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Jeff Mills: The Woman in the Moon Cinemix

Last night, I went on a spellbinding trip to the moon – while staying in South East London.

I was sat inside the lovely old theatre The Coronet, watching Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang’s futuristic silent movie from 1929)  while listening to techno DJ  Jeff Mills live mixing his stunning soundtrack.

It was an incredible fusion of the past, the present and the future. Women in the Moon was produced 40 years before the moon landings, and the rocket launch sequences were eerily prescient. Jeff Mills’ sound track underscored the shifting dynamics between the characters as well as underlining the dangers that lie in the overwhelming love of money.

From January 2017, another beautiful venue will be lost in London. The Coronet has been in the Elephant and Castle since 1879 – but will be disappearing next year  as the developers move in.

While I understand the need for progress, I wish gentrification didn’t so often signify the destroying of history, of buildings that made an area special, the universal conformity that seems to follow inevitably in its wake. Look to your left, there’s your luxury new developments. Look to your right – whether you are in Elephant or Castle or Ealing- there’s your Pret, your Starbucks, your Pizza Express.

Woman in the Moon at the Coronet – a nod towards the future and another ending.

 

Beckett Blindfolded: All that Fall

‘I’m going to see a play tonight,’ I told my friends. ‘Except I won’t actually see it -I’ll be wearing a blindfold.’

Their response was confused – but inquisitive. ‘Eh? Why are you wearing a blindfold?’

Because I was going to see Out of Joint’s production of All That Fall. This was Beckett’s lush, lyrical radio play that I read at university and had wanted to ‘see’ for years. I loved the rhythm and flow of the words, the story of Mrs Rooney travelling to the station to collect her blind husband as a surprise on his birthday.

All That Fall - programme cover

Despite being one of Beckett’s more naturalistic plays, All That Fall is not very well known as the playwright was firmly opposed to his radio plays being adapted for the stage or screen. Beckett believed a radio play was ‘for voices not bodies’ and ‘to “act” it is to kill it.’

Theatre company Out of Joint’s answer to this is simple: blindfold the audience.

Stripped of sight, the play is a very intimate, immersive experience. All That Fall takes place in the low lit Victorian brick surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall. Within a few seconds, I found the music hall was merging with a country Irish road populated with larger than life characters.

Mrs Rooney is a complex woman. She is funny and full of self-pity; she is also determined and loving.  Maddy Rooney will get to the station to collect her husband, no matter what setbacks may befall her on the way.

There are many wonderful 3D sound effects. A bicycle weaving through country lanes, a horse very reluctantly starting to pull its dung cart and a train speeding through the station, so close I could almost feel the wind on my face as it sped by.

The actors move among the audience all the time. Sometimes they are on the opposite side of the auditorium, sometimes they are right next to me, creating long shots and close ups inside my head. This dynamism means each audience member gets a different experience and perhaps an alternative perspective on what did – or didn’t – happen on the train.

Out of Joint has made a great radio play into a wonderful stage production while remaining true to Beckett’s vision of the play. As the director, Max Stafford-Clark says, ‘…there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.’

This aural-only landscape provides both slapstick humour and darkness.  There’s Mrs Rooney the ‘big fat jelly’ being hoisted up into Mr Slocumb’s car. And the train is delayed – for a tragic reason. Go to All That Fall and see what happens in your mind’s eye. Decide how big – or not – Mrs Rooney is – and decide for yourselves whether the very dark end to the play really did occur.

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter – directed by Jamie Lloyd 

Harold Pinter’s darkly savage drama The Homecoming first hit the London stage in 1965.

50 years on, this unsettling, savagely funny play still has the power to shock and unnerve.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s adaptations of Pinter have been the best I’ve seen – his frenetic directing giving a surreal fast-cut feel to the action while always ensuring Pinter’s words remain the icy heart of the play.

The play opens in total blackness. Suddenly, the stage flares into life with pounding music. Aggressive neon lights outline the edge of the house. A single light bulb dangles from the ceiling. The door bursts open and in strides Lenny (John Simm), the wiry, fast moving middle son of the family. He sits down, shakes open his newspaper and lights a cigarette. The impression is of a  1980s video but the year is 1965 and the place is South London.

The door opens again and in strides macho Max (Ron Cook), the bullying father. He purposefully sits in his chair – the one that nobody else must touch – shakes open his newspaper and lights a cigarette. Father and son begin to talk in short, aggressive bursts.

This warring family of four men live out their days verbally and physically sparring with each other. Max spits out venom at his camp brother Sam (Keith Allen) but Sam uses his knowledge of Max’s wife to wound back in turn. Max turns red and spits, losing control – he is a  bully whose power to hurt is on the wane.

Into this fractured, angry household arrive Gus (Martin Kemp), the eldest son and his wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan).

The cast each inhabit their roles with precise perfection. Flashes of the inner turmoil suffered by each of the characters appear when they think they are alone. Ruth staggers around outside the house, unable to breathe. Lenny tries to smash a clock. Joe repeatedly lashes out at his own reflection in a mirror.

As always with Pinter, the truth lies shimmering somewhere under the surface of the words. It’s left to the audience to insert their own back-stories into the heavy pauses and elliptical exchanges. Max certainly physically abused his sons when they were weaker than him and there are possible hints of past sexual abuse. Now it’s only his brother Sam and Joe the youngest son, the slow-witted boxer, who are on the receiving end of his walking stick.

In the end, it’s Ruth’s homecoming. It becomes gradually apparent that she does not share her husband’s love of US campus life – she feels trapped over there in her role as dutiful wife and stay-at-home mother.  So, she swops one family of males for another, choosing to stay with her husband’s family in London. Pinter makes no judgement on this decision – he only makes it clear that this choice is Ruth’s alone.

The play closes on a final, haunting image of Ruth. She has physically unseated Max – now she is the one sitting in the chair, surrounded by her new family, staring out impassively into the audience. The balance of power is shifting and it’s left to the audience to decide who emerges victorious.

 

 

 

 

Heartbreak Hotel – The Jetty, Greenwich

A midsummer evening. Deep blue sky and a soft breeze.

Heartbreak_Hotel_1

The tired sun slowly falls in the west. To the east, a cracked, cream building glimmers on the horizon. Neon lights flash ‘Heartbreak Hotel‘.

We are  on the Greenwich Peninsula with the Thames flowing to our left. But as we check in at the hotel reception and look at the faded posters that line the walls, we know we have arrived in a place of lost love and broken dreams.

From room to room,  we are introduced to many different people. Some are funny, some are tragic, all are residents at the hotel.

This is immersive theatre at its entertaining, cruellest best. Many of the people we meet are instantly recognisable, for we have all been residents at Heartbreak Hotel at one time or another.

 

 

 

 

 

Golem – The Young Vic and Trafalgar Studios

Visually stunning and mentally provocative – Golem is Metropolis on acid.

Golem

A glorious, heady mix of live music, animation and actors, the play explores our relationship with technology and our increasing reliance upon it.  Set in a fictional yet recognisable universe, the play uses the myth of the Golem as its base – the story of a man who makes a creature out of clay to work for him.

The Golem in this play represents technology and the market economy. The clay man is originally created to serve yet very quickly he is the one in control of his owner.  The market relentlessly pushes the consumers on – bigger, better faster, more!  Golem is replaced by the newer, faster Golem 2 and the clunky obsolete original Golems now litter the street – out of date and unwanted.

The play is by 1927 – a highly original production company which specialises in combing actors, animation and music. The actors work seamlessly with the fast moving images. The overall effect is unlike any theatrical experience I have seen before. Richly immersive and endlessly inventive, it’s a Technicolor parable for our times. Watch out, the machines and the economy are out to get you…

Maxine Peake – How to Hold Your Breath, Royal Court Theatre

How to Hold Your Breath feels like two plays smashed together. What happens when you sleep with the devil? What do you do if Europe suddenly crashes and you are now the unwanted immigrant trying to get to Africa for a better life?

Either one of those concepts could have made a powerful play but combining them together made for a somewhat baffling two hours. Running with no interval, the descent into darkness was relentless and confusing.

Maxine Peake (Dana) has a magnetic stage presence. She slides around the stage effortlessly owning each scene. But who is her character supposed to be?  Is she a spurned lover? Is she mad – is the Devil real? Is she supposed to be making us think about the shallowness of modern society with her specialist knowledge on ‘customer magnetics’? Is she a desperate economic migrant?

MazinePeak

Peake is supported by a strong cast who do their best with language that can be very didactic at times. There are some nice comic touches including the librarian who keeps turning up with a self-help book for almost every modern-day ailment. The relationship  between Dana and her sister is touchingly portrayed.

Yet playwright Zinne Harris does not resolve the questions raised in her play. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe was inevitable or whether the Devil caused it.

There are many uncomfortable ideas fighting for space in this play without a clear story. If it is  interpreted as Dana’s dream  or nightmare then the lack of narrative drive does not matter so much as dreams have a shapeshifting logic all of their own.

Futhermore, if the Royal Court wasn’t putting on confusing and bizarre plays then it wouldn’t be doing its job correctly.

 

The Rose Playhouse

Older than the Globe, home to Shakespeare and Marlow, The Rose Playhouse  is one of London’s hidden historical gems.

Hidden in the literal sense as the foundations of the city’s first Tudor theatre now lie submerged underwater underneath an office block.

I discovered it by chance one Saturday while walking down the South Bank. A sign invited me to come and explore.
Rose Playhouse
The foundations of the theatre were discovered in 1989 during excavations for an office block. Now,  instead of an open air stage like the Globe, the Rose looks up to a concrete sky.

It is truly remarkable how it survived all these years – and what it can tell us about our not so distant past.

The Rose Playhouse has an open day every Saturday. Go along, meet the volunteers, see a production and immerse yourself in London’s theatrical heritage.