The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre review ****

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Almeida Theatre, 9th January 2019

Vain, frivolous, self pitying, introverted. Richard II doesn’t come across too well at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare’s first instalment of his histories that chart the origins of the “War of the Roses” and end with the death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII. Yet by the close of Richard II, acutely aware of his own fate, we see, not a different person, but a man who finally realises how his actions, as well as those of his aristocratic rivals, brought him to where he is. The distinction in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s quick-fire take on his tragedy is that his nemesis, Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, travels in the entirely opposite direction, secure in his right to reclaim his titles, and then the throne, on returning from banishment, he quickly descends into a vacillating arbitrator of facile dispute.

The play highlights the fact that political power often overwhelms those that seek to wield it, as competing interests compromise consensus, a valuable lesson for our troubled times. Kings, and their democratic equivalents, are those that divvy up the prizes, once land, now patronage, to lords and their modern equivalents. These may owe allegiance but they can get mighty uppity if they feel taken for granted or hard done by. The joy, and instruction, of Shakespeare’s history plays, which examine the delicate balance between those that lead and those that keep them there, is that the deadly embrace continues to this day. Only now, we, the hot-polloi, have the right to stick our oar in as well. Apparently the “will of the people”, even if no-one knows what it is, least of all the people, is now the only source of legitimacy. Hmmmm.

In order to get to the heart of this tragedy though the production does take a few liberties with us the audience. First off it starts at the end, kind of, with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard II pronouncing “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world.” Famous soliloquy dispatched what follows might be, TV drama style, his flashback.

Richard II is written entirely in patterned verse, (as are the first and third parts of Henry VI and the ropey King John), even down to the gardeners who get to comment, memorably, on the state of the country under their warring betters. The verse remains intact through the 100 minutes of the production, (with a few pointed additions), but its rhythms take something of a back seat. Especially in the first half hour or so, when the lines are delivered at breakneck speed. Not a problem for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II or Leo Bill as Bolingbroke (whose lines are deliberately less florid and more direct than Richard’s). However one or two of the less seasoned members of the cast snatched a little, noticeably in the arbitration, tournament and banishment scenes. The rhythm settles down by the time we get to John of Gaunt’s lament (“this sceptred isle …. now bound in with shame … hath made a shameful conquest of itself”; the speech is not about how great we are but how we manage to f*ck it all up, that, and a couple of lines of blatant anti-Semitism). Even then you have to keep your ears open and your wits about you.

There is also, (not unreasonably since, as events pile up, it really works as a conceit, especially when combined with some inspired choreography), a lot of character doubling and more. The Tourist always recommends that Shakespeare is best consumed following a little homework into context and synopsis. A quick Google on the way in is all that is required, as witness BUD who was my guest here, even for those who think they know the plot backwards. Ironing out your Aumerle (here Martins Imhangbe) from your Carlisle (Natalie Klamar) from your York (John Mackay) from your Northumberland (Robin Weaver) always pays dividends. Knowing which aristo is on which side has historically always been a sound real life lesson as it happens: knowing why is a bonus.

Fans of “historical” Shakespeare, whatever that is, are also in for a bit of a shock here. ULTZ’s set is a stark, bare cube, comprised of brushed metal panels riveted together, topped by a frosted glass ceiling. It serves very well as prison cell, less figuratively as castle, garden or jousting field. As a way of showing how power plays out in claustrophobic rooms and crushes those who exercise it, it does the business though thank you very much, and, remember, we might be in the prison of Dickie’s mind anyway.

This set works especially well when combined with James Farncombe’s bold lighting design. JH-G had a huge cast on his last outing and a magnificent recreation of a Soho drinking den at the close of WWII courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan and a fat lot of good that did him. It was awful. Though that was more the play’s fault than his. Here he is on much firmer ground as he was with his excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream and measure for Measure at the Young Vic. His fascination with soil continues, there are buckets of earth, water and blood lined up and neatly notated at the back of the stage. I like to think they symbolised “this England”: they certainly left SRB needing a hot shower post curtain call.

Of the supporting cast I was particularly taken with Saskia Reeves, as I always am, who got to be the argumentative Mowbray, the unfortunate Bushy, (with Martins Imhangbe playing Bagot, his head-losing mate), the other favourite Green, and the Duchess of York, and Joseph Mydell, a composed Gaunt as well as Bolingbroke sidekick Willoughby. Various explicit nobles on both sides are excised from this reading, as is the Queen amongst others, and, should a fill-in be required, out stepped one of the cast from the “chorus”-like crowd. Brutal it may be for purists, but in terms of reinforcing the hurtling momentum, very effective.

Leo Bill once again shows why JH-G has faith in his Shakespearean abilities, but it is Simon Russell Beale who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders. How he ensures that we not only take in but understand the impact of every line he utters is a wonder, especially in the return to England and Flint Castle surrender scenes. Even when he wasn’t dashing out his metaphor and simile strewn lines in double quick time, and wasn’t soaked through covered in mud, this was a cracking performance. The fact that he was, and that we can still savour Shakespeare’s language, and sense the difference between the body politic and the body natural, (the, er, embodiment of the medieval king), shows again why he is now unarguably our greatest living Shakespearean actor.

In this performance Richard’s early, flawed, decision-making seems less vanity or indecisiveness and more high-handed hauteur, the desire just to get the job done regardless of consequences. I’m the king, by divine right, so of course I know what to do. There isn’t much in the way of Christ-like martyrdom here as there was in David Tennant’s guilt-ridden 2013 RSC take or in Ben Whishaw’s petulant Hollow Crown reading. No white robes or flowing mane of hair here. The fact that SRB is “too old”, the real Dickie was in his early thirties for the last two years of his reign when the play is set, and that he, and Leo Bill, look nothing like the generally accepted take on the characters, only adds to the universality of the message.

The early years of the actual Richard’s reign weren’t too jolly for him by all accounts. Acceding to the throne aged just 10, with a bunch of nobles preferring a series of ruling councils to a regency under Uncle John (of Gaunt), the Hundred Years War with France not going England’s way, Scotland and Ireland playing up and labour growing its share of the prosperity pot at the expense of landed capital (the Black Death had led to a sharp spike in agricultural wages). In 1381 the Peasants even had the temerity to Revolt. By now though the young king was throwing his weight around but many of the entitled aristos, (whom we meet in the play), didn’t hold with the company he kept and in 1387 the so called Lords Appellant, (Gloucester, Surrey, Warwick, Bolingbroke and Mowbray), seized control and one by one, tried and disposed of Richard’s favourites.

By 1389 Richard was back in control, with Gaunt’s oversight, and, for a few years, got on with the job. But he never forgot what his opponents had done and, come 1397 he started taking revenge, notably, on Gloucester, his uncle, who he had bumped off. This is often where the play steps off with the King’s bloody guilt informing the four short years before his death, probably by starvation, after Bolingbroke’s usurpation.

Richard was allegedly a good looking lad, see above, who believed absolutely in his divine right to rule at the expense of the uppity Lords. He wasn’t a warrior, rather a man of art and culture, aloof and surrounded by a close knit retinue. As with all the big players in the history plays, our perception of Richard II, is though to some degree shaped by the Bard’s not always favourable publicity (that’s if you have any view at all of course). Via his favourite contemporary historian Raphael Holinshed. There was apparently a time when historians thought Richard was insane: now the wisdom is that he had some sort of personality disorder that contributed to his downfall.

Mind you if you were locked up in solitary confinement you might well lose the plot. There is an extract in the programme taken from Five Unforgettable Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway from Solitary Watch. Solitary Watch tracks the estimated more than 80.000 prisoners in the US system held in solitary confinement on an average day. Here four prisoners eloquently describe their experience. Left me speechless. 80,000. That’s not a typo. Google it.

So another success from the Almeida hit factory, another masterclass from Simon Russell Beale and another validation of Joe Hill-Gibbons radical(ish) way with Shakespeare. BUD, whose first exposure this was to the history plays, agreed. Mind you there isn’t much in this world that he can’t size up within 5 minutes of first introduction.

There is probably a case for JH-G slowing down proceedings just a little, another 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a stretch, just to let the poetry work a bit more magic, give a little more complexity to Bolingbroke and the nobles, and draw out more from the themes. And the stylised, expressionist visual concepts won’t, (and haven’t), pleased everyone. But as a coruscating denunciation of the perennial failure of the political class, you want see much better on a stage even if it was written over 420 years ago.

The Favourite film review *****

The Favourite, 3rd January 2019

The more theatre I see, the more I am turning into an insufferably superior luvvie. “A play will always trump a film because it is organic, dynamic, viewed from multiple perspectives, energised by audience complicity, palpable, alive, more daring in terms of form and structure” and much other such guff.

However sometimes I have to accept that the cinematic trumps the theatrical and that is definitely the case for The Favourite. For only a couple of years earlier, writer Helen Edmundson, director Natalie Abrahami, the massed ranks of RSC creatives and a cast led by Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe served up Queen Anne, a play that, like The Favourite, dramatises the relationship between Anne, Sarah Churchill and interloper Abigail Hill. Except that the play offered a much broader sweep of history, Anne’s accession, the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe between the Grand Alliance and the Spanish and French Catholic monarchies, the rise of the Duke of Marlborough, Sarah’s husband, as well as Lord Godolphin and Anne’s political interventions. It also focusses on the birth of the free press in England at the turn of the C18 and, specifically, the spread of satirical publications. All this in addition to the personal troika.

In contrast The Favourite, whilst referencing the political manoeuvrings between protectionist Whig and free-trade Tory, and the impact of the growing tax burden to finance the war on landowners, is firmly focussed on the relationship between the three principal women. Mark Gatiss gets a look in as Marlborough (Winston Churchill’s ancestor) but not much opportunity to show off. Same goes for James Smith as Godolphin. Both were Tories but they became ever more reliant on Junto Whigs to finance the war.

(As an side I personally continue to sh*t myself about the long term, and increasingly short term, effect of debt on this country. As it happens public debt to GDP ballooned in the years after William III first went cap in hand to the City spivs with the idea of issuing Government bonds. At the peak of the War of Spanish Succession it approached 200%. War tends to do that. Anyway now good old Blighty runs at around 90%, not too far away from our major developed economy neighbours. But when you add in private debt it gets closer to 300% of GDP. There are a bunch of countries with “higher” levels but this reflects their tax friendly approach to issuers of corporate debt. Our debt is built on the backs of consumers.

So for those Brits who now purport to prize “sovereignty at any price” I would venture we are already in more of a pickle than all the Euro economies you take a pop at. But that is not all. Our current account deficit currently runs at 5% or so. Comparable with the likes of Turkey and Argentina. This has to be financed by foreign investors, “the kindness of strangers” as the Governor of the BoE would have it. Who knows what might happen in the next few weeks and months but if we balls this up, sterling depreciation, imported inflation, capital flight and sale of assets is guaranteed. And there may be f*ck all the BoE and Government can do to protect us. Forget about your ten quid for a visa, roaming charges, lorry queues or medicine stockpiling. That’ll be the least of your worries).

Oops I’ve done it again. Back to the script. So Anne, a natural Tory, became increasingly less enamoured of the Junto dominated government, especially when she fell out with Sarah, and the non-Junto Whigs started to break bread with the Tories led by Robert Harley. Cue the terrific Nicholas Hoult for it is he that plays Harley, sumptuously powdered and bewigged, but still brutally Machiavellian. He intrigues with the ambitious Abigail, eventually marrying her to his ally Masham (a virile Joe Alwyn), with the Queen’s approval. Harley wins the political battle, last straw for Sarah, but the Whigs win the battle after Anne’s death when the Hanoverian line is established, the Jacobites are defeated and the Whig supremacy is ushered in. The new money trounces the old.

Anyway I suspect that once the mercurial director Yorgos Lanthimos, in 2009, got his mitts on Deborah Davies’s original script, first written twenty odd years ago, it was always likely that the political context was going to be downplayed. Mr Lanthimos went on to garner deserved critical acclaim for Dogtooth (my favourite of his until, er, this Favourite), The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. For those that don’t know, these are not your run of the mill Hollywood blockbusters. So, in many ways, The Favourite it surprisingly in its near naturalism. It is beautifully shot courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the costumes (Sandy Powell) and set decoration (Alice Felton) are, as you might expect, exceptional and the locations, mostly Hatfield House, also Hampton Court Palace and the Bodleian’s Divinity School, are all stunners. The soundtrack, without exception, is divine, though amongst all the Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and Back (WF as well as JS) make sure to listen out for Anna Meredith’s rasping contribution from her string quartet Songs for the M8.

So it looks and sounds wonderful. A period drama with a twist of Peter Greenaway’s Draughtsman Contract. But it is the relationship between the three women that is Mr Lanthimos’s concern and, with a little embellishment and ornamentation, he constructs a drama that the Tourist thinks sheds more light on the workings of power than any dry “historically accurate” portrayal could do. It is a drama, so “historical accuracy” for all the pedants out there is meaningless in this context, and, in any event, history is simply what is left and what is found, and it always changing. I suspect what really winds these punters up is the functional lesbian love triangle but, without that there would be no drama. The power games between the three women seem to echo, and directly, influence the power games between politicians and Crown and State.

Queen Anne, (we never see husband George who was an arse by all accounts), famously lost all 17 of her children and left no heir, hence the invitation to the Germans, 26 years after the invitation to the Dutch. Protestant royal kids eh, never there when you need them. This, unsurprisingly, leaves her sad, needy, physically incapacitated and isolated. Hence her bunnies. And her cake. She has a friend from childhood, Sarah Churchill, but these two chums are beyond dysfunctional. Having opened the door to her, she, Sarah, is in turn is manipulated by impecunious upstart cousin Abigail Hill, who then steps in to manipulate the Queen, literally and emotionally. Except that she, the Queen, whilst vulnerable is also capable of manipulating both, and ultimately pulls rank.

There are external scenes, in the palace gardens, on horseback, to Parliament, but most of the action takes place indoors and specifically in the Queen’s bedchamber and the corridor outside. Genius. Adds to the damaging intensity and claustrophobia of the relationships. As does the roving camera. And the predominantly wide-lens shots. The dialogue is dynamic and contemporary, the humour broad and often incongruous, the tone ambivalent. Your sympathies will constantly oscillate between the characters.

It is probably a comedy, but not one of those “dark” or “black” comedies where you don’t laugh. There are hints of Restoration romp and barbed bitch-fest a la Les Liaisons Dangereuses but then the idiom is right here, right now. It might be a tragedy but who is the heroine? Historical drama? But no-one normally speaks or moves like this in the bog-standard drama. The Madness of King George filtered through an absurdist lens. Maybe, but then it isn’t that absurd. Parallels with the arch Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, or the recent ITV Vanity Fair. Yes, but with more filth and camp. Could another director have taken the scrip and budget and churned out a more than passable film. For sure but it wouldn’t be half as much fun or half as original.

All of this reflects Yorgos Lanthimos’s off-kilter, deadpan style but it was never going to work without the three leads stepping up and, crikey, they do. In any other filmic context Emma Stone’s opportunist Abigail would take your breath away. Then along comes Rachel Weisz’s cruel to be kind, then to be cruel, and then back again, Sarah. And then, in probably the least surprising acting triumph of all time, Olivia Colman comes along and chews them up with her Queen Anne. The way all three bring out the conflicts implicit, and explicit, in their relationships is, frankly delicious, but OC takes it to another level.

I have already intimated that IHMO the present shower of Parliamentary sh*te might as well be dissolved to be replaced by a matriarchy comprised of acting Dames. Judi Dench as PM, Maggie Smith as Chancellor, Helen Mirren as Foreign Secretary, Eileen Atkins as Home Secretary, Joan Plowright as Education Secretary, Patricia Routledge at Health, Harriet Walter Justice, Kristin Scott Thomas International Development, Julie Walters Work and Pensions. You get the idea.

Culture Secretary I hear you cry. Easy. Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman. Only a matter of time before she is be-Damed. And surely she could cheer us all up. Telly, film or, too rare, on stage (she was close enough to touch in Mosquitoes), how she manages to get so deep into the emotional core of the characters she has played, even in relatively “lightweight” roles, is astounding. Anyway she now seems to have cornered the market in screen Queens, as it were, and here she is simply magnificent. Whether vomiting up blue cheese, petulantly cutting short a recital, stroking her rabbits (no euphemism), freezing in Parliament, linguistically weaponising cunnilingus (yep that’s what I meant), weeping for her lost child, ecstatically responding to Abigail’s poultice (again no euphemism) or bullying some poor footman, she always convinces, even as we snigger.

I see The Favourite, and Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, are all over t’internet as Oscar candidates. I haven’t seen many of the other films habitually mentioned bar Blackkklansman and Black Panther (note to self: get on to that Roma caper asap). I doubt they will get far. But just maybe Olivia Colman can do the business and the whole world can see how perfect she is. That would be nice.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library review *****

Anglo-Saxon Kingsdoms: Art, Word, War

British Library, 30th December 2018

I mean it isn’t all books. There are charters and letters as well. And pottery, coins, art and jewels. But there are a lot of books. Oh my word though, what beautiful books. If you are at all interested in this period of history and the formation of our country, and you like, as Tubbs would say, precious things, (which haven’t been burnt, or otherwise destroyed, notably by the dispersal of monastic libraries in the 1530s), then this is unmissable. The British Library has wheeled out some of its finest treasures from the period, Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel and Bede’s works, but it doesn’t stop there, with some extraordinary loans from the British Museum, Cathedrals (Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Lichfield and Rochester), Oxbridge colleges (notably the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge) and generous institutions around the world (notably France, the Netherlands, Sweden and, maybe best of all, Italy).

The exhibition begins with the first Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain in the 5th century, takes us through the kingdoms that emerged, Kent, East Anglia, Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex, before England was created, as well as the continuing influence of the Danes, and, finally the Normans. We see how the history, art and literature of these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms developed, and we see the emergence of the English language, (though don’t expect, unless you are an expert in these things, to be able to read the manuscripts. but do listen to the spoken originals and modern translations provided).

The earliest evidence of the language is contained in some cynic inscriptions and a Kentish law code in the first room, Origins. My first highlight though was the unique Spong Man urn lid from the 5th century, he looks so crestfallen, but then again so might you if you were sat atop someone’s ashes. The St Augustine Gospels from the late 6th century are something special, but the Moore Bede from the mid 8th century, copied out soon after the Venerable’s death at his own monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow, is a jaw-dropper. This is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the page on show tracing the journey of St Augustine, in letters. The script is pretty dense but this is basically the beginning of our written history.

The second room, Kingdoms and Conversions, has some exquisite jewellery from, amongst others, Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but once again I was drawn to the scripts. The fragment of a letter from St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, possibly from the late 4th century, brought here by Abbot Hadrian, various charters, letters and rules from the 7th and 8th centuries, the beginnings of our systems of law, and the Book of Durrow from c. 700 with its various decorative influences. These are trumped though by the beautifully preserved Echternach Gospels, maybe from Ireland, maybe Northumbria, maybe Echternach itself in Luxembourg, the even more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels also c. 700, and, drum roll please, the Codex Amiatinus.

OMG. Now even if your are some bored teen being dragged around by your pillock of a Dad I defy you not to be impressed by this. First off, it is bloody enormous, 1030 leaves in total. Secondly the page it is open to, a full page illumination of a scribe at work, is just so vibrant and, finally, the history of the Bible itself is just so fascinating. One of three made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century it was taken in 716 by Abbot Ceolfrith and chums to Rome. AC, poor chap, died on the way but in the 1300 years until now it has been cared for in Italy, latterly at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Welcome home then Codex Amiatinus, if only for a short visit. It is the oldest complete Latin Vulgate version of the Bible; only the fragmentary Leon palimpsest is older. It was assumed to be Italian, from the 6th century, until some top-drawer research revealed that it was actually created during Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Take your time surrounded by these gems. There are more treasures to come but this room, for me, was the pinnacle. The next room, Mercia and Its Neighbours, details the rise of that kingdom, through military power and political skill, and the creation of a third archdiocese at Lichfield alongside York and Canterbury. Once again the Gospels (Barberini, St Chad, Harley Golden) will draw your eye, as will the Lichfield Angel if you have not see it before, but I was particularly interested in the various charters, from King Aethebald dated 736 and from King Offa dated 783, and the evidence of links with Charlemagne in mainland Europe. It made me reflect again on how the powerful choose leaders primarily to validate their own appropriation of land and capital, and spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other to secure leaders more amenable to their ambitions.

The Favourite, Richard II, C18 British history, Brexit newsflow, this exhibition. All entertainments and/or learnings on the Tourist’s plate in the last couple of weeks, all variations in part on this theme. Similarly the next room, The Rise of the West Saxons, which charts the ascendancy of King Alfred and his successors and the idea of an England. Now the Tourist cheerfully confesses that he is addicted to The Last Kingdom, the TV series now in its third season, based on Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories novels. Now it is a bit daft at times, and cheesy, and the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his mates, do, implausibly, get about a bit. He may be fictional but many of the other players on show were for real and, in David Dawson playing Alfred, it has a top-notch actor showing his class. Like I always say, take your education wherever you can.

By 880 Alfred had made peace with the Danes, who were increasingly “naturalising”, and promoted a cultural leap forward, with the development especially of the English language. This legacy continued through grandson Aelthelstan, the first King of England from 927 to 939, who claimed control of Northumbria and submission from the Scots, Welsh and remaining Britons. Aethelstan centralised government, expanded the reach of the law, founded places of religion, (his personal psalter, a pocket gospels, is on display), and got stuck into European politics. So there you are little Englanders. Even when little England first became a reality we were tied to that pesky Europe. It will never go away whatever you may think. BTW, in my final, I promise, “look at me” moment in this post, I walked past the very spot where Aethelstan was crowned not a few hours ago. Outside the police station in Kingston-upon-Thames. I kid you not.

So no surprise that I took a long look at the Council of Kingston document in the exhibition which dates from 838 and confirms the alliance between Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandad, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The beautiful Stockholm Codex Aureus, on loan from, er, Stockholm, will also detain you but it is the famous historical documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum the Dane, a translation from Alfred himself and the Foothill Letter from the early 10th century, the oldest letter in the English language, that require careful examination. History. Boring. Think again.

Highlights of the next room, the self-explanatory Language, Learning and Literature, include the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon literary relic, the Junius Manuscript, 1000 lines of Old English verse, the Old English Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible and the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. If your interest extends to natural sciences, medicine and mathematics then you will be fascinated by this section.

The next room, Kingdom and Church, is focussed on the elevation of the Church under King Edgar, Alfred’s great-grandson. The highlight here comes at the end with the display of the Utrecht (825), Harley (first half 11th century) and Eadwin (c. 1150), Psalters displayed side by side. Seeing how one was copied into another into another is just amazing. Prior to this though the room is stuffed full of dainties, notably the Benedictional of Aethelwold from the 970s, the Vespasian Psalter from the second quarter of the eighth century, (the earliest Biblical text in the English language), the Boulogne and, especially, Trinity Gospels and the Winchester Troper.

The final room, Conquests and Landscapes, looks at the return of the Danes under Cnut and then the Norman Conquest, culminating with the BL’s Domesday Book and a short video.

I could go on and on but no purpose would be served in this. I have my catalogue accompanying the exhibition and can safely say, as one who regularly purchases such items, (and doesn’t always look at them immediately), that this is one of the most informative, involving and attractive I have ever seen. Even the short exhibition guide is a mine of information and the notes to the exhibits themselves could not be clearer.

All in all, and given the potential bone-dry bear-trap of a subject, early English history, and exhibits, in a word books, (though there is, as I said, plenty of other material on show here), this is a triumph. Maybe not enough to persuade those for whom history and manuscripts are anathema but if you have any interest at all, from any angle, don’t hesitate. No need, as ever with these things, to dutifully read every note or take in every exhibit. But if you can’t find at least a few items that command your attention I would be amazed.

It is on until 19th February. Usual rules apply. First thing in the morning. Sunday afternoon or the later slots on Tuesday when this opens until 8pm. And avoid the last week.

Borders (*****) and Games (****) at the Arcola Theatre review

Borders and Games

Arcola Theatre, 22nd December 2018

I had only seen one of Henry Naylor’s acclaimed plays prior to this double header and that was Angel at this very venue. That was enough to know that I like the cut of his jib. Mr Naylor, prior to writing plays, was, amongst other things, the lead writer for Spitting Image and he has, as far as I can tell, always had an acute political conscience which he is prepared to put to good use in his writing. His first play, Finding Bin Laden, was a satire on the media treatment of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, (and it is now being made into a film,) whilst his second, Hunting Diana, dealt with conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess’s untimely death.

These were showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe as were his next offerings, The Collector, set in an Iraqi jail in 2003, and then Echoes and the aforementioned Angel, to complete the trilogy, Arabian Nightmares. Echoes is a two hander which contrasts two teenage women, one a Victorian colonialist adventurer, the other a Muslim jihadist. Angel is a dramatic monologue about the Angel of Kobane, a Kurdish sniper who became a symbol of resistance against Islamic State. All three plays were multiple prize winners at Edinburgh and have gone on to tour globally as well as to the Arcola.

You kind of know what you are going to get with a play from Mr Naylor. A scrupulously researched examination of a major issue of our time, (with a particular focus on the “Middle East” to date), told from the (often juxtaposed) perspective of individuals involved which sets out to even-handedly explore cause, effect and impact. Part history, part drama, part monologue and part exposition the plays cover a lot of ground in a relatively short span but don’t lack emotional heft. There is enough surprise in terms of dialogue, which is unafraid of deploying poetic symbolism where necessary, to set alongside the unfolding stories to keep the audience on its toes, and there is plenty of opportunity in terms of movement and impersonation to test the mettle of the actors. And, of course, text-based one and two handers are cheap to stage meaning Mr Naylor’s discourse can be quickly spread, as it deserves to be.

Obviously these subjects and structures are not much use to you if your idea of theatre is feel-good musicals but if serious, but never dour, political theatre floats your boat then don’t hesitate to seek out his work.

Borders adds another dimension to HN’s oeuvre to date. Premiered in 2017 at the Gilded Balloon it is another double monologue telling the stories of Nameless, a young graffiti artist in Homs protesting the Assad regime, and Sebastian Nightingale, a photographer who makes his name with an iconic early portrait of Osama Bin Laden, but who goes on to “sell out”, clicking lame-brain celebs for big money. Graffiti specifically, and art more generally, has, I now learn, played an important role in opposition to the regime in Syria since 2011, and Assad and his supporters have brutally punished its practitioners. The story of Nameless’s courage in using her art to incite resistance, and the passion which eventually leads to her exile, is very stirring, especially because, like many of NH’s previous protagonists, she is a young woman in a patriarchal society. Sebastian’s fall from grace, as he debases his own art and principles to chase fame and money, is equally riveting.

You can guess early on that the two of them, outsider and insider, are destined to meet but HN still conjures up a thrilling end. Of course this sort of story-telling, about a conflict few of us here understand at even the most basic level, is occasionally going to have to thwack the audience over the head to get its points across but HN once again finds a way to do this without getting in the way of the personal dramas. There are laughs, quite a few in fact, which often skewer the hypocrisies of Sebastian and of the men who seek to control Nameless. The other characters, played by our two actors, have sufficient presence to go beyond ciphers, Nameless’s Mum, her “boyfriend”, his dad and the elder statesman war correspondent, Messenger, who gnaws away at Sebastian’s conscience. The stories are inevitably contrived but that is probably a necessary pre-condition for theatre with this strong a message.

It wouldn’t work without two remarkable actors and that is precisely what we have here. Now in the original Edinburgh performances, and in the subsequent worldwide tour, Nameless has been played by Avital Lvova, who took over from the sadly missed Filipa Branganca in the tour of Angel, and who is also a fearsomely talented actor. In this Arcola run however the role of Nameless was taken on by Deniz Arixenas. The crib-sheet tells me that Ms Arixenas, who is of Kurdish and Syrian descent, is currently doing her Masters degree in Law with the intention of becoming a human rights lawyer. Acting’s loss is the legal profession’s gain. However if this woman can bring an ounce of her talent on stage to the task of making the world a better place then I can be assured, alongside so many of the young people I know, that the next generation will be able to unravel the mess that my, and previous, generations’ have made of our world. I confess couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Which made Graham O’Mara’s performances as Sebastian all the more exceptional. He nailed that thing where you know that, as a rich privileged beneficiary of the institutional and economic order imposed by the West on the world since WWII, you should help those who haven’t been so lucky, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. In a connected world where those post-war institutional structures are under pressure, where selfish ideology trumps co-operation and where I suspect, (largely suspect), arguments around the concept of “Western guilt” are likely to intensify, NH has come up with am intelligent shorthand for debate.

Games heads back a few decades to tell the story of German-Jewish athletes before and during the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics (Tourist and family had a good look around the imposing stadium, now home to Hertha Berlin, last year). The two protagonists, high jumper Gretel Bergmann and fencer Helene Mayer, actually existed and the main events portrayed in the two-hander actually happened, but from this HN has woven a more nuanced debate on the nature of identity, and the iniquity of fascism, than we had any right to expect Helene Mayer won a gold medal in 1928 in Amsterdam, missed out in Los Angeles in 1932 and won silver in 1936, but despite her fame and success was still forced to leave for the US in 1935 because she was Jewish. The discrimination against Gretel Bergmann was more over,t both before the Nazis assumed power in 1933 and thereafter, as she and other Jewish athletes were denied access to training facilities, competed separately and were stripped of titles. Many left but Helene Mayer returned in 1936 to compete for Germany as the regime succumbed to pressure from the US who threatened a boycott.

Ms Mayer was an enigmatic character, whose German identity might have eclipsed her Jewish heritage and who, at least publicly, was not critical of the Nazis. She returned to Germany again in 1941and lived there until her early death in 1953. Tragic geo-political pawn or naive opportunist who put her own sporting glory above the suffering meted out to her own people? Easy to see then why HN alighted on her story, and that of Ms Bergmann, who died just a year ago aged 103, whose own resistance was implacable and who was determined to point up Hitler’s racial theories for the bollocks it was.

Maybe not quite as powerful as Borders (and Angel for that matter), and a little heavy on the biographical exposition, Games will still make you think and is surprisingly resonant on wider issues of nationalism, self-identity, and the role of politics in sport (or do I mean sport in politics), all subjects you probably thought you had a settled view on. Directed, as was Borders (in conjunction with Michael Cabot), with a confident hand by Louise Skaaping, Games has another pair of actors on top form. Sophie Shad has already written, produced and acted in Kitty’s Fortune which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and her eagerness to tell Helene’s story shines through. She realistically captures her apparent ambiguities, internal conflicts and the impact of personal grief. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel has the physicality and grace of the athlete (maybe she is) and relays her character’s burning sense of injustice. In contrast to Borders the two meet on multiple occasions, Helene is Gretel’s original inspiration, but the use of the space and sparse props, (here two boxes and a flag, just two chairs in Borders), is similarly effective.

Henry Naylor has found a formula to educate us about complex political (and moral) questions without hectoring us and whilst still entertaining and moving us. And he usually brings it in at around an hour. In pretty much any space, (the credits here stop at the lighting design of Vasilis Apostolatos and stage management of Holly Curtis though I don’t doubt many others, from the research end through to the finished production at the ever welcoming Arcola, deserve credit).

I strongly advise you to hunt out more of HN’s his work. I will.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2017/10/07/angel-at-the-arcola-theatre-review/

Mistero Buffo at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Mistero Buffo

Arcola Theatre, 15th November 2018

This probably ranks as one of the Tourist’s least insightful assertions, (and trust me there is stiff and substantial competition), but, in his experience, there are two types of one person theatre. The pure monologue, often fairly static, relying on the appeal of the character and the strength of the writing. The kind of story-telling that has been there since the dawn of human time. Or the multi-role tour de force which relies on movement as much as the word and where the physicality of the performance is as important as the text. 

Either way it is stripped back, and let’s face it, cheap, theatre. Which is why it is a staple of festivals and, specifically, Edinburgh. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily any good, but generally those works that get the nod at Edinburgh, and then get a showing here in London, are invariably worth seeing. I am reminded of Henry Naylor’s plays for example, Angel, which visited this very house, Grounded at the Gate a couple of years ago or Silk Road at the Trafalgar Studios, (the latter a very amusing multi-character delight from Josh Barrow). 

What I will say is that the actors in these shows certainly earn their, presumably, modest, corn. And that was doubly true of Jules Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Mr Spooner is one half of Rhum and Clay Theatre company,  with Matthew Wells, and their aim is to create theatre with “a playful sense of anarchy, vigour and originality”. They trained at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq which is the pinnacle of physical theatre. Here he collaborates with director Nicholas Pitt. 

And if you are going to put on a solo performance they why not the iconic Mistero Buffo from the master Italian writer, actor, director, comic, singer, painter, activist and all round Marxist top bloke, Dario Fo. Now you probably know Mr Fo (pictured above) from plays such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, (which I once saw in the West End in the company of a friend who was, shall we say, under a psychotropic influence, and insisted on shouting out encouragement to the cast at vital moments), Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Trumpets and Raspberries and The Open Couple. He brought improvisation, satire, criticism, parody, mockery and farce to attack the Italian state, the Catholic church, organised crime, violence, racism, speaking truth to power, echoing the style of Medieval giullari (or jongleur in French/English as here) and commedia dell’arte. His work and performances have ben continually reworked and his influence stretched far beyond Italy. Indeed I see that Northern Broadsides is currently showing an adaptation of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. 

Over 30 years Fo himself took Mistero Buffo around the world delighting atheists everywhere. For the play is essentially a p*ss-take of the absurdity and hypocrisy  of 13 of the New Testament miracles , and Christianity generally. Ir certainly wound up the Vatican. Now if this doesn’t sound like it would be a recipe for an entertaining evening out in 2018 you’d be wrong. First off there’s a fair chance you’ll know the 5 stories included here, reminding you how deeply ingrained that book still is. This means that Fo’s mocking, and Rhum and Clay’s pop culture updates thereon, of said stories is easily digested. Secondly, to be fair, sone of these stories are quite jolly, even with the moralising, and especially when undercut by our combined creatives, which give a pointed relevance. Just what is truth and just what can people be led to believe? Thirdly Mr Spooner is an amazing performer, shifting between characters with chameleonic dexterity. Take the sermon on the mount, the raising of Lazarus (backed by the White Stripes), the marriage at Cana (complete with drum and bass beats) or Crucifixion skits. OK so they are dead ringers for Python, but one man literally creates a crowd in front of your eyes. Finally it is, and he is, very funny.

Rhum and Clay will be touring this for the next couple of years. If it comes anywhere near you don’t miss it. And that is the truth. 

The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse review *****

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse, 13th November 2018

Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.

An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast. 

And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.

I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite. 

So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.

George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence. 

The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty. 

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded. 

History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back. 

Forgotten at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Forgotten

Arcola Theatre, 10th November 2018

I was much taken, if not entirely convinced, by the British East Asian Yellow Earth Theatre company’s version of Tamburlaine at the Arcola 18 months ago. And this co-production, with Moongate, of a new play, Forgotten, by Daniel York Loh, which kicked off at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, sounded like it needed seeing.

Daniel York Loh looks like he is a busy fellow. When he is not writing he is acting, directing films or performing in a folk trio. Busy. Just like this play. It started off as a 5 minute script. It now runs to a couple of hours. Apparently his first draft ran to 300 pages. DYL has a lot to say and he means to say it. Mind you this is a story evidently worth telling. Giving a voice to the 140,000 Chinese labourers who left China to initially assist the French, and then the British, effort in WWI. Largely written out of history.

In trying to cram in as much of his research into these events as he can, the appalling famine and poverty blighting China at the turn into the C20, the hierarchical, violent and patriarchal village society, the volatile political situation and domination by foreign powers, the dream of escape and wealth, the Western view of China, and the Chinese view of the West, and Japan, at the time, the experience of the labourers in France and their shabby treatment, and their legacy, after the War, DYL offers a little too much exposition, a slight overdose of plot and leaves his characters looking a little too one-dimensional. Especially given only a six strong cast, (with some doubling up), the compact Arcola studio space and an experiment in form, namely having his band of villagers putting on a Chinese opera as they embark on their adventure.

So the cast and the creative team, director Kim Pearce, designer Emily Bailey, composer Liz Chi Yen Liew, lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, sound designer Luke Swaffield and movement director Quang Kien Van had their work cut out to make this work.

Work it does though and this I think is largely down to the fact that, weaved into the important history lesson, there is a believable human drama here, especially when the friends get to the Western Front in the second act. The play begins at the end but I’ll keep schtum on that. The cast are performing an opera which tells the tale of a Miraculous Traveller, (I am afraid I know nothing about Chinese classical literature),  paralleling the story of the villagers. When all calms down we are in Horse Shoe Village in Shandong province in 1917 where Old Six (Michael Phong Le) and his wife Second Moon (Rebecca Boey) are struggling to earn enough to feed their young child. Big Dog (Camille Mallet de Chauny) is the village outcast, addicted to opium. Eunuch Lin (Zachary Hing) was castrated in a failed attempt to secure a position in the Emperor’s household. All are subject to the cruel whim of foul-mouthed Headman Zhang (Jon Chew). They agree to be recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps (from 1917 China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary) meeting the educated Professor (Leo Wan), and when they get to France, Wild Swan (Jon Chew again, equally potty mouthed) along the way. 

Whilst there are battlefield scenes DYL wisely cuts these with other encounters and other characters, as well as the highly stylised opera, to offer multiple perspectives on the experience of the friends. This shines a little light on the more universal East Asian diaspora myth, “silent”, “hard-working” but largely disregarded and culturally held at arms length. 

A valuable, if slightly awkward epilogue, explains what happened to Shandong province after the war and how the Chinese contribution was, literally, painted over in the now largely Americanised Pantheon de la Guerre. (America has a long history of mocking the contribution of France in global conflict). China was properly shafted at Versailles. Most of the surviving CLC returned home, but a few thousand stayed to build a Chinese community in Paris. The British CLC were given a medal, but it was bronze, not the silver awarded to everyone else who fought. There is a cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme which honours 842 CLC dead. 

So overall Forgotten is an ambitious play, generously and vigorously told by an excellent British East Asian cast (Leo Wan, in particular, is as good here as he was in Tamburlaine and The Great Wave, and I look forward to seeing Michael Phong Le again). Lucy Bailey’s set is effective, Kim Pearce’s direction manages to maintain the momentum even as the scenes jump around. It may not quite be the finished article but it definitely deserves a wider audience. I spy a couple of harsh reviews in the national press. Ignore them.