Tag Archives: The National Theatre

Learning a bit of crazy

I’ve got so used to feeling crazy – off my own bat – that I was surprised to remember something the other week. You can learn crazy behaviour, too.

It was thinking back to when I took a Commonwealth literature course at university, which in turn I remembered because I was blogging about the death of Chinua Achebe. And starting to write about the influence of my then tutor – Britta Olinder – at the English department at Gothenburg, I recalled how she set off some new craziness in me.

Actually, I probably tempted her. I was wanting to take four weeks out of term to go to London. I always went to London in those days. It was my crazy. The thing is, you don’t expect a teacher type person to encourage you to skip four weeks of classes, and then to tell you all that you must do when you’re gone.

So, Britta got all enthusiastic and mentioned all the plays I’d want to see in London, including the one I sort of used to justify my absence with, Under Milk Wood. I was writing my essay that term about Under Milk Wood, at her recommendation.

The others in my group got all excited, too, and some of them asked me to get them various stuff in London. So, all was well, and I went to plays, including UMW.

Once back, I found Britta making plans. She wanted to go on a theatre trip to London. She thought that we should all go. Not necessarily in term time, but anyway. She looked through the Observer for inspiration, and she picked a week in February (this was 1979) and phoned round all the theatres and made group bookings for tickets.

Then she set about getting funding. I’m such an idiot I’d have happily paid myself. But with various gifts and group dicounts and with it being off season, we got our week for the princely sum of around £45. That’s hotel, flight, eight plays and two tours. Even in the stone ages that was good value. And off we went.

I mean, the thought would never have occurred to me that you could see two plays in a day, and that you could go to the theatre every day. We did, and on matiné days we got two performances. In he mornings we gathered in the breakfast room and talked drama. Britta told people how to get to the theatres, and I corrected her and suggested a better way. We were all happy.

We saw so much and such varied stuff. Plays I’d never have thought of picking if I’d done it on my own. We saw ‘real’ actors off television. John Thaw. Did the tour behind the scenes at the National. It was great.

And once the seed of madness had been sown, I knew I could do this alone, and I did. Obviously not with funding from any bodies of any kind, but it was a good hobby to have discovered. And all because I was keen on truanting from my education.

That’s disturbing

Let’s talk about bladders and other disturbing stuff! Are you sitting comfortably? Might be best to visit the toilet now, before we begin.

I was struck by the discussion about Bianca Jagger and whether or not she used flash to take photos at the opera. It doesn’t matter whether she’s famous. It’s neither more or less right for the famous to behave badly. And the way people use phone cameras or other digital cameras it’s often hard to tell if the bright light you see is flash, or simply the camera going about its business.

At the recent Joan Baez concert I went to, it said flash photography was not permitted, which I took to mean that photos without were fine, so I got my camera out. But after a while I felt the light visible when I used it was not acceptable to people sitting opposite me, so I put it away, and only got it out again at the end when absolutely everyone was taking pictures, with flash and everything.

John Barrowman

Daughter has been known to agonise over the legality of taking pictures at concerts. It often says you mustn’t. But people still do. I don’t feel there should be any ‘rights’ to images of someone singing on a stage. (Different for theatre productions.) What I do feel is that people shouldn’t disturb others.

The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner reckons ‘people’s bladders have quite clearly got weaker over the last 20 years,’ and I know what she means, but suspect the answer is that they haven’t. What has changed is people’s habit of drinking indiscriminately at all times, regardless of what they are about to do, like go to the theatre. And also that they have got neither the instinct to try and ‘hold it in’ nor the inclination not to keep leaving their seats from – usually – the middle of the row.

If I have to ‘go out’ mid performance I tend to wait for a suitable moment both for leaving and for returning. I was a bit disconcerted at the National Theatre to find that the usher hovered anxiously outside the Ladies until I emerged again, and checked I was all right. Very caring and sensible, but I’m glad I didn’t know until then.

Went to the MEN arena for an S Club concert many years ago. Was startled by how the audience kept popping out for food and drink in the middle of the show. I suppose it’s the sports arena mentality, coupled with the sheer noise level at these events.

The understanding of what disturbs others varies from country to country. During Roger Whittaker’s concert in Cologne I waited for a song to finish before returning to my seat, only to have the usher urging me to just go in. She clearly thought I was stark raving mad for thinking of others.

And speaking of Roger; I once sat next to a woman, who was happily singing along to every single song. Having exchanged pleasantries on arrival, I felt it would be rude to complain, even though she was ruining ‘my’ concert. I thought if I asked her to shut up, I would ruin her evening instead. I gritted my teeth, almost cheered when Roger got to a song she didn’t know, and after the interval I asked the Resident IT Consultant to swap seats with me.

It is not always the audience who has mishaps, either. I recall the tiny St Paul’s chorister who was sick on stage and had to be bundled out by an older ‘boy.’

To get back to the bladders, it all depends on how long you have to sit through something. Films are frequently dreadfully long these days, with the added pain of too many commercials and too many trailers. With no interval necessary as cinema equipment improves, we simply have to pop out mid-film. And seeing as they want us to buy buckets of fizzy drinks, how can they possibly mind the running in and out? Nor is popcorn terribly silent to eat, and not odour free, either.

At least films don’t talk back to the audience when they rustle their sweet wrappers a little too loudly. Perhaps they should.

NT getting closer

Now I may no longer have to consider whether I can face the journey to London to go to the National Theatre. They are setting up some magic so that people can go to Cornerhouse in Manchester and see some of the National’s plays live.

They are starting big, with Hamlet on the 9th of December, with Rory Kinnear as the prince. Then it will be Fela! on 13th January and King Lear on 3rd February. Frankenstein in March and The Cherry Orchard in June complete the season.

I have never seen anything like this, so have no clear idea of whether it works well or not. But with the modern magic available, it makes sense to bring culture to the ‘sticks’. And they may as well practise on Manchester before they do…

The Habit of Art

I pity the poor playwright whose characters keep arguing about what they should be like. Or maybe I don’t. It could be that some timely input from those who have to climb into the skins of other people are best placed to know what will work. Although I would draw the line at drag and tuba playing. Goddess of wind; I think not. If nothing else, in a play where they pee in the kitchen sink and fart in character, wind is worth not mentioning.

Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art is rather like an onion. There are enough layers to confuse you. So it’s about a group of actors rehearsing a play – Caliban’s Day – about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. But it’s also about Fitz and Henry who play Auden and Britten. There is the difference between the play’s play’s Auden and Britten and the real ones. And then there is the audience watching Alan Bennett’s drama, which opened at The Lowry last night.

Desmond Barrit in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

It’s a National Theatre original, and it shows, with direct references to the National. That would have been good had we actually been in the Olivier auditorium, but the touring version of Bennett’s drama could do with some local re-writes. Perhaps mentioning a toilet in the Lowry where Fitz could ‘do his business’ without being overheard. It was a little like finding out you’re a replacement for someone else at the dinner party.

Speaking of parties, Fitz has never brought cake to any productions he’s acted in, having been a star at all times. It’s the smallest part actor who brings cake. So no cake even for The Birthday Party. This time round it seems the cake bringer might have defected to the Chekhov play.

It’s an almost exclusively male cast, again. Maybe Bennett can’t do women? He’s pretty good with gay characters, however, which isn’t surprising. The play within the play’s rent boy is keen to take his clothes off, while Fitz is desperate to be allowed to smoke. And Henry as himself, rather than as Britten, knows a surprising amount about what rent boys do.

The Habit of Art refers continuously to Shakespeare and all of of art and culture. ‘Thomas Mann was my father-in-law’, and there’s news that Tolkien has written another effing novel about elves.

Desmond Barrit and Malcolm Sinclair in The Habit of Art, photo by Catherine Ashmore

There is a set-within-the-set, so two kitchens. One for peeing in and one for the actors to make their coffee. They wander about on the stage going about their business, leaving the audience to wake up to the fact that the play has begun. We had a 20-minute interval, whereas they only had 15 minutes. Brian from the Chekhov wandered in to chat.

Not so difficult to know when the play ends. Someone switching off the lights and leaving is a pretty obvious hint. And I wonder if Prospero is all right?

It’s a very enjoyable onion.

Terry Pratchett platform at the National

I could smell Marmite. I’m sure of it. I looked around me in the Olivier stalls, hoping to catch the Marmite in action and frown a little, but the only thing I caught was a salmon salad in the row in front of me. Either it was a Marmite fed salmon, or the Marmite was elsewhere but so pungent that it made itself noticed all over.

Yesterday’s platform event with Terry Pratchett at the Olivier just before the evening performance of Nation was well attended, and people just love Terry. He was in good form, considering he’d already sat through at least four interviews, and had had barely time to be fed. Terry could have done with the salmon, I’d say.

On stage he was interviewed by Sara LeFanu, who got her dates and facts a little mixed up, but not about anything major. The drawback with a platform event featuring two people ‘in conversation’ is that the audience only gets half as much as they do with someone talking directly to the audience. I realise this suited Terry better, but we would all have loved more.

And although this was about Nation as a play, once Terry and Sara had talked about the background for the book, the Q&A session with the audience was almost exclusively about Discworld. Audiences tend to go really quite deaf when it comes to this kind of thing. They are asked to stick to certain topics, and then blithely go on about whatever is nearest to their hearts, anyway.

But it was good, with very heartfelt applause as Terry left again.

Nation at the National

As a job description ‘parrot’ can’t strike an actor as the most marvellous of parts to land, but as with all previous birds at the National Theatre, this parrot is almost the best in the whole play. Almost. The vultures aren’t exactly lovely, but cleverly done. But as I said, Milton the parrot, played by Jason Thorpe was loved by all.

Nation at the National Theatre by Johan Persson

And for all ladies currently swooning over a certain vampire actor, I can recommend Gary Carr, who is Mau in Nation. As Daphne, the young English girl says when she encounters Mau the first time, he really is a very fine specimen. Unfortunately the very lightly clad Mau wears trousers in the second half.

Melly Still and Mark Friend have done a great job of making the NT stage into a tsunami wrecked tropical island that’s believable, and Mark Ravenhill has adapted Terry Pratchett’s Nation in an imaginative way. After seeing several children’s novels adapted to the stage at the NT, I’ve stopped worrying about how it can possibly be done. It can. It’s as simple as that.

Mau is left alone on his (alternate) Pacific island after the tsunami strikes, and Daphne (or Ermintrude as she is called at first) is washed ashore off her English ship. They learn to understand each other as they go along, and as the island collects more survivors from elsewhere. Mau learns how to be a chief, despite his young age, and Daphne, played by Emily Taaffe,  becomes adept at making beer and spitting in it, and in helping babies being born, which is unusual for a 19th century girl whose father is 139th in line to the throne. She gives up her stays and switches to a straw skirt.

It was clear from the shocked gasps from the audience when *** that many hadn’t read the book, whereas your witch was able to be quite calm about it.

The novel has been changed a little, but I surprised myself by being surprised at how touching the end is. While providing entertainment and fun, Nation also gives us something to think about.How we live, how to make choices, how to run a country whether you are an island chief or the King of England.

And the parrot is great. Did I already mention that?

(Photo © Johan Persson – Jason Thorpe as Milton the parrot, Emily Taaffe as Daphne and Gary Carr as Mau)