Plenty at the Chichester Festival Theatre review ****

Plenty

Chichester Festival Theatre, 27th June 2019

Sir David Hare has written a fair few plays. Important plays. As well as TV screenplays and film scripts. I’ve only seen a handful but it’s not difficult to work out why the old boy is so important. Even if some would suggest he has gone off the boil a bit in recent years. Maybe that’s true though for me there was still much to admire in his last two plays I’m Not Running and his adaptation of The Red Barn, and in the TV drama Collateral. Is he Britain’s greatest living playwright? I think Mr Stoppard’s admirers would have something to say about that and, for me, Caryl Churchill, trumps them both.

So to this revival of Plenty. It wasn’t Sir David’s first success in the theatre. Slag from 1970, performed at the Royal Court, was the breakthrough with Knuckle, Brassneck, (written in collaboration with Howard Brenton as was 1985’s Pravda, a truly great play which is still lodged in my mind), and, especially, Fanshen, the Joint Stock workshopped production about land reform in revolutionary China, all attracting considerable attention. But Plenty stands as one o the clearest expositions of his talent. At least so I was told by those in the know. So I leapt at the chance to nip down to Chichester to see this new production. Especially as the CFT had handed the keys over to a talented, but not big name, cast (with maybe one obvious exception) and creative team.

Mind you director Kate Hewitt had already shown her gifts to the good people of Chichester in last year’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock in the Minerva and again, at the Young Vic, with Jesus Hopped the A Train. Designer Georgia Lowe also worked on Cock and has come up with some grand designs for recent ETT productions and An Octoroon which the Tourist has enjoyed. For Plenty she has produced a lean but richly toned representation with further depth courtesy of Lee Curran’s lighting, Giles Thomas’s sound and Nina Dunn’s backgrounds and close up live video. There are a lot of scene changes in Plenty as the action flips from 1943 to 1956 and 1962. Every scene looks the part in this production and none of these changes get in the way of the story.

The title was inspired by the idea that post war Britain would be a land of “plenty”, an idea that Sir David has always been keen to contend. In Plenty he does this through the life of Susan Traherne, a heroine in the wartime Special Operations Executive whose life after the war is blighted by disappointment and regret. As the wife of a repressed career diplomat, Raymond Brock, she cannot replicate the rush of her secret missions behind enemy lines and, as depression sets in, she in turn drags down her husband. Their childlessness being the most crushing outcome both literally and metaphorically. Apparently 75% of the women engaged by the SOE divorced soon after the war. Susan’s own decline is intended to mirror that of post war Britain with Raymond’s postings and specifically his actions alongside boss Sir Leonard Darwin at the time of the Suez Crisis creating a brilliant counterpoint.

This is what Sir David does. Mixes the political and the personal. The way in which an individual’s life is intertwined with the, here, upper class, repressed British society into which they are thrust. Fair to say he is not the only dramatist who has ploughed this particular furrow. But he is amongst the best. Because he has the gift for the gab. Lines spill effortlessly out of the mouths of his characters. Any exposition, and with all these big themes lurking in the not-so background, a lot of ground needs to be covered, flows naturally in the dialogue. OK so maybe they get to the big picture arguments a bit too rapidly but then again in Plenty, as in his other plays, his people actually live in the big picture.

But this never detracts from the interior journey of the main protagonists. Here Susan and Raymond. Sir David may be a Chekhov groupie like so many of his illustrious peers but Susan Traherne might have stepped straight out of the pages of an Ibsen classic. In reverse trajectory. And with a nod to Rattigan’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea which CFT also revived earlier in the year. Same class, same period, (though TDBS is set over one day compared to the 20 years of Plenty), same frustrations. This is a woman trying to revive the agency of her past life whilst surrounded by men determined, for reasons moreorless deliberate, to thwart her.

You have probably surmised that Susan Traherne is a gift of a part but it takes an actor of rare skill to do justice to it. Rachael Stirling is just such an actor. (Mind you if your Mum is Diana Ring I guess you wee genetically predisposed to be brilliant on stage). She refrains from laying on too thickly ST’s descent into depression and, maybe, psychosis, and handles the shifting time frames with ease. The bitter sarcasm she levels at, most memorably, the dinner party guests at the height of the Suez crisis and, then again, in 1962 at Raymond’s bosses at the FCO, is not entirely absent even at the outset when she meets “Codename Lazar” (Rupert Young) and “A Frenchman” (Raphael Desprez) in occupied France. She’s brutally honest in a social and political milieu that doesn’t want to listen. Which is what makes the play so popular with us lefty, liberal types though in far too subtle a way to register with the gammons, then and now. As it happens I am not sure I share Sir David’s implied pessimism about the direction of GB’s travel since the war. There have been periods of ascent over the past decades, but I do think this is usually despite, not thanks to, the c*cks who are generally in the box seats.

Rory Keenan never loses sight of the fact that Raymond Brock is a bit of a dick imprisoned by his own values and upbringing but he still offers emotional support above and beyond for the woman he loves. Yolanda Kettle offers light(-ish) relief as ST’s life long chum Alice Park, an archetypal toff playing at the bohemian, but with a freedom ST years for, and Antony Calf and Nick Sampson also shine as the two knighted diplomat, the latter more sceptical of the Establishment system than the former.

“State of the Nation” and, for want of a better phrase, the dramatisation of institutional structures, is what we have paid Sir David Hare to deliver over the last five decades. Too many lightly sketched characters? Too many targets for his ire? Or too preoccupied with fighting the battles of previous years? A sometimes uncomfortable shoehorning of the personal into the political. All maybe true but this ain’t easy and, with line after line, Is David shows us why he is as good as it gets with this sort of stuff. And Plenty is about as good as it gets as an example of his sort of stuff.

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.

Chekhov’s First Play at the Battersea Arts Centre review ***

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Chekhov’s First Play

Battersea Arts Centre, 5th November 2018

Some venerable theatre grandees have had a crack a knocking Anton Chekhov’s first play into shape. The venerable Lev Dodin and The Maly Theatre presented a version based on Chekhov’s own text, albeit with nine characters chopped out and a jazz band inserted, which got it down to four hours from Chekhov’s original five hours plus. Based on the Maly Theatre’s latest visit to London I would imagine that was still something of a trial. (Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***). As it happens AC wrote it in 1878, aged 19, for Russian acting superstar Maria Yermolova,  diva of the Maly Theatre, but she, not unreasonably, rejected it given its rambling nature and it didn’t get published until 1923.

Chekhov obsessive Michael Frayn conjured up an adaptation in 1984, entitled Wild Honey which has had a few work-outs including at the Hampstead Theatre last year. David Hare similarly produced an adaptation for the Almeida in 2001 and it was this text, Platonov, which formed part of the Young Chekhov trilogy alongside Ivanov, AC’s first “proper” full length play, and The Seagull. the first of the four classics, in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of 2015 which then transferred to the National Theatre.

And it was this, and only this of the three, that I saw, in the spirit of curiosity, in 2016. There was a lot to like, especially in the performances of James McArdle as our eponymous Hamletian hero and Nina Sosanya’s Anna and Olivia Vinall’s Sofya who play his two main love interests, as well as, Jonathan Kent’s keen direction. But I can’t say I was bowled over. This is in part might reflect the fact that I didn’t get to experience the transition towards the multifaceted tragi-comedy of The Seagull via the ripe drama of Ivanov. It might also be that, even stripped down, Platonov in this version is just a bit samey. Our schoolteacher has charisma for sure, a worldly man trapped in a less than worldly place, who thinks a great deal and has the wit and looks to take on his babe magnet mantle. But he is also a bit of a dick, drinks too much and probably deserves what he gets at the hands of Sofya. All the material and characters which populated AC’s later world are present, but not necessarily correct.

This then is the play which Irish company Dead Centre have chosen to present in Chekhov’s last play. Only they have got it down to 90 minutes. And I think I can safely say that AC’s role as one of the daddy’s of naturalism was not in their playbook. This instead is a wild deconstruction, not just of Chekhov, but also of theatre and its practices and, probably, the pursuit of “meaning”. Russians like to talk. So do the Irish. And both are pretty good with theatre suffused with meaning and verging on the absurd.

The audience is presented with headphones on seating which the director of “Chekhov’s First Play”, Bush Moukarzel, (the actual director alongside Ben Kidd), explains in a prologue, whilst toting a gun, will allow him to comment on the unfolding “action”, and the thematic sub-texts,  as our assorted melancholic Russians, sans Platonov himself, take to the stage. Turns out the anhedonic Mr Moukarzel is not happy with the play or the performers though and proceeds to drily tell us so. This comic parody of Chekhov, via a disillusioned auteur, is what I had expected when I signed up and what I had sold to the Captain who had gamely agreed to accompany me.

It didn’t stop there though. Whilst there was plenty to chuckle at in the AC take-down, Dead Centre had, in fact, only just got started. When the director exits, permanently, the show really lets rip, taking potshots not just at Chekhov but at all manner of theatrical conventions, and the cast, and the story, bleeds into the present, at one point referencing the impact of the financial crisis in Ireland and ordering in a Chinese take-away. Platonov, the focus of the “characters” hopes and dreams, finally puts in an appearance, but in a way you least expect, but which itself proves a masterstroke. A wrecking ball, literally, swings in, to demolish the “estate’ to the tune of young Ms Cyrus. The rich landowner turns to manual labour. A doctor knows nothing about medicine. The heiress’s blood is blue. Et cetera, et cetera,

Now I can’t pretend that I fully grasped all of the references and all of the ideas Dead Centre were presenting. No matter. there were enough slack-jawed, WTF moments to keep me transfixed and enough playful returns to the obsessions of AC’s own characters to keep me guessing. I reckon that this, like much devised theatre, might have made more “sense” to the creators than the audience, but wild invention goes a long way here. The Captain, who is the very definition of phlegmatic, professed to enjoy it, and, I suspect, was inwardly chiding me for trying too hard to work out what was “going on”.

Andrew Clancey’s unravelling set, and the sound, lighting, choreography and effects of Jimmy Eadie, Kevin Gleeson, Stephen Dodd, Liv O’Donoghoe and Grace O’Hara, alongside the fully committed cast of Andrew Bennett, Tara Egan-Langley, Clara Simpson, Dylan Tighe, Breffni Holahan and Liam Carney, have give or take, been together on this since its premiere in Dublin in 2015. That explains why the deconstructed mayhem is so precise.

This is an entertainment that will stick in the Tourist’s memory for some time, he suspects. No scrub that. This is something that it will take a long time for him to forget.

The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****

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The Moderate Soprano

Duke of York’s Theatre, 7th June 1018

There are a couple of weeks to go in the run of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre. There are plenty of (discounted) tickets left. You could do a lot worse than seeing this if you are after a bit of last minute theatre action. It charts the relationship of eccentric millionaire type John Christie and his singer wife Audrey Mildmay, (and the bunch of pre WWII emigres from Central Europe who helped them), as they set out to create the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in, essentially, their back garden. So if a gentle, though still involving, tale of toffs ill-advisedly pursuing their opera dream appeals don’t hesitate. If not I’d understand but you would be missing a treat from one of out greatest living playwrights.

Roger Allam, complete with convincing bald pate courtesy of make-up, and preposterously high-waisted linen trousers, plays Captain John Christie a textbook British oddball who inherited the Glyndebourne estate but didn’t then loaf around Brideshead style, instead leading his troops from the front in WWI, teaching science at Eton and then poking his nose into to matters of Efficiency in the matter of Government in WWII. He loved the opera, specifically Wagner, (I gather some people do though it beats me why), making regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He eventually finds love, late in life, and marries English soprano singer Audrey Mildmay played by Nancy Caroll, after much persistent wooing.

The Captain hatches a plan to build a small. 300 seater, opera house in the grounds of the estate, as you do. He recruits conductor Fritz Busch as Musical Director, (his brother was the founder of the legendary Busch Quartet), Professor Carl Ebert as Artistic Director and Rudolf Bing as Festival Director and overall marketing supremo. All three have escaped Nazi Germany, Bing, (whose extraordinary life is worthy of its own dramatisation), because he was a well-to-do Jew married to a Russian ballerina, Busch because his artistic freedom was curtailed (in savage fashion) by Nazi sympathisers, including his own orchestra at one point, and Ebert because of his voluble criticism of the regime. In a series of informal meetings between the five we learn, as does Christie who is initially sanguine about the changes in the Germany he admires, how the regime has attacked the culture it hates, how Christie’s arm is twisted such that Mozart, not Wagner, becomes the staple of the inaugural pre-war seasons for reasons of practicality and how Audrey becomes the glue that holds the whole project together (and gets to sing). Christie aim was to ring world class opera to Britain, previously accustomed to more amateurish fare, and to do this he turned to the best that Europe had to offer.

The most powerful scenes however, in large part thanks to the supreme skill of both Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam, are the flash forwards after the Christies have passed on the baton of running the Festival and as Audrey’s health progressively deteriorates. Audrey and their two kids were sent by Christie to the safety of Canada during the War but, unable to receive money from England, Audrey needed to sing to get by, which eventually led to a bust up with Busch when he refused to cast her in his Cosi at the Met, the shop where he, and Bing, had pitched up post Glyndebourne. They eventually made up and Busch returned to Sussex from 1950. It seems that Audrey was poorly throughout when she returned, often cancelling performances, but was still able to support Christie at Glyndebourne, help Bing set up the Edinburgh Festival, (yes that Edinburgh Festival), and sit on the Arts Council. What a trooper.

We see her near the end, having lost her sight despite surgery for high blood pressure, and the devotion and love between her and Christie pours out off the stage. I am a sucker for watching art portraying old people still plainly in love but I defy you not to be drawn in. Christie in turn is looked after, by faithful retainer Jane Smith (Jade Williams) after Nancy passes away. Lovely stuff.

I fear I may have given a bit too much of the story away but perhaps this means you can see why David Hare, who I assume loves the opera, was drawn to it. Now I have to admit that I would love to see Mr Hare rustle up one of those searing, state of the nation multi-character extravaganzas of old, much like his recent Collateral on the telly. On the other hand his more “domestic”, heir-to-Rattigan, ordinary-made-extraordinary dramas, of which this is a prime example, are just as satisfying. Jeremy Herrin, who has form with both writer and cast, directs with his usual flair, Bob Crowley’s new set opens up to reveal stunning interior and exterior representations of Glyndebourne itself, including Christie’s impressive organ, (no tittering at the back), ably assisted by Paule Constable’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound designs.

Paul Jesson as Busch, Anthony Calf as Ebert and, especially, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bing are all perfectly cast and tremendous foils for Mr Allam and Ms Carroll, who reprise their roles from the original Hampstead Theatre run. The comedy, which is wired in to Mr Hare’s text, is beautifully executed, to sweetly contrast with the pathos.

Now I ave never been, nor would I ever go, to Glyndebourne. For the same price as even a ticket upstairs at Glyndebourne I could get a couple of luxury visits to Covent Garden, and several years worth of fun from my normal high up perch, or three or four trips to the ENO. I don’t have an evening suit and would vehemently object to wearing one anyway. And I can’t be arsed to travel to Sussex with a bunch of braying toffs. Oh, and as I have said before, most of the classic canon in the world of opera, which is Glyndebourne’s meat and drink, is a dreadful bore. So I can assure you my enjoyment of this play has nothing to do with any great love of the institution despite the fact I am a shocking cutural snob. It is just a very pleasing presentation of a very interesting story, unafraid of its explicit Romanticism.