My favourite London theatre of 2016

Right then. I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t this numpty know that it’s June 2017. Bit pointless talking about theatre from last year then. Well yes, you may well have a point. However this blog only started in March 2017 and it’s mine anyway so I can do what I like. And the idea primarily is to help identify some lessons about good stuff to come in future, whether it be from writer, director, cast, other creatives or venue. Anyway I suspect all you theatre obsessives will know where I am coming from anyway.

1. Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre/Royal Court Theatre

99296

So i know that technically this was from 2015. But we didn’t get to see it until the transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre having missed the Royal Court run because I am an idiot who failed to book it in time.

It is an extraordinary work. There is no-one who writes for the stage (or film) like Martin McDonagh, though there are echoes to me of the likes of Pinter and Tarantino. It is the combination of fierce intelligence, violence, humour and atmosphere. If you don’t know the plays then you may know his films, notably In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

So if this, or the Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane or any of the five Galway plays from the 1990s, are revived we should pay attention depending on who takes it on. If he makes another film we should also pay attention.

If we are in New York at the beginning of next year then we should see this production of Hangmen at the Linda Gross Theater. Please just go.

We should see what Matthew Dunster, the director, can do with his adaptation of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre this summer (his involvement with the Globe has been mixed – I can’t really comment as the Globe is off limits for me as it is too uncomfortable – sorry).

If and when Johnny Flynn stops singing and acting in mini-series (he is in that Einstein thing apparently – you know it is everywhere on the tube), and takes on another stage role we should go – he is mesmeric – and appears only to do top-notch theatre, Propellor Shakespeares, Richard Bean’s The Heretic, Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Rylance’s Globe Twelfth Night (though I didn’t get on with this).

And best of all we should be salivating at the prospect of David Morrissey taking on the role of Mark Antony at the new Bridge Theatre alongside Ben Wishaw, Michelle Fairley and David Calder. With Nick Hytner directing. We had a few magnificent productions of Julius Caesar recently but this has the potential to match them.

Oh and finally if there is one theatre where you should just buy “blind” if you have any interest at all in the subject based on the admittedly thin blurbs they provide just book it. Pick of the current bunch for me of the current season is Anatomy of a Suicide.

2. Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

cw-11513-medium

So if you have any interest in London theatre you are probably all over this. BUT if you haven’t seen it (the performances later this year sold out sharpish) or if you don’t think this serious theatre caper is for you, then I highly recommend you watch it at the cinema through the NT Live thingamabob on 31st August.

There is much to like here. Lorca’s original play, Simon Stone’s radical re-write and direction, Lizzie Clachan’s stark but effective staging, the performances of Maureen Beattie, John MacMillan, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira and, especially, Brendan Cowell. But in the end it is all about Billie Piper. You will be hard pressed to ever see a more emotionally involving performance at the theatre. No holding back at all.

My guess is we will have to wait a couple of years before Ms Piper returns to the stage but whatever she does after this and The Effect is likely to be mandatory (I didn’t get through Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire at the NT though I had a good excuse).

And if we want to see Mr Stone’s magic elsewhere then we need to follow Toneelgroep Amsterdam where he has productions of Medea and an Ibsen mash-up. Will be interesting to see whether either comes to London at any point.

As for the Young Vic well right now the Life of Galileo by Brecht is playing with, drum roll please, Brendan Cowell, in the lead. Tickets still available and I loved it.

3. Uncle Vanya – Almeida Theatre

uncle_vanya_banner

This seemed to sneak under the wire a bit. I thought it was outstanding. Maybe director Robert Icke’s Red Barn at the National Theatre or his version of Schiller’s Mary Stuart with Lia Williams  and Juliet Stevenson garnered more attention, or perhaps everyone was taking a breather after Mr Icke had smashed it out of the park with his Oresteia for the Almeida in 2015. Any way up he is the most exciting director right now in the UK and this cemented that reputation.

Mr Icke himself updated the text and shifted the “action” to rural England. The production took its time and the sense of ennui was attenuated by Hildegard Bechtler’s slowly revolving set. And Paul Rhys as Vanya/John could hardy be bettered with his man-child lost demeanour. The rest of the cast, notably Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa Kirby, Hilton McCrae and Tobias Menzies, collectively kept their ends up. The detail of the characterisations was riveting. The individual pyscho-dramas perhaps can more to the fore pushing the social context back a bit but I reckon you can have a bit too much of the “everything’s about to go tits up in Russia and these minor aristos don’t know it” benefit of hindsight in Chekhov anyway. It is always better when you you get more of sarky Anton nailing the “shit just happens” frustrations of life.

So if you are one of the infinitesimally tiny number of regular readers of this blog you will know that I have high hopes for the next couple of productions at the Almeida: Ink by James Graham (writer of This House which may yet turn out to be an instruction manual for the vicissitudes of minority government in the UK) directed by Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel and Richard Doyle and then Against by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson with Ben Wishaw in the lead.

Meanwhile one of Robert Icke’s next projects is an Oedipus with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and with Hans Kesting in the lead. I pray this come to London as Hans Kesting without question is the best stage actor I have seen. OMG.

4. Kings of War – Barbican Theatre

kings-of-war-barbican-922

Talking of Hans Kesting here is a picture of him as Richard III in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War at the Barbican. TA premiered this production in 2015 and brought in to London last year. It takes five Shakespeare history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, and mashes them up to extract the best bits in a four and a half hour spectacle that gets to the heart of what political power means.

Is it better than the similarly envisioned Roman Tragedies? (review here – Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****). I couldn’t tell you. There are both works of astonishing theatre. There have been a few let downs from TA and its inspirational artistic director Ivo van Hove, notably Obsession, but this showcases what he and his ensemble is capable of. So, as and when, this returns do not miss it.

And Mr van Hove has a number of forthcoming engagements on the London stage with Network coming up later in the year at the National the pick of the bunch.

5. Escaped Alone – Royal Court Theatre

ESCAPED ALONE

I have something of a weakness for unsubstantiated hyperbole. But here goes. Caryl Churchill is the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare. The best theatre plays with ideas and form and creates lasting impressions in the mind which simply cannot be replicated by any other artistic medium. Caryl Churchill does this again and again and again. No hype, no endless interviews explaining what she is doing/has done. Just perfectly formed, intense works that magically appear and seem to have addressed everything worth addressing over the past five decades or so. I just wish I had seen more of them.

Escaped Alone, in under an hour, explored the nightmare of apocalyptic, ecological collapse in a hilariously surrealist way, intertwined with, at turns, the banal and sinister fears and stories of four mature women ostensibly chatting in a back garden. That is my attempt at a summary but it does no justice at all to the ideas and images that just pour out of this play. As always with Caryl Churchill you just marvel at the alchemy of how so much insight into the big questions of humanity flows from these non-naturalistic, but never truly absurd, structures.

So as and when the next new play appears just go. And the same advice applies to any Churchill revival, anywhere. anytime.

6. Oil – Almeida Theatre

oil_website_1470x690

Back to the Almeida for Ella Hickson’s ambitious play Oil, directed by Carrie Cracknell and with the magnificent Anne-Marie Duff in the lead. So I get that the text and the pacing of the production was a little uneven but I didn’t care. Ms Hickson created such a compelling narrative, mixing the geo-political epic with a detailed mother-daughter relationship which hits you on some many levels. I have seen Anne-Marie Duff steal the show in a number of very different plays but she has never been better than in this role. And I doubt there is a better director in Britain today of towering female roles than Ms Cracknell (The Deep Blue Sea, A Doll’s House and Medea are recent examples).

Now it looks like Anne-Marie Duff’s latest outing at the National Theatre, Common, is getting a bit of a pasting. I will be taking a peek shortly so will make up my own mind. She is also pencilled in to a Macbeth next year alongside Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris. Surely that will be unmissable.

As for Ella Hickson, I would love to see a revival of Boys, and I think that it is only a matter of time before she pens an undisputed contemporary classic. And if anyone knows what Carrie Cracknell is tackling next I would love to know.

We are blessed in this country right now with a generation of outstanding female playwrights and directors but I for one would like to see way more come through. This play shows why.

7. The Rolling Stone – Orange Tree Theatre

the_rolling_stone_1142_484x580_20151215

Royal Court, Almeida and Young Vic all unsurprisingly represented in my top ten list and I have no doubt they will be again this year. As will, I suspect, the Orange Tree which continues to turn out work of the highest quality, whether revivals or new plays. They may not always be my cup of tea but artistic director Paul Miller and his team seem to have an extraordinary knack of identifying and staging rich theatrical material.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch was a winner of the biennial Bruntwood Prize winner in 2013 and premiered at the Royal Exchange Manchester so was hardly a secret. But it was still terrific to see the Orange Tree pick it up for its London premiere and it deservedly won a slew of Offies (the London fringe theatre awards).

It is an examination of the persecution that gay men face in Uganda largely told through the words and actions of one family. It packs an extraordinarily powerful emotional punch and will leave you seething with anger at the actions of church, state and media which combine to pursue a modern witch-hunt.

This is Chris Urch’s second play and I await with interest his next project which I believe is a screenplay for a biopic of the life of Alexander McQueen. And without exception I keep my eye out for the excellent cast, Faith Alabi, Fiston Barek, Jo Martin, Julian Moore-Cook, Faith Omole and Sule Rimi (who has popped up in a number of subsequent productions I have seen and has been uniformly excellent in these).

8. Les Blancs – National Theatre

lesblancs-1280x720-sm

The proper luvvies are in a little bit of a tizzy over Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the National. I admit it has become a bit of a lottery, particularly when it comes to the Olivier stage, but there have been some belting productions in the last couple of years. And for me this was the best of the bunch last year.

Now this probably reflects the fact that I have never seen A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece. Following this version of Les Blancs it is now right at the front of the queue of plays that I simply must see. I was bowled over by this version of Les Blancs. It is an immense play which explores post-colonialism in 1960s Africa with an unforgiving eye. There is a lot of grand speechifying to advance the arguments but the didacticism never proceeds to simplistic resolution. I gather Ms Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, had a major hand in completing this play after her untimely death. The set, sound, lighting, music and even smell could not have been bettered and for once I think the best seat in the house was upstairs at the back since there was so much to savour.

South African director Yael Farber seems to have presided over a duffer with Salome currently on at the National (I haven’t seen it yet) but her direction in this Les Blancs was sublime. And I don’t know what stage Danny Sapani will next grace (you will have seen him on the telly) but wherever it is I will try to go.

9. Orca – Southwark Playhouse

orca-at-southwark-playhouse-rona-morrison-maggie-carla-langley-fan-and-simon-gregor-joshua1-700x455

This was Matt Grinter’s debut play which won the Paptango new writing prize. I thought it was brilliant. In just 75 minutes Mr Grinter conjures up a place which seems far removed from our modern world and his tale of ritual abuse in a closed community conjures up a real sense of foreboding. I suppose some might label it “folk horror” at a pinch but it was just so much smarter than that label implies. It confronts the reality of the outrages that even today are visited upon women by men who hold power over them.

The setting is a fishing community on an island to the north of Scotland I surmised. An elder sister Maggie played by Rona Morison tries to prevent her younger sister Fan (Carla Langley) from undergoing the same unspecified but clearly dreadful fate which she refused to endure. Their father (Simon Gregor) won’t step in because he cannot face continuing to be shunned by the rest of the tight knit community. The patriarchal head of the community The Father played by Aden Gillett is genuinely one of the most disturbing characters I have ever seen on stage,

I’ll stop there just in case it gets revived but this was a riveting watch under the direction of Alice Hamilton. And the set by Frankie Bradshaw in the smaller space in the Southwark Playhouse (where they put on all the good stuff) was beyond ingenious. I don’t know if I imagined the cold, damp sea air that night, or whether that was all part of the production, but I really felt I was cut off from the rest of the world and not a few yards from the Elephant and Castle.

I await Matt Grinter’s next writing excursion with extreme interest.

10. Julius Caesar – Donmar King’s Cross

julius-ceasar-donmar-warehouse1

This is what Shakespeare is all about. Phyllida Lloyd and her all female cast led by the redoubtable Harriet Walter added The Tempest to the previous productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV and set them up in a temporary stage at bargain prices in Kings Cross. All three took the venerable texts and smashed them over your head. Breathtaking.

I pick Julius Caesar solely because it is my favourite of the three plays. And I think the setting of all three plays in a women’s prison achieved most resonance in this play with its themes of conflict and the misuse of power. Directorial concepts in Shakespeare are vital in my view to illuminate the timeless brilliance of the insight but they can fall flat. Not here.

I think Harriet Walter’s Brutus is the best I have seen and I would also, if pushed, single out Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony (to add to her amazing Ariel in The Tempest). She was the only decent contributor to the dreadful Jamie Lloyd Faustus and I await her next major role with interest. The same goes for Sheila Atim who next pitches up in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic.

Harriet Walter can read the phone directory and I would still go and Phyllida Lloyd could direct a bunch of phone directories and I would still go.

Best of all this Julius Caesar will be in cinemas soon so catch it if you haven’t already seen it.

 

So there we go. My favourites from last year. Honourable mentions also to Complicite’s Encounter which I finally got to see at the Barbican, Schaubuhne Berlin’s The Forbidden Zone also at the Barbican, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day musical at the Old Vic, and Jess and Joe Forever by Zoe Cooper and Blue Heart by the mighty Caryl Churchill both at the Orange Tree.

This year is ramping up to be similarly fine for London theatre with plenty of contenders already. Enjoy.

 

 

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

anatomy-of-a-suicide

Anatomy of a Suicide

Royal Court Theatre, 22nd June 2017

There are many extraordinary things about Anatomy of a Suicide. One is that there are still tickets left in the run at the Royal Court. Snap them up. Another is that as far as I can see all the serious reviews give it 4 stars. I have no idea why they dropped a star. This is as good as theatre gets in my book.

To be fair it is an intense couple of hours. And the formal construction will keep you on your toes. But it connects emotionally and intellectually. We know Katie Mitchell is a brilliant director. We know Alice Birch is a writer of rare talent from Ophelia’s Zimmer and Revolt she said, revolt again as well as the recent. screenplay for Lady Macbeth. Together though they have, along with the three outstanding lead actors, created another powerful and brave piece of theatre. I can’t get it out of my head and the more I think about it the richer the experience becomes.

The title and the proper reviews will tell you the story. Hattie Morahan plays Carol, Kate O’Flynn plays her daughter Anna and Adelle Leonce in turn plays Anna’s daughter Bonnie. The play opens in the early 1970’s in a hospital following Carol’s attempted suicide. The emptiness brought on by her depression is painstakingly mapped out by Hattie Morahan whose every gesture reeks of defeat. The birth of Anna only serves to increase her despair. In turn we first see Anna in hospital. intoxicated, having injured herself. She eventually seems to straighten out and start a new life but pregnancy and the birth of Bonnie cannot lift her depression and erase the memory of her mother’s eventual suicide. She too ends her life. Bonnie, whose story starts in the 2030’s is haunted by the fate of her mother and grandmother and plots a path to avoid this through career and childlessness.

This is the bare bones. As I am writing this I am conscious that it doesn’t even get close to describing just how much detail and insight Alice Birch is able to wring from her intricate text. She indicates in her notes that the play is “scored” and the three stories are presented in landscape across the page in the playtext. The three lives are revealed concurrently and the lines intersect and, at some points, are spoken simultaneously even down to the same word. This creates all manner of profound juxtaposition which echo across the three generations.

Most of the reviews I have seen focus on the portrayal of depression and “mental illness” which directly afflict Carol and Anna, and reverberate through Bonnie’s life. I see this but I think I also saw a profound essay on the role of women in modern Western society. “Wife” and “Mother” seem to crush Carol and Anna and leave no space for their own identity, and Bonnie’s alternatives still leave her seemingly unable to connect. The other characters are generally thinly drawn, deliberately I surmise, but brilliantly serve to show how the women are boxed in. The scene and costume changes, with the three leads reduced to mannequins, reinforced this idea of lives being shaped by others.

With such an ambitious text and with such a creative form (others have drawn the parallel with Caryl Churchill – I agree) it needed expert direction. It got it. The set is minimal (until a minor coup de theatre at the end which maybe offered some redemption) leaving prop and costumes to mark change. The delivery of the text seemed perfect to me. The sound design was immense. The background ambient noise was augmented by off-stage accents of music, parties, babies crying – happier lives if you like – which made the disconnection of the characters more striking. And the intricacy of the words and sound was matched, maybe surpassed, by the intricacy of the movement, within and between scenes. There was even room for a couple of trademark Ms Mitchell slow motion shuffles

I will stick my neck out and say that the reputation of this play and production is only going to grow through time. It is dense and it requires attention but I found it deeply profound and emotionally involving. I am going to stop now because I don’t think I am getting anywhere close to explaining how powerful this is. Please go even if the subject puts you off.

Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

terror-website-image

Terror

Lyric Hammersmith, 19th June 2017

Terror is not your typical piece of theatre. It is a courtroom drama yes, but not in the form of a classic “did he/she or didn’t he/she do it”. Nor is it especially interested in probing the psychological make-up of accused, victim or legal representatives. Instead it is focussed on a classic moral dilemma: which takes precedence, the rule of law and the principles that lie behind it, or the conscience of the individual.

Writer Ferdinand von Schirach sets the stakes pretty high though. The defendant Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) is an exemplary major and fighter pilot in the German air force. He has admitted shooting down a commercial plane which had been hijacked by a terrorist. In doing so 164 people have died but potentially he has saved the lives of 70,000 in a football stadium, the known target of the terrorist. The facts are succinctly laid out by Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody), the air force officer tasked with co-ordinating any response to this sort of event. Major Koch was expressly ordered not to shoot down the plane but chose to go ahead. The judge (Tanya Moodie), prosecuting (Emma Fielding) and defence (Forbes Masson) counsels lay out the arguments with some eloquence and pull in a few classic examples from ethics and moral philosophy (the trolley problem for example). We also here the testimony of one of the victim’s wives played by Shanaya Rafaat.

We the audience then toddle off to the short interval, have a debate about what we think (as a number of people around me were doing – Billy No Mates here once again had to have a debate inside his head) and then return to press a button to decide if the major is guilty or not guilty.

It is thought provoking stuff but only works as a piece of theatre because of the canniness of the writing. Mr von Schirach’s day job is as a lawyer. I am guessing he is a flipping good lawyer. I have no idea how “accurate” a representation of the German legal system this “trial” is, but I am not sure it matters, so deftly is the dilemma set up. The set design by the very talented Anna Fleische is imposing and the direction by the Lyric’s own Sean Holmes is typically confident. The excellent cast also rises to the occasion. For me though the real hero here is translator David Tushingham. The role of translator is often overlooked but if I admired the economy of the text here this evidently reflects the skill of translator as well as playwright. I note that Mr Tushingham also translated Winter Solstice by Richard Schimmelpfenning which enthralled me at the Orange Tree earlier in the year. He was also dramaturg for the Forbidden Zone, one of Schaubuhne Berlin’s finest exports to these shores.

So if you and some mates are looking for a thought provoking night out, (with plenty of time for some grub and/or a livener or two afterwards as this comes in well under 2 hours even with the break), then you could do worse than secure some tickets for Terror. And after it is all over, check out the Lyric website to see how your audience jury compared to the many previously across the world. I won’t say what I thought.

 

Twitstorm at the Park Theatre review ***

chris-england-claire-goose-justin-edwards-jason-merrells-l-r-in-twitstorm-at-park-theatre1-700x455

Twitstorm

Park Theatre, 15th June 2017

Right then. Where to start with Twitstorm, a new play by Chris England, which has a couple more weeks to run at the Park Theatre.

Well once again the Park has taken an intriguing and a la mode idea and stuffed it full of faces off the telly to pull in the punters. However once again it has not quite lived up to the billing, although this in large part I think reflects the mixed messaging on the part of the writer.

In essence it is a satire on the modern predilection for mock outrage on social media. Jason Merrells plays Guy Manton a supercilious day-time TV presenter of a show called “Arguing the Toss” who prides himself on being the scourge of “political correctness”. It is not too difficult to see writer Chris England’s own alter ego in this character though he himself has chosen to play Rupert, Guy’s manager. Guy’s writing partner, Neil, played by the instantly recognisable Justin Edwards whose facial tics are comedy gold, resentfully takes something of a professional back seat and still hankers after Guy’s wife Bex, played by Clare Goose. With minimal preamble Tom Moutchi is pitched in to proceedings as Ike, the now grown up “child from Africa” that Bex and Guy had disinterestedly “sponsored” and who is invited to stay.

Obviously this plot device bears little scrutiny but it’s what you do with it that matters so we can let it pass for the moment. From this beginning (and incorporating the excellent Ben Kavanagh doubling as work colleague Steve and new media commentariat Daniel Priest) Mr England fashions his satire as (no detail to avoid spoiling) Guy’s twitter feed posts a highly offensive tweet which provokes a media frenzy, and then parlays into a further bizarre plot twist involving Ike.

Now clearly there is scope for a very interesting satire to evolve from this premise. Unfortunately Twitstorm is not quite that satire. It definitely succeeds in pricking the bubble of the self serving, sententious nature of the modern entertainment and digital media eco-system. Guy is a grotesque and deluded egotist and Jason Merrells captures his type perfectly. If Mr England had just stuck to the story of his downfall we would, I believe, have had a funnier and more successful play. But his compulsion to turn his acerbic pen against all manner of “things we are no longer allowed to say” creates some frankly very odd and uncomfortable moments.

Just to be clear I get that satire has no boundaries and we should not be afraid of saying the unsayable. But some of the lines here and bits of the plot look like they have dropped straight out of some 1970s “blimey Dad did people really say/think that in those days” sitcom. And therein lies the problem. Even if these crass lapses in tone are intended to be ironic they just weren’t funny and make Mr England sound like some apoplectic Mail reading sub Clarkson. It feels like the Ike character has been shoehorned in to an underwritten plot simply so Mr England can up the outrage quotient. Having done this the play then gets trapped by its own deus ex machina. This is not a farce (though the middle class show home set gives that impression), so taking liberties by piling up the improbable detracts from the justified ridicule.

So these are the drawbacks. Unfortunately for this liberal, PC, metropolitan elite Guardian reader it was also pretty funny at times. And as I said its scattergun approach to bringing down modern cultural shibboleths does sometimes hit the target, even if the intent is unclear. It is also interesting to think about that dividing line between what is funny for the “right” reasons and what is funny for the “wrong” reasons. I worship at the altar of comedian Stewart Lee but find Mrs Brown’s Boys puerile and unfunny. But given my class, education and world view that is not surprising.

So I would ignore the reviews that dismiss this out of hand, and ignore most of what I have said above and go see for yourself. At the very least it will clarify your thoughts on what you and others find funny and where you sit on the “political correctness gone mad” and “synthetic outrage” debates. Which, in Mr England’s defence, I suppose, was what he was trying to do in the first place.

 

An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

an20octoroon20-20orange20tree20theatre20-20publicity20photo20by20the20other20richard

An Octoroon

Orange Tree Theatre, 14th June 2017

Crikey. An Octoroon. I am not entirely sure what I saw and learnt here. I do know it will stay in the memory for many years though and I am very glad I saw this.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes the bones of early Irish playwright/impresario Dion Boucicault’s hugely popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, to create a riveting meditation on slavery and on black voices in the theatre. (As an aside this immediately puts the lie to the idea of American drama only really getting going in the C20 – there was clearly vibrant theatre in the C19 – it just might not be palatable to modern audiences).

It starts with lead actor Ken Nwosu (last seen by me as a laconic Face in the RSC’s tip top Alchemist) ambling on in his undies ostensibly as the “black” playwright BJJ to explain why he came to write the play and what he wanted to say. Droll and self reverential. We start to guess we are in for a treat. He then starts to “white-up” in order to play George the lead in DB’s original. He is joined by Kevin Trainor playing DB who proceeds to go “red-face”. The assistant to BJJ played by Alistair Toovey then also “blacks up” to play two different slaves, Pete and Paul, on George’s soon-to-be inherited plantation.

All the female characters, in contrast, are played by “colour-appropriate” actors – I don’t know how else to say that. Emmanuella Cole and Vivian Oparah play Dido and Minnie, house slaves in George’s inheritance plantation, though their sass is entirely contemporary. Iola Evans is Zoe, the Octoroon of the title whose father I think was George’s uncle, and who is one-eighth black. This means that George cannot marry her. Celeste Dodwell is Dora, a rich, white, heiress neighbour who is pursuing George. Cassie Clare plays Grace, a pregnant slave and Br’er Rabbit (I am still not entirely sure why). Oh and lest I forget, Ken Nwsosu also plays M’Closky the evil neighbour (and former overseer on the plantation) who tries to secure George’s land and slaves on the death of his aunt.

All clear? It will be. The plot of DB’s play revolves around a mortgage foreclosure and an intercepted letter and sees the villain M’Closky’s dastardly deeds undone with the help of cutting edge technology (for the 1850’s), to whit, a camera. It is, despite its material, a rollickingly good tale by itself which BJJ plainly recognises. It both uncomfortably wallows in the conventions of its time and the subject of its setting, but also partially unpicks those mores. With BJJ himself then subverting and critiquing DB’s play and by implication the nature of racial stereotyping, whilst getting plenty of laughs along the way, it is unlike anything you will ever see. There is all manner of deconstruction going on – quite literally at one point as the stage is pulled to pieces. A lot of references passed me by but there was enough to feast on despite this.

I know this sounds preposterously oblique but the whole mash-up put me in mind of the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg who also created funny and insightful works from stuff he “found”. BJJ shows a similar fierce intelligence and delight in unsettling his audience. This is play as well as a play. You will be properly entertained in a broad Vaudevillian way but simultaneously made to squirm and therefore think long and hard about race and the theatre’s depiction of race.

Highly recommended. Another hit for the ever inventive Orange Tree. The cast is outstanding, director Ned Bennett pulls all the strands together, (and trust me there are many), and the solutions that designer Georgia Lowe has conjured up to deal with the limitations of the OT stage are endlessly inventive. I am now looking forward to BJJ’s next play, Gloria, which is coming up very soon at the Hampstead Theatre, though I gather it could not be more different in subject.

 

 

Murray Perahia at the Barbican Hall review ***

murray_2540364b

Murray Perahia

Barbican Hall, 11th June 2017

  • J S Bach – French Suite No 6 in E major, BWV 817
  • Schubert – 4 Impromptus Op 142, D 935
  • Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
  • Beethoven -Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Murray Perahia is a great pianist. No doubt about that. And I am always keen to hear his Beethoven interpretations. However the last few concerts I have seen in London from him have been a mixed bag. The solo recital this time last year was a little underwhelming with a fine Mozart A minor sonata offset by a curiously underpowered Hammerklavier. In contrast his Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 earlier this year, with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields which he also directed, were marvellous. Another performance of PC No 4 under the mighty Bernard Haitink’s baton was also sensational.

In this concert we had a similarly puzzling evening. The Bach was the best of the bunch, played with great clarity and musicality and with that lovely counterpoint revealed in all its perky glory. I won’t comment on the Schubert – I just don’t really get on with it – but the audience was clearly persuaded. I didn’t know the mournful Mozart Rondo but this was a compelling rendition so I will need to check it out.

The Beethoven, his final sonata, with its curious structure and strange, ethereal musings, took a bit of time to get going. Mr Perahia’s treatment of the Maestoso opening of the first movement was more deliberate than the recordings I know (Pollini and Paul Lewis are my favourites) but by the time we reached the fugal development, which uses the whole keyboard, it was back in the groove. The longer second movement, with its six variations largely in C major, was much more convincing and here I got lost in the beauty of Beethoven’s music. The movement is near 20 minutes in total but always seems timeless to me.

So a fine evening of solo piano music but not quite as engrossing as I had hoped.

Richard III at the Arcola Theatre review ****

tn-500_greghicksandsarapowellinrichardiiidirmehmetergencalexbrenner

Richard III

Arcola Theatre, 10th June 2017

I have had a surfeit of Dickie IIIs over the last few years. Mind you I am not complaining.

Mark Rylance on his return to the Globe found a vulnerable, despairing Richard who didn’t seem to care about his actions. Ralph Fiennes was a ruthlessly efficient c**t which left next to no room for audience complicity. Lars Erdinger was the narcissistic showman, even in the buff, in the Schaubuhne Berlin production at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the Hollow Crown II version (just get this on DVD if you “don’t like Shakespeare” and then change your mind), upped the comedy quotient which I enjoyed but was ingratiating for others. Robert Sheehan (the pretty boy off the telly’s Misfits) was one of the best things in Trevor Nunn’s marathon, “proper Shakespeare” War of the Roses at the Rose Kingston (yep all in one day for me) with his youth offering up a more bolshie Dickie. Best of all was Hans Kesting in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War. Like the War of the Roses this had the advantage of providing the back-story for Richard’s tale that the standalone productions don’t have, which ensures the other characters are in the flow of the action from the off. Kesting, with his tight fitting suit and birthmark but with no limp or withered arm, created a Richard with physical presence and superior intelligence who is able to bully all those around him. His actions almost seem reasonable such was his charisma making the final “I am a villain” monologue, when his loneliness is laid bare, here delivered to a mirror, even more disturbing.

I have to say though that Greg Hicks, in this Arcola production directed by its inestimable head honcho Mehmet Ergen, tops the lot. This is because he captured all of the facets of what it is to be a Richard III in my view. Now remember this is a piece of Tudor propaganda as filtered through Will S’s imagination so no need to get too hung up on the “reality” of the body count or the misogyny. A bloody route to kingship was par for the English course through most of history. What matters is how the performance and production seeks to balance the contradiction between the audience’s repulsion and attraction to our leading man and the dialectic between the thirst for power and the self loathing that torments him. The best plays obviously feast on contradiction and big Will serves these up in spadefuls in this play.

Greg Hicks was not setting out to play the joker here, though the delivery of some of the classic asides to audience served that purpose. His crystal clear delivery of the lines, together with changes of tone and phrasing, and the masterful use of pauses, revealed intent in ways that had not been clear to me before, notably in the “group’ scenes with Rivers, Hastings and Stanley. His constant movement of face and body (with leg permanently chained to arm) and habit of getting right in the face of the other characters emphasised the desire to twist events to his advantage. This was a Richard in a hurry. The crown was the payback for the hate meted out to him in the past. The unhidden misogyny and careless manipulation was simply the means to this end. Not “pure evil”, not a charming pantomime villain, not solely motivated by self hate and a desire to avenge, self-aware but still consumed by the deception of rightful inheritance. This is when an intervention by a trained psychotherapist in childhood might had saved a whole lot of bother later on.

The compact Arcola space with its steepish seating, the sparse staging and costumes, sympathetic staging and lighting, all served to focus attention on the actors. The support from this medium sized cast (there was a bit of doubling) was admirable, particularly Paul Kemp as Clarence/Stanley, Sara Powell (so good in the recent The Plague on this very stage) as Elizabeth and Matthew Sim as a full-on psycho henchman Catesby, but matching Mr Hicks proved a big ask.

We know Greg Hicks is an outstanding Shakespearian actor having been and done it with the RSC and NT and I hope there are many more to come. But I would love to see him revisit some Pinter, create a hard-arsed Volpone or have the lead role in a future Martin McDonagh play.  For the moment though I have this performance to savour.