Europe at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Europe

Donmar Warehouse, 6th August 2019

I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.

I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).

Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.

Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).

The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.

That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.

The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.

BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.

Small Island at the National Theatre review *****

Small Island

National Theatre Olivier

If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.

It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.

And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.

This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.

Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.

Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.

Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.

Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.

“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.

Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.

(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).

Translations at the National Theatre review ****

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Translations

National Theatre Olivier, 6th June 2018

At the end of the day it is all about the words. That’s theatre. The power of language. Which is exactly what Brian Friel’s play is all about. A modern classic, first seen in 1980, in Derry (with Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally no less in the cast), to set alongside Philadelphia Here I Come, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa and The Home Place, as masterpieces from his hand. All set in the fictional town of Baie Beag (Ballybeg). All exploring the particularities of Irish history, society and culture but all offering up universal insight. The Irish Chekhov as some would, with very good reason, have it.

So I wasn’t going to pass this up and I was going to insist the SO attend. I have no truck with those currently giving Rufus Norris and the NT a kicking. There have been some absolute belters over the last couple of years which more than compensate for a couple of missteps, so you haters can STFU. Anyway this is a marvellous productions. Rae Smith has conjured up another evocative, organic, set, the “hedge” school in which the play is set is foregrounded, leaving the rest of the Oliver stage as moorland which stretches to a backdrop of rolling mist and clouds. It is 1833 in Ballybeg and embittered Manus, (superbly played by Seamus O”Hara), lame in one leg, is setting up the school run by his father Hugh. He is joined by the voluble Jimmy Jack Cassie whose shambling manner and fondness for a tipple belies his classical education. He and Hugh are equally at home in Latin and Greek as their native Gaelic. Dermot Crowley and Ciaran Hinds offer up a par of towering performances. The hedge schools which were the source of their learning are about to be replaced by a free national school system. Sarah movingly played by Michelle Fox, whose speech is impaired, is joined by Maire (Judith Roddy who was also marvellous in the recent Donmar Knives in Hens), Doalty (Lawrence Kinlan) and Bridget (Aoife Duffin) in the school.

Through their interchanges we quickly become immersed in their domestic worlds, lives that may lack material plenty but are rich in many other ways. The Great Famine is still a decade away but the threat from potato blight is addressed. Translations is not an overtly political play, Brian Friel determined to avoid that commenting  that “the play has to do with language and only language … and if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost”. However when Hugh’s other, prodigal, son, Owen, returns after a several year absence, the clash of culture between British coloniser and Irish colonised, is revealed. Owen (Colin Morgan, TV’s Merlin) has returned with two English soldiers, the ruthless and patronising cartographer Captain Lancey (accurately represented by Rufus Wright) and the more sympathetic orthographer Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Owen is a translator: the soldiers have been tasked with renaming the Irish place names into English. This was initially it seems a virtuous undertaking but the metaphor is clear and, eventually, as you might guess, the army seeks retribution when one of their number goes missing.

Now Mr Friel’s brilliant central conceit is to have both the English and Irish characters speaking in English. The two English officers speak no Gaelic, though Yolland as he falls in love with both country and Maire, tries to learn. Owen, initially misnamed Roland by the officers, picks his way carefully through his translations. And, it transpires, that a number of the Irish contingent know a great deal more English that they are letting on.

Hopefully my brief description should persuade you just how elegantly, and cleverly, constructed Mr Friel’s play is. But it doesn’t stop there. In scene after scene and line after line, he patiently, but insistently, drives his points home. Even so these characters are no mere ciphers; there is plenty of emotion too. The love scene, ostensibly in two different languages, between Maire and Yolland, is very affecting, Sarah’s yearning for Manus which echoes it, Manus’s flight when he realises there is nothing left for him in Ballybeg,, Hugh’s demons fuelled by drink, Owen’s cultural ambivalence; everyone has a story to tell, and not just in words.

Ian Rickson is as sure-footed in his direction of the marvellous cast as you could wish for though there are moments of over-deliberation. Neil Austin’s lighting, Ian Dickinson’s sound design and the music of Stephen Warbeck all stand out,  and a big hurrah for the voice work of Charmian Hoare and Jeanette Nelson and to dialect coach Majella Hurley, this being a play about language.