The Hunt at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Hunt

Almeida Theatre, 1st August 2019

I am not sure where I stand on the films of director, controversialist and misogynist Lars van Trier. I guess if you venture into dark territory you are going to make the audience that follows you uneasy. Which is how I feel about the likes of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Brilliant film-making if not always brilliant films. 

Fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg is a much more palatable director however. More interested in social rather than individual psychology, more polis than eros, and less prone to stylistic innovation. Festen (The Celebration) is a work of unsettling, tonally ambiguous, tragi-comic genius, Submarino somehow extracts redemption from the unremitting pain of the brothers’ lives at its centre, Far From the Madding Crowd is better than the original, (Schlesinger’s and, I regret to say SO, Hardy’s), I’ve just seen the intriguing The Commune and I have Kursk on the watch list. But his best film for me is The Hunt, though it is helped by an outstanding central performance by the coolest actor on earth Mads Mikkelsen. 

All of his “original” films seem to be to be intrinsically dramatic, focussed on character, plot and idea, rather than spectacle, and not expansive in terms of time or place. Which makes them eminently suitable for theatrical treatment. It is a matter of some regret that the original Almeida production of Festen in 2004, which cemented the reputations of both Rufus Norris, now NT head, and playwright David Eldridge, who adapted the script of Vinterberg and his regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, coincided with a theatrical “dry” period for the Tourist. Hopefully one day it will return.

This time it is Almeida AD Rupert Goold directing, following on from his string of hits , Shipwreck, Albion, Ink, Medea, King Charles III and American Psycho. We should never forget that it all starts with the writer, and that in this regard the Almeida has been lucky. More over the theatre is, I assume, now flush with enough cash and kudos to pull in any actor and creative team that is desires. Even so, and maybe forgiving a few recent misfires, the last few years have been a purple patch for the house even by comparison to its very high historical standards. Simple rule. Just buy a ticket for everything they put on. Even now that Robert Icke is on his way since Rebecca Frecknall looks to be a very capable replacement as Associate Director. (Next up her version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Any playwright good enough to inspire a Bunnymen song gets my vote).

A story of a man or woman wrongly accused and shunned by a small community is obvious theatrical catnip. Reference the film where teacher Lucas returns to his Danish hometown and a job in a primary school after redundancy and the break-up of his marriage in the city. After a misunderstanding in the school with Clara, the daughter of Lucas’s best friend Theo, that we, but not the community, see, Lucas is accused of paedophilia. The set-up, the investigation that follows and the violent fall-out is all painfully realistic. The story though ends with neither forgiveness or banishment as you might expect. There is plenty of symbolism along the way as Lucas’s relationships with colleagues, friends, son Marcus, church members and hunting pals is dissected. A thriller with a moral message, rich in ambiguity, taking a potshot at Danish society’s complacent view of its own tolerance. Like I say. Theatrical catnip.

But it still needed adapting. Enter David Farr. I don’t know any of Mr Farr’s original writing or adaptations in the theatre but I, and probably you, will know his work for television, particularly his adaptations of John Le Carrie’s The Night Manager and, less successfully maybe, Misha Glenny’s McMafia. For The Hunt he has stuck pretty closely I think to the plot and chronology of the film, though he has made Lucas more solitary by removing girlfriend Nadja and friend Bruun, altered his relationship with Marcus and cleverly updated the schoolroom set-up. The deer hunts, and the ritualistic machismo that pervades them, have also been highlighted and provide some intense theatre assisted by the costumes of Evie Gurney, lighting of Neil Austin, sound of Adam Cork and movement of Botis Seva. Lucas is, graphically, turned into the prey.

I have said before that Rupert Gould strikes me as a generous director who brings out the best in the creatives around him and The Hunt is no exception. This is a gripping story but could have been delivered in a predictable enter/dialogue/exit, scene after scene fashion, as literal as its source. Instead, as in the string of his other plays mentioned above, the play is replete with movement, symbolism and visual diversion. The tone is set by, er, Es Devlin’s set. Yes it is another of her trademark glass boxes, set on a blond wood circular stage, but, whether as school, house, church, hunt meeting hall or, brace yourself, deer enclosure, switching from transparent to opaque, from place of safety to place or threat, it still works to brilliant effect.

Tobias Menzies is set to play Phil the Greek in Series 3 and 4 of The Crown but he has already decorated TV and film with distinction, though looking at his bio I haven’t seen nearly enough of him. On stage he was excellent as Mikhail/Michael in Robert Icke’s underrated Uncle Vanya at, yep you guessed it, the Almeida, but other than that, again, I haven’t seen him perform. Here though he was perfectly cast. Lucas is innocent, of the crime of which he is accused for sure, but also in a broader sense. This story is not an attempt to create false parity or deny the victim. It is about the hypocrisy and anger that can infect a small community when threatened. Lucas is neither good nor bad, simply the catalyst for the reaction, though we can sympathise with his plight. This doesn’t mean that the play dodges the uncomfortable truths it confronts, just that it doesn’t go in, as is the Dogme 95 way, for an overt moral stance.

For this to work requires Tobias Menzies to present Lucas as self contained, curiously restrained, almost withdrawn, in the face of what happens. This he does. To devastating effect. Justin Salinger as the feckless Theo and Poppy Miller as his unhappy wife Mikala, the three of them have baggage, are equally convincing, torn between believing their daughter or their friend. Around this trinity, Michele Austin as head teacher Hilde, Stuart Campbell as the gawky, raging Marcus, Danny Kirrane as the hyper-aggressive Gunnar and Howard Ward as the investigator Per also stood out. And Abbiegail Mills as young Clara should definitely stick with this acting lark (though not to the exclusion of her other studies of course).

Adaptations of films for the stage don’t always work. Witness many of Ivo van Hove’s creations. Though Network was a recent triumphant exception. This was in large part though thanks to the unsung adaptation of Lee Hall. In the same way we must thank David Farr for his smart contribution here. As good as the film? Maybe not quite. But still something remarkable to set alongside it.

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre review ****

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre Olivier, 11th December 2018

Simon Godwin is a director who has shown he has a bit of a way with the sprawling masterpieces in the dramatic canon in recent years. Especially from the Bard. His recently opened Timon of Athens at the RSC, albeit with the force of nature that is Kathryn Hunter in the lead, seems to have gone down well with the criterati. Previously at the National his Twelfth Night, (OK so that’s not really sprawling but it is stuffed to the gills with characters all wanting time to shine), was a belter, his excellent African inspired RSC Hamlet announced Papa Essiedu to the world, and further back the Tourist can bear witness to the success of his interpretations of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Shaw’s Man and Superman and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, none of which falls into the snappy, straightforward category.

He doesn’t go in for the flashy, but neither is he by any means “conservative”, here being resolutely modern-dress. What I think he does do is think carefully about every single character’s attributes and motivations, and how they fit together, and ensures they have enough “space” to show those attributes and motivations. So even the most far fetched plot seems eminently reasonable. He is at it again with Antony and Cleopatra. You can see that from the string of 4* reviews and the gongs already handed out to the incomparable Sophie Okonedo (who has also I see now bagged a CBE from Her Maj) and the redoubtable Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (who I believe has never been so honoured though he is, as you might expect with that moniker, a distant relative of our beloved Royals).

So you probably don’t need me to tell you this is probably about as good an interpretation of the still flawed A&C as you are ever likely to see. (And you can still see it if you are crafty, and lucky, with the returns that invariably pop up a day or so ahead). Still, redundancy, and/or sluggishness, have not prevented me venturing an opinion in the past so here goes.

The problem with A&C, which was readily apparent in the last, somewhat unconvincing, RSC offering, lies in the flamboyance of the language, the articulation between the “great events” which provide its context and the domestic “at home with the … ” drama of our ageing lovebirds, and the potentially wearing effect of seeing the celeb couple always “showing off” to real, and imagined, audiences. Simon Godwin however has chosen to take these challenges head on.

First up he takes his time. At near 3.5 hours with the interval, across 42 scenes, this does mean there are one or two moments where audience concentration will waver but, with little in the way of cuts (though I am not expert enough to be sure), it means that the historical big picture is unclouded and that all the characters, and not just the power couple, get the chance to show themselves fully. Moreover the lines themselves are given air to breathe and the detail of the domestic exchanges has been rigorously thought out, especially the comic and ironic inflections. Interestingly only the final suicide scenes feel a little rushed with the snake being a bit of an indulgence. We had come this far so I would have been happy to see a more measured take on Tony’s botching and Cleo’s scrupulous choreographing of her own demise.

Obviously it helps that the acting is so strong. And not just from our Sophie and our Ralph. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, especially shaven-headed for the part, is as wonderful as everyone says he is. It helps that Enobarbus is gifted with some of the best lines in the play but even so he brilliantly walks the tightrope of truth and cynicism (central to the whole play) in his capacity as detached observer and explainer of events and as the embodiment of corrupted honour. And he does all of this whilst barely appearing to try. Now I am pretty sure that Mr McMuillan doesn’t want for work, so good an actor is he, but I would like, no I demand, a Richard II and an Iago from him in the relatively near future. And a lead role in a new play at the NT.

The other standout was Fisayo Akinade as Eros, given full rein to ramp up the comedy but also squeezing a ton of emotion out of a character that normally is just a bit part. The smart money already knows this young man is going places. Re-gendering Agrippa definitely worked, especially with Katy Stephens stepping up, I really enjoyed the performances of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Chairman and Iras, more put upon bessies than intimidated hand-maidens, joining Eros and Enobarbus as the conflicted confidantes required to soothe and distract their nominal bosses.

Hannah Morrish did her steely, vulnerability thing again as Octavia. Nicholas Le Provost did his Nicholas Le Provost voice to perfection as a slightly feeble Lepidus, though Tim McMullan’s impersonation might actually improve on the real thing, and Sargon Yelda was an adept Pompey. In fact the only slightly jarring performance came from Tunji Kasim (who is a fine actor make no mistake) whose Octavius seemed overly stilted compared to the naturalistic verse and prose delivery on show elsewhere.

This delivery and the afore-mentioned deliberate pacing also meant that the “performances” of A&C were foregrounded. A&C were the hammed-up actors in their own blockbuster, not just in terms of the ludicrously over the top way they voice their love but also in the way they inject this passion, this risk-taking, into their behaviour in the political arena. Whilst also knowing they are a bit too old and tired for all this display and that it is unlikely to end well. But there egos can’t help themselves. This is also perhaps what has made the story, and especially the “idea” of Cleopatra, so alluring to subsequent generations. (Though as the preposterous flummery of Dutch/British Victorian artist above shows most of these generations preferred their Cleo to look like she had come from Surrey).

Making sense of the “epic” in the tale whilst still permitting us to make a personal, emotional, connection is Mr Godwin’s, and his casts’, smartest achievement here. Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set (note to designers: always use the revolve on the Olivier to avoid the “acres of space” illusion) is sumptuously minimal, or minimally sumptuous, making the delineation between efficient Rome (modern war room with split screen conflict footage), sultry Egypt (Alexandrian palace with complete with pool – only slightly Vegas) and all places in between, including a submarine, clear without being fussy. Once again it does slow down proceedings but, like I say, that gives time to process what we learn from each of the sometimes rapid-fire scenes.

I’ve no doubt that Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench did it better but this was the first time the play properly worked for me. Sophie Okonedo, dolled up in slinky ballgowns (Evie Gurney and the costume team can certainly tailor), breezes through Cleo’s caprice, wit, quick temper, self-obsession, but still manages to make her exposed, needing her soldier-boy especially when he is not there. The bickering is patently borne of adoration and mutual dependence, as well as their individual self-regard.

Ralph Fiennes brings a little of the faded rock star from A Bigger Splash as he dons baggy salvars when relaxing with his lady love. Yet he also, as you might expect, nails military bearing when required. Throughout he does seem troubled, burdened if you will, shoulders hunched, as if he knows how the picture will end. As do we particularly given Simon Godwin’s decision to show us the end at the beginning (and the end, obvs). I had forgotten how many wonderful lines Shakespeare gives Antony to grapple with his failure, his fading from view. Loved it.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes …. ‘fraid not Cleo as this excellent production shows. It will never be the Tourist’s favourite Shakespeare but finally I see the attraction.