Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

hamlet_1470x690_version_3

Hamlet

Almeida Theatre, 11th March 2017

“…. but I’ve forgotten what Hamlet is about. 

It’s about a young man called Hamlet. And a girl called Ophelia who goes mad. And a ghost. And a Queen called Gertrude who gets poisoned. And a king called Claudius who gets stabbed. And a young man called Laertes who gets killed in a duel, and an old man called Polonius who gets killed by mistake.

I remember now. Not a Bright Piece …. “

From Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

The SO’s unparalleled reading of first half C20 memoirs turned up the above. A perfect spoiler/summary which tickled me. Hamlet may be the greatest play that big Will ever created but for me it still has some plot development that needs a deft directorial touch as well as, obviously, a believable psychological portrait from the Prince himself. That means a logic to the pile up of corpses, a Hamlet who loves Mummy and Daddy, reasons why Gertrude might love Claudius who therefore cannot just be just a weakling or a tw*t from the off, a Polonius who isn’t a total buffoon, an Ophelia who isn’t off with the fairies, a properly p*ssed off Laertes, good reasons why Hamlet might still have mates whilst his behaviour gets ever more erratic and preferably sotto voce reference to Norway and England.

For me this Hamlet ticked all the boxes and much. much more. I can’t pretend I have seen loads of great actors do their thing here nor can I remember vast swathes of the text. You can read the proper reviews to get all of that. But I can tell you that this is, in my view, about as good as Shakespeare gets.

Casting Andrew Scott as Hamlet if I am honest, probably didn’t require a massive leap of imagination. He looks the part (still sufficiently youthful) and surely was a shoe-in to play an unhinged mind based on previous work (oh alright based on his Moriarty on the telly as that is all I really know).

But OMG as the kids might say. Does he deliver. The conversational delivery meant I could savour almost every line and hear plenty that had not previously registered. There was an inevitability to his behaviour as events unfolded reinforced by the continuous animation in his face and hands . The petulance and narcissism that I want from a Hamlet was abundant. Let’s be honest he can be an annoying little s**t.

The relationships were perfectly pitched. The archness in the scenes with the actors, with Polonius, with Horatio and with the gravedigger were spot on. And the emotional tension created in the scenes with Gertrude, Ophelia and with Claudius (a gun and a dream, maybe – brilliant). And the soliloquies were perfectly delivered (and there are some cracking notes in the programmes about the psychology around voices in the head).

Hard for me to imagine better performances as well from a tactile Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude) especially as realisation turns into self-sacrifice, Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia), just edge of seat stuff with the herbs (a phrase your are unlikely to hear again!), Luke Thompson (Laertes), lump in throat in the final scenes with Hamlet, and Peter Wright (Polonius) a proper loving Dad and a vital right hand man. And for me Angus Wright’s (Claudius) more declamatory delivery fitted the nature of a chap who I think is rarely plagued with self doubt unlike his step-son.

The real genius though is director Robert Icke who is at the top of his game here. That’s not to stay he is infallible. Myself and BD (who was a massive Simpsons fan when she was a littlun) didn’t get on with Mr Burns where the concept drowned the characters for me, and whilst The Red Barn at the NT looked amazing I think the story was perhaps ultimately too thin, even as it passed through the hands of David Hare and the eyes of Mr Icke, to support the promise. 1984 though was brilliant, his Mary Stuart was absorbing and, for me, his Uncle Vanya was revelatory (I have not always got on with this), but even this was surpassed by Mr Icke’s Oresteia which was magnificent with the expanded prologue setting up the moral pickles and making the intervention of the gods gripping instead of a bit bonkers.

In this Hamlet the use of video is inspired not hackneyed, in the Ghost scene, in the play close-ups and in the conclusion, all reinforcing the the themes of surveillance and tine passing. The idea of Claudius’ confession as a dream is intriguing as is Ophelia’s breakdown from a wheelchair. There is mordant comedy in the Polonius/Hamlet scene. All in all lots of bang up to date ideas but which all serve a purpose.

Love it, love it, love it. And the good news. It is transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre apparently. So no excuses now. Get a ticket.