There was a lot of audience laughter during Michael Frayn’s philosophical comedy Here at Greenwich Theatre. It wasn’t the gales of laughter provoked by the playwright’s great farces such as Noises Off. Instead it was that most satisfying of all outpourings – the laughter of recognition, especially the recognition of embarrassment. Frayn’s rarely-staged 1993 play is an intense examination of what it means to live in the here and now by way of human relationships, retrospection, gender politics, psychology and quantum theory. It’s an amazing mix of erudition and humour. But it also requires top-class acting because otherwise the bickering couple at the play’s core, Cath and Phil, could be irritating whingers and their nostaligia-obsessed landlady Pat would be little more than a cliché of bitterness. Happily Serin Ibrahim and David Hubball as the lovers and Kerry Joy Stewart were superb in director James Haddrell’s production, giving the play an emotional depth and honesty that made for great theatre. And there were lots of wonderful little touches to keep the here-and-now theme in our thoughts – an ever-growing spider plant, a print of Dali’s melting clocks adorning the wall and, best of all, the final fade-out leaving only an alarm clock spotlighted on stage. Frayn, who once lived in Blackheath and had been a member of the Greenwich Theatre board, had taken part in a Q&A session before the opening night in which he revealed his affection for what is one of his lesser-known works. And after watching this production, he told the cast it was the best version of it he had ever seen. Who am I to disagree?
Euripides may have been one of the inventors of playwriting nearly two and half millennia ago but his works are still relevant, as Dennis Of Penge showed so dramatically at the Albany. All the familiar tropes of Greek tragedy are there in Annie Siddons’ brilliant take on The Bacchae – loyalty, love, ecstasy, hubris, vengeance, suffering, obsession, magic, the implacable nature of the cosmos and the belief that the gods walk among us. And just to make the genre her own she has added a couple of contemporary leitmotifs – therapy and the joy of chicken wings. The result is a freewheeling, funny, heartfelt and fabulous story about Wendy, an overweight, out-of-work, alcoholic Peckham woman, and her fight for what’s right against a system geared to keep her under its thumb. The gods are represented by Dennis, a black, possibly pansexual childhood friend of Wendy who stands in for joy-loving Dionysus, god of the instincts whose sacred creatures include bees. Dennis leads a popular uprising against the rationality of the establishment (the jobcentre and its ghastly boss Pratt) with the help of Peckham’s downtrodden denizens, a squadron of attack-bees and a couple of dinosaurs brought to life after being liberated from Crystal Palace Park. Siddons herself played Wendy, Dennis was played by the multitalented actor, singer, musician and dancer Jorell Coiffic-Kampala and Asaf Zohar, who composed the terrific soundtrack and performed it live, helped voice the rest of the characters, a roll-call that included two gobby geezers who double for the traditional Greek chorus. The three of them created something truly extraordinary through a combination of words, music and their own dazzling charisma to make the divine human and the human divine. This reinvention of an ancient classic was a triumph for Siddons – and another triumph for the Albany.
Unique is a dreadfully overused word but I can’t recall anything else that comes close to resembling Mask Of Youth, artist Mat Collishaw’s animatronic face of Elizabeth I which will face down her glorious Armada portrait in the Queen’s House for the next few months. Her glistening eyes follow the viewer as well as gazing at her own portrait, a spectacular propaganda piece depicting the ageing 55-year-old monarch as a vibrant, potent, decisive young woman. From time to time her lips part to reveal discoloured and missing teeth. Tiny hairs – from squirrels, apparently – sprout from blue-veined, scuffed skin. But the blemishes cannot hide the face’s imperiousness. The eyes are darkly and impassively authoritarian and her mouth often seems to twist in what Shelley memorably called a sneer of cold command. You are left in no doubt that you are as nothing compared with the Faerie Queen.
Put simply, Collishaw’s installation is magnificent, capturing both the loneliness and lure of power and encapsulating the myth that sustains Britannia to this day. In a post-truth, possibly post-Brexit world, this is art at its most relevant and coruscating. I urge you to see it. And while you’re there, walk across the hall and look at seven photographs of seven 18-year-old pupils from local Thomas Tallis School which have been printed and framed by German artist Bettina von Zwehl as if they are 17th century miniatures in the style of Nicholas Hilliard. They hang in a room of small portraits of royal children which were painted to be sent to foreign courts seeking marriage alliances with Britain.
But unlike the little princes and princess, these 21st century youngsters are not monarchical commodities – they are classless individuals free to make their own choices. The display may be tiny but it‘s awash with life-affirming power.