Love, Loss & Chianti
Reviewed – 28th February 2020
“Director Jason Morell gives the staging a rhythmic, choreographed feel”
The poet, Christopher Reid, has always been surprised at his own success. To top that, he has even said that his Costa Book of the Year Award for “A Scattering” came with ‘an element of almost grief. Of ruefulness that winning was borne of what was the worst tragedy in my life’. This poem, succeeded by “The Song of Lunch” comprise the two acts of “Love, Loss & Chianti” which bring them both to heart-breaking and heart-warming life in two magnificent performances from Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson. Both poems are quite different in style but they both share the same theatricality that makes the journey from page to stage inevitable.
“A Scattering” is Reid’s elegiac poem written for his wife, the actress Lucinda Gane, who died of cancer. It sounds morbid, but it is beautifully expressed. The opening lines an evocative description of a deathbed vigil; uncomfortable and brutally honest. “Sparse breath, then none. And it was done.” Bathurst’s delivery is at once colloquial and emotional; filled with humility but positivity too and, at times, touches of comedy. Starting with their final holiday together in Crete filled with sunshine and the knowledge that this is the last, it journeys through the subsequent death, loss and process of grief. The decision not to present this as a one hander is inspired, and Johnson adds a poignant dimension not just as the late wife but also stealing lines from the poet’s consciousness and claiming them back as her own. The terrible moments of morphine-induced ravings are chilling. Director Jason Morell gives the staging a rhythmic, choreographed feel which has the actors coursing the stage, separating and coming together again like dying swans.
Reid started writing “The Song of Lunch” the morning after “A Scattering” was finished. As an antidote it has the feel of a light farce and although probably equal in length it feels much shorter than the first act. There are moments of pure comedic genius interspersed with sharp observations. Reid is describing an ill-fated reunion with an old flame in a Soho Italian restaurant that fails to live up to the expectations of his wistful yearning for better days. Bathurst is a book editor and failed author while Johnson is his former lover who left him to marry a successful novelist fifteen years before. There is a touch of Jeffrey Bernard in Bathurst’s performance – echoes of his immersive production in the Coach and Horses last year – which highlights the strands of sadness beneath the string of witticisms and wine fuelled slips of the tongue.
Two contrasting pieces, but united with meticulous care by the creators. Charles Peattie’s animated projections tastefully complement the spoken words, paying homage to the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger, especially in “The Song of Lunch”. The evening is as far from a poetry recital as is possible. Reid’s poetry is vivid and theatrical, and Bathurst is clearly relishing the role of bringing them to a wider audience. When he first told people he was doing a poetry show, they said “Oh really?”. Being exposed to verse is often an off-putting prospect. Bathurst has turned that on its head and clearly demonstrated that Christopher Reid need not be be surprised at his own success. Judging by the reaction to “Love, Loss & Chianti”, nobody else is. Any reservations are soon dispelled, and you will watch wide-eyed, if not always dry-eyed.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Alex Harvey-Brown
Love, Loss & Chianti
Riverside Studios until 17th May
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 28th January 2020
“the best way to enjoy “Persona” is not to attempt to analyse, but just tuck into the multi-sensory and multi-dimensional feast”
A lot has changed at Riverside Studios in the past five years. Having closed its doors back in 2014 to undergo a huge renovation project, the venue now shines like a jewel on the banks of the Thames by Hammersmith Bridge, where once it felt almost lost down a back alley – almost secretive. It was always a bit ramshackle; but comfortable and with a wonderful atmosphere. A couple of years overdue, the transformed, state-of-the-art studio has lost none of the atmosphere while acquiring a sheen that brings it firmly into the digital age.
Always at the forefront of innovation, and famous for launching “Dr Who” into the world as the Daleks were filmed emerging from beneath Hammersmith Bridge, it quickly established itself as a full-blown arts centre showcasing film, television, music, theatre and visual art. A fitting choice, then, for the inaugural production, is “Persona” which blends film, music and theatre into one short burst of intriguing drama. Adapted by Paul Schoolman from Ingmar Bergman’s movie of the sixties, the story centres on a nurse and her patient: a successful actress who has suddenly stopped speaking.
Schoolman places himself into the piece as narrator and, by doing so, places Bergman there too; presenting the thoughts of the Swedish filmmaker, drawn from unpublished notes written in retrospect. In a slightly bewildering theatrical device Schoolman veers between informing the audience and then inhabiting the skins of characters within the piece. At times we are unsure whether we are in the original film, in the play, in the mind of Bergman or in the minds of the characters that inhabit Bergman’s imagination. But at least it keeps us on our toes and stops our own minds from wandering.
We are introduced to Alma, a nurse, played by Olivier Award winner Alice Krige, who is appointed to take care of well-known actress Elisabet Vogler (Nobuhle Mngcwengi) who has fallen silent. Has she lost the ability to speak, or merely the will? The two women move to a cottage by the sea when Alma decides the peace and isolation will be therapeutic for Elizabet. The deeper Elizabet descends into her silent world, the more Alma opens up. Freely knocking back the wine, Alma loosens words that used to be trapped inside her and soon she can’t stop them spilling out. Nobody has really listened to her before. Krige gently possesses the stage, but sometimes too quietly – her words often falling short of the rows part of the way up the auditorium. But it is an expertly controlled performance that rightly knocks the grandiose aspirations of the writing off its pedestal, giving a human touch to what could otherwise be seen as pretentiousness. Mngcwengi reacts silently, but seems to be the one in control, almost as though she is playing a game with her companion.
The two characters consume one another until it is difficult for them to distinguish each other. But the various themes explored in this piece threaten to consume each other too as they start dissolving into a soup of uncertainty. Bergman, and later Schoolman, are guilty of over seasoning as they investigate identity, sifting through aspects of the human condition such as truth, lies, parenthood, abortion, lesbian attraction, schizophrenia and consciousness. Bergman himself was always coy in his refusal to reveal what the story meant. He wanted the audience to draw its own conclusions. He hoped it would be felt rather than understood.
In the hands of these three actors, particularly Krige, it is certainly a show that speaks to the senses. And a fourth character, in the shape of William Close and his Earth Harp, certainly makes sure of that. Close, dynamically positioned at the harp’s resonating chamber, underscores with his semi-improvised compositions as the haunting melodies travel along the strings that stretch throughout the auditorium above our heads.
‘Persona’ originates from the Roman word that referred to a theatrical mask. The temptation is to try to see behind the mask, though the best way to enjoy “Persona” is not to attempt to analyse, but just tuck into the multi-sensory and multi-dimensional feast.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Riverside Studios until 23rd February
Last ten shows reviewed by Jonathan: