The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida Theatre ****

The Duchess of Malfi

Almeida Theatre, 2nd Jan 2020

No question Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is talented. Her Summer and Smoke, the dreamy Three Sisters here last year and now this. And for those, like the Tourist, who get a little antsy about her intemperate use of de jour theatrical tropes, then, I gather, she played it entirely naturalistically for Chris Bush’s Steel in the Crucible Studio recently .(LD, despite now having gone all Sheff native still hasn’t been – you try your best, eh, and what thanks do you get).

The glass box set courtesy of Chloe Lamford, a regular in Continental European art theatres, as well as display cabinets stage left and right, memento mori, housing anachronistic props. And yes this being a tragedy the walls get smeared with blood, though this is black not red, so pervasive is the corruption. Simple, well tailored, monochrome modern dress, with a woeful disregard for footwear, from Nicky Gillibrand. Stark lighting designed by Jack Knowles. Pulsing soundscape from George Dennis. Title projection to bookmark each act of John Webster’s tragedy. Microphones. Slow motion when it gets hyper-dramatic. Which it does. At the end. Soundtracked with the passus duriusculus ground bass of Dido’s Lament,

All present and correct. Yet all serves as an ideal foil to the excellent central performances, most notably of Lydia Wilson as The Duchess and Leo Bill as the conflicted betrayer Bosola. The Duchess of Malfi can be, and is now usually, as here, read, as a proto-feminist tract, as our heroine, despite her wealth is destroyed by her brothers, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus) who object to her marriage to, and children with, “lowly” steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla). In outline the plot reads like textbook macabre revenge tragedy: in practice there is plenty of room for ambiguity and exploration within Webster’s poetry. John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, written a decade or so later, is a similarly impartial, elaborate dive into human nature, when done well, as it was in Cheek By Jowl’s adaptation which first introduced the Tourist to the talent of Ms Wilson who played the incestuous Arabella. Obviously she is a big deal on the telly and it is easy to see why.

We (the SO got the gig) were lucky enough to be close enough to see her full range of expression, verbal and non-verbal, in a role full of “say one thing, mean another” moments. Antonio doesn’t stand a chance in the seduction scene, her quest for normality despite her position, as reasonable as it is unattainable, and the showdowns with the brothers are electric. Leo Bill’s duality is revealed more explicitly through monologue as he wrestles with his conscience after taking the cash to spy on the Duchess and her secret hubby. Jack Riddiford also pulls off the difficult act of being full on nutter, with a barely concealed sister love, that we still feel sorry for. Like a Roman Roy gone very bad, without the wisecracks. Especially when, contrary to Webster’s text, his dead sister comes back to haunt in the final act.

It is tricky for the rest of the cast to match these three characters and performances, though Khalid Abdalla’s diffident Antonio, Michael Marcus’s bullying Cardinal, Ioanna Kimbook’s confidant and maid Cariola and Shalini Peiris’s vulgar Julia, (both brutally murdered and both spectrally joining the Duchess), all support the increasingly tense psycho-drama. The staging and direction maybe suffers through lack of context, religion and its hypocrisy are key drivers in Webster’s play, and there are times when a bit more pace might have been injected, but overall this is another hit for both Almeida and Ms Frecknall. Proving that, with a bit of nip, tuck, and redirection, a Jacobean gore-fest can have as much to say about patriarchal control of female sexuality as the latest monologue at the Vaults. It is the Duchess’s daughter, not son, who here inherits. Though what legacy we ask.

The Almeida remains London’s most accomplished theatre and I have high hopes for Beth Steel’s new play The House of Shades. It spans five years over the last six decades so maybe this time we might be treated to a dose of naturalism. We’ll see.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.

Much Ado About Nothing at Wiltons Music Hall review ****

Much Ado About Nothing

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19th November 2019

The Tourist has been very much taken with previous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory productions, Othello and Henry V, both here and on home turf in Bristol. This latest, MAAN, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, as was Henry V, and who will be bringing Stef Smith’s take on A Doll’s House to the Young Vic next year, didn’t quite match these predecessors but still provided an entertaining, if inconsistent, evening of Shakespeare comedy.

At least it did when I snuck downstairs in the second half. I had forgotten just how dire the sound is upstairs at WMH, blighted by reverb, even if there are now some comfy perches. Not a big deal, and for some of the actors no deal at all, but it did mean that I had to strain to hear the lines of, particularly Alice Barclay as Ursula, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice and Imran Momen as Claudio. And, in Shakespeare, every word counts, however often ypu may have seen or read the play. In fact the more viewings the richer the language becomes.

Now MAAN is a comedy. And, unlike some of the Bard’s other comedies, it largely sticks to the make the punters laugh script. Even so, in amongst the comic couplings and the gossip, rumour, eavesdropping and misunderstandings, the “noting” of the original title, there are some dark ideas, to do with honour and patriarchal dominance, as Daddy Leonato (Christopher Bianchi) farms out his daughter Hero (Hannah Bristow) to Claudio and doesn’t for a moment consider she might be innocent of the charge of adultery. As ever with WS there is a questioning of gender stereotypes, even as those stereotypes are played out, which is what drives the comedy and is what Ms Freestone alights on in her interpretation through her gender blind casting, notably Georgia Frost (who stood out as she did in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase), as Don Pedro’s (Zachary Powell) here sister Don Jon, and, less successfully Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry.

Of course MAAN largely succeeds or fails on the “chemistry” between Beatrice and Benedick and here Ms Myer-Bennett, who it has been my pleasure to see in multiple plays in the last few years, and Geoffrey Lumb, who is a fine, and experienced, Shakespearean, were up for the fight. Verbal sparring only, of course, but sufficiently pointed throughout that at the end, you still sensed they would be chary of each others’ true feelings long after the ceremonies when we had all left Messina. Maybe not quite up to the benchmark set by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett in Christopher Luscombe‚Äôs RSC version from 2017 but still eminently watchable. Ms M-B’s Beatrice is, by some way, the smartest person in the room, but wields her fierce intelligence deliberately. Underneath the boorish exterior typical of his profession and sex there lurks a sensitive soul in Mr Lumb’s Benedick.

Some of the other relationships in the slimmed down dramatis personae don’t work quite as well. This tender Claudio’s love for his demure Hero persuades, his harsh about-turn later on less so. The soldiers’s banter works, the sibling rivalry between the Don’s seems forced. The party, complete with superhero costumes, clever, excites, the pivot to the disastrous wedding day, feels telegraphed, and the switch back to what is, in fairness, not the most hilarious Watch scene I have ever encountered, seemed to take this audience by surprise.

All in all, whilst there are some splendid passages and performances in the production. all set against Jean Chan’s delightful design, the rhythm of this STF production is just a little too erratic. However, once I was up close, the largely prose dialogue was, without exception (which is not always the case), pin sharp in its delivery. Whilst the look, feel and intention of the production is to present a MAAN for all time, that it works is largely down to this lucid approach.

Minus the echo of course. Won’t make that mistake again.

When the Crows Visit at the Kiln Theatre review ****

When the Crows Visit

Kiln Theatre, 6th November 2019

An adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, relocated to modern day India. Seems like a good idea no? It was. In fact better than I had expected even with its visible flaws.. Anupama Chandrasekhar has written a play that takes the Norwegian master more as inspiration than instruction and created her own, hard-hitting, response to male violence, female exoneration and the visitation of the sins of the father on the son. And with a crack cast and Indhu Rubasingham directing it is powerfully realised.

Bally Gill, who shone as Romeo in the RSC production last year, plays Akshay, the spoilt entitled son of Hema, (the marvellous Ayesha Dharker who you will recognise from big and small screen), who, along with grandma Jaya (Bollywood veteran Soni Razdan in full-on say what you think mode), fawns over him. We first meet him at the games company he works for in Mumbai, getting a dressing down for the failure of his latest idea from David (Paul G Raymond), the school friend and now successful entrepreneur, who was cajoled into giving Akshay a job because of family connections. Uma, (Miriam Haque who also plays Hema’s progressive sister), gets the nod from David to work on a new game, denting Akshay’s pride. He is still sulking when the three go to a bar for after work drinks. Later he vents his fury in an horrific act of violence with a clear real life antecedent.

He runs back to Mummy and we watch as the truth comes out. But Akshay’s guilt is not punished. Instead the corrupt police inspector, (a somewhat mannered Asif Khan, who plays neighbour Gopi in a similar way), and Hema concoct a plan to shift the blame and Akshay’s toxic aggression turns against Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon), the carer for the irascible Jaya. Whilst the development of the story is sickeningly predictable, Ms Chandrasekhar, has her writing hand firmly on the disclosure tiller, ratcheting up the tension, through to the explosive ending. Family history, as you might surmise from the source, plays a big part in this disclosure. There is no hope here; just brutal truth.

The dialogue is leavened with Hindu religious monologues from Jaya and the pesky crows, (realised by the puppetry of Matt Hutchison), which she feeds provide a symbolic edge well matched to Richard Kent’s claustrophobic, shadowy Chennai mansion house set, accented by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and the Ringham brothers sound.

It isn’t subtle, teetering close to melodrama at times, and the original victim of Akshay’s horrific crime has no voice. There are, early on, humorous lines built on stereotype. Many reviewers recoiled from both play and production seeing sensationalism. But I was not clear if they were saying this subject shouldn’t be dramatised, or shouldn’t be dramatised this way. Personally I trust writer and director here and if the narrative and characters didn’t fit received wisdom then, for me, so much the better in terms of getting the message across. This is not a subject or setting that regularly finds its way on to mainstream London stages. There is nothing nuanced about the grotesque, misogynist violence which disfigures all societies, not just India, and reminding audiences outside the normal echo chambers of understanding seems to me a laudable aim. The casual and callous way with which female victims of male violence are portrayed every day of the week on the telly, or elsewhere in popular and high culture seems to me to be a far more pertinent target than this uncomfortable play.

Blood Wedding at the Young Vic review ****

Blood Wedding

Young Vic, 11th October 2019

I got a bit nervous going into this. For those who don’t know, South African director Yael Farber has a certain style, an aesthetic, and approach to interpretation of classic plays, which isn’t too everyone’s taste. For me it works. Mies Julie, Knives in Hens, Les Blancs, even the much derided Salome at the NT, all drew me in. Very satisfying. We have her take on Hamlet also at the Young Vic to look forward to next year and newbie, the Boulevard Theatre, has lined her up to direct her compatriot, Athol Fugard’s, Hello and Goodbye.

For Blood Wedding though I had roped in the SO, a more forbidding critic, who is not, as most chums rightly are, as tolerant as the Tourist of, shall we say directorial longueurs. And this was near 2 hours straight through. On the benches of the Young Vic main space. And with her back playing up.

As it turned out I had nothing to fear. Lorca’s play, (his day job was poet after all), has a mythic and elegiac quality perfectly suited to Ms Farber’s ethereal approach, though this tale of forbidden love and revenge is not without drama and lends itself to a clear feminist interpretation. All this and more was on show at the Young Vic. A barely there, in the round, set design from Susan Hilferty, with occasional visual declamation via doors on one side, some artful cascades and a rope and harness which permitted muscular bad boy Leonardo (Gavin Drea) and absconding (nameless) Bride (Aoife Duffin) the striking means to pretend gallop. The intervention of the symbolic Moon (Thalissa Teixera), who can now add superb flamenco singing to her acting flair, and woodcutters (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Faaiz Mbelizi) made perfect, just about, sense. The bold lighting of Natasha Chivers, the score of Isobel Waller-Bridge, the spectral hum of Emma Laxton’s sound design, the balletic movement of Imogen Knight, witness the closing fight (overseen by Kate Waters) and subsequent requiem.

Most of all though Marina Carr’s beautiful translation. By shifting the setting of Lorca’s revenge tragedy to rural Ireland, though never quite leaving 1930’s Andalusia behind, Ms Faber allowed Ms Carr the opportunity to conjure an English language translation which was sympathetic to the poetry, metaphor and idiom of the Spanish original. A colonised Irish interior, suppressed by Church and State, bears obvious similarities to the paralysed, benighted Spain that Lorca delineated, critiqued and celebrated in his rural trilogy (Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba as well as BW). The hybrid setting also allowed the natural casting of the magnificent Olwen Fouere as the grizzled, austere Mother and the equally magnificent Brid Brennan as the Weaver. If I tell you that Annie Firbank as the Housekeeper and Steffan Rhodri as the outraged Father also graced the stage, along with relative newcomers Scarlett Brookes, (watch her closely in future) as Leonardo’s spurned wife and David Walmsley as the equally wronged Groom, then you can see that this was a grade A cast top to toe.

Lorca’s story is straightforward. Mother reminds son (the Groom) that his Dad and Bro were killed by the men of the Felix family next door. A dispute over land. Leonardo Felix and the Bride are still in love. Mrs Leonardo knows. The Mother finds out as well but decides to visit the Bride and her Dad. The wedding goes ahead by Leonardo turns up and steals the Bride. Outrage. Vengeance. Fight. Deaths. Sacrifice. It is very heady stuff but its chimerical qualities mean it is a long way from melodrama or even Greek tragedy. Closer to fable.

Anyway Yael Farber and Marina Carr have done a little nip and tuck with the plot but all the primitive elements are still there. That this is a traditional, brutally patriarchal society is never in doubt, as much but what the older women say, as the men, and yet there is still a sense of agency in the striking performances of Aoife Duffin and Scarlett Brooks. There is intentional comedy in the vernacular passages and there is no unintentional comedy in the brutal and fantastical scenes, (though once or twice it skirts close near the end – it is the women who mop up the blood). The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful even when the pace edges towards the, shall we say, Largo. In fact there is something of the minor key symphonic in Yael Farber’s reading.

I am not sure I would recommend this to fans of the Lion King or indeed anyway unfamiliar with this deliberately stylised auteur approach to theatre. On reflection I shouldn’t really have worried about the SO’s reaction. She reads books. Proper books. Lots of them. We are drowning in theme. Imagination, to augment the visual abstraction, is therefore no limitation for her.