The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The Cardinal

Southwark Playhouse, 16th May 2017

Scary picture huh. Southwark Playhouse is a constant whirr of activity serving up all manner of delights across the theatrical spectrum. I just never know what to expect. I am not so shallow as to buy a ticket on spec based on a bit of blurb and a striking image – actually maybe I am.

So I went into this not really knowing what to expect and came out not entirely sure what I had seen. On the face of it this a classic tale of revenge from 1641 (just before Cromwell’s miserablists closed down the theatres) by a chap named James Shirley – a playwright known more in academic than performing circles. Set in C16 (I’m guessing) Navarre at war with Aragon, our widow and heroine is forced into a proposed marriage with blunt, soldier type who happens to be nephew of scheming cardinal who has the ear of the king. But she wants dashing, handsome type and, by virtue of a curious plot device in the form of a misinterpreted letter is able to get dodgy suitor to set her free so she can marry the pretty bloke. The blunt one/nephew doesn’t take too kindly to this. Cue vengeance and the inevitable corpse pile-up.

So frankly it is not the plot that makes this at all interesting. What is fascinating though is the way our man Shirley seems to be taking the p*ss a little out of the revenge tragedy, Duchess of Malfi anyone, and the quite strikingly direct, acerbic text. It is not at all florid. And furthermore our heroine really does possess agency. Obviously she dies, as they all do, but there is a really interesting exploration of her journey here. Moreover the hypocrisy at the heart of our Cardinal’s religion is given a right slagging.

This apparently reflects the changing status of women pre and post Restoration (and no doubt England’s view of the dodgy Catholic foreigner). Now don’t run away with the idea that there is an undiscovered feminist or humanist text here. It’s just that it was interesting for me to see the preamble to the gore-fest portrayed in this way.

The problem though was that having set this up in the first act, and early into the second act, it then seemed to revert to the very type it had sort of subverted, with our now utterly calculating heroine/widow roping in life partner candidate number 4 to dispatch the eponymous cardinal. As for the Cardinal himself, whilst Stephen Boxer does his level best to play the part in the style of an arch John Hurt (I am sure I am not the first to remark on this), there are times when he sounded a bit more Kenneth Williams’s Thomas Cromwell in Carry on Henry.

The other cast members all performed admirably with what they had but the stand out for me was Nathalie Simpson as the lead Duchess Rosaura. She had stood out as Guideria in Molly Still’s gender mash-up RSC Cymbeline last year and was very convincing here. I also note the contribution of Marcus Griffiths as Alvarez here, though he was better as Cloten in the self-same Cymbeline.

So all in all worth seeing. With some very appealing lines and ideas. And a very fine (and slightly alarming) sword fight. It’s just that the plot sort of collapsed inwards, and this left a bit too much for cast and director to do to persuade me this is a vital link between revenge tragedy and Restoration comedy in the history of British theatre and a scandalously neglected gem. I wonder if some genius director out there might find something else of value in Mr Shirley’s oeuvre given his turn of phrase (though I gather this is considered his best work not least by the man himself).

Still great picture. And Southwark Playhouse still wins the prize for diversity of offer hands down. Which is a really good thing if you want people who don’t look like me to come. Which itself is a really good thing. Though in this particular case this probably is only going to appeal to people just like me.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

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Othello

Wilton’s Music Hall, 17th May 2017

I think Othello is my favourite Shakespeare tragedy. And it follows, therefore, that it is my favourite Shakespeare play since the tragedies generally kick the most arse. And it therefore also follows that it is probably my favourite ever play since no-one bests big Will. Mind you I have so much more to explore so lets not be hasty. But to date this is the Daddy.

This means I might not be the most objective judge. Which for this production really helped. I fear that a combination of my hearing which is no longer up to snuff, my seating position up in the gallery, the acoustic at Wilton’s and, perhaps, the sound engineering here meant that I couldn’t clearly hear a lot of the lines. Which is a shame as pretty much everything else about this Othello was mightily impressive as it cut straight to the core of what this play is about.

So what made it so good despite my blinking ears?

Well, first off, the programme is at pains to explores Othello’s “otherness” as a “Moor” in terms of his colour, but also more so his faith, as probably a Muslim who is forced to, or chooses to, embrace Christianity. The production serves to handsomely illuminate this (it starts with Othello on a prayer mat and crucifixes are liberally bandied about), such that it is not just the vitriolic racism that is on show but also the suspicion accorded Othello by the Venetians because of his roots in Islam. This despite his victories over the “Turks”. This may be C16 Venice (and Wilton’s itself does a nice line in atmospheric material decay), but clearly there is plenty of food for thought in this production for our own times.

It also rightly centres on Iago. There are multiple ways to explore why Iago is driven to do what he does but I think this production gets as close as possible to the heart of what drives him.

Of course Iago is disfigured by the racism and misogyny of the society that he lives in. And, as he says, being passed over for preferment in favour of Cassio portends a powerful grudge. His hatred of Othello is certainly borne of envy yes – of his masculinity, his power, his sexual relationship with Desdemona (in contrast to what may be his stagnating marriage to Emilia, look out for the “non-kiss”) – but at its heart is the dissonance between his admiration (and even attraction) to Othello and his incomprehension that this “other” should have everything he can’t have. He loathes himself and cannot, and will not, stop until he has brought this man down. His jealously is so all encompassing that he can justify his actions to himself and, for me, the final vow of silence is a sign that he still believes he was “right” to do what he did in his own mind.

So the “why the f*ck should he get everything when I am better than him” is the bigger lesson here. And this is what Will S nailed as it seems as if it is a permanent feature element of the human condition. It is this deep psychological impulse that lies at the heart of the alienation that pervades neo-liberal capitalism and is what some will always seek to exploit. So the play is relevant in my mind, not just because of the way it explores the “fear of the other”,  but also because it shows the hate people can be driven to by perceived “unfairness”.

Blimey I think I may have got all carried away there. Sorry.

Anyway none of this would work if the players are not up to the task. And here Mark Lockyer as Iago was about as good as it is possible to be. His Iago properly hates himself. Not just in his words but in his movement – pacing, pointing, finger-clicking, advancing and retreating – all in some sort of Prosperian performance to justify his thoughts and actions to himself, as well as hide his intentions from others. Brilliant and horribly plausible.

In contrast I saw a “man-child” Othello who was maybe more open to manipulation than in other productions which perhaps better explains, whilst still condemning, his brutally misogynistic destiny. It is stating the obvious that debutant Abraham Popoola has an extraordinary physical presence, but the way he used this in the scenes with Desdemona, both tender and violent, and especially with Iago, where Iago is winding his jealously up to the max, was remarkable. As Othello oscillates between his disgust at the imagined betrayal by Desdemona and his trust in her true nature, so Iago oscillates between a visible fear that he has pushed Othello too far (he actually physically shrinks when this Othello gets right in his face) and an almost smug satisfaction in what he can do to his “friend” and, always remember, his military superior.

There is also another very fine performance in the form of the diminutive Norma Lopez Holden as a sensual Desdemona. Constantly in motion, tactile and perfect in conveying, even to the end, the sense of disbelief at what has come over her husband. Throughout the sexual attraction between her and Othello pervaded the theatre. This actor will surely go far. To round it off we had a fine, upright Cassio in Piers Hampton and an Emilia in Kate Stephens who is, ultimately, the best side of our nature. In fact the whole ensemble seemed to me to perfectly execute director Richard Twyman’s laser-guided vision.

BTW Mt Twyman s a very important man. As Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre he will have a hand in bringing the best of theatre to venues outside of the London commercial and subsidised venues. A vital role. From what I have seen of their past production and what he has achieved here it is therefore an immense blessing that he is very, very good at his job.

In this directing role, and along with his sound and, especially, lighting team, he has brought a prodigious energy to this Othello and some absolutely first rate scenes with an absolute minimum of props and costume, particularly through Acts 2 to 5. The soldier’s partying and drinking, the big fight scene, the Iago wind up of Othello, the murder of Cassio in the dark, Emilia and Desdemona’s drunken but unswerving dissection of the relationship between the sexes, Desdemona’s murder (a yoga mat replaces the usually crassly symbolic bed and calls back the beginning) – all these scenes were as good as I have seen. And that wretched hanky gets an early look in – as part of the apparently non-Christian wedding ceremony at the start – how brilliant is that.

But if I was to single out one contributor it would be movement director Renaud Wiser. Like I said some of the lines, particularly Othello’s, floundered on the rocks of my dodgy hearing. This, together with the harsh downlighting and fluorescent tubes at the corner of the tight, bare, in-the-round stage, maybe meant I focussed on movement in a way that I might not normally do but here I could see just how vital this ingredient was to the whole.

So, as you may have gathered, I liked this. And this despite the aural handicap without which I might even be prepared to rate it alongside Nicholas Hytner’s NT production in 2013 which, to this day, still leaves me nervous of befriending anyone who comes across like Rory Kinner’s matey Iago.

So please go along. There’s another three weeks or so and it looks like plenty of tickets. Probably best to go downstairs, maybe have a quick snifter beforehand and it will help if you like the play already. But if you do go you will be reminded of just how vital Shakespeare can be. I am pretty sure Mark Lockyer’s Iago will rank as one of the best performances of the year. And all this for 25 quid tops.

This is the first time that I have seen a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. If this is what they do then it won’t be the last. Hopefully Wilton’s Music Hall will snap up anything they tour to allow the good burghers of London a chance to enjoy. Otherwise I now have the perfect excuse to go to Bristol. Here is the link to the website. Read it. This is how theatre should be done.

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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Obsession

Barbican Theatre, 13th May 2017

In retrospect there were warning signs.

This was an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut film, Obssessione, itself based on a book by James M. Cain, the Postman Always Rings Twice, which in turn was later made into an American film in 1946 (Lana Turner, John Garfield) and 1981 (Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange with a David Mamet screenplay). There have apparently been 4 other film adataptions, another play and even an opera based on the book. I had seen both US films and Obssessione but I confess my memory of plot and character was more skewed to both of the US films and not Visconti’s “neo-realist’ masterpiece.

So, on this basis, and given the provenance of director and cast here, I got quite excited, so I strong-armed, in so far as that is possible with people of such admirably independent will, the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into coming with me to this performance. In doing so I broke my own golden rule – if a play is an adaptation of a novel or a film, or both, be careful to evaluate the source material before signing up. There have been plenty of recent marvellous adaptations for theatre but, if a play is not written expressly for the theatre then, in my view, the audience is at potentially greater risk of disappointment if the vision of the creative team falls short. A book has description (objective and subjective) and the reader’s imaginations to fill the gaps and film has the ever moving eye of the camera to direct the viewer. A play though needs the text, the things the characters say, to do the heavy lifting. When it works for me at least theatre trumps (see even this word still has some utility) any other artistic form and especially film.

Our director here, the mercurial Ivo van Hove, has a recognisable aesthetic and has used Visconti films as his inspiration before. The story here, on the one hand, is simple, but effective and timeless. A drifter finds himself at a restaurant, falls passionately in love with the trapped wife of her older husband who owns it, and they jointly resolve to do him in. The damaging consequences of this act are then cleverly explored. But Visconti was creating his film against the backdrop of censorship in Fascist Italy and looked to explore issues of agency, power, class, gender and sex in relationship to this backdrop. He also introduced another character, (here named Johnny), to contrast domesticity and control with freedom, both individual and political. There are a lot of lingering long and medium shots of rural Italian landscapes and interiors. The characters don’t say too much. There are dramatic devices (cats, the sound of the sea, guns, car crashes and so on) to heighten the whole confection.

So easy enough to see why Mr van Hove wanted to bring this into the theatre. The problems once again lie in the how he and his key collaborators, designer Jan Versweveld and scriptwriter Simon Stephens, choose to do this, and also, it pains me to say, who they cast to do it. This team is not one for fussy sets. Whilst not as minimalist as their A View from the Bridge or Crucible, there was not much to see, just the bare necessities to symbolise kitchen, bathroom/tap, car and jukebox, with some video close-ups, some video waves, Italian opera, Springsteen, Waits and Iggy on the soundtrack and a few props. Again this is not, of itself, a problem but when combined with a very sparse text, the deliberate eliding of time-frames and the giant Barbican stage, left the production feeling too one-paced and distant for me. In the Visconti film the camera is conveying information even when the characters are not; here we were not afforded that visual insight.

Now as I say I should have been cognisant of the risk. Mr van Hove does ask a lot of his audiences. By stripping back what you see to the bare essentials you are forced to focus on what the characters are saying and doing. When the text comes from the pen of Arthur Miller or Henrik Ibsen (with a bit of polishing up by another playwright in Patrick Marber for the NT Hedda Gabler) then the source material is so rich this can work splendidly. Or, when you have the riches of Shakespeare to play with, you can make it work even after taking a hefty scalpel to the source and translating it. Or indeed when Simon Stephens writes an original play, Songs From far Away for Mr van Hove to get his mitts on.

But if you have less to play with as here, and you are wedded to the notion of bringing this very cinematic film to theatrical life, then it can fall short. What I think we saw, and not just us judging by the reviews, was not, I think, what the creative team saw, in part because they were so immersed in what they were trying to create. And at times I fear it did come disturbingly close to self parody (witness the treadmill and profligate bin emptying).

Which brings me to the third issue. I can’t put my finger on it but when I have seen the Dutch members of the cast in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare extravanganzas Kings of War or the Roman Tragedies, they were awesome, as in their performances inspired awe. Here, Gijs Scolten van Aschat and Halina Reijn just seemed more muted. And I had expected so much more of Jude Law playing Gino. He just didn’t look comfortable as a man of passion or of self doubt. It was nowhere near as disappointing as Juliette Binoche in Mr van Hove’s Antigone here in 2015. She was just out of her depth. Mind you that Antigone production also shows that if the words aren’t right (poet Anne Carson’s translation was all over the place) then the minimalist aesthetic cannot deliver.

So all in all a notable let-down. However, despite the elongation of tone and dearth of pace it wasn’t actually dull and there was stuff to chew on. It’s just that I had no opportunity for emotional engagement.

Yet I will not give up on Mr van Hove and his TA team. When it works it cannot be bettered. I just have to be more careful to think about the source. Next year, as an example, they are letting Robert Icke, our own British wunderkind director (Hamlet, Oresteia, 1984), loose on Oedipus. Yes that’s right Sophocles’s tale of f*cking it up big time with Hans Kesting in the lead. Blimey. That cannot possibly fail right?

P.S. I must also work out what this dramaturgy thing is all about as it is now dawning on me that it matters.

 

My top 10 greatest ever albums

Right. My cursory examination of the world wide web suggests that there are probably more top 10 album lists than there are certain kinds of sub-atomic particles. It seems that any bloke of a certain age, with too much time and access to Amazon and/or I Tunes, will have attempted to impose/show off his taste in music. and it’s obviously always 10 until he gets greedy, with 25 seemingly the next most popular integer.

Still undeterred by the utter pointlessness of the exercise, and keen to really show off my taste and knowledge, I am determined to add to the digital trash-heap.

Now regular readers will be aware that I am a) getting on a bit and b) fancy myself as a bit cultured. This will therefore colour what follows and the keen-eyed will notice there is a quite constrained chronology in my choices. This is because, in my view, the music that stays with you is the music that hits you in your most formative years when you have most time and when your are most selfish which surely is late teens/early adulthood.

Now I am talking about proper pop/rock/indie music not the chart shite that is an unfortunate by/waste product which has been there since the 1950s. I am also, in this blog, focussed solely on my pop/rock/indie identity. The classical side of my nature has been there from a fairly early age but has expanded apace in recent years. I am now pretty clear on the boundaries here and therefore continue to go deeper not broader into the classical world. And the only live music I listen to is classical. There are very infrequent gigs but it is all a bit loud for me now I fear.

Anyway back to today’s sermon. So the period of deepest engagement for me coincided with the rise of post-punk which happily for me produced most of the greatest pop/rock/indie music ever made and the best bands, a few of which soldier on to this day. I am not accepting any argument here – it is a simple fact. When it comes to musical taste I simply will not permit any collapse into some sort of hopeless, wishy-washy relativism. From this starting point I will no doubt bore you in future with stuff prior to these fertile period (it is called the 1960s and 1970s kids). But, having set my entrenched boundaries, it does mean that from the late 1980s through to the last few years I don’t really know what I am talking about, and have wandered around aimlessly trying to find exciting new stuff. And to be fair there have been some successes. Still I am grateful for any tips.

Right I have rambled on enough ahead of something no-one will ever read anyway. So with thanks to John Peel, the NME in its heyday and assorted independent record labels, here goes.

1. Echo and the Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here – 1981

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So Echo and the Bunnymen are the greatest ever band. Period. There are other contenders; Joy Division but there just isn’t enough material to draw on, the Fall, obviously, but there might just be too much (and it is impossible to draw out one album for this list), Wire, but maybe a bit too clever by half, the Wedding Present, but even I accept if you’ve heard one of theirs you’ve heard them all. and other contenders from other periods which will be revealed in time. But the reality is the Bunnies were, and remain, my first love, and the first 4 albums, Crocodiles, Porcupine, Ocean Rain and this, their masterpiece, are just what I know best.

I will keep buying anything the Bunnies create as there are still nuggets to be found and I will still try to see them on very rare occasions where I can tolerate the noise. But I know they will never again create the uplifting maelstrom of the heyday as Les’s loopy basslines and Pete’s (RIP) magnificently creative drumming propped up Will’s shards of guitar genius and Mac’s preposterous but utterly convincing lyrics (last night he played in a local theatre in Henley on Thames – mind-boggling).

It is therefore fortunate that I can listen to this – not every day but nary a week passes without a happy reminder. Thanks lads.

2. Joy Division – Closer – 1980

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So, if the Bunnies are ultimately a swaggering, anthemic post-punk rock band (Mac has observed that if they hadn’t been so lazy they could have beaten U2 to the prize), then Joy Division are the mournful antithesis. The father of innumerable progeny this really is music for late teenage boys to listen to in the bedroom whilst wallowing in a sea of self-pity.

The thing is though that this album goes far beyond that into some really dark places. This largely reflects Ian Curtis’s lyrics (I won’t bang on about this standing as the ultimate self epitaph – it’s nonsense) but also Martin Hamnett’s extraordinary production. The fact is that I don’t think any of the contributors to this album had any idea what they had created. No surprise really that when Curtis exited stage left the rest of the band sought sanctuary in dance rhythms.

Anyway I assume any self respecting fan of popular music of the last half-century or so owns this even if they may not always be in the mood required to listen to it. If not get on with it.

3. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – 1985

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Right I know she is a genius. You know she is a genius. And this is still as amazing as it was on the day of release. There is not a musical idea, phrase, a note, a word, a sound that isn’t perfect. I get that Katie elsewhere very occasionally lets the side down with a misplaced idea but not here. This is Art.

“I’d make a deal with God”. Indeed. That can be the only explanation. Except there is no God. But you know what I mean.

I was too ill to stay for all of Before the Dawn so missed the Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey. No matter. Six songs. It was enough to last a lifetime. What a sentimental old duffer I’ve become.

4. Gang of Four – Entertainment! – 1979

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The discerning reader of this blog might have guessed this was coming. Funky, arty, post-punk replete with Marxist analysis. It’s like a focus group was tasked with delivering up the perfect soundtrack for the late teens Tourist. So tap the feet, engage the brain and turn it up nice and loud.

“He fills his head with culture …..”

5. Neil Young – Harvest – 1972

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Evidence that I am not completely tied to the music of my youth.

Now most of the individual creative giants of popular music (Bowie D, Morrison V, Bush K, Mayfield C, Franklin A, Prince TAFKA, Marley B, Harvey PJ, Wyatt R) have let themselves down on occasion, none so persistently or so wilfully as the irascible Mr Young. Yet on those albums where it all came together no-one gets closer to the emotional heart of the matter.

I get why you kids today might regard this as an embarrassment. Then again you listen to Ed Sheeran. No more witnesses your honour, I rest my case.

6. Human League – Dare – 1981

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I am so glad the synthesiser has made a comeback. It has restored my faith in contemporary pop music. But none will ever come close to the pristine perfection on offer here. I daresay there will never be an 80s party without Don’t You Want Me Baby on the playlist but for once familiarity breeds joy not contempt.

Normally when a band sells out (mind you I was happy with the prior incarnation of the Human League) it spells disaster; in this case Phil Oakley’s lust for lucre was the impetus for this classic.

These are the things that dreams are made of.

7. Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching for the Young Soul Rebels – 1980

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OK so there are times when Kevin Rowland gives the impression of being one Scotch egg short of the full hamper but his musical vision, at least what there is of it, is inspired. The first three Dexys albums represent the apogee of Celtic Soul which, on and off and in a different way, has proved fertile territory for another musical genius in Van Morrison.

There are those who believe Dexys were/are a novelty outfit. They are idiots and can be safely ignored. Please own and cherish this.

8. Talking Heads – Fear of Music – 1979

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Back to 1979 and perhaps the finest example of the period when punk/new wave met the funk of the 1970s against the backdrop of the New York art scene and with lyrics of real intelligence. Fortunately there are bands today experimenting with rhythmic structure but TH remain the masters to my ears.

“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around … ” though it sometimes sounds like it.

9. Wire – 154 – 1979

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You would think I would tire of this art punk thing. You’d be wrong. Most of my favourite bands are still making new music but Wire are probably the most vital. It is clear to me that my musical brain thrives on repetition. Wire understand this.

So stop reading about them being name-checked as a “seminal influence” on all sorts of white boys who have picked up guitars and go and actually  listen. In this case Granddad knows best.

10. Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth – 1980

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There isn’t much of this. Alison Statton’s ethereal voice over the bass and clipped guitar of the Moxham brothers and a bit of drum machine and occasional electronic organ chords. It couldn’t be simpler. But it will get to you. I promise.

This is all they ever did. It’s all they ever needed to do.

11. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II – 1969

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Hold up Tourist. You said Top 10.

Well I did but guess what. I’ve turned it up to 11. And what better what to do that than Zeppelin. Obviously the greatest heavy rock band of all time. And this for me was their finest hour.

Anyway if you are a serious student of popular music you already know this.

Knebworth 1979. Still one of my greatest memories.

 

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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Babette’s Feast

Print Room at the Coronet, 10th May, 2017

Ahh Babette’s Feast. A gently understated but uplifting Oscar winning film directed by Gabriel Axel (it beat Au Revoir Les Enfants to the 1987 foreign film prize !!) that ranks pretty high up on my list of all time faves. Of course being the literary simpleton that I am, I know nothing of the Karen Blixen (pen name Isaak Dinesen) book on which the film was based nor of Ms Blixen herself. Other than, you guessed it, the film version of her memoir Out of Africa. So just as well then that I have the insight of the SO who is on top of (not literally) Ms Blixen’s work though, to my surprise, confessed to not having read Babette’s Feast. She does do a mightily convincing impression of Meryl Streep playing Blixen/Dinesen though.

So we went into this adaptation with high hopes but I confess lowish expectations just in case. The recent adaptations of films/books for the stage that I have seen have been mixed, Red Barn, City of Glass and, it sounds like, Obsession, on the debit side of the ledger, offset by the successes of My Brilliant Friend, The Kid Stays in the Picture and The Plague. Anyway I have to report that I think this Babette’s Feast is a resounding success.

There is a deal of poetry in the source material so getting a poet by trade, Glyn Maxwell, to write the play was inspired. There are a few minutes at the beginning when Babette, played by the striking Sheila Atim (who, along with Leah Harvey and Jade Anouka, blew my socks off in the Donmar Shakespeare trilogy alongside the splendid Harriet Walter, and is now set to star in the Old Vic’s Girl from the North Country), came on a bit strong with the lyricism. But the reasons for all of this became clear as we moved through the story which was told through spare but still elegant prose and with simple but haunting staging.

At its heart this is a tale of an outsider being embraced by a community and she, in turn, showing them that joy can be found here on earth as well as the heaven that they imagine. As well as capturing the harshness and drabness of a life in a village perched at the periphery (Northern Norway in the book, windswept Jutland, beautifully, in the film) it also shows how adherence to strict religious orthodoxy can also limit opportunity and imagination. The two daughters, Martine and Philippa, of an austere, though well meaning pastor father, find joy in love (a man in a uniform) and singing (the sublime Mozart) respectively, but no escape from duty. Babette in turn, is forced to flee Paris as the Commune is suppressed in 1871, and, through a fateful connection, finds sanctuary in the village. The suspicion of the tight-knit villagers, shown with real humour here, turns to love as Babette’s true art is revealed.

Wonderful stuff. And Mr Maxwell’s writing and Bill Buckhurst’s direction really resonant as we come to understand the loss that Babette has endured and as we empathise with the plight of the refugee. We also grasp the redemption that art (here in the form of opera and cuisine) can offer. Yet this is all laid bare without sacrificing the fairy-tale quality of Blixen’s work.

The experienced cast playing the more mature characters are uniformly top notch but, as well as Ms Atim, I would particularly draw attention to the performances of Rachel Winters as young Philippa and Whoopie van Raam as young Martine (in her professional debut – she was one of a collection of tremendously talented female actors I saw in a final year Guildhall School production of Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece, Top Girls).

This was our first visit to the Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill. What an absolutely enchanting space. It has the same shabby vibe as Wilton’s Music Hall and the dressing and lighting (you can’t beat a bit of candlelight) in the bar especially is tres romantique. Nice, open stage and a compact, but still airy auditorium. Mind you if you are a big unit beware the seats at the front of the “rear’ stalls where a low wall doubles up as a effective instrument of circulatory torture.

I see there are plenty of tickets left so I really think if you can carve out the time over the next month or so this is a splendid night out and at c. 100mins straight through, hardly demanding.

 

 

 

 

City of Glass at the Lyric Hammersmith review **

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City of Glass

Lyric Hammersmith, May 11th 2017

So I remembered too late. I have thumbed copies of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so I think I must have read it, or at the very least City of Glass, when it came out in the 1980’s as any young, trendyish, new-to-theworld-of-work-but-still-able-to-go-out, indie man about town type would have done. I may even have professed to like it. But I’m not sure that I actually did. It is, as this adaptation (of orginal novel and a subsequent graphic novel augmentation) reminded me, a bit silly and a bit pleased with itself. No problem with subverting genres and getting all postmodern meta in books but you have to be very careful that you steer well clear of your own back passage or risk the proverbial disappearance.

So, in my view, this incredibly talented team comprised of Duncan MacMillan who did what he could to adapt the book into a suitable work for the stage, a score by Nick Powell, whose music is a vital part of The Ferryman at the Royal Court as we speak, and 59 Productions, including first time director Leo Warner, maybe just picked the wrong starting point. The staging is extraordinary showing just what can be done using cutting edge technology, but this has been employed to so much better effect in other productions by the 59 team (not the least of which was their contribution to the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony).

The opening gambit is promising enough with the telephone call out of the blue to our hero/narrator/writer, Daniel Quinn, (DQ same as Cervantes original meta hero), conjuring up the expectation of a classic noir detective thriller. He then proceeds to find himself drawn into ever more fracturing realities leading him, and us, to question what is real and what is imagined here and ultimately into questioning his own sanity. The production however relies on heavily a narrator to move the “action” such as it is along and to explain “what” is happening, and the characters are more ciphers than individuals with whom we might want to make an emotional investment. The pace is unvarying which only led me to keep on questioning whether this might all have been better left on the pages of the original novel. And as I say the novel itself is, in my view, ultimately an exercise in pretension, though I freely admit my heart and head will always lie with the modernism daddies and not the post-modernist bastard offspring.

So sorry I couldn’t like this, though I recognise the extraordinary technical skill brought to bear on how this looked, and will definitely keep an eye open for 59 Productions next project (hoping they steer clear of Auster). And I continue to think that the Lyric Hammersmith’s ongoing ambition will be rewarded with a home-grown, or bought in, slam dunker at some point and I want to be there when it happens.

 

 

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

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The Ferryman

Royal Court Theatre, 11th May 2017

Right then. For once the tourist finds himself not seeing a performance near the end of the run, casting off his usual workshy approach to blog posting and sufficiently motivated to rave about something.

So just to say THIS IS FECKING OUTSTANDING. If anything beats this to play of the year it is going to have to work very hard. I confess (and the SO agrees) to not quite sharing the majority opinion on Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Yes Mark Rylance was off the scale brilliant as your man Rooster, the wealth and layering of ideas was genius and their were plenty of memorable scenes but we might have liked just a peep more of a dramatic story.

Well people you get that here. The set, sound and lighting are immensely detailed, the performances of the expansive cast without exception perfect (though if  had to pick one performance beyond the mighty debutant Paddy Considine it would be Tom Glynn-Carney) and Sam Mendes’s direction exemplary. But at the end of the day it is all about the the writing – and what writing. Since there is a transfer to the West End no plot details here. Let me just say that the way history, family drama and a cracking story with a powerful conclusion, are intertwined is simply magnificent.  There are the connections with distant, mysterious past events and with the land/seasons, (the stuff that informed Jerusalem), but this time set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Ireland. The Republican cause is examined from all angles and the way in which that affects multiple generations is brilliantly illuminated. This is a real family sketched with precision and humour but there is real insight too. And there are stories of love and longing, in major and minor keys, as well.

In the hands of another writer the play might sink under the weight of the material that is brought to bear or just go off into a world of frustrating ellipsis. Not here though. Mr Butterworth word by word, line by line, character by character, scene by scene (with only the deftest of contrivances) builds the whole thing into an immense structure (even weaving in profound understanding from great writers of the past), whilst at the same time giving you a proper edge-of-the-seat, what-is-going-to-happen-next feeling. There are fleeting nods to the likes of Messrs McPherson, Friel and McGuinness but Mr Butterworth is most definitely his own man.

So, my strong advice to you is that, if you wish to avoid the “past continually haunting your own present” like the Carney family here, then you immediately get a ticket for the West End transfer at the Gielgud. There is some critically acclaimed “unmissable” theatre that is eminently missable. This though is the real deal so believe all those proper reviews. and ignore the griping from the realist fringe about excess paddywhackery. So off you toddle now as I do not want to have to come round to your house to make you see sense.