Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Arthur Przybyszewski’s donut shop, a relic of an American dream past its sell-by date, is being taken away from him piece by piece. In this UK premiere of Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, Fly Davis’ deliberately dilapidated design is falling away at the edges, its grubby walls at once sturdily worn and precariously fragile. It’s the sort of place that radiates the permanence of having been around forever and yet might disappear tomorrow, stamped out by the unstoppable advance of Starbucks.

Such is the contemporary America of Superior Donuts. The context of Letts’ drama is rootedly specific, making frequent reference to its surroundings in Chicago and taking the donut shop of the title as a focal point for the lives of those who pass through it, but it equally speaks to a wider sense of modern malaise. Arthur, an ageing hippie nursing the failures of his idealistic youth amid the ruins of his family business, exhibits a paralysis that seems to typify contemporary apathy. There’s a stubbornness to his resistance to change, but also a weary resignation that can be read in every gesture of Mitchell Mullen’s performance. Here is a man who greets life with slumped shoulders.

Into these stale surroundings, where most of the donuts go to a pair of passing cops and an old wino who never pays a penny, enters the requisite young American dreamer. Jonathan Livingstone’s infectiously energetic Franco is a bundle of enthusiasm, ideas and audacious ambitions, both for the “great American novel” that he has penned in dog-eared exercise books and the donut shop that is falling apart around him. The set up, and subsequently much of the action, is typical clash of the generations, old-cynic-meets-young-optimist stuff, as the new employee grapples with his jaded boss in his attempts to ring in the change. Superior Donuts rehearses a familiar and distinctly American narrative, one littered with the wreckage of dreams but faintly illuminated by friendship and hope.

And yet, hard as it is to pin down, there’s something more to it than that. Letts’ play – and indeed Ned Bennett’s production – has a way of sneaking up on its audience. It is delicate, meandering and unapologetically slow, its rhythm capturing the ebb, flow and occasional eddies of everyday life in this fading staple of uptown Chicago. The pace is slowed even further by the occasionally frustrating interjection of Arthur’s introspective monologues about his past, which have more of a literary than a theatrical quality. Just as the itch comes to check your watch, however, you discover that the play has somehow grabbed you – ever so gently, mind – right by the scruff of the neck.

It is possibly down to the characters, who are deftly captured by Bennett and his cast. Mullen and Livingstone in the central pairing are particularly compelling, their relationship endearing without giving in too much to sentimentality, while Sarah Ball’s policewoman packs a world of yearning into a few snatched glances. Each of the individuals who passes through Arthur’s donut shop, however fleetingly, feels convincingly, compassionately sketched.

But perhaps it has more to do with the play’s relationship to hope, a relationship that is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Bennett has described the piece as “hugely optimistic”, which it is in many ways, but neither the play nor this production are quite that straightforward. Just as Davis’ design has stripped whole panels from the walls, this is a world in retreat, being dismantled bit by bit in the wake of corporate expansion. It’s telling that even the great dreamer enthuses in marketing speak, discussing poetry readings in the same breath as brand identity. There is optimism to be found, not least in Letts’ determined use of the future tense, but even hope is shown to have its limits.

Anya Reiss: Navigating Chekhov

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The moment from Benedict Andrews’ bracing new adaptation of Three Sisters on which many responses seem to have fixated is its glorious, vodka-drenched rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – moody Russian existentialism blasted into contemporary, head-banging anarchy. But there is just as much contemporary resonance in Vershinin’s fading optimism for the future, an act of looking forward that feels tainted by the creeping threats of environmental crisis, or in Andrey’s disillusioned, shell suit-clad lethargy. The times are yet to outpace Chekhov.

As if to prove this continuing relevance, a sudden rash of new productions is rapidly spreading across London, including two contrasting Uncle Vanyas about to lock horns on the West End. If British theatre is currently intoxicated by Chekhov, however, his latest adaptor is remarkably immune. Speaking about the origins of the modernised version ofThe Seagull that opens at the Southwark Playhouse later this month, adding to this mounting wave of revivals, writer Anya Reiss bluntly confesses, “I’d never been particularly grabbed by Chekhov”. Approached by director Russell Bolam to update the classic play, her first reaction was to remember her lack of engagement when forced to study the text at school, and only when reading again with an eye to adapt could she begin to tease out some of the play’s enduring appeal.

“I understood what there was within that story and the characters and I saw that I’d been held back by its context,” Reiss says of her re-reading of the play. “We were always made to read things with a very reverential eye and it was quite hard, so reading it again and knowing I had permission to tear it up a little made me see what it was worth.”

Despite speaking of tearing up the text, Reiss is quick to correct herself when I press her on that phrase, clarifying that the approach she and Bolam have taken is one of respect mingled with reinterpretation. “We’ve deliberately not taken a sledgehammer to it,” she is keen to emphasise, characterising their production as one that treads the middle ground between faithful adaptation and radical revision. “I feel like I’ve tried to be true to the stories and the characters and the themes, and once you do that you’ve got more permission to play with the language.”

Reiss also feels that there is inherently more flexibility when working with plays in translation, as it’s impossible to be entirely faithful to the original. “Everything you read is always someone’s slant on it, so I felt freer to do my own thing – it’s what you have to do,” she says. “If I was trying to update Shakespeare by putting it in modern language I’d feel like a twat, but when it’s already not Chekhov’s phrases you’ve got more freedom with it.”

One of the integral elements of Chekhov’s play is its remote farmland setting, a space distinctly removed from Moscow and its seductive promises of fame and fortune. To replicate this “real sense of isolation”, Reiss and Bolam have relocated the scenes to modern day Isle of Man, a location at a definite remove from the lure of urban excitement. Reiss explains that she began by tackling these crucial points of contextual tension, working out their contemporary equivalents. “It was those questions and the new setting that did it all; they’re the key pinpoints, so once you change those everything else follows along with it.”

Although there are some elements of Chekhov’s nineteenth-century Russian setting that don’t have an obvious modern counterpart – “there was a lot of stuff about horses, that was the main problem,” Reiss laughs – on the whole she says that the play translated quite smoothly. “Compared to other Chekhovs I think it’s quite easy to update, because it’s all about fame and love and art, and those are kind of eternal things,” Reiss explains, contrasting this with the immobility of the Prozorov sisters, a predicament that is harder to explain in a world of international travel. “The crux problems they have are very personal,” she goes on, “they’re not time-specific.”

As timeless as the characters’ situation may be, I wonder how the playwright is handling the wider implications of playing with a classic text. Discussions about Reiss inevitably veer towards her precocity and the astonishment that attended her debut play Spur of the Moment, written when she was just 17. Our conversation actively eschews this typical focus on her youth – Reiss is still shy of her 21st birthday, with two Royal Court productions already under her belt – but my question about the level of pressure attached to this new production is implicitly coloured by the expectations that have settled on Reiss’ shoulders at such an early stage in her career. This is greeted, however, with a surprising lack of concern.

“It’s had the opposite effect,” says Reiss in response to my suggestion that taking on such a famous text might carry with it a certain level of trepidation. “It’s made me more relaxed because a lot of it isn’t really my problem. If you don’t like it then a lot of that’s Chekhov, it’s not really me.” With the same casual frankness that characterises the playwright’s tone throughout our conversation, Reiss goes on to admit that there was something lazily enjoyable about writing a play in which plot and characters were already taken care of, removing a layer of anxiety from the writing process.

While apparently unflustered by the possible pressures of tackling Chekhov, however, Reiss is at pains to deflect any suspicions that her version will be pointedly wedded to the present. “You do a modern adaptation, but you don’t want it to be too smug and wink-wink, with lots of references to Twitter and X Factor,” she says, deliberately naming modern touchstones that might easily be applied to the desire for fame that is explored in the play. “The reason you’re updating it is to demonstrate that what it’s about is eternal, so to then make it very much about issues we have now doesn’t serve the play in the same way.”

In the midst of these negotiations of adaptation, I mention Lyn Gardner’s recent piece about the timidity that often goes hand in hand with the approach taken to classic plays by British directors – a fitting reference point, given that Gardner’s comparison is Australian director Andrews’ version of Three Sisters. The same criticism might arguably be levelled at writers working with these classic texts in translation, all earnestly trying to stay true to the author’s intention, that enshrined tenet of British theatre. Do we need to be more open to interpretation?

“That idea that it has to be either one or the other can be quite alienating,” Reiss suggests, recoiling slightly from both the reverential and the radical. It need not necessarily be a basic choice between Nirvana and museum piece, as much as the commentary surrounding these plays might have us believe. The tactic chosen by Reiss and Bolam is to navigate a path somewhere between the two extremes. “You feel like you either have to love it in this very faithful way or you have to take a hammer to it, and I think there’s a middle ground that isn’t explored as much as it could be. That’s what we’re trying to explore.”

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: an Englishman, an Irishman and an American. This multi-national trio, however, are not walking into a bar, but are instead chained to the wall of a gloomy basement in Lebanon, indefinitely imprisoned by their captors and faced with the all too likely prospect of their own execution. Actor Robin Soans summarises the situation succinctly when he describes the feelings of his character, Michael: “It seems to him that he has awoken in hell”.

This is the premise of Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, a play written twenty years ago about the hostage crisis in Lebanon that was then just coming to a close, and which is now being revived by Red Handed Theatre Company and the Southwark Playhouse to coincide with the anniversary. As I chat to the cast in their dressing room at the atmospheric, dungeon-like space under the arches of London Bridge station, Soans admits with a laugh that “you couldn’t find a better space in London to put it on”.

While the action of the play may be rooted in the hostage crisis that gripped Lebanon between 1982 and 1992, during which 96 individuals from a range of different, mostly Western nations were kidnapped and held in captivity, McGuinness’ image of three men trapped in an impossible situation is more notable for its universal resonance. This might, as the actors discuss, be any extreme situation in which the human spirit is pushed to its outer limits. It is the ways in which these three characters deal with their imprisonment and the truths about humanity that emerge through this that provide the true pull of the piece.

“Anyone watching the play could identify with the struggles that these characters go through,” explains Joseph Timms, who plays American captive Adam, the hostage who has been imprisoned the longest of the three. Soans, whose character Michael is an English academic who enters the mix after the other two, agrees: “It’s a universal play and there are situations like this all over the world all the time, even in domestic situations, where people feel locked in or hemmed in”. It does not matter all that much whether these characters are in a makeshift cell in Lebanon or a prison on the other side of the world; what really matters is how they cope.

It is perhaps surprising to learn, as third cast member Billy Carter, who is playing Irishman Edward, tells me, that “the script is heavily layered with lots of humour”. Humour, along with improvisation, role-playing, music and debate, becomes a vital survival mechanism for the three men trapped alone with nothing but their thoughts and one another. Soans emphatically describes laughter as “the greatest tool for survival”, adding that if you don’t make jokes about a hopeless situation “you just collapse, you deflate”. As Timms chips in, “the worst thing to do is to give in and to cry”.

Although the tedium of imprisonment is punctuated with the jokes and play-acting of McGuinness’ script, any production of this play is physically limited by the very situation in which it is staged, with the actors only able to move as far as their chains will allow. This must have been a challenge to keep the performance feeling dynamic? “It doesn’t feel like a static play at all,” Soans protests. “Physically, yes, it’s quite confined, but in every other sense it’s very fluid.” Timms, meanwhile, compares the confined energy of the three men that the actors explore on stage with that of a chained, unpredictable animal.

As Carter goes on to explain, there are tonal shifts between scenes that help to break it up, shifts that director Jessica Swale has used to propel the action forward. Speaking about the dialogue, Carter says, “it’s so sparky and as actors we’ve hit a beautiful rhythm. It’s like a dance.” Continuing the musical analogy, the actors describe each scene as having its own key that needs to be hit, creating something of a challenge for director and cast. To ensure that the necessary precision is achieved, I am told that they have used a method of ‘actioning’ in rehearsals, assigning a transitive verb to each line, which Soans explains was an invaluable process because of the “mercurial” nature of McGuiness’ script.

Also central to the dynamic of the piece is the relationship between the three very different characters, who are thrown together against their will and must learn to support and respect one another in order to survive. Soans describes it as a “pressure cooker version” of any close relationship where people must become accustomed to and absorb one another’s quirks and irritating habits. Such essential, intense relationships demand an atmosphere of collaboration and generosity among the cast, an atmosphere that was actively nurtured by director Swale. This is not a play in which any actor can afford to be greedy.

The result of this closely collaborative effort is one that is intense for both cast and audience. Timms describes the experience of watching this play as that of “watching a human struggling against an inevitability or a darker evil, which we all have in our lives, and we all fight against it and think we’re alone in having to deal with it, but then when you see it on stage it actually gives you a comfort and a strength. It gives you a joy in being alive.” The true aim of McGuinness’ play, at least as the cast see it, is to share something about what it means to be human and the mechanisms that human beings use in order to survive in desperate situations.

Contradicting those who would dismiss the arts as a waste of public money, Soans continues in the same thread as McGuinness by asserting that “drama is absolutely integral to the human spirit”, an assertion that is heavily supported both by the play and by the true accounts of hostages that have informed it. “A number of people left alone will sooner or later make a play,” Soans goes on, “because they want to explore themselves and their predicament. We want self-knowledge, and one of the best ways to get self-knowledge is through drama, through making a paradigm of something similar to your situation”.

Throughout our conversation, what reveals itself as the dominant, uplifting theme of McGuinness’ work, and what has ensured that it remains as relevant and resonant today as at its conception twenty years ago, is the indomitable and endlessly imaginative nature of the human spirit. The play also convincingly positions itself as an argument for the arts, not just as a decorative addition to human life, but as an integral part of our existence. As Soans puts it, with a slight note of triumph, “it’s a very good justification for theatre”.

Shivered, Southwark Playhouse

In this latest piece from seemingly ubiquitous polymath Philip Ridley, form does not so much reflect content as it does context. Ridley’s shattered play is a chillingly appropriate response to an increasingly fractured modern society, with casually engendered violence and careless cruelty glinting back at us from each piercing shard of narrative. It is not quite entirely without hope or brief glimpses of redemption, but the dark, nightmarish landscape of Shivered does evoke the sense that, as disillusioned soldier Alec passionately argues, the world is almost incurably sick.

Ridley’s chopped up story takes as its setting the fictional Essex new-town of Draylingstowe, once upon a time a symbol of hope and prosperity, now a post-industrial playground for violent youth. The derelict car plant that once held the town’s promise is now a shady backdrop for drug-taking, suicide and cruel sexual fantasies, while Draylingstowe’s disenchanted citizens find meaning in conspiracy theories, whispers of extra-terrestrial activity and mysterious canal-dwelling monsters. It is a world that hovers somewhere between fairytale, nightmare and grim reality; grubby concrete illuminated by the garish lights and glitter of the fairground.

This semi-mythical world is vividly conjured by Ridley’s assorted collage of narrative snapshots, cutting and dicing the story of two interlinked Draylingstowe families. Lyn’s family is as fragmented as the play itself, shattered by the loss first of her son Alec, who is brutally beheaded while serving overseas in the army, and then the disappearance of husband Mikey, leaving her with only her younger, UFO-obsessed son Ryan. When the fair arrives in town it brings with it the tantalising promise of sexual excitement, as Lyn meets opportunistic showman Gordy and the pair begin to meet in the disused car plant, her son’s favourite haunt. Meanwhile, Ryan’s friend Jack finds escape from the torment of bullies and the daily drudge of caring for his overweight mother in graphic YouTube videos of sex and violence – one of which happens to be a recording of Alec’s horrific execution.

But none of it is quite as simple as this. The above narrative is the one that we as an audience piece together, filling in the blanks between the scattered series of scenes that Ridley presents before us, making almost subconscious links. It is an ingenious, dazzling exercise in plotting, throwing chronology into chaos without plunging the whole into incomprehensible obscurity, but Ridley’s experimental approach to structure is not a mere demonstration of his startling ability as a writer. Central to the play that Ridley has crafted are questions of how we fight to find meaning and explain our own existence, be it through narrative, religion or superstition.

There is repeated talk of ‘illusory contours’: the patterns we find in unlinked objects, like constellations of stars. This same mental process is one that we are unwittingly forced into, as Ridley coaxes us into making connections before throwing these into doubt. Are these collected scenes really linked in the way we imagine them to be, or are we guilty of the same forced, wilful conclusions as Ryan in his determined hunt for UFOs? What, ultimately, can we believe in? In the dark, slowly rotting world of the play, under the haunting spectre of abandoned industrialisation and rapidly unravelling values, the answer would seem to be very little.

The bare, evocatively lit space of the Southwark Playhouse has never seemed more bleak than in Russell Bolam’s stripped down, almost minimalist production. There is nowhere to hide for either writing or actors – or for audience, for that matter. Ridley’s boldly drawn characters jump out at us, sometimes quite literally in the case of Gordy’s fairground act, performed with effervescent showmanship by the buzzing, charismatic Andrew Hawley. There is impressive work too from a fragile yet cuttingly sardonic and sometimes fiercely wounding Olivia Poulet as Lyn and from Robbie Jarvis as her broken son Alec, who is haunted by unnamed ‘monsters’.

Ridley’s strange, disturbing not-quite-dystopia is never as unsettling, however, as when seen through the eyes of its young protagonists, whose twelve-year-old imaginations the playwright has convincingly penetrated. Ryan and Josh retain barely discernible traces of youthful innocence and optimism, but their existence has been permeated by technology and readily available violence, numbing them to the reality of physical aggression and placing a computer or mobile phone screen between them and all of their experiences. These two troubled and troubling youngsters are convincingly portrayed by the outstanding Joseph Drake and Joshua Williams, who are by turns bitingly funny and uncompromisingly brutal – phrases that could well describe Ridley’s play.

Despite a plot which is, when reassembled into chronological order, comparatively slight, this is meaty fare. Ridley dwells on both startlingly contemporary issues, such as our desensitisation to violence and the very real threats of post-industrial society, and timeless, universal questions of how we find meaning in our lives, with vivid dashes of magical storytelling thrown in for good measure. It is, as the playwright himself has described it, a ‘state-of-the-nation dream play’. The dreamlike is always close to the surface here, featuring dialogue saturated with fantastical references to monsters, aliens and other childhood fears. But the real world, as Ridley unflinchingly demonstrates, is so much scarier.

Shivered runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 14 April.

Topical or Typical? Responsive Theatre Programming

I think most of us can agree that, when it wants to, theatre as an art form is pretty good at responding. A response can, of course, mean many things, from passive acknowledgement to probing investigation to active retort. Think only of the Tricycle Theatre’s renowned verbatim plays, the most recent example being its analysis of last summer’s riots, or of the nationwide movement initiated by Theatre Uncut following the coalition government’s Spending Review. One thing that theatre is generally considered to be capable of doing and doing well is responding to the world around us.

But I wonder if sometimes it is responding merely for the sake of responding. This is not a thought that has newly occurred to me; I’ve written in the past about the ways in which theatre responds to current events and about whether it exploits topical subjects to create intriguing drama. In that case I concluded that while there may be different ways of writing in response to current events and issues, there is not necessarily anything wrong with using these as a creative springboard and that in fact it can result in thought-provoking, compelling plays. What if, however, self-labelled ‘topical’ theatre is not really responding at all?

I quoted Simon Stephens’ Bruntwood Prize launch speech in that previous article, but it is worth referencing again, not least because Stephens speaks extremely articulately about his craft and about the wider world of theatre. In a climate where theatres could very well take a ‘more tentative approach to programming’, Stephens sees the Bruntwood Prize as an opportunity for playwrights to write those challenging, truly responsive plays that might not otherwise get heard, describing the competition as ‘a clarion call to all playwrights’.

Perhaps the same clarion call ought to be extended to the theatre industry as a whole. It is undoubtedly a difficult time and despite the many challenges faced by the sector there are still lots of interesting, responsive conversations going on. But my worry is that some theatre which is masquerading under the guise of being incisively topical really has little new to say and that its connection to current affairs is being used as a sort of self-congratulating mask (or, if I was to be particularly cynical, that it is piggy-backing on sensationalist hype).

The one current issue that particularly sparked these thoughts was the Leveson Inquiry and the debate about press practices that continues to rumble on. While theatre was extraordinarily speedy in formulating responses to the spending cuts and the summer riots (in the case of the latter, it was quicker even than any official response), the reaction to the phone-hacking scandal has been sluggish by comparison. Although Theatre503’s Hacked and now a revival of Doug Lucie’s media corruption play The Shallow End at the Southwark Playhouse have seized on the subject matter, we have yet to see anything vaguely resembling a full dramatic dissection.

Hacked was perhaps, ironically, hampered by the rapidity of its conception. Put together in the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, it used the provocative and novel (if slightly gimmicky) idea of hacking the phones of six volunteers to create six short plays. The brief to the playwrights was vague, but this was a piece that, by the free admission of its curators, did not want to deal too directly with the causes and ramifications of a scandal that was still emerging.

This reticence to begin heavily analysing an issue which was still very blurred is wholly understandable, but there is an argument that this piece of theatre might have been more valuable had it waited a little longer. That said, some of the short plays did grapple with the troubling implications of the News of the World fallout, particularly Matt Hartley’s satirical take on the dangers of interpretation and Dawn King’s entertaining consideration of privacy. Unfortunately, there was a far from consistent focus and an overall sense that this was skirting around the big questions.

The Shallow End, meanwhile, is clearly a different matter, having been written in 1997, long before the phone-hacking revelations. However, I wonder what the thought process was behind reviving this now, aside from its obvious resonance with today’s press. Yes, Doug Lucie’s satire predicted the media corruption that has now been exposed, but it reveals and asks very little about its causes. As I put it in my review, this feels like ‘sloppily topical programming’. The intention behind the revival is understandable, but its effect is ultimately disappointing.

What would be truly interesting, and what theatre has the capacity to do in a way in which other forums don’t, would be to get to the real crux of the matter, the deep-rooted causes behind the faces that get slapped on front covers. What is it that convinces an ordinary person to brutally invade the privacy of another individual? What is the psychological need that drives the insatiable demand for tabloid gossip? The phone-hacking scandal is a frightening phenomenon because so many people are so complicit. This is not just about headlines; this is a deeply human issue that could be intelligently explored by one of the most human of all art forms. But perhaps the play that really scrubs away at the grime to get to the heart of the issue is just too challenging for today.

Returning once again to Simon Stephens, the playwright recently claimed that the recession has made British theatregoers more conservative. Speaking to Aleks Sierz for Theatrevoice, Stephens said: ‘I think people’s taste for theatre, in the past three years, has shifted more towards the commercial and the accessible’. Maybe, in the end, it is this shift in attitude that we have to thank for all this dancing around the real issues. Has the recession and growing conservatism among audiences resulted in an appetite for the topical without the challenging?