Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

Alys, Always at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Alys, Always

Bridge Theatre, 25th February 2019

Said it before and I’ll say it again. You have to be careful with adaptations of novels and/or films on stage. There may be enough in character and plot to justify the transfer but there may not always, (no pun intended), be enough in the form of drama, spectacle and movement to make it a resounding success. So it proved here. There is plenty to enjoy here, and Nicholas Hytner’s direction wrings as much colour as its possible out of the material, especially against the backdrop of a crisp design concept from Bob Crowley, and it is, no doubt, a good story, but as theatre, well not quite.

I don’t know the Harriet Lane novel from 2012 on which Lucinda Coxon, (whose work for stage and screen I have also contrived to miss bar The Crimson Petal and the White adaptation), has created the text. But I can see the temptation. It would make a terrific mini-series. As would, I suspect, Her, Ms Lane’s second novel from the sound of it. Harriet Lane began as a journalist herself, I remember her Guardian column, before becoming a novelist when her eyesight was unfortunately imperilled.

Frances Thorpe is a humble millennial sub-editor cum factotum for a Sunday supplement, the Questioner, who, by a twist of fate, finds her life and career catapulted into a new, gilded league. How she plays the circumstances is the nub of the tale. Gold-digging schemer or realistic opportunist? Becky S, Brideshead, Ripley (without the sociopathic tendencies), Eve Harrington, Holly Golightly, those who find, or position, themselves amongst their “betters” are a cultural staple and these are only the most interesting ones. And, as it happens, in one of those serendipitous coincidences which punctuate the life of the idle Cultur-tarian, the Tourist has subsequently seen two of these iconic parvenus in the guise of stage versions of The Talented Mr Ripley and All About Eve. (More to follow, informed, as these comments are, by the far greater literary intelligence of the SO, my carer for all these entertainments).

The tale of Frances is more subtle than many of these comparators, being more contemporary, set in the rarefied world of publishing, but there isn’t too much that will come as a surprise here. Psychological thriller? That is probably a bit of a stretch. Wry comedy of manners? In parts yes, there is plenty to laugh at, but this doesn’t go all out to skewer the manners, pretensions and behaviour of its characters. We need Frances to present a conundrum, difficult to pin down, but not a total blank, and we do need the dimensions of her character to be explored. Which, by and large, they are not.

Frances’s journey is sufficiently supple though to require a convincing lead performance and, in Joanne Froggatt, (made famous by Downton Abbey I gather), that is what it gets. Whilst the narrative of put upon mouse at work rising to the top and dumping on former colleagues along the way is a little cumbersome it is, in parts, a treat. The relationship that develops with Alys’s family and specifically her grieving husband, Laurence Kyte, (not giving much away here you can’t read elsewhere), also provides an opportunity for some sparkling dialogue. However Robert Glenister has to work awfully hard to bring the overweening, prize winning author to life and the knife-edge of Frances’s conflicted motives starts to blunt in the later two-hander scenes.

Leah Gayer as vacuous daughter Polly has a lot more fun. This is her stage debut. She’ll be back. Polly verges on “poor little rich girl” cliche but Ms Gayer somehow manages to elicit some sympathy for the position her character finds herself in. Her brother Teddy (Sam Woolf) is initially on to Frances but fizzles out thereafter. Sylvestra Le Touzel has a lot of fun with Mary, Frances’s long-serving, frayed boss, as does Simon Manyonda as her condescending, partying colleague, Oliver. The rest of the cast don’t get much opportunity to delve beneath the lines with the exception of Joanna David as Charlotte, the family friend who alone seems to penetrate Frances’s feelings and actions.

If directing is all about moving actors from A to B then there is n0-one better than Mr Hytner, who creates forward momentum and some suspense, from what are quite static scenes. The set, with its thrust stage, sliding room configuration and generous use of video (Luke Halls), is likewise silky smooth. As is sound (Gareth Fry) and lighting (Jon Clark). But the impeccable presentation is part of the problem. The play’s two acts clock in at just over two hours but it doesn’t outstay its welcome nor feel rushed. I was intrigued and entertained but never really challenged. Nor was Frances. Her progress is untroubled by doubt, from self, the other protagonists or audience. I remember only one knowing aside from Frances and one killer line from Charlotte.

I gather the book is altogether darker and Frances a far sharper piece of work, and less reliable narrator, than we see here. Translating that tone, that voice, to stage is always challenging. By taking the safe route Mr Hytner, in the first play he has directed written by a woman, will deservedly get bums on the superb Bridge seats, which is after all his purpose, but I hope his next outing, a new Dream will be something more memorable. Mind you it’s Shakespeare so he is off to a head start. After all when it comes to stage tales of self-advancers big Will served up the very best. Richard III. Now that’s how to do it.

The Habit of Art at Richmond Theatre review *****

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The Habit of Art

Richmond Theatre, 19th October 2018

There are a handful of plays that I regret not seeing when they first appeared. Not those I wish I had seen, That would be a very long list and cover those periods where I was not putting the required viewing effort in, being too consumed by work and/or drink. No I mean those where I toyed with the idea of going but didn’t get round to it one way or another. The Habit of Art is definitely one of those. I can see why some might get irritated by the voice of Alan Bennett. Not his actual voice of course. Surely everyone loves that unmistakable broad Yorkshire drone. No I mean his theatrical voice with its now ever-present risk of self-parody.

The Habit of Art, from 2009, along with The History Boys (2004), The Lady in the Van (1999) and The Madness Of George III (1991) must all surely rank somewhere near the top of the pile of great British plays written in the last three decades for all the pervasiveness of the last three.  The Habit of Art “imagines” a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1973 as a departure for an investigation not just into their specific art and lives but into art and theatre as a universal. Right up my street. And best of all for me at least, Benjamin Britten, for all his flaws, which are far from concealed here, is one of my favourite composers.

My only concern then, perhaps, was the cast. The NT run saw Alex Jennings, near full time Alan Bennett impersonator, take on the role of BB with the sorely missed Richard Griffiths as WHA having stepped in for the indisposed Michael Gambon, which I gather was more than fortuitous. You can take your pick as to your favourite Richard Griffiths role: in Potter, as Hector in The History Boys or as Henry Crabbe. I have two words for you though: Uncle Monty. As for Alex Jennings. Is there nothing this man cannot play? There are literally no duff roles or performances on his CV. The last thing I saw him in on the telly was Unforgotten Series 3. As chilling sociopath doctor Tim Finch. Sh*tting ‘eck as AB might say.

Anyway Matthew Kelly as WHA and David Yelland as BB, and indeed Philip Franks as director of this production, Nick Hytner (who else) having directed first time round, had big boots to fill then. And fill them they did. And then some. This is the first ever revival and I can report that it is really very. very good. And don’t just take my word for it. TMBOAD can vouch for it as well, my viewing partner on this evening, and he is one of the cleverest people I know. Ditto some elegant and cultured Richmond ladies of my acquaintance. The production, in addition to Richmond, has popped up in York, Brighton, Salisbury, Oxford, Guildford and Ipswich. It is in Liverpool as we speak and goes on to Cambridge, Coventry, Salford, Southend and Malvern. Residents, you would be mugs to miss it.

Richmond Theatre doesn’t always get the best of touring productions but here they struck gold. The Original Theatre Company, led by Alistair Whatley and Tom Hackney similarly didn’t quite hit the nail on the head with their last outing, Torben Bett’s Monogamy (Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***) but on this outing I should look out for their next production at the Park. Richmond also hosts pre West End fare. I can’t think of anything more suited to the West End than this brainy, but not too brainy triumph.

Anyway what about the play. Well as I should have pointed out Messrs Yelland and Kelly don’t actually play BB and WHA. For the players are actually Fitz (Kelly), Henry (Yelland), Donald (John Wark) and Tim (Benjamin Chandler), who are rehearsing a play called Caliban’s Day. The play is set in WHA’s rooms in Christ Church Oxford on the set (keep up) of said play with Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) and her Assistant SM George (Alexandra Guelff) keeping the luvvies, and precious playwright Neil (Robert Mountford) ticking over.

Neil’s play draws it’s title from WHA’s contention that The Tempest was incomplete and requires an epilogue. In the play Donald, playing Humphrey Carpenter, the real-life biographer of WHA and BB amongst others, has come to interview the somewhat impatient WHA (played by Fitz), who it transpires, confuses him with the time-limited rent-boy Stuart, played by Tim, that he has procured. Donald also though steps out to narrate proceedings. Henry as BB arrives to join the set-up. He has been auditioning boys to play the part of Tadzio in BB’s Death in Venice, but wants to discuss his concerns over its plot with WHA, despite them not having met since their falling out 25 years earlier in America after WHA wrote the libretto for the somewhat derided Paul Bunyan. WHA though assumes that BB wants him to replace Myfanwy Piper as librettist for Death in Venice. After his father-in-law was Thomas Mann, the author of Death in Venice.

Neil’s play however, as I said, is in rehearsal so we have Kay kicking things off before Neil arrives and her and George standing in for various minor roles. notably two cleaners. The actors constantly bounce in and out of character, though never confusingly, and this is what allows us to see into them as individuals, as well as into the process of acting and performing. At the same time the play itself and the discussions between the actors. Neil, Kay and George, about what it is saying and why, offers multiple insights into BB and WHA, their art and the society in which they practiced their art. Alan Bennett doesn’t hold back from showing what it meant to be a gay artist through the middle of the C20 nor the paedophiliac controversy that surrounded BB.

Now normally with this much learning on show, play within a play meta-ness, theatrical self-referencing, in fact all round arty-farty pretentiousness, you would be a) rightly very wary and b) waiting for the whole thing to unravel . Not here though and not with Alan Bennett pulling the strings. It is very, very funny, (this time the smut isn’t laboured), but also very, very sincere. It dazzles with just how much intellectual and emotional ground it covers yet never fails to entertain. Even if some of the references pass you by, they did me, the perspicacity of the insight into the “cast” will not. And being a play about an “event” it moves from A to B.

I have seen Matthew Kelly, “tonight Matthew”, on stage in recent years in Richard Bean’s Toast, and for about 20 minutes before rain stopped play (ha, ha), at the Open Air in Pride and Prejudice. He makes for an excellent Fitz, fruity and cantankerous, but still vulnerable, qualities that segue into WHA but with the intellectual spotlight switched on to full intimidating beam. An actor playing an actor playing a man who relished playing the role of artist. David Yelland’s Henry,  like BB, is more tentative, more restrained, who then takes on the needy, sickly and child-like BB and his “obsession” with innocence corrupted. Their debate about Britten’s obsessions in his art, as well as Auden’s creative regrets, are what drew me in the most but I am sure you will find your own point(s) of contact.

Robert Mountford shows us Neil’s exasperation with actors who wish to distort his precious script. Veronica Roberts expertly shows us how much, in this case, maternal nourishment is required to bring a play into being but also shows us how Kay rues her own missed opportunities. John Wark gets to reveal, at one point with surreal humour, just what happens when an actor tries too hard to look for meaning in character.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate set that Adrian Linford’s rehearsal space, with rough cut scenery and busy props, fitting into a classic proscenium stage, which Frank Matcham’s Richmond Theatre jewel (there she is) perfectly frames in a nod to the play itself. Philip Franks’s direction makes everything perfectly clear, no mean challenge as you might surmise from the above.

By some margin my favourite Bennet play. Mind you next up Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough in The Madness of George III. This is showing live at cinemas but I see there are more than a few tickets left at the Playhouse. So students of Nottingham University. amongst others, save your beer money and go see this instead.

 

 

Allelujah at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Allelujah

Bridge Theatre, 12th September 2018

Yet again by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing a major London premiere and, worst still given his feckless nature, comments on it, it is as good as over. Mind you the good news is that, as far as I can see, Allelujah was an unqualified success for the Bridge Theatre, playing to full(ish) houses which can only be a good thing. Nick Hytner, the Bridge AD and director here, and Alan Bennett go back a long way. If there was one thing guaranteed to get bums on those plush, comfy(ish) Bridge seats then this was it. Hopefully more people get to see just how marvellous this new theatre is and will return for whatever comes next. If they have any sense at all they will sign up for A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, the new Martin McDonagh play, which opens here in a couple of weeks.

Now I am not sure there is, maybe bar Queen Liz II, a person more qualified to take on the National Treasure mantle than Alan Bennett. You know pretty much exactly what you are going to get when Mr Bennett puts pen to paper. If you love his wry, quizzical artistic voice, then you were never going to be disappointed by this. And plainly there is a pretty wide demographic who do love that voice. But that voice does come with some drawbacks, a few of which were on show in Allelujah. He can be, dare I say it, just that teeniest bit lazy when it comes to getting a laugh. (Mind you any image of louche behaviour in Yorkshire towns is pretty funny I guess). His characters have aged with him and he can veer towards the stereotypical. Overt nostalgia and sentimentality can seep into the text. He doesn’t really go in for plot, preferring to stitch together episodes to tell his story. All in all then sometimes Alan Bennett can be a bit too Alan Bennett.

Yet slowly and surely, underneath all that Bennettism, he makes his points here such that, by the end of Allelujah, I, and I suspect much of the audience, was both moved and angered by the plight of its subject, the NHS, here becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of community and State by decades of neo-liberalism and “market solutions”. The Bethlehem is an august Yorkshire hospital, meeting its “targets” but threatened by closure simply because it is too small and negates the fatuous “economies of scale” that Government demands. The surprisingly hands-on Chair of its trust, Salter, a robust performance from Peter Forbes, isn’t going down without a fight however, recruiting a documentary team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) to the cause. The action is centred on the geriatric ward, highlighting that many of the patients here have nowhere else to go, from an august cast of twelve, dare I say, mature actors including the likes of Julia Foster, Gwen Taylor and Simon Williams. (I bet rehearsals for Alleluhah were a hoot). They sing, they dance, they reminisce, they moan, they have inappropriate conversations.

One of their number, Joe (a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, an AB regular), is paid a visit by his gay son, Colin, (Samuel Barnett), who just happens to be the slimey management consultant who is behind the closure plan. We also see a pair of grasping relatives, the Earnshaws, (Rosie Ede and Duncan Wisbey), who blame the hospital for robbing them of the inheritance, (note to AB, check out taper relief), feckless work experience teen Andy (David Moorst) and various put-upon staff (Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes and Gary Wood).

The crux of AB’s didactic though is revealed by a pair of excellent performances from Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and by the peerless Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist. She has an alarming system to ensure efficiency on her wards. Yet when she delivers her valedictory “farewell” speech there is real poignancy. Deborah Findlay really is a special actor who never seems to miss a step in the roles she takes on nor in the performances she gives. This is no exception.

Yet if you really want to be reminded of just how biting AB can still be when he wants to then look no further than the closing lines, delivered direct to audience from Sacha Dhawan’s student visa immigrant doctor. AB, by his own admission a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism”, is angry about the country we have become, and the risks we face, and, wisely, uses its most beloved institution, to vent his spleen. Don’t worry this is no in-yer-face political diatribe, it is AB through and through, and he doesn’t preach, but there is a cumulative rage which takes it well beyond 2012’s People or the autobiographical plays.

Nick Hytner is obviously an expert at presenting AB’s material and creating action out of pure text and here he is immeasurably helped by Bob Crowley’s versatile staging and the choreography of Arlene Philips and her assistant Richard Roe. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a soundtrack album emerging from the play: if you wanted to keep the old folk happy with a “knees up” at Christmas this fits the bill kids.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is currently on tout with Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten and we have Mark Gatiss to look forward to in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse (to be broadcast on NT Live). I don’t think it will be too long before Allelujah gets another outing. It will be interesting to see just in what direction this country travels between now and then.

 

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.

Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Julius Caesar

Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, 11th January 2018

The third instalment, (for me), of the RSC “Rome” season at the Barbican which originally aired at Stratford. And, as is so often the case with this idiotic blog, it is about to end and is sold out anyway. Et tu numbnut.

Now JC (1599) was written a fair few years before its sequel, Antony and Cleopatra (1606), but both draw heavily on Plutarch, (via Sir Thomas North’s translation), for the guts of the story. Yet they could not be more different in tone. JC is austere in its construction of architecture and language, dripping with rhetoric. A&C is loose-limbed and florid as we watch the saucy couple get it on, often funny, and certainly over the top. All will be revealed when I see A&C as the last part of the RSC quartet shortly. (I note this attracted the most glowing reviews of the four).

I have to say that, generally, JC is my favourite of the two. Here we have four chaps, (unfortunately this is a terrible play for female roles even if the sensible trend to cast Cassius as a woman is followed, though it is not here), whose actions and relationships can be interpreted in an infinite variety of shades. In this production we have an unyieldingly peremptory Julius Caesar courtesy of Andrew Woodall, (nailing all that third person humblebragging), an overly smug and somewhat vain Brutus from Alex Waldmann, a Mark Antony who is more devious than he at first appears from James Corrigan and a vituperative, beguiling Cassius from Martin Hutson. I have to say this latter performance brought out facets of Cassius that I had not observed before, and, as with his Saturninus in the RSC Titus Andronicus, Mr Hutson near stole the show. Alex Waldmann is the go-too if you want a character “plagued by doubts”, (last seen by me as a brilliant Henry VI in the Rose Kingston’s War of the Roses), but the way Martin Hutson works off of his uncertain Brutus is just mesmerising.

Will S’s brilliant innovation in JC is to telescope all of the action up to the big man’s brutal knifing by the conspirators into what seems like just a couple of days. This means the reasons for the conspiracy, to take down Caesar who has got way too high and mighty in an echo of the Roman kings of pre-Republic days, come flying out of the blocks thick and fast. This resolutely includes the personal as well as the political.

Angus Jackson’s direction allows the momentum to build whilst still clearly laying the arguments around the use and abuse of power, the morality of rebellion against oppression and the legitimacy of political assassination. It is not what Caesar has done, but what he might do. On whose behalf are the conspirators acting, the people or themselves and their own class? The hoi-polloi is never happier than when they have a “strong” leader remember. The uncertainty around what would happen after QE1 died, in the context of the struggle between Protestant and Catholic, would have been clear to Will S’s contemporary audience. The impact of uncertainty is just as clear now.

But big Will didn’t stop there. Oh no. The carnage “unleashed” in the aftermath of JC’s death as Mark A and Octavius put the plotters to the sword, whose own resolve is shattered, is just as effective and thought-provoking. That is the problem with regime change. It usually goes t*ts up because none of these blokes thinks about what happens next. All summed up in two minutes with the horrific murder of Cinna by the confused mob.

Because we never learn Will S can keep on teaching us. Clever huh.

And, in this production, with complete clarity in the delivery of the lines, it was very easy to see that the main players were as much victims, as shapers, of events. The conspirators were uncertain, their tone and movement revealing the dissension between them. Caesar has got all imperious in part because no-one stopped him. Mark A’s sycophancy reflected an eye to the main chance: his famous rhetorical speech to the crowd, cynical, a man realising he could seize control. Watch him build up, then tear up, Caesar’s will. Cassius egging on Brutus, not prepared to take the lead. Brutus and Cassius falling out big time in the tent but always knowing they had to make up since they only, ultimately, had each other. Kidding themselves they really were “honourable” even to the end by getting some poor sap to administer the “coup de grace”. Honour in our appallingly individualistic society may look like an anachronistic concept, but the effect on the audience of its study in this play suggests it still has a place in our hearts and minds.

No need for modern dress. Togas are fine. Would sir like Doric or Corinthian columns. No need for video of an orange Donny spouting hate or rioting millenials. No need to ham up the famous lines or cut out Will’s words. Frankly no need for an interval if it were my choice. One of the best ways to see and hear JC is still Mankiewicz’s 1953 film with Gielgud. Mason and Brando. Not to be confused with Stuart Burge’s 1970 film with Gielgud effortlessly shifting from Cassius to Caesar, but with execrable performances from Charlton Heston as MA and, worse still, Jason Robards as Brutus who appears to have wandered out of an old folks’ home.

Now I am not saying that JC cannot benefit from a little bit of tidying up and reshaping. I think Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female outing at the Donmar was the best of her trilogy last year, (and was a top ten production for me), and Hans Kesting’s speech to the crowd in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies might just be the best 10 minutes of theatre I have ever seen. It’s just that the play can be as, if not more, powerful as a whole, without needing the full directorial vajazzle. I see that many of the proper reviews felt this production was all a bit old-skool, declamatory. I disagree. It is about the power of language to change the direction of political action. Praxis if you will. So emphasising that language should not be seen as embarrassing.

The good news is that we have another chance to see JC in the very near future, (from 20th Jan), as Nick Hytner and team at the Bridge Theatre have a crack. With Ben Wishaw as Brutus, Michelle Fairley as Cassius, David Morrissey as Mark Antony and David Calder as Caesar. How about that for casting. Can’t wait.

 

 

 

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, 1st November 2017

Let me add to the chorus of theatre lovers telling you how wonderful the new Bridge Theatre is. Cracking location by the river (Thames obvs) with a view of Tower Bridge. Wide open foyer space with a long bar for those who fancy a tipple. Pretty comfy seats in the auditorium with, what seemed to me, great sight-lines from wherever you choose to perch. More urinals in the gents than you could shake a stick at. (I appreciate this disclosure is somewhat unsavoury but theatre loos matter). All in all a mighty fine addition to the London culturescape.

Nick Hytner and co-founder Nick Starr have kicked off with an ambitious season which, from the sound of the plays in the pipeline, is set to continue. There were high hopes for this production of Young Marx, and, by and large, they have been realised. The last time co-writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman came together with Mr Hytner as director was for Great Britain, which went down pretty well. (I failed to get through it though had a pretty good excuse for leaving). And, of course Mr Hytner and Mr Bean had a moderate success in the past at the NT with a little comedy entitled One Man, Two Guvnors.

Young Mark is no One Man, Two Guvnors, that would have been too much to hope for, but it is still a very entertaining romp through the life of the young Karl Marx and his compatriot Friedrich Engels. Messrs Bean and Coleman don’t stint on the comedy, visual and oral, and the whole does come across as a series of vignettes with no grand dramatic arc, but it is still well worth the entrance fee. There are plenty of tickets left at prices comparable to the old workhorses of the West End, but for a better play in far more comfortable surroundings.

Rory Kinnear plays the eponymous genius. Now on his day, his Iago in Mr Hytner’s NT Othello in 2013 was about as good as stage acting gets, Mr Kinnear is peerless. Yet recent outings have been a little underpowered, the Trial at the Young Vic and his Macheath in the NT Threepenny Opera. He is back on fine form here. Marx, before bessie Engels went back to his Dad’s Manchester factory and provided the financial security of a stipend, was notoriously impecunious. This, together with his fondness for an ale, provides the backbone of the humour. We see him pawning family heirlooms, dodging creditors and German spies, evading the nascent Old Bill (there is a nice line in copper gags) and arguing with the other emigre revolutionaries that populated 1850s Soho. We also see the goading of his long suffering aristocratic wife Jenny and the overly close relationship with maid Nym. We see Marx as doting father and as inspiring rhetorician. Most of all though we see the close, and ultimately world-changing, friendship with Engels. Our Fred was no mean writer and thinker himself but he devoted his life to what he say as the superior intellect of big Karl. Marx must have wound him up something rotten in these early years but the mutual love and respect (“Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx” like some musical hall duet) is there on the stage.

Oliver Chris as the raffish Engels is the equal of Rory Kinnear’s more estuarine Marx. Nancy Carol’s desperate Jenny and Laura Elphinstone’s loyal Nym are the equal of the chaps both dramatically and intellectually which is a fine touch. The rest of the cast is bang on the money. Mr Hytner has wheeled out the A list for the set, Mark Thompson, lighting, Mark Henderson, sound, Paul Arditti, and music, Grant Olding. That’s why the production looks and sounds great. Beneath a silhouetted panorama of the London cityscape is a giant brick box, a brick building almost, which revolves to supply exterior and interior scenes, notably the cramped Marx household (just two rooms), upstairs in the the Red Lion and the reading room of the British Library. At one point we are transported to a frosty morning on Hampstead Heath as Marx duels with rival August von Willich (Nicholas Burns). The lighting is excellent.

So, all in all, this is a very superior production. As you might expect Mr Hytner’s direction is as energetic as the text of Messrs Bean and Colman. The gags come thick and fast, including some well wrought plays on Marxian concepts such as use/exchange value, alienation, capital accumulation, dialectical materialism and the like. Sometimes the humour is a little obvious, a bit Carry On if you like, but I think this can be forgiven. The farce elements are never overdone, the fight scenes stay the right side of slapstick. The whole thing is a little episodic, though to be fair these episodes from Marx’s life in London, which have been little embellished, are sufficiently entertaining to justify inclusion, and the lurch to tragedy near the end is a bit disconcerting, though again would have been hard to leave out. It might have been nice to have a couple more serious monologues from Marx and Engels, to create a little more message, though the scene where Engels lectures Marx on the plight of Manchester factory workers is arresting.

Minor quibbles though. This is a rollicking debut for the Bridge venture. I cannot wait for the forthcoming Julius Caesar. Nick Hytner directing again. Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and David Calder in the lead roles. And for 25 quid you can be one of the citizens in this promenade production. Sounds brilliant.