresses and links are established between the protagonists, a dysfunctional family appears, exposing a dark, suppressed history. It becomes apparent Robert is being performed in flashback and in the present he emerges as the estranged father of the three girls Freya, Sarah and Jasmine. The pace quickens and what begins as a rather worn-out exploration of political and moral standpoints on green living becomes an ethical analysis of population growth. Robert, a scientist once lured by the temptations of big business, has developed an apocalyptic theory of excess population growth; he has even disowned his daughters because of the tainted world they stand to inherit.
A play with such an intricate network of exchanges requires an equally interactive stage design. The Cottesloe Theatre has been transformed into a make-shift bar with performers navigating the s-shaped centrepiece which runs from one stage to the other. At each end further action takes place, often simultaneously, as the audience watch from above, at each side. At the floor level, audience stand and sit at the bar becoming evermore complicit in events unfolding around them. For a play with a clear moral message and emotional intensity, Bartlett has in fact managed to provide many comic moments mostly drawn from his brash character stereotypes and their eccentricities. Bill Paterson, playing Robert, props up a formidable cast which includes Tom Goodman-Hill, Lia Williams and Anna Madeley. Stage starlet Jessica Raine delivers a raunchy performance full of teenage angst but it is disappointing to see her become type-cast in this role.
The principal draw back of this play, like any play which seeks to deliver a moral message, is in the climax. Without giving too much away, it is fair to say the pseudo-mythological ending is at best rather far fetched for what is otherwise a compelling and thought-provoking production.