Ah, Wilderness! Young Vic – Not a Coming of Age Tragedy by Eugene O’neil

3.5 hearts

As a definite groupie of Eugene O’Neil, I was very much looking forward to the one and only humorous work written by the great American playwright and found that while I did enjoy the evening, I would most definitely not call this a comedy as it was a little short of laughs.

Ah, Wilderness! - Janie Dee

Ah, Wilderness! – Janie Dee

Set in a small town on the Connecticut shore on the 4th of July 1906, the play depicts family life at the turn of the century and before either World Wars. The play revolves around Nat, the owner of the local newspaper, Essie, his wife, their children and close family. Their son, Richard is in love with Muriel but utterly devastated when he learns that she no longer loves him. It’s a play about family, teenage love (with those incredible highs and terrible lows) and ruined family celebrations. The play still has some of O’Neil’s trade mark characters like Lily the spinster, who loves a man more in love with the bottle and Belle, the kind-hearted prostitute, but there is fundamentally little plot. It is more about young love, growing pains and sitting on the beach looking at the moon.

The brilliant Natalie Abrahami directs a great ensemble cast and has thankfully cut some of the play’s length (and characters) and brought it down to two hours with no interval. She has also injected O’Neil himself into the play in an ingenious silent role which confused my theatre companion but which I found charming, perhaps because I knew what O’Neil looked like from photographs.

I know that some will object to my next statement but I will take issue with a black actor playing a brother in a 1906 white Connecticut family. It’s just confusing and does not add to the play.  That said, Ashley Zhangazha is an excellent actor and I cannot fault his performance.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the set designed by Dick Bird is quite extraordinary. When I walked in, I thought I was in for a Happy Days take two which I wouldn’t have minded at all, as I loved the play, the set and Juliet Stevenson (see my review in this blog) but this set was even more ingenious. That being said, I’m not sure it added that much to the play but it does make for some amusing set changes and a lovely last scene. All in all, this is a play to warm your heart about youth and remind everyone in attendance of what it was like to love so much that you wanted to die if you could not be with that one person. Do you remember?

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’.”

A View from the Bridge, Young Vic – A powerful revival of Miller’s classic where lust and betrayal lead to destruction.

4-hearts

This production of A View from the Bridge comes from the Belgian experimental director Ivo Van Hove and what a difference this makes.  In this pared down production, Arthur Miller‘s tragedy is played on an almost boxing-ring like set with no allowance for time and place.  This is the story of the Brooklyn longshoreman, Eddie Carbone and his obsession with his niece, Catherine but it’s also a universal story of the destruction of a family.

The play begins on a bare thrust stage with a new scene in which Eddie, played by a toned and almost too attractive Mark Strong, washes away the grime from a day at the docks.  He is greeted home by his wife Beatrice and embraced by Catherine, his 17-year-old niece, who lives with them and has been raised as his own daughter.

A View from the Bridge - Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice)

A View from the Bridge – Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice)

Immediately, you notice that things aren’t quite right in the Carbone household when Catherine jumps into Eddie’s arms and wraps her legs around his waist.  She is 17 after all.  Fittingly for Miller’s Greek tragedy, he gives us a one-man chorus in the form of a lawyer, Alfieri, who narrates the story of Eddie and hints at the disaster to come.  But we are soon distracted by the arrival of two illegal Italian immigrants who are Beatrice’s cousins.  They’ve come to America looking for work and opportunity.  Catherine, who has been kept home as much as possible and dreams of starting her life and escaping these confines, is immediately smitten with Rodolpho, the younger of the two brothers, to Eddie’s anger and resentment.

As the tension builds and taunts become more aggressive, an overdose of testosterone leads to rage and violence. We watch, powerless, knowing full well that disaster will strike.  The only question remaining is when and who will be the winner.  A part of me wanted to stand up and tell them to stop.  It is an exercise in frustration similar to watching a car crash in slow motion.  If you could only stop it before it is too late.  Van Hove plays on this even slowing down the dialogue with long pauses between statements.  I felt it was an exceptional directorial masterstroke.

Eddie, like most classical heroes, has a tragic flaw that will be his undoing.  From his point of view, all he wants is a better life for his niece than the one he had himself.  On the other hand, he is in denial about his lust for Catherine and even shocked by Beatrice’s knowing understanding of what is really at the heart of Eddie’s rage.  His desire for a younger woman and his inability to let her have a life with another man.

Mr. Strong is superlative as Eddie, a study in denial of a certain kind of man who is all action and no introspection. Nicola Walker is moving as the warm and frustrated wife who can only stand by as the man she loves wrecks his life and that of everyone around him.  Phoebe Fox is very good as a girl on the cusp of womanhood who gradually come to understand what Eddie cannot admit.  Rodolpho, played by Luke Norris, is both honest and amusing, though Van Hove’s decision to make him outraged and violently protests the idea that he might want to marry Catherine solely to stay in the country, seemed out of character.  Emun Elliot is outstanding as the solid and earnest Marco.  Michael Gould channeled his inner Saul Goodman to bring us a small time lawyer who tells of this unsavory tale.

The design by Jan Versweyveld conveys a sense of caged animals and brilliantly captures the plays undercurrents.  The sparseness of the staging extends to the barefoot actors and unobtrusive costumes designed by An D’Huys, though Catherine’s skirt and jumpers seemed oddly out-of-place.  Tom Gibbons who designed the sound added Fauré’s Requiem to many scenes.  And While I did like the music and pulse noise (a bit like the ticking of a clock), I found that, on the whole, they annoyed me more than anything.  At one point, the music is decidedly ominous but this drags on for far too long.  Great sound should add to the drama in an unobstructive way and that was not the case here.

I know I’m nit picking at this point but there were a few instances when I thought the direction was a bit too insistent.  Miller is subtler with Eddie’s longing.  Did we really need Catherine to jump into Eddie’s arms and wrap her legs around his waist three times?  These are instances where less would be more.  All that being said, this staging of Miller’s classic is visceral and honest, bringing to life a universal tale of sexual longing and destruction.  Eddie’s unhealthy obsession leads him to betray his own clan and closes on a powerful and bold climax.

Happy Days, Young Vic – What matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day.

4.5 hearts

Samuel Becket‘s 1960s play is a mountain of a challenge for any actress to take on and it must be said that Juliet Stevenson, as Winnie, the impossibly ebullient housewife, embodies the role perfectly.  Reminiscent of the seaside though completely surrealistic, we encounter Winnie asleep, buried in the earth, up to her waist.

Winnie follows a well-rehearsed routine between “the bell for waking and the bell for sleep” which turn out to be an incredibly loud horn that got me jumping from my seat a few times.  She prays, sings and talks to her husband, Willie (complete with knotted handkerchief and straw boater) who lives in a cave beneath and behind her.  In an orderly fashion, she empties the contents of her handbag.  Each item is handled with great affection and each gives thought to what it means to be Winnie (a comb, a toothbrush, an empty tube of toothpaste, a bottle of medicine for “loss of spirits…lack of keenness… want of appetite”, a lipstick, a nail file, a revolver and a music box).

Happy Days - Juliette Stevenson as Winnie

With the sun blazing above and from which there is no escape, Winnie talks to Willie (if he is listening at all) and to us, as women do.  She fills her time and the void with a stream of consciousness and a series of rituals that are all there to give her a sense of control over a situation that is completely hopeless and utterly out of control.  By the second act, poor Winnie is buried up to her neck but, fear not, she remains cheerful and still thankful for “many mercies” such as remembering “one’s classics” and is confident that this will be another happy day.  Much of what she says speaks volumes about Becket’s view of men,  women and how they relate to one another.  Winnie recounts how a passing man asks his wife “Has she anything on underneath?”   Winnie accepts that she is literally “stuck in the mud”.  She doesn’t question that fact and in that way she is a reflection of all of us who never understand how we ended-up where we did and unable to surmount our own predicaments.

The play is a work of genius in that it is so many things all at once.  It is the eternal hell of the housewife’s routine, of a bad marriage “I worship you Winnie be mine and then nothing from that day forth”, of the human condition, of man’s incredible will to survive, of our planet’s demise “Do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere, Willie?”  You get to pick the allegory that works for you and when you think that Winnie has said her last, that there is nothing more that she could add, she starts again and creates another memorable image that evokes our fears and coping mechanisms.

To quote Winnie, “That’s what I find so wonderful” about the play.  It shows us in a myriad of ways how humans cope with life, how we can always find a person worse than us and how we take comfort from this.  How we give a positive spin to our own situation, “What a blessing nothing grows, imagine if all this stuff were to start growing.”  Paramount to this coping though is Winnie’s need to be heard, if not listened.  Winnie needs an audience to survive and Becket thus illustrate how we cane endure so much as long as someone is there listening to us.

However hard she tries, Winnie’s talking cannot always keep the demons at bay and when the silence descends, we are shown glimpses of the agonizing reality and heartbreaking sorrow that she endures, “Forgive me, Willie, sorrow keeps breaking in.”

According to Knowlson’s biography, Becket said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

Directed by Nathalie AbrahamiJuliette Stevenson is tremendous as Winnie.  She delivers this tour de force performance with energy, charm and such naturalness that you forget that you are listening to a woman stuck in a hole.  David Beames has the unenviable task of being Willie and does a perfectly decent job of it.  The set by Vicki Mortimer is imposing and the sporadic fall of dirt from above (possibly unintentional) reminded me throughout of how Winnie was being buried alive.

You would think that this bleak portrait of life would make for a very somber evening. On the contrary, I would say that people, myself included, left the theatre quite happy.  Maybe having seen someone in a worse predicament than ours, even for just a few hours, was all that was needed?  I would be remiss, however, to leave out that my male companion was not at all of my opinion and felt it was agony to sit through two hours of theatre with too little action for his 21st century brain.  So be careful about your choice of companion.

On this note, I leave you with Winnie, “Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.”