*WARNING*: Reading this will be a Waste of your time.

I hope with all sincerity that my account of this spectacular play should not appear to my readers to be a waste. Unfortunately, I very fortunately managed to nab a ticket for this production’s final performance and so I’m unable to tell my readers to rush for tickets themselves. Regardless, this play provokes its audience with depressing and often uncomfortable themes which imprint poignantly onto our minds and consciences – providing for a discussion worth publicising even if you won’t be able to be ‘imprinted’ first-hand for yourselves.

Whatever you make of this review, let it be known that my spontaneous (but somewhat hesitant) decision to go along to see Waste at the National Theatre was a very good one. Even if this depressing tale describes most things as meaningless and futile, it certainly wasn’t a waste of my money or time.

Date of viewing: 19/03/2016

Production: Waste

Seat: Circle, B 19

How cheap!?: £5 (Entry Pass ticket – National Theatre 16-25 year old’s scheme)

My review must begin with a confession – I was reluctant to buy a ticket for Waste for two reasons: I was deterred by its frightening length and by its professed allegiance to politics. I can by no means be marked as a proponent either for sitting down for long periods of time (I’m too fidgety) nor for understanding or participating in politics (I’m too… [I’ll let you politicise for yourselves]). But delightfully, neither of these qualities proved too overwhelming as the plot unravelled, and I became fully immersed in the world of the story (even if I did have to feign a good deal of political understanding to get by).

Waste is an extremely stylish play. Although it exists in the now-outdated 1920’s, it is concerned, through and through, with the notion of modernity. As per usual, The National Theatre matches this pursuit of stylishness superbly with its use of scenery. Upon arrival, the stage is filled rather plainly with six or seven empty chairs. As the play begins, a glum and moody piano piece is heard – (I shan’t attempt to name the piece or composer because to do so erroneously would reveal my true identity as a less-than-capable Music undergraduate) – as a large screen slowly draws across the stage, revealing as if by magic actors sitting rather ominously in the chairs which only seconds ago were profoundly empty. The simplicity of this masterful technique is absolutely typecast of The National Theatre’s attention-to-set related detail and mimics the sleek atmosphere of the performance which follows.

Charles Edwards is simply fantastic at being a real human being”

At its birth, Waste was banned from public performance by the Lord Chamberlain of the time for its depiction of abortion. It is left unto the imagination of the reader as to whether the fact that Waste promotes politicians as flawed, like the rest of us, has anything to do with its lengthy abolition. It is easy to see why it was banned: Waste is an absolutely scandalous play.

Independent politician, and so-called moral genius Henry Trebell (played by Charles Edwards) sets about to bill the disestablishment of the Church of England. The problem is, our moral protagonist finds himself caught up in a less-than-moral scandal: the impregnation of Amy O’Connell, (Olivia Williams), an unhappily married Catholic wife with less-than-catholic views with regards to the termination of her unwanted pregnancy. Henry, is fraught with anxiety upon hearing the news, yet determined that the child need not be aborted. Amy’s suicide (which is revealed bluntly after the interval) adds another sin to Henry’s bow: who now faces being confronted with his seemingly endless string of scandals just days before his hearing in Parliament. Other advocates of the bill fret over the morality of standing alongside Henry and pursue earnestly a way to cover up his mess. Henry is dismissed from proposing the bill. Having lost his lover and his unborn child, Henry must now come to terms with the fact that his job – his first love, and indeed his life – has been snatched from him, despite his indisputable capability and gifting as a political thinker. As a result, Henry spirals into depression. His final source of comfort comes from his sister Frances (Sylvestra Le Touzel).

I daren’t reveal any more of the play’s doom-and-gloomy plot, but suffice to say, Henry’s obsequious assistant Walter, considered the whole affair to be a terrible waste of such a great man. The play ends after a black out revealing a spilled waste paper basket emptying itself of hundreds of futile scrunched up sheets. A waste.

“Olivia Williams is an actress I, quite frankly, admire”

I make rather a bold statement in suggesting that Charles Edwards, who played leading man Henry, is in fact the most convincing, naturalist actor I have ever had the pleasure of watching. His sporadically changing demeanour throughout the play was nonetheless linked exceptionally by his power to keep real. It is completely impossible to say whether or not I like the character of Henry Trebell, but sure as the sun stands, I can identify with him. As a player, moralist, atheist, scandalous politician, and sufferer of mental illness, Henry’s character begs the attention from audience members who attain all or none of those criteria because Charles Edwards is simply fantastic at being a real human being. Edwards’ acting style is not mimicked – even slightly – by any other actor. Even so, by no means does this mean there were no other outstanding performances given.

The erratic and rather annoying Amy O’Connell was played earnestly by Olivia Williams who managed to imprint a huge impression on the audience, despite only being present up until the interval. Her portrayal was perhaps too emphatic at points, but her mad, and emotion-fuelled exclamation announcing her refusal to give birth was poignantly heart-wrenching. For many reasons, Amy O’Connell is a character I’m quite sure I don’t like – but Olivia Williams is an actress I, quite frankly, admire. Although the piece is dominated largely by male performers, Sylvestra Le Touzel as Henry’s loving older sister is worthy of recognition. Her characterisation might have benefitted from an extra sprinkle of ‘life’, but one wonders whether her assumed emotional state rightly resembled Frances’ rather bland view of life – not suicidal or impassioned like her brother, but certainly not indulgent. Le Touzel’s portrayal exudes a worldly wisdom which brought comfort at even the darkest moments of the play.

“outstanding performances”

My favourite character is picked for his refreshing addition to the plot. Mr Charles Cantilupe, played by Gerrard McArthur, is a proponent of Henry’s plan to disestablish church from state, despite being a devout Christian himself. His moral conduct is unquestionable and his demeanour pleasant – which can’t be said for a number of portrayed Christians in twentieth century theatre. Fascinatingly, hopelessness is the outcome of all aspects discussed in the play – politics, gender-roles, sexual scandal, marriage, suicide, abortion – except the existence of the church. Because of this, McArthur caught my eye for playing Cantilupe as a positive proponent of much needed consistency. His vocal tone was much slower, less erratic and less impassioned than many of the other characters. Although his deep voice was sometimes intimidating, he offered unrivalled stability within the chaos.

This large cast was filled numerously with powerful performances – many which I neglect to mention with much guilt – none of which are wasted, regardless of the length of each’s on-stage presence. This is perhaps what makes the play so very real.

Although I imagine it probably does feel a terrible waste to have read so much of the play’s fantastic characters and themes now that you’re completely incapable of watching The National Theatre’s production for yourselves…

No, you’re right. That was a waste.

From,

the girl sitting in the cheap seats

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Does Ma bum look big in this?

This play had been thoroughly recommended to me by a number of sources and I could very quickly understand why. Much to my surprise, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is virtually bum-free! Of course, actors on stage had bottoms, and those in the audience were sitting on theirs, but this play was not as bottom-orientated as one might assume… Nonetheless, the bottom of most importance – my own – became accordingly numbed throughout the performance as the suspense of the play forced me to sit tensely on the edge of my (cheap) seat.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre is an absolute spectacle. Read on to know why it was such a delight to be sitting in the cheap seats.

Date of viewing: 13/02/2016

Production: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Seat: Stalls, S 29

How cheap!?: £5 (Entry Pass tickets for 16-25 year olds)

If it wasn’t confusing enough to realise how absent of bottoms Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really was, my confusion increased when I realised that a sizeable chunk of time had passed before Ma Rainey herself made an appearance on stage. This play is not really about Ma Rainey (which is much more interesting, I promise!) but about her accompanying support band. Throughout the play, the mostly white, middle-class audience is given a serious history lesson regarding the social and cultural implications of being an African American musician in the 1920s. The lives of trombonist Cutler (played by Clint Dyer), pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati), bassist Slow-drag (Giles Terera) and trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) are laid raw with sensitivity, darkness, humour, a whole lot of banter and so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame.

What makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom so different from any other play I’ve seen recently is that it supplies its audience with some fascinating objects of people-watching. At times the plot feels slow – until you realise that this is a play about people and the lives they lead. Consequently, the chance for character exploration is outstanding and ultimately insightful. By the second act the story picks up dramatically and is constantly exciting and thrilling (for reasons I’d like to but daren’t explain!) Interesting themes including lesbian subtleties, self-esteem and speech impediment were not expanded in much detail but the play can be forgiven this because of its extensive and in-depth exploration of race, stardom, gender, innovation, religion and violence.

“…so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame”

Unsurprisingly for a piece at the National Theatre – which I consider to be the home of excellent set and staging in London – the stage was totally inventive. Scenes in the play took place in one single building which was made really clear by the open-spaced black box set. Three scene location sets were seamlessly raised and lowered, convincingly depicting three levels of one single building. I’m sure the political implications were purposefully highlighted in that the black band members occupied the lowest floor and the white record producer, Sturdyvant, ferociously guarded his top level studio.

The most fantastic thing about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that all four band members play the music live. They do so with natural flair and the transitions between action and musical performance were seamless and effortless. A great attempt is made to present a degree of musical authenticity, but unavoidably the actor-musicians’ performances are unavoidably tainted with the experience of and exposure to contemporary training. Ma Rainey, played by Sharon D Clarke, appears primarily to belt out her blues favourites and the audience responds in rapturous applause. The level of musicianship amongst the actors in this play is truly special.

Individual performances were of a consistently high standard. In particular the four band members worked extremely well together and their cohesion seemed extremely natural. Although it took a while to become immersed into the flow of dialect and colloquialism, the band’s appropriately expressive acting made it easy. Clint Dyer as the band-leading trombonist Cutler was visually expressive and authoritative in his role, while Giles Terera as the bassist Slow-drag played his part with more reserve and quiet sensitivity.

I refer to the other members of the band more extensively: firstly, Toledo played by Lucian Msamati is an instantly loveable character. Lucian’s character provides an educated voice of reason within the group and he portrayed these attributes wonderfully, exuding a presence of older wisdom. His versatility as a performer was notable, playing a part which demonstrated both humour and seriousness. Throughout, Lucian’s performance was convincing – not once did he allow the audience to question his philosophy or thinking because he powerfully, but humbly, asserted his knowledgeable persona. Trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) was singled out from the start for his youthfulness and radical ideas. I wasn’t always entirely convinced by O-T’s performance – but it’s hard to decipher whether this was due to his acting ability or because Levee himself is a somewhat superficial character who is so intense and fleetingly changing. O-T gives passionate, powerful monologues which undo any previous damage and plays Levee with an irritating but necessary cockiness and erraticism.

“truly special”

Although some minor characters offered less memorable performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom presents audiences with a solid cast. Finbar Lynch who plays Ma’s manager is one of only two white actors on stage. He plays the part extremely well and is submissive to Ma’s diva-ish requests but bold enough to attempt his own (feeble) go at authority. Finbar rose to the challenge of the surroundings of a natural funny cast successfully achieving a number of laughs in and of his own right.

I believe I cannot attend a performance at the National Theatre without an accompanying favouring bias. It continually produces good quality theatre and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly no exception. Whether black, white, blue or green I urge you to book a seat for your own bottom for this outstanding production – you won’t be disappointed.

From,

the girl sitting in the cheap seats

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