Written for CultureWars.org.uk
At last year's Edinburgh Fringe, the Ravenhill For Breakfast series of 17 new 25 minute plays was one of the highlights of the festival. The facts of the project's inception are well known, and related excellently in Ravenhill's recent piece for the Guardian. Now the entire cycle of plays (curiously reduced down to 16 for their London outing) are being shown in scattered fully mounted productions across London. Alas, there is no full-cycle back-to-back performance, but over the next three weeks it will at least be possible to see every play.
First up are the National Theatre's stagings of Intolerance b/w Crime and Punishment in the Cottesloe and The Mikado b/w The Odyssey - the original plan stipulated that each play would have a title taken from a major work of Western culture.
Intolerance also kicked off Paines Plough's selection of six of the shorts shown at the Hampstead Theatre shown straight after the Fringe last year. In it, a woman recounts her attempts to control a crippling pain in her gut through various therapies, charms, vitamin supplements and finally by identifying caffeine intolerance. The comparison between Harriet Walter's performance here and the Hampstead Paines Plough version is interesting. Walter, directed by Anna Mackmin, is altogether more naturalistic. Where the Paines Plough version seemed to emphasise the deeper meanings of the piece – the moment where the woman doubles over in pain after making an anti-Semitic comment seemed far more cause and effect than in this production. Paines Plough's woman seemed much more both the target of satire and a desperate, sad creature. Walters manages to pull off the descriptions of past life regressions with a lot more charm. Here she seems less merely satirised, asquite sweet and a rather interesting person. This is perhaps partially due to Walter's own significant reserves of charisma and charm.
In my original review of Crime and Punishment, I suggested that “is a brilliant example of the power that theatre can still wield to inspire the intellect and imagination if it is allowed to function away from the demands of the purely naturalistic”. The National's new fully staged and costumed production goes some way to corroborating this point – as noted by Maxie Szalwinska in her new Guardian blog. Locating the characters very distinctly in an unnamed occupied country, but dressing the soldier in Iraq fatigues and giving the woman middle eastern dress and accent, locates the dialogue in a much more concrete locale. The metaphor becomes more clunky and starts to feel like it is banging you over the head with A Message. To an extent, it is, of course, but the piece feels like it needs a lighter touch if it is to breathe.
While I'd seen both the Cottesloe offerings before, both The Mikado and The Odyssey in the Lyttleton were completely new to me. It could be part of the reason why I found them more interesting – although that could equally have been to do with the fact that it was no longer ten in the morning on a Saturday, and the coffee had started working.
The Mikado shows a middle-aged gay couple sitting on a bench in an ornamental Japanese garden discussing one of the partners' cancer. Seasoned pros Philip Voss and David Bamber bring a real sense of compassion and warmth to the reading of their characters. It is this kind of performance that really highlight's Ravenhill's range as a writing displaying not only his exceptional ear for the ludicrous 'speak' of PC and political Britain, but also its myriad registers, argots and purposes. Here is Ravenhill offering rounded, plausible naturalistic drama about characters we feel for. Yet, even here, the language again starts throwing up the same images that run through the plays like tiny veins, or seams of ore in a rock. Again the Garden Centres, again Hell, again a headless soldier – swingball, Lucifer, democracy, choice – the pieces are literally crawling with these pregnant meanings, and with each new play the symbols accrue new value. Some of us already know that the child's drawings of headless soldiers in Intolerance will take on physical form in a different play. That the fall of Lucifer, and the idea of hell, will continue to surface throughout the cycle. The use of Christian iconography in particular is fascinating, perhaps offering a sideways reference to George W. Bush's own religious leanings, and coupling those with the visions of hell in Iraq both before and after the occupation.
If the Mikado obliquely suggests connections between personal pains and global conflicts, The Odyssey puts war absolutely centre stage as a group of soldiers prepare to depart from a country to which they have “brought democracy”. We see the country's dictator kicked (unconvincingly) to death by the soldiers, and urinated on by the members of the country's liberated population. For much of the play, it feels as if Ravenhill is scoring cheap sarcastic points off all the talk of liberation, freedom and democracy. When the news comes that a new war is planned and the weary soldiers are not in fact going home, but going to overthrown a fresh oppressive regime, it sounds very much like the playwright might be not very subtly attacking the US for its perceived erstwhile stance as “policeman of the world” or self-appointed guardians of justice. Then Ravenhill produces a small child from the liberated regime, who praises the soldiers efforts and sends them on their way to their next mission with her blessing. This introduces a welcome note of ambiguity into what could have so easily been an exercise in tub-thumping anti-intervention. The child isn't necessarily right, but puts the other side of the argument with a forceful poignancy.
It is touches like this – Ravenhill's refusal to simply trot out uninterrogated truisms of either side – plus the impressive array of recurring devices which bind the plays together, which confirms Ravenhill's reputation as an impressive thinker as well as a leading writer. Yes, sometimes the polemics and the themes sound a little shrill, and already the still-urgent questions about global politics that the cycle poses feel like they are of less immediate concern than they did last summer. Nonetheless, this is an exciting project and it is great that London is playing host to such an ambitious and fractured piece, in which audiences can chase elusive meaning across various sites in the capital constructing their own sense of the ideas on offer.