by admin on June 25, 2019

I’m still in recovery mode from my annual UK visit but I want to mention some theatre visits before I forget them and overlay them with plays seen here at home. Like NOISES OFF which I managed to catch on its final night here in Victoria. More on that later.

Hampstead Theatre was playing the last nights of Howard Brenton’s latest play, JUDE, based partly on Thomas Hardy’s novel, Jude the Obscure. In this case, Jude is a young, middle East immigrant with a preternatural gift for classical Greek, determined to study at Oxford University and the obstacles and prejudices she faces to achieve her dream.

Brenton is a proponent of so-called epic theatre and draws on classical references and settings to enrich his plays for modern audiences. He begins JUDE with a bare stage and uses mainly sound, light and special effects to achieve some spectacular scenes and impressive images which remain with you long after the play is over.

The last show of his I saw was THE ARREST OF AI WEIWEI, the Chinese artist imprisoned for his anti-establishment works. An early work of Brenton’s which created quite a storm for its violence and nudity was called THE ROMANS IN BRITAIN. I never managed to see it but I remember the uproar in the papers it caused.

Now in his 80s, it’s good to see he’s still capable of turning out powerful, contemporary and startling pieces of theatre.

Caryl Churchill is another contemporary of  Brenton’s and her most famous play, TOP GIRLS is being revived at the National Theatre to sell-out houses. I managed to grab a single ticket for a matinee of this play I had seen over twenty years ago at the Royal Court (I think,) in its original production and was bowled over by it’s brilliant first act.

It involves a modern dinner party where the guests all arrive singly, unknown to each other. They are historic powerful women, dressed in their period costumes from a Japanese emperor’s courtesan, one of Brueghel’s medieval peasant women, to a Victorian solo traveller/explorer.

The party unfolds with much carousing and story-telling of their hair-raising struggles to survive in male-dominated societies which failed to defeat or destroy them. Top Girls indeed.

The second act moves to a parallel contemporary story of three women, still struggling with similar male oppressive situations. Plus ca change, as they say….

The problem, for me, remained the same this time as when I first saw it. The two parts, although tenuously linked, seemed like two separate plays, with the first half overwhelming the second with it’s visually stunning, clever, witty plot, stylistic acting and colourful characters. The result made the second act seem like a worthy, naturalistic TV sitcom.

Churchill can still surprise and shock as much as Brenton. Last year, I saw a new play of hers, also at the National Theatre, which lasted about twenty minutes without a word being spoken and only two characters.

An elderly man in a nursing home is helped from his bed, dressed and settled into his chair beside the bed by an Asian immigrant woman care assistant. She makes the bed, then undresses the old man, puts his pajamas on and helps him back into bed. She folds up his clothes, then helps him from his bed, takes off his pajamas, puts his clothes back on and sets him in his chair again.

The audience becomes restive and then mesmerised, as this action is repeated over and over and we slowly realise this is an audacious metaphor for our universal end of life fate.

Not a word. Twenty minutes tops. Even Beckett can’t match that.

More London plays to be continued next week.

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