Thursday, 20 July 2017

Angels in America

To read in the morning and at night
My love
Has told me
That he needs me.

That's why
I take good care of myself
Watch out where I'm going and
Fear that any drop of rain
Might kill me.

It’s a bit difficult to write this one, because this play – the text at its heart – is so wildly brilliant, so effervescent and charged and important and simultaneously luxuriant and fatless that I don’t want to say a single word other than effulgent ones in its favour. I love this play. Everything about it. So, just to see it was a joy.

But this production – specifically the back-to-back ten hour production at the National on a sunny Tuesday in July – was what was in front of me and since it’s not a new play and everyone sort of got the memo before I was even born that it was a masterpiece, I feel like I really don’t understand why everyone’s so pleased with themselves.

Let’s start with a caveat: I found Andrew Garfield’s comments about how he’s as gay as any gay old thing deeply offensive. They were, almost certainly throwaway, almost certainly not to be taken as anything other than a moron speaking without his guard up, hey, we can’t expect ack-tohrs to be clever as well as pretty. But it really rankled with me by the end of the play. Garfield spent the whole production flapping about – he honestly began shouting after interval two and didn’t stop till the bows – apart from at every moment he was saying something serious at which point he’d go serious and sound all straight again. Gay Andrew = fake, screechy, upset, Straight Andrew = serious, sombre, pensive. And then that ending!!! After all that! I just can’t believe they could cast a straight actor – and one who thinks that queerness is some sort of weird other bit of a garden, for Christssake – to perform, with a straight face, that final speech – that heraldic rallying cry to queer experience:

“And we are not going away”

Yeah, we are going away, we’re going to sit back and watch a straight man tell us how fabulous we all are. That moment, so charged in its context, became anaemic and hollow before that audience and with that actor.

Which is how I felt about how queerness was dealt with by almost the whole production. I came out struck by how I’d forgotten how much politics and how little queerness was in Perestroika. Or at least this version of Perestroika. I think the only idea that the production seemed to have was that its capital-p Politics still resonate. I didn’t feel any of the terror of people living through AIDS. It didn’t reenliven that period for me for gay people. It taught me a lot about Raeganite politics. And every time they had a chance to play to the present – discussions about healthcare in America were practically winking on every line – they did so. Which is fine. I just don’t think that’s what the play is but, you know, it’s something.

But beyond that single wink emoji idea, I just really couldn’t figure out what it thought it was doing beyond putting the play on a big stage and doing every bit of it as expensively as possible. Oh, and laughs. Every laugh. Every time. It’s funny every time it can be, because British audiences can’t stomach thirty seconds without a chuckle. But the thought process behind it? Really no idea.

The design was terrible. It’s fucking hard to design a play like this, I get that, the tonal and environmental shifts are about as wretchedly broad as you can imagine, but the production just threw everything they could at it. There was a cool harp/electric guitar/chrome organ/ Alexander Calder sculpture that hang over proceedings and looked nice eventually lit up in neon by the end but that I just couldn’t figure out at all. It started out ugly blocky revolves (lit in neon), and some actual gay stuff happened (in complete darkness because it’s so icky and gross and you can’t put that in front of the nice old people at the National, no way, not on your nelly) and then the revolves disappeared (thank god) and we just went into open space with not much going on bar snow and some van Hove levels of side-lighting, then these sort of weird troll people came on and wouldn’t stop pulling unnecessary scenery on and off, then another forestage came up, then for a bit they decided to just leave stuff onstage and let it be and they thought they were being Brechtian but just weren’t, and then they just decided to do rooms by lighting the stage and then you couldn’t figure out where anyone was AT ALL and none of the more realist scenes made any dramatic sense and then they just stopped doing anything at all and you were just staring at an enormous expanse of grey with a neon (GAAAAAYYYY!!!) angel. God. It makes me mad just thinking about how much money they must have spent to cover the cracks of not having a single unifying idea.


Some of the performances were really excellent. Nathan Lane is properly interesting as Cohn. Lane offers up a new, refreshing way to think about that character beyond bluster and swagger and towards something more fragile and playful. Any time he came onstage the heart blistered, unsure whether to reach out or boo at the pantomime villain whose insides are curdling before our eyes.

And Denise Gough. I mean, yeah, we all knew. I knew, you knew, everyone knew she’d be great. And she is. She’s a solver: she solved her part in the mess that is People, Places, and Things and she solves parts of Harper, making her fun and vibrant and charged in a way that I don’t think the text serves that effectively. She was brilliant.

And I like Russell Tovey. He digs into the meaty “YOU WOULDN’T LIKE ME WHEN I’M ANGRY” bits a little too much but he seemed the most lost of all the characters and the only character’s tragedy which really hurt me, which I think is sort of extraordinary, because I don’t know where in his performance that came out. In fact thinking about now I think he might have been really good, because I don’t understand how that happened.

Anyway, beyond “the play” and getting to see the exhaustion of nearly eight hours onstage etched into a frankly pretty extraordinary company of actors, there’s nothing of interest here. Honestly. This production runs out of ideas after a few hours, which is sort of fine because Kushner keeps generating enough to keep you spinning all the way up to the 11.15 curtain.  

Monday, 17 July 2017

Bodies or Expect More Than Babies

This is a play about surrogacy. That’s what you need to know, that’s what the reviews and the marketing will tell you. Vivienne Franzmann specializes in issues and this issue-play is about surrogacy and the politics of surrogacy and the ethics of overseas surrogacy and babies and babies and babies and done. But it’s called Bodies. And it’s about a whole lot more than babies.
It tells the story of Clem and Josh, a middle-class white couple who have opted to pay for the eggs of a Russian woman to be carried by a surrogate from India, Lakshmi, in order to deliver them the baby they so desperately want. Clem’s father, David, requires round-the-clock care for his motor neurone disease, and he does not approve of Clem’s decision. So, as Clem’s anxiety about the ethics of this build and legal difficulties compound the issue, we see Clem imagine all the terrors of motherhood and all the associated costs of this economic arrangement.
Sounds pretty babies-heavy to me.
But the proper genius of this play is the way in which it expands from this point, deconstructing what it means to be an “issues”- play. I was struck by the fact that as I was watching it, under my feet was playing out Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. They are two very different plays, but both offer a microscopic lens onto the subject of emotional labours of women, often exerted physically on their bodies.
Oni, David’s carer, has left her children with their father to move to this country to be a carer. Lakshmi, or Clem’s imagined image of Lakshmi, we are never exactly clear, has left her children to have Clem’s baby. Clem cannot stop imagining the teenage child she is going to have, who plays out as the most cherubic, stereotypical image of a teenager you can imagine.
There are offstage children exerting pressure in all directions and one child-father relationship in complete turmoil. I have rarely seen a moment of more crystalline dramatic intensity than that in which Clem, played with complete assurance by Justine Mitchell, wills her father with every fibre of her being to give his blessing only to be met by contempt. We feel with her in that moment: the social commentary is lost as we see a child begging for the impossible from a man to stubborn or moral to relent (can’t get a grip on Billington’s last line for a moment not one).
It’s the bodies, though. The bits of the body that we like to ignore, the bodies breaking down and swelling up. The bodies that we in this country can afford to pay someone poorer and browner to take care of. The bodies we don’t want and we don’t want to see and so we push them to the other side of the world or leave them to other mothers – and the mothers bit is important. Men do not care in this world. Men are not left with the roles of caring for others. We have constructed a society and now an economy around women taking care of the young, old, and vulnerable.
Though the argument of the play seems, overwhelmingly by the end, that overseas surrogacy is a barbaric trade, what’s thrilling about the play is that it gives a fair hand to those whose sole wish is to have a child. It does not censure this desire nor mock it, rather pointing out how it is an immanent product of our culture and one that requires examination. It does not suggest Clem is some monster because she pays someone to care for her father – it is credit to a fantastically deft and straightforward performance by Lorna Brown – but rather that some choices are difficult and relationships are difficult and this is the situation.
Gabriella Slade’s design annoyed me a bit. I frankly could have done without the projection onto a sort of rounded belly of a surface (*ding*), particularly the filmic representation at the end which seemed just a little too pointed for an otherwise so subtle production and the sliding IKEA-style set seemed a little too cool for a play that burns bright (I had the same thought of Anatomy downstairs, weirdly) but overall the performances are magnetic, the themes arresting, and I came out just a little bit speechless.
Expect more than babies.