Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.

The Lady From The Sea at the Print Room Coronet review ****

The Lady From The Sea

Print Room Coronet, 20th February 2019

Hummed and hawed about this one. Never been entirely sure about TLFTS when compared to other Ibsen’s, was not bowled over by it’s last London outing at the Donmar, couldn’t get the cheap Wednesday seat option (that is a steal) and was trepidatious about the billed mix of Norwegian and English creatives. On the other hand the last time the Norwegians came over, in the form of the National Theatre of Norway, to this very stage with their Little Eyolf (which I do care for) it was, by all accounts, a success, and the Print Room under AD Anda Winters can usually be relied upon to deliver a thought-provoking, if sometimes obtuse, evening’s entertainment.

And so it turned out. The combination of modern idiom English and Norwegian text, and British and Norwegian acting “styles” was both captivating and illuminating, as it drew out the differences between . Now as I am sure you all know Ibsen, after some chap name of Shakespeare, is the most performed dramatist worldwide (though, as with all such claims, the Tourist is dubious as to how this was proved. Remember people, always question). However, Norway had no theatre company dedicated to Henrik’s works, a la the RSC, though there is a successful biennial Ibsen festival sponsored by the National Theatre in Oslo . Which is why, in 2016, AD Kare Conradi, set up the NIC, to sponsor both new productions and to work with other theatre-makers internationally on the work of the master. The company is bi-lingual by design and targets those who might otherwise not get to see HI. This is their first in-house production. Good on ’em.

Wangel (Adrian Rawlins) is the English doctor who has ended up in the provincial Norwegian seaside with daughters Bolette (Marina Bye) and Hilde (Molly Windsor). His new wife Elida is played by Norwegian acting royalty, Pia Tjelta, who was in the Little Eyolf last year, and Kare Conradi himself plays the returning schoolteacher and family friend Arnholm. The Stranger, the object of Elida’s obsession is, obvs, Norwegian in the form of veteran Oystein Roger. Our sickly, would-be artist Lyngstrand is however English, played by Edward Ashley.

Elida likes the sea. Elida is miserable. Elida and Wangel lost their son as a baby. Elida and Wangel’s marriage is under pressure. Arnholm arrives to help. Arnholm falls for Bolette who longs to escape. Lyngstrand is a bit of a ninny but mopes sound after feisty Hilde who feels rejected by step-mum. The seaman Stranger who Elida loved and lost returns to take her back. Only when Wangel accepts she is free to decide her own destiny does she elect to stay and put the marriage back together. Without the symbolism its a belting story about the “choices” that we make. With the symbolism, as long as it is not overwrought (and this is where I sometimes get fidgety), it could be, I would imagine, intoxicating.

That isn’t quite the case here but it is still engrossing stuff. Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s (she also acts as dramaturg) new version, based on the translation of May-Brit Akerholt, is mercifully purposeful stuff, a text located in the right here, right now, which still just about manages to dreamier elements and finds the comedy. Pia Tjelta takes a nice line through Elida’s frustration with the present borne out of her idealised past. The final scene with Adrian Rawlin’s Wangel, when the penny finally drops for him, was as convincing, (and a little bit moving), as good as it gets. Kare Conradi’s captured the threat that underpins the bargain that Arnholm offers Bolette. Molly Windsor has been lauded for her performance in TV drama, Three Girls. It was easy to see why in this her stage debut. Her petulant Hilde was particularly effective as she dragged the damp Lyngstrand around the houses, physically and metaphorically, and in her interaction with Elida, notably in the “reconciliation” at the end.

No messing with Erlend Bierland’s set. Beach backed by beach-house backed by mountain view. And, a la mode, a fish tank. This is some way up the Norwegian coast. Lovely when the sun comes out. Not so perky during the long dark seasons. I need to imagine the whiff of sea, sand, engine oil and disappointment which I got here, though maybe a more nuanced lighting design (Simon Bennison) might have added more texture. Nils Petter Molvaer’s composition and sound lent a mildly brooding air when required.

So a production that uses a bi-lingual text and cast to emphasis difference and which, subtly, but insistently, marks out Ibsen’s photo-feminist message of self-determination. It sometimes came across as a little uneven but then again Ibsen wouldn’t be Ibsen without the messy stuff of life.

Pinter at Pinter 5 review ***

Pinter at Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices

Harold Pinter Theatre, 26th January 2019

The weakest of the Pinter at Pinter season IMHO though still well worth seeing. Not the fault of the cast with Rupert Graves in particular on top form. Maybe the plays; The Room is Pinter’s first ever play, from 1957 written for Bristol University students whilst Family Voices was written for the radio in 1981. Then again this hasn’t been a stumbling block in earlier instalments. The Room bears all the hallmarks of later Pinter and a setting familiar from the next, truly great, work, The Birthday Party, and the creative team have found a convincing way to transfer the imaginings of the lonely, young man holed up in a boarding house in Family Voices on to the stage.

The themes? As in the rest of the season Jamie Lloyd and his guest directors have intelligently drawn out links between the works in each instalment which have illuminated HP’s wider concerns: language, meaning, memory, (mis-)communication, anxiety, class, the state, power and control. The dislocation between what we think and what we do. There is often something “out there”, from past or present, beyond the claustrophobic confines of the setting, which might intrude in some way. The two main plays here share a similar marginal, transitory location, and a whiff of Proustian recollection, and contrast the present, minatory situation with some other “safer” time and place. (There must be some auteur somewhere who has the reputation and cojones to bring The Proust Screenplay to cinematic life).

In The Room, Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd, babbling nervously, mostly about how “warm” the room is compared to the “cold” outside, to her taciturn “husband” Bert (Rupert Graves) in their one room bedsit in a boarding house. We never quite know why she is so tense, ever after the jagged conversation she has with equally garrulous landlord Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson) before and after Bert heads off in his “van”. Rose is then interrupted by Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) who are ostensibly looking for a flat and, specifically, the landlord. They describe a blind, black man, Riley, (Colin McFarlane) they have seen in the basement who then enters to deliver a message from Rose’s “father”. Bert returns, rapidly describes his trip out in a sexually aggressive way, and violently turns on Riley. See what I mean? It couldn’t be written by anyone else right? It took HP just two days to create it and thereby change the course of world theatre and subsequently give employment to countless academics. No longer did a playwright have to “know” where his or her characters came from or where they were going.

In Family Voices Luke Thallon is given the task of impersonating the various characters which inhabit the boarding house in the “letters” he composes in his head to his mother, an on stage Jane Horrocks, who complains that her own letters to him are unanswered. These include a sexually forward young woman and a threatening bloke called, wait for it, Riley. Also present here, from beyond the grave, is the young man’s father, whose death hangs over the mother-son relationship, played by Rupert Graves. No major key ending here though.

Victoria Station played here as more “straight” comedy as Colin McFarlane plays a minicab controller growing ever more exasperated by the gnomic responses of driver “274” Rupert Graves. The driver is plainly marooned, lost both physically and mentally, but his fear is played down in this interpretation.

Interestingly the audience at the matinee the Tourist attended, (a packed house showing just how well received the season has been, albeit with a bit of judicious re-pricing), was most animated in Victoria Station. Unsurprising given the laughs, but the rapt attention that characterised say, Moonlight, Landscape or A Slight Ache didn’t seem to quite be there. The difference I think lies in the direction. Pinter Five was given to Patrick Marber. Mr Marber is an excellent writer, especially his original work, and can be an inspirational director, notably of his own adaptations. But Pinter needs something special to really take off and PM is not quite on a par with Jamie Lloyd IMHO. It’s something to do with pacing and rhythm I think though I have no idea how to put its into words. Mind you PM got the HP seal of approval directly so what do I know.

Still even as probably the least convincing of the season, there was still much to feast upon, (enjoy isn’t really the right way to describe it), and some first class acting from Ms Horrocks and Mr Graves. Can’t wait for Betrayal.

The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

The Cane

Royal Court Theatre, 21st January 2019

Somehow, until now, the Tourist has failed to see any of the work of Mark Ravenhill, either as writer, performer or director, or even his columns in the Guardian, surprising given the Tourist’s status as a paid up Guardianista. There was a recent revival of his breakthrough play, Shopping and Fucking, at the Lyric Hammersmith, but sadly the performance the Tourist signed up for was cancelled. (Made worse by the fact that the Tourist had gone straight to the theatre from an outing elsewhere during a period of deliberate mobile phone estrangement. It should be possible to chuck the bloody thing away, and to this day the Tourist doggedly persists without data, ring-tone or any social media, but realistically the everyday organisation of modern life prohibits a complete embargo. That, and the unhealthy compulsion to surf free wi-fi so as to rubber-neck the latest instalment in the Brexit car-crash).

Anyway the chance to see Mr Ravenhill’s latest play, after a hiatus of many years, at the ever reliable Royal Court, and its apparent subject, the education system, was not to be missed, and the SO agreed. Especially when directed by RC AD Vicky Featherstone and with a cast comprising Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker. You will know all three off the telly, but their stage appearances are all too rare, though Maggie Steed was in the first instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s current Pinter anthology, and it was a privilege to watch Nicola Walker’s brand of nervy, restless emotional plasticity being applied to the role of Beatrice in Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge.

Vicky Featherstone kicks off proceedings at a fair lick as we learn that Edward’s (Alum Armstrong) retirement as a teacher after 45 dedicated years is being disturbed by his historical engagement with capital punishment and by his school’s imminent takeover by an academy. There is a mob of kids outside Edward and Maureen’s (Maggie Steed) house and their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) has now turned up. It is a somewhat improbable set up but no matter. Mt Ravenhill uses this as a jumping off point to explore the uneasy relationship between the fretful couple and their seething daughter, how we apply the morality of the present to actions in the past, how much responsibility an individual should assume, and how much an institution, for excessive punishment and how violence and disciple become conflated, accepted and even internalised,

Within this tricky web Mark Ravenhill, using precise and considered language, cleverly shifts moral perspectives around and between the questions and the characters, sometimes even on a line by line basis. He asks a lot of questions but is never so crass as to give clear answers. There is a constant undercurrent of tension and hostility fuelled by the subject matter, and the symbolic cane, the weight of the past and the menacing family dynamic, visually realised in Chloe Lamford’s off-kilter, grim, and increasingly claustrophobic, set. The three actors are superb in the way they draw us in to this queasy moral maze. The looks they give each other, the barbs that they spit out, the arguments they advance and retreat from, the flashes of violence and acquiescence, all are expressively portrayed. However, over the unbroken 100 minutes or so, the flaws of all three characters become unremitting, the premise becomes over-stretched and just a teensy bit too slippery and the dialogue just a bit too predictably adversarial.

It made us squirm, it made us think and the acting is top notch. But this is a play that deliberately sets the audience outside its world. Fair enough but it might have worked better for us in more concentrated form, or with some eventual solid pay-off to all the rug-pulls and hypocrisy exposures.

Approaching Empty at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Approaching Empty

Kiln Theatre, 16th January 2019

An overly optimistic faith, despite a welter of evidence to the contrary, in the combined efforts of South Western Railway and Network Rail’s ability to convey passengers to the stated destination on time meant that the Tourist pitched up late for this showing. So he had to watch the set up in Ishy Din’s new play on one of those little black and white TV screens that theatres provide for latecomers (and production crew obviously) where the sound is reedy thin and where the lighting comes across like a molten sun on stage. Not the first time either. Please make sure you never take the Tourist’s casual attitude to pre-performance timekeeping.

Anyway it is April 2013 and we are in a minicab office in Middlesborough. Mansha is marshalling the cabs through a mic whilst bored twenty-something Shazad is phonearsing (this being my all-encompassing term for texting/browsing/Instagramming/WhatsApping/taking selfies/looking at cats/admiring themselves/trolling/dying a small death at the fake success of others/Candy Crushing and whatever else it is you people do on your phones). The telly in the background pipes up with coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral. Raf enters, coughing.

Now it transpires that sharp Raf is the owner of Kings Cars, Shazad is his vague son, supposedly learning the ropes, and Mansha is Raf’s mate from way back, and manager of the cab office. We hear from feisty Sameena, a new driver, who comes back to the office, as does the gullible Sully, Mansha’s son in law, and we hear talk of Sameena’s younger brother Tony, who plays a pivotal role at the end. From these characters Ishy Din builds a story of a friendship, missed opportunities, family ties and a double-crossing all wrapped up in a critique of neo-liberal economics (with Mansha and Raf’s different takes on Thatcher’s legacy being the catalyst). Mr Din was himself a taxi-driver in this very city, and the dialogue rings true and the sympathetic characters arrive fully formed. The problem is the somewhat lumbering plot and telegraphed reveals. It is not a bad story, quite the reverse, but in his haste to crank it up the playwright smothers the interchanges between his characters, which is where the play is most affecting. Less might well have been more.

As it is we do take away how Mansha and Raf, as first generation Pakistani immigrants, have gone from hard, but dignified, graft in the factory, to a more precarious existence in the service economy, and how many, and not just in this community (the intention was to write a drama which could equally well be set elsewhere in “left-behind”, post-industrial Britain), end up skirting the law in some way. Rosa Maggiore set looks the part and Pooja Ghal’s direction is supportive of people, place and message. Kammy Darweish as Mansha is the epitome of careworn decency and Nicholas Khan as Raf neatly treads the line between arrogant, shifty and desperate. I will look out again for Karan Gill who impressed as Shazad. I have seen Rina Fatania (Sameena) and Nicholas Prasad (Sully) so was not surprised by the way they end humour out of their characters. Maanuv Thiara was left to do what he could with textbook thug Tany.

This is the second of a proposed trilogy about Asian men in Britain, with theatre company Tamasha, following his debut Snookered from 2012. Ishy Din came late to the scriptwriting game but it’s pretty easy to see he has the ear. The last play will focus on men who leave families to work here with the intention of returning “home”. I will look out for that and for his earlier work. Whilst Approaching Empty, in its dissection of a community whose bonds are fracturing under the stress of financialised capitalism, doesn’t quite scale the heights of, say, Sweat at the Donmar, it is definitely worth seeing, and when Mr Din reins in his desire for action, slows it all down and focuses on family and faith, he is going to write a classic.

True West at the Vaudeville Theatre review ****

True West

Vaudeville Theatre, 10th January 2019

The Tourist’s first viewing of a Sam Shepherd play. A couple of near misses, but this, with Matthew Dunster directing and Johnny Flynn as one of the two brothers was not to be missed. I was less sure about the acting merits of Kit Harington having actively avoided that Game of Thrones and not having seen any of his film work. The only exposure the SO and I have had, (quite literally it turned out with his botty on show), was his Faustus in the lamentable Jamie Lloyd outing a couple of years ago. (BTW Mr Lloyd may not have convinced us in Marlowe but in Pinter, as he is now proving, he is the bee’s knees).

Well as it turns out Mr Harington puts in a more than creditable stint as Austin, the screenwriter younger brother to Johnny Flynn’s maverick petty thief Lee. Or at least we should assume they are brothers. Sam Shepherd’s near-naturalistic text and setting, (apparently he was a right one for stage directions), have led many to conclude that what we are seeing is two sides of Austin’s character which emerge as he is holed up in central California in Mum’s holiday retreat.

As I had anticipated Johnny Flynn, on whom I have a small crush, was magnificent. From Jerusalem, through Twelfth Night, Hangmen, and now this on stage, Lovesick, Genius, his Dobbin in Vanity Fair and his scene stealing Felix in Les Miserables on BBC right now, and then his utterly brilliant Pascal, alongside the equally wonderful Jessie Buckley, (who I also have a similarly sized crush on), everything he does is, well, genius. Can’t vouch for his music, other than the Detectorists score and his contribution in this play, but another sign of his all-round wonderfulness. He has charisma, plainly, but he is able to mould that personality and presence, through speech, expression and movement, to the character he is playing.

Lee is volatile and unpredictable, a restless wanderer, the embodiment of the True West of America, a chancer, but enough of an opportunist to seize his opportunity when Donald Sage Mackay’s film producer, Saul, visits to check on Austin’s progress. Whilst I was a little unconvinced by this plot shift that leads to the inversion of Lee and Austin’s relationship, Austin now getting in the hair of Lee as he tries, hopelessly, to write his own script, as I was by the brawl that follows the arrival of their exasperated Mom, (Madeleine Potter in an underwritten hospital pass of a role), there was plenty in the dialogue and semiotics to keep me gainfully entertained.

Sam Shepherd’s key concerns, the dysfunctionality of family as a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of American society, are common to most of his mature plays. He started off in a more absurdist, comic vein and was a pivotal figure in all that late Sixties, psychedelic, experimental New York artistic scene. However, it is his quintet of plays. created in a decade span from the mid 1970’s, which define his writing legacy. True West (1980), alongside, Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1979) make up the Family Trilogy, which was followed by Fool For Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985). These are the plays that generally get revived, (there are a lot more besides), and these are the plays I will now need to hunt out to complete my education. I can see that, without the right cast and direction, they might have the capacity for tedium, fortunately not the case here.

The way Austin initially seeks to calm his elder sibling, (they haven’t seen each other for 5 years), to forestall any conflict, eventually handing over the keys to his car. The guilt Austin feels about their alcoholic father. The golfing one-upmanship. Austin’s dismissal of Lee’s hackneyed plot for his film idea. The admissions of jealously of each other’s lives. Conformity and financial success vs rebellion, freedom and moral ambiguity. Head vs gut. The inversions as Lee calms Austin after Saul drops his script, Lee begging the drunken Austin to let him concentrate. Not the stuff of every brother relationship but enough for anyone similarly blessed, (hello little Bruv), to recognise. I can certainly see why some might want to go beyond the straightforward reading of the play, especially as things get out of control towards the end, and the signifiers of the “vanishing West” pile up, but I was happy enough sticking with the obvious.

If I am scrupulously honest the play worked best when Messrs Flynn and Harrington were bad boys, rather than when they tamed their instincts, and I got a bit peeved by the stilted proceedings later on, which come close to questioning the worth of all that has preceded. Jon Bausor’s set and Joshua Carr’s lighting were effective but a little compromised by the Vaudeville’s proscenium and architecture. All in all though, and if you like either, or better still both, of these lads, well worth the trip.