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Saturday 27 August 2011

Broken Glass, Play by Arthur Miller, Tricycle Theatre, London, 4* out of 5

New York in November 1938. Philip and Sylvia Gellberg are a Jewish couple who have been married for more than 20 years and have one son. Philip works in Bank where he is the head of the mortgage department, dealing with foreclosures. Sylvia has become deeply interested in the news from Germany where Jews are being humiliated and mistreated. She has also suddenly been overcome by a mysterious illness which has paralysed her from the waist down.

Gellberg seeks help from Dr. Harry Hyman, a confident and competent general practitioner who suspects that Sylvia's paralysis is psychosomatic. In his youth Hyman was quite a ladies-man. He did part of his training in Heidelberg. Hyman's wife Margaret who also runs his practice is not Jewish. Even though Hyman is not a psychiatrist he believes that he may be able to help. Contrary to Gellberg, Hyman seems comfortable with his Jewish American identity and optimistic by nature, he believes that the Germans wont let Hitler go too far in his mistreatment of the Jews. And anyway the German problem is thousands of miles away from life in New York.

“Broken Glass” is named after the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) in Germany and Austria in November 1938 when synagogues burnt and Jews were attacked, humiliated and mistreated by Nazi gangs while being applauded by the local population. In this play, written in 1995 Arthur Miller skilfully weaves an intelligent plot at the intersection of international politics, Jewish identity, personal relationships and human psychology. There is plenty of drama and humour, too.

Iqbal Khan's excellent production is enhanced by the haunting specially written cello music underlines the tense atmosphere of the play with the ill defined yet ever present threat to Jews everywhere at the eve of World War II. The acting is of high quality throughout, with Tara Fitzgerald as Sylvia and Anthony Sher as Philip Gellberg giving outstanding performances.

This production of Broken Glass ran at the Tricycle last year. It has returned there for a short run (until 10 September 2011) before moving to the Vaudeville Theatre in London's West End starting 14 September 2011. Don't miss it.

Friday 12 August 2011

The Quick, Play by Stephanie Jacob, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 4* out of 5

Jo and Megan are cell-mates in a woman's prison in the North of England. Jo has a temper that can flare and explode into uncontrolled violence and in such a state she committed the crime that has landed her in prison again. Here she shows disdain for the rules and for those in authority. Megan is the soft vulnerable type that likes to help where she can. Unfortunately, she has helped her lover and heroin-dealer once too often. As a result serves a long prison sentence and has had to escape her heroin-addiction. Megan's caring personality and affection for her cell-mate make an impact on Jo, but her emotional world really gets shaken and stirred when she is told that the victim of her violent crime wants to meet her.

What is a tough yet effective approach to dealing with the consequences of violent crime? Restorative justice is a process in which victim and perpetrator of a crime, hopefully in a carefully prepared mediated setting, if both are willing to do so. What does such a dramatic and emotional meeting risk and what can it achieve?

I am usually inclined to be sceptical, even scornful about theatre-plays that are pedagogical and support a politically correct message. The Quick ticks both these boxes, yet, admirably, it manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of its intentions and genre.

At the core of the quality of a good play is the writing. It is evident that Stephanie Jacob has engaged deeply with her subject and has written all the characters of her play and their relationships in a very realistic, differentiated and credible way. Next, the pool of acting skills available in this country never ceases to impress me. Every character in this play is well acted, but the portrayal of the mercurial Jo by Josephine Rogers is a tour-de-force that by itself is worth the price of the ticket. Another outstanding performance is given by Alasdair Craig as the victim of her vicious crime. Both Rogers and Craig manage to capture key aspects of their character through an accomplished physicality of their performance. The chemistry between Jo and her cell-mate Megan (Grace Willis) is presented very credibly, too. Director Lucy Richardson has done an excellent job too, the violin music between the scenes underlines the atmosphere and a reminder of the cruel consequence of what Jo did to her victim.

This is certainly not an evening of light entertainment, but for those who are ready to have their preconceptions questioned (or confirmed) in a high quality, moving and sincere performance it is a very-good investment.

Some months ago the Tricycle's Theatre's production of “Afghanistan” was shown in the Pentagon. An unusual but highly worthwhile experiment: theatre can activate parts of the brain traditional forms of communication cannot reach. A performance of The Quick to both Houses in Parliament and senior civil servants could be timely and beneficial to the quality of the discussions and decision-making on crime and punishment in the wake of the riots in London and other English cities.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Blue Surge, play by Rebecca Gilman, Finborough Theatre, more than 4* out of 5

If August in riot-riven London is not hot enough for you, why not consider spending an evening with two charming hookers at the Finborough Theatre?

Curt is a cop in a small Mid-West town in the USA. He and his partner Doug have been assigned to busting a “massage parlour”. So Curt meets Sandy, an 18 year old “masseuse” and starts a friendship with her. Doug actually manages to arrest his suspect Heather. Curt's girl-friend Beth from an upper middle-class family is an artist. She supports the ambition for 38-year old Curt to make Lieutenant, but is that ambition really his or hers?

Rebecca Gilman, a gifted and justly recognized American playwright, tells a story that has suspense, humour, intelligence and warmth. Written in 2001, this is the UK première of “Blue Surge”. The play explores questions of relationships across class, of ethics vs. practical, needs in a thought provoking way. It manages to confound many of her audience's expectations without stretching its credulity. One of the strength of this play that every character has depth and relationships are believable.

So for the actors and the creative team putting on this play must be a boon. And clearly they are a talented. The set works with few means, but uses glass and light to very good effect. The direction keeps the play moving and holds the audience attention from scene to scene. The acting is excellent with a very well balanced cast; and still Clare Latham as Sandy and James Hillier as Curt stand out.

I discovered the small Finborough Theatre about three years ago. It consistently manages to produce high quality theatre, encourages new writing talent, attracts young people to the theatre. The atmosphere is friendly and enthusiastic;and recently it has equipped itself with air conditioning. What more can a theatre-goer interested in seeing intelligent, modern plays ask for?

Sunday 7 August 2011

The Light Thief, Film,/Kyrgyzstan, written and directed by Aktan Abdykalykov, 3***out of 5

Managers in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) nowadays have to spend much of their time attending cocktail parties at the UN in Geneva and New York or networking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is difficult for them to keep up to date with developments in the field. Luckily the are talented writer-director-actors such as Aktan Abdykalykov in Kyrgyzstan, who allow them to get an authentic picture of the problems that befall potential clients of their NGOs, without having to do any more tiresome travelling than a ride to a “theatre near you”.

The “Light Thief” in this story is Svet Ake. He lives in a rural community and is an electrician with a heart of gold. For some impoverished members of his village he will fix the electricity meter so that it runs backwards. Svet Ake is married with a little daughter. He loves his village and his family. He also maintains the traditions of the culture of his region which includes a mild form of Islam and respect for the high-hatted elders in the village, who are consulted and involved in decisions about the common good.

After the death of one of the elders, an evil young local profiteer gets his straw-man elected as the new mayor. He has his sights set on the profit opportunities that land sales can provide in the era of globalisation.

He understands that the man who may stand between him and a large amount of money is the electrician; so he tries everything from persuasion, to bribery and threats to get Svet Ake on his side.

It is rather comforting to a Western audience that the visiting potential buyers of Kirghiz land are not evil Westerners, but a delegation of no less evil Chinese officials. They are wined, dined and offered the sexual favours of a young woman of the village.

Svet Ake does not give in and is dealt with in a brutal manner by the mayor's henchmen. There is no Happy End for the “Good Man from Kyrgyzstan”.