The Starry Messenger at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ***

The Starry Messenger

Wyndham’s Theatre, 5th August 2019

The Tourist, despite his evident theatre addiction, rarely jumps in to secure a ticket early for the “star” vehicles that crop up in the West End. It usually pays to wait to see how well regarded play and production are. Demand often adjusts to supply, pushing down price, in a pleasingly classical economics way. So far this year the strategy has worked for True West, The Price, Rosmersholm, Bitter Wheat and this, The Starry Messenger. I enjoyed Kenneth Lonergan’s last film Manchester by the Sea and see he had a hand in the writing of Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York, though plainly that film’s sprawling genius largely stems from Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Bill the Butcher. The reviews of A Starry Messenger from its original off-Broadway production in 2009 were also largely promising, (though it apparently got off to a very shaky start).

Matthew Broderick had a small part in MBTS and in Mr Lonergan’s epic failure Margaret, and larger roles in a whole string of Hollywood pap that has passed me by. However, he is probably still most famous for his early turn in cult teen movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is, IMHO, a bloody awful film, and, for the Tourist, in Alexander Payne’s Election, which is certainly not. And maybe also for being married to Sarah Jessica Parker, a terrible actor, though maybe that is the fault of the execrable Sex and the City in which she “starred”. And for a tragic traffic accident for which he seems to have escaped punishment. (The Tourist takes a dim view of the scale of justice usually meted out in such circumstances).

His co-star here was Elizabeth McGovern. Another Hollywood stalwart that the Tourist barely recognises. And this despite her living in Blighty and treading the boards in London in recent years. You will no doubt know her best as someone called Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. Of which I can truthfully, and proudly, say, I have only seen for maybe ten minutes in total, and that by accident. This is what comes of being an intellectual snob, devoting one’s cultural energies to quality British TV drama, art-house cinema from around the world, and elevating the theatre above all other performing arts.

Mr Broderick plays the stoical Mark Williams, a public lecturer in astronomy, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Ms McGovern is his chipper schoolteacher wife Anne. They have one, unseen though not unheard, teenage son. Mark is middle-aged, not quite in crisis, but a bemused, and amused, pedant whose life is passing him by. He still loves Anne but gentle bickering is their default mode of exchange. When animated, Puerto Rican, single Mom, nurse, Angela Vasquez stumbles into his lecture hall though, something of his life force returns. They have an unlikely affair. Tragedy strikes. So far so predictable. What makes all this cliche forgivable is Mr Lonergan’s ear for dialogue. These are ordinary people, doing ordinary things, in their ordinary lives, but with a depth of feeling which reaches for the infinite. They talk but don’t really listen. Misunderstanding and frustration abounds. At least that’s the idea. Hammered home with all the stargazey, metaphorical opportunity afforded by Mr Williams’s employ, especially right at the end. Faith plainly is not the answer in KL’s book.

It goes on a bit, nearly three hours, and, whilst I can remember the basics of the plot, and, Chiara Stevenson’s elegant set, with its night sky backdrop, the detail is already fading. It is fortunate that Matthew Broderick is playing a relatively dull man. Otherwise I might have mistaken him for a relatively bad actor. As it turns out, and particularly in the more humorous passages, his performance actually works. He is a modest man and, though, to paraphrase Churchill, he has much to be modest about, he is still striving for a good life.

Ms McGovern is an altogether more convincing stage presence but sadly we see too little of her and her part is underwritten. Rosalind Eleazar as Anela sails convincingly through the more hackneyed of her character’s traits, whether in the awkward and anguished scenes with Mark in her apartment, or in those with the terminally ill Norman (Jim Norton), the crusty old boy in her care, and his tetchy daughter Doris (Sinead Matthews), which provides the sub-plot. There are are regular laughs, often extracted from the regular members of the class Mark teaches, notably the some way behind the curve Mrs Pysner (Jenny Galloway), and from the wonderfully tactless, serial course-attender Ian (Sid Sagar). (I see that Kieran Culkin, another relater KL collaborator, played Ian in the original Broadway production. If you haven’t yet seen his turn as Roman Roy in HBO’s Succession then you are in for a treat). Another highlight is Mark’s conversations with his more successful, though still supportive as he pits Mark forward for a research role, academic colleague Arnold (Joplin Sibtain).

Chekhov it ain’t. But sometimes, in its wriggling ambivalence, it does a fair impression. KL, as you will probably have surmised, has spent far more time on the detail of the lines than the novelty of the plot or the wider context. But somehow, despite the irritations, I sort of quite liked it. Sam Yates last outing was with Ella Road’s excellent debut play The Phlebotomist but prior to that he, as here, rose to the occasion to direct acting royalty (notably Christian Slater) in the excellent Glengarry Glen Ross revival.

The original Hayden Planetarium, as we see at the end of the play, closed in 1997, to be reborn as Rose Centre foe Earth and Space attached to the American Museum of Natural History, (which I know from bitter experience feels almost as large as the universe itself). As he reveals in the programme he and Matthew Broderick went their together when they were kids. So now I understand why he has been so generous to his lifelong friend. After all, in the end, friends and relationships are all we really have.

The Hunt at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Hunt

Almeida Theatre, 1st August 2019

I am not sure where I stand on the films of director, controversialist and misogynist Lars van Trier. I guess if you venture into dark territory you are going to make the audience that follows you uneasy. Which is how I feel about the likes of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Brilliant film-making if not always brilliant films. 

Fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg is a much more palatable director however. More interested in social rather than individual psychology, more polis than eros, and less prone to stylistic innovation. Festen (The Celebration) is a work of unsettling, tonally ambiguous, tragi-comic genius, Submarino somehow extracts redemption from the unremitting pain of the brothers’ lives at its centre, Far From the Madding Crowd is better than the original, (Schlesinger’s and, I regret to say SO, Hardy’s), I’ve just seen the intriguing The Commune and I have Kursk on the watch list. But his best film for me is The Hunt, though it is helped by an outstanding central performance by the coolest actor on earth Mads Mikkelsen. 

All of his “original” films seem to be to be intrinsically dramatic, focussed on character, plot and idea, rather than spectacle, and not expansive in terms of time or place. Which makes them eminently suitable for theatrical treatment. It is a matter of some regret that the original Almeida production of Festen in 2004, which cemented the reputations of both Rufus Norris, now NT head, and playwright David Eldridge, who adapted the script of Vinterberg and his regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, coincided with a theatrical “dry” period for the Tourist. Hopefully one day it will return.

This time it is Almeida AD Rupert Goold directing, following on from his string of hits , Shipwreck, Albion, Ink, Medea, King Charles III and American Psycho. We should never forget that it all starts with the writer, and that in this regard the Almeida has been lucky. More over the theatre is, I assume, now flush with enough cash and kudos to pull in any actor and creative team that is desires. Even so, and maybe forgiving a few recent misfires, the last few years have been a purple patch for the house even by comparison to its very high historical standards. Simple rule. Just buy a ticket for everything they put on. Even now that Robert Icke is on his way since Rebecca Frecknall looks to be a very capable replacement as Associate Director. (Next up her version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Any playwright good enough to inspire a Bunnymen song gets my vote).

A story of a man or woman wrongly accused and shunned by a small community is obvious theatrical catnip. Reference the film where teacher Lucas returns to his Danish hometown and a job in a primary school after redundancy and the break-up of his marriage in the city. After a misunderstanding in the school with Clara, the daughter of Lucas’s best friend Theo, that we, but not the community, see, Lucas is accused of paedophilia. The set-up, the investigation that follows and the violent fall-out is all painfully realistic. The story though ends with neither forgiveness or banishment as you might expect. There is plenty of symbolism along the way as Lucas’s relationships with colleagues, friends, son Marcus, church members and hunting pals is dissected. A thriller with a moral message, rich in ambiguity, taking a potshot at Danish society’s complacent view of its own tolerance. Like I say. Theatrical catnip.

But it still needed adapting. Enter David Farr. I don’t know any of Mr Farr’s original writing or adaptations in the theatre but I, and probably you, will know his work for television, particularly his adaptations of John Le Carrie’s The Night Manager and, less successfully maybe, Misha Glenny’s McMafia. For The Hunt he has stuck pretty closely I think to the plot and chronology of the film, though he has made Lucas more solitary by removing girlfriend Nadja and friend Bruun, altered his relationship with Marcus and cleverly updated the schoolroom set-up. The deer hunts, and the ritualistic machismo that pervades them, have also been highlighted and provide some intense theatre assisted by the costumes of Evie Gurney, lighting of Neil Austin, sound of Adam Cork and movement of Botis Seva. Lucas is, graphically, turned into the prey.

I have said before that Rupert Gould strikes me as a generous director who brings out the best in the creatives around him and The Hunt is no exception. This is a gripping story but could have been delivered in a predictable enter/dialogue/exit, scene after scene fashion, as literal as its source. Instead, as in the string of his other plays mentioned above, the play is replete with movement, symbolism and visual diversion. The tone is set by, er, Es Devlin’s set. Yes it is another of her trademark glass boxes, set on a blond wood circular stage, but, whether as school, house, church, hunt meeting hall or, brace yourself, deer enclosure, switching from transparent to opaque, from place of safety to place or threat, it still works to brilliant effect.

Tobias Menzies is set to play Phil the Greek in Series 3 and 4 of The Crown but he has already decorated TV and film with distinction, though looking at his bio I haven’t seen nearly enough of him. On stage he was excellent as Mikhail/Michael in Robert Icke’s underrated Uncle Vanya at, yep you guessed it, the Almeida, but other than that, again, I haven’t seen him perform. Here though he was perfectly cast. Lucas is innocent, of the crime of which he is accused for sure, but also in a broader sense. This story is not an attempt to create false parity or deny the victim. It is about the hypocrisy and anger that can infect a small community when threatened. Lucas is neither good nor bad, simply the catalyst for the reaction, though we can sympathise with his plight. This doesn’t mean that the play dodges the uncomfortable truths it confronts, just that it doesn’t go in, as is the Dogme 95 way, for an overt moral stance.

For this to work requires Tobias Menzies to present Lucas as self contained, curiously restrained, almost withdrawn, in the face of what happens. This he does. To devastating effect. Justin Salinger as the feckless Theo and Poppy Miller as his unhappy wife Mikala, the three of them have baggage, are equally convincing, torn between believing their daughter or their friend. Around this trinity, Michele Austin as head teacher Hilde, Stuart Campbell as the gawky, raging Marcus, Danny Kirrane as the hyper-aggressive Gunnar and Howard Ward as the investigator Per also stood out. And Abbiegail Mills as young Clara should definitely stick with this acting lark (though not to the exclusion of her other studies of course).

Adaptations of films for the stage don’t always work. Witness many of Ivo van Hove’s creations. Though Network was a recent triumphant exception. This was in large part though thanks to the unsung adaptation of Lee Hall. In the same way we must thank David Farr for his smart contribution here. As good as the film? Maybe not quite. But still something remarkable to set alongside it.