Oleanna – Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – 28th June – *****
Finally an opportunity to scratch that travel itch. The SO was forced to drive the Tourist around some of the loveliest parts of Northern England in early June, but the attractions were almost entirely architectural and natural, and there was, I admit, a surfeit of Medieval buildings. (Turns out the highlight however was avian, namely puffins, and best of all, a pair of hen harriers). After a jaunt to Bristol, what a marvellous city, confronting its past and building its future, the Tourist also joined the SO in Bath, which is altogether more sedate and in danger of being pickled in its Regency past.
A chance to see Oleanna at the compact Ustinov Studio though, which had initially been another C19 casualty, and which has been on the Tourist’s wish list for some time. David Mamet’s artistry has faded alarmingly in recent years, Bitter Wheat was a mess, but Oleanna ranks alongside Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow as his finest stage works IMHO. Oleanna, in its examination of privilege, power and language, against the backdrop of an accusation of sexual harassment sets out to, and succeeds in, goading and provoking an audience. Its two characters, student Carol (Rosie Sheehy) and professor John (Jonathan Slinger), alternately elicit audience sympathy and loathing, as Mamet runs through its controversial gears. It was intended to cause controversy, written as its was, just after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination proceedings during the GHW Bush presidency in 1991. And it is no less relevant today. You can make up your own mind where you stand on the issues it explores. What struck me was how far Mamet was prepared to go in eliciting sympathy, even justification, for John as the consequences of his actions become clear, whilst ramping up Carol’s “politically correct” hostility and lack of empathy, not least in her using the “group” to pursue her case and in demanding John’s books are banned.
Yet Carol is right and John is wrong, though to be fair, this is made absolute in the shocking ending. John oversteps boundaries at the outset. He may see his patronising self importance as Platonic but we see how his language and movement disturbs and violates Carol. She is worried and confused at the outset but, as she calls out John’s behaviour, she gains in confidence and eloquence as he deflates into narcissistic victimhood. The complexity and ambiguity of Mamet’s dialogue has probably been amplified through time but the way in which Carol and John talk, but fail to listen ,and the symmetry in their unresolved narrative arcs, is highly effective. Rosie Sheehy (who is surely destined for a long and fulfilling stage career) and Jonathan Slinger are equally superb, in action as well as word, as the battle for “supremacy” shifts from linguistic to physical. A good play to be right up front. I can’t imagine anyone improving on Lucy Bailey’s direction.
The Death of a Black Man – Hampstead Theatre – 17th June – ***
The Tourist’s other June outing wasn’t quite so rewarding. The idea of staging Hampstead Theatre Classics, landmark plays that originally premiered at HT, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary, was inspired and, in retrospect, was prudent in the event of the coming calamity. The Dumb Waiter delivered, but then one might have expected that, it being Pinter, but the subsequent plays weren’t quite as convincing. I couldn’t squeeze The Two Character Play after it was rescheduled, but it does sound like it is at the more challenging end of Tennessee Williams’s oeuvre, though given I am warming up on TW, and it starred Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla, it was a shame to miss it. More of Night, Mother in a future post, but, suffice to say, that it, like The Death of a Black Man, probably impressed more on its opening than it does now. Some plays don’t age as well as others. That is one of the many beauties of drama. It doesn’t make the play poor or flawed, just that its concerns, its style, its relevance, changes though time. And, of course, there are those gems that, for whatever reason fade into obscurity only to be rescued in future generations by enterprising creatives.
Alfred Fagon was born in Jamaica and, after emigrating to Britain, he served in the army and worked on the railways before he took up acting and then playwriting. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s his was an important voice in black British drama, before his untimely death, and disgraceful treatment even thereafter by local police, who claimed they couldn’t identify his body. (It continues. Fagon’s bust in St Paul’s Bristol was apparently vandalised by some knuckleheads in retribution for the Colston toppling).
TDOABM premiered at HT in 1975. This was its first revival. It tells the story of 18 year old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da) and Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), best friends as well as business partners, and posh social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), the slightly older mother of Shakie’s child who has come to stay in Shakie’s flat in Chelsea. The conversations between the three of them run the gauntlet across race, gender and politics, in, initially at least, a naturalistic way. Shakie and Stumpie are determined to get on and make money, but their schemes are contrasted, Shakie is selling “African” artefacts to boho whites, whereas Stumpie is aiming to take back black music from its white appropriators. Interesting ideas are presented even if these are sometimes jumbled up. However, the second half takes a Pinteresque turn, namely The Homecoming, after Shakie’s musician father dies and the boys look to imprison and “sell” Jackie, with her apparent consent. The callous misogyny (and in parts blatant anti-semitism) is deliberately provocative but I am not sure if Mr Fagon quite pulls it off. This is true despite the best efforts of cast (especially Natalie Simpson who has a really tricky part to play here), director Dawn Walton, designer Simon Kenny who serves up a bright slice of deconstructing 70’s aesthetic and lighting designer Johanna Town. The experience and argument feels very real and must haver been revelatory to audiences in its time, but plot and character become more forced as the play shifts towards abstraction.
The alchemy of light. Botanical subjects. Historical overview. An investigation into process. A range of artistic practices and images. All done in under an hour on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. With a nice sandwich to follow. What’s not to like. Very pleased I bought the catalogue.
Only other entertainment of note was a filmed play The Merthyr Stigmatist from the Sherman Theatre. Welsh playwright Lia Parry presents 16 year old Carys, truculent, trying to escape detention with what seems like a whopper. Every Friday she claims stigmata on her palms, now spreading to her feet, begin to bleed. And, in the workaday streets of Merthyr Tydfil, there are plenty who want to believe she is telling the truth. Her teacher Sian thinks she is self harming, and as a local girl now returned, wants to offer her protection and a “way out”. Carys is having none of it. From this divine composition Ms Parry fashions a story about left-behind but proud communities for which the stigmata is a metaphor, belief and belonging. It zips along, both characters prowling around the abstract schoolroom set designed by Elin Steele (which holds a surprise coup de theatre at the climax), gathering intensity under Emma Callander’s direction. Newcomer Bethan McLean brings vitality and depth to Carys whilst Bethan Mary-James carefully plots Sian’s insecurities. It would be good to see this reach a wider live audience.
La Clemenza di Tito – Royal Opera House – 18th May – ***
First live event out of the block in 2021. A visit to the socially distanced ROH with BUD to see La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart.s late opera, from 1791, with libretto from by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio.
Now first up I must say like the ROH more than half empty. The price to seating value in the ROH is normally dreadful, even in the stalls (never done a fancy box mind) and I have had some major run ins with rude punters there, proof that the entitled, including me, are a generally dispiriting bunch. Anyway this time I went cheap(ish), front of amphitheatre, yielding a good enough view, and no BUD squashing. No bar scrum at the interval and everyone masked up, unlike now where the majority can’t be arsed. People, it’s just a bit of cloth, intended to help others out (not least those who work there), not the beating drum of totalitarianism. So get over yourselves.
Anyway I had put in a bit of research by watching the Bergen National Opera LCDT production stream a few weeks earlier though, frankly, the plot ain’t rocket science.
Imperial Rome. Vitellia seeks revenge against Emperor Tito because his dad deposed her Dad. She winds up Tito’s mate Sesto, who fancies her something rotten, to sort him out, but then she calls him off because she, Vitellia, now reckons she can pull and marry Tito. I know the old “I want him dead, I want to wed” routine. We’ve all done it. Tito though plumps for Servilia, Sesto’s sister, as his bride, and sends Annio, Sesto’s mate, off to tell her. An in person proposal clearly beneath him. But, uh-oh, Anno loves Servilia, and she requites, so she tells Tito and he does the decent thing and steps away. However Vitellia hears about this and goes apeshit, once again telling Sesto to top Tito. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, beyond the excuse for a cracking aria, “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”. And then, blow me, if Tito doesn’t decide to marry Vitellia who realises that bullying his mate into being his hit-man is not a good look. Sesto goes for the old “burn down the Capitol” assassination technique which strikes me as a bit OTT. Everyone reacts with horror thinking Tito is now toast, literally, but Vitellia manages to muzzle Sesto before he blabs. Curtain.Interval.
Annio announces big Tito isn’t dead; the corpse Sesto saw was another geezer (yep really) and that he only stabbed another bloke dressed as Tito. Annio persuades Sesto to stay and face the music, but the Court finds him guilty. Annio begs Tito to go easy his bessie and offer him a way out. But pig-headed Sesto says he deserves to be executed, “Deh, per questo istante solo”, so Tito, because he can, (thats autocracy for you), tears up the death warrant. Final twist. Just before Tito can reveal his mercy trip at the Games (where other poor buggers are about to be torn apart by lions), Vitellia confesses that it was all her idea, but Tito, now puffed up on all this clemency lark, lets her off too. Universally acknowledged, Tito, for a tyrant, is a top bloke.
Now you can probably see some flimsy propaganda at work here. And indeed, LCDT was commissioned by the Estates of Bohemia, on the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor (which was still a thing), as King of Bohemia, to keep the nobles sweet. Remember the great and good all over Europe were sh*tting their collective pants about what was going on in France, so it was good to remind them that Leopold was having now of that Revolution nonsense in his back yard.
Metastasio’s libretto was already an opera standard, but Mazzola edited it down when WAM came on board, seeing a big purse, Salieri having turned down the gig. And our Wolfie turned it round sharpish, 18 days apparently. Maybe it shows. It isn’t on a par with Figaro and Don Giovanni but, hey, it’s Mozart so it is a) now pretty popular and b) in places sublime. Both BUD and the Tourist couldn’t go all in though: ULTZ’s monochrome set gets shunted around a fair bit and Richard Jones’s direction, in part to accommodate Covid 19 restrictions seemed disjointed at times, with on stage actions not always clear in intention or delivery. We warmed to Emily d’Angelo’s babyface, footballing (?), Sestus far more than the star turn here of Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia (who sometimes risibly over-acted, though she can sing) with Edgaras Montvidas’s Tito lacking a little authority, visually and aurally. Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia) looked and sounded more comfortable. The “intimate” scenes notably between Sesto and Tito proved more affecting than the “public” scenes which were a bit underpowered, unfortunate given the nature of power vibe is what I think Mr Jones was aiming for. The orchestra, under Mark Wrigglesworth, delivered though, in my bank you can always step on the gas more with Classical scores, the harpsichord continuo made its way up to the gods and the chorus, sadly offstage, was lovely.
Flight – Bridge Theatre – 27th May – ****
A very different live theatrical experience a few days later. BD and I had planned to go to see Flight during the late 2020 window but missed out as it was serially canned. So glad I persisted. Vox Motus, led by Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, promise “a theatre of story-telling visuals, transformational design, magic, comedy, music, physical performance, puppetry, multi-media and most importantly thrills.” To be fair Flight doesn’t quite live up to that promise but only because of its format and not in its impact. It is conceptually simple; a revolving diorama containing miniature models in lit-up boxes with an accompanying soundtrack on headphones. After a bit of necessary C19 induced marshalling we were shown to our individual booths and straight into the story of Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) and Kabir (Nalini Chetty), Afghan orphans who are orphaned Afghan boys who make the hazardous journey from Kabul to London. Along the way they nearly freeze to death in a lorry, are enslaved and forced to pick fruit, encounter hatred and compassion. They make it but there is no happy ending. The models are beautifully crafted, some of the tableaux extremely imaginative and the text involving. Maybe the revolve it is a bit slow and the juggling of viewpoints horizontally and vertically a little sapping, but the story is so heartfelt that this can be forgiven. The innovation format drives home the message. Forced migration isn’t going to go away. Likely the reverse. Lines on a map won’t make any difference. Hate won’t work. Love might.
Walden – Harold Pinter Theatre – 29th May – ***
Producer Sonia Friedman, who pretty much single-handedly gets quality theatre into the commercial West End, what we might call a vital actor in the theatre economic ecosystem, was quick out of the blocks with her Re:Emerge series post lockdown. Anna X was a hit at the 2019 Vault Festival, J’Ouvert (still availble on BBC I Player) came via Battersea’s finest Theatre 503 and Walden, which I plumped for, was a new work from New Yorker Amy Berryman. For me the draw was Ian Rickson as director, though a cast of Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and, especially, Lydia Wilson, helped. Gemma Arterton is a better actor than her credits suggest, her performance in Josie Rourke’s Saint Joan at the Donmar is evidence thereof, similarly Fehinti Balogun is set for a stellar career (as is his namesake Michael, he of the extraordinary backstory, check it out). Lydia Wilson, however, was my favourite going in after spying her in Rebecca Frecknall’s Almeida Duchess of Malfi and the Cheek by Jowl Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and, post this performance remains so, though there isn’t much in it.
All three however were excellent in a play which, having started with a bang, but failed to develop its interesting themes, relying instead on the somewhat limited opposition between two sisters, Stella (GA) and Cassie (LW). It’s the near future, climate change has ravaged Earth, so it’s time for Homo Sapiens to ravage the rest of the solar system. Stella was the designer of the off Earth settlements, Cassie a botanist thereon. High achievers both, Daddy was a big cheese at NASA and don’t they both know it, Stella has turned her back on the Project to shack up with climate activist Ryan, Cassie drops by (though this is a cabin in backwoods America, where the water is still clean) to try to persuade her back into the fold. Believable debates ensue about the fate of man and woman kind, principle vs pragmatism, scientific duty and ethics, ambition and fulfilment, laced with a bit of sexual frisson, all against a backdrop of sisterly rivalry. The text matches the concept, Mr Rickson’s tempo is note perfect as usual, it is just that Ms Berryman, having laid it all out can’t find anywhere to go thereafter so dramatically it just fizzles out. A bit more bite, a bit more ambiguity and this could be a very powerful play.
Best of the rest
A couple of live exhibitions on top of these three outings. Matthew Barney’s Redoubt at the Hayward Gallery (***), a multimedia exploration of Ovid’s Diana and Actaeon, which I assume is also a climate change plea, was just too dense for the Tourist to fully appreciate. Mr Barney has created a (long) silent film where he figures as The Engraver, a ranger in the Idaho Rockies, who tracks and is tracked by a sharpshooter Annette Wachter, and her two sidekicks, a Watching Virgin and a Tracking Virgin. Woods, rocks, water, snow, trailer, skies, skis, rifles, deer, wolves, cougars, bears, copper plate and its processing, there is a lot to take in, ad I confess to bewilderment when I trawled through this back home. However the sculptural output, burnt, scarred trees amalgamated with coppers, alloys, resins, plastics, often in the form of gun parts, is fascinating, the copper plates marginally less so. As are the myths and facts that flow from Barney’s investigation. I only scratched the surface (no pun intended) but it isn’t difficult to see why he has such a high reputation in artistic circles.
South African portrait photographer Zanele Muholi is also lauded, though the focus of their practice is very different, as the Tate Modern retrospective (***) revealed. Across 260 works they describe the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. Their perspective may change but their intent, to show love and joy, bodily delight, as well as sickening trauma (“corrective” rape still exists in SA) and discrimination, and thereby shift perceptions, is unyielding. Political as well as political, dripping with satire. Makes you think, makes you stare. BD is better placed to walk you through the context. I was bowled over, in parts, by the beauty, aesthetic and intelligence of the later staged images, especially the self-portraits. And genuinely saddened by the realisation that some of their subjects and collaborators were now dead, victims of violence and HIV/Aids.
Which just leaves a couple of baroque concerts and a couple of theatrical entertainments on screen. Pale Sister (also available as part of the lights Up series on I Player) has Lisa Dwan playing Ismene, Antigone’s sister, written for her by Irish man of letters, Colm Toibin and directed by Trevor Nunn. I yield to no man in defence of the virtues of Ms Dwan, but the monologue actually steers too closely to the Sophocles inspiration when I was hoping for some departure. Still well worth watching.
Much better, and actually a surprise highlight of my on line viewing, was Bristol based Wardrobe Ensemble’s distillation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows, along with director Tom Brennan and dramaturg James Newton, have preserved, indeed in some ways, enhanced, the essence of Fitzgerald’s elegant skewering of the American Dream, condensing it down to just 90 minutes and imaging as one long, and increasingly, desperate party. They neck champagne from paper cups, sing and dance, make use of a few props. The two actors play all the key characters, Jay Gatsby, Nick Garraway, Jordan Baker, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, George and Myrtle Wilson, even managing to convince when simultaneous dialogue is required. FS-G’s heightened plot, as in the book, is easy to digest. OK so the material trappings of these shallow lifestyles is obscured as is the duplicitous complexity of the characters therefore sacrificing some of the novel’s bite. On the other hand their often ambiguous sexual identity is brought into focus as is the tragedy at its heart. Well worth seeing.
The novelty of digital entertainment by now very much worn off but, fortunately, there were plenty of other worthwhile distractions (the return of birdwatching after four decades perhaps the most surprising) for the Tourist to mask the lack of live cultural stimulation. (And travel, which absence, I am ashamed to say, loomed larger than it should have done).
I can see from my list of film and TV watching, (yes I keep lists of that, so what, it doesn’t make me sad), that, even with the shameful stuff which I choose not to record , my viewing habits were rapidly deteriorating. From art cinema, via Netflix box-sets, to My Kitchen Rules. Clearly, in order to maintain my customary high level of cultural snobbery, effort was required and, no doubt, these were the hard yards of lockdown.
BTW I am acutely aware that these catch up lists are veering ever closer to those humblebrag “family year in review” missives your get at Christmas from “friends” you never liked in the first place. For which I am truly sorry.
As it happens we kicked off the year with a family outing to Christmas at Kew Gardens. Now the Tourist has a very soft spot for light displays, especially at Christmas. This is in sharp contrast to his Scroogerian approach to the rest of the festive season. Anyway this fetish has meant that the SO, BD and LD have been dragged along, much against their collective will, to some shockingly bad would be son et lumieres. (It has just occurred to me that MS has, stealthily, managed to avoid these outings). As it turned out this one actually hit the mark though maybe this said more about our lockdown ennui than the displays themselves. Don’t tell the family but I’ve already booked for this year.
A couple of “live” theatre streams. One a revisit. ITA’s Kings of War which remains a top 10 bucket list watch for all of you (along with their Roman Tragedies). Obvs not as thrilling on a screen as in a theatre but I didn’t miss a moment of the 4+ hours, though, wisely, they offered a break for me tea. Ivo van Hove adapts a translation from Rob Klinkenberg of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, focussing on the successive kings as leaders amid the politics that informed their decisions. That doesn’t mean he jettisons the human dramas for the big picture stuff, you will recognise the plays and in some ways the human foibles are made more acute, but it does mean a skewering of detail and a different take on language, translating the Dutch back into English sub-titles, so stripping back verse and prose to the essential. Jack Cade, most of the hoi polloi gone and the women reduced largely to necessary accessories (though this in itself is illuminating). Battle scenes replaced with a crashing score. Other key scenes given a contemporary twist and repeated visual signifiers given centre stage. The corridors of power delivered in a sterile office aesthetic. The technological trickery of video, live and pre recorded. Voice-overs, sheep, trumpet fanfares, war poetry. And Hans Kesting. bursting out of his too small suit, quite simply the best Richard III ever. History plays as Netflix Nordic thriller. Which trust me, in this vase, is a marvellous thing.
Quite a contrast with Mischief Theatre’s Mischief Movie Night in which our favourite comedy theatre troupe take a genre, location and title from the (premium paying) on line audience and improvise a film from there. Like most of Mischief’s works the spontaneity is, of course, well tempered with meticulous planning, and MC Jonathan Sayer has to push, shove and stall in certain directions, but there are some genuinely funny improvised moments (even for Sayer himself) amid the water treading. It has been interesting to watch Mischief, on stage and screen, keep trying to expand the boundaries of their craft, and monetisation, of their concept. That they can continue do this is down to genuine skill from the core troupe. I confess there are times when it can get a little repetitive but just as the ideas start to pall, even annoy, along comes another laugh out loud moment or idea. Mind you, it isn’t always that memorable. Witness I can’t actually remember what film they created the night the family tuned in. Oops.
What else? A couple of European theatre recordings that were interesting but at the outer limit of the Tourist’s tolerance and lost not a little in translation: Deutsches Theater’s Maria Stuart directed by Anne Lenk and Theatre of Nations The Idiot based on the Dostoevsky classic. Closer to home, revisits of Lucy Kirkwood’s “science” play Mosquitoes and Hytner’s NT Othello with the most excellent Messrs Lester and Kinnear as well as the 2013 Young Vic A Doll’s House (though Hettie Morahan was a bit too strung out for my taste). Not so bowled over by the NT’s cash cow War Horse (see what I did there), which I finally clocked. Though not because of its obvious quality, just because this clearly needs to be seen in a theatre and not beamed through a little laptop with a buggered screen. (It would be so helpful if NT at Home could solve the daft technology gap when it comes to Samsung tellies).
I won’t bore with waxing rhapsodic about the live stream of ITA’s Roman Tragedies. You can find my “review’ of the real deal at the Barbican elsewhere on these pages. Like Kings of War this is 6 hours of your life which you will want to get back. that’s why I watched it all over again. Very interesting to see the back stage camaraderie at the end of the adrenaline marathon, a clear demonstration of why this theatre company is the best in the world.
Another online theatre offer from The Original Theatre Company, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from MR James’s The Experiment. Great cast led by Tamzin Outhwaite, Max Bowden and Stephen Boxer, a bright updating and some smart technicals but not quite as chilling as hoped. But then ghost stories when taken off the page rarely are, though the SO, who loves this sort of thing, lives in hope.
More successful was the Almeida’s Theatre’s Hymn, and not just because of the writing of the multi-talented Lolita Chakrabarti. I get the impression that she, and hubby, Adrian Lester, pretty much do what they like when it comes to acting. Because they can. When they work together, as here, and as in Red Velvet, well, you just know it’s going to be good. Though the secret sauce here came from Danny Sapani who played Benny to AL’s Gil. Ostensibly it’s a simple story of two black friends and their connection, simply staged and directed (by Blanche McIntyre). In other hands it could veer into cliche, Gil is a professional, comfortably off, Benny less so, but precisely by avoiding the soapbox and concentrating on their emotional connection, happy as well as said, they sing and dance would you believe, it draws you in and, by the end, wrings you out. That is down to the brilliance of the leads, you don’t even notice the distancing requirement, but also the naturalness of the writing. it is my belief that Ms C still has something even better up her sleeve.
And then there was the Sonia Friedman Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre. I was too late into the run so missed out on the live take but this was a more than satisfactory replacement. Obviously Conor McPherson was just the man for the job when it came to another updated adaptation of Chekhov’s, IMHO, best play, and Toby Jones was bound to be a perfect Vanya. And directed by Ian Rickson, the master of letting classic texts breathe ,(I offer you Paradise, Romersholm, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia, The Birthday Party, Translations), whilst still offering contemporary connection. Here augmented for screen by Ross MacGibbon who gradually moves the cameras closer to the “action” as the emotional intensity screws up whilst always remembering we are in a theatre. With Rae Smith serving up a stunning set of decrepitude. The real win though came in the rest of the cast, Roger Allam’s pernickety hypochondriac Alexandre (replacing Ciaran Hinds from the stage version), Richard Armitage’s idealistic Astrov, Rosalind Eleazar’s languid Yelena, Aimee Lou Wood’s cheerful, in the circumstances, Sonya. Tragi-comedy I hear you say. Right here sir I say. Or rather on I Player until the end of the year.
The Young Vic Yerma with Billie Piper giving her all and more, the NT Antigone, more memorable for Christopher Eccleston’s Creon and Soutra Gilmour’s design than Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone, Russell T Davies’s whizz bang Midsummer Night’s Dream and a bonkers Nora: Christmas at the Helmers, Ibsen update from Katona Jozsef Szinhaz Theatre in Budapest.
But the best filmed theatre came courtesy of the (in)famous Peter Hall version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia from 1981, performed at the NT and then filmed for TV early on in Channel 4’s life. (Interesting to see what our “ostrich anus eating for money” Culture Secretary would make of that were it to be repeated). You can cobble together the three parts, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and Eumenides, thanks to some nice people at YouTube. Brace yourself for masks courtesy of Jocelyn Herbert, a stupendous, propulsive score from Harrison Birtwistle, a verse translation from Tony Harrison that mixes modern idioms with invented expression and some top drawer performances from the all male cast notably Pip Donagy’s Clytemnestra, Roger Gartland’s Electra and, especially, Greg Hicks’s Orestes. Not far behind as part of my Greek tragedy homework was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s quixotic Oedipus Rex.
Another offering from the team that brought us What a Carve Up! (see my prior catching up post). Though this The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn’t quite up to the standards set by that predecessor. The idea of updating everyone’s favourite fictional narcissist as a modern day influencer, replete with Instagram and dating apps, makes eminent sense and Fionn Whitehead as Dorian leaps at the chance to boost his likes and, literally, preserve his profile. However, despite contributions from the likes of Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Alfred Enoch, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation never quite broke free of its central conceit (see what I did there) to properly explore Wilde’s morality tale.
Another enjoyable family entertainment this time in the form of Les Enfant Terrible’s Sherlock Holmes: An Online Adventure. This company has a proven track record in innovative, immersive theatre, and whilst this didn’t push the boundaries genre wise, it is straight sleuthing, guided, but it was fun, and for once Dad didn’t get left behind by his smarter, savvier, kids.
The RSC’s Dream, which used cutting edge live capture and gaming technology to give us half an hour with Puck in the Athenian forest, looked marvellous but, in some ways, the Q&A, showing how it was done, was more interesting that the film itself. Always remember theatre is text, actors, audience. Spectacle can expand but not trump this. At the other end Greenwich Theatre’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by James Hadrell, was a billy basic Zoom rendition of Caryl Churchill’s TV play which served to highlight its proselytising flaws rather than its smart one-liners. And it pains me to say it but The Orange Tree‘s first foray into the C19 digital world, Inside, three plays, Guidesky and I, When the Daffodils and Ursa Major from respectively Deborah Bruce, Joel Tan and Joe White, directed by Anna Himali Howard, was somewhat disappointing. I know all involved can do better. Actually to be fair in Guidesky and I Samantha Spiro made a lot of her character’s lashing out to mask the grief after her mother’s death, Deborah Bruce wisely aping the master of the tragicomic monologue Alan Bennett, but the other two-handers felt forced.
More success this month came from my opera viewing. Bergen National Opera‘s streamed production of La clemenza di Tito, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner, was an excellent introduction to the late Mozart opera which, until now, has passed me by. Mind you Mr Gardner has a habit of persuading in any opera that I might be predisposed to. He and his Norwegian band also offered the pick of the fair few streamed concerts i too in this month with a programme of Beethoven, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Berio. Scottish Opera filmed take from last year of Cosi fan tutte, a sort of reality TV take, didn’t quite convince but that is as much to do with the libretto/plot as the production. I am still waiting for that killer Cosi. On the other hand it was a joy to revisit Netia Jones’s exquisite Curlew River from 2013. Can’t match being there but well worth tracking down.
I am sorry to say that Outside, the second trilogy of streamed plays from the Orange Tree Theatre, didn’t really improve on the first, and not just because of a technical problem on the evening I tuned in. If I were a betting man, (which I resolutely am not, low risk, compounded returns being more my thing), I would say that Two Billion Beats, Prodigal and The Kiss by, respectively, Sonali Bhattacharyya, Kalungi Ssebandeke and Zoe Cooper and directed by Georgia Green, maybe lacked the two secret ingredients of great theatre, collaboration and time. More of both and all three plays could be turned into something tighter and more convincing to build on strong performances and the kernel of ideas they already have.
Witness Harm, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Bruntwood Prize winning play from the Bush Theatre directed by Atri Banerjee and with Leanne Best as the Woman in the version shown on BBC (Kelly Gough in the theatre version). She is an estate agent who sells a house to influencer Alice, whose friendship turns into obsession. A black comedy that presses all the right buttons could have been crashingly predictable in the wrong hands but not here. And I bet (looks like I am turning into a gambler) Ms Eclair-Powell went through careful iteration before polishing this jewel as well as benefitting from the insight of others along the way.
Sorry getting distracted again. Sadie, by David Ireland, which is still available on BBC I Player in contrast to Harm, was a casualty of lockdown never making its premiere at the Lyric Belfast, but instead filmed for the BBC Lights Up festival. The title character, played by Abigail McGibbon, has a fling with a Portuguese cleaner half her age. He seeks therapy, Sadie’s head is invaded by relatives from the past. This “triggers” an excursion into classic David Ireland absurdist black comedy, with the unresolved sectarianism of The Troubles as the backdrop, and, like Everything Between Us, Cyprus Avenue and The Ulster American, it is compelling, funny and unsettling in equal measure. BTW the BBC, for the same price as Netflix, keeps on churning out reams of unmatchable culture, drama, comedy and documentary. Netflix in contrast, mostly derivative shit. Christ I wish there was a way that the BBC and all the nepotistic elite that work for it (I am being sarcastic here) could find a way to shift its ecosystem to a financial model which allowed them to tell the Clown and his pathetic “culture war” acolytes to f*ck right off.
Talking of subscription models you would be a fool not to sign up for NT at Home. I confess I have not made as much use of this as I should have done since signing up but that is only because I have already seen most of the plays now showing. However, the Phedre from 2009, directed by Nick Hytner and using a Ted Hughes translation which hypes up Racine’s Alexandrian verse into something even more direct, was a welcome addition to the Tourist’s canon, neo-classical French drama still being a massive hole. Helen Mirren as lady P, Stanley Townsend as near-cuckolded Theseus, Dominic Cooper as hunky Hippolytus and John Shrapnel as sly Theramene all take a munch out of the bright Greek island scenery but that I guess is the play.
Rufus Norris was the directorial hand behind David Hare’s stage adaptation of Katherine Boo’s lively essay of life in a Mumbai slum in the shadow of the international airport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Another inexplicable omission for the Tourist when it appeared in 2014 in the Lyttleton. It looks tremendous, the cast, eventually, inhabit their diverse characters, and the focus on one story, young Abdul’s determination to maintain his dignity and honesty, pays dividends.
Some tip-top theatre then but the best viewing of the month came from NTGent and Milo Rau’s The New Gospel. Now the astute observer will know that this is actually a film, despite its appearance as a paid for stream on the website of one of these avant-garde European theatre companies that the Tourist is so in love with. Typical remainer, “everything’s better in Europe”. Forgive me though as I didn’t know this when I booked it. Swiss director Milo Rau, to whom the Tourist, twenty years ago, bore a passing resemblance, is a cultural polymath who likes to cause a stir politically with his work. Top bloke. He has big plans for an activist NT Gent where he is now AD, which I will need to purview based on The New Gospel. Like Pasolini before him, M. Rau takes a dramatisation of Christ’s crucifixion, but his Christ is black, Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian activist who has taken on, and beaten, Italian gang-masters in real life. His followers are fellow migrant workers. The New Testament scenes are interspersed with documentary action as well as auditions and rehearsals. Matera in Basilicata is the setting, as it was for Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, when it was a symbol of barely credible poverty in Italy’s South. Matera’s now chi-chi luxury (we know, we’ve stayed there) is here contrasted within the nearby migrant camps. And, brace yourself fans of the meta, Enrique Irazoqui, Pasolini’s amateur acting Christ, is cast as John the Baptist, Maia Morgenstern, Romania’s acting queen, pays Mary, as she did in Mel Gibson’s execrable Passion of Christ, (which was also filmed in Matera), and the brilliant Marcello Fonte, the maker of the wonderful film Dogman, is Pontius Pilate. Cinematographer Thomas Eirich-Schneider’s background is in documentary but his set-pieces are also stunning.
In which the Tourist condenses down 2020, in and out of lockdown, mostly watching stuff on a screen. Don’t worry he also took walks, saw punters when permitted and growled at the state of his disappointing nation, but it is only now he is back out in the live cultural realm, receiving “multiple inputs” as BUD would have it, that the cognitive slide has stopped. I know, egregious first world world privilege, but this is a blog about culture so forgive my insensitivity.
Where to start. A few highlights of the filmed performances I saw over the year I think, then the same for the “digital” theatre which I consumed and also a word on the “live” performances that snuck in under the wire as restrictions lifted and were then reimposed. Chronologically because I am naturally idle and that is easier. BTW the idea of a “freedom day” per our comedy government raises my liberal, remainer, metropolitan elite hackles but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have come quicker for my theatre ecosystem chums.
First out of the block was one of Schaubuhne Berlin‘s performance streams, namely Hamlet filmed at the Avignon Festival, with Thomas Ostermeier in the directorial chair and Lars Eidinger as the eponymous prince, so mad with toddler tantrums that he couldn’t be mad surely. Bordering on the slapstick, with earth, blood and water liberally splashed around, breaking the fourth wall, cuts galore, extra, incongruous lines, “to be or not to be” a drunken rant, Gertrude and Ophelia psychosexually doubled up, by playing up the comedy and meta-theatre in Hamlet, Ostermeier locates new truths in the greatest of plays (?). Elsinore as excess. Not for those who like their Shakespeare all sing-song verse and doublets. I bloody loved it. As I did later in the month with the company’s take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The scene where the audience is invited into the central political debate, after Stockmann’s prescient rant about liberal hypocrisy, is electrifying. Even in German. What I would have given to see this when it came to London in 2014. What a tit I was for missing it. This is utterly contemporary, Stockmann and mates even have a rock band rehearsal, the conflicts personal as much as political. I am biased since this is one of my favourite Ibsen’s but it is enthralling and a perfect vehicle for TO’s brand of “Capitalist realism” theatre. Finally there was SB’s take on Orlando this time with Katie Mitchell directing with Jenny Konig superb as Virginia Woolf’s eponymous hero/heroine in an adaptation from Alice Birch. This was due to come to the Barbican in this very month but, perforce, was cancelled There are times when I find KM and AB’s aesthetic baffling (The Malady of Death) even as I absorb the provocation, but here it all comes together. And, thanks to the customary live narration and live and pre-recorded video projection, it works brilliantly on the small screen where an expert is guiding your eye (not always the case with KM’s regie-theatre). In contrast to Sally Potter’s lush film version, also brilliant in part thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance, KM works the comedy, almost rompishly, and revels in the anachronistic artificiality of the story. I hope that SB will be back in London soon but, in their absence, the Tourist will have to live up to his name and get on the train to Berlin.
Another highlight was the filmed version of the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible with Yael Farber at her very best directing and Richard Armitage as John Porter showing he can act as well as well as take his shirt off and shoot up baddies. YF’s brooding atmospherics and measured pacing bring a real sense of paranoia to Salem adding to the petty vengeances. The trinity of Procter, wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and scheming Abigail (Samantha Colley) have real strength and depth, and the thrilling power of the final act is full beam. The political allegory takes a back seat to a critique of religious intolerance and hypocrisy. It is also brilliantly shot and edited, something you can’t say about all filmed productions. Well worth seeing.
Other standouts in a busy viewing month (ahh the novelty of armchair viewing, tea, biscuits and pee breaks) were Breach Theatre‘s It’s True. It’s True, It’s True dramatising the rape trial of Artemisia Gentileschi and Imitating the Dog‘s Night of the Living Dead REMIX, the live frame by frame reconstruction of the George A Romero Zombie classic satire. Genius. Both are available still to watch.
Also of note. The Peter Grimes filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh from the Festival, Sophie Melville’s firecracker of a performance in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, an RSC Two Gentleman of Verona (a play I had never seen before completing the Bard set) and a revisit of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the NT with Tamsin Greig. Pretty sure the enterprising amongst you can find all of these to stream.
More Schaubuhne Berlin. This time Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Hedda Gabler. Ripped out of its buttoned up C19 Norwegian context this petulant, anomieic Hedda, brilliantly captured by Katharina Schüttler, can’t be satisfied by men or material, rails against her bourgeois cage, here a modernist glass house, but can’t give it up. So her suicide is more “you’ll all be sorry when I’m gone” than her only escape from masculine tyranny. And no-one notices. OK so a lot of Ibsen’s delicious text is lost but this is still a thrilling re-imaging of a classic.
On the subject of flawed heroines, and currently the subject of intense study by the Tourist, next up was Blanche Dubois in the form of Gillian Anderson in Benedict Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirkby (showing why she was destined for higher things) as Stella are superb but Ms Anderson, who doesn’t always get it right, was perfectly cast, capturing the many , and there are many, sides of our Blanche. Treat yourself. It’s on NT at Home. As is the NTFrankenstein double header with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating as creature and doctor under Danny Boyle’s explosive direction. (Also now on Prime I think). Missed this on stage so was overjoyed to catch this and was not disappointed.
Also of note. A Wozzeck from Dutch National Opera, Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE at the NT, revisits of Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the NT, Complicite’s The Encounter and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall with Andrew Scott. Midnight Your Time from the Donmar Warehouse was a pretty successful Zoom based revival from Michael Longhurst with script by Adam Brace though largely thanks to Diana Quick’s turn as the lonely, domineering do-gooder mother Judy. Oh, and Bound from the Southwark Playhouse, a pretty good play written and directed by Jesse Briton (though terrible footage) which tells the tale of trawlermen in Brixham. Yey.
The above is just the best of the best from a couple of months of intensive “digital” theatre. By June I can see that the sun had come out, I started taking my cinematic responsibilities more seriously and the theatre online opportunities diminished. Schaubuhne Berlin‘s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi was another highlight but didn’t match Robert Icke’s electrifying, and subversive, adaptation at the Almeida from 2019. I wasn’t quite as taken with the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus as I had hoped, with Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous kvetch directed by Josie Rourke but it was still worth the long wait.
Otherwise a pair of revisits stood out. This House, James Graham’s breakthrough political comedy at the NT and The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss from the Nottingham Playhouse.
The BBC’s anthology of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was the standout in July. Some new additions to the canon but my favourites were Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville and Monica Dolan, though they also happen to be my favourite actors from an enviably talented dozen.
Otherwise there was the Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a revisit, with BD and LD who loved it, of Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge as well as the NT Amadeus with Lucien Msamati.
And our first “live” event for a few months. At the Garden Museum. Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Mind you there wasn’t much too it but it was good to tick something off.
Amongst the welcome staycation action there were a fair few digital entertainments of note. A magnificent Turn of the Screw at Garsington Opera with a perfectly balanced cast and a striking set from Christopher Oram. I will definitely need to look out for the work of director Louisa Muller. I see it is a highlight of their 2022 season but I can’t be doing with the faff of getting there, the price they charge and the dressing up like a toff. Followed by the RSC Timon of Athens with Kathryn Hunter in the lead. Directed by …. yep, Simon Godwin once again. Timon of Athens as a play makes perfect sense to me as did this production and not just because of Ms Hunter’s performance. The very different Simon Russell Beale also convinced at the NT under Nick Hytner. The knotty parable of a rich man who falls and then, through a process of ironic self-enlightenment, turns on the commercialised society that made him works as well in C21 London as it does in ancient Athens. Yes there are a few plot holes and unexplained appearances/retreats but that is the case in a lot of Shakespeare.
And then there was the classic Glyndebourne The Rake’s Progress with designs by David Hockney and directed by John Cox. More opera. Well bits of. Namely extracts from the Holland Festival/Dutch National Opera/Royal Conservatoire The Hague staging of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht. Itself a selection, over three days mind and covering 15 hours, from the total seven day opera which runs to 29 hours. Mind blowing. Another reason why Holland might just be the greatest country on earth.
The first appearance of theatre made to be streamed. First out of the blocks, the Old Vic with Three Kings a monologue written by Stephen Beresford delivered by Andrew Scott as Patrick. BD and SO sat in and we were all transfixed by this eloquent “sins of the father revisited …..” story. Better still was Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s triple memory monologue play which is both a) brilliant and b) made for the Zoom format. Especially when you have the fantastic Michael Sheen playing the fantastic Francis Hardy, in full on Welshness, Indira Varma as his long suffering wife Grace, and David Threlfall as an uber cockney manager Teddy. Loved the play, love the production.
But lo. There was more. Some live theatre. As the Bridge brought the Bennett Talking Heads monologues to the stage (****). We opted for The Shrine (a new addition) with Monica Dolan as Lorna who discovers there was more to husband Clifford than met the eye after his fatal motorcycle accident. Very funny. And then A Bed Among the Lentils with Lesley Manville utterly convincing as vicar’s wife Susan who seeks solace at the corner shop. Just glorious.
It didn’t end there. Two live exhibitions. The Andy Warhol at Tate Modern (***) which was good but I guess lacked discovery and the Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers music history at the Design Museum (**) where I sort of lost interest after Kraftwerk and 80s synths but BD was very enamoured.
There was a cracking Prom broadcast with the London Sinfonietta serving up an eclectic programme of modern.contemporary faves including Philip Glass’s Facades, Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway (for toy piano) a couple of Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies, Tansy Davies’s funk workout neon, Edmund Finnis in situ, Anna Meredith’s Axeman for electrified bassoon and Steve Reich City Life. Tremendous.
But amongst the screen viewings to my surprise the highlight of the month was La Monnaie/de Munt‘s recording of a 2107 production of Luca Silla. Director Tobias Kratzer carved out a jewel from relatively meagre materials by Mozart’s standards in this early opera (composed at just 16) which tells the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a Roman tyrant. BUD, who accommodated with grace all my suggestions for shared lockdown viewing, strongly agreed.
No live theatre this month. You never quite know where you are with our callow cabinet. A couple of exhibitions however. Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean (****), proof that even the very greatest have to work hard to exploit their talent. All sorts of stuff that I am never likely to see again. So glad I got to see it. And joy of joys we got to see Artemisia at the National Gallery (*****) which I thought we had lost to the pandemic. To be fair there were a few Biblical group scene commissions which to me were less impressive and, understandably a few omissions, and I have already gone out of my way to look at her paintings on show in venues that I have visited, (the NG itself, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi, Prado, in Bologna, Seville, Pisa), but that still left a clutch of stunning works to take in. Don’t like the underground space in the NG (I know it is perfectly lit), too hot and busy, but still stopped in my tracks by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra, for it is in the portrayals powerful women that AG excelled.
A couple of live streamed theatre treats, the Mark Gatiss (with Adrian Scarborough) Ghost Stories from the Nottingham Playhouse which cut the muster and a revisit of ITA‘s Medea which once again astounded. A fair few streamed concerts this month. Igor Levit went out of his way to entertain during lockdown, I caught a Beethoven recital from Wigmore Hall, finally saw the RSC production of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer and the whole family enjoyed the interactive online adventure The Mermaid’s Tongue (and went on to its precursor Plymouth Point) from a couple of Punchdrunk alumni.
By now the live or specially made for streamed theatre was coming thick and fast. Now I am firmly in the camp that sees recordings of theatre productions, or live streamed events, as additive to, rather than a substitute for, live theatre. I appreciate if you can get get to a live show, or missed it, then of course, you should see it on a screen. I understand that your armchair is way better for back, bum and neck than most theatre seats and refreshments come better, quicker and cheaper. And don’t get me started on the toilets. After all I have wasted more than enough text complaining here about West End theatres. I also believe that some of the made for streaming theatre of the past 18 months or so has been interesting and innovative in its use of technology. But it’s just no the same as sitting in a dark room with other punters wondering what is going to happen next on that stage. I had forgotten just how much I miss the electricity and the immersion.
Having said that What a Carve Up!, based on the Jonathan Coe novel, a co-production from The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield was a triumph and by some way the best digital theatre work we saw during lockdown. Coe’s novel is a satire which examines the workings of power during the 1980s through the lens of the predominantly unpleasant upper class family the Winshaws. But it is also a whodunnit as Michael) Owen, at the behest of Tabitha Winshaw is tasked with documenting the murky family past. And it is this thread that Henry Filloux-Bennett, the AD at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and director, Tamara Harvey from Theatr Clywd, wisely chose to pull on. What a Carve Up! not only switches in time but also employs multiple narrators, in first and third person, across different genre styles. And its protagonist spends a lot of time holed up in his flat shuffling papers and watching videos. A narrative collage if you will that is perfect then for splicing between “live” interviews, direct to camera Zoom addresses, film excerpts, TV and radio clips and photos. Especially as HF-B reverses the “chronology” of the story, starting with the murders, and filters out material not relevant to the central mystery. More inspired by, than faithful interpretation then, but gripping nonetheless. Especially with a cast that includes Alfred Enoch, (a new character Raymond, the son of Michael), Fiona Button and Tamzin Outhwaite as well as the voices of Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D Clarke. Is it theatre? Who cares when it is this good.
Not quite in the same league in terms of story, structure and execution, but still engrossing and technically adept was the Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon which dramatised that il fated expedition predominantly through close ups of the three astronauts as well as video footage and an imposing score from Sophie Cotton. Writer Torben Betts also explores the racial tension between Michael Salami’s Fred Haise, here cast as an African American, and Tom Chambers as the rightwing Jack Swigert. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters and film director Tristan Shepherd for their realisation.
By way of contrast Little Wars by Carl McCasland from Ginger Quiff Theatre was limited to the simple Zoom reading format though the story, an imagined dinner party involving Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parke, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner and the cast, Juliet Stevenson, Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell Sarah Solemani, Sophie Thompson and, best of all, Linda Bassett went a long way to overcoming this.
We also saw a slew of excellent filmed live productions, in order of impact: Sarah Kane’s Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, a powerful and surprisingly lyrical evocation of love, pain and pleasure, under Tinuke Craig’s potent direction, with committed performances from Alfred Enoch (hello again), Wendy Kweh, Jonathan Slinger and, especially, Erin Doherty; Who Killed My Father, a current favourite of Continental European directors, a monologue from ITA based on Edouard Louis’s impassioned testament to his own father and the treatment of the poor and marginalised in France, with the world’s greatest actor, Hans Kesting, at the top of his game; Death of England Delroy, part 2 of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s ongoing NT trilogy examining race, masculinity and other state of the nation gubbins, with Michael Balogun commanding (we missed this live thanks to a period of isolation, bah); and 15 Heroines, the inspired collection of 15 short monologues by women playwrights shaping narratives to the voices of Ovid’s women brought to us by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre.
I expected Daniel Kitson wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to used the pandemic as material and an opportunity for formal experimentation. In Dot, Dot, Dot, he toured the nation’s theatres performing to an audience of …. no-one. At least not live. I picked the stream from the Tobacco Factory to hear his alternatively poignant and hilarious dissection of the impact of lockdown on our everyday lives and human connections, the schtick being a table of Post it notes acting as prompts. Maybe not vintage Kitson but good enough for now.
There was enough in the filmed performance of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia from the Vaudeville Theatre to persuade us of its many merits but the quality of the stream was just too poor, though we were warned. In contrast the filmed performance of Richard Eyre’s brisk Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts from 2013 was exemplary both technically and dramatically, and not just because Lesley Manville played Mrs Alving.
A few other plays and concerts but nothing to write home about so on to December and that bizarre British obsession with Christmas.
A couple of live productions managed to sneak in before doors closed again. A fine revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre (****) with Alex Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, directed by Alice Hamilton. Not quite up to the Jamie Lloyd Pinter season version from 2019, or the more recent Old Vic offer, but it is too good a play to disappoint. And, at the Rose Kingston, Shit Actually (****) from fringe favourites Shit Theatre, aka Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, whose deconstructed tribute to Love Actually’s women is way funnier and more thought proving than we had any right to expect.
Unfortunately the streamed theatre the Tourist took in this month wasn’t up to much; the NT production of panto Dick Whittington felt a bit rushed and predictable, and the RSC Troy Story, which I had high hopes for, turned out to be no more than a fairly mediocre and static reading.
In contrast, with limited means at their disposal, Grange Park Opera made a powerful case for someone to create a full blow stage production of Benjamin Britten’s pacifist “TV” opera, Owen Wingrave, and VOPERA, along with the LPO, produced the definitive virtual opera in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, designed by Leanne Vandenbussche and directed by Rachael Hewer. Do try and track it down.
I would repeat that advice for Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic which is about to open on stage and for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which is currently on tour.
First week of March 2020. I see that I was still out and about but I also see that I avoided a few entertainments before the cancellations started in earnest and the first lockdown kicked in. I remember feeling a little nervous but obviously no precautions taken apart from the space my bulk and air of misanthropy usually commands.
Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds – Oldham Coliseum. 4th March 2020. ****. A visit with the SO to Manchester for theatre and family. In retrospect, like our wonderful trip to Andalusia a couple of weeks earlier, not the smartest of moves as the virus dug in, but we weren’t to know. The Tourist is very keen on the Oldham Coliseum and here the OC AD Chris Lawson, together with Natasha Harrison, alighted on James Fritz’s 2014 play, Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds, as a worthy and cautionary tale to bring to the good people of Greater Manchester. I was very taken with JF’s Parliament Square and The Fall and this didn’t disappoint (the original Hampstead Downstairs production secured a West End transfer). At its centre is teenager Jack, groomed for success, but who never actually appears. Instead the reaction of his parents, Di (Jo Mousley) and David (Lee Toomes), his feisty ex girlfriend Cara (Alyce Liburd) and his conflicted best mate Nick (Noah Olaoye), is what drives the action and debate. For Jack has posted a “revenge” sex tape on line without Cara’s knowledge and its repercussions allows JF to explore issues of class, power, privilege, consent and shaming without sacrificing the believable human concerns of the protagonists. Anna Reid’s set was a bit tricksy with a mirrored frame (allowing rather too many blackout jump cuts) surrounding the immaculate family home and Andrew Glassford’s score occasionally intruded. JF’s disclosures occasionally stretched credulity, Jack’s parents are very protective/forgiving, but his sharp dialogue, snappy pacing and characterisation is still spot on. The central performances of, especially, Jo Mousley and Lee Toomes more than did justice to the script. Hope to see more of JF’s work and very interested to know what he is working on right now.
Wuthering Heights – Royal Exchange Manchester. 4th March 2020. ***. I sensed from the off that the SO was dubious about this adaptation. But I reminded her how brilliantly Sally Cookson brought Lottie’s Jane Eyre to the stage and crossed my fingers. Unfortunately she, the SO, was right. I can see what co-MRE AD Bryony Shanahan was aiming for in her production of Em’s only opus, let’s call it “elemental”, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and lip. WH is a great book, or so the SO who is an expert in these things tells me, for it is a long time since I have read it so can’t properly vouch for the skill of Andrew Sheridan’s adaptation, but it did seem a little haphazard, promoting detail and odd linguistic effect over plot and narrative arc and little concerned with the ending. When compounded with the rock n roll, live score of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Zoe Spurr’s nerve jangling lighting design, an earthy, obstacle course, set from Cécile Trémolières, a Heathcliff from Alex Austin that tipped into full teddy-boy werewolf (yep that’s what I meant) and a Cathy from Rakhee Sharma tinged with Gen Z petulance, it was all a bit rich for my blood. And yet. I quite liked it. After all at its core this is a Gothic tale of unhinged love. jealousy (bags of that in Gurjeet Singh’s Hindley) and revenge and in tone, if not timbre, this production got it right.
Our Man in Havana – Spies Like Us – Vault Festival. 5th March 2020. ****. OK so descending into the packed, dank tunnels underneath Waterloo which host the Vault Festival didn’t seem, even at the time, to be that smart a move and I canned a couple of later visits, but in this case my recklessness was rewarded with the kind of hour’s entertainment that only “fringe/festival” theatre can provide. Spies Like Us are a seven strong physical theatre ensemble formed in 2017, based at the Pleasance Theatre in London, with four productions under their belt, an adaptation of Buchner’s tragedy Woyzeck, comedy Murder on the Dancefloor, latest work whodunit Speed Dial and this, their first production, Our Man in Havana, based on Graham Greene’s black comedy about the intelligence service. Impecunious vacuum salesman Wormold (Alex Holley) is an unlikely recruit, via Hawthorne (Hamish Lloyd Barnes), to MI6 in Batista’s Cuba who fabricates reports, and agents, to keep the bosses happy. The stakes rise when London sends him an assistant Beatrice (Phoebe Campbell), who helps him save the “agents”, and the Russians try to take him out. He exacts revenge and tries to outsmart a local general (Tullio Campanale) with designs on his daughter Milly (Rosa Collier). All is revealed but finally hushed up with Wormold getting a desk job, a gong, the girl and cash for his daughter’s education. I confess there were times when I wasn’t absolutely sure what was going on or who was who but, under Ollie Norton-Smith’s direction, Spies Like Us play it fast and very funny. No set, minimal props (the actors themselves provide where required), doubling and tripling of roles. It is all about the sardonic script, accents, movement (choreographed by Zac Nemorinand}, sound, light and, especially, timing, and this caper was honed to perfection.
Love, Love, Love – Lyric Hammersmith. 6th March 2020. ****. My regular reader will know i have a soft spot for the ambitious and fearless writing of Mike Bartlett. Love, Love, Love may not be his best work for theatre (I’d go with Earthquakes in London, Bull and King Charles III) and the issue it explores, generational conflict, may not be original, but, as always, there is heaps of acutely observed dialogue to lap up and a punchy plot to carry you along. In the first act set in 1967, free spirited Sandra (the criminally underrated Rachael Stirling) dumps dull, conservative boyfriend Henry (Patrick Knowles) for his rakish brother Kenneth (Nicholas Burns), a fellow Oxford undergrad. Fast forward to 1990 and the now married, and tanked up, couple are bickering in front of kids Rose (Isabella Laughland) and Jamie (Mike Noble). Finally in 2011 the consequences of their baby boomer generation’s selfish privilege are laid bare at Henry’s funeral, via the undiluted fury of Rose, now well into her 30s and with no assets, career or family of her own. As she says her parents “didn’t change the world, they bought it”. As usual with Mr Bartlett there are a few moments when you think, “nah he can’t get away with that”, and a few of the comic lines are jemmied in, but the way he combines the personal and the political, like a modern day Chekhov, is never less than entertaining and the satire more effective for its relative gentility. Joanna Scotcher’s sets are brim-full of period details, marking the couple’s increasing wealth, and Rachel O’Riordan’s direction was faultless. This was a smart choice by Ms O’Riordan, the play may be over a decade old but the generational stresses it explores are perhaps even more pressing, and, with A Doll’s House and the revival of Martin McDonagh’s, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (generational conflict of a different hue) completes a trilogy of hits from her since taking the helm at the Lyric. And the 2022 season she has just announced matches anything else served up in London houses as we return, hopefully, to “normality”. She will be directing the prolific Mr Bartlett’s new play, Scandaltown, which sounds like his take on a contemporary Restoration comedy, and there is also a revival of Patrick Marber’s Closer, a welcome update of Racine’s tragedy Britannicus, Roy Williams’s take on Hedda Gabler, and a new play Running With Lions. And the directorial talent on show is top drawer: Michael Buffong (Talawa Theatre), Atri Banerjee (Hobson’s Choice), Claire Lizzimore (another Bartlett specialist) and Ola Ince (Is God Is, Poet in Da Corner, Appropriate). Buy tickets for 3 of then and pay for 2. Which comes out at barely a tenner a seat. In a lovely, friendly theatre with acres of space and perfect sight-lines. Surely a bargain.
Red Peter – Grid Theatre – Vault Festival. 7th March 2000. ****. Back to the Vaults for the penultimate visit to the theatre before I chickened out and the curtains starting coming down. As it happens I was able, in fairly short order, to contrast this take on Franz Kafka’s short story, A Report to an Academy, adapted and directed by Grid Theatre’s founder, Chris Yun-Ward, and performed by Denzil Barnes, with a later version, Kafka’s Monkey, from 2009, with the human chameleon Kathryn Hunter as the eponymous ape, directed by Walter Meierjohann and written by Colin Teevan. This latter was on a screen, deadening the impact of what is a tour de force of individual physical theatre, but then again I could watch Ms Hunter open a letter. However, and putting aside the benefit of being in the, very, atmospheric room, (this was one of the Vault spaces with full on train rumbling overhead), Denzil Barnes was mesmerising. In order to escape captivity Red Peter has to learn to behave like a human telling his story via a lecture to an imagined scientific audience. Not difficult to see where Kafka’s absurdist metaphor was targeted, the cruelty of the humans in the story is contrasted with the nobility, patience and eloquence of our hero, but just to be sure there is plenty of philosophical musing on the nature of freedom, assimilation and acculturation to ram home the post-colonial point. Which means Mr Barnes had a lot to say, as well as do, at which he was very adept. But it is the doing, when being chased, when incarcerated in a cage in the hold of a ship, when being paraded like a circus freak, where he excelled. The play is sometimes unsettling, often funny, and always thought-provoking. Not difficult to see why it has been showered with fringe-y awards.
The Revenger’s Tragedy – Cheek By Jowl, Piccolo Theatre Milan – Barbican Theatre. 7th March. *****. So Thomas Middleton was a big, and prolific, noise in Jacobean drama. Equally adept in tragedy, history and city comedy. As well as masques and pageants which paid the bills. He may even have helped big Will S out in Timon of Athens and revised versions of Macbeth and Measure for Measure. The Changeling, Women Beware Women and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside all get run outs today though the Tourist hasn’t yet had the pleasure of any of these (though not for want of trying). He has however seen A Mad World My Masters in Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s 2013 version for the RSC. A devilishly clever plot, dealing with greed, avarice, hypocrisy, seduction, virtue and the like, the usual concerns of city comedies, which the creative team didn’t quite pull off (ha ha seem what I have done there) by relocating the action to 1950s Soho. In the Revenger’s Tragedy, Cheek by Jowl, together with their new Italian collaborator partners Piccolo Theatre, were altogether more successful. Vindice (Fausto Cabra) and his brother Hippolito (Raffaele Esposito) hatch a scheme to get revenge against the Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) for murdering Vindice’s fiancee. This involves disguises, deceits, bribes, conspiracy, treachery, infidelity, imprisonment, voyeurism, murder, execution, beheading, rape, suicide, assassination and, implied, necrophilia. All in the guise of a comedy. Or maybe better termed a black parody since Middleton took the guts, literally, of a revenge tragedy from a couple of decades earlier (itself derived from Seneca) and bolted on the satire and cynicism of a city comedy, all in the service of taking a sideswipe at the increasingly corrupt court of James I. If this all sounds a bit OTT remember sex and violence in the name of entertainment is still a streaming staple but Middleton, his peers, and contemporary audiences, at least used it for a purpose beyond vacuous titillation. Maybe more like a Medieval morality play then, albeit with a knowing wink, plainly acknowledged in this production, than the straight line tragedy of Shakespeare. Performing in Italian courtesy of Stefano Massini’s translation, (which means surtitles, as well as a clever introduction, can help with plot and character in the Act 1 set up and cuts through the dense text of the original), an ingenious “box” set from Nick Ormerod which opens with the word Vendetta scrawled across its width, seasoned with a kinetic energy which mirrors the action thanks to Declan Donnellan’s brilliantly detailed direction and Alessio Maria Romano’s choreography and movement across the 14 strong cast, this is how to lend contemporary resonance to C17 drama. Which CBJ incidentally has a long history of doing. The satirical target may be modern-day Italy but the hypocrisy and venality of the ruling class is sadly generic. It is a great regret of the Tourist’s theatre viewing career that he has come so late to the CBJ party but he is resolved not to miss anything from here. As theatre though this was on a par with their French Pericles from 2018.
Also in March, my last trip to the cinema to see Parasite, (no I haven’t seen the latest Bond yet, at this rate Dune will probably come first), a slightly odd programme (Mozart, Penderecki and Mendelssohn) from the English Camber Orchestra and oboeist Francois Leleux at the QEH, and my first go at lockdown theatre on a screen, Peter Brook’s take on Beckett from Bouffes de Nord. And, as it turned out, one of the best.
I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).
The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.
This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.
This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.
There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.
The Tourist has been a bit remiss in keeping up the records on art exhibitions over the last few months so in addition to the above he will offer a few thoughts on other visits.
Rembrandt‘s Light first. The DPG exhibition space is bijou. Just four rooms. Which means you have to time your visit to get a good look. Left this late in the run but not too late but was still worried it might be busy. No need to worry. Late in the day worked.
It’s Rembrandt. With a twist as the rooms imagine the kind of light that the old, (and young with plenty of early/mid work on show,) boy was trying to capture. Like some sort of modern designer/cinematographer. Hence the drafting in of one Peter Suschitzy, a cinematographer on shite like Star Wars to light the show. Daft idea no? Still doesn’t matter. It’s Rembrandt. And by cobbling together loans from the great Rembrandt collections, including the likes of the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, these 35 often still breathtaking paintings, and a fair few drawings and prints, show just what RHvR could create from one light source and often simple subjects.
So if you ignore all the stupid effects and dispense with an audio guide, (why do I need to listen to someone chirruping on when I should be looking and seeing, information can come later, or before), you’ll be reet. No need to filter these marvels through contemporary reception. If a punter wants to turn art into a flat, lifeless, colourless thumbprint on a phone let ’em I say. Though why they feel the need is a mystery to me. But if you want the hair-raising thrill of imaging just how RHvR fight multiple ways to shine a light on darkness, metaphorically as well as figuratively, then stand and stare.
The portraits at the end, (though I was floored by the Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet from a private collection – lucky bastard), some of which will be very familiar to Londoners, and the earlier works (and School of) are a little less diverting. However the core of the exhibition, either side of the fake candlelight octagon, (and excluding the mess the concept made of Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb from the Queen’s collection), play a blinder, largely with more intimate works than the blockbusters left at home in Amsterdam. The Flight into Egypt (see above), The Denial of St Peter, The Presentation in the Temple, the studio room etchings and drawings, many just student exercises, Philomen and Baucis, The Entombment, present drama where the biblical sources barely matter. Who’s that there lurking in the darkness? What’s going on in their minds? What happens next?
But mostly you wonder how this complicated man could churn out this sublime stuff for money and why pretty much no-one frankly has been able to match him since.
What else then? In reverse order.
The Bridget Riley retrospective (****) at the over-lit Hayward gallery was proof that less is more when it comes to the impact of the work of the eye-boggling Op Art pioneer. I much preferred the early, monochrome dotty and “folding” checkerboard works, recently revisited with the latest, (she is still had at work aged 88), limited colour palette but was also quite partial to the candy stripes and parallelograms. The Goldsmiths student drawings and life studies, and the later, private, portraits, were new to me but the plans and sketches felt like padding. I might have preferred a little more information on the how and why of her work; the response to nature and her lifelong fascination with how we perceive and see, though the debt to Georges Seurat was acknowledged. And maybe a little bit of science: after all experimental neuroscience and psychology now offer explanations for her magic which weren’t really there in the 1960s when she found her practice. Having said that the way she messes with eyes and brain, rightly, continues to delight pretty much any and every punter who encounters her work. Perhaps explaining her popularity; this was her third retrospective in this very space.
Lucien Freud‘s Self-Portraits (****) at the Royal Academy highlighted both the honesty and the cruelty the great painter brought to his depictions of the human form. The early work reveals the egoist presenting a front to the world – plainly this was a geezer who loved himself. The game-changing addition of Cremnitz white to his palette to create the full fat flesh in which he revealed. The room of often disturbing portraits of friends and family where he lurks in the background, often in reflection. Through to the final, famous, aged nude self portrait where finally he turns his unflinching eye truly back on himself. Seems to me he channeled a fair bit of Grandad Sigmund’s nonsensical methods and conclusions into his work. There is confrontation in every painting: artist and subject, subject and observer and, thereby, artist and observer, this latter being the relationship that most intrigues. It seems he wants to exert control over us but ultimately he cannot, in the same way that however hard he looks, (his sittings were notoriously punishing), he cannot truly capture what he sees.
I like to think that Anselm Kiefer would be the life and soul of the party, a witty raconteur, putting everyone at ease. If you are familiar with his work you might see this as optimistic. AK is the artistic conscience of Germany, now 74, but still constantly returning to its past and particularly the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. The monumental scale of his works, the materials, straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, the objects, names, signatures, myths and symbols, the themes of decay and destruction, the absence of humanity, all point to his provocation and engagement with his birth country’s history. And, in this latest exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot (****), apparently the devastation that we have wrought on the earth itself. The blasted landscapes are thick with paints, emulsions, acrylics, oils and, of course, shellac, then overlaid with wire, twigs and branches, as well as metal runes, axes and, another AK constant, burnt books. The vitrines which make up superstrings are full to bursting with coiled tubes overlaid with equations in AK’s trademark script. As scary, as sinister and as insistent as all his previous work.
Kathe Kollwitz was an artist who confronted war, as well as poverty and the role of women, not as abstract history but as immediate reality. The small, but perfectly formed, Portrait of an Artist (*****) exhibition at the British Museum (after a UK tour), showcased 48 of her most important prints, woodcuts and lithographs, drawn primarily from the BM archives and elsewhere. Self portraits, premonitions of war, maternal grief, working class protest, all subjects stir powerful emotion but also mastery of line and form.
Elsewhere, Bomberg and the Old Masters at the National Gallery had minimal new to me works on show by IMHO the best British artist of the C20, Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece at the NG was a joke, I have no idea why anyone would like William Blake‘s (Tate Britain) childish illustrations and Nam June Paik‘s (Tate Modern) admittedly prescient artistic investigation into technology from the 1960s onwards left me nonplussed. The Clash collection of memorabilia at the London Museum was, like so many of these music surveys, just pointless nostalgia.
We (BD and I) didn’t really devote enough time to Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life (****) at Tate Modern, it was pretty busy, but message and invention overwhelm, even if it all feels just a bit too Instagram slick. I dragged the family around Kew Gardens one evening in September last year to see Dale Chihully‘s (****) beautiful organic glass sculpture. I was mightily impressed, SO, BD and LD less so. Bloody annoying traipse around the west end of the park when all the action was concentrated around the Palm House.
Which just leaves the massive Antony Gormley (*****) retrospective at the Royal Academy. I know, I know. There is nothing subtle about AG’s work or “brand” but it is undeniably effective, even if its meanings are often frustratingly unspecific. Coming at the end of an already dark November day, to peer at the utterly flat, and silent, expanse of briney water which filled one room, called Host, was worth the entrance fee alone. It triggers something in collective memory and experience though fuck knows what he is trying to say with it. Same with Iron Baby nestling in the courtyard. Thrusted iron shell men modelled on AG himself, famous from multiple public art installations globally, coming at you from all angles, defying gravity. AG’s body reduced to arrangements of cubes. The imprint in toast. A bunch of rubbish drawings and body imprints. A complex coil of aluminium tube, 8km in total filling one room and a mega-skein of horizontal and vertical steel poles, enclosing, of course, a figure in an empty cube, in another. A metal tunnel that the Tourist was never going to enter in a month of Sundays. Sculpture as engineering to signal an eternal, and inoffensive, spirituality. AG as Everyman. Easy enough to pick holes in but just, er, WOW.
I like Measure for Measure. I find the weird cocktail of morality play and satirical “comedy” fascinating. No one comes out of it well, not even the ostensibly virtuous Isabella who goes into bat to save brother Claudio from death, but is prepared to sign off on a pretty dodgy deal to further this aim. The stench of corruption infects even the pure. This makes it a very “modern” play I guess, which is why it is getting multiple airings, with much to say, in the right hands, about the complexities of power and desire. Not quite at the top of Will’s oeuvre but certainly in the top ten. Which, for your edification, I set out below.
Much Ado About Nothing
Henry VI, Part I, II, III
Measure for Measure
What no Lear? Or Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? Or Tempest? Or Twelfth Night? And Coriolanus included? And, are you mad mate, also Pericles? Well yes I like the latter’s daft fantasy travelogue, even those bits which stem from the unsubtle hand of George Wilkins, and Coriolanus strikes me as the very model of classical tragic hero, not prone to bouts of soul sharing pace Lear, Macbeth or your boy Hamlet. And the list shows pretty clearly that I like history plays. Power, politics, virtue, honour, social as well as individual psychology, the ruler and the ruled, corruption, narcissism, jealousy. These are the things that interest me. The dark side of human nature that Will explored forensically and which make many of these plays relevant to our, or any other, time. Don’t worry though. I am not a weirdo. Much Ado About Nothing is in there.
Of course much depends on the productions I have seen and I think I have been blessed in recent years in the history and “Roman” play departments in particular. Maybe one day I will see a Macbeth or Lear that truly persuades. That’s the thing with Shakespeare. Ultimately malleable, such that creatives and cast can usually find something, language, message, narrative, character, spectacle, in which to delight and illuminate.
As here. Gregory Doran is probably the most reliable Shakespearean director of our time, useful when you are the big cheese at the RSC. Maybe not the most spectacular of interpreters but always clear in purpose and execution. No gimmickry with this, which I think is his first stab at MFM, unless you count setting the play in fin de siecle Vienna, a point in the city’s history when virtue and corruption, intellect and expedience, reached there apogee, and, arguably laid the ground for what followed, good and bad, very bad, in much of the Western world through the first half of the C20. It is almost as if big Will, with his fictional late C16 fictional Vienna could see what the real city would become three centuries later. (I gather this connection has been made in previous productions).
Otherwise GD, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis using the set structure common to the season’s productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, with added monochrome projections as well as 1900s period costume, don’t muck about with text or cast. Paul Englishby’s score echoes with waltz. Escalus, in the hands of Claire Price, is re-gendered, as is the Provost (very effectively by Amanda Harris), but then again Mistress Overdone is, campily, handed to Graeme Brookes. But there is no wholesale gender politics reinterpretation here. And the text is, I think, complete so that said Overdone, Pompey (David Ajao versed with Afro-Caribbean sonority), Elbow (Michael Patrick) and the major, (Joseph Arkley especially as supercilious Lucio), and minor fops and fop-esses, all get their due, though the wordplay comedy requires our close attention.
RSC veteran Antony Byrne unsurprisingly nails the Duke/Friar, a man convinced of his own righteousness as he is blind to the flaws in his exercise of power, James Cooney is a quietly desperate Claudio and Lucy Phelps excels as the virtuous novice, at least until the scheme to uncover Angelo’s hypocrisy is set in motion, Isabella. But the whole is held in place by a marvellous performance by Sandy Grierson as said self-scourging Angelo, who really gets to the heart of said Angelo’s conflicted nature. Or is he, as here, not really quite as conflicted as he makes out, revelling in the opportunity to root out Vienna’s impurity whilst lusting after the eloquent nun. The ghost of an approving Freud was probably sitting in the gods.
Mr Grierson stood out in Jude Christian patchy OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric, Pity at the Royal Court and in As You Like It (of which more to come) in this RSC season but, unfortunately, I have missed him in the other RSC roles he has played in recent years, and on various stages in his native Scotland. I suggest you ensure you see him next time he treads any accessible boards.
The trick in MFM, assuming no re-interpretation, is having the two main characters in Isabella and Angelo both repelled by sex, but also, somehow, fascinated by the idea of desire, which drives the pivotal argument scenes between them. They are both, literally in joint prayer, holier than thou, at least until Angelo cracks. GD’s clear headed direction, and Lucy Phelps’s and Sandy Grierson’s delivery of the text, expertly unfolds the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. And there is no hiding from the fact that Angelo, and, through his casual “proposal” at the end, the Duke, even maybe against his preference, are choosing to be rapists.
Lots of detail, well thought through, ambiguity and double binds not brushed away. This is not a problem play. The problem, as ever, is us humans. If you want a contemporary feel-gooder with a happy ending go see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
No question Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is talented. Her Summer and Smoke, the dreamy Three Sisters here last year and now this. And for those, like the Tourist, who get a little antsy about her intemperate use of de jour theatrical tropes, then, I gather, she played it entirely naturalistically for Chris Bush’s Steel in the Crucible Studio recently .(LD, despite now having gone all Sheff native still hasn’t been – you try your best, eh, and what thanks do you get).
The glass box set courtesy of Chloe Lamford, a regular in Continental European art theatres, as well as display cabinets stage left and right, memento mori, housing anachronistic props. And yes this being a tragedy the walls get smeared with blood, though this is black not red, so pervasive is the corruption. Simple, well tailored, monochrome modern dress, with a woeful disregard for footwear, from Nicky Gillibrand. Stark lighting designed by Jack Knowles. Pulsing soundscape from George Dennis. Title projection to bookmark each act of John Webster’s tragedy. Microphones. Slow motion when it gets hyper-dramatic. Which it does. At the end. Soundtracked with the passus duriusculus ground bass of Dido’s Lament,
All present and correct. Yet all serves as an ideal foil to the excellent central performances, most notably of Lydia Wilson as The Duchess and Leo Bill as the conflicted betrayer Bosola. The Duchess of Malfi can be, and is now usually, as here, read, as a proto-feminist tract, as our heroine, despite her wealth is destroyed by her brothers, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus) who object to her marriage to, and children with, “lowly” steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla). In outline the plot reads like textbook macabre revenge tragedy: in practice there is plenty of room for ambiguity and exploration within Webster’s poetry. John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, written a decade or so later, is a similarly impartial, elaborate dive into human nature, when done well, as it was in Cheek By Jowl’s adaptation which first introduced the Tourist to the talent of Ms Wilson who played the incestuous Arabella. Obviously she is a big deal on the telly and it is easy to see why.
We (the SO got the gig) were lucky enough to be close enough to see her full range of expression, verbal and non-verbal, in a role full of “say one thing, mean another” moments. Antonio doesn’t stand a chance in the seduction scene, her quest for normality despite her position, as reasonable as it is unattainable, and the showdowns with the brothers are electric. Leo Bill’s duality is revealed more explicitly through monologue as he wrestles with his conscience after taking the cash to spy on the Duchess and her secret hubby. Jack Riddiford also pulls off the difficult act of being full on nutter, with a barely concealed sister love, that we still feel sorry for. Like a Roman Roy gone very bad, without the wisecracks. Especially when, contrary to Webster’s text, his dead sister comes back to haunt in the final act.
It is tricky for the rest of the cast to match these three characters and performances, though Khalid Abdalla’s diffident Antonio, Michael Marcus’s bullying Cardinal, Ioanna Kimbook’s confidant and maid Cariola and Shalini Peiris’s vulgar Julia, (both brutally murdered and both spectrally joining the Duchess), all support the increasingly tense psycho-drama. The staging and direction maybe suffers through lack of context, religion and its hypocrisy are key drivers in Webster’s play, and there are times when a bit more pace might have been injected, but overall this is another hit for both Almeida and Ms Frecknall. Proving that, with a bit of nip, tuck, and redirection, a Jacobean gore-fest can have as much to say about patriarchal control of female sexuality as the latest monologue at the Vaults. It is the Duchess’s daughter, not son, who here inherits. Though what legacy we ask.
The Almeida remains London’s most accomplished theatre and I have high hopes for Beth Steel’s new play The House of Shades. It spans five years over the last six decades so maybe this time we might be treated to a dose of naturalism. We’ll see.
What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.
Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.
In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.
Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.
The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.