Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.
Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.
Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.
We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.
Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.
I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..
A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.
Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.
So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.
T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.
Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.
My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.
Another play on the wish list. Not that Laura Wade’s Posh hasn’t had regular outing since it first appeared at the Royal Court in 2010. And, memorably it was made into a film The Riot Club, in 2014 directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig to Ms Wade’s screenplay . A thinly veiled satire on the covert Bullingdon Club, where Oxford University’s finest men get shitfaced and cause havoc all in the name of …. well wankerdom and entitlement I suppose. Open only to super toffs from the “top” public schools. Expensive threads, fancy dining and immediate payment for damage done in whatever venue is daft enough to let them in, Call me Dave and BoJo the Clown were members. Enough said. Apparently as the world moves on, Oxbridge democratises its intake and thanks in part to the play, there are very few dickheads who are up for this now. It may die soon. Hurrah.
Of course BoJo, like so much in his dodgy past, has renounced the Club and is no doubt cracking on with penning vague policy about banging up the real crims who get lashed up and smash things up on a Saturday night.
Anyway Ms Wade’s play is far more than just an excuse for us snarky grammar school types to vent our indignation at those whose confidence far exceeds their ability. As with Home, I’m Darling and The Watsons, Ms Wade dissects misogyny, here it its most repellent incarnation, as well as class. Her early plays show that she can turn her writing hand to just about anything ranging across subjects, concepts and form, but it is the execution that she stands out. Writing plays that are this dramatically sharp, theatrically entertaining and above all, this funny, is a rare gift.
Now the Rose Kingston unsurprisingly made much of the appearance of one Tyger Drew-Honey, the undeniably good looking young man who first appeared on our screens in the comedy Outnumbered, this being his stage debut. He plays Alexander Ryle the villain of the piece, though he has stiff competition, but this is most definitely an ensemble play. I can report that young Tyger did himself proud, especially in the second half when his twisted, fascistic take on class envy fired up his chums, and in the epilogue when Jeremy (Simon Rhodes), the Tory MP uncle of George Balfour (Joseph Tyler Todd) offers him a job despite, or maybe because as the Club, past and present, closed ranks, he was held responsible for the evening’s outrages. Mr Rhodes does a nice line in Establishment privilege and Mr Todd, an ex Cambridge graduate setting out on his acting career was superb as the butt of all jokes, George.
He wasn’t the only recent Cambridge graduate on show. Adam Mirsky who played airhead Guy Bellingfield, Chris Born who was James Leighton-Masters, the increasingly reluctant President, Isobel Laidler who played the molested daughter of the pub’s proprietor, Rachel, are all alumni though I am guessing are a long way from the characters they are playing. If it helps, knowing a few young’uns of recent vintage from that very place, I am pretty sure that the Posh-types are now very thin on the ground there though it is a shame a previous generation has its incompetent hands now on the levers of power. George Prentice who played aristo Miles Richards (Bristol), Matthew Entwhistle who played Toby Richards and Ollie Appleby who played the gay Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Exeter) are all current undergraduates at unis which will also have, potentially, offered some insight into their characterisations. The cast was completed by Jack Whittle as Harry Villiers, Jamie Littlewood as nouveau riche Greek scion Dmitri Mitropolous, Taylor Mee as Ed Montgomery, Ellie Nunn as Charlie, the sex worker who shows up the boys for what they are, and Peter McNeil O’Connor as the pub owner Chris whose trust is betrayed.
No point highlighting any particular performance. The play is written to give everyone an opportunity to alternately elicit the audience’s amusement, fury and sympathy. Will Coombs’ set, the private dining room of the pub, didn’t quite have the measure of the expansive Rose stage but at least this gave room for the histrionics of the Club to play out. Lucy Hughes’s direction blocked well in this regard and she had an eye and eye for the rhythm and pacing of the play. Whilst Ms Hughes has spent many years teaching this is also her professional debut. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t get another gig sharpish.
Posh is, intentionally, a brutal play and Ms Hughes didn’t pull any punches. Maybe a little forced at the beginning but once the ten members of the club are assembled the production caught fire. The misplaced pride in the Club’s history, the portraits of long dead members looking down on them, the pathetic ritualistic traditions, the empty bragging and swaggering, the bullying and exploiting of weakness, the sexual predation, the condescension and contempt All faithfully rendered. The original production featured such luminaries as Leo Bill, David Dawson, Joshua McGuire, Richard Goulding, Harry Hadden-Paton, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Tom Mison, Kit Harington and James Norton. Didn’t harm their careers. Here’s hoping some of the raw talent on show here, which gives the production such energy, gets a similar break.
Of course there is the risk of an ambiguity at the heart of Posh. Are we laughing at, or with, the Club? I think Ms Wade’s intention is clear however and Lucy Hughes, in her direct reading, reflected this. Hopefully if I ever see it again it will be a period piece, such behaviour consigned to the dustbin of history. Somehow I have my doubts.
I have to hand it Debbie Hicks and Alexander Lass, producer and director of The Permanent Way. Whilst David Hare’s 2003 verbatim dissection of the Tory rail privatisation in the 1990s, and the four fatal disasters which followed, is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre, which was praised at the time, it takes guts to revive it. Especially in a two month run. With a cast of nine. Admittedly the economics at the Vaults are attractive for theatre makers and performers, that is why the Festival goes from strength to strength, and the USP of a site specific production about the railways, under Waterloo with trains rumbling every few minutes, is self evident. And a few coats, uniforms, lamps and four benches is all that was needed set and costume wise (Ruth Hall). Even so I was surprised when this was announced, though very pleased as it had been on my watch list for years.
I was even more surprised that the Vaults was packed with twenty somethings on the Sunday afternoon when I attended. I guess this is ancient history from their perspective but then again, as our politics and civic discourse becomes more polarised, and with rail nationalisation firmly on Labour’s policy agenda, I guess the relevance of the play needs no explanation.
Now when I was their age, fresh out of uni, and keen to do something worthwhile, I sought work in the public sector. Civil service exams completed it was off for interviews at various departments (at least I think that was the chronology). Ever the statto, Department of Transport was top of the list. Some kind mandarin chaps quizzed me on the thorny issue of rail privatisation, already firmly on Thatcher’s agenda. To paraphrase I said it was a shite idea. How to split infrastructure from operations and how to make competition work across a fixed capital public good? The chaps didn’t really demur. Didn’t get an offer mind but it was pretty clear that if this jejune, if opinionated, grad could see this was bonkers idea, then so could everyone tasked to make it happen. From one entity to 113.
And so it came to pass. David Hare offers us a High Powered Treasury Thinker (Lucas Howe), a Senior Civil Servant (Jonathan Coote) and an Investment Banker (Anna Acton) to walk us through the how and why of privatisation, all retrospectively seeking exculpation. Wendy (Sakuntanla Ramanee), in a neat touch, just makes the tea. A turn of the political wheel and we meet John Prescott (Paul Dodds) and a Senior Rail Executive (Tej Obano) who ooze complacency. A Very Experienced Rail Engineer (Jonathan Tafler) warns of the dangers presented by the split of responsibilities and the lax safety regime, driven by commercial imperatives, before the four “accidents” are forensically examined. Southall (19th September 1997, 7 dead, 150 injured), Ladbroke Grove (5th October 1999, 31 dead, 523 injured), Hatfield (17th October 2000, 4 dead, 70+ injured) and Potters Bar (10th May 2002, 7 dead, 76 injured). For those that doubt the connections, after all the actions taken in the years after these tragedies, there have been minimal fatalities on Britain’s railways, outside of incidents on level crossings.
The cast, including Jacqui Dubois and Gabrielle Lloyd as well as the above, take on the roles of the bereaved, union leaders, campaigners and pivotally, a British Transport Policeman (Jonathan Coote), the MD of the eventually nationalised Railtrack (Lucas Hare), yes it turned out you couldn’t leave the infrastructure in private sector hands, and a Bereaved Widow, the author Nina Bawden, whose husband died at Potters Bar (Gabrielle Lloyd). The diversion into the schisms between the various groups of the bereaved feels prescient.
The play was inspired by Guardian journalist Ian Jack’s book, the Crash That Stopped Britain, and was based on interviews carried out by the cast of those involved selected by Max Stafford-Clark and transport journalist Christian Wolmar, (who I see is not standing this time as the Labour candidate in Richmond Park where, one expects, the hypocrite and quarter billionaire Zac Goldsmith, will lose out to the Lib Dems). This process is classic Joint Stock Theatre, which was founded by Hare and Stafford-Clark and out of which the original creator of The Permanent Way, Out of Joint …. well, emerged.
What is extraordinary is that David Hare added very little in terms of connecting tissue to the interviews. All he did was extract and order. Given the subject matter it is unsurprising just how vital and moving so much of the testimony is. What is surprising however is just how well it works as drama. There is a bit of policy wonking at the start but nothing intimidating and by the time we got to the aftermath of the crashes I was properly immersed. Of course it helps that this interests, and angers, me, but I think the rest of the audience were similarly engrossed.
For that we must thank director Alexander Lees, the movement, in a very tight transverse space, of Sian Williams, the lighting of Rick Fisher and the sound of Roly Witherow. And a very committed cast. The setting helped but this would have been just as effective in a standard theatre. A string of 3* reviews seemed a little stingy in my view. Political theatre at its best. And every single word is true.
Of course you could always just nip “upstairs” to see the complex in action, or, more often than not, inaction. And this at the London terminal for South Western Railways, better looked after than most because all us posh types use it. An under-invested infrastructure, owned and operated by the state at arms length through Network Rail, (most of the track, stations and signalling), regulated by the Office of Rail Regulation, with passenger train operators under short term franchises awarded by the Department of Transport, or through open access, and freight operators through open competition, paying to use that infrastructure. Rolling stock in the hands of leasing companies, sub-contractors a plenty for maintenance. Most franchises receive subsidies, with contracts and legalese rampant, conditions on service, punctualities and control of fares never ending. And of course there is the irony that one way or another most of the operating companies involve a European state owned rail company (Keolis, Deutsche Bahn, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, MTR Hong Kong and soon Trenitalia). Ooh and then there’s LNER, accidentally nationalised. I am pretty sure this was never the intention of the Thatcherite nutters. We pay more (fares and subsidies) and get less. Go figure.
I didn’t catch the first two plays in Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy, Beyond Caring (zero hours contracts) and Love (a homeless hostel), about life for the disadvantaged in modern Britain. In fact worse that that I didn’t even know about them. And seeing Faith, Hope and Charity was something of a last minute decision driven by the strong reviews and a timing loose end.
Well more fool me. Creating a devised play about everyday life where not much happens but which still packs a powerful emotional and political punch is not easy. FH&C doesn’t shout, preach or hector because it doesn’t need to. It comes from the same place as the film collaborations of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and I would imagine is driven by the same passion, but its mood is altogether more eloquent. Mr Zeldin’s other work, a play based on Lars van Trier’s The Idiots, directing Macbeth in Korea, Romeo and Juliet in Italy and operas in Russia (including Ades’s Powder Her Face) suggests he is a man of many talents and I can’t wait to see more of his work.
The simply astounding Cecilia Noble plays plays Hazel, a kind, redoubtable woman who volunteered to cook lunch for those in need in a dilapidated community hall on the edge of a nameless British town. With her soft, calm voice and unflappable temperament Hazel could hardly be more different from Ms Noble’s two previous roles on the Dorfman stage, as no-nonsense probation office in Bruce Norris’s Downstate and as comedic force of nature Aunt Maggie in Natasha’s Gordon’s brilliant Nine Night.
She is joined by reforming ex-criminal Mason, another superb performance from Nick Holder, who is setting up a choir, as much to aid his own rehabilitation as to help the locals. He starts to assist in the kitchen. The array of regulars include cranky pensioner Bernard (veteran stage actor Alan Williams) who can’t face his empty home, timorous Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and her daughter Tala, the extremely anxious Karl (Dayo Koleosho) always waiting for his carer, the truculent Anthony (Corey Peterson). And Beth (Susan Lynch), with teenage son Marc (Bobby Stallwood), whose chaotic life means she has lost custody of her 4 year old daughter, Faith, and is arguing with the court authorities to secure her return.
Mr Zeldin’s script makes plain the impact of austerity on the lives of his characters, the leaky community hall is eventually closed down due to lack of funds, but this is no grim polemic. His characters may be struggling but they are resilient, they are compassionate and, at times, optimistic. There is humour and joy through the various scenes, the Christmas lunch, the offer by Hazel to take in Faith though she has her own family issue, the relationship between Mason and Beth, the cheesy choral anthem “You’ve Got The Music In You”, but the realities of the impact of the broken social care system always looms large.
Natasha Jenkins’ set and Marc William’s utilitarian lighting is as note perfect as the dialogue. Mr Zeldin spent two years researching this play and it shows. Of course I know a couple of hours assuaging the guilt of a comfortable and sympathetic metropolitan audience makes fuck all difference to those people at the pointy end of austerity. Though I might respectively suggest the following.
Banish from your mind any thoughts that those in need are at fault. In any way. Ever. You are not better or cleverer. Just luckier.
Vote the right way. You know what to do.
Give £10 a month to the Trussell Trust. Pay for it by doing something veggie, green or healthy.
And now for the rant.
Local authorities will have seen an average 77% decrease in government funding in the four years to 2020. In real terms overall local government spending will have seen a fall in real terms of 30% since 2010. In the last 5 years food bank use in the UK has risen by 73%. According to the TUC` 3.1 mn children with working parents now live below the poverty line.
Austerity failed. Sucking demand out of a brittle economy will always fail. Spend on health (20%), education (15%) and pensions (15%) is going to run ahead of real growth and inflation. Slicing spend elsewhere and pretending that any job, however lowly paid and precarious, makes for healthy employment is nonsense. The UK cannot have the services it wants without paying for them. And if we don’t pay for them in the long run we will, as we are now, pay for it. Hiding debt by buying shitty assets was never a long term solution. We are already, public and private, the most indebted major economy on earth. Pretending we can cut ourselves off from Europe and pursue some buccaneering independent future is bollocks. Our debt cost will rise as our currency croaks and capital and labour will fuck off elsewhere.
The solution is simple. Pay more tax. Everyone who can afford it. The argument is over whether that be on wealth or income, not how much. And borrow more. A lot more. Everyone else is. And debt is cheap because there is no alternative. But use it to invest, support and drive sustainable growth, not buy votes. And right this minute end the farcical Brexit pantomime by immediate revocation. Doing something idiotic just because you don’t want to lose face, or hope that will make it go away is, well, idiotic. Time for toddler Britain to end the tantrum and face realities.
Well on the plus side the new season just announced at the Bridge looks to be a humdinger. A revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, directed by Polly Findlay with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan as Salter and son(s), Nick Hytner taking on an adaptation of Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage, following on from his triumph with His Dark Materials during the NT years, a new play by Paula Vogel based on They Shoot Horses Don’t They, directed by Marianne Elliot, and a new adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Simon Russell Beale. Avid readers of this blog will note that not hours ago, in the review of Peer Gynt, the Tourist pleaded for a new version of this very play. Serendipity indeed.
Which makes me far less inclined to be unkind about Two Ladies. But really? Why did this get a run? A plot riddled with holes which starts off as implausible and ends up as truly incredible. A pair of unlikely leading characters, which despite the best efforts of both Zoe Wannamaker and fine Croatian actress Zrinka Cviesic, blurt out all manner of candid disclosures within minutes of meeting each other. And three paper thin supporting characters, played by Yoli Fuller, Lorna Brown and Rahhad Chaar, whose only purpose is to trot out a mesh of hoary stereotypes. They are, like the ladies, alarmingly keen to unpack their emotional baggage at every opportunity. Minimal research, a naive, if well-intentioned, political message and some very workmanlike dialogue and exposition. I spent too long thinking it was going to be some sort of absurd satire which would deliberately break out of its naturalistic bounds to make its comic points but no, it was, even with a few wry touches, pretty much played straight.
ZW plays Helen, the liberal British journalist wife of the younger French president (sound familiar). ZC is Sophia, the Croatian trophy model wife of the older American president (sound familiar). Their husbands are at a conference on the French Riviera where the POTUS is seeking the support of the Republique for a retaliatory attack on some bad guys, (I can only assume that, for once, us supine Brits told him to fuck off). However some naughty protestors have hijacked proceedings so that the first we see of the ladies is them being rushed into and empty conference room punctiliously designed by Anna Fleischle with Sophia’s elegant white suit smeared in blood (sound familiar). They then get down to slagging off their husbands, bemoaning their respective lots and hatching a preposterous plan to get the attention of both power and people.
Whilst I haven’t seen any of her work before Nancy Harris is an established playwright with a solid reputation. Which makes how this got to the Bridge stage even more of a mystery. Charitably you could argue that it might have been rushed. The extracts from the diaries of various partners of men in power in the programme suggests that there is a play to be written on the subject and the exclusion of women from power is still a vital topic for modern (and earlier) drama. But certainly not in the form of the simplistic tick-list of issues displayed here. Perhaps too Nick Hytner, having commissioned the play and with a theatre to fill, backed his own directorial skills to make it work and paper over the tonal inconsistencies. He was wrong.
Still the good news is that it was all over in 90 minutes and there was no interval (which I had expected). Which meant the SO was quick to forgive. Me, not the play.
Another day, another Ibsen update. After Tanika Gupta’s intelligent relocation of A Doll’s House to colonial India and Cordelia Lynn’s not quite so successful ageing of Hedda Gabler, the Tourist’s next stop was Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s transformation of Henrik’s prototype eco-warrior and inconvenient truth teller, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, into Doctor Theresa. Marvellous to see three immensely talented women writers transform the always relevant work of Norway’s groundbreaking progressive genius.
Of course Ibsen’s target in AEOTP is not the way in which the hidebound morality of C19 Norway, for which read the rest of Western society, stifled liberal progress and especially women. For sure it was written as a riposte to the critics of its “scandalous” predecessor Ghosts, and takes a potshot at the hypocrisy of the conservative community in which it is set, but for me it is more a critique of the greed and corruption that disfigures uncontrolled capitalism.
It therefore doesn’t need the gender change to work as drama but, my goodness, as a conceit it really works. Stockmann, deliberately, is normally a man who lets his ego get the better of him. Ibsen thus plays with our sympathies. He is nailed-on in the right when he takes on the municipal authorities in the form of his boss, the mayor and, famously, his brother, Peter Mattsson, and plainly deliberately poisoning your guests is not a good look for a spa town, but the way in which Tommy takes his case to people and press does come across as, shall we say, a little overwrought. Dr Theresa is made of the same stuff, but as a woman, with a supportive, though tested, husband and a patronising elder brother, the motivations for her urgency become satisfyingly complex.
The prolific and multi-talented Rebecca Lenkiewicz has previous with AEOTP so knows it inside out. Here she has taken a literal translation from Charlotte Barslund, and deftly adapted it to a modern vernacular, without sacrificing any of the small-town claustrophobia and moral ambiguity that informs the original. There are a few moments when the attempt to shoe-horn in today’s political discourse – fake news, whistle blowers, the liberal elite vs the manipulated masses, the disparaging of expert opinion and that little matter called Brexit – are somewhat too transparent, the play doesn’t need it as it is already all there, but the central gender conceit, and the fact that “strong woman” Dr T won’t be silenced, really resonates.
As director Adam Penford plainly relishes the opportunity to build on such firm foundations of plot, character and text as does the cast led by her off the telly Alex Kingston. Ms Kingston, as the character demands, doesn’t hold back, occasionally leaving some of her colleagues in her defiant wake, but fortunately the one person who has to take her on, performance wise as well as dramatically, is him off the telly Malcolm Sinclair as brother Peter. He was magnetic as Eisenhower in David Haig’s Pressure and here is all supercilious, Rees-Moggian entitlement as he attempts to bulldoze his amoral way through Dr T’s evidence and objections, questioning her science and her sanity.
Of course AEOTP is not just about the battle of wills between brother and sister. Emma Pallant also stands out as Ulrika Hovstad the, now female, editor of the progressive local paper, prepared to turn principle on a sixpence when money starts talking and opinion turns, as does Tim Samuels as smarmy Aslaksen, the spineless printer. Deka Walmsley as steadfast husband Christopher, Richard Evans as his father, the contrary, and wealthy, tannery owner, Morten Kil, Donna Banya as idealist daughter Petra, Jordan Peters as Hovstad’s sidekick Billing and Karl Haynes as loyal friend Captain Horster, all slot in admirably.
There is humour in the adaptation, though maybe not quite in the way Ibsen intended, and Tina MacHugh’s lighting, Drew Baumohl’s sound and Frans Bak’s composition, all step in during the crucial scenes to up the required ante alongside Morgan Large’s versatile set, notably in the impassioned speech that Dr T makes to the Skein community in the pouring rain in Act V. This is where Dr T’s frustration with the masses boils over and her contempt is barely hidden, (and where some of Ibsen’s whackier notions are vocalised in the original). Sound familiar? Us London metropolitan elite patronising you provincial dimwits. It is powerful stuff made more so because even in adaptation these same arguments were being rehearsed in C19 Norway (as they were in 5th century BCE, Jacobean England or C18 Germany if you pay attention to the finest dramatists).
Another winner then from Adam Penford and his team. As with Robert Hastie in Sheffield and James Dacre in Northampton he keeps his directorial powder dry, but when he does let fly theatre that is on a par with the very best the capital can offer is invariably the result.
He’s only gone and done it again. Robert Icke, the departing Associate Director at the Almeida, has ended on a high. Like that is any great surprise. Once again he has taken a classic text, this time Arthur Schnitzler’s dissection of anti-Semitism in pre WWI Vienna, and updated it for our contemporary age. Though to be fair it is a pretty good story even without the deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet by expanding the critique, and the central dilemma which underpins it, beyond religion and cultural identity and into gender and race, through both his adaptation and the casting, Mr Icke opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unresolved questions.
There are times when the clever dick nature of the project can irritate but, as I have said before, in the context of his Wild Duck on this stage, he is so, well, clever, that he gets away with it. His self professed aim is to clear away the fusty patina of performance history and get back to the roots of these often disturbing and radical plays. Professor Bernhardi fits the bill perfectly. But as well as bringing the play alive for a modern audience, and making them think, so hard that sometimes it hurts, Mr Icke also rarely fails to entertain us, ensuring the plot is as transparent as the message and the characters.
Of course we are fortunate that one of his favourite collaborators Juliet Stevenson was up for the central role of Doctor Ruth Wolff, an authority in Alzheimer’s disease, who heads up the Elizabeth Institute. She is a secular Jew who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is dedicated to her calling. She is however unable to prevent a 14 year old Catholic girl from dying who has been admitted to the hospital after a self-administered abortion. She refuses to allow a priest to see the girl just before she passes, a decision that splits her team and has repercussions, social media outrage, petitions and political debate, when it leaks to the outside world. The Institute’s funding is threatened and Dr Wolf is forced to choose between her principles and self sacrifice.
This plot sticks fairly closely to Schnitzler’s original but divisions within the Institute, and outside, open up along gender and racial lines, as well as between Catholic and Jew. This is made more striking as we see that the cast largely plays characters which do not “fit” our perception of their identity and are not identified by name in the programme. Even after you grasp this central conceit it can still surprise, notably when we discover the priest is black. We see how medical ethics are shaped by professional and public opinion, and economics, and how identity, and the language which defines and contains it, can be co-opted for personal and political gain.
Naomi Wirthner is outstanding as the deputy plotting to oust Ruth, accurately capturing male entitlement. Paul Higgins plays the passionate priest with an agenda and Ria Zmitrowicz is once again captivating as the young transgender friend that Ruth inadvertently betrays. Pamela Nomvete and Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as Ruth’s loyal colleagues are pitted against Daniel Rabin, Mariah Louca and, eventually, Kirsty Rider who all see warped principle and pragmatic advantage, in turning against her. All this takes place against the clinical, fluid set design of Hildegard Bechtler, never black or white but shades of grey, with lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons to match. And a live drumming performance from Hannah Ledwidge which serves to discomfort and ratchet up the tension.
If all this sound too tricksy, or woke-y, well it isn’t. Juliet Stevenson brilliantly portrays Ruth as some-one who is right, but hard to like, obdurate and emotionally naive. Her final monologue is shattering, played in conjunction with Joy Richardson, her lost partner, “Charlie”. RI keeps pulling us into arguments that simultaneously assert the inviolability of identity and the strictures and contradictions it can impose. The dichotomy between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as my old history teacher taught me all those years ago. The scene where the sceptical Ruth is interrogated for a TV show “Take the Debate” is the most acute satire of identity politics. And all this is done with sacrificing any momentum in the story: quite the reverse, the near 3 hours just bombs along.
The religious schism which informs the original play just about survives the expansion (primarily through the “right to life” debate which the unseen girl’s abortion precipitates), and there will be some for whom all this subversion detracts from the plot but the Tourist, once again, was awed by Mr Icke’s theatrical genius. I am signed up for his next outing with ITA in Amsterdam based on The Doll’s House and I see his version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is currently pulling then in in Stuttgart. I hope we see him back in Blighty soon though too, ideally having another pop at the Greeks, or maybe some Marlowe or Webster.
No great surprise to learn that this is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from April next year. If you didn’t catch it at the Almeida here’s your shot at redemption.
Simon Woods is an actor who has appeared in TV shows such as Rome, Cranford and Spooks and films including Pride and Prejudice and Starter for 10, though I am afraid I don’t recognise him. He also went to Eton, then Oxford where he read English, had a relationship with Rosamund Pike, who obviously I do recognise, and is now married to Christopher Bailey the ex-CEO and creative head at luxury goods outfit Burberry. So you will have to forgive me for being a little suspicious that he was able to get his first play produced by the National Theatre no less. And what’s more with Simon Godwin directing. And, to top it all, with Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan doing the acting honours in the two-hander.
Well it turns out that talent alone is just about the reason why this honour was bestowed on his inaugural effort. I do wonder whether it would have been quite as rewarding without these two outstanding actors and the plot “twist” is signposted so early on that the last third of the play is a little deflated. And actually if you want to see a couple, poisoned by the loss or absence of a child, chip away at each other then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Little Eyolf would serve you better. Oh, and whilst I recognise that there are and have been, couples of power with divergent political views, I wasn’t entirely persuaded either by Diana Hesketh’s socialist leanings, or the arch-Conservatism of her MP husband Robin. And many of the lines do rather obviously play to its liberal, metropolitan elite audience. Mind you, the catalyst for the plot, Section 28 of the Local Government Act which was repealed in 2003, was one of the ugliest pieces of legislation to make it to the statute books in the modern era. If it all goes tits up, as if it hasn’t done so already, don’t be surprised if the shitheads come out of the reactionary backwoods demanding something similar. Be vigilant people.
In spite of all these flaws, Hansard is a good watch and there are some absolute zingers in the dialogue. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is the elongated kitchen/diner of the Hesketh’s comfy Aga-ised country home and, given unity of time (1988) and place (Cotswolds), Jackie Shemesh’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound simply (I know, it isn’t that simple) has to move through the afternoon from Robin’s return from Leeds, where he has endured the ritual humiliation of Question Time, through to their guests about to arrive for supper. So everything rests on the actors and the director.
Who, unsurprisingly, deliver. Lindsay Duncan’s Diana is bitter, bored and fond of a tipple. Alex Jennings’s Robin is high-handed, entitled and misogynistic with the cynical antipathy of the diehard Thatcherite. Given that they only have each other, in the play, to ricochet off it is amazing that they both manage early on to show their shared vulnerabilities and to even suggest why they might have fallen in love. Given the denouement it might have been better to have explicitly explored more of this emotional backdrop, and the way tragedy drove them apart not together, at the expense of some of the politics. Then again this might have tested the patience of the audience (Hansard runs to a neat 80 minutes) and imperilled some of the funnier lines. It is hard to imagine a more apposite epigram for our times than Diana’s “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an old Etonian”.
On the strength of Hansard I’ll wager Mr Woods will be back with his next writing effort in short order. After all actors and directors, even when they as good as here, can only work with the text they have. When SW finds a story, plot and spectacle to match the dexterity he has with dialogue and character, perhaps over an expanded cast, then there is a real chance he will strike dramatic gold.
And I will go to the grave wishing I had seen more of these two actors on stage. Top Girls, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Homecoming and now this is not a bad way to enjoy the art of Lindsay Duncan but its not enough. Similarly Alex Jennings’s Alan Bennett collaborations, My Fair Lady, Richard II, The Alchemist and this are paltry, if treasured, returns on my theatre going investment. Too bust working when I should have been enjoying myself. There is a reason why Mr Jennings wins so many awards. He might just be the best of his generation.
I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.
I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).
Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.
Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).
The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.
That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.
The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.
BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.