Thursday, March 04, 2010

two dramas

Walking into the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, last Friday, I was reminded of the Green Room, Manchester - large glass frontage, confident contemporary air to the space, and just a hint of middle-browness.

I was there with The Professor, to see a Love and Madness production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love.

Reviews had been mixed, and the particular hook for drawing me in was the knowledge that this was Carl Barat's first professional acting gig. Walking into the theatre space, we enter at stage level, with the cast already in position - Barat (as Eddie) sits, head bowed. On a nearby bed, Sadie Frost (as May) is curled up. Gerard McDermott (as the Old Man) is half-way up a staircase, amongst the one-tier bank of seats. A small amount of additional seating is at stage level. The capacity looks to be around 300. As the play begins, I count 23 of us and immediately make the mental note to not spend the next hour or so (it's a short play) doing arithmetic and getting distracted by the economics of such a production.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Soon, we are immersed in the messy, alcohol-fuelled relationship of Eddie and May. There is an undertow of violent potential - with drawled cat calls and deep southern swagger the order of the pair's clashing over Eddie's time away. The motel room environment is claustrophic.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

About twenty minutes into the play, I think to myself, 'It's not entirely obvious where this is going'. By now, we've had the addition of the Old Man's third-party perspective, narrating against the main protagonists' conflict. The Old Man is drunk, and has a different kind of energy to the younger actors. The professor will later comment, that 'He held the whole thing together'. Looking at the text of the play, it would be easy to take the same view. Thus far, each of the three characters have presented the further challenge for the actors of 'doing drunk', or 'doing drinking', but they're getting by.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Whether by design, or fluke, McDermott's Old Man makes good use of the light in the space - stepping into and out of the shadows, and at one time, resting amongst the audience.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

As the play moves on to further disrupt the Eddie-May dialogue, with Neil Sheppeck's Martin - a humble man with a romantic interest in May - entering the fray, we build to revelations surrounding the identity of the Old Man, and the conequences of this for the doomed duo. Martin, meanwhile, is a character that hardly develops - aside from deciding that he wants to get out of there.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

In all, the production was competent - unremarkable, but certainly not bad. My guessing is that some of those mixed reviews would have warded off a good degree of shot-in-the-dark footfall, and so our two dozen get to do theatre intime. Through the course of the production, I wondered at the processes that may - or may not - have been undertaken, by way of casting. I wondered about the extent to which voice coaches would have worked with the cast. And I wondered how the cast would have felt, before, during and after the play's run. The experience of playing to a packed house would surely have generated nervous energy, but might smaller audiences risk the demeanour of going through the motions. I don't know - and the answer to the question wasn't obvious from any of the performances. The one technical criticism, that I would put forward, would be regarding the use of the whole body - and movement - through the play. The Old Man gave it 120% swagger, the awkward Martin was very much a stiff character, but - especially with alcohol in the air - I found it hard to imagine that Eddie and May would have been quite as static - quite as hands-off (despite the second photograph, above), were we in the real world. But perhaps this is a detail that we can forgive, given the revelations regarding the Old Man. See how I don't spoil.

If anything, Fool for Love was drama - writ large.

And so onto Saturday, and Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, presenting A Life in Three Acts at the Soho Theatre.

(Photo: uncredited)

As this image attests, the staging of A Life in Three Acts was quite a different affair to Fool for Love. I'd seen Bette Bourne about a decade ago, playing Quentin Crisp, in Tim Fountain's Resident Alien. From that show, I'd deduced a warmth and charm to Bourne, that instilled confidence.

The Soho Theatre - on a Saturday afternoon - was packed. Maybe 200 folk, covering a broad white-only demographic, sat down for the one and a half hour show.

Ravenhill bounces onto the stage and speaks to us, explaining that a year ago, he began to interview Bette, and that with the assistance of a transcriber, a picture researcher and a long self-editing process, he and Bette had reduced those interviews down into a stageable, digestible form. And that, as the title of the piece suggests, the life of Bette Bourne - and with that, a rich seam of social, sexual, identity and performance history - was the central subject matter. And so we welcome Bette Bourne to the stage. Aged 70, he had a quiet charisma, if not an entirely lithe physique. Refreshingly, there was an honesty to the production - the process through which it came about, and the matter of the performers have the 'script' in front of them, was there for all to hear and see. The professor later commented, 'Within 30 seconds of his being on stage, I was with him'. It also happened to be the case that within 30 seconds of his being on stage he was recalling - and self-parodyingly performing - boyhood amateur dramatics, undertaken with his mother, as his father was at war.

Of white working class stock, Bourne was one that got away - or was, perhaps, rescued by himself and by the good fortune and direction of one or two of his tutors. In a life that spanned intimate and sexual relationships with men and at least one woman, a life that saw Bourne at the fore in the Gay Rights movement, and that saw his Bloolips performance troupe play through Europe and New York, Bourne had much to unfold. Beyond the drag and the suggestion of often larger-than-life self-characterisation, there emerged a thoughtful, quieter, more comfortable-in-his-own-skin individual. Particularly insightful moments came about as he discussed his decision to leave a commune, as the drug scene therein became too much, too negative, for him. And furthermore, in discussing the early 1980s, AIDS, and those who fell to it, he portrayed an individual who was fully aware of the tragedies that he had lived through. In discussing a relationship with a woman, which came to an end as he had to explain 'I'm not straight, I'm not bi, I'm a gay man', he acknowledged that he had at times been complicit in more local tragedies. 'I hurt her', he said quietly.

But heavy and profound as much of this was, there was - is - an air to Bourne, that reminds us that life goes on, and that we should make the best effort to get the most out of life. Ravenhill's discreet interventions - moving the narrative along - was a wise production decision - a constant visual reminder of the relational quality of biography. After all, what is a biography without a reader, a listener, or anyone who cares.

If anything, A Life in Three Acts was drama - writ deep.


Pat said...

I always feel sorry when there is a sparse turn out but a tiny rapt audience gives them the oxygen they need.

Shane said...

With that, the interaction of venue and audience comes to the fore. In a tiny tiny venue, our 23 would have looked and felt entirely right. (This is the point at which I get lost in the economics of such productions)