Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.

Much Ado About Nothing at Wiltons Music Hall review ****

Much Ado About Nothing

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19th November 2019

The Tourist has been very much taken with previous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory productions, Othello and Henry V, both here and on home turf in Bristol. This latest, MAAN, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, as was Henry V, and who will be bringing Stef Smith’s take on A Doll’s House to the Young Vic next year, didn’t quite match these predecessors but still provided an entertaining, if inconsistent, evening of Shakespeare comedy.

At least it did when I snuck downstairs in the second half. I had forgotten just how dire the sound is upstairs at WMH, blighted by reverb, even if there are now some comfy perches. Not a big deal, and for some of the actors no deal at all, but it did mean that I had to strain to hear the lines of, particularly Alice Barclay as Ursula, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice and Imran Momen as Claudio. And, in Shakespeare, every word counts, however often ypu may have seen or read the play. In fact the more viewings the richer the language becomes.

Now MAAN is a comedy. And, unlike some of the Bard’s other comedies, it largely sticks to the make the punters laugh script. Even so, in amongst the comic couplings and the gossip, rumour, eavesdropping and misunderstandings, the “noting” of the original title, there are some dark ideas, to do with honour and patriarchal dominance, as Daddy Leonato (Christopher Bianchi) farms out his daughter Hero (Hannah Bristow) to Claudio and doesn’t for a moment consider she might be innocent of the charge of adultery. As ever with WS there is a questioning of gender stereotypes, even as those stereotypes are played out, which is what drives the comedy and is what Ms Freestone alights on in her interpretation through her gender blind casting, notably Georgia Frost (who stood out as she did in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase), as Don Pedro’s (Zachary Powell) here sister Don Jon, and, less successfully Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry.

Of course MAAN largely succeeds or fails on the “chemistry” between Beatrice and Benedick and here Ms Myer-Bennett, who it has been my pleasure to see in multiple plays in the last few years, and Geoffrey Lumb, who is a fine, and experienced, Shakespearean, were up for the fight. Verbal sparring only, of course, but sufficiently pointed throughout that at the end, you still sensed they would be chary of each others’ true feelings long after the ceremonies when we had all left Messina. Maybe not quite up to the benchmark set by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett in Christopher Luscombe’s RSC version from 2017 but still eminently watchable. Ms M-B’s Beatrice is, by some way, the smartest person in the room, but wields her fierce intelligence deliberately. Underneath the boorish exterior typical of his profession and sex there lurks a sensitive soul in Mr Lumb’s Benedick.

Some of the other relationships in the slimmed down dramatis personae don’t work quite as well. This tender Claudio’s love for his demure Hero persuades, his harsh about-turn later on less so. The soldiers’s banter works, the sibling rivalry between the Don’s seems forced. The party, complete with superhero costumes, clever, excites, the pivot to the disastrous wedding day, feels telegraphed, and the switch back to what is, in fairness, not the most hilarious Watch scene I have ever encountered, seemed to take this audience by surprise.

All in all, whilst there are some splendid passages and performances in the production. all set against Jean Chan’s delightful design, the rhythm of this STF production is just a little too erratic. However, once I was up close, the largely prose dialogue was, without exception (which is not always the case), pin sharp in its delivery. Whilst the look, feel and intention of the production is to present a MAAN for all time, that it works is largely down to this lucid approach.

Minus the echo of course. Won’t make that mistake again.

Creditors at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****

Creditors

Jermyn Street Theatre, 27th April 2019

I am still tiptoeing my way into Strindberg. A long history of ignoring him after an early dismissal many years ago was corrected with the companion piece to this, a version of Miss Julie, also translated by Howard Brenton, also directed by JST AD Tom Littler and also co-produced with The Theatre By The Lake which seems to serve the good people of Cumbria very well and probably needs a visit. There was also Polly Stenham’s version, simply Julie, in 2018 at the NT, a variation on her usual style. Neither were completely convincing, the former because of the play, the latter because of the production, but I recognise there is food for thought here, though far less than with Ibsen and Chekhov where I am now properly in the swing after some similar false starts many years ago.

It’s the underlying misogyny, even when old August may well be confronting it, and the violent swings in emotion which seem to be more necessitated by plot than character, which put me off. That is not to say that the grumpy Swede had nothing to say about the nastier side of love and passion just that the way he tackles it feels artificial to me. Now I know. It’s theatre. It isn’t real and doesn’t have to look like. Except that this is intended to be naturalistic and, like his contemporaries, offer an insight into the human condition, and specifically that thing that gets bound up in the phrase “love/hate relationship” or, more lazily I think, “the battle of the sexes”.

Mind you I have to say that this Creditors was a more engaging experience than Miss Julie. Maybe I am getting better at this theatre viewing lark, which would be heartening given the time and money invested, or maybe the way in which Creditors approaches the three way romantic tussle, here MFM rather than FMF, was more “relatable” (ugly word) to me, though I hasten to add I have never been caught up in such a scenario. The benefit, (or maybe curse), of being dull and painfully inept when it comes to matters of the heart.

What it can’t be, obviously is the creative approach. Like I say its the same team. Even down to the set where Louie Whitemore employs the same basic structure to create the seaside hotel reception room in which the sensitive, would-be artist, Adolf is convalescing with his fervent wife Tekla, that she employed to create the Scandi period kitchen for Miss Julie. Maybe the cast here was a little more to my taste though it is the same James Sheldon playing Adolf here in Creditors as the sexy servant Jean in the Miss Julie. I have a lot of time for Dorothea Myer-Bennett most of whose recent performances I have seen (Rosenbaum’s Rescue, Holy Sh*t, The Lottery of Love, The Philanderer) and she always stands out even if the play isn’t entirely convincing. Here she captured Tekla’s independent spirit, her devotion to Adolf and her still unresolved passion for the third character in this conflicted trinity, Gustaf.

He was played by David Sturzaker, another very fine theatre actor as it was my pleasure to discover recently in the multiple parts he mastered in the RSC’s excellent Tamburlaine. Here he shows how Gustaf’s insistent charm first cast doubts in Adolf’s mind about Tekla’s history, fidelity and ambition and then, as it is revealed that his presence in the hotel is no coincidence, he attempts to “win back” his ex-wife whilst Adolf eavesdrops from the room next door. These two scenes sandwich that between Tesla and Adolf where Adolf’s suspicions are angrily voiced despite her attempts to reassure.

Pretty straightforward huh and maybe not an especially original subject for drama you might think. But it is the way that Strindberg explores the motives and psychologies of his three protagonists, and the the way their emotional ambiguity is expressed, that turns it into something compelling. Why is Adolf so weak and open to persuasion? Tekla has expanded his artistic horizons and the marriage has been happy so why does he fall so easily for Gustaf’s Iago-like duplicity? She is intelligent, educated, sophisticated and worldly so why just WTF is Adolf’s beef? What is driving Gustaf to wreak this emotional havoc? Revenge, love for Tesla, wounded pride at the way Tekla, thinly disguised, ridiculed him in her autobiographical novel, toxic masculinity? Are Adolf and Tekla hiding something about their own history? Who is dependent on whom? Is Tekla still attracted to Gustaf’s “stronger” character? Is this just a game for Gustaf? Why the melodramatic ending?

Howard Brenton, like so many theatre types, is fascinated by the interiority, (yep it’s a real word), questions that Strindberg poses. As he is with other literary greats – see my forthcoming attempt to pick the bones of his latest play Jude inspired by Hardy (and, somewhat bizarrely, Euripides). As with Miss Julie this seemed, at least to this novice, an admirably forthright adaptation but then I know no better. It certainly, like the Miss Julie, serves up contemporary dialogue and caustic humour to set against the period setting and it comes in at a crisp 80 minutes or so. Same goes for Tom Littler’s direction and the unfussy lighting of Johanna Town and sound of Max Pappenheim. Howard Brenton has written a play, The Blinding Light, about Strindberg’s drift into madness, his “Inferno” period, which was directed by Tom Littler, and they have also combined for AS’s dances of Death, so you have to think they know what they are about here. So I am guessing this is about as good as it gets when it comes to modern interpretations of our August. Especially in the very intimate surroundings of the JST.

There is a lot more to Strindberg than the early, naturalistic plays which deal with that are most often performed. There are the the later more ambitious, symbolist works (A Dream Play, Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death). Various history plays. Theatre director and producer. Novels. Poems. Essays. Scientific investigations. Painting, (his symbolist landscapes, example above, tick the boxes for the Tourist). Also dabbled in theosophy, though this was very trendy in fin de siecle artistic circles, occultism and alchemy. Not surprising he went a bit bonkers. A social/anarchist with a strong antipathy for all forms of authority but also an anti-semite. A campaigner for women’s rights who helped transform the role of women in drama who was also an ugly misogynist in print and whose wives where decades younger than him.

When you read about his him, his plays and his place in Swedish culture it is easy to see whay he holds such an important place in world drama. Am I persuaded? I’ll let you know in a few more years, and after a few more productions.

Rosenbaum’s Rescue at the Park Theatre review ***

Rosenbaum’s Rescue

Park Theatre 200, 29th January 2018

Not quite sure why this didn’t entirely work for me. Alexander Bodin Sophir takes an intriguing story, the escape of 7500 Jews by boat from Copenhagen to Sweden in 1943 just before the Nazis were about to round them up, and puts it into the mouths of a Swedish historian, his German daughter, his Danish-Jewish friend and the latter’s wife as they are holed up at the couple’s house following a power cut. Mr ABS, in this his first play, has the passion to tell the story, his own grandparents escaped this way, and he has put the hours in research-wise, unsurprising given his day-job as documentary maker. He also contrives a punchy, if slightly overwrought, twist to proceedings at the end.

Actually I think I do know why. In the effort to cover all the contended reasons as to how and why these events happened, and to elide this with dramatic personal disclosures, ABS perhaps asks his text and dialogue to do just a bit too much heavy lifting and makes his characters just a bit too predictable.

It is Hanukkah, 2001 in the Scandi chic interior (courtesy of designer William Fricker) of the house of Abraham (David Bamber) and Sara (Julia Swift). They are preparing for a visit from Lars (Neil McCaul) and Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Lars is researching the events surrounding the evacuation. Abraham, as an observant Jew, is convinced that it was the result of the heroic resistance of the Danish people, and divine intercession, whilst Lars, an atheist, is convinced there was collusion between the Danish government, which had avoided the excesses of occupation elsewhere in Europe through flexible accommodation, and certain sympathetic Nazi higher-ups. Personal recollection, both men where 8 in 1943 plays a part as their friendship arose from a family connection formed at the time. Memories prove somewhat flawed and events open to interpretation especially when a few McGuffinish momentos are chucked in.

Cue snowstorm to ensure the debate rages and then lay on top some past history between the calm Sara and Lars and the fact that Eva, a novelist, sees her identity stemming largely from her German mother, now divorced from Lars. It isn’t tricky to guess the outcomes but all this intrigue does detract from the historical interrogation, and vice versa. ABS’s dialogue smartly, and comically, undercuts some of the more hyperbolic exchanges, notably from Sara and Eva (I am very keen on Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s no nonsense acting talent – here she did a lot with very little). The versatile David Bamber is always a joy to watch whatever he is doing (last seen by me as Noel in Julia Davies’s gloriously smutty Camping – and indelible memory) and the is no exception. Neil McCaul, as the “truth is everything” academic is maybe asked to turn up the apoplectic dial once too often but this does serve an obvious purpose.

The competing narratives of what actually happened are well articulated in Kate Fahy’s production, but she could maybe have cranked the pace up. The parallels with present day Denmark, and by implication the rest of Europe, get a little lost and the science vs religion arguments are a bit heavy handed. I came out actually wishing ABS hand found a way to simply focus on the arguments about what actually happened, and therefore the “truth of history”, in a much shorter double-hander, and reversed the passive-aggressive relationship of Abraham and Lars. Alternatively the personal drama could have proved the catalyst from which the historical argument obliquely emerged.

Still learned a lot. That’s enough.

Holy Sh!t at the Kiln Theatre review ****

geograph-766483-by-David-Wright

Holy Sh!t

Kiln Theatre, 19th September 2018

Their exclamation mark not mine. Even at my age I get a vicarious thrill out of swearing to cause offence. A little bit of punk attitude remains I like to think.

Actually, on the subject of manufactured offence, I gather there have been picket lines outside the newly re-opened Kiln Theatre objecting to its change of name. Really? Like the Tricycle wasn’t a bit of a daft name to begin with. Maybe if the artistic team, led by the redoubtable Indhu Rubasingham, had ditched some connection to the building’s history, the Foresters’ Hall, I could see the point, but the original Tricycle didn’t even start here. Anyway what we now have is an absolutely wonderful space. The Kiln, in terms of design, comfort and facilities, has easily catapulted itself into the leading local, large, fringe theatre in London. All the scaffolding bric-a-brac of the interior is gone, sight-lines  are optimal upstairs and downstairs, leg-room is good, seats plush and wide enough for the Tourist’s ample rear. The performing space is intimate yet airy, as are the bar and restaurant, with the main entrance now matching the box office side. Staff tip top friendly as ever. The SO loved it, even convincing herself that the trek to urban Kilburn was “easy”.

And if Holy Sh!t is anything to go by, this season is shaping up to be one of Ms Rubasingham’s best. I like the look of the next two productions, White Teeth (based on the Zadie Smith novel) and Approaching Empty, and the new season, just announced, has such goodies as the UK premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Son (Zeller was a Tricycle “discovery”), Inua Ellams (Barber Shop Chronicles) latest work The Half God of Rainfall which sound bonkersly ambitious, Wife, connected with Ibsen’s Dolls House, which also looks similarly progressive, and When the Crows Visit, this time with Ghosts as an inspiration, and which looks set to add to a fine run of plays bringing modern India to the London stage. Oh, and if that weren’t enough, Sharon D Clarke in a blues musical revival. If you haven’t see her in Caroline, or Change, reprising at the Playhouse Theatre, then you are, I am sorry to say, a ninnyhammer.

I only know writer Alexis Zegerman from her role in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky but she can plainly wield a pen. Now I can see why some might think Holy Sh!t is a little overwritten, It identifies, and then takes aim, at its target demographic, and I mean target in both senses here, and doesn’t let go. Two couples, web designer Sam Green (Daniel Lapaine) and journalist Simone Kellerman (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and teacher Nick (Daon Broni) and marketeer Juliet Obasi (Claire Goose), are forty-somethings whose friendship is put the test when they “compete” to get their daughters into St Mary’s, a North London Church school. Sam and Simone are liberal Jews though Sam now professes atheism, Nick is of Nigerian descent and Juliet is happy to turn up her Catholicism dial when it suits. The play starts off with a little too much forced exposition but once it gets into its stride, and moves beyond the par for the course comedy of manners, it doesn’t hold back using the four characters ethnicity and religion to expose the hypocrisy and prejudice that lie beneath their cultural liberalism as well as the lengths they will go to to protect themselves and their children.

I can’t pretend it is subtle, at times everyone gets a bit hysterical and the set-ups test credulity, but it does have killer line after killer line which left us (the SO agreed) hooked. It is the accumulation of well observed, and often funny, detail that made us forgive some of the crasser ploy mechanics. By the end, when Nick delivers his powerful rejoinder to the perceived victimhood of the other three, I did care about these people even as I recognised the forced stereotyping in their creation. Ms Zegerman has packed a lot of observation into the play, which is after all a comedy, and if some of it lands a little too heavily I didn’t object. I was still royally entertained. There is a whiff of Yasmina Reza about Ms Zegerman’s writing; you know you are being guided a little too forcefully down the corridors of her imagination but there is more than enough to see and enjoy along the way.

Ms Rubasingham’s brisk direction helped ensure the comic energy wasn’t dissipated whilst still making the points and Robert Jones served up pitch perfect (and flexible) aspiring metropolitan interiors. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was the standout performer the last time I say her at the Orange Tree (The Lottery of Love at the Orange Tree review ***) and once again she edges it. She captures Simone’s air of brisk certainty which contrasts with Claire Goose’s (Twitstorm at the Park Theatre review ***) more hesitant character. At first it is a little hard to believe they would be university friends but, as the tension escalates, their dependency does become more convincing. Daon Broni, who we last saw in the somewhat underpowered Slaves of Solitude, (Slaves of Solitude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***), was the most sympathetic of the four with Daniel Lapoine, (last seem by me in The Invisible Hand on this very stage), probably the actor who suffered the most from having to pull all of Sam’s traits into a believable whole.

So a production definitely worth seeing in a theatre definitely worth seeing. The first of many to come I’ll wager.