Displaying items by tag: opinion

A well acted but theatrically illiterate version of THREE SISTERS at the UNION THEATRE

Tuesday 25 April, 2017

The production

I don’t really like the term ‘good ensemble acting’. What people tend to mean when they use it is that there are a lot of people on stage, doing, thinking and feeling different things, and that everything is fine.

So I prefer ‘good acting’. It’s no more or less important whether there are two actors or twenty two.

But to be good with a lot of people is tougher than being good with a few. First the director has to move the scene in the space available; it isn’t simply hours of work, but hours of committed and inspired work to get it spontaneous. To look as though the actors just showed up and did it. When the number of people on stage is substantial the director is the person who has shaped it, alone. In a two hander actors can often create their own authentic moves.

The ‘ensemble’ acting in the adapted Three Sisters at The Union is the best or equal to the best I have seen. Once the director had created the physical shape of the scene it was then necessary for the cast to find freedom but within the parameters set. Thus there was first discipline, then committed and detailed work and finally, and only as a result of those things coming first, freedom, naturalism, ease. The audience sat back and relaxed.

It should always be like this, but it isn’t. The next time you pay £80 for a ticket make a point of watching the actors who aren’t talking. You will notice those who believe that if they don’t have a line they have to compensate by overacting, by pulling faces. At the other extreme some feel that it’s appropriate to take a rest, to stop acting. They then stare fixedly at the person talking with a kind of generalised intensity which they hope will be mistaken for authenticity.

Even good actors can fall into these traps so the (virtual) total absence of any such thing at The Union is again down to the director.

The interpretation and text

This is a samovar.

turkish samovar

It is a Russian teapot.

No doubt there were basic samovars, better samovars and then really posh ones. All, however, were somewhat ceremonial. Tea was a big deal.

Act 1 of Chekhov’s play is Irina’s name day. Chebutykhin, the old military doctor and Irina’s natural father, deliberately has an expensive samovar delivered at a time when all the guests are present. Irina and her sisters protest loudly but happily to the effect of ‘oh, you shouldn’t have’, precisely the reaction he wanted. Denied conventional methods of expressing paternity the doctor utilises every other he can find.

In this production the doctor does exit mysteriously but then returns with a small, average looking jewellery box. Irina looks inside, says thank you, no-one else is interested, lines are cut and the play, if it can still be called that, proceeds.

This is dramatic illiteracy. The box was small enough to fit into his pocket – why did he need to leave the room to get it?

Did the company decide that this old bloke sits around the house all day for years for no reason? It is fraudulent to bill a production Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov if one refuses to tell the story.

Chekhov wrote a play about four dysfunctional children of dead parents. All are highly intelligent and agoraphobic. Irina is a spiteful anorexic, Masha the kind of person who is ecstatically happy providing everyone else is miserable and vice versa. Olga, the eldest daughter, told endlessly as a child to ‘look after’ the children and who, suitably burdened, is still trying and still failing, gets a headache whenever she leaves the house. Andrey, the son, is so threatened by ordinary life that he finds it impossible to speak coherently if another human is present.

Whether adapted or modernised, if one is doing Three Sisters this is the tale one has to tell. There remains endless room for interpretation.

Act 1 was completed in 25 minutes. Anyone who knows the text will understand that this is an absurdity. It was as though it had been said: Act 1 is boring exposition, let’s get it over with…

Ivy Corbin as Masha was one of those who retained a degree of calm. Amidst the headlong rush she took an extra half second when she needed to. As an example of authentic stage presence what she did couldn’t be bettered. The great failure was that she played Candida, not Masha. This Masha was mature and well adjusted where Chekhov’s is spoiled and childish. She was slightly self-absorbed at the start, as distinct from attention seekingly annoying. The decision to leave was made for no reason. She said the words and put her hat on. When Vershinin arrived she was a little bit interested. At the start of Act 2 when two years had passed nothing had changed. She was still slightly interested in Vershinin with whom, inexplicably, she had been for a walk. Poor Tusenbach had to ask her why she was laughing so much when she appeared nothing but slightly puzzled. Masha complains about Andrey losing money at cards yet the character as represented would simply have confronted her brother, not wasted energy moaning to her sisters. The problem of the temper tantrum in Act 2 was solved by not having one. For an actress this good the lines must have stuck in her throat. And why would such a self-possessed grown-up have been so foolish as to marry Kulygin and be too scared to stand up to her brother? Her failure to even begin to embrace the vulnerability of her character was shared by the company (except Corinna Marlowe, who, as Anfisa, gave the only emotionally generous performance).

It is possible to take the themes of a great work, which are universal, and put them into a different context. The six characters currently in the Russian army could be, instead, members of the local drama group or hair-dressing society; they could be drug dealers. One would need new language and a new backdrop but this could be done and has been done. This Three Sisters, however, represents itself as happening in rural Russia in 1900. No-one has thought it necessary to discover how soldiers might behave. With the slight exception of Ashley Russell as Vershinin they slope around like weedy teenagers outside a chip shop. A description of life in the Russian army is a Google away, as is how guests behaved and were treated (and still are). No-one bothered.

The programme

The cover and inside page:

three sisters

Isn’t a name missing?

Tracy Letts, guilty of this adaptation, is quoted thus: “…I don’t much like Chekhov. They start talking about name days… and everybody has a big beard… what’s a name day?”.

Christian Fellner writes: “In Russia most people are named after saints and their ‘name day’ or ‘angel’s’ day’ (as it is often called) falls on their particular Saint’s Festival day according to the Orthodox Church calendar. St Irina’s day falls on May 14. A person’s name day is celebrated in a similar way to their birthday - you might give flowers to a woman or eat a special meal and if you’re religious you would almost certainly go to church and light a candle in front of the icon depicting your saint. In Chekhov's time your name day was considered to be more important than your birthday…”

There’s your answer, Tracy. Since you don’t like Chekhov, please stay away from him. The Taliban blew up things they didn’t understand and which threatened them. You remind me of them.

In Peter Carson’s translation Soliony exits abruptly at the end of Act 2 with the words ‘I don’t care’ directed at Natasha. Letts has him say ‘fuck off’. A guest who behaved in that way would have been excluded from the house forever and never spoken to again; his army colleagues would have given him a savage beating or worse. Letts doesn’t understand or care. The reason Chekhov sets Act 1 of his play on a day of celebration is to give himself an excuse to gather all his characters in the same place. It also means that everyone is a little more excited than normal and more likely to blurt things out (everyone looks forward to a party). It is the same principle in Act 3, where the backdrop is the fire. The rush of adrenaline provoked in different ways in all characters allows Chekhov to get them to do what he wants; get drunk, have a breakdown, tell the truth.

The director then weighs in to excuse the absence of Ferapont, who has been cut from the text. He calls Ferapont ‘a tiny role’. Ferapont is the most passive, testosterone free character ever created by Chekhov. Elderly and a messenger he enjoys selective deafness and speaks rarely, only when pressed, and usually apropos of nothing. The reason Ferapont exists is so that Andrey, in the company of the only person on earth he perceives as unthreatening, may be shown to be lucid, thoughtful and thus a wasted talent. If it wasn’t for Ferapont, we wouldn’t know. Andrey talks when he is there. With anyone else he babbles or clams up. Chekhov, a writer for whom things don’t happen by accident, gives Ferapont 31 lines and has him on stage for 9% of the play. The director thinks it’s a ‘tiny’ part.

He has already held forth: ‘When many of us feel politically adrift, removed and impotent in the face of dismaying election results, Chekhov’s play feels unusually immediate to me…’ He goes on to complain that Europe is lurching alarmingly to the right.

I share his concern on the last bit. Perhaps he should consider that complacent, content-free words like his are an example of why this is happening. Real people – who are Chekhov’s people - are fed up.

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Tuesday 25 April, 2017

Here is an extract from the press release for the current production of Three Sisters at this Elephant and Castle based theatre:

"At this precise moment in time, when the intelligentsia have become irrelevant at the ballot box it (the play) couldn’t feel more pertinent."

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Tuesday 25 April, 2017

Faber and Faber were the first to print The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, in 1925. Here is how it starts:

‘Let us go then, you and I, 
When the evening is spread out against the sky 
Like a patient etherized upon a table; 
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, 
The muttering retreats 
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels 
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: 
Streets that follow like a tedious argument 
Of insidious intent 
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                              
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" 
Let us go and make our visit.’

Imagine if I were now to reason that this text, whilst admirable, was somewhat elitist, and that a new, modern version was needed on the grounds of accessibility and inclusivity. This is my modern take on the poem:

'Shall we go, the pair of us, before it gets too dark?
I hate these streets, these pubs and wine bars; they make me wonder…
Never mind. Come on.'

It’s true that this took me 90 seconds and the original, given Eliot’s way of working, perhaps 200 hours, but why in these equal times should that mean that my work be treated less seriously than his? A school-leaver would react more favourably to my version, notwithstanding its lack of rhythm, absence of selective rhyme and indifference to language. What if I approached Faber and said to them that I wanted my Prufrock published, that I wanted 100% of the royalties on sales, and directed them that the front cover should look like this …


…thus making clear my equivalence as author.

Faber would bin it, yes?



Unhindered by his inability to speak Russian, David Hare has produced a modern version of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. It has been published by Faber and been performed at Chichester and The National.

I have no problem with adaptations in general. All of Shakespeare could be said to be one. The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton is not a great play but is a very good one. It wouldn’t exist had Moliere not written Le Misanthrope. A great play is particular but its themes are universal; they can be taken by another writer and imagined in a different time, given new names, new vocabularies, new backgrounds and the play a new title. This is what Hampton did and what Hare did with The Blue Room.

Hare’s Seagull does none of that. It remains nominally set in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, the names of the characters are unchanged and it is still called The Seagull. The language used throughout is what you might expect to hear if you sat in a Chelsea wine bar and eavesdropped. Thus Medviedenko complains to Masha that he is being ‘totally blanked’ and Kostia instructs Yakov to be ‘back in ten’. ‘Basically’ and ‘totally’, useless words in plentiful current use, litter the text, as do subtle adjustments to retrospectively nudge Chekhov into a position politically correct.

If you found a loving translation of The Seagull – Peter Carson’s Penguin version for example – opened the text at random, and transcribed a page or two of dialogue into contemporary speech, you would have an MS of equal literary and dramatic value to Hare’s.

Please do this. It proves the worthlessness of Hare’s work. It took my 12 year old son 25 minutes to adapt the first scene between Masha and Medviedenko. He is a clever boy who loves football and maths, in that order. He hates the theatre. His script is better than Hare’s.

Of course, no text produced in this way has any merit.

"Now it is possible to go into a bookshop and buy a copy of The Seagull and read a play that is not The Seagull"

The way we talk is physical, and good and great writers understand this, probably instinctively. Our speech patterns, vocabulary and what we physically do whilst talking and thinking are defined by where we came from, what our influences were. Language and the muscularity of same is a result of the culture of the person speaking it. Someone who complains he has been ‘totally blanked’ has grown up in an urban world of social media; he has been exposed to recreational drugs and pornography, to American influences.

A good or great writer creates dialogue in a very particular way. Pinter didn’t claim to be in a trance when he wrote but he did admit that his characters told him what to give them to say. Given Pinter’s genius, I think I might say he was. Miller’s stage directions are as passionate as his dialogue. I like to think that he was in such a frenzy of creativity that he found himself unable to switch off. What the good writers do is somehow imagine themselves into the souls of all their characters simultaneously.

Hare has gone through no artistic process with his text. It is random, shallow, inconsistent and bears no serious critical scrutiny. Characters manifest one speech rhythm on page 12 and another on page 15. There is no thought behind these changes. There is no love there either, and no respect for a genius.

There are many related issues and questions. Why would the subsidised Chichester Theatre commission a third rate version of a play that already exists? If they fantasised that it would somehow be worthwhile they then had the chance to reject it when they saw the result. Why has The National decided to produce Hare’s version? Why did Faber publish? Why does the Arts Council support institutions which make these inartistic decisions?

Anyone who doubts the relevance of these questions should do my son’s test. Then consider that the cleaners at Chichester and The National have paid tax so that Hare’s text might exist.

Unlike in politics, our State-sponsored theatrical elite receive no meaningful criticism from anyone. Those in the profession are scared, rightly, that their careers will suffer if they do and others either don’t know enough or don’t care. Mainstream critics, one way or another, will not bite the feeding hand. Thus they proceed unchecked. They have created a theatre where a young Burton or Harris would never get work (they would show everyone up) and a new Orton would not be performed but prosecuted.

The Seagull by David Hare is not a one off. He has already penned a modern version of The Master Builder, and Patrick Marber is in on the act with a contemporary Hedda Gabler. Will they stop? No. It’s a nice little earner, they get to have their names associated with Ibsen and Chekhov, plus they don’t have to worry about thinking up characters, plot, themes or any of that creative, difficult stuff. A play can be adapted, in the manner that Hare has done, in about 50 hours.

Now it is possible to go into a bookshop and buy a copy of The Seagull and read a play that is not The Seagull. Perhaps in twenty years that will be the only edition available. Then people might say: “Ah, yes, The Seagull. Didn’t Hare and Chekhov collaborate on that?”

By then Shaw, Miller, Tennessee, Wilde, Coward, Synge, O’Casey and others may also have been improved, adapted and cleansed of incorrectitude. Saint Joan is a good play, but she is a bit of a nationalist. I’m sure there is a literary pygmy lurking in the Barbican willing to airbrush that element. Shaw was writing for eternity, it’s true, but, hey, he’s dead, who cares?



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A Time Capsule

Tuesday 25 April, 2017

Running The Poor School has taken all my time. For over 11,000 days my pre-occupation has been how many times the phone will ring, what the post will bring, will nice surprises today outnumber nasty shocks? Now that the school is closing in 15 months this obsessional and possibly unhealthy mode of living is easing. Things I have been dimly aware of come into focus.

For example, in order to leave the country I have to run the gauntlet of several angry, shouting, clattering men and women who slam boxes containing my belongings onto moving platforms, point aggressively at me, demand I do this or that, and who rifle through my private possessions whilst loudly discoursing with their colleagues on unrelated subjects.

leaving gatwick

They finger my 61 year old medications, including Valium and Viagra, with eyebrows raised. I want to say: “It’s ok, I don’t take them both at once” but instinct suggests such a comment may result in a three hour wait in a windowless room, the missing of a flight and the waste of a trip.

Who hires these people? What qualifications are needed? I have been unable to find out. Does anyone know? They need to be stupid enough to think that rage and haste are good things, although anyone with an ounce of life experience knows those characteristics make things take longer. A fundamental personality inadequacy is a pre-requisite, since they confuse temporary and necessary duty involving certain powers with a sense that they are actually superior beings and thus entitled to behave towards us with contempt, to belittle us, to act as though, by our presence, we are spoiling their day and should be made to pay.

It has been pointed out by other commentators that we discover what the State actually thinks of us in situations like this, and that it would treat us like this the whole time if it could. I agree, and also feel that the situation will inexorably worsen until there is meaningful revolt. If we don't do something things will get worse. And worse.

A small amount of leadership would change everything. Other countries do it. Passing through Security in the United States is a different experience and in Israel they search everything, often more than once; they are polite, apologetic, they smile, they don’t rush, they treat everyone, including Arab travellers, the same.

home office

Why is there no mass protest? This bullying abuse is regularly served up to many millions of people, all of whom resent it deeply. That seems like a good base. Might we storm the Home Office and refuse to leave until policy changes? Whoever decides to organise this, let me know.

In the meantime I have a practical part-solution. Make all operatives who come into contact with the public in and around Security wear a 3 or 4 digit number. When one of us feels badly treated we can report the number to the Home Office quoting the date and time, thus identifying the individual. The details don't matter. The Home Office will not have to investigate each complaint, just add them up, identify those about whom a lot of complaints are received, observe and possibly take action. It is not therefore necessary for a passenger to make a fuss or comment at the time and risk missing their flight or worse. What could be simpler? I will be suggesting this to The Home Office and will report back. Don't hold your breath.

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Tuesday 25 April, 2017

The BBC receives four billion pounds in free money each year, from the licence fee and from other State departments. That is four thousand million or £4,000,000,000.

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I love sport, but...

Tuesday 25 April, 2017

rio logo

Did anyone notice how the drug-tainted (by association) Mo Farah was virtually ignored by his fellow competitors after winning the 10,000 meters gold medal at the Rio Olympics? I think this is quite telling.

The BBC, on the other hand, waxed breathlessly hysterical and referred to him as the greatest ever British athlete … wait for the faux shock to emerge from the same source as various revelations are made about who cheated.

This item goes on my acting blog because I suspect no other commentators will mention the legitimate doubts about “our Mo” until it becomes fashionable to do so.

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Tuesday 25 April, 2017

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

It was an evening where the old met the new and pretended to like each other. The tiny foyer of The Garrick, looking and feeling as it did in 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest opened down the road, is now guarded by security, square-jawed and muscled, perversely relishing the task of rummaging through innocent handbags. It was the same on stage, where Derek Jacobi showed a few young people how to act.

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Tuesday 25 April, 2017

I hardly ever pay to watch Shakespeare. For decades productions – by the subsidised companies at any rate – have done everything they can to escape from the text, to “interpret” or “modernise” (whatever that is). What they need to do is tell the story. For that they don’t need much set or costume, just a generousity of spirit and a love of the text. I am seeing Kenneth Branagh’s ROMEO AND JULIET this week. Branagh’s HAMLET is the best filmed Shakespeare I have seen so I have some hope. Report coming.

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