Monday, 26 January 2009

Down in Town

I saw EGBDF at the National the other day, and it was an odd, dispiriting experience. Odd because I was in the revival in 1978 at the Oxford Playhouse and known the play VERY well; and dispiriting because I wasn't mad about it.
Firstly - it's a brilliantly written play, and chocka with great lines. But these lines have to be allowed to b-r-e-a-t-h-e a bit. I've read an interview with the actor playing Ivanov since saying that the language is so rich that allowing every laugh line its space would slow it down too much. Yes, the lines should be right on the back of the laugh, but during the audience reaction? Naah. The sacrifice is too great, especially for the Doctor, who has some of the best lines in modern drama.
The subject - a dissenting individual in an oppressive society - is represented by the neat metaphor of an on-stage orchestra with a discordant member, and through the stark, harrowing but calm reminiscences of the lead character (Alexander) the horror of what happens to such an individual in such a society is relayed. What makes it go tits-up in this version is a prolonged section where members of the orchestra variously play state heavies and victims, the latter tortured and brutalised by the former in a clumsy kind of ballet. OKAY! OKAY! WE GET IT! IT SUCKS TO BE A DISSIDENT! YOU GET BEATEN UP AND STUFF! I felt it completely underestimated the audience.
I also had a problem with the actor playing Ivanov, the lunatic. One of the great twists of the play is that we worry initially at Alexander's being locked up in the same cell as a schizophrenic, but ultimately realise that the biggest threat to his safety and sanity is his own conviction. For this twist to work, Ivanov has to be threatening, and he just wasn't. Curious, genially loony, gently unpredictable, definitely - but there is not even mild peril. When he says "If I smashed this instrument of yours over your head..." there should be a possibility of him actually doing it - his journey is so much less interesting otherwise.
Enough of what I disliked. It really scored on a musical level (ho ho!) and other performances were excellent. The ending was managed beautifully, and the audience were put in a most discomfiting position - with all our hearts we wanted Alexander to accept the sleight of hand of the state, and get better, and live happily with his son, but our heads told us that if this happened then nothing would change. As Alexander says to Sacha, "What about all the other fathers and mothers?" For the first time ever, I think, I wanted the central character to die instead of live, because otherwise his struggle was futile and the consequences for everyone else were so ghastly - the state would win. Again.
Stoppard at the absolute top of his game.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Turning Down Work ALWAYS a nightmare. I was offered a job yesterday for a theatre company based abroad. That's impossible at the moment for a number of reasons, so I had to call the guy this morning and let him down. At least he took it well.
They say as an actor your greatest control over your career (and there's little enough of that, really) is your choice whether or not to take a job - you always have the final say. What they don't tell you is how hoity some people get about you exercising your choice. A guy who everyone seems to have worked for once offered me Prospero in "The Tempest" at his pub theatre in (far) North London, and just wouldn't take no for an answer.
It was mainly the profitshare (for which read guaranteed practically unpaid) factor, but the prospect of providing my own costume and doing six shows a week in front of an average audience of nine really didn't help.
He couldn't believe I was turning it down. "But you've done three shows in a row here - you're just getting started!"