Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: After the Dance + NT backstage tour

I love the NT! What could it be? Their wide variety of programming? Plays old and new? More female directors in this single building than on the whole of Broadway? So many reasons!

I found yet another reason when I took their backstage tour. Yes, I am so enamoured of theatre life that it was bound to be fun. Plus I got previews of the two productions I was going to see this week. Although it was the dinner break for most of the crew, there were a few people around including some of the actors warming up.

First stop was the Olivier, their largest theatre. The set for Women Beware Women was on stage and they were doing the sound check for the evening's performance. Our guide explained how in addition to turning the set around, the giant cylinder can also bring up an entire set from below while taking another down in a sort of corkscrew movement. There are over a thousand lights, some fixed, some programmable, and sight lines are fixed at 118° which matches the sight lines of the human eye, the slope of the seats making sure no one ever blocks your view (though I find it does make me knees a little wobbly looking down).

The Lyttleton is a more traditional theatre, but the proscenium can rise and lower and the sides as well, so it can be widescreen or not.  The set for After the Dance was up and a few tech people were testing things out, as it's still in previews. We went back stage and there were still sets for The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett's latest play, which I'd seen via simulcast just before I left for London. Everything was modular so it could be moved in and out easily. There are up to three plays rotating on all three stages at any given time -- amazing! We went around directly behind the stage where the set for The White Guard sits, wonderfully evoking turn of the century Russia in the winter -- there's even a real spruce for the Christmas tree.  The entire set rolls forward and then gets lowered onto the stage. Quite ingenious.

In the tiny Cottesloe, actors were warming up on stage, but our guide said they were all right with our trooping in to take a peek. I haven't been to a production in this little black box theatre, so I'm looking forward to doing so soon. Not only can the stage be reconfigured, but the seats as well. Behind the scenes, we saw the boxes of the horses from War Horse packed to be shipped to Broadway, and a giant portrait of Olivier hangs in the narrow but very long corridor between all the workshops. Among the props were things like a bloodied head and a few turtles. In the huge paintshop the floor for Moira Buffini's new play, Welcome to Thebes, were newly painted and partially assembled. The huge backdrop painted like a grey sky hung across the walls. Amazing that there's that much space.

After the tour, it was time for After the Dance and its decadence between the wars, when the sparkle of the Bright Young Things has lost most of its lustre. Thea Sharrock directs a stellar cast in Rattigan's play which allow individuals to emerge from the types and shifts our sympathies as layers are gradually revealed, even in people steadfastly determined to have only a shiny surface. Hildegard Bechtler's set effortlessly reproduces sumptuous but tasteful wealth.

We're introduced to the Scott-Fowler home by the absence of its central figure, David (Benedict Cumberbatch), who's sleeping off the effects of yet another of the endless parties. His cousin, Peter (John Heffernan), a poor relation who's paid to be a secretary for the history he's supposedly writing. His disapproval of his cousin's life comes out in conversation with John Reid, a sort of professional hanger-on played by the always wonderful Adrian Scarborough. David's wife Joan (Nancy Carroll), tries to dismiss Peter's concerns, but when Peter's fiancée, Helen (Faye Castelow) arrives with her doctor brother, it soon becomes clear that David is far worse off than a mere hangover -- and that Helen is completely smitten with him.

It's wonderful to see the ways that various characters figure it out. David is nearly the last, but finds himself drawn to the very different version of himself that Helen is briskly determined to make. Peter is of course the very last, in his youthful assumptions of clear cut answers, it simply doesn't fit. The most moving performance comes from Carroll's embodiment of Joan, who works so hard to be the superficial party girl that she finds it too difficult -- until it's too late -- to show how much she really feels. The most affecting character ends up being Scarborough's Reid, who spends most of the play being a terrible sort of scrounger and lout, yet digs out some of the most heartfelt lines by the end.

The tense final scene would have played a lot better if there were not a veritable chorus of coughing during it. Why do people save up their hacking and harrumphing for the theatre?!


Todd Mason said...

Well, as you know, it's no fun unless you can participate. And people are trying to be quiet in live theater and other performance (I prefer the dead theater, much easier to see the props and the constumery, though the maggots can be annoyingly mobile), as opposed to clearing their throats or talking through the buildup for the first hour or so. The nature of the beasts we are.

Unlike the Stoppard, which has a chance of being produced professionally here, I suspect that there's almost zero chance of my seeing this one mounted even in NYC or at a university...which leads me to thinking about all the good, bad and mediocre, but particularly the good, Samuel French-published and other plays that simply aren't seen by much of anyone, and how many languish in archives unperformed, even less likely to be seen or heard than radio or tv drama and particularly film from yesteryear...and even around us today.

Hell, even I've written two decent one-acts. And I couldn't put my hands on either, one unpublished, the other barely so.

Glad you've had a good time of it; the tour sounds almost as enjoyable as the play itself, and no coughing fits to speak of...

Todd Mason said...

Constumery? I'll have to come up with a definition for that. Hmmm...what would stumery be joined by? Would it relate to shtupping?

Todd Mason said...

But then, what doesn't?

Todd Mason said...

Used to name an especially dumb person when they exhibit freakish behavior

--so, a stume enabling. Constumery.

Todd Mason said...

"Shtumie" was what was making that connection for me. Oddly, I was just looking at a listing for the more recent film version of THE WINSLOW BOY last night.

C. Margery Kempe said...

LOL -- Todd, where would I be without you? Particularly as you seem to be the only person reading my blog these days.

It is appalling how little theatre gets on in the States (she says desperately trying to get the local theatre to put on Lumottu). Unfortunately they seem to be taking their lead from Hollywood, looking for blockbusters and retreads that are "sure things" if dull. Not that it's not the case elsewhere. I always say of The Mousetrap as I pass by St Martin's Theatre, "keeping new plays out of the theatre for over fifty years".

Costumery is surely a perfectly cromulent word!