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Thursday 25 April 2019

Three Sisters, Play by Anton Chekhov, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, Almeida Theatre, London 8.5* out of 10

Chekhov aficionados may not see the need for modernization in Cordelia Lynn's adaptation of Three Sisters, but many ordinary mortals among the theatre-going public will enjoy this production of the Russian author's great play. All acting performances are of a high standard, Patsy Ferran as Olga is magnetic, Pearl Chanda as Masha seductive. The Almeida remains a great place to see accessible high-quality theatre. 

Russia at the turn of the 20th century. After the death of their father, a General in the Russian army, the Prozorov sisters Olga (Patsy Ferran), Masha (Pearl Chanda) and Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz) live in a remote small garrison town with their brother Andrey (Freddy Meredith). They live a comfortable life and the social and intellectual stimulation, such as there is, is provided by the stationed officers. Olga is a spinster of a pragmatic nature. Masha is a sassy lady who married her first love the fatherly local Latin teacher Kulygin (Elliot Levey) and now regrets it; Irina the youngest dreams of romantic love and city life in Moscow. And then there is their young brother Andrei, who seems suited for an academic career, but falls in love below his station with a local town girl Natasha (Lois Chimimba). She starts out shy and uncertain but will prove more than a handful for the Prozorov clan. A posse of officers from the local garrison show interest in the ladies of the Prozorov-household and engage in romantically-charged intellectual and philosophical banter with them. What is man’s and woman’s purpose on earth? How does one get to fulfil one’s potential? (The renowned Austrian psychiatrist and bestselling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, would have a field day with Chekhov’s protagonists.) Big dreams clash with the limitations and flaws of the different characters and with unfortunate chains of events to ultimately end in more and less dramatic disappointments. If this summary puts you off, don’t let it: Anton Chekhov makes it very compelling.

The Almeida production of Chekhov’s classic is based on a new adaptation by Cordelia Lynn. The outcome may not please Chekhov connoisseurs, but ordinary mortals will find it accessible, moving and entertaining. And even Chekhov-aficionados should enjoy this production where music (Angus MacRae), choreography including a  lively start into the action, direction (Rebecca Frecknall), and acting performances are in good balance and hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end. Peter MacDonald as Masha’s lover Vershinin and Eliott Levey as her husband Kulygin stand out among the male actors. Patsy Ferran is magnetic as Olga, Pearl Chanda seductive as Masha both when she leaves her hat on and when she takes it off. Almeida Theatre productions are usually of a high standard and this production of Three Sisters lived up to my high expectations. Recommended.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Top Girls, Play written by Caryl Churchill directed by Lyndsay Turner, National Theatre, London 7* out of 10

Top Girls, the celebrated 1980s play by Caryl Churchill is well constructed and makes some important points still relevant today. In this production, however, the balance between drama, comedy and “Lehrst├╝ck” (pedagogic play) is tilted towards the latter and that did not quite work for me.   

England 1981. Thanks to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies, Britain is open for business like it has not been for decades. Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) has landed the top job at the employment agency Top Girls. She celebrates in a trendy Asian Restaurant with a few female historical figures who were in or close to it over the centuries: Isabella Bird (Siobhan Redmond) the Victorian lady traveller, the Pope Joan (Amanda Lawrence) who became pope pretending to be a man, Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh) Japanese concubine, Boccaccio’s Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellinson) – it’s complicated, and Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire) a female warrior from the Low Countries in full armour. As they exchange their “war-stories” it becomes clear they are all female outliers who achieved some measure of success by abandoning a larger or smaller part of their femininity or enduring male cruelty with extraordinary resilience. Each had to pay a price for this over and above that paid by men in similar positions. As the play proceeds in non-chronological order we get to know Marlene’s work colleagues, the wife of the man who she beat to the top job, as well as Marlene’s sister Joyce (Lucy Black), Angie (Liv Hill), Marlene’s niece who suffers from learning difficulties and her younger friend Kit (Ashna Rubheru). 

What kind of feminism is the one based on ruthless competitive and individualistic Thatcherist worldview? Is it desirable to have a small number of women rise to the top by behaving like men, at a cost to other women and themselves? These questions are put most convincingly by Marlene’s sister, the life she leads and the dignity she aspires to.

One doesn’t have to agree with playwright Caryl Churchill’s views to appreciate the intelligent way she weaves them into a contemporary drama with historical references and director Lyndsay Turners lavish production with an all-female cast of 18. The 1982 play is still relevant, although in the context was different from today. Top Girls examines the price to be paid by exceptional women who succeed in the business world and the divide between them and the other women: those whose support is crucial, those who need support and will not function well in a ruthlessly competitive environment. And there’s the question of children or career. 

The key relationship is between Marlene and her sister Lucy, which is reflected in how their different lives have led to different worldviews: Marlene’s sister wants a social structure that gives dignity to all and looks after its weak. Marlene has worked herself up from humble beginnings and operates successfully in a world that focuses on the most talented, and disrespects weakness even in those close to us by social or family connection.

The physical absence of men from this play is notable. When absent men are mentioned they are portrayed as weak and vulnerable, neither as unsurmountable competition nor as potential support to the women in their lives. Through the thoughtful and acutely observant character of Marlene’s sister Joyce, the writer expresses her concern about women accepting the neoliberal narrative that, be it man or woman, the talented will rise to the top and the untalented (including those with learning difficulties) and the unwilling will find the place they deserve on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Organising motherhood in an environment where market-based competition reigns supreme seems to demands that some women must substitute in caring roles for those women who succeed in business.

Lindsay Turner's lavish production of this revival features 18 woman actors giving strong performances with Lucy Black shining as Joyce, who is also the character that seems to be the most genuine.

While I appreciated Top Girls on an intellectual level as cleverly constructed and at times witty, I did not connect to the characters on an emotional level. The simultaneity of part of the conversations in the opening scene is unnecessary and a bit irritating as one loses out on hearing some good lines. Except for Joyce and to a lesser extent Angie I found the characters to be written too much as types for making an admittedly important social and political point to fully engage with them and their fate. The balance between drama, comedy and “Lehrst├╝ck” (pedagogic play) is tilted towards the latter in this production. Still, Caryl Churchill fans will not want to miss this revival.

Saturday 6 April 2019

Free Solo, Documentary Film (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 8.5* of 10

Besides showing some spectacular nature and rock-climbing sequences, Free Solo paints the portrait of Alex Honnold, the best rock free-climber in the world at the pinnacle of his death-defying athletic and cognitive achievement. The psychological insights into Honnold and those close to him are as intriguing as his incredible athleticism in a discipline where any small misstep or misgrip means almost certain death.

At 33 years of age, the rock climber Alex Honnold belongs to the 1% of top climbers who risk their lives with every move they make: free-climbers do not use ropes or any other equipment that might prevent or mitigate a fall. A documentary film making team, itself consisting of experienced climbers, followed Honnold during his preparation and attempt to free-climb the 975m (3200 ft) El Capitan rock in Yosemite National Park, California. 

This results in the spectacular nature and climbing photography one would expect from a National Geographic documentary. What makes Free Solo stand out, however, is the portrait it paints of Honnold, his unusual personality and how it impacts on the way he handles himself and the relationships with those close to him. There is his mother the extremely demanding French teacher, his late father a compulsive world traveller. There is a youth with any warm physical contact, without any hugs. He explains in the most matter of fact tone, how he taught himself to hug in his twenties. It sounds like the way he trains a challenging climbing move. 

And there’s his recent girlfriend Sanni MacCandless. He describes her as someone whose goal it is to have a cozy and happy life. This baffles him. Cozy and happy is fine but it doesn’t achieve anything. Sanni manages to make Alex Honnold come out of his shell a bit; fortunately for both, she appreciates the brutal honesty with which he answers her questions about their relationship. “Would putting me into the equation actually ever change anything?” she asks. “No,” he answers. “But I appreciate your concerns.” Yet one wonders. Is Honnold’s shell not an armour he needs to be able to complete his death-defying climbing feats and will his relationship make chinks in it? His friend the climber Tommy Caldwell, himself a family man, certainly seem to think so. Clearly, being in a relationship makes some aspects of climbing more difficult, but intriguingly, although he’s clear that climbing comes first in everything he does, Honnold seems to know a good woman when he has one. 

Besides showing some spectacular nature and rock-climbing sequences, Free Solo paints the portrait of many complex personalities and their interactions with each other. This includes the team of experienced climbing documentary film-makers  Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and their talented team of filmers/climbers, who cannot be emotionally detached from their seemingly cool as a cucumber protagonist. Despite the use of climbing ropes and other mountaineering equipment their work and risk-taking are anything but unspectacular. And so are the results.

The last 20 minutes of Free Solo show the pinnacle of athletic achievement; as Honnold puts it it’s like entering the Olympics on the basis that you either get the gold medal or you die. Together with the insight the filmmakers give us into Alex Honnold's personality and entourage this a highly entertaining and thought-provoking documentary going far beyond the subject of high-performance rock climbing into psychology and life philosophy. Free Solo is an entertaining and riveting documentary to watch on the edge of your seat. Highly recommended.