Russell Bolam directs a new production of David Mamet’s rarely performed two-hander first produced in 1977 and not seen in London for twenty-five years.
The set (Anthony Lamble) is a beautifully carpentered wooden façade of a lakeside summer house, complete with decking out front, upon which most of the action takes place. If anything, the house looks too good for its supposed age as it has been Nick’s summer place all his lifetime. His rowing boat, presumably of similar vintage, is discovered by Ruth to have half rotted away.
Our first view of the couple shows Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) to be madly in love with Nick (Sam Frenchum), prattling away to him about not very much of consequence; conversation which is received with monosyllabic and noncommittal answers. Nick stares with unblinking eyes and a featureless expression. We ascertain from the outset that this man is not quite all right, and Frenchum acts the part to a tee. Over three parts of the day – dusk/night/morning – the couple tell each other part-stories, never quite ending their tales. Ruth talks of her grandmother, Nick of his father. The stories involve bears, birds, fish, and even Martians; stories that are started, and left unfinished.
Subtle subdued lighting (Bethany Gupwell) changes over the course of the night and into the next morning including a well-designed lightning storm. Some superfluous flickering of a porch lamp between the scenes alongside ominous eerie sounds (Ali Taie) hint at the supernatural or, perhaps, a representation of Nick’s bad dreams.
Just as seen in Shakespeare, life in The Woods is different from that of The City but there is little evidence that Nick is liberated by the country idyll. It appears the more Ruth professes her love for him, the more clammed up Nick becomes until things turn ugly. Special mention here for Fight/Intimacy Co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda whose work with the two actors ensures the close scenes between the couple are totally credible and produces a most convincing on-stage scuffle that is indeed uncomfortable viewing.
The morning after the night before produces the finest moments of the play as Ruth finds some stoicism in her dealings with Nick and this audience finds some humour here that resonated. Whilst we can say that Mamet does not go far enough in exploring the possibilities between the couple – perhaps what we see and hear today was shocking enough forty-five years ago – this is a beautifully presented production of a play that gives little for the actors to work with. But Sam Frenchum and Francesca Carpanini work well together with what they have and the performance of Carpanini, in particular, is captivating.
“it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure”
Aged just nineteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C-sharp minor to world-wide acclaim, was commissioned to write his first symphony and he was engaged to the love of his life. He seemed to have it all, yet within months a depressive paranoia and anxiety had stopped him in his tracks; a darkness that no doubt came from within but was also prompted in part by Tchaikovsky’s death, and by the effortful completion of his own Symphony No. 1 which was subsequently panned by the critics. The conductor, an alcoholic, was drunk at the premiere. But Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block had already set in. He was already displeased with his composition, feeling he had peaked too early with his Prelude, and the Orthodox church was thwarting his plans for marriage.
Composing had become impossible. How do you escape the darkness and come back into the light? All this, and more, is explored in Dave Malloy’s “Preludes” which examines, in extraordinary and beautifully surreal ways, the true story of this particular episode of his life. A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This is not just another musical about a tortured artist. Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and the orchestrations has crafted an enigma. It defies categories, but also mixes them. It feels experimental but is perfectly formed, it lulls you into its trance-like dreamscape but keeps your attention razor sharp; it mixes the past, present and future. We are in a world where Mahler, Reggae, Beethoven and Doo-Wop can share the same phrase, where Acid Trance weaves its rhythms into the phrases of a Piano Concerto.
The starting point is the composer’s session with his therapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). “How was your day?” she asks – not the question to ask a damaged, depressed artistic genius three years into a stifling breakdown. Keith Ramsay, as Rachmaninoff (or rather ‘Rach’), launches into a monologue which sets the pace for a tour de force performance. Ramsay is the picture of unsettled alienation; wide-eyed and wild-eyed, uncertain of his worth. Intense, chilling and hypnotising. His words bleed into Malloy’s haunting melodies which in turn flow into Rachmaninoff’s timeless compositions.
We are never too sure if the surrounding characters are in the composer’s mind or not, but under Alex Sutton’s riveting direction they are brought to vivid life. They circle him, cajole him and bravely try to help him. Georgia Louise, as Natalya, is pivotal to restoring the composer’s state of mind with her patience, stretched to the limit at times. There are moments when their voices collide in their duets when you can forget everything. Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas II brilliantly spill out of Rach’s mind into the camera shot, thanks to the vigour, versatility and virtuosity of Steven Serlin. Norton James, as Russian opera singer Chaliapin, plays with our minds with a Mephistophelean portrayal that verges on psychedelic madness. Crucial to the piece is Tom Noyes at the piano, letting the true genius of Rachmaninoff reveal itself through the musical accompaniment.
The production transfers from stage to camera in an astounding blaze of glory. Aided by Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s eclectic sound it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure. Contradictions have never been more harmonious. The mix of classical music, musical theatre, trance beats, neon lights; introspection and overt humour, reality and fantasy, past and present, just would not work on paper. But on stage and on camera it is an intoxicating brew. Dark and beautiful. And hypnotic.