Friday, 11 July 2014

Theatre review: Hotel (National Theatre); 1984 (Playhouse Theatre)

First off, I saw these shows several weeks ago and they both close by the end of August. So bad timing on my part, sorry. If you want a quick answer of whether you should get tickets for these shows ASAP, the short answer is yes. (You have until 2nd August for Hotel, while 1984 is on for lightly longer: 23rd August. Both links are where I got my tickets from and I highly recommend them. They arrived promptly and were decent prices for the seats I got.)

Once you've done that, feel free to stick around and read my thoughts. I promise no spoilers, although this is difficult with Polly Stenham's latest play, Hotel.

Safe to say, Stenham's career is on an increasingly high trajectory following her award-winning debut That Face in 2007, which she wrote at 19 and starred some actor nobody's heard of called Matt Smith. Give it three years...
While in comparison to Smith Stenham's star has taken longer to shine, it is still impressive that in seven years she has written three successful plays at the Royal Court and now has a play at the National Theatre, with numerous film scripts soon to be added to her repertoire. While I have read all her previous plays, I became aware of her too late to see any of them. I recommend reading all of them although you may find, as many critics point out, that she covers similar themes and, if you're mean hearted, the same plot: a middle class family dealing with difficult problems that threaten to splinter that family dynamic. (I promise they're a lot more interesting then that sounds).

Hotel begins, as if deliberately to annoy those critics, with a dysfunctional middle class family, with the son and daughter keeping a secret from their father, who has got his politician wife into a career-threatening scandal. They all go to a hotel resort on an African island (I may not have been paying close enough attention, but I don't think they specify where). The holiday doesn't go to plan and I won't go any further, as the play tautly races through its 80+ minutes running time as shocking events unfold.

This intense speed is helped by the enclosed space, where you are incredibly close to the action. Even those in seats above me (I was in the stalls) were far from detached from the action. The Shed (or as I believe it is officially called for legal reasons, The Temporary Theatre) is a fantastic space that from the start pledged to exhibit new, experimental theatre and having now been in it, I can see why. The set is amazingly detailed, which makes sense as it is all set in the hotel room, further enhancing the claustrophobic atmosphere.

You might have noticed I started commenting on the set first, which is usually a bad sign in a review. And I have to say I think this is Stenham's weakest play, but despite that it's still a tense, intelligent piece of work. Maybe it's because I'm used to her writing now, but it did feel like she was using the same tricks again although on a more politically charged subject matter. This change of focus, while refreshing, does mean that her tendency for didactic speeches, which are usually written with enough conviction to not be an issue, seems less subtle.

Despite that, I gasped several times and felt uncomfortably tense pretty much throughout. Having only read Stenham's writing, it was a completely different experience seeing it spoken and acted out right in front of me. Her writing is so visceral and angry that when given to good actors (the ensemble cast were all great) you can't help but get carried away with it. Maria Aberg's direction keeps the tension palpable and the shocks are rarely exactly as you expect. It was an intense experience that left me breathless but didn't quite hold together once I thought about it some more. But overall I'm very glad I saw this energetic, gripping piece of theatre that gives its audience lots to think about and a fascinating subject to debate about.

I'm so glad I gave myself a few hours just to wonder round London and take in some fresh air before I plunged into another world of nightmares - the world of 1984, Headlong Theatre's acclaimed adaptation of Orwell's famous novel.

Interestingly enough, both productions chose not to have an
interval, which meant I had a pretty intense day of theatre-going experience from two demanding plays. But thankfully the time flowed quickly and there was a minimal amount of fidgeting in my seat.

Sadly, 1984 wasn't the total experience I wanted. I was fairly high up in the dress circle and so the top of the video screen (which interacts with the live action beautifully) was cut off. It didn't totally ruin the experience, but I have to admit it was lessened slightly. Also, the play was briefly disrupted when someone in front of me nearly passed out because of the bright lights that flashed repetitively during the Room 101 sequence, although I have to admit it made those scenes that bit more uncomfortable. But in all seriousness, there wasn't a noticeable warning for those who react badly to strobes, so here it is.

No matter where you sit, though, it will be difficult not to be blown away by this production. If you're intrigued by how exactly they manage to dramatise a book that spends so long in Winston's troubled mind, then there's plenty of reviews that spoil exactly how they do it. Having read a couple of these, one of the most eerie sequences was ruined for me so I'm not going into detail. However, even that sequence still gave me chills, as did the entire production. It is the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and emotionally charged drama which means every scene has incredible power. For example, the transition to Room 101 was absolutely stunning, one of the best things I've seen in theatre, that I admired as a technical achievement but also terrified me as Winston's world collapses around him.

As the web page for the production explains, the story of 1984 is bookmarked by a group of historians looking at the book as an historical artifact. Not only does this refresh the story and aid in translating it into a stage play, it allows the play to address our reaction to the novel as well as the novel itself. While it spells it out in its penultimate line, it's message still leaves an impact that is at once thoughtful and unsettling. Safe to say, without its outstanding ensemble cast, who so eerily convey the dystopian world without over-exaggeration, the play would lack its power.

While far from perfect experiences, I was absolutely engrossed and incredibly impressed by these productions. Headlong Theatre have created one of, if not The, best book-to-stage adaptations I've ever seen and is absolutely unmissable. Glad I finally got to see it, as well as Hotel, which has ticked off a box for me in finally seeing a Polly Stenham play, of which hopefully I will see many more.

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