Edmond de Bergerac at Richmond Theatre review ****

Edmond de Bergerac

Richmond Theatre, 1st May 2019

Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.

Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.

Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.

If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.

Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.

Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.

It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.

Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.

We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.

Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.

I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.

I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.

I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.

Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room Coronet review **

Love Lies Bleeding

Print Room Coronet, 28th November 2018

You probably now Don DeLillo as the US author of provocative, existential contemporary fiction such as White Noise, Libra and Underworld. Well he also writes plays. Five of them to date apparently. IMHO he shouldn’t. They have been compared to Beckett and Pinter. They’re not.

The Print Room under AD Anda Winters has set itself up as a purveyor of knotty, off beat theatre with a pronounced literary bent. This puts it at the more challenging end of the London theatrical entertainment spectrum but then again who wants to watch Bat Out Of Hell every day (or any day come to think of it). When the USP delivers, The Outsider or Babette’s Feast come to mind, it can match the best that the London fringe can offer. When it tries a little too hard then it can turn into a long evening, even in the surprisingly comfortable seats of this shabby chic auditorium.

Love Lies Bleeding was firmly in the latter camp I am afraid. Alex Macklin (Joe McGann no less) is a craggy American land artist now in a persistent vegetative state after a second stroke. His son Sean (Jack Wilkinson) and second wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence) come to visit him and his fourth wife Lin (Clara Indrani) who is caring for him out in his desert hideaway. They discuss whether to accelerate his death. There are a couple of flashbacks with Alex pre-stroke. Oh and an extended metaphor about amaranthus caudatas for you biologists. That’s it.

Whilst it succeeds in its aim of getting us to reflect on the meaning of life, its worth, the question of how life should end, what constitute mercy and the like, we have so much time, even in the 80 minutes or so running time, to chew on these questions that, frankly, the case for killing him off early becomes overwhelming. Hard to fault the acting of the cast, the directing of Jack McNamara, an advocate for DeLillo’s plays (who was the hand behind The Fisherman at the Arcola, which was the polar opposite in terms of dramatic momentum), the inventive set of Lily Arnold and the video work of Andrezj Goulding. But these are paper thin characters in a plot devoid of narrative given to meandering reminiscing and repetitive philosophising. It kicks off with an interesting premise, Alex describing a corpse on the subway, but the play then disappears into its own (dark) metaphysical tunnel. Bleak, wordy, “comedy” so black it isn’t even funny,

Not for me then. Mind you I wouldn’t mind staying in a beach house designed by Lily Arnold. Just not with these people.

Mother Courage and Her Children at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

first-look-mother-courage-at-southwark-playhouse

Mother Courage and Her Children

Southwark Playhouse, 7th November 2017

Hmmm. I am torn. This was a mixed bag and no mistake.

The good stuff first. Well it is Brecht so there will always be big issues to chew on, although here the anti-war appeal that lies at the heart of the play felt curiously understated. The production does have a ramshackle design from Barney George which I was quite taken by and which seemed to capture the ravages of a long drawn out war on a society. The transverse staging and the constraining of the larger Southwark Playhouse space had some advantages, particularly when it came to observing the best of the cast. Mind you this did put paid to the Brechtian distancing effect. Hannah Chissick’s direction had some nice touches though this seemed to lack an overall coherent vision. I like the folksy song arrangements by Duke Special which are drawn from the 2009 NT production. Tony Kushner’s translation from 2006 is strong on characterisation but seems somehow to play down the “epic” nature of the action, though the production was partly responsible.

Best of all was the swaggering performance of Josie Lawrence as Mother Courage. Whilst there was a part of me that would have liked a more hard-bitten Courage to ram home the war as commercial opportunity message, her more sympathetic spirit paid dividends in the scenes with her “children”, the Chaplain and the Cook. David Shelley and Ben Fox in these latter two roles also turned in strong performances, as did Laura Checkley’s brassy Yvette and, especially Phoebe Vigor’s Kattrin. I was less convinced though by the rest of the cast whose tone seemed uncertain, notably the sons, Swiss Cheese played by Julian Moore-Cook and Eilif played by Jake Philips Head. Don’t get me wrong, the boxes were largely ticked, it just seemed to me that motivation and understanding was sometimes lacking.

This lack of conviction was ultimately why the production was only a qualified success for me. There were some powerful scenes notably when Courage disowns the corpse of Swiss Cheese, when Courage turns down the Cook’s offer to escape to Utrecht and especially at the end when Kattrin is beating the drum to warn the townspeople, but many of the other scenes have less definition, and those that do work rely too much on the sympathy generated by the performers, which risks melodrama, and which Brecht specifically wanted to eschew. This should be far more threatening and dislocating to convey the true horror and to reveal the economic and religious imperatives that underpin war, whether in the Early Modern Age or now, in the throes of Late Capitalism.

An avowedly non-specific staging also risks, as it does here, the distancing effect offered through Brecht’s setting in the Thirty Years War of the early C17 between Catholic and Protestant. We are supposed to be immersed in Brecht’s epic story but also to think long and hard about what he is telling us, and I am not sure we were fully afforded that opportunity. We are allowed to understand why Courage does what she does, because she has to to survive, but we are not supposed to like her.

The transverse staging was complicated by some early scenes which took place partially in a mezzanine which was, literally, a pain in the neck for half the audience. Music, sound and lighting worked with the staging but the lack of space constrained the pattern of movement, (to avoid problematic sightlines),  which had the perverse effect of slowing the momentum at times.

My conclusion. A brave attempt which is worth seeing for Josie Lawrence’s fine, if ultimately flawed, performance and for some of the ingenuity of the creatives in trying to make this work in this space. And because it is Mother Courage and Brecht. But there have been, and there will be, more coherent and biting productions which do more to reveal the layers of Brecht’s art, passion and instruction.