Tag Archives: theatre

Why theatre is therapy for me

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Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again.  I have written about it here and here.

However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.

From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).

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My first theatre trips were at the Oldham Coliseum

I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up.  Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you.  London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.

This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.

No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health.  How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed.  How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.

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Image from PR Week

For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen.  Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.

I do plan my visits, though.  I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city.  If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.

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Lonely Anxiety – by Michelle Porucz

If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me.  So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.

I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage.  The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day.  The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme.  How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow).  The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.

Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks.  The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.

What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!).  Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.

All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away.  For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us.  I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul.  Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.

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Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both.  When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable.  Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.

If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.

Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery.  Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength.  And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.


The Silver Tassie (National Theatre) review

When I was at school, we spent some time assessing the works of Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, specifically his trilogy of classic works (Juno and the Paycock, Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars).  This play, The Silver Tassie, did not get an Abbey Theatre premiere and was dismissed at the time of writing as a confused mess of stories and scenes, comparing unfavourably with Journey’s End, also set in the Great War.

This National Theatre revival still has a feeling of confusion and doesn’t quite hit the right note of O’Casey’s voice and poetry, but it has moments of greatness, particularly in act two, where a soldier sings of the desolation of war, and in the final moments, where a dance becomes a grotesque and moving comment on the devastation conflict has brought on a small community, not just the town bully who, blinded, becomes the piece’s philosopher, or the football hero who, bitter and paralysed from the waist down, has to reassess his life.

With ear-splitting explosions and an amazing transition of scenes between act one (set in a typical alehouse with comedy schtick characters) and act two, the field of battle, this play remains relevant and connects with its audience, although it can feel a little slow in places and the framing characters of Sylvester and Simon feel a little like pale cousins of the Paycock and his friend from ‘Juno’.

 


National Theatre: Liolà review

Over at the National Theatre, a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Liolà is running, adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Richard Eyre, with an all-Irish cast.

At first the juxtaposition of Irish accents with an obviously Italian setting jars a little, but as becomes clear, this is the story of any displaced community fending for itself, and the decision by the director to cast it in the way he did just about works.  Liolà himself is a playboy on the surface – he has three young sons by three different women, has no thoughts of marriage, and has no qualms about picking the best fruit from the vine.  He’s beautifully played with surety by Rory Keenan – you shouldn’t like this character because of his fecklessness and devil-may-care attitude, but as the play enfolds we see a loving father and a good friend, who has the ultimate solution to old Uncle Simone’s problem of not being able to father a child with his beautiful young wife, Mita.

Liolà has been described as a pastoral comedy, and in its laconic view of life and use of music to illuminate the story, it does have wit and intelligence.  But there’s more going on under the surface than immediately appears.  Liolà’s mother, Ninfa (Charlotte Bradley) knows her son better than anyone and will defend him to the hilt, but knows inside that his unorthodox ways have brought shame on their family.  Simone (James Hayes) is sixty-five and has had a previous barren wife, yet he violently abuses and blames Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) for his lack of fortune.

On the periphery of this cauldron of family emotions are those who watch (Rosaleen Linahan’s Gesa, aunt to Mita; and cynical old-maid Càrmina, played by Eileen Walsh) and those who scheme (the Azzara mother and daughter, Croce (Aisling O’Sullivan) and Tuzza (Jessica Regan)).  Whether peeling potatoes, crushing nuts, or singing to while away the hours, these women rule the roost and dominate the play.

Anthony Ward has designed an impressive set which in a mass of concrete, wood, and one large tree, gives a flavour of 19th century Sicily, as does Rich Walsh’s sound design of chirping cicadas and off-stage chatter.  Liolà is a play which takes a little time to get going, but when it does, it is a tale worth watching.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Theatre review: The Magistrate (National Theatre)

With John Lithgow imported from Broadway in the lead (perhaps best known for the 1996 sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun), Timothy Sheader as director, and glorious set designs from Katrina Lindsay, this farce by Arthur Wing Pinero really cannot miss. In fact the inspired sets are worth the price of admission alone.

The decision to add songs by Richard Stilgoe and Richard Sisson is curious, but serves to cover what could be irritating gaps in the action while sets, props and people are moved into position. The story is a simple one centering on white lies, people being in places they shouldn’t be, and misunderstandings, all served at a cracking pace.

Lithgow’s Posket is the star of the show, but I also enjoyed Nicholas Burns’ ridiculous Captain Vale, Joshua McGuire’s swaggering Cis, and Roger Sloman’s proper clerk of the court (a minor comic great). Nancy Carroll as Agatha, the magistrate’s trustworthy wife (or not, as the case may be), is also a hoot.


Desire Under The Elms (Lyric Hammersmith)

Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play ‘Desire Under The Elms’, set in New England and using themes of Greek tragedy to destroy a family, is given a strong revival here at the unusual Main House of the Lyric, Hammersmith (which is a rebuilt Victorian theatre within a 1970s concrete block).

Simeon and Peter run their father’s farm and lament their lot – but seem to lack the energy to do anything about it. Their half-brother Eben is treated worse than a slave and simmers with resentment at the way father and sons treated his mother. And when word comes that the old man has married for a third time, it is the first step in a life-changing situation for everyone. The older sons seek gold in California, while Eben is left to the mercy of Abbie, forty years younger than her new husband, sexually frustrated, bored, and horny as hell.

Not one character in this boiling pot is sympathetic. Abbie has no real feelings and swings between love and hate alarmingly, while heading blindly to her own destruction. Eben appears selfless but is dominated by the memory of his ‘Ma’ and chewed up with hatred of his ‘Pa’. Simeon and Peter, who are not seen in the second half of the play, are coarse farm-hands, with wild dreams. The father himself, the coldly religious Ephraim should gain our interest but he is selfish and hard to his ‘soft’ sons, and so deserves all he gets.

The Lyric’s set is simple, with three buildings moved around by costumed stage-hands, and a guitar player to set the musical mood. This ‘Desire’ sparkles, with Finbar Lynch’s Ephraim and Denise Gough’s Abbie being the stand out performances. Even after nearly ninety years this play doesn’t feel as if its message is dated. Recommended.


Theatre review: Antigone (National Theatre)

Sophocles seems to be in the air this week, following the BFI Southbank screenings of Oedipus the King/Oedipus Tyrannus on Thursday night, and now this current production of Antigone, the third of the ‘Theban Trilogy’, at the National Theatre next door to the BFI.

This production of Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, uses the same translation by Don Taylor which also featured in the 1986 BBC broadcast of the play (with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone and John Shrapnel as Creon). Here, in a modern dress production which opens with a scene reminiscent of the much-reproduced photograph of President Obama and his close followers watching the death of Osama Bin Laden, where Creon and his ‘court’ are summoned around a flickering television on which we suppose is the depiction of the final battle between the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta.

These sons are proclaimed, one a hero, one a traitor, and the traitor will be left unburied and to pollute the atmosphere, much to the consternation of Antigone, who sees her correct course in obeying the decrees of the Gods only, and not the King, her uncle Creon. Creon sees the State and the Statesman as one, and any relaxation of authority to be weakness – even the urging of his son Haemon to listen to others and take counsel falls on deaf ears, and through the words of the Chorus (here arranged as in a press room) and the predictions of the soothsayer Teiresias, we see how even the mightiest of men can be wrong, and therefore fall.

Antigone is played by Jodie Whittaker, her Northern accent jarring with her pleas for being the last of the daughters of Kings – but she is very good, especially in the scene where she calls to the Gods to protect her against the cruelty of man. As Creon, Christopher Eccleston is full of misplaced pride – and in reflecting on this character as he appeared in the first Theban Play (Oedipus Rex), wanting a quiet life only until forced to become Regent for the small sons of Oedipus, when that mighty King fell from favour, it is fascinating to see him here making the same mistakes of pride that afflicted his brother-in-law. He sees himself as supreme and above the power of the Gods, he pre-empts them, and he will pay for it.

In modern dress the play still works within a setting rich with politics and corruption, and the use of glass rooms and mirrors allows characters to wander in and out of settings where they do not belong, and for the audience to see multiples of the same character as they soliloquise. At a spare ninety-five minutes, this production zips along, and although the storyline may seem unbelievable now, it feels relevant, as the playwright still has something to say after all these years.


Theatre review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

This new production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play (first staged in 1956) visits Richmond and Milton Keynes before a planned run in the West End from April 2012.

The plot can be described as somewhat melodramatic, and in a way a blueprint for what we now recognise as basic soap opera plotting – this in no way diminishes the stature or power of the original play, but gives it a contemporary relevance which could be lost in the many references to dope fiends, consumption, and the kind of reckless property profiteering which was engaged in at the time the play is set (around 1912).

James Tyrone is an actor who failed by becoming a great commercial success in one part; in one lengthy reflective speech he remembers being praised by the great Edwin Booth for the technique he brought to his Othello and other great parts.  He still retains three sets of Shakespeare’s plays but knows his chance has gone.  His wife Mary seems at first a bundle of nerves but we soon realise the truth is far more disturbing as she is a long-time addict to morphine, which disturbs and destroys her mind with every dose.

Their children are as dysfunctional as one might expect, growing up in the Tyrone household.  James Jr is a hard drinking loafer, with no job and a fondness for whores, while Edmund is sensitive and fond of poetry (Swinburne, Rossetti) and is suffering from consumption – just like his grandfather on his mother’s side, who died of it.  The brothers both love and hate each other, and their relationship, plus the relationship each of them have with their parents (and the parents with each other) are explored throughout the four acts (slightly abridged) of this play.

David Suchet, as Tyrone Sr, has been promoted heavily as the star of this play, and is largely effective, although his accent is a little unsettled (there’s American in there, and Irish, as you would expect, but also at times a hint of Jewish).  In the quieter passages of the play and those with flashes of humour he is more convincing than in the times where he is required to show passion and anger – still, this could change as the play’s run continues.

As Mary, American actress Laurie Metcalf is hampered by an unconvincing wig and at times inaudible delivery, choosing to speak some of the character’s passages rather too quietly or quickly.  But as a ‘ghost in the past’ she does convince as a hopeless addict slowly closing herself off from the world and her family.  There have been many great Mary Tyrones in the past, and she has a lot to live up to.  I found her part was not quite as powerful or moving as it should be, and that her scenes with younger son Edmund disappointed.

As the children, Kyle Soller shows himself to be a fine young actor in the difficult and pivotal role of Edmund.  He is quite mesmerising at times, even when on the sidelines observing the more vocal members of his family.  Trevor White is not quite at the same level and I found James Jr rather a tiresome character, rather one-dimensional – I didn’t really care much about whether or not he returned from his binge in the whorehouse or not.  And his speech about being jealous of his sibling doesn’t quite work.

Taken as a whole, I went to this production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with quite high expectations, which were not quite met.  However, I feel that any shortcomings might be addressed in its regional runs before West End opening, and look forward to seeing  what the professional press make of it.


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