Tag Archives: National Theatre

The World of Extreme Happiness

28 Oct

I went to watch the World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre, not knowing much about the plot apart from the fact that it is set in China.  When it began, my first thought was ‘hmm, I don’t know whether I like this.’  Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s dialogue is crude, brash and direct which I initially found a tad grating.  However, as the play progressed, this bothered me less and the harshness of the language seemed appropriate for the setting.

The story explores many issues in contemporary China and this usually is a bit of a turn-off for me.  We are first greeted by a scene where a woman gives birth to a daughter which miraculously survives despite being thrown in a rubbish bin.  The girl, named Sunny (and played by Katie Leung of Cho Chang fame), grows up to become a spirited and ambitious young girl.  Her mother died shortly after giving birth to Sunny’s younger brother (a hyperactive somersaulting creature) and her father is more concerned with his racing pigeons (a real life pigeon with better acting skills than some actors I’ve seen…)  She goes to the city where she works as a toilet cleaner for four years without getting a promotion.

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Here, the theme of the rural poor vs the affluent urbanites pops up and I enjoyed the way this conflict was portrayed.  The discrimination towards the rural farmers and peasants is inescapable and the play looks at this through Sunny’s confused eyes.  She wants desperately to belong to the fast-paced city and her aspirations lead her into dark territory, from performing sexual favours to get a promotion to tricking her father into eating his beloved pigeons as a sign of her resentment towards him.  Another issue – the state vs business.. at times I thought that Cowhig was trying to pack a little too much into the play which came across as rather haphazard and confusing.

I found Sunny’s journey into the wacky world of self help fascinating and it was here that the brilliant set design really excelled itself. The self-help industry, which accounts for 20% of China’s book sales, seemed at first a comic diversion -many Chinese people comfort themselves with these supposed tools of empowerment.  But the truth is that no amount of self-empowerment or enlightenment is enough to beat the Chinese system, an insidiously repressive regime whose presence lurks everywhere.

The acting was good – Katie Leung’s performance was surprisingly watchable and Vera Chok, in particular, was excellent.  Each actor (apart from Leung) played a number of characters and their energy was palpable in a play that would otherwise perhaps feel a little long.  I was moved at the ending which I had not anticipated and came as something of a shock.  Behind the facade of ‘extreme happiness’ lies extreme darkness and it was these scenes that occurred in the denouement that I found most captivating.

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The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punchdrunk

9 Oct

Yesterday I had my first experience of immersive theatre.  A couple of friends and I moseyed on down to the Temple Studios next to Paddington Station awash with excitement and anticipation.  I had read one vague review of the experience which didn’t really provide me with much information about what I should expect so I went wanting to be pleasantly surprised.  As we queued to store our bags in the cloakroom, we were given a double-sided leaflet with one story on each side.  Both stories were about two couples and in each couple, one member was unfaithful resulting in the person that had been cheated on to descend into madness, eventually murdering their unfaithful partner.  So far, so good.

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We were led into a dark winding passageway and told not to talk, and then presented creepy white masks that we had to wear to allow us to distinguish between spectators and actors.  It’s a strange experience to stand in silence next to masked strangers in a lift and as the night progressed, it was interesting to see how the masks transformed us into instant voyeurs, watching the relationships disintegrate before us.  And some of the scenes were very intimate – at times, I looked around and felt I was standing in some strange sex cult…

What followed was three hours of watching and following snippets of action, mostly dancing as dialogue was limited, to try and piece fragments of stories together. The various floors were decorated differently – one was filled with caravans, a pub/ tavern thing, characters’ rooms; another resembled a desert, with sand dunes and creepy religious relics and you were free to wander everywhere and explore the entire set as you wished.  Soon enough, I got separated from my friends which was encouraged – and I began following different characters around, observing their stories.  I hadn’t realised just quite physical the process can be – if, like me, you want to follow the actors to trace the narrative, be warned, as they’re a speedy bunch. I found myself running up and down stairs, bumping into other masked spectators.

Having been given the leaflet detailing the story beforehand helped me understand the basis of the narrative but I must admit I was in a state of confusion for the majority of the experience. Being the cynic, logic-seeking person I am, I found myself trying to make sense of everything and halfway through the three hours, I took a detour to the vintage Hollywood bar, complete with glamorous singer belting out showtunes, and tried to make some sense of everything.  What I’ve since realised is that the narrative of the production is secondary to the intricacies of the set and the emotions that it evokes.  I found that difficult to accept as I am someone who is used to clear plot lines and this was so beyond anything I’d ever seen before, I found it hard to fully appreciate it.

Objectively, the studios are amazing to wander around in and I have since read reviews from people who preferred to explore histories of characters through exploring the set rather than running to follow the action.  The scale of the production is amazing and the physicality of the choreography is inspiring.  Regardless of confusion with the storylines (as there were at least two running in parallel), the themes were clear: infidelity, destruction, despair, reality, illusion, death.

Despite the weak narrative, which I found increasingly frustrating (there’s only so much running a girl can do in three hours and I felt sorry for the more senior members of the audience!), The Drowned Man pushes the boundaries of what is possible in theatre, providing a unique and atmospheric experience and an entertaining, if somewhat bewildering, evening.