The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

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The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.

 

Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review

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Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 8th October 2017

When I was a young’un, come to make my fortune in the Big Smoke, I was lucky enough to secure free or cut price tickets to productions at the Barbican and NT. But then, as now, I am afraid I was more “Dick” than “W(h)it”-tington, (how laboured was that), as I am pretty sure I passed on the opportunity to see the original version of this famous production of Macbeth at the NT because a) it was/is in Japanese and b) it was Shakespeare, which at that time I would only watch to impress others.

So it was a joy to see that this production, which has gone into the annals of theatrical history, was coming back to London, and that I could therefore atone for the sins of my younger self. The eponymous founder of the company, Yukio Ninagawa, unfortunately passed away last year, but his legacy is alive and kicking with the backing of producers HoriPro, Saitama Arts Foundation and the legendary Thelma Holt CBE.

So a packed house at the Barbican awaited a massive cast of 33, I think, actors with the proverbial bated breath (actually lively chatting but you know what I mean). Now I had expected a visual spectacle. I had expected dramatic, even melodramatic delivery. I had expected a massive soundscape. I had even expected a decent play (it’s Macbeth after all). But what I had not expected was such a surgical (no pun intended) delivery of the story. Nor had I expected such an adept translation, which was true to the key passages in the text and which highlighted the poetry of the repeated motifs and words (though there were a couple of inadvertently funny missteps). Chi, anyone? And I certainly had not expected to be sucked into the emotion of it all. In particular I reckon Keita Oishi’s Macduff was the best I have seen. Vengeance indeed.

Having said all of that it is how this Macbeth, re-imagined in a Samurai Japan, looks which remains the most extraordinary thing about it. The butsudan that frames the action. The ancient women who tearfully observe the action throughout. The cherry blossom, the traditional Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life. The giant red sun which turns cold blue when Macduff finally biffs Macbeth. The bronze warrior statues when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England. The Samurai knights hollering in unison. The Kabuki witches – well played lads. The eight kings. Banquo’s ghost – you know he is coming but even so – OMG. The swooshing sword play. The Ninja assassins despatching Banquo and then, you bastards (!), Lady Macduff and the kids.

Now I do admit that a tiny part of me, call it a couple of per cent, couldn’t shake off the idea that is was a bit over the top. The make-up is caked on. The delivery is full on shouty declamatory. The music, with the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings featuring heavily, doesn’t hold back – out damned minor keys, as it were. Masochika Ichimura as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth are giants of Japanese stage and screen but are no spring chickens. Yet in the scene ahead of the banquet, as they try to pull themselves together, they looked so vulnerable, and a lump came to my throat. I guess the point is that Ninagawa-san knew that Will S, through all the Jacobean flattery and the lecture on the perils of “vaulting” political ambition, still retained a deal of sympathy for the power-mad couple. The absence of the child is so keenly felt by this ageing pair. Anyway being sniffy about the melodrama, as some proper reviewers were, just seems discourteous to me.

So overall, whilst I wouldn’t want to give up on the stripped back Macbeths played out in Stygian gloom and occasional spotlights, I really, really enjoyed this operatic spectacle. Turns out that feudal Japan and Scotland are not so far apart. Sound and fury signified quite a lot as it happened.

I look forward to seeing another production from this marvellous company. I am an arse for not having seen any of their previous work.