Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Chavkin’

For the third Arthur Miller play this year we move forward to 1980, to his biggest Broadway flop – just 12 performances after opening night – which six years later, revised, was an NT hit, moving from the Cottesloe to the Olivier. We’re back in the 30’s, continuing his examination of the aftermath of the Great Depression.

We follow the Baum family from 1929 through the loss of their money and home, moving to Brooklyn to live with relatives. Son Lee’s hopes of college disappear. Finding a job is tough. Navigating the welfare system is humiliating. Hopelessness seems to be around every corner. Robertson, a Wall Street professional, who’s prophesied the crash, narrates the story. Miller nicknamed it a Vaudeville after the revised version in Britain added thirties songs.

Director Rachel Chavkin’s big idea is to have three Baum families of different ethnic backgrounds – Jewish, South Asian and African American – sharing the three roles. This is confusing and distracting, particularly as the nine all also play other roles, as does just about everyone, and derails the first part of the play. She’s also made the music more eclectic and added dance, with one of those dance marathons people enter for money running through it. For me, this didn’t really work, and got in the way of the story.

The onstage seating and Chloe Lamford’s design detract too. There are huge trading floor indicator boards on both sides and the stage is elevated which, even from the 5th row of the stalls, seemed to be rather remote, making it hard to engage with the play. There’s a fine ensemble who work very hard, giving it their all, but the effort and passion dissipates because it’s not involving the audience. There’s so much going on that the story gets lost.

I saw the NT production at the Cottesloe and Phil Willmott’s excellent revival at the Finborough in 2012, and both served the play much better. it cries out for a simpler staging in a more intimate space, which the vast Old Vic can be, but isn’t on this occasion. I rarely leave a Miller play disappointed, but I did here.

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Anais Mitchell’s take on the Orpheus & Eurydice myth is more gig theatre than musical, a brilliantly realised song cycle that fills the Olivier Theatre, maybe the first pinnacle of this new genre.

Rachel Hauck’s brilliant set is part jazz club, part factory, with the band on three tall sections which come apart, and the necessary deep pit for Hades, all superbly lit by Bradley King. Hermes is our MC / narrator, both playful and sinister. The Fates are like a 60’s girl group, slithering sexily around the space. The ‘workers’ are a chorus in both senses of the word, musical and Greek. The seven-piece band plays the jazz influenced score superbly.

Within all of this, the story seems incidental, and I found myself admiring the exceptional score and imaginative stagecraft of Rachel Chavkin’s production more than I did engage with it; I felt no emotional involvement with the doomed couple, perhaps in part because the performances, though musically accomplished, lacked passion. Hades had a compelling malevolence though, and Persephone a cheeky decadence, but Hermes was the one who drew you in.

Eva Noblezada sings beautifully, but she lacked credibility as a modern day Eurydice and Reeve Carney was more pop singer than contemporary Orpheus. Patrick Page’s deeper than deep bass alone was enough to characterise Hades and Amber Gray felt truly captured as Persephone. Andre De Shields as Hermes our narrator though was the star of the show for me. Above all, it’s the music that shines, a fantastic score which leaves you wanting more.

With the leads and creative team all imported, I do worry about our subsidised stages being used as Broadway try-outs, but perhaps I should just be glad we get to see it first, and cheaper!

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I very much admire this initiative. Theatre Uncut commissions short political plays by largely established writers, makes them available for anyone to produce anywhere in the world and stages them itself with professional actors who only get a day’s rehearsal time.

The evening is made up of six plays, so you’d expect it to be a touch uneven. The best is Mark Thomas’ Church Forced to Close After Font Used as Wash Basin by Migrants, a spot-on vicious swipe at an odious newspaper baron not unlike some of the real ones. The most famous playwright is Neil LaBute, but I found his Pick One, about three American power brokers discussing large-scale ethnic cleansing, hard to swallow. As often with LaBute, he tries too hard to shock and in doing so realism goes out of the window and impact is lost.

Rachel Chavin’s Recipe gets a different theatre group each night; Dumbshow put together their highly inventive production of it in just four hours, but their staging was outstanding. Clara Brennan’s The Wing featured a fine performance from David Hounslow as an English Defence League bigot clashing with his liberal daughter; he was also chilling in LaBute’s play. James Hillier also shone as Mark Thomas’ press baron and one of LaBute’s power brokers.

It’s great to see theatre that’s edgy and experimental, more concerned with confronting current issues than providing slick entertainment and directors Emma Callander & Hannah Price are to be congratulated. Support it.

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