Onward to the plays
You know, if I’d wondered if the convenience of NT Live‘s international broadcasts would make me less likely to see shows at the National Theatre, I have my answer, and it’s “no.” I saw three plays in London last week, and two of them were at the National.
I started with Sophocles’s tragedy, Antigone (in a translation by Don Taylor). Following a civil war, which saw King Creon the victor, Creon decrees that Polyneices, who fought on the losing side, not be buried. Instead, Polyneices’s body must lay out in the open, for vultures to devour; moreover, without the holy rites associated with burial, Polyneices will be deprived of peace in the afterlife. His sister, Antigone, will have none of this and intends to bury Polyneices herself, even though it means death for her under Creon’s order. Even if you haven’t seen or read Antigone, you can pretty much see where this is going. Antigone, the powerless female who has moral right on her side, is unmoving. Creon, the king who believes he is doing right by his people, is similarly unmoving. Early in the play, Polyneices gets buried, and Creon can’t possibly back down without losing face. It’s a downward spiral from here — ninety minutes after the show starts, half of the named characters are dead, and the survivors have all suffered as well.
The production appears to be set somewhere around the late 1960s; Creon doesn’t have a palace, just an office full of first-generation computer equipment staffed by a lot of men (a nice, if silent, commentary on the fact that the powerlessness of women Antigone faced wasn’t limited to ancient Greece). The National’s production features solid performances by Jodie Whittaker as the passionate Antigone and Christopher Eccleston as the immovable Creon. Although Antigone is the catalyst here, the play is actually Creon’s — it is his responses to Antigone’s actions which set the tragedy in motion and propel it toward its conclusion. And while Eccleston’s Creon is, undeniably, a jerk, whose hubris leads to the loss of everything he loves, he ultimately ends up as a sympathetic character, because Eccleston makes sure that Creon is no mere moustache-twirling villain. He believes that he is doing the right thing, both for his continued leadership and for the people he leads. When he ultimately learns the error of his ways, he is genuinely contrite, which makes his tragedy more compelling.
This production opens with Creon and his advisers gathered around a television, watching a critical battle of the war play out, in what is clearly reminiscent of the now iconic photo of President Obama and his cabinet watching the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound. I initially applauded the bit — I always like a clever piece of staging, and anything which makes Sophocles seem more timely is a good thing — but, ultimately, it made me a little uncomfortable. Certainly, in Sophocles’s world, Creon has a great fall because, in his pride, he set himself above the gods, denying them the body of Polyneices. But the suggestion of a parallel between Obama and Creon may be read to imply that our President should be paying more heed to the commands of religion. In the midst of a national debate in which some are suggesting that our nation’s policies (on certain “hot button” issues) should be guided by Biblical dictates, I bristle at any implication (even, perhaps, an accidental one) that in our “separation of Church and State” country, our President is making a dire mistake by not giving proper deference to what religion requires. I guess I’m happy to see Creon of Thebes meet his downfall for foolishly putting himself ahead of Zeus, but not nearly as happy at the implication that there’s a lesson here for modern American politics.
Next up at the National for me was Misterman, which I saw because, although I’d heard the play was strange, I also heard that Cillian Murphy gives one hell of a performance in it. (Also, Cillian Murphy has insanely beautiful eyes, and I’m shallow. At least, I’m allowed to be shallow when I’m on vacation.) All reports on this one are true: the play is weird; the performance is awards-calibre (and the eyes, in fact, are quite arresting). It is probably best not to try to figure out what’s going on in the play. Murphy, as one Thomas, appears to be living in a large warehouse, which he’s decorated with a bunch of crosses, and filled with a surprising number of reel-to-reel tape recorders. As he plays back various scenes from his life on the reel-to-reels, he interacts with them, and relives the events that he has recorded. Do not ask why he recorded these things. More than that, do not ask why he is playing them and talking back to them — that way lies only madness. To me, actually, madness seemed the best interpretation of what was going on. I’m not sure that Thomas physically lives in the warehouse and actually plays back these recordings; I’d rather believe that this warehouse is simply a manifestation of a very disturbed mind. (At one point, the idea struck me that Thomas’s warehouse could be compared to Sherlock Holmes’s “brain attic,” although, in Thomas’s case, his attic is full of memories from which he cannot escape.)
I didn’t entirely realize how amazingly good Murphy was in this thing until his curtain call. I mean, sure, it started off as a frantic, high-energy performance, as Thomas was disturbed by loud music he could not turn off. And, yes, from that point the energy never really dropped. As Thomas recounted and relived events, he sometimes played off the voices on the tapes and, at other times, directly took on the roles of the people with whom he had interacted. But this wasn’t Murphy playing the other characters, it was Murphy playing Thomas playing the other characters. Murphy doesn’t let the character of Thomas slip away until he takes his bow at the end — and it is only then that it hit me how completely he had inhabited this character. Everything changed — the way he moved, the way he stood, probably even the way he breathed. Murphy spent ninety minutes damn near literally living in the mind of a crazy person — and although I’m not much of a fan of the play in which he did it — as an example of the art of acting, it was hard to beat.
I took a train up to Sheffield, to check out Betrayal at the Crucible Theatre. Four hours of train ride for eighty minutes of Pinter. This makes total sense to me (although, if anyone else is compelled to try it, be sure to take an early train — the Crucible starts on time and only allows late seating through the far side door). To be completely honest, I did this because John Simm was in the play, and I think he’s a very interesting actor. I’d use words like “decisive” and “committed.” You don’t get a half-assed performance out of Simm; he clearly sees what he’s going to do with a character, and then gets down to the business of doing it, with complete dedication to his choices. More than that, he’s the sort of actor who will take a risk; his choices are sometimes unexpected, and he commits to the dangerous choices just as much as he commits to the safer ones. So, I was curious to see what he’d bring to the table for Betrayal.
Pinter’s 1978 play is (basically) the story of three people: Robert, wife Emma, and his best friend, Jerry, who had a lengthy affair with Emma. The play begins in 1977; the affair is long over and Emma meets up with Jerry to tell him that she discovered, just last night, that Robert was being unfaithful to her. She also tells Jerry that she finally told Robert about her affair with Jerry. In the next scene, Jerry meets Robert, thinking that an explanation is in order, maybe an apology, and perhaps an exploration of where their friendship can go from here, now that Robert knows that Jerry betrayed him with his own wife. But Robert has a surprise for Jerry — he has known about the affair for years — indeed, when it was ongoing — and intentionally said nothing. It is Jerry’s turn to feel betrayed — it appears that while he thought he was lying to his best friend, his best friend was lying to him. (And why did Emma say Robert had only just learned of the affair? Was she setting Jerry up for this?) From here, the play goes off in reverse — we first see the end of the affair, then we see the moment Robert learned of the affair. It runs all the way back in time to the moment, some ten years before the play began, where we see the very beginning of the affair that set it all in motion. Telling the story in reverse means there are no real plot surprises — after all, we know exactly how this will play out. Instead, the surprises are emotional ones — we don’t know, until we actually see it, how these people actually felt at these pivotal moments in their lives.
The men in this production fare a bit better than the woman. I never really got a solid read on what Ruth Gemmell’s Emma actually wanted (although, come to think of it, that may have been the point — perhaps she never quite knew herself). Colin Tierney had a tough path ahead of him in order to make Robert likeable. After all, Robert is the sort of person who clearly puts his friendship with Jerry ahead of his marriage to Emma — maybe if he’d considered his marriage to be more important, his wife wouldn’t have strayed in the first place. (Beyond that, the script gives Robert a throwaway line about hitting Emma. This sort of thing may have gone without comment back in 1978, but it made me take an instant dislike to Robert.) But as time winds backward, Tierney gives us glimpses into Robert’s heart, and when we see him discover that his wife and best friend have betrayed him, his reaction gains our sympathy. Simm’s Jerry is the most naive of the trio. While Robert is one of those urbane fellows who can chat civilly with fellow cuckolding him, Jerry can’t quite play that sort of game. He feels guilty over betraying Robert and genuinely hurt when he finds the tables are turned. (Terrific set, by the way, which actually turns the tables.) But the best bit of acting Simm turns in here is in the final scene, when alcohol loosens Jerry’s tongue, and he first expresses his interest to Emma. As I’ve come to expect, Simm’s commitment to the moment is complete, and he somehow made it clear that everything that we’ve just seen was, under the circumstances, completely inevitable.
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