Nora: A Doll’s House at the Young Vic review ****

Nora: A Doll’s House

Young Vic Theatre, 10th February 2020

It is not difficult to see why theatre-makers, and audiences, continue to be drawn to drawn to Ibsen’s masterpiece, now over 140 years old. First and foremost, there is the still extraordinarily powerful message. Just think what old Henrik would have written if he had actually set out to write a feminist manifesto and not used the real-life experience of a family friend. Then there are the complex fully rounded characters, not just Nora herself, but Helmer, Rank, Kristine, Krogstad and Anne Marie, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, shaped by, and shaping, the society they are immersed in. Of course, our sympathies are drawn towards the women’s predicaments, with indignation reserved for the patriarchal men and the way they treat those women, but, as ever with Ibsen, there is plenty of grey to ponder in between the black and white. Then there is the plot. Enough twists, believable disclosure, that ending, getting close enough to melodrama to please even the casual theatrical punter but offering enough pleasure to those who seek repeated viewings.

And then there is its seemingly infinite elasticity. We may have moved on from the stifling morality of late C19 Norwegian society and the “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” that HI observed, but his skill and intention in framing a more universal message of personal freedom and self-expression is, if anything, even more relevant in our world today. As last year’s queer reworking of the play, in Samuel Adamson’s Wife at the Kiln Theatre, demonstrated. (He has previous with reinterpretation of the play, though with psychology rather than gender, in his 2003 adaptation at the Southwark Playhouse).

I am still most drawn to those interpretations which stick closely to Ibsen’s structure, plot and characters though am always up for an interpretation that shifts time, place and/or look. The best of the recent crop was Tanika Gupta’s resetting to colonial India at the Lyric Hammersmith, recently streamed for one day only. Going further back I gather the 2009 Donmar production from Zinnie Harris was a bit of a damp squib despite a stellar cast, (Anderson G, just seen on the NT/YV stream as a peerless Blanche Dubois, Stephens T, Lesser A, Fitzgerald T and Eccleston C). I would certainly have liked to have seen Thomas Ostermeier’s hand grenade reworking based on what he did with Hedda Gabler just shown on the Schaubuhne Berlin streamfest.

Mind you, from the sound of it, the Royal Exchange outing from 2013 sounds like it would have been my glass of akevitt, with Greg Hersov in the director’s chair using Bryony Lavery’s reliable adaptation and with Cush Jumbo as Nora. (I do so hope we will get to see her Hamlet at the YV though I am not holding my breath – oops quite literally as I write this they have had to can it pro tem). Completing the history lesson Nora’s last visit to the Young Vic itself was in 2012 I believe with Hattie Monahan courtesy of Carrie Cracknell which I will watch one day soon on a streaming service near me.

And so to Nora: A Doll’s Hose. This re-think, from Stef Smith (Human Animals, Royal Court), by way of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offered more than enough to chew on. As you probably already know , this comment coming a full 2 months and change after the production closed, (just a week or so early as the curtains came down everywhere), her big idea is to offer us three different Noras: from 1918, the year women finally git the vote, 1968, the “Sexual revolution” and the introduction of the pill, and 2018, the dawn of MeToo., against a backdrop of austerity Britain Though with one actor, Luke Norris, as husband, in a quick-change, of character as well as costume, masterclass.

We gain in Nora dimensionality, as social and, notably, economic context and mundane duty, especially childcare, are fitted to period. 1918 Nora (Amaka Okafor), is patronised, yet remains dignified, in her care of war-damaged Thomas 1, 1968 Nora (Natalie Klamar) is a bundle of nerves, popping pills, bullied by Thomas 2 and 2018 Nora (Anna Russell-Martin), weighed down by debt and childcare seeks solace in drink, Thomas 3 being abusive and bugger all use. Stef Smith cleverly finds ways to keep the broad brush strokes of HI’s plot visible and the choreography of Elizabeth Freestone’s direction, (and especially EJ Boyle’s movement), through Tom Piper’s skeletal set, signifying door and not much more, beefed up with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound/composition, as we zip back and forth in time, is remarkable.

However with Mark Arends tripling up as xx Nathan, Zephryn Tattie as xxx Daniel and the three Nora leads also interchanging as her mate, and, in the swinging sixties lover, Christine, it can, even with excellent performances all round (wrong to have favourites, but most impressively, Anna Russell-Martin) it does get a bit breathless with, er, breadth supplanting depth of character. No question it works as innovative theatre making and it conveys its feminist message smartly with rhythm in words and actions, bar a rather maladroit coda. We, the SO, BUD and KCK, could have done with a pie and a pint to discuss further in what, it transpired was our last pre-lockdown outing. But it could have done with drilling down further, and more finely, into the detail of the thoughts it provoked. Maybe in a more focussed, original, contemporary, play with just a faint echo to the Ibsen that Stef Smith so plainly, and rightly, is inspired by.

That’ll be it for Nora this year I think. The Tourist’s annual outing to Amsterdam and the ITA to see Robert Icke’s Children of Nora was a casualty of our times, though the Jamie Lloyd production based on Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and starring Hollywood royalty Jessica Chastain is still planned for July. We’ll see.

Swive at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse review ****

Swive

Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020

I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).

The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.

This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.

This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.

There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.

The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory review *****

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.

Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.

For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).

Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.

On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.

So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).

There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.

Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.

Repeat. Do not miss this.

Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre review ****

Faith, Hope and Charity

National Theatre Dorfman, 8th October 2019

I didn’t catch the first two plays in Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy, Beyond Caring (zero hours contracts) and Love (a homeless hostel), about life for the disadvantaged in modern Britain. In fact worse that that I didn’t even know about them. And seeing Faith, Hope and Charity was something of a last minute decision driven by the strong reviews and a timing loose end.

Well more fool me. Creating a devised play about everyday life where not much happens but which still packs a powerful emotional and political punch is not easy. FH&C doesn’t shout, preach or hector because it doesn’t need to. It comes from the same place as the film collaborations of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and I would imagine is driven by the same passion, but its mood is altogether more eloquent. Mr Zeldin’s other work, a play based on Lars van Trier’s The Idiots, directing Macbeth in Korea, Romeo and Juliet in Italy and operas in Russia (including Ades’s Powder Her Face) suggests he is a man of many talents and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

The simply astounding Cecilia Noble plays plays Hazel, a kind, redoubtable woman who volunteered to cook lunch for those in need in a dilapidated community hall on the edge of a nameless British town. With her soft, calm voice and unflappable temperament Hazel could hardly be more different from Ms Noble’s two previous roles on the Dorfman stage, as no-nonsense probation office in Bruce Norris’s Downstate and as comedic force of nature Aunt Maggie in Natasha’s Gordon’s brilliant Nine Night.

She is joined by reforming ex-criminal Mason, another superb performance from Nick Holder, who is setting up a choir, as much to aid his own rehabilitation as to help the locals. He starts to assist in the kitchen. The array of regulars include cranky pensioner Bernard (veteran stage actor Alan Williams) who can’t face his empty home, timorous Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and her daughter Tala, the extremely anxious Karl (Dayo Koleosho) always waiting for his carer, the truculent Anthony (Corey Peterson). And Beth (Susan Lynch), with teenage son Marc (Bobby Stallwood), whose chaotic life means she has lost custody of her 4 year old daughter, Faith, and is arguing with the court authorities to secure her return.

Mr Zeldin’s script makes plain the impact of austerity on the lives of his characters, the leaky community hall is eventually closed down due to lack of funds, but this is no grim polemic. His characters may be struggling but they are resilient, they are compassionate and, at times, optimistic. There is humour and joy through the various scenes, the Christmas lunch, the offer by Hazel to take in Faith though she has her own family issue, the relationship between Mason and Beth, the cheesy choral anthem “You’ve Got The Music In You”, but the realities of the impact of the broken social care system always looms large.

Natasha Jenkins’ set and Marc William’s utilitarian lighting is as note perfect as the dialogue. Mr Zeldin spent two years researching this play and it shows. Of course I know a couple of hours assuaging the guilt of a comfortable and sympathetic metropolitan audience makes fuck all difference to those people at the pointy end of austerity. Though I might respectively suggest the following.

  • Banish from your mind any thoughts that those in need are at fault. In any way. Ever. You are not better or cleverer. Just luckier.
  • Vote the right way. You know what to do.
  • Give £10 a month to the Trussell Trust. Pay for it by doing something veggie, green or healthy.

And now for the rant.

Local authorities will have seen an average 77% decrease in government funding in the four years to 2020. In real terms overall local government spending will have seen a fall in real terms of 30% since 2010. In the last 5 years food bank use in the UK has risen by 73%. According to the TUC` 3.1 mn children with working parents now live below the poverty line.

Austerity failed. Sucking demand out of a brittle economy will always fail. Spend on health (20%), education (15%) and pensions (15%) is going to run ahead of real growth and inflation. Slicing spend elsewhere and pretending that any job, however lowly paid and precarious, makes for healthy employment is nonsense. The UK cannot have the services it wants without paying for them. And if we don’t pay for them in the long run we will, as we are now, pay for it. Hiding debt by buying shitty assets was never a long term solution. We are already, public and private, the most indebted major economy on earth. Pretending we can cut ourselves off from Europe and pursue some buccaneering independent future is bollocks. Our debt cost will rise as our currency croaks and capital and labour will fuck off elsewhere.

The solution is simple. Pay more tax. Everyone who can afford it. The argument is over whether that be on wealth or income, not how much. And borrow more. A lot more. Everyone else is. And debt is cheap because there is no alternative. But use it to invest, support and drive sustainable growth, not buy votes. And right this minute end the farcical Brexit pantomime by immediate revocation. Doing something idiotic just because you don’t want to lose face, or hope that will make it go away is, well, idiotic. Time for toddler Britain to end the tantrum and face realities.

Merry Christmas.

Pilgrims at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Pilgrims

Directors’ Festival 2019, Orange Tree Theatre, 7th August 2019

The Tourist is a firm fan of the annual Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree which gives students taking the theatre directing MA at nearby St Mary’s Uni, (in conjunction with the OT), an opportunity to try their hand at a full scale production. Unfortunately this year other commitments and a diary cock-up, (entirely my fault I admit SO), left me only seeing one of the four productions. Pilgrims directed by Ellie Goodall.

This was chosen largely on the strength of writer Elinor Cook, specifically Out of Love which appeared here at the OT last year and her adaptation of The Lady from the Sea which Kwame Kwei-Armah directed at the Donmar in 2017. She has a rare gift for lyrical dialogue and elastic character wrapped up in temporally uncertain, non-naturalistic settings. (And, I might say, a wonderful first name). Pilgrims followed the same pattern. Though not quite as effectively as Out of Love it must be said.

It tells the story, well stories since we see all three perspectives, of the love triangle between two mountaineering friends Will (Nicholas Armfield) and Dan (Luke MacGregor), and would be folklore academic, and our narrator, Rachel (Adeyinka Akinrinade). The extrovert, excitable Will and the deeper, introverted Dan are famous in their world for having climbed Everest together aged 18. But their climbing partnership is starting to fray. Rachel falls for Will first but, later, it is Dan with whom she makes a real connection. Not ground-breaking stuff in terms of set-up but from this Ms Cook explores themes such as female agency, gender expectations and male ambition through flash-backs and flash-forwards as the two men face danger on their latest, virgin, climb. In tales of derring-do men usually do the derring and women wait on the sidelines for their return. Not here.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting and, especially, Lex Kosanke’s sound do a grand job in taking us from mountainside to bar to front room which renders the simple props that the cast cart around on Cory Shipp’s set somewhat redundant. All three actors are, moreorless, on top of Ms Cook’s zigzagging text, though Adekinya Akinrinade has the best of the evening (as is meant to be) and Ellie Goodall’s direction shows she has a firm grip on plot and character.

It is just that sometimes Elinor Cook’s eloquent prose, (with its references to the Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey and Mary Magdalene), may just be a little too fractured, trying to do too much, (ideas, image, exposition, dialogue), with too little. Not for one moment suggesting a non-linear, lyrical approach to story-telling is a problem, far from it, that is what theatre is for. Just that in this case the warmth and humour which characterised Out of Love was less apparent and the message, the marginalisation of women in life as well as stories, might have stood a more direct approach and a less compressed structure.

Mind you I am an old bloke so maybe beyond understanding. Though, if it helps, I can categorically stay I wouldn’t be stupid enough to climb a mountain just to prove how manly I was.