Please can you persuade Maxine Peake and Andrew Scott to come together on stage in a naturalistic two hander about a normal couple who have something extraordinary happen to them. Manchester, London or Timbuktu. I don’t care where. Subject TBD. As long as there is bucketloads of emotional pain which has to be worked through whilst stoically carrying on with their daily lives.
There is nothing actually that innovative about this monologue based on Australian writer Julia Leigh’s memoir about her experience of IVF. There is no need for it. A bit of symbolism from an avalanche and a pair of imagined kids. Otherwise it charts the fractured relationship of a film-maker, her overwhelming need to conceive and the grief that follows from the failed treatments. Anna-Louise Sark’s staging, a three sided, clinical, white space which rises slowly through the 90 minute production, a table and chairs that collapse, from designer Marg Horwell, some, occasionally, overly forthright lighting and sound from Lizzie Powell and Stefan Gregory, may give a hint of art-theatre. It doesn’t really add anything though to the performance.
Which is, in the least surprising surprise since we were apprised of the fact that His Holiness is of the Roman persuasion, just brilliant. It isn’t just the fact that Maxine Peake makes the movement of face, hands and body look entirely natural, (even when awkwardly directed to shift stage positions to break up the monologue), or the easy conversational style that projects, on on one, even up to us cheapskates in the gods. It is the fact that whilst remaining entirely Maxine Peake throughout – vowels, grins, wry knowing asides, pauses, reflections, repetitions, pointing, pawing – she becomes the woman whose harrowing story she is telling. This is not, forgive me, and thankfully, a story that I can relate and yet, pretty much throughout, I was there with her.
In anyone else’s hands the slight drawbacks in the adaptation would probably have been laid bare. It is too long, you can, an hour in, practically hear the pages turning, with too much emphasis on the how and what of the journey and not enough on the why, and this is too big a space for any monologue, (and robs the end of much of its theatricality). It does though get into the joyless mechanics and desperate economics of IVF treatment, six rounds in total, and captures the loneliness of the Woman’s quest. As it happens IVF treatment played a small part in Out of Water, the new play by Zoe Cooper, on my next night’s viewing. And this was, by comparison with the other stage work I have seen prompted by this experience, the weak Genesis Inc, a resounding success. And the Fertility Fest at the Barbican, of which this was a centrepiece, deserves everyone’s praise.
To my mind the only actor who can match Maxine Peake when it comes to force of personality and stage charisma is the aforesaid Andrew Scott. As was apparent to anyone lucky enough to see Simon Stephens’s monologue Sea Wall at the Old Vic last year (or in its previous outings);
I am guessing if you are the playwright responsible for The Churchill Play, Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, Pravda, Paul, 55 Days and Lawrence After Arabia you can get to write pretty much what you like. Especially if you plainly have a history of not giving a f*ck what people think of your work.
And if you are the outgoing director of the Hampstead Theatre, which you resurrected, (with your team), from near collapse a decade ago you also have the right to choose your swan song. And the writer who offered up five of his plays for you to stage over those ten years certainly deserves your loyalty.
But this is, no doubt, a tricky, uneven and, ultimately, not entirely convincing work. Howard Brenton has taken the bones of the story of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, repurposed it for our time, and then, in what might have seemed like a good idea at the time, added a kind of chorus in the form of Euripides himself.
His Jude is a female Syrian refugee, self-taught in Ancient Greek and the Classics, who, working as a cleaner, improbably secures a place at Oxford on the whim of a lesbian don, Deirdre. After having married a pig farmer. And with a cousin, (yes there a bit of unconvincing cuz-luv per Hardy,) who gets a bit carried way with his religious fervours and end up being surveilled as a terrorist by one of the Prof’s ex students. And Euripides, also self taught, comes to our Jude in dreams. Because he was, as Mr Brenton says, bloody good at this drama lark and interested in the story of refugees, minorities and strangers.
The play’s main message I think is that society must find a place for its geniuses but on to this already rickety framework, HB has a pop, in a moreorless non-PC way, at all manner of targets. Racism, nativism, fear of the other, Brexit, dumbing down and cultural ignorance, tokenism, institutional hypocrisy, the power of the state and surveillance, masks, the bicameral mind (nope, me neither). All liberally sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad.
HB’s heart is definitely in the right place, and there is plenty to chew over, but the execution is often idiosyncratic, the dramatic momentum uneven and the arguments scatter-gun. No amount of directorial patience from Edward Hall, or creative ingenuity from designer Ashley Martin-Davies, can mask (ha, ha) the structural flaws. Isabella Nefar does have a bloody, (literally at one point in a rather forced nod to Hardy), good crack at pulling the contradictions of her character together and Caroline Loncq gets well deserved laughs out of Deirdre. Paul Brennen wears his Euripides mask well and doubles up as one of the spooks, (remember HB wrote for the TV show of the same name), alongside Shanaya Rafaat. But Anna Savya as Jude’s aunt, (her father was killed back home but he is the one who fuelled her ambition, natch), March Husey as the naive cousin, Luke McGregor as the doltish husband Jack and Emily Taafe as Jude’s A level teacher are all stymied by some awkward dialogue and thin characterisation.
Yet, despite all of this, I quite took to Howard Breton’s misguided intellectualism and stylistic kitchen sink-ism. What most of the audience made of it though is anyone’s guess. What with this, David Hare’s not shooting the lights out with I’m Not Running, ditto (actually worse) with Alan Ayckbourn in The Divide, Michael Frayn retired and not a peep for years from Tom Stoppard, maybe the best days of the grand old men of British theatre are behind them.
Thanks heavens for the mighty Caryl Churchill then. The new season at the Royal Court is advertising there new short plays Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. “A girl made of glass. Gods and murders. A serial killer’s friends“. That’s all there is by way of intro. That’s all I need. I can’t wait.
The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.
Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.
The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.
Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.
(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).
Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.
The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.
First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).
As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.
As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.
Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.
On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.
Time to update my London theatre recommendations. The last list from February 2019 turned out pretty well and a fair few from that are still available for selection. Now I know I go on a bit, and offer too many options, so I have taken the wider selection below, considered quality, certainty, availability (if they are sold out or won’t be extended they don’t appear) and chronology, and picked out the eight very best which should not be missed IHMO. The first four are tried, tested and, Lehman Trilogy excepted, aren’t too pricey. The final four are classy classics with top-drawer creatives in the saddle.
Here then are the selections from the various categories. Enjoy.
ON NOW AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Along with Sweat the play of the year so far. Brilliant text, brilliant direction, brilliant cast. The best version I have ever seen. Of course this was always going to be the case so you should have listened to me months ago. Sold out now so the only way to see it will be if/when it transfers. My guess is, if it happens at all, it will end up on Broadway before coming back to London but don’t hold your breath.
Small Island – National Theatre Olivier. If you know the Andrea Levy epic novel about two couples in post war Jamaica and Britain, (or have watched the TV adaptation), you are in for a treat. If you don’t, well you still are. There are tickets left later in the run and, in terms of scale, stagecraft and story, you are definitely getting your money’s worth.
Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. OK so it probably helps if you are Ibsen trained, and be prepared for the performance from the Stephen Toast school of acting from Tom Burke, but this is a superb production of an under-appreciated play with its finger on lots of pulses – moral, social, gender and political hypocrisies and contradictions . It isn’t jolly though. Plenty of tickets left but try to find a discount.
All My Sons – Old Vic. As with Death of a Salesman I told you so and it has now sold out. Probably Miller’s most moralising play and Bill Pullman’s performance is idiosyncratic for some, but the play is bullet-proof anyway. Will it transfer? Depends on the two Americans. My advice? Make sure next time a classic Miller is reunited with top-drawer cast and creative teams you just buy ahead.
Out of Water – Orange Tree Theatre. A beautifully written and uplifting three hander set in the North East about difference and acceptance. Playwright Zoe Cooper has a light and witty touch and the cast are excellent.
ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. OK so this has already started but I haven’t seen a review yet. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others. It is sold out so you will have to sniff out returns on the day.
BOOKING AHEAD AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL
Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year, bar Death of a Salesman, and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre. The impact of de-industrialisation in the rust belt on three women friends and their families.
Equus – Trafalgar Studios. Just announced. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s superb production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play is transferring. You have to get your head around the concept, the relationship between a damaged young man with an erotic fixation on horses and his psychologist, but you won’t see more committed and exciting staging, direction and performances.
The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT last year. If you ignored me, do not make the same mistake twice. An acting masterclass as the three leads take us through the history of the leaders of the eponymous investment bank and thereby the history of America since the mid C19.
Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre. So the tale of Joe Simpson, the mountaineer left for dead by his partner who then survived against all the odds, is a obviously powerfully dramatic, hence his book and the subsequent, superb, film. But the way cast and creatives have then turned this into something that works in a theatre, with just a few props, some flashbacks and some inspired physicality, is marvellous. I saw this in Bristol before it went on tour and can thoroughly recommend it.
YET TO OPEN BUT YOU WOULD BE A MUG NOT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
Blood Wedding– Young Vic. Lorca’s “not quite the happiest day of their lives” for a couple in rural Spain will be directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma. It will probably be atmospheric, stylised. angry and emotional.
Bitter Wheat– Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead. Woo hoo.
Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith. The funniest play ever written returning to the theatre where it premiered in 1982. It may be theoretically possible to make a mess of Michael’s Frayn’s farce in two halves, seen from front of stage and then backstage, but I reckon it is unlikely with director Jeremy Herrin in charge. If you have never seen it you will be stunned by its technical construction and laughs per minute. And just £20 a ticket.
Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse. Branden Jacob-Jenkins take on the dysfunctional American family drama and confront their racist past finally comes to London. No messing with form as in his previous plays (An Octoroon, Gloria) but this young playwright has the knack.
A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic. Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, one of the best plays of the last decade, about the financial crisis. She is finally back with this, based on the real life thriller book by heroic British journalist Luke Harding about the Russian spy poisoned in London. Espionage and power politics. Could be a stunner.
The Hunt – Almeida Theatre. Will probably help if you know the film with Mads Mikkelsen about a teacher who is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse in Denmark. It’s in because the Almeida and Rupert Goold the director rarely mess up.
The Doctor – Almeida Theatre. It is Robert Icke directing. It is Juliet Stevenson in the lead. It is at the Almeida. That’s all you need to know. Based on the classic play by Schnitzler about a doctor in early C20 Vienna destroyed by anti-semitism. Has a trial in it that will be meat and drink to Mr Icke. I am very excited by this.
RISKIER PUNTS TO BOOK AHEAD ON
Glass. Kill. Bluebeard – Royal Court Theatre. Three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. I’ve realised that, like Shakespeare, recommending productions by CC to non theatre obsessives doesn’t always pay off, (the Top Girls at the NT wasn’t perfect I admit), but she is still a genius.
Hansard – National Theatre. Not much to go on. A comedy about a Tory MP and his wife. But Simon Godwin is directing and best of all it has Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in the lead. Obviously I am not the only one to realise that is a classy combination so it has sold out but they will likely conjure up more dates so look out and just buy blind.
Magic Goes Wrong – Vaudeville Theatre. If you are familiar with Mischief Theatre then this, created with magicians Penn and Teller, has to be seen. It will probably run for years but why not treat yourself for Christmas.
When the Crows Visit – Kiln Theatre. Ibsen’s Ghosts revamped and relocated to modern day India. The Kiln in Kilburn, along with the Arcola in Dalston and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, are all on a roll at the moment in terms of repertoire that isn’t too fringe-y but still diverse. This is the most intriguing offer.
Right finally a review that might conceivably be of some value to my solitary, loyal reader. Not that you should need me to tell you to go and see this. The proper critics and committed theatre bloggers will already have told you that. But I can heartily concur. Though I freely admit this is, in part, because I am awestruck by Hayley Attwell, who turns in an even better performance than she did in Measure for Measure at the Donmar, Labyrinth at Hampstead or The Pride at Trafalgar Studios.
Rosmersholm is apparently considered by many Ibsen aficionados to be his best play though it is rarely performed when compared to say, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck or The Master Builder. Now that normally just means it has some fatal flaw which the clever luvvies are prepared to forgive but which leaves us normal folk a bit nonplussed. Well, on the basis of this production, it is hard to see what has held it back from being as “popular” as Ibsen’s other works. The ethical, religious and political message is more pointed, the heroine, Rebecca West, more “contemporary”, the hero, Rosmer, more conflicted, the plot more transparent and the message more “relevant”, (though you should always be wary of people who vest past dramatists with “uncanny foresight” – it is human behaviour that doesn’t change). If you like your Ibsen social critique raw and bloody, and characterisation that doesn’t fanny around with dainty nuance, then this will be right up your street.
I have seen some reviews that imply that director Ian Rickson takes his time here. Nonsense. As in his other, superb, productions recently, Translations, The Birthday Party and The Goat, and his work with Jez Butterworth, he doesn’t feel the need to display any directorial excess, simply concentrating on forensically letting his actors breathe life into the text. Now of course I cannot be sure if the adaptor here, Duncan MacMillan, has taken liberties with Ibsen’s intent, never having seen the play before, (and having fallen behind, actually having never left the starting gate, with my Danish). If he has then good on him. It works. There is a bit of maladroit symbolism on show, a vision of a white horse which first appeared after Rosmer’s wife, Beata, committed suicide a year earlier by throwing herself into the waterwheel, but this no less grating than what’s served up in Lady From The Sea, Little Eyolf or, in the closest parallel, Ghosts. Oh, and there is of course, this being Ibsen, apparently some unintentional incest.
It is true that there is no escaping the melodrama of the conclusion, as the burden of guilt for the central couple becomes to much to bear, but frankly I want to be emotionally manipulated by great drama. There is a reason why the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller still punch in the gut and it isn’t located in cosy domesticity. Of course it is hard to believe that in the space of 10 minutes Rebecca and Rosmer make their pact but it is not as if the two of them have been hiding their emotional dissonance up until then. Oh, and there is, of course apparently some unintentional incest. So even if deep-rooted shame is something few of us in 2019 might recognise, (look to our political class for confirmation), it doesn’t require too much of a leap of imagination to believe it of Norway in 1886.
I can also see why some might not take to Tom Burke’s “actorly” portrayal of John Rosmer. Mr Burke has a particular intonation and delivery, (last see by us in Schiller’s Don Carlos), which doesn’t always ring true but it does make his character’s intellectual life explicit. You make not entirely accept what Rosmer is feeling here, especially when it comes to his guilt about Beata, but you certainly now what he is thinking. Set against Ms Attwell’s restless, impulsive Rebecca, whose “freedom” almost overwhelms her, and Giles Terera’s inflexible, but oh so reasonable, brother-in-law Andreas Kroll, his anguished, grieving Rosmer soon makes sense.
The tension between the Rosmer’s heritage as a rich aristo at the heart of local society who has lost his clerical mojo and the progressive leanings fuelled by Rebecca, and by Jake Fairbrother’s cynical reformist journo Peter Mortensgaard, all set around local elections, is pummelled to a pulp by Ibsen, MacMillan and cast, but that is what gives the arguments universality. The way in which values inform political positions, the way in which the press turns ugly and fans the flames, the struggle between engagement or withdrawal, (here taken to its ultimate, Romantic, conclusion). Lay on top the clarion feminist call that Rebecca represents, the doomed passion that follows Rebecca and Rosmer’s meeting of the minds and the dissolution of Peter’s Wright’s knackered Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s ex-teacher, the hypocritical foil to the buttoned up Kroll, and you have the full Ibsen package of contradiction.
Rae Smith has conjured up another elegant set. Much like Mike Britton’s construction for the Royal and Derngate’s Ghosts which the Tourist relished a few days earlier, authenticity was key, but here the faded grandeur of a long unused reception room in Rosmer’s ancestral pile was imagined. Lined with ancestral portraits which Rebecca instructs the staff to reveal from under dust covers at the opening, the new broom, (apparently the original text calls for Rebecca to sit in a chair knitting before the first line). Later on, just to make sure we haven’t missed them, Rosmer chucks flowers at his forebears. Neil Austin’s lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities of the setting, as does Gregory Clarke’s sound. The servants are omni-present reminding Rosmer of his position and creating swish scene changes but only the pithy housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers) gets to chip in with dialogue. And big respect to whoever signed off the health and safety papers for the aqueous resolution.
As with Ghosts as I was leaving I overheard some punters saying that they liked the actors but that it was a bit “word-y”. I am going to say this fully aware of just what a patronising c*nt it makes me sound like but …. it is not just about whether you recognise the cast from the telly and …. it is a play …. it is supposed to be “word-y”.
Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 2nd May 2019
A little bit of back to back Ibsen action. First this Ghosts and then, a few days later, Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. And the Tourist’s first visit to the Royal and Derngate which, he has Benn rather slow to observe, has been producing some very tempting offers as of late. I gather most of the drama here, (plays not fist-fights), takes place in the Royal with the larger Derngate offering a broader range of entertainment (Wet, Wet, Wet on the evening of the afternoon the Tourist attended, for those few of you who might be tempted by such). Both are wrapped inside a fine, open foyer area and I gather there are other spaces as well, the Underground Studio and a Filmhouse. All round very impressive.
As was this production of Ghosts, masterminded by director Lucy Bailey in a new version from Mike Poulton. Mr Poulton has a long history of adapting the European classics, Chekhov, Schiller, and a definitive version of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. His last outing was the excellent RSC two part Imperium, the story of Cicero, which I caught on its London transfer. I last saw Ghosts in 2013/14, two versions pretty much back to back. In Richard Eyre’s West End take Lesley Manville pretty much wiped the floor with any other Helen Alving’s past and future. In the other, Stephen Unwin’s ETT version at the Rose Kingston (his final play there as AD), well let us just charitably say it didn’t quite match it. But Ghosts is such a fine play in my book that it is hard to go too far wrong.
Having said that it is possible to get bogged down in old Henrik’s miserabilism. Religion, syphilis, potential incest and assisted suicide are never likely to make their way into the repertoire of, say, Mischief Theatre, (though Ghosts: The Musical might prove tempting), but there is more in terms of plot and character beyond a metaphor for late C19 moral hypocrisy. Helen Alving, holed up in her gloomy mansion, is a woman of rare depth, her doomed son Osvald does have moments of joy, at least potentially, Pastor Manders is not entirely devoid of sympathy, Jakob Engstrand wants to atone and Regina will, I think, one day come to terms with her parentage.
Indeed if it wasn’t for the prize c*nt, the dead Captain Alving, things might have been very different. He was the faithless husband who ruins his wife’s, his son’s and Regina’s lives. The sins of the father and all that. (The Danish/Norwegian title is Gengangere, “the thing that walks again”, which is more like a revenant than a ghost, someone and something that comes back to haunt others). By confronting the past Helen knows she is going to make things worse, of course, but this is also, as with all of Ibsen’s important women, a catharsis to break free from that past and to engage with the truth however ugly. To reject the social mores and religious convention that trapped her in the painful marriage, even if it is too late for her son and her dead husband’s illegitimate daughter.
Lucy Bailey, Mike Poulton and designer Mike Britton have worked together before and it shows. Adaptation flows into direction which is perfectly framed by the set. Mr Britton was apparently inspired by Edvard Munch’s art. Munch produced numerous illustrations of Ibsen’s plays and designed a production of the play in 1906 shortly after HI’s death. The darkest of dark blue-greens, think Farrow and Ball Green Smoke but darker, creates a fitting “psychological” backdrop. Gauze screens divide reception rooms and conjure up spectres. Props, costumes and architecture details are spot on period, straight out of a Vilhelm Hammershoi interior (as above). This is what Ibsen should look like. After the effective orphanage fire the set does angle back to create a “pit” which the actors have to clumsily navigate but otherwise this was perfection.
Made more so by Oliver’s Fenwick’s moody lighting and by Richard Hammarton’s sound design and composition. No barely audible ambient background noise here. A proper soundscape. With lots and lots of rain and a proper fire. And some top drawer cello, violin and piano chord dissonance.
It is possible to judge the success of a production of Ghosts as pure drama by the reaction of the uninitiated members of the audience to the various disclosures. Ibsen, being a genius, doesn’t just bounce them out in a line or two of clumsy exposition, they emerge, organically, from the plot. Mr Poulton’s adaptation perfectly registers these twists, not quite turning it into a thriller, that would be asking too much, but definitely more than enough to persuade the Ibsen-curious. Well maybe not all, as I overhead some student-y types complaining it was too “text-y” afterwards. Trust me kids this is as racy as Ibsen gets.
Penny Downie, particularly in the scenes where she rounds on Manders, was a fine, dignified, Helen Alving. Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald was a little too camp for my taste. I know he is an artistic type but too much surface petulance risks losing the despair of what might have been. Declan Conlon’s Jakob by contrast was well rounded and Eleanor McLoughlin wisely held back to make her escape at the end more pointed. James Wilby did verge on the shouty at times but his Pastor was sufficiently human, confused, and, finally, ashamed, to make the initial friendship with Helen believable (sometimes a problem if he is overly puritanical).
Apparently Ibsen only took a few weeks to write Ghosts in 1881, whilst summering in Sorrento, though it didn’t get staged until the following year by a Danish company in Chicago. The subject matter was in part a two-fingered riposte to all the churchmen and stiff-necks back home in Norway who got wound up by the his previous play, the far milder A Doll’s House. There his heroine Nora walks out on her sh*t-head husband. Here we see what can happen when a wife is convinced to stay. If HI thought he had wound up his conservative enemies with A Doll’s House, they went batsh*t when Ghosts arrived back home. Even when the King of Sweden loaded up HI with medals and honours galore years later, as he was recognised as Scandi’s greatest cultural export (at least until ABBA, just joking), his maj told him off for writing Ghosts.
HI famously said “we go through life with a corpse on our back”. This masterly version shows just why Ghosts is probably, IMHO, the Ibsen play which best represents this maxim. If our Henrik never stopped picking away at the scabs of his own life and the society around him then Ghosts is when the blood started to properly flow.
I will be back at the R&D. I have seen three of the Made in Northampton shows that are currently touring, Touching the Void, The Remains of the Day and the Headlong Richard III. The first two are outstanding and I see that Touching the Void is coming to London later this year. Mandatory viewing. I missed Our Lady of Kibeho which, judging by the reviews, was a massive oversight. So I am not going to make the same mistake with The Pope, Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge in the rest of this season.
I can see why the R&D has garnered awards though, and, I say this with the greatest respec,t it is hard to reconcile the fact that its AD, James Dacre, has the ex-editor of the Daily Mail for his dad. It would seem that, in this case, the sins of the father have not been visited on the son.
Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.
Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.
Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.
If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.
Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.
Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.
It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.
Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.
We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.
Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.
I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.
I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.
I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.