Avalanche at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Avalanche: A Love Story

Barbican Theatre, 8th May 2019

Dear Wonderful People Who Make Theatre,

Please can you persuade Maxine Peake and Andrew Scott to come together on stage in a naturalistic two hander about a normal couple who have something extraordinary happen to them. Manchester, London or Timbuktu. I don’t care where. Subject TBD. As long as there is bucketloads of emotional pain which has to be worked through whilst stoically carrying on with their daily lives.

Yours respectfully,

The Tourist

There is nothing actually that innovative about this monologue based on Australian writer Julia Leigh’s memoir about her experience of IVF. There is no need for it. A bit of symbolism from an avalanche and a pair of imagined kids. Otherwise it charts the fractured relationship of a film-maker, her overwhelming need to conceive and the grief that follows from the failed treatments. Anna-Louise Sark’s staging, a three sided, clinical, white space which rises slowly through the 90 minute production, a table and chairs that collapse, from designer Marg Horwell, some, occasionally, overly forthright lighting and sound from Lizzie Powell and Stefan Gregory, may give a hint of art-theatre. It doesn’t really add anything though to the performance.

Which is, in the least surprising surprise since we were apprised of the fact that His Holiness is of the Roman persuasion, just brilliant. It isn’t just the fact that Maxine Peake makes the movement of face, hands and body look entirely natural, (even when awkwardly directed to shift stage positions to break up the monologue), or the easy conversational style that projects, on on one, even up to us cheapskates in the gods. It is the fact that whilst remaining entirely Maxine Peake throughout – vowels, grins, wry knowing asides, pauses, reflections, repetitions, pointing, pawing – she becomes the woman whose harrowing story she is telling. This is not, forgive me, and thankfully, a story that I can relate and yet, pretty much throughout, I was there with her.

In anyone else’s hands the slight drawbacks in the adaptation would probably have been laid bare. It is too long, you can, an hour in, practically hear the pages turning, with too much emphasis on the how and what of the journey and not enough on the why, and this is too big a space for any monologue, (and robs the end of much of its theatricality). It does though get into the joyless mechanics and desperate economics of IVF treatment, six rounds in total, and captures the loneliness of the Woman’s quest. As it happens IVF treatment played a small part in Out of Water, the new play by Zoe Cooper, on my next night’s viewing. And this was, by comparison with the other stage work I have seen prompted by this experience, the weak Genesis Inc, a resounding success. And the Fertility Fest at the Barbican, of which this was a centrepiece, deserves everyone’s praise.

To my mind the only actor who can match Maxine Peake when it comes to force of personality and stage charisma is the aforesaid Andrew Scott. As was apparent to anyone lucky enough to see Simon Stephens’s monologue Sea Wall at the Old Vic last year (or in its previous outings);

And that is the reasoning behind my plea above.

Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.

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

The Good Person of Szechwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sur-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead, Woo hoo.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

My top ten theatre shows of 2018 … and top ten to look forward to

Right even by the standards of the drivel that the Tourist usually posts on this site this is an utter waste of your and my time. Weeks too late, built on flaky foundations of understanding and appreciation and precious little use to anyone. Except maybe me that is, as an aide memoire. You can find my thoughts on these shows elsewhere on this site, if you can be arsed.

I have also appended a list of the top ten plays, so far announced, that I am looking forward to seeing this year in a desperate attempt to beef up the content. Some marginal utility in that maybe. Or maybe not.

BTW you can, and should, see The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre from May through August. You can, and really should, see Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre right now. The good people of Edinburgh can see Touching the Void and it will go to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness before coming back to Bristol. I bet it pops up in London. And, if you are in NYC, and haven’t yet seen Network, jump to it.

  1. Network – National Theatre
  2. John – National Theatre
  3. The Wild Duck – Almeida Theatre
  4. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre
  5. The Writer – Almeida Theatre
  6. The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre
  7. Touching the Void – Bristol Old Vic
  8. Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre
  9. Death of a Salesman – Manchester Royal Exchange
  10. Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Near misses? Girls and Boys at the Royal Court, Cheek By Jowl’s Pericles, The Phlebotomist (now coming back to the main stage at Hampstead – do not miss), Nine Night (at Trafalgar Studios from February), Quiz, Love and Information at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio, Copenhagen at Chichester, Henry V from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, The Jungle (support the two Joes in their plan to put this in front of the Home Secretary !!) and The Madness Of George III at Nottingham Playhouse.

What about this year? Take your pick from these if you trust my judgement. Which would be a surprise. No particular order BTW. There’s a few big tickets missing from this (When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, All About Eve, Betrayal, All My Sons). Like I said it’s what I am most looking forward to.

  1. Sweat – Donmar Warehouse. Too late to get in now except for returns but this may well pop up elsewhere.
  2. Mother Courage and Her Children – Manchester Royal Exchange. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Brecht’s survivor.
  3. A Skull in Connemara – Oldham Coliseum. For my fix of McDonagh.
  4. Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court. Finally I will get to see this.
  5. Medea – Barbican Theatre. Internationaal Theater Amsterdam bring Simon Stone’s Euripides to London with best female actor in the world Marieke Heebink.
  6. Berberian Sound Studio – Donmar Warehouse. How the hell are they going to make this work?
  7. Top Girls – National Theatre. Caryl Churchill. Enough said.
  8. Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Best of the Chekhov offerings.
  9. Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Miller, Elliott, Pierce, Clarke, Kene. Best play of 2019?
  10. Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca given the Farber treatment.

Oh and Antipodes, Annie Baker’s latest. Obviously.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Barbican Theatre review *****

The Merry Wives of Windsor

RSC, Barbican Theatre, 13th December 2018

Confession. This was the first time I had ever seen a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Tourist can’t remember there being an opportunity, RSC or otherwise, in those few periods of his intensive theatre-going in the past, and I don’t think there was a production of sufficient quality over the more fallow years to drag him away from the reality of life, work, kids, drink and the like.

Also, I have to admit, TMWOW has always sounded a bit limp, with the Shakespeare industry being a bit sniffy about its worth, dubbing it “the first sit-com”, compared to the other comedies, Twelfth Night, Dream, Much Ado, As You Like It, Errors, Shrew ….. in fact only The Two Noble Kinsmen of the “pure” comedies seems to get a worse rap. (Well maybe The Taming of the Shrew with its impossible to mitigate misogyny without some dubious directorial device). The other criticism seems to centre on the disappointment of taking one of WS’s most “rounded” characters, analytically as well as literally, out of the history plays and plonking him into a class-based farce as the butt of the comedy.

Well just as Barrie Rutter made a case, albeit not entirely convincing, for WS’s (with John Fletcher) last contractural obligation with his Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe, so director Fiona Laird has served up a peach for the RSC, (though it is just about to end its run at the Barbican). All I can say is that if TMWOW is normally this funny then all those naysayers who are supposed to know their onions when it comes to the Bard need their heads examined.

If it isn’t normally this funny then Ms Laird is to be further congratulated for making it so to a contemporary audience. Shakespeare’s humour comes from plot – usually will they/won’t they romances and unlikely assignations, from – word-play – badinage, punning and bawdiness – and from physical comedy – which, obviously, is not something made explicit in a text. To make a modern audience laugh it usually makes sense to trust Will and let the plot do what it will, play down the anachronistic, and not always easy to follow, wordery and massively ramp up the caricature, mannerism and visual gags. Which is exactly what this production does. With plenty of new interpolations.

If the audience reaction at the performance the Tourist attended was anything to go by, and it seems this has been supported by critics, professional and amateur alike, this definitively worked. I laughed. A lot. In fact as much as I can ever remember for a Shakespeare comedy. It is not as all round satisfying as the best Much Ado or Twelfth Night production but it was still a revelation.

The plot is contrived. And daft. No question. One theory alleges that Will only had 14 days to come up with it after the Queen requested an entertainment for the Order of the Garter festival in 1597 to feature her favourite of his comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. Now, as I sure you all know, Falstaff is way more than just a comic buffoon, as we see in Henry IV Parts I and II, and as Mistress Quickly explains in her eulogy in Henry V. He may be vain, boastful, corrupt, cowardly, a drunk and petty criminal, but he is charismatic and he embraces life and we, and Prince Hal, therefore love him despite his faults. And he is, of course, fat and as everyone knows us fat people, with our seeming inability to control our appetites, and our apparent physical limitations, are just funny.

Humour invariably validates superiority. It takes what the group or society has deemed as unsettling, threatening or just different and turns it into something safe and tolerable. Falstaff, because the genius Shakespeare created him, is doubly funny because he is both the object of our laughter and also, because of his wit and intelligence, the source. Tricky business humour. I am sure that there are plenty of people who would be happy to make a joke at my expense because I am fat. In the same way it would probably make me happy to make a joke at their expense because they are stupid. Like I say tricky business.

Anyway I suspect big Will didn’t waste too much time mulling over the psychology of humour and just got on with the task, knowing which way the Elizabethan bread of patronage was buttered. Which explains the oft observed “lack of subtlety” in the plot and character. Yet, as all students of the situation-comedy know, the best characters in the genre have one, or more, personality traits amply exaggerated. And the best sit-com plots begin with a plausible set-up that gets incrementally ever more ridiculous. Which, give or take, is what happens in TMWOFW.

Falstaff is on his uppers. He pitches up in Windsor, or, in this production a place that feels suspiciously like Chigwell. He resolves to woo a couple of wealthy married women, Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page. He commands his servants, Pistol and Nym, to deliver the ladies identical love letters. They refuse and tell the ladies’s husbands. Page (Paul Dodds) isn’t too bothered but Ford is the jealous type, and he is introduced to Falstaff by the Host(ess) of the Garter Inn masquerading as a Master Brook in order to unveil Falstaff’s plans. Meanwhile, (yep there is always a meanwhile or two in these plots), three other chaps are trying to woo the Ford’s daughter, Anne; absurd French doctor Caius, asinine youth Master Abraham Slender, cousin (here nephew) to Justice Robert Shallow and young Fenton (Luke Newberry), a gentleman now bereft of his fortune.

Cue confusions, set-ups and comic revenges. By the three suitors on the Host(ess), by the two Mistresses on Falstaff, by “Brook” on Falstaff, by Ford on his wife, by everyone on Falstaff, and by Page and his wife on Slender and Caius, and by Anne and Fenton on the parents. It all ends happily though.

These farcical set pieces, replete with disguise and concealment, offer plenty of opportunity for clowning, which the cast, directed by Spymonkey specialist Toby Park, relish and have perfected over the run in Stratford and now London. David Troughton is a brilliant Falstaff, decked out in “fat suit” and priapic codpiece, and booming out his perfectly timed lines. Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley are sensational as the conspiratorial and true friends, Mistresses Page and Ford, with exaggerated TOWIE accents and hamming up their humiliations of Falstaff, both in the laundry basket scene, here a wheelie-bin, and in the Woman of (now) Brentwood scene. Vince Leigh, who I remember pulled off a similar trick in Propellor’s all -male Taming of a Shrew as Sly/Petruchio, manages to make Ford’s jealousy palpable, and not a little pungent, but still amusing, and even gracious, when his suspicions prove unfounded. It is possible to believe that he and Beth Cordingley could be a couple who care beneath the mutual scorn.

Tim Samuels and Tom Padley make a fine double act as Shallow and Slender. All the servants, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly, here housekeeper to Caius, Steve Basaula as his man Rugby, Nima Taleghani as Falstaff’s pageboy and John Macaulay as Simple, offer wry indulgence to the whims of their “betters”. Charlotte Josephine, Afolabi Alil and Josh Finan are also able to inject at least some of the personalities of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym, though these are more developed in the history plays. TMWOW is, at its heart, a satire on the pretensions and affectations of the “middling” class, their preoccupations with wealth, marriage prospects and position in society. Aristocracy is conspicuous by its absence, other than Falstaff and his young doppelgänger the spendthrift Fenton, though Shakespeare chucks in enough references which gently mock his Court audience, and the servants are generally enablers rather than protagonists. This then is obviously immediately recognisable territory for the modern audience, “we are all middle class now”, made more so here by the Essex milieu.

The comedy also takes a swipe at that staple of “English” comedy, foreigners, and specifically their funny accents. No obviously progressive way to do this so best wade right in. David Acton does exactly that with loquacious Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, another from the Shakespeare school of Welsh windbags, but Jonathan Cullen goes even further with Dr Caius, offering a Gallic strangling of the English language which goes well beyond the simply Clouseau-esque. A couple of deft retouches create some priceless, and filthy, moments, one of which I fear I might have made up in my own dirty mind as no-one else seemed to laugh. I particularly enjoyed the addition of the East Europeans who come to remove the wheelie-bin, who are snootily looked down on by the assembled throng whilst they, it transpires, are chatting about the scene’s resemblance to Proust.

The final theme of TMWOW seems to me to lie in the power executed by the women. By casting Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter pub she too, along with the Mistresses, Anne, (another fine performance from Karen Fishwick to set alongside her Juliet in this season), and Mistress Quickly, run rings around the lads. They get their own way, and get revenge on the sexual predators, not through compromise, simpering or abasement but through their own agency, and they have a right laugh in the process. Switching the denouement to the town square, rather than Windsor Great Park, with Elizabeth’s statue towering over it, may slightly invalidate Falstaff’s Herne the Hunter garb, though Epping Forest isn’t too far away I’ll warrant, but it does, finally, leave the women on top. I wonder if Liz I herself would might been pleased with this ending.

Lez Brotherston’s set, turning seamlessly to reveal the skeletal interiors and exteriors of the half-timbered houses, is as ingenious as his hybridised costumes, which mix modern and Elizabethan fashions. There is plenty of blingey accessories on show, particular favourites for the Tourist were the blow-up flamingos, Mistress Page’s all in one cerise pink throne and foot-bath, Anne’s fluffy pooch, the f*ck-off massive gas barbecue, the remote-control golf cart and the white leather bar stools. Caroline Burrell has recreated Tim Mitchell’s lighting design particularly effective when the houses turn neon. Gregory Clarke’s sound design didn’t intrude and Fiona Laird’s own composition completed the jolly mood.

OK so there are a couple of occasions when my snob-o-meter vibrated. The Bread of Heaven chorus and the Dick Emery reference might have been steps too far but that is my problem not Ms Laird’s and the RSC’s. Overall this is a cracker of a show, very funny, easily digested and with a few points to prove. Carry On.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/06/27/the-two-noble-kinsman-at-the-globe-theatre-review/

Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ***

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 15th November 2018

Is this a dagger I see before me … well maybe more of a kitchen knife …

It is pretty tightly plotted (at least if you pare it down). It is quick by comparison to a lot of the Bard – half the length of Hamlet, though that always needs a few nips and tucks – in part perhaps because Thomas Middleton adapted the text that has come down to us. It wastes no time at all in getting going – if anything it is a bit too abrupt at the start I reckon. Other than Macbeth and his lady wife most of the characters don’t get much air time to reveal themselves. It’s language is direct, often shockingly so. It is eminently quotable. There is no welter of arcane classical references. Most interested people know it or know of it (it’s a GCSE set text after all). The themes are easily defined and understood – ambition and patriotism, moral disorder and inversion, violence begetting violence, childlessness and legacy, gender roles and masculinity, the suppression of feeling and equivocation, the supernatural.

It might be built on an edifice of contemporary (when written) conventions, verse speaking, soliloquies, quibbles, audience asides, witches, ghosts, a dumb show, severed heads, but it is the supernatural that gives plenty of scope for coups de theatre. It may also have been intended to massage a royal ego, the patron of the company that first performed it, Jimmy I (of England, No 6 of Scotland) being an expert in the magic field with his best-seller Demonology, and coming just after the failed Roman Catholic plot to blow him up. Yet the supernatural also works on our imagination, (as it works on the power couple), always a good idea in a play, which, together with big Will’s acute psychological insight, and repetitive language – blood, blood and more blood, time, darkness, man – explains why it is so popular.

So why then is it apparently now so difficult to get right? Search me though if I take this somewhat disappointing version, alongside the similarly underwhelming recent NT production, (and plenty more in the last decade), the problem might lie in trying to hang too much on the play. No problem with a clear overarching creative vision but keep it simple. Don’t add all sorts of frills – there are enough interpretative and visual choices to be made from the text itself. Make sure the two leads nail the verse. No mumbling. Ensure they can explain their motivations – remember they are travelling in opposite directions, from normative revulsion to nihilistic emptiness in the case of Macbeth and vice versa for the Lady. The other characters can play it straight. Duncan is a symbol of kingship, Banquo matters because he doesn’t fall for all that weird sister sh*t. (And he can scare us later). The Porter is there to offer ironic commentary, warn against those who say one thing and do another, and, here in this production, very successfully mind the time. Everyone else is pretty much plot collateral.

It works best when we the audience are dragged into the couple’s nightmare. Small space, simple staging, like the landmark Dench/McKellen/Nunn RSC version. Or the Walter/Sher/Doran apparently, which kicked off in darkness. The recent Ninagawa version, though it is different, worked because the Samurai backdrop leant contextual clarity and the age of the couple a desperate poignancy.  The 2015 Justin Kurzel film, if you can forgive the accents, also has a clear aesthetic and some very smart interpretative choices. You can add your own to the list.

In this version however, director Deborah Findlay, seems to have focussed on the details of the visual, and on the “horror” to the exclusion of the themes. Some of this works, notably Michael Hodgson’s Geordie Porter, always present, tapping his watch, chalking up the body count, hoovering incessantly, disturbing in his ordinariness, as well as the digital clock countdown, even if it is a big of a cliche, which links to the theme of time passing. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, clawing and pawing, also has the measure of most of her key lines and David Acton’s Duncan, whilst a little fruity, is what you expect from a man born (rather than compelled) to rule. However Christopher Eccleston, whilst capturing Macbeth’s military bearing, doesn’t, for me, vary the verse sufficiently, such that he comes across as insufficiently tortured by events. The same is true of the Edward Bennett’s Macduff who comes across as more geography teacher than grief stricken revenger. Mr Bennett is an outstanding Shakespearean, especially in comedy, but he looked lost here. Rafael Sowole’s hefty Banquo was more convincing, especially as ghost. 

Having the witches played by three girls, dressed in red, Don’t Look Now/Shining style and signifying blood, is initially striking but the novelty soon palls. The jump cut fizzing/flickering lighting from Lizzie Powell, and the “spine-chilling” score from Rupert Cross and sound design of Christopher Shutt leans a little heavily towards the cinematic. Fly Davies’ set, with de rigeur upper level, accommodates the interpretation but doesn’t really wow or command the front of the vast Barbican stage. 

Having said all this the production doesn’t drag, it squeezes out a few laughs, not all intended, and its pinball of ideas craves attention. Maybe I should try some of the other current London Macbeth’s, the NYT at the Garrick, or the Michelle Terry/ Paul Ready at the Sam Wanamaker (if it wasn’t so bloody uncomfortable, and more problematically, sold out). Or maybe I’ll just wait. Something wicked will this come again soon.