A couple of nights ago I went to the Emporium Theatre in Brighton to see Fishskin Trousers – not, as you’d be forgiven for assuming, an experimental noise combo much beloved by John Peel, but a haunting and cleverly written theatre piece. Elizabeth Kuti’s play consists of three intertwined monologues delivered by three characters from different points in time who all have a connection with Orford Ness, Suffolk (also the subject of Thomas Dolby’s The Invisible Lighthouse which, bizarrely, I saw him presenting live only about three weeks ago). The director is Robert Price.
I’m not too big a fan of theatre in general, which I think is down to a failure of imagination on my part as I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief when I’m watching two or more people conversing on stage in an improbably well-enunciated and over-projected manner, but I really really liked this: it seemed to have more in common with something like Robert Lloyd Parry’s sublime performances of the ghost stories of M.R.James than it did with what I’ve seen of modern stage-bound drama. The three characters in this piece are Mab, played by Jessica Carroll, a 12th Century serving maid, Ben (Sean Ohlendorf), an Australian radar scientist posted to the Ness in 1973, and Mog (Eva Traynor), an early 21st Century school teacher, with the starting point for the piece being Mab’s description of the capture of a strange and bedraggled man of the sea in the nets of some local fishermen. The three take in turns to relate sections of their stories and at first there’s no connection apparent between them other than the local geography, but as the piece develops you start to realise how events in one strand affect those of another and by the end the three accounts form a satisfying whole. They’re also variously grotesque, funny, haunting, surprisingly educational and ultimately very moving due to the quality and accessibility of the writing and the acting, with the metaphor of murky coastal waters for suppressed secrets and traumas proving highly effective.
The staging is minimal – only three chairs and some subtle flickering light effects to suggest water – and there’s no point during the hour and a quarter duration of the play that you find your concentration wandering. The Emporium Theatre is a converted church, with what used to be the nave given over to a cafe and the theatre not much more than a few rows of chairs in what would have been the altar area and it’s a highly appropriate setting for a stripped down piece like this, with nothing to distract you from the performers. Very glad I went to see this, even though I’m now stuck with the voice of John Peel in my head telling me that that was Fishskin Trousers in session, and there’ll be two more from them later.
Orson Welles seemed to spend most of his career having his ambitious and high-minded projects thwarted and suppressed by commercially-minded Hollywood studios with the result that a lot of his films have been actually quite difficult to see, at least in the unbutchered states that he intended. Welles sometimes said that the favourite of all the films he directed was Chimes At Midnight, his loose 1966 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, but I can’t remember it ever being shown on television, and it looks like it’s only been issued on DVD within the last couple of years. The Cambridge Film Festival have got it though, so despite my ignorance of both the source texts and this period of English history in general, I figured I should see it while I had a chance.
The first surprise, given Welles’s reputation as a bit of an iconoclast, is how respectful and traditional it looks. No junking the text and just keeping the bare bones of the plot a la Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood and Ran here, and no radical anachronistic makeover like Julie Taymor’s eye-popping Mussolini-referencing Titus either – this is a proper period setting, with castles and armour and taverns and a proper pointy crown and Johnny Gielgud giving it the full RSC as the pompous and ailing king. It takes a while to adjust, to be honest, as Welles cracks through the script at a pace, leaving an audience unfamiliar with the plays not much breathing space. He does however also provide some establishing narration (loftily intoned by Ralph Richardson, naturally) which helps you sort out who’s who, and after a while you do start to get drawn in, largely because of the confidence of the production, particularly Welles’s show-stopping and lusty turn as the man of infinite appetites Falstaff, surely one of the most appropriate bits of casting in history. Technically it’s pretty impressive too, full of arresting compositions in beautiful high contrast black and white, and the climactic battle scene on the fields of Shrewsbury is breathtakingly brutal, with scores of men running at each other and impaling each other with lances while horses gallop and fall around them. It’s the equal of the churning, muddy, desperate raids in Seven Samurai and Andrei Rublev. The many, relatively static, dialogue scenes are somewhat less compelling, though it always comes over like a proper movie, rather than the film of a stage play.
So is Chimes At Midnight really a better film than Citizen Kane, or Touch Of Evil? Not for this non-Shakespeare scholar, though it held my attention throughout and I’m glad to have seen it on the big screen. As Welles literary adaptations go The Trial is still the one to beat.
Had a rare trip to the theatre last night to see Stagefright, a new play by Michael Punter about the distinguished Victorian actor Henry Irving and his business manager Bram Stoker, for whom at this point Dracula is no more than a pipedream. The two find themselves locked into the Lyceum Theatre overnight after a successful production of Faust and their initial easy banter gives way to unease and then terror when a seemingly supernatural presence starts to make itself apparent.
Stagefright is great entertainment, and Punter relishes the opportunity to deflate Irving’s pomposity and drop pointers to Stoker’s eventual fame via a witty and accessible script. A sense of humour is evident throughout, which helps to heighten the effect of the half a dozen or so shock moments that occur beautifully, and the staging of the various ghostly surprises can’t be faulted (an illusionist is in fact credited in the programme). Jonathan Keeble as Irving and Barry Ward as Stoker acquit themselves with just the right level of theatricality, and the set, copiously detailed as it is with Victoriana and thespian ephemera, is lovely to behold. A brisk production that crucially doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides some real thrills – worth watching out for.