Annie's Notes in 2020: The Plays Edition

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Annie's Notes in 2020: The Plays Edition

kesäkuu 16, 2020, 9:37pm

I wondered for a while if I want to mix my regular reading notes with my my plays reading (and listening) and decided that if I keep to my current schedule, it will overwhelm the other thread. So I will just keep them separately -- I hope noone minds.

Outside of Shakespeare, I had not touched or listened to a play since high school. Then a couple of years ago, I started listening to radio-plays on the BBC (and others) and last summer I decided to read a play. As my collection shows: , it worked out just great.

So the current plan is to read at least a play per day - it may be a very short one (the 10 minutes plays are getting very popular - or maybe they had always been and I had just never heard of them) or a full text one; classical or a new one.

I also plan to at least note the ones I listen to on the radio (well, in the BBC app) -- not sure if I will expand that to smaller productions and dramatizations I listen to...

So if you are interested in printed plays and/or radio plays, pull up a chair and you are welcome to listen in.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 21, 2020, 3:30am

Full length and one act modern plays (20th and 21st century)

International (non-UK/USA)

1. (Egypt) Fate of a Cockroach by Tawfiq al-Hakim, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, 3 acts
2. (Algeria) Intelligence Powder by Kateb Yacine, translated from the French by Stephen J. Vogel, 1 act, multiple scenes
3. (South Africa) Sizwe Bansi Is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, 1 act

UK/USA (Year of premiere where available)

(2013) The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George
(2020) Death of England by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 18, 2020, 7:44pm

10 Minutes plays (ordered by Author name, alphabetically)

Between Here and Death by Merridith Allen
Avalanche by Rita Anderson
Charlottesville by Suzanne Bradbeer
Black Hole Enterprises by C. J. Ehrlich
The Big Shell by Craig Pospisil
Brickwork by K. L. Snodgrass

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 19, 2020, 3:00am

Radio Plays

~45 Minutes:

1. Two Households by Claire McGowan (2020), BBC Radio 4

~60 minutes

1. The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz (2020), BBC Radio 4, original theater version 2015.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 17, 2020, 5:08pm

Classical plays - pre 1900 for now

1. Noah's Flood (Chester Cycle) by Anonymous

kesäkuu 16, 2020, 10:53pm

1. Fate of a Cockroach by Tawfiq al-Hakim, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
Country: Egypt
Award: unknown
Publication: Modern African Drama - Norton Critical Edition.
Dates: Initial Publication: 1966

Would you care about the life a cockroach? Anyone who had ever lived in a flat had probably seen the creatures and the usual reaction is to kill the thing as fast as possible (and make sure you kill all of its kin). And yet, this play makes you care about a cockroach.

The complete play is first published in 1966; its two parts (slightly different...) were initially published as two separate plays in the previous 2 years under the same name: a one act one (the first act) and a two-acts one (the second and third). Not knowing that before I read it, I kept looking for the characters of the first act to show up again - except for the main protagonist, noone else crosses between the to main parts.

The story opens in an apartments' bathroom where the king and queen of cockroaches discuss their main enemy. No - it is not the humans - the cockroaches had seen the poisons and the shoes used to kill them but they are so much bigger that they believe them to be natural phenomenons. The enemy are the ants -- who wait for one of our heroes to fall on its back and thus get immobilized and attack - carrying the cockroach home for food. But the two royals and the rest of the population cannot decide who needs to do what work - as usual and if you forget for a second that you are reading about cockroaches, you can decide that you are listening to a modern country's government... The act closes with a tragedy - the king falls into the bathtub and cannot get out.

And once the curtain falls on that act, we won't see the rest of cockroaches again -- although we will see the ants.

The second act opens in the bedroom of the apartment where Samia and Adil are waking up for work -- and the regular morning disagreement on who is to take a bath first starts almost immediately. But with the king in the bathtub, trying to escape, Adil decides that he wants to find out when the creature will give up... and the play goes into its absurdist phase. The doctor is summoned (and convinced that this is a good way for someone to spend a day), at various times various characters decide that they identify with the cockroach (or that someone else in the room does). Until the bathtub is filled by the cook and our main character dies of course (or are Samia and Adil the main characters). A dead cockroach on the floor is food for ants so they come... and then the cook wipes them out.

You can read this as a comedic piece but it is also deeply philosophical - would you help someone you do not like or will you enjoy looking at them trying over and over? When a failure is inevitable, do you help or do you just watch?

I was not sure I was sold on the premise of the play when I started reading it but at the end it actually works - especially when you change the cast and put the same story on a global scale.

Tawfik al-Hakim is one of the big play-writers of Egypt but it does not seem like a lot of his plays had been translated. I plan to track down the ones that had been though.

kesäkuu 16, 2020, 11:32pm

2. Intelligence Powder by Kateb Yacine, translated from the French by Stephen J. Vogel, 1 act, multiple scenes
Country: Algeria
Award: unknown
Publication: Modern African Drama - Norton Critical Edition.
Dates: Initial Publication: 1959

On the surface, this play is a comedy - or at least a farce. A man who does not seem to be working (and is called Puff of Smoke) gets thrown in jail by the Sultan (so he does not bring bad luck to a hunt) and when he is released, he turns into a philosopher - or so everyone thinks. And so starts a series of meetings between the Sultan and the man (and a chorus) where the discussions get more and more farcical, with an occasional deep thought thrown in -- usually at the wrong place.

But slowly, as the farce and the comedy progress, a darker side of the play start emerging and some of the initially farcical moments start to get almost sinister undertones. Puff of Smoke stops being the comedic relief and actually tries actively to swindle the Sultan - selling him the "intelligence powder" which gives its name to the play. The underlying accusations and opinions are obvious from the name - for the reader anyway.

The play ends in death - unexpected and almost coming from nowhere - especially if you initially dismiss the darkness. You cannot hide from fate - no matter what you do - that is the underlying story of the play. Or one of them anyway

I will admit that this play confused me a bit and I had to read some of the analysis of it - while the main premise was clear, it was a bit too random and a bit to farcical so I was sure I was missing something. I was not - not in the main topics anyway. Maybe the play was too short, maybe I am just not used to the style - the chorus being an active participant that everyone else sees and interacts with is interesting. And I am sure I missed some of the symbolism.

An interesting play - even if it is not my style exactly, it still works on some level. Its middle part made me think of a story from the western cannon - Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" but it turned in a different direction at the end (a much darker one at that).

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 1:26am

And 3 10-minutes plays from The Best New Ten-Minute Plays, 2019

3. Avalanche by Rita Anderson

When a man meets a woman... No, it is not that type of a play even if it starts this way.

On a bench, on a bus stop, in an unnamed town (somewhere in the USA) sits Phil. And out from around the corner shows up Gina who had moved to town recently and had managed to lose her cat. And when the two of them meet, two worlds collide - the upper class "I do not use cuss words" Gina and Phil who seems to use mainly those kinds of words. Not much can happen in 10 minutes - but it is enough for an almost friendship to bloom up and for both of them to share secret.

It is a sweet play - not very original in its story (or secrets) but still nicely done.

4. Between Here and Death by Merridith Allen

A man and his girlfriend argue about sex - but not what you would expect them to argue about. Or that is what it all starts with - and rapidly moves toward clarifying the surprising opening. The man is leaving for a while and wants to make sure that his girl is happy (or as happy as she can be) while he is gone.

It is a very short play, even for a 10-minute play, it feels too short. It is really one scene but it does manage to sound complete. You can see where it is going very fast but why it is going there and how it gets there is what makes that one workable. It is clear he is going to jail, why he goes to jail becomes the turning point though".

5. The Big Shell by Craig Pospisil

A noir pastiche that plays on math terminology (it has a subtitle "A Math Noir") does not sound like something that should work. And somehow, it turns out to work in a somewhat hilarious way.

San Francisco, the 1940s

A damsel in distress walks into the office of detective Fibonacci and asks for his help finding a missing nautilus (aka a big shell). But that is not her only problem - she also owes a lot of money to a casino owner. Of course she is not telling the truth (where is the fun in that) and of course things are a lot more complicated.

If you remove the math references - some of them work, some of them are there just to be there, this sounds a lot like the weaker episodes of the detective radio shows from the 1940s. Which is what it was trying to sound like. It takes awhile to get into it -- it almost sounds like a farce at the start but then it evens out. It is cocky and absolutely unrealistic and it works.

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 2:15pm

Annie - enjoying your thread.

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 2:27pm

>6 AnnieMod: for someone who regularly leaves tissue paper draped down the sides of the so that the spiders can get out I can relate to that play.

I have not heard of the genre of 10 minute plays, but I suppose they would work if transferred digitally.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 17, 2020, 6:37pm

>10 baswood:

You know, one of the proposals in the play was to leave a towel down the side of the bathtub so the poor thing can escape. Shot down by Adil of course :) I am in the "kill it" camp myself but I can understand why someone would do that.

Re: 10-minutes plays: No reason not to - they are just plays, just very short (~10 pages on paper but depends on the exact play). They take 10 minutes or thereabouts to perform (thus the name), less to read in my experience but I tend to read faster than I can listen - shorter than a standard One Act play (although some older One Act plays may fit under that new-ish category), longer than a scene usually (and some can span multiple scenes - like the math noir one above. All of the ones in this book had been produced during 2018/2019 season, mostly on festivals and in small theaters so they are not just an exercise in writing. And from the look of the list of companies producing 10-minutes plays at the end of the book, they seem to be thriving. And now I know they exist, I can find a lot of them, with this specific series starting as far back as 2004 (or it is the oldest I can find -- there may have been earlier ones - and I keep finding them while digging - I thought this initially started in 2011 but it keeps sliding back) and with another series of Best of the Year starting this year (the old publisher, new editors I think -- Harbison who edits this one used to edit the previous versions of the Smith and Kraus yearly anthology) explains that the term originated with the original Humana festival in 1977 and looking at some of the names mentioned there, it seems like the genre is indeed doing well.

I never realized there is so much drama being printed until I started looking. :)

I think of these as the flash fiction of the drama world (the One Act plays are the stories (and novellas for the longer ones) and the full length plays are the novels). They are fun to read when done right though. :)

>9 dchaikin: Glad to see you here.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 17, 2020, 5:57pm

6. Noah's Flood (Chester Cycle) by Anonymous

These days it seems like noone writes scripts for new movies - old movies get redone, popular books get dramatized and the same old ideas get rehashed.

Apparently this is not a new phenomenon and back in the Middle Ages, when the drama shows back into the Western cannon, it shows up in two forms: as original plays and as book adaptations. And being the Middle Ages, the book that gets adapted is of course the Bible. These adaptations usually started with the Creation and moved up, producing a cycle of plays which cover (and explain) most of the important actions in the Bible. They were called mystery plays -- some use miracle plays as a name but that has a slightly different meaning in the strict sense of the word. Noone knows how many of those cycles existed - only 4 (or 5) survived - but it is possible and very likely that there were a lot more of these - at least 127 town on the British Isles are known to have produced plays and it is almost impossible for the existing 4 (or 5) cycles to have been everywhere, not that early in the history anyway (14th-15th century).

This play is from the Chester cycle, a 24-25 (depends on your source) plays cycle from the late 14th/early 15th century. The play is also called "The Watter Leaders and the Drawers of Dee Playe".

Written in verse, it is a fairly straight forward adaptation of the Noah story - from the first moment God talked to him about it to the end of the Great Flood. It is a story everyone knows - regardless of your religious affiliations and there are no surprises in it. I am not planning on chasing and reading the complete cycle (for now) but it was interesting to see how drama returned to the Western world.

The complete cycle (as complete as possible anyway) is here:; and this specific play can be read here: (or close enough - there are a few versions out there).

kesäkuu 17, 2020, 5:02pm

7. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Country: South Africa
Award: Tony Award for Best Play (1975) -- nominated
Publication: Modern African Drama - Norton Critical Edition.

Worldwide premiere: 8 October 1972 at the Space Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa, followed by 1973 premiere in UK and 1974 in USA.

The play weaves a story inside of a story - we start with Styles, a photographer in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, reading a newspaper and commenting on what he is reading (including an old story from his previous work in a factory). Until a man named Robert Zwelinzima walks in - and before that man get hist picture taken, we will hear his story.

Once upon a time lived a man called Sizwe Bansi. He came to Port Elizabeth to look for work but things did not go as expected and he was told that he needs to leave. You see, Sizwe is black and this is the Apartheid era in South Africa - if you do not have the correct papers and skin color, you are not welcome in the big city - even looking for work requires a permit. The problem of course is that if he goes back, things will be even worse - there is no work back home for him and he has a family and kids. So he tries to stay, get captured and then is given 3 days to leave. Which he ignores - he does not really have a choice. And one night, he finds a dead body. Robert Zwelinzima may have lost his life but he has something that Sizwe does not have - papers allowing him to look for work. And the fotos on these papers are easily changed and even if you cannot read, you can learn and remember enough if your life depends on it.

In 1972, Athol Fugard is not the household name he will become later - he had won one major award and most of his more popular works are still to be written. This play is not even his completely - it is one of the two plays he develops in a workshop with John Kani and Winston Ntshona. But it does sound like one of his -- shining a light to the Apartheid in South Africa and its nightmares.

I definitely plan to read more of his plays.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 17, 2020, 9:34pm

1A. Two Households by Claire McGowan
Produced by BBC Northern Ireland in 2020, first aired on March 4, 2020 on BBC Radio 4; 45 minutes.

Two families in Northern Ireland had lived next to each other for a long time but because of being on different sides during the Troubles, they rarely talk to each other except to have yet another bitter argument. But somehow, in a classic Romeo and Juliet style, the children of the two families are in love and the fathers become friends. Except that there is a lot of history - and it comes to the light during the night before the wedding.

First they find a skeleton of a woman while trying to tear down the fence between the two properties - a real one. Before long it becomes clear that it is the missing mother of the bride - who disappeared 20 years earlier and had always been presumed drowned - especially after a note being found. Back then the two lovers were young adults, already dating but the disappearance and presumed suicide changes things and Michael had left for school and another marriage. And just when they are about to finally put all the past behind them, the skeleton shows up - with a bullet in its head.

And that opens the memories and the locked mouths of everyone in both households. The other mother is also dead at this point (having died a few years after the suicide from cancer) so it is just the to-be-wed couple and the fathers. And each of them has a tale to tell - of lying to the police, of hiding evidence, of trying to protect someone else. And the skeletons of the past start tumbling down -- jealousy and affairs, half-forgotten attempts to leave and shocking accusations. All seems to get resolved until one last thought, one last memory throws everything we know back into turmoil - the story the 4 of them pieced together works if only it was not for one last question, one last secret - and language lessons taken in private.

The play is a tightly plotted mystery full of surprising turns and ending with the kind of shocking endings you expect from this style. And yet - it comes as a surprise - because for awhile there, it feels as if they all want to find a way to explain everything and get the peace back - even if may not fit all the evidence. Until a word shatters it.

An awesome play and BBC Northern Ireland production makes it come alive. But it would have worked even on paper.

Available here:

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 11:43am

>14 AnnieMod: huh. The last three posts were all interesting, but I might look up Two Households.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 12:41pm

>15 dchaikin:

Uhm... Sorry... I think :) While I was writing the notes for Noah, I was actually thinking that I never mentioned (or saw mentioned) these while you were working through the Bible. :)

That one is easy to listen to if you decide - you can listen directly from the BBC site (or download their app -- it is streaming only so no much difference really).

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 1:45pm

>15 dchaikin:
I thought much the same.

AnnieMod, how is it you're finding these plays? Couple places (BBC app and one other?), or are you simply doing online searches for texts available free and seeing what you get?

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 2:15pm

>17 elenchus:

For the ones I am listening to -- the BBC app mainly but also a few other sites who publish audio-drama (Big Finish for example -- even though some of theirs show up on BBC as well) - most of the smaller ones outside of these two come out as podcasts these days but not all. I had been doing that for awhile, decided to start keeping more notes than just a list of what I am listening to. I am still not sure how much of the audio-drama I will talk about here - the ones that are real radio plays for sure but there are a lot of serials as well...

For the ones I read, they are mostly in paper form - but when I post I check if any of them is available online and post the link if someone wants to read it (like the Noah one). All of the ones I talked about so far were in 3 anthologies I am reading through but I also have a big stack of individual plays and more anthologies. Surprisingly enough, there are a few major publishers of drama out there and a few smaller ones plus some major Fiction publishers either have a drama imprint or just publish some drama now and again. And then some allow you to read plays online - so there will be some of it. Once you look for them, they are everywhere :) But not all of them will be available for free I am afraid - especially the newer ones.

Last year, I found a play in the city library - someone has misplaced it so it was among the regular fiction. And as it was a slim volume, I decided "why not". As I liked it a lot, I read through most of what the library had to offer as plays (not too many...) and decided I actually enjoy them. Thus the current project.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 3:37pm

>17 elenchus: hi. Nice to see you here.

>16 AnnieMod: hmm, mystery plays. They’ve never appealed other than in their historic curiosity. I always assumed there was a heavy-handedness about them. Maybe I should try one out some time.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 3:59pm

>19 dchaikin: mystery plays.

They are actually easier to read than the Bible is in some cases (the rhymes help - although the language can be archaic) -- I do not have much of a taste for them either so they won't feature here often but they seem to be a useful way to see the same story in a new context? One of the links above has most of the Chester cycle online so you can see how it reads. And they are short ones so they do not take that long. Although they may be a bit harder without the "translated words" in the notes of the printed edition I was reading it from. Still pretty understandable though.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 4:06pm

I’m fascinated by the website

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 18, 2020, 4:46pm

>12 AnnieMod: I saw the York Mystery Plays when they did them in the Minster in 2000: that was quite something. (And no, I'm not quite old enough to have seen Judi Dench, when she was still an amateur, playing Mary in the 1950s...). It's great that people who've revived them over the years have (mostly) managed to keep the pop-culture rawness of them and not prettied-up the texts and performance styles too much.

There's a fun snippet in one of the TV adaptations of Dalziel & Pascoe where Warren Clarke has to play the role of an amateur actor roped in to play God in a mystery play cycle.

>13 AnnieMod: Do you know we've got a Southern Africa theme read going in Reading Globally at the moment? I was going to look for something by Fugard, but I've found so many other interesting writers that he's slipped off the radar. The island, also by Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, was a set text for a course I took a long time ago: I've probably still got a VHS tape with a performance somewhere. Powerful stuff.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 5:11pm

>22 thorold:

Ha, no, I lost track of the Reading Globally lately (not sure why). I do not think I have any others from that area -- I seem to be reading some from North and Central Africa (Rwanda and Ethiopia) these days (in my other thread); the remainder of this anthology is from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya. And I do not think that anything else on my stack is from there either.

I've never seen any of the cycles - and that was the first time I read any. I knew they are there (from an old class in World Literature in high school) but never had a real interest in them. Looking around internet, it seems that they are done quite regularly in the UK.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 18, 2020, 7:54pm

And 3 more 10-minutes plays from The Best New Ten-Minute Plays, 2019 (which gets me to current on all I had read/listened to since I started the at-least-a-play-a-day).

8. Black Hole Enterprises by C. J. Ehrlich

Original Production: Renegade Theatre Festival, August 17-18, 2018
Length: 10 Minutes Play

A male CEO has a sit down in his office with a new-ish (from 3 weeks) female employee. The beginning of this play was so cringe-worthy that I considered not finishing it. The boss/employee and male/female dynamics was so wrong for the 21st century that I was not sure how it got produced (and it is not set in an era now bygone). But then as details start emerging a lot of that starts evening out. And the play is actually about the power of online communities - and how honest they really are. It was a very surprising turn from where the play started - but it does make sense and ties to the real world.

And yet - I am still uncomfortable reading some of the comments by the CEO. Which was probably the intent anyway.

9. Brickwork by K. L. Snodgrass (Kate Snodgrass)

Original Production: Boston Theater Marathon, May 6, 2018
Length: 10 Minutes Play

That was a little gem. 3 men are working on the renovations of a theater while in another room a soprano is warming up singing Mimi's area from Puccini's La bohème. One of the men had recently arrived from Italy and speaks little English; the other two are an uncle, who had recently lost his wife, and his nephew - both from the Boston South side, both more similar than different, with a relationship which is strained to the point of breaking. None of the two understands the words of the aria but while they bicker about things that do not matter, Italy (as the Italian guy is called in the play) starts translating the words. And the words hit the two Boston men -- it makes them think of the dead aunt and finally allows them to confront what really stays between them -- the grief and accusations, the impossibility to accept that Mary is gone. Somewhere in there there are also names written on walls and talk of dead bodies - all of them getting weaved into the story of memories, regret and grief.

I loved the way Snodgrass weaved the opera and the story together. It is not a very original play - characters confront their grief is an old trope. But it was done so nicely here, so cleanly

10. Charlottesville by Suzanne Bradbeer

Original Production: Part of "Continuing the Conversation: An Evening of Short Plays Inspired by Current Events" by Dreamcatcher Rep, April 26-May 13, 2018 (under the title "Downtown").
Second Production: Barrington Stage Company's 2019 10x10 New Play Festival, February 14-Mach 10, 2019
Length: 10 Minutes Play

In the aftermath of a sever beating of a kid, photos emerge in Twitter and a sister start wondering if she is mistaken or if she really sees her own brother in those photos. So she does the best she can think of - goes to their mother to try to understand. What would a mother do if she suddenly realizes that her golden boy had turned into a violent racist and her own daughter (and his sister) is considering identifying him as such to the world? Just how much can a mother lie to herself to protect herself from knowing the truth?

Both the place of its first production and its new title makes it clear what event made the playwright write this play. Hopefully, in a few years it will not feel as needed, or as relevant. But here and now, it is even more relevant than it was when it was written.

kesäkuu 18, 2020, 11:11pm

>19 dchaikin:
Hey there. It's no longer surprising but still ... fun? -- to run across LTers in one thread or group, whom first I encountered in another group quite unrelated. That actually goes for almost everyone else in this thread, now I look back!

Good literature has a way of attracting quality people to itself, I like to think. Pardon if that sounds too self-congratulatory, not meant that way.

>24 AnnieMod:
Your thumbnail reviews are compelling here. I'm trying to avoid getting caught up in another reading project, when I can't find the time to finish those I've begun. But my willpower is weakening.

Your comment about Brickwork, "It is not a very original play ... But it was done so nicely" describes perfectly (for me) what makes a great pop song. Sometimes I want music which is innovative, which brings something entirely new to my ears. And other times, I simply marvel at how perfectly a song exemplifies a style or genre.

kesäkuu 19, 2020, 1:55am

>25 elenchus:

Sorry about that. I think. :)

A good pop song, a good novel, a good story. I like authors who find a new story to tell or who surprise you but I don’t need this all the time. A well done riff on an old topic can be as satisfying as a brand new one. I don’t understand people who expect every novel/text to be bringing something really new - but there is also a difference between badly derivative and this - which I am not always sure how to express :)

Well, these are short - 6-10 pages per play so at least that won’t take that much time (unless you devour the 30 or so in this book in one sitting). Now if you still decide to follow when I start writing about longer plays, that may become a problem. :) To tell the truth, these 10-minutes play surprise me - I got the book on a whim from amazon, figuring out I need something shorter to balance the heavy and long plays and did not expect to like them as much. I was not even sure they count as plays - but just as with flash fiction, they sneaked up on me. So now I have a few more anthologies of them lined up for when I am done with this one.

Writing these reviews actually helps me slow down and think - when I like something I tend to rush through it and these can be so easy to rush through.

By the way - if this is your fist visit to Club 2020 (or its earlier iterations), you may find some more familiar faces around if you check the threads. But then you may have a real problem with your TBR. :)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 19, 2020, 3:18am

2A. The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz.
A Reduced Listening production for BBC Radio 4; June 14, 2020, BBC Radio 4
Director: Georgia Green

Plays have a short life on stage - some turn into sensations and get staged again and again but most plays will have a very short life - a season or two and even then, noone is guaranteed that the play will not be cancelled. And when the play comes out from a small independent theatre, the whole future of the theater can depend on the play. So most will not risk a failed play again -- and most plays never get a second chance. Some plays get published on paper if one of the major drama publishers like it; it is there as script usually from the pure script companies but with the amount of drama being published, it needs even more luck. And an actor may get a single chance to show his talent.

The 2020 run of "The Mikvah Project" in Orange Tree Theatre, London was supposed to be its second -- the 2015 one in Yard Theatre, London (with different actors and director) was a success (or third if we count the Orange Tree's Directors' Festival, Summer 2019 as a run - apparently these are not counted as runs). It was supposed to run until March 28, 2020 and it was doing fine - until the world closed.

So what do you do with all the actors and all the work having been done? Bertie Carvel had an idea and set up the Lockdown Theatre Festival - send microphones to the actors of some plays, allow them to record with the help of their director online and then mix all in the studio thus saving the season for a few plays. Not all plays can transition to "listen only" mode but some can - with a bit of a help. And on June 13/14, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 each played 2 of the 4 plays from this impromptu festival. The split was strictly by size - the 1 hour plays went to BBC Radio 4; the 2 hours ones to BBC radio 3 - as is pretty usual for new drama in the BBC Radio network. And "The Mikvah Project" ran on Radio 4, on June 14.

In the middle of the play is a love story - a 17 years old boy (Eitan) who is just starting his life and a 35 years old man (Avi), who is married and trying to have a child with his wife, meet every week in a mikvah (the Jewish ritual bath) and start talking - about life and football (soccer if you are in USA) and women. The mikvah setting serves the same purpose a neighborhood bar does for most men (or a coffee shop). But as both men are Jewish and religious, some of the conversation goes that way as well. Until a day when they kiss -- and nothing will be the same after that. Nothing is that easy though - Avi needs to decide what is the best for him and his wife and there are no easy choices in such situations. And through the play (and the passage of time - the last parts are months after the opening weeks of Fridays), Eitan has to grow up as well and understand the meaning of love and life. And the end (both of the play and the end of the decision making process for each man) may not be exactly what you expect. Or you may know where it is going - although the play allow the ambiguity all the way to the end.

After I listened to the BBC version, I wondered how different it is from the theatrical one - there was a lot of weird exposition, actors narrating (including about themselves in the third person), actors talking to the public, a lot of internal monologue, some of which I could imagine as actions. And some probably was. But the online reviews of the actual play talk about the same thing. So it does not seem like that was just because it had to transition to radio. The theatrical plays run for 1 hour and 10 minutes (or so it is billed anyway); this version is 55 minutes and I imagine most of the difference is in the changing sets and in some movement around the stage.

It is a weird play in some ways - almost stream of conscience in some places, almost underdeveloped in others. An exploration of "heart" vs "brain" -- a genre that had been used by pretty much any playwright out there, a reconciliation of tradition and inner peace and part of one's daily life. It is also one of those plays I can imagine being better on paper than on stage (as weird as that sounds) -- because these weird expositions and change of narrative voices work better when you do not hear them from the same two actors. I am considering getting the written play and reading it later this year - to see if that feeling is correct.

Overall a somewhat disturbing and imperfect play that may not be for everyone but I am happy that it was given this second life. And I liked what I heard enough to go look for other plays from the same author.

The play can be heard until July 14 (or thereabouts) for free on the BBC: (or on their app of course).

More details about the Lockdown Festival : (including an article written by the actor who started it).

And I plan to pick up and listen to the other 3 plays in that project while they are available (and probably in the next few days really). I am not sure if any others are under development (none are listed on this weekends' schedule for the BBC radio 3 or 4) but I will be keeping an eye for them.

kesäkuu 21, 2020, 4:08am

11. The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George

World Premiere: Playwrights Horizons, New York City, 15 November 2013
Length: Full Length Play. Approximate time: 120 minutes; 80 pages
Awards: Nominated for Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2014), Winner of John Gassner Award (2014)

There are 5 Watsons in this play - 4 are active participants and 1 is just mentioned; 3 are ones everyone had heard of, 2 exist only in this play.

The ones we all know are Bell's assistant, Sherlock Holmes' chronicler and the IBM AI which won Jeopardy (this is the one we do not meet); the two we meet here are Watson 2.0 (the next generation of the IBM AI, now in human(-ish) body and Joshua Watson, a boy/man that seem less real that the other one (although he is - or so you should believe, won't you?). But for all these characters, it is not a play about AI or about Watson really.

And alongside the Watsons, there is a multitude of Elizas and Merricks - the rest of the characters in the play. In Victorian England, Merrick is an inventor who is looking for a way to create the best companion, having the characteristics of his own wife while Eliza goes to Sherlock Holmes, worried about her life (and finds Watson instead). In our time, Eliza and Merrick are divorced and she is working on an android who can be the perfect companion and Merrick ends up sending Watson to spy on her. There is a wonderful symmetry between the two story-lines and Madeleine George weaves them together with constant switches between the two times, showing that even of the story is reversed, a lot of it is the same.

Then there is the problematic part - the one too many Watsons -- Bell's assistant. He seems to be there to try to add more to the story of interconnection but something just did not click for me - every time the play went to him, it felt as if we stepped into another story, despite having the same character names. It feels like an addition that is there to help strengthen the story but feels like an ornament which just is too much. I understand why it was added, it moves the play from a love story across the centuries to a more general connection through time and it does not weaken the story but it does not feel part of it either.

The Victorian/21st century double story explores what reality is and what companionship is - and what matters in it. While Eliza and Merrick try to find their way to (or away from) each other, with Watson as the faithful helper (in some weird times sometimes), it all comes down to figuring out what you want in life (and love). And when one Watson knows things he should not (while another Watson should), you are left wondering if there is something more in some names.

An enjoyable play (even with the surplus Watson) and an interesting way to explore what companionship really is. And the fact that the same play can have Holmes's Watson and an android and not feel weird is a testament to the well-done weaving of stories by the author.

kesäkuu 21, 2020, 4:35am

12. Death of England by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer

World Premiere run: Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre, London, UK, January 31 - March 7, 2020 (Opening: Feb 6, 2020)
Length: Full Length Play. Approximate time: 100 minutes; 41 pages

How can you grieve for a father who died in your hands and while your mother blames you for it? Well, the British way of course - get drunk and say what you think during the funeral.

Michael just wanted to watch the semi-final of the World Cup and see England win against Croatia with his father when the game does not go exactly as planned. And while that probably broke the hearts of most people in that bar, the expression turns out to be literal for his father. We see the death in a flashback, as we see most of the story, in Michael's memory.

The play is a monologue - despite containing some dialog, it is Michael telling us the story of how he lost his father - and in the process learned a lot more about him (and himself). It does sound like a cliche but it works. And somewhere in the middle of the memories of school days and old arguments, there is the England of post-Brexit and the confused thoughts of people who need to decide what they are thinking. Racism and nationalism and their exploration make up the bulk of the play, making one reevaluate what they know or think.

It should have been heavy-handed. There are a lot of topics which are not talked of in polite company. But somehow, it works. It is in turns offensive and thoughtful, containing more hope than you would expect considering what the story is about. And the very end may even make you laugh.

It probably will not be my favorite play this month but it did touch something I thought I had buried very very deep. Maybe part of why I liked the play was that I could hear my own father in those memories - there are some parallels, even he lived in another country. And when a play can do that, the playwrights had done their job. But part of it is because it sounded like a lot of people I know - both Michael and his father - it is a commentary of a country at the start of 2020 but it applies to a lot more.

Stay away from this play if you cannot handle bad language or off-color jokes though. While they fit the story and the narrative, they are still there.