Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre review ****

All About Eve

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th March 2019

Bloody West End theatres. The Noel Coward Theatre is by no means the worst offender, and we went early and cheap in terms of booking, which was probably the right strategy, but even this VFM perch was uncomfortable, tight, too hot and with a trek to the bogs which near required a satnav. Still at least the sight-lines were up to snuff, for me, if not so much the SO.

With this story, this cast and this creative team this was never going to fail though even as I occasionally yearned for the comfort of the Lyttleton. If you can’t, or won’t, pay up (£175 for a premium ticket!!) to get along in person then this is definitely worth seeing when it is broadcast live to cinemas on 11th April. It is, even with the back-stage insight and obligatory on-stage video, a surprisingly naturalistic take on the classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film from 1950. I can see why some of the proper reviews say it is overly focussed on the theme of ageing to the detriment of the other insights into the sourer side of the human condition, and Gillian Anderson wisely reins in her inner Bette Davies, (there is the mighty BD above), as Margo Channing, but this is still a very smart piece of theatre craft where the 2 hour straight through run time never drags.

Highlights? Monica Dolan as Karen Richards. Now Ms Dolan, even if she turned it down to say 30 watts, just can’t help outshining everyone else on stage. Here she is magnificent. In the scenes at the party, captured on live video, when everyone has abandoned the drunk, maudlin Margo, she continues to build her character whilst others are “rhubarbing” – there is no sound in these scenes bit it matters not a whit to our Monica. Or take the scene in the car where Karen reveals how she has betrayed Margo to give Eve her big break. Not entirely convincing in the hands of Celeste Holm in the film but here you feel Karen’s remorse at what she has done, and see in her eyes the consequences that will flow from it. You will most likely have seen Ms Dolan on the telly but if you ever get the chance to see her self penned one-woman play The B*easts, about the sexualisation of modern culture, do not, repeat do not, turn it down.

Who else? Well Rhashan Stone as Lloyd Richards, Karen’s playwright husband who also falls under Eve’s spell, also turns in a winning performance. As does the twinkly-eyed Sheila Reid as Margo’s droll, and jealous, retainer Birdie and a booming Stanley Townsend does ample justice to the critic, and Eve’s eventual Svengali, Addison DeWitt, the part made famous by Oscar winner George Sanders. (I am surprised that the OED definition of the word acerbic doesn’t contain reference to the said Mr DeWitt). Indeed all the supporting actors turn in sparkling performances, Ian Drysdale as Margo’s producer Max Fabian, Julian Ovenden as her boyfriend Bill Sampson, debutant Jessie Mei Li as the vacuous Claudia Caswell, (the part played in the film by another newcomer who went by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe), and even Tsion Habte who plays Phoebe the apparent ingenue who pitches up in Eve’s dressing room at the end to repeat the story. Ms Habte is, of course, Lily James’s understudy as Eve. What price Ivo van Hove gets tempted to play that particular meta-dramatic card and shove her into the limelight.

The set and lighting design of Jan Versweyveld is predictably memorable. Mid- and side-stage panels move up to reveal the back-stage workings, this is, after all a play based on a film about the theatre, in turn based on a play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, in turn based on her own short story which she based on the real life experience of actress Elizabeth Bergner. The design allows slick set changes to conjure up Margo’s dressing room in the opening scene where super-fan Eve Harrington first sneaks in and tells her sob story, Margo’s glitzy apartment, front of stage at Aged in Wood, the Stork Club, back-stage at the Shubert Theatre where Eve gets her premiere in Footsteps on the Ceiling, Lloyd’s new play, the awards banquet and finally Eve’s own apartment. There is a sickly pink tinge to much of the design which I shall henceforward imagine is the dominant colour in the film, and which nails the forced grandeur of old-school theatre, set in this grand old-school theatre.

The understated period costumes and the score by PJ Harvey, (finally delivering after a few false starts on other plays recently), with on stage pianist Philip Voyzey, and amplified by Tom Gibbons sound design, complete the ensemble. And this being Ivo van Hove each detail has been thought through and there are some divine moments, not least of which is the, admittedly sledgehammer, video “ageing” of Margo on the projected screen. Of course if one or other, or both, of the leads, were to fall short then so would the whole confection, but Gillian Anderson, with her trademark drawl, is as predictably secure as you might imagine as a tragic heroine despite the bantz and the limpid-exterior-masking-steely-interior of Lily James’s sly Eve is the perfect foil.

So great performances, it looks and sounds spot on and no glaring games played with story or text. But, for me, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the film. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck famously reined in some of the more excessive characterisation in Mankiewicz’s original script, but there is still a hefty dose of melodrama and the sound of tongue pushing against cheek in many of the lines. No-one comes out well and everyone looks after number one first. There is artifice in life as well as art. Anne Baxter’s Eve is recognisably cut from the same cloth as Bette Davies’s Margo. If anyone of these characters pitched up as plus ones at your party, and I include Karen in that, you would probably be looking to wind things up early. Yes the film is about the primacy of youth and looks for women on stage and screen but the message never subsumes the entertainment. The touch is light and, for good or bad, the creators plainly loved their characters. Ivo van Hove’s version, with all the technical wizardry, is decidedly more serious. Maybe too serious. Network at the NT, even if it did miss out some of my favourite bits, was thrilling theatre that eclipsed the film it was based on. This, like other film adaptations by this creative team, does not.

If I may quote from Billers’s review in the Guardian – “this feels more like a Ingmar Bergman movie than a Mankiewicz satire”. The old boy sums it up perfectly as always, especially since it is Bergman that Mr van Hove is continually drawn to as he seeks out films he can react for theatre. (I imagine, based on his brilliant writing, a couple of interviews, his appearance on University Challenge and the fact that he has been theatre critic for nearly 50 years on the world’s greatest newspaper, that the genial Michael Billington is as far removed from Addison DeWitt as it is possible to be. If this were not true the Tourist may well suffer a kind of total psychic collapse).

Even with these caveats, which frankly any half-interested theatre goer familiar with director and film, might reasonably have seem coming well in advance, this is an event and needs seeing. Next up in London, unless I am very much mistaken, from the van Hove factory, is his take on the Janacek song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared with added recitals, music and meaning, at the Royal Opera House, and then, hot on its heels, The Damned at the Barbican, based on Visconti’s coruscating 1969 film, in collaboration with Comedie Francaise, which sounds like in is slap bang in the core of van Hove’s curriculum.

Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.

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.

 

Network at the National Theatre review *****

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Network

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.

After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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After the Rehearsal

Barbican Theatre, 28th September 2017

So what was this going to be? Another flawed, portentous (pretentious?), langourous stroll through a story which might better have been left in its original format, like Obsession here at the Barbican earlier this year in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Residency? Or a searing, metaphysical psychodrama in the manner of A View from the Bridge? You never quite know what you are going to get from wunderkind director Ivo van Hove although in this case, given the production of After the Rehearsal and its sister play Persona, are already staples of TA’s performance repertoire, it was possible to get a pretty good idea in advance.

Now I have to confess I was not at my best on the night of this performance and probably should have stayed tucked up in bed with my fading man-flu. The draw of the theatre once again proved too strong (the addict always craves stuff like this – the theatrical equivalent of absinthe) so I made a deal with myself: watch After the Rehearsal and then duck out unless you are absolutely riveted. Well I fear I was insufficiently riveted. On the other hand there was more than enough to chew on in After the Rehearsal and, as I have come to expect from TA’s finest, the performances were marvellous.

After the Rehearsal and Persona are based on Ingmar Bergman films, the former made for TB in 1984 and the latter for the cinema in 1966 (when he had refined his technique to the bare minimum). Unsurprisingly, Bergman is one of Ivo van Hove favourite artists. A version of Scenes From A Marriage has been in the TA repertoire since 2004, Cries and Whispers since 2008 and this double bill since 2012. Mind you Bergman’s influence on European theatre (I mean them not us) has been pretty profound. His own productions were apparently as famous for how they looked as the stories they told. Bergman himself worshipped August Strindberg. Both reach deep into Swedish identity. 

In After the Rehearsal, director Hendrick Vogler (I assume Bergman himself) and young actress Anna are discussing their production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play where Anna is playing the godly Agnes. The conversation expands beyond the play taking in their views on life and the lies they tell. Vogler tries to manipulate Anna. She responds. It turns out Vogler had an affair with Anna’s mother Rachel, also an actress, and she appears in on stage (though in his mind). She is broken by drink and depression but still pulls him to pieces. When she leaves Vogler and Anna imagine a future together: is this real or constructed1?

Now as ever with Bergman there are times when you feel like it would have been a good idea for someone to put their arm around him and tell him not to worry, it might never happen. But “it” does  happen and his exploration of what goes on in our heads and how this sets the narratives we create for ourselves and how the passage of time affects our identities is as penetrating as it gets. This in turns links back to the nature of theatre. Are we always acting? What are our real selves? Who are we trying to impress? Why do we lie to ourselves and others?

The Dutch text is taut and, as in other TA productions, the act of having to read the sur-titles means the words seem to penetrate deeper. Given the fact that not much actually happens (that isn’t the point) there is an awful lot of movement on the stage and lighting, props, music and sound all inject life into the “action”. Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vogler, (who was a brilliant Coriolanus in Roman Tragedies though looked a bit lost as Joseph in Obsession), is again a colossal, brooding presence on stage. Gaite Jansen, who is a relative newcomer to TA, presents a calculating Anna. Best of all though was Marieke Heebink as Rachel whose desperation convulsed through her entire body. I still remember her fearsomely sexual Charmian alongside Chris Nietvelt’s haughtily needy Cleopatra in Roman Tragedies.

So why wasn’t I more taken with this play. I think, once again as with Obsession (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***), that the obstacle that I can’t quite get over lies in the transfer of film to stage. Bergman is full of close-ups. The Barbican stage is not. As Vogler says in this play ultimately theatre is text, actors and audience. If plot takes a back seat then character needs to come to the fore, and in a text like this I need to see right inside their heads. And I couldn’t.

Still Mr van Hove’s productions can never be ignored. Next up Network at the NT.

 

Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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Obsession

Barbican Theatre, 13th May 2017

In retrospect there were warning signs.

This was an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut film, Obssessione, itself based on a book by James M. Cain, the Postman Always Rings Twice, which in turn was later made into an American film in 1946 (Lana Turner, John Garfield) and 1981 (Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange with a David Mamet screenplay). There have apparently been 4 other film adataptions, another play and even an opera based on the book. I had seen both US films and Obssessione but I confess my memory of plot and character was more skewed to both of the US films and not Visconti’s “neo-realist’ masterpiece.

So, on this basis, and given the provenance of director and cast here, I got quite excited, so I strong-armed, in so far as that is possible with people of such admirably independent will, the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into coming with me to this performance. In doing so I broke my own golden rule – if a play is an adaptation of a novel or a film, or both, be careful to evaluate the source material before signing up. There have been plenty of recent marvellous adaptations for theatre but, if a play is not written expressly for the theatre then, in my view, the audience is at potentially greater risk of disappointment if the vision of the creative team falls short. A book has description (objective and subjective) and the reader’s imaginations to fill the gaps and film has the ever moving eye of the camera to direct the viewer. A play though needs the text, the things the characters say, to do the heavy lifting. When it works for me at least theatre trumps (see even this word still has some utility) any other artistic form and especially film.

Our director here, the mercurial Ivo van Hove, has a recognisable aesthetic and has used Visconti films as his inspiration before. The story here, on the one hand, is simple, but effective and timeless. A drifter finds himself at a restaurant, falls passionately in love with the trapped wife of her older husband who owns it, and they jointly resolve to do him in. The damaging consequences of this act are then cleverly explored. But Visconti was creating his film against the backdrop of censorship in Fascist Italy and looked to explore issues of agency, power, class, gender and sex in relationship to this backdrop. He also introduced another character, (here named Johnny), to contrast domesticity and control with freedom, both individual and political. There are a lot of lingering long and medium shots of rural Italian landscapes and interiors. The characters don’t say too much. There are dramatic devices (cats, the sound of the sea, guns, car crashes and so on) to heighten the whole confection.

So easy enough to see why Mr van Hove wanted to bring this into the theatre. The problems once again lie in the how he and his key collaborators, designer Jan Versweveld and scriptwriter Simon Stephens, choose to do this, and also, it pains me to say, who they cast to do it. This team is not one for fussy sets. Whilst not as minimalist as their A View from the Bridge or Crucible, there was not much to see, just the bare necessities to symbolise kitchen, bathroom/tap, car and jukebox, with some video close-ups, some video waves, Italian opera, Springsteen, Waits and Iggy on the soundtrack and a few props. Again this is not, of itself, a problem but when combined with a very sparse text, the deliberate eliding of time-frames and the giant Barbican stage, left the production feeling too one-paced and distant for me. In the Visconti film the camera is conveying information even when the characters are not; here we were not afforded that visual insight.

Now as I say I should have been cognisant of the risk. Mr van Hove does ask a lot of his audiences. By stripping back what you see to the bare essentials you are forced to focus on what the characters are saying and doing. When the text comes from the pen of Arthur Miller or Henrik Ibsen (with a bit of polishing up by another playwright in Patrick Marber for the NT Hedda Gabler) then the source material is so rich this can work splendidly. Or, when you have the riches of Shakespeare to play with, you can make it work even after taking a hefty scalpel to the source and translating it. Or indeed when Simon Stephens writes an original play, Songs From far Away for Mr van Hove to get his mitts on.

But if you have less to play with as here, and you are wedded to the notion of bringing this very cinematic film to theatrical life, then it can fall short. What I think we saw, and not just us judging by the reviews, was not, I think, what the creative team saw, in part because they were so immersed in what they were trying to create. And at times I fear it did come disturbingly close to self parody (witness the treadmill and profligate bin emptying).

Which brings me to the third issue. I can’t put my finger on it but when I have seen the Dutch members of the cast in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare extravanganzas Kings of War or the Roman Tragedies, they were awesome, as in their performances inspired awe. Here, Gijs Scolten van Aschat and Halina Reijn just seemed more muted. And I had expected so much more of Jude Law playing Gino. He just didn’t look comfortable as a man of passion or of self doubt. It was nowhere near as disappointing as Juliette Binoche in Mr van Hove’s Antigone here in 2015. She was just out of her depth. Mind you that Antigone production also shows that if the words aren’t right (poet Anne Carson’s translation was all over the place) then the minimalist aesthetic cannot deliver.

So all in all a notable let-down. However, despite the elongation of tone and dearth of pace it wasn’t actually dull and there was stuff to chew on. It’s just that I had no opportunity for emotional engagement.

Yet I will not give up on Mr van Hove and his TA team. When it works it cannot be bettered. I just have to be more careful to think about the source. Next year, as an example, they are letting Robert Icke, our own British wunderkind director (Hamlet, Oresteia, 1984), loose on Oedipus. Yes that’s right Sophocles’s tale of f*cking it up big time with Hans Kesting in the lead. Blimey. That cannot possibly fail right?

P.S. I must also work out what this dramaturgy thing is all about as it is now dawning on me that it matters.