April 431 BCE. Day 5. City Dionysia. Athens. Aeschylus’s boy Euphorion has already paraded his dramatic wares as has arch-rival (and more successful) Sophocles. Euripides rocks up with his 3 tragedies, Dictys (no, me neither), Philoctetes (misanthropic soldier, later a winning tale for Sophocles) and, fortunately for us, Medea, as well as the mandatory satyr play, here Theristai (a p*ss take of tragedy with lots of dirty jokes performed by dancing fellas with comedy phalluses and clogs – hmm).
The audience, all blokes, no women (well maybe some but certainly not the posh wives and daughters) or slaves, knows the drill. A Chorus, here representing the women of Corinth to explain and react to the action. Incidental characters, a nurse, a tutor, a messenger, to advance the plot. Three men, Medea’s “husband” Jason, the king of Corinth, Creon, and his childless counterpart from Athens, Aegeus. And two silent boys. All played by men. In masks. With music and movement and in accordance with an established, if increasingly elastic, formal structure.
And, of course, Medea herself. A Barbarian other from Colchis across the Black Sea, sorceress trained by Hecate whose Auntie was Circe herself and whose granddad was none other than the sun-god Helios. Now she is the wife and mother of the aforementioned boys. Whisked off her feet by Jason, though hard to see why given his somewhat dick-ish qualities, there is a suspicion naughty matchmaker Aphrodite intervened. He has came from Iolcus with his crew on the Argo to purloin the Golden Fleece, which his usurper uncle, Pelias, rather rashly, had agreed to swap for the throne. (A complicated family history here involving rivers, rape, exposure on mountains, step-matricide, imprisonment, exile, a centaur as a stepdad and a missing sandal – standard issue Greek mythology).
Anyway, Jason nabbed the fleece, with a lot of help from Medea and her magic, having saved his bacon on multiple occasions, as he set about completing a bunch of somewhat ludicrous tasks set by its owner, Medea’s daddy King Aeëtes of Colchis. Unfortunately, this daddy promptly reneged on his deal and the only way to shake him off was for Medea to kill and chop up her (half) brother Absyrtus. Oops.
The run-aways, after seeing off a big bronze chap, turning Cretans into a bunch of liars, and Jason getting a fix of his Dad Aeson’s blood, returned to Iolcus. But, uh-oh here we go again, Pelias refused to give up the throne, so Medea, literally, cooked up a plan to kill him, involving his daughters, an old ram, a stew-pot and some herbs. Swift exit. Jason and Medea who end up in Corinth.
Which is where Euripides’s story kicks in. Jason plans to throw Medea over to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon (king of Corinth, keep up). Allegedly this will secure his, Medea’s and the kids’ position in Corinth. A likely story. Medea is badass mad and doesn’t mind who knows it. Creon reckons it’s safest to banish her and the children. And chickensh*t Jason isn’t going to argue with him. However, Medea is clever, very clever. Buys some time and hatches a plan. The screw inexorably tightens. Glauce, Creon and, infamously, (surely no spoiler alert required), but still distressingly, herchildren are victims of Medea’s wrath.
All this Bronze Age myth will have been familiar to our Athenian geezers via Hesiod and the like. So presumably they settled in to see how, as Congreve would have it, “heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned”, with the Barbarian being put firmly in her place. Except this was Greek drama and this was Euripides. If it were all so simple we wouldn’t be caught up in it near 2500 years later. His predecessors Aeschylus and Sophocles, albeit through more formal structures, had already used myth and history to shine an often critical light on Athenian, and Greek, politics, society and mores. Drama was supposed to educate as well as entertain and to innovate and provoke. It is hard to imagine that Euripides, who broke the rules seven years earlier with the tetralogy which included the surviving tragedy Alcestis (one of Pelias’s daughters), hadn’t already started to get under the skin of his peers with his ambiguity, irony, sarcasm, comedy, subversion, needling, gender awareness, rounded “human” characterisations and all round meta-ness.
So, I do wonder if the apparent shock of the children’s murder at the hands of their mother and her subsequent coup de theatre/deus ex machina escape sans chariot really was all that shocking. Maybe Euripides came third and last that year simply because the jury preferred the competition. Maybe belief in arete, eudaimonia, rhetoric, aporia, hypsos, mimesis, diegesis, pathos, nous, akrasia/enkrateia, prohairesis, phronesis and sophrosyne offset pilotimo, kleos, agon, esthlos and other such “manly” virtues. Easy enough to be temporarily sympathetic to the plight of women when you know that the patriarchy persists and you can go out and get lashed up with your mates on cheap wine when the play ends. And, by then, the Barbarians, which the Greeks used as signifiers to assert their own superiority, were anything but uncivilised, rapidly Hellenising and the source of the grain on which the polis depended.
And so we roll forward to 2023 and @sohoplace (why!!??). Perfect sightlines and acoustics in the round even if the seats are a bit of a squeeze for the fuller figure, the décor is bouji baffling and egress is a health and safety nightmare. Vicki Mortimer’s set, with off stage basement, is an elegant solution which dovetails with Dominic Cooke’s unfussy direction, albeit with a few a la mode tropes, glam metal pre-prologue, a rain shower in the closing episodes and a bit of slo-mo shuffling from Ben Daniels, who, smartly, is cast in all the male roles. A nod to Athenian practice which underlines the manifold character flaws of the three chaps; for me Euripides’s excoriation of the male gender is nearly as powerful as his exultation of the female.
Our chorus, Penny Layden, Jo McInnes and Amy Trigg, initially sat amongst us, for we are all voyeuristic Women of Corinth, and delivered the concise poetry of Robinson Jeffers’s classic 1947 adaptation, exquisitely. Music to the ears as it should be. Marion Bailey’s Nurse is the mirror of our own escalating helplessness and dread (even if you know exactly what is going to happen) and, for my money, has the best lines as she describes the deaths of Glauce and Creon.
So, given this text and performance, no excuse for even the constantly whirring brain of LB, a Greek tragedy virgin but now convert, not to be drawn in. Let’s be honest though, even with this clarity, it is only the mighty presence of Sophie Okonedo that turns this into a memorable evening. No great surprise. Check out her Cleopatra in Simon Godwin’s A&C alongside Ralph Fiennes, her Stevie, (now theirs is a wronged wife), alongside Damien Lewis in Ian Rickson’s version of Edward Albee’s Grecian homage, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? or her Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses (where Ben Daniels played Buckingham and which was also directed by Dominic Cooke).
Barking witch or feminist revenger? And/or everything in between? Sophie Okenedo makes all readings credible, making Medea entirely human, clever, powerful, logical, desperate, passionate, pleading, sardonic, even as she commits this most inhuman act. Perspectives are subtly highlighted, Medea’s otherness is contrasted with the white skin and flaxen air of Glauce, Jason’s futile mansplaining, Creon’s prideful ego, Jason’s devastation. A shout out too for Gareth Fry’s sound design which ratchets up the tension and doesn’t recede as some contemporary designs are wont to do.
Criticisms? We are done and dusted in 90 minutes so a little more breath might have been drawn to let us savour the text. The foregrounding of plot and character left the insights into the influence of the gods and the Greek mind somewhat hanging. Some of the movement felt a little “staged” – yes I am perfectly aware how daft that sounds but I know what I mean. And camping up Aegeus continues the long tradition of viewing him as a plot irritant. But all in all I would hope that punters came out knowing that Greek tragedy, for all it’s “then-ness” can be right, slap bang, of now.
The novelty of digital entertainment by now very much worn off but, fortunately, there were plenty of other worthwhile distractions (the return of birdwatching after four decades perhaps the most surprising) for the Tourist to mask the lack of live cultural stimulation. (And travel, which absence, I am ashamed to say, loomed larger than it should have done).
I can see from my list of film and TV watching, (yes I keep lists of that, so what, it doesn’t make me sad), that, even with the shameful stuff which I choose not to record , my viewing habits were rapidly deteriorating. From art cinema, via Netflix box-sets, to My Kitchen Rules. Clearly, in order to maintain my customary high level of cultural snobbery, effort was required and, no doubt, these were the hard yards of lockdown.
BTW I am acutely aware that these catch up lists are veering ever closer to those humblebrag “family year in review” missives your get at Christmas from “friends” you never liked in the first place. For which I am truly sorry.
As it happens we kicked off the year with a family outing to Christmas at Kew Gardens. Now the Tourist has a very soft spot for light displays, especially at Christmas. This is in sharp contrast to his Scroogerian approach to the rest of the festive season. Anyway this fetish has meant that the SO, BD and LD have been dragged along, much against their collective will, to some shockingly bad would be son et lumieres. (It has just occurred to me that MS has, stealthily, managed to avoid these outings). As it turned out this one actually hit the mark though maybe this said more about our lockdown ennui than the displays themselves. Don’t tell the family but I’ve already booked for this year.
A couple of “live” theatre streams. One a revisit. ITA’s Kings of War which remains a top 10 bucket list watch for all of you (along with their Roman Tragedies). Obvs not as thrilling on a screen as in a theatre but I didn’t miss a moment of the 4+ hours, though, wisely, they offered a break for me tea. Ivo van Hove adapts a translation from Rob Klinkenberg of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, focussing on the successive kings as leaders amid the politics that informed their decisions. That doesn’t mean he jettisons the human dramas for the big picture stuff, you will recognise the plays and in some ways the human foibles are made more acute, but it does mean a skewering of detail and a different take on language, translating the Dutch back into English sub-titles, so stripping back verse and prose to the essential. Jack Cade, most of the hoi polloi gone and the women reduced largely to necessary accessories (though this in itself is illuminating). Battle scenes replaced with a crashing score. Other key scenes given a contemporary twist and repeated visual signifiers given centre stage. The corridors of power delivered in a sterile office aesthetic. The technological trickery of video, live and pre recorded. Voice-overs, sheep, trumpet fanfares, war poetry. And Hans Kesting. bursting out of his too small suit, quite simply the best Richard III ever. History plays as Netflix Nordic thriller. Which trust me, in this vase, is a marvellous thing.
Quite a contrast with Mischief Theatre’s Mischief Movie Night in which our favourite comedy theatre troupe take a genre, location and title from the (premium paying) on line audience and improvise a film from there. Like most of Mischief’s works the spontaneity is, of course, well tempered with meticulous planning, and MC Jonathan Sayer has to push, shove and stall in certain directions, but there are some genuinely funny improvised moments (even for Sayer himself) amid the water treading. It has been interesting to watch Mischief, on stage and screen, keep trying to expand the boundaries of their craft, and monetisation, of their concept. That they can continue do this is down to genuine skill from the core troupe. I confess there are times when it can get a little repetitive but just as the ideas start to pall, even annoy, along comes another laugh out loud moment or idea. Mind you, it isn’t always that memorable. Witness I can’t actually remember what film they created the night the family tuned in. Oops.
What else? A couple of European theatre recordings that were interesting but at the outer limit of the Tourist’s tolerance and lost not a little in translation: Deutsches Theater’s Maria Stuart directed by Anne Lenk and Theatre of Nations The Idiot based on the Dostoevsky classic. Closer to home, revisits of Lucy Kirkwood’s “science” play Mosquitoes and Hytner’s NT Othello with the most excellent Messrs Lester and Kinnear as well as the 2013 Young Vic A Doll’s House (though Hettie Morahan was a bit too strung out for my taste). Not so bowled over by the NT’s cash cow War Horse (see what I did there), which I finally clocked. Though not because of its obvious quality, just because this clearly needs to be seen in a theatre and not beamed through a little laptop with a buggered screen. (It would be so helpful if NT at Home could solve the daft technology gap when it comes to Samsung tellies).
I won’t bore with waxing rhapsodic about the live stream of ITA’s Roman Tragedies. You can find my “review’ of the real deal at the Barbican elsewhere on these pages. Like Kings of War this is 6 hours of your life which you will want to get back. that’s why I watched it all over again. Very interesting to see the back stage camaraderie at the end of the adrenaline marathon, a clear demonstration of why this theatre company is the best in the world.
Another online theatre offer from The Original Theatre Company, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from MR James’s The Experiment. Great cast led by Tamzin Outhwaite, Max Bowden and Stephen Boxer, a bright updating and some smart technicals but not quite as chilling as hoped. But then ghost stories when taken off the page rarely are, though the SO, who loves this sort of thing, lives in hope.
More successful was the Almeida’s Theatre’s Hymn, and not just because of the writing of the multi-talented Lolita Chakrabarti. I get the impression that she, and hubby, Adrian Lester, pretty much do what they like when it comes to acting. Because they can. When they work together, as here, and as in Red Velvet, well, you just know it’s going to be good. Though the secret sauce here came from Danny Sapani who played Benny to AL’s Gil. Ostensibly it’s a simple story of two black friends and their connection, simply staged and directed (by Blanche McIntyre). In other hands it could veer into cliche, Gil is a professional, comfortably off, Benny less so, but precisely by avoiding the soapbox and concentrating on their emotional connection, happy as well as said, they sing and dance would you believe, it draws you in and, by the end, wrings you out. That is down to the brilliance of the leads, you don’t even notice the distancing requirement, but also the naturalness of the writing. it is my belief that Ms C still has something even better up her sleeve.
And then there was the Sonia Friedman Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I was too late into the run so missed out on the live take but this was a more than satisfactory replacement. Obviously Conor McPherson was just the man for the job when it came to another updated adaptation of Chekhov’s, IMHO, best play, and Toby Jones was bound to be a perfect Vanya. And directed by Ian Rickson, the master of letting classic texts breathe ,(I offer you Paradise, Romersholm, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia, The Birthday Party, Translations), whilst still offering contemporary connection. Here augmented for screen by Ross MacGibbon who gradually moves the cameras closer to the “action” as the emotional intensity screws up whilst always remembering we are in a theatre. With Rae Smith serving up a stunning set of decrepitude. The real win though came in the rest of the cast, Roger Allam’s pernickety hypochondriac Alexandre (replacing Ciaran Hinds from the stage version), Richard Armitage’s idealistic Astrov, Rosalind Eleazar’s languid Yelena, Aimee Lou Wood’s cheerful, in the circumstances, Sonya. Tragi-comedy I hear you say. Right here sir I say. Or rather on I Player until the end of the year.
The Young Vic Yerma with Billie Piper giving her all and more, the NT Antigone, more memorable for Christopher Eccleston’s Creon and Soutra Gilmour’s design than Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone, Russell T Davies’s whizz bang Midsummer Night’s Dream and a bonkers Nora: Christmas at the Helmers, Ibsen update from Katona Jozsef Szinhaz Theatre in Budapest.
But the best filmed theatre came courtesy of the (in)famous Peter Hall version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia from 1981, performed at the NT and then filmed for TV early on in Channel 4’s life. (Interesting to see what our “ostrich anus eating for money” Culture Secretary would make of that were it to be repeated). You can cobble together the three parts, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and Eumenides, thanks to some nice people at YouTube. Brace yourself for masks courtesy of Jocelyn Herbert, a stupendous, propulsive score from Harrison Birtwistle, a verse translation from Tony Harrison that mixes modern idioms with invented expression and some top drawer performances from the all male cast notably Pip Donagy’s Clytemnestra, Roger Gartland’s Electra and, especially, Greg Hicks’s Orestes. Not far behind as part of my Greek tragedy homework was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s quixotic Oedipus Rex.
Another offering from the team that brought us What a Carve Up! (see my prior catching up post). Though this The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn’t quite up to the standards set by that predecessor. The idea of updating everyone’s favourite fictional narcissist as a modern day influencer, replete with Instagram and dating apps, makes eminent sense and Fionn Whitehead as Dorian leaps at the chance to boost his likes and, literally, preserve his profile. However, despite contributions from the likes of Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Alfred Enoch, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation never quite broke free of its central conceit (see what I did there) to properly explore Wilde’s morality tale.
Another enjoyable family entertainment this time in the form of Les Enfant Terrible’s Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure. This company has a proven track record in innovative, immersive theatre, and whilst this didn’t push the boundaries genre wise, it is straight sleuthing, guided, but it was fun, and for once Dad didn’t get left behind by his smarter, savvier, kids.
The RSC’s Dream, which used cutting edge live capture and gaming technology to give us half an hour with Puck in the Athenian forest, looked marvellous but, in some ways, the Q&A, showing how it was done, was more interesting that the film itself. Always remember theatre is text, actors, audience. Spectacle can expand but not trump this. At the other end Greenwich Theatre’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by James Hadrell, was a billy basic Zoom rendition of Caryl Churchill’s TV play which served to highlight its proselytising flaws rather than its smart one-liners. And it pains me to say it but The Orange Tree‘s first foray into the C19 digital world, Inside, three plays, Guidesky and I, When the Daffodils and Ursa Major from respectively Deborah Bruce, Joel Tan and Joe White, directed by Anna Himali Howard, was somewhat disappointing. I know all involved can do better. Actually to be fair in Guidesky and I Samantha Spiro made a lot of her character’s lashing out to mask the grief after her mother’s death, Deborah Bruce wisely aping the master of the tragicomic monologue Alan Bennett, but the other two-handers felt forced.
More success this month came from my opera viewing. Bergen National Opera‘s streamed production of La clemenza di Tito, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner, was an excellent introduction to the late Mozart opera which, until now, has passed me by. Mind you Mr Gardner has a habit of persuading in any opera that I might be predisposed to. He and his Norwegian band also offered the pick of the fair few streamed concerts i too in this month with a programme of Beethoven, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Berio. Scottish Opera filmed take from last year of Cosi fan tutte, a sort of reality TV take, didn’t quite convince but that is as much to do with the libretto/plot as the production. I am still waiting for that killer Cosi. On the other hand it was a joy to revisit Netia Jones’s exquisite Curlew River from 2013. Can’t match being there but well worth tracking down.
I am sorry to say that Outside, the second trilogy of streamed plays from the Orange Tree Theatre, didn’t really improve on the first, and not just because of a technical problem on the evening I tuned in. If I were a betting man, (which I resolutely am not, low risk, compounded returns being more my thing), I would say that Two Billion Beats, Prodigal and The Kiss by, respectively, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Kalungi Ssebandeke and Zoe Cooper and directed by Georgia Green, maybe lacked the two secret ingredients of great theatre, collaboration and time. More of both and all three plays could be turned into something tighter and more convincing to build on strong performances and the kernel of ideas they already have.
Witness Harm, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Bruntwood Prize winning play from the Bush Theatre directed by Atri Banerjee and with Leanne Best as the Woman in the version shown on BBC (Kelly Gough in the theatre version). She is an estate agent who sells a house to influencer Alice, whose friendship turns into obsession. A black comedy that presses all the right buttons could have been crashingly predictable in the wrong hands but not here. And I bet (looks like I am turning into a gambler) Ms Eclair-Powell went through careful iteration before polishing this jewel as well as benefitting from the insight of others along the way.
Sorry getting distracted again. Sadie, by David Ireland, which is still available on BBC I Player in contrast to Harm, was a casualty of lockdown never making its premiere at the Lyric Belfast, but instead filmed for the BBC Lights Up festival. The title character, played by Abigail McGibbon, has a fling with a Portuguese cleaner half her age. He seeks therapy, Sadie’s head is invaded by relatives from the past. This “triggers” an excursion into classic David Ireland absurdist black comedy, with the unresolved sectarianism of The Troubles as the backdrop, and, like Everything Between Us, Cyprus Avenue and The Ulster American, it is compelling, funny and unsettling in equal measure. BTW the BBC, for the same price as Netflix, keeps on churning out reams of unmatchable culture, drama, comedy and documentary. Netflix in contrast, mostly derivative shit. Christ I wish there was a way that the BBC and all the nepotistic elite that work for it (I am being sarcastic here) could find a way to shift its ecosystem to a financial model which allowed them to tell the Clown and his pathetic “culture war” acolytes to f*ck right off.
Talking of subscription models you would be a fool not to sign up for NT at Home. I confess I have not made as much use of this as I should have done since signing up but that is only because I have already seen most of the plays now showing. However, the Phedre from 2009, directed by Nick Hytner and using a Ted Hughes translation which hypes up Racine’s Alexandrian verse into something even more direct, was a welcome addition to the Tourist’s canon, neo-classical French drama still being a massive hole. Helen Mirren as lady P, Stanley Townsend as near-cuckolded Theseus, Dominic Cooper as hunky Hippolytus and John Shrapnel as sly Theramene all take a munch out of the bright Greek island scenery but that I guess is the play.
Rufus Norris was the directorial hand behind David Hare’s stage adaptation of Katherine Boo’s lively essay of life in a Mumbai slum in the shadow of the international airport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Another inexplicable omission for the Tourist when it appeared in 2014 in the Lyttleton. It looks tremendous, the cast, eventually, inhabit their diverse characters, and the focus on one story, young Abdul’s determination to maintain his dignity and honesty, pays dividends.
Some tip-top theatre then but the best viewing of the month came from NTGent and Milo Rau’s The New Gospel. Now the astute observer will know that this is actually a film, despite its appearance as a paid for stream on the website of one of these avant-garde European theatre companies that the Tourist is so in love with. Typical remainer, “everything’s better in Europe”. Forgive me though as I didn’t know this when I booked it. Swiss director Milo Rau, to whom the Tourist, twenty years ago, bore a passing resemblance, is a cultural polymath who likes to cause a stir politically with his work. Top bloke. He has big plans for an activist NT Gent where he is now AD, which I will need to purview based on The New Gospel. Like Pasolini before him, M. Rau takes a dramatisation of Christ’s crucifixion, but his Christ is black, Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian activist who has taken on, and beaten, Italian gang-masters in real life. His followers are fellow migrant workers. The New Testament scenes are interspersed with documentary action as well as auditions and rehearsals. Matera in Basilicata is the setting, as it was for Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, when it was a symbol of barely credible poverty in Italy’s South. Matera’s now chi-chi luxury (we know, we’ve stayed there) is here contrasted within the nearby migrant camps. And, brace yourself fans of the meta, Enrique Irazoqui, Pasolini’s amateur acting Christ, is cast as John the Baptist, Maia Morgenstern, Romania’s acting queen, pays Mary, as she did in Mel Gibson’s execrable Passion of Christ, (which was also filmed in Matera), and the brilliant Marcello Fonte, the maker of the wonderful film Dogman, is Pontius Pilate. Cinematographer Thomas Eirich-Schneider’s background is in documentary but his set-pieces are also stunning.
In which the Tourist condenses down 2020, in and out of lockdown, mostly watching stuff on a screen. Don’t worry he also took walks, saw punters when permitted and growled at the state of his disappointing nation, but it is only now he is back out in the live cultural realm, receiving “multiple inputs” as BUD would have it, that the cognitive slide has stopped. I know, egregious first world world privilege, but this is a blog about culture so forgive my insensitivity.
Where to start. A few highlights of the filmed performances I saw over the year I think, then the same for the “digital” theatre which I consumed and also a word on the “live” performances that snuck in under the wire as restrictions lifted and were then reimposed. Chronologically because I am naturally idle and that is easier. BTW the idea of a “freedom day” per our comedy government raises my liberal, remainer, metropolitan elite hackles but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have come quicker for my theatre ecosystem chums.
First out of the block was one of Schaubuhne Berlin‘s performance streams, namely Hamlet filmed at the Avignon Festival, with Thomas Ostermeier in the directorial chair and Lars Eidinger as the eponymous prince, so mad with toddler tantrums that he couldn’t be mad surely. Bordering on the slapstick, with earth, blood and water liberally splashed around, breaking the fourth wall, cuts galore, extra, incongruous lines, “to be or not to be” a drunken rant, Gertrude and Ophelia psychosexually doubled up, by playing up the comedy and meta-theatre in Hamlet, Ostermeier locates new truths in the greatest of plays (?). Elsinore as excess. Not for those who like their Shakespeare all sing-song verse and doublets. I bloody loved it. As I did later in the month with the company’s take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The scene where the audience is invited into the central political debate, after Stockmann’s prescient rant about liberal hypocrisy, is electrifying. Even in German. What I would have given to see this when it came to London in 2014. What a tit I was for missing it. This is utterly contemporary, Stockmann and mates even have a rock band rehearsal, the conflicts personal as much as political. I am biased since this is one of my favourite Ibsen’s but it is enthralling and a perfect vehicle for TO’s brand of “Capitalist realism” theatre. Finally there was SB’s take on Orlando this time with Katie Mitchell directing with Jenny Konig superb as Virginia Woolf’s eponymous hero/heroine in an adaptation from Alice Birch. This was due to come to the Barbican in this very month but, perforce, was cancelled There are times when I find KM and AB’s aesthetic baffling (The Malady of Death) even as I absorb the provocation, but here it all comes together. And, thanks to the customary live narration and live and pre-recorded video projection, it works brilliantly on the small screen where an expert is guiding your eye (not always the case with KM’s regie-theatre). In contrast to Sally Potter’s lush film version, also brilliant in part thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance, KM works the comedy, almost rompishly, and revels in the anachronistic artificiality of the story. I hope that SB will be back in London soon but, in their absence, the Tourist will have to live up to his name and get on the train to Berlin.
Another highlight was the filmed version of the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible with Yael Farber at her very best directing and Richard Armitage as John Porter showing he can act as well as well as take his shirt off and shoot up baddies. YF’s brooding atmospherics and measured pacing bring a real sense of paranoia to Salem adding to the petty vengeances. The trinity of Procter, wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and scheming Abigail (Samantha Colley) have real strength and depth, and the thrilling power of the final act is full beam. The political allegory takes a back seat to a critique of religious intolerance and hypocrisy. It is also brilliantly shot and edited, something you can’t say about all filmed productions. Well worth seeing.
Other standouts in a busy viewing month (ahh the novelty of armchair viewing, tea, biscuits and pee breaks) were Breach Theatre‘s It’s True. It’s True, It’s True dramatising the rape trial of Artemisia Gentileschi and Imitating the Dog‘s Night of the Living Dead REMIX, the live frame by frame reconstruction of the George A Romero Zombie classic satire. Genius. Both are available still to watch.
Also of note. The Peter Grimes filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh from the Festival, Sophie Melville’s firecracker of a performance in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, an RSC Two Gentleman of Verona (a play I had never seen before completing the Bard set) and a revisit of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the NT with Tamsin Greig. Pretty sure the enterprising amongst you can find all of these to stream.
More Schaubuhne Berlin. This time Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Hedda Gabler. Ripped out of its buttoned up C19 Norwegian context this petulant, anomieic Hedda, brilliantly captured by Katharina Schüttler, can’t be satisfied by men or material, rails against her bourgeois cage, here a modernist glass house, but can’t give it up. So her suicide is more “you’ll all be sorry when I’m gone” than her only escape from masculine tyranny. And no-one notices. OK so a lot of Ibsen’s delicious text is lost but this is still a thrilling re-imaging of a classic.
On the subject of flawed heroines, and currently the subject of intense study by the Tourist, next up was Blanche Dubois in the form of Gillian Anderson in Benedict Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirkby (showing why she was destined for higher things) as Stella are superb but Ms Anderson, who doesn’t always get it right, was perfectly cast, capturing the many , and there are many, sides of our Blanche. Treat yourself. It’s on NT at Home. As is the NTFrankenstein double header with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating as creature and doctor under Danny Boyle’s explosive direction. (Also now on Prime I think). Missed this on stage so was overjoyed to catch this and was not disappointed.
Also of note. A Wozzeck from Dutch National Opera, Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE at the NT, revisits of Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the NT, Complicite’s The Encounter and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall with Andrew Scott. Midnight Your Time from the Donmar Warehouse was a pretty successful Zoom based revival from Michael Longhurst with script by Adam Brace though largely thanks to Diana Quick’s turn as the lonely, domineering do-gooder mother Judy. Oh, and Bound from the Southwark Playhouse, a pretty good play written and directed by Jesse Briton (though terrible footage) which tells the tale of trawlermen in Brixham. Yey.
The above is just the best of the best from a couple of months of intensive “digital” theatre. By June I can see that the sun had come out, I started taking my cinematic responsibilities more seriously and the theatre online opportunities diminished. Schaubuhne Berlin‘s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi was another highlight but didn’t match Robert Icke’s electrifying, and subversive, adaptation at the Almeida from 2019. I wasn’t quite as taken with the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus as I had hoped, with Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous kvetch directed by Josie Rourke but it was still worth the long wait.
Otherwise a pair of revisits stood out. This House, James Graham’s breakthrough political comedy at the NT and The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss from the Nottingham Playhouse.
The BBC’s anthology of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was the standout in July. Some new additions to the canon but my favourites were Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville and Monica Dolan, though they also happen to be my favourite actors from an enviably talented dozen.
Otherwise there was the Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a revisit, with BD and LD who loved it, of Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge as well as the NT Amadeus with Lucien Msamati.
And our first “live” event for a few months. At the Garden Museum. Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Mind you there wasn’t much too it but it was good to tick something off.
Amongst the welcome staycation action there were a fair few digital entertainments of note. A magnificent Turn of the Screw at Garsington Opera with a perfectly balanced cast and a striking set from Christopher Oram. I will definitely need to look out for the work of director Louisa Muller. I see it is a highlight of their 2022 season but I can’t be doing with the faff of getting there, the price they charge and the dressing up like a toff. Followed by the RSC Timon of Athens with Kathryn Hunter in the lead. Directed by …. yep, Simon Godwin once again. Timon of Athens as a play makes perfect sense to me as did this production and not just because of Ms Hunter’s performance. The very different Simon Russell Beale also convinced at the NT under Nick Hytner. The knotty parable of a rich man who falls and then, through a process of ironic self-enlightenment, turns on the commercialised society that made him works as well in C21 London as it does in ancient Athens. Yes there are a few plot holes and unexplained appearances/retreats but that is the case in a lot of Shakespeare.
And then there was the classic Glyndebourne The Rake’s Progress with designs by David Hockney and directed by John Cox. More opera. Well bits of. Namely extracts from the Holland Festival/Dutch National Opera/Royal Conservatoire The Hague staging of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht. Itself a selection, over three days mind and covering 15 hours, from the total seven day opera which runs to 29 hours. Mind blowing. Another reason why Holland might just be the greatest country on earth.
The first appearance of theatre made to be streamed. First out of the blocks, the Old Vic with Three Kings a monologue written by Stephen Beresford delivered by Andrew Scott as Patrick. BD and SO sat in and we were all transfixed by this eloquent “sins of the father revisited …..” story. Better still was Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s triple memory monologue play which is both a) brilliant and b) made for the Zoom format. Especially when you have the fantastic Michael Sheen playing the fantastic Francis Hardy, in full on Welshness, Indira Varma as his long suffering wife Grace, and David Threlfall as an uber cockney manager Teddy. Loved the play, love the production.
But lo. There was more. Some live theatre. As the Bridge brought the Bennett Talking Heads monologues to the stage (****). We opted for The Shrine (a new addition) with Monica Dolan as Lorna who discovers there was more to husband Clifford than met the eye after his fatal motorcycle accident. Very funny. And then A Bed Among the Lentils with Lesley Manville utterly convincing as vicar’s wife Susan who seeks solace at the corner shop. Just glorious.
It didn’t end there. Two live exhibitions. The Andy Warhol at Tate Modern (***) which was good but I guess lacked discovery and the Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers music history at the Design Museum (**) where I sort of lost interest after Kraftwerk and 80s synths but BD was very enamoured.
There was a cracking Prom broadcast with the London Sinfonietta serving up an eclectic programme of modern.contemporary faves including Philip Glass’s Facades, Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway (for toy piano) a couple of Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies, Tansy Davies’s funk workout neon, Edmund Finnis in situ, Anna Meredith’s Axeman for electrified bassoon and Steve Reich City Life. Tremendous.
But amongst the screen viewings to my surprise the highlight of the month was La Monnaie/de Munt‘s recording of a 2107 production of Luca Silla. Director Tobias Kratzer carved out a jewel from relatively meagre materials by Mozart’s standards in this early opera (composed at just 16) which tells the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a Roman tyrant. BUD, who accommodated with grace all my suggestions for shared lockdown viewing, strongly agreed.
No live theatre this month. You never quite know where you are with our callow cabinet. A couple of exhibitions however. Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean (****), proof that even the very greatest have to work hard to exploit their talent. All sorts of stuff that I am never likely to see again. So glad I got to see it. And joy of joys we got to see Artemisia at the National Gallery (*****) which I thought we had lost to the pandemic. To be fair there were a few Biblical group scene commissions which to me were less impressive and, understandably a few omissions, and I have already gone out of my way to look at her paintings on show in venues that I have visited, (the NG itself, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi, Prado, in Bologna, Seville, Pisa), but that still left a clutch of stunning works to take in. Don’t like the underground space in the NG (I know it is perfectly lit), too hot and busy, but still stopped in my tracks by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra, for it is in the portrayals powerful women that AG excelled.
A couple of live streamed theatre treats, the Mark Gatiss (with Adrian Scarborough) Ghost Stories from the Nottingham Playhouse which cut the muster and a revisit of ITA‘s Medea which once again astounded. A fair few streamed concerts this month. Igor Levit went out of his way to entertain during lockdown, I caught a Beethoven recital from Wigmore Hall, finally saw the RSC production of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer and the whole family enjoyed the interactive online adventure The Mermaid’s Tongue (and went on to its precursor Plymouth Point) from a couple of Punchdrunk alumni.
By now the live or specially made for streamed theatre was coming thick and fast. Now I am firmly in the camp that sees recordings of theatre productions, or live streamed events, as additive to, rather than a substitute for, live theatre. I appreciate if you can get get to a live show, or missed it, then of course, you should see it on a screen. I understand that your armchair is way better for back, bum and neck than most theatre seats and refreshments come better, quicker and cheaper. And don’t get me started on the toilets. After all I have wasted more than enough text complaining here about West End theatres. I also believe that some of the made for streaming theatre of the past 18 months or so has been interesting and innovative in its use of technology. But it’s just no the same as sitting in a dark room with other punters wondering what is going to happen next on that stage. I had forgotten just how much I miss the electricity and the immersion.
Having said that What a Carve Up!, based on the Jonathan Coe novel, a co-production from The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield was a triumph and by some way the best digital theatre work we saw during lockdown. Coe’s novel is a satire which examines the workings of power during the 1980s through the lens of the predominantly unpleasant upper class family the Winshaws. But it is also a whodunnit as Michael) Owen, at the behest of Tabitha Winshaw is tasked with documenting the murky family past. And it is this thread that Henry Filloux-Bennett, the AD at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and director, Tamara Harvey from Theatr Clywd, wisely chose to pull on. What a Carve Up! not only switches in time but also employs multiple narrators, in first and third person, across different genre styles. And its protagonist spends a lot of time holed up in his flat shuffling papers and watching videos. A narrative collage if you will that is perfect then for splicing between “live” interviews, direct to camera Zoom addresses, film excerpts, TV and radio clips and photos. Especially as HF-B reverses the “chronology” of the story, starting with the murders, and filters out material not relevant to the central mystery. More inspired by, than faithful interpretation then, but gripping nonetheless. Especially with a cast that includes Alfred Enoch, (a new character Raymond, the son of Michael), Fiona Button and Tamzin Outhwaite as well as the voices of Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D Clarke. Is it theatre? Who cares when it is this good.
Not quite in the same league in terms of story, structure and execution, but still engrossing and technically adept was the Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon which dramatised that il fated expedition predominantly through close ups of the three astronauts as well as video footage and an imposing score from Sophie Cotton. Writer Torben Betts also explores the racial tension between Michael Salami’s Fred Haise, here cast as an African American, and Tom Chambers as the rightwing Jack Swigert. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters and film director Tristan Shepherd for their realisation.
By way of contrast Little Wars by Carl McCasland from Ginger Quiff Theatre was limited to the simple Zoom reading format though the story, an imagined dinner party involving Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parke, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner and the cast, Juliet Stevenson, Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell Sarah Solemani, Sophie Thompson and, best of all, Linda Bassett went a long way to overcoming this.
We also saw a slew of excellent filmed live productions, in order of impact: Sarah Kane’s Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, a powerful and surprisingly lyrical evocation of love, pain and pleasure, under Tinuke Craig’s potent direction, with committed performances from Alfred Enoch (hello again), Wendy Kweh, Jonathan Slinger and, especially, Erin Doherty; Who Killed My Father, a current favourite of Continental European directors, a monologue from ITA based on Edouard Louis’s impassioned testament to his own father and the treatment of the poor and marginalised in France, with the world’s greatest actor, Hans Kesting, at the top of his game; Death of England Delroy, part 2 of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s ongoing NT trilogy examining race, masculinity and other state of the nation gubbins, with Michael Balogun commanding (we missed this live thanks to a period of isolation, bah); and 15 Heroines, the inspired collection of 15 short monologues by women playwrights shaping narratives to the voices of Ovid’s women brought to us by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre.
I expected Daniel Kitson wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to used the pandemic as material and an opportunity for formal experimentation. In Dot, Dot, Dot, he toured the nation’s theatres performing to an audience of …. no-one. At least not live. I picked the stream from the Tobacco Factory to hear his alternatively poignant and hilarious dissection of the impact of lockdown on our everyday lives and human connections, the schtick being a table of Post it notes acting as prompts. Maybe not vintage Kitson but good enough for now.
There was enough in the filmed performance of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia from the Vaudeville Theatre to persuade us of its many merits but the quality of the stream was just too poor, though we were warned. In contrast the filmed performance of Richard Eyre’s brisk Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts from 2013 was exemplary both technically and dramatically, and not just because Lesley Manville played Mrs Alving.
A few other plays and concerts but nothing to write home about so on to December and that bizarre British obsession with Christmas.
A couple of live productions managed to sneak in before doors closed again. A fine revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre (****) with Alex Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, directed by Alice Hamilton. Not quite up to the Jamie Lloyd Pinter season version from 2019, or the more recent Old Vic offer, but it is too good a play to disappoint. And, at the Rose Kingston, Shit Actually (****) from fringe favourites Shit Theatre, aka Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, whose deconstructed tribute to Love Actually’s women is way funnier and more thought proving than we had any right to expect.
Unfortunately the streamed theatre the Tourist took in this month wasn’t up to much; the NT production of panto Dick Whittington felt a bit rushed and predictable, and the RSC Troy Story, which I had high hopes for, turned out to be no more than a fairly mediocre and static reading.
In contrast, with limited means at their disposal, Grange Park Opera made a powerful case for someone to create a full blow stage production of Benjamin Britten’s pacifist “TV” opera, Owen Wingrave, and VOPERA, along with the LPO, produced the definitive virtual opera in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, designed by Leanne Vandenbussche and directed by Rachael Hewer. Do try and track it down.
I would repeat that advice for Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic which is about to open on stage and for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which is currently on tour.
The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.
So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.
The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.
Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.
Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).
The second part of my engagement with the ENO O&E odyssey. (See how easy it easy to be a librettist). Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus first, simultaneously monumental and camp, Philip Glass’s homage to Cocteau’s Orphee to come in a couple of weeks, and there was no chance of me ever signing up for Emma Rice’s take on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
Going in this was probably the one on which the Tourist was most keen. Never heard or seen it before. Learned a lot in recent months about Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714 to 1787) and how he, and his circle, revolutionised opera by insisting on the primacy of drama. With Orfeo et Euridice, from 1762, the first, and prime example of the reform. Less repetition, melisma and showing off in arias, similarly less ritornello in the instrumental passages, intelligible text, less recitative and more accompanied than secco, and more flow in melodies and action.
With a cast of Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, Soraya Mafi as Love and the powerful voice of Alice Coote as Orpheus, the cast was top notch, and with Wayne MacGregor in the director’s chair, the dance passages were going to receive due care and attention. And all played straight through coming in at a tidy 90 minutes.
Or so I thought. Turned out the production did feature and unnecessary interval, (in my opinion though maybe not shared by the dance ensemble), and that the choreography took precedence over the drama. The sublime combination of Alice Coote’s powerful mezzo, Sarah Tynan’s lighter, brighter, and up and coming Soraya Mafi’s sharp, accurate, coloraturas, the modernist clarity of Lizzie Clachlan’s big box set, Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’s flashy (literally at times) video designs, the vivid colours, contrasting with simple monochromes, of Louise Gray’s costumes, and Mr MacGregor’s complex choreography, all worked individually. Together, I wasn’t so sure. And the story, and occasionally the three protagonists, sometimes looked lost in all of the look and feel.
What I hadn’t anticipated was just how good the score was going to be in the hands of Harry Bickett and the ENO Orchestra. Time and again the ENO orchestra has elevated a production, true of The Mask of Orpheus, though Sir Harry’s imagination may have had something to do with it, and this for someone who is a big fan of the ENO. This was Hector Berlioz’s 4 act 1859 version of O&E, with the libretto created by Pierre Louis Moline in French 12 years after the original Italian by one Ranieri de’Calzabigi, drawn from a couple of chaps called Virgil and Ovid who you might have heard of. With English translation by Christopher Cowell.
O&E is apparently an azione teatrale, (I swear there are as many genres of opera as there are operas), mythological subject, with dancing, no chorus, few actors, short in scale, “noble simplicity” is apparently what Gluck was after. The original will have had a castrato singing Orpheus: this morphed into a haute-contre, or high tenor, but as pitch inflated, and even after the French government legislated for pitch, the diapason normale, a female alto became the norm for Orpheus. Berlioz went back to the original key scheme of the Vienna score of 1762 whilst still incorporating much of the additional Paris score of 1774, (Gluck having moved there to further his career, though he returned to Austria when fashion moved on and his final and 47th opera, Echo et Narcisse got the public thumbs down). If you want more details head over to the exhaustive Wiki page where clearly knowledgeable people in love with his work have been beavering away, (remembering to donate please), or even better the encyclopaedic programme notes. All I can tell you is that, whenever it was scored, and whoever it was scored by, this is exquisite music. I see Gluck wrote a few trio sonatas and sinfonias which barely get a look in. Shame as I am not one for listening to recordings of opera, and I like the sound of them.
Mr McGregor is apparently not the first choreographer to take on O&E. The chorus is now off stage (and therefore muffled) and the various shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, demons, Furies, happy spirits, heroes and heroines are replaced by the 14 dancers, with two of them, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, apparently representing their inner selves (you could have fooled me). Now whisper it, whilst I can admire dance, it doesn’t really do too much for me, and, though their were some striking poses, it was all a bit aimless and showy.
Not to worry, Even if the visuals and the action didn’t persuade there was always, as I said, the clean, lithe and lively music from the HIP appropriate band. And the three lovely voices. I am not informed enough to have a roster of favourite women opera singers, but Alice Coote, would join the likes of Barbara Hannigan, Sophie Bevan, Louise Alder, Lucy Crowe and Sally Matthews in leaving a mark as well as Kitty Whateley, Rowan Pierce, Nazan Fikret and Elen Wilmer. Ms Coote debuted in the role when she was just 18 on this very stage, on the night of 9/11. Sobering.
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.
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.
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.
Guildhall School, Silk Street Theatre, 27th March 2019
Even the most casual reader of this blog will observe that the Tourist spends an inordinate amount of time in a theatre. A recipe for pity or jealousy depending on your point of view. Despite this satisfying his urge to hoover up the, er, classics of Classical Greek drama is proving surprisingly elusive. There isn’t as much of it about as you might expect. I appreciate that this might be the Firstest of First World Problems but it has, nonetheless, come as a surprise. So first sniff of a Sophoclean, Euripidean or Aeschylean (??) opportunity and the Tourist is straight in. As here. Also taking advantage again of the chance to see tomorrow’s acting and creative talent today, this time from the Guildhall School.
Orestes was written by Euripides and first performed in 408 BCE and tells the story of young Orestes after he has killed his Mummy. It follows on from the events catalogued in Electra, the play about his sister, dramatised by both Euripides and Sophocles, and in between The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides by Aeschylus, the latter two plays in his trilogy The Oresteia. In fact the well educated amongst you will be aware that young Orestes is perhaps the central character in this, to say the least, dysfunctional family tale. He crops up in something like a quarter of the extant plays by the three Greek tragedians.
He kills Mum Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Daddy Agamemnon by said Mummy. Mummy’s justification being that Agamemnon had, before setting off to bash the Trojans because they pinched his brother Menelaus’s wife Helen, (she of the ships), killed little daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’s Sis, to secure some favourable wind. Not a relieving flatulence you understand, but wind to set the fleet off to Troy. Now some would also have it that naughty Clytemnestra actually recruited lover Aegisthus, (who had a claim to the throne of Mycenae albeit via an incestuous route), to kill Hubby. So Orestes, taking no chances, bashed him in as well.
And you thought GoT was complicated. Next Christmas, when it’s all kicking off, cheer yourself up by thinking at least it isn’t as bad as this, the Atreus family curse. In fact it all started with Tantalus, oen of Zeus’s sons, who, to get back at his Dad and the other gods, boiled up his son for them to feast on after they had banished him, Tantalus that is, for having nicked some ambrosia. (Who would have thought they liked rice pudding so much). Tantalus goes to hell, the son, Pelops, is revived but, after some chariot race fixing skullduggery and general cursing, Pelops’s boys Atreus and Thyestes then fall out. Affairs, and some more pie based cannibalism, mean that the next generation, the generation described above, inherits the curse.
And so to this play. Electra opens up with a quick “and previously in the House of Atreus” synopsis whilst a weary Orestes kips next door. Auntie Helen swans in wanting to make an offering at Clytemnestra’s grave, the chorus of Argive women pitch up and Orestes awakes, tormented by Furies. Rough night. Uncle Menelaus and his father in law, so Orestes’s Grandad, Tyndareus, arrive, and Orestes makes his pitch for mercy to then, requesting an opportunity to talk to the Argive men. Cue discussion of the tensions between divine justice and natural law. Menelaus takes a stern line though. After all the Greek people have just about reached the end of their tether what with going to war for years just to get his missus Helen back and are in no mood to listen to any appeals for clemency.
Orestes, with his mate Pylades and Electra, then go direct to the assembly but this fails to forestall the death penalty for Brother and Sister, so the trio hatch a further play involving, you guessed it, more murder, this time of Helen and her daughter Hermione. Helen vanishes, but the trio capture Hermione, as well a slave who saves his own skin with some rousing argument. Menelaus catches the conspirators in the act ……
….. and then, ta-dah, deus ex machina in the form of the god Apollo who sets things to rights by explaining that Helen is in the stars (whaaaaaat), Menalaus must go back to Sparta, Orestes to Athens where the court will acquit him, after which he must marry Hermione, oh, and Electra will marry Pylades. Job done. Humans can go away in peace. Apollo can go back to arching, averting evil and all round being beautiful. As usual with Euripides, the gods don’t come across as the sharpest tools in the toolbox, their relationship with the humans is messy, the nature of justice is questioned and war is, as sagely observed by Boy George, stupid.
The director here Charlotte Gwinner, who has had spells at Sheffield Theatres, Liverpool Everyman and the Bush, opted for the prose translation by one Kenneth McLeish. Now as I am new to this game so have no idea how one translation differs from another, though I can imagine there are some high faultin’ verse options, but there is no messing about here. On with the action and as idiomatic as you like. Mind you I see Mr McLeish translated the complete Greek drama, all 47 plays, as well French farces, Ibsen and much, much else. Clever fellow.
Added to this was an impressive design concept courtesy of Simon Daw and equally uninhibited sound from Elizabeth Purcell and lighting from Guildhall student Christopher Harmon. I see young Harmon wants to make a career of this. On this evidence he will. The split level set showcases a dark, colonnaded underbelly, think vandalised car park/temple underneath a promenade which opens up at the end to reveal …. an Arcadian Olympus. Against this a majority of the final year acting students are able too strut their collective stuff. One or two were familiar from the four/five hander Detroit earlier in the season. I hate singling anyone out but I was very impressed by Uri Levy’s articulate and full throated, delirious but not mad, Orestes and, especially the Electra of Mirren Mack. And the members of the Chorus, complete with school uniform, were also impressive complete with choreography and howls.
I guess I could imagine an interpretation that plumbed the rhetoric more effectively and, as always with these productions, some of the actors are asked to play characters well beyond their years, which they gamely do, but as an astute, compact (90 minute) intro to the play my profound thanks to the Guildhall School. More please.
Never seen Peter Shaffer’s Equus on stage before. Seen the film version which is a bit dry IMHO. So I was very happy to see that TRSE, in conjunction with the most excellent English Touring Theatre, were taking it on, joining the other productions in, what has turned into, an outstanding inaugural year for TRSE AD Nadia Fall. And we still have Pilot Theatre’s Noughts and Crosses, the Lenny Henry King Hedley II and the Noye’s Fludde Britten opera in collaboration with ENO, to come.
This production turned into the mid-point of the Tourist’s own little theatrical mini-season fortnight of complex and ambiguous theatrical transgression to include Ladykiller, Cyprus Avenue, Medea, Berberian Sound Studio, The Talented Mr Ripley, All About Eve and Richard III. No heroes here in the original sense of tragedy but all souls tormented by internal conflicts and “irrational” impulses. Obviously we have a fascination with behaviours that break norms but ambivalence can prove the most common flexible of structures on which to construct a drama. Moral certainty and clarity of motive rarely provides for good theatre. Conflict and uncertain resolution usually does.
Peter Shaffer, who died in 2016, authored many plays but his three most famous ones centre on the relationship between two very different characters, the clash of reason and instinct. Amadeus, as you no doubt know, is a fictionalised account of Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart whilst The Royal Hunt of the Sun brings together the King of the Incas, Atahuallpa, and Francisco Pizarro. (Black Comedy, which, along with RHOTS, I would dearly love to see, is a farce though it too starts with big idea, the reversal of lighting on stage). Equus, from 1973, tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. It is based on a real life crime PS came across in Suffolk where a 17 year old blinded six horses.
In this ETT production Zubin Varla, (who I was much taken with in the Young Vic Measure for Measure opposite Romola Garai, as well as in the Gate’s The Island and in the Orange Tree’s Poison, amongst others), plays the child psychiatrist Martin Dysart who is inveighed by old friend and magistrate Heather Salomon (Ruth Lass) to take on the case of Alan Strang, (relative newcomer Ethan Kai of whom more later), the young man who has attacked the horses, (the case having already been outlined in Dysart’s opening monologue). Dysart himself is dissatisfied with his life and work and with treatments that seek to “normalise” his patients.
Strang initially refuses to engage with Dysart, singing ad jingles, (nostalgic for us oldies in the audience, bemusing for the school kids – yep Equus is an A level text ). Eventually though Dysart breaks through and, after interviewing Strang’s conflicted, repressed parents Frank (Robert Fitch) and Dora (Syreeta Kumar), and describing his own recurring dream involving ritual sacrifice, starts to piece together how Alan’s convoluted obsession with Christian iconography, sex and horses came into being. After that it starts to get properly disturbing as Alan manages to get a job at a stable run by Harry Dalton (Keith Gilmore) via his putative girlfriend Jill Mason, (Norah Lopez Holden in another uninhibited performance to match her Desdemona in the excellent STF Othello). You can guess the rest. Well you can try to at leat.
Mr Shaffer doesn’t make it easy for cast, director or audience. This play is packed with powerful scenes, multiple locations (hospital, beach, home, shop, stables, porn cinema), philosophical musings (from Dysart), intricate dialogue, tantalising themes and complex characters. Easy to see why it was made into a film. But play it is and it is the theatre where the story and its message will, in the right hands, be most successful. And unquestionably these are the right hands. Georgia Lowe’s plain white curtained box of a set means the scenes are played out with the minimum of props, basically a bed for the hospital showdowns. The spectacle, and trust me there is plenty even before the final, overwhelming “blinding” scene, comes from Jessica Hung Han Yun’s no holds barred lighting, (who also excelled at the Gate and in Yellow Earth’s Forgotten recently), and Giles Thomas’s similarly thrilling sound design.
That isn’t the half of it though. The real prize goes to movement director Shelley Maxwell and to Ira Mandela Siobhan’s and Keith Gilmore’s “horse” interpretations. All the cast apart from the two principals, double up as horses at various points, but it is these two who literally do the heavy lifting. Their strength when carrying “riders” and the way their bodies imitate the motion of the horses is astonishing. It also makes sense of the deep, emotional erotic attraction that Alan feels for the animals. Apparently the original stage directions call for the “horse” actors to wear masks and tracksuits. By rejecting this in favouring of human muscle and expression mimicking horse the power of Alan’s strange passion, a homo-erotic displacement, filtered through a hodge-podge of classical allusion, is amplified.
This is a play of powerful ideas, sexual attraction, religious and personal theology, institutional constraints, the dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of living, which do not require literal manifestation. I can’t imagine a creative interpretation of the play that could top this. On top of this though is the smart move to play up Dysart’s own confusion and conflicts, his empty marriage, his rejection of consumerism, his questioning of the tenets of his profession, his attraction to Heather who can sense his unravelling. I am not sure the text implies that Dysart regrets “healing” Alan. Zubin Varla’s Martin certainly does. Never did ZV come anywhere close to the ponderous: read Dysart’s monologue’s on the page and see how tricky that must be.
Ned Bennett has already garnered awards for his work on An Octoroon, Pomona (both Orange Tree productions, yeh) and Yen. With this he has established himself as a master of visceral theatre. It is going to be fun seeing where he goes next. The trickier end of Shakespeare maybe one day? As it will be with Ethan Kai. The last major production of Equus saw Harry Potter in the form of Daniel Radcliffe flash his bum on stage but he was already famous. I see Mr Kai is best known to date for a role in Emmerdale. With all due respect to all you Emmerdale nuts Equus suggests he can do better.