The Son at the Kiln Theatre review ****

The Son

Kiln Theatre, 20th March 2019

After this, The Father, the Mother and The Height of the Storm, there is still a part of me that gets antsy at the work of Gallic wunderkind, Florian Zeller, and his English translator Christopher Hampton. There is something just too clever, too slick, too contrived about his plays. Just enough experimentation to justify the theatrical form, just enough plot jumps to keep those more accustomed to naturalistic TV drama on their toes. They are technically brilliant but for me he is just a teensy teensy bit guilt of manipulating audience emotions.

Having said that, in the superb space that is the Kiln, the right ratio of stage to audience, this is an utterly enthralling, unbroken 100 minutes of theatre. The Tourist may cavil at the concept behind these plays but, once again, the reality is undeniably affecting. We are back in a minimalist, pastel painted French apartment, grand piano at the rear, on the UK stage where the other two plays in the trilogy started, this time designed by Lizzie Clachlan. This is the home of lawyer Pierre (John Light), his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their new baby. And troubled son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) after he goes to live with Dad following a spell with Mum, Anne, (Amanda Abbington) after their divorce. We know adolescent Nicolas is troubled because he has skipped his new school for 3 months, writes on the wall, self-harms, bites his nails and shrugs his shoulders under Dad’s interrogation. But just to be sure we know he is disintegrating mentally he upends the flat and a whole bunch of stuff spills out a plastic bag attached to the ceiling to litter the parquet floor of the apartment. Subtle metaphor huh?

Pierre, Anne and Sofia try to help Nicolas, pleading, cajoling, arguing, listening, but eventually have to seek help in the form of a psychiatrist Doctor (Martin Turner) assisted by Nurse (Oseloka Obi, who I say deliver a fine Gaveston in Lazarus Theatre’s Edward II, though he doesn’t say much here). This doesn’t help. The ending is, in many ways, as unsurprising in its attempt to surprise as the development. Yet the dialogue, the dilemmas with which the characters are presented, the ratcheting up of Nicolas’s condition and the inability of his parents to prevent his decline is what makes the play take hold and not let go. Florian Zeller doesn’t feel the need to offer a clear explanation of why Nicolas is in such pain, surely more than the break-up of his parents: he simply analyses the consequences. I don’t know how realistic these behaviours or events might actually be, it feels a little too pat, but there is no doubting the way it connected to the audience, whether they were grandparent, parent, twenty-something or teen.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is perfectly paced, with scenes melting into each other, supported by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s delicate under-scoring and Lee Curran’s considered lighting. This allows John Light to show Pierre’s journey from brisk, business like problem solving to utter helplessness at his son’s condition, Amanda Abbington, with minimal dialogue, to communicate a mother’s incomprehension and guilt at not being able to rescue her son, and Amaka Okafor to reveal Sofia’s ambivalence, wanting to be the sympathetic outsider but caring more about her own happiness with Pierre and the needs of her new child. Martin Turner is perfectly cast as the stern, cruel to be kind, professional. However the evening, (well in this case afternoon), really belongs to Laurie Kynaston. Nicolas, on the page, only just stays the right side of over-written. It would be pretty easy, given the torment that Mr Kynaston has to project, to go too far. He does not. Bored, petulant, despairing, endearing, frightened, threatening, begging, desolate and more. We’ll being seeing a lot more of young Laurie.

So another hit to follow the slippery study of dementia in The Father, the pain of bereavement in old age in The Height of the Storm, and the dissolution of The Mother whose children have left the nest. In the right hands, Mr Zeller’s mix of contextless, multiple perspective, “unravelling of the mind” pyschodrama, with Christopher Hampton’s lucid translation, can be utterly absorbing even if the artificiality grates. In the wrong hands, thankfully not here and not in the other plays given the acting prowess of the likes of Kenneth Cranham, Gina McKee, Jonathan Price and Eileen Atkins, I can see it going very wrong. As, judging by the reviews in has in the transfer of The Mother to the Broadway stage with the doyenne of hauteur Isabell Huppert.

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

I’m Not Running

National Theatre Lyttleton, 22nd January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth at the National Theatre review ***

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Macbeth

National Theatre Olivier, 14th April 2018

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

This was frustrating. No way of hiding it. It promised so much. A Macbeth. With Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, both of whom, when furnished with optimal texts, directing and designs, are as good as it gets. Since we know the text cannot be at fault, though Macbeth productions do have a habit of disappointing, then we have to look to design and direction. It really pains me to say this, since I don’t think Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the NT is anything like as disappointing as some would have you believe, but here, as director, the ideas just don’t really work.

Most of the proper reviews have alighted on the cul de sac that is the design of Rae Smith. Now Ms Smith is a rare talent. I offer you St George and the Dragon, Girl From the North Country, This House, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, and, of course, War Horse in support of that contention, and that’s just what I know. Here though we have a backdrop of black plastic sheeting strips, like an explosion in a bin bag factory, which seems a very tentative way to solve the challenge offered by the Olivier stage. A steep ramp initially takes centre stage though this gets shunted to one side for most of the proceedings leaving a pair of ramshackle sheds to do most of the visual heavy lifting. It is pretty dark, though with harsh accents, courtesy of James Farncombe’s lighting design, and Dunsinane here put me in mind of nothing more than a camp of homeless people under some arches. There are some poles on which the witches have some fun later on, and which provide a foil to some back to front, shrunken head shenanigans, but generally this is not an insightful concept.

Nothing wrong with the idea, just maybe not in Macbeth, for, as the critics have indicated, this foul is foul visual starting point gives little room for the plot to develop. What exactly is it that Macbeth and the Lady are prepared to commit murder for? Untrammelled ambition and the pursuit of power over this rabble hardly seems worth it. Macbeth is dark, for sure, and gloomy certainly worked for the benchmark RSC Nunn/McKellen/Dench production from 1976, with its minimalist circle. This left everything to our imagination: in this latest NT production we are steered too aggressively towards a composite post apocalyptic dystopia and never get out.

The hackneyed Jarmanesque vision extends to Moritz Junge’s costumes. Back in the day, when the Tourist was a devoted Bunnymen fan, and camouflage gear and ripped jeans were de rigeur, he dressed like this. The witches are properly bonkers, weird sisters indeed, but their aesthetic is similarly post-punkish. This means the supernatural world is firmly tethered to the “real” world, which may respect contemporary Jacobean reality, (remember James I was an “expert” on witchcraft), but doesn’t help when it comes to ratcheting up the atmospherics. The visual brutality smothers the action as well with plenty of stage blood and fake beheadings. Personally I don’t have a problem with the visceral approach to Shakespearean violence but think it is better employed against a more minimalist design or potboilers like Titus Andronicus.

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other

The design distractions marred Paul Arditti’s soundscapes and Orlando Gough’s composition. As with the lighting, in isolation, this might have worked, but taken together with the look of the production, it was all just a bit too much. This left the cast with just too much to do to draw us into Shakespeare’s sinewy text, so fraught with development and repetition. Every word counts with Macbeth, even more so than the other tragedies, if the couple’s psychological horrors are to be fully realised. There were occasions when the bleak poetry captivated. Rory Kinnear and, especially here, Anne-Marie Duff are both too good as actors not to convince in many key scenes; when they plot the murder, in the immediate aftermath (a real sense of panic here), the Lady’s sleepwalking madness, her “unsex me here” soliloquy, Macbeth realising he has misinterpreted the prophecy.

Yet other scenes are less compelling, Macbeth’s “tomorrow” soliloquy, Banquo’s ghost, (drunken zombie and Lidl barbecue is not a winning formula), and the shock-horror apparitions. Mr Kinnear once again lays on the blokish estuarine, which worked so well for Iago, but which here gets distracting. I think he is an actor who shrinks just a little when the production has flaws, his Macheath on this stage and, as good as he was, his K in the Young Vic Trial, both revealed hesitations. It felt like that here at times. It is a shame as I think that in another Macbeth, shorn of all this overtly macho militarism, RK and AMD’s ability to show the couple’s brittle dissolution could have worked. The religiosity of the text, the childlessness, the notion of “evil” the inability to act, all get lost here.

Patrick O’Kane offered up a Macduff who contains his grief on hearing of the murders, which worked well, and Amaka Okafor impressed as a dignified Lady Macduff. Stephen Boxer, as is his wont, was perhaps a little too fruity as Duncan in this grimy world. On the other hand he has the measure of the language in contrast to Kevin Harvey’s Banquo and Parth Thakerar’s Malcolm who both chomped a bit at their lines. Trevor Fox’s comic Porter had plenty of stage time, though I am not entirely sure what point was being made by this, his warnings on “equivocations” were lost, and his look bore an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain from Mad Max, though this may been my unconscious reaction to the look of the play.

Mr Norris has made some cuts to the text, (notably for Malcolm and Macduff in England) excised Duncan’s other son Donalban, and asked his cast to err too much on the side of dramatic caution. In a production which prized the visual over the textural, Birnam Wood, the battle scenes, the apparitions, the witches truncated first appearance, all were underwhelming. A weird paradox indeed that a production that set out to impress the eye, in a played seeped in the supernatural, conjured so few memorable images to highlight text and action.

This may well work better in some of the smaller spaces which the production will tour at the end of this year and beginning of next. Macbeth is a play where proximity to the actors helps. That is maybe why the film versions, and I include the film of the 1976 RSC production, as well as the 2015 Justin Kurzel version, Polanski’s classic and Kurosawa’s Theatre of Blood, work so well: close-ups allow us to see deep inside the characters, in a way that this production, with this set in the Oliver space, could not emulate. The lo-fi design, redolent of theatres with much less money to play with, may come into its own. Despite my comments and the rather sharp reviews, this is still well worth seeing. It is Macbeth after all.

There is an essay in the programme which takes us through the many ways Macbeth has been adapted through the centuries. It references the classic Ninagawa production which shows that a robust, definitive vision can work for Macbeth (Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****). But it also, just maybe in retropsect, reads as a bit of an apology.

Something wicked this way comes.

 

 

 

St George and the Dragon at the National Theatre review ***

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Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre, 31st October 2017

This must have looked a great idea on paper. A state of the nation play, with much to say about ill at ease contemporary Britain, told as allegory, in a format and staging that nods to a fairy tale. Writer Rory Mullarkey took as his inspiration The Dragon, the most well known play from Soviet writer Evgeny Schwartz which was an allegorical satire on Stalinism, with the knight Lancelot in the lead. Clearly Mr Schwartz was a brave man. There is also a whiff of Chaucer and Medieval morality play in Mr Mullarkey’s construction.

Designer Rae Smith has created an imaginative set, like a child’s pop-up book, which roams across the three periods that Mr Mullarkey’s story encompasses, the Medieval, the Early Industrial and our own Post Modern present. Lyndsey Turner, who is expert at these big ideas plays, gives the production plenty of room to breathe, with a light and often amusing tone that matches the “modern fairy tale” mood, and the rest of the creative team conjure up some magical aural and visual effects.

John Heffernan’s George is very affecting, alternately brave, stupid, confused and naive, Julian Bleach’s Dragon is as pantomime camp as you like, Richard Goulding’s henchman who is redeemed has real presence and Amaka Okafor strikes the right balance as feisty champion Elsa. The rest of the 22 strong cast also fit like a glove and we have a groovy 6 strong band.

But there is a but. It just all seemed a bit vague. The idea that we have needed and relied on a hero in the past to rescue us English when things go t*ts up was efficiently conveyed as were some elements of what might constitute our national identity, the things that bind and divide us. A nation remember is just some lines on a map (admittedly some sea is involved here) and a largely fictional shared history and SGATD was neatly rooted in this premise. The dichotomy between the enemy without and the enemy within was also engagingly scrutinised.

It is just that, when all was said and done on stage, we didn’t seem to have moved any further from this point of departure. Enjoyable yes, creative yes but not really very satisfying for me, which, at a time when anyone and everyone theatrical is trying to jemmy in a state of the nation perspective, was a little disappointing. There is more than enough on show to warrant a visit and there are plenty of tickets for the rest of the run, but the play, like the current England it depicts, comes up a bit short.