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Dear Charlotte Bronte,

I would like to apologise for saying Jane Eyre was:

  1. Boring
  2. Dull
  3. Wimpy

And:

  1. Nothing happens for ages
  2. Do people who label things ‘classics’ actually read them?
  3. I wouldn’t want to be her friend

Please accept my forgiveness. You see Charlotte, when I was thirteen I tried reading Jane Eyre. It’s known as a grown up book, a classic, a right of passage. I’m afraid thirteen year old me also decided it was really, really boring. After a month of staggering through it and only getting to Lowood I eventually gave up. I was so reluctant to read it that it stopped me reading altogether. I picked it up a year later and battled through to the end. I’d done it. I was a woman. (It was okay.)

So my feelings hadn’t really warmed to your creation yet. But last night I went to the National Theatre (hasn’t been built yet, dw about it there’s a lot to explain) to see a devised production of Jane Eyre, and my heart is now aglow with praise. It was a preview and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about reviewing previews- I would explain but if you’re only present in our time for the length of this letter then Benedict Cumberbatch probably isn’t where I’d start in explaining modern life- so this is more of an appreciation of them dragging me out of my hatred and into something a lot warmer.

The production definitely takes inspiration from Kneehigh, and there are particular similarities to their production of Rebecca earlier this year. Having the ensemble create the story with revealed stage craft and falling into harmonies with the onstage band feels very familiar. There are also similarities with Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons, which again had a Kneehigh-esque feel. There was a lovely moment in Swallows and Amazons when someone lay at the tip of a boat with a glass of water and flicked it at the passengers, and that was the sea. There’s a similarly playful feel here, as one of the cast holds up a lamp and twists his hand like flames, and suddenly the lamp is an enormous comforting fire. This production has a great sense of humour.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane has as good a worry face as Nadiya from Bake Off (if we’re explaining life today The Great British Bake Off is crucial). Her defiance makes me want to hug her. “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.” As she hitches up her layers of skirts to climb up the scaffolding I wonder if the plasters on her legs are part of her character.

Some of the company move between acting and playing music. The score is like a mix of Nils Frahm, Lo Fang, Mumford and Sons and a jazzy lightning storm. I tried to look on Spotify but the decades section only goes back to the ‘60s so I’m afraid those references might be a bit lost on you. I never knew a bow scraping a cymbal could create such a cuttingly sharp sound.

Like in your book, we see Jane grow. The actors transform from children to adults very naturally, not parodying the children at all. It all feels very honest. A corset is added as Jane grows up to give her a woman’s body rather than that of a child.

 “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

When Mr Rochester asks Jane to marry him it is the angriest proposal I’ve ever heard, so full of love and impatience, before giving her a very beardy kiss.

While some bits flow others move too fast. They feel disconnected and lose their sense of place that so much of this show secures well. I’m not entirely sure about the conscience bits either. But nothing lasts too long, even though the two shows at Bristol Old Vic have been put together for one epic three and a half hour show.

I don’t want to spoil a surprise in the play so I won’t explain completely. But there’s a singer in this production who wears a red dress and exudes enormous strength in her voice. She lifts the production to another level. Listening to her singing Mad About The Boy is utterly dazzling.

The other best bit is the dog. Craig Edwards as Mr Rochester’s dog (alongside the other hundred parts they each play) has the audience under his control as he pants and drops to the floor as a footstall for his master.

You know when Mr Rochester is blind and injured and tired and Jane comes back to him? She doesn’t say anything, she just walks up to him slowly and touches his hands. At first he flinches but then he seems to recognise them and holds them so tight it looks like he never wants to let go. Can you really know someone so well that you can recognise them simply from the feel of their hands? If so that’s a lovely thing to look forward to.

So apologies Charlotte. This girl has guts. I would totally be her friend.

All the best,

Kate Wyver


National Theatre, Lyttelton 10/09/15

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Some thoughts on the Almeida’s Oresteia from someone who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, who has only seen two before and who severely disliked one and fell asleep in the other.

***

I persuade my brother to come with me to this, only telling him how long it is after he agrees. After 3 hours and 40 minutes, bums numb and bodies tired from being nervous, we stand up. There’s a moment of silence. ‘I think we should read a synopsis’.

***

The first half an hour of Robert Icke’s production is glorious to watch. It’s so busy. The movement (not physical theatre but doing so many things at once with such speed) builds these complex lives.  In a scene where only two people are present on paper, seven are on stage.

A long white table with benches either side sit in front of a step up to a glass wall, the kind of glass wall you wouldn’t be surprised to see James Bond appear from behind. It slides across and is transparent and then opaque and occasionally flashes like a memory lapse or a camera flash.

The cutting up of the text allows it to reveal bits of the story like a murder mystery, letting us piece together the relationships and passing of time. The intervals are laced in as breaks from a courtroom. The illusion built isn’t broken by the intervals. Some actors remain onstage in character. Agamemnon’s body is stretchered off rather than having him simply stand and walk off. The tension is kept by the countdown at every break, projected on screens around us. It’s a great crowd control, as well as adding to the sense of our impending doom. As soon as it gets to 5 seconds the room is silent.

The score is on the edge of being so subtle that you don’t notice there’s a string being played high up in the register, but then choral music swells and takes your attention. It’s delicately done. Having the little girl singing the song that I’ve always connected with that joyful scene in Love Actually is eerie. Her voice stands out and swim around your head. They have some great dums and whooshes that coincide with lighting changes, like the sound of a profound thought being thrown against the glass. I jump at one blackout (with a particularly good ‘dum’, more like a ‘DUMMM’) and again when he screams ‘I was wrong’ and the door swings open and light bursts through and papers fly everywhere.

The black and white colour palette makes the red cloak and sticky blood  (spoiler alert, people die) and red wine stand out more. It’s a bit like in Schindler’s List, using the bright red against the monochrome as a sign to say ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT, LOOK AT THIS’.

“This was always going to happen”

The sense of impending doom is perhaps overdone. Yes it’s a tragedy. We know everyone’s going to die. But still. The innocence of Iphigenia’s teddy is lovely but it does feel a bit like an incredibly obvious example of Chekhov’s gun- I was just waiting for it to be ripped up and decimated and be symbolic.

***

I find the religion bit hard to grasp. In the modern Western world (in which this seems to be roughly set, maybe a bit timeless and spaceless), most people are not so religiously inclined as to believe in signs from gods in dreams. The religiosity and modernity don’t quite blend together, particularly in the final scene where judgement is all about God rather than morality.

***

Agamemnon has massive hands. Clytemnestra is pretty tiny but his hands are literally enormous. They are quite distracting.

***

This is more than just a fractured family. This is a-normal-amount-of-troubled-family turned shattered psychopaths.

Moments stand out. Orestes’ description of people as shells. The children’s shoes left in the corner. The speed with which Agamemnon goes from bath to deadness. The ritual of shaking the bell, bringing out the tablecloth, laying it out with the glasses and the pouring of the blood red wine. The moment where the reflection in the glass is used to give depth, reflecting the characters in front of the glass so they look as if they’re sharing the space behind. It’s a lovely way to put together the dead and the living.

There’s a speech by Orestes where he says a situation will seem different to everyone depending on what happened to them that day, what they had for lunch, what their last thought was before this one. “It all floods in”, he says. It changes how we see things. It changes the stories of our lives, just as it changes every single audience member’s opinion of the same play.

***

But there’s still something about it that doesn’t make the time fly by. And I’m still not certain what that is. I’ll think about it.

***

At the curtain call the little boy playing young Orestes looks so proud, he’s beaming. 3 hours and 40 minutes are almost worth it for that alone.

Trafalgar Studios 09/09/15

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Most of the reviews I’ve read of Song From Far Away feel as though they should be whispered rather than spoken aloud. They have given the impression that the play contains such delicacy and tenderness, the sense of leaving the Young Vic feeling absolutely shattered. There are few productions I have loved as much as Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge and Stephens’ voice is always so clear and beautifully angry in his writing.

I have high expectations.

Eelco Smits plays Willem, a 34 year old man who has written six letters to his dead brother. We follow him through bars, beds and breakdowns. It is a beautifully written story and a carefully directed piece. So I’m not entirely sure what my problem with it is. Eelco is Dutch. Maybe my issue is that the words don’t feel naturally his. The self-deprecation, dark humour and slipped in swear words feel very English and so very Simon Stephens. Or maybe my problem is that I have a crap seat so it actually does feel very Far Away indeed.

But then something changes. Willem sits on the window sill and speaks with such sincerity about his family that I get goose bumps. Suddenly he takes control of the words and I believe in him.

“I don’t know how to hug anyone anymore.”

If this were real and Willem were to suddenly have a heart attack I wouldn’t know who to call. His family? He’s been shut out by them. His ex? It seems like he’s clinging onto something long lost there. The extent to which he is very much alone is affecting.

“Come home” he sings, his hand on the imaginary cheek of his boyfriend from years ago. From the awkward angle at which I’m sitting way at the back of the theatre, I can see through the doorway, where his jumper is strewn out. It just happens to be laid out at exactly the same angle as his arm is now, so it seems as though there could be another couple behind the frame, in exactly the same position. He sings with this accidental echo behind him and I’m suddenly very pleased with where I’m sitting.

The set is Stephens’ natural territory; a lonely hotel room, reminiscent of Birdland and Wastwater. There is nothing comfortable about it, it’s all sharp edges. It doesn’t say please stay here. It says you’re staying here because you have to. It is like a flat pack Ikea room with super cool lighting and that fake snow that you buy at the German market on the Southbank every year even though you never really need or want it. The windowed room is empty apart from a chair which rests in a section of the room separated by a wall with a doorframe, an air conditioning unit that hums occasionally and a lamp. The solid structure of the lamp reminds me of the outline in a Patrick Caulfield painting. As I search for the image I come across something he said, ‘I’ve only the friendship of hotel rooms’. He and Stephens would get on.

Eelco gets naked. At first the lack of clothing doesn’t seem to add anything, but gradually the decision begins to make sense. His nakedness allows him to be an innocent child being told off. It allows him to be a beastly figure, trapped in himself, his muscles heaving with his internal struggle. It allows him to be a vulnerable man just wanting to be loved.

But part of me still wants to give him a blanket to cover him up and make him a bit cosier.

There is a beautiful moment where we see this dull hotel room turn from night to day with the shadow of Eelco’s body and the big fat lamp jittering across the bare walls. It gives a similar effect to those old flick books or a zoetrope, or a piece by Julian Opie. It doesn’t quite feel real.

“Do you only ever realise you’re living in a golden age after it’s gone?”

The sense of loss is carried throughout the whole piece. Mark Eitzel’s music subtly reappears throughout as a half remembered song, with Willem sometimes gliding into it, sometimes humming or strumming it. Sometimes it is played from behind a closed door, distancing Willem even more from the outside world.

Eelco is in silhouette. The stage behind him is various shades of orange melting into shadows. His carved form is outlined, his fingers twisting up high as he describes a little girl spelling out his dead brother’s name with a sparkler. I almost expect the sparks to magically appear. This is a real moment of beauty. I can still see it.

I’m still not entirely sure what I think of Song From Far Away. It hasn’t left me shattered or grieving. But I do find myself trying to hum that song, trying to catch that melody that I can’t quite grasp.

Young Vic 07/09/15

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It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15

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