20 September 2008

The Norman Conquests - The Old Vic - various dates in September 2008


The Norman Conquests is an interconnecting triptych of plays - Table Manners (set in the dining room), Round and Round the Garden and Living Together (set in the living room)- which follow the same six characters - Norman, his in-laws and the local vet - over a summer weekend in an English country house. Believing it his mission in life to make women happy by showering them with love, Norman makes the most of every opportunity to seduce his sister-in-law Annie, charm his brother-in-law's wife Sarah, and woo his wife Ruth during this disastrous weekend of constant bickering, drunken bonding and illicit rendezvous. The plays all happen in "real time" - i.e all take place at the same time. As characters interact and move around the house, they move from one play to another.

I was initially quite resistant to the thought of going to see these plays - they're by Alan Ayckbourn and I tend to think of his plays as being incredibly bleak and dark about the human condition and relationships (watching Season's Greetings or Absurd Person Singular is enough to leave you fumbling in your bag for a sharp knife with which to end it all, or at least bring on an attack of the NAHB (Not a Happy Bunny) Syndrome).

I admit that my hackles rose substantially when entering the theatre - some overpaid Capitalist has paid for the stage to be ripped out (the stage! At the Old Vic! The stage of Garrick, Gielgud, Edith Evans and Mrs. Patrick Campbell!) and the auditorium remodelled to become a "theatre in the round" rather than the traditional proscenium. Barbarism! The hallowed ghosts of great actors long since dead no longer drift around the stage clad in the costumes of their most famous roles - they have to clamber around over tiers of seats going woogy woogy woogy and getting their cloaks caught in the tip-up mechanisms. Outrage! Apparently, this is in homage (dharling) to the original production of The Norman Conquests which was played "in the round", but I have a nasty feeling that Mr. Spacey will be gunning for the new layout to remain. What's even worse is that this overpaid Capitalist hasn't, naturally, thought it fit to be an anonymous philanthropist, but has insisted on plastering the name of his bloody Hedge Fund all over the refit - its now the "CQS Space", apparently. Ye gods!

What is very disconcerting about this new layout is that, instead of looking at the stage, one now finds oneself sitting "on the stage" (the proscenium arch is still actually in place above your head) looking at other people in "the auditorium" - giving the odd impression of looking in a mirror. Is this a clever directorial conceit? Are we watching a play, or are we merely watching ourselves? When the same little old lady, wearing the same red sweatshirt, is sitting in the same seat for two different performances, this only adds to the surrealism and leaves you thinking "Have I been here before?"

Ah, but here comes the clever bit. We have been here before - these three plays feature the same characters, in the same costumes, in the same story. But each play is only one third of the story - and all the three parts are running at the same time (figuratively, not literally - although there is a famous pair of plays - House and Garden - which do run literally at the same time). Its like doing 1/3 of a jigsaw puzzle, then breaking it all up and doing it again, using different pieces and getting a different 1/3 of the picture, and then doing the same thing again to see the last 1/3. Sometimes, an individual piece might be in the middle of the bit that's visible, only to reappear the next time on the edge of the image. You can see its the same piece, only the context has changed. And your knowledge of 1/3 helps you relate it to either, or both, of the other two. Clever, eh?

Yes, very clever, but its still Ayckbourn and its still pretty bleak if you dont happen to be in a jolly frame of mind. Try and go when you're in a good mood, otherwise the darkness blots out the humour - and the humour is very funny indeed. I was getting over food poisoning for Table Manners, and sat in front of a buffoon from the City haw-hawing about his share options for Living Together, both of which events affected the way I related to the plays (at time of writing, we're still trying to get tickets for Round and Round The Garden). Anyway, it all revolves perilously close to farce in places, but without the physical humour; this humour is the black humour of relationships - family, partners, lovers - and what happens when testosterone levels get waaaaay too high. Essentially, I suppose, its a 19th century drawing room comedy set in the early 1970s. Like J. M. Priestley (of An Inspector Calls, Time and The Conways and Dangerous Corner fame), Ayckbourn gets a kick out of manipulating time - and your head. Watching the second play (they dont have to be seen in any particular order), I found myself constantly trying to reference what I had seen in the first, and watching intently for cues in order to "see where the joins were"; very tiring but ultimately very satisfying. Despite my avowed loathing of Ayckbourn, I'm very much lookng forward to seeing the last play.

Of the six actors in the cast, I can't really single out any individual for brickbats or bouquets as all are uniformly excellent. Amelia Bullimore has a difficult job with Ruth, probably the most poorly written role of the lot (and certainly the least believable) and rather a thankless task as a result. I don't think Steven Mangan is quite as good as he thinks he is as Norman, but its an unsympathetic role, and gets more so as you see each play in turn and learn more about him. I'm not sure that he needs to be portrayed as quite such a hairy loon with unkempt beard and wild locks. Some of Amanda Roots' vocal inflections and facial movements remind me of a very young Julie Walters (from her Victoria Wood days) and are genuinely funny as a result (apparently Penelope Keith created the role and I can imagine her in it, but I think I prefer Roots) and Ben Miles is a wonderfully ponderous Tom.

I'm not quite sure what purpose the model village serves - on a huge metal wheel suspended about three feet above the circular stage, leading to much pre-curtain speculation from the audience as to what is actually going to happen to it - but it rises up to reveal another identical model village on the underside. Most bizarre and I can't really see the point. Some of the actual direction is slightly disappointing - theatre in the round can leave you staring at the actors' backs for a good long while if its not carefully handled, particularly when a piece of furniture such as a dining table "anchors" people in one spot - and some of the sight lines are a little dodgy. It must be a very large house if both dining room and living room have at least three doors, making the overall layout of the house rather confusing to work out mentally. But the overall shabbiness of the house is well hinted at.

I think it was in one of Maureen Lipman's books that she said something along the lines of "Once an audience has realised that something on stage has gone wrong, they like nothing more than settling back and seeing how you are going to get out of it" - and the sadist in me did enjoy the moment when Norman slammed the coffee pot down on the dining room table just that little bit too hard in Table Manners, cracking it and watching water spread in a great pool before trickling down to form an ever-spreading puddle on the rug.

What the critics thought:


JohnnyFox said...

I agree with most of your review - see mine on whatsonstage.com or at www.blowstar.blogspot.com but just want to take issue with your note that the plays are set 'in real time'.

I understood this to mean that the action of a play is the same as the time elapsed in its performance - but as The Norman Conquests are set over a weekend from Friday to Monday and the plays run only two hours, it's not technically "in real time".

best regards

rtb said...

Guilty as charged! I had a vague feeling when writing this review that "real time" was not the correct phrase, but was unable to come up with anything more accurate - I thought I might get away with it as its a very specifically "theatre" phrase, but obviously not. Is there a more accurate phrase you can suggest?

By the way - useless piece of theatre trivia - "The Tempest" is the only play by Shakespeare that takes place in "real time".