Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Hard production lessons for Night Work

Published:Friday | May 15, 2015 | 5:00 AMMichael Reckord
Zandriann Maye as the prostitute Jenny in 'Night Work'.
Jenny (left) and Paul Coxmann in 'Night Work'.
Paul Coxmann (played by Hugh King, right) and his wife Mary (Grace Ann Watson).
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After just over a year, my amazement at the small numbers of theatre practitioners I see at the Palace Amusement Company's fairly regular screenings of London's National Theatre Live (NTL) productions has diminished to mere surprise.

National Theatre is one of Britain's top theatre producers. This means that the actors, directors and designers of all kinds (music, costumes, set, lighting and so on) are among the best in the world. Also, the plays are usually top of the line.

The productions are digitally recorded in front of live theatre audiences, so for viewers in Jamaica - and scores of other countries - it's like being in the best seats at the theatre. As a plus for cinema audiences, they get to see pre-show and between-acts interviews with production personnel.

Playwrights and all those responsible for production can learn so much from the NTL shows. The last play, Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, was not the most successful we've seen in the series. Stoppard is a playwright of ideas and it's notoriously difficult to put flesh on a skeleton of ideas. Most playwrights don't even try; instead, they focus on character or story and mute their message. (It was Sam Goldwyn, the great Hollywood film producer, who said, about making movies: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union.")

 

Philosophical issues

 

In The Hard Problem, Stoppard tackles a monumentally difficult philosophical question - how does consciousness, which is non-material, come from a physical brain? To put it more practically, can those really smart computers that can beat the best chess player and solve problems faster than any human develop or be given imagination and emotions?

Related issues like the possibility of miracles, nature of coincidences, efficacy of prayer, source of morality and altruism vs selfishness are tossed into the pot, together with nine characters who discuss them. But because the characters only talk philosophically and have no serious personal problems to solve, the play only appeals to the intellect.

From the point of view of the general audience, that's bad. They go to the theatre for emotional involvement. But Hugh King and Pablo Hoilett, writer-producer and director of the play Night Work respectively, should have watched The Hard Problem.

Night Work, currently running at The Theatre Place, Haining Road, New Kingston, is about two women with hard problems. Mary Coxmann (played by Grace Ann Watson) is sexually repressed, for as a child she was taught sex is shameful. Jenny (Zandriann Maye) is a prostitute - and an illiterate one at that.

Another character in the play is Paul Coxmann (King), who can't get sex from his wife and, though he can get sex from Jenny, prefers to teach her to read and to speak the Queen's English. The fourth character is Ignatius Byron (Joshua Tomlin), a policeman and businessman.

Those who saw the opening performance would have also seen Bogus (Omar Miller), a gay youth. But that character has been dropped as being irrelevant to the story.

 

Effective writing

 

If King had gone to the Stoppard play, he would have seen how the playwright first poses his problems, develops on them and then neatly resolves (though not solves) them. That might have shown King he could have replaced the Bogus scene with one showing Mary being treated by her counsellor, Dicky Benwood.

As it is, Mary is a psychologically repressed in one scene and then sexually free in another. We don't know how she got there. Happily, there is a scene showing Jenny being taught English.

King might have even learnt from a mistake Stoppard makes. The first couple of scenes in his play are overly long discussions between a pretty, young psychology student and her handsome young mentor/lover. King's early scenes are also drawn-out discussions. Seeing Stoppard might have made him trim them.

To be fair, King's discussions scenes have more action than Stoppard's and so they work better. In fact, King's story - defined as causally related incidents involving characters who change - is better than Stoppard's, whose characters remain psychologically unchanged. On the other hand, King's dialogue, though quite clever (and humorous), is not half as clever as Stoppard's.

As producer, King might have also learnt economy from The Hard Problem. It has a minimalist set - some scenes have just a bed onstage, others have some desks, chairs and a waste basket. And there are no walls. A similar set would have suited Night Work, which has a realistic set. This and other components of the production made things horrendously expensive, King told me.

We were discussing his re-entry into Jamaican theatre after about 20 years. It has been a cultural and financial shock. Whoever designed the costumes didn't do a good job with Paul Coxmann's costume. His raincoat was unnecessary (he's never in rain) and Jenny's prostitute outfit was ill-fitting when I saw the play.

The acting is pretty good, though. Maye's portrayal of the soft-hearted prostitute is a nice mix of outrageousness and tenderness; a reserved King as the university lecturer is a good foil; Tomlin is believable as a corrupt policeman and an overbearing job interviewer (of Jenny). Watson has the right look for her part, but does little with it.