Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The next greatest Shakespearean actors

The RSC's Glorious Moment has been one of the triumphs of modern theatre, as fairly acknowledged by countless critics. It is not just the rapport between the cast, developed from two years in rehearsal and rep, nor the clever staging nor even Will's words.

These productions (of which I have seen five, and dreadfully regret not seeing the other three) have introduced me to those who I am convinced are the most brilliant Shakespearean actors of their generation: Jonathan Slinger and Katy Stephens.

Jonathan Slinger is evidently one of the stars of the company, since he opens and closes the series as Richards II and III. His Richard III hit most of the psychotic notes and an entire octave of original ones, giving him a wounded cruelty and a shiver of sadism, a faux vulnerability and joy in his cleverness. It was a monumentally memorable performance, not at all monotonous but highly entrancing (almost).

What really won me over was his Richard II (which, perversely, I saw last of all). I wasn't wild about the play, whose plot doesn't seem fully Shakespearean in its refinement, but there is absolutely no denying the complexity of Richard, which Slinger exploited with skill. The capriciousness which plunges his realm into trouble, the self-examination in his cell, the defiance, the joy, the anger, the cruelty, the rage - Slinger makes you feel every emotion and understand quite how Richard's mind is working.

It is not just with words and face that Slinger succeeds. His hands are constantly moving, as fast as his thoughts, playing out in the air what whirls through his brain. During his last, great speech in his jail cell, as he ponders time, the mind and the body, he focuses you on his words with his body language. In a word, captivating. In more words, he has an ultimately indefinable quality which shoots his vision into your mind and heart.

Katy Stephens has equally significant parts, as Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI and Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II. These require more energy and passion than you would think could be offered by one actress, let alone the first two roles (less RIII) all in one day.

The turnabout from the violent, liberating maiden of France, down in the dirt and sharp as her knives, to the imperious, calculating queen, requires careful delineation, and Stephens' skill is both to unite but separate her characters, both contained at once in one figure. Her emotional breakdown over her son's body is traumatic, but watching Stephens build to this pitch throughout the last four plays gives it especial punch.

Slinger and Stephens should bestride our [Shakespearean] world like the colossi they are. They turned in epic, brain-branding performances of depth and yet clarity. Memories of them are what will stay with me the longest.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I spy...

We spy on others – and are spied on by others – all the time. From conventional eavesdropping and peeking where we should not to the high-tech surveillance of the government and the measures of stalkers or peeping toms, uncovering the lives of others has an illicit fascination. The arts are well-versed in this voyeurism.

This week I had the misfortune to see Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith. A show of almost breathtaking inanity and dullness, it places the audience on the Lyric’s terrace, equipping them with headphones and binoculars so we can spy into a building opposite and consume the play.

But instead of a Rear Window-esque thriller (more on which below), we are left dangling without an obvious plot (woman murders man several times) or credible characters. Instead of our voyeurism giving us a pleasurable, shameful thrill, the play holds your attention so little that it becomes more interesting to see what is going on in the other buildings around the theatre, which is actual voyeurism. Contains Violence is a perfect missed opportunity. It turns what could be a clever theatrical device into a gimmick, unnecessarily invoking voyeurism as a substitute for drama.

Hitchcock knew what to do. The tension of the immobilised James Stewart becoming involved in lives (and deaths) of others in Rear Window works perfectly. He gave us snippets which mount up into terror, brief glimpses and low-tech spying. It makes us just as voyeuristic as Stewart, desperately craning to see what comes next, and this double implication of actor and audience in the scene makes us think about our own voyeuristic desires and culpability. It is not something we are proud of, but we cannot turn away.

In serious works of art, the voyeurism is never solely – or at all – pleasurable. Compare Sliver with The Lives of Others. The former is a high-tech soft-porn movie where William Baldwin gets to spy on Sharon Stone’s breasts. (Why he didn’t just rent Basic Instinct is anyone’s guess.) The latter examines how we interact with those we spy on, through the eyes of a Stasi agent in late 80s East Germany; without exploitation, the morality and effects of spying are played out, with drama and humanity.

And of course paintings have been taking up voyeuristic perspectives for centuries. Think of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, where we are introduced to Venus as she examines herself in a mirror. The genius of this is that not only are we voyeurs of her, but she seems to be looking at us too from the mirror. It is a private moment but one in which our spying is thrown back at us.

The thrill of what we might see – and the fact that we are not supposed to be seeing it – will be an eternal prompt to voyeurism. While it may be immoral, it is also endlessly fascinating. The art that makes us feel all of these contradictory emotions at once surely succeeds in being valuable, whereas – as with Contains Violence – the work that merely seeks to exploit voyeurism ends up without even the thrill.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Small but perfectly formed

An experiment in scale and ambition, The Miniaturists presented an evening of five short plays at the Arcola, a taster menu of drama where what's good is savoured momentarily and what's bad is gone quickly.

The score card stacks up in favour of the Miniaturists, 3-2. There were three very interesting plays, perhaps the best of which was For a Button, by Rachel Barnett, which tells of two friends who are almost obsessively close. When one meets the man of her dreams, what will the other do? If this sounds a bit Basic Instinct-esque, it is in the furious, roiling, passionate subtext - the overt signals are comic, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface about over-intimacy and possession. With a very well-staged climax, For a Button was a small treasure, and the rapport between Rebecca Everett and Daisy Brydon was layered.

The other two successes were a moving monologue - one half of a phone conversation with an ex-boyfriend - by Declan Feenan (What About the Rent?), the emotion of which was largely ruined by someone's loud mobile phone ringtone, which they kindly neglected to deal with, and Shelter by Hilary Bell, featuring a daughter who comes up with an odd plan to help her neglected, acting-out mother. By painting this pairing quite sparely, it allowed us a lot of space to imagine the true, difficult nature of the bond. Ann Firbank as the mother was dry yet wounded.

The spare quality of Shelter was distinctly lacking from A Late Goodbye and Cadillaxing. The former was the entire breakdown of a relationship and was intended to show off a great grasp of human psychology, I think, since the writer, Paul Chadwick, is a professor of clinical psychology, but really just showed a deaf ear to drama and language. There was nothing which has not been tackled infinitely more subtly even on television soap operas.

Cadillaxing (by Christina Balit) was a scene from Drunken Yobville, Kent. The characters were stereotypes, from their high-heel-short-skirt trashiness to their unsurprising revelations, which were in fact exactly the kind of revelation you'd expect.

These are in fact short plays, rather than works in progress, so I don't expect we'll be seeing expanded versions any time soon, but an evening with the Miniaturists has made me eager to discover more of these playwrights.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mahler's Second (to none)

I have very little of edification to offer about Mahler's Second, conducted by Gergiev, at the Barbican, except my experience. I've heard the symphony several times on CD, but to have the floor rattle underneath my feet at the cellos thundered was utterly transporting.

For ninety minutes, I sat there transfixed, possessed in the way only music can. The funeral march roars, the quiet beauty of the Urlicht section, the bells and brass of the finale - I have never quite felt so ecstatic, in the true sense of the word - standing outside oneself, quite without self-possession or self-consciousness. It was more moving than I could have believed, more powerful than I could almost stand.