Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre review *****

Rosmersholm

Duke of York’s Theatre, 6th May 2019

Right finally a review that might conceivably be of some value to my solitary, loyal reader. Not that you should need me to tell you to go and see this. The proper critics and committed theatre bloggers will already have told you that. But I can heartily concur. Though I freely admit this is, in part, because I am awestruck by Hayley Attwell, who turns in an even better performance than she did in Measure for Measure at the Donmar, Labyrinth at Hampstead or The Pride at Trafalgar Studios.

Rosmersholm is apparently considered by many Ibsen aficionados to be his best play though it is rarely performed when compared to say, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck or The Master Builder. Now that normally just means it has some fatal flaw which the clever luvvies are prepared to forgive but which leaves us normal folk a bit nonplussed. Well, on the basis of this production, it is hard to see what has held it back from being as “popular” as Ibsen’s other works. The ethical, religious and political message is more pointed, the heroine, Rebecca West, more “contemporary”, the hero, Rosmer, more conflicted, the plot more transparent and the message more “relevant”, (though you should always be wary of people who vest past dramatists with “uncanny foresight” – it is human behaviour that doesn’t change). If you like your Ibsen social critique raw and bloody, and characterisation that doesn’t fanny around with dainty nuance, then this will be right up your street.

I have seen some reviews that imply that director Ian Rickson takes his time here. Nonsense. As in his other, superb, productions recently, Translations, The Birthday Party and The Goat, and his work with Jez Butterworth, he doesn’t feel the need to display any directorial excess, simply concentrating on forensically letting his actors breathe life into the text. Now of course I cannot be sure if the adaptor here, Duncan MacMillan, has taken liberties with Ibsen’s intent, never having seen the play before, (and having fallen behind, actually having never left the starting gate, with my Danish). If he has then good on him. It works. There is a bit of maladroit symbolism on show, a vision of a white horse which first appeared after Rosmer’s wife, Beata, committed suicide a year earlier by throwing herself into the waterwheel, but this no less grating than what’s served up in Lady From The Sea, Little Eyolf or, in the closest parallel, Ghosts. Oh, and there is of course, this being Ibsen, apparently some unintentional incest.

It is true that there is no escaping the melodrama of the conclusion, as the burden of guilt for the central couple becomes to much to bear, but frankly I want to be emotionally manipulated by great drama. There is a reason why the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller still punch in the gut and it isn’t located in cosy domesticity. Of course it is hard to believe that in the space of 10 minutes Rebecca and Rosmer make their pact but it is not as if the two of them have been hiding their emotional dissonance up until then. Oh, and there is, of course apparently some unintentional incest. So even if deep-rooted shame is something few of us in 2019 might recognise, (look to our political class for confirmation), it doesn’t require too much of a leap of imagination to believe it of Norway in 1886.

I can also see why some might not take to Tom Burke’s “actorly” portrayal of John Rosmer. Mr Burke has a particular intonation and delivery, (last see by us in Schiller’s Don Carlos), which doesn’t always ring true but it does make his character’s intellectual life explicit. You make not entirely accept what Rosmer is feeling here, especially when it comes to his guilt about Beata, but you certainly now what he is thinking. Set against Ms Attwell’s restless, impulsive Rebecca, whose “freedom” almost overwhelms her, and Giles Terera’s inflexible, but oh so reasonable, brother-in-law Andreas Kroll, his anguished, grieving Rosmer soon makes sense.

The tension between the Rosmer’s heritage as a rich aristo at the heart of local society who has lost his clerical mojo and the progressive leanings fuelled by Rebecca, and by Jake Fairbrother’s cynical reformist journo Peter Mortensgaard, all set around local elections, is pummelled to a pulp by Ibsen, MacMillan and cast, but that is what gives the arguments universality. The way in which values inform political positions, the way in which the press turns ugly and fans the flames, the struggle between engagement or withdrawal, (here taken to its ultimate, Romantic, conclusion). Lay on top the clarion feminist call that Rebecca represents, the doomed passion that follows Rebecca and Rosmer’s meeting of the minds and the dissolution of Peter’s Wright’s knackered Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s ex-teacher, the hypocritical foil to the buttoned up Kroll, and you have the full Ibsen package of contradiction.

Rae Smith has conjured up another elegant set. Much like Mike Britton’s construction for the Royal and Derngate’s Ghosts which the Tourist relished a few days earlier, authenticity was key, but here the faded grandeur of a long unused reception room in Rosmer’s ancestral pile was imagined. Lined with ancestral portraits which Rebecca instructs the staff to reveal from under dust covers at the opening, the new broom, (apparently the original text calls for Rebecca to sit in a chair knitting before the first line). Later on, just to make sure we haven’t missed them, Rosmer chucks flowers at his forebears. Neil Austin’s lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities of the setting, as does Gregory Clarke’s sound. The servants are omni-present reminding Rosmer of his position and creating swish scene changes but only the pithy housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers) gets to chip in with dialogue. And big respect to whoever signed off the health and safety papers for the aqueous resolution.

As with Ghosts as I was leaving I overheard some punters saying that they liked the actors but that it was a bit “word-y”. I am going to say this fully aware of just what a patronising c*nt it makes me sound like but …. it is not just about whether you recognise the cast from the telly and …. it is a play …. it is supposed to be “word-y”.

The best theatre coming up in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Brilliant Thing at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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Every Brilliant Thing

Orange Tree Theatre, 17th October 2017

This jolly looking fellow is Jonny Donahoe. He is currently the latest incumbent in the one man show, Every Brilliant Thing, at the Orange Tree Theatre. The play was originally written by Duncan Macmillan (he of People, Places and Things, Lungs, 2071 and a bunch of masterpieces in German) in 2013, and has basically been travelling round the world, to venues big and small, ever since. This is the last leg of the latest incarnation. It was commissioned by Paines Plough, that wonderful institution, dreamt up in a pub four decades ago, which acts as a national theatre for new plays.

EBT tells the story of a seven year old who begins to make lists of things that make life worth living for in response to his mother’s depression. It charts the relationships between the boy as he moves into adulthood, with his Dad, his Mum, who attempts to take her own life, and, eventually, girlfriend. Jonny Donahoe uses the audience to call out items on the list and, for some lucky punters, to play key characters in the narrative. So those who are shy of audience interaction need to hide in the shadows. What this brings though is intimacy and empathy in buckets. Particularly in the cozy surroundings of the Orange Tree.

Now a story like this isn’t going to work without an actor who is up to the task. Mr Donahoe most certainly is. He is a comedian by trade which partly explains why this is so funny. That, and the expertly crafted writing of Duncan Macmillan. I seem to remember that People, Places and Things also had a few laughs scattered throughout. Its subject, addiction, was also an unlikely candidate for mirth. Having said that, when Mr Donahoe needed to ratchet up the pathos, he was just as adept. There is something of the child still about our Jonny which, even as he ages, ideally fits the character, and it is impossible not to bowled along by his enthusiasm, even for a grumpy old git like the Tourist.

A play about how to deal with depression could easily have been too whimsical or too maudlin. It is not. To call it “life-affirming” risks cliche but it gets pretty close. Should this pop up again in your neck of the woods go see it. Then you can add it to your own list of brilliant things.

 

City of Glass at the Lyric Hammersmith review **

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City of Glass

Lyric Hammersmith, May 11th 2017

So I remembered too late. I have thumbed copies of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so I think I must have read it, or at the very least City of Glass, when it came out in the 1980’s as any young, trendyish, new-to-theworld-of-work-but-still-able-to-go-out, indie man about town type would have done. I may even have professed to like it. But I’m not sure that I actually did. It is, as this adaptation (of orginal novel and a subsequent graphic novel augmentation) reminded me, a bit silly and a bit pleased with itself. No problem with subverting genres and getting all postmodern meta in books but you have to be very careful that you steer well clear of your own back passage or risk the proverbial disappearance.

So, in my view, this incredibly talented team comprised of Duncan MacMillan who did what he could to adapt the book into a suitable work for the stage, a score by Nick Powell, whose music is a vital part of The Ferryman at the Royal Court as we speak, and 59 Productions, including first time director Leo Warner, maybe just picked the wrong starting point. The staging is extraordinary showing just what can be done using cutting edge technology, but this has been employed to so much better effect in other productions by the 59 team (not the least of which was their contribution to the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony).

The opening gambit is promising enough with the telephone call out of the blue to our hero/narrator/writer, Daniel Quinn, (DQ same as Cervantes original meta hero), conjuring up the expectation of a classic noir detective thriller. He then proceeds to find himself drawn into ever more fracturing realities leading him, and us, to question what is real and what is imagined here and ultimately into questioning his own sanity. The production however relies on heavily a narrator to move the “action” such as it is along and to explain “what” is happening, and the characters are more ciphers than individuals with whom we might want to make an emotional investment. The pace is unvarying which only led me to keep on questioning whether this might all have been better left on the pages of the original novel. And as I say the novel itself is, in my view, ultimately an exercise in pretension, though I freely admit my heart and head will always lie with the modernism daddies and not the post-modernist bastard offspring.

So sorry I couldn’t like this, though I recognise the extraordinary technical skill brought to bear on how this looked, and will definitely keep an eye open for 59 Productions next project (hoping they steer clear of Auster). And I continue to think that the Lyric Hammersmith’s ongoing ambition will be rewarded with a home-grown, or bought in, slam dunker at some point and I want to be there when it happens.