Friday, 14 December 2007

NSDF funding cut

Sunrise outside the Noises Off Office at the NSDF

The Arts Council Yorkshire yesterday announced its intention to completely withdraw funding from the National Student Drama Festival. This is a catastrophically short-sighted, wrong-headed blunder.

Its reason for cutting the annual grant is the decision to “refocus [their] investment”. The organisation now wishes to support: “the strongest, highest quality building-based producing theatres... the most dynamic and innovative touring companies [and] venues that support the changing nature of theatre.” It claims it is seeking to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts.”

The immediately obvious flaw with their reasoning is that the NSDF, in just one week a year, inspires more passion, enthusiasm and engagement with theatre (and thus “increased attendance and participation”), than any building or company ever could, and for a fraction of the cost.

At this point I should declare an interest: the NSDF introduced me to theatre and made me fall in love with it in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible. I now edit the Festival’s daily reviews magazine. However, there is something utterly unique about the Festival’s atmosphere that has been changing lives for the fifty-three years of its history. Editing the fiftieth anniversary history of the festival, I was repeatedly struck by the vividness and warmth with which the festival is remembered by those who attended, often several decades earlier.

The sheer number of actors, directors, playwrights, lighting designers, sound designers, stage managers, front of house staff, administrators and producers that the festival has shaped is also quite remarkable. Hell, it was at the NSDF that the Sunday Times drama critic and festival co-founder, Harold Hobson, first discovered Harold Pinter in 1958.

Even just the past few years have seen work from: Gate Theatre co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, (NSDF‘02), the actress Ruth Wilson (NSDF‘02), writer Lucy Prebble (NSDF‘02), director Jamie Lloyd (NSDF ‘01), and, interviewed in G2 only this week ahead of his starring role in the forthcoming film The Kite Runner, Khalid Abdalla (NSDF‘03).

The Guardian's Michael Billington has said of the Festival: “It was hearing [Harold Hobson] at the NSDF‘60 in Oxford that convinced me that criticism was an occupation that required its own sense of drama as well of natural justice. Once I became a critic myself in 1965, Harold proved a staunch ally, mentor and friend. But I wish now that I had told him how radically he changed my life in 1960.”

Tim Piggott-Smith summed it up best: “The NSDF is a seedbed. People keen on theatre meet up and wallow in drama for days. It is competitive. It is exciting. And it creates relationships that run like threads through the very fabric of our profession.”

If Arts Council Yorkshire really wants to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts” then it couldn’t ask for a more perfect candidate than the NSDF.

On this basis, the Festival is appealing the decision. It has until the 15th January 2008 to make its case. There is an online petition to sign - anyone with any interest in the future of theatre should do so. This small, often-overlooked gem of an event has been changing lives for its entire history. It continues to do so every year. It is a passionate engine at the very core of British theatre. The Arts Council should be demanding to be a part of this phenomenal ongoing success.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Premature end-of-year round up

The problem in British theatre at the moment is that, give or take, there really isn’t that much of a problem. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but everyone writing on theatre knows what they are. An unforeseen consequence of the theatrical comment blogsophere (reviewing is obviously different) is that it has, in roughly a year or two, done an alarmingly good job of identifying all the key issues in contemporary theatre; itemising them; discussing them; and leaving them fully annotated and in a neat handy-to-view package so that anyone with the slightest interest in theatre now has an invaluable guide. The net effect of this is that, unless we are going to start recycling issues just to fill space, we’re going to need something new to discuss pretty soon. But there’s not a whole lot of new on the horizon. This year looks to have reached the point where it will release its Greatest Hits album and shuffle out of the limelight into retirement, rather than hoping to provoke any great controversy with an unexpectedly radical paradigm shift in panto-land, or something.

In such cases, I suppose it is traditional to do some sort of round-up of the year. In fact, since I started writing this yesterday afternoon both Alison Croggan and The Guardian have posted theirs. So, in the spirit of festive reflection, here’s list of my Top Ten shows (in alphabetical order):

Attempts on Her Life
Hippo World Guest Book
Merchant of Venice (Globe)
My Child
Simple Girl
Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat
Taking Care of Baby
The Ugly One
Women of Troy

I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include something wonderful that I really shouldn’t have forgotten [edit: yes, Macbeth]. Apologies for that. However, looking at this list, I’m stuck by how mainstream my year has been. There are only two shows from Fringe venues on the list, and both of those are in Edinburgh - and in Edinburgh terms, neither The Pleasance nor The Underbelly are exactly off the beaten track. So two shows from the National, two from the Royal Court, two from - remarkably - the Hampstead, plus one Globe and one Lyric Hammersmith. And looking at my overall list, those seem to be pretty much the theatres I’ve been visiting most regularly this year. I saw virtually everything at the Court, a high percentage at the National, and a fair smattering at the others. On the other hand, I don’t think I once made it to The Oval House or Theatre 503, despite having often had good reasons for wanting to.

I increasingly worry about the lack of experimental work I’m seeing. Is it me failing to find it, or is it largely not there to be found? Or are there other considerations apart from, until recently, having a job which wrote off theatre-going every other week of the year? There’s an excellent TheatreVoice discussion on criticism, in which the Evening Standard’s Kieron Quirke makes the interesting suggestion that blog-reviewers and website critics (i.e. people like me), should, along with Time Out, be the ones who scout out the best of the work on the fringe. It’s a nice thought, but there is an equally valid case for younger critics seeing the same shows as their senior counterparts in order to provide a different perspective. After all, one of the ongoing highlights of the Guardian’s theatre coverage is the chalk and cheese tastes of Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner who, quite without rancour, frequently post diametrically opposite opinions on various pieces of work. One of my proudest moments this year was when - following the kicking it got from the mainstream press - a quote from my review of Attempts On Her Life was used as the top notice on the National’s website (in fact, it’s still there). It was the first time that I had any idea that my online reviews might carry any weight, or “counted” with the theatres concerned at all.

There is also the question of “importance”. This is a much trickier issue. What constitutes “important” theatre? It’s one of those questions that has been batted around the blogsophere so much that its battered and bloodied form is scarcely still recognisable as a question. Writer and director Richard Hurst, commenting on my Women of Troy review (on Facebook, not under the review), suggested that it was one of those words that, along with pretentious, should be consigned to the dustbin for lazy thinking. I suspect he’s probably right in terms of the actual word, but the concept remains crucial, not least when trying to prioritise a review schedule. Being largely free of anyone else’s wider agenda, I do now tend to view the National and the Royal Court as two of the most “important” theatres in London.

This is a pretty new state of affairs. The National under Trevor Nunn never felt like an especially vital place, while the Royal Court under Ian Rickson slid slowly but inexorably toward becoming a complete basket case. So it’s not simply the buildings or their history. It is to do with the sense that they are trying to engage with both the world and with new ways of making work. The BAC really ought to figure, too, but with the relentless turnover of work there - with the exception of the ultra-long-running Masque of Red Death runs there seem to last about four days at most - it feels like one could spend virtually one’s whole life there and never see anything else. I know this is partly David Jubb’s intention - to critic-proof the building by never having anything on long enough for a printed opinion to be able to catch it during its run - but it still strikes me as ultimately limiting.

At the risk of echoing Peter Bradshaw’s comments on the Donmar’s Othello, I guess it still feels important to me that something should be see-able by the public. This is probably a reaction I should interrogate a bit more closely, since it completely rules out one-off events like The Sultan’s Elephant, for example, from having any claim to “importance” when clearly the reverse is true. But the idea that something only available to a maximum of 200 people can be “important” is a difficult one to negotiate. Obviously it can be the case. And often the exclusivity will necessarily make the event in question all the more special. But “important” often carries an implication of being somehow more wide-reaching. But as Chris Goode has observed, “upstream” work (as opposed to mainstream work) realises its importance through influence, which again is hard for a critic to second guess. After all, influence cannot make itself felt immediately. So, I guess I need to keep working on how I choose what I’m going to see. Of course, to an extent, it is always going to be something of a lottery - Complicité’s A Disappearing Number is a case in point of a work that really should have been important, and just wasn’t in any way shape or form.

A recent email from one of the FIT staff related a comment made by Jan Lauwers of Needcompany:
“Jan said, with quite brilliant insouciance, that seeing work that doesn’t change his definition of theatre is a waste of his time.”

It’s an admirable standpoint for an artist, but feels slightly less tenable for a critic. After all, someone needs to go to see Desperately Seeking Susan just to check that it’s every bit as dreadful as everyone suspects, in order to save their time, or else shout from the rooftops about how wrong they are and how unmissable it is. It’s filthy work, really, but someone has to do it. To this end, you can all look forward to a very grumpy review of the Barbican’s “posh panto” Jack and the Beanstalk, once I’ve also seen its main competitor at the Old Vic on Thursday.

In other news:

My colleague from the Munich trip Anna Teuwen’s blog continues to find and describe some fascinating corners of German theatre, while the dazzlingly industrious Ott Karulin is also well worth keeping an eye on. Then there’s Chris Goode’s baffling festive quiz - well, baffling insofar as I haven’t listened to the MP3s yet - which, unusually for a quiz, is more of a pleasure to read than it is possible to answer.

And, if you haven’t already read it, I should also point you in the direction of my latest cynical offering, at the Guardian’s Theatre Blog.

Off the blogsophere, I should draw your attention to the interview with Postcards’s Most Famous Friend, Khalid Abdalla, from yesterday’s Guardian about his starring role in the forthcoming film of The Kite Runner.

Finally, in spite of Postcards’s legendarily poor nightlife, I did catch the excellent up-and-coming young popular beat group the Official Secrets Act yesterday (review forthcoming, I hope) and was forcibly reminded just how great they are. I heartily recommend them to music lovers and theatre fans alike.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Women of Troy - National Theatre

With her production of Attempts on Her Life at the National earlier this year, Katie Mitchell created the finest and most important theatrical event of the year. With her new production of Women of Troy, she comes damn close to bettering it.

To read some of the initial reviews, you’d think that Mitchell has put on stage the most obscure, inhuman, baffling, deliberately contrary piece of avant garde theatre ever staged. In fact, quite the reverse is true. Compared to Attempts... or Waves, this production of Women of Troy is surprisingly straight-forward. It is predominantly ultra-naturalistic, but, more importantly, it is utterly, achingly human. This is the first production of a Greek tragedy I’ve seen that has totally immersed me in the absolute desolation felt by the characters.

In a cavernous warehouse (an incredibly detailed, perfectly realised set from Bunny Christie) the surviving wives of the murdered Trojan leadership are imprisoned while their fates are decided by the 29 Greek generals. As the play progresses, the sheer misery and hopelessness of their situation becomes increasingly unbearable.

Mitchell’s production is unfussily modern-dress, with the woman looking as if they have just been forcibly taken at gunpoint from after dinner drinks at a posh dinner. It is a brilliant conceit, and one which absolutely achieves the often-intended but rarely realised feat of suggesting the action of the play could plausibly be taking place somewhere in the world right now. Michael Gould’s understated performance as Talthybius, making a weary, apologetic official of this Greek herald, creates a perfect understanding of exactly the world into which these women have been thrust. It is his remorseless, tactful efficiency that really horrifies. Far more than posturing or declaiming could achieve, his careworn attempts at reasoning with Andromache (the excellent Anastasia Hille) to give her child up to be murdered are terrifying precisely because they are so human.

Sinead Matthews’s performance as Cassandra is similarly intelligent. With her words virtually unintelligible and near-hysterical she absolutely conveys the idea of a woman half-crazed by a curse that bestows unbelieved prophecy upon her. Even we the audience cannot really understand what she is doing or saying, only that she is in the grip of madness. Although the play really revolves around Hecuba (Kate Duchêne) and Andromache, the way in which Helen (Susie Trayling) is portrayed is inspired. We first see her through the windows of an upstairs office within the warehouse, which has been utilised as a makeshift cell. The way she is kept apart from the other women, and can be seen pacing frantically about, dabbing at her nose and repeatedly checking her appearance in a small compact mirror, quietly adds to the horror of the mise-en-scene. Here is a woman who knows that every possibly violence is to be visited on her, and is terrified beyond comprehension.

While a majority of the play is largely naturalistic, the production also deploys some gorgeously impressionist moments. It is these which lift the whole production from being simply a fine reading of a play to being a work of art. At several points the women break off from their conversations and begin to dance to amplified big band jazz music. At another point Cassandra leads the women in an attempt to sing the Carpenters’s Close To You. Near the end, while listening to classical music on the radio, the women suddenly break into chokingly gorgeous choral song. Indeed Gareth Fry’s sound design is perhaps his best yet, evoking alongside the carnage of war a kind of David Lynch other-worldly shuddering industrial noise. Elsewhere, for the chorus-speaking moments, there is the sound of the imaginary “fourth wall” being slowly raised, like the vast metal door at the far end of the warehouse, and the supposed light from outside that fourth wall floods the stage - and for those moments, the women can talk to the audience. In many ways, it makes excuses for the play’s prevailing naturalism - to represent physically moving the fourth wall in order for the characters on stage to be able to acknowledge the audience could be considered a step too far, but here it comes across as both witty and inspired.

What this production achieves is both a viciously lucid telling of the story and a sublime comment on human capacity for inflicting suffering, and what the effects of that suffering actually look like up close. Without once suggesting any direct contemporary parallels - fewer than Euripides himself intended when writing the play during the Peloponnesian War - this bleak picture of the suffering of a nation’s ruling class manages to suggest the all too real victims of any war or revolution you care to imagine. It does so without once preaching, seeking to score points, or sacrificing any artistic integrity. Its use of metaphor - the way it engages the audience, requiring them to interrogate as well as be “shown” - is perfectly judged. The whole is moving beyond words, visually ravishing, and utterly harrowing.

Trailer and photos.

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Arsonists - Royal Court

The final main stage production of Dominic Cooke’s first year as Artistic Director at the Royal Court neatly synthesises two of his new regime's most notable features: a new spirit of internationalism, and the much-discussed ambition to ask difficult questions about the theatre’s predominantly white, middle-class, liberal audience. It also continues Cooke’s brilliant use of the main stage to revive some of the Court’s greatest hits from years gone by, apparently selected with an acute eye for the way that their once-unambiguous, impeccably liberal, anti-Nazi meanings have been subtly and ineradicably altered by the intervening years. Ramin Gray’s production of The Arsonists, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, is an electrifying vindication of all these ideas.

Gray and Beaton had already collaborated this year on the dismal King of Hearts at the Hampstead Theatre, and while Gray since redeemed himself with an excellent production of Marius von Meyenberg’s The Ugly One, Beaton’s irritating brand of “political” sub-farce remained a concerning factor. As it turns out, Beaton has delivered a precise, elegant translation of the play, his gift for middle class idiom finding a perfect home in Max Frisch’s script. Similarly, Gray’s apparent enthusiasm for stripped down minimal staging - beautifully realised here in Antony Ward’s two storey room, standing like an island in the middle of an otherwise bare stage - dovetails well with the play’s post-Brechtian meta-theatricality.

The play tells the simple story of how a well-to-do middle class business man (Will Keen) and his wife (Jacqueline Defferary) allow two strangers (Paul Chahidi and Benedict Cumberbatch) into their house during a spate of arson attacks, despite knowing that the invitation of an alien presence into a middle class home is precisely how all the attacks have been committed. The couple, in their desire not to hurt feelings, to be polite and not to think the worst of their guests, allow the sinister duo to go about moving numerous petrol drums into their attic, and to set about wiring them up in order to cause a massive conflagration, while they agonise about what the two men might be up to, and whether they are doing enough to make them welcome.

And it is very funny. Will Keen gives an outstanding performance as the hapless Biedermann, swinging between attempts at upper middle class authority and Basil Fawlty-like paroxysms of farcical despair; Jacqueline Defferary provides excellent support with pitch-perfect essaying of a neurotic, nervy posh wife. Even better are Chahidi and Cumberbatch as the mismatched former-wrestler and former-waiter arsonists. While Chahidi exudes a thuggish menace, it is Cumberbatch’s insouciant, educated manner that really steals the scenes, implying chilling threats in the off-hand manner of someone ordering more wine at Whites.

What is most extraordinary, however, is the apparent intention behind the production. When Frisch’s 1958 play Biedermann und der Brandstifter received its British premiere at the Court four years later, it was understood as a clear parable about the rise of Nazism. Gray and Beaton’s production appears throughout to hint heavily at having re-aimed the play’s questions at the issue of Islamist fundamentalism. I dare say in 1961 it was relatively easy for audiences to accept an, “evil happens when good men do nothing”-type message, which pointed at already historical events that took place overseas. What makes this revival of the Arsonists so vital is the difficulty of the questions it asks. When applied to the question of what middle-class liberals should be doing in the face of Islamist terrorism, suddenly the play's amusing satire of terribly English attempts not to offend start to look and sound a lot more like Martin Amis’s recent “thought experiment” or the paranoid horrors of Melanie Philips’s Londonistan. Fortunately, the play’s arguments necessarily lack any sort of racial dimension - as, of course, should all arguments concerning Islamist terror.

That said, this is nonetheless the most electrifying critique of the British response to the War on Terror yet seen in a theatre. In the final moments of the play, as the chorus - dressed as New York firefighters - delivers its final warning about complacency in the face of terrorism, polystyrene packing chips begin to rain from the skies. The symbolism is absolute and precise: for Ramin Gray, clearly the message of The Arsonists has already been delivered too late, and we are now suffering the consequences of permitting terrorism to grow in our midst.

King Lear - The RSC, New London Theatre

Trevor Nunn’s new production of King Lear is a reassuringly traditional affair. It opens, confusingly enough, with the same massive organ swell as Arcade Fire’s Intervention, although, sadly, doesn't follow through with the rest of the song. Instead, a tableau establishes the Lear family as a 19th century Russian dynasty: all Cossack hats and military uniforms, greatcoats and elegant ball dresses. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it is to reflect the play’s pairing in rep with Chekhov’s The Seagull in a kind of bad mother/bad father play-off. More likely, it is to provide a suitably lavish-looking historical excuse for lush costume design. Unfortunately for Nunn and co. it has the unintended consequence of forcibly recalling the other big-name, Russian-set, Shakespeare tragedy that is currently running in the West End. Cheap jokes about the RSC being about a hundred years behind Rupert Goold sudden become all too easy.

Another striking comparison with Goold’s Macbeth is that both it and King Lear take place on sets that depict a very definite room, requiring the audience occasionally to simply pretend it's not there, or that it is somewhere else. So, while this Lear is, on many levels, the essence of traditional, it still deploys some pretty theatrical devices. Indeed, much of what makes the first half so strange, is coming to terms with the way that traditional RSC acting looks on stage. After all, who really enters a room, strides across it until they are right in front of the person they intend to address and then bellows in their face? My disbelief is as suspended as anyone’s, but really, why did this ever become a convention?

It took me a good long while to warm into this production. My patience started to ebb when Goneril and Regan both turn out to be brunettes (again), while Romola Garai's Cordelia is a blonde in a pure white dress. Yes. We know she’s the nice one. Do we really need the heavy underlining? Francis Barber and Monica Dolan as the wicked sisters start badly. Barber appears to be channelling everyone from Zoe Wanamaker to Felicity Kendall, while Dolan sounds like a disappointed suburban housewife from a seventies sitcom. You almost expect her dealings with her father to be concluded with a despairing, “Oh, Frank!” It’s hardly regal.

Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s fool is something else. I’m prepared to believe it is a matter of taste, and that some people find him perfectly amusing, but his performance set my teeth on edge. Judging by the polite silence that greeted a majority of his clowning, prattling and spoon-playing a majority of the audience felt much the same. The real problem, though, is that he is so wrapped up in his shtick that he rattles through his lines at such a rate that they are barely comprehensible. When he is hung at the conclusion of the first half of the evening, it felt as if there was a collective sigh of relief.

McKellen’s Lear is in an altogether different class, though. In a production where people seem to be speaking purely because the script dictates it, standing where they are told, and barely feeling it at all, McKellen is a model of sheer presence, meaning and clarity. Sure there are some pretty normal decisions taken regarding his path through the text, but nothing that doesn't come fully to life in his hands.

By the interval - about two hours into a total 3 hours 40 - I am underwhelmed to say the least. But the second half knocks the first into a cocked hat. Perhaps it’s the sudden alteration of pace - scenes fairly tumble over each other to get onstage. There is also a welcome transformation in Barber’s Goneril once her affair with Edmund gets under way. Suddenly, from having no discernable motivation other than Pure Evil, she becomes wholly comprehensible as a woman eaten up by lust. William Gaunt, sans eyes, achieves a whole new level of credibility as Gloucester when no longer required simply to stand on stage and look disapprovingly at Goneril and Regan. But the real revelation comes when Lear and Cordelia are reunited - yes, the scene is written for maximum tear-jerk factor, but few productions come this close to reducing a whole audience -doubtless already familiar with the play - to a sobbing, blubbering mass. The pitiful wretchedness of the characters is almost unbearable. In the main this is a polite, middlebrow reading of a great and stormy tragedy. But toward the end, silly swordfights not withstanding, it begins to achieve a hint of greatness.

For the odd reader who doesn't also regularly follow Dan Bye's blog I proffer the clip which he recently posted of Sir Ian explaining how he acts, on Extras.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Big in Lithuania

Following The Reduced Michael Billington’s recent Finnish exposure, Postcards… is pleased to report that, continuing the British theatrical blogosphere’s internationally extended hand of friendship, it has become the toast of Lithuanian arts coverage, following its recent championing of dancer/choreographer Lora Juodkaitė both here and on the Guardian blog.

Articles about my piece can be found here and here. There was also a printed article.

Strangely the above represents the first time since university that any of my writing has appeared in a printed format (other than in Raw Talent). Curious that the writing appears in a country I have never visited, in a language that I don’t speak. I’m sure Tynan started out exactly the same way, though. It’s even more strange to have one’s name translated. For the first time I get an inkling how odd Germans must find it that the English have changed the names of all their major cities into, well, English. Whose idea was that, anyway?

While we’re on European Internationalism, Ian Herbert’s report on the recent Belgrade Festival - to be found underneath Ian Shuttleworth’s, acute as always, round-up of the latest London critics from the op-ed pages of Theatre Record - is well worth a read. It also provides a link to this theatre magazine which here reprints the text of a new Serbian play in English. I note this as much for myself as for you as I haven’t yet had a chance to read it. Elsewhere, I heartily recommend Anna Teuwen’s lovely review of the first show for children she has seen without hating it.

In other news, I now appear to be a “real” journalist. Worryingly, the site also has a rudimentary word-search feature which paints a rough picture of one’s output:

“Andrew Haydon” it notes, “has written...
More about 'Billington' than anything else
A lot about 'Shakespeare' in the last month
Fewer bylined articles than the average journalist”

Oh dear.

At some point I really am going to have to confront this Oedipal obsession with the gigantic Laius-like figure of Michael B. I mean, does anyone obsess like this about Charles Spencer?

The thing goes on:

"The topics Andrew Haydon mentions most:
andy field antony apathists billington britain british cambridge dogstar drywrite english literature even head jane eyre katie mitchell nabokov national theatre observer rough cuts shakespeare theatre"

Obviously this isn’t wholly accurate - “even head”? - and is culled from only a few of my Guardian pieces. That said, I am still interested, and slightly disturbed, by the way that Britain, British and Cambridge all crop up as regular tics. That sounds all too plausible, and is probably something I should watch. So, for the next month, I shall try to avoid all such mentions. As I manifestly haven’t managed to do in my most recent Guardian Blog piece.

The theatrical blogsophere seems to be going through a period of ineffable good sense at the moment. Bye and Field both continue frighteningly prolific in their output, while Lyn Gardner’s posts on the Guardian blog are in danger of talking such sense that the whole comment business will soon be rendered unnecessary - assuming everyone listens to her, that is. Meanwhile, Chris Goode has posted what he thinks might be his last theatre-related post of the year, and it seems that holiday season is starting to kick in. Well, after my rather annoyingly-longer-than-planned hiatus, I’m hoping to be writing far more regularly again now, so no holidays here, in spite of the fact that almost all the years openings are done and dusted, save for innumerable pantomimes. Of which, expect more after the weekend.

The Family Plays: a double bill - Royal Court

The Royal Court's final offering in its largely excellent international season (Kebab excepted) offers a double bill of one Swedish and one Ukrainian play. Clocking in at one hour fifteen, including a fifteen minute interval, this is theatre-going at its most relaxed.

Adding to this impression of ease, the Court's Theatre Upstairs has been totally repainted in a restful, breakfast-room shade of yellow; wooden flooring has been installed throughout and the audience is seated around the edge of the space, with bright lighting left on continually throughout both plays. Indeed, so relaxing is the ambience that Wednesday's press night felt not unlike an end of term party.

Swedish writer Joakim Pirinen’s The Good Family, does nothing to spoil this convivial atmosphere. Indeed, the dramatic action is conviviality itself. The play shows us an evening in the life of what must be the first truly happy family to ever feature on stage. Everything about their life together is perfect. The parents are both happily employed in interesting jobs. They also find time to write plays and poems, while enjoying an enormous love and respect for one another and a happy, passionate sex life. Their two children both adore their parents and each other, are doing well at school, and are both founding mature, happy, supportive relationships of their own.

The piece plays a game of building tension and expectation. At every turn the audience waits for the piece of bad news, shock or offence that is going to bring this perfect edifice crashing down until the expectation becomes almost palpable. Will it be the game of dice, the joke the mother tells, the phone call from outside, one of the presents given to the daughter on her birthday, or the son's sudden piece of revelatory news?

What is most interesting about the production is how just plain weird it is seeing four English actors trying to portray plain, uncomplicated, un-ironic happiness. First we look for the creeping subtext of incest or abuse, then laugh at the absurdity of the O.T.T. demonstrative affection before finally starting to worry that maybe other countries really have worked out how to be happy without being barbed, ironic or reserved. Of course, the point of the play is to satirise both ideas of Sweden as a liberal paradise and the lies told about Western capitalism, but over its course, it also becomes a powerful and worrying meditation on happiness and how little we actually accept it.

The Khomenko Family Chronicles by Ukrainian Natalia Vorozhbit is altogether a more depressing affair, opening as it does, with a ten-year-old boy - bald from chemotherapy - lying on a grimy hospital bed. He is visited by his pregnant mother and his apparently brutish father. It quickly becomes clear to the audience, if not the parents, that the child's disease is more than likely connected to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and that he is almost certainly going to die. The unborn child in his mother's womb is likely to suffer a similar fate. In spite of these depressing circumstances, the family turns out to be a strong and surprisingly robust unit. This resilience is partly undermined by the grim irony of their situation - with the parents drinking themselves into bed largely on occasions of national and international disaster - the son was conceived on 9/11, the unborn daughter during a recent anti-government coup.

At the close of the play, the son removes the drip from his arm and steps off the stage into the audience to recount a strange dream-like sequence which could signify either his death or simply a nightmare. The performance by the small, shaven-headed ten-year-old, Lewis Lempureur-Palmer, is quite extraordinary. The moment totally transforms the piece from a slice of fairly interesting naturalistic business into something far stranger and more metaphorical; elegiac almost. While it doesn’t perhaps pack quite the emotional punch that such a moment could, it is nonetheless haunting and beautiful, bringing a strange ending to an unexpectedly thought-provoking evening.