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.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

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Aristocrats

Donmar Warehouse, 20th September 2018

Brian Friel, like his own dramatist hero Chekhov, can take a bit of time to get going. Faith Healer, at this theatre a couple of years ago, exerted a vice like grip on me from the open, though that may have been because it is such a brilliantly crafted and slippery multiple monologue, and thanks to the directorial magic of Lyndsey Turner (the director here as well), and the heavyweight thespian trio of Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee and Ron Cook. Translations, at the NT earlier in the year, is painted on an altogether broader and more thematic canvas, so required a little more cerebral investment (Translations at the National Theatre review ****). Aristocrats is closer to the Russian master, but once again we have a diversity of characters, all with, shall I say, the gift of the gab, so it takes some time for the pot to come to the boil.

But when it does Mr Friel certainly scales the dramatic and semiotic heights,as revelations tumble out, and we watch this sad, trapped family fade from view. The play is set in “the big house”, the Hall, in Friel’s fictional Donegal settlement of Ballybeg. These (largely) Georgian country mansions were found throughout Ireland apparently, but were largely the domain of the Anglo-Irish Protestant families exported by us British to b*gger up Ireland through the centuries, and gifted their land by the Penal Laws from 1695. in Aristocrats the family though is, unusually, Catholic. Not quite Brideshead but cut from similar cloth.

The play is set in the 1970’s and the only income the O’Donnell family now derives from the land is through sales. For three generation the law has been their prime source of income with the largely unseen, and terminally ill, Father (James Laurenson) having been a District Justice. The only son, effete fantasist Kasimir (David Dawson), has failed as a solicitor and now, implausibly, works in a sausage factory in Hamburg with wife Helga and three kids. This leaves long suffering oldest daughter Judith (Eileen Walsh) to look after Dad and shoulder the burden of the decaying house and estate, with substantial help from local fixer Willie Diver (David Ganly). London based daughter Alice (Elaine Cassidy), mired in drink, is unhappily married to Eamon (Emmet Kirwan), the son of an ex-housekeeper, who fully grasps the family’s, and his own, plight. Youngest daughter Claire (Aisling Loftus) is recently engaged and the reason why the family has come together, though clearly vulnerable in her diagnosed depression.

The family is completed by the taciturn Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre) who has lived in the house since the year dot, and, for the weekend that they all initially come together, an American academic Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins), who is researching the history of these very families and houses. The family celebration, predictably, evolves into a bout of ugly soul-searching and thwarted ambition.

This is a family isolated by geography, class, religion and history. Long resented by, and now largely irrelevant to,  the local “peasantry”, ignored by their Protestant peers, wealth dissipated through long economic decline, waiting for the patriarch to die so they can be set free. Dysfunctional, motherless, fearful families are meat and drink in the Irish dramatic tradition, indeed BF himself took this (and the O’Donnell surname) as the starting point for his breakthrough Ballybeg play Philadelphia Here I Come! Both feature three sisters, (well four here as it momentously turns out), and one brother, just like Anton, indeed Aristocrats might be best viewed as a bit too reverential a mash up of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. This is, at heart, a story of a family who haven’t really come to grips with the reality of what they have become, just like Chekhov’s families. The past, in BF’s world, is constructed through the language of the present, “false” memories abound.

Indeed this is a little big a part of the problem with Aristocrats. BF’s evident enjoyment in building layer upon layer of character development and in analysing this particular social, cultural and economic milieu does make the first couple of acts just that teensy big tardy. The set of Es Devlin is the non-naturalistic, bluish sunken box, and carefully arranged objects, including a dolls house to signify Ballybeg Hall, that we have come to expect from her which doesn’t offer any visual distraction, adding further distance. When not involved the cast sits at the back, killing time. Uncle George is largely employed to peel away the covering on the back wall to reveal an idyllic C18 arcadian scene, the history of the house in reverse. This play is, after all, one long goodbye.

Fortunately we are treated to some vibrant performances and it is this that brings BF’s melancholic language to life. I expect it didn’t take long for David Dawson to be cast in the role of the “peculiar” Kasimir. Now nervous Kasimir clearly has a bunch of issues, probably caused by Mummy (a suicide) and Daddy. His elaborate invention of a family in Germany, presumably to mask his own sexuality, his apparent inventions about the distinguished literary and musical figures, most improbably Yeats, who visited the house in the past, his belief in Mother’s piano playing ability. Yet there is a kind of child-like desire to be liked which elicits sympathy. it would be pretty easy to under- or over- play Kasimir but Mr Dawson avoids both temptations.

Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a more recognisably damaged character, purposeless, and here visibly lost to alcohol, with occasional painful glimpses of self-awareness. Eileen Walsh is persuasive when Judith finally gets to free herself from the house and its routine, and the ambiguity of her relationship wth David Ganly’s Willy (as it were), is neatly conveyed. After all his regard for Claire surely explains why he keeps helping, or maybe there is some residual duty and/or pity.

If the family cannot see the truth then it is left to the outsiders to supply it and Emmet Kirwan shows us Eamon’s duality as part of of, but not born into, the family, and the one who may perversely be most attached to the house. Paul Higgins can’t really convince us as to the reasons why Tom is there, he really is a device for BF to “look into” the play and prompt context, but it isn’t too intrusive.

There are some plays that work better after you have seem them. Aristocrats may be one of them for me. Not as perfectly constructed as Faith Healer, as pointed as Philadelphia Here I Come! or as densely clever as Translations, it takes time to break free from its artifice (which this production does nothing to allay). Yet, and in contrast to received critical wisdom, I have a feeling that the impressions left by the characters and the play may linger as long, if not longer, than these masterpieces. Funny things, memories.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Donmar Warehouse, 19th July 2018

The SO obviously is a big fan of Muriel Spark’s novel. We are both big fans of Ronald Neame’s film version, (only the other day I revisited this director’s magnificently cheesy The Poseidon Adventure), though let’s face it that is largely because Maggie Smith delivers a technicolour Maggie Smith performance. No less than David Harrower, (Knives in Hens, Dark Earth, Blackbird and some classic adaptions), was turning book into text here and Polly Findlay was directing. We have actors of the talent of Angus Wright, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Edward MacLiam and I was particularly keen to see Rona Morison again, who was so good in Orca at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016).

But, more than all of this, the big draw was Lia Williams in the title role. I believe Ms Williams is one of our finest stage actors, most recently seen in the Almeida’s Mary Stuart and Oresteia, (alongside Angus Wright as it happens), and, earlier in her career, Oleanna and Skylight. She is also a mean Pinterite, (if that is the word), and I am looking forward to her directing the opening salvo of plays in the upcoming Pinter season alongside Jamie Lloyd.

Now I had not remembered, from the film, just how ambiguously complex a character Ms Brodie is. An inspiration to the girls, (with Grace Saif, Emma Hindle, Nicola Coughlan, she who brilliantly told a twat of a critic where to get off in his insulting review, and Helena Wilson, all superb alongside Rona Morison’s Sandy), who genuinely wants to help then break free of stifling convention, but also manipulative, desperate, unfulfilled with a nasty undercurrent of fascist sympathy. David Harrower’s adaptation makes all this plain, without any need for histrionics, artfully augmented by Polly Findlay’s methodical direction and Lizzie Clachlan’s pared back design. His subtle inclusion of sub-plots involving Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce Emily, who is spurned by Sandy (and belittled by Miss JB) and goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and the framing device of Sandy’s book, worked for me.

Angus Wright as the long suffering, and increasingly frustrated music teacher Mr Lowther, and Edward MacLiam as the more volcanic, and damaged art teacher Teddy Lloyd, were admirable foils to Lia William’s Brodie as they vied for her complex affections. Miss Brodie affects to the aesthetic but real human connection seems to scare her. She provokes rebellion but is actually intellectually conservative. Maybe the guilt of Sandy, as the pupil who betrays Miss Brodie and enters a convent as penitence, (which we see in flash forwards through interviews with Kit Young’s journalist), was a little too forward in Mr Harrower’s adaptation, you know she is Miss Brodie’s nemesis from the off, but it does draw out the darkness in Miss JB’s psyche.

Lia Williams is up against some pretty stiff competition when it comes to theatrical Brodies even if we put Dame Maggie to one side. Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and Patricia Hodge, as well as Geraldine McEwan on the telly, have all had a stab. I can’t comment on any of these performances but I can’t imagine they were any better at capturing Miss JB’s dichotomies than this.

With a bit of luck this will end up a run out in the West End. If so I heartily recommend you see it.

 

Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre review *****

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Red

Wyndham’s Theatre, 21st June 2018

The original production of John Logan’s play Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne passed me by. More fool me. So I was looking forward to catching this revival directed by Michael Grandage, (who directed the original), with Alfred Enoch now playing fictional assistant Ken alongside Alfred Molina once again as Mark Rothko. It went directly to Broadway after the Donmar, and has popped up over 30 locations since, but this was the first revival in the UK.

Red isn’t a complicated set up. Ken pitches up to “interview” for the job. Rothko takes a shine to him. Their relationship develops. It is really just a device to explore the nature of art and artists in general, as well as specific, terms. Rothko wasn’t a jolly chap by all accounts but he thought long and hard, perhaps a little too long and hard, about what he did. The play focusses on the months in 1959 when Rothko had taken on the commission to create a series of panels, like a Renaissance great, to hang in the restaurant of the Four Season hotel in the Seagram building in New York, a commission he eventually refused to complete.

I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to eat a couple of times in the restaurant. It is a cathedral to late C20 neo-liberal capitalism. It doesn’t need any paintings. It is certainly not a place for quiet contemplation. Apparently Rothko was partly inspired by the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a visit to Europe in 1959, another “f*ck you” little people, we’re the elite” OTT mausoleum. Apparently on an earlier trip in 1950 he was bowled over by Fra Angelico’s supreme frescoes at San Marco. I know which I prefer.

The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator, Christopher Oram, complemented by the masterly lighting of Neil Austin, is a triumph. It imagines the studio in the Bowery where Rothko created the Seagram murals with representations of some of the 40 or so canvases/studies that Rothko created, three different series, in dark reds and browns, to meet the commission. We are afforded an insight into Rothko’s materials and (secret) process; in one marvellous scene we see real physicality as Molina and Enoch prepare a canvas with a wash. The activity provides a counterfoil to the initially one-sided, but increasingly argumentative, as Ken’s confidence grows, dialogue examining Rothko’s own frustrations with the Seagram commission itself and with the reaction of society to his own art.

Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903 in Latvia of Russian-jewish descent and came to America with his family in 1913. His father died shortly afterwards and Rothko questioned his religion. He was brought up in Portland, Oregon and initially set out to be a union organiser given his strong socialist beliefs. Fiercely intelligent, he gained a scholarship to Yale but dropped out, moved to New York and became an artist and enrolled at a design school where he was taught by Arshile Gorky and Max Weber. Initially he was influenced by German Expressionism, turning out some well regarded early work, though needing to teach at the Brooklyn Jewish to supplement his income. In the early 1930’s he entered a circle of artists, (including Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman), who surrounded Milton Avery and took trips to paint in Massachusetts. In 1934 he had his first solo show which revealed his skill with deep colour, founded a movement called The Ten, exhibited in Paris and New York and worked with the Works Progress Administration alongside the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.

Rothko’s singular way with colour was emerging in his figurative work but he also experimented with surrealism and paintings drawn from mythology. The influence of Europe was still strong even as the modernists in the US took aim against the specifically “American” art of the inter war years.  He separated from wife Edith for a short period in 1937 and took up US citizenship in 1938 and changed his name, fearing the wave of anti semitism might lead to deportation.

Rothko’s tireless search for an intellectual, cultural and philosophical framework for his art eventually led him to that other tormented soul Nietzsche, notably the Birth of Tragedy, which spurred a series of works drawn from Classical and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Following a less than successful exhibition at Macy’s department store in 1942 Rothko penned the following which about sums up the direction he was about to take. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

After separating from his wife again and a period of depression Rothko went to California and struck up a friendship with Clyfford Still who would become a clear influence on his work. I have a deep suspicion of much US Abstract Expressionism but Clyfford Still’s monumental slabs of bright colour, punctuated by jagged lines, and drawn from the landscape of his native North Dakota, are arresting and extremely beautiful. A return to New York, and another not entirely successful exhibition at the Guggenheim, saw Rothko move closer to pure abstraction which properly appeared from 1946 in the so called “multiform” paintings; blocks of colour devoid of human form, landscape or symbol. More essays, an obsession with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and finally, in 1949, an exhibition of works which defined the Rothko style from there on in,  and now a cornerstone of modern Western art. The two or three blocks of complementary, coalescing, contrasting colours flickering and shifting with the light, though initially the tones were often quite bright; greens, blues alongside yellows and oranges.

Rothko’s popularity, and the value of his work, spiralled but he became increasingly protective of his art, and one might argue, overly grandiose in his claims for it. He asked viewers to examine the works from up close to intensify the “spiritual experience”. The colours got darker maybe mirroring the increasing darkness in the artist’s own pysche Cliche or not Rothko certainly walked the talk of the tortured artist, as did Pollock in his own way. His politics left him uneasy with the trappings of commercial success (Fortune magazine singled out his work for “investment), though he still reportedly liked the money. He got lumped in with his Abstract Expressionist peers, much to his chagrin, fell out with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who accused him of being a sell out, went through loads of assistants and became a father with second wife Mell. As his fame grew so did his alienation. Here was an artist who might have been happier to work in cloistered obscurity. Or would he?

That is were Red the play picks up the story. Now if I tell you that vast swathes of the potted bio above are referenced in the play, largely by Rothko himself, you will probably realise that you are in for a bit of a lecture here. However, by having Rothko pour it all out to Ken, himself an aspiring artist, though he never plucks up the courage to show his work to Rothko, it doesn’t feel ponderously didactic. It probably helps if you have a rough idea of what Rothko was about, and a smattering of art history, but it is by no means essential. the play stands as terrific entertainment even without that.

Which frankly in large part is down to Alfred Molina’s amazing performance. He just is Mark Rothko. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have no idea what Mr Rothko was like but, thanks to the illusion of theatre, I, and I would be willing to guess all the audiences that have seen this, believe that this is Rothko. Which means all of the references to his own life and art, to the history of art and to the relationship between art, society and economy, fall naturally out of the discussions with Ken. Above all you accept that MR didn’t go in for small talk, (which reminds me there is no little humour on show to leaven proceedings), and, for all his intellectual certainty there was something something lacking emotionally. in the man. An intellectual prize fighter, spoiling for a fight, but desperate for attention. Apollo and Dionysius. Which explains why he lets Ken stick around for a bit.

Rothko went on to even greater fame after pulling the plug on the Seagram murals, (some of which now hang in the special room at the centre of Tate Modern). Other mural projects followed culminating in the slightly preposterous conceit of the Rothko Chapel in Texas. However he was overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960’s, a movement he despised, but which is, in the play, championed by Ken.

A heart condition, fags, booze, bad diet, separation from second wife, smaller paintings and a Marat style suicide and an argument over his estate. There is probably another play here. 836 paintings, spread around public and private collections, including in his Latvian birthplace, books, posters, postcards, snapchats, there are few artists whose work is so well known. I always want to sneer and walk away whenever I see a late Rothko, (I haven’t seen enough of his earlier incarnations to make a judgment), but I never can. They cast a spell and, cliche alert again, invite contemplation. Such is the power of colour, paint, form and tone and Rothko’s special technique.

The play lasts just 90 minutes yet the Wyndham’s and MGC folk are asking you to shelve out full West End prices. Is this good value? I’ll leave you to decide but it is a superb play and better than most anything else in the West End right now. A Russian oligarch paid near US$ 200m for a 1951 Rothko painting a few years back. Presumably he thought he got value for money. Mind you he is the same fellow he recently sold the ropey Leonardo for US$ 450m and appears to have been conned by his dealer. Look him up. Quite a character.

The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

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The York Realist

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd March 2018

Live in Sheffield? Like theatre? Then you must go see this production of the 2001 play, The York Realist, which is on at the Crucible for the next couple of weeks. Live in Sheffield and no interest in the theatre? Even more reason to go. The family at the centre of this play went to see the York Mystery Plays and they were bowled over by it. The same will happen to you if you see this. Cast iron guarantee.

This is the first time I have seen a play from the pen of Peter Gill and I can’t imagine a more sympathetic production. This revival is a co-production between the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres and, if this is what Artistic Director Robert Hastie, serves up to the good people of Sheffield on a regular basis then I might just have to move there. I see there is a production of Caryl Churchill’s epic, by her standards, Love and Information set for early July. I’ve signed up. For those with the attention span of a gnat this is the play for you.

Back to The York Realist. The “York Realist” was, probably, the writer of 8 of the 48 individual plays or pageants which make up the York version of the Medieval Mystery Plays. These were constructed as a way of bringing the Bible stories to the hoi-polloi, both as performers and audience, through the C14, C15 and C16. The 8 plays in question are characterised by the broad, Yorkshire vernacular in the text, lending them an everyday realism. A production of the Mystery Plays is what brings together the protagonists in the play, John and George, in the early 1960s. Peter Gill too has conjured up a completely naturalistic play, over four acts and set entirely in one set, the main room of the tied cottage which agricultural labourer George shares with his unnamed Mother. George’s sister Barbara lives nearby with husband Arthur and son Jack, and nearest neighbour Doreen is a regular visitor.

There is a little formal experimentation in terms of chronology but none of the shenanigans ushered in to British play-writing by the likes of Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Bond, Churchill and Stoppard. The plays opens with John visiting George after his Mother has died, before we revert to the early days of their relationship. At its heart this is the love story of John and George and it is a very affecting love story indeed, (some parallels with the recent debut film from Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, I gather).

Well-spoken southerner John, a doe-eyed, polite Jonathan Bailey, is the assistant director at the Mystery Plays, (as indeed Peter Gill was in his youth in the 1960s). George is a blunt, muscular, salt of the earth type who can’t commit to sticking with the play. It is hard to imagine anyone else but the excellent Ben Batt playing the part. John has come to persuade him back to the play. Their attraction is obvious from the start and both actors are completely convincing in their relationship. George’s seduction is amusingly direct, John’s coyness easily overcome

Their relationship flounders more on the rocks of class and geography than the reaction of family, who have tacitly accepted George’s sexuality. George feels bound, or maybe chooses, to stay looking after ailing Mother, Downton’s Lesley Nicol, and eventually bows to what seems inevitable by taking up with the humble, attentive Doreen (Katie West), who has been waiting all her life for him despite his identity. With minimal and unforced dialogue, and some very gentle disclosure, we also get to see the ambitions and frustrations of bluff Arthur (Matthew Wilson), indefatigable Barbara (Lucy Black) and Brian Fletcher’s Jack who seems destined, if reluctant, to take up farm labouring.

What is so brilliant about Peter Gill’s writing is the way, within this entirely naturalistic scenario, he draws out the themes he wishes to explore. John’s slightly patronising middle class fascination with the past, the rural and the antique, (though he isn’t prepared to abandon his life and work in London and creature comforts to live in the country), George’s acknowledgement of all that London has to offer but his fear of moving (“I live here”), the denial of identity, the pull of family, gender roles, the allure of self-sacrifice and devotion, the limitations placed on aspiring working class actors, the power of theatre and its appropriation as “high culture”, the inequity of tied farming. None of this is rammed down your throat, and perhaps the biggest dichotomy, the fact that gay relationships were still illegal in the early 1960s, is made more telling by its near absence in the story.

Apparently Peter Gill has a long association with the Donmar as writer and director. Just shows how much I know. I was aware of his guiding hand behind the Riverside Studios in its heyday in the late 1970s and his association with the National Theatre Studio in the 1980s. I see that the new Riverside Studios is close to completion, (passed it on the bus the other day), though I think it will be devoted once again to TV. I only got the bus because I didn’t have time to walk along that part of the Chiswick riverside where Peter Gill lived. That’s one of the joys of culture-vulturism. All the little coincidences and connections.

I can’t imagine Robert Hastie’s direction, Peter McKintosh’s design, Paul Pyant’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound being bettered. I do note that some of the proper critics think this has improved on the original production at the Royal Court in 2002. I can tell you it is a very fine play and, if they match this, I hope to see other revivals of Mr Gill’s work. Meanwhile people of Sheffield you know what to do.

 

 

A (flawed) guide to London theatres

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When I was a young teenager I took to making up some very odd games. I wasn’t lonely, with a handful of very good friends as I remember, and my very earliest encounters with the ladies were amongst my most successful, since my true nature, an awkward mix of the needy and the misanthropic, had yet to be revealed. I was something of a swot, what you might call bookish and then, as now, was sometimes a little confused by what others did or said in social situations. But definitely not on any sort of spectrum I reckon, beyond that of the awkward 16 year old lad with lank, long hair, (despite the advent of punk), robust flares, bumfluff and the ability to make a pint of lager last a whole evening.

But enacting an entire Subbuteo World Cup, sixteen teams, (these were the days when FIFA could just about control its financial appetites – if you want to see what the future, actually present, of human “governance” looks like, like no further than the masters of the beautiful game), then quarters, semis and a final. All stats carefully recorded in a special notebook. All done on my own. That’s right. I played with myself, (no titters at the back please). Which meant that, whilst pretending to myself that this was an entirely objective exercise exercise, I got to see England play Holland in the final. England because that’s the fiction that is most deep-rooted in my psychology. But Holland won. Retribution for the injustice meted outed in the “real” World Cup final in 1974, (and, though I did not know it, but somehow feared it, again in 1978), and an early indication of my rabid pro-Europeanism.

Sounds a bit weird right. Except that PlayStations hadn’t been invented. So I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not a sad adolescent.

Anyway responsibility, albeit of a most shrunken kind, has meant I have had to let go of such childish things but I still like a good list, dictated by me, which purports to be based on “facts” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Though, as you know, (tautology alert), there are no such things as facts, only theories yet to be unproven, and “information” is mediated, and mutilated, by both provider and consumer. Do not believe anything, least of all if it comes out of your own head. Proud to be a sceptic.

So you can safely ignore what follows.

Since theatre is my current passion, I thought I would tot up the ratings that I had given the entertainments I had enjoyed over the past three years, derive some averages, adjust for frequencies and thereby show what London theatres reliably put on the best work. Thereby confirming my own biases, with my own biased ratings, mashed through a filter of spurious statistical analysis. Just the kind of woeful shite that organisations, opinion formers and your governors do everyday apparently on your behalf.

So here’s my top ten (well eleven actually). Turns out that it is a proven fact (!) that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is the best of the bunch, the Royal Court is a thing of wonder, especially when you reflect on the fact that the work is almost entirely new, and the National Theatre under Rufus Norris is not, repeat not, undergoing any sort of existential crisis, despite what some would say. The trouble with all those right-wing cultural commentators is that they are only happy when they have something to moan about; they can only argue the negative. I hope the Theatre Royal Haymarket continues its more enlightened programming under the new owners. The Young Vic remains the most exciting major theatre, even if that means a few misfires, and the one where I learn the most. The Barbican benefits from the RSC and the International companies that come through the door. The Donmar rarely drops a bollock but here you really have to be quick at the gate to get a seat. The Arcola and The Orange Tree get my vote for best of the fringe, and the Gate for those with more adventurous tastes. The Old Vic doesn’t always belt it out of the park but is pretty reliable.

In fact overall I doubt there is anything here that would surprise the seasoned theatre-goer. thus adding a nice line in utter pointlessness to the sins of commission I have already committed in compiling, and worst still, writing up this list.

There are a couple of lessons though for the more casual consumer of drama. Firstly, do not think for one moment that watching a film or series on a tiny screen can in any way match the thrill of live theatre, and secondly, if you want to avoid being the sap who comments that “I would liked to have seen that but it was all sold out before the reviews appeared … ” or end up paying three times the price for a painfully uncomfortable seat in some West End mausoleum, then sign yourself up to the Almeida, Royal Court and National lists and take the plunge as soon as you seen something half-interesting.

  1. Almeida Theatre 4.33
  2. Royal Court Theatre 3.87
  3. National Theatre 3.81
  4. Theatre Royal Haymarket 3.80
  5. Young Vic 3.79
  6. Barbican Theatre 3.78
  7. Donmar Warehouse 3.75
  8. Arcola Theatre 3.71
  9. Orange Tree Theatre 3.67
  10. Old Vic 3.60
  11. The Gate Theatre 3.60