Tag Archives: Mark Ravenhill

Interview: Mark Ravenhill

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

“They can be quite unnerving,” Mark Ravenhill says of the Secret Theatre company, suggesting that their 12 months of working together has given way to a kind of openness he hasn’t come across in many rehearsal rooms. He elaborates further: “On the whole, everyone in British theatre is on these short contracts so everyone makes this big effort. And although you might think it’d be nice to be rid of that, it’s actually a little bit disarming for the first few days because they’re quite neutral. They’re very calm and centred. It takes a while to adjust to that.”

Ravenhill is a late addition to the Secret Theatre ensemble. He joined the company after Lyndsey Turner (who directed his adaptation of Candide at the RSC last year) suggested he write to Sean Holmes asking to be involved – “You don’t know if you don’t ask”. Continue reading Interview: Mark Ravenhill

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“Candide” by Mark Ravenhill

inspired by Voltaire

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 5th September 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

There are two definitions of “optimism” in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first is the one we immediately think of, meaning “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something”. But it is the second definition that Mark Ravenhill’s Candide – inspired by Voltaire’s 1759 satire of the same name – attempts to question, offering an interrogation of “the doctrine, especially as set forth by Leibniz, that this world is the best of all possible worlds”. And though these two meanings sound similar, there’s a subtle difference in tense. Ravenhill’s target is that sickly-sweet, self-perpetuating belief that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds”. It’s at once savage, despairing and difficult, but in Lyndsey Turner’s production it is certainly never dull.

True to the original, Ravenhill’s play opts for a picaresque structure, though he kicks off with a seemingly traditional opening as we watch Candide presented with a theatrical rendition of his life story. Continue reading “Candide” by Mark Ravenhill

“A Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht

in a new translation by Mark Ravenhill at the Swan Theatre, Tuesday 12th February 2013

Originally written for Exeunt.

Roxana Silbert’s production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo is rather exquisitely timed. In a time when the science and reason movement really feels like it has the potential to change the way we think for the better and governments slash research budgets without remorse, the story of the life of the great Italian mathematician says much about our current historical moment. Even more bizarre, however, is the way in which this production discusses the place of the Catholic Church especially between Popes (though, looking at the text, I’m pretty sure a line about the Pope resigning must have been added in in the last couple of days).

The play is a clear hymn for the glories of human reason, and the problems with mixing science and ideology, as the eponymous hero is forced to recant his discoveries proving true the Copernican system in order to save his life. In Mark Ravenhill’s translation, it feels like we get a little more sympathy for Galileo than Brecht’s original suggests, as it becomes clear that the stance of this production is to demonstrate that the protagonist is put upon by oppressive, dogmatic state forces working against him. The most questionable aspect of this man is the way he treats his daughter Virginia, especially seeing as, in a world where the Higgs Boson is widely discussed and images of the stars hungrily consumed, it is easy to side with the man who has reason on his side.

Ian McDiarmid’s collected performance as Galileo is the beating heart of the production, beginning as a smart, assured scientist living off the joy of his discoveries even though he’s grossly underpaid. The sparkle in his eyes as he explains the universe is intoxicating, and makes his final descent into solemnity and semi-insanity all the more tragic. Even then, however, as he sits slumped in a chair, there is still the glimmer of the stars present in his eyes, as he passes on his manuscript to Andrea, who has shifted from his student to his protégé. The future lies in youth.

I was initially unsure about the decision to cast the adult Matthew Aubrey as the young Andrea, but having this consistency throughout actually ends up making a lot of sense. Seeing his development as both a thinker as a young man as the years progress, the play becomes just as much his as Galileo’s.

Though the position of contemporary authorities to shifts in knowledge is better now than it was in both Brecht’s and Galileo’s contexts, there are still times when it feels like some in power would wish many of us to stay ignorant (or at least not discover things which differ from their opinions). In Silbert’s production, there is a clear warning that we ought to be careful of cuts to university budgets and continue to fight for higher spending in areas of knowledge and research.

The aesthetic of Tom Scutt’s design could probably be defined as ‘semi-Brechtian’, taking hints of the German’s thinking and applying them to the modern stage. Dot matrices hang vertically from the ceiling for example, spelling out descriptions from each scene in a style reminiscent of The Matrix, and scene changes occur simply by winding up the graph-paper backdrop and wheeling on whatever is needed for the following scene (staircases on wheels, tables and chairs). Lighting by Rick Fisher suggests where we look to get a better understanding.

Brechtian moments pepper the show but never overwhelm the story (which can be either a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes). At the beginning of each scene, the poems written by Brecht are set to music by Nick Powell, allowing comments on what is happening to permeate, whilst a carnival at the opening of the second act facilitates the singing of “Who doesn’t want to be their own master?”.

On occasion, the supporting cast is a little underwhelming (though in Galileo they perform better than in the other two ‘World Elsewhere’ plays) but with McDiarmid at the centre this doesn’t feel like much of an issue. I also wouldn’t mind a little more chutzpah on occasion, but there is no doubt that Silbert’s focus on the text demonstrates A Life of Galileo to be a truly great modern classic.

“Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Wednesday 8th August 2012

My main issue with the World Shakespeare Festival, as I have bemoaned many times on this very blog, is that collaboration has never really been forthcoming; the Shipwreck Trilogy simply used British actors and put them in a foreign setting, whilst Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad was little more than an international company being housed by the RSC. At last, however, we get a glimpse of what true collaboration should look like, as America’s The Wooster Group and Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company collaborate on Troilus and Cressida, creating a tribal, zany, intelligent and mind-boggling production which makes the mind race.

The Americans and the Brits worked on their aspects of the production separately before working on the finished product, so keeping in line with this separatist approach, it seems best to look at each ‘tribe’ in turn.

Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the Trojans are recast as Native Americans, living a happily sheltered lifestyle surrounded by totems which hold television screens which play clips from films. I only wish that I knew what these movies were, for the actors mimic the gestures of the on-screen characters, and I’m sure the choice of scenes is pertinent; what this creates is a sense of performance and a Zizekian struggle with what is “real” in this world. The pulsing, disorienting music for these sections, created by Bruce Odland, strikes a note of discordancy as this world is torn asunder by the violent Greeks. The intertextuality created by the use of screens is heightened by the fact their tribal costume consists of wearable Trojan statues. Though the performances are a little stilted, they force us out of a reverie caused by overly-structured verse speaking and ensures we listen to the language anew.

This is most evident in Scott Shepard and Marin Ireland’s Troilus and Cressida. Both have amplified voices and a crisp delivery, filling in the lack of emotion with an intelligent examination of the lines. Shepard (hard not to love post-Gatz) eclipses Ireland due to the strength of his characterisation and the plainness of Cressida here. This production is not about lovers, however; it is about fighters.

The British sections, directed by Mark Ravenhill, are a little easier to come to terms with, though this is surely due to their comparative traditionalism (which says more about us as an audience than the play). The Greeks are here modern soldiers, which creates an overall sense of colonialism as the (impressive) battle scenes emerge at the play’s climax. The screens here show a frequency line reflecting the tones spoken, which pits the RSC’s language-based approach against the Wooster Group’s image-based one (though this may be overthinking things somewhat – this production does that to you). More attention has been paid here to performance; Zubin Varla’s wheelchair-bound Thersites is searingly witty and Danny Webb’s Agamemnon commands attention. Scott Handy’s Ulysses is the closest we come to a traditional performance in this production, and pulls some loose strands together.

What this creates is an overwhelming sense of this production as a postmodern cross-cultural take on the play. It’s not an easy watch; the fact we have two entirely different companies means we have to adjust to the feel of each, meaning much is lost at the beginning of each scene as we make that shift. I also question to what extent this is collaboration seeing as the two ‘tribes’ have worked on their pieces separately and a cohesive whole is never realised (though this is, clearly, the point). With many people, this production won’t go down well due to the fact you can’t simply sit back and take it in. Nevertheless, if you pay attention and untangle the web, it’s difficult not to stop playing over this production in your head for a long time afterwards.

Latitude 2012

Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012

There is an ever-pervasive sense of irony present at Latitude; tens of thousands of liberal lefties flock to Suffolk every year for a festival which boasts green and ethical credentials but which is run by the gigantic Festival Republic, charges £189 for a ticket and thrives on commercialism. All whilst teens flaunting their ‘alternative’ music and fashion tastes in tweed jackets jump up and down to Bon Iver in innumerable quantities, making their ‘alternative’ label redundant.

So getting away from this odd situation in the theatre tent in the forest is a necessity from time to time, just to make sure we’re not being drowned in irony. I hate to generalise, but the theatre on offer at this year’s festival seemed to fit into two camps (at least from what I saw): the truly brilliant or the truly awful.

I’ll start with the latter so I can finish this retrospective on a high note. Unfortunately, the theatre organisers at the festival seem to commission a lot of companies to do work for them without checking that these groups have created a work of quality. Though I understand it’s tough to do theatre outside whilst competing against sound from bands, Theatre Delicatessen’s Henry V  included only a few actors who seemed to have been trained in projection and in any case merely resembled a low-key and lazy version of the National Theatre’s 2003 production. The Just Price of Flowers, by Stan’s Cafe, attempts to make the 2008 financial crisis more digestible and entertaining by demonstrating its similarities to tulip trading in 17th century Netherlands, but is far too long, monotonous and dull. The Brechtian techniques it uses fall flat due to this repetition and the few endearing moments can be easily overlooked due to the lack of variety. Harold in Havana, a rehearsed reading of snippets of Pinter’s work which was taken to Cuba last year and including David Bradley, Adjoa Andoh and Janie Dee, suffered from the same thing; the piece ran forty minutes over its advertised one hour running time and was simply too repetitive and indulgent to be enjoyable.

Nabokov’s Symphony was also somewhat disappointing, though it did at least remember it was in a festival setting; the production is a trio of plays written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne which uses monologue and duologue to tell stories, each of which is interspersed with original songs. The pieces improve as the evening goes on, but each is let down by an abundance of cliché (understandable for a twenty-minute play, perhaps) and shoddy sound. Look Left, Look Right’s Not Another Musical is difficult to watch for the same reasons. Though it went down well with the audience at Latitude, the tongue-in-cheek humour feels lazy and not enough work has been put in to each of the four mini-musicals to make them a genuine satire of the genre.

Aside from RashDash Theatre’s superb Set Fire to Everything, which uses song and music to comment on the difficulties of modern life, the better theatre at the festival was that which, as far as I can tell, had not been created specifically for this setting. Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange makes Anthony Burgess’ dreadful script work as a stylised piece of theatre, which commits completely to the all-male cast and manages to make the story relevent to our post-Soviet world. Bank Puppets’ Swamp Juice, though created for children, includes some of the most inventive and funny puppetry I’ve seen and finishes with a genuinely impressive 3D sequence. Theatre Ad Infinatum’s Translunar Paradise, which, like A Clockwork Orange and Swamp Juice, also premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is a beautiful representation of love, devoid of cliché and featuring hypnotic movement. It is ideal for a festival setting, favouring music and visual aids over speaking and wrenching us away from the madness outside the tent.

The theatrical highlight of the festival came, for me, in the unlikely White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by the Gate Theatre. The play is only given to the performer, in this case Marcus Brigstocke, as they come onto stage, and is little more than a dialogue between audience, actor and author, but it is without a doubt one of the most challenging and innovative pieces of writing I’ve seen in the past year, creating drama unlike any I have ever witnessed in a theatre. For various reasons it’s difficult to go into much detail, but trust me, if you can a chance, this is a must-see.

More than anything, the theatre at Latitude 2012 raised questions about the nature of staging productions in festival environments;  the productions which worked were simply well-made and thoughtful pieces. It was frustrating to watch so many companies trying to jump over hurdle six before clearing hurdle one; the work itself must first be of a high standard before trying to make it work in a specific environment. In a festival full of irony, the irony here was that the best performances came straight from conventional settings and weren’t trying hard to work amid the hubub outside, fuelling the idea that the best theatre can work anywhere.

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