#LLLPLay – about the play

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I literally spent only some 54h in total from touch down to departure in NY and this includes travel to and from airport so unfortunately this trip did not include a lot of sight-seeing. You’re calculating right now and wondering what did I do that left so little time for such an amazing city?

Well, from Friday evening to Sunday mid afternoon I attended 2 matinees and 2 evening performances of the #LLLPlay. However, I did manage to do more touristy things than I imagined I would get the chance. And jholland has described our out-of-theatre activities so well I won’t repeat it 😉

Suffice to say I loved the city much more than I thought I would! I am a very loyal Londoner 😉 And I am not cheating on my home city when I say NY is wonderful, vibrant and relaxed. I look forward to going back hopefully sometime soon and getting to see more of it, exploring some of its quieter parts and not just the 24h tourist sites 🙂 There is an air of energy about the city which is amazing. I didn’t think living in London I could be overwhelmed by the rhythm of it but I was. Maybe because I was feeling under the weather and winter is also a factor. But I enjoyed walking through the city Sunday morning when there were less people around and just looking at the buildings and shops and what felt like normal life. I’d love more of that. I hope I’ll get to do that, immerse myself more in normal life in NY in various areas, do a bit more of what NY-ers do around town.

And I really really hope I get to return the favour to our lovely guides around town when they come to London next. I hope we’ll get an occasion for it! 😉

So the following will be mostly impressions about the play. Not descriptions and I think by now we have much better accounts of the details than I could ever give! There are detailed insights into the play act by act from Serv here  (act 3 ) , here (act 2  ) and here (act 1 )   (which I can now finally read!) And you’ll also find in these further links to her impressions, which I am also looking forward to reading more of.

A few more things before I dive in, sorry for the many digressions. Unfortunately I didn’t take any notebook with me nor did I even have time to find scraps of paper to write down any notes on. So these are just the most prominent impressions in my mind. I don’t think having a cold made a difference in the end although I feared it would. I was wide awake and gave it all the energy and concentration I had and luckily between the small space and the excellent diction my clogged up hearing didn’t affect my enjoyment of the experience.

There has been a lot of debate around it being useful or not to read the play in advance. I don’t think I could have resisted the temptation 😉 I was never sure I was able to go so I wanted to take part in some small way. I also wanted to understand what people were commenting on better and sometimes  when the subject can be more difficult I like to have some prior prep, especially when I know I am not going to be able to see something many times. Knowing something about it in avance allows me to absorb more details in one go rather than getting totally distracted or absorbed by the plot itself and finding out what happens next. But I only read it once for information purposes and didn’t go back over the detail beyond that before seeing it.

I also watched Wild (the broadcast from Hampstead theatre of another of Mike Bartlett’s plays) and absorbed Dr Foster (which is absolutely loved). I was less enamoured with Wild as some others because clever stagecraft does not mean great play in my mind. I do think he found a clever solution for the ending of Wild and since the Snowden issue is indeed still open in most ways I think it was a good was to deal with the lack of resolution of the happenings in the plot. Sometimes I felt with Wild that I was being preached at, but only minimally. It could also be that I’ve had way too many experienced of productions in opera where people assume the audience is uninformed, ignorant or just not alive to current happenings that they felt they needed to hammer subjects home a bit too much. I’m sorry for my temporary bias 🙂 I did enjoy the play itself and the back and forth of themes and he debate. And in hindsight, experiencing another work of his live has brought out some characteristics of his writing which I appreciate very much. While some of the subject I may already be familiar with I’ve come to appreciate his craft very very much. And I’ll explain why #LLLPLay was a key to that.

But to start with I was a bit ambivalent about Wild and very much won over by Dr Foster. I found Love Love Love to be a heavy meal on the page. Easy to read but the subject itself was very disturbing. The dialogue and the words flow with amazing easy and natural feel and it is one of Bartlett’s greatest skills! Theatre feels many times as interchanges of opinions where somebody speaks and everyone else listens and then somebody else takes a turn. And there is nothing wrong with that as it often allows us to hear not only what people say but also what they really think and feel. But it is not necessarily how people speak in real life 🙂 Replicating that in a play is much harder! Writing dialogue that is as natural as normal talk is an art and I’ve come to appreciate just how good Bartlett is at it. I think it is this great skill of his which made Dr Foster so good! Well, that and a very clever plot and great characters (superbly acted!). But you can’t be a great script writer without that skill 🙂

But when something reads so naturally it’s easy to get drawn into the characters and to dig your heals into the plot noticing less of the skill behind it. It’s fair to say I was appalled and disgusted by both Sandra and Kennet when I read the play. I felt pity for Jamie and Rose , but the latter also annoyed me. My feelings felt offended by the egoistic vein of these people, by their shocking lack of compassion. I didn’t even crack a smile while reading and the dark irony of it made me rather angry. Not because it felt unrealistic, quite the contrary. Rose’s realities are very close to my own, I understand the world she lives in. But the total oblivion of the parents to the needs of their children, their complete lack of evolution, maturity almost is not a pretty sight.

I seriously doubted I could sit through repeat viewings of the play without becoming depressed. I did by no means hate the playwright or think it was a bad play. But the characters themselves I didn’t enjoy and I felt the play did take me to a very dark place. I guess it is also context. It’s not been a great year for realities around us and struggles with housing and daily life are all too real in London. So the sudden excitement of seeing RA back on stage took a nosedive upon realising that the experience might be anything but uplifting and only one more reminder about the stuff going on all around me. It was clear this was going to be nothing like the emotional deep dive and cathartic experience the Crucible was. At least from reading the play. It felt as if this too was just forcing me to deal with the things that I already saw every day around me, every day at work on the news screens around me, every month when I pay the ridiculous rent and so on.

So I was anxious about the experience while I was at the same time looking forward to seeing him act live on stage again. The balance tipped in favour of the experience at an odd moment.  Every play I’ve seen since the summer has been depressing in its own way:  The Entertainer, Hamlet, Richard III 2x, No man’s land, young Chekov (Platanov), Les Blancs and the Red barn. None of them a barrel of laughs.  Or certainly not meant to be that.  But there were laughs, in most of them! And I wouldn’t miss seeing any of them, even though they are not cheerer-uppers. The plays and the acting was so great! And watching Mark Strong in the Red Barn it suddenly hit me. He’s excellent, just as good as I remember him from a View from the bridge which won him the Olivier. The Olivier for which Richard was also nominated. Richard who I very clearly remembered being as good on stage as the man I was watching. As many of the actors I’ve been watching. Of course the play itself matters but what matters even more is how it is brought to life and what you remember is the performance that made it real and memorable. I will remember not just the plays but I will remember the actors who made the plays stand out. And the vividness and intensity of the experience would always be worth it!

And the experience does not have to necessarily be emotionally overwhelming, or even cathartic (although I’ll always have a soft spot for an expertly closed emotional and story arc – thanks to Shakespeare) , all it has to be is intense. It has to make a difference, it has to grab you and in the best of cases it will make a lasting impact and make you think about it for a long long time. And sometimes it is much harder to put an open ended and un-resolved play to rest than it is a neatly tied up story (if done right).

I was still wondering though why people laughed so much during Love Love Love!

Turns out the play lifts off the page very well indeed. It’s a perfect mix of sparkling, witty writing, clever and clean production and excellent acting. Had I not read a bit about Michael Mayer before I would be convinced of his directing skills after seeing the play the first time. I love directions which support and enhance the play without being in your face. Of course that won’t work with all plays, but one as ‘verbose’ as this does not need distractions form excess of physical activity or props or sets. This is simple, yet elegant and leaves space for the family and generational drama to unfold.

You probably can’t really call the 1st act sets elegant 😉 But they give you in small details the exact feel of a student flat well lived in. The half eaten half burnt toast (I guess beans on toast as is the eternal student staple diet and because they have run out of beans), the dirty pint glasses, the lack of food but abundance of drink bottles. Clothes dropped carelessly around the old sofa, the portable telly sat on anything available (in this case an old suitcase). The only thing that drew my attention as potential miss match is the mixer tap in the kitchen. I tried to find out if this was available or typical in London flats in the 70s and earlier, but I doubt it since separate taps were the bane of my life in rented flats even a few years ago. But, it’s kitchen not bathroom so it is possible, I am sure they did their research more thoroughly than I did. Love the 2 seater sofa which effectively isolates Henry away from Sandra and Kenneth and is just big enough for Kenneth to splay on it in all his length. It also forces Henry to sit where he would look even sterner, in the armchair, rather than more relaxed on the sofa. And it emphasises the contrast between brothers when Kenneth bounces round on it or wriggles suggestively in it as soon as he has sussed out his brother is bringing a date tonight to the apartment. The simple use of that armchair and sofa is not in the words but is a subtle and yet very telling addition by the director.

Generally the movement in and around the furniture, especially the sitting down and getting up provided a continuous source of entertainment and discovery. And was one of the most creatively used acting props I have seen. Such detail! So telling! ( what would Kenneth do with himself if he didn’t bounce round the furniture in act1? I’d love to know how the movement was choreographed and how much input was given by director, actor, script, etc)

Act 2’s house is a gem of discovery, loved looking for the books, the paintings fit the style and money around, the furniture is spot on. Even the layout speaks to us! The table is set out just so that you can see dad and 14! Year old son mirror each other while smoking and drinking red wine. And again use of furniture tells us so much about the people and also defines their age so well! Both Jamie and Rose rarely sit on anything normally 🙂

And act 3 is as posh as it gets! The big doors to the gardens, the restrained furniture in pastel colours elegantly spaced out. Small details which tell you everything you need to know about their wealth/status/lifestyle. And again there is much acting of age, degree of comfort with oneself, physical state in just the sitting on the sofa.

The production puts just enough props around to boost key moments and I have to say the director has honed in on those perfectly. There is hardly a breather in this 2h fast paced play but where there is a pause it’s filled very effectively. It’s utterly entertaining and riveting. I could have seen it not 4 times consecutively, but many more without getting bored.

I even enjoyed the almost constant smoking if it didn’t make me cough! Those herbals are the worst!

The costumes where equally brilliant in shaping personalities and times and ages. Not too much as it could have easily gone overboard with Sandra but managed not to outshine her personality 😉 And not just Sandra, but the kids too. The parents are so elegant and wealthy in their old age, Sandra certainly likes her bling, while the kids are blatantly dressed very basically and practically. I am sure I’ll find the time for another post to talk about how some of the clothing detail contributed to the entertainment factor 😉 The hair was great too! I am glad we didn’t see a wig on Kenneth in act 1, they managed for both him and Sandra to go through very fast and very natural hairstyle changes. Impressive given the short time available for those changes. They even thought about details like the watches Kenneth wears which travel appropriately through time.

It’s testament to the great cast and direction that it stays fresh night after night after night. I would say it almost takes more than one viewing to start to appreciate what an intricate and fragile construction it is and the level of attention to detail and precise executive it requires to work the way that it does.

I can’t begin to imagine how dialogue that is so messy and natural gets puts together! Not only do they talk over each other like people do, but sometimes people talk and don’t listen to each other at all. At least with dialogue, even if broken you have clues to latch onto but if you just speak and other people talk over you it must be even more difficult to land the punchlines! Hats off to absolutely all of them! The word ping pong alone was worth the price of the ticket, after the first time I literally looked forward to the vocal sparing and to the next line!

And while I didn’t laugh as much as maybe others in the public the first time round I certainly did the other 3 times and probably more. They are shockingly horrible yes, but also funny because so outrageous. And even Sandra who is almost a caricature of a person has her moments. It’s not brutal all the time, there are flashes of all sorts of different feelings, even if only in mood changes on faces between words. Also the way the booze loosens tongues and makes all inhibitions crumble is done gradually and with subtlety.

What also keeps it interesting on repeat viewings are the variety of themes hidden in the play as well as all the things that are left unsaid. On first reading 2 things prevail – they are horrible egoistic parents who have screwed up their kids overlain on the social and generational problems of their times  – with compounded effect. But on stage there is so much more. Kenneth and Henry do have some things in common, at least in their relationship to their parents and there is some level of affection or understanding there even through the resentment and rivalry. And you are left wondering what happened through the years between this moment and Henrys death with some loss of connection being obvious (though hard to put down just to stealing a girlfriend).

Then there is Kenneth and Sandra’s relationship – their poor quality as parents can distract from the relationship they have with each other. There is obvious chemistry there and there is openness even though with horrible aspects in their discussion of their mutual cheating. They fully understand each other and love each other with flaws and all. It’s sad that they are into each other at the exclusion of their children but nevertheless the strength of their bond is really interesting and I have to say on stage, quite charming. There is something to be admired about the brutality with which they tell each other truths and their general commitment to be open with each other. And much to be laughed at when they recognise each other’s faults and irresponsibility so accurately but don’t see their own. I also find myself wondering who drives their relationship. The obvious answer would be Sandra, but it’s not always the case, as we are reminded of in the last act. She’s the more vocal one but I don’t get a sense of her making all decisions.

There is also the question of why both of them change so little in their lifetime? Yes they have jobs and houses and so on but emotionally, as adults they are equally or even more irresponsible as when they were 19. And whatever limitations society has put on them in their 40 they seem to be all too happy to ditch in their 60 to behave almost like 19 year olds again. I find that as sad as what they do to their own children.

I also found it interesting how prominent the mental health issues the children have are when you watch the staged play in comparison to when you read it. And this is down to mostly direction and acting, not text. But it is one more issue the older generation does not know how to handle and chooses to mostly ignore. And yet, while Kenneth ignores the depth of Jamie’s problems there is the other argument he mentions about Jamie being his own man, accepting him the way he is. Surely the solution would be in the middle ground between adequate help and acceptance. But I don’t feel like completely rejecting Kenneth’s view about the individuality of each person, in this case even if misguided as extreme parenting with his children.

And there is the big unexplained gap between their teenage years ruined by parents and their adulthood. I guess it’s why I don’t find it that easy to sympathise with Rose especially until the end, 20 years of decisions cannot be down solely to parental influence! Not when parents have obviously been happy to be hands off as soon as they could.

There are also of course the politics of the times, the issues around freedom and career development, of realising your dreams, especially for women, the cost of education and the choices available, the political views and so on. The passion for music and the idea of realising your early dreams and settling for less or trying to recapture the dreams…  It certainly leaves you with the feeling that there is so much more to talk about! Not least about whether or not the parents should have bought Rose the house which they could afford and she never can on her income. Yes, she’s made poor career choices not just because of her parents,  but can her parents simply ignore the lack of any security in her life when they can do something about it? After all he is doing something for Jamie, even if only because it is no bother and effort for him. With Rose it feels like out of sight, out of mind. While I don’t agree with her arguments I know that she has no other choice than to ask them for help.

What is interesting and also comes across I think stronger at first viewing is the change in writing between acts 1 and 2 and act 3. Act 3 has those key speeches from Rose , Kenneth and partially also Sandra and they cause some confusion in the audience reactions. People are unsure if to go on laughing because this time the various statements about each other’s lives but also society in general are more on the truthful than on the funny side. This time there is no funny come back, or very little of it. I understand why the choice but it makes it more difficult to hit the right mood with the audience I think. Especially as it starts in similar fashion as before with Rose fighting to get her parents to listen to her. It’s also the act which I think shifts most in feel from one performance to the next based on both audience reaction but also on stage atmosphere. Sometimes both parents are more outraged at the demands and accusations and sometimes less. I am a bit split about it as I am not sure it works completely. Especially as the end goes back to a similar mood as the previous acts.

There is also only a partial response to Rose’s assertions about society and I think it is a pity we don’t get a bit more of it. We’re left to wonder if these parents, as horrible as they are really are guilty of all the behaviours Rose heaps upon them. I think we are inclined to believe so based on what we’ve seen so far but I am not entirely convinced.

Lots to think about and I still crave seeing it more time to peel of more layers or turn some questions in my head some more and try and guess some answers from the detail of the acting. Which I will need to come back to in another post as I do want to pick them apart a bit more, especially in light of RA’s recent comments that it is all in the text 🙂 I want to have a word about that!

#LLLplay is certainly a very interesting and good play to sink one’s teeth in. One which doesn’t provide answers to all the questions it raises but I don’t think it needs to. It certainly throws the questions out there in a most entertaining way. I guess we’re allowed to laugh at their expense because we’ll try to avoid at least some of their mistakes 🙂

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