Review: Nation

November 27, 2009

Nation at the National Theatre

Is it all a load of fantasy?

There are two ways of looking at the production of Nation now showing at the National Theatre. First, you can see it as what it is being advertised as by the National … that of a “spectacular family show”, you can just take it as this, and forget all your pre-concieved ideas of what a good piece of theatre is about. Or you can see it with a critical eye, and look beyond the visual affects and see the chaos that lies beneath.

How does someone take a piece of fantasy and craft it in such a manner that it is relayed in a theatrical sense, without it coming across as sheer nonsense? The National Theatre has actually had quite a good track record for setting new heights in their work of fantasy adaptation, one look at the popular adaptation of the Phillip Pullmans series, ‘His Dark Materials’ that graced the stage and went on a long tour proves that it can be done – and well.

So what went wrong here?

After several days mulling over my thoughts; for this production is not an easy one to digest; it comes in waves of information, in visual delight and a complicated script – I have concluded that perhaps it lies with the actual adaptation of text. Mark Ravenhill, one of our clear playwrights of the 21st century, whose previous work I have applauded time and time again, was given this mammoth task. How do you adapt a Terry Pratchett fantasy novel into a National Theatre “spectacular family show”, or more basic than that, into a working playscript?

Idenity is a big theme in Nation

Ravenhill at times captures the essence of Pratchetts story, with strong notions of what identity is between two different worlds, that of the British Empire and a ‘Barbarian Island’. Of course this is one of the themes running through the play, sorry, I mean ‘spectacle’… yet somehow Ravenhill just doesn’t fulfill the text in such a way that it translates well. It doesn’t bring the true magic of fantasy storytelling to the stage, instead… it brings something that for me, falls flat.

I think it’s safe to say that after the first half there are far too many questions that have been raised, and failed to be answered. Whilst I understand that plots are meant to be developed, it’s almost like Ravenhill has opened a can of worms and hasn’t quite caught them all yet to work into the story/plot.

Of course it’s not just Ravenhill’s writing that lets this show down – the musical interludes and songs are shocking. I’m sorry, but was there any need for the songs? They seemingly attempted to add a flare of musicality to the production, but failed to get anywhere with actors who clearly are not meant to be singers. It was such a shame that some of the ensemble singing wasn’t stronger, hell, there was a big enough cast for it to be!

One form of puppetry in Nation

The devices used in Nation are too extreme and too many, a revolving stage, puppetry, visual affects, projectors and exploding scenery to name but a few. Whilst I understand that part of translating this fantasy world comes across through the visual aspects, there seemed to be no limits on how far the direction was taken with the design. Melly Still the director of Nation really did let her imagination go wild with help from Mark Friend on set design, but has she not learnt to also know when the imagination runs away from logic?

Some of the visual material was fantastic, no denying that – especially that of the underwater video projections which were very stunning (a big thumbs up to Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, projection designers on this). Equally the way that the boats were represented on large cloth material (although done countless times before), actually brought a fresh burst of creativity to the mix, but this alone can’t bring the performance from the depths of “EEK”.

Emily Taaffe and Gary Carr

The acting was good, but not amazing, with Emily Taaffe as the British castaway figure of Daphne and Gary Carr as Mau the Island new-born Chief leading the production for the best part. Although admittedly I couldn’t quite believe that Taaffe was meant to be playing a 14 year old girl.. I’m sorry but my imagination couldn’t fathom this idea. Other notable praise for ‘good’ acting goes to an ensemble of energetic characters of natives, puppeteers and fine men and women.

Still as director has worked as best she could in this complex plot and miss-matched songs, to create a visually striking performance, but anything beyond this it lacks. It really is a shame. So whilst the National Theatre promote this as ‘family spectacle’ and whilst I’m sure it is enjoyable for children – for those of us who are looking at the National Theatre and thinking you represent our nation’s theatre… might just be disappointed.

Nation runs in the Oliver Theatre and is booking until 28 March 2010, see the National Theatre website for methods of booking.

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Review: James Thiérrée, Raoul

October 23, 2009

I loath one man shows, with a passion. It’s like seeing someone you do not wish to see walking along the street and you quickly duck across to the other side of the road just to avoid them. I go to great lengths to avoid having much contact with a show or performance that lacks two people. The reason behind this is that a single person, a ‘one-man show’ just has the huge ability to fall onto its head. There is a defined make or break moment in each one man performance I’ve ever seen. That moment of, “Can this person actually keep me entertained for the whole running time… yes? No.”

With this in mind, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Raul at the Barbican Centre by the notorious James Thiérrée. For those that don’t know who this man is, (and don’t worry, I equally did not know until recently), he happens to be grandson of Charlie Chaplin, and the son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée. If anything, there was a lot to live up to in this performance, and I have to say, it was certainly one to catch my imagination.

A one-man show in the Barbican Theatre, that great expanse of a stage, it seemed all too surreal, or quite possibly the start of something I might regret watching. However, upon taking my seat, it became clear that this wasn’t just your average show.

James  Thierree in Roaul

James Thierree in Roaul

Huge white sheets, suspended from the flies, hung, drapped over piping, an odd assortment of shapes and sizes poking out in all directions from the stage that dominated every inch of the immense stage that is the Barbican Theatre. James Thiérrée suddenly appears running through the audience, climbing across seats before making his way up to the expanse of white sheets before him. With momentous music, and a sweeping of his arms, the sheets suddenly retract in a beautiful manner revealing a lead pipe structure. It is at this moment that I let out my first of many “wow”‘s.

Raoul is an odd performance piece, part comedy, part mime, a mixture of trickery of the eye and spectacular visual effects. Raoul is a symphony for the eyes. An oxymoron if you please. It is both spectacular in form as it is precise in concentrated details. Leading the eye to both be marveled in sheer size of visionary images and squint equally at small magical movements.

Admittedly the piece takes a while to get into, not because it is hard to watch, or tiresome. It is more understanding the way that Thiérrée moves around the space, the silent dialogue and clowning elements, it is essentially understanding the language he is using. With Raoul you have to drop all sense of intelligence, and allow yourself to be immersed inside a world of true imagination.

Thiérrée performs with strength and comic ability, but equally there is a thorough form of training and skill that he has with his body. Watching him send ripples around his body is quite fascinating, if a little odd to conceive.

Thiérrée creates a strange, mysterious world to which the spectator has to loose all senses and thought and enjoy a spectacle of epic proportions.

Breath taking stage design

Breath taking stage design

There are moments within Raoul where I was left wondering “How are they doing that?”, especially with the stage design, which is at times breathtaking.

The house made from large piping during the course of the 75 minute performance slowly gets dismantled in explosive creative ways. Towards the start of the piece the front of this structure just falls apart, the large piping narrowly missing those seating in the front row (many a gasp of horror during this moment).

There is another breath taking moment where the back wall of piping seems to explode outwards as it magically gets lifted upwards away from the stage looking like a star that has descended to earth.

The music equally plays a huge part within this performance, it shapes emotions and atmospheres, it booms across the Barbican Theatre, and tinkles in all corners. It is clear that Thiérrée’s piece isn’t just about himself, it is a much larger version of a world he is creating. The sounds that echo through the theatre combined with the stage trickery and imagination makes your head pound with chaotic excitement.

The show even features a large elephant, a strange fish that swims across the stage and a large puppet bird. The various materials and devices used is endless, and brilliantly done.

James Thiérrée

James Thiérrée

A one-man show by James Thiérrée is not exactly what I expected, that is for sure. Thiérrée is talented, and rightly so, given his upbringing around circuses and learning the tricks of the trade from his family. He is a spectacle himself, who manages to so easily switch between the clowning elements to the sheer physical ability of his body. He appears to have no limits. Throwing himself across the stage, onto piping, and even at one point flies across the stage and out into the audience.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed myself in this performance, it did take me a while to get actively engaged in this. It’s bizarre. Certainly is not for everyone. Yet equally it is challenging and works wonders for the eyes. But Thiérrée still has a way to go before I will gladly give him a standing ovation such as the one that occurred on the night I saw Raoul, but that is a pet hate of mine.

Raoul is spectacular, but how far does it go to keep us engaged?

Raoul is on at the Barbican Centre until the 24th October. See their website for more details.


Review: War Horse

October 12, 2009
War Horse

War Horse

Does War Horse live up to the hype and five star reviews? Surely a West End transfer, a merchandise stand complete with magnets, t-shirts and mugs, and a storyline to make the hardest of men shed a tear would be worth a praising review from A Younger Theatre? I wish it was true…

War Horse has been critically acclaimed since it touched audiences hearts at the National Theatre last year. The show quickly became sold out, and a highly anticipated West End transfer to the New London Theatre was made earlier this year.

And yet I was rather disappointed by the production.

There is no doubt that the puppets of the horses are crafted with such skill and are equally moved/mastered by extremely skilled puppeteers. The movement within these puppets, and the sheer size of them can be quite difficult to focus on at first.

Like any object manipulated into ‘life’, there is adjustment needed to both accept that there is someone control these bits of materials, and equally when you look beyond the manipulators that what you are seeing is ‘believing’ in the creature itself.

The horses are the closest looking things that we’re going to see of horses galloping around a West End stage anytime soon. They are lifelike, yet equally have a skilled puppet craft applied to them. So the horses are obviously not the problem within War Horse, and if anything, the puppetry within the piece as a whole is what drives the piece along but also gets the audiences into the auditorium in the first place.

What War Horse lacks is that of substance.

The story is a little thin on the ground, with moments that really could have been expanded, and equally moments that could quite have easily been cut. The connection between Joey the horse and it’s owner, the young lad Albert is lovingly nurtured within the production, and becomes a delight to watch. Yet other occassions within the piece I struggled to stifle my yawning. The rambling monologues from the German Captain seemed to drag the production into the depths of history.

War Horse

War Horse

War Horse is clearly a good production, especially with the level of skill from the puppeteers, and a notable performance from Kit Harington as Albert, leading the ensemble piece. Despite the five star reviews, and the hype surrounding War Horse, I failed to connect to the piece. It lacked something for me.

I think if anything it is more a personal connection than stating that this is a downright bad production. After all, one person may love a piece of theatre, and equally their friend may despise it. That is the very nature of arts and opinions. So this time, the National Theatre just didn’t pull it off for me.

Perhaps it goes back to my inability to relate to horses? Having never been up close to one more than once in my life, nor through having any desire to ride one… but surely that wouldn’t put me between what is an outstanding production and one that needs more work?

For me the emotional connection to the story was a start/stop affair. I wanted to enjoy this. I wanted to get lost within the magic of the various uses of puppetry onstage, and I wanted to be caught up in the emotive story of the first world war and the soldiers who lost their lives. But I didn’t, and this for me was the killer of heart and soul for War Horse. Others might have been crying and wiping their eyes at the end, but sadly I was trying not to laugh at whoever awful idea it was of having smoke billowing from either side of the stage and thus making a quarter of the audience blind to the action onstage during the second half.

However this isn’t all negative, and far from it. What Marianne Elliott and Tim Morris as directors have done is direct a show that brings into the main stream theatregoers eyes the use of full scale puppetry of high quality, allowing this artform to be more widely accessed. Also their simple stylistic approach to the play could be worth a note to some over-heavy productions seeking to represent every last bit of life on stage.

War Horse is well worth a visit, and with ticket prices seemingly dropping slightly, its worth spending a night engaging with horses made from an assortment of materials. Is the production child friendly though? Hmm… personally I wouldn’t take a young child along, not with its numerous methods of death and imagery of war wounded soldiers splattered across the stage…

War Horse … the five stars reviews, or the sagging storyline? You decide.

The New London Theatre is playing War Horse and booking until next year, 2010. Tickets can be found on the National Theatre website.