Here are a few things I loved at the theatre this week...
Time Pieces, Battersea Arts Centre
What it is: Two stunning reflections on time by the most exciting artist ever
I knew I wanted to see everything Deborah Pearson ever did after I saw a performed reading of hers at The Yard's First Drafts Festival. She'd written this play called The Privilege which was about how white people don't know how to talk about racism. It was funny and cerebral and hand-wringing and constructive and brilliant.
I was at BAC faster than the speed of light to see Time Pieces, two incredible shows by Pearson about the transience of our lives. The first, Like You Were Before, sees Pearson in 2015, the one in front of us, try to put herself back into a video of herself with her friends from ten years ago. The second, The Future Show, is one she constantly re-writes each time she performs it.
I could write a whole dissertation on how Pearson's writing rattles me more than Beckett but I think it would go on forever. (A BIT LIKE A BECKETT PLAY LOL.) All I can do is grasp you by the wrists and stare into your eyes in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable and tell you that if the opportunity presents itself to see Pearson's work you must go immediately.
These shows give voice to an eerie experience I have frequently. I see myself outside of the life I'm in now. Ten years have passed and I'm looking back, in a different world, with a different life, as a different person, and I can see all the stupid things I do and how I'm so happy and that it's a part of my history that is encased in glass and I cannot return to it. Pearson manages to encapsulate this sensation as something utterly tragic but also not scary at all.
The beauty of Pearson's work spooks me. It calmly says that everything ends. That you die and then you die again, because as you move through your life you leave things behind that you can look back on but never return to. The you of now is an essence that if you tried to grasp in your hand it would escape through the spaces between your fingers. But it's okay, because you were there. You lived, you felt, you laughed, you cried.
I can see this show again but I can't. Do you see what I'm saying?
A Winter's Tale/All On Her Own/Harlequinade, Garrick Theatre
What it is: The Kenneth Branagh Company out in full thespian swing
I watched Kenneth Branagh's double bill in the shadow of Deborah Pearson. As a result, watching The Winter's Tale, I was more moved by Leontes looking for himself in his son, the desperation to keep some part of himself alive in his children like the layers of a matryoshka doll. I could also feel the weight of the audiences who watched Larry Olivier with delight, the actor-manager that you can't help but compare Branagh to, and I thought about how a lot of those audiences are either now very old or very dead.
In the evening we see Rattigan's little-known monologue All On Her Own. It's about a woman speaking to a husband who is no longer there, and whilst it isn't the subtlest of Rattigan's writings, it shows that the muscle he had for emotional punching was perfectly honed. It all gets a bit meta with Harlequinade, with the company sending up hammy actors, when that afternoon we were served a very meaty plate of ham. But it's also hilarious and makes an artform out of comic timing.
Here's the truth: I really loved these shows. They are stunning, absolutely beautiful, and I loved the excess, the little flourishes. I think it's lovely to have this in the West End - it's as theatre as theatre comes. But there's nothing progressive about it. In bringing back the theatrical traditions of the past, Branagh has created something which feels like more of a fun curiosity than agenda-setting art. And it feels odd that somebody so aware of the power of art seems to have little interest in speaking to the masses.
Can't bloody wait to see the rest of the season though.
Dry Land, Jermyn Street Theatre
What it is: A startling and very special play about teen sexuality and abortion
There's a quiet revolution taking place in a little room on Jermyn Street. Ruby Rae Spiegel's extraordinarily accomplished play on young female sexuality and abortion is happening, with a production to match the writing's brilliance. Women's stories are being told in a way that is uncompromising, funny, sad, compassionate, complex and true.
Amy is pregnant and asking her friend to punch her in the stomach. You know then that she is never going to have this baby. But what you cannot see is her vulnerability - she has a bravado that comes from wanting to be what she thinks she should be. A guy she kissed at a party says how she wanted him to tell everyone she'd given him head when she hadn't. The female experience of sex and pleasure is not only irrelevant, it's non-existent. Does Amy know she can ask for better? And if she knew, would she?
There's a scene at the end of the play where Amy miscarries on the locker room floor after taking an abortion pill. After this recent story from the Evening Standard, the politics of performing that scene drown out its intentions and the need for it - but bearing witness to Amy's trauma is vital.
This demands to be seen by a bigger audience - not just because it's a sharp production with vibrant, intelligent performances, but because it reminds us of what happens to women when their sexuality is disembodied from their humanity, before they even become adults.
The Winter's Tale/All On Her Own/Harlequinade are at the Garrick Theatre until 13 and 16 January
The Winter's Tale will be livestreamed at cinemas on 26 January
Dry Land is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 November