Swive at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse review ****

Swive

Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020

I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).

The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.

This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.

This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.

There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.

A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith review *****

A Doll’s House

Lyric Hammersmith, 18th September 2019

You can never have too much Nora. After Samuel Adamson’s gender fluid Wife at the Kiln, and this adaptation from Tanika Gupta set in colonial India, the Tourist has the 3 for the price of 1, Glasgow Citizens, radical re-working from Steff Smith coming to the Young Vic and then Robert Icke’s take in Amsterdam next year.

Of course no modern creative in their right mind is going to offer up a straight up and down Doll’s House but it is a testament to old Henrik’s genius that it can stand all sorts of updating and alteration. And that’s not just because of its feminist message but also because its a cracking plot.

Tanika Gupta’s plays and adaptations have explored her cultural heritage, race and female agency in myriad ways before. Just before this her version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice attracted excellent reviews at the Manchester Royal Exchange and this re-setting of Ibsen’s masterpiece to Calcutta, still in 1879 as in the original, was originally aired as a BBC radio play in 2012. Nora becomes Niru an intelligent young Bengali woman married to English colonial tax collector bureaucrat Tom Helmer. He plainly loves her but more as exoticised plaything, “my little Indian princess”, than partner and insists she convert from her “heathen” religion to Christianity ahead of their marriage. With minimal changes to the “past coming back to haunt her” plot which heralds Niru’s liberation, Tanika Gupta very effectively explores the impact of race and colonialism, as well as gender politics, in her text. The power that Tom exerts over Niru flows not just from his sex but also the assumption of his cultural superiority, his religion and the state.

The setting also lends resonance to Dr Rank’s (Colin Tierney) creepy feelings for Niru and his liberal concerns about what the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime might catalyse and clerk Kaushik Das’s, (the Krogtad character played by Assad Zaman), motives for his “blackmail”. And to the sacrifices and social position of Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni), Niru’s now widowed childhood friend, and maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra), who is driven to leave her children by economic necessity. These connotations flow elegantly from the concept however and don’t get in the way of the central narrative.

Incoming AD at the Lyric Rachel O’Riordan chose to direct the production herself to kick off her tenure, (she will also oversee the revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love later in this season), and she has made a splendid job of it. I am afraid Belfast, Perth and Cardiff, her previous residences, were just a little too far even for the intrepid Tourist so his previous encounters with Ms O’Riordan’s work have been restricted to the somewhat underwhelming Foxfinder revival at the Ambassador’s and the powerful Gary Owen plays, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott, (will someone please give Sophie Melville a big starring role on the telly). Whilst Tanika Gupta’s many layered adaptation and Henrik’s plot would be hard to make a mess of, the fact is that this was perfectly judged, building tension without ever losing sight of message.

Lily Arnold’s set, the tiered courtyard of the Helmer’s rather too comfortable house, heavy doors to the outside world backstage dead centre, Kevin Treacy’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and, especially, Arun Ghosh’s on stage music, were similarly on the money, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama. Above all though it was the performances of the two leads which won us over. For I was accompanied by BD. Now I may have slightly oversold the feminist credentials of HI, BD being a very modern and persuasive advocate of female equality, but she was still much taken with the setting and the story. And with Anjana Vasan. Now this is the second time the Tourist has seen Ms Vasan anchor a fine play, after Vinay Patel’s An Adventure at the Bush (which touched on post-colonial experience in India, Kenya and Britain), and what with her noteworthy supporting turns in Rutherford and Sons at the NT, Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, it is pretty clear the secret is out. This though was another level as she depicted the journey for which Nora is renowned whilst laying on top the conflicted perspective that Niru, in this very different society and place, could offer.

Whilst Elliot Cowan didn’t quite get to offer as many dimensions with Tom, he is largely a patronising, self-regarding shit, most notably at the end, when his ugly racism is laid bare as he fears the scandal that threatens to envelope the couple, and then pretends everything can go back to normal when a way out is revealed thanks to Das’s repentance at Mrs Lahiri’s behest. The famous confrontation scene ahead of the even more famous exit was electric, especially given the stakes for Niru are arguably even greater than for the average Nora. Now the last time I saw Mr Cowan was as the host at the holiday home which provided the setting for Anne Washburn’s brilliant dissection of liberal America Shipwreck at the Almeida. Where he doubled up as a kind of mythic tyrant Trump. Bloody scary. He is a tall bloke: the physical contrast with the elfin Ms Vasan added to the mental tussle between the Helmers. I also note that Mr Cowan had an important part too as the idealistic journalist Charlie in the NT revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s African post-colonial epic Les Blancs.

Anyway my guess is both are leads jumped at the opportunity to take on these roles and I for one am glad they did. Like I say A Doll’s House is going to be the subject of constant innovation but you could wait a long time before seeing an interpretation as intelligent and thought provoking as this. West End producers are constantly on the hunt for a popular classic> they could do far worse than this production though I get that no super big names are involved here. Mind you I am pretty sure Anjana Vasan will be one day.