Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.

 

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas

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So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.

 

Salome at the National Theatre ***

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Salome

National Theatre, 5th July 2017

Salome, much like Common also currently residing on the Olivier stage, has been given a bit of a pasting by the criterati. Not utterly trashed but its obvious flaws have been highlighted. And much like Common I have to say I think the criticism is a little misplaced (Common at the National Theatre review ***.

The text is ponderous, with a strange mix of bombastic Biblicality, overwrought imagery and sometimes vague, paradoxical didacticism but the themes are still revealed and once you adjust to the style and pacing it exerts a sort of spell. Yael Farber has directed some cracking theatre, not least the NT’s Les Blancs on this very stage last year. She is not afraid of bashing you over the head with the messages she whats to convey and is the antithesis of theatrical reserve. Having set out to direct Wilde’s version of the Salome “story” she found that the truth of that “story” had been revised, reviled and distorted at the hands of the unholy trinity of history, religion and patriarchy. So, following a bout of impressive scholarship, she set out to write her own version.

Nameless (our Salome in her dotage), played with sonorous venom by Olwen Fouere, acts as our “narrator” as we are introduced to Judea c. AD 26. Cue flashback. Pontius Pilate is whinging about getting the gig here, the Pharisees are getting all orthodox and hanging on to their cash. Herod (there were a few of them) is swanning about as vassals do and getting all lathered up about his niece who may be Salome. John the Baptist pitches up, berating everyone in Aramaic (I assume) for being insufficiently hairshirt. Authorities decide to lock him up rather than crucify to stop the hoi-polloi turning nasty. Dance, head, plate, end. But the crafty Salome/Nameless and John B have outwitted the Roman occupier for martyrdom and revolt are the consequence.

Ms Farber, through the shouty stuff, shows that the whole Salome myth was laid on top in subsequent centuries and gives a flavour of these fervent times when monotheistic religions was developing. And it looks and sounds spectacular courtesy of Susan Hilferty and Adam Cork respectively. Renaissance art comes to life. I know that set, sound, movement. lighting, costume and other visual flummery is not enough on its own to justify a trip to the theatre but this comes mighty close. The singing of Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar was spell-binding. And the multi- nationality cast largely gives a full-throated bash at delivering even the most pretentious twaddle. In particular I was taken with Lloyd Hutchinson’s Pilate, the aforementioned Olwen Fouere, and especially Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (the Baptist to you and me). 

So yes it is all a bit elliptical, it is trying too hard to be good for you and the text is undeniably orotund (I bloody love that word) but it has a hazy, mystical quality which I think suits the “action” such as it is. Myth and ritual are central to any conception of art and the ideas here do eventually penetrate the fog, particularly the tragedy of occupation and the masculinisation of history through the metaphor of the female body. So I say good on ya, Yael and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

 

 

My favourite London theatre of 2016

Right then. I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t this numpty know that it’s June 2017. Bit pointless talking about theatre from last year then. Well yes, you may well have a point. However this blog only started in March 2017 and it’s mine anyway so I can do what I like. And the idea primarily is to help identify some lessons about good stuff to come in future, whether it be from writer, director, cast, other creatives or venue. Anyway I suspect all you theatre obsessives will know where I am coming from anyway.

1. Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre/Royal Court Theatre

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So i know that technically this was from 2015. But we didn’t get to see it until the transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre having missed the Royal Court run because I am an idiot who failed to book it in time.

It is an extraordinary work. There is no-one who writes for the stage (or film) like Martin McDonagh, though there are echoes to me of the likes of Pinter and Tarantino. It is the combination of fierce intelligence, violence, humour and atmosphere. If you don’t know the plays then you may know his films, notably In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

So if this, or the Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane or any of the five Galway plays from the 1990s, are revived we should pay attention depending on who takes it on. If he makes another film we should also pay attention.

If we are in New York at the beginning of next year then we should see this production of Hangmen at the Linda Gross Theater. Please just go.

We should see what Matthew Dunster, the director, can do with his adaptation of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre this summer (his involvement with the Globe has been mixed – I can’t really comment as the Globe is off limits for me as it is too uncomfortable – sorry).

If and when Johnny Flynn stops singing and acting in mini-series (he is in that Einstein thing apparently – you know it is everywhere on the tube), and takes on another stage role we should go – he is mesmeric – and appears only to do top-notch theatre, Propellor Shakespeares, Richard Bean’s The Heretic, Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Rylance’s Globe Twelfth Night (though I didn’t get on with this).

And best of all we should be salivating at the prospect of David Morrissey taking on the role of Mark Antony at the new Bridge Theatre alongside Ben Wishaw, Michelle Fairley and David Calder. With Nick Hytner directing. We had a few magnificent productions of Julius Caesar recently but this has the potential to match them.

Oh and finally if there is one theatre where you should just buy “blind” if you have any interest at all in the subject based on the admittedly thin blurbs they provide just book it. Pick of the current bunch for me of the current season is Anatomy of a Suicide.

2. Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

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So if you have any interest in London theatre you are probably all over this. BUT if you haven’t seen it (the performances later this year sold out sharpish) or if you don’t think this serious theatre caper is for you, then I highly recommend you watch it at the cinema through the NT Live thingamabob on 31st August.

There is much to like here. Lorca’s original play, Simon Stone’s radical re-write and direction, Lizzie Clachan’s stark but effective staging, the performances of Maureen Beattie, John MacMillan, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira and, especially, Brendan Cowell. But in the end it is all about Billie Piper. You will be hard pressed to ever see a more emotionally involving performance at the theatre. No holding back at all.

My guess is we will have to wait a couple of years before Ms Piper returns to the stage but whatever she does after this and The Effect is likely to be mandatory (I didn’t get through Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire at the NT though I had a good excuse).

And if we want to see Mr Stone’s magic elsewhere then we need to follow Toneelgroep Amsterdam where he has productions of Medea and an Ibsen mash-up. Will be interesting to see whether either comes to London at any point.

As for the Young Vic well right now the Life of Galileo by Brecht is playing with, drum roll please, Brendan Cowell, in the lead. Tickets still available and I loved it.

3. Uncle Vanya – Almeida Theatre

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This seemed to sneak under the wire a bit. I thought it was outstanding. Maybe director Robert Icke’s Red Barn at the National Theatre or his version of Schiller’s Mary Stuart with Lia Williams  and Juliet Stevenson garnered more attention, or perhaps everyone was taking a breather after Mr Icke had smashed it out of the park with his Oresteia for the Almeida in 2015. Any way up he is the most exciting director right now in the UK and this cemented that reputation.

Mr Icke himself updated the text and shifted the “action” to rural England. The production took its time and the sense of ennui was attenuated by Hildegard Bechtler’s slowly revolving set. And Paul Rhys as Vanya/John could hardy be bettered with his man-child lost demeanour. The rest of the cast, notably Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa Kirby, Hilton McCrae and Tobias Menzies, collectively kept their ends up. The detail of the characterisations was riveting. The individual pyscho-dramas perhaps can more to the fore pushing the social context back a bit but I reckon you can have a bit too much of the “everything’s about to go tits up in Russia and these minor aristos don’t know it” benefit of hindsight in Chekhov anyway. It is always better when you you get more of sarky Anton nailing the “shit just happens” frustrations of life.

So if you are one of the infinitesimally tiny number of regular readers of this blog you will know that I have high hopes for the next couple of productions at the Almeida: Ink by James Graham (writer of This House which may yet turn out to be an instruction manual for the vicissitudes of minority government in the UK) directed by Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel and Richard Doyle and then Against by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson with Ben Wishaw in the lead.

Meanwhile one of Robert Icke’s next projects is an Oedipus with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and with Hans Kesting in the lead. I pray this come to London as Hans Kesting without question is the best stage actor I have seen. OMG.

4. Kings of War – Barbican Theatre

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Talking of Hans Kesting here is a picture of him as Richard III in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War at the Barbican. TA premiered this production in 2015 and brought in to London last year. It takes five Shakespeare history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, and mashes them up to extract the best bits in a four and a half hour spectacle that gets to the heart of what political power means.

Is it better than the similarly envisioned Roman Tragedies? (review here – Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****). I couldn’t tell you. There are both works of astonishing theatre. There have been a few let downs from TA and its inspirational artistic director Ivo van Hove, notably Obsession, but this showcases what he and his ensemble is capable of. So, as and when, this returns do not miss it.

And Mr van Hove has a number of forthcoming engagements on the London stage with Network coming up later in the year at the National the pick of the bunch.

5. Escaped Alone – Royal Court Theatre

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I have something of a weakness for unsubstantiated hyperbole. But here goes. Caryl Churchill is the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare. The best theatre plays with ideas and form and creates lasting impressions in the mind which simply cannot be replicated by any other artistic medium. Caryl Churchill does this again and again and again. No hype, no endless interviews explaining what she is doing/has done. Just perfectly formed, intense works that magically appear and seem to have addressed everything worth addressing over the past five decades or so. I just wish I had seen more of them.

Escaped Alone, in under an hour, explored the nightmare of apocalyptic, ecological collapse in a hilariously surrealist way, intertwined with, at turns, the banal and sinister fears and stories of four mature women ostensibly chatting in a back garden. That is my attempt at a summary but it does no justice at all to the ideas and images that just pour out of this play. As always with Caryl Churchill you just marvel at the alchemy of how so much insight into the big questions of humanity flows from these non-naturalistic, but never truly absurd, structures.

So as and when the next new play appears just go. And the same advice applies to any Churchill revival, anywhere. anytime.

6. Oil – Almeida Theatre

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Back to the Almeida for Ella Hickson’s ambitious play Oil, directed by Carrie Cracknell and with the magnificent Anne-Marie Duff in the lead. So I get that the text and the pacing of the production was a little uneven but I didn’t care. Ms Hickson created such a compelling narrative, mixing the geo-political epic with a detailed mother-daughter relationship which hits you on some many levels. I have seen Anne-Marie Duff steal the show in a number of very different plays but she has never been better than in this role. And I doubt there is a better director in Britain today of towering female roles than Ms Cracknell (The Deep Blue Sea, A Doll’s House and Medea are recent examples).

Now it looks like Anne-Marie Duff’s latest outing at the National Theatre, Common, is getting a bit of a pasting. I will be taking a peek shortly so will make up my own mind. She is also pencilled in to a Macbeth next year alongside Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris. Surely that will be unmissable.

As for Ella Hickson, I would love to see a revival of Boys, and I think that it is only a matter of time before she pens an undisputed contemporary classic. And if anyone knows what Carrie Cracknell is tackling next I would love to know.

We are blessed in this country right now with a generation of outstanding female playwrights and directors but I for one would like to see way more come through. This play shows why.

7. The Rolling Stone – Orange Tree Theatre

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Royal Court, Almeida and Young Vic all unsurprisingly represented in my top ten list and I have no doubt they will be again this year. As will, I suspect, the Orange Tree which continues to turn out work of the highest quality, whether revivals or new plays. They may not always be my cup of tea but artistic director Paul Miller and his team seem to have an extraordinary knack of identifying and staging rich theatrical material.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch was a winner of the biennial Bruntwood Prize winner in 2013 and premiered at the Royal Exchange Manchester so was hardly a secret. But it was still terrific to see the Orange Tree pick it up for its London premiere and it deservedly won a slew of Offies (the London fringe theatre awards).

It is an examination of the persecution that gay men face in Uganda largely told through the words and actions of one family. It packs an extraordinarily powerful emotional punch and will leave you seething with anger at the actions of church, state and media which combine to pursue a modern witch-hunt.

This is Chris Urch’s second play and I await with interest his next project which I believe is a screenplay for a biopic of the life of Alexander McQueen. And without exception I keep my eye out for the excellent cast, Faith Alabi, Fiston Barek, Jo Martin, Julian Moore-Cook, Faith Omole and Sule Rimi (who has popped up in a number of subsequent productions I have seen and has been uniformly excellent in these).

8. Les Blancs – National Theatre

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The proper luvvies are in a little bit of a tizzy over Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the National. I admit it has become a bit of a lottery, particularly when it comes to the Olivier stage, but there have been some belting productions in the last couple of years. And for me this was the best of the bunch last year.

Now this probably reflects the fact that I have never seen A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece. Following this version of Les Blancs it is now right at the front of the queue of plays that I simply must see. I was bowled over by this version of Les Blancs. It is an immense play which explores post-colonialism in 1960s Africa with an unforgiving eye. There is a lot of grand speechifying to advance the arguments but the didacticism never proceeds to simplistic resolution. I gather Ms Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, had a major hand in completing this play after her untimely death. The set, sound, lighting, music and even smell could not have been bettered and for once I think the best seat in the house was upstairs at the back since there was so much to savour.

South African director Yael Farber seems to have presided over a duffer with Salome currently on at the National (I haven’t seen it yet) but her direction in this Les Blancs was sublime. And I don’t know what stage Danny Sapani will next grace (you will have seen him on the telly) but wherever it is I will try to go.

9. Orca – Southwark Playhouse

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This was Matt Grinter’s debut play which won the Paptango new writing prize. I thought it was brilliant. In just 75 minutes Mr Grinter conjures up a place which seems far removed from our modern world and his tale of ritual abuse in a closed community conjures up a real sense of foreboding. I suppose some might label it “folk horror” at a pinch but it was just so much smarter than that label implies. It confronts the reality of the outrages that even today are visited upon women by men who hold power over them.

The setting is a fishing community on an island to the north of Scotland I surmised. An elder sister Maggie played by Rona Morison tries to prevent her younger sister Fan (Carla Langley) from undergoing the same unspecified but clearly dreadful fate which she refused to endure. Their father (Simon Gregor) won’t step in because he cannot face continuing to be shunned by the rest of the tight knit community. The patriarchal head of the community The Father played by Aden Gillett is genuinely one of the most disturbing characters I have ever seen on stage,

I’ll stop there just in case it gets revived but this was a riveting watch under the direction of Alice Hamilton. And the set by Frankie Bradshaw in the smaller space in the Southwark Playhouse (where they put on all the good stuff) was beyond ingenious. I don’t know if I imagined the cold, damp sea air that night, or whether that was all part of the production, but I really felt I was cut off from the rest of the world and not a few yards from the Elephant and Castle.

I await Matt Grinter’s next writing excursion with extreme interest.

10. Julius Caesar – Donmar King’s Cross

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This is what Shakespeare is all about. Phyllida Lloyd and her all female cast led by the redoubtable Harriet Walter added The Tempest to the previous productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV and set them up in a temporary stage at bargain prices in Kings Cross. All three took the venerable texts and smashed them over your head. Breathtaking.

I pick Julius Caesar solely because it is my favourite of the three plays. And I think the setting of all three plays in a women’s prison achieved most resonance in this play with its themes of conflict and the misuse of power. Directorial concepts in Shakespeare are vital in my view to illuminate the timeless brilliance of the insight but they can fall flat. Not here.

I think Harriet Walter’s Brutus is the best I have seen and I would also, if pushed, single out Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony (to add to her amazing Ariel in The Tempest). She was the only decent contributor to the dreadful Jamie Lloyd Faustus and I await her next major role with interest. The same goes for Sheila Atim who next pitches up in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic.

Harriet Walter can read the phone directory and I would still go and Phyllida Lloyd could direct a bunch of phone directories and I would still go.

Best of all this Julius Caesar will be in cinemas soon so catch it if you haven’t already seen it.

 

So there we go. My favourites from last year. Honourable mentions also to Complicite’s Encounter which I finally got to see at the Barbican, Schaubuhne Berlin’s The Forbidden Zone also at the Barbican, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day musical at the Old Vic, and Jess and Joe Forever by Zoe Cooper and Blue Heart by the mighty Caryl Churchill both at the Orange Tree.

This year is ramping up to be similarly fine for London theatre with plenty of contenders already. Enjoy.

 

 

Consent at the National Theatre review *****

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Consent

Dorfman, National Theatre, 27th April 2017

Crikey. This is a very fine piece of theatre make no mistake. This was my first exposure to Nina Raine’s writing though I had been really looking forward to it based on what I had read about her previous works and on the proper reviews for this. But that didn’t prepare me for quite how strong a work this turned out to be.

The play explores complex issues of consent, empathy and justice in the context of rape. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) are new parents. Edward is a barrister as are their friends, couple Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James), and Tim (Pip Carter). They try to set up Tim with Zara (Daisy Haggard), Kitty’s actress friend, without success initially. Cue deft comic writing and unsettlingly direct discussions around the rape (and other) cases that the barristers are prosecuting/defending. We watch Jake and Rachel’s relationship flounder on his infidelity and then recover. Edward too has an affair so that Kitty seeks a sort of revenge through a relationship with Tim, who had been seeing Zara. The break up leads to a custody battle and Kitty seeking  to have Edward prosecuted for marital rape. Edward, perhaps, finally understands. Running through all of this is rape victim, Gayle (Heather Craney), who does not secure justice and, in consequence, takes her own life.

No apologies for laying out the plot but I think this is justified firstly, because the run at the Dorfman is nearly over and is sold out, secondly, because the above doesn’t even get close to capturing just how clever and multi layered this play is and thirdly, because no-one will read this anyway. We get to understand something of how the adversarial justice system works in Britain, notably the emphasis on rhetorical skill in driving the outcome. We see how the necessary fictions which lay behind this system, (such as innocent until proven guilty, the so called “cab rank”, cross examination and the admissibility of evidence), together with the driving need to “win”, leaves the barristers incapable of any empathy with the victims in rape cases. We see how the system fails rape victims and destroys lives. We see how frustration and infidelity sours one marriage and breaks another apart. We see how the need to create a “performance” in work can seep into the home and relationships.

Nina Raine’s writing is exquisite as these insights are layered into believable, but still nuanced characters, and the whole tragedy is leavened with real humour. There are some memorable touches: the play begins and ends with Kitty and Edward prosaically folding a sheet, the witty descriptions of Greek drama, the (I think) symbolism in the shifting positions of the sofas, the early reveals and later call-backs, the multiple lampshades/viewpoints of Hildegard Bechtler’s set.

The research that went into the play is palpable but never obvious or didactic, which given the subject matter is remarkable. The dialogue feels entirely natural and never forced. There are occasions when you can see the joins, when Kitty starts needling Edward at one of the get-togethers, when Gayle gate=crashes the party, when Zara reveals her pregnancy plans, but all are justified to move the stake up to the next level. Overall, the rational and emotional part of your brain will be given a massive workout. Roger Mitchell’s direction is perfect precisely because it lets the text and the actors get on with it.

Anna Maxwell Martin is properly awesome as she charts how Kitty’s need to make Edward understand what he has done becomes overwhelming. Ben Chaplin (who was captivating as the amoral fantasist in Apple Tree Yard on the telly) is also perfectly cast, as his egotistical smugness turns to desperate wheedling. I hope Adam James is not a complete misogynist bully in real life because he is brilliant at playing them (I remember his performance in Bull at the Young Vic). Daisy Haggard (who I only know from TV comedy Episodes where she creates comic genius from one expression) is terrific, as are the rest of the cast. Oh and hats off for the performance of Misha Wakefield Raine as Edward and Kitty’s baby.: nerveless.

So if this doesn’t get a run elsewhere I have absolutely no doubt it will be revived in the not too distant future given its extraordinary quality. And I cannot wait for Nina Raine’s next play which I understand will be … ta dah … a play about JS Bach starring Simon Russell Beale. And if I am not mistaken Mr SRB was viewing this very performance of Consent. I have no idea what on earth Ms Raine will do with this idea but I AM SALIVATING AT THE PROSPECT – repeat it is about the genius Bach starring the genius Simon Russell Beale.

London theatre update

So a few things to note since the last London theatre update.

Booking opens 5th May (earlier for members of various hues) for the new batch of productions at the National Theatre. I reckon tickets for Follies, the Sondheim musical with a cast of thousands and the pocket rocket Imelda Staunton in the lead, will sell like the proverbial hot cakes. I also have my eye on Mosquitoes, the new play by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW, The Children) with Olivia Colman off the telly.

Booking for the 4 way RSC Shakespeare Roman plays extravaganza is now open at the Barbican.

The new Bridge Theatre inaugural season is announced and I am so excited. Public booking opens 27th April. I recommend all 3 of the openers. Young Marx with Rory Kinnear as Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels, written by Richard Bean and Clive Colman and directed by Nicholas Hytner himself. The Julius Caesar not only has Ben Wishaw as Brutus but David Morrissey (last seen in the magnificent Hangmen by Martin McDonagh – best play of the last 3 years) as Mark Antony. And there is a new work, Nightfall by Barney Norris, which sounds intriguing (the refurbished Bush Theatre has While We’re Here, another new play by busy Barney, coming up). And the Bridge has lined up future new works by Nina Raine (about Bach yesssssss !!!! with Simon Russell Beale yessssss !!!), whose Consent I have yet to see at the NT, and by Lucy Prebble based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, as well as by Sam Holcroft and Lucinda Coxon.

Against at the Almeida will be booking from mid May.

The Old Vic is set to stage The Divide, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, set in a future dystopian England, after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Sounds like a cracker, mind you not too many laughs I am guessing from the blurb. No booking details yet.

I am casting an eye over Little Foot (by South African playwright Craig Higginson) and Doubt, A Parable (JP Shanley which was made into a film I gather) at the Southwark Playhouse (who are also bringing back Kiki’s Delivery Service which is a belter if you have littl’uns).

Everything Between Us (by David Ireland), Food and Mr Gillie look like the best of the bunch in the new Finborough theatre season.

And I have booked 3 of the 5 offerings at the end of July at the Orange Tree where they are letting young directors’, studying at St Mary’s round the corner in Strawberry Hill, loose on early plays by James Graham, Brad Birch, David Ireland, Enda Walsh and Kate Tempest. £7.50 a pop to support aspiring talent. Go on.

Finally I am weighing up the RSC Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the transfer from Stratford but can’t quite make up my mind though Romola Garai in the lead may tip the balance.

Happy theatre going.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****

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Twelfth Night

National Theatre, 10th April 2017

Now I’m not going to lie to you. The first couple of times when I saw Twelfth Night years ago I had no idea what was going on. Mind you I put no effort in and was, on one occasion I recall, knackered after a few long shifts at work. Even so it put me off a bit. And I still find it a bit more of a tougher nut to crack than the classic Shakespeare tragedies, the history plays and the some of the other comedies.

I know that the whole spiel is that Twelfth Night is a time of mischief and general larking about. I get that we are in a world of sharp reversals in terms of gender, fortunes and behaviours. I can see the “dead” brothers sub-text and the possible link to the death of Hamnet. But that hasn’t stopped me finding the whole thing a bit mannered and a little less than entirely satisfying. And I have previously found Olivia, Viola/Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino and Aguecheek all slightly colourless.

Still never give up. After all if I can’t get my head around these mistaken identity comedy plots then I can’t really count myself a serious theatre-goer can I.

So joys of joys this production has allayed my prior misgivings.

First up, as most everyone has observed, the gender reversal of Malvolio into Malvolia is a stroke of genius. For me it brings a whole new dimension not just to this character, but it spills over elsewhere, particularly into Olivia’s and then Orsino’s relationship with Viola/Cesario. Now you, and they, are really unsure about their identities and sexualities and we get a bit of a head of steam building up to the benefit of the gag quotient.

Of course this dimension is only made possible by the genius of Tamsin Greig. So the family loves her from the telly and though I have only seen her a couple of times on stage, in Jumpy and, most recently, in IHo at Hampstead, she blew my socks off. Great actor, impeccable comic timing. Of course you are primed to laugh at Malvolio/a but she took it to a whole new level in the gulling/topiary scene. And I really believe “she’ll be back” to get the bastards who treated her so badly. At last I savoured this downbeat contrast at the end.

I also think Tim McMullan is a brilliant actor. Sir Toby was another reason I have got frustrated by productions of Twelfth Night in the past. The temptation with this character to slice thinly, marinade overnight and then flash fry the scenery before chewing loudly might prove too great for some actors but Mr McMullan wisely eschews (geddit) this. With a Cooganesque swagger he gets the balance between dick and provocateur bang on. The SO loved him in Man and Superman. And just look a his list of NT credits. If he is in it, it will be good, and so it was here.

I would also call out Phoebe Fox as Olivia and Niky Wardley as Maria. In fact the only slightly unconvincing link in the actorial chain was Doon Mackichan as Feste who just didn’t seem comfortable as a fool, having to ensure we could follow all her fool-ish meaning, whilst moving sharply through the set. Oh yes and what a genius set it was. I think Soutra Gilmour must be my favourite set designer (never thought I would have a favourite set designer) what with this, My Brilliant Friend. Les Blancs, The Homecoming, Strange Interlude, Bull, and Antigone in the last few years.

And finally hats off to director Simon Godwin. After all the masterstroke in the gender rewiring of cast and the freedom of choice with set, place and costume, which in turn emphasised the characters own freedom to maybe be what they want to be, was presumably his call.

So I get the play. At last. Hurrah.