plays read

Oedipus The King - Sophocles (trans Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay)

This is a really great translation of the text, which for me manages to balance the style and poetry with modern text and phrasing. The effect is a sort of timeless quality which positions Oedipus' struggle both staunchly in the past (where it belongs) and at the same time flings it forward.

Something that really stood out, that I didn't recall from previous readings was that after he has blinded himself, and is brought out for all to see the evidence of this violence, his young daughters (Antigone and Ismene) are brought out to witness their father in his lowered state. I couldn't help but think how strange it is that he requests not all his children (particularly the sons who he says can take care of themselves) but his young daughters. Oddly precipitating the life of struggle they (particularly Antigone) will have to come in the trilogy.

Suddenly Last Summer - Tennessee Williams

Williams provides highly specific directions for the setup and feel of this play, which at first seem superfluous, but as we get deeper into the story, the reader sees immediately the need for this dense, thick place. The soundscape in the play brings a surreal, dream-like quality which mimics the madness of Sebastien (who we never see) and more specifically Catherine, whom we see driven mad on stage. We are left to question whether she is more or less mad after the serum....certainly a question about truth that Williams is raising

Something Unspoken - Tennessee Williams

This is a juicy little one act play about an old Southern lady and her secretary. It reminded me thematically of Mamet's Boston Marriage...allusions to a relationship that is not deemed appropriate by society at the time, but clearly a relationship beyond friendship among these two ladies

The pace of the play was very melodic, even reading it....there are beautiful cresecendos and decrescendos in tempo as the energy lilts, almost like the tide. As always, Williams' language is raw and beautiful, capturing the souls of these characters to the page.

Greek - Steven Berkoff

Greek is Berkoff's realization of the Oedipus myth, set in contemporary (1980s) London. What I found really fascinating was his ability to so clearly describe and make the reader feel the plague on England at this time, but at the same time, it is not possible to articulate the plague in a concise manner; hate, racism, poverty, lies all play into it, and yet that only begins to explain it.

The language is visceral, gutsy, disgusting and beautiful. The structure is remarkably open, remarkably full of words and yet leaves you a feeling of emptiness after reading it.

The Norman Conquests - Alan Ayckbourn

This trilogy of plays follows the same weekend in the English country three times, but from different perspectives. Each stands on its own, but when read together they slowly reveal more and more about this hilariously disfunctional family of adult siblings.

Rather clever in its setup, we first see the weekend and all scenes in the dining room. Next all scenes in the living room, and finally all scenes in the by the third play you are filling in the blanks of what has happened offstage.

The characters are hilarious, dialogue wonderfully funny and honest. This is a comic take on some of the other ideas I've been thinking of relating to what we do to other people.

East - Steven Berkoff

I am simultaneously in love with, and completely disgusted by this play. In the best way possible. Berkoff shows us life in London's East End with no apology; his characters interact in a series of scenes which morph in and out of one another expressionistically, while what is contained in each is strikingly "real". Somehow he leads us to find these people charming, and then just as we are lulled into feeling some sort of empathy, he does an about face and causes us to be completely distanced, alienated, and disgusted...not only at the characters, but at ourselves for beginning to empathize with them.

The structure is seamless, and the language morphs in and out of modern text, Shakespearean parody, and expressionistic monologue.

It feels like Berkoff inherently understood the essence of what Brecht, Bond, Artaud and others wanted to do, taking it to new heights by managing to alienate us within a construct of what we are led to believe is realism. The graphic descriptions of violent sexual acts is far more shocking than Bond's aloof characters.

Berkoff is brilliant.

The Rehearsal - Jean Anouilh

These are truly terrible people. I read once that a critic told Anouilh that he writes people whom you would never want to meet, and I agree completely. They are self-centered, pretentious, and never deal with the issues in front of them without a great deal of superficiality. The play centres on a Count and Countess, married for many years, but with "arrangements" of agreed upon, in fact known and vetted, mistresses and lovers to keep them engaged.

They do nothing; there are no higher aspirations, intellectual challenge, they simply keep up appearances and meddle in one another's affairs. What we see is the result of stagnancy, immobility, not caused by too little means, but rather caused by excess. The only moral person we see is Lucile, who works for her living, and is "brought up" by the Count as his lover..raised up as it were to the "better" class. Yet she, when confronted by the horrid behaviour of these people, leaves.

This play felt like a modern scenario for The Duchess of Malfi, only not just the gossip of court, but actual information about the lives of others. An interesting foil to what happens in duchess. Not as bloody, but in many ways just as sad.

A little gem from Anouilh:
Actors, they're quite impossible. As soon as they open their mouths, they fall head over heels in love with the sound of their own voices. And they expect us to share in their delight. No, seriously, they do. There is nothing less natural on earth than what passes for naturalism on stage. Don't go thinking it's enough to be life-like. For a start, in real life, one has to work with such terrible material. We live in a world that has completely forgotten the correct use of the semi-colon; we never finish a sentence properly, it always goes dot, dot, dot...because the mot juste always escapes us. And then that 'naturalistic' way of speaking which actors are always claiming to have. All that stammering, hesitating, 'umm'ing and 'ah'ing...why ask five or six hundred people to pay good money to sit through that? But they turn up and they love it. They recognize themselves. But the point is that theatre has got to do better than that. Life's all very well but it lacks form. Art must use every trick in the book to lend it one. To be more real than real life.

Berthe - Michel Tremblay

This quick little play packs in a multitude of ideas in only a few short pages. Berthe is the ticket girl at a late night cinema, the play is her monologue on the state of her life, lost dreams, and confinement by expectation. She is literally confined within the ticket booth, however this booth is a metaphor for her stagnant existence and inability to realize the dreams she enacts so vividly through the play. Interrupted only by the monotonous droning of the doorman with the same words over and over, she wrestles with her status stuck in between expectation and disappointment.

A lovely short one-hander that really illustrates what happens to us when our dreams die.

La Duchesse de Langeais - Michel Tremblay

Since I have been reading incessantly on Duchesses, I thought it would be good to pick up Tremblay's la Duchesse, given the irreverence with which he approaches most of existence. Tremblay's Duchesse, unlike our Lady of Malfi, is a middle-aged drag queen who has worked most of her life as a prostitute. Not just any, but in her eyes the most high class, respected woman imaginable. This two-act monologue shows us the many sides of this woman who has lived her whole existence in another skin so to speak, and even within this has opposing sides battling with one another to expose tidbits of truth. La Duchesse suffers, and brings the audience along in her suffering as she gets increasingly intoxicated drinking straight whiskey.

This piece is a bit of a tour de force, and would be brilliant to work on as a director.

27 - Abi Morgan

The basis for this play is a convent of present-day nuns who become a case study for scientists studying Alzheimers; the plot covers a span of 5 years, and investigates the tension between religious faith and scientific progress, centered on a young nun named Ursula.

I found the ideas brought forward in the play to be compelling and thought-provoking, with various characters embodying not only the poles of the debate, but the two main characters embodying the conflict within themselves. I did, however, find that stylistically this was problematic. Morgan uses a Churchill style interruption technique in conversations, but I found it was oddly inconsistent in its present. Similarly she sets up the play with Richard (lead researcher) Addressing the audience; this holds up a fair bit at first, but then is almost lost around the middle of the play..then re-surfaces toward the end again. I found this rather confusing while reading, and feel it may be problematic to stage coherently for that reason.

Overall an interesting read, but likely not a play whose language will stay with me.

HamletMachine - Heiner Mueller

I rather enjoyed the premise of this play, beginning with the character Hamlet and unmasking the actor to be a sort of everyman, encountering the world. The message seemed to be that our "modern myths" of the theatre have not prepared us sufficiently for the brutal reality of the world. Even the greatest tragedy, Hamlet, did not prepare us for the machine of mass culture, horrific violence, and disconnection of humanity.

The structure was interesting; it may have been the translation, but I wasn't always sure whether what I was reading was a stage direction or text for a character. This makes for some great variety in choices for producing the play, which I do find intriguing. What also really stood out was the poetry in the language, even translated to English from its original German this had a beautiful yet violent rhythm in the text.

Somehow, decade over decade, the German theatre artists continue to fascinate me.

Volpone - Ben Jonson

What a fun, silly play. I actually found myself chuckling aloud at the twists and turns, the snide insults and retorts. Jonson certainly does not paint a picture of virtue; rather one of malicious scheming, greed, and trickery...which brings all to an unfortunate end.

Jonson's use of witty language and allusions is uncanny...nearly every two lines there is a reference to something specific, whether it be current to the early Jacobean period, or historically referential. As well, i found it interesting that most of his scenes are what we would now term a French scene starting anew when someone enters...though the action continues without changing scene or location.

My only quarrel with the play is that the ending felt to drag a little too much....some of the snappiness was lost in act 5 with the continual turns of plot.

Either way this would certainly be fun to stage.

Bertolt Brecht - He Said Yes/He Said No (Lehrstrucke)

We read this one in Scene Study at Birkbeck, discussing the structure, alternate endings, and impact of the two. This fable is structured like a Greek Tragedy, and with the original He Said Yes, Brecht shows us the result of blind faith in a tradition or law...a searing message give that he was writing for school children in 1930s Germany. The alternate ending, written after the school children expressed dislike for the ending, offers hope that we can overcome and fight back against these incoherent practices.

We discussed at length which has more impact on the audience, which will be more of a cause to action. I have to say that the second, for me, really does all the thinking for the audience, leaving them patting themselves on the back at how good humans can be in the face of incoherent laws. The first has an impact more in line with Greek Tragedy, despite turning it on its ear...pity and fear are evoked, but more importantly outrage at the world that would allow this to happen.

Bertolt Brecht - The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent (Lehrstrucke)

This play makes up part of Brecht's experimentation with making the audience part of the performance, to move them from spectator to auditor in a way we believe audiences of Greek Tragedy behaved. There were several texts/performances on this idea, all of which have open interpretation on repetition, removing pieces, etc.

This one in particular is rather interesting. It is structured like a Greek Tragedy, with the chorus talking to the "Tragic Hero" which here is a fallen pilot (or multiple fallen of the available interpretations). Here, though, the "crowd" is a character, who would have people placed throughout who know what is going on and lead the participation. The Crowd has conversations with characters, or repeats words almost in the style of a voice exercise to get at the meaning of the text.

Placed right in the centre of this is an almost slapstick comedy act with two clowns and Mr Smith, which feels like it is a mix of Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin. But unlike those, the tale of Mr Smith is quite clearly an allegory for man asking others to take care of his problems.

While parts of the text feel heavy handed in their style, I could see creative ways of bringing this to the stage.

image: Leonard Braskin - Bertolt Brecht

Luigi Pirandello - Henry IV

I am beginning to feel like Pirandello really could see the future. The more of his plays I read, the more I feel like he took the naturalism of Ibsen and Chekov, diced it up, added some spice, and made it into something completely new, but still containing the same parts.

Henry IV focuses on a man who is believed to be insane, and has lived the last 20 years thinking he is Henry IV of France, forcing those around him to live in such a way as well. The web of truths, half truths, and questioning what truth really is winds so seamlessly in this play. It would be enormously fun to produce. I really like the smaller side-characters who act as accomplices to the madness, and also to his subjugation by those that keep the fantasy going.

Tim Crouch - The Audience

Funny to have this assigned as reading, just as I was considering how one can make the audience not just intellectually complicit in the theatre act, but physically so. I have been thinking about what happens if scenes are staged entirely in the dark? Or entirely lit, audience too? Or with mirrors behind the actors so the audience see not only the fronts, but the backs of the actor, and themselves?

Crouch's play takes my musings to an amazing level of actualization; the 4 characters sit among the audience, with no real stage space, talking sometimes in full dark or full light, or bathing the audience in "stage" light. This is a meditation on the active role that audience/actor/writer play each and every time the play is performed, and the impact this can have. The play discussed here is extreme, clearly for effect...but one can extrapolate the implication that any play does (and should!) have this effect to some degree.

I couldn't help but consider that producing this play would not be possible in traditional theatre spaces. Or could it? An empty stage, while the house is lit and the lines come from the house? The presence of that empty space would create a 5th character, which I think might change the implications of Crouch's play.

Henrik Ibsen - Ghosts

What a beautifully twisted story. The lives of these 5 people (and one deceased, but ever-present Captain) are intermingled far beyond their knowledge at the start of the play, with the exception of Mrs Alving. This woman's deception, to achieve control and maintain status, tears apart those around her intellectually and physically, until they have all reached a point of despair. Osvald is physically and mentally ill, but for reasons he does not understand. This echoed strongly of the curses on a family we see in Greek tragedy....however Ibsen's searing criticism is that these curses originate in someone who lies with all their power to maintain a veneer of propriety.

This would be a really interesting play to tear apart and re-imagine. The matriarch Mrs Alving, although we initially feel for her situation, eventually becomes villainous as the information unfolds. These characters cannot be fulfilled; they are devoid of all hope and joy of life.

This also called to memory Kierkegaard's night of infinte reservation....the orphanage burning through the night is a test of faith, which these characters ultimately fail.

image: Edvard Munch - Two Women On The Shore

Henrik Ibsen - An Enemy of the People

As with seemingly all Ibsen plays, this one begins with a fairly pedestrian, middle-class problem and situation. It then delves into a land of opposing ideologies, tearing away at that middle-class comfort and challenging the ideas that drove society in Ibsen's time. Reading this play, with its argument for doing the right thing, regardless of the personal impact, to ensure the greater good, really highlighted to me how unfortunately little has changed with respect to political and business dealings. People in power continue to be influenced by people with money, and vice versa...and Ibsen's greatest argument; that the "liberal majority" are comfortable and stuck in their ways, so will never actually give up their comforts for that which they state they feel is still as resonant today as it was more than 100 years ago.

Ibsen's characters here are a colourful embodiment of the types they symbolize, and come across with full three-dimensional life despite coming across on paper as a mere archetype; the crooked self-interested politician, the liberal journalist, the gutsy young student.

The only thing that I don't feel was fully in line was the ending (a problem I have with many other of Ibsen's plays). I often feel like he rallies against society, but stops just shy of full refusal to comply. Clearly this was a sign of the times; as they stand, Ibsen's plays caused riots when they were first produced, so perhaps he didn't have much choice. Although certainly Ibsen's famous Hedda does take the final step to leave her captivity.

image: Ian McKellen and Charlotte Cornwell

Anonymous - Mundus Et Infans

To round out our Morality-Play Sunday, I read Mundus Et Infans. Imagine the speech from As You Like it on the 7 ages of man, as a play...with conscience and various vices re-naming man as he moves through each stage from childhood to old age. It has quite a few locational references which the others do not have, and again here the vices are quite explicit in their words (though not in their actions as in Mankind).

Again, I feel like reading Everyman in school (repeatedly) is a cheat of some more fun Morality Plays.

Anonymous - Everyman

This is a Sunday Morality free for all. Read Everyman, which I had read a version of previously in undergrad (I want to say for Theatre history?). I feel like we get the short end of the stick in school with morality play selection, given how fun Mankind was. If I design a course in future (when i design....) I am going to select another play. Or maybe two plays.

Anyway, on to Everyman. This is very clearly delineated, as all Morality Plays are; Man is expected to be good, but is tempted by vice, which in this case is embodied by 5 wits, beauty, discretion, etc. Man fails, and is given another chance by God to not sway from good behaviour. Maybe it is just positioning, but Everyman comes across as far more didactic in comparison to other morality plays...i realize this is the point...but the vices and temptations are also less "bad".