Posts Tagged ‘Marcello Magni’

The early 1950’s saw a revolution in theatre, well in Paris at least, with the arrival of Beckett and Ionesco (one Irish and one Romanian), challenging the realism that the art form was locked in. This play, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot, were first produced there in 1952. It reached the UK five years later where it ignited a debate amongst theatre folk, triggered by critic Kenneth Tynan and involving the playwright and theatrical luminaries like Orson Wells. Around the same time our own angry young men heralded a new age of realism with their kitchen sink dramas, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This was an important part of the post-war history of theatre. Surprising then that this appears to be only the second major London revival. I saw the first, a 1997 co-production between the Royal Court and Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This proved to be the most unlikely transfer to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. Twenty four years on….

The ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ live on an island. They are preparing to welcome an (invisible) audience to hear the old man’s big speech, though it will be given by the speaker. We learn that London is no more, so we are in some sort of dystopian future. They assemble chairs for the visitors and when they arrive welcome them, making introductions between them. It’s all building up to the big moment, the speech.

Omar Elerian’s translation / adaptation / direction takes a lot of liberties, either with the permission of Ionesco’s estate (Beckett’s would never let him get away with it) or maybe the protected period has lapsed. There’s a backstage audio prologue, the speaker turns up regularly for bits of business and interaction and the speech is replaced by an elongated epilogue, which was the only variation I felt pushed it too far. Otherwise, an obtuse period piece was brought alive for a new audience.

It’s hard to imagine better interpreters than husband and wife team Marcello Magni & Kathryn Hunter whose extraordinary physical theatre and mime skills, as well as the chemistry between them, are used to great effect. Toby Sedgwick provides excellent support in the expanded role of the speaker. Even Cecile Tremolieres & Naomi Kuyok-Cohen’s clever design gets to perform.

It was great to see the play again after a quarter century of theatre-going. The production may travel a long way from Ionesco’s intentions, but it seemed to me to provide a fresh interpretation for an audience seventy years later. London’s longest running play is The Mousetrap, 70 years now. Paris’ longest runner is Ionesco’s earlier absurdist play The Bald Primadonna, 65 years. That somehow defines the differing theatre cultures of the two cities.

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The first Peter Brook production I saw was a 9-hour epic retelling of the Indian Mahabharata in an old tram-shed in Glasgow almost 30 years ago. This is a 75-minute piece with three actors, two musicians and a few chairs and tables. Why do directors, like writers (Beckett, Pinter, Churchill…..), have a tendency to minimalism over time? It’s Brook’s second play based on neuroscience, though its more than 20 years since his staging of Oliver Sack’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I found this one much more satisfying.

Brook, and his co-writer /director Marie-Helene Estienne, take their starting point from a 1987 book by a Russian neuropsychologist called Alexander Luria. His case study of man with an extraordinary memory has become a woman journalist today. Sammy Costa’s boss discovers her extraordinary memory on her first day and sends her to some neuroscience researchers. He then sacks her because the job can’t utilise her talent and suggests she goes on stage to make a living. She continues to be a research subject by day whilst she’s on stage in the evening and as we move between both we learn a lot about her synesthesia – the positives and negatives – and gradually become in awe of the human mind.

There’s something very simple and gentle about the storytelling that draws you in and captivates you. There is a lightness of touch to the writing and performances which means you are entertained as you learn (I have to confess I knew little about synesthesia). Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill give lovely performances in multiple roles. As often in Brook’s work, there are musicians providing a continual soundtrack in the background. The only ‘effect’ is a projected ‘brainwave’. The piece is bookended by the Persian poem Conference of the Birds, but I’m afraid this went right over my head.

The post-show Q&A included a neurologist and two people with synesthesia and this really did add a lot to the experience, particularly hearing the very moving real life experiences. One ended the evening by naming a large number of writers, musicians and scientist synesthetes which was a wonderfully positive conclusion. Educational, thought-provoking, moving and entertaining. What more can you ask for in 75 minutes?

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