The Nether, Royal Court Theatre – Not utopia after all


Jennifer Haley’s new play The Nether takes us into a very believable future world where most people live online.  In the Nether, students attend classes online, people tend virtual gardens (I assume because we have killed all vegetation) and some have even elected to live on life support to remain permanently connected to their avatar to the exclusion of living in the real world and committing to concrete but certainly more messy relationships.

The Nether - Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

The Nether – Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

The play alternates between a police interrogation room and an idyllic virtual Victorian world called the Hideaway (a synonym for the Darknet?). The premise seems simple enough. Morris, a female detective, is investigating a particular website and has brought Sims in for questioning. She confronts him with his creation, a seemingly benign Victorian world, but one where visitors can commit murder, mutilation, rape and paedophilia without consequences or repercussions. But is that really the case?

In the Hideway, Sims’ alter ego is Papa, a gentle-looking older man, who prefers one of his creations, a pre-pubescent girl names Iris. Here is a perfect Victorian upper class world (none of Dickens’ characters are about) where you hear the wind in the poplars and where whisky tastes better than in real life. Iris will let you do anything to her as long as you follow the rules and don’t get attached.

Back on earth, Morris confronts Sims but he is adamant that the Hideway is vital for people like him. People, who are sick and have unstoppable urges to do bad things to others.  There, they can enact their fantasies without hurting people in the real world. For Morris, however, the Hideway is a sinister place, which must be pulled down.   To achieve her aims, Morris brings Doyle in for questioning. Doyle is a prestigious science lecturer nearing retirement who is a frequent visitor to the Hideway.  Morris also sends and agent, Woodnut, to the nefarious world to collect information that could lead to Sims’ capitulation. Woodnut becomes our own proxy or avatar for discovering this perfect world.

We think we know where this is going but we are tricked, just as the characters in the Hideway. The play is clever and there are some very ingenious plot twists but I would say that it is above all else a play of ideas not emotions where the characters sometimes feel as though they are only foils for Haley’s arguments. The Nether is nevertheless extremely topical and relevant. Haley focuses on paedophilia and murder to make her point and ingeniously weaves in the all too pervasive human activity to miss use the internet and where trolling and the 21st century advent of catfishing* makes many of us uncomfortable with privacy and human rights when it veers to the abusive.

The play is adroitly directed by Jeremy Herrin, Headlong’s new Artistic Director since September 2013. The Royal Court has, once again, spared no expenses with an absolutely beautifully crafted set by the magical, Es Devlin. The costumes by Christina Cunningham are also particularly worthy of mention. Amanda Hale as Morris is all convictions but ultimately and unexpectedly damaged by events as her character’s initial rigidity is shown to be a defence mechanism. Stanley Townsend as Sims plays the entrepreneur answering society’s needs with bravado while being quite creepy as the ultimate sugar daddy in the Hideway. David Beames as Doyle, portrays the man’s guilty attitude and final undoing very convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Ivanno Jeremiah performance as Woodnut, the investigator in disguise in a virtual world full of people who are not who they seem.   Both Zoe Brough and Isabella Pappas play Iris on different nights. I’m not sure which one I saw on the night I attended but she was very good and gave a complex performance, showing both a young child’s naiveté and her character’s more twisted programming. Though she plays a much younger character I must admit that I was somewhat disturbed by what is required of these young actresses.

The play raises many questions about the consequences of living in a fantasy world where real experiences come to pale in comparison with virtual ones and where computer addiction is a rising problem. How will this affect our society? Do our activities online not mould our actions in the real world? What are we creating when actually, most of us, if one believes the latest poll, actually resents all the time they spend glued to their screen to the exclusion of live interchanges. What will be the end result of this real-time experiment? I was, however, perplexed that in Haley’s futuristic virtual world, the one emotion visitors were not allowed to experience was love. So much for utopia.

* A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using the internet to hide their true identity, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.

The Crucible, Old Vic – Steal or beg to go and see this production of Arthur Miller powerful play

5 hearts

This is my month of standing ovations, first Skylight and now Yaël Farber’s Crucible.  As anyone who attends the theatre in London will know (as oppose to our US cousins who are more effusive in their theatre appreciation), standing ovations are as rare as hen’s teeth in these parts of the world.  We reserve those for the truly worthy productions.  And, this Crucible is a truly worthy recipient.

The Crucible - Richard Armitage and ensemble cast

The Crucible – Richard Armitage and ensemble cast

Since it’s first production in 1953, The Crucible has continued to resonate with relevance for so many people across the world.  As I watched this spellbinding production, I was reminded of the devastating judgement handed out to the three al-Jazeera journalists only this week and the impact for Egypt’s civil society and future.

Arthur Miller’s play details the 1692 witch trials and hangings in Salem but the play incubated during Senator McCarthy’s work on the House Un-American Activities Committee, when the playwright’s own friend Elia Kazan refused then relented and gave names to the commission.  The beautiful and mysterious set is sombre and smoky when Tituba (Sarah Niles) walks on murmuring and breathing heavily.  We are immediately transported to another time and place.

The play retells an incident in puritan Massachusetts when a group of girls, led by Abigail Williams, accused Salem residents of witchcraft.  The accusations led to a sort of communal madness gradually taking possession of the town.  At the heart of the play, stand a farmer, John Proctor, and his wife.  At first, when Goodie Proctor is accused, we are certain that such an absurd rumour will be quashed quickly.  The genius of Miller, however, is that the silly accusation then turns into vague suspicions, then to arrest so that when she is brought in front of the judges, we know that this good woman won’t stain her husband’s reputation which will lead to his and her downfall.

As the story unravels, more pious inhabitants stand accused and everyone is condemning their neighbours to the gallows to save their own neck (and possibly get hold of a neighbours’ land), so that even Proctor’s attempt to clear his wife’s name only ends in the authority’s greater assurance that they are doing the right thing.  But, as with all things human, it’s not the supernatural witchcraft that people should fear but the more and all too prevalent human sins.  In this case, lust, jealousy, revenge to name but a few.  Abigail lusts after John Proctor and is jealous of his wife.  If she could only get rid of her, she could have Proctor to herself.  But when he spurns her and tells her that he wont fall for her again, she wants revenge against him and his wife, who caught them together, threw her out and speaks badly of her. For the other villagers, any old fight over a pig or cow will be enough justification to send someone to death. Pretty Soon, everyone is either accused or accusing and the girls are more than willing to fall to the ground twitching, writhing and screaming apparently taken by the devil, the minute their story comes under scrutiny.

Even the most pious villager, Rebecca Nurse, is condemned to death.  The only way for those that stand accused to be freed is to confess to witchcraft and implicate others.  If you refuse, you must be trying to hide something and are therefore guilty and if you confess you are most definitely guilty.  A bit like the inquisition’s witch trials that found that if a woman was submerged in water and sank (and unfortunately died in the process), she was considered innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch and would be put to death.

Yaël Farber’s powerful production is pitch perfect and the final scenes between Proctor and his wife are devastating and incredibly moving.  As power shifts and anger rises, Farber directs the play’s crescendo with brio.  When John Proctor finally refuses to confess to something he knows is a lie, you feel the air leaving your body.

The very large cast are excellent.  Richard Armitage’s Proctor bravely stands-up to the witches but cannot escape the guilt of his marital infidelity.  He is strong in the face of injustice and remains all too believable as the hard-working farmer too busy tilling the land to attend church and listen to a clergyman more concerned with ostentation than scripture.  Anna Madeley is reserved and self-righteous as Elisabeth Proctor but ultimately tender and just.  Samantha Colley is strong and fiery as the cast out lover who thought she could get Proctor to leave his wife.  Michael Thomas is all venom as Reverend Parris, the vindictive and materialistic parson who would rather make a buck than save a soul.  Adrian Schiller, as Reverend John Hale, is excellent as the cleric who thinks he is doing God’s work but finally rebels against the indiscriminate nature of the trials.

Jack Ellis is indomitable and ferocious as Deputy Governor Danforth, whose presence alone makes everyone quake.  Ellis, in his long black coat, is demonic in his strict obstinacy and desire for absolute authority.  William Guant is admirable as Giles Corey, an old cantankerous but courageous man who takes on the judges and tries to prove that Thomas Putnam (played with fire and brimstone by Harry Attwell) wants to take his land but when he will not give the name of his informant, he is put in prison and ultimately crushed by heavy stones as he refuses to divulge his source.  Ann Firbank is quiet but deeply moving as a pious Rebecca Nurse.  Nathalie Gavin is convincing and vulnerable as the ignorant Mary Warren who initially pretends to see the devil for a “bit of sport” but comes to see the error of her ways only to break down and re-join her sisters when faced with possible death.  It is almost unbearable to watch this young maid being bullied by the courts and flounder under such intimidation.  The remainder of the large cast are all very good.

The Old Vic is still set in the round (which is lovely except for the fact that the seats are so low as to make your knees higher than your waist – very uncomfortable) and Farber makes use of all entries and exit to great effect.  Soutra Gilmour’s beautiful set is simple with dark shadows mirroring the plays themes and suffusing the atmosphere with ominous dread.  The grime under the nails of these villagers and their shabby clothes hides many secrets and resentments that come to the fore as the evening progresses.  Tim Lutkin who did the atmospheric lighting should be commended for creating a mood of darkness and oppression.  This is such great theatre that, even at almost three hours, the time just flew by.

The Valley of Astonishment, Young Vic – It’s a reminder to us all that whatever our experience at any moment, there is, in Shakespeare’s terms, ‘a world elsewhere’.

3 hearts

In a recent article in the FT, Brook is quoted as saying that his “only aim in the theatre is that people, after the experience of one or two hours together, in some way leave more confident with life than when they came in”.  It is a worthwhile goal and no one could accuse the legendary director and writer of not being a consummately curious man determined to show us the nature of what it means to be human.

Kathryn Hunter and Jared McNeill  - The Valley of Astonishment

Kathryn Hunter and Jared McNeill – The Valley of Astonishment

The Valley of Astonishment of the title and his latest play refers to the sixth valley described in Farid Al-Din Attar’s 12th century epic poem, The Conference of the Birds.   In this Persian poem, the birds elect a king who will lead them on a journey.  Each bird represents a human flaw, which stands between them and enlightenment, and travel through seven increasingly difficult valleys, with many dropping out on the way to the Godly land.  Ultimately, 30 birds remain and reach their destination only to find, a lake, in which they see each other and their own reflection…

In 1979, Brook very successfully adapted the poem to the stage at the Théâtres des Bouffes behind La Gare du Nord in Paris and has now returned to it to marvel at man’s capacity to perceive the world differently, thus the astonishment (if I understood anything of the evening).

In true Brook style, the stage is relatively bare with just a few chairs, a table, a coat rack and a square stage cloth covers the floor.  And Brook is right.  The human brain does fill the void and creates the illusion of a scientist’s or impresario’s office.  Three actors with minimal disguise play a number of characters who mostly tell us the story of Sammy whose perfect memory led her to be studied by scientists and who later became a performer in a magic show.  Sammy and other characters tell us of their fabulous gift of perfect memory and how colours and numbers become intertwined in their brains.  In case you have not heard of the phenomena, it is called synaesthesia.

Synaesthesiais a neurological phenomenon whereby one sensory or cognitive pathway produces involuntary experiences in another sensory or cognitive pathway such that for some synesthetes, letters or numbers, are perceived as having a specific colour. For others, numbers, months of the year, days of the week might bring on precise locations in space.  Along with Sammy’s story, the play also introduces us to a man who has lost his proprioception.  If you have ever wondered how Tom Daley can dive off a high jump and turn so majestically in the air and you can’t, then you might want to look up proprioception.  What you will learn is that great athletes, such as Daley, possess (along with many other qualities) an incredibly acute sense of proprioception (i.e., where exactly in space their bodies are at any point in time).

What these characters have in common is that they perceive the world very differently than most of us and Brook asks whether phenomenal powers are a blessing or a curse.  Along with Sammy’s story, the play interweaves parts of the persian poem and some magic card tricks.  So, the play’s main themes are interesting and I’ve long been intrigued by such phenomena.  However, while it is one thing to be interested in examining how each of us sees the world differently, it is another to make a play out of it.  Ultimately, Sammy’s predicament is not that she is a synesthete but that she cannot forget and that surely is common to all of mankind.  How to forget things that hurt, that still embarrass us after many years or even that are unimportant.  Why can’t we control our mind better?

The play is jointly directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and while interesting and intriguing, it never achieved drama for me.  Radio Lab in the US has done a number of shows on these topics and I find that their documentary story-telling approach is more conducive than theatre to examining these concepts.  Perhaps, I enjoyed the auditory experience of the radio more because so much of it relies on me imagining what it means to perceive the world differently that I needed less (and not more) sensory experiences.  It’s almost easier if I close my eyes.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the evening and can only marvel at the ingenious way our brains make sense of the world and how to define our singular but so human perception whether we are synesthetes (and experience life in a more acute and richer way) or not.  Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill convincingly take on a number of roles accompanied by musicians Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori.  Perhaps it is not the most dramatic story but it certainly is a dramatic subject.

And as Brook observed. “It’s a reminder to us all that whatever our experience at any moment, there is, in Shakespeare’s terms, ‘a world elsewhere’.”

Skylight, Wyndham Theatre – A fantastic night of political and emotional jousting between the sexes

5 hearts

Skylight, first staged at the National in 1995, is being revived for the second time in the West End and it is easy to see why the play has had such endurance and received such accolades (Olivier Award for Best New Play and Tony Award for Best Play).  David Hare takes us into the world of Kyra and Tom and beautifully weaves the political and emotional in such a way that you never feel like you are being preached to.  On the contrary, Hare has inhabited his characters so completely that the audience is swayed this way and that, like pawns in a game of chess.

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight

Kyra lives in a freezing rundown council flat in North London and teaches children from disadvantage backgrounds in East Ham (oh, the commute!).  In walks Tom, a self-made restaurant entrepreneur whom she has not seen in three years.  Turns out that Kyra used to be part of his family but left suddenly after his wife learned of their six-year love affair.  The first act does suffer slightly from some not so subtle exposition when Kyra and Tom retell how they met and fell in love but one can forgive Hare as the rest of the play is such a joy to watch.  The dialogue between the nouveau riche restaurateur, who can’t understand why anyone would choose to live in such squalid conditions, and the earnest teacher, who wants to save the world one student at a time, is compelling and did I mention very funny.  Hare has managed to draw us into a literal “kitchen sink drama” while giving us a complex collision of beliefs.

Tom is all male entitlement, feeling let down by his dying wife who never gave him the absolution he needed and seeks Kyra’s embrace to cauterise his wounds and feel whole again.  But, as we know, rekindling old relationships is never easy and thus begins a tennis match where volleys are exchanged and old gripes are aired.  Kyra derides Tom’s self-pity and lack of understanding of how the other half (or is that 95% nowadays) lives.  She is unsparing in her attack on those who sneer at teachers, social workers and probation officers who mop up society’s mess.

But if this all sounds very weighty, it is not.  The second act is where Hare’s craftsmanship comes to the fore as the polemic feels completely organic to the story.  Stephen Daldry has brought his magic directorial touch to a fine script where the dialogue between Carey Mulligan’s Kyra and Bill Nighy’s Tom is pitch perfect.

Bill Nighy played the part some 19 years ago and revisits the role with all the energy of a much younger actor.  His disdain for an old piece of Parmesan tells you everything about a man who feels he should be able to buy happiness by purchasing things.  The skylight of the title being the room he built for his dying wife who nevertheless never delivered him from his guilt.  He is restless and full of bravado but ultimately cuts a sad figure as man who just won’t have his cake and eat it too.  The emotional and political distance between the two lovers becomes all too apparent over the course of the evening.  Mulligan as Kyra is completely convincing as a women caught between her staunch beliefs and a visceral attraction to her former lover.  She is passionate without being strident and maintains a half-smile as Tom struts his stuff around her flat.  Matthew Beard plays Tom’s son Ed who visits the flat pre and post Tom.  He is excellent as the teenage boy worried for his father and seeking to understand why Kyra has left their life.  I must make a special mention of the fantastic and ingenious set designed by Bob Crowley where the council estate forms a lit backdrop to Kyra’s flat and where an entire spaghetti sauce is cooked and eaten on stage.

Go and see this beautifully directed and designed production that marries so well passion and politics.