Reviewed – 27th April 2018
“the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change”
Behind sheets of plastic that reflect red lighting, magazine covers that feature naked women are plastered across the walls. This is the backdrop to our narrative, a revival of Sarah Daniels’ radical play ‘Masterpieces’ first produced in 1983, which discusses the possible ramifications of the casual consumption of porn on everyday society and the way that women are viewed and treated as a result of that. We begin at a dinner party where three women endure their husbands sharing rape jokes, sparking Rowena’s own investigation into porn and its effect on the way men see women, with extreme consequences.
Olivia Darnley plays Rowena and delivers a standout performance, tight, energetic and committed. Darnley approaches the role with a fantastic balance of warmth and strength, and doesn’t waste a word of this well-written script. Rob Ostlere is strong as Yvonne’s horrible husband, but otherwise the male characters are one dimensional, not helped by predominantly weak performances. Sophie Doherty’s Jennifer starts promisingly but quickly becomes generalised and undecided in her character choices and uncertain in her movement. Doherty also has a tendency to swallow her words so that we lose moments of comedy in the text. Whilst Tessie Orange-Turner has some lovely moments, she stumbles over her words and seems to be constantly ‘acting’, so it is increasingly difficult to believe in or empathise with her, a trap that many of the actors fall into in this production.
Melissa Dunne’s directorial choices are clumsy and lack detail. Full wine glasses are refilled and the same pile of laundry is unfolded and refolded before our eyes over and over again. In multiple scenes there is an overuse of movement with no reason behind it, people sitting down and standing up, or even circling the stage in what is clearly a device, rather than a character motivated movement. The scene changes are achingly long, often ten seconds of wasted empty stage for no apparent reason as we listen to music of the era. Whilst music early on helps set the scene, the continued use of it between every scene change (of which there are many) is ineffective, protracted and grating, and the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change. Whilst the set design (by Verity Quinn) is visually appealing it adds little to the narrative itself, and is unhelpful when it comes to scene changes.
Reviving this play in a relevant way is no easy feat as the conversation has moved on so far from the concrete anti-porn message of the piece. Daniels’ narrative insists on a direction correlation between violence and pornographic images and films, and dismisses any idea that women might enjoy sex, sex toys and pornography themselves. It is not the nuanced discussions we are used to surrounding these topics today, however Daniels’ play still has the potential to be topical and contemporary in its portrayal of rape culture, and the empowering narratives of four women refusing to accept cheating husbands and abusive bosses as the norm. However Dunne’s direction does not push this piece far enough, and it falls short of what it could achieve.
‘Masterpieces’ is a disappointing revival of a well-written and potentially extremely topical and exciting play, let down by weak, over-acted performances and ineffective directorial choices.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography by Bill Prentice
Finborough Theatre until 19th May
Previously at this venue
Incident at Vichy
King’s Head Theatre
Opening Night – 9th June 2017
“An intensely moving drama with powerful cast performances”
Arthur Miller was an American playwright known for writing amongst others, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge as well for being married to Marilyn Monroe. A lesser known work written in 1964 entitled Incident at Vichy is now playing at the Kings Head Theatre following a successful run at The Finborough earlier this year.
From 1940 to 1942, whilst Germany occupied northern France, Vichy France represented the unoccupied “Free Zone” that governed the southern part of the country. Vichy agreed to reduce its military forces and give gold, food, and supplies to Germany. French police were ordered to round up Jews and other “undesirables” such as communists, gypsies and political refugees.
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT RYLANDER
This play looks at how a group of men react having been pulled off the streets for interrogation purposes during the early days of the alliance between the Vichy government and the Nazis. They sit squashed together on a white narrow bench in a white otherwise unremarkable room.
The characters are generally given basic names such as Gypsy, Boy, Old Jew, Waiter but represent a cross section of people affected by the changes in the country in which they live and now feel vulnerable.
All struggle to understand why they are there even though they quickly realise other than the Gypsy and an Austrian Prince, the other detainees are Jewish who fled to Vichy from the northern half of France. None are keen to enter any kind of conversation. However an artist chatters nervously in panic of what possibly lies ahead. This slowly forces others to engage with or to avoid him. His worries over the validity of his identity papers cause others to reveal the uncertainty of their own fate.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly bleak as rumours begin to be exchanged including that people are being transported to camps with furnaces in particular to burn Jews. It is hard for some to believe such an abhorrent act to be possible.
The collective hope that this identity check is just a routine one becomes harder to accept when an elderly, bearded Jew comes in. He speaks no words yet his obvious terror is clear to see. What isn’t apparently obvious is what he is clutching. It transpires to be a feather pillow which features strongly in Jewish folklore – each feather represents a rumour or secret that once left a mouth you do not know where it ends up and you can never get it back.
The tension mounts as the men share information, fears and ways to convince their interrogator or indeed to escape the room. The group gets smaller as few return from being interrogated. It is revealed that a decision about their fate is based whether they have been circumcised.
The whole play makes for uncomfortable watching for even if the viewer doesn’t have much knowledge of Vichy history they will understand the implications of marginalisation and The Holocaust.
Each actor, whether they have much or nothing to say, portrays their part with powerful credibility. It forces the audience to consider how awful it would have been to be in that time and place.
It is exceptionally well written and today resonates with events we are currently experiencing. Donald Trump recently said he was open to the idea for Muslims in the US to register on a database. How different then from Jews having to register in Nazi Germany?
Phil Willmott’s direction drives the tension and Theo Holloway’s sound brings an added menace to the work in particular with the slamming of the interrogation room door.
The only disappointment of the evening was that the theatre was oppressively hot and it did slightly distract from an otherwise excellent night out.