Time Stands Still: Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place review ****

Aurora Principal Players, Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sally Pryce (harp), John Reid (piano), Nico Muhly

Kings Place, 23rd November 2018

  • Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3
  • Thomas Adès – The Lover in Winter
  • Nico Muhly – Clear Music
  • Debussy – Danse Sacrée et Danse profane
  • Brahms – Gestillte Sehnsucht
  • Nico Muhly – Old Bones (world premiere of ensemble version),
  • Nico Muhly – Motion
  • Thomas Adès – The Four Quarters
  • Dowland (arr. Nico Muhly) – Time Stands Still (world premiere)

A full house, moreorless, for a diverse programme of chamber music and songs anchored by (relatively) well known works from Thomas Ades and Nico Muhly, whose effervescent presence also graced the evening as performer, conductor and even compere. Oh and did I mention he “curated” the event. The evening was part of the year long Kings Place Time Unwrapped season now coming to an end with the pieces ostensibly linked through their meditation on, er, time and music from an earlier age. 

The musical backbone was provided by the graceful pianism of John Reid, with strings and clarinet from Aurora principal players, Alex Wood, Jamie Campbell, Helene Clement, Sebastian van Kuijk and Peter Sparks. Against this a number of the pieces showcased the unusual harmonies of the harp (Sally Price whose playing was certainly not backward in coming forward), celesta (John Reid again) and the ethereal countertenor of Iestyn Davies

There was a world premiere of a new chamber version of Old Bones, a song cycle about the rediscovery of the body of Richard III in a Leicester car park in 2012, (an event which also formed the opening sequence for the Almeida Theatre production of Shakespeare’s play with Ralph Fiennes in the lead). The arioso of Iestyn Davies was originally accompanied only by a lute, which can be discerned in the fragments of poems about Sir Rhys ap Tomas, the alleged killer of the king, which follows the news commentary intro. The momentum builds into a processional as the text, from Philippa Langley of the Richard III society, eloquently connects the infamous monarch to today.  

Muhly’s Motion for string quartet, clarinet and piano takes as its starting point a verse anthem from Orlando Gibbons, See, see the Word, and applies his trademark post-minimalism energy to Gibbons’s complex vocal counterpoint .

In contrast Clear Music is based on just a fragment of a John Taverner motet. Mater Christi Sanctissima, and is scored for cello. harp and celesta with the latter gifted an inventive solo part for an instrument normally reserved for adding orchestral colour. The texture doesn’t change and the piece is locked in a pretty high register, even in the cello line, but, as usual with Mr Muhly, he creates an engaging piece that doesn’t come anywhere outstaying its welcome. 

Thomas Ades’s Four Quarters from 2010 is a string quartet which takes as it subject the ebb and flow of time, in common with the TS Eliot Four Quartets, poems from which it surely drew inspiration. As usual Ades serves up all sorts of striking  sounds, a wide dynamic range rhythmic complexity, beginning with the eerie babble of Nightfall, followed by Morning Dew evoked through pizzicato, the steady pulses of Days and the astounding harmonic complexity of the last movement, the Twenty Fifth Hour, which is measured in an unusual 25/16 time.

The evening’s outstanding piece of me though was The Lover in Winter, written when Ades was only 18. It is made up of 4 very short songs, in Latin drawn from an anonymous text. It has a bleak, brittle, chilly feel, just chiming piano chords and Iestyn Davies’s exquisite countertenor, though the last song fails up the passion. Melismatic with candid word-painting. 

Mr Davies was also superb in Time Stands Still, a Dowland song which Nico Muhly has re-arranged. The melody is defined by the singer, based on an anonymous love song, with the whole band coming together to provide complementary but recognisably contemporary harmonies. 

The programme kicked off with John Reid in Satie’s ubiquitous piano waltz  Gymnopedie 3, blink and you’d miss it, as well as a helping of (to me) an unremarkable Brahms song and Debussy’s showcase for the harp with its “medieval” first part and  bouncy Spanish inflected second “profane” part. At the end we were treated to Messrs Muhly and Davies presenting an aria from Marnie, which has just finished at the Met, and which I bloody loved at the ENO.

For someone who I gather lives in NYC, Nico Muhly seems to spend a lot of time in London. No surprise that to the Tourist. Indeed he will be back at Kings Place on New Years Eve with the Aurora Orchestra. I can think of worst places to be. Mind you I do have a better offer for once. 

 

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre review ****

White Teeth

Kiln Theatre, 21st November 2018

I have never read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth. So I have no benchmark against which to set the adaptation by Stephen Sharkey, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which is still showing at the Kiln. I gather it is something of a sprawling, hyperbolic tale of multi-cultural Britain across three generations beginning at the end of WWII, (though largely set on the doorstep of the Kiln), through the eyes of two, connected families. It is stuffed with plot, event, location, character and is both comic and tragic. 

Well if that is the case then I would say that the creative team here has done it proud. Not quite a musical, yet not entirely a play, there are times when the surreality of the story telling threatens to break the spell, but if you leave your critical eye, and ear, at home, don’t take it too seriously (as it doesn’t itself …),  and just go with with the exuberant flow you should have a great time. This feels and looks like community theatre, about the community in which it is performed, but, as is usually the case when Indhu Rubasingham is pulling the strings, making it look this spontaneous has, I would surmise, require a great deal of thinking, planning and rehearsing over its 5 years gestation. 

It doesn’t sound like the adaptation has been completely faithful to the book, chopping out strands and characters, and recasting the stream of events (as I gather did the 2002 TV adaptation). The story is told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of millenial Rosie Jones (a droll Amanda Wilkin), the daughter of Irie (the superb, again, Ayesha Antoine), trying to find out about her “complicated” heritage, probably pregnant, in the present day. We still get the ornate intertwining of the Jones family, the bashful Archie (Richard Lumsden), and headstrong Clara (Nenda Neurer) with the Iqbal’s, peppery Samad (Tony Jayawardena) and forthright Alsana (Ayesha Dharker) and their two very different sons, volatile Millat (Assad Zaman) and studious Magid (Sid Sagar). And the posh Jewish-Catholic family up the hill, Marcus Chalfen (Philip Bird), Joyce (Naomi Frederick) and son Josh (Karl Queensborough) but we have assorted friends and colleagues along the way, notably local “character”, doomsayer and sometime deus ex machina, Mad Mary (the wonderful Michele Austin, who dives in with both feet). 

Unlikely suicide attempts, coin flips, parties, age differences, O’Connell’s, the improbable tank crew, a Nazi eugenicist, an inability to pull a trigger, the development of twins, religion, non-observance, affairs, fundamentalism, the worse named ever terror organisation, experiments on mice, the menage a trois, the unlikely denouement, dentistry. All this remains, but, and why not, now amplified with on stage band (Matthew Churcher on drums, Zoe Guest on guitar and Nanda Neurer, yes that’s right she is also playing Clara, on bass), 13 songs from composer Paul Englishby and multiple dance routines. 

Tom Piper’s set is a faithful line drawing, in exaggerated perspective, of the High Road, across which Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, and Lizzie Pocock’s projections, ring the changes. I  marvelled at the intricacy of Polly Bennett’s movement, which plays up the story’s slapstick strengths. With music director Chris Traves, and sound designer Carolyn Downing, this is, make no mistake, an A list creative team.

Is it easy to follow the story? Amazingly, given the activity, yes it is, in part thanks to some light-touch commentary and exposition when needed. Will it make you smile? Yes, unless you are some crotchety Daily Heil reader in which case I would politely us you to p*ss off out of our City. Are the songs a bit too pastiche, musical theatre, by pop culture numbers? Yes but their sly humour means you will forgive. Do some of the myriad of thoughts and ideas that Zadie Smith apparently threw out in her novel, notably the darker sides of the immigrant experience, get a little bit lost, or smothered? Yes I am guessing they do. Are the characters fully realised? No. But then this comes in at under two and a half hours so what do you expect. If you want Chekhov go elsewhere. 

But if you want theatrical story telling at its very best, homegrown magic realism, made by a team that really cares about what it has doing, brimful of energy, and you are proud of the cultural melting pot which is London, then look no further.

I don’t read much but White Teeth has now reserved a place in the summer holiday luggage. 

Pinter at Pinter 3 review ****

Pinter at the Pinter Three

Harold Pinter Theatre, 19th November 2018

  • Tess
  • Landscape
  • Apart From That
  • Girls
  • That’s All
  • God’s District
  • Monologue
  • That’s Your Trouble
  • Special Offer
  • Trouble In The Works
  • Night
  • A Kind Of Alaska

Just to be clear I am a fan of the work of Harold Pinter. And now it seems is MS, after he joined me at this, the third instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s season devoted to all of Pinter’s one act plays, and all manner of sketches and fragments besides.

If you not a fan, and actually occasionally even if you are, they will be times when the patience is tested by HP’s particular dissection of the psyche, but this is more than compensated by those times when the combination of mood, language and meaning, or lack thereof since the one thing you can depend on with HP is that you can’t depend on anything, leave you stunned at just how someone managed to right this stuff. 

Of course you need the right actors for the job. Here we had Penelope Wilton, a late addition kicking off with Tess a monologue about a posh lady who had experienced better times, Tom Edden, Meera Syal, Keith Allen, Lee Evans, and the now plainly incomparable, Tamsin Grieg. They were, all, unquestionably, the right actors for this job.

Apart From That saw Lee Evans and Meera Syal riffing on asking “how they were”, as simple and effective as comedy gets, Girls is a slightly uncomfortable monologue, (from Tom Edden), about spanking, That’s All is straight out of the Les Dawson school of comedy, God’s District, one of these weak, one joke (Hammersmith) , anti-religion sketches that HP was prone to, Monologue, one man’s nostalgic conversation with an imagined friend, brilliantly captured by Lee Evans, That’s Your Trouble, verbal sparring from two blokes in a pub, Special Offer a curious short sketch about “men for sale” that Meera Syal got saddled with, Trouble In The Works, a Pythonesque word-play on products in a factory (Lee Evans again hilarious) and Night, a tender duet from an old married couple reminiscing about when they fell in love, which is genuinely moving and had no right to be here.

Now it is really hard not to rave about the Lee Evans when he turns his physical comic genius on full beam as he did here. Especially as he came out of retirement especially for this run. He has form with Pinter, having played Gus in The Dumb Waiter in 2007, and has even successfully tried his hand at Beckett.  But the star of the night for me was Tamsin Greig in the two major works on show Landscape and A Kind of Alaska.

In Landscape, from 1968, she plays Beth who is reliving her past life and loves (specifically an affair (?) consummated on a sunny beach), presumably in her mind, whilst her vulgar, frustrated husband, Keith Allen, bothers her and chats about the everyday before, briefly, losing his temper. The deliberate contrast, and what it says about gender, power and the inability to communicate, is brilliant. This is Pinter as Beckett. Nothing much happens, we end abruptly, and there is deliberate repetition. It originally failed to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly for its swearing, but probably because the LC didn’t like HP, but when censorship was finally consigned to the dustbin of history, Peggy Ashcroft and David Waller brought it to the RSC stage. There are squillions of other playwrights who explore this territory but don’t even get close to Pinter’s insight, in half an hour or so, in a lifetime of trying. 

Keith Allen, and in this respect this is meant as a compliment, has a natural mansplaining air about him. His waspish manner, which, based on previous stage, film, TV and interview performances, fits the role here of Duff perfectly. I am trying to avoid saying he is grumpy and slightly bellicose, but he is. I last say him playing the older Hogarth in Nick Dear’s The Taste of the Town at the Rose Kingston where he similarly fitted the part like a glove, albeit there as an older man riddled with pain and regret. (And he has the look of the older Hogarth if we believe the artist’s self portrait – not always a given). 

In contrast Tamsin Greig spoke her lines, in a soft Irish lilt, through a microphone, presumably to highlight the contrast between the two “monologues”, but it also ensured we could her every breath as she gave voice to the interior thoughts of the plainly damaged Beth. Enthralling.

Then in A Kind of Alaska (1982) she played Deborah, the woman on a hospital bed who wakes from a coma after 29 years to meet the stiff doctor who has “cared” for her, Keith Allen again, and her bemused sister Pauline, (Meera Syal in a role that finally gave her a chance to shine). AKOA is one of HP’s less cryptic offerings, (though the relationship between siblings and between doctor and patient might now be as straightforward as it seems), but it is still fascinating to see how, with an economic text, the bewilderment of a “child” who has become an “adult” without knowing how or what this means. Once again TG was terrific, confused, guilty, emotional, often in the same line. Two women then, locked in the past, but they could scarcely be more dissimilar.

Once again Soutra Gilmour’s set, here a rotating cube containing “period” interiors redolent of the period when many of these works were written, the 1960s, as well as the lighting of Jon Clark and sound of the Ringham brothers is sublime, and cleverly pulls the disparate strands, and writing styles, together. Jamie Lloyd once again proves he is pretty much peerless when it comes to Pinter. With no “guest” directors the contrast between the comic and the tragic in these works was well balanced and the pacing ideal. I don’t know how much rehearsal time the cast had but this really had the feel of a seasoned ensemble. 

Bring on No. 4. Moonlight from 1993 and Nightschool from 1960 where Mr Lloyd has passed over the reins to Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. I don’t know either play and it sounds like these might be more muted than 1 and 3 but no matter, there will be something to take away. And the Tourist, and hopefully new fan MS, are primed and ready for the recently announced Betrayal. 

Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place review *****

Brodsky Quartet, In Time of War

Kings Place, 18th November 2018

  • Karen Tanaka – At the grave of Beethoven
  • Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No 1
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8
  • Dave Brubeck – Regret
  • George Crumb – Black Angels

It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.

Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo. 

Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11. 

Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.

The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No  as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.

Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?

Tamburlaine at the RSC Swan Theatre review ****

Tamburlaine

Swan Theatre, RSC Stratford, 17th November 2018

If you scroll down you will see a so-called review of the play Switzerland. Though focussed on the author Patricia Highsmith it referenced her most famous character Tom Ripley. One of the most beguiling bad boys in fictional history. However he was a novice compared to Kit Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Assuming you accept that Tamburlaine is, by and large, fictional, even if he is supposed to be based on Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty in the C14 and ruler of vast swathes of Eurasia and defeater of the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans and the Sultan of Delhi. Self-proclaimed inheritor of the legacy of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire two centuries earlier, self-titled “Sword of Islam” and possibly responsible for the death of 5% of the world’s population. His descendants went on to rule much of Central Asia and found the Mughal Dynasty in India.

Now Marlowe being Marlowe (I’ve banged on before about just how transgressive he was), and I am guessing not armed with much in the way of facts, it will have been the dramatic potential in Timur’s rise from obscurity (not true) to ruler of a huge chunk of the known world – now southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and even easternmost China – that drew him in. Remember the “real” Tamburlaine came knocking on the door of western Europe, in the process nullifying the Ottoman “threat”, he destroyed the renegade Church of the East and had diplomatic dealings with France and notably Castile. So he was an ambivalent figure in Renaissance Europe by the time Marlowe came to write his doorstopper in 1587/88, aged just 23. But he was also exotic and bloodthirsty, a combination guaranteed to pull the punters in to the Southwark playhouses.

And it certainly succeeded. Along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine revolutionised the English stage and laid down the building blocks for the great tragedies of the Jacobean period including those of you know how. Thrilling plots, complex themes and richly imagined, evocative blank verse. All of which is still apparent today as this production made abundantly clear. Now that isn’t to say that Marlowe didn’t go on a bit, the original is in two parts and you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours if you watched them back to back. And the language, in keeping with the action, is not what you would call understated. But cut back, and toned down, it is still impossible not to be swept along by the epic events, the OTT posturing and the ostentatious language.

Michael Boyd’s production doesn’t attempt to dilute the drama. Tom Piper’s set may be minimalist in design and intent but when required, cages, platforms, pits, it really delivers. The costumes may be standard issue generic every-age militaria albeit with a twist, a bit of sheepskin here, some leather gloves there, white flowing robes for the whiff of the Asiatic/Oriental, but they are, to use the dreadful contemporary idiom, on point. The themes emerge in an entirely extemporary way: Marlowe the atheist’s dismissal of all religions, his celebration of, and warning against, the rise of the “individual” against the levers of power, the rise of the populist strongman, the creation of Empire, the threats and opportunities wrought by globalisation and exchange.

For this, the episodic tale of Tamburlaine’s violent journey, is, at its heart, a hyped-up history play. There are some remarkable theatrical devices on show from the masterly Mr Boyd and the creative team to bring this to life (and death). The painting on of stage blood, with bucket and brush, for each victim, first by young Callapine (here Dev Prabhakar), the murdered son of the Turkish emperor Bajazeth (a supreme Sagar I M Arya), and then an older version played by Rosy McEwen after her previous character Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s beloved wife. had died. The “ghosts” live on then, on the fringes of the action, underlining  the price that is paid for Tamburlaine’s power grab. Callapine comes back to seek, but not take, revenge. Whilst the cage in which Tamburlaine imprisons Bajazeth, and on which he and then his wife Zanina (Debbie Korley) (spoiler alert), dash out their brains, is integral to the play it still presents a startling image when it first appears, as does Tamburlaine’s chariot, pulled by his enslaved enemies.

The platform at the back of the stage, and that which descends from the ceiling, are barely more than the maintenance men might employ at your office, but, when some soon to be vanquished unfortunate uses it to lord it over Tamburlaine and his generals, you are struck by the simplicity of the symbolism. A plastic curtain lends the air of an abattoir, undeniably apposite. Even something as innocuous as Bajazeth pronouncing Tamburlaine’s name in a Somerset, (it must be so as we Devonians are sophisticates), accent, mocking the Scythian shepherd’s upbringing, has resonance. This, BTW, is Marlowe’s chosen origin story for Tamburlaine, a long way from reality in fact and time.

All these touches (have I mentioned the tongue?) are reinforced by a muscular score from composer James Jones and complimentary sound and lighting from Claire Windsor and Colin Grenfell (who bathes the Swan thrust stage in a golden glow, gold being the dominant tone of the text). Much was made of Evelyn Glennie’s percussive score for Troilus and Cressida (which I saw through RSC live), which, like Gregory Doran’s production overall, was only a qualified success. Here the sound and score was spot on. 

The production also succeeds because the cast are fully committed. Jude Owusu, in his first major role, belts it out of the park, heads out, picks the ball up, and belts it out again. He is so, so good. And he does it without succumbing to shouty histrionics: he is just well hard from the moment we first meet him. Hard to believe this was the same man who played Charles Darnay in the execrable Tale of Two Cities at Regents Park (though he was the best thing in it). I was much taken with the way David Rubin and Riad Richie painstakingly built out the characters of Techelles and Usumcasane, Tamburlaine’s two lifelong sidekicks. Rosy McEwen was an ethereal Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who Tamburlaine abducts, but with whom she eventually falls in love. 

Mark Hadfield, as he usually does, stood out as the Soldan, as Mycetes, the King of Persia, the first to underestimate Tamburlaine’s military skill, and as Almeda, Callapine’s keeper. His comic timing, for there is comedy amongst the carnage, is superb. Who else? David Sturzaker, who amazingly played Cosroe, Mycetes’s treacherous brother, the King of Fez, then in part 2, Sigismund, King of Hungary and finally the Governor of Babylon (whose inhabitants are all drowned), James Tucker similarly takes on the roles of Meander, Mycetes’s adviser (channeling his inner accountant), the Governor of Damascus, who doesn’t have much a plan to assuage Tamburlaine’s wrath, the Lord of Bohemia, and Perdicas, a wheedling lawyer. Raj Bajaj, notably as Tamburlaine’s insufficiently macho son Calyphas, Salman Akhtar, Ralph Davis, James Clyde, Ross Green, Zainab Hasan, Debbie Korley and Vivienne Smith also take on multiple roles. Edmund Wiseman, who is excellent as Theridamas, does not, only because he, wisely it turns out, defects to Tamburlaine right at the start and sticks with him. 

There is an excellent programme note from voice and text coach Alison Bomber describing how she encouraged the actors to “connect voice, body and imagination” to bring Marlowe’s text to contemporary life, to bring light and shade, to vary the rhythm of the knotty language, so that the verse feels like speech to us. In this she and the cast succeeded admirably. As you can tell a lot happens even in the cut-down version of Tamburlaine. He and his mates get about a bit and come across, and invariably kill, a lot of people, as you have probably surmised from the above. A quick speed-read of a synopsis, as always for Renaissance plays, never does any harm, but I have to say, even with all the multiple casting and olde-worlde talking, this really is a breeze to follow. 

I get that Marlowe, and for different reasons, Jonson, are destined always to lurk in Shakespeare’s shadow, but with a production as good as this it leaves me wanting more. And wishing the poor chap, Marlowe, that is, had stayed away from Deptford that night. 

Mistero Buffo at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Mistero Buffo

Arcola Theatre, 15th November 2018

This probably ranks as one of the Tourist’s least insightful assertions, (and trust me there is stiff and substantial competition), but, in his experience, there are two types of one person theatre. The pure monologue, often fairly static, relying on the appeal of the character and the strength of the writing. The kind of story-telling that has been there since the dawn of human time. Or the multi-role tour de force which relies on movement as much as the word and where the physicality of the performance is as important as the text. 

Either way it is stripped back, and let’s face it, cheap, theatre. Which is why it is a staple of festivals and, specifically, Edinburgh. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily any good, but generally those works that get the nod at Edinburgh, and then get a showing here in London, are invariably worth seeing. I am reminded of Henry Naylor’s plays for example, Angel, which visited this very house, Grounded at the Gate a couple of years ago or Silk Road at the Trafalgar Studios, (the latter a very amusing multi-character delight from Josh Barrow). 

What I will say is that the actors in these shows certainly earn their, presumably, modest, corn. And that was doubly true of Jules Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Mr Spooner is one half of Rhum and Clay Theatre company,  with Matthew Wells, and their aim is to create theatre with “a playful sense of anarchy, vigour and originality”. They trained at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq which is the pinnacle of physical theatre. Here he collaborates with director Nicholas Pitt. 

And if you are going to put on a solo performance they why not the iconic Mistero Buffo from the master Italian writer, actor, director, comic, singer, painter, activist and all round Marxist top bloke, Dario Fo. Now you probably know Mr Fo (pictured above) from plays such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, (which I once saw in the West End in the company of a friend who was, shall we say, under a psychotropic influence, and insisted on shouting out encouragement to the cast at vital moments), Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Trumpets and Raspberries and The Open Couple. He brought improvisation, satire, criticism, parody, mockery and farce to attack the Italian state, the Catholic church, organised crime, violence, racism, speaking truth to power, echoing the style of Medieval giullari (or jongleur in French/English as here) and commedia dell’arte. His work and performances have ben continually reworked and his influence stretched far beyond Italy. Indeed I see that Northern Broadsides is currently showing an adaptation of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. 

Over 30 years Fo himself took Mistero Buffo around the world delighting atheists everywhere. For the play is essentially a p*ss-take of the absurdity and hypocrisy  of 13 of the New Testament miracles , and Christianity generally. Ir certainly wound up the Vatican. Now if this doesn’t sound like it would be a recipe for an entertaining evening out in 2018 you’d be wrong. First off there’s a fair chance you’ll know the 5 stories included here, reminding you how deeply ingrained that book still is. This means that Fo’s mocking, and Rhum and Clay’s pop culture updates thereon, of said stories is easily digested. Secondly, to be fair, sone of these stories are quite jolly, even with the moralising, and especially when undercut by our combined creatives, which give a pointed relevance. Just what is truth and just what can people be led to believe? Thirdly Mr Spooner is an amazing performer, shifting between characters with chameleonic dexterity. Take the sermon on the mount, the raising of Lazarus (backed by the White Stripes), the marriage at Cana (complete with drum and bass beats) or Crucifixion skits. OK so they are dead ringers for Python, but one man literally creates a crowd in front of your eyes. Finally it is, and he is, very funny.

Rhum and Clay will be touring this for the next couple of years. If it comes anywhere near you don’t miss it. And that is the truth.