james debate
james debate

Thursday, 1 August 2013

As bewildered Londoners trample over one another to escape the inexplicable and record breaking summer heat, some seek refuge in the dark, air conditioned theatres of London's West End. This is the story of one such adventurer:

this house national theatre margaret thatcher

"This House" Theatre Review
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Written by James Graham
Starring Phil Daniels, Julian Wadham
Theatre Royal National Theatre, Olivier

It was by bizarre coincidence that The Ephemeric happened to be attending the National Theatre's production of This House, a satirical view on the partisan politics of the 1970s and the dawn of Thatcherite Britain, on the day that Baroness Thatcher died. Undoubtedly this tragically uncanny timing brought extra poignancy, and many a hushed gasp from the audience when her name was first mentioned, but even the Iron Lady's shadow could not detract from the show's crowd-pleasing nature.

Focusing on the travails of the struggling Labor Party of the 1970s, This House lampoons the partisan political system in a way that is both immensely humorous and somewhat disturbing when one considers the schoolyard pettiness with which business is often conducted in Westminster. Labor currently hold an impossibly small majority, meaning that even one or two absent MPs will open up the possibility of the Tories passing a vote of no confidence and calling a new election. Rather than sell-out Labor keep shambling forward from one vote to the next, going to extreme lengths and underhanded tactics in order to survive. It's one of the more absurd situations in political history and a perfect set up for such a play.

While the last paragraph likely contains the kind of political nonsense that will put many readers to sleep, the panache with which the production is realised ensnares the attention of even the most apathetic. It all works thanks to the razor sharp script and strong production values which sees the House of Commons reinterpreted through the rock and roll eyeglass of the 1970s, complete with a live band and sportscast-like announcer. The tone is pitch perfect, with real substance beyond the jokes that has much to say about the current political climate and the nature of party politics in general.

This House is an absolute joy to watch, the best play of 2013 so far and we fully encourage all to try and catch it, or at least the NT Live broadcasts to cinemas.

"The Night Alive" Theatre Review
Directed by Conor McPherson
Written by Conor McPherson
Starring CiarĂ¡n Hinds
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

Lately the Donmar seems to be running something of an Irish season, with two plays in a row by Conor McPherson. This began with revival of McPherson's most critically acclaimed work, The Weir, and followed with the world premiere of new play The Night Alive.

We revisit a familiar theme of McPherson's work: the tragic hero living a life of masculine isolation, the singular transformative impact of a woman's presence, and that most distinctive style of understated tension.

The Night Alive raises the bar further with McPherson's most cutting look at man's fragility. Most striking about the production is the unnerving reality of our characters' situation; the ease with which a man can lose everything, career, family, stability, and yet still continue with a tenuous sense of purpose. The desperation is palpable thanks to Soutra Gilmour's supremely detailed set design, yet moments of real levity permeate the first hour to remind us this is no manipulative melodrama, but an expertly weaved tale of real people told by a man who walks that fine line better than most playwrights.

Which brings us to the point that needs to be made about why The Ephemeric chose to review this production rather than the classic The Weir. A quick look at reviews has left a strong distaste for the amateurish standard of theatre journalism in London today, and we wish to give this play the praise it deserves.

Many relatively well regarded names from the Guardian to the Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph have slammed the post-climactic phase of the play, decrying a sudden change in tone and a saccharine deus ex machina ending where everything inexplicably fixes itself. Needless to say this is not at all what happens and it's astonishing to see professional critics remain completely oblivious to a twist that casts the ending in an entirely different light.

Without revealing too much, the actual ending strikes a much darker and more bittersweet note, simultaneously beautiful and utterly thought provoking. The Night Alive is one of those plays that will keep your party talking for hours after it ends. It honestly stands as one of the better twist endings in recent theatre history, and measures favourably even to The Weir.

"In the Republic of Happiness" Theatre Review
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Written by Martin Crimp
Starring Not worth listing them
Theatre Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood

This one is going back a bit to the beginning of 2013, however we at the Ephemeric feel it is of vital importance to say what needs to be said here.

For a brief moment The Ephemeric would like to break "blogger's anonymity" and speak just about myself. I have never walked out of a movie or play in my life, and lord knows I have seen some pretty bad ones. I very almost walked out of this play. Many people did walk out of this play. I suspect that most of the people who did not walk out of the play were wishing they had sat closer to the exits so that they could have done.

In the Republic of Happiness manages something extremely impressive in that it so perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong about theatre, everything that is wrong about theatre journalism (albeit a minority in this case) and everything that is wrong about the element of sycophantic theatre-goers who will "enjoy" a play because they feel they are supposed to do so, without really giving thought to what they are watching.

Let's begin by introducing you to the author. This is Martin CrimpHere he is againAnd again. Ordinarily one should never judge a book by its cover, however in this case it's hard not to. If I asked you to picture someone who looks pretentious, it would probably look like those photos. The pose, the hair, the black and white, the clothes; yes even the man himself looks like a parody, like he was assembled in a lab from parts of history's most pretentious looking people.

It turns out this is no coincidence because this is exactly how the play feels. Crimp's writing has the feel of a disgruntled GCSE English student who doesn't really understand the intellectual literature he is being forced to read, and instead churns out a derivative imitation of what he thinks sounds intellectual in the hopes of fooling his teacher into believing that there is some deeper meaning.

As a result this is a play full of empty dialogue which wrongly believes that just by sounding obtuse and vague you can add this deeper meaning. It is true that the greatest plays tell most of their story through unspoken subtext, but only a true hack could believe that vague and directionless dialogue is what creates this subtext. What makes it even more unbearable is just how forced and tacky it all sounds. If you were trying to come up with some parody of vapid, pretentious theatre it would sound a lot like this. It was honestly half way through the production before it became clear that this was not all an elaborate set up for some form of self-satire, that's how brazenly bad it all was.

Then came the middle third of the production, the absolute rock bottom. At this point the more traditional scripted scene that had been unfolding (badly) in front of us gave way to something akin to a television interview, with the cast lining up chairs facing the audience and talking directly to us. What followed was one of the most bizarre and meaningless series of non-sequiturs I have ever sat through, and this segment lasted an hour.

It goes something like this: one character will say something completely irrelevant and asinine, like "I like the way my bum looks in the mirror". Then the character sitting next to them will repeat the sentence, only with a slightly different intonation. Then the next person will repeat the sentence, but with slightly different wording, and so on in this fashion. Then someone will say the word "vagina" randomly, and the cast will break out into song. Oh yes, there are songs.

What is the purpose of this dialogue? To show that people share the same insecurities perhaps? Do we really need to sit through 2 hours of incredibly tedious and repetitive nonsense just to hear that? Especially when the various phrases spouted off are mostly completely banal stereotypes of people that don't actually exist in the real world. For that matter how does this in any way relate to the opening scene, or the closing one which barely even merits mentioning?

This play is mercifully long gone from the theatres, but do yourself a favour and if you ever see Martin Crimp on a playbill you get the hell out of there and burn the tickets. I give you 1 star Mr. Crimp, and you owe me two hours of my life back.

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