A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre review *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bridge Theatre, 6th June 2019

Go join the Shakespeare party down at the Bridge. Nick Hytner pretty much always nails the Bard and he has done it again here. Ignore the lukewarm reviews from the critics who seem to have got a little bit antsy with Hytner’s central inversion of Titania/Hippolyta and Theseus/Oberon. Yes this creates a couple of creaky moments, but what it gains in its celebration of non-binary, gender fluid sexuality, more than compensates. And it helps make this the funniest Dream I have ever seen. Add to this the sense, if not maybe the actuality, of immersion which comes from the promenaders in the pit, (though this may not be the best place to take everything in), and the multiple wow moments that flow from set, staging, costumes and cast, and, for me, this became unmissable. My only regret is being tucked away in a corner on my tod because I couldn’t persuade any of the usual suspects that this would be a Shakespeare production free from their usual misgivings. Should have tried hared.

Did I also say that the cast delivers the full text with perfect transparency? Because they do. OK so maybe a little of the poetry gets sidelined amidst all the activity, and there are some fairly unsubtle, though often very amusing, additional lines. But if you want a Dream to show exactly what is going on along the way then this is for you. The unpleasant nature of the genesis of the story is also not shirked. Theseus was the king in Greek myth who founded the Athenian democracy, having defeated the Amazons led by Hippolyta, whom he subjugated.. The play opens with a “celebration” of this event, here with the women dressed in religious habits and Hippolyta in the form of the imposing guise of Gwendoline Christie, (you know who in you know what), imprisoned in a glass cage. Oliver Chris, who I confess I am now even more a little bit inn love with, cuts a rigid Theseus. All the guff about the little baby and Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) demands of his daughter starts to make sense. Hippolyta looks at Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and the brutal truth of the patriarchal norm is established.

Not for long though. AMND after all is all about the dreams. What happens when we are plunged into another, freer “reality.” And how that other “reality” affects our real reality, if you see what I mean. And it is joy, celebration, sexy time and swapping which defines this particular “reality”. So to invert the two dual characters makes perfect sense and lets fly the interventions which fuel all sorts of other passions, from the Athenian lovers, from the fairies and best of all from Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and the now liberated Oberon. You would be hard pressed tp find a better double act on any stage than these two. Anywhere. Anytime. I am constantly amazed just how good a comedy writer big Will was and how, in sympathetic hands, even gags I have heard multiple times can still make me smile. Though here it is much what we see as what we hear that makes it so funny.

Anyway once all the shenanigans in the forest is over and we return to the city, and the weddings, and the mechanicals, the change in Theseus rings true. His world changed for good over one blinding night out. Like I say I cannot praise Oliver Chris enough. In my book one of the best comic actors on the British stage. As is Hammed Animashaun. A Bottom who might have stepped off any London street today.

Mt Hytner has not neglected the rest of the play to perfect his central conceit. The mechanicals here are mixed gender led by Felicity Montagu’s sincere Quince. She is another comic acting genius. We all have our top ten funniest Partridge moments. An honest appraisal will see Lynn feature in many of them. (BTW if you don’t have a Partridge top ten I have to wonder why you are here as clearly you have no sense of humour). Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk (I need to see her one woman show) as Snug, Francis Lovehall as Starveling and Jermaine Freeman as Flute are equally amusing. In both the rehearsal scene and Pyramus and Thisbe, every comic detail has been thought through to leave the real audience in stitches.

Yet, at the same time the lovers, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), Hermia, Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) and Lysander (Kit Young) with their asides and silences as they watch the “performance” reveal that not all has changed gender-relationship wise in Athens. It isn’t entirely clear whether the two cheeky chaps, who even had a snog in the forest, are going to rise to their better selves with their new wives as they lay into the generous, if hapless, mechanicals. Nor do they see the tragedy, which they avoided, in the inadvertent comedy presented by the proles. Clever Mr Hytner and clever Mr Shakespeare.

Whilst in the forest the couples roam, romp , argue and sleep as you would expect. But here the set transforms into a magical world. As in the production of Julius Caesar last year, the stage hands and the marshals doing an incredible job of marshalling platforms and people into position. From which the beds, on which the various lovers frolic, and even a bath for Bottom and Theseus to soap up, create context and structure. Add to this the rise and fall of said beds, (a fair few of the cast spend an inordinate of time suspended, kipping), and the acrobatics of the fairies, Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya), Cobweb (Jay Webb), Moth (Charlotte Atkinson), Mustardseed (Lennin Nelson-McClure, the leader of the troupe) and Bedbug (Rachel Tolzman), and even those with minimal attention spans would surely be satisfied. The teen next to me was a little restless in the first half and needed a minor dressing down from Mum. Come the second half though and she was as gleefully engaged as everyone around me was.

The fairies were a little wobbly on the lines but their movement and music, (Mr Rascal’s Bonkers a particular highlight), more than made up for this. I praise Nick Hytner so highly because he is the captain of the ship, and I know what he can do with Shakespeare, but frankly all his ideas would have come to naught without Bunny Christie’s set, Christine Cunningham’s costumes, Grant Olding’s composition, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound. And very especially Arlene Phillip’s movement. Though this went beyond movement into complex, three dimensional choreography. Just wonderful. And Suzanne Peretz also deserves a massive call-out for her wigs, effects, hair and make-up. I am not sure I would be going put looking like one of the fairies at my age but I would have killed for a make-over from her before hitting a club in the glory days of New Romanticism in 1981. The Tourist and partners’ homemade efforts at the time being exactly that, homemade.

Of course our fairies celebrated gender diversity but David Moorst’s Puck goes one step further, a pangender Pan with flat vowels, perfect comic timing and a nice line in exasperation with his now, female, mistress. And you try delivering Shakespeare whilst executing perfect aerial silks. In fact try either one and see if you get anyway close to Mr Moorst’s virtuosity. This is an actor who has not stood out for me before. He did this time.

Now I can see that if you want pure verse, gossamer wings and a donkey head this might not be the Dream for you. But then I am not sure that Dream is relevant, or mines the multiple layers of Shakespeare’s imagination, in any circumstances. I do not believe that even big Will realised the complexity of interpretation that the Dream affords, all that anxiety and repression of urges, though he probably had a pretty good idea, so it is up to each generation to examine its meanings, as well, of course, to entertain. Mr Hytner, as he always does, takes a view, and works it through to almost perfect effect, but he also never forgets to entertain us. These shadows mend all those who would search for offence in who we want to be.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Donmar Warehouse, 19th July 2018

The SO obviously is a big fan of Muriel Spark’s novel. We are both big fans of Ronald Neame’s film version, (only the other day I revisited this director’s magnificently cheesy The Poseidon Adventure), though let’s face it that is largely because Maggie Smith delivers a technicolour Maggie Smith performance. No less than David Harrower, (Knives in Hens, Dark Earth, Blackbird and some classic adaptions), was turning book into text here and Polly Findlay was directing. We have actors of the talent of Angus Wright, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Edward MacLiam and I was particularly keen to see Rona Morison again, who was so good in Orca at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016).

But, more than all of this, the big draw was Lia Williams in the title role. I believe Ms Williams is one of our finest stage actors, most recently seen in the Almeida’s Mary Stuart and Oresteia, (alongside Angus Wright as it happens), and, earlier in her career, Oleanna and Skylight. She is also a mean Pinterite, (if that is the word), and I am looking forward to her directing the opening salvo of plays in the upcoming Pinter season alongside Jamie Lloyd.

Now I had not remembered, from the film, just how ambiguously complex a character Ms Brodie is. An inspiration to the girls, (with Grace Saif, Emma Hindle, Nicola Coughlan, she who brilliantly told a twat of a critic where to get off in his insulting review, and Helena Wilson, all superb alongside Rona Morison’s Sandy), who genuinely wants to help then break free of stifling convention, but also manipulative, desperate, unfulfilled with a nasty undercurrent of fascist sympathy. David Harrower’s adaptation makes all this plain, without any need for histrionics, artfully augmented by Polly Findlay’s methodical direction and Lizzie Clachlan’s pared back design. His subtle inclusion of sub-plots involving Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce Emily, who is spurned by Sandy (and belittled by Miss JB) and goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and the framing device of Sandy’s book, worked for me.

Angus Wright as the long suffering, and increasingly frustrated music teacher Mr Lowther, and Edward MacLiam as the more volcanic, and damaged art teacher Teddy Lloyd, were admirable foils to Lia William’s Brodie as they vied for her complex affections. Miss Brodie affects to the aesthetic but real human connection seems to scare her. She provokes rebellion but is actually intellectually conservative. Maybe the guilt of Sandy, as the pupil who betrays Miss Brodie and enters a convent as penitence, (which we see in flash forwards through interviews with Kit Young’s journalist), was a little too forward in Mr Harrower’s adaptation, you know she is Miss Brodie’s nemesis from the off, but it does draw out the darkness in Miss JB’s psyche.

Lia Williams is up against some pretty stiff competition when it comes to theatrical Brodies even if we put Dame Maggie to one side. Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and Patricia Hodge, as well as Geraldine McEwan on the telly, have all had a stab. I can’t comment on any of these performances but I can’t imagine they were any better at capturing Miss JB’s dichotomies than this.

With a bit of luck this will end up a run out in the West End. If so I heartily recommend you see it.

 

Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre *****

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Julius Caesar

Bridge Theatre, 28th February 2018

I had really, really been looking forward to this. Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Contemporary relevance of course, but Shakespeare always has relevance. My appetite whetted by the excellent RSC production I saw at the Barbican last month, (Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****) and by Phyllida Lloyd’s heady all-female interpretation at the Donmar Kings Cross in 2016. Nicholas Hytner in the director’s chair and Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey, Michelle Fairley and David Calder in the four lead roles.

So a little bit of snow wasn’t going to stop me getting there, and dragging the SO along with me. It didn’t disappoint. Best play I have seen so far this year, along with John at the NT: admittedly we are only a couple of months in, with the NT Macbeth having just opened and, I haven’t yet seen Network at the NT. Still this is a cracker. There are plenty of tickets left in the run, though the cheaper seats have largely gone, (it is hard to believe there is a bad seat anywhere in the Bridge), but it is well worth 50 quid or, if you are a fit young’un snap up a promenade ticket and be part of the action.

The transformation into a promenade space from the straight on staging of Young Marx shows just how marvellous the Bridge space is. The promenaders are shepherded around the pit by stewards, a metaphor for the manipulation of the populus as effective as it is obvious. Bunny Christie’s production design is equally blunt but effective, with a series of plinths rising from the floor as and when scenes change. A massive shout out to production manager Kate West, company stage manager Hetti Curtis and the rest of the team at work for this performance and behind the scenes. To make this intricate production succeed, whilst actually enhancing its dynamism, takes real skill. Watch and see, especially, the floor transformed into a battlefield for the final scenes. The stage management team were rewarded with well deserved applause at the end. Bravo.

Even before Caesar (David Calder) appears in front of the crowd with Mark Anthony (David Morrissey) in tow, we have a treat in storm with a some pumped up rock’n’roll for Lupercal courtesy of a street band made up of Abraham Popoola, Fred Fergus, Zachary Hunt and Kit Young. I already have a high regard for Mr Popoola, having seen his vigorous Tobacco Factory Othello alongside Norah Lopez Holden’s Desdemona and Mark Lockyer’s Iago at Wilton’s Music Hall. (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****). Turns out he can sing a bit too and he puts in a stint as a plotter in the form of a taciturn Trebonius. Fred Fergus doubles up as a slow-witted Lucius and gets a right kicking as Cinna, in that simple but so effective mistaken identity scene. Kit Young is a crafty Octavius.

David Calder’s Caesar ticks all the right boxes: proud, conceited, vainglorious. Here is a man used to getting his own way. His eventual dismissal of Calpurnia’s (an under-utilised Wendy Kweh) qualms about his visit to the Senate is insouciant but still reveals a hint of underlying unease. Our conspirators are a thoughtful bunch. Michelle Fairley as Cassius is neither bluntly straightforward in her entreaties to Brutus not bitter in her abhorrence of Caesar and what he is turning into. Instead she is logical, using force of argument to persuade Brutus to lead the coup. Books, glasses, a desk and Ben Whishaw’s innate demeanour make him a contemplative, but still determined, Brutus. You can easily see why his belief in his own rectitude might come across as priggish arrogance to the crowd. He seems to be going through the motions in his justification speech. Mind you I can see why he might underestimate David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. He comes across as a duplicitous chancer, making up as he goes along. I don’t recall being as struck by his mendaciousness before in the scene with Octavius at the beginning of the battle when he brusquely withdraws the pay-out to the people in Caesar’s will.

I reckon a woman playing Cassius, (and indeed women playing other of the conspirators), will, and should, become the norm. It creates a shift in the dynamic between Cassius and Brutus which can be profitably mined, both in the early conspiracy scenes and in the bust-up and reconciliation ahead of the battle. I am not sure whether the distance I sensed between Brutus and Portia, (Leaphia Darko who I hope to see in a much bigger role), was intended but it created an interesting ingredient. Every Casca should be as pointedly sardonic as the scene-stealing Adjoa Andoh. I know Ms Andoh has had an illustrious stage career but I couldn’t help thinking, for example, how much better the recent RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra would have been with her in the driving seat. The rest of the cast, Mark Penfold as Lepidus, Ligarius and the Soothsayer, Nick Sampson as Cinna, Leila Farzad as the reluctant Decius Brutus, Hannah Stokely as Mellellus Cimber, Sid Sagar and Rose Ede were all on top form.

Nick Hytner directed the first Shakespeare productions that ever made any sense to me; his RSC productions of King Lear and The Tempest with the incomparable John Wood. This was when I first “got Shakespeare”.. He is the master of modern dress, “contemporary” Shakespeare. Early on at the NT he created a Henry V with Adrian Lester which was the antithesis of jingoistic. All the surveillance stuff in Hamlet that Robert Icke loaded up on at the Almeida. Look no further than Hytner’s 2010 version with a bookish Rory Kinnear as the Dane. His Othello at the NT with, surprise, surprise, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, is possibly the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen. His Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale kicked into a cocked hat any notion that this is a difficult, unbalanced play.

His visual language is so complete that, even if you don’t catch every line. (let’s face it that is going to happen with Will S, one reason why you can never see too many productions), you still comprehend pretty much everything in front of you. He takes a view for sure, but always in the service of the universal themes that the plays wrestle with. Every single detail is thought through. For anyone who thinks Shakespeare is not for them, Mr Hytner will change your mind.. It helps that his key collaborators in this production, Bruno Poet (lighting), Christine Cunningham (costume), Nick Powell (music), Kate Waters (fight) and, especially here, Paul Arditti (sound) are so expert in bringing his vision to life.

The Trumpian allusions are not overplayed. No need to. We can see the attraction of Caesar to the crowd, but we also see why the conspirators are so alarmed by his lazy demagoguery. The vacuum that is created after the assassination, a visual twist here, is palpable, as the patronising elitist Brutus and the pragmatic Cassius haven’t thought through what happens next. Sounds familiar eh. Which leaves a yawning gap for the opportunist Mark Antony to unleash those war dogs. The failure of the “liberal’ response to populism hangs heavy in the air.

Finally here is my plea to Mr Hytner. Whilst I absolutely get that Messrs Shakespeare, Bean, Bennett, Hodge and McDonagh are, incontrovertibly, the best of writing collaborators, and I see he has the scoop on Nina Raine’s new play, please can you have another crack at Ben Jonson or Marlowe. Maybe you can make sense out of Bartholomew Fair and pull the punters in. There’s a challenge.

P.S. I note that another play that deals with the had-wringing liberal response to populism, albeit in a very, very different way, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice, still has a few more legs of its tour left, Plymouth, Edinburgh and Scarborough. Highly recommended.

The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.