Peer Gynt at the National Theatre review ****

Peer Gynt

National Theatre Olivier, 1st October 2019

I know what I need. A bit more Ibsen. There are reasons why theatre-makers keep returning to the master and the slew of high profile productions in London this year alone is a reminder of why. I would probably plump for Ian Rickson’s Rosmersholm as the best of the bunch but there have been others that have captured the great playwright’s unique cocktail of thrilling drama, scathing political and moral critique and meticulous psychological insight.

Right now I crave a John Gabriel Borkman, a play that I have never seen and which I gather offers a challenge to directors in reconciling its melodramatic, symbolic final act to the realism of what has proceeded it. I don’t suppose I will have to wait too long though. In the meantime Peer Gynt, the romance, fantasy, epic, modernist mix of surrealism, poetry, naturalism and confessional, written in Danish verse over five acts, that has been challenging and delighting theatre makers and audiences since it first tore up the rule book in 1867. The last time I saw it was at the Arcola in Theatre an der Ruhr inventive two hander in German, (yep, I know what you are thinking). This could hardly be more different. The full resources of the Edinburgh Festival and National Theatre on the Olivier stage in a new, free adaptation by David Hare (with byline after Henrik Ibsen), directed by the venerable Jonathan Kent with sets and costumes from opera whizz Richard Hudson and with a cast of 25 led by James McArdle.

I confess I am still feeling my way into Peer Gynt and I recognise that David Hare here, whilst sticking closely to Ibsen’s plot, materially updated its content to satirise contemporary issues. I guess we should have expected nothing less from Mr Hare and his gift for the elegant, incisive and amusing turn of phrase remained undimmed. There are times when the exact target of Mr Hare’s ire became a little confused and/or indulgent but generally this is a text to savour.

Peer Gynt is a fantasist who creates his own narratives, his own view of his self, which, it turns out, is a long way from the reality even when he “succeeds”as well as when he “fails”. Pretty easy then to see why Mr Hare and Mr Kent would be attracted to this story of a life built on vacillation, invention and entitlement in our digital world of self-obsession and distortion at both the individual and societal level. As Ibsen trenchantly observed “if you lie, are you real?”. And the message of Peer, here Peter, Gynt is, if you are going to make stuff up and avoid knuckling down, go big. Who knows where you may end up. POTUS even? After all the play itself has generated its own reality with an annual festival, a sculpture park, a prize for best Norwegian thing of the year, numerous films, TV presentations, ballets, operas, musicals, Greig’s music and innumerable professional and amateur productions.

McArdle’s Gynt is a demobbed soldier returning to his Scottish village of Dunoon recounting tales of his bravery that bear and uncanny resemblance to seminal scenes from war movies. His Mum, Ann Louise Ross, puts up with his nonsense but the villagers, as we see at the wedding, are less forgiving. He kidnaps the bride, falls for Sabine (Anya Chalotra), a kind young immigrant woman, is banished, meets some line dancing cowgirls (Lauren Ellis-Steele, Hannah Visocchi, Dani Heron), gets shit-faced, bangs his head, dreams of a troll king (Jonathan Coy) and fathering a child with a his daughter (Tamsin Carroll), meets a gnomic chap called the Boyg (Nabil Shaban), wakes up, rejects a life with the faithful Sabine, movingly watches his Mum pass away, runs off, becomes an evil oligarch, a pilgrim, a fake guru and ends up chatting to the deranged inmates of an asylum. He heads for home, is shipwrecked, meets the aptly named Weird Passenger (Guy Henry) and finally has it out in the philosophical steakhouse with the Boyg and the learned Button-Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies), who teaches him the fundamental difference between self-absorption and self-realisation.

A revamped dream sequence, an inordinate amount of innovation from Richard Hudson, Mark Henderson (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Polly Bennett (movement), Dick Straker (video), Paul Benzing (fight), Chris Fisher (illusions), and all their colleagues, original composition from Paul Englishby and musicians led by Kevin Amos, the discipline imposed by Mr Kent, a couple of intervals and a willing audience all pulled together to make this happen. Was it worth it? For me yes. I am not entirely sure if this Peer Gynt’s reach exceeds its grasp, (come to think of it that is sort of PG himself’s problem), but, thanks to largely to Mr Hare’s script and Mr McArdle’s brobdingnagian performance, (see what I have done there, referencing Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, another genre-bending fantasy satire to which novelists still look today), I now know what Ibsen was trying to tell us. And, as importantly , I spent 3.5 hours immersed in a bloody good yarn.

Which I see is not an opinion shared by many of the critics who variously seem to have had it in for Mr Hare, the production, the play, the set and the direction. Oh well. It takes all sorts.

The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree review ****

The Double Dealer

Orange Tree Theatre, 7th January 2019

Now everyone know’s that Restoration comedy is a tricky customer. What with the humour built on misogyny, that’s if it is funny at all. The satire of a social class few of us recognise. Texts are so thick, built on repartee, wordplay, punning and double entendre. Plots and sub-plots are labyrinthine. Intrigues, trysts, disguise, mistaken identity, off stage shenanigans, eavesdropping, knob gags, duplicity, comeuppances. Characters are stock: rakes, roues, ingenues, cuckolds, randy older women, buffoons. The debt to French and Spanish contemporaries, Jacobean classics, commedia dell’arte and the Roman foundations of Plautus and chums, is obvious even if it is firmly of its time.

I’ve swerved a few in my time, including recently the Donmar Way of the World, which sounded a bit too full-on. There was a Simon Godwin Beaux Stratagem at the NT a few years ago which had its moments and the “Bright Young Things” Country Wife last year from Morphic Graffiti was diverting in parts but I am still waiting to be shown the “real thing”. Director Selina Cadell, who is a veteran of the Restoration, (you know what I mean), as both actor and, increasingly, director, (Love for Love at the RSC, Way of the World at Theatre Royal, Northampton, The Rivals at the Arcola, in addition to a Stravinsky Rake’s Progress at Wilton’s), offers valuable insight in the programme. To make the comedy work actors need to trust the text and stop their natural, modern tendency to interpret and emote.

I can see the sense of that and also the idea that we the audience shouldn’t worry too much about trying to unravel the plot. To that end, in this Double Dealer, William Congreve’s 1694 less successful follow up to his hit debut The Old Bachelor, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson have offered up a short prologue telling us to do exactly that. So, with that in mind, I settled in, though, given the string of less than enthusiastic reviews, expectations were low.

So I was more than a little surprised when I found myself starting to enjoy the proceedings. Not to the point of being converted to the Restoration cause but certainly enough to justify 4*, admittedly on the Tourist’s extremely flawed, subjective and overly generous ranking system. (I reason that all involved have gone to the effort so it is only reasonable for me to be generous in my appreciation. And the hard laws of cognitive dissonance mean I am hardly likely to admit I ballsed up by booking to see something in the first place).

This is not to say that the plot isn’t convoluted. Earnest young Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt), heir and nephew to Lord Touchwood (Jonathan Coy) can’t wait to marry Cynthia (Zoe Waiter) who is the daughter by a former wife of Sir Paul Plyant (Simon Chandler). Sir Paul is also the brother of Lady Touchwood (also Zoe Waites) who just happens to have the hots for young Mellefont. Lady T, rejected by said Mellefont, gets the hump and resolves to ruin his reputation. She recruits the rakish Maskwell (Edward MacLiam), the Double Dealer of the title, and Lady T’s former lover, into her plot. As it happens the villain Maskwell is actually in love with the virtuous Cynthia. So Maskwell attempts to persuade Sir Paul P that his missus, the randy Lady P (Jenny Rainsford), is getting it on with Mellefont, and Lord T that Mellefont also has designs on his wife. Into this fray are plunged Mellefont’s mate Careless (Dharmesh Patel), Lord Froth (Paul Reid) and his pretentious wife Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely) who responds to the advances of coxcomb Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent), who also plays a chaplain as the trysts pile up and the plots unravel.

Easy really. Seriously though, a quick scan of Wiki, as you might prior to a Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson play, a shifty glance at your programme as the various punters run on and off in the first few minutes, and it becomes pretty easy to follow. So I am not sure that constitutes a fair criticism. The constant entrances and exits do get a little repetitive but so it can in Shakespeare history plays and there ain’t a lot of options space-wise at the OT, that is normally one of its joys. The reasons for the doubling of Lady Touchwood and Cynthia remain a mystery but Zoe Waites offers more than sufficient distinction between the two, in some ways rather to the detriment of her colourless Cynthia. And, when we get to the scene where Cynthia eavesdrops on Lady T’s intrigues, we witness the rather daft sight of her rolling on her side to signify who is speaking. Still at least she didn’t have one of those split down the middle costumes on.

Lloyd Everett gives more definition to Mellefont but the the star turn by a country mile is Jenny Rainsford’s Lady Plyant, who is hilarious, both in the delivery of her lines and her movement. Hannah Stokely also gets real laughs out of Lady Froth and Edward MacLiam gradually, though not entirely, fleshes Maskwell out beyond the pantomime. The rest of the cast is solid if not always spectacular. As an aside I think this might have been my first full house in terms of the ten strong cast. All seen in the last couple of years in other productions. Madeleine Girling’s set did the job as did Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume’s and Vince Herbert’s lighting though I couldn’t escape the feeling, (very rare at the OT where less is normally defiantly more), that more space and more money would have helped.

BUT what I can say is that this was a production which persuaded me that Restoration Comedy can be not just something I, (and I suspect most audiences), should enjoy, but something that I could enjoy, and in fact something that I would enjoy. If there were an entire cast operating at the same level as, say, Jenny Rainsford here, so that every line, every exchange, every character trait, every situation, registered then it could be very bright and very witty. If this were overlaid with more expansive visual cues, the entertainment could be further enhanced. Not to the exclusion of the text but in support thereof. And if the differences between the characters are fully defined by movement, costume and through variations in the rhythm of dialogue and action then the plot should be less of a hurdle.

Even the most perfect production might have its work cut out to bring relevancy to the social satire or to contemporise the sexual politics. Congreve’s play dates from the period of the second wave of Restoration comedy from 1690 through the turn of the C18 which broadened out the interaction between social classes beyond the purely aristocratic subjects of the original craze from 1660 to 1680. Even so it is still essentially a bunch of toffs running around stunting innuendos the Carry On script writers might have rejected. Easy to see why the stuffy Victorians took umbrage and the plays fell out of fashion.

This is the first production of the Double Dealer in London for a few decades. It’s not perfect. The tension between the pantomimic and the dramatic is never really resolved. There is precious little weight to the characters. The space constrains, even though the play is nominally set in the “gallery” of Lord T’s house over the three hours of the (unabridged) play. Yet, despite this, the Tourist sniggered a fair bit and emerged in quite a perky mood. Which is not always the case post theatricals. And, armed with a greater understanding of the genre, hoping, one day, to chalk up a 5* Restoration comedy.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/04/27/the-country-wife-at-southwark-playhouse-review/

Curtains at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

The_Rose_Theatre,_Kingston,_London

Curtains

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2018

Stage comedies don’t always stand the test of time too well. Comedy is elusive enough in the first place and may often be more rooted than tragedy to specific times, places or events. Comedic fashion chops and changes and what is acceptable shifts with the zeitgeist. Repetition does not always serve it well. This is as true of comedy from the last few decades as it is from hundreds of years ago. If a comedy play wins an award, especially an award for “best newcomer”, than alarm bells should sound for any subsequent revival.

Stephen Bill’s Curtains from 1987 won many just such awards, and repeated the trick when it was revived in New York a decade later. Added to that it’s a comedy about death. Set in the West Midlands. The second comedy about death set in the West Midlands I have seen in the last couple of weeks after the Guildhall’s Schools splendid production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. (Colder Than Here at Guildhall School Milton Court Studio review *****). Maybe this very specific sub-genre holds a special fascination for me. Hm.

So I approached this with trepidation. I shouldn’t have. This is, by and large, a very smart play, directed by Lindsay Posner, who I assume was keen to revive it, which should be playing to packed houses at the Rose. I may be biased, because it is on the doorstep, but I really do think that, despite having no Artistic Director, the Rose is astutely delivering some high quality, uncluttered, proper theatre, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes, as here I think, off its own bat. Maybe not quite matching the Orange Tree in terms of innovation but streets ahead of the safety first pap that the Richmond Theatre largely relies on.

It’s that old Ayckbourn-ian staple, the family gathering, (which didn’t work as well in my last visit here for Sam Holcroft’s novel Rules for Living, another “best newcomer” – Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***). It’s Ida’s (Sandra Voe) birthday. We are in her threadbare front room, courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. She is stuck in her wheelchair with advanced dementia, her eyesight and hearing fading, surrounded by her two daughters, a splendidly po-faced Margaret (Wendy Mottingham) and a restless Katherine (Saskia Reeves and their respective husbands, the punctilious Geoffrey (Jonathan Coy) and the candid Douglas (Tim Dutton). Geoffrey and Margaret’s son Michael is also in attendance.

Now the somewhat gauche Michael is played by none other than Leo Bill, the son of the playwright. Do not be alarmed though, there is no nepotism at work here. Mr Bill junior is a fine comic actor as I know from his Bottom in Joe-Hill Gibbons’s characteristically bold Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****). Now Bottom is funny. There is a clue in the name. And Shakespeare, who was good with gags, created him. Yet sometimes once you have done the donkey head and Titania fancying him, the belly-aches can ease up. Not so with Leo Bill who, with body, face and words, and a pair of tights, held the whole of the school-kid contingent in the palm of his hand, not to mention us old grumpers.

Dad Stephen Bill is probably much better known for his TV scripts than his plays, but it seems like he retired some time ago. So I think I can be confident that young Bill is here on merit; his performance certainly suggests so. The birthday party is completed by neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates), who, along with Michael who lives in the house, takes care of Ida, and, subsequently by a third sister, free spirit Susan (Caroline Catz) who is something of a black sheep, and winds Margaret up something rotten.

The fussing around Ida, drinks, sandwiches and cake are served in quick succession, and the importing of her reactions by the sisters, is spot on. It soon become clear though that there are tensions over how Ida should be cared for as she approaches the end, amidst the familiar, familial carping. This is the debate that lies at the heart of the play. How should families deal with with end of life, both practically and emotionally? As the population ages, and the cost of social care rises, this is, in turn, an increasing concern, as we have seen, for society as a whole. Mr Bill is a little guilty of shoe-horning various positions into the mouths of his characters, but the writing is still sufficiently airy to withstand this.

There is a fairly sharp tonal shift at the end of the first which sets up the argument in the second act, and which I shall refrain from describing. Suffice to say it works. There are a couple of incongruous moments which show the age of the play, notably some casual racism, a reminder of the mutability of comedy which I have remarked on above. Overall though this is a very well written play, keenly observed, darkly comic and with some trenchant argument. There is a hint of edgy, Orton-lite about proceedings, which is a very good thing, and Mr Bill has a handy knack of making his dialogue sound natural, often funny, but never “sit-com forced”.

Hats off to whoever thought to revive this.