‘A Doll’s House’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Nora has been petted and indulged her whole life, first by her father and then by her husband.  She makes few decisions, and those that she does make, she expects to have few consequences.  She has done one thing though which will have far reaching effects when her husband finds out about it.  He believes that her desire for money, for additional housekeeping, is to indulge her childish pleasure in shopping.  In fact she needs the cash to pay the interest on a loan she took out to pay for a trip to Italy for her husband’s health.

I believe this is a new translation of the play, and I was watching and listening to the sharp intakes of breath from the audience in response to the most patronising and infantilising things her husband says to Nora, I did wonder how heavily the original Norwegian text had to express the notion of the frivolity of women for a 19th century audience to react to it; because Nora, when we first meet her, is a self-obsessed, irritatingly silly woman.  So irritating that K, my theatre companion, expressed a reluctance to remain in her company for the second half after the interval, until I persuaded her to stay.  The point of Nora is that when she understands that her husband really does see her as only a decorative adjunct to himself, she awakes from her doll like sleep and leaves to grow into herself on her own. It must have been a controversial idea at the time it was written; but still today I heard a conversation in the audience after the play about the wickedness of her leaving her children behind (especially after the murmurs of surprise and approval when they had a real toddler, rather than a rolled up blanket prop on stage in one scene where she was playing with her offspring.)

I enjoyed the play, as, in sharp contrast to my experience of Fences it gave me a portrait of a deeply flawed character who, though her experiences, developed some self-awareness and understanding of her own role in her frailties.  Hattie Morahan as Nora shows her development from silliness to anger as one of slow gradations, her fluting childlike voice gradually changing to one of deep adult power as the drama progresses, until finally she leaves the house slamming the door loudly behind her.  There was also real pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that Nora’s school friend, the sad, widowed Kristine has finally found happiness with the suitor she thought she had lost years before.

The drama is acted out in a clever and intricate revolving set. The doll’s house of the title, it does indeed resemble one of those toys where opening the front reveals tiny details of a home, as well as having more than a passing resemblance to one of those wheels in a hamster’s cage that keeps the pet running, no matter how pointlessly.

It’s about taking responsibility for yourself, a properly occupying your own life, and I found that a surprisingly optimistic message.

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‘Fences’ at the Duchess Theatre

2013-08-31 12.29.47This production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences‘ has received universally positive reviews in the press, and those journalists who award star ratings have generally given it four.  It was therefore something of a disappointment that my conversation at the interval with K, my theatre buddy, was on the question of whether this was or was not, in our opinions, as bad as, or worse than ‘August, Osage County’.

It was perhaps the coincidence of the word ‘August’ in the name of Fences‘ playwright and the name of the other play, but Tracy Letts’ work, which I endured at the National Theatre a few years ago, is broadly my low water mark of tedious, over long examinations of family dysfunction in contemporary (ish) US drama.

The result of our discussion was a draw.  K thought Fences was worse, I disagreed (but then I did truly loathe Osage County).

This was the first August Wilson play I have seen, although K had seen ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ in New York, coincidentally on the famous occasion, in 2009 or thereabouts, when POTUS took FLOTUS on a date night to the theatre, making it, K, observed, quite difficult to leave at the interval, even though she didn’t care for the play.

Having said all of that, we did stay and watch ‘Fences’ through to the end.  The acting in the production was very good; Lenny Henry does occupy the stage with confidence, including great moments of stillness, and creates a blustering, unsympathetic character very effectively; and Tanya Moodie as his wife had a fantastic voice and tone.

The problem for me, was the play.  It was a portrait of a self obsessed, self pitying, disappointed man, and the damage he did to the people associated with him.  There was no development of that character other than the passage of time and the revelation of even more unpalatable events. He wasn’t tragic in that he had no sense of his own fallibility and frailty, and appeared to learn nothing over the course of the play.  He gave some really self pitying speeches, punctuated with threats to his sons and his wife.  It was a bleak portrait of a particularly nasty type of a man.

It was also perhaps unfortunate that it seemed that many members of the audience had come expecting to see a comedy, and therefore, primed for a laugh, started rattling away as soon as Henry appeared on stage, and continued periodically, even at astonishingly inappropriate moments.

All those four stars are still a mystery to me.

‘A Season in the Congo’ at the Young Vic

I booked the tickets for the current production of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic months ago, before they even knew what the auditorium layout was going to be, when you couldn’t see where you would be sitting and all you could say was the price you were prepared to pay.  I booked it knowing nothing about the play and solely on the strength of the pre publicity that the lead would be taken by Chiwetel Ejiofer.

I’ve been following his career since I had a front row seat to see him and Bill Nighy in Blue Orange at the National Theatre, (online research has revealed that this must have been in 2000), and although he has performed on the stage to much acclaim since, this was my first opportunity to see him again.

So it didn’t really matter what the play was about; but inevitably on my way there, I did start to interrogate myself on the degree of my ignorance.  What I know about the Congo is limited to the horrific news reports of its recent bloody history, and to my reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  

About Patrice Lumumba I knew even less.  Probably the first time I’d heard his name was when I was newly arrived in Moscow in the 1990s.  My Russian teacher’s main employment was as a lecturer at Moscow’s Lumumba People’s Friendship University.  When he first told me the name of the institution, despite its incongruous sound, I thought Lumumba was just another Russian word I’d never heard before; and so he had to explain to me that it was the name of an post independence African leader undone by Western capitalist colonial  interference (and thereby confirming his belief in the general ignorance of those who had not benefited from a Russian education.)

I think it would be fair to say that my understanding of Lumumba’s role and his death having seen the play is only a little further forward: he was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo after it gained independence from Belgium, and he was undone by colonial interference, leaving the way open for Mobutu, a figure more acceptable to ‘the west’, to take over.

The play itself, with all its agitprop creakiness, is just a framework around which has been woven a tremendous theatrical experience.  The cast mingle in the audience before the play kicks off, chatting and suggesting the purchase of beer from the stall onstage; and many of the seats are plastic chairs arranged around small tables in a sunken area in the middle of the auditorium.  There is music both live and recorded and astonishing dancing and movement.  The cast of a dozen or so seem like many more and they transform themselves from nightclub dancers to bloody fighters seamlessly while we watch them pulse and move onstage.

There is puppetry, giant papier mache heads represent the Belgian vested interests undermining independence, and vultures arrive to pick over the carcasses at the end of protests.  The all black casts put on plastic piggy white noses to signify when they are portraying white characters and there are some excellent performances.

It is, however, Chiwetel Ejiofor who carries the evening.  It is the depth and nuance that he gives to his character that gives the play heart; he is an idealist, keen to forge a united country, but he is blind to the betrayals of his associates and fails to predict the impact of the international interference.  Betrayed by his allies, there is an inevitability to his death.  He is up against too many malign forces to be able to fight them all and maintain his ideals.  It was a vocally rich and physically powerful performance, and even though I did feel there were some longueurs in the evening, to see him act was worth the price of admission any day.

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