Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Chicken Soup with Barley

Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb in the Royal Court production.
Does plot or character drive theatre?

In Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley, the answer, regrettably, is neither.

The play presents the disintegration of a family - the Kahns - in line with the disintegration of an ideology - communism. It's neatly structured in three acts, set in 1936, 1946 and 1956. The last year coincides with the violent repression of the Hungary by the Soviet Union, and the certainty that even post-Stalin, communism is a nasty, repressive regime.

But still, Sarah Kahn, matriarch as misguided hero, or something, stubbornly clings to the ideology of her youth, as all others abandon it.

It all has the potential to be fascinating. The mix of the personal and political. The strong female character at the heart of the action. But it just doesn't work.

The lack of action is a real problem. This is a political play that seemingly aspires to be a kitchen sink drama. Most of the first act consists of people sitting around a table talking about all the exciting things that are happening offstage (the battle of Cable St, an event which should be ripe for drama if ever there was one...)

Heck, I don't know if I've just been spoilt by the likes of Rupert Goold, who throw everything at the audience to create a frenzy of sound and action and entertainment. But honestly, in the protracted silence where the main character clears the table for 5 minutes for NO DRAMATIC REASON whatsover, I just felt aggrieved. That's my precious bloody time the director is wasting with this attempt to, um, um no - I can't even speculate what the director is attempting.

The characters are under-developed and unbelievable. It's almost impossible to like or care about them. Not through any fault of the actors I should add. Samatha Spiro does a great job in the central role of Sarah Kahn, but she's good despite the production, not because of it.

I get the sense that this is what (bad) theatre was like in the olden days. Solid, indigestible, with a vague promise of being good for you in some way that it doesn't really deliver on.

I should point out that my two theatre going companions were almost entirely in agreement. But none of us are remotely in tune with the critical consensus is that it's brilliant. I don't know why the critics think this. But they're wrong.

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