Sunday, 4 March 2012

A Provincial Life – Sherman Theatre Cardiff

I was very excited to go and see this play, my first time in the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff since it has been renovated. Renovated is totally the wrong word, it has been re-made, and it’s beautiful! A lovely bar and waiting area, the theatre was amazing, and the toilets were super clean!

I don’t think I had ever seen a Peter Gill play before last night, and I don’t think I’ll bother going to see another. A Provincial Life is based on Chekhov’s story My Life, where an educated, privileged young man struggles with his conscience and decides to become a worker. The Sherman’s blurb told me it was about a struggle for equality, but I felt it was more about the class divide than a struggle. The only characters who seemed to be concerned about equality were Misail, the protagonist, and the Doctor (can’t remember his name).

The staging was brilliant. All the characters would carry in the props – tables and chairs – at the start of every scene, and carry them out again at the end. It was bare and bleak, and fitted the story perfectly. The costumes and props were amazing; it’s always satisfying to hear a saucepan lid clang as it is supposed to. Sadly, that is all the praise I can give it. The acting was shockingly amateur, and the whole thing had the air of a school production. The play did feature some big Welsh names: William Thomas is one of my favourite actors. His performance was undoubtedly the best, which only served to make the younger members of the cast look even worse. The big names: William Thomas, Helen Griffin, Ieuan Rhys (or Glyn the Policeman, as I will always think of him) and rent-a-Welsh-granny Menna Trussler, acted the rest off the stage – yet they were given a scant few lines. The exception being Clive Merrison, who was as hammy and over the top as usual.

Nicholas Shaw, as protagonist Misail, wasn’t very good at all. I don’t know if it was his real accent, or if putting an accent on was giving him trouble, but he had an intermittent speech impediment that made it hard to listen to him. He made several speeches with his back to half the audience, and stumbled over quite a few lines. He started his lines early, and also made a rather huge mistake in his final soliloquy: his sister was pregnant and had been expecting a boy, but she died and he now looked after his niece. In his speech he said “my sister was convinced it was going to be a girl, but the child was a boy”. He got mixed up and mixed up the line. Shoddy. He also had a very annoying habit of smiling at the end of many of his lines, not at anyone in particular, just a smile which did not fit with the line or the situation.

I can’t apportion all the blame of a bad play on the actors, the fault lies with the writer. Even superb actors like William Thomas can only do so much with bad lines (but actors as bad as Clive Merrison take them to new levels of horror!) Gill’s dialogue is stilted and incomplete. Characters hardly conversed in the play, they merely spoke sentences, sometimes those sentences related to the last sentence another character spoke, but we were lucky to have that happen – most of the time they were unrelated nonsense: “I have to put my boots away”, “They have turned me into a house-keeper”.

The characters did not show any emotion either; they spoke aloud how they were feeling. I am so tired, I am worried, I have had enough... I thought everyone had heard about show don’t tell. Not Gill, it seems. There were also long periods of silence while the actors either walked around the stage, or folded picnic blankets or pretended to drink tea. It was amateurish, and very dull to watch. Gill obviously knows Chekhov’s story intimately, forgetting that perhaps his audience aren’t as familiar with it. I certainly wasn’t. So he glosses over parts of the story, as I know one must when adapting for a different medium, but he neglected to explain things sufficiently – this was balanced with a desire to include other ridiculous details to the detriment of the plot. The train guard Ivan might be an important character in the novella, but he is superfluous in the play. I suspect he’s there to provide comic relief, but Gill’s clumsy attempts at humour come off as just that, attempts. The brief moments of humour in Gill’s play are not the dark, bitter humour one finds in Chekhov’s work. The subplot of Ivan’s mother having an affair with Moesi (no idea how to spell that name) and Ivan subsequently chasing him with a gun, is never developed further than that. The audience is given a glimpse at a story, then it simply stops. I would rather Gill had erased that character and back story and had more with Andrei Ivanov (played by wonderful William Thomas).

At the end, I clapped as that is only polite, but the cast took so long in coming out to bow, that the clapping nearly died out before Nicolas Shaw had even come back on stage. As I walked home, a young couple who’d also been to see the play summed it up perfectly. She turned to him and said “Well, that wasn’t very good, was it?”

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