Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Rita, Sue & Bob, Too' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Richard Davenport

What has the potential of being a murky, seedy, gloomy piece of class tourism is far from it. The Out of Joint Theatre Company revival of the classic 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob, Too by Andrea Dunbar is as much a commentary on youth and optimism in 2017 as it is a statement about early '80s Thatcherite dissatisfaction and rising unemployment for the disenfranchised.

With Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson assuming the roles of sassy 15-year-olds Rita and Sue, the play is already in good hands. These are two capable and assured actors who are more than at home playing the self-assured sheroes of the title. And while Hollyoaks' James Atherton has the, perhaps, unenviable task of playing the potentially unlikeable Bob, James somehow manages to makes us feel just a tad sorry for this discontented young man who is stuck in a loveless marriage and angry dissatisfaction with his lot. 

Whether you've seen a previous version of this play or you've seen the seminal 1987 film directed by Alan Clarke, there's a strong chance you know the plot. But just in case you don't... Bradford schoolgirls Rita and Sue are seduced by the father of the children they babysit. And when I say 'seduce', I use the word loosely. While driving them home, Bob stops by the moors and asks the girls if they fancy a "jump", and they do. What follows is 10 minutes of delightfully uncomfortable stage sex while the three cast members have sex while squashed into the front of a makeshift car. This is the least sexy sex scene you will ever see, but it is a triumph of deadpan acting and bored one liners. 

On paper, we should hate Bob. This is a 27-year-old married man with two young children who repeatedly seduces two underage girls. He's cheating on his wife (who angrily knows he's having it off with someone but can't work out who), he's breaking up the family home for his two children, he's knowingly committing rape by having sex with two minors... But Bob is such a pathetic character. He steadfastly refuses to believe he has done anything wrong. He certainly doesn't think he warrants the mouthful of abuse Sue's father (David Walker) delivers him. Poor old, Bob... (I say this with my tongue in my cheek).

But the reason why Rita, Sue and Bob, Too works is that to all intents and purposes it is Rita and Sue who are in control. While young, they're far from innocent. They may tell Bob they're virgins, but they're not. They have no belief initially that Bob will leave his wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) for either of them. They're just bored. They're on the cusp of leaving school knowing there are no jobs for them once they finish their unpaid Youth Training Schemes in a boring factory. They're living life while they can. They're just having fun.

The loyalty of the two young women to each other is impressive, and this is the true core of Andrea Dunbar's play. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered that they are sharing the same man. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered when they find out that Bob has been meeting them both secretly for sex without the other one. Rita and Sue live very much in the moment... until Rita becomes pregnant. At which point, true to her loyalty to her best friend, Sue becomes righteous with indignation at the suggestion that she will carry on having sex with Bob, because now he's having a baby with Rita there are boundaries to respect. Wow!

Much has rightly been written about Andrea Dunbar's extraordinary rise as a playwright, as well as her tragically short life. Much of what Andrea wrote was, at least partly, autobiographical, and she grew up on the kind of estates that Rita and Sue did. Doubtless she knew a Rita and a Sue. And it's this distance from the private school upbringing, the university education, the well-off parents of the majority of writers that means Andrea actually knows what she's talking about. She was a writer who actually understood what it was like to be a woman. 

Respect to Out of Joint Theatre for this production, and bravo for an excellent choice of casting. Rita, Sue and Bob, Too is only on at Bristol Old Vic until October 7, but the play continues to tour the UK until February 2018. Click here for more information.

Photo: Richard Davenport

Friday, 15 September 2017

'The Caretaker' at Bristol Old Vic

We are so accustomed to our multi-screen, sensory overload, short attention lifestyles that to see a three-hour, three-handed, dialogue-heavy classic play such as The Caretaker comes as a welcome jolt into concentration. Harold Pinter’s 1960 play is a fascinating study of power: who has it, who deserves it, who wants it.

Homeless older man Davies (Patrice Naiambana) is offered a place to rest by kindly Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) who lives in a rather squalid bedsit, which is where the entire play takes place. In Oliver Townsend’s set, the stage is decorated with salvaged random objects (ladders, sinks, broken cookers, shoes…) in an orderly reconstruction of the Steptoe & Son set. As time moves on, we are joined by the unsettling character of Mick (David Judge), who is Aston’s younger brother and the landlord of the house where the bedsit is. As The Caretaker progresses, the three men move up and down a metaphorical snakes and ladders to determine who has authority, who has power and who can determine the future of the others.

All three cast members are outstanding, offering something very different to the production. With his excuses, his precise mannerisms and his desperation for certainty, Davies is the character most on the edge of the precipice. But Aston, who initially seems quiet and mild, reveals his behaviours to be a result of barbaric electroshock therapy he endured in his youth, from which he has never fully recovered. While cunning, manipulative Mick appears to have no goals or loyalties other than fun and games: but if he was really the successful landlord he presents himself to be, why does he has the time to provoke and agitate Davies?

In this new production at Bristol Old Vic, directed by Christopher Haydon, the three cast members of The Caretaker are all played by black men, which puts an interesting spin on some of Davies’ more opinionated and racist comments, such as complaining about the “blacks” next door and worrying they might use the same shared toilet as him. However, in the play’s programme, director Haydon insists that he did not consciously set out for an all black cast.

It would be interesting to consider what an all-female cast of The Caretaker would be like (and given Bristol Old Vic’s recent all-female cast of Medea, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility). The Caretaker is a very domestic play: the three characters are much like a father with his sons; it obviously has a domestic setting; and it concerns blatant issues of the home. The effect of an all-female cast on this would be extraordinary - the dynamics and intentions would change entirely because of perceived notions and stereotypes about gender roles. It would be fascinating.

The Caretaker is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 30 September 2017. For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

'Effi Briest' by Theodor Fontane

Oh, I’ve worked hard to like this book. All the initial signs were good: female protagonist, cold-hearted man, turn of the last century novel, Persephone reprint. But it took me a month to plough through it… and when a novel takes you four weeks to read but is only 320 pages long, well it’s not a sign of enjoyment.

But boy, I tried. I wanted to enjoy this book and it seemed so promising.

Effi Briest, 16, is a young girl from a privileged German family and she is full of romantic, naive ideas. Then this older guy comes along, Innstetten. He is 20 years older than her and was weirdly obsessed with her mother when they were teenagers, except Effi’s mother married someone else. Never having quite got over this rejection, Innstetten marries his sweetheart’s teenage daughter Effi instead. Which struck me as deeply unpleasant on two counts: less the age gap but more the emotional differences between a 16 year old and a 36 year old; and the fact this older guy was so hung up on a woman he married her daughter as second best. Move on, dude. Stop fixating.

It’s clear from day one that this marriage isn’t going to go well, and of course it doesn’t. Innstetten whisks his child bride off to a small village far away from her home and family and installs her in his gloomy home that is supposedly haunted. Once the honeymoon is over, Innstetten goes back to his work and leaves his lonely, frightened teenage wife to take care of the home: something she has no experience of. And of course, it’s not long before she has a baby… although this baby features bizarrely infrequently, which is also odd. It’s not a spoiler to say that lonely Effi ends up having an affair and being hauled over the coals by her cold, unfeeling husband who feels let down by her. Yes, HE feels let down by HER. Huh! (Men make me so angry sometimes, with their entitlement and false superiority. Urgh.)

The absolute problem with Effi Briest, the reason I found it so wholeheartedly unconvincing and un-engaging, is that its male author Theodor Fontane was 75 years old when he wrote it. How on earth is a 75-year-old man supposed to get inside the head of a 16-year-old girl? This explains the clunky dialogue, the lack of emotional insight from Effi’s perspective, the lack of understanding of how a teenager would react or feel when married to a much older man… It’s an utterly preposterous notion for a book. And more male arrogance, that a man that age would deign to think he could possibly understand a 16-year-old girl.

Yet Effi Briest the book is lauded and admired. It has received glowing reviews in its long history (it was initially published in 1896), is apparently still widely taught in German schools and has been turned into several films. Perhaps as a film, without the clunky dialogue, loss in translation and with a script rewritten by someone who is in tune with how a young girl would actually think, the story works better. But I found the book turgid and soulless to say the least.

I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. I want to like everything that Persephone publishes.

As an aside, I also feel sad that Persephone is reprinting a book by a man. I mean, it’s not up to me and they can do what they want. But Persephone is one of those publishing houses that its readers and fans feel like they own a little, and to me the USP of Persephone is that is republishes lovely, forgotten books by WOMEN authors. And men have hardly had a rum deal in the publishing - or anything else - stakes to date, it's not like we need a publishing house specialising in republishing books by forgotten MALE authors. So although I know they’ve had a small handful of men in their 122 strong back catalogue, I automatically start reading the men Persephones with a sense of ‘You’ve got to really work hard to prove yourself to me here, buddy.’ Sorry. Sorry...

Friday, 12 May 2017

'Medea' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Jack Offord

“What mortal man is not guilty?”

An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, this modern re-telling of Medea is written by Chino Odimba for the Bristol Old Vic in yet another innovative and exciting production from this fabulous theatre.

In the classic Greek play, Medea is abandoned by her husband Jason (of ‘And The Argonauts’ fame) for another woman, and then threatened with exile from her homeland by his father. And to avenge Jason, she calmly kills their children in an effort to take control of her own destiny.

So buckle up, folks, this is going to be a bumpy ride.

In this new version, Odimba weaves Euripides' ancient world with a contemporary story of a single mother Maddy who faces losing her children and home following 11 years of marriage after her husband Jack takes up with another woman.
Performed by an all-female cast and using the tribal power of song while led by director George Mann, this production asserts Medea as a powerful female character who fought against the injustice of the patriarchy at all costs.
The strength of an all-female cast is undeniable; there is something very powerful about seeing a group of women working together for the same purpose. And the six cast members deftly flit between the contemporary and classic story, largely playing their character’s counterpart in each version.

Akiya Henry as Medea/Maddy is truly stunning, and demonstrates her mind-blowing versatility as an actor, while Jessica Temple who plays Medea/Maddy’s confidant Naomi is equally impressive - and her singing talent really makes you sit up and listen. Akiya has excellent comic timing - a skill you wouldn’t necessarily think was required in a play this intense and harrowing. But while singing her plea to Jason's father, she is genuinely hilarious in her tone of voice and knowing facial expressions to the audience. Bravo, Akiya, bravo.

While the story of Medea - the ultimate scorned woman - is millennia old, the story of a woman mistreated by a selfish man who wields all the power is as relevant now as it was in 431 BC. Which is utterly depressing. When the original Medea is overlooked by Jason for a newer model, she no longer has any claim to live in even the same land as him because he has all the power. When contemporary Maddy is abandoned by her husband Jack (who stops paying the mortgage on the house which is only in his name), she is evicted and made homeless with her children. These stories are as relevant today as ever they were.

Photos: Jack Offord
The character of Jack (Stephanie Levi-John) is very interesting. In two separate speeches he illustrates the hatred, disgust and disregard that certain men show for women, once they no longer serve a purpose. Jack’s repulsion of Maddy, and apparently women in general, is grotesque and fascinating. He is a vocal version of the hate spewed at women every day by faceless cowards online. Jack thinks women are the cause of all the misery and suffering in the world, with their only purpose being to breed children.  

The lack of loyalty that the men show towards the women in their lives is staggering, considering the loyalty Medea and Maddy showed Jason and Jack. And the disregard that Jason and Jack show for the work of motherhood and homemaking is extremely unpleasant; they see Medea and Maddy as having enjoyed easy lives while their husbands have toiled and sweated. Compare this to the loyalty and compassion shown by the women in this play towards other women and it’s not hard to join up the dots and see what’s going on here.

But it is the unity of women that shines through. The support networks, the sisterhood, the strength to hold each other up while men try to knock us down. On the cusp of a general election, at a time when the government is doing its best to marginalise women and push us into a domesticated box, while the cuts continue to disproportionately ravage services that prioritise women who have been mistreated by men… Jesus! We need a play like Medea more than ever.

The privilege of men makes them blind to their monstrous behaviour. And so even though Medea herself behaves, err, somewhat irrationally, by the close of the play when we see her standing firm, halfway up a white staircase that extends and unfolds all the way into the skies of the Bristol Old Vic’s stage, it is clear which is the dominant gender.

Please go to see it.

For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.