Thoughts on a play about consciousness. Is that a paradox? Am I even here? ~ and other things mulled over this week

I went to see The Hard Problem and took notes in the dark. Lesson learnt: Don’t take notes in the dark. When the house lights come up, you will laugh at the illegible squiggles in front of you, and sigh at the subconscious jottings of things you wrote without realising, such as ‘I’m hungry.’ Anyway, I think this is a review. Enjoy!

THE HARD PROBLEM by Tom Stoppard, Director - Nicholas Hytner, Designer - Bob Crowley, Lighting - Mark Henderson, The National Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson.
THE HARD PROBLEM by Tom Stoppard, Director – Nicholas Hytner, Designer – Bob Crowley, Lighting – Mark Henderson, The National Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson.

I went to see a screening of The Hard Problem last week at my local theatre. The problem with not being rich, famous or the holder of tickets for press night is that essentially you cannot provide ‘a scoop’ for your audience, or the 13 readers of this blog. The play ends on the 27 May, and overall I did kind of enjoy it. I didn’t regret paying for a ticket (being an ‘ex’-usher, I’d become accustomed to free theatre), but maybe that’s just because I couldn’t overspend at the interval (of which there was not one.)

I’ve seen a few screenings over the last few years and am into the idea of them. I read an interesting article in the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine this weekend by Bryan Appleyard about the lack of fair distribution of the arts around the country, as opposed to JUST LONDON. It seems, although we already know this, cause like, DUH, London receives just SACKFULS of more funding for arts/culture stuff than anywhere else – and last week’s result of an all-blue government makes me feel, a bit, well, depressed about this. It isn’t all ‘their’ fault, and Bryan even states that it was in fact under New Labour that the arts began to ‘fail’. He adds, however, that the Coalition followed with an “utter indifference.”

He goes on to say the regional arts divide is ‘intolerable’: “Residents of County Durham have paid £34m into the arts lottery since 1995, and received £12m in arts funding in return. The City of Westminster has contributed £14.5m and received £408m.” *jaw drops to ground.*

Anyway, screenings are IMPORTANT, comrades. (Interestingly, though – I managed to see Behind the Beautiful Forevers a couple of weeks ago AT the National itself for a fiver, but paid £15 to see a screening of this. So there’s that. I don’t know what I’m trying to say.)

My only beef with screenings is that we don’t really get to see it how it’s seen. It makes me think of the BBC Four ‘Go Slow’ season: (the two hour canal boat ride, a tour around the National Gallery) uninterrupted television.

With The Hard Problem, however, I found myself getting annoyed at the (otherwise skilful) camerawork. Yes, it was skilful, with great angles and high-quality shots. But for Christ’s sake, let me see! At every transition, the camera panned up to the top of the stage, so we couldn’t see the set changes. I just had total screening FOMO. I wanted to see stagehands all in black, shuffling around in darkness! Isn’t that the joie du théâtre, darling?

I spent most of the show drawing varying sizes of question marks on my notepad. Now, I know it is wrong in the ‘art of reviewing’ to strongly put forward your own opinion of something without considering different perspectives.

I was – as a reviewer – ‘supposed’ to be commenting on the position of the play within the industry, what it ‘meant’ as Stoppard’s first play at the National since 2002, Nicholas Hytner’s last work in his Artistic Directorship. But it was Olivia Vinall’s portrayal of Hilary that didn’t sit with me right.

I have to admit – that’s why I went to watch. She played Cordelia in King Lear alongside Anna Nicole Smith last year, and I wanted to see her in something totally different. (She has also played Ophelia/Juliet – the National’s babe du jour.)

She was shouty. At first I gave her the benefit of the doubt, after all, I was watching a screening and perhaps it was a problem with microphones, or her ‘projection’ wasn’t working well on camera.

But then none of the other actors had that problem and, fair enough, she had TONNES of words to say. Ophelia doesn’t say much. Cordelia buggers off very quickly. And – I know nowt about brain science, or neurology – but it just seemed like she was reeling off the words at times, just going through the motions. And shouty kinds of reeling off. Sorry, Olivia. I tuned out.

However, there were things in the play that just worked, so well, and made for most delightful watching. Much of this was down to Hytner’s directorial choices, with a particular highlight when Spike, played by Damien Molony, gave in to Hilary’s pleas and kneeled down to pray…at the light of the minibar. It was a small and simple motion but one that’s stuck with me all day. Signs of class in a renowned director who the National Theatre has recently waved goodbye to.

The set design was another highlight, and although I wouldn’t usually notice things like this, my best mate studies it at *drama school* so I like to take note and report back to him. It was very sleek and functional, not too much or too little. The lighting fixture at the top of the screen effectively represented neurons in the brain, and ‘sparked up’ at every transition, of which there were five or six. It was used to great effect too to create fireworks on Bonfire Night – a significant night for the main characters for reasons I simply CANNOT disclose for spoiler alert reasons, but yes, it was a moment where the penny dropped for me with some simple nifty lighting. A suggestion of a idea where everything clicks into place.

Interestingly, in the pre-show talk that is broadcast as part of the NT Live series, some playwright (of who I embarassingly didn’t take the name of) said you’ll spend the first third of the play wondering what the hell’s going on, the second third figuring it out, and the last third feeling moved by what you’ve seen. It did feel like that – very much so, and I’d be interested to read/see more of his plays to see if this formula rings true. (I may have misquoted the above, I was rummaging through my bag for sweets. No interval, oh, the horror.)

I’d give it three stars, but then again – was I ever even there, if I wasn’t really there? Oh, god, my head hurts.

Signing off, not in London,

T.A.L x

Give yourself a hug: Avoid spontaneous combustion, and other things learnt during the past week…

Chimpanzee Melissa huddles forlornly over her baby, shielding him from a downpour. National Geographic | December 1965
Chimpanzee Melissa huddles forlornly over her baby, shielding him from a downpour.
National Geographic | December 1965

I gave myself a well deserved hug the other day. I think I’ve been beating myself up too much about things that aren’t in my immediate control, so I wrapped my arms around myself and was like, “Thanks, me. You’re doing just fine.”

After what had been a particularly stressful day, I got home to write up something for a competition – was so not up to it – so then went out for a drive (I am still learning post-first-fail), and ended up getting so angry that Dad was like: “Slow down! You’re gonna crash into that girl on her bike!” And I was all snotty and teary-eyed like: “I don’t even care!!”

I was basically in one of those moods when you literally cannot even right now, and there was no signs of it going away.

(I have since found that when you feel so anti-everything that you cannot literally even anymore, if you listen to ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, things seem much easier to comprehend.)

This week I phoned my boyfriend DEMANDING that he sing ‘Hypnotize’ by The Notorious B.I.G until I felt better. It worked.

The hardest thing about bad situations is that you have to feel all of the things you are feeling, even the horrible, sad stuff that you’d rather fast forward.

Caitlin Moran wrote in her Times Saturday column yesterday (2 May) that her biggest advice for teenage girls is that you “only ever have to deal with the next 60 seconds of your life.”

When someone very close to you rips your heart apart, there is no way around it. (I am reminded of the children’s book, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’: “We can’t go under it; we can’t go over it – We’ll have to go through it!”)

It took me 18 years to realise that – and I’m no good at bottling stuff up. (JOURNAL KEEPER FOR 14 YEARS.) Cry about it, write a letter to whoever it is, trash their house minorly (make sure it’s reversible – no smashing or breaking. Trust me – I’ve KNOWN this)

Figure out how to deal with the stuff, and try it out (preferably without hurting anyone further, that can just re-lousy everything.)

Things aren’t going to be amaaaazing all the time, especially if you’re going through something that’s emotionally tough. You don’t always have to be the best version of yourself; so if you’re going through a hard time, cut yourself some slack. The happiness you’re aiming for needn’t be a constant state of ecstasy, but rather a middle-ish sort of OK. A great article about this way of thinking, written by Tim Lott, can be read here.

My biggest argument against suppressing these feelings (that make your head feel like it will pop off) is that there are ACTUAL reports of HUMAN SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, so just take NO risks honey. It is not worth your beautiful hairdo.


I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’ a lot recently because 1) it’s addictive and oh-so-moreish, and 2) He’s headlining at End of the Road this year.

download

I had meant to write a proper review of it a few weeks ago but have been really busy doing other general life things; now I don’t think I could serve it justice.

I wholly admit I was not a fan of Sufjan before this, so I have nothing to compare it with, or do that ever-so-important music journo thing of citing his biggest influences – cause quite frankly kiddo, I just don’t know.

All I know is that it was written about his mother and stepfather, and, after a unanimous discussion re: SS by my friends, we came to the conclusion that he could write about rotting fruit or dog shit, or BOTH, and still make it sound beautiful.

For those real-melancholic types around here, check this out:

It both slows your heart down and speeds it up. It’s a wonderful record, and apparently his best.


I went to the National Theatre last night to see ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ Again – this play has been on since November of last year, so I can’t say I’m bringing you cutting-edge, hot-off-the-press reviews, but I get cheap seats, and for cheap seats my friends, you must seriously book WELL in advance.

It was set in Mumbai and focused on the lives of a community living in the slums near an airport, and the conflicts they faced with police/money/each other/etc.

I took a tonne of notes, as there was a lot to take in (I felt the play was longer than it ought to have been, but the pace was still excellent) and the writing was very human – of course – as is the writing of David Hare.

For your ease, and my ease: (I don’t need to write a long review – I am now v. hungry) Some – most are illegible – of my notes are included below:

  • incredible set – reeks of money. National Theatre.
  • Meera from the Kumars? Excellent
  • Feisty female roles
  • Prosthetics – burn make up good but v. gruesome
  • shows how extreme poverty can make people lose sense of morality
  • bit on the long side?? Am i tired??
  • baddies: “let them fight among themselves, then they won’t fight with us”
  • general audience consensus- good
  • Actor playing Abdul: Very sexy

I thought it was great to see a play that took a genuinely very humorous and human take on an awful situation (one that I admit I wasn’t aware of.) One minute you were laughing at the ‘look how ridicularse corruption is, darling!’ due to the witty, observational quips in the text, and then you were covering your eyes from somebody having their eyes gauged out after stealing scrap metal.

All in all, it was clear why this play has been running for so long. And even towards the end of the run, you wouldn’t have believed it. It’s not my usual choice of theatre – but I think it’s something that will stick with me for a bit. If you want to read a proper review, please divert your browsers to the search engine, ‘Google.’


In other news, I have started rehearsals for King Lear, been accepted into the National Youth Theatre and got tickets to Glastonbury! So there’s that. Also lined up is a trip to Belgium, Belle & Sebastian next week, in three weeks, and in seven weeks (lol) and my birthday! I’ll be writing about it all.

T.A.L x