Thursday, December 01, 2016

No Man's Land

I watched Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at Wyndham's Theatre. I normally assign a rating afterwards but I'm not sure about this one.

It is a strange play. I understand the No Man's Land between the living and the dead, where memories exist and disappear at the same time. But the story itself is hard to follow so much so that I'm not surprised if people say there isn't one. Yet it explains the no man's land effectively. It leaves you with this unsettling feeling that life is slipping out ever so slowly and there is little you can do about it. In that sense, it is a well written abstract play, and nothing like those modern abstract plays that try so hard to be cool by being abstract (check out my favourite scapegoat, The Valley of Astonishment).

Having said that, the play is only as good as its actors. And Ian McKellen holds it all together, with little support from Patrick Stewart. The other characters are entirely dispensable. I don't know if that's how it was meant to be. If not for McKellen, there would be no play.

Even at the age of 76-77, performing at length with such brilliance and dedication, I was just glad to be in audience to watch Sir Ian McKellen. And I'm so glad to have been able to see the two actors on stage, and together.

So I suppose, I would like to give it the best rating for the experience. But remove one actor and the play falls away, hence it really deserves a lower rating. So, best to leave it be...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Spoils

I watched The Spoils at the Trafalgar Studios and give it a 4.5/5 rating.

We went to watch it for its star cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Kunal Nayyar, Alfie Allen) and it's got rave reviews on the Broadway.

It certainly lived up to it. Written by Jesse Eisenberg, it looks at the life of a spoilt rich brat in his late twenties. The humour is good and the acting is brilliant. Everyone fits well into their roles but of course, it's Jesse Eisenberg's play, written for himself. He is natural at it, not just wanting but believing himself to be the centre of the universe. In some ways, so is Kunal Nayyar naturally in his comfort zone of a hard-working immigrant. Alfie Allen (so different from his sad existence on Game of Thrones) is a bubbly happy man about to marry the love of his life. He works at an asset management firm which people his age think is success, except our self-centred protagonist. Among Game of Thrones' finest actors, his acting prowess is wasted in a one dimensional character which of course he plays incredibly well.
Annapurna Shriram is strongly subtle (if such a description exists) with few lines but all of them filled with character. Even her little toe is probably in character, playing a competitive, ambitious doctor. Katie Brayben is unremarkable.

The set is simply a Manhattan apartment, much like a city flat. But well done with a little balcony and a small kitchen.

The ending is a random. I think it should have ended when our protagonist passes out on the floor. Or if sometime later Kunal comes back, picks him up and takes him to his room, out of pity. The current ending is weird, out of place and unfair to Kunal in some ways.
And as brilliant as the play may be, it feels like Jesse Eisenberg is limited in his creativity and it's this kind of man-child role and humour is all we can expect from him. Still it makes for good entertainment. I strongly recommend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Threepenny Opera

I watched The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

Now then, it received mixed reviews but I thought it was wonderful entertainment. And to think Rory Kinnear is a bad guy, Casanova and a true opportunist! He wasn't the lovable parish in The Casual Vacancy or the self-sacrificing Prime Minister in Black Mirror or the victimised citizen in The Trail. But then, I missed him as Iago a few years ago and now that I can see how perfect he would have been, I regret more.

It is a funny play with minimal sets. I shouldn't say minimal actually, because it really was the set of a set, with the scaffolding and all that.
It was interestingly a musical, one I would not have expected on National Theatre, but of course, nothing like the West End production extravaganzas. It was also one of the few old plays the I liked.

PS: I delayed it for so long it makes little sense to publish it, except for my own logs.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Doctor Faustus

I watched Doctor Faustus at Duke of York Theatre and give it a 2.5/5 rating.

In spite of the terrible reviews the play had already received, we wanted to watch it. Mostly for Jamie Lloyd (we had just watched The Maids) and some what for Kit Harington.

Firstly, Kit Harington. Everyone knows he plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and he had come back from the dead which means that he will have to continue to maintain his hairstyle, which means whatever movie or play he acts in, he will look like Jon Snow. When the series started, he was one of the worst actors on show and as seasons passed I assumed I got used to his acting than he getting better. So when he was wonderful on stage as Doctor Faustus, I was pleasantly surprised. He blended into Doctor Faustus swinging between vanity and despair.

Secondly, Jamie Lloyd's play. It was superbly terrible. The first half was downright incomprehensible. The dialogues are archaic and the sets are not. The cast is too small and they are all wearing this hideous piece of cloth. So while you are struggling to understand what is happening because the words are difficult, the people are the same so it doesn't help. And the 'modern' costumes and set were just laziness on Jamie Lloyd's part. Because we certainly could have done with some grandeur if the words were so grand, or make the words as simple as the costumes. There was some mention of Obama and some modernity but who cares when you can't relate to the rest of it. Also there was some random piece of nudity for no reason at all. I mean if Lucifer is going to wear rags, do your dear magicians need to be nude? The only part I liked was when Mephistopheles first comes out of the ground.

The 2.5/5 rating is a combination of 5/5 for Kit Harington and Jenny Russell (who plays the sarcastic Mephistopheles) and a 0/5 for everything else.
We should have left while we could, during the interval.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Boy

I watched Boy at Almeida Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

It's a haunting play of a lost boy knowing he is lost but not sure how to get back on his feet and his meek attempts to find a pillar are left midway when the system fails him. Leo Butler's script is tight in spite of the story itself seeing little happening. The Boy goes in and out of the council offices, hangs around bus stops, walks about aimlessly, tries to grab on to friends who seem more sure of themselves, tries to grab on to any friends. All of it in vain. A boy does not know what he wants and no one to inspire him or guide him.

Frankie Fox is natural in his debutant professional theatre performance, at times making you wonder if that is who he is. Sacha Wares as the director and Miriam Buether as the set designer bring together an incredible show. The set is a concave elliptical conveyor belt and different objects are placed on it to create new sets. There is an army of people to make sure that right object is placed at the right time,  including trees, doors, Sports Direct. And people sit on invisible chairs (I think it was the shoes that had hooks on them to support them). It was all a mesmerising performance on a small stage and a short play that really touches you.

It deserves a 5/5 for what it's brought to stage. But I did wonder, was it necessary?
The Trial had a conveyor belt too, and clearly it needed precision to place things at the right time too, except all that happened backstage because the belt started and ended backstage. They could have easily done the same here but they didn't want to. And considering the number of period props they set up on stage every now and then including supermarket self-checkouts and tube ticket barricades, they could have easily put up bare stools or chairs instead of complicating shoes. It paid off because they pulled it off and it's a vanity show but it still deserves the accolades.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Invi$ible Hand

I watched The Invisible Hand at the Tricycle Theatre and give it a 4/5 rating.

It's about this American trader working for Citibank who gets kidnapped by revolutionaries (not terrorists) who believe American bankers are preying upon their country and supporting corruption. Since the Citibank won't pay his ransom, he asks to be able trade and make that money. The dynamic between the banker and the people who captured him is well played out, as does the invisible hand of the market.

It's a tiny little stage and such a small seating area that anywhere you sit, you get a good view. After the interval, they tried to do something to the stage that I didn't quite follow and felt was unnecessary but otherwise well executed. With little sets the play pulls you in with a tight story and great acting.

The banker was amazing, as was Basheer, his junior captor cum junior trader. Imam Salim had a weird accent that was surely not Pakistani and more of a South Indian or Srilankan accent. But it's not that noticeable if you weren't South Indian yourself.

It's still playing for another week, if you want to catch it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Half a Yellow Sun

Prologue: l mulled over the review for nearly a year now. Actually, I mulled over the book itself for weeks after I finished reading it. I'm back to this review now after months because I read news about the upcoming Nigerian elections and about a political party that is reaching out to  Biafran sentiments.


Books are windows into different worlds. I knew so little about Nigeria except for some basic geography and that it was a British colony at some point. The aspirations of new generations I learnt through Americanah, and thought diaspora of English speaking developing countries reach out to the UK and the US in similar ways and we must all be the same.

Half a Yellow Sun showed me a different history and a different world I would have never known otherwise. I'm sure in today's world of polar divisional opinions there would be many Nigerians who reject the version from Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie. To them I would like to say that I may not know the whole story but I would have known none if not for her.

The story tells us about the nation of Biafra, a nation state for the Igbo people of the Nigerian region who wanted to separate from the Hausa and Yoruba peoples. And about war, conscription, rationing and starvation. The story unfolds through the eyes of various characters. Olanna is an idealistic beautiful and rich Nigerian who need not get into this fight. In fact her ex-boyfriend was Hausa and Muslim (like the majority of Hausa) and her parents preferred that relationship to her current Igbo boyfriend. Her twin sister Kainene, bold and unfazed who is business minded enough to make money out of the war, also ends up fighting it. Olanna's boyfriend, Odenigbo, whose intellectual superiority keeps his fire burning for the war, is the only main character who believes in Biafra as a concept. The White British misfit, Richard hopes to become a Biafran to truly belong to the same country as his girlfriend Kainene, mostly in order to be part of something and not be an outsider. Ugwu, the household help at Olanna's house has a completely different view to his rich masters and yet loyalty comes easily to the poor.

All of them are rooting for Biafra for various reasons. And history will tell you that Biafra lost. The book was not so much about the strategies of winning and losing the war as much as it is about how people root for the 'right' side. It's so very hard when you are on the ground to understand whether you are right or wrong or winning or losing. You also get swept by the people around you to do what others do, sometimes with little thought. When times are tough, you persist because of your faith/belief even though you may have an easy way out.

The story is entirely from the Biafran point of view and Adichie herself is Igbo. I know not whether Adichie believed in Biafra or not but some of the characters in the book are such staunch believers that it does not occur to them that they might lose. Some like Ugwu care little about who rules the world because it makes little difference to the poor. But for most part, people are in it because it gives them purpose. Sometimes you wonder what is that worth when people die and little history is remembered outside some confines.


Epilogue: I read a Lunch with FT feature with Adichie. Among many things that were discussed, one that came up was the character of Richard. She is asked often if it was intentional to make the only essential white character in the book such a dud. Richard originally comes to Nigeria to write a book on some African pots and he comes off as a wanna-be hipster who had his own whitewashed view of Nigeria. He finds Kainene who is a strong woman and clearly the domineering one in the relationship. He also has problems in bed. Some find that this is emasculating and question that intention of the author.
I was really surprised at this line of thought. It had never occurred to me. Of course he wasn't central to a plot that's about Nigerians in Nigeria !
Adichie's response - the Englishman doesn't have to be the superhero all the time. This was an eye opener. But I must appreciate the FT interviewer for including this snippet in spite of how it makes him look.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

I See You

I watched I See You at the Royal Court Theatre and give it a 4/5 rating.

The play, though set in post-apartheid South Africa, does find resonance across the globally confused young people of today.

It's a strong story line, introducing us to our posh African teenager Benjamin who meets Skinn, a local white girl living rough. She is more South African than he is, though judging by the looks people tend to think he is. They have a run in with the cops and there is a little of the insight into the politics within the system and the power the police have over the general public. But that's not the main story. Our cop Buthelezi  was a freedom fighter and fought against white people. And then he runs into Ben, with an English name and unable to speak his monger tongue. Buthelezi calls Ben a white boy and hates him for not being thankful for his freedom and becoming Anglicised. And Ben to begin with is just confused. The stand off between them escalates until the boy gives up because he just wants to go home.

But before he gives in, the boy 'sees' Buthelezi and he tells him that. He says I see you. What he sees is a ghost from the past, because Buthelezi died on the battlefield and never really returned. So according to the boy, only other ghosts like his African inside him can see the ghost that Buthelezi was. It makes sense. People tend to look for a past that gave them more meaning than the present. But after that I lose the narrative. The boy keeps telling Buthelezi that he loves him and reason is that he cannot say anything else.

For a small set and a small space, they've delivered well. I would have given it a 5 rating if not for the ending where the narrative tries to get something deep but falls flat instead.

Les Blancs

I watched Les Blancs at The National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

After watching I See You, I was looking forward to watching Les Blancs because it is play about the world of settlers or the colonisers in a remote village in Africa and because it is playing at the Olivier Theatre.

The story is written elegantly with so many versions of the truth such that the truth becomes your own. The play is largely set in a village missionary clinic set up by the settlers.

The Truth is not defined by the colour of your skin. There are white people who believe this missionary is providing faith as well as medicine to these villagers. There are also white people who see this missionary as patronising and are dejected that they are party to it. There are black people who believe in the missionary at its purpose and there are those who want to fight for freedom. And then there are the others, who are black and white and understand that this difference is down to human beings and not the colour of the skin (as one character says, he has seen Ann Frank's attic). Our most sensible character, Tshembe, is also our least passionate because reason is stronger.
And yet it is him that Africa hugs because the love for your country is unshakeable, even if you have left it and created a life elsewhere. He doesn't want to take sides. What is it worth taking sides in a war that will burn the country no matter who lit the fire first.

The play ends with the set, the village missionary clinic, set on fire!

For Olivier, I think the sets were used less. But I suppose I said this the last time I watched a play at Olivier as well. I can't expect every set to use all that there is available to use at the Olivier. The set on fire and extinguished at will was indeed mesmerising.

Sheila Atim was purely haunting. She walks with such elegance dragging on the burden of colonial exploitation with pain but not dejection. She plays the spirit of Africa. She has no lines. Come to think of it the African women have no voice. Only women to have lines are the white doctor and madame, the lady who runs the missionary with her husband. Subtle but strong on the writer's part.

Danny Sapani as Tshembe was convincing and brilliant. Actually all the actors are remarkable, be it Eric kid who lost his way or the Martha with her blindness to her own racism.

It is a heartfelt production and one for the awards, in my opinion. You can still catch it at the National Theatre.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Father

I watched The Father at The Duke of York Theatre and give it a 3/5 rating.

It's a sweet, heartwarming play. An old man losing his sanity to Alzheimer's, confuses his life, refuses the help of a nurse and forgets his own daughter while his daughter and her partner lose their patience, eventually sending him to a home with round the clock care.
Kenneth Cranham with his charm and acting skills steals the show. Deservedly, he won the Olivier for it.
There, that's done.

Now I can say that I didn't like it. The acting was good, the gradual confusion was beautifully done and the sets were nicely setup into a warm living room. But the play was an artist's cry out to be noticed and a rather messy one at that. At one point, I felt like I've had enough and may be I could grab a quick nap.

Hand to God

I watched Hand to God at the Wyndams Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

Terribly funny and weird, the play is an American comedy that revolves around a boy and his mother grieving over his father but separately. She turns to God, at least she tries. The boy turns to a puppet. The puppet becomes his alter ego, cruel and hateful and begins to control his life. And what follows is drama that is crazy and hilarious.

The sets are simple yet attention to detail gives it a certain sense of completeness that it absorbs us. The story is pretty simplistic and American which is why I think it got bad reviews in British newspapers. To me it is comedy that grows on you. The play however, was largely upheld by the wonderful actors. Harry Melling was masterful with his puppet and his split personality as a shy awkward teenager and the vicious puppet. Jemima Rooper plays his crush, a quirky teenager who is able to connect with him better than any of the well-meaning adults. She has a sarcastic sense of humour and wonderful in her short scene as a puppeteer. The others, his mother, the pastor at the church, the cool/bad boy, all fill their roles with ease.

Irrespective of the reviews it got, I think it was an entertaining play and I would highly recommend.

The Maids

I watched The Maids at the Trafalgar Studios and give it a 4/5 rating.

The Maids is an old French play. But it was very masterful in being adapted to the modern day and age without actually been adapted. Even if they wore frilly maid like dresses, they are still relatable to all the invisible help of today that are expected to exist around other people's existence.
Laura Carmichael was wonderful with her patronising kindness that switches so dramatically and unexpectedly into cruelty without her seeming to notice the change.

Uzo Aduba looks to be the subservient one not ever playing the pretty Laura in any of the role plays the two maids concoct. She seems never in control and always fearing the dreams her friend makes up that they are so out of reach. However, she turns aggressively mad and rises consciously stronger as she manipulates her partner and friend into taking all the blame when things go wrong. ( I know my interpretation differs from others.)

Zawe Ashton, who is apparently the star of the show, was annoyingly bad. She was a lot like Ophelia in Hamlet, with her voice consistently high-pitched and shaking that is hard on the ear and difficult to understand. So I never really got it when she was actually supposed to be agitated and when she wasn't. It's a bit over the top and while many people have praised her for her performance to hold her voice wavering like that all the time, I think she wasn't able to get a quiver in her voice clearly enough so the director made her shake it all the time.

This shocker play is supposed to have her character in control all the time and end the play with a dramatic finish. It seems like she has no clue what to do and gets shaky and scared all the time and it isn't her mistress but her partner who manipulates her into taking the plunge ultimately. It is true though that her partner doesn't actually expect her to do.

I loved the play. I loved Uzo Aduba for her acting and the story (or my version of it). And I think Jamie Lloyd brought it all together pretty well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Future Conditional

I watched Future Conditional at The Old Vic and give it 3/5 rating.

 I don't know much about the educational system in Britain but suffices to say it's confusing and people are always complaining.
There are of course, some basic issues everywhere like elite schooling gives you more probability of getting admission into an elite university like Oxford or Cambridge (or Oxbridge as it is referred to here). (And here I must say I was very surprised when I found out that not only are a chunk of the influencing members of the ruling conservative party from a single elite high school, so are some of the most influential members of the opposing labour party which was supposed to represent the working class.)

What the play suggests is while these issues exist and while the society fights it out to try to change these, some of the more powerful people who can bring about change are not enthused to do it because in effect they are removing the privileges that they and their families enjoy.

At times characters are shown as really stupid and funny to highlight the plight of parents in this educational system. The parents outside a primary school who only want the best of their children, come off as manipulative, cunning and hypocritical. They fight like kids. A thought that circulates through out the play and portrayed beautifully by ensuring that every single actor enters dressed as a school kid and then transforms into the adult, either a parent or a teacher or a committee member, on stage. At heart, everyone is still a child who wants everything for themselves, even at the cost of others.

Yet the play also shows you that it is possible for someone to come from nothing and gain everything through the educational system as seen through the eyes of a refugee. This young once-Pakistani girl who came to the country with nothing and goes through multiple foster homes and multiple schools with no compliants and tons of gratitude, goes on to open the eyes of the bickering elite to the possibilities and successes of the British educational system. In spite of all the hardships and the subtle tones of racism she faces, she blinds herself to it and latches on the encouragement she receives from one single teacher.

It is a system with its own flaws, but with a few good teachers like Mr Crane, played inspiringly by Rob Brydon, the system really works. Isn't it the same everywhere?

PS: acting was pretty average

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I watched Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Theatre and rate it 5/5 ! What could be better than French scandalous comedy with brilliant acting.

It's an old story, told in an old fashioned way. It's the same old love, deception, revenge. And usually old stories bore me to death in spite of stars like Benedict Cumberbatch but I watch for the stars sometimes. And so I agreed to watch this for Dominic West with little expectations. So may that's why I give a five, because it was well beyond my expectations but might be not so in general.

Yet it was wonderful. Dominic West was charming and ruthless as the Vicomte de Valmont, so I was glad I went to watch him. Janet McTeer however, admirably a brilliant actor, played the lead Marquise de Merteuil which such dignified cruelty that I can't imagine anyone else portraying her.

The story twists and turns and keeps you running with it. It also helps that we were sitting in the front row and can't as much as yawn when the actor is staring right at you, so we gave the show our undivided attention. We could also pick up on the little comic expressions that Valmont plays up with subtlety. The sets were rather simple with bare minimum furniture yet the  chandeliers and ornate candle stands set the mood to the French ancient regime. And a huge applause for all the ladies, of which there were many, for playing their roles in breathless corsets.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Red Velvet

I watched Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre and give it a 4/5 rating.

It was a well-researched, flawlessly written play. It maps out the controversy around Theatre Royal and Ira Aldridge, the first black Shakespearean actor. For a play set in the past, the undertones of society are so smoothly woven in. Written by Lolita Chakraborthy, it feels like it was with Adrian Lester in mind that the play took shape and he wears Ira Aldridge like a glove.

The young, ambitious and overconfident Ira Aldridge takes on the powerhouse of London Theatre. While his colleagues eventually warm up to him, the public is outraged and reviews are mostly about his blackness and stereotyped "monstrosity" rather than his or his colleagues' acting prowess. His fury, disappointment and hurt (in that order) are apparent when eventually the director (and originally his only believer) decides to let him go because Ira refuses to tone down his emotional acting that the press finds very beastly. He leaves London never to return but becomes one of the most celebrated thespians of his time.

We see him as an old man playing King Lear and metaphorically as well, as he still remembers his hurt from many years ago and becomes devoid of happiness in spite of his rather well received career. Just before the curtain, you see that he smears his face with enough make up to make him a white man. Such a small gesture yet very chilling ! All of a sudden his agony is apparent.
I absolutely loved it. I liked the story and I think Adrian Lester is amazing. The sets and use of stage could have been better.