Jugend ohne Gott

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Seen January 27, 2015

OFF Theater, Wien (Vienna)

Directed by Karl Wozek

Assistant Director: Corinna Harrer

Cast: Mariam Hage, Gerhard Flödl,Carolin Wijffels, Andras Sosko, Jakob Ausserwöger, Sarah Neichl, Michael Pockberger

Alexandra Grigorut, Claudio Györgyfalvay, Corinna Harrer, Tatjana Losing, Jeanette Nagy, Tina Pilgerstorfer, Carina Schäfer, Ivana Stojkvic, Luminita Damaschin

This was not really a performance of the Ödön von Horvath play, but based on it, transferred to a boarding school setting in the present where a group of students have to do a report on the book. Heathers meets The Breakfast Club probably describes it pretty accurately. The original novel was released in 1937 and dealt with the rise of Nazi ideology in schools, murder and – for the teacher from whose POS it is told – finding God and getting the hell out of there.

For those of you not familiar with Horváth: he was an Austro-Hungarian writer who fled to Paris in 1938 after the ‘Anschluss’ (Austria becoming part of the German Reich on March 12) only to be killed by a falling branch on the Champs Elysées June 1. If that’s not ironic* enough for you, it happened during a thunderstorm which he had previously stated he was afraid of more than of the Nazis.

The stage setting was pretty bare and fit the approx. 100 seats theatre well. A few white chipboard boxes that served as seats, desks and pedestals for a monument among other things, a whiteboard that wasn’t used, a huge photograph of Hitler and a deer hanging upside down from the ceiling. The setting was very functional; I didn’t quite get what Hitler was doing there however. Had they stuck to the original play, he would have had everything to do with it, but there was no ideology the students were involved in, they were just pubescent idiot toffs, so that connection went out the window.

The more important thing however is that it was not acted by professional actors, but by second semester acting students. Therefore I will of course not rip into them as I would have otherwise, with one exception (who is not a student): the director. The curtain call summed the whole thing up nicely: complete lack of direction. As much as no one seemed to know where to go during the curtain call, I felt that the students were left hanging by the director throughout the play.

There were too many muwaaaaahaaaaa moments (literal muwahaaas, I’m not kidding), hysterical laughter as well as other grandstanding actions (rolling around on the floor dramatically etc) that just seemed artificial and did not fit and that wasn’t all that seemed affected.

What really bugged me was that Austrian vernacular was spoken with a German accent and PROJECTED.THE.HELL.OUT.OF. I initially thought that was due to the lack of routine, but when the actors ran out of steam and started having issues with their lines, they suddenly talked normally without the unauthentic accent and their acting overall got better by miles. The fact that it allowed us a glimpse of the potential buried there is actually all that justifies the length of the production. Considering most of the audience were friends and family of the performers and a good part of those likely not regular theatre patrons, it ran too long. People were fidgeting in their seats and those on stage were visibly flagging. Taking into account that this was the second performance that day (they played for a student audience earlier on), and it was the first full play this group of students performed, a production that is longer than some Shakespeare plays I have seen in recent years did not seen fair to them.

There were some good moments that showed the talent most of those on stage that night definitely have. Unfortunately, the production didn’t do them a lot of favours. The ‘advertising break’ that apparently served the purpose of giving the gaggle of students that didn’t get a principal role the opportunity to come on stage was too drawn out and socio-critically self-important. Some of the students really made the most out of their scarce time on stage however and made me wonder why they weren’t chosen for a role in the actual play.

The short appearances of the school’s creepy caretaker – janitor for those over the pond – (Michael Pockberger) were absolute highlights for me. Full disclosure: I know the aspiring actor so I’m certainly not impartial. My sister who had never met him before declared him the best thing in the play too and he had people in stitches, so I might not be that far off. He is a tad older than the other students and this certainly helped in forming the character as well. Having read and seen Horváth’s Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Wood), probably his best known work and an Austrian classic, I could absolutely imagine him in it.

Long story short: kudos to the students for all the hours of hard work they put into this production. I hope they get to work with a lot of different directors over the course of their education so they get the opportunity to develop their craft.

*I am aware that this is a Morrissettean misappropriation of the word ironic, but she was born June 1 as was I, so I couldn’t resist.

Treasure Island

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Seen January 22 2015

Haydn English Cinema, Vienna

By Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Bryony Lavery

Directed by Polly Findlay

Cast: Patsy Ferran, Gillian Hanna, Aidan Kelly, Helena Lymbery, Nick Fletcher, Alexandra Maher, Heather Dutton, Raj Bajaj, Lena Kaur, Daniel Coonan, David Sterne, Paul Dodds, Arthur Darvill, Jonathan Livingstone, Clair-Louise Cordwell, Angela De Castro, David Langham, Alastair Parker, Oliver Birch, Tim Samuels, Joshua James, Roger Wilson, Ben Thompson

Girls need adventures too.

Bryony Lavery adapted this classic for the NT. The original only contains one female character; in this version however, Jim is a girl and some household staff as well as pirates were changed to women, so this production wasn’t the sausage fest that can usually be expected of Treasure Island.

Patsy Ferran, who plays Jim, is one to watch. She carries the play seemingly effortless and more than holds her own against the veterans she shares the stage with. There are however two things upstaging even her: Long John Silver’s remote controlled parrot and the stage setting. From building a planetarium into the Olivier to having the ship in all its several decks high glory ascending from underneath the stage – and receiving applause for its appearance – to Silver’s leg (I’m sure Arthur Darvill was glad he was spared the common peg), everything was cleverly executed.

Speaking of the stage: when the Hispaniola made its way up, I thought that without Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch and their vision of bringing thrust stages into modern times, stage settings in Stratford (Ontario) and the National Theatre would be so much more restricted. It’s fascinating to see what stage designers and directors come up with every time.

This was the National Theatre’s Christmas family show and it showed not just in the funniest looking spilled guts I have seen thus far, but also in little things like the discrepancy between kid-friendly sword fights and the accompanying music that would have seemed overly dramatic in other circumstances.

The performances were solid all around, from the main characters to the singer popping up once in a while. Speaking of which, a question for Canadians who have seen this broadcast: did Gordon Pinsent and Alan Doyle get cloned into one person or is it just me? That would also explain The Royal Bank of Canada being the main sponsor of the play. 😉

Watching this broadcast was a few hours well spent and just plain fun after a day at work.

King Charles III

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Seen January 5 2015

Wyndham’s Theatre, London

A Future History Play by Mike Bartlett

Directed by Rupert Goold

Cast: Tim Pigott-Smith, Rory Fleck Byrne, Richard Goulding, Nyasha Hatendi, Adam James, Margot Leicester, Miles Richardson, Tom Robertson, Nicholas Rowe, Sally Scott, Tafline Steen, Lydia Wilson

This was the last play on this trip to London. Beforehand, we joked that we managed an entire five days without seeing a Shakespeare play, but after having seen ‘Future History Play’ King Charles III, I have to say we kind of did.

There’s some Lear (even quoted by Duchess Kate) and Richard II in there as well as elements of original practice. Add political intrigue, family issues, two very different sons and a ghost, et voilà.

In a nutshell, Charles refuses to sign off on a new law that practically makes privacy a thing of the past. While he is legally absolutely within his rights, this unusual decision is used by Prime Minister and leader of the opposition to rile up the public against the royal family and question the monarchy. The quick escalation and poor handling of the situation pits family members against each other as well. As if there weren’t enough ‘well meaning’ meddlers already, Diana’s conniving ghost jumps into the fray as well.

Charles is portrayed as a conscientious ruler and loving father, being unable to sign a law he finds alarming, supporting Harry when his activist commoner girlfriend is dragged through the mud by the media and not turning his back on William when it would have been understandable to a certain extent. Harry is the other person in the play who gets off lightly. He tries to live as normal a life as possible and make his own decisions only to realise he’s just a pawn on the royal chess board after all.

I can’t say much about the other members of the royal family without giving away too much of the plot, but they were all  recognisable and very well played. Mannerisms, body language and speech patterns were very close to their ‘templates’, while not overdone to the point of being Spitting Image figures but always real and flawed persons (ghost notwithstanding of course). The scene that most reminded me of Richard II (For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings;) when Charles still thinks making tea and having a conversation with William can actually change something was heartbreaking.

Harry’s girlfriend who started out as something akin to ‘the voice of the people’ unfortunately turned into a stereotypical ‘hear me roar’ girl who instead of evolving with the new situation she finds herself in just came across as petulant. A more interesting character is the kebab vendor who gets philosophical about the royal family with Harry whom he does not recognise, reminiscent of Henry V.

The unsettling and scary thing about the play is that it’s all entirely possible. Let’s hope there won’t be tanks guarding Buckingham Palace any time soon.

City of Angels

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Seen January 3 2015

Donmar Warehouse, London

Book by Larry Gelbart

Music by Cy Coleman

Lyrics by David Zippel

Directed by Josie Rourke

Cast: Sandra Marvin, Jennifer Saayeng, Kadiff Kirwan, Jo Servi, Rebecca Trehearn, Tam Mutu, Katherine Kelly, Hadley Fraser, Peter Polycarpou, Rosalie Craig, Tim Walton, Nick Cavaliere, Adam Fogerty, Marc Elliott, Cameron Cuffe, Mark Penfold, Samantha Barks

On the first Saturday of 2014, we started our theatre year with Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. The plan was to spend the first week of 2015 in London again anyway, so we decided to start a new tradition. Even if City of Angels turned out to be the second play we saw this year instead of the first, we still happily spent Saturday evening at the Donmar.

I’m not the biggest fan or connoisseur of musicals, but I’m always willing to try something new and in this case I was once again glad I did. I also detected a pattern of liking the ones where someone dies and being the musical version of a film noir, City of Angels ticked that box too.

Josie Rourke’s first musical production is stylish, funny, well acted and even better sung. From the costumes – I had some serious wardrobe envy, especially concerning the green dress, but I digress – to the stage setting that mainly consisted of piles of scripts and easily changeable features that allowed to switch not only to different locations in record time, but also between the world of philandering writer Stine – who has to deal with marital troubles, a movie producer and said producer’s cunning secretary – to the world of his creation Stone, a private eye hired to find an heiress under questionable circumstances with the LAPD on his heels.

The entire musical was a masterclass in lighting design. Stone’s film noir world was lit in black and white, Stine’s Technicolor. When the two men started fighting for dominance on stage during ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’, the colour scheme was a third character on stage that contributed a lot to the scene.

Hadley Fraser seemed a lot more at home as singing writer Stine than as Aufidius last year and Tam Mutu’s Stone brought a Cary Grant like presence as well as a serious set of pipes. In fact, the entire ensemble was fantastic, most  of them playing several roles in the parallel worlds and some of it even in reverse when Stine changed the script. I really would have loved to see rehearsal footage of the rewound scenes.

As for the musical numbers, they are catchy to the point that reading the song titles now when I checked if I had them right, the chorus of each title popped into my head immediately. I have no idea why this gem of a musical isn’t performed more often. Oolie/Donna’s ‘You Can Always Count On Me’, performed tongue-in-cheek by Rebecca Trehearn is another one that stayed in my ears for a few days.

If there was a cast recording and/or DVD of this production, I would buy it in a heartbeat. There might even have been singing and humming on the way back to the hotel.

East is East

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Seen January 02 2015 Trafalgar Studio 1, London

Written by: Ayub Khan Din

Directed by: Sam Yates

Cast: Ayub Khan Din, Jane Horrocks, Amit Shah, Ashley Kumar, Darren Kuppan, Nathan Clarke, Taj Atwal, Michael Karim, Sally Bankes, Hassani Shapi, Rani Moorthy

From the programme (no copyright infringement intended): Pakistani chip-shop owner George Khan – ‘Genghis’ to his kids)-is determined to give his six children a strict Muslim upbringing against the unforgiving backdrop of 1970s Salford. Household tensions reach breaking point as their long-suffering English mother, Ella, gets caught in the crossfire – her loyalty divided between her marriage and the free will of her children

The play premiered in 1996 and was turned into a film, becoming one of the most successful British films ever made. I have to admit to never having seen it (I am planning to hunt it down now though) and not knowing much about the play beforehand. The reviews by professional cirtics and on Twitter et al were intriguing however and considering how much we liked TrafalgarTransformed’s Richard III in September, we decided to get tickets for East is East when we planned our trip to London.

Apparently I’m in a confessional mood, so here we go: not only have I never seen the film, the reason I was initially undecided about the play was the fact that Jane Horrocks is in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently I hadn’t managed to see her in the right roles before, because she was a phenomenal Ella Khan.

In fact the entire cast was fantastic and played well off each other. Even a little accident that turned into corpsing was well handled and added some laughs to what was probably the funniest scene in the play already. The play is not just funny however. As hilarious as some scenes are, the issues the Khan family have to deal with are real and universal. Not just in terms of family dynamics which in such a big family are of course further heightened, but especially concerning everyone – especially the kids – straddling two cultures.

There are five teenage boys and their sister in the house, while an older son has been cast out for not abiding their father’s notions of how to live his life. This threat is of course hanging over the siblings who were all born in England and are stuggling to find their identities. Their father is glorifying life in Pakistan, which he hasn’t visited for decades, plans to marry two of the boys off without bothering to let anyone else, not even – or maybe especially not – his wife know beforehand and seems to lose his grip on reality and his family more and more throughout the play. The mostly light tone of the play makes the culmination in physical violence all the more jarring.

I had to think of friends and former school mates a lot during the play. The sisters who would never have worn a skirt, managed to convince their parents that Doc Martens were orthopedic shoes prescribed by their doctor (not kidding, those two are brilliant) and are now wearing hijab – of their own free will as everything else they are doing – and especially the one having to sneak behind her parents’ backs to see the older sibling cast out for not accepting the father dictating their future.

The Khan children are calling each other names like Twitch or Gandhi, one is dressed like The Fonz and Meenah, the only girl, is wearing jeans and Converse but can still beat up her brothers while wearing a sari for important visitors. What the kids in the play and my friends all have in common is the additional pressure of finding their own way navigating their parents’ cultures, that of the country they were born in or moved to as children, additionally to growing into adults as if that wasn’t confusing enough already.

If there ever is a follow up play showing us what the Khans are up to a few years later, they can count on my bum filling a seat.

Coming up this year

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Hi there! Just to let those of you following know that this blog hasn’t been abandoned. Things have been even more busy than usual at work and since sleep is overrated, I also did a twelve weeks Edx course on ‘Shakespeare: On Screen and in Performance’ by Wellesley College which was a lot of fun, but also time-consuming.

The new year started just like the last one: with a trip to London (the photo above shows the Austrian alps from the plane en route there). We saw East is East at Trafalgar Studios, City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse and King Charles III at Wyndham’s. The reviews are coming up asap! The latter two are only on for a few weeks more and East is East is now touring, so a quick spoiler should you be undecided whether they are worth it: definitely.

This blog is now one year old and I never thought it would be so much fun. A friend kept suggesting I should blog about my visits to the theatre and after dismissing the thought for years, another friend said she’d start a band if I started the blog, so I went for it, thinking no one would read my ramblings anyway. Boy, was I wrong. A huge thank you to all of you who read, commented, contacted me via the contact form or retweeted!

Another big thank you goes to my sister iwishyoumuchmirth, who has kindly been contributing reviews to the plays she’s seen without me or when my day has not enough hours to get a review done in a timely fashion.

I can already say that this year will be as full of theatre as the last. We will watch all broadcasts of NT Live and RSC (as long as I’m in the country) and I’m still hoping the three plays filmed at the Stratford Festival in Canada are going to be made available in Europe too.

Additionally, we have tickets to The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Transformed, there will be at least two Hamlets (one in Stratford, On and one at the Barbican in London), The Pysicists, The Adventures of Pericles, Taming of the Shrew, She Stoops to Conquer, Oedipus Rex, Possible Worlds and an amateur production of Ödön von Horváth’s Jugend ohne Gott (Youth without God). I’m sure there will be more productions announced within the year that we won’t be able to resist.

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend spending your time over at Mingled Yarns (her review of King Charles III convinced me to get tickets) and for those of you who understand German, Singende Lehrerin. Don’t open the e-mail alert for a new post of hers if the title contains ‘Stilblüten-Quickie’ and you are in public or at work. Her English students provide her with the bloopers, but her commenting them is what is going to crack you up.

For the Shakespeare fans: There’s a MOOC about Hamlet starting on Futurelearn January 19, followed by Much Ado About Nothing (both by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the RSC). Also, should you not know her work yet, http://goodticklebrain.com/ (or @GoodTickleBrain on Twitter) is hilarious.

And now I’m off to write the promised first reviews of the year. Talk you you soon!