Theatre Review: The Mistress Contract, Royal Court Theatre

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Abi Morgan, Britain’s script writer du jour, is the woman with the pen behind big screen hits such as Shame and The Iron Lady and the small screen misfire The Hour (that I actually rather enjoyed) as well as many other TV and movie screenplays. And now she’s taking on theatre with her playwriting debut The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court, an adaptation of the true story of one couple’s attempt to redefine the nature of relationships – or at least their own.

The book is written by the anonymous She and He, now 88 and 93 respectively. It’s written as a dialogue based on the conversations they have logged on an archaic looking Sony tape recorder during their 30 year relationship.

We first meet She (Saskia Reeves) and He (Danny Webb) in her (paid for by him) modernist glass house in the desert (masquerading as a garden as She pointed out at one point) that’s full of very unsubtle phallic cacti. It’s 1981 and She looks like Diane Keaton in Anna Hall. This may or may not be deliberate, there was certainly something very Woody Allen about the production, all introspective, slightly self-conscious discussions, half-ideas flinched from the stacks of books that piled up and up after each scene.

They had first meet at college in the 1950s. They were both married when they chanced upon each other some 30 years later, a meeting that led to an affair that would span three decades and ultimately spawn a book and this play.  She is a committed, academic feminist with three children whose conflicted feelings about men and marriage lead her to the idea of drawing up a contract between her and her lover. He would provide her with a home and an income in return for “all sexual acts as requested with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers”.

The structure of the book lends itself well to a stage production, although would the nature of these conversations (essentially: two people sparring about gender politics and an awful lot of navel gazing) make for engaging theatre?

The answer is: on the whole, yes. The opening 10 minutes of this one act play with its talk of blow jobs, orgasms and all night sex sessions seemed to set the scene for a randy 90 minutes, much to the disgust of two Chelsea ladies who walked out noisily during one of the scene’s more revealing (verbally at least) parts.

But this bawdy start soon gave way to something far more introspective and political. The Mistress Contract was remarkably free of sex; it’s a story of feminism and gender politics within a relationship and also the changing nature of feminism – is She’s Andrea Dworkin-style book-focused feminism still relevant in a world where too many people (wrongly) believe the equality job is done?

The two actors were quietly engaging and handle the whiff of pretension with a down-to-earth relatability. She and He could come across as rather silly pseudo intellectuals, but Reeves and Webb instilled them with a likability. Webb in particular handles He with aplomb. He who goes from a bolshy bloke full of machismo and misplaced sexual confidence to a shuffling, baseball wearing old man, content to talk irrigation systems over the breakfast table without the shift feeling jarring.

The Mistress Contract raises a great many questions that it doesn’t answer: was She’s decision to hand over control to a man enlightening or a betrayal of her beliefs? Was she not putting all the power in his hands? Or was she allowing him to discover himself what she meant to him? Was their contract any less restricting than a marriage? These make for many an overheard lively conversation in the Royal Court bar afterwards.

The end goes rather meta as the two of them, now shuffling around a fax machine waiting for their editor’s verdict on their manuscript. With the imminent publication of their book, their project – and their relationship – was over. Or was it…

The Mistress Contract is now booking at the Royal Court until 22 March. Visit www.royalcourttheatre.com for tickets.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is such a tease, drip feeding us just three novels in 18 years. This slowly, slowly approach wouldn’t be quite so bad if she hadn’t, in 1992, cunningly ensnared the whole planet into an enticing world of murderous students with her debut novel The Secret History.

The world went nuts for The Secret History and to make it even more exciting the woman behind the novel was as mysterious and compelling as the book she penned. She seemed to arrive from no-where to write the novel of the decade and her hair was so great! There were even rumours that this ‘Donna Tartt’ (no-one’s called ‘Donna Tartt’!) was actually the pen-name of her (former boyfriend) Bret Easton Ellis. Lies!

The very real Tartt then made her fans (i.e. the planet) wait 10 years – 10 years! – for her next novel. When it finally arrived The Little Friend was A Little Deflating. But despite its flaws, I rather liked it. I enjoyed the claustrophobic, sticky heat of the Mississippi backdrop and the haunting atmosphere of an unsolved murder as seen through the eyes of a child.

Then Tartt disappeared again to work on her bob third novel, or so we hoped. Eleven years, 11 years! – later she delivered The Goldfinch, a doorstop of a novel that promised a whole new exciting Tartt-world within its Bible-like bearing.

The reviews for The Goldfinch have swung between rapturous and reviled, with some critics declaring it as weightily important as its physical heftiness implies. Others, meanwhile, have dismissed it as a waffling, repetitive, often tedious… oh no, wait that’ll be me.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker who steals the Carel Fabritius painting of the title during an explosion in a New York art gallery that kills his mother. This catastrophe leads him on a road that takes him to New York’s fancy Upper West side, to a half-built Las Vegas suburb, an antique shop in Greenwich Village and a damp December Amsterdam. Along the way he meets – briefly – his alcoholic dad; trouble in the form of Russian Boris; kindness at the connected Barbours’; warmth and a home with Hobie and Pippa. He also discovers prescription drugs, vodka and antique fraud.

Conveniently for Tartt’s narrative, Theo locks up the painting in a storage hold for years where it’s safely out of the way of the police and the plot. The Goldfinch (the painting) seems to be purely symbolic (it’s a small bird chained to a pole, yeah? It’s beautiful and cruel LIKE LIFE PEOPLE) rather than a plot device. It only leaps to the forefront of the novel during the finally jarring chapters where the plot suddenly becomes Pulp Fiction’s European Vacation, the pace revving up along with the body count.

Tartt is a beautiful writer and there are many striking descriptive passages, I particularly loved her vivid sketches of New York that placed you on the garbage-reeking streets of the Meatpacking district in July or in a cosy bar in a Greenwich Village basement in winter. But perhaps her skill at conjuring up a world with her pen so expertly is the problem; no one, least of all her, wants to take a red Bic to her wonderful words and so we get the same thing same three different ways over three different pages. After a while all her lovely words negate their beauty; Donna, love, it’s time to find the delete key.

Theo should have been an interesting character, but he falls rather flat on paper and his voice is monotonous and humourless (granted, as an orphan which PTS he doesn’t have a great deal to giggle about). He’s a law-breaking good guy with a charm that may seduce the other characters but fails to shine from the pages.  And the ending is way too neat, is that really all we get for ploughing through nearly 800 pages? Cheers DT!

I won’t wait with baited breath for the next 12 years (if she follows the pattern she’s set) for Donna Tartt’s next novel otherwise the disappointment may be as crushing as having a bookshelf-worth of The Goldfinch fall on me. But while I wait, I’m off to read Tartt’s idol, Charles Dickens, a man who loved a lengthy descriptive paragraph, but knew – usually – when to stop.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Mojo, Harold Pinter theatre

The star-studded Mojo cast

The star-studded Mojo cast

London’s theatre scene is so jam packed with certified stars at the moment that the lights of Hollywood must be a little dimmed.

Mojo, the Jez ‘Jerusalem’ Butterworth penned play, written 13 years before his smash hit, manages to squeeze not one, but three big egos names onto the stage at the Harold Pinter theatre.

With Q, Ron Weasley and Mr Bates on one stage, Mojo sounds like some super tribute to screen Britain. In reality it’s more like an all too real 2am Saturday night Britain after the country has collectively downed one too many Sambucas. It’s fidgety, brittle, twitchy, testosterone-fuelled and, often, incoherent.

Mojo is set in a seedy club in 1950s Soho, back in its pre-Hummus Bros days when gangsters and sex shops dominated the narrow streets east of Regents Street. There’s been a murder off stage; Ezra, the club’s owner has been found in two bins by the manager Mickey (a weary Brendan Coyle) one July morning, his body parts thought to be put there by Sam Ross, a rival in the rock’n’roll wars. Ezra’s son, Baby, sheds few tears for his father, but his steely composure at the news of his dad’s death belies an anger and thirst for revenge. Caught in the middle of these warring rivals – and Baby’s dormant wroth – is Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries) a burgeoning rock‘n’roll star set for Stateside success according to the club’s ‘suits’, Sweets (Rupert Grint) and Potts (Daniel Mays).

A play about 1950s cockney gangsters is never going to be warm and cosy, but Mojo, while smart and witty and largely well-acted, lacks a heart. It’s like watching a drama workshop where the actors are improvising and failing to connect with each other. The characters shout, stomp and swear with little impact.  There are some very funny lines, although many of these get lost in the turmoil, but there is little to love.

Daniel Mays is a fantastic actor who often eclipses  the bigger stars he shares a screen – or in this case – a stage with. Mays and the brilliant Ben Whishaw as the cool, cruel Baby give the play depth and focus; their shoulders must be hurting from holding it up.

Brendan Coyle looks like he’d rather be polishing Lord Grantham’s shoes or pushing rapists off pavements – anywhere, anywhere – than on the stage at the Harold Pinter theatre playing a ropey nightclub manager who may have had a hand in murdering his boss. He was so over the whole thing that he even abandoned his cockney accent in the second half.

Rupert, has taken the well trodden path of shaking off his child star past by treading the boards in a part where he gets to say ‘fuck’ a lot. He’s rather good, although despite dropping the f-bomb frequently, there’s more than a hint of his Harry Potter nemesis about his slacker Sweets role.

Funny and frantic, for all its star billing and big writer and director combo (Ian Rickson once again joins Butterworth), Mojo didn’t catch my imagination, it was perhaps too stylised, too self-consciously theatrical to pull you into its seedy underworld.

by Suzanne Elliott

Mojo runs until 8 February 2014 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street W1. For more information and tickets, visit www.mojotheplay.com.

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Don is a 39-year-old professor of genetics at a prestigious university. “Tall, fit and intelligent”, he’s good-looking, with an above-average income who can rustle up a fancy lobster salad on a Tuesday night so effortlessly that he can solve a genetics problem in his head simultaneously.

But for all his obvious charms, Don has never had much luck with women, or in fact, with people in general. He has only two friends; Gene, a womanising colleague whose goal it is is to have sex with a woman from every country on the map, and his long-suffering wife Claudia, a clinical psychologist. Don used to count his sister as one of his friends, but she died due to ‘gross and inexcusable medical incompetence’ a year earlier.

Don’s barrier to finding friends and love, is, we soon learn, because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him and finds other people as baffling as they find him. We’re never told Don’s on the autism spectrum, but we’re encouraged to assume he is. The closest we come is Claudia asking, after Don has given a lecture on autism to a group of ‘aspie’ children, whether the symptoms he lists are familiar. He answers, that yes they are, citing another professor at the university as an obvious candidate.

Don, approaching 40, decides that he would like a wife. There are many obstacles in the way of his dream, not least his fastidious about his partner. His check list is extensive and he decides to formalise his needs into a questionable questionnaire where reciprocants must answer correctly to ‘do you smoke?’, ‘are you vegetarian?’ ‘are you ever late?’, or risk being struck off The Wife Project.

Out of the blue (although with some assistance from Gene) Don meets Rosie who is as chaotic as Don is controlled. She smokes, she drinks, she is often late and she seems to lack the scientific qualifications that Don demands from a future wife. But for all her incompatibility, he can’t let go of her and, using the convenient excuse of helping her track down her real father with his genetic know-how, he contrives to spend as much time with her as possible, without understanding why.

The Rosie Project is written in the first person from Don’s point of view so we have direct access to his thought processes, which are always entirely rational, but frequently fall wide of society’s expectations. The results are proper looking-like-a-nutter-on-the-tube funny, but – and there will always be a question mark about writing about people with developmental disabilities, are you laughing with them or at them? – I felt like the joke was very much on us, the reader, and those in the book who consider Don the odd one.

Don is no loser, he’s utterly charming and rather a sexy character. Women clearly find him attractive (Rosie likens him to Gregory Peck) and he’s caring in a unknowingly selfless way. He reminded me (and my friend who read it first) of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock so much that I read the whole thing visualising him (yeah, I know not a bad thing) as Don. But that comparison rather does Don a disservice; our hero is far more understanding, kind and caring than Cumberbatch’s high-functioning sociopath.

For all it’s funny moments, The Rosie Project is also hugely touching and at times very, but unhysterical, sad. But we’re never manipulated; as we see everything through Don’s eyes, every situation and character is presented unencumbered with emotions. We as the reader get to evaluate everything purely on what we see so the characters are allowed to develop through our own eyes.

The Rosie Project is a gem of a book, it’s the kind of book you read in one sitting not because you’re desperate to know the ending like a edge of your seat thriller, but because you can’t bear to be parted from Don and his view of the world. It’s as joyful, touching and as heart-warming a romantic comedy as I’ve ever read. It’s exactly the remedy you need for a dreary January.

by Suzanne Elliott