The Royal National Theatre receives financial assistance from Arts Council England. With aid from the Arts Council, the National Theatre tends to show theatre that does not attract audiences for grossing profits; however, they provide thought provoking plays which are brilliant pieces of art. With that in mind, it so happens that more than half its income is self-generated. I had the opportunity to enjoy three productions; The Night Season, Buried Child and The History Boys.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Night Season is a new play that takes you on what you think will be a familiar journey, but offers pleasant little surprises at almost every turn. Her characters are three generations of a disputatious Irish family in County Sligo. One wouldn’t think, though, that this household had much to humour about, however we are entertained by continuous swearing and uncontrollable laughter. The play is set in a modern studio theatre with one main set used in different acts as different environments. The lighting is set to a cosy mood to make one feel part of this close-knit family.
The play begins by introducing us to grandmother Lily. Lily has been given a few months to live, feckless dad Patrick is a champion boozer, while his three daughters, Judith, Rose and Maud haven’t got over their mother’s desertion of the family 15 years earlier and their constant romantic problems. But they clearly all love each other very much; all share a joy in life, and actually get along pretty well. A good example of this occurs when father says with sarcastic cheer, ‘There are no problems in this house, only disasters’.
The set is very uniquely utilized throughout the production. The production moves fluently between the play’s various locations in and around the family’s home. The kitchen, where Lily patiently watches TV with the sound down, becomes a beach, where she dances on the sand with John and Rose. The library where Judith works occupies the space taken earlier by the pub. Mark’s house is also used in the same location as the pub, with a table and a bed displaying its purpose. Another unique set design was the presence of a vertical come 3-D bed on top the girls’ room where Patrick slept.
Imagery portrayed when we were introduced to Patrick when the play begins was fantastic. Audience members can actually see Patrick being sucked into the bed and out of his room from the balcony of the set. An American actor, John, comes to town to shoot a film and stays with them rather than at a hotel, to soak up local flavour. Inevitably, he sleeps with one of the daughters, Rose. Ironically, he carries on a charming, sincere little mock romance with Lily. Patrick, meanwhile, gets a date with the local barmaid and Judith seeks solace from her chess-playing ex, Mark.
We learn true family values in various scenes throughout the play. Patrick and his daughters have a special relationship together, in particular with Judith. He and Judy were involved in a scene at the bar when both father-daughter enjoy a night out drunk together. Patrick decides to leave her at Mark’s place at the end of the night as he knows that she has strong feelings for him. Although Maud is not one the central characters in the play, she is involved in a vital part of the play. The audience never witnesses the daughters’ relationship with their mother throughout the play.
When Judith left to see her mother in the city, she arrived back the very same day. Their mother was not welcoming and did not want to be part of the family. Judith arrived home after having spent a few days with Mark; she could not hold the truth from the other sisters and Lily. Maud was very upset with the truth as she never had the chance to grow up with her mother. Mother did not even appreciate Maud’s gift. Lily past away soon after hearing the news, and another tune from her antique record player.
By the time the John leaves, not an enormous amount has changed in their lives, but everything has been jolted just enough to suggest that things might be a wee bit better. And you’ve come to know and like them enough that you leave happy for them. Although The Night Season does not deal in great depth with current contemporary issues, but it leaves you feeling warm after an evening with a loving Irish family. Sam Shepherd’s play Buried Child concerns a dysfunctional and emotionally damaged family struggling to keep a dark secret that haunts their past.
The new production at the National Theatre Lyttleton in the first major revival of the play here since 1978 when the play was written, and has attracted an international cast lead by film and stage veteran M Emmet Walsh playing Dodge, and Lauren Ambrose playing Shelly. The production beginning in the Lyttleton at the National theatre is stunning; opening with a shower of rain lit by bright blue lights and covering the whole of the front of the stage, through which you can see the interior of a tattered wooden house slowly moving towards the audience.
The stage eventually opens up into a proscenium arch theatre. The story concerns Dodge, an old father and his wife Haile who live with their eldest son Tilden in a remote Illinois farm house. The couple constantly humiliate each other with casually cruel comments whilst Tilden, a hulking child like presence is openly derided for his failure to be able to take care of himself. Their younger son Bradley who is dependant on a false leg to help him move around lives near by and the couple mourn a lost son, constantly referred to as being a dead hero and everything the other two sons are not.
The play begins with Shepard’s clever first scene monologue from the old woman, Halie. The monologue helps us concentrate on her words even though she doesn’t enter until well into the play. As she calls down from upstairs, there are few visual distractions. This also serves to introduce the audience to the main members of this family. Halie gives us a picture of her life before she was married, when she was feted by a breeder of thoroughbred horses and went to the races. Meanwhile, back on the sofa, grumpy Dodge chips away at his pleasurable memories while swigging at a whisky bottle he hides under the sofa.
Thereafter Tilden enters, their son, carrying a huge amount of corn cobs. Tilden rips off the outer leaves of the corn as he listens to his mother’s complaining and cracks off the stalks. Tilden’s experience with his parents can be interpreted in many ways. His parents refuse to believe that he has not stolen the corn and continuously treat him with complete disrespect. His parents know that he served two years in prison, and have lost belief in his ability to change and become independent. Once Tilden finishes peeling his corn, Halie enters the ground floor.
Dressed for a fashionable funeral she steps through the sitting room into the incessant rain to meet with her boyfriend, the priest. The situation becomes even more awkward when Bradley enters with a wooden leg and a habit for shaving his father’s hair off in clumps and leaving grazed areas of his scalp, while the unsuspecting father sleeps. Vince and his girlfriend Shelly, stumble into this atmosphere on their way from New York to New Mexico to visit Vince’s father, Tilden. At that point they do not know that Tilden has moved back home to Illinois.
Shelly is, like us, an outsider, a sane member of society thrown into this strange house. In a horribly unforgettable scene, Bradley makes Shelly stand with her mouth open while he puts his fingers in her mouth. This is a scene really grips hold moment and appears as though one may be put through a scary rape scene. After the interval, Halie and the priest arrive to add to an already bizarre situation. While Vince was away gathering his thoughts, Shelly learns the secret of the Buried Child and becomes more than eager to leave the house. When Vince returns drunk, things change.
Dodge passes away with one of his final words being, “You think just because people propagate that they have to love their offspring”. With Vince becoming more violent, they acknowledge that he is part of their family. Dodge says the house belongs to him and leaves us. What actually makes this ending peculiar is the turnaround we witness in Vince’s character. Immediately, he chases out Bradley, Shelly leaves and he commits himself to starting a new and rebuilding the family once again. In the final scene, Tilden carries the remains of the family secret, which he has unearthed to his mother.
Buried Child is rich in imagery. Shepard allows us to make our own observations, but these are subtle, understated. My observations follow; the crops begin growing when Tilden returns. This possibly signifies times of change with Vince’s inheritance and Tilden’s arrival. The family refused to recognize Vince perhaps because they did not want to be burdened with any more worries and questions. Finally, I believe since the secret of the Buried Child is now out in the open, the family is finally relieved of their curse and can carry on the family tradition.
Since Tilden is seen as incapable, Dodge decides to leave his only fortune with Vince, the only competent member in the family. Alan Bennet’s History Boys is delightful new comedy drama takes place during the 1980s in a grammar school in the north of England. We follow a class of eighteen year olds who aspire to a university place at Oxford or Cambridge under the guidance of an inspirational teacher, Hector. A central theme of Bennett’s play is the purpose of education. Is it to pass exams or is it to encourage a desire for learning?
Bennett’s secondary theme is more contentious: dealing with the open gay lifestyle in this all boy’s school. The play opens with a flashback. One of today’s breed of television presenter historians, Irwin, now in a wheelchair, recalls his time as a teacher in a Northern grammar school in the 1980s. Irwin has been recruited by the Headmaster to nurture a group of boys to aid in their Oxbridge Entrance. These boys have an unorthodox teacher of General Studies, Hector, who takes a broader view of his teaching role than the headmaster would like.
Hector allows the boys to decide the form and format of their learning, so they sing old songs, re-enact camp sequences from famous films and show a passion for poetry under his guidance. Hector views examinations as the enemy of true education in direct contrast to Irwin. Irwin teaches that technique is almost more important than truth, he advises taking an opposite viewpoint on historical occurrences and backing them up with historical fact in order to surprise approval from the Oxbridge universities. These boys are clever, witty and attractive.
Dakin is the leader and most sought after of the group. Posner is artistic, musically talented and gay. Rudge is the odd one out, a brilliant sportsman but less gifted intellectually. The play is set in a proscenium arch theatre. In between scenes in the school, black and white film is used of the boys in everyday situations giving a good feel for the historical period. The conventional school sets, Hector’s film poster filled classroom, the sterile grey of the staff room, are dominated by a ceiling full of rows of overhanging lights like desks in a schoolroom.
Bennett complicates the issue by making Hector a friendly paedophile who likes to grope the boys as they ride on his motor-bike and by making Irwin a homosexual, scared of acting on his impulses. Dakin, confused on his sexuality, begins to take a liking in Irwin after a few lessons. He chooses to act on impulse and tries profusely to get as close as he can to Irwin. Towards the ending we find Dakin’s continuous arguing and pursuit of Irwin paying off by Irwin accepting to meet him after school and the play for dinner. Posner is left in the dark a midst all this and no one wants to be friend him after graduation.
Posner chose to follow Hector’s beliefs on education and thoughts, as no one else believed in a life where exams are the enemy of education and words alone are certain good. In the final scene we are introduced to each boy again by profession they chose to pursuit 10 years from the actual scene date. Posner did not have a profession and did not want to progress in his life, he kept to himself at home. Bennett left us to believe following Hector’s ideology will leave you with no progress, no career, just loneliness as no one else is in support of this view.
Dakin on the other hand, is a successful lawyer because he grew close to Irwin and followed his approach to life. Each actor’s performance sparked great emotion; The History Boys is a loving heartfelt comedy that enchants as it entertains. If a choice to be present at one of the plays had to be made between the three, I would choose Buried Child. All the actors capture the mood of surreal surroundings. M Emmet Walsh’s Dodge is a parodic icon of the distant past. Brendan Coyle’s Tilden, clutching armfuls of corn, is both comic and menacing.
But the skill of the production lies in its reminder, under the laughter, of the deadly secrets we all of us choose to bury. The play contains all factors necessary that make it a great piece of theatre. Shepard has a negative view of the family and this tragic-comedy contains one of its darkest portrayals. The family is a place that buries all its children under the weight of its past. Vince returns to his home to seek happy memories of family life only to discover that no one else shares them, and now he has returned home neither does he.