The Bald Prima Donna – Upstairs at the Gatehouse – Review

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Eugene Ionesco’s works are seldom on in the capital unfortunately. The Bald Prima Donna, is his earliest work and Slip of The Lip present this quirky and fun piece of theatrical absurdity with a minimalistic set and Ionesco’s nonsensical dialogue flowing thick and fast.

The Martin’s have popped over to the Smith’s who live in a comfortable London suburb, one Friday night. What unfolds is not your usual naturalistic play, but rather a pertinent observation on the vacuous nonsense most of us spend our time talking about! Therein lies the inherent humour of the piece and there were plenty of moments where we chuckled and laughed out loud at the absurdity presented before us. Whilst acknowledging to ourselves that we too probably sound like this sometimes.

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco's strange world with great abandon,

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world with great abandon,

Peter Eastbrook as Mr Martin had a wonderfully deadpan delivery of his lines which only heightened the humour. Perhaps the most obtuse and crazy lines are delivered by the Fireman portrayed with a wonderful nervousness by Guy Remy. Alice Devine is a feisty Mrs Martin and Griselda Williams being the mumsy linchpin of the piece. Brian Merry brings a brooding menace to Mr Smith. Annie McKenzie rounds off the cast with an exuberant performance as the maid Mary.

Paul Hoskins direction allows the surreal world of the play to be brought to life and he allows the script to draw us in I’m pleased to say. This is not an easy play to perform as the fluidity of script and thought means the actors have to be concentrating constantly. They ably threw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world. Yet they also used it as a mirror to our own world and the repetitive speech patterns we all use and the awkward silences that permeate conversations.

As it is his first play, it lacks some of the refinement of Ionesco’s later works. It’s not his best piece but is an enjoyable romp through our incongruous world of speech and miscommunication. Theatre of the Absurd is often seen as a niche of the theatre world, but I find Ionesco’s work much more accessible than most of Beckett’s so don’t be put of if you’re unsure what to expect. I was pleased to finally get to see a production of this rarely performed piece.

STARS : ★ ★ ★

Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby – Duchess Theatre – Review

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I’ve been having a “theatrical sabbatical” the last 6/8 weeks. I was meant to be seeing this Beckett trilogy at the Royal Court Theatre in January, but work conspired against me and I had to miss it. Which I was pretty miffed about. So I was delighted to see it had a West End transfer and bought a ticket straight away. I have a soft spot for the Duchess Theatre, it’s rather bland/functional but that’s perfect for Beckett. I saw Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape here back in 2010.

I know that Beckett isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but for me he is one of a handful of playwrights whose work truly speaks to me. When I studied his work (and other absurdist/existential writers) at college I finally found a philosophy that resonated with me and made sense of this crazy thing we call existence.

The cavernous Duchess has all eyes transfixed on this for Not I

The cavernous Duchess Theatre has all eyes transfixed on this for Not I

Not I is the first play we’re treated to – we’re warned the theatre will descend into complete darkness even the fire exit signs are put out. It was truly eerie to be in compete darkness, something in our neon lit/mobile screens going constantly world, seldom happens. Then Lisa Dwan’s mouth appears, hovering over the stage and wham she’s off on a relentless performance. In the 10 minutes she must easily cram in 20 minutes worth of words!

I'll have to work on my own version with this puppet mouth at somepoint in the future !

My own production didn’t quite get the West End transfer I was hoping for.

In this play Beckett perfectly captures that incessant noise we sometimes get in our heads when our thoughts whirl and those bizarre internal conversations we have with ourselves. It really is a performance piece for Lisa Dwan and it is staggering to see how she performs this.

Captivating and ethereal in Footfalls.

Captivating and ethereal in Footfalls.

Footfalls starts with a beautiful and haunting entrance of Lisa Dwan in white, the ethereal nature of her presence as she walks up and down the thin beam of light was beautiful and disturbing. It ended just as magically as it had begun with her melting away. A melancholy look at death, but sometimes it’s good to face our demons.

Rockaby Performed by Lisa Dwan  free pic

Rockaby was my favourite of the three. I found it truly hypnotic and felt I was being lulled into the world on stage. The repetitive and lonely nature of existence is wonderfully portrayed, and it ends with some say a bleak call to “f*@k life”. To me it’s not bleak, rather a hopeful rallying call, to not take ourselves or our existence too seriously.

A massive “thank you and congratulations” to Lisa Dwan for her performance in all three plays. I found her truly mesmeric to watch and these are no easy pieces to bring to life. Her mouth in Not I, lit and filling the Duchess Theatre was a fabulous thing to see and hear.

Sometimes theatre imbeds itself permanently onto your brain and into your life – this is certainly true for this trilogy for me.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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Looking back at 2011

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For me 2011, has certainly been my busiest year theatrically. As I sit here with my Xmas Turkish Delight and box of choccy’s, what were my highlights?

  • Finally getting to see Robert Lepage was certainly a memorable occasion. His play The Blue Dragon I referred to as “Theatrical perfection”.

    Robert Lepage as Pierre Lamontagne

  • I saw my first Burlesque  show, which was certainly an eye opener!

    Mistress of Ceremonies

  • London Road at the National Theatre is certainly one of the highlights for me. An amazing piece of theatre.
  • The best new play of this year I think was The Acid Test by Anya Reiss.

Best new play of 2011

  • The best acting I saw this year was in The Seagull at the Arcola, especially Yolanda Kettle as Nina, who gets my “Best Actress Award”. Best Actor goes to Joseph Milson as Ben Stark in Rocket to the Moon at the National.

    Yolanda Kettle, best actress I saw in 2011, in The Seagull at the Arcola.

Joseph Milson, best actor I saw in 2011, in Rocket to the Moon

  • Crazy for You, was definitely the best musical I saw this year.

    The best legs in London!

  • Manon at the Royal Opera House, wins “best ballet” award.

    Manon left me speechless.

  • Best entertainment award would go to Strictly Gershwin. (so good I saw it twice and my wife saw it three times!)

    Dancing from the beautiful Rhapsody in Blue

  • Best theatre book of the year, without a doubt the publication of Volume 2 Samuel Beckett’s letters from 1941 – 1956, I’m still ploughing my way through them, but they’re one of the most rewarding things I’ve read in a long time.

So all in all a very good year theatrically for me.  Thanks to all my readers and I wish you all a very prosperous 2012.

Dublin Writers Museum – A Literary Legacy

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On my recent visit to Dublin, I took the opportunity to not only visit the Abbey Theatre, but also to visit The Dublin Writer’s Museum. The  City can boast a tremendous amount of talent, and writers of historical and literary importance. From a theatrical point of view it is the home/birthplace of several theatrical luminaries.

One of several George Bernard Shaw portraits.

I was pleased that so much of the museum was dedicated to the playwrights that have come from this city and their works. I also found it an educational experience as fresh writers were brought to my attention.

I especially liked the displays on George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett (including his phone that had a big red button on it, that he pushed when he didn’t want to be disturbed) and Oscar Wilde.

First Edition of Waiting for Godot!

My only disappointment was with the bookshop. As a dedicated bibliophile I was hoping the bookshop would have shelves and shelves of the literary delights I’d just read about and seen in the museum. Alas, I found it a real let down, and I can’t understand why the space isn’t used more fully and why it doesn’t carry a fuller stock? Aside from that if you’re interested in Irish playwrights, I recommend a visit to the museum, I found it a suitable conclusion to my Irish playwriting studies.

Ionesco’s Influence

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Ionesco knows how I feel when an assignment is due for college

Well by this time next week, my next assignment for college will be done and dusted. It’s for my Theatre of the Absurd module. Every module with college, stretches me and opens my eyes to other ways of doing theatre and throughout the last few years, I’ve gained a list of theatre practitioners that I’ve grown to love and admire their work.

Ionesco is the one for me from this module. As my tutor has remarked he is quite “unfashionable” at the present time, and this is represented by the lack of material on him and his work available in English. This is a real shame, as I’ve found his plays, witty, thought-provoking and in the context of The Theatre of the Absurd and theatre generally, very influential.

I saw his play The Chairs last year and I reviewed it here. I mentioned at the time, that I wasn’t too keen on how they’d presented it, and the more I’ve read of Ionesco’s own writings and thoughts on that and other plays of his, I have to say I think they missed the mark from what Ionesco envisaged.

Unlike other Theatre of the Absurd writers (especially Beckett), Ionesco wasn’t shy of telling others what his intentions were. While part of Beckett’s enigma is his refusal to define or talk about his writings (even though he was exacting on how they were to be performed and that his text was definitive), Ionesco in many cases leaves no doubt as to what is representing what. As someone who is writing academic papers on him, it’s refreshing to be able to quote and consult the writer. His plays do however give the audience and performers the chance to bring their own thoughts and interpretations to it, and he frequently changed his work while it was being originally performed, based on how it was being received by the audiences seeing it being performed live.

His book, Notes and Counter Notes is certainly in my top ten of favourite books on theatre (I must do a post and perhaps create a page dedicated to them), and I recommend it wholeheartedly to you if you have an interest in theatre or Theatre of the Absurd. Some choice gems are;

” One must write for oneself, for it is in this way that one may reach others.”

“A genuine dramatist has the theatre in his bones, he expresses himself spontaneously in the medium of drama, which is his natural idiom.”

“There is only one thing that I’m sure of. It is that my plays make no claim to save the world or prove that some men are better than others.”

“A play is a whole performance, the subject is only a pretext, and the text is only a score.”

As part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, his work is obviously part of that mindset and influenced by existentialist writings and the turmoil of post war France. While the world has moved on, I find there is much in these writings that resonates with me and I agree with Ionesco’s concern to express the absence of meaning in life. His allusions to fascism and totalitarianism while more pertinent in 1950’s France, there are still similar political and religious regimes still with us, and may well be in ascendency in the next few decades.

So while much is rightly owed to Beckett, I feel that perhaps Ionesco has been sidelined, his play The Bald Soprano was the first absurdist play put on in France and the his play The Lesson the first absurdist play put on in UK and the innovations that genre brought to theatre as an art form do seem to be forgotten by some.

Influencers of The Theatre of the Absurd

Another reason Ionesco and his writings have appealed to me is his influence by the great early movie stars such as Charlie Chaplain, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton (who would later appear in Beckett’s Film) and the Marx Brothers (whom Ionesco cited as his greatest influence). These acts had their grounding in theatre and many of their theatre skits were transferred direct onto celluloid. Again many forget these stars theatrical roots. The Marx Brothers would tour and perform their skits before theatre audiences, find out what worked best with the live audience before committing it finally to film. The absurdity of these performers is perhaps easier to see with hindsight. Slapstick humour, absurdity of language and visual imagery all key components of Theatre of the Absurd and its genesis can be seen in these early films. It’s also been great that as a fan of these films I can watch them and claim it’s for my college course!

So if you’re not aware of Ionesco, I recommend finding a copy of some of his plays and giving them a read, or seeing a play of his if one is put on near you. Two of his plays are constantly running in Paris (The Bald Soprano and The Lesson) and have been since 1957! I’m keen to try to catch them later this year if at all possible. Other plays of his I’ve enjoyed are The Chairs,and Rhinoceros (regarded by many as his best). Once my assignment is done, I’m looking forward to working my way through all his works. Which shows how much I like his writings as very few writers have I wanted to and read all their works.

Anyway, I’d better crack back on with my assignment as I don’t get marks for my blog posts unfortunately!

Krapp’s Last Tape, The Duchess Theatre, London’s West End – Review

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Michael Gambon as Krapp

This classic Beckett play opened this week in the West End, following its success and critical acclaim at The Gate Theatre Dublin.

It’s a 50 minute play with one single character, Krapp. Michael Gambon brought this enigmatic character to life before our very eyes. From the humourous to the sad and absurd, he kept us enthralled as we see Krapp listening to the tapes and recording his latest one. It’s an absolutely stunning and gripping performance.

The play itself is strangely beautiful and haunting. To me it felt poetic and Beckett has infused it with exquisite tenderness and power.

“We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”

Is a phrase repeated a few times in the play, and has been running through my head since seeing the play. Along with a few other phrases.

The playful Beckett humour is present and even though this is a poignant play, Beckett allows us to laugh at the inherent absudity of Krapp’s and our own existence.

The intimate Duchess Theatre is an ideal venue for the play and the lighting and direction were perfect. There are two stars to this play, Beckett as the writer and Gambon for bringing his text to life in such a compelling way.