Friday, October 21, 2005

P-L-A-Y, playaway-away-way

Been to see two plays this week, which is something of a record. On Tuesday it was Mike Leigh’s "Two Thousand Years", about a guardianista family battling with itself.
“For the first time, the National Theatre has commissioned Mike Leigh to create an original play. Following his usual methods, Leigh has been working with his team to explore characters, relationships, themes and ideas.”
We went, to be honest, because the thing we’d booked for got cancelled, and I had entirely no idea what to expect. I’d not been in the Cottesloe before, and it’s a small, intimate place – one I didn’t really fit into.

Though I still had my doubts as the play began, it soon proved utterly mesmerising. The thing’s surprisingly contemporary, the characters discussing Katrina as well as the situation in Iraq and the West Bank. In fact, I now realise, over the summer the NT were advertising just “a new play by Mike Leigh” without any details of what it might be about…

Another thing that struck me (and still without giving anything away because you should go see it) is that some of the scenes are very short. In some cases there’s just one line, or even someone saying nothing at all, and speaking some development with a look. It punctuates the longer, more involved scenes. And it never occurred to me, what with the practicalities of staging it, that theatre could do stuff like that.

By turns political, funny, silly and deeply moving, “Two Thousand Years” is also really well observed. I recognised elements from my own and other people’s families. One to take the parents to.

Henry Irving as Matthius in ‘The Bells’ (from the collection of Miss Evelyn Smalley)Then, last night, we took O. to see “Henry the Great” by Nicola Lyon, in which five actors (including Donald Sinden and Dr Who's Richard Briers and Penelope Wilton) narrated the life of actor Henry Iriving. The pink and green striped ties – on the stage and in the audience – showed the play’s debt to Irving’s beloved Garrick Club (where the play was first performed last week).

(Also spotted Michael Kilgarriff in the audience. Smart red tie, not the tatty pink-and-green, I noticed. "That man was a Giant Robot," I told O. "Good-o," he replied, so paralysed with delight he looked bored.)

Again, I had little idea what the thing would be like, and it proved a really good hour of top facts and good jokes, culled from multiple sources (such as Ellen Terry’s autobiography). Two favourite examples:

Irving’s Hamlet was believed definitive, but Walter Collinson (Irving’s own tailor) much preferred his Macbeth. Which was odd, Irving thought, because that performance had been so derided. So, he asked his tailor, why the Scottish play? Collinson replied, “You sweat much more in that.”

At his height, Irving was making money through advertising – his face appeared selling beer and crackers and so on. His profile as Hamlet even appeared on the packaging of pills, the slogan, “To Beechams, or not to Beechams.” (Cue terrible groan from audience).


The cooking fat just jumped on the keyboard. Best go see to the little sod’s needs.

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