Theatre: Theatreland struggles to top real-life drama

Matt Smith in Unreachable

At the Royal Court, during a six-week rehearsal period, playwright Anthony Neilson and his actors created and developed Unreachable from scratch. There was no script. They ended up with a scrappy satire on the movie industry which is much inferior to Charles Wood’s Veterans, a spoof on the making of Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade which was seen many years ago at the Royal Court. It starred John Gielgud (sending himself up) and the then unknown Bob Hoskins as an electrician.

Here, an award-winning film director is attempting to shoot an apocalyptic sci-fi epic, but the production is delayed by his obsessive quest for a mystical perfect light. He has a big ego and is liable to scrap the film and bankrupt the backers. Matt Smith exercises all his charm. Amanda Drew plays his down-to-earth producer and Richard Pryor his ambitious cameraman.

The production begins with a serious bit of acting by Tamara Lawrence, playing a mother who, convinced she is about to be killed by rebels, kills her baby – only to survive herself after all. The production is never that serious again Jonjo O’Neill, cast as a European actor nicknamed the Brute, hijacks the production and upstages everybody with his often hilarious performance. Even O’Neill cannot keep a straight face when he is outrageously lying and claiming what a nice chap he really is and not a brute at all.

If you had wanted some really exciting drama during the past couple of weeks,
you didn’t need to go to the theatre. You could stay at home and watch the news on television and read the newspapers. There was nothing comparable dramatically on the London stage, at least not since the Renaissance, to the backstabbing that was going on in the political parties.

Meanwhile, Robert Lepage, the Québécois director, writer, actor and film-maker who combines physical and visual elements with text and performance, returned to London with an impressionistic work, Needles and Opium, which he first created in 1991, following a painful break-up. It was seen at the National Theatre in 1992.

The touring production, taking its cue from MC Escher, has been rewritten and reworked. On the Barbican stage there is a huge tilting cube. It has three walls and three open sides. It rotates all the time. Walls become floors and floors become ceilings. The actors become acrobats.

Lepage explores solitude, drug addiction, disorientation and the creative drive through the stories of three men unhappily in love.

In 1949 Jean Cocteau, poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and opium addict, visited New York, and Miles Davis, trumpet player and heroin addict, had an affair with French singer Juliette Gréco in Paris. Forty years later Lepage (played with humour by Marc Labrèche) stays in the same hotel room where they stayed and where previously Jean-Paul Sartre had written his books.

Lepage believes Needles and Opium has grown and deepened significantly. Miles Davis, who was formerly but a mere shadow, now appears on stage played by Wellesley Robertson III. Technically, the production is amazing. But as always with Lepage, the visuals upstage the words. This has ever been so, even when he is staging Shakespeare. The revolving cube is the star turn.