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.

Mood Music at the Old Vic review ***

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Mood Music

Old Vic Theatre, 30th May 2018

Joe Penhall is definitely on to something with his new play Mood Music. But having found it I am not entirely sure that he then took the time to develop it. Well worth seeing, some fine performances and some thoughtful debate, but, after a terrific set up, a little disappointing and not as satisfying as, say, Blue/Orange.

Ben Chaplin plays louche, supercilious music producer Bernard, a part that could have been written for him, though it wasn’t as Old Vic favourite Rhys Ifans had to step down. Irish actor Seana Kerslake plays gifted young singer/songwriter Cat. From the get-go it is pretty obvious that something has gone horribly wrong between the hit making svengali and the precocious artist. They are each shadowed by psychiatrists, the diffident Ramsay for Bernard, (Pip Carter who played opposite Ben Chaplin in the original cast of Nina Raine’s superb Consent at the NT), and the similarly purposeful Vanessa played by Jemma Redgrave. They are subsequently joined on-stage by their respective entertainment lawyers, animated Seymour (Neil Stuke) and acute Miles (Kurt Egyiawan).

The combination of Bernard’s production experience and Cat’s talent and appeal is expected to produce a sure-fire hit. Initially there is no dialogue directly between the two, just between them and their respective professional advisers. The dialogue is temporally fluid with the thrust stage and design from Hildegard Bechtler, overhung with loads of mics, also shifting between music studio, consultation rooms and lawyers’ offices. When we finally get flashbacks to the beginning of Cat and Bernard’s working relationship we see there were some signs of affections and musical appreciation and mutual learning. As Bernard gets to work on “improving” Cat’s songs the musical boundaries blur and the “ownership” of the creative ideas is confused.

Bernard is plainly an egotistical, sexist bully locked in the past whose musical Midas touch is fading. Cat worships her amateur musician father, is warily truculent and won’t be pushed around. Even so Bernard slowly undermines her and her work claiming it as his own. The direction of travel in terms of the relationship is predictable, though still very illuminating, and made more fascinating by not being too black and white. Bernard, at least in Ben Chaplin’s shoes is not irredeemably evil, though he comes pretty close and is blissfully unaware of the damage he does to Cat, whilst Cat herself, thanks to Ms Kerslake’s acting skill, is not completely sympathetic and certainly not a helpless victim. This is smart writing as you might expect from Mr Penhall.

The relationship between art and life and the wellspring of the creative process is a theatrical staple. Putting this in the more contemporary context of popular music, (rather than writing), makes for a less academic experience than some classic plays which plough this furrow. The economics of composition and performance are also highlighted. Modern music seems to unite the age old artistic divide between creator and performer. This shows us that this is often an illusion. The play has obviously been made more relevant as the scale of male abuse of female artists, notably in contemporary film-making, has been laid bare.

I liked the structure of the play with the interweaving dialogue, “musical’ if you will, and Roger Michell’s direction served this admirably, as he always does (he directed Consent brilliantly). So what’s the Tourist’s beef? Well having set up the arguments we didn’t really move on. Just around and in between them. At a couple of hours or so the play didn’t outstay its welcome but it might have been more effective with some dislocation or shift in perspectives. The pace was quick-fire enough but apart from the scene at the awards ceremony, the uncomfortable height of Bernard’s boorishness, the drama didn’t really branch out. Still Ben Chaplin is magnetic, Sean Kerslake is a genuine real talent (as she plays a real talent) and there are cracking lines and insight.

 

 

 

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.