The Good Person of Szechwan at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Good Person of Szechwan

Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican Theatre, 9th February 2019

I am a sucker for these Russian theatre companies. Despite the fact that I can’t say I was bowled over by the last visits of the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Much to admire but they don’t half go on a bit. Still it’s the idea of seeing Russian drama in Russian that appeals to this culture vulture. So I signed up for the Chekhov Cherry Orchard and this Brecht classic in an instant, though given that past experience, I went for the cheap seats just in case.

Which turned out to be a wise choice in the case. of The Cherry Orchard. No review for the simple reason that I only made it to the interval. To be absolutely clear this was not because it is a poor play, I have seen TCO on many occasions and when it works it can be as good as theatre gets, (though I prefer Uncle Vanya’s dose of comic deprecation alongside all the revelatory ennui). Translation is, and was, not a problem, though this version felt a bit peremptory, and my eye was a little caught between the sur-title banners. A minor irritation. Nor was I phased by the vogue-ish set and setting. A raked stage, made up of various entrances, a kind of crucifix in the centre, expressionist lighting, modern-ish dress, devoid of samovar and birch, stylised choreography with multiple “crowd tableaux”. Maybe the production advertised its Absurdism a little too loudly but nothing the Tourist can’t deal with having seen, and enjoyed, some challengingly bonkers stuff in the last few years. Creatives can, and should, arse about with Chekhov. The old boy can take it.

Nope the problem for me was that, amidst all this invention from director Vladimir Mirzoev and team, which certainly looked brilliant, and lent rhythm and context to the drama, Chekhov’s philosophical musings got a bit lost along the way. There was some pretty heavy-handed symbolism; one or two little sailor-suited Grishas, Madame Raneskaya’s dead son kept popping up, Lopakhin was sex symbol as well as vulgar, proto-capitalist, governess Charlotta, in full on Kate Bush Withering Heights mode, becomes a kind of spirit presaging the coming Revolution, there are blood-bags standing in for the Orchard !!!!. If there was a meaning in the text, or in the sub-text, then this production wasn’t going to hold back from offering up a visual signifier to make sure the you didn’t miss it. TCO is so much more than a bunch of air-head, spendthrift aristos blind to what is happening around them. There are individuals wrestling with their own destinies and there are relationships to be unpicked.

I could see the parallels with the world today, an exalted elite about to be overwhelmed by a populist wave, interesting in the context of modern Russia, but it was also pretty clear that this wasn’t for me. So I missed the techno party in swimsuits and Alexander Petrov turning Lopakhin into a full-on oligarch, but I think it was the right call.

What it did do though was get the juices flowing for The Good Person of Szechwan. If this was the way a Russian company was prepared to shake up their own uber-dramatist, what might they do with the German sage, albeit with a different director, Russian wunderkind Yury Butusov in the hot seat. The last time I saw TGPOS was so long ago I had forgotten the details but I did remember it makes a few strong points tellingly well, even if it takes it time to do so, it is long on tunes and that whoever plays Shen Teh earns their fee.

Basics first. Brecht completed the play in 1941 by which time he was in the US though its first performance was in Zurich in 1943. Long-time collaborators Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau worked with Brecht, and the score and songs were created by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. However in 1947, Paul Dessau created and alternative collection of songs which is now the standard and which was used in this production. TGPOS has all the Brechtian “epic theatre” hallmarks though it was obviously inspired by an interest in the conventions of Classical Chinese drama, not just in terms of subject, a parable involving the intervention of gods on humans, but also the situation and performance style. There is also, to my eyes, more than a nod to classical Geek drama, with the intervention of the Gods at beginning and, in the trial, at the end. As well of course, as a classic double identity plot.

The original title translates in German as “love as a commodity” but also, in a different spelling as ‘true :one” which gives a fair idea of Brecht’s target. Shen Teh is a prostitute who struggles to live a “good life” in line with the morality handed down by the gods. Everyone around her takes advantage of her generosity to the point where she invents an alter ego male Shui Ta, to protect her interests. Shen Teh meets a suicidal unemployed pilot, Yang Sun, with whom she falls in love, but he too, egged on by his mum. only ends up exploiting her. Eventually Shen Teh deception is revealed and a trail ensues.

And so we have a dualism, a dialectic if you will, between gender, between altruism and exploitation, between the individual and society. Economic substructure defines the morality in the human superstructure; the gods gift Shen Teh the money to buy her tobacco shop, the relations between Shen Teh and her customers and her landlord, Yang Sun pretending to love Shen Teh to get his hands on her capital. There is also, for me, a religious dimension. Why won’t the all powerful goods intervene to prevent this naughty humans getting up to no good rather than piling all the pressure on Shen Teh? It’s not subtle but it’s still vital.

So plenty to get your teeth into if this is the bag you are into. Which I most definitely am. This being Brecht, there is plenty more beyond the Marxist, (filtered through the writings of theoretician Karl Korsch,) economics lesson. We begin, for example (after bit of sand play) in the prologue with a direct address to us, well the Gods, through the character of Wong, the unfortunate water seller, he played by Alexander Matrosov, in a somewhat disturbing, palsied “village idiot” manner. (I have to assume Russian audiences have a rather less enlightened attitude to disability). The set, designed by Alexander Shishkin is spare, and dark, denoting a “derelict, abandoned world” according to the programme, with props, (chairs, beds, bicycles, a noose, dogs – you know the usual apocalyptic detritus), scattered across the Barbican stage and three birch trees shielding a backdrop for sledgehammer visuals (Diane Arbus’s twins a particular brazen favourite). The lighting design of Alexander Sivaev is suitably harsh, though effective. The jazzy Dessau score and songs, in German, are used in their entirety though the on-stage band, under director Igor Gorsky, doesn’t skimp on additional eclectic arrangement and material, even some incongruous dub and EDM.

A well choreographed Anastasia Lebedev plays all the Gods, and Alexander Arsentiev is Yang Sun, here just Unemployed Man. The rest of the cast (with a few familiar faces from The Cherry Orchard) loads up on supporting roles with no doubling and the whole ensemble moves, sings and performs with gusto. And that is certainly the case with a shouty Alexandra Ursulyak in the lead role, for which she has been garlanded in Russia. Apparently the production is rooted in the concept of “behavioural plasticity” which is a real biological thing where organisms react to changing external stimuli. And there was me thinking they were acting. Anyway Ms Ursulyak’s torn fishnets, shiny plastic mac and gars make-up for Shen Teh, and baggy pinstripe suit, bowler and pencil moustache screamed alienated cabaret Weimar which persuaded me.

There were a few scenes which lagged (200, 330, 500 silver dollars) but, overall, as it should be with competent Brecht the 3 hour 20 minute running time wasn’t a chore, given a translation to follow, political lessons to be absorbed, songs to enjoy, after a fashion, and Shen Teh’s journey to absorb. And some cracking stagecraft. Rice rain anybody? Or better still a deluge of fag packets? The production first appeared in 2013, and I’ll warrant will be playing for many years yet.

The Tourist consumes a play that explores the contradiction between morality and capitalism, especially the commodification of relationships, bought to London by its most famous Russian oligarch emigre. Pick the bones out of that BD.

Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Sweat

Donmar Warehouse, 24th January 2019

Who is the greatest living playwright (in the English language). Caryl Churchill. Obviously. Who is, in the opinion of the Tourist, probably the most talented playwright under 40 in Britain today. Ella Hickson. What was the best original play the Tourist saw last year. John by Annie Baker. And the best play so far this year. Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

So far this year the Tourist has seen 19 plays (well 18 and a half to be exact of which more in a future post. Actually it is quite a bit more than that but I have condensed the Pinter at Pinter season ). Too many. Certainly but such is the life of the friendless, privileged layabout.

Only 4 by women though. Not good enough. Either by me or the industry. Last year, (I shall refrain from the total number – it is embarrassing), just 25% of the plays of the plays I saw were by women. If I take just new plays (not classics or revivals) the ratio edges towards 40%. Not great but getting better.

Before I get started I note that Sweat is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre from 7th June for 6 weeks or so. If you haven’t seen it don’t hesitate.

Sweat is set largely in a bar in a de-industrialising town in the rust belt of the American North East. Lynn Nottage and her team spent over two years interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in preparation for writing the play. Now, as I know from having seen another Pulitzer Prize winning entertainment, Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields, Reading was, in its heyday through the second half of the C19 and first few decades of the C20, a powerhouse of US industry built on iron and then steel, its proximity to coalfields and on the railway. Its fall was precipitous however and it became, by the time of the 2011 census, one of the poorest cities in the entire country, though it is now being reinvented as a centre for cycling nationally.

Ms Nottage’s play is set in 2000, though it begins in 2008, with the release of Jason (Patrick Gibson) from prison into the hands of probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi who has, thankfully, popped up on numerous occasions for my viewing pleasure). Jason is “reunited” with once friend Chris (Osy Ikhile). Neither is in a good place. We then flash back to see how we got to that place. Jason’s mum Cynthia (Claire Perkins), Chris’s mum Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are celebrating in the bar managed by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and where Hispanic-American Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) is employed. Cynthia is estranged from husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has spiralled downwards after being shut out from the factory during a strike some years ago. All three, tough, women are also employed at the local steel-works, as are the boys, (though Chris wants another life), and as was Stan until an industrial accident, and it is against this back-drop that the story unfolds.

Now you might be thinking, uh-oh, this is going to be one of those terribly worthy political plays where a finger-pointing, hand-wringing lesson about economic and social injustice sucks the life out of the drama and leaves you with conscience enhanced but ever so slightly bored. Well nothing could be further from the truth. The relationships between the characters, and the extraordinary, often moving, dialogue, that describes them is perfectly pitched. The play is flawlessly plotted, structured and executed. The fact that Lynn Nottage is able to locate this within a broader economic and social context (blimey, she even nails the mixed blessings of NAFTA), to conjure up time and place (and history) and to explore fault-lines along racial, class and gender divides, without getting in the way of the personal drama, is what makes this such a complete work of theatre. This is fiction, with no trace of verbatim, but the process of its creation, the people that Ms Nottage talked too, make it very real.

There is nothing redemptive or uplifting here but that is the reality of the damage that the economic dislocation and industrial change has brought to the region and by implication, those left behind in the US and across the Western world. The play opened in New York in 2016 just before Trump’s election. It could not be more relevant. The shattering of the American Dream is hardly a novel subject for drama but Sweat brings home the causes and consequences of the shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing, from managed capitalism, through financial capitalism into the information age. Ms Nottage has said that “we are a nation that has lost our narrative”, which sums up the disillusionment, rage and frustration which is now being vented by those that have lost out and, for whom, the dignity of labour has been upended and faith shattered in a system which was supposed to protect them. Setting the play in an all-American bar, rather than the workplace itself, is a masterstroke, for this is an arena in which the tensions can truly erupt.

Even a play this perfect still needs cast and creatives to deliver. Indeed any flaw in delivery would probably be more visible. Fortunately we are in the secure hands of director Lynette Linton, assistant at the Donmar and now in the hot seat at the Bush. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is wonderful as the bar descends, altar-like, inside a framework of steel girders, supported by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound. The cast is uniformly exemplary, another triumph for dialect coach Charmian Hoare, (though this Brit is no expert), with Claire Perkins particularly excellent as the striving Cynthia and Martha Plimpton just, and for once the vernacular is justified, awesome.

Best of all Lynn Nottage didn’t just helicopter in to extract her story and then move on (as it happens now to a work around the life of Michael Jackson – crikey!). No, she and the team, went back to show the play and to engage in many ways with the community across multiple projects. Drama matters. The Greeks knew that. Hard to see how it could matter more than with Sweat.

I’m Not Running at the National Theatre review ***

I’m Not Running

National Theatre Lyttleton, 22nd January 2019

If you have a moment one day take a look at the writing credits of David Hare, both for stage and screen. There are a lot, including some of the finest dramas written in the English language over the past four decades. And he shows no sign of slowing down in contrast to some of his eminent peers. I enjoyed his interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and his last original play, The Moderate Soprano, (even if it veered towards the hagiographic), as well as his screenplay for the film Denial, and prior to that the Worricker thriller trilogy on telly, which he also directed. I can’t say I was completely persuaded by The Red Barn, his adaptation of a Georges Simeon story, his last outing at the NT, though it looked brilliant nor by Collateral, his four part TV police procedural/thriller on the Beeb last year, which was packed with detail and performance but didn’t quite hang together (especially when compared to the likes of Line of Duty and Informer).

So is the old boy going off the boil. Well, obviously not. Here is someone who can literally churn out line after line of exquisitely apposite dialogue in his sleep, (even if it does verge on catechism), his drama continues to be stuffed with commentary on big moral, political, social and economic issues, the sine qua non of state-of-the-nation drama, he can sketch out a character in just a few lines, (even if deeper psychological details can sometimes move elusive), and his stories normally have a verve and pace that rapidly draws you, in provided you are prepared to engage the brain as well as the heart. All of this is on show in I’m Not Running, which also features a couple of bravura lead performances from Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell (and fine supporting turns from especially Joshua McGuire and Amaka Okafor, Brigid Zengeni and Liza Sadovy).

Yet it is not an entirely convincing play and, IMHO, falls short of vintage political Hare seen in the likes of Gethsemane, or The Power of Yes and Stuff Happens, and falls well short of the likes of The Secret Rapture, Plenty or, on a similar theme, The Absence of War. This, I think reflects, the slightly awkward conjunction of the personal connection and political rivalry of the main characters Pauline Gibson and Jack Gould, and the censure of a Labour party, (always a favourite target for Hare), which smacks more of the Blair years than the current incarnation. There is surely much that Mr Hare could have criticised about the current Opposition in his play, notably its enabling of Brexit, but here we are asked to look instead at how the party machine locks out “outsiders”, specifically a woman, in favour of well-connected, “professional” politicians, with the NHS as the idealogical battleground. Whilst the points it makes, and this being David Hare, the way it makes those points, are elegant and indubitably valid, the absence of Corbyn, Momentum and the B-word, seems curious.

The play opens with a media scrum ahead of an announcement from Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke) and her adviser Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire) about whether she will stand as leader of the Labour Party. We then flashback to Newcastle University in 1997 and the Blair landslide when Pauline, a headstrong medical student, and boyfriend, hesitant would-be lawyer, Jack (Alex Hassell), are splitting up. Pauline, whilst dealing with the fall-out from her alcoholic mother Blaise, (a savvy, though somewhat wasted, performance from Liza Sadovy), enters Parliament as an Independent defending her Corby hospital from closure. She crosses paths again with Jack, scion of an intellectual heavyweight of the Left, who is now a smooth careerist rising up the Parliamentary ranks tasked with NHS reform. Principles vs pragmatism, single issue vs party machine, popularity with party and public, institutional sexism in politics, all are explored against the backdrop of the smouldering passions of the voluble couple.

It is still a testament to Mr Hare’s dramatic gift that the arguments can be interrogated without any hint of cumbersome exposition and that the characters he recruits to the cause still come across as real, if not in both cases here, as completely likeable. Director Neil Armfield could hardly do more to tease out the detail of the text and Ralph Myers rotating blank room set doesn’t get in the way (though there are occasions when the actors look a little lost when standing at the wings of the Lyttleton stage).

Sian Brooke’s Pauline contains enough distanced vulnerability to set alongside her self-righteousness and Alex Hassell’s fly-by-night Jack convinces as he treads the path littered with compromise that he was ordained to follow, but the Tourist couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a little bit David Hare by numbers and that the couple, even with the supporting characters, seemed to be operating in a bubble devoid of external context. Still well worth seeing though for me James Graham’s Labour of Love was a far more entertaining, and insightful, take on similar territory.

Pinter at Pinter 6 review *****

Pinter at Pinter Six: Party Time and Celebration

Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th January 2019

This for me was the best off the bunch so far in the Pinter at Pinter one act play season. And proof that Jamie Lloyd is the Man when it comes to directing the menacing Master. Mind you cop this cast. John Simm, Phil Davies, Eleanor Matsuura, Celia Imrie, Katherine Kingsley, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Abraham Popoola. It is something when probably the least well known on this list, Abraham Popoola, just happens to be, as anyone who saw his performances in STF’s Othello, the Bridge’s Julius Caesar and Pity will know, one of our finest young stage actors.

Jamie Lloyd has profitably emphasised the clear connection between the two plays. Both have a cast of 9 and both are centred on functions in swanky locations. Soutra Gilmour’s alternately monochrome and gaudy sets and costume designs, and Richard Howell’s sharp focus lighting, elegantly reflect this. In both cases a wealthy elite, inured to the concerns of, and detached from, wider society, bickers amongst itself. There is the usual menace, threat, misogyny, oneupmanship, bitterness, jealousy, entitlement and exaggeration that is the HP hallmark but here employed in the service of biting satire. The social class that HP is shredding may differ in each play but the message is the same.

Party Time dates from 1991 and originally premiered with the more overt political satire of Mountain Language seen in Pinter One in this season. Phil Davis’s businessman Gavin is hosting a party where the barbed chat revolves around country club membership, luxury island holidays and past affairs. John Simm’s Terry cruelly bullies his wife Dusty (Eleanor Matsuura), particularly when she mentions Jimmy, her estranged brother. The other guests are equally offensive and vapid in their various ways. Occasionally the sniping and boasting stops and a bright white light is revealed through open doors at the rear. The outside world has plunged into violent disorder, suppressed by the state, and eventually Jimmy (Abraham Popoola) stumbles through the light to deliver a poetic monologue describing this collapse.

Celebration, from 2000., sees Ron Cook’s Cockney villain/businessman (“strategy consultant” in his own words) Lambert celebrating his wedding anniversary with wife Julie (Tracey-Ann Oberman) and brother Matt (Phil Davies), and his wife Prue (Celia Imrie), who is also Julie’s sister, in a swanky restaurant. Vulpine banker Russell (John Simm) and partner Suki (Katherine Kingsley) who Lambert “knows” eventually join them. Restauranteur Richard (Gary Kemp) and Maitresse d’ Sonia (Eleanor Matsuura) alternately schmooze and patronise their ignorant, nouveau riche guests. Waiter (Abraham Popoola) “interjects” to tell tall stories about the literary circles that his grandad mixed with. Here class is the target though some rather darker themes, misogyny, misandry, incest, domestic violence, also emerge.

As elsewhere in this excellent season, the connections that run through HP’s work, and their continuing relevance, are highlighted. The divisions between an elite, defined by wealth, and the rest of society are laid bare. The callous indifference and amoral stupidity of this moneyed, brash, narcissistic class, and those who seek to emulate it, is laid bare. Materialism reigns supreme.

Of course this being Pinter there are times when you are going to fell pretty uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, but, this also being Pinter, you are also going to laugh, a lot, notably in Party Time. Whether you are laughing at, or with, the characters, or at, or with, yourself, is for you to decide.

Impossible to pick out favourites with a cast of this calibre, but if pushed, I would go for Ron Cook and Tracy-Ann Oberman. The latter does not have quite as many lines as some of her equally renowned peers but every one strikes home (it would be good to see her back in some Shakespeare) and Ron Cook is about as perfect a Pinter actor as it is possible to get. Mind you the last few times I have seen him he has pretty much stolen the show (The Children, Girl From the North Country, The Faith Healer and The Homecoming).

One more collection to go as well as the production Betrayal. Even the venerable Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, Tom Hiddleston et al are going to have there work cut out to top this.

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.