Ghosts at the Royal and Derngate review

Ghosts

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 2nd May 2019

A little bit of back to back Ibsen action. First this Ghosts and then, a few days later, Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. And the Tourist’s first visit to the Royal and Derngate which, he has Benn rather slow to observe, has been producing some very tempting offers as of late. I gather most of the drama here, (plays not fist-fights), takes place in the Royal with the larger Derngate offering a broader range of entertainment (Wet, Wet, Wet on the evening of the afternoon the Tourist attended, for those few of you who might be tempted by such). Both are wrapped inside a fine, open foyer area and I gather there are other spaces as well, the Underground Studio and a Filmhouse. All round very impressive.

As was this production of Ghosts, masterminded by director Lucy Bailey in a new version from Mike Poulton. Mr Poulton has a long history of adapting the European classics, Chekhov, Schiller, and a definitive version of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. His last outing was the excellent RSC two part Imperium, the story of Cicero, which I caught on its London transfer. I last saw Ghosts in 2013/14, two versions pretty much back to back. In Richard Eyre’s West End take Lesley Manville pretty much wiped the floor with any other Helen Alving’s past and future. In the other, Stephen Unwin’s ETT version at the Rose Kingston (his final play there as AD), well let us just charitably say it didn’t quite match it. But Ghosts is such a fine play in my book that it is hard to go too far wrong.

Having said that it is possible to get bogged down in old Henrik’s miserabilism. Religion, syphilis, potential incest and assisted suicide are never likely to make their way into the repertoire of, say, Mischief Theatre, (though Ghosts: The Musical might prove tempting), but there is more in terms of plot and character beyond a metaphor for late C19 moral hypocrisy. Helen Alving, holed up in her gloomy mansion, is a woman of rare depth, her doomed son Osvald does have moments of joy, at least potentially, Pastor Manders is not entirely devoid of sympathy, Jakob Engstrand wants to atone and Regina will, I think, one day come to terms with her parentage.

Indeed if it wasn’t for the prize c*nt, the dead Captain Alving, things might have been very different. He was the faithless husband who ruins his wife’s, his son’s and Regina’s lives. The sins of the father and all that. (The Danish/Norwegian title is Gengangere, “the thing that walks again”, which is more like a revenant than a ghost, someone and something that comes back to haunt others). By confronting the past Helen knows she is going to make things worse, of course, but this is also, as with all of Ibsen’s important women, a catharsis to break free from that past and to engage with the truth however ugly. To reject the social mores and religious convention that trapped her in the painful marriage, even if it is too late for her son and her dead husband’s illegitimate daughter.

Lucy Bailey, Mike Poulton and designer Mike Britton have worked together before and it shows. Adaptation flows into direction which is perfectly framed by the set. Mr Britton was apparently inspired by Edvard Munch’s art. Munch produced numerous illustrations of Ibsen’s plays and designed a production of the play in 1906 shortly after HI’s death. The darkest of dark blue-greens, think Farrow and Ball Green Smoke but darker, creates a fitting “psychological” backdrop. Gauze screens divide reception rooms and conjure up spectres. Props, costumes and architecture details are spot on period, straight out of a Vilhelm Hammershoi interior (as above). This is what Ibsen should look like. After the effective orphanage fire the set does angle back to create a “pit” which the actors have to clumsily navigate but otherwise this was perfection.

Made more so by Oliver’s Fenwick’s moody lighting and by Richard Hammarton’s sound design and composition. No barely audible ambient background noise here. A proper soundscape. With lots and lots of rain and a proper fire. And some top drawer cello, violin and piano chord dissonance.

It is possible to judge the success of a production of Ghosts as pure drama by the reaction of the uninitiated members of the audience to the various disclosures. Ibsen, being a genius, doesn’t just bounce them out in a line or two of clumsy exposition, they emerge, organically, from the plot. Mr Poulton’s adaptation perfectly registers these twists, not quite turning it into a thriller, that would be asking too much, but definitely more than enough to persuade the Ibsen-curious. Well maybe not all, as I overhead some student-y types complaining it was too “text-y” afterwards. Trust me kids this is as racy as Ibsen gets.

Penny Downie, particularly in the scenes where she rounds on Manders, was a fine, dignified, Helen Alving. Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald was a little too camp for my taste. I know he is an artistic type but too much surface petulance risks losing the despair of what might have been. Declan Conlon’s Jakob by contrast was well rounded and Eleanor McLoughlin wisely held back to make her escape at the end more pointed. James Wilby did verge on the shouty at times but his Pastor was sufficiently human, confused, and, finally, ashamed, to make the initial friendship with Helen believable (sometimes a problem if he is overly puritanical).

Apparently Ibsen only took a few weeks to write Ghosts in 1881, whilst summering in Sorrento, though it didn’t get staged until the following year by a Danish company in Chicago. The subject matter was in part a two-fingered riposte to all the churchmen and stiff-necks back home in Norway who got wound up by the his previous play, the far milder A Doll’s House. There his heroine Nora walks out on her sh*t-head husband. Here we see what can happen when a wife is convinced to stay. If HI thought he had wound up his conservative enemies with A Doll’s House, they went batsh*t when Ghosts arrived back home. Even when the King of Sweden loaded up HI with medals and honours galore years later, as he was recognised as Scandi’s greatest cultural export (at least until ABBA, just joking), his maj told him off for writing Ghosts.

HI famously said “we go through life with a corpse on our back”. This masterly version shows just why Ghosts is probably, IMHO, the Ibsen play which best represents this maxim. If our Henrik never stopped picking away at the scabs of his own life and the society around him then Ghosts is when the blood started to properly flow.

I will be back at the R&D. I have seen three of the Made in Northampton shows that are currently touring, Touching the Void, The Remains of the Day and the Headlong Richard III. The first two are outstanding and I see that Touching the Void is coming to London later this year. Mandatory viewing. I missed Our Lady of Kibeho which, judging by the reviews, was a massive oversight. So I am not going to make the same mistake with The Pope, Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge in the rest of this season.

I can see why the R&D has garnered awards though, and, I say this with the greatest respec,t it is hard to reconcile the fact that its AD, James Dacre, has the ex-editor of the Daily Mail for his dad. It would seem that, in this case, the sins of the father have not been visited on the son.

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.

The Lady From The Sea at the Print Room Coronet review ****

The Lady From The Sea

Print Room Coronet, 20th February 2019

Hummed and hawed about this one. Never been entirely sure about TLFTS when compared to other Ibsen’s, was not bowled over by it’s last London outing at the Donmar, couldn’t get the cheap Wednesday seat option (that is a steal) and was trepidatious about the billed mix of Norwegian and English creatives. On the other hand the last time the Norwegians came over, in the form of the National Theatre of Norway, to this very stage with their Little Eyolf (which I do care for) it was, by all accounts, a success, and the Print Room under AD Anda Winters can usually be relied upon to deliver a thought-provoking, if sometimes obtuse, evening’s entertainment.

And so it turned out. The combination of modern idiom English and Norwegian text, and British and Norwegian acting “styles” was both captivating and illuminating, as it drew out the differences between . Now as I am sure you all know Ibsen, after some chap name of Shakespeare, is the most performed dramatist worldwide (though, as with all such claims, the Tourist is dubious as to how this was proved. Remember people, always question). However, Norway had no theatre company dedicated to Henrik’s works, a la the RSC, though there is a successful biennial Ibsen festival sponsored by the National Theatre in Oslo . Which is why, in 2016, AD Kare Conradi, set up the NIC, to sponsor both new productions and to work with other theatre-makers internationally on the work of the master. The company is bi-lingual by design and targets those who might otherwise not get to see HI. This is their first in-house production. Good on ’em.

Wangel (Adrian Rawlins) is the English doctor who has ended up in the provincial Norwegian seaside with daughters Bolette (Marina Bye) and Hilde (Molly Windsor). His new wife Elida is played by Norwegian acting royalty, Pia Tjelta, who was in the Little Eyolf last year, and Kare Conradi himself plays the returning schoolteacher and family friend Arnholm. The Stranger, the object of Elida’s obsession is, obvs, Norwegian in the form of veteran Oystein Roger. Our sickly, would-be artist Lyngstrand is however English, played by Edward Ashley.

Elida likes the sea. Elida is miserable. Elida and Wangel lost their son as a baby. Elida and Wangel’s marriage is under pressure. Arnholm arrives to help. Arnholm falls for Bolette who longs to escape. Lyngstrand is a bit of a ninny but mopes sound after feisty Hilde who feels rejected by step-mum. The seaman Stranger who Elida loved and lost returns to take her back. Only when Wangel accepts she is free to decide her own destiny does she elect to stay and put the marriage back together. Without the symbolism its a belting story about the “choices” that we make. With the symbolism, as long as it is not overwrought (and this is where I sometimes get fidgety), it could be, I would imagine, intoxicating.

That isn’t quite the case here but it is still engrossing stuff. Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s (she also acts as dramaturg) new version, based on the translation of May-Brit Akerholt, is mercifully purposeful stuff, a text located in the right here, right now, which still just about manages to dreamier elements and finds the comedy. Pia Tjelta takes a nice line through Elida’s frustration with the present borne out of her idealised past. The final scene with Adrian Rawlin’s Wangel, when the penny finally drops for him, was as convincing, (and a little bit moving), as good as it gets. Kare Conradi’s captured the threat that underpins the bargain that Arnholm offers Bolette. Molly Windsor has been lauded for her performance in TV drama, Three Girls. It was easy to see why in this her stage debut. Her petulant Hilde was particularly effective as she dragged the damp Lyngstrand around the houses, physically and metaphorically, and in her interaction with Elida, notably in the “reconciliation” at the end.

No messing with Erlend Bierland’s set. Beach backed by beach-house backed by mountain view. And, a la mode, a fish tank. This is some way up the Norwegian coast. Lovely when the sun comes out. Not so perky during the long dark seasons. I need to imagine the whiff of sea, sand, engine oil and disappointment which I got here, though maybe a more nuanced lighting design (Simon Bennison) might have added more texture. Nils Petter Molvaer’s composition and sound lent a mildly brooding air when required.

So a production that uses a bi-lingual text and cast to emphasis difference and which, subtly, but insistently, marks out Ibsen’s photo-feminist message of self-determination. It sometimes came across as a little uneven but then again Ibsen wouldn’t be Ibsen without the messy stuff of life.

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.

The Wild Duck at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Wild Duck

Almeida Theatre, 28th November 2018

He’s only gone and done it again. Director Robert Icke has taken Ibsen’s perhaps most circumspect, but probably greatest, masterpiece, from 1884, and adapted it to make it shine anew and say something profound about our world today. There may be a small price to pay in terms of subtlety, (and the sense of eyebrows-raised irony that permeates old Henrik’s world), but the gain, in terms of the clarity of text and story, and the lecture on the nature of truth, more than compensates. Mr Icke, to paraphrase Ian Drury, ain’t half a clever bastard, and he has no qualms about showing us that he is, but when he creates theatre as powerful as this then we should all be grateful. Mary Stuart, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, Hamlet, 1984, Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet and now this. One or two hiccups outside these triumphs for sure but when he takes a classic and lets fly with his intellectual vajazzling you know you are in for a treat.

Gregory Woods (yep, as in his Vanya, Icke has anglicised the names), has just returned from a self-imposed exile. His father Charles is having a party to celebrate his betrothal to his housekeeper Anna Sowerby, also attended by Greg’s old school chum, jobbing photographer James Ekdal. James has married Gina, previously a servant in the Woods household, who may have had an “affair” with patriarch Charles, at least according to Greg’s now dead (unhappy) mum. Greg believes James and Gina’s life is built on a lie. In subsequent acts, set in the Ekdal’s apartment and photography studio, we also meet James’s own broken, alcoholic father Francis, once Charles’s business partner, daughter Hedwig, who is slowly losing her sight, and cynical neighbour, John Relling.

Oh and there is a wild duck upstairs, (or not as it turns out). And, when Bunny Christie’s set extravagantly pays off near the end, (in tandem with the production itself), much more besides. It is artifice, of course, that’s Icke’s point, but it is so dammed affecting.

You might have guessed that Mr Icke treats us to more than the naturalism normally accorded to Mr Ibsen’s play however. The play opens with an empty stage. It’s the old rehearsal room schtick. Kevin Harvey as Gregory, (last seen by me in preposterously high heels and sparkly drag in the marvellous community theatre Pericles at the National), sets the scene armed with microphone and explanation. “All stories are lies”. That’s the gist of it. Edward Hogg’s James enters from the stalls and borrows a jacket from an unfortunate front-rower. He takes the mic and starts to explain his character. And so we continue with the actors coming in, seizing the mic, (Nicholas Day’s Charles started off in a seat next door to the Tourist), and then breaking into the narrative of the play itself to offer reflections on their characters motivations, the way Ibsen’s own life, (notably the illegitimate daughter he fathered with a servant girl and abandoned), interact with the play and to explain sub-text. Gradually though Ibsen’s own words, (filtered through modern Norwegian and then Icke’s idiomatic English from archaic Danish-Norwegian as Greg reminds in an initial aside), take centre stage and the brilliance of his plot is revealed. Simultaneously the stage is, almost imperceptibly, transformed into a period version of the Ekdal household, as the props accumulate and Elliot Grigg’s lighting gradually dims.

Pretty much everyone in the Wild Duck lies to themselves and to each other. For that is what they do just to keep going, just like we all do. Their “life-lies” in Ibsen’s words. Political idealist Greg though is having none of this and, as he picks away at the scabs of the past, starting with his Dad, everything unravels. For him truth is what matters, regardless of the damage caused by its revelation. So he wades in with his size twelves leaving James as the main casualty, as the multiple skeletons cascade out of multiple metaphorical cupboards.

Now you might contest that Mr Icke too has aggressively waded in feet first in his determination to expose the message and the context of the play. Mind you I don’t know how big his boots are nor, indeed, whether he is, indeed, too big for them. It is just a clumsy metaphor. Just like the many that Ibsen employs. And now Icke. The real time “deconstruction” hammers home these metaphors but the attention to detail and intelligence of the “interventions” only serves to increase our understanding and enjoyment. The audible gasp from the audience at the big reveal shows me that Icke’s restoration job has made the Ibsen “original” arguably more powerful and more vivid. It certainly doesn’t want for emotional power. I’ll even forgive him the torch version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Some might prefer their Old Masters in a mausoleum, dark, dingy and covered with layers of accumulated interpretative varnish. Not me. Get back to the original colours, slap them in a white, light filled room and provide copious notes please.

I’ll warrant that the cast also profited from the reworking. Kevin Harvey strikes just the right note of fractured righteousness in his soft Scouse. Edward Hogg is mesmerising as his pride is undone and his moods shift alarmingly. Nicholas Farrell and Nicholas Day excel as the two estranged fathers and Rick Warden as Relling and Andrea Hall as Anna Sowerby both offer convincing support. However for me the standout was Lyndsey Marshall as Gina, whose pain is most acute but who still has to pull the threads of her family together. “I don’t know if I love you but it is my best guess that I do”. Just marvellous. And finally I was frankly bloody stunned by the performance off Clara Read, as Hedwig in our performance. Little Hedwig is largely the reason why so many lies are told. Most young actors, when surrounded by adult characters, are always still acting however good their performance. Ms Read didn’t appear to be acting, ironic since, as I recall she was the only one on stage who didn’t break the fourth wall. I would love to see her perform again.

The Wild Duck sadly has flown away from the Almeida and, like The Writer, I suspect it may prove a little bit too cerebrally audacious for a West End sojourn. But it does prove the current No 1 rule of London Theatre. Always take a punt when booking opens on anything at the Almeida. Especially when directed by Mr Icke, Mr Goold or Ms Frecknall. Sounds like the Tragedy of King Richard the Second with Simon Russell-Beale is dividing the criterati – I have yet to see it, though reading between the lines and based on Joe Hill-Gibbons’ recent Shakespeare outings I suspect I’ll love it. But the new play by Annie Washburn, Shipwreck, looks tempting, (even if I had some reservations about her last two outings premiered here, Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone), and the Three Sisters, in an adaption by Cordelia Lynn, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, (whose Summer and Smoke is now bowling ’em over at the Duke of Yorks), and with Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda in the cast, is near guaranteed to be a belter.

Regular readers of this blog, (ok some kindly chums), have oft remarked that I am prone to generosity in my reviews, if not in life. True. But in this case if you don’t believe me then take the word of the SO who rated this Wild Duck up there with Network and The Lehman Trilogy as her plays of the year. And trust me she isn’t always easy to please. Theatrically that is, not domestically.

One final aside. I spend a lot of time in the theatre. It is therefore quantifiably a large part of my own reality. And sometimes it feels more real than reality. This was one of those times. I could still happily be sat in the Almeida watching the unhappiness of the Ekdals and the Woods three weeks later so immersed was I by the end. Pick the bones out of that.

Peer Gynt at the Arcola Theatre review ***

solbad_raffelberg_kurpark_-_theater_an_der_ruhr

Peer Gynt

Arcola Theatre, 5th October 2018

I have never seen Ibsen’s Peer Gynt before. In retrospect a minimalist two hander, a “daring realisation”, by “internationally acclaimed” German company Theater an der Ruhr, might have been a somewhat challenging place to start. Still what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or whatever the theatrical equivalent of that maxim happens to be.

And there was much of value to take away from this production. But let’s start with the play. Given that he was the “father of realism”, Peer Gynt is a bit of a departure. A sprawling fantasy in Danish verse about an oddball whose grip on reality is far from secure. It is based on a Norwegian fairy tale, though it contains echoes of HI’s own life, with family members written in. It has elements of a romance, like Will Shakespeare’s last outings with Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline, lightly concealed satire on Norwegian insularity, strikingly surreal scenes immediately contrasted with natural, contemporary drama. It tracks the life and, presumed death (it isn’t explicit) of our Peer across 40 scenes which utterly disregard the normal conventions of staged theatre. HI saw it as a lyric poem. I bet he would be surprised at just what a hold it has in the canon.

That’s probably the case because, I gather, there are so many ways for creatives to impose meaning on this “masterpiece”. In fact there is just so much “theatre” that can be thrown at this piece of theatre. Peer is a waster and a drunk early on but he can tell stories. There is a persistent, emotional, and maybe futile for Solvieg, love story. There are trolls, and a half human, half troll baby, always a crowd pleaser. There is much philosophising on the nature of existence and reality. there’s all manner of Freudian interpretation. Peer is the ultimate egotist. Who loves Mummy. There is a swipe at capitalism, laced with overt racism. There is a madhouse. A travelogue. A shipwreck. And, at the end, an overtly Christian reckoning and possible epiphany. He might have been dreaming. Or he might have been extravagantly alive.

So you can see HI packed it in. One way to present this is to assemble a wide cast and let the creative minds loose to do their best, or worst. I hope to see such a production. (I see the NT has commissioned a new, contemporary adaptation by David Hare for 2019. There is a man who can do sprawling). Every year in Vinstra in the middle of Norway they stage a giant production as part of the Peer Gynt festival, this being the place where the chap on which the character might be based hails from. Never been there but will add it to the bucket list along with Borgund Stave Church. I remember my first holiday, a cruise along the Norwegian coastline with 600 post pubescent teens on the SS Uganda. We saw Greig’s house, he of the Peer Gynt suites. And in today’s athomehefeelslikeatourist list of cultural coincidences it was Greig’s Holberg Suite that I had the pleasure of listening to last night.

Enough rambling. So I suppose the other, perhaps trickier way, to stage the play is like this. Minimal props, table. chairs, a bed, two actors dressed in the monochrome suits which spell Lutheran phlegm. With the actors, Roberto Ciulii and Maria Neumann, taking on all the parts, and even sharing the role of Peer himself.  Vital then to know your stuff so I was handsomely rewarded for boning up on the plot beforehand. I highly recommend this strategy for the classics. Here it was a life-saver. Well OK maybe that is an exaggeration, it was only 90 minutes after all. But it certainly made for a much clearer understanding as, whilst the plot is pretty much intact, the dialogue has been ruthlessly sharpened, and even more so in translation to sur-titles.

So I kind of worked out where we were, and what was going on. despite the limited display. Not sure everywhere in the audience was so lucky/prepared. You certainly cannot take your eyes off Roberto Ciulii, the Italian founder of Theater an der Ruhr with Helmut Schafer in 1981, and long time ensemble member Maria Neumann. They are mesmeric. Both are possessed of extraordinarily expressive faces, and Ms Neumann in particular is an amazingly physical and tactile presence. Major and minor changes in intonation and body shape indicate character changes. Dialogue, monologue and narrative intermingle. There are a few jokes. But the stripped back aesthetic, the small space, the absence of visual cues and distraction, together with the barrier of translation, however idiomatic Signor Cuilli’s text, can veer towards the monotonous. Not in a dull way. Just in a way that I suspect re-calibrates the dimensions of the play. Mind you this is what TadR sets out to do. A company that sets out to make theatre that can travel and abhors hierarchy. In a lovely looking building in a park in Mulheim near Duisberg (look see above).

The absence of spectacle does allow a focus on exactly how Peer’s identity is constructed. Is his life defined by what has happened to him, or what he has made happen? Is he, with all his obvious flaws, still to be admired, or is he just a bit of a knob? Is reality out there or just what goes on in our heads? See that’s what happens when you go to North London with other culturally aware trendies to watch modernist German theatre. If you are a real pseud, like someone here, you even buy a German programme for no apparent reason.

So a worthwhile journey for me. And for Peer. Whoever he was.

 

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse review ***

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The Lady From The Sea

Donmar Warehouse, 23rd November 2017

I have an uneasy relationship with Henrik Ibsen and this is the first time I have seen The Lady From The Sea, (though I note that plenty of the usual Ibsen obsessions are on show in it). So I may not be best placed to make a reliable judgement. Then again this blog is really only intended for me to process what I have seen so, strictly, if I am both author and reader here, we can both agree that nothing of what follows matters.

Except that the SO was present. And what she thinks does matter. To me at least. And her view echoed mine. We were not completely persuaded that the Caribbean setting of Elinor Cook’s spikey adaption added an extra dimension to proceedings, even if it satisfied the high watery metaphor count, and we felt that Nikki Amuka-Bird’s admittedly full-blooded performance as an unhinged Ellida didn’t entirely articulate with the other characters, especially Finbar Lych’s diffident, decent Wangel. We get that Ibsen doesn’t have to be cold deep fjords, birch trees and not saying what you mean, and that it is beholden on us, the audience, to work with Ibsen and his interpreters to get to the bottom of the drama, but direction and setting just meant this production didn’t suck us in the way the best Ibsen does.

I like it best when I am simultaneously fascinated by, and want to figuratively slap Ibsen’s characters, (not literally obviously, that is worse than eating or arsing about with your phone in terms of theatre etiquette). Ellida is torn between her duty and her desire, to escape for sure, but more importantly to take control of her stultifying life. Bolette is presented with a similar dilemma, duty or desire, albeit without some flash, bad-boy Stranger sailor hanging around. Hilde, as we see when she leads Solness a merry dance in The Master Builder, is free, even if here she is still missing her real Mum. The blokes, in their different ways, have the scales lifted from their eyes, at least Wangel and Arnholm do. Poor Lyngstrand in this production is just a knob, albeit quite funny, as his artistic pretensions are mocked.

That’s the guts of what I see. Ellida, like Hedda, Nora. Helene, Rita and Ibsen’s other women, are not easy to play, but, for me, it is made immeasurably harder if the stifling nature of the society, and, as here, the marriage, they find themselves in, is not foregrounded. We may be a long way from Europe here, in a land built on oppression, but this is never really explored. Reasons for Ellida’s emotional “prisoner’s dilemma” are easy to see, sexual frustration, the loss of a child, an incomplete memory of first “love”, smothered ambition, thwarted intelligence, but solutions should remain knotty and incomplete, even as they appear. At times the production was a little too direct which left some of the intended haunting allusion and symbolism looking pretty awkward.

Kwame Kwei-Armah presents his and Ms Cook’s case with accuracy against the jaunty set of Tom Scutt, but it never really catches fire. Mind you we were both struck with Helena Wilson’s clever Bolette and Ellie Bamber’s pointed Hilde. I reckon both of them could get properly stuck into an appropriate leading role in a new play.