London & West End

By: Brent Meersman  11-11-2011
Keywords: Film, theatre

Cabaret (Lyric Theatre, London)
We were warned. Visiting South Africans and several London theatre practitioners told us to give this version of Cabaret a miss. I also knew it was certain to be a let-down after the superbly executed, imaginative interpretation I saw a few months ago at the Spiegeltent in Berlin, not far from Isherwood’s Nollendorfsraße and around the corner from where Gestapo’s headquarters once stood. But Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is such a robust work, surely it would shine through? And this is the theatre capital of the world, so how bad could it possibly be?

Readers of this site know I’m not a fan of the mini-me versions of musicals we get to see at Theatre on the Bay. I am revising my opinion. Without lowering one’s standards, I can at least say that the Bay casts may not have the technical prowess or the production resources, but at least they are charismatic.

The West End is struggling for audiences this summer. Today’s Sunday Telegraph reports “Curtain comes down early on 25 West End shows”. Straight plays especially are suffering. A handful of critic-proof mega-musicals are sponging up the audiences. It’s perhaps not surprising then that several of the major daily London newspapers currently list Cabaret among their Top 5 and Pick of the Theatre. I can only guess they’re trying to be nice and are throwing a parochial lifeline to something that should have more artistic merit than We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia.

Let’s start with the set and then work out way down to the direction. If you can imagine what it must be like to be physically inside a swastika, you have some idea of the ugliness of the design.

Why Bob Fosse’s scintillating choreography has been removed is a mystery. Even more mysterious is how what has replaced it managed to earn Javier de Frutos this year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer. It can’t hold a candle to the original.

The emcee is James Dreyfus. South Africans note his striking resemblance to Mark Banks wearing black lipstick. Banks is funnier. A stand-up comedy version of the emcee role was not to my taste as the best reading of the part, but seemed to go down well with the hoi polloi. Kim Medcalf’s Sally Bowles is competent but uninspired. The best performance is by Andrew Maud as Ernst Ludwig – convincingly Teutonic and comfortably suave.

Director Rufus Norris, whose last production at the National, Market Boy, sent me scurrying from the theatre, plays the gay card heavily in his Cabaret. It’s now a sort of coming-out version of the original. There’s front to back nudity, however the sexuality is anything but erotic, and about as transgressive as a bout of adolescent masturbation. The ensemble indulges in puerile playground frolics. Several times the impression was created that the cast are playing at pranks. Why would any director have a lone member appear at the back of the stage doing the hula every time Fraulein Schneider says ‘pineapple’?

The Hothouse (Lyttelton, National Theatre, London)
Harold Pinter wrote his fifth play, The Hothouse, in 1958 when shock therapy was in vogue and the lobotomy had become the psychiatrist’s panacea. Set in a surreal mental institution that has sinister links to an undefined government ministry, Pinter’s Hothouse reminds one of the cult film Oh Lucky Man. The man in charge is a bumbling, authoritarian ex-colonel called Roote. Arbitrary injustices, individuals lost in the paperwork, bureaucratic mistakes, the abuse of power and torture are regular occurrences in this world. The patients are referred to only by number and not by name. I have a nasty hunch that if we knew enough we’d find out that the Hothouse could serve as a spine-chilling spoof on the inner workings of Guantanamo Bay. Stephen Moore, who I last saw as the lead in The History Boys portrays Roote (Pinter played the role himself in 1995) and gives the part just the right mix of baleful stupidity and humour.

One of the incarcerated numbers has died and another given birth to a child. The ambitious menacing Gibbs (Finbar Lynch) is charged with finding a fall guy and cleaning up the mess.

The second act holds disappointingly few surprises and the ending seems tacked on, but Pinter’s play is rewarding viewing and could have been written yesterday. A strong and even cast are tightly helmed by director Ian Rickson.

The star of the night however is the magnificent set designed by Hildegard Bechtler. Eerie, echoing metal stairways and landings, towering tiled walls, faded green enamel coated interiors, rusted radiators, dented grey metal filing cabinets – every detail recreates the depressing decay of a thoroughly unpleasant utilitarian hospital come government administration.

On accents on stage and The Rose Tattoo (Olivier, National Theatre, London)
There should be a ban on doing accents on stage. In the way that jingoist jokes and cultural stereotypes no longer hold, they belong to a time and style that has passed. Not for reasons of political correctness, but simply that today we know better. It’s unlikely anybody would pen a song like Mad Dogs and Englishman today. Besides, our ears are sharper. With global exposure, we’re becoming far harder to convince.

If a character has an accent that belongs to their native language, and they are speaking in their native language – the Queen speaking English, GW Bush struggling along in American – that’s all very well. It’s also fine if the character is speaking English as a second language and they have an accent. That is part of verisimilitude; though a challenge few actors ever really get right. Personally, I take a more radical position as I believe we’re sophisticated enough today as audiences to ‘see through’ accents. I don’t see much sense anymore in having British or South African English-speaking actors attempting American accents. I’d prefer it if they concentrated on being intelligible and convincing. I do agree to differ with those who feel accents make the make-believe of theatre more authentic.

But why should actors pretending to be Sicilians speaking to one another – presumably in Italian – which the playwright is rendering for our benefit in English – speak with ludicrous accents, and as if they have a poor grasp of their native grammar? The grammar is the playwright’s fault – an unrevised convention of mistaken imitation that dates many works – as silly as casting subtitles on a film in pidgin.

It is simply absurd to perform Chekhov in English with Russian accents; as absurd is it would be to try and imagine what kind of accent Julius Cesar or Oedipus would have attempting to pronounce modern English.

A director could of course use accents of the culture in which the work is performed, for instance to draw class parallels. This could be a way of transposing a work.

Language ability and intelligence are regularly confused. Accents make people sound stupid. That’s why film-makers made Nazis speak zat wey. It was part of ridiculing them. Faux accents are yet another artificial barrier between us and the performer, and another filter that stifles the performance, diluting the emotional energy.

In film, it is increasingly the practice that people speak the language they would speak normally to one another and subtitles are employed. Some films make use of numerous languages in this way.

The situation is even more complicated in today’s multicultural and peripatetic theatre world. Actors can be drawn from the far corners of the globe. Casting is often colour blind. Ophelia can be played by a black actress while Polonius is white. What of it?

This finally brings me to the current London production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. Unfortunately this was museum piece theatre. Flat and lacking passion, the thick use of typecast Italian accents destroyed what was left. Why not get a real Italian actress?

Keywords: Film, theatre

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