Catching up (Part 2)

March 2020

First week of March 2020. I see that I was still out and about but I also see that I avoided a few entertainments before the cancellations started in earnest and the first lockdown kicked in. I remember feeling a little nervous but obviously no precautions taken apart from the space my bulk and air of misanthropy usually commands.

Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds – Oldham Coliseum. 4th March 2020. ****. A visit with the SO to Manchester for theatre and family. In retrospect, like our wonderful trip to Andalusia a couple of weeks earlier, not the smartest of moves as the virus dug in, but we weren’t to know. The Tourist is very keen on the Oldham Coliseum and here the OC AD Chris Lawson, together with Natasha Harrison, alighted on James Fritz’s 2014 play, Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds, as a worthy and cautionary tale to bring to the good people of Greater Manchester. I was very taken with JF’s Parliament Square and The Fall and this didn’t disappoint (the original Hampstead Downstairs production secured a West End transfer). At its centre is teenager Jack, groomed for success, but who never actually appears. Instead the reaction of his parents, Di (Jo Mousley) and David (Lee Toomes), his feisty ex girlfriend Cara (Alyce Liburd) and his conflicted best mate Nick (Noah Olaoye), is what drives the action and debate. For Jack has posted a “revenge” sex tape on line without Cara’s knowledge and its repercussions allows JF to explore issues of class, power, privilege, consent and shaming without sacrificing the believable human concerns of the protagonists. Anna Reid’s set was a bit tricksy with a mirrored frame (allowing rather too many blackout jump cuts) surrounding the immaculate family home and Andrew Glassford’s score occasionally intruded. JF’s disclosures occasionally stretched credulity, Jack’s parents are very protective/forgiving, but his sharp dialogue, snappy pacing and characterisation is still spot on. The central performances of, especially, Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes more than did justice to the script. Hope to see more of JF’s work and very interested to know what he is working on right now.

Wuthering Heights – Royal Exchange Manchester. 4th March 2020. ***. I sensed from the off that the SO was dubious about this adaptation. But I reminded her how brilliantly Sally Cookson brought Lottie’s Jane Eyre to the stage and crossed my fingers. Unfortunately she, the SO, was right. I can see what co-MRE AD Bryony Shanahan was aiming for in her production of Em’s only opus, let’s call it “elemental”, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and lip. WH is a great book, or so the SO who is an expert in these things tells me, for it is a long time since I have read it so can’t properly vouch for the skill of Andrew Sheridan’s adaptation, but it did seem a little haphazard, promoting detail and odd linguistic effect over plot and narrative arc and little concerned with the ending. When compounded with the rock n roll, live score of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Zoe Spurr’s nerve jangling lighting design, an earthy, obstacle course, set from Cécile Trémolières, a Heathcliff from Alex Austin that tipped into full teddy-boy werewolf (yep that’s what I meant) and a Cathy from Rakhee Sharma tinged with Gen Z petulance, it was all a bit rich for my blood. And yet. I quite liked it. After all at its core this is a Gothic tale of unhinged love. jealousy (bags of that in Gurjeet Singh’s Hindley) and revenge and in tone, if not timbre, this production got it right.

Our Man in Havana – Spies Like Us – Vault Festival. 5th March 2020. ****. OK so descending into the packed, dank tunnels underneath Waterloo which host the Vault Festival didn’t seem, even at the time, to be that smart a move and I canned a couple of later visits, but in this case my recklessness was rewarded with the kind of hour’s entertainment that only “fringe/festival” theatre can provide. Spies Like Us are a seven strong physical theatre ensemble formed in 2017, based at the Pleasance Theatre in London, with four productions under their belt, an adaptation of Buchner’s tragedy Woyzeck, comedy Murder on the Dancefloor, latest work whodunit Speed Dial and this, their first production, Our Man in Havana, based on Graham Greene’s black comedy about the intelligence service. Impecunious vacuum salesman Wormold (Alex Holley) is an unlikely recruit, via Hawthorne (Hamish Lloyd Barnes), to MI6 in Batista’s Cuba who fabricates reports, and agents, to keep the bosses happy. The stakes rise when London sends him an assistant Beatrice (Phoebe Campbell), who helps him save the “agents”, and the Russians try to take him out. He exacts revenge and tries to outsmart a local general (Tullio Campanale) with designs on his daughter Milly (Rosa Collier). All is revealed but finally hushed up with Wormold getting a desk job, a gong, the girl and cash for his daughter’s education. I confess there were times when I wasn’t absolutely sure what was going on or who was who but, under Ollie Norton-Smith’s direction, Spies Like Us play it fast and very funny. No set, minimal props (the actors themselves provide where required), doubling and tripling of roles. It is all about the sardonic script, accents, movement (choreographed by Zac Nemorinand}, sound, light and, especially, timing, and this caper was honed to perfection.

Love, Love, Love – Lyric Hammersmith. 6th March 2020. ****. My regular reader will know i have a soft spot for the ambitious and fearless writing of Mike Bartlett. Love, Love, Love may not be his best work for theatre (I’d go with Earthquakes in London, Bull and King Charles III) and the issue it explores, generational conflict, may not be original, but, as always, there is heaps of acutely observed dialogue to lap up and a punchy plot to carry you along. In the first act set in 1967, free spirited Sandra (the criminally underrated Rachael Stirling) dumps dull, conservative boyfriend Henry (Patrick Knowles) for his rakish brother Kenneth (Nicholas Burns), a fellow Oxford undergrad. Fast forward to 1990 and the now married, and tanked up, couple are bickering in front of kids Rose (Isabella Laughland) and Jamie (Mike Noble). Finally in 2011 the consequences of their baby boomer generation’s selfish privilege are laid bare at Henry’s funeral, via the undiluted fury of Rose, now well into her 30s and with no assets, career or family of her own. As she says her parents “didn’t change the world, they bought it”. As usual with Mr Bartlett there are a few moments when you think, “nah he can’t get away with that”, and a few of the comic lines are jemmied in, but the way he combines the personal and the political, like a modern day Chekhov, is never less than entertaining and the satire more effective for its relative gentility. Joanna Scotcher’s sets are brim-full of period details, marking the couple’s increasing wealth, and Rachel O’Riordan’s direction was faultless. This was a smart choice by Ms O’Riordan, the play may be over a decade old but the generational stresses it explores are perhaps even more pressing, and, with A Doll’s House and the revival of Martin McDonagh’s, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (generational conflict of a different hue) completes a trilogy of hits from her since taking the helm at the Lyric. And the 2022 season she has just announced matches anything else served up in London houses as we return, hopefully, to “normality”. She will be directing the prolific Mr Bartlett’s new play, Scandaltown, which sounds like his take on a contemporary Restoration comedy, and there is also a revival of Patrick Marber’s Closer, a welcome update of Racine’s tragedy Britannicus, Roy Williams’s take on Hedda Gabler, and a new play Running With Lions. And the directorial talent on show is top drawer: Michael Buffong (Talawa Theatre), Atri Banerjee (Hobson’s Choice), Claire Lizzimore (another Bartlett specialist) and Ola Ince (Is God Is, Poet in Da Corner, Appropriate). Buy tickets for 3 of then and pay for 2. Which comes out at barely a tenner a seat. In a lovely, friendly theatre with acres of space and perfect sight-lines. Surely a bargain.

Red Peter – Grid Theatre – Vault Festival. 7th March 2000. ****. Back to the Vaults for the penultimate visit to the theatre before I chickened out and the curtains starting coming down. As it happens I was able, in fairly short order, to contrast this take on Franz Kafka’s short story, A Report to an Academy, adapted and directed by Grid Theatre’s founder,  Chris Yun-Ward, and performed by Denzil Barnes, with a later version, Kafka’s Monkey, from 2009, with the human chameleon Kathryn Hunter as the eponymous ape, directed by Walter Meierjohann and written by Colin Teevan. This latter was on a screen, deadening the impact of what is a tour de force of individual physical theatre, but then again I could watch Ms Hunter open a letter. However, and putting aside the benefit of being in the, very, atmospheric room, (this was one of the Vault spaces with full on train rumbling overhead), Denzil Barnes was mesmerising. In order to escape captivity Red Peter has to learn to behave like a human telling his story via a lecture to an imagined scientific audience. Not difficult to see where Kafka’s absurdist metaphor was targeted, the cruelty of the humans in the story is contrasted with the nobility, patience and eloquence of our hero, but just to be sure there is plenty of philosophical musing on the nature of freedom, assimilation and acculturation to ram home the post-colonial point. Which means Mr Barnes had a lot to say, as well as do, at which he was very adept. But it is the doing, when being chased, when incarcerated in a cage in the hold of a ship, when being paraded like a circus freak, where he excelled. The play is sometimes unsettling, often funny, and always thought-provoking. Not difficult to see why it has been showered with fringe-y awards.

The Revenger’s Tragedy – Cheek By Jowl, Piccolo Theatre Milan – Barbican Theatre. 7th March. *****. So Thomas Middleton was a big, and prolific, noise in Jacobean drama. Equally adept in tragedy, history and city comedy. As well as masques and pageants which paid the bills. He may even have helped big Will S out in Timon of Athens and revised versions of Macbeth and Measure for Measure. The Changeling, Women Beware Women and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside all get run outs today though the Tourist hasn’t yet had the pleasure of any of these (though not for want of trying). He has however seen A Mad World My Masters in Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s 2013 version for the RSC. A devilishly clever plot, dealing with greed, avarice, hypocrisy, seduction, virtue and the like, the usual concerns of city comedies, which the creative team didn’t quite pull off (ha ha seem what I have done there) by relocating the action to 1950s Soho. In the Revenger’s Tragedy, Cheek by Jowl, together with their new Italian collaborator partners Piccolo Theatre, were altogether more successful. Vindice (Fausto Cabra) and his brother Hippolito (Raffaele Esposito) hatch a scheme to get revenge against the Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) for murdering Vindice’s fiancee. This involves disguises, deceits, bribes, conspiracy, treachery, infidelity, imprisonment, voyeurism, murder, execution, beheading, rape, suicide, assassination and, implied, necrophilia. All in the guise of a comedy. Or maybe better termed a black parody since Middleton took the guts, literally, of a revenge tragedy from a couple of decades earlier (itself derived from Seneca) and bolted on the satire and cynicism of a city comedy, all in the service of taking a sideswipe at the increasingly corrupt court of James I. If this all sounds a bit OTT remember sex and violence in the name of entertainment is still a streaming staple but Middleton, his peers, and contemporary audiences, at least used it for a purpose beyond vacuous titillation. Maybe more like a Medieval morality play then, albeit with a knowing wink, plainly acknowledged in this production, than the straight line tragedy of Shakespeare. Performing in Italian courtesy of Stefano Massini’s translation, (which means surtitles, as well as a clever introduction, can help with plot and character in the Act 1 set up and cuts through the dense text of the original), an ingenious “box” set from Nick Ormerod which opens with the word Vendetta scrawled across its width, seasoned with a kinetic energy which mirrors the action thanks to Declan Donnellan’s brilliantly detailed direction and Alessio Maria Romano’s choreography and movement across the 14 strong cast, this is how to lend contemporary resonance to C17 drama. Which CBJ incidentally has a long history of doing. The satirical target may be modern-day Italy but the hypocrisy and venality of the ruling class is sadly generic. It is a great regret of the Tourist’s theatre viewing career that he has come so late to the CBJ party but he is resolved not to miss anything from here. As theatre though this was on a par with their French Pericles from 2018.

Also in March, my last trip to the cinema to see Parasite, (no I haven’t seen the latest Bond yet, at this rate Dune will probably come first), a slightly odd programme (Mozart, Penderecki and Mendelssohn) from the English Camber Orchestra and oboeist Francois Leleux at the QEH, and my first go at lockdown theatre on a screen, Peter Brook’s take on Beckett from Bouffes de Nord. And, as it turned out, one of the best.

The Tin Drum at the Coronet Theatre review *****

The Tin Drum

The Coronet Theatre, 24th February 2020

I know. This is ridiculous. Posting some comments on something the Tourist saw over 18 months ago. But I started. So I’ll finish. And with some cracking live theatre now under his belt, the Tourist’s cultural mojo is back with a bang. Not that it went away but that intellectual funk is hard to shake off.

Tuscany. Puglia. Andalusia. For lifestyle and sunshine. Or North/South Holland (Rotterdam, Delft, Leiden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, take your pick). Or Ghent. For people and culture. These are the sort of places that the Remainiac, Metropolitan Elite, Liberal, Tourist fantasises about escaping to when he gets wound up by the latest instalment of idiocy from our venal, lazy, incompetent, ideologue Government and its fan club. Of course he will never actually leave. Oppositional populism always collapses in on itself and the grown ups will be back in charge to pick up the pieces now that reality is biting. Only a matter of time. Mind you the toddler exceptionalist tantrum of Brexit looks set to cause further damage. Such is the elective dictatorship we English seem to have saddled ourselves with.

Oh, and then there is Berlin. For if there is one city which rivals London in terms of its cultural opportunity then Berlin is it. Berlin, obviously, supported its theatres through the recent dark days and months. Here in Blighty some of the greatest theatre-makers on the planet, creating the very stuff of human existence, had to beg for assistance which, though eventually forthcoming, was still couched in the usual philistine carping about the arts standing on their own two feet and some incoherent gammon-rambles about “woke”.

Anyway that’s enough keystrokes wasted on the clown that purports to leads this country and his petty corrupt cronies. The point is Berlin looks after it’s culture. Even the problematic bits. So maybe the list should be extended to said city. After all its theatre is second to none. Whilst the Berliner Ensemble streaming offer through lockdown was rendered inaccessible to the idiot Tourist by his lack of German, its confederate down the road, (quite a long way down the road as it happens), Schaubuhne Berlin, served up all sort of theatrical goodies for us English only speakers during the had lockdown. Mr Ostermeier’s Hamlet, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler and Professor Bernhardi, as well as Katie Mitchell/Alice Birch’s Orlando were amongst the best of my lockdown viewing for which I have very grateful.

Which takes me all the way back to February 2020 and the Coronet which secured the services of director Oliver Reese and fearless performer Nico Holonics for a few nights to perform their celebrated adaptation of Gunther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum. Now as it happens I only the know the story, if that is what you can call Herr Grasse’s confabulation of Nazism, guilt and psychosis as seen through the eyes of bizarre man-child Oskar Mazerath, via the film version directed by Volkor Schlondorff and starring the then 11 year old Swiss actor David Bennent as wee Oskar. But that was some time ago so I confess the details were sketchy. I had not read the book but was surprised to learn that neither had TFP, my companion for this evening and go-to in all matters of German literary culture. Which left us both able to immerse ourselves in this sublime piece of theatre without too much knowledge aforethought.

Now it is a strange story. Oskar is the child who refuses to grow beyond the age of three, an outcast who recounts his own history, the death of his mother, his two “presumptive fathers”, his sexual awakening, alongside that of Germany before and during WWII, forever banning on his beloved tin drum or shattering glass with his screams. Clown or monster, mad or piercingly sane, instigator or passive observer, Oskar is a mess of contradictions. Nico Holonics has been inhabiting this little chap for a few years now so it should come as no great surprise how brilliantly Oskar is realised. What is more astounding is how quickly, with barely more than a pair of short trousers and a few props, though with lashings of thespian skill and attitude, he takes us with us. If acting is conquering the fear of performance, then NH, over near two hours, shows just how it should be down. It’s in German, the sur-titles, I am reliably informed, do not quite nail it idiomatically, and there is a little, somewhat forced, audience participation and fourth wall breaking. Despite this, Oscar, in all his glory and ignominy shone through. If shine is the right adjective.

Messrs Reese and Holonics are not quite ready to put little Oskar to bed just yet. Indeed he is being wheeled out as we speak in Berlin. Apparently in English on occasion. If this ever comes anywhere near you, and high-brow allegory and exemplary acting craft float your boat, then this is a must see.

Right time to begin the great catch up.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

The Antipodes at the National Theatre review ****

The Antipodes

National Theatre Dorfman, 23rd November 2019

I’ll tell you what. That Annie Baker backs herself. Here is another long play, near 2 hours straight through, where, visually, nothing much happens, bar a properly weird interlude, and dense with word. And this time it is a story about stories, Yep that’s right. The meta of meta. Six assorted punters (five men and just one woman) are ranged around a glass, conference style table telling each other stories in an attempt to create a story. Mediated by their distracted passive aggressive boss Sandy (the ever wonderful Conleth Hill), with occasional interruptions from his chipper assistant Sarah (Imogen Doel) to take food orders, excuse Sandy’s absences and chivvy the crew, and the voice of mogul “Max” (Andrew Woodall) who is bankrolling the enterprise. And with a note taker, Brian (Bill Milner), who eventually, memorably, gets stuck in.

It looks and feels like a scriptwriter’s meeting but its real purpose is never fully revealed and the rules of engagement are vague. Just see what happens seems to be Sandy’s instruction and from this all sorts of stuff pours out, from personal disclosures and confessionals, jokes, classical myth and allusion, gods, monsters, religious dualism, stories about stories, right through to various creation myths. It is affecting, thoughtful, funny, intriguing. Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with Perrier overload, Natasha Chiver’s garish lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound, Sasha Milavic Davies’s movement (much use of swivel chairs), all echo the hyper-reality, or do I mean hyper-banality, of Annie Baker’s text, which gradually shifts the apparently mundane into the realms of the extraordinary. No surprise that Ms Lamford and Ms Baker co-direct.

It doesn’t quite scale the heights of profundity that it sets out to achieve, or the genuine grace of predecessor John, and it probably stole 20 minutes of my life more than it should have, but you still couldn’t fault its ambition and verve. In trying our patience, and venturing into the Freudian “uncanny”, it gets right under your skin even if it doesn’t shed too much fresh light on the creation of collective, and self, narrative. But it does cover all the bases, maybe too many, as concept overwhelms even this committed execution. Though with actors of this quality, Fisayo Akinade, Matt Bardock, Arthur Darvill, Hadley Fraser, Stuart McQuarrie and Sinead Matthews as the writers), individual character emerges out of the ensemble.

I guess the point was that whilst the urge to share our truth and humanity, and bring meaning to pointless existence, through stories remains undimmed, our capacity to do so might be fading, (especially as chaos in the outside world seeped into the ill-judged ending). Or maybe not. The vagueness of purpose is all part of the attraction in Annie Baker’s practice, so best just to go with the intractable flow and don’t pull too hard on the individual, intellectual, threads. It won’t be one of my top 10 2019 theatrical events but was still a story that could not be missed.

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

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat. Do not miss this.

The Lovely Bones at the Rose Theatre Kingston review *****

The Lovely Bones

Rose Theatre Kingston, 26th October 2019

The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.

Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.

It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.

So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.

Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.

Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.

Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.

Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.

Jude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Jude

Hampstead Theatre, 8th May 2019

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.

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House review ****

Billy Budd

Royal Opera House, 7th May 2019

The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.

Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.

The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.

Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.

(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).

Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.

The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.

First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).

As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.

As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.

Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.

On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.

Creditors at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****

Creditors

Jermyn Street Theatre, 27th April 2019

I am still tiptoeing my way into Strindberg. A long history of ignoring him after an early dismissal many years ago was corrected with the companion piece to this, a version of Miss Julie, also translated by Howard Brenton, also directed by JST AD Tom Littler and also co-produced with The Theatre By The Lake which seems to serve the good people of Cumbria very well and probably needs a visit. There was also Polly Stenham’s version, simply Julie, in 2018 at the NT, a variation on her usual style. Neither were completely convincing, the former because of the play, the latter because of the production, but I recognise there is food for thought here, though far less than with Ibsen and Chekhov where I am now properly in the swing after some similar false starts many years ago.

It’s the underlying misogyny, even when old August may well be confronting it, and the violent swings in emotion which seem to be more necessitated by plot than character, which put me off. That is not to say that the grumpy Swede had nothing to say about the nastier side of love and passion just that the way he tackles it feels artificial to me. Now I know. It’s theatre. It isn’t real and doesn’t have to look like. Except that this is intended to be naturalistic and, like his contemporaries, offer an insight into the human condition, and specifically that thing that gets bound up in the phrase “love/hate relationship” or, more lazily I think, “the battle of the sexes”.

Mind you I have to say that this Creditors was a more engaging experience than Miss Julie. Maybe I am getting better at this theatre viewing lark, which would be heartening given the time and money invested, or maybe the way in which Creditors approaches the three way romantic tussle, here MFM rather than FMF, was more “relatable” (ugly word) to me, though I hasten to add I have never been caught up in such a scenario. The benefit, (or maybe curse), of being dull and painfully inept when it comes to matters of the heart.

What it can’t be, obviously is the creative approach. Like I say its the same team. Even down to the set where Louie Whitemore employs the same basic structure to create the seaside hotel reception room in which the sensitive, would-be artist, Adolf is convalescing with his fervent wife Tekla, that she employed to create the Scandi period kitchen for Miss Julie. Maybe the cast here was a little more to my taste though it is the same James Sheldon playing Adolf here in Creditors as the sexy servant Jean in the Miss Julie. I have a lot of time for Dorothea Myer-Bennett most of whose recent performances I have seen (Rosenbaum’s Rescue, Holy Sh*t, The Lottery of Love, The Philanderer) and she always stands out even if the play isn’t entirely convincing. Here she captured Tekla’s independent spirit, her devotion to Adolf and her still unresolved passion for the third character in this conflicted trinity, Gustaf.

He was played by David Sturzaker, another very fine theatre actor as it was my pleasure to discover recently in the multiple parts he mastered in the RSC’s excellent Tamburlaine. Here he shows how Gustaf’s insistent charm first cast doubts in Adolf’s mind about Tekla’s history, fidelity and ambition and then, as it is revealed that his presence in the hotel is no coincidence, he attempts to “win back” his ex-wife whilst Adolf eavesdrops from the room next door. These two scenes sandwich that between Tesla and Adolf where Adolf’s suspicions are angrily voiced despite her attempts to reassure.

Pretty straightforward huh and maybe not an especially original subject for drama you might think. But it is the way that Strindberg explores the motives and psychologies of his three protagonists, and the the way their emotional ambiguity is expressed, that turns it into something compelling. Why is Adolf so weak and open to persuasion? Tekla has expanded his artistic horizons and the marriage has been happy so why does he fall so easily for Gustaf’s Iago-like duplicity? She is intelligent, educated, sophisticated and worldly so why just WTF is Adolf’s beef? What is driving Gustaf to wreak this emotional havoc? Revenge, love for Tesla, wounded pride at the way Tekla, thinly disguised, ridiculed him in her autobiographical novel, toxic masculinity? Are Adolf and Tekla hiding something about their own history? Who is dependent on whom? Is Tekla still attracted to Gustaf’s “stronger” character? Is this just a game for Gustaf? Why the melodramatic ending?

Howard Brenton, like so many theatre types, is fascinated by the interiority, (yep it’s a real word), questions that Strindberg poses. As he is with other literary greats – see my forthcoming attempt to pick the bones of his latest play Jude inspired by Hardy (and, somewhat bizarrely, Euripides). As with Miss Julie this seemed, at least to this novice, an admirably forthright adaptation but then I know no better. It certainly, like the Miss Julie, serves up contemporary dialogue and caustic humour to set against the period setting and it comes in at a crisp 80 minutes or so. Same goes for Tom Littler’s direction and the unfussy lighting of Johanna Town and sound of Max Pappenheim. Howard Brenton has written a play, The Blinding Light, about Strindberg’s drift into madness, his “Inferno” period, which was directed by Tom Littler, and they have also combined for AS’s dances of Death, so you have to think they know what they are about here. So I am guessing this is about as good as it gets when it comes to modern interpretations of our August. Especially in the very intimate surroundings of the JST.

There is a lot more to Strindberg than the early, naturalistic plays which deal with that are most often performed. There are the the later more ambitious, symbolist works (A Dream Play, Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death). Various history plays. Theatre director and producer. Novels. Poems. Essays. Scientific investigations. Painting, (his symbolist landscapes, example above, tick the boxes for the Tourist). Also dabbled in theosophy, though this was very trendy in fin de siecle artistic circles, occultism and alchemy. Not surprising he went a bit bonkers. A social/anarchist with a strong antipathy for all forms of authority but also an anti-semite. A campaigner for women’s rights who helped transform the role of women in drama who was also an ugly misogynist in print and whose wives where decades younger than him.

When you read about his him, his plays and his place in Swedish culture it is easy to see whay he holds such an important place in world drama. Am I persuaded? I’ll let you know in a few more years, and after a few more productions.