A review of the Maddermarket’s current production of Now Is The Hour in the Eastern Daily Press, by Roger Haywood.
Slick, traditional theatre at its best, this is the story of the torpedoed liner the Laconia in WWII, and the survivors escape onto a lifeboat that then floats for weeks on the high Atlantic. The talented cast and wonderful set design bring to life beautifully the sense of time and place.
This is a simple story of survival and most of the action takes place within the lifeboat. The ensemble cast keep our view fresh by moving the boat, which is seperated into several parts, around the stage at different angles; also representing the moving on of time and the drifting in different directions. The sea is effectively portrayed by way of shiny reflective plastic and the sky by painted driftwood like cabinets with old bottles on the shelves. The small stage is filled with a buoyant, energetic cast that know exactly what they are doing by way of excellent direction.
The opening, and a later scene, sees the cast move stylistically around the stage. This is in contrast to the naturalism that comes afterwards but this alteration of style is handled with grace. The acting is highly naturalistic and the makeup impressively realistic. Each actor plays their part with sensitive realism, each facial expression showing their desperation and fear. The script is imperfect however, with lapses into abstraction that don’t fit and are awkwardly delivered by the actors. What was also slightly baffling was the decision to not give several of the characters speaking roles (although these actors, to their credit, were still very present). This may work in a film, but on stage, with naturalistic acting, I wondered why they didn’t talk. As they die one by one they are maneuvered off the boat into the sea and move off stage with a grace that deftly symbolises their passing.
Sound, lighting and other innovative production values like the pouring of water from one jug to the other further add to this highly impressive production. As a piece of historical storytelling this production suceeds on every theatrical level. What diminishes it a little are parts of the script and a gradual dip in tension the more the bodies leave the boat, with the ending drawing to a predictable conclusion. However, this is more than worth seeing for the beautiful set and stagecraft, slick direction and admirable acting.
Reviewed by FLM
CATHERINE CUSACK stars in this heart-rending epic in the tradition of The English Patient and Titanic. NOW IS THE HOUR is the astonishing true story of an affair that threatened the line of modern day Scottish aristocracy – a remarkable, illicit and ultimately tragic WWII romance set on-board the doomed ship, SS Laconia. Set entirely on-board a real lifeboat, visceral and up-close, this claustrophobic tour de force of taut survival drama, tells a story revealed only after the discovery of a remarkable series of letters unearthed 60 years after the death of the young pilot.
The Laconia incident during World War 2, where a U-boat torpedoed the liner, is well known, if mainly for the historical repercussions regarding the rescue of survivors it created in its wake. Crossroads Theatre have chosen to focus on one of the lesser known sides to the story, that of the devastatingly sad true story of the men and women who escaped on a lifeboat and became separated from the mass of survivors before the rescue attempts were made by the German navy.
In one of the most interesting ways to stage a play I’ve seen so far this festival, the stage is covered in a shimmering silver surface whilst the cast situate themselves in the segments of a real lifeboat, which is split and re-arranged continually throughout to show both the passage of time and to emphasise the action on-board. The cast are magnificent in the way they tell the harrowing perils of the survivors’ while they begin to starve and perish to the elements. Using simple tricks and stagecraft to show the effects of sunburn and dehydration, the real emotional impact is in the subtleties between the actors in the small movements and looks. More powerful still are the ghosts of the dead cast, returning to claim each further lost soul from the boat, and the gutting moments of delirium and flashback that broke the eerie stillness with poignant reflection that cut close to the heart and encompass so brilliantly the human loss that took place. A truly classic play that deserves to be seen more than once.
You may associate it with Gracie Fields, but “Now Is the Hour” is adapted from a traditional Maori song. So it’s a masterstroke to have it sung here by a young New Zealander serving as a Royal Navy pilot. When the song is heard in David Walter Hall’s play, it is scarcely possible to hold back a tear.
The year is 1942 and the liner Laconia has been torpedoed in the Atlantic. For 28 days, a band of survivors struggles to stay alive in a lifeboat. They include Peter Medhurst and the married Scot “Catriona” (renamed to conceal her identity), who is carrying his child and to whom, in her final hours, he croons, “soon you’ll be sailing far across the sea”. In mimed, dreamlike flashbacks, we see the emergence of their affair, the ship’s destruction, and the hours of hope and despair.
The idea for the play came from producer Peter Christopherson, who, as Medhurst’s nephew, came into possession of his uncle’s letters. Of the three survivors, it is Doris Hawkins (sensitively played by Catherine Cusack) who frames the story in a letter to Medhurst’s mother.
The acting of the 11-strong company is convincing enough, on a versatile set – a fractured lifeboat on a shiny floor against a marine backcloth. The incident is soon to be dramatised by Alan Bleasdale for BBC television, but it’s unlikely to have half as much heart as this poignant production.
Non-believers these days seem so zealous and shrill. Fortunately, two plays deal the subject in a sympathetic and balanced way.
The prospect of an evening of pro-atheist drama does not normally fill me with joy. Although a fervent non-believer myself, I find advocates of godlessness are more often than not a shrill bunch of didactic zealots. But last night, for the second time this year, my fears were gloriously unrealised.
There seems to be something about producing compelling theatre which forces people with otherwise very strong views to both humanise their opponents and show the flaws in their own position. The Last Priest, which had its press showing at London’s King’s Head yesterday, dealt as much, or more, with the ties of love and friendship than matters of doctrine. True, the atheist priest, Jean Meslier is portrayed as both intellectually right and morally upright, but the only character not willingly living a lie was the devout housekeeper Delphine, and even the obviously hypocritical priest Fr Claude Butler was portrayed with sympathy and compassion.
In On Religion, which ran at the Soho Theatre at the turn of the year, philosopher AC Grayling and director Mick Gordon were actually brave enough to make the ardent atheist the least sympathetic character in the play. Grayling says that he did this because he didn’t want to load the dice, and he trusted the audience to see that the right view does not always have the most likeable of advocates. I thought it also had a quite different effect: the complex emotional interactions between the characters seemed to be a demonstration of the fact that as long as dangerous extremes of belief are avoided, the love and understanding we show each other is more important to living a good human life than the beliefs we intellectual subscribe to.
Grayling admits that he originally thought the play would show that the atheism v religion battle was no contest, but he quickly realised that to make a good drama, you need more balance and shades of grey. The Last Priest’s writer David Walter Hall made a similar point when I congratulated him on creating such a humane work out of material that could so easily have become a secular sermon. “That’s the difference between the synopsis I was given and the play I eventually wrote,” he replied.
What a contrast these plays make with much of the recent atheist non-fiction, which continues to be produced at an unprecedented rate. Devoid of concrete portrayals of human life, they drift towards the abstract, where believers are left as poor, deluded fools and atheists appear no more than dried-out, heartless rationalists. These works fail to convince for precisely the same reasons that On Religion and The Last Priest do: if you are going to change the values that people live their lives by, you need to show a sympathetic understanding of how they actually live them now.
Atheist and priest: a new play on the life of Fr Jean Meslier
Lovers of intellectual thought and religious dissention are gathering at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington.
The Last Priest, a new play by David Walter Hall, focuses on the life of Father Jean Meslier, a little-known 17th century French Catholic priest who wrote a bitter atheistic testament at the end of his life after serving his parish well for 40 years. It was only after his death when the manuscript was discovered that the utter contradiction of his life as a Catholic priest was revealed. Not only did he denounce all religion, he argued the superiority of atheist morality.
The play is a vivid and thought-provoking realisation of Meslier’s socialism and atheistic beliefs played out through discussions with his closest friends and juxtaposed by dream-like discussions with Voltaire, who in his time had praised Meslier as a hero of the Enlightenment.
Julian Bird as Meslier delivers a passionate and absorbing performance, strongly supported by Angela Koo and Maxwell Hutcheson, who both bring vigour and warmth to their roles.
The performances are accompanied by cellist Deborah Chandler and the team deserve a mention for the atmospheric design of the production in this cosy theatre.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
HISTORICAL drama, based on real people and events, can be risky. There’s always the temptation to overburden a script with facts and figures, in an attempt to lend credibility to the “factional” account – or to overdramatise and ignore the truth in pursuit of a good sexy yarn. David Hall’s masterful storytelling suffers from no such failings, as it stays on the issues and focuses on the emotions of his characters.
Jean Meslier, “encouraged” into the catholic priesthood by his parents at a young age was, in fact, an atheist who had no respect for the church at that time. He spent long, late nights writing his testament – a polemic which would later partially inspire the French Revolution, and which would not be published in his lifetime. Meslier then took his own life once his testament was finished.
Hall extrapolates on these bare bones, adding depth in the form of his housekeeper and his lifelong colleague and friend, Father Claude Buffier. Julian Bird becomes Meslier. The authority with which he speaks and his presence is entirely convincing. Prentis Hancock as Buffier and Angela Koo as Meslier’s housekeeper, Delphine, effortlessly supports Bird.
Director David Roylance infuses an already intense play with a dark, fearsome claustrophobia, making it entirely compelling.
Blues Singer vs. Soul Man
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A TALE of a Faustian pact at the dark heart of the blues, this seductive drama crackles with diabolic menace. More myth than man, Robert Johnson died, poisoned in a bar at just 26, with only a few recordings to his name. But his reputation as the guitarist who sold his soul for greatness became the blues’ sinister underscore. In the prickly heat of a Deep South night, against a backdrop of racial tension, lynchings and voodoo, this superb single-act play brings his legendary sacrifice howling and moaning to life.
Squatting at a crossroads, Johnson (Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah) is a journeyman musician with a terrible past, desperate enough to test the fable of the big black man with the gift of songwriting who appears at midnight to tune guitars. But the gentleman (Adam Bisno) who squats beside him is white and educated, alternately beguiling and intimidating, proffering whisky, cigarettes and a terrible story of miscegenate love that destroys itself. He drags the younger man’s life story from him and convinces him that real music is born in defiance of God – it is the soul’s release from imprisonment. The frightened Johnson complains that the stranger would like to read him like a book, but, in truth, he has already been played like an instrument, his ambition and fear of persecution deliciously manipulated. You will never enjoy equality, so what price posterity, asks the demon.
The outcome is, of course, never in doubt. But the precocious David Hall, who wrote the play when he was just 19, creates an atmosphere of creeping, uncanny terror that grips from the start and never relinquishes. Through the charged poetry of the dialogue he evokes slavery’s ensnaring legacy and, through one man’s existential nightmare, the protesting quality of the blues. While Bisno initially appears too fresh-faced and slight for a tormentor, his darting eyes and sly smile quickly convince otherwise. Asiedu-Mensah is equally impressive, a well-built man who appears physically to shrink as the play progresses. And the denouement, in which Johnson sinks to his knees and sings his woe even as the devil unleashes a triumphal stream of verse, is mesmerising.
In the superstitious world of the American deep south, there have long been stories about an association between exceptional talent and possession by other-worldly powers. Robert Johnson, the now legendary King of the Delta Blues, died very young, apparently poisoned by a jealous woman, but then and now there remain rumours about his deal with the devil.
This brilliant and stylish two-hander, written and directed by David Hall, depicts Johnson, played by Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah, waiting at a cross-roads at midnight. From the shadows a white man, Adam Bisno, appears, offers him a cigarette and tells him a story. He does not give his name, but he is happy to talk, and Johnson in time overcomes his natural suspicions. And his life is changed forever.
This is a moving and graphic depiction of 1930s America, skilfully directed, and excellently acted by the two young performers.