The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

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The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, 4th October 2018

So this was my second attempt to see The Jungle. I had to bail out of the first halfway through as my back wasn’t up to squatting on the floor of the Young Vic. This is not a complaint. Given the subject it is a shameful indictment of just how privileged I am to have come this far in life, and to be this stuffed with entitlement, that I can’t even sit through a couple of hours of theatre without complaining. What a pr*ck.

Given that I couldn’t find a way of getting to see another performance in the Young Vic run I was relieved when this transfer to was announced. This time I was able to secure a more suitable berth in the “Cliffs of Dover” in a Playhouse Theatre transformed by Miriam Buether’s remarkable set. For make no mistake this is a simply marvellous piece of critical theatre. The posters advertising the play highlight the string of 5* reviews. Believe them. There are a few seats left in the remaining weeks. Grab one as I doubt, given the size, and diversity of the cast, that this will be easily staged again in the near future. It is off to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn so any New Yorkers reading this really have no excuse.

Anyone who vituperatively blathers on about “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” should be made to see this. It probably won’t change their minds, lack of empathy often runs deep, but it might force them to consider, at least for a couple of hours, an alternative, and human, point of view. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson have written a “history” of the expansion of the refugee camp at Sangatte to over 6000 people, the eponymous Jungle, in the 18 months prior to its clearance by police in October 2016. (Though there are now still a couple of thousand people living rough in the area).

The two Joes set up the Good Chance theatre in the camp. They are now working in Paris. Read about them here. https://www.goodchance.org.uk/. Then give them some money.

This story is largely told through the relationship of two key characters, Syrian wordsmith Safi, who also acts as narrator, and Salar, the de facto leader of the Afghan community and the founder of the restaurant, The Afghan Cafe, the subject of the famous review by AA Gill, which is the setting for the action. Other members of the various communities, a French official and those who came to help, are also lucidly portrayed. In all there are some 23 named roles permanently occupying the “promenade” stage and its various interstices. With the audience seated around them though it often feels like more.

Directors Stephen Daldry, (who only ever deals in theatrical gold now), and Justin Martin have conjured up a riot of movement, sound, dance, music, video, conflict, language and costume, with the help of some of the best in the business (Paul Arditti, Jon Clark and Terry King for instance). The cast is superb. I would pick out Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Ben Turner as Salar, Rachel Redford as idealist teacher Beth, Nahel Tzegai as the calming Helene and Dominic Rowan as the rational Derek, but frankly the whole ensemble is beyond committed.

The thing is though that beyond the production, the activity, the atmosphere of spontaneity, the performance, the polemic, the vital message of hope and despair, there is a bloody fantastic play here. Vivid human emotions are laid bare in just a few lines. The debate between the “optimist” Safi and the “realist” Mahmoud as to how to respond to their situation is electric. The suffering, and salvation, of the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena, is humbling. The pride and determination of the camp is palpable. The motives of the volunteers are examined. The conflicts between communities are revealed. Individual journeys are graphically relayed. No-one leaves family, work, culture, community, education, society because they want to nick your hospital bed or school place, people of Britain. They come because the alternative is harassment, dislocation, destitution, torture or worse. Escaping a war zone or failed state is an act of desperation not a punt on economic advancement. And Britain is a destination because we are, (or were), tolerant and we have the language. Those should be reasons to be proud. Not running away and seeking two fingers up to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Throughout the play 6 year old Little Amal (Erin Rushidi I think at the performance I attended) flits wordlessly around the action. Apparently we tried, and try, to prevent these little kids getting to relatives in the UK. Breaks your heart.

The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre review *****

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The Lehman Trilogy

National Theatre Lyttleton, 18th September 2018

So I gather this staging of Stefano Massimi’s play The Lehman Trilogy is a very different take from that lauded across Europe after its premiere in 2015 in Italy. No cast of thousands here. Just three amazing actors in Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, and a minimalist set bearing all the usual hallmarks, (revolving glass cube, neon lights, monochrome, simple props to be shuffled around by the cast), of its designer Es Devlin, with symbiotic and effective video panoramas courtesy of Luke Halls, and thrilling sound and lighting design from Nick Powell and Jon Clark . All this from a director Sam Mendes, who is normally master of the maximalist, last seen in The Ferryman.

Of course no matter how good the production it all starts with the text. Here the Deputy Artistic Director of the NT, and dramaturg maestro, Ben Power has condensed the original play into the sprightliest 3 hours (ex intervals) imaginable. Of course there is a history lesson, but Mr Power, I assume reflecting the Italian original, draws out the themes and repeated motifs, and the key characters, the original three brothers, Henry, Emmanuel and Mayer, and the next generations, Herbert, Philip and then scion Bobbie. The final chapters, as the family cedes control to “outsiders”, and the collapse presided over by the hubristic bully Richard Fuld is, as many others have observed, a bit of a rush, but I don’t think that really matters. This is a story of the founding roots, expansion and degradation of American capitalism and, specifically, how a family of Bavarian Jewish emigres went from a farm supplies shop in Montgomery, Alabama to become one of the most powerful global financial dynasties ever seen. Lehman Bros is fascinating, yes because it is no longer there, but also because it was, to all intents and purposes, the first of its kind.

Our generation knows the importance of these institutions thanks to the crisis of 2008, still impacting the global economy a decade later. Lehman Bros, on that fateful 15th September, was the sacrifice made pour encourager les autres. The biggest bankruptcy in US history, (though the US, European and Japanese “franchises” largely ended up with Barclays and Nomura), Lehmmn was the catalyst for the intervention which we all all still paying for with, at root, the “wrong” cost of capital. The play though resolutely shows that cyclical crises are endemic to financial capitalism, and not just in the events of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. 1857 and 1873 also get a look in. The mis-pricing of complex risk is built into the system. It won’t go away.

We start at the end though with the iconic boxes, which staff used to carry out belongings after Chapter 11 was declared, piled up on the modern office set. These boxes in various configurations, with a few chairs, tables, a spot of graffiti and our imaginations, go on to signify the humble one room shop, the expansion into cotton-broking, the office in New York set up in 1860, the homes of the great and good in the story, particularly the families the three brothers marry in to, a synagogue, the boardrooms and trading floors of the palaces of the post WW II years.

And all the supporting characters, wives, children, business associates, rabbis, friends, even a tightrope-artiste, all are played by our three actors. Throughout they wear the formal frock coat attire from the mid C19. So all these “extras” are conjured up with accent, movement, stance, attitude. Now Simon Russell Beale relishes this sort of caper but Adam Godley near matched him, especially when it came to squeezing humour out of his impersonations. All three of these actors have been at the top of their game for years. Whether on stage, large or small screen, it is a fair bet that they will steal the show in whatever they appear in. To have them all together was revelatory. This is an abstracted story. With a narrative arc of this scale, across this much time and space, intricately juxtaposing the familial with the social, political and economic, it couldn’t be anything else. So everything we see, hear and learn is formed from the basic building blocks of acting and direction. Yet it is so, so rich, symphonic if you will. Look out for the recurring nightmare scenes. Just one example. Simply stunning.

Oh and there was one other genius involved. Candida Caldicot. The soundtrack to this odyssey conjured up live with one piano.

With this story, this cast, this director, this text and this creative team this was always likely to be a winner. No surprise it was an early sell out. This play in this adaptation will re-appear. No question. Whether you get acting of this quality again I am not so sure.

 

Home I’m Darling at the National Theatre review ***

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Home, I’m Darling

National Theatre Dorfman, 29th August 2018

Now I have to confess to a slight feeling of disappointment with Home, I’m Darling. Don’t get me wrong. It is a very amusing play, with a fine cast led by Katherine Parkinson, and note-perfect set, costume, lighting and sound designs from Anna Fleischle, Lucy Carter and Tom Gibbons, which, cumulatively makes its points. It’s just that it doesn’t really yield too much in the way of surprises once the initial inversion has played out. It feels like writer Laura Wade, whose work to date has been inspired, notably Posh, had a really good idea and a series of fine scenes in her head, but, in translating them on to the page, some of the fizz seemed to evaporate.

Katherine Parkinson plays Judy, a stay at home housewife, married to Johnny (Richard Harrington), an estate agent. It quickly transpires that they, together, have taken their nostalgic obsession with the 1950s to its logical, (or maybe illogical), conclusion. Their friends Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay) share their enthusiasm for the clothes, music and style but not the domestic arrangements, right down to Judy decanting the sugar into 1950s containers and milk into glass bottles. Mum Sylvia, (a trenchant Sian Thomas), who brought up Judy in a commune, finds her daughter’s choice hard to comprehend, this “gingham paradise”. The cast is completed by Alex (Sara Gregory), Johnny’s boss, who Johnny is trying to curry favour with to secure promotion. The set up, with the insertion of an Act 2 flashback, allows Laura Wade to explore all angles of the “debate” about gender roles and choices in contemporary society. What value does that society place on “traditional women’s work”? How to balance “choice” with economic necessity? Who can judge on the choice to stay at home or work? What are the risks in fetishising the past? If this sound like its going to be a dour evening never fear. It is all delivered with the lightest of comic touches as you would expect from this writer and from Tamara Harvey who has directed her work before.

The problem is that having conjured up this admittedly intriguing conceit, and established a sit-com mood, the tone never really wavers, and there are maybe a couple too many plot revolutions jemmied in to cover all the bases, for example when Marcus reveals his true misogynist colours. There are occasions when the play steps out of its self imposed comic straightjacket, when Sylvia delivers an impassioned speech about the sacrifices her generation made to promote feminism in the 1970s and just how materially tougher life was for a child in the 1950s, for example. And Katherine Parkinson, with her ability to convey Judy’s brittle interior nature, (she always sounds the weeniest bit p*ssed to me), shows how she crumples under her own self-imposed contradictions. Having teased out a dramatic explanation for Judy’s decision from her own childhood, the plot seems to go into reverse and the ending is something of a damp squib. We all, the SO, BUD and KCK, came out just a little deflated.

I am thinking maybe I am being a little harsh here, and maybe we were asking too much, but that’s where we came out. There are some priceless lines, (Fran’s “the longest recipe I followed this week was Pierce Film Lid”), and the play will definitely make you think. Given that it has sold out at the NT and, prior to that at Theatr Clywd, and has garnered a slew of 4* reviews, I wouldn’t dream of putting you off but there was just something that held us back. And trust me the 4 of us are usually very easily pleased.

 

 

Pericles at the National Theatre review *****

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Pericles

National Theatre Olivier, 26th August 2018

So how do you like your theatre? Or more particularly how do your like your Shakespeare? Utterly faithful to the First Folio? Set in the time and place that big Will intended (however baffling)? All blokes in tights? Performed by elite, public school grandees plummily sing-songing the verse?

Of course not. He’s for all time, not just his time, so there’s a million ways to show him off. Yet it seems from some of the reaction to Emily Lim’s three night production of Pericles at the National, the first in the planned large scale, annual, Public Acts initiatives, that some misanthropic types, (who probably weren’t there), have got the right hump with this. “It’s not “proper” Shakespeare”. Well neither is the mangled, reconstructed Pericles text that has been handed down to us with half of it penned by George Wilkins. “Very little of the precious Shakespeare lines make it through the production”. Fair enough but I defy anyone to sit through the whole bonkers story of Pericles without thinking this is a cracking tale that needs fearless pruning to properly emerge. “Adding music and dance scenes cheapens the entertainment”. Who says so. Will Shakespeare was all about entertaining the punters and making money. Chris Bush’s adaptation, with music by Jim Fortune, succeeds admirably in the first aim and, if it were possible, would, I guarantee, deliver on the second. “It is all well and good having these “amateur” types making their family in the audience proud but it gets in the way of the “professionals””. Bollocks. That is not what was intended here and if you can’t grasp that then I respectfully suggest you p*ss off to wherever you think you might find a “correct” performance of this messy play.

So ditch the moaners and pay attention to most of the proper reviewers and, I humbly suggest, me. For this was one of the most uplifting nights I have spent in a theatre. It was a very. very long way from the last Pericles I saw, the Cheek by Jowl production at the Barbican, (in French, heavily chopped, with our Prince of Tyre in a hospital bed, tut, tut, what were they thinking). (Pericles, Prince de Tyr at Silk Street Theatre review *****). But it was just wonderful.

OK so, at first, realising just how far Ms Bush and Ms Lim have deviated from the “original” is a bit of a shock. But once I saw how this allows them, and everyone involved, to incorporate the community performers, whether in dance, in song, in walk-, or wheel-, ons and memorably, in named parts, I just started smiling, and then grinning, so that by the end, (after manfully holding back the tears and trying not to audibly gulp), I was overwhelmed with joy. I know how daft that sounds but I can only offer up my genuine reaction.

The professional cast, led by Ashley Zhangazha as Pericles himself  and Audrey Brisson as daughter Marina, were superb. Mr Zhangazha was as natural as you like, (insofar as you can be natural in such a daft plot), in shifting from the retained verse to the sharper rewrites. This momentum ensured the ensemble set pieces didn’t really get in the way of the story. Not that it would have mattered anyway if they had. Whether it be the marriage scene of Pericles and Thaisa, (here interrupted by a recalcitrant maypole set malfunction which, if anything, made the production even more communal), or transforming the Mytilene brothel into something a bit more family friendly thanks to the ministrations of the effervescently camp Kevin Harvey as Boult, these tableaux were marvellous. All the performances were terrific though, though, and I feel guilty for saying it, the London Bulgarian Choir simply blew me away.

Maybe some of Jm Fortune’s songs were a bit cheesy but who cares when you can clap along within seconds. Maybe the sheer amount of stuff that was thrown at the Oliver stage sometimes bewildered, as one reviewer said, like the biggest am-dram production of all time. Maybe the sheer number of bodies on stage, the cast in total is over 200, occasionally threatened to topple even Robby Graham’s masterly choreography. Yet this was what made it so much shared fun.

If this is what the Public Acts enterprise has kicked off with then I say bring on next year’s. The idea, taken from New York, is to involve an array of community and theatre partners, (here the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch who will host the next instalment), from the outset in creating a mass participation slice of theatre around the country. Time, patience and, yes all you misery-guts, money will be involved but the benefit to participants, communities and audience surely justify the investment based on this production.

Immense credit must go to NT resident director Emily Lim who has decided in specialise in community productions. To co-ordinate a work of this scale is mind-boggling. To impose a resonant vision, the idea of “finding one’s home”, upon Pericles’s journey, even more so. And to create this much love, (you soppy old git Tourist) deserves our eternal gratitude. I really hope everyone involved gets another opportunity to put this on. If they do please go.

Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.

 

Julie at the National Theatre review ***

Julie

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th June 2018

I am not sure if I like Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. The programme notes for this adaptation of the story by Polly Stenham explicitly deals with Strindberg’s rampant misogyny and class hatred. Whilst setting, plot and, to a certain extent, the bare bones of the text, afford plenty of scope for interpretation, at its heart this is an ugly story of a spoilt rich girl who gets legged over by a scheming manipulative uppity servant. She pays the ultimate price. In that respect it is no different from maybe 90% of operas ever written and a whole bunch of classic novels. Woman as victim.

Yet ….. There is normally always something to draw you in to the moral maze here whether the story, as so often, is transposed, as here, or played straight, in the Swedish midsummer of the late C19. Mr Strindberg, despite his rather brutal thinking, standard male fare in that age I suppose, was sharp enough to offer up multiple, and often conflicting, motives for his three characters, including Kristine, the household cook and Jean’s apparent intended, in his desire to define the “naturalistic” in drama. And apparently hating all your characters, and most of what they stand for, does inject buckets of passion into themes and dialogue. So it is no wonder that later dramatists keep returning to the work.

Polly Stenham (see above) is (in)famous for writing three plays about troubled posh kids, her debut written at just 19, That Face, followed by Tusk and No Quarter, then a shift in direction to her take of post colonial guilt in Hotel, and, most recently, the screenplay for Neon Demon. I haven’t seen any of them since they sounded like they, were primed to wind me up. She is posh, was brought up by her rich Dad, opened a gallery and lives in Highgate. You can see why she might want to take on Miss Julie. But some critics love her and director Jeremy Herrrin is a big advocate. So I figured, abandon your prejudice and see for yourself.

Well I have to say that her adaptation both works, and doesn’t work, but overall there is enough here to warrant a viewing. Ms Stenham not unreasonably relocates the action to present day London, specifically Hampstead Heath borders. Julie is having a party for her 33rd birthday. Businessman Dad is absent. Mum’s dead. Her sycophantic, fair weather friends, and Julie herself, are ingesting industrial quantities of drugs and booze. Downstairs in a vast state of the art, Wigmore Street showroom style kitchen, Kristina is tidying up and preparing food for the party.-goers. Julie pops in, looking for and getting, attention from Kristina, and, when he arrives, from Jean, who is the chauffeur waiting for Dad to call from the airport/meeting. Kristina and Jean are black, Julie is white and plainly “out of control”. The dichotomy between Jean, who sees this job as a step on the way to making it big, and Kristina, who is studying law, and the aimless, hedonistic Julie is well observed, and made more pointed through the prism of colour. I was reminded a little of Jamie Lloyd’s production of Genet’s The Maids which similarly drew attention to the uncomfortable way in which the very rich attempt to alleviate their own pain and loneliness by demanding friendship from their “servants” by pretending there is no economic gulf, or transactional relationship, between them.

Tom Scutt’s set divides the luxury downstairs kitchen from the upstairs, equally tasteful, party rooms, and allows for an ensemble to show off their dancing skills against the backdrop of some thumping bass. It doesn’t hide the fact though that this is a drama of intimacy which is lost on the broad Lyttleton stage, especially when, post festivities, Jean and Julie get it on, in full-on expressive, writhing, mime fashion. It is all a bit silly, as was the unfortunate end of the caged bird here, Strindberg’s booming metaphor. Polly Sternham, wisely given the setting, has booted out many of the other crass metaphors, and also understandably downplayed Kristina’s religiosity.

Still the biggest problem for the production is in the transition from the shag to the aftermath of the shag. Easy to understand why Julie would want Jean and why Jean would want Julie. But, in this contemporary setting, it is more difficult to understand why they would go through all the fighting, metaphorical chest-beating, soul-searching and future-plotting that follows the consummation. Surely this Julie wouldn’t really give a f*ck after the f*ck, as it were, even if she could remember it. The whole fall from social grace thing doesn’t really stack up. And Jean’s “I’ve always fancied you from afar when I watched you in the garden”/”this is my economic stepping stone to escape” also rings a little hollow. The gap between them is vast, of course, in so many ways, but the shift from desire to “love/hate, I can’t live with or without you” is just too awkward. The psychological and societal do not collide in the way they should.

Even so …….. once you swallow this, or better still, if you know, and accept, that this is the base material on to which Ms Stenham has grafted her take, then the sight of Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean and, especially, Vanessa Kirby’s Julie, alternately tearing each other apart and then building each other up again, is undeniably captivating. Thalissa Teixeira, who is a magnetic stage presence to rival young Kirby (sooooo good in Robert Icke’s brilliant Vanya), shifts from supportive friend and partner to woman wronged with immense conviction. There is, in all three performances, a strong whiff of the Greek tragedy, not in the material, but in the heightened emotion, augmented by our groovy chorus. In Strindberg’s C19 world the suppressed emotions uncoil slowly. Here they are filling the stage from the off. And the end is suitably in-your-face – no final glimpse of a razor and curtain fall here. Shame. A hotel run by the three of them might have garnered some prize TripAdvisor reviews.

The text might have been a little less colourless, and a little more subtle in places, though I can see this might have jarred with the setting, but in the end, especially in the second half, (this breezes through in just over 80 minutes), I actually quite enjoyed this. Which, given I probably don’t like the play, even if some productions really work (Yael Farber’s Mies Julie being the lodestar crackling, as it did, with apartheid history), and that I wasn’t sure about the central relationship, suggests Ms Sternham and director Carrie Cracknell were on to something. It certainly feels like the audiences, based on the night I went, and the near packed-out houses, agree even if the critics were less forgiving.

I believe Ms Sternham is coming up to her 32nd birthday. Maybe just a quiet night in to celebrate I think..

 

 

Translations at the National Theatre review ****

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Translations

National Theatre Olivier, 6th June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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